Click on photos to enlarge.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Art in the Round

A cutaway view of Barker's Leicester Square
Panorama, London, 1789
For as long as most art historians can remember, landscape painters have been packaging their wares in squares...well, actually, more often, in rectangles. That shape seemed best able to accurately accommodate their broad visions of space and earthly delights.  Sometimes the width became two or three times the height to reflect the nature of nature. This no doubt resulted in the CinemaScope, Cinerama, and IMax screen shapes we've seen in our lifetimes. In 1787 however, an Irish artist by the name of Robert Barker decided there must be a better way to depict nature. He called it Nature a Coup d'oeil, and jettisoned the rectangle in favor of the circle. This representation he felt was most ideal for capturing the endless realm of structures found in cities. (Not exactly nature at its best.) With the ever-improving printing technology of the time, he made a fortune.

Basically, what they were were round postcards. The viewer could hold one, turning it as he mentally turned 360 degrees, picking out landmarks great and small, each numbered, with a corresponding list of names on the back. Rural areas were accompanied on the back by comments about life in the country. Taking a cue from this development, there later evolved larger panoramas on paper or oil cloth of all the great cities of Europe. By mid-century, these panoramas were replaced by dioramas, placing the viewer in the middle of the circle, which got ever larger and larger, eventually involving specially designed buildings, a trend which reached its zenith after the civil war when 360 degree representations of famous battles were painted. These were often accompanied by skylights and three-dimensional foregrounds which blended the real with illusional paintings.

Panoramic camera view of downtown Philadelphia, 1913
Around the same time, "optical cameras" were introduced that no only made painting dioramas easier, they eventually made it possible to take photos in 360 degrees by synchronizing the turning of the camera and the movement of film in such a way that the light coming through the lens was able to "paint" an image along a strip of film as the camera rotated. Rather than a circle, the shape of the landscape (or more likely, a cityscape) became that of a cylinder, and depending on the camera, they were often up to three feet in diameter. Such cameras were large and bulky, and required specially built structures to house them. A "Rotonde des Panoramas" was constructed first on the Champs-Elysees in 1841. Another went up in Munich in 1880, and later in the Rotunda of Vienna's Prater in 1882, and Berlin in 1883. Shot in black and white, artists found work coloring the photos with thinned oil paints. No longer mere picture postcards, these photo-dioramas were sold to enterprising businessmen who installed them in small kiosks, charging admission for a "trip" to Paris, Berlin, or Munich. Recently, a former student who'd spent several months studying in Italy, showed me a book he'd purchased with fold-out 360-degree color photos of Florence's Piazza Del Vecchio, the Piazza Navona in Rome, and St. Peter's Square in Vatican City.  The traditional rectangle (albeit a very wide one) had reasserted itself. More recently, the Chinese (below) seem bent on returning to the circle.
In China, the world's largest panorama, Splendid Central Plains in Zhengzhou
(Henan Province) opened in April, 2011, covering 3520 square meters
(approx. 33,000 square feet).

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Romare Bearden

 By and large, people choose to become artists. There are those, however, who seem to have that choice thrust upon them despite some effort to choose otherwise. Romare Bearden is an example. Except for a couple years studying at the Art Students League In New York during 1938-39, Bearden was self-taught. Self-taught does not mean uneducated of course. In fact, Bearden had a degree in mathematics. Beyond that, he studied philosophy and art history at the Sorbonne in Paris and read every book he could get his hands on about art making. His earliest work depicted his Southern experience as he struggled to come to terms with a stubborn creative streak that just would not go away. He didn't start out to be an artist, but there was no denying the creative impulses seemingly bred into his very African-American soul.

He Walks on Water, 1945,
Romare Bearden, one of
his earlier paintings
Romare was born in 1914 in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, and spent many of his childhood summers visiting relatives in Charlotte, even though he grew up deep in the black culture of New York's Harlem. His father was active in the New York arts scene and indeed, their apartment was always flowing with artists, writers, and musicians, which permeated his boyhood memories. Bearden's studies in Europe exposed him to the painters from the Dutch Haarlem, work by Pieter de Hooch, Jan Vermeer, Rembrandt, and the twentieth century painter, Piet Mondrian. But he could no more deny his roots in Jazz and African-American visual images nor his interest in trains and female figures than he could have changed the color of his skin. This he blended with Synthetic Cubism, collage, a fondness for the "clean" freshness of Caribbean color, and an attachment for the use of photo-mechanically reproduced images. He created using a style all his own and a technical virtuosity allowing him to "paint" with everything from paper, to cloth, to the output from Xerox machines as well as traditional pigments.

Blue Lady, 1955, Romare Bearden
Bearden's work is about, as he put it, "...the life of my people as I know it..."  There is more "jazz" in Bearden's work than his frequent use of musicians and musical iconography.  Like jazz, he intended that his art should be open to interpretation. And also like jazz, his work is at times "hot" and at other times "cool" not in a coloristic sense but in its rhythms. Though not always obvious on the surface, there is much too of his fondness for Dutch Baroque painting. Even when he collages, one often senses a firm Dutch sensitivity to the stable, rectilinear composition, which gives his work a firm foundation upon which he builds an often hectic pattern of "jazzy" dynamic, musically or sexually loaded figures. 

Storyville, 1974, Romare Bearden
Being an artist is not easy, and being a black artist in a white America at a time when the civil rights struggle threatened to burn both cultures was especially wrenching for a man who never liked being considered a "black artist." There is no denying the Negro subject matter in his work nor the African-American rhythms, but the aesthetic sensibilities are just as often to be European, oriental, Caribbean, or perhaps just plain Bearden.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Art Fantasy

We all have fantasies about money. What would we do if we had a million dollars? I'd probably pay off all my credit cards and maybe hit McDonald's on the way back...that ought to just about do it. Okay, a billion dollars--walking around money for Bill Gates. Ah, now it gets more interesting. Of course there would be the new house...okay, houses, one for each of the four seasons, four different continents, but after that, after the new SUV's, after the new wardrobe, after the cruise around the world, then what? What thousands of nouveau-riche have discovered is that with increased wealth, the cost of living goes up too. The houses, the cars, the clothes, the vacations--you meet a better class of people--but doing so costs more. And after all that, you still have money to burn and not the time or opportunity to spend it. That's when you start collecting things--cars, jewelry, antiques, lawyers, pounds, headaches, and if your last name is Mellon--art.

Paul Mellon
(photo by Yosuf Karsh)
It runs in families. Florence had it's Medicis, England the royal family, Russia the Romanovs, and this country, three generations of Mellons. Andrew W. Mellon got rich in the 19th century in steel, oil, and banking. He collected so much art, when it came time to give it away, he had to throw in a building to house it all--The National Gallery of Art in Washington. His son, Paul, caught the bug too. When he died in 1999, he left his father's pet gallery over 100 works of art with names on the bottom like Vincent, Monet, and Homer. And just to make sure they were adequately framed, another $75 million on top of that--the biggest gift the museum ever got from a single donor. Sounds like a lot?! Well, yes, except that he left another 130 paintings to the Center for British Art at Yale University, plus the usual $75 million for various and sundry expenses. Even the little Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond got $10 million and another 50 paintings. When the lawyers got done adding it up, the total maxed out at around $450 million, not counting the paintings.

Still Life of Oranges and Lemons, with Blue Gloves,
1889, Vincent van Gogh
Of course it took him 91 years to put it all together. A veteran of WW II, Mellon was not your average, run-of-the-mill nouveau-riche playboy millionaire--not by a generation or two. He came from solid, eastern establishment, patrician stock...bonds too, no doubt. He left money and art to his children to continue the family hobby for a third generation. He left a rich widow with another $110 million and some paintings...actually, all the paintings until her death. Among them, van Gogh's Still Life of Oranges, and Lemons, with Blue Gloves (right) and Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, (below, one of van Gogh's last).  Mellon owned more Seurats than anyone on earth--13 in all. There were three Manets, ten by Pierre Bonnard, others by Cezanne, Braque, Delacroix, Renoir, Monet, and from this side of the pond, works by Winslow Homer, John Frederick Peto, and Raphaelle Peale. The Virginia Museum got a van Gogh (Daisies, Arles), a Gauguin, and a Toulouse-Lautrec among others.  Mellon was a great role model for all millionaires.  And that's what I would do if I was rich, buy lots of art then (eventually of course) give it all away.
Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, (June) 1889,
Vincent van Gogh

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Mark Rothko Chapel

The Rothko Chapel, 1971, Houston, Texas
You walk into an immense, essentially empty room. It has eight concrete walls. An overhead skylight provides the only illumination. In the center of the room are wooden benches. On the walls are paintings. There are fourteen of them. They appear black at first, like giant video monitors turned off. Each is rectangular with a few large, rectangular, slightly irregular blotches of pure, brilliant color. It's an eerie feeling. In spite of the art, your first feelings are those of sensory deprivation. You have the sense of having returned to the womb. You sit down, silently, all alone, overwhelmed not by fatigue but by an emotional sterility you've never felt before. It's as if you have begun a fast. As the minutes pass and you contemplate your surroundings, you have the sensation that you are purging your very soul. You begin to feel like you're not looking at art so much as being drawn into it, becoming a part of it, then feeling as if it is becoming a part of you. You begin to loose all notions of time and space. It's like a supernatural Disney ride into your own psyche. You forget you're in Houston, Texas, and that you have, out of curiosity, wondered into the Rothko Chapel. You forget even which century you occupy. And when you leave, you have the feeling that, for the first time in your life, you have begun to understand Mark Rothko.

The Apse Triptych, 1956, Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko is classed as a color field painter. The chapel works were mostly done in the years 1955 and 1956. Color Field painting grew out of Abstract Expressionism. Abstract Expressionism grew out of Russian abstraction, Dutch de Stijl painting, and French Cubism, stirred, blended, shaken up, and splattered all over New York City following the Second World War by a small group of hard-drinking, hard-driving, hard-living men and women bent on cleansing the accumulated grime of centuries of figurative art from themselves and their art. It is hard art. Rothko's art is, perhaps, the hardest of all, especially if you seek to see and understand his work in the time honored tradition of art  appreciation espoused by high school art teachers, college art history professors, and newspaper art critics. If you travel this road past the works of Mark Rothko you will come away feeling cheated. They seem empty.

The Rothko Chapel, (exterior),
Phillip Johnson, Howard Barnstone, 
 Eugene Aubry, architects
The foreground sculpture is
Broken Obelisk, 1963-67,
Barnett Newman.
Did you ever pick up a cup and try to drink from it only to find it was empty? Remember the feeling? You reflexively stare into it in disbelief and disappointment. But it is not empty. You have just tasted of the most vital commodity on earth, something that you could not survive without for more than a few minutes--air. Rothko is like that. You must taste his work; feel  it; experience it. Breathe it in; savor it like a deep breath of fresh air, marveling at the heady, exhilarating feeling, and then the satisfying sensation of exhaling. It's not a religious experience but something more personal than that, more spiritual than religious. One's religious beliefs are taught; they come externally, just like most art. Feeling Rothko comes from inside. He's more primal, more instinctive, totally intuitive. It's a trite phrase in art, but unfortunately there seems to be no other expression that truly sums up Rothko--an emotional experience.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Renaissance Man

Although most people aren't aware of it, most artists realize that creativity is a very broad gift. It is, after all, problem solving. Under the best of circumstances, it is basically an ability to devise new ways, or adapt old ways, or combine them in such a way that the results are clever, effective, and practical. It is an element of intelligence, often unmeasured by tests....perhaps even immeasurable by any means. It is not always present, nor is its presence always an indication of what we call intelligence. But usually, creativity and intelligence tend to go hand-in-hand. As artists we employ creativity (some more than others of course). And as artists, we have honed our use of creativity, channeling it into one or two exceptional skills for which we become well-known. But, as I said in the beginning, what most people aren't aware of is how broad creativity tends to be. It permeates nearly every aspect of an artist's life, often giving rise to secondary skills in music, writing, sculpting, cooking, etc., that, while not as exceptional as those for which the artist is paid, are nonetheless often quite developed. We've even coined a title for it--a Renaissance man (or woman).

Photo by Luc Viatour,
Studies of Embryos, 1510-13,
Leonardo da Vinci
The name hearkens back to the first and greatest Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci. People think of him first and foremost (and unfortunately, sometimes only), as a painter. A few know him as something of an often impractical inventor, but few people today are aware of the full scope of his talents. That wasn't the case during his lifetime though. In fact, often his "lesser" talents were far more in demand than those he displayed in wielding a brush. To his despair at times, he was so besieged by requests for his services as a designer, sculptor, and engineer, they often interfered with his time to paint. He was a curious man. You can take that both ways. He did, indeed, act curiously, quite often in fact, but he also was, by his very nature, curious about things...all things. His willingness to dissect dead bodies in the name of art and science is a prime example of the intensity of his curiosity in overcoming what couldn't have been a pleasant (though perhaps illegal) undertaking for his time.

Water Lift, 1486, Leonardo da Vinci
Mechanical things interested him. Leonardo's drawings remain of such basic mechanical devices (some of which he may have invented) as the cam, chain drives, cog wheels, ball bearing devices, escapement devices, screws, worm drives, pulleys, the clutch, ratchet wheels and opposing ratchet wheels, and even robots. While in France, during the last years of his life, Leonardo did little painting (even though he had the title "First Painter to the King"). He was not yet 70 years old, but he looked older than he was and by the standards of the time, when men often did not reach their fiftieth birthday, he was old. Yet, in terms of creativity he was at the height of his power. In the last years of his life, King Francis I kept him employed designing irrigation projects, theater sets, floats, and on one occasion, he surprised and delighted the king with a life-size bronze lion which, on cue, opened its sides in a gull-wing manner and spewed white lilies, the symbol of the French crown.
A working reconstruction of Leonardo's mechanical lion

Friday, August 26, 2011

D. W. Griffith

D. W. Griffith, 1900
It goes without saying that great artists are controversial. In fact, there's almost a direct correlation, even a cause and effect element. And the greatest, most controversial artists seem to be those on the technological and ideological cutting edge of their art. Around 1900, a new art form was in its infancy. Edison and the Lumiere Brothers had barely demonstrated the technology much less delineated its artistic potential. It wasn't even entertainment yet, more a mechanical scientific curiosity. Porter was still three years from making The Great Train Robbery. Cinematography was a crude and unknown art form analogous to cave painting at that point in the history of art. In the next ten or fifteen years, there was progress. Film making became entertainment The Nickelodeon was born. The industry moved to Southern California where interior shots could be filmed outdoors in the 300 days per year of brilliant sunlight demanded by the "slow" film of the time. During that time, an adventurous young artist was learning his craft. His name was David Wark Griffith.

Griffith was born in 1875 in Crestwood, Kentucky, just ten years after the end of the Civil War. He grew up during the latter years of Reconstruction listening to his father's colorful and no doubt highly embellished first-person accounts of wartime heroism and the justifiable outrage over one of the darkest political eras in U.S. history. He took these stories with him, believing every word of them, when, in 1908, he left for Southern California (Hollywood didn't even exist at the time) to become a movie actor. His acting career was short and uneventful. He took to moonlighting as a director at Biograph Studios; and during the next seven years churned out over 450 "shorts." In the process, he completely mastered the art of film making such as it was at the time. But he saw his 20-minute "one-reelers" as a terrific waste of a great storytelling medium. By that time, film making had progressed figuratively from cave painting to comic books and in Griffith's eyes, it wasn't all that great a leap. He longed to do more with the medium.

Birth of a Nation
theater poster
Not surprisingly, he drew upon his childhood lore, his own and borrowed money, and near total creative independence to recount the Civil War and the Southern culture at the time as he knew it. Nothing even remotely comparable had ever been done before. Birth of a Nation's four hours of running time tested the patience and bladders of even the most devoted history buffs. There were over 11,000 scenes, 25,000 players, and $750,000 involved. Griffith's film innovations such as dissolves, masking, close-ups, flashbacks, his battlefield action footage, and dramatic editing were unprecedented at the time and breathtaking in their visual impact. The cadre of assistant directors he trained or influenced (Orson Wells, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and others) would go on to make movie history themselves.

But Birth of a Nation was irretrievably flawed, reflecting the deep racial prejudices Griffith had known growing up and seemingly never questioned, at least until after the film was released. Then, in spite of its daring cinematic breakthroughs, it unleashed, or at least unveiled, a deep racial schism in American society. Based on the abhorrently racial novel, The Clansman, Birth of a Nation was as much fantasy as it was propaganda--history as seen and believed in the South at a time when such regional boundaries were evaporating.

Intolerance theater poster
featuring one of the film's
 four morality mini-movies
Biographers would have us believe Griffith's next work, his 1916, Intolerance was an attempt to atone for the racial stereotypes and prejudices he'd ignorantly projected in Birth of a Nation. That's questionable. In any case, its effect in mitigating the damage done by Birth of a Nation was minimal. With Intolerance, Griffith again went too far. He'd followed up his bigoted blockbuster by creating the first "art" film, intermingling four separate morality tales into a complex cinematography that audiences at the time were not prepared to decipher. Though critically acclaimed, it was a box-office disaster. Griffith went on to make several additional outstanding, seriously moralistic films of a more intimate nature up through the advent of "talkies," but by then, his style, his vision, his nineteenth century point of view, were all decidedly old-fashioned. The industry he helped to create had quickly passed him by, casting him aside. He died in 1948, in virtual exile, a talented genius who never quite recovered from his greatest triumph and the hateful seeds of his own destruction which it spread.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Louise Nevelson

Some of us who are starting to get "up in years" so to speak, may be starting to think in terms of our "life's work" and if we'll ever come to a point where we'll be "known" to some degree, revered, collected, or able to live comfortably only from our art. For those who sometimes ponder such things, we can all take heart from this lady. She was born in 1899 in Kiev, Russia. As a child, her family moved to the great state of Maine where at the tender age of nine she proclaimed her desire to become a sculptor. Now, fast-forward thirty-five years to 1943. She has her first exhibition as an artist. Add to that another twenty years. She's sixty-four before she's able to support herself from her art.  In between is a lot of studying abroad, relying on the goodness of her family, and even selling her jewelry to have money to live on. Her name was Louise Nevelson.

White Vertical, 1972,
Louise Nevellson
Art critics and historians love superlatives. They give credence to what they write about. Louise Nevelson has been crowned by those who bestow such blessings, as "the most celebrated female sculptor in the history of American modernism." It sounds good though some might find a few too many qualifiers in such a distinction. Let's just say she's the most outstanding female sculptor of this century...well...actually, the two centuries!  Geesh, there haven't actually been all that many female sculptors, has there?  Of the top of my head, I can't even think of one...certainly none that comes close to the extraordinarily distinctive, quiet, complex beauty that marks her signature work. The mere mention of her name conjures up images of large, darkly painted grids of ingeniously composed wooden collages. Whether using found shapes or machine-crafted spindles and knobs, her work is endlessly fascinating and quietly pleasant to contemplate. There is an orderliness overlain with an excitement akin to opening presents on Christmas morning.

Couple, 1935-40, Louise Nevelson, 
a free-standing work in plaster,
displaying her cubist influences.
(Courtesy: Dr. Fred Rothchild)

One of the things that sets Nevelson apart from many other artists of all stripes is that she does not observe any hierarchy of mediums. At a time when other sculptors were welding steel, she was "sawing logs." Materials of all kinds show up in her work from wood, paper, and cloth to Plexiglas, lead, bronze and plaster (as seen at right). Another distinction regarding her work is its potential for interchangeability. Her hallmark environmental sculptures of the 1950s had designed into them the capability for their being rearranged, often in nearly endless combinations making them dynamic, not in the sense of a Calder mobile, but as evolving entities driven either by the artist or the owner. Her lack of preference for one sculpture medium over another allows her an incredible range of creative possibilities, either in terms of mixing or matching. Beyond her work though, I can't help thinking of Louise Nevelson as an excellent role model for artists today--study endlessly, persevere always, work perpetually, and wait patiently.  Time has a way of recognizing talent and integrity.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Honore Daumier

Any working painter today who does commissions knows that the demand for custom work is not limited to what we think of as traditional, head-and-shoulder portraits. In fact, it's not limited to portraits at all, as usually defined. I define the term "portrait" a little more broadly than some artists. I see a portrait as a representation of anything important enough for an individual to be willing to pay an artist to paint, draw, or sculpt it. That includes people of course (still first and foremost), but also beloved pets, prized animals, homes, farms (flirting with landscape painting), and on rare occasions, various collectibles (which begins to involve still-lifes). Among the most often painted portraits along this line are items of transportation. I once painted a portrait of a supersonic transport (SST) taking off.  Add to that the "planes, trains, and automobiles" and you have a huge area with a very demanding clientele.

Rain, Steam, and Speed--the Great Western Railway,
1844, J.M.W. Turner
In the nineteenth century, such transportation portraits were mostly limited to ships, and if you want to get technical, horses. Surprisingly however, there was also a demand for paintings of trains as well. The English artist, J.M.W. Turner, is an example, though it stretches the definition well past the breaking point to call his 1844 classic, Rain, Steam, and Speed--the Great Western Railway, a portrait. This work may well be the first depiction in art of this early transportation invention. The Impressionists also painted trains, again not as commissioned portraits usually, but detailed enough to be recognizable models. If all these transportation "portraits" have anything in common, it's that they all depicted the outside of the movable mass. All, that is, except one by an exceptional French artist named of Honore Daumier.

Third Class Carriage, 1863-65, Honore Daumier 
Daumier was born in 1808, and is remembered more for his talent in etching, drawing, and caricature (which he practically invented in the sense we know it today). However he sometimes painted, and one of his best known is his 1863-65 painting, The Third-class Carriage. As mentioned before, it's not the outside of the train, but the inside, emphasizing with great sympathy, simplicity, and honesty the nobility of the lower classes as compared to the "nobility" of the nobility. Daumier, as a caricaturist, was a "people person." Faces fascinated him. The fact that these faces densely populate a nineteenth century rail carriage is almost incidental. The colors tend toward warm reds and browns, warm blacks, with a few dashes of blue-green. Facing the viewer is a mother with a toddler sleeping in her arms, what appears to be her mother, and an older sleeping child next to her. Behind them, is a cross-section of "polite" French society painted with harsh, spontaneous, angular brushwork, contrasting with the soft ovals of the "third class." The masterpiece makes a subtle social statement heavy on family warmth juxtaposed against the cold, glaring, staring, unpleasantness of those from the "right" side of the train tracks.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Gianlorenzo Bernini self-portrait, 1623
Just as history records that nations have a lifespan not unlike that of their human inhabitants--infancy, childhood, youth, maturity, middle-age, then a doddering old age--the same can be said of a nation's art. Spain, France, England, Germany, have experienced this fate. No doubt the United States too is presently at some point in this cycle. No country on earth, however, more typifies this evolution than Italy, where western art all began. What began in the Middle Ages continued with an almost straight linear progression to an apogee during the High Renaissance, then gradually descended through a murky Mannerist period only to re-emerge in some semblance of its previous prominence during the Baroque era. Then it coasted downward on its past glory until modern times, never again to even approach its former brilliance. Because Italian art peaked a second time during the Baroque era, it is this period that we find most interesting because it's so uncommon in art history.

David, 1623, Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Apollo and Daphne, 1623,
Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Of course. when you think of Italian art during the Baroque period, Caravaggio comes to mind. But another, slightly younger Italian artist may have better typified the era in a broader sense--Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Although most remembered for his dramatic sculpture, or perhaps his architectural skills in planning the enfolding "arms" of St. Peter's "square" in Rome (a misnomer if there ever was on); the man was also a painter as well (as seen in his self-portrait above). In fact, it is this painterly quality we have come to admire most in his sculptures. It's hard to say which of his works is best or most famous. Certainly his David from 1623 is the only one to make any kind of challenge to Michelangelo's immortal figure. And then there's my personal favorite, the melodramatic Apollo and Daphne from the same period in which Bernini has depicted the moment of Apollo's touch which begins turning his sister-in-law into a Laurel tree. But perhaps, most beautiful, is his Ecstasy of St. Theresa, in which Bernini pulls out all the stops, depicting in hard, heavy marble a scene set on a floating cloud mounted outward from a wall beneath an unseen window which serves as his light source.  It's like a three-dimensional painting.

Photo by Sailko
The Ecstasy of St. Theresa,
1647-52, Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Baldachino, 1624-33,
Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Daring to mimic, even surpass Michelangelo himself, Bernini's architectural decoration of the nearly completed St. Peter's cathedral brings to bear the very best the Baroque period had to offer. His massive Baldachino is a free-standing cast bronze structure replete with twisted columns and hanging "canvas," (also cast in bronze), which towers upwards over the high altar several stories beneath the dome where Michelangelo's tomb for Julius II was to have rested. The edifice was so massive its construction created a bronze shortage in Rome. The pope even went so far as to allow Bernini to strip this precious metal from the roof of the Pantheon in order to complete it. Bernini's work, taken as a whole, would seem to suggest that the ideal of the "Renaissance man" did not die with the Renaissance.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Gauguin's Addiction

Paul Gauguin, 1891
All too often, it may be said of many of us that we are our own worst enemies. As artists, we're often neurotic, compulsive, too passive or too aggressive, sometimes paranoid and in general, just plain maladjusted. It's often the price paid for creative genius. It's not a "given" of course, and there are a few happy campers out there who are thoroughly in control of themselves; it's just that they're so well behaved we seldom notice them. Likewise, the history of art is chock full of the former, and little heedful of the latter. We all know about van Gogh's problems, what a scoundrel Caravaggio was, about Rembrandt's carelessness with money, Monet's chronic destitution, and Pollock's drinking problems. Their stories envelope them in a romantic aura making their work worth more today, if for no other reason than it seriously limited their output during their most creative years, and in fact, their lifespans.

The Seine at the Pont d'lena, Snowy Weather,
1875, Paul Gauguin, possibly the painting
accepted into the 1876 Salon
The perfect example of this is Paul Gauguin. We all know how the stockbroker father of five chucked it all and sailed off to enjoy a life of unworldly, carefree simplicity among the swaying palms, the bare-breasted beauties, and the white sand beaches of far-off Tahiti. Okay, so there was a little more to it than that. Gauguin was addicted to painting. Like all addictions, it began quite innocently; he and a friend, Sunday afternoons, a few landscapes, something to cover the walls of his new home. Then he had the good fortune to have a rather conservative piece accepted into the Salon of 1876. Already a success at business, Gauguin foresaw a similar easy ascent to the heights of the art world. Painting began to absorb every moment of his spare time. He met Camille Pissarro and fell in with the wild-eyed Impressionists. He displayed with them and even got good reviews from an art critic. The following year, however, the same critic panned his work as showing "no progress." That did it. To the surprise and dismay of his wife and all his friends, Gauguin up and quit his "day job," so to speak, to devote full time to his addiction.

I Raro te Orvin,1891, Paul Gauguin,
from the early Tahitian years
He had some savings and he worked to cut expenses but nothing he did turned out as he'd expected.  Saddled with a tendency toward wanderlust from his youth in Peru and a later stint in the merchant marines, he tried the coast of Normandy, tried an ill-conceived couple months with his friend Vincent in the South of France, then took off to the island of Martinique in the Caribbean, even a couple months actually helping dig the Panama Canal. Finally, he went on the lam to Tahiti. There he quickly drank and caroused away what little money he had left before finally finding some solitude with a teenage "wife" in a remote village where in one year he managed to creating some sixty of the Tahitian masterpieces we know today. But even surviving on pennies a day, he couldn't afford canvas and paints. He sailed back to France arriving sick, without a sou, and terribly depressed. That was soon alleviated by the timely death of an uncle who left him $2,000. Both his illness and his depression instantly vanished. So too, in short order, did the money. Unable to sell his work, he fled back to Tahiti, determined to make a go of it this time in the islands. History repeated itself.  He even botched a suicide attempt by overdosing on arsenic, thus making himself very sick but still pretty much alive. A deal with the Paris art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, gave him a monthly stipend of $60 in exchange for his paintings. However even that didn't stave off poverty, nor more importantly, the effects of syphilis. He died in 1903 alone and unloved.  Meanwhile, Vollard had shrewdly cornered the market on Gauguins; and in very short order, was making a fortune off them.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Bear Run waterfall, 1912.
Today, Fallingwater would be visible
in the upper third of this photo.
(See photo at bottom.)
All he wanted was a modest, weekend hunting lodge to replace the aging log house high on the banks overlooking Bear Run, deep in the woods of southern Pennsylvania. What he got was an artistic masterpiece, as much sculpture as architecture, a house so perfectly in tune with it's woodland environment it was being featured on magazine covers even before construction was completed. His name was Edgar Kauffman, the president of Pittsburgh's Kauffman's Department Store. It was land that had been in the family for more than a generation, and the site, with it's massive boulders, flowing stream, and picturesque waterfalls, had been used for company picnics even before that. Kauffman's intellectual son, Edgar, Jr., was toying with the idea of becoming an architect. He was studying as an intern with a noted Wisconsin architect. And it was through his son that Edgar Kauffman met the illustrious and eccentric Frank Lloyd Wright.

Fallingwater (drawing), 1935, Frank, Lloyd Wright
The year was 1934, amid the coldest, hardest days of the Depression, and the cold and bluster of mid-December when Kauffman first took Wright to the Bear Run site. The barren splendor of the stream and its icy falls made a lasting impression upon the sometimes cantankerous genius. It stayed with him as the image of the structure he would build there took shape in his mind. Moreover, that's where it stayed for almost a year. Only when Wright got word the Kauffman would be coming to Wisconsin to look over plans for the weekend house was he forced to finally put them on paper. In fact, the first rough conceptual sketches were begun just the afternoon before Kauffman was to arrive. Floor plans were sketched out that night, and the first two elevations were finished in the morning hours just before he came. The final two elevation drawings were done by apprentices while Wright and Kauffman were having lunch.& Yet amazingly as construction proceeded during the next two years, there were few and only very minor departures from these original drawings.

Fallingwater, 1935-38,
Frank Lloyd Wright
The house Wright called "Fallingwater." It was not at all what Kauffman had in mind. He'd initially expected a structure downstream from the falls where he might view their cascading beauty. He confided to Wright afterwards, "When I asked you to build me a house by the falls, I didn't know you were gonna build it on top of the damned thing." It is indeed, made of cantilevered, reinforced concrete, jutting out from a massive boulder and rock ledges, its stone quarried on the site, its horizontal lines and balconies perfectly mirroring those of the stratified rock that created the falling water which had so impressed Wright that cold December day in 1934. Although some might consider his Chicago Prairie Houses or his Johnson Center superior in form and function, it was the magical beauty of Fallingwater that revived Wright's sagging career of 40 years, and lifted him to prominence, bringing him important commissions, allowing him to soar to greatness as both a working and teaching master architect. His Taliesin Fellowship has now spawned two generations of followers. His design theories and philosophies, even today, are on the cutting edge of his art, some 75 years after Fallingwater began hovering over Bear Run.


Saturday, August 20, 2011

Camille Pissarro

Self-portrait, 1903, Camille Pissarro,
shortly before his death
Think of a big teddy bear of a man, prematurely bald, prematurely gray (white, actually), long beard--okay he looked a little like a French Santa Claus, minus the red suit and allowing for the fact that he wasn't French at all but Danish. His name was Camille Pissarro. He was born in 1830 about as far from the Paris art scene as one could imagine, the (then Danish) Virgin Islands. There his father ran a small general store. He cut his artistic teeth drawing palm trees and seascapes. Wanting no part of the family business, finally, at the age of twenty-five, he convinced his Jewish father and Creole mother to send him off to study in Paris. He arrived around 1855, just at the time the Emperor Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) was showing off Paris to the rest of the world in a grand world's exhibition. He began absorbing the whirlpool of French art at the time, from academic pretension to coarse, peasant realism. He admired Millet. He saw Corot. He could hardly have missed Courbet's in-your-face Pavillion des Realisme, and he was impressed by it all. He began to study first under one, then the other. And he began to paint with the Barbizon painters, outdoors, in the forests of Fountainbleu, where he began feeling the first impulses toward Impressionism.

Entrance to the Village of Voisins, 1872,
Camille Pissarro
When we think of Impressionism, we often think first of Monet, then perhaps, Renoir and Degas, which is fine. But the quiet, guiding light for them all was the gentle, kindhearted Camille Pissarro. He struggled with them, argued with them, painted with them, and most of all gave them technical and moral support when they needed it most. He shepherded Cezanne, was one of the few friends the man had, in fact. He learned quickly and easily, and from all indications, just as freely and easily divulging what he knew. He was there at the Salon de Refuse, and every one of the eight Impressionist Exhibitions. In fact, he was the chief organizer of two of them. His work was based upon a strong understanding of Impressionist precepts involving light and color, and technically perhaps the most adept of all the impressionists. His work was never as flamboyant as some of the others, he painted almost exclusively landscapes and still-lifes, and surprisingly, for an impressionist, with a considerable amount of detail.

LaRecolte des Foins, Eragny,1887,
Camille Pissarro, displaying his brand of
As Impressionism developed, it was both centripetal and centrifugal. That means it drew some artists closer to its core and spun off others toward what would eventually become know as Post-Impressionism.  Pissarro, along with Monet and Sisley became the hard core of the movement. Artists such as Renoir, Degas, and Cezanne, flew off in their own, individual directions. Both effects were beneficial. The core group persevered to see to it that Impressionism gained the healthy respect in the art world that was its due. The others, took the best Impressionism had to offer in terms of painting technique, style, and philosophy in new directions and to new heights. This split in the group several found personally painful, but through it all, even as Pissarro espoused Pointillism and tried to make it his own style, he was the one man all the others looked up to and loved. Late in life, he enjoyed the fruits of his Impressionist persistence. He swerved away from Seurat's Pointillism, even destroying some of his own canvases while reworking others. He died in 1903 at the age of 73, financially secure, but no doubt far more important to his personal fulfillment, he was by far the most influential of all the Impressionist. It's doubtful we would today worship the work of Cezanne, Van Gogh, or Gauguin had it not been for Camille Pissarro.

Friday, August 19, 2011


(Present-day drawing by
Heidi Celeghin)
Some time ago, as we are apt to do from time to time, a group of painting friends and I were discussing various important art topics of the day, when somehow or other, the subject of nude, adolescent figures in art came up. Everyone had an opinion and for the most part (with some minor exceptions and variations), they were all pretty much the same. About 580 years earlier, had we been a group of Florentine painters slumped over crude tables and benches in a neighborhood vintner's establishment, we might very well have been discussing the same thing. One of the more important members of our group would have been Donato di Nicolo di Betto Bardi. He might very well have been showing us charcoal and chalk sketches of a sensuous nude boy of about fourteen, long hair over his shoulders, wearing a rakish hat, sword in hand, contemplating the decapitated head of his nemesis, the towering Goliath (not too unlike the drawing at right).

We would not have had to have been told the figure represented the biblical David. As Florentines, we would have recognized him as quickly as today we would our own Uncle Sam. We might well have discussed his youth, his surprisingly feminine qualities, the striking contraposito of the pose, maybe argued that the figure should not be nude. In any case we would have laughed at the inclusion of the silly hat. We might even have wondered in the back of our minds if our friend, Donato (known to us, his colleagues, as Donatello) might not have more than a passing interest in the boy. We are a little surprised and awed when we hear the sculptor announce he plans to cast his slender nude boy in bronze. We might well have warned him of the difficulty of his proposed undertaking in that nothing of this sort, least of all a twice-lif-size nude figure, had been done since ancient times. Some of us might even have laughed behind his back, gleefully speculating as to how big a molten mess he might make of the whole project.

David, c.1430, Donatello
Of course, several months later, as the figure is unveiled in a ceremony rivaling that of the Ghiberti's great bronze baptistery doors of San Giovanni, we would have been laughing from the other sides of our mouths, jealous perhaps, but nonetheless tremendously impressed by the man's sculptural dexterity, audacity and success. And, whether sculptors or painters, we would have been unavoidably influenced by the striking beauty of Donatello's almost heroic nude boy. We would have gone back to our own individual hovels, perhaps not with an eye out for the most comely young boy in the neighborhood, but with a new understanding and appreciation for the power of the nude figure in art, and determined to try drawing and painting the human body in its natural, most beautiful state. As artists knowing only Medieval or Gothic models as the basis of our art, we would have suddenly awakened to a whole new world of naturalistic art, realizing, perhaps for the first time, that we stood poised on the brink of a new era in art, as yet without a name, but one that would, several hundred years later, be known as the Renaissance.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Gustave Courbet

It's a story that is reenacted again and again every year, usually in the early fall, about the time the collegiate academic year commences. A small town boy (or girl), perhaps raised on the farm, with an extraordinary talent for drawing, says good-bye to friends, family, and the tiny community in which he grew up to go off to the big city to study art. In 1839, in the small town of Ornans, near the French border with Switzerland, a cheerful, bearded young man by the name of Gustave played perfectly the role of bright young, artistically inclined would-be student on his way to college, except, unfortunately, it wasn't Paris, it was Besancon, and he was being coerced by his father to study law, not art. That lasted less than a year. He was twenty by now, but even as a boy he'd hated studying from books. Instead he spent his time in the small college's art classes, drawing. Finally, his father relented and agreed to stake him in Paris, though even then, young Gustave hated the academic routine. He moved from the Ecol to the Academie Suiss (which had no damnable instructors, just a building, easel space and models), and he studied at the Louvre.

Man with a Leather Belt, 1845,
Gustave Courbet
In going to Paris, he'd pledged to his family that in ten years he would make a name for himself. By 1844, he was making headway. He had a painting accepted at the Salon. There were rejections in the following years, but during the Revolution of 1848, when the power of the Academy over the Salon was at a low ebb, he got several paintings into the show, including the somewhat romantic Man with Leather Belt and Dinner at Ornans, which pleased both the critics and public.  With it, he won a second place silver metal, and more importantly, the right to display at future salons without subjecting himself and his work to the predatory whims of the Academic jury. Gustave Courbet had arrived. This last point was important. Two years later, in 1850, he submitted a huge, 10-foot by 21-foot canvas entitled Burial at Ornans. Everyone from the academic critics to the public hated it, but as a former medal winner, they had to display it. The realistic, lower-class, scene was too big to ignore and to scandalously outrageous to like. It was not noble in any way and told no romantic, heroic tale. It was socialist art--real people at a real funeral.

A Burial at Ornans, 1850, Gustave Courbet
The Painter's Studio, *A true allegory showing seven years of my artistic life), 1855,
Gustave Courbet
In the years to come, everything Courbet did stirred up more controversy, even hatred.  When the Emperor decided to show off the country in the 1855 World Exhibition, hundreds of artists from other countries were invited to show, but not an outraged Courbet. Reasonably well-off by this time, he built his own Pavillion du Realisme not far from the Palais des Arts, where he exhibited over forty of his own works and charged 1 franc admission. He had few lookers and even fewer sales, but his premier work, The Painter's Studio, (A true allegory showing seven years of my artistic life) nonetheless raised the customary stink.  Like Burial at Ornans it was huge (even larger, actually), depicting himself (he had an ego as big as his canvas) in the midst of an enormous room, being watched raptly by friends, a nude model, a young boy and his dog, as well as portrait images of critics of the day, while he put finishing touches on a large landscape painting. Proclaiming his work as "democratic art," Courbet darted from one part of the country to an another showing his works, eventually becoming the best known painter in all the world at the time. In 1867, at a Paris exposition similar to that of 1855, he built an even bigger pavilion than before with over 130 paintings.  And this time, he and his work were too important to be ignored.  The small town farm boy had made good.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Artists--Made or Born?

There is some feeling among those in the arts that artists are born, rather than made, giving credence to the belief in an "artistic gene" or "creative predisposition." The Calvinist might call it predestination. The Greeks also had a word for it--fate. In 1854, a fourteen-year-old French boy enrolled in the Petite Ecole, which was a Paris training school in the decorative arts--everything from decorating china to painting silk. He wanted to be an artist. When he graduated, he applied to the renowned Ecole des Beaux-arts. He was rejected. He applied again a year later and was again rejected. Thinking the third time to be the charm, he tried yet again but with the same results. Disheartened, he began to work as a studio helper doing decorative details on the work of a Paris sculptor. He never did get to go to college and study art, but he was an artist, with or without formal training. His name was Auguste Rodin.

The Age of Bronze, 1875-76,
Auguste Rodin
It took him another fourteen years, but by the early 1870s, he'd saved enough money for a trip to Italy where he fell under the spell of Michelangelo. After his return, he crafted his first masterpiece, The Age of Bronze. It was accepted into the 1877 Paris Salon show. It didn't win an award, but gained him a great degree of exposure and a controversial backhanded compliment. He was accused of having utilized plaster casts of a live model in creating his life-size bronze sculpture of a nude male figure. Critics found it difficult to accept the fact that a virtually self-taught sculptor such as Rodin could craft such exacting replicas of the human anatomy by any other means. It was plight that was to follow him during much of his career.

The Gates of Hell, 1878-89,
Auguste Rodin

For the next ten years, Rodin worked on figures composing a monumental set of bronze doors for the museum of decorative arts then under construction in Paris. The massive grouping was called the--The Gates of Hell. And, inasmuch as the commission was never completed, Rodin no doubt considered the work aptly named. (The museum was never completed either.) However, from this effort came a number of individual figures, the most famous of which was his trademark The Thinker." By 1880, at least six of them had been cast.

The Kiss, 1886,
Auguste Rodin
In 1886, he put to rest once and for all any doubt he might be guilty of using plaster casts. His immortal The Kiss was carved from pristine white marble; and in its exquisite, erotic beauty, set Rodin on the same plane as his much idolized Michelangelo and the Baroque sculptor, Gianlorenzo Bernini, as master of the sculpted human figure. Just a year before his death in 1917, Rodin donated his entire art collection to the French government. Except for a few public monuments located elsewhere (such as the Burghers of Calais), the life's work of the born sculptor, including bronze portraits of famous literary figures such as Victor Hugo and George Bernard Shaw, can be seen today at the Musee Rodin in Paris.