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Friday, December 31, 2010

Die Brucke

Every few years we are treated to what we might call a "back-to-nature" movement, sometimes known by other names such as "back-to-basics" or  just "keep it simple, stupid" (kiss). I suppose such things have been going on in art for centuries, but during the twentieth century we saw such trends recur about once each generation. A group of German artists initiated the twentieth century with one such movement, Die Brucke (pronounced, de BRU-ka, The Bridge), in which they hoped to serve as an evolutionary bridge between man and some sort of perfect "super" man in the future. During the summer months they would journey to some very remote location to paint in the out-of-doors and essentially improve their place in the evolutionary scheme of things by getting "back to nature." Eventually, they decided it would be easier to bring nature back with them to Berlin or Paris and create their own, space, uncontaminated by the bourgeois (middle-class) trappings of the city. This they called La Boheme, based upon the mistaken impression that certain gypsies they much admired came from an area of Central Europe called Bohemia.

Die Brucke group by Kirchner

Among these artists were men like Karl Schmidt-Rottulff, Erich Heckel, and most importantly Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The three had met while architectural students in Dresden. They took up painting to become the German equivalant of the French Fauves (pronounced foves, meaning wild beasts).  But, unlike the Fauves, who tended toward landscapes, the Die Brucke favored the female nude in its most primitive, Neolithic form. Other subjects included a depiction of the social fragmentation of the modern cities they hated, yet sought out for their creature comforts. Their aesthetic and philosophical hero was Paul Gauguin, who had fled the creature comforts of city life for the supposedly primitive culture of Tahiti and an uninhibited sexuality that was a recurring theme in the Die Brucke nude figures as well as their bohemian lifestyle.

Girl under a Japanese Umbrella,
1909, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Kirchner's Girl under a Japanese Umbrella, painted in 1909, is typical of this type of painting. It depicts a reclining female nude under a Japanese umbrella painted in raucous reds, oranges, yellows, and golds, juxtaposed against cold blues and pale aquas. However such images make it plainly apparent that the Die Brucke vision of a primitive, uninhibited sexuality was to be seen from an exclusively male point of view, restricting women to models of sexual desire while painting their male friends reading, writing, painting, or playing chess. Die Brucke may have detested the bourgeois expectation insofar as men were concerned, but their attitudes toward women were rigidly conventional.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Albrecht Durer

It was not until 1500, amidst the high Renaissance in Italy, that artists began to have  an international reputation. Michelangelo, because of his Sistine Chapel ceiling and the pilgrimages of travelers to Rome, Leonardo because of his own travels, and perhaps most interestingly, and surprisingly, to that list we have to add the German painter and engraver, Albrecht Durer. Although Durer is known to have done a little traveling too, the more than adequate painter became "famous", so to speak, not because of his brushwork, but due to the fact that he was able to actually "publish" his own work, in the form of woodcuts or engravings (intaglio). Whereas other painters could produce only one work, Durer reproduced hundreds, which did the traveling  for him to all parts of Europe, taking his reputation with them.

Self-Portrait, 1500,
Albrecht Durer

Born in 1471 in northern Germany, Durer's early training involved the carving of wooden panels to be used in the printing process which flourished especially in northern Europe at this time. His work always reflected deep piety, and in fact, if his painted self-portrait is any indication, he seems to have seen himself as somewhat Christ-like. Painted around 1500, it is an intense, highly detailed, extremely realistic frontal depiction usually reserved for portraits of Christ at the time. Although he'd dabbled in etched prints somewhat, after a trip to Venice and exposure to Venetian painting between 1505 and 1507, he returned to Germany where he did some of his most impressive engravings.

Knight, Death, and the Devil,
1513-14, Albrecht Durer

Working with only the crudest of tools, and in reverse on a copper plate, Durer created some of the most tightly drawn etched prints ever done before or since.  His work, like the 1513 print, The Knight, Death and the Devil is a tour-de-force of engraving skill as impressive, in it's own way, as anything Michelangelo did in fresco or marble, or Leonardo did in oils. And, most of all, being only about 7 1/2 by 9 1/2 inches in size, and printed on paper, (and in some quantity) it was portable, in a way neither of the other masters could begin to match. One could even go so far as to say that Durer was our first mass media artist.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Dutch Art

If the working artist today were to choose a time and place in the past where one could most comfortably make a good living, perhaps the best choice would be Holland in the seventeenth century. Actually, you would find surprisingly little difference between the art world now and then. The economy was robust and trade flourished in this densely populated, seafaring, mercantile society. There was little or no church patronage nor was there any great governmental control of the arts as in France or England. There were a great number of people (mostly painters) who called themselves artist, working both full and part-time at their craft. Paintings were sold in all venues from open markets to shops, galleries, and of course the painter's studio. Prices of work fell over a very broad range determined, much as they are today, by the quality of the work and the painter's name recognition. It was a nation hungry for art at all socio-economic levels. Even the lower classes bought art, usually prints from etched plates at prices ranging from quite cheap up to Rembrandt's Christ Healing the Sick, better known as the Hundred Guilder Print.   

The Hundred Guilder Print, 1647-49
Rembrandt van Rijn
Our time-traveling painter would find about the same broad range of acceptable subject matter as today (except for abstracts, of course). Without photography, portraiture flourished. And of course, in a nation almost synonymous with tulips and other flowers, floral paintings were highly prized. Rather than setting up floral arrangements of cut flowers, which might wilt before the painstaking oil painting process could be completed, artist made sketched catalogs of various individual cut flowers then "arranged" them in painted, pictorial compositions much as a florist might arrange real flowers today. Also, still-lifes abounded. They were even subdivided into classifications such as "men's" still-lifes, or "breakfast" still-lifes. In fact food with dinnerware, including silver as well as china, were among the most popular still-life subjects. Some foods, such as citrus fruits, were even vested with sexual implications.   
All was not quite the same then as today, however. One important type of art in seventeenth century Netherlands has long since been antiquated by science and technology. That would be the illustration of scientific investigations. The artist was an indispensable member of any research team. Perhaps the best in this genre was Anna Maria Sibylla Merian. Born in 1647, she made outstanding contributions to both art and science in this area. Though German by birth, she enjoyed a Flemish training in art. Her hand-colored engravings illustrated the life cycles of various "lower life forms" in scientific journals as well as on the walls of shops, offices, schools, and homes. She was described by a Dutch contemporary as, "A painter of flowers, fruit, birds, worms, flies, mosquitoes, spiders, and other filth."

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Don Jose Ruiz

One of the most disheartening things about being an artist and an art instructor is the very distinct possibility that one may go down in "art history" as merely the teacher of a much greater artist while one's own work is largely forgotten or ignored except in the context of that much-more-famous pupil.  Think how Jose Ruiz Blasco must have felt when that person was not only his pupil but also his son, and very early on, it was easily apparent that the boy would far outshine his father (who was quite a competent artist in his own right).   
Don Jose Ruiz Blasco was born Near Malaga, Spain, around 1860. In 1880, he married his childhood sweetheart, Dona Maria Lopez, and got a job teaching drawing at the School of Fine Arts and Crafts. He was also the curator of the local museum. Don Jose was tall and blond, having the air of an Englishman while his wife was small and dark. On October 25, 1881, their first child was born, a son, whom they name Pablo Ruiz Picasso.  (Actually the name was much longer in keeping with Spanish custom of including several limbs and more than a few branches of the family tree.) Pablo also had two sisters, Lola and Conchita (who died at the age of 4).  By the time he was seven, the boy began to show an interest in drawing, and completed his first painting at the tender age of nine (a man astride a donkey).   

Pablo Picasso's Birthplace, Malaga, Spain
When young Pablo was 11, Jose Ruiz enrolled his son in drawing and ornament classes at a local School of Fine Arts in La Coruna. Leapfrogging through the curriculum, by the time he was thirteen Picasso's work was so prodigious he had far outstripped his father. The story goes (probably apocraphal) that Jose Ruiz was so overwhelmed by his son's talent he gave the boy his own palette and brushes, vowing never to paint again.
First Communion, 1896,
Pablo Picasso, age 15

Though he continued to teach at various art schools, eventually ending up at the School of Fine Arts in Barcelona, Jose Ruiz, whether or not he continued to paint, obviously could no longer teach the boy much of anything. At the age of 15, Picasso completed his first major painting, an "academic" work, a 65 by 47 inch canvas, entitled First Communion, featuring a portrait of his father, probably his mother, and quite likely his younger sister kneeling before an altar attended by an altar boy. It glows with such family warmth and love it's little wonder Jose Ruiz was more than a little dismayed by his son's abilities.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Doldrums

For better or worse, we have a tendency to take art and artists for granted. That is, art has always been part of our existence, and as far back as we can remember, any man or woman with a modicum of talent, a good store of persistence, a smattering of knowledge, and some spark of creativity, could be assured of some degree of personal and financial success. The range has generally been quite broad, from the talented amateur who sells an occasional landscape to a sympathetic relative, all the way to the professional artists who have achieved some degree of regional fame. It's hard to imagine a time when, to become what we now think of as a painter, was something of a dead-end. Families did their level best to discourage such career decisions and those who insisted soon came crawling back to whatever financial security might be afforded by the family business or an associated, art-related craft of some kind.

This was largely the case in the early 1800s in France of all places. We commonly consider the French nation as the cradle of all creative endeavors, yet from the fall of Napoleon until the Paris World's Fair of 1855 when Gustave Courbet rebelled at his not having work accepted (because of his radical tendencies), and opened his own Pavilion of Realism, the art of painting was in a period of the doldrums. It wasn't that there wasn't any painting being done. On the contrary, artist were smearing paint on canvas by the mile. It was the Romantic period, and while three or four outstanding painters (Gericault and Delacroix to name just two) who were making worthwhile statements in paint, something like ninety percent of all the work cluttering the walls of the annual salons was unmitigated, academic crap!

Part of the problem was that in France, since the days of Jacques-Louis David or before, art (and painting in particular) was a form of government propaganda. And, as one government fell and another one rose with incredible haste (even for France where they are use to such political turmoil), about the only artists making any kind of decent living were those courtiers who specialized in grandiose depictions of whatever currently prevailing government chose to emphasize as their crowning achievement at the moment.  Perhaps the one saving grace from this period is that the French paint manufacturers were turning out a product at least as bad as the artists using it.  Today, much of it has deteriorated into a sort of brown "soup" that simply can't be resurrected by even the best art conservators--even if they could find much of anything from the period worth conserving.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Early Renaissance

In art, music, architecture, medicine, science, even political science, the Italian Renaissance is probably the most closely studied (and taught) period in world history. I first heard the word "Renaissance" in the third grade along with the name of every explorer who ever sailed out of Spain, Italy, or Portugal. In architecture, the names Bruneleschi, Alberti, and Bramante ring a bell. In Painting, it's Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. In sculpture--Verrochio, Donatello, and Michelangelo again. However none of these names sprung whole-bodied from the Florentine landscape without having had seeds planted and nurtured by an earlier generation of artists whoes names we don't often hear rolling off the tongues of third-graders.   

Madonna Enthroned,
1285, Cimabue
We all know that the Renaissance bloomed out of the so called "dark ages" or what we more scholarly refer to as the Medieval Period. Interestingly enough, there is a chain of artists pulling painting from the "darkness" of the fourteenth century to the glowing light of the fifteenth century and the "Early" Renaissance. At the beginning of this chain is Cimabue (pronounced Chima-BOO-ee) who lived from around 1240 to 1302. And the best illustration of this "chain" can be seen in paintings of the Madonna Enthroned. Cimabue painted the first version around 1285. The second artist in the chain is Giotto, (pronounced Ji-OT-oh) his rival, and quite possibly one of his students, who lived from 1276 to 1337.  His Madonna Enthroned was done around 1310.  The differences between these two paintings and that of the final link in the chain, Masaccio, read like a third-grade textbook on Early Renaissance painting.     

Madonna Enthroned,
1310, Giotto
The Cimabue Madonna Enthroned is seated on, or rather, sort of "hovers" over, a Roman style throne surrounded by supporting angels. In arches beneath the throne are four saints or apostles. There is little depth, the drapery is stylized, the figures are stiff, and the gold leaf background completely dominates and subdues the egg tempera colors. Yet this work was a remarkable departure from typical Medieval painting of the period. The Giotto version is more Gothic in terms of style. The throne is lighter with some indication of perspective. There is weight and a natural humanity to this work that the other lacks. Like Cimabue's painting, angels surround the throne but they are worshipful, rather than supportive, their presence holy rather than decorative.  The background is still gold leaf but there is remarkably natural color.
The Holy Trinity,
1425-28, Masaccio

And finally, a similar work by Masaccio a hundred years later entitled The Holy Trinity, is Fresco, with a trompe l'oeil use of architectural perspective. The figure of God supports a cross upon which his Son is crucified while at the foot of the cross is portrayed Mary and John. Just outside the arch are portraits of kneeling donors. Though the content in this later work is different, it is clearly an outgrowth of the two earlier, groundbreaking seeds of the Florentine painting Renaissance.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Doni Tondo

If we were to take a poll as to the most influential artist in history, the results might be quite interesting. Certainly Picasso would be listed, as would van Gogh, Monet, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Carravaggio, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, and probably a few others. But the artist nearest to God himself would undoubtedly be Michelangelo Buonarroti. A giant in his own time, his works often influenced other artists even before they were completed. His stature in the eyes of the art world has only grown as time has given testimony to the scope, depth, power, and beauty of his talent. No other artist in the history of the world can be said to have single-handedly changed the course of art in western civilization. So great was his talent in so many areas, art historians never know for sure whether to think of him first as a painter, a sculptor, or an architect (he even wrote poetry). Certainly, given the chance to write his own epitaph, he would choose to be remembered as a sculptor, yet his painting, limited as it was to but a few great masterpieces, was possibly even more influential than anything else he did.
The Doni Tondo, 1504-05, Michelangelo Buonarroti

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

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

Friday, December 24, 2010

Raoul Dufy

At least since artists began to paint on canvas, some sort of preliminary drawing, probably in pencil or charcoal, has usually preceded the actual application of paint to canvas. The aim has always been to delineate where to put the paint. Sometimes this drawing has been highly detailed, very nearly like finished works of art in and of themselves. In other cases, the barest suggestion of composition and tonalities has sufficed. Some artists have even rendered these canvas sketches with paint rather than a dry medium. But always, by definition, a preliminary drawing came before  the paint. Well, almost always.  The work of Raoul Dufy proved the exception.

Dufy (pronounced doo-FEE) was born in Le Havre in 1877. By the turn of the century when he began to study art in Paris, the oppressive reign of academic Realism was at an end, Impressionism was passe` and le Fauves were outraging the art world with their "irresponsible" use of color. The late, great, Vincent Van Gogh was in his ascendency, as were Cezanne and Gauguin. Monet still clung tenaciously to Impression, and Picasso was struggling in obscurity to find some avenue to greatness.  It was in this setting that Dufy's light-hearted style was also seeking to assert itself.  But even though he was almost the same age as his friend, Picasso, Dufy did not find the same kind of overnight success as did the upstart Spaniard.  It was not until after WW I that his star began to shine.

Regatta at Cowes, 1934, Raol Dufy
Though influenced by the Fauves, the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionist, and even Cubism to some extent, Dufy's work was none of these. In fact it more nearly resembled a sort of delightfully whimsical calligraphy than any existing style of painting. He had a style all his own. Except that the term sounds rather silly, we might call it Dufyism. Basically, he painted first and drew later. Like the Impressionists, he first established vague color masses, something on the order of an out-of-focus color photo. Then, with a light touch, and paint (either watercolor or oils) of a thin, "inky" consistency, he would next establish drawn details--buildings, trees, hillls, a shoreline, and whatever else the scene demanded.  He used a similar technique with still-lives, even the occassional portrait. Try it sometime. Don't paint over that beautiful drawing, draw over that beautiful painting.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Edvard Munch

No artist, with the possible exception of Vincent van Gogh, ever lived so tortured an existence as did Edvard Munch. In fact the similarities between the two are uncanny. Although it's uncertain if they ever knew one another, a case could be made for their having met in that they were both living in or around Paris in 1885 when Munch spent some time there. Certainly they were brothers under the skin insofar as their fragile mental states and the Expressionistic similarities in their work is concerned. Of course van Gogh was mentally ill, while Munch's mental burdens were more emotional than psychotic. Also, van Gogh struggled to breathe life and beauty into everything he painted.  Conversely, there was a dour stench of death that dogged most of Munch's work.   

The Scream, 1893, Edvard Munch
Munch was born in 1863 in the cold, damp, darkness of a Norwegian winter.  Death was no stranger to his early life. His mother died when he was 5, a sister when he was 14. Inasmuch as his father was a doctor, working out of his home, young Munch grew up amongst death and dying. At the age of 22, he studied in Paris and was influenced for a time by the Impressionist movement.  His palette lightened, his work became almost cheery. Returning home however, he did some of his most searing, emotionally troubled works such as the ghostly Evening on Karl Johan, his somber Death in the Sick Chamber, and his wildly disturbing The Scream of 1893.  His most famous painting, this work unfortunately has been adopted by the angst-ridden Generation-X and printed on thousands of T-shirts.  It now rivals the Mona Lisa (with or without mustache) in the kitsch department.   
Early on, critics hated his work.  However, during the early years of the twentieth century, his paintings became consumed by dark, tortured manifestations of love. Critical acceptance of his work eventually came, though he was never comfortable with either such acclaim or the element of fame it brought him. Even in his depictions of love, death seems ever-present.  In 1894, convinced he was going to die young, Munch used a mirror in creating a ghostly self-portrait. The skull-like face emerges from a blackened background and has many of the same undulating shapes seen in The Scream, but its most disturbing aspect is an arm, resting across the base of the canvas, depicted in a skeletal form.  He dated the work as if it would be his last.  Ironically, he lived another 50 years, dying  peacefully in his sleep amidst the devastating aftermath of WW II.  He was 81.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

El Quatre Gats

All artist like to "hang out." The actual hangout might be as wholesome as a local McDonald's or as colorful as a seedy, cockroach-infested dive you wouldn't like your mother to even know about. The Impressionists had their Cafe Guerbois. In the 1940s and 50s, the New York Abstract Expressionists hung out at the Cedar Tavern on Eighth Street and University Place in New York.  And, if you were an artist living in turn-of-the-century Barcelona, you went to Els Quatre Gats (The Four Cats). It was a bar. It made no pretense about being any kind of an eatery. It had a huge mural on the wall by Ramon Casas, a successful local artist, which depicted himself and the bar's owner, Pere Romeu, riding a tandem bicycle.  And 110 years ago, if you wanted to find Pablo Picasso, it would have been a good place to look.

He was seventeen, maybe eighteen, in an era when no one worried about how old you were when you entered such an establishment.  He was a talented, prolific artist with a knack for capturing the essence of an individual in charcoal, crayon, gouache, watercolor, pen and ink, just about anything that would make a mark on paper. He was poor, too poor, at least, to be able to afford frames for the amount of work he turned out, so he took to thumbtacking them up on the walls of El Quatre Gats. He drew the regular customers as well as his friends. They were knows as his "tertulia" which is a Spanish word for a group of friends who meet daily. It was at El Quatre Gats, in February, 1900, that Picasso mounted his first one-man show.

El Quatre Gats as it appears todayt.

He was a big hit.  The customers, and others who were not regular bar patrons, saw his work and loved it. Even as a teenage, Picasso was a gregarious, outgoing, high spirited man, quick-witted and quite intellectual for his age. His style, and that which prevailed in Barcelona at the time, was called Modernisme (a branch of Art Nouveau), and his portraits ranged from fairly realistic to caricature, but never did they fail to project far more than a mere likeness. Ramon Casas, who was the leading portrait painter in town, was also a patron at El Quatre Gats, and he recognized young Pablo's talent, even if it rivaled his own. Picasso's "show" at the bar drew more interest than had Casas' own exhibition just a few months before at the luxurious Peres salon. He wasn't worried though. He saw the talent, intellect, and drive and realized Pablo Ruiz Blasco Lopez Picasso was more than just a big name.  Later, that same year (1900), Picasso moved on to Paris and proved him right.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Bellelli Family

There's little doubt that the greatest gift an artist can possess is talent.  The second greatest gift an artist can have is a rich father. That means the talent need not be harnessed by such mundane tasks as earning one's room and board. And so long as the family ties remain strong and the artist remains in the good graces of the patriarch, that artist can happily paint about whatever he likes.  That was certainly the case with Edgar Degas. Until he was forty, when his banker father died, the man never worked a day in his life, at any thing other than his art anyway. And by that time, his name and career were on the verge of becoming well established in the artistic circle of the Impressionists meaning he could count himself a professional artist and continue his low-keyed, solitary lifestyle undisturbed.

When we think of Degas, instantly ballerinas, horse racing, and paintings of the Paris social scene come to mind. But Degas was more than these things. He had a traditional Ecol des Beaux-arts education and even studied in Rome, copying quite successfully the work of Renaissance artists. He returned, a talented portrait painter, to create one of the most deeply insightful family portraits ever painted. The Bellelli Family was painted sporadically over a period of two years from 1858-60. The principal figure in the grouping of a mother, her two daughters, and her husband, is that of Laure Bellelli, the sister of Degas father, which would make her his aunt and the two preteen girls his cousins. The scene is that of a mid-century parlor, with a fireplace, mirror, clock, and a framed drawing by Degas of his father on the wall next his aunt.
Portrait of the Bellelli Family,
1858-67, Degar Degas

What makes the portrait so unique is the extreme care Degas took in composing the work to relate the strained, dysfunctional family relationship involved. The mother's arm rests around the shoulder of her older, favorite daughter while the younger, "devilish" daughter sits on a chair apart from her mother and a visible link to her father who sits in a black armchair, his back to the viewer, his profile face in shadow. Degas contrives a strong, divisional break separating the father from the rest of the family using a table leg, the vertical lines of the fireplace, a candle stick, and the mirror frame. Mrs. Bellelli found her husband (who was an Italian baron) quite disagreeable in that he had no steady job and in fact had been exiled from his native Naples for his political activities. She refuses to meet his gaze in the painting.  Like most family situations of this kind, the effect is subtle, perhaps even unnoticed by the casual observer. But it was not lost on the Bellelli family. The painting was not shown publicly until well into the twentieth century when all in it were no longer living.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The de Medici

In our world, private support of the arts is almost taken for granted.  In fact it is the norm. Although we have the federal government dabbling at supporting the arts with its National Endowment for the Arts, it is steeped in controversy and often thought of as little more than "welfare for the artsy-craftsy".  And, as we've discussed before, support for the arts amongst religious institutions is very much the exception to the rule.   
In the 1400's though, things were almost completely reversed.  For all intents and purposes, there was no private sponsorship of art and artists beyond the occassional portrait and perhaps a little "interior decorating" of private palazzos. One family changed all that though. In Florence, Italy, about this time, there arose a wealthy banking/merchant family called the de' Medicis. (Our word "medicine" is derived from this family's name.) Through a combination of political know-how and financial clout, they were the defacto rulers of the Florentine city-state.   
Bust of Lorenzo de Medici by Verrocchio

Cosimo de Medici by Bronzino

The fountainhead of all this support was Cosimo de Medici, who was instrumental in the rediscovery of Platonic philosophy, bringing the very best scholars from all over the Mediterranean to Florence, and sparking a renewal of interst in the humanities and art. Upon his death in 1464, is son, Piero, despite difficult times for the family, continued his father's generous patronage toward the arts. However it was his son, Lorenzo, often known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, under whom the arts, (painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and literature) flourished as never before. Without this enlightened family's elightened patronage, stretching down through three generations, we might not know today names like Donatelo, Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo, all of whom were shepherded to greatness under the uplifting wings of the de Medici.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

David Hockney

One of the most revolutionary developments in photography this century had been the work of businessman/inventor, David Land.  Perhaps you've heard of his camera, the Land Camera?  The Polaroid Land Camera?  There, I knew you'd heard of him. As photographers go, they either love it or hate it, and that's pretty much the case with artists as well. A few of us have used it from time to time for quick color images, or two create compositions when time was of the essence. On certain occasions, it can be a helpful tool. A few artists, one in particular, have embraced it as an art/photography medium and has demonstrated again and again it's enormous potential.   

Pearlblossom Highway, David Hockney
That artist is David Hockney. Born in England in 1937, Hockney originally came to notice for his use of hundreds of Polaroid shots of a single scene, collaged together like little snippets of memory to create an overall mural of sizable proportions. His photomontage entitled Pearblossom Highway 11-18th April 1986 is some 78" wide and 111" long. The effect is that of a glimmering mosaic featuring a desolate desert highway where cactus compete with road signs in decorating the landscape. More recently, he has dabbled in everything from acrylic painting to set designs for such productions as Die Frau Ohne Schatten for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1992.  Still more recently, he created a nine-minute stage set performance piece in which colored lights were the actors.   
His most recent endeavor arrived from England for an exhibit at the National Museum of American Art in Washington with the paint still wet.  Some twenty-four-foot-long in what is termed an "almost realistic" style, it is entitled A Bigger Grand Canyon.  The work is a sequel to the twenty-two-foot-long, computer-driven abstract work he presented last year.  Somewhat like his Polaroid montages, this work is comprised of sixty separate canvases, mounted into a single grid 24 feet long and 7 feet tall.  The painting had it's genesis back in 1982 when Hockney photographed the Grand Canyon using his off-the-shelf Polaroid camera to create a preliminary work from which he has painted.  The work took three months to complete with Hockney working at times on individual canvases and at other times on the work as a whole. I could end this with something about Hockney's work being "grand," or his working on a "grand" scale, but both would be superfluous for anyone seeing this work first hand.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


David, 1430-32, Donatello

The Biblical figure of David has a long and illustrious tradition in art.  We are, of course, all familiar with Michelangelo's "goliath" figure of David dating  from 1501-04.  However before that, there were stone sculptings of the figure more than a century before and Donatello's groundbreaking, life-size, nude, bronze figure of a rather boyish David wearing a wide-brimmed hat, standing a bit pensively over the severed head of his slain enemy. This he created in 1408 making it the first life-size nude statue since classical times.

Andrea del Verrocchio created a somewhat similiar life-size bronze figure for the de Medici family (who, incidentally, also owned the Donatello figure). His sculpture, also of an adolescent, but clothed, is, in contrast, is much more heroic and slightly older, exuding pride ans self-confidence, rather than the dreamy gaze of disbelief seen in Donatello's work. This sculpture was created about 1470.   

David, 1473-75, Verrochio

Between these two landmark works comes the efforts of a painter, Andrea del Costagno, who contributed his vision of the David tradition in a painted shield done about 1450-55. Although he was undoubtedly familiar with the Donatello sculpture, his painting however bears little resemblence to it. This David is an athletic young man, dressed in a short, white shirt and flowing red tunic, wielding his sling and stone, arm upraised, standing over the severed head of Goliath, defending the faith, taking on all comers.
The Youthful David, 1450, Andrea del Castagno

Costagno's inspiration seems to have been sculptural. However it bears no debt to the the Early Renaissance, but to Roman sculpture instead, and strangely, it seems based upon an ancient statue in marble of a  feeling warrior. Yet there is no hint of fear nor flight in this work. Costagno's strongly defiant David may, in fact, have been the inspiration not just for Verrocchio, but for Michelangelo as well. Yet it is more than that.  It is a figure in a fighting pose, not unlike that of Gianlorenzo Bernini's Baroque marble of David done almost 175 years later.   

Friday, December 17, 2010

Jacques-Louis David

During the nineteenth century in France, art, and especially painting, flowered to a degree not seen since the Renaissance in Italy three hundred years before.  The center of gravity in the art world moved to Paris in the 1700's where it would remain for almost two hundred years. Styles and movements came and went with great fanfare an the development of art and painting gained a momentum heretofore unknown. Without a doubt, the father of this French resurgence in painting was  Jacques-Louis David (pronounced Da-veed).

David was born in 1748 and died in 1825.   These were tumultuous times in French history coinciding with the rise of the French monarchy, it's fall during the French Revolution, followed by the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonapart. Add to that a few more uprisings and coup d'etats mixed in at regular intervals, and you have the makings of an "exciting" era in which to paint. David's career as an artist during this time could be likened to a surfer riding, and sometimes falling victim to, great waves, in this case, great waves of political and social turmoil.  
The Death of Marat, 1793, Jaacques-Louis David
Oath of the Horatii, 1784, Jacques-Louis David

Having won the prestigious Prix de Rome, (a year of study in Rome, free of charge), David was a product of the French Academie establishment. His classical Oath of the Horatii (1784-5) is an icon to officially sanctioned art.  His Death of Marat in 1793 became a similiar icon for the French Revolution.  And just a few years later in 1800, in his Napoleon Crossing the Alps, we see the ironic end to a fervent revoluntionary as the artist jumps on board the movement of yet another ruling elite.  Is this the mark of political astuteness or merely a career tossed and turned in a sea of tortured change?  Or both?   

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Dark Ages

When we want to refer to something that is totally backward, asinine, or outdated, we use the phrase "something out of the dark ages." As descriptive as this phrase might be it is, in itself, "something out of the dark ages." That is, it's mostly wrong. The dark ages were a time of political, and military upheavals, but then what age isn't (our own included). The point is though, they were not dark, at least in an artistic, literary, or scholarly sense. The worst that could be said of the period from the third century, when the Emperor Diocletian split the Roman Empire into two parts (eastern and western) in order to save the eastern half from the chaos and destruction that befell the western half, to the beginning of the early Renaissance in 1400, was that it was primitive (but hardly any more so than it had been in the eastern Roman empire before this  time). And while there wasn't exactly a "flourishing" of the arts, they continued to exist and develop even amidst the political and military upheavals I mentioned before.

Emperor Justinian and his Attendants, 527-565, San Vitale, Revenna, Italy
 We call the artistic period during this time Byzantine, for it's cultural and political center, Byzantium (now Istanbul). Here for instance, the ancient Roman art of mosaic images continued to develop as seen in the San Vitale, Ravenna, murals of Justinian and His Attendants or it's companion piece depicting his queen, Theodora. Although there were problems involving those who thought any depictions of Christ, God, or Mary were idolatrous, and a period when these Iconoclasts (image breakers) wreaked havoc with figurative expressions in art, there can nonetheless be seen a fairly constant development of artistic styles and skills during this period.

And, there continued to be painting as well. Even in the West there was some fresco painting being done (admittedly crude) in churches as a means of educating the illiterate believers at the time. A David and Goliath fresco at Tahull, Spain, done about 1123 is in interesting example. It has a linear, cartoon-like quality to it, and a limited, rather flat color range, but it's still quite effective for its decorative/educational purposes. And in the East, painting took a different, more personal direction in the form of icon painting--small, religious, panels depicting, usually the Madonna and child--which, as they developed, became both beautiful and quite sensitive in the emotional interaction between the mother and child. Later, with the spread of Christianity northward to Russia, these deeply religious evocations of beauty and faith developed still further, and are perhaps the best evidence that the so-called "dark ages" weren't as dark as we often think.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

En Plein air

You don't see it too often, but from time to time, in the right location and circumstances, you might find an artist sitting at his easel painting some picturesque landscape or interesting old building. The scene of the artist at work out-of-doors is, in itself, picturesque. I've included images of artists painting outdoors in more than a few landscapes, in one case even a self-portrait. However I must confess, I was working from a photo and in fact, I've never painted outdoors in my life. I will sometime though, when I can overcome my addiction to air-conditioning. Even though it's not as common as it once was, painting, as the French called it, "en plein air" still has a certain charm and novelty to it, even though today, it may sometimes be over-hyped and somewhat gimmicky.

Artists Sketching in the White Mountains,
1868, Winslow Homer

The French, though, made a fetish of it. Starting with what's called the Barbizon School in the mid-1800s and then, especially as the Impressionists journeyed off to the Normandy Coast or to the Forests of Fountainbleu, painting outdoors caused art to change. First of all, paintings became smaller. One could hardly cart and 8 by 10-foot canvas with supporting easel through the streets of Marlotte just to paint a bunch of trees. Not only that, such a large landscape painting would have been unbearably pretensions, looking more like theater scenery. Easels had to change too. They became small and portable. They still had to be sturdy and adjustable, but light enough that an artist could hike deep into the woods to find just the right spot to set up and work.
Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of the Wood,
1885, John Singer Sargent
The artist needed a lightweight, box large enough to carry his linseed oil, brushes, palette, tubes of paint, brush cleaners, knives, lunch, maybe a little wine, and especially wet paintings after the day's work (it's obvious why such an outing attracted watercolorists). This box also needed to be sturdy, custom-built, and have a comfortable handle. Sometimes it doubled as a seat. If not, a folding camp stool was a must for all but the most athletic.

En plein air also changed how an artist painted. Moreover, one had to learn to paint fast, capturing the changing light quickly and faithfully. Otherwise, an artist might spend more time scraping paint off the canvas than applying it. Most of all, one had to accept a new standard of beauty, where nature and color ruled, where all things existed only insofar as they reflected light. It was not easy, throwing off centuries of artistic sensibilities so ingrained they were more instincts than teachings, but plein air painting demanded it, and a whole new way to paint was born.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


If the nascent Impressionists of the 1860s had their Cafe Guerbois in Paris where they met to drink and argue art, then there was a similarly offbeat bistro some fifty years later in the city of Zurich, Switzerland, that served an identical function as the womb from which the Dada movement was born. The club was known as the Cabaret Voltaire. Actually the Voltaire was more crucial to the new movement than the Guerbois had been to Impressionism, because the Cabaret Voltaire was, in fact, something of a blank canvas upon which the Dadaist portrayed their nonsensical attacks upon every aspect of the status quo. It was here they met and dressed in crude, painted, cardboard get-ups for unstructured skits in which they debated maddeningly incomprehensible ideas and illogical points of view, or recited gibberish poems often composed by shredding newspaper stories and then reassembling the words at random. By the end of the evening, spectators and participants frequently were embroiled in raucous arguments or (on a really good night), an inglorious fist-fight.

The Fountain, 1913,
Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp's 1919
take on the Mona Lisa.
The random act of creation was the high altar at which the Dadaists worshiped. The name itself is said to have been chosen at random from a dictionary, though there is much to suggest that its selection was a bit less haphazard than that. The painter Jean Arp composed his pictures by arranging squares of paper to look like he'd dumped them by accident onto a canvas coated with glue. Marcel Duchamp once anonymously entered into an Avant-garde art show (the 1913 Armory Show in New York)  an "off the wall" urinal which he laid on it's back, and titled The Fountain, and signed with the pseudonym, R. Mutt. Then, as a member of the selection committee, he argued with his shocked fellow artists for its inclusion. (It was unceremoniously dumped in a back alley.) Sometime later, he rendered an imitative copy of the Mona Lisa upon which he'd scrawled a handlebar mustache and goatee.

The Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich Switzerland,
While today, all this sounds like good, clean fun, in the early 1900s its point was to shock. Aesthetics were turned on end. What was beautiful (the Mona Lisa) was made ugly. What was ugly (the urinal) was made beautiful. The only criteria for achievement in the Dada movement was the degree to which a work of art served to outrage the rest of the world. The lunatics had taken over the asylum.  If the best the rest of the world had to offer was the killing and bloodshed of "The Great War", then they (the rest of the world) were deemed to have no right to set standards of moral behavior, literary, musical, or artistic excellence. The Dadaist considered it high time the political, social, and especially the artistic world was taken down a notch or two. They saw it as their right, even their duty to hang an "Out of Order" sign on anything in the world smacking of pomp and circumstance.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Stifling Creativity

When I was going to college, taking art education courses, methods courses, and the like, it was an almost universally accepted conventional wisdom that children lose 90% of their creativity between the ages of  5 and 20 as they progress through elementary and high school. We were instilled with the idea that we, as art teachers, must do everything in our power to correct this fundamental fault embedded in the American educational system. As idealistic first-year teachers, we tiptoed out into the academic mainstream to get our feet wet with the dreaded fear of "stifling" creativity. We suffered all the slings and arrows of outrageous classroom misfortune in the name of creativity.   
Well, let me tell you something. After more than 25 years in the classroom at all levels from grades 1 through 12 and beyond, IT JUST AIN'T SO. I dearly love teaching first graders art. They are the sweetest, most endearing little creatures in the world, but I see just as many "uncreative" first graders as I do "uncreative" twelfth graders. The ratio doesn't change appreciably as the child grows older. The educational system, at least as it's now constituted, does not stifle creativity. I've come to realize that creativity is not a fragile entity. I suppose it might be possible, under exceptionally constrictive circumstances, to so brow-beat a child that all creative juices are squeezed out, but American schools today are anything but constrictive.   
I think this "old wives tale" regarding the degeneration of creativity developed due to the fact that, from first grade artists, parents are willing to accept just about any childish scrawl as a "masterpiece" without regard to whether the child has the skill to exploit his or her creativity. As the child matures, he or she discovers that to express their similarly maturing ideas they need similarly more and more mature skills, which may or may not be at their disposal. As an educator, I am not blinded by any all-embracing love for each and every incomprehensible first-grade scribble of crayon on paper. I've found first graders are just as capable of trite, stale, inhibited, unoriginal, drawings as the senior in high school forced by the system to take art to satisfy a fine-arts credit needed for graduation.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Copiest

To some, the most derogatory comment one might make about an artist is that he or she copies someone else's work.  It would seem to be close to the artistic version of plagiarism!  Several years ago in Paris, at the Orsay Museum no less, there hung 40 paintings by a well-known artist displayed side-by-side with those of the man he copied.  And, while none of them are likely to be for sale in the near future, it's probably safe to say those of the "copyist" are worth several times those of the artist he copied.  The two had a lot in common.  Separated by a generation, both artists were intimately concerned about the plight of the common people in France and chose this subject for much of their work.  And both artists struggled against the mainstream of art during the time when they painted their most searing works.  The artists were Vincent Van Gogh and Jean-Francois Millet.
The Sower, 1850,
Jean-Francois Millet

The Sower, 1888, Vincent van Gogh

Of course there was no attempt on van Gogh's part to pass his work off as Millet's.  Even if he'd tried, a blind man could have spotted the copies.  Van Gogh so layered the paint on his canvases they could almost pass for Braille art. Yet in painting after painting the theme, the composition, even much of the color is identical.  Van Gogh's La Sieste (The Nap) is a blatant copy of Millet's La Meridienne (Midday Sun).  The only difference seems to be one of style.  Another of Millet's paintings, Sower, Van Gogh didn't stop with a single copy, but made thirteen and another 30 drawings on the subject.  Other paintings by both artists depict a baby's first steps, and such peasant tasks as chopping wood, harvesting crops, and shearing sheep.

Van Gogh first saw Millet's work at auction when he returned to Paris from Holland in 1875.  He was 22 and still struggling to find himself, even to find a job at the time.  He's already failed as a clergyman and art dealer.  It would be another ten years before he completed his first painting.  Yet he so identified with Millet's "men of the earth" he admitted practically no other influence his entire life.  The vast majority of Van Gogh's copies were made during the last year of his life while he was a patient in an insane asylum.  Several of them were sent to his brother Theo in Paris, who saw them as a good omen that his brother might be getting better.  "Copies like those aren't really copies," he wrote.  "They lead me to believe...some big surprises are in store."  Alas, his prognosis was wrong but his prediction was right.  Van Gogh fled the hospital at Saint-Remy for Auver-sur-Oise where he committed suicide two months later.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Community Bridge

Nothing a painter can do with pigment and brushes surpasses the impact of a large-scale mural. And the most awesome style a muralist can employ is that of trompe l'oeil (fool the eye). In Frederick, Maryland, stands a bridge with a trompe l'oeil mural painted upon it's side.  Experts have come from around the world to look at it and some even ask, "Where's the mural we came to see?", not realizing that they are actually looking at it. Every last one of the 3,000 stones on the concrete and stucco bridge is a fool-the-eye masterpiece.  So is the ivy covering parts of the bridge, and the algae apparently growing near the waterline. An antique dealer once tried to buy the iron gate which appears to cover a wooden door. Visitors routinely try to reach through the gate to open the door. There is even an anamorphic projection that from straight on appears to be some form of abstract image. Only when seen looking down from a window in the adjacent Delaplaine Visual Arts Center can one visualize it as an archangel.

The Community Bridge,
Frederick, Maryland,
William Cochran
The artist is William Cochran, and for more than five years, he has worked daily on his massive 2,500 square foot creation covering both facing walls and all supporting walls of the Carroll Street Bridge. Each stone averages approximately 48 minutes to paint though when the time spent by the artist in promoting, supervising, and raising funds for the entire project is averaged in, the time stretches to something like 4.3 hours. Multiply that by the some 3,000 illusionary stones and you get some idea of the kind of devotion needed by the artist and the army of support personnel behind the scenes that have brought this work dubbed "The Community Bridge" to completion. The cost has been almost $300,000, half of which was raised by private donation, the rest from various state, county, and city sources.

Many of the stones in the bridge appear to have symbols carved into them, everything from a steaming cup of coffee to a school bell, a motorcycle, a rose, fireworks, and a porch swing. On a greater scale is a niche with a Grecian statue, another with a fountain, and of course the iron gate that is not for sale. There is an uncontrollable urge to touch it.  Once the paint has dried, viewers are encouraged to in fact. Creative input for the mural has come from the community, from school children to college professors. Technical assistance has come from as far away as Germany (where the special potassium silicate-based paint was made). Surface preparation of the hundred-foot-long bridge took almost as long as the painting itself. From a distance, the bridge with its tan, rusticated stone is quite attractive. Up close the most often heard expression is "awesome".

Friday, December 10, 2010

Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism took some getting use to. It still does. Some fifty years after it was born, this kind of painting still isn't accepted by probably nine out of ten Americans today. At its peak of popularity in the fifties, it was responsible for the widest gulf in history between American artists and the American public. It was a gap that had been growing since the turn of the century with every new step taken by artist beyond strictly representational, Grant Wood, American Gothicism. And it was a separation that would not begin to close until Modernism gave up it's last gasp and died a natural death, starved for anything "new" with which to shock the art world and the rest of the world.

Woman 5, 1952-53,
Willlem de Kooning
 If the American public was aghast at the "paint slinging" assaulting the American art world in the 1950s, one might be surprised to learn that Abstract Expressionism ala De Kooning, Kline, Pollock, Rothko and others was not embraced wholeheartedly by quite a number of the Avant-garde painters in what we loosely call the New York School either. Artists such as Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland, Ad Reinhardt, Elsworth Kelly, and Frank Stella, among others, decided such loose, gestural, painterly brushwork was not exactly their cup of tea. This group is sometimes referred to as the second generation (though it's more of a labeling device than a reference to their birth dates).  This "second generation" of abstractionists were anything but expressionistic.  While they embraced the total freedom from illusion or representation in painting, they yearned for a much more intellectual, aesthetic, analytical approach to their work.

Who's Affraid of Red,
Yellow,and Blue?, 1966,
Barnett Newman

More accurately, this group of painters came to be known as hard-edge colorfield painters. Like the Abstractionists, they denied any other reality other than the surface of the canvas. Going beyond this, they glorified in two elements this freedom afforded them--pure color and pure, geometric design. They rediscovered the Russian painter Kasimir Malevich and his 1913 painting, White on White. And taking what would at first glance appear to be a dead end in terms of the painting development, they struck off in a totally different direction that their expressionist counterparts, working on paintings of enormous scale, bearing tightly controlled, almost overwhelming, wall-size fields of stark, vibrant, pure, in-your-face color so powerful as to hurt ones eyes at close range. They explored Malevich's squares and rectangles, intermixing them with  a few arcs, angles and other geometric minutiae in what amounted to a left-brained reaction to the right-brained excesses of their friends painting in lofts just across town.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Clementine Hunter

Several years ago, my wife and I toured Natchez, Mississippi, and many of the beautiful antebellum homes for which the area is best known.  We stayed the weekend at the famous Monmouth Plantation, which has been converted to an historic bed and breakfast.  Among the dozen or so plantations we toured was one not far from Monmouth called Melrose.  It's a beautifully restored southern mansion/museum.  Strangely, its most famous historic personage was not a former owner but an elderly black woman who once worked there as a servant.

She was just one generation removed from slavery. Born in 1886 at Hidden Hill, a cotton plantation in Louisiana, until she was 35 she raised kids and picked cotton. She married and buried two husbands and had seven children. Eventually she became a domestic servant at Melrose Plantation. It was there she began creating her first works of art, sewing together scraps of cloth to make quilts. In 1940, at the age of 53, she painted her first picture, on an old window blind using left overs from castaway tubes of oils she found when an artist visited the plantation. She was encouraged by a French writer, Francois Mignon, who was also visiting the plantation, assessing the owner's sizable art collection. He gave her paint and more importantly, encouragement. Her name was Clementine Hunter.

Cane River Baptism.
Clementine Hunter
She painted plantation life, biblical scenes, and eventually, late in life, abstracts. Her work was primitive. She never had art class in her life, or for that matter, ever learned to read. She had barely the equivalent of two years of schooling. For years she gave her work to friends or sold it for a few dollars, scarcely enough to pay for the supplies. She even had private showings at her rundown shack out back of Melrose, charging 25 cents admission. In 1949, she was featured in an arts and crafts show in New Orleans where her work first attained public notice. By 1955 she was having her work exhibited at a number of local museums and colleges. At her first show, she could not attend the opening.  Because of her race, she was allowed in the back door afterwards. The owner of Melrose invited her to paint murals in a traditional African house on the plantation. By then in her sixties, she painted nine separate murals and numerous side panels depicting various scenes from the nearby area.

Clementine Hunter displaying one of her

By the 1970s, she had the dubious distinction of having her work copied, the forgeries sold as originals. At an exhibit of her work in Washington during the latter half of the decade, she also did not attend the opening even though she was sent a personal invitation by President Jimmy Carter. She is said to have remarked, "If Jimmy Carter wants to see me, he knows where I am. He can come here." The President didn't come to her but the media did as her work showed up in a television documentary and in various galleries all over the country. Eventually, she was able to buy a mobile home with the proceeds from her work and even though her paintings traveled broadly in various shows, she did not. She preferred to stay at home and paint.  She died in January of 1988 at the age of 101. During her lifetime she completed over five thousand paintings, working steadily up until the last month of her life. Other writers have referred to her as the black Grandma Moses. I would rather consider her an original unto herself.