Click on photos to enlarge.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hans Holbein

Hans Holbein (the elder) Self-Portrait
It's no secret in the fine arts that talent is genetic. It tends to run in families. Sometimes it's been known to skip a generation but many is the son or daughter, living in the shadow of an accomplished father or mother, who finds it an uphill struggle to match the greatness of the parent's work. In film, the Fonda family comes to mind. In painting, the Wyeth family; in music, the Bernsteins or the Gershwins; in architecture, the Wrights, I could go on and on. And in the majority of these cases, the offspring, while often exceptional, do not measure up to the success of the first generation. But it does happen. And when it does, for the father, it's a mixed blessing. On the one hand, every father wants to see his son succeed. Yet, think of the dismay of having your own outstanding work mistaken for that of your son.  That's exactly what happened to a hard working, really quite talented German artist during the Northern Renaissance.

Ambrosius and Hans Holbein (the younger),
silverpoint by Hans Holbein (the elder), 1511
His name was Hans Holbein. We've all heard the name, right? He's known today for his elegant portraits of a corpulent King Henry VIII of England. No, that's Hans Holbein the son. Art historians refer to him as Hans Holbein (the younger). This time we're talking about his father, Hans Holbein (the elder). His brother, Sigismund, was also a painter. He was born near Augsburg in German Bavaria about 1460. His father was a well-to-do leather worker who saw to it that his son studied with the great German painter, Schongauer. He married the daughter of a painter by the name of Brickmaer, and seems to have worked in several area cities of the time including, Ulm, Frankfort, Basle and Alsace. Records suggest that his travels may have been aimed at escaping indebtedness. In any case, his sons, Hans and Ambrosius (above, left), were born around 1500.  Both he trained to become painters.

Death of the Virgin, 1490, Hans Holbein (the elder)
The father's early work shows the influence of Roger van der Weyden, and then that of the Van Eycks. Later, picking up many Italian influences, he was the first German painter to soften his style, favoring the gentle, voluminous qualities of Mantegna and Perugino over the angular, linear style of Durer and others. Though he painted portraits, his best works are the numerous altarpieces he left scattered from Augsburg to Nuremberg. A particularly poignant one in Augsburg, painted around 1515 (photo unavailable), contains a self-portrait, along with likenesses of his two sons who may have helped him with the work. In it, the father points with pride to his namesake, perhaps realizing that his son already showed signs of surpassing him. Unbelievably, even before he died in 1520, indications are that papers were being forged to indicate work by the father had been done by the son.  It's the kind of thing than make fathers prematurely gray; and no doubt adds a little silver to the heads of art historians as well.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Goodwin's Williamsburg

W.A.R. Goodwin
We are sometimes tempted to believe that artists have a monopoly upon visionary images. But not all images are made with marks on paper or canvas. Some, seen in the mind's eye of their creator, take tangible, concrete shape in real life. Architects, for instance, get to see their visual images transferred first to paper then to great buildings. In Nelson County, Virginia, near the town of Norwood, just four years after the surrender of Lee and the Confederacy at Appomattox Courthouse, a child named for his father, William Goodwin, was born.  He was the son of a Confederate Army Captain. Raised in poverty in the Virginia hill country, William Archer Rutherfoord Goodwin grew up to become an Episcopal minister and history scholar. In 1903, he was assigned to become rector of the Bruton Parish church in the small, backwater town of Williamsburg, Virginia.

It was not a choice assignment.  The church itself was becoming dilapidated, the town was, in many cases, already well passed that, and growing ever more so with each passing day. As the pastor took his customary evening stroll, he encountered images from the past, not unlike those of an artist, as the ghosts of the town's illustrious vintage days followed him everywhere. It had been 123 years since the state government of Virginia had pulled up stakes and moved to Richmond. The intervening years, the war, poverty, the Victorian era, modernization, had all left their mark on what had once been a collective masterpiece of Colonial architecture. Dr. Goodwin's vision was to stop history in its tracks, turn back its hands of time, and see the town restored to its quaint, colonial splendor.
The old Bruton Parish Church before restoration

He started with his own backyard, the church. Through his own hard work, good humor, and considerable powers of persuasion, he set about the raising of the funds to see the worshiping place of Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, George Wythe, and George Washington returned to it's colonial state. But just as he was getting up a head of steam, he was transferred to Rochester, New York, for fifteen long years. When he had the good fortune to return as rector of Bruton Parrish in 1923, he found his worst nightmares of twenty years earlier had taken shape. The town had become an eyesore, utility poles marched up the middle of the main street, the old courthouse had become a "filling station" sported the sign "Toot-an-cum-in" (King Tut's tomb had just been unearthed in Egypt). There were modern concrete streets, sidewalks, street lights, while next to them, structural decay was everywhere. Many of the colonial era homes had simply vanished. A new school had been built where once stood the Governor's Palace. Fifteen years of the twentieth century and the Model T had done more to rip apart the tattered fabric of Colonial Williamsburg than had the whole century before. If his vision was to be realized, it had to happen fast.

Williamsburg's reconstructed Governor's Palace (rear). The site had once been that of
the town's high school, which was demolished.
Goodwin first went to one source of the problem, Henry Ford himself, who was known to be a history buff and one of the few men in the country wealthy enough to undertake such a project.  He was rebuffed by form letters and a newspaper headline: "HENRY FORD ASKED TO BUY ANCIENT VIRGINIA TOWN!" Then, in 1924, almost by accident, Goodwin spoke at a banquet in New York attended by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. One thing led to another and a few months later, Goodwin hosted the multimillionaire for a tour of the town, asking only for the means to buy one particularly important home in imminent danger of destruction, the Ludwell-Paradise House. It didn't happen. It was two more long years before, in 1926, John D. wrote the first check. The house was saved, and during the next twelve years, more checks followed, supporting an army of archaeologists, carpenters, masons, historians, decorators, and other miscellaneous restorationists.

A 1930s era postcard of Williamsburg's Capitol Building
Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin died in 1939, just days before the official kickoff of the Second World War, which effectively halted the restoration and reconstruction efforts for the duration. After the war, Rockefeller continued to support the project, and even lived nearby for the next twenty years until his death in 1960. Today, Colonial Williamsburg is a living, breathing work of art on a scale almost unimaginable at the turn of the century when Goodwin first glimpsed a dreaded future and opted for a vision of the past instead. Today, the restored area has grown to some 150 acres and nearly 85% of the original town. Along with similar efforts in neighboring Jamestown and Yorktown, a four-lane parkway that literally tunnels under the town connects the three, Carter's Grove plantation, and related tourist facilities to support the modern day visitor wishing to step back 250 years. The complex very clearly stands as one of the greatest works of art ever conceived and executed here or anywhere else in the world. And the recreative genius behind it all, Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, deserves the title "artist" no less than Wright, Rodin, or Picasso.
Restored homes, Williamsburg today.

Monday, February 27, 2012

George Segal

George Segal, 1991, among the cast figures
for his Depression Bread Line.
Artists long ago learned the knack of seeing everyday objects and situations, then capturing them on paper or canvas for the ages following to ponder and enjoy. We have a much better understanding of seventeenth century life, for instance, as a result of Dutch, French, and later English still-life painting. And American, nineteenth century genre painting gives us a nostalgic view of everyday life in this country a century or more ago. In the 20th century, the elevation of the mundane, everyday symbols of our fast-paced cultural existence took on a much more blatantly hard edged tone with the advent of Pop Art in the early 1960s. Though most often associated with painting, Pop sculpture such as that of Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, and others may have been even more effective in underlining, capturing, and preserving that which we were at the time. And with all due respect to the others, by far the most powerful sculptural statements in Pop Art belong to a chicken farmer from New Jersey by the name of George Segal...the guy with the plaster bandages, not the actor by the same name.

Depression Bread Line, 1991, George Segal, FDR Memorial, Washington, DC.
Segal modeled himself as the fourth figure in the line.
Segal came out of New York City (the Bronx). He was born in 1924. And much of his art is New York City born and bred. The chicken farm came when he was fifteen and his Jewish parents moved to rural New Jersey (when there still was such a thing). He studied art, art education, and architecture at Cooper Union, Rutgers, Pratt Institute, and NYU, all during the war and for several years afterwards. But when he married in 1946, he gave up painting in favor of what he knew best--chicken farming. He bought his own just down the road from that of his parents. And though he began teaching high school art in 1955, he continued in the business...the chicken business that is...until 1958 when sales of his paintings springing from his first one-man show in 1956, began to earn him a decent living as an artist.

The Holocaust, 1984, George Segal, Lincoln Park, San Francisco
But Abstract Expressionism never was his thing. In 1958, an art "happening" organized by fellow New York artist Allan Kaprow got Segal started doing sculpture. He used those things which he knew best...wood, chicken wire, burlap, and plaster in fabricating life-size human figures which he began installing in starkly realistic urban settings often jerked from real life with a chain saw or cutting torch. In 1961, technology came along and made his life easier with the invention of plaster-impregnated gauze bandages intended for doctors in making plaster casts. Segal began using them to make molds of real people which he then took apart and cast in plaster parts, rejoining them into ghostly white images often reflecting the surreal loneliness of American urban life. Later, he dispensed with the castings and began using the molds themselves to capture the essence of his figures minus the more delicate details. These were no less effective in rendering the eerie feeling on alienation of his earlier work. 

Street Crossing, 1992, George Segal, Montclair State University.
What appears to be plaster is really painted bronze.
Yearly solo shows followed all through the 60's and 70's as museums snapped up his work like the golden nuggets of corn on his chicken farm. He used friends and family for his models. A particularly personal piece depicted a slice of the Bronx kosher butcher shop his parents once owned, peopled by his ghostly, lifelike figures. His groupings often took on overtly political messages. His Holocaust Group is especially heart rending. For the FDR Memorial in Washington, he cast his plaster figures in bronze, including a life-size self-portrait standing with others in a Depression Bread Line (top two photos). In later years, Segal's work diversified, as he and it began to shrug off the "Pop" label. And though he never again taught high school, several colleges and universities, and countless students were the beneficiaries of his experience, insights, and technical prowess. A 1998 traveling retrospective of his life's work and a National Medal of Arts in 1999 forever cemented his place in the art history books as not just one of the top Pop Art icons of all time, but one of America's most important sculptors. He died in 2002 at the age of 75.
Circus Acrobats, 1981, George Segal

Sunday, February 26, 2012

George Inness

George Inness, 1890
As artist, we revel in freedom. It's considered the life's blood of art. Unfettered creativity is such a heady experience we often talk about it in awe approaching some kind of mystical, spiritual, even religious occurrence. As artists, we point with elation at some of the works painters have created from within themselves with little or no outside influence. Artists of independent means with no need for patronage, perhaps not even a desire for artistic acceptance, such a Paul Cezanne, have produced works which have changed the course of art in the western world. But I'm here to tell you they are the exception, rather than the rule. Ninety percent of all art is produced under conditions involving some outside restrictions imposed upon the artist, either in terms of his or her need to earn a living from their art, or by a client commissioning a work of art, or by social, religious, or governmental restrictions upon that which they may produce. And I suggest that in very many cases, the best of all the art ever produced came about not in spite of these restrictions but because of them. 

The Lackawanna Valley, 1855, George Inness
In 1855, the president of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad Company commissioned the Philadelphia artist, George Inness to do a painting of the fledgling company's roundhouse, railways, and rolling stock. Inness needed the money but as primarily a landscape and figurative painter, he was less than delighted at the prospect of painting the hardware and real estate of an organization he considered responsible for raping the natural rural beauty of the countryside he loved so much. He painted a lush landscape with spreading hills a bucolic farmer, and a single locomotive chugging its way through the lovely Pennsylvania farmlands. The painting (now apparently lost), was rejected. Inness was forced back to the drawing board and obliged to compromise. His second effort, The Lackawanna Valley, 1855 (above), depicts much of the same beauty but with the town of Scranton in the misty middle ground, the roundhouse situated on the edge of town, with a graceful curve of track and the white steam-spewing locomotive (notice, no dirty black smoke) making its way across the tranquil landscape. The result is not only a far more interesting painting, but one that says something about the age in which it was created and the forces coming to bear on its creator. And today, in an age of urban sprawl and endless concrete ribbons, the train is seen as a quaint, benign reminder of days gone by, not as some sort of monstrous iron rapist.

Inness also painted extensively in Italy as seen
in this distant view of St. Peter's Rome, 1856.
Would Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling have been as impressive painted on canvas? Would Wright's Fallingwater have been as powerful built on a Mississippi flood plain? Would the Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty have as much meaning in the middle of a Kansas cornfield? Would the Gettysburg Address be memorized today by school children if Lincoln has droned on for an hour? Restrictions impose discipline upon an artist, regardless of the medium. They demand that the artist work at his or her concept. And in effect, they cause the artist to rise above the subject at hand to strive for greatness, not just the first workable depiction. Even in the hands of a great artist, unlimited creativity often results in mundane art. But, by the same token, in the hands of a mundane artist, restrictions can choke off creativity, resulting in no art. As an art educator, I often saw this. A student's first ten solutions were usually garbage. They werer the obvious paths. It's only after these have been gently rejected with the admonishment, "You can do better," that genius is uncovered. "Make me some art," is likely to drown even a good artist in possibilities not to mention inviting mediocrity. "Paint in oils, that which you fear most, on this 18"x24" canvas board using only white, two primary colors, and their corresponding secondary," builds a sheltering enclosure with known limits in which the artist feels secure to ponder the possibilities.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Frederic Bazille

Frederic Bazille Self-Portrait,
Whether as children on a playground or as adults in some weightier dispute, we've all no doubt uttered the words, "That's not fair." The counter to that is always the question, "Who ever said life was fair?"  Indeed, even from birth, some people have it all, while others seem short changed from the first slap on the bare derriere. The same is true near the end of life. There are those who live in misery far beyond their years and those who "die young and leave a good-looking corpse." In either case, it's just not fair. In 1841, there was born in the south of France near the fashionable resort town of Montpelier, a child, the son of wealthy wine producers. They named him Frederic. As a boy he became interested in art in seeing the work of Gustave Courbet and Eugene Delacroix at the home of a family friend and art collector, Alfred Bruyas. As a young man, he studied for two years at the Ecole des Beaux-arts under the tutelage of Charles Gleyre. It would seem that Frederic Bazille (pronounced Ba-ZEE-ah) was never  far from the "silver spoon" of his birth.

The Pink Dress, 1864, Frederic Bazille
As befitting a bright young man of means, Bazille's interest in art was seen by his family as a mere avocation, something to amuse him until he managed to pass the medical exams to become a doctor. Except that (whether by accident or design), well...he never did manage to pass them. He actually flunked twice, the third time he was merely late (and was thus closed out). Relenting, his family finally came around to letting him study art full time. It was in Gleyre's studio where Bazille met Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, and Alfred Sisley. The four of them became kind of a clique, not the most endearing group to have in class, nor the most dedicated art students either. They would delight in cutting classes to go peek in the window of the studio of the aged Delacroix to watch him work. During Easter break, 1863, the four of them took off for the Forest of Fontainebleau where they tried painting out-of-doors. Guess what? It was fun.  They liked it. Their little alliance was to form the core of the group of artists destined to be called Impressionists.

Family on the Terrace, 1867-68, Frederic Bazille
Not only was Bazille a painting partner to Monet and Renoir, he was something of a lifeline as well.  Both his friends came from much less fortunate circumstances than did he. He often loaned them money (usually amounting to an outright gift) as well as shared studio space with them (paying the bulk of the rent, of course). In return he learned from them. As a painter, he lacked the brilliance of either of his friends. His work, such as The Pink Dress (above, left), painted in 1864 is light and sensitive, impressionistic, but not such that one might single it out as exceptional. Bazille favored the figure over the landscapes of his friends, and though he sometimes painted both indoor and outdoor scenes largely devoid of people, it was at portraiture and the effects of natural light upon his figures at which he most excelled. His enormous, 1867 Family on the Terrace (above) is often considered his best. Knowing great good fortune from the beginning of life, and great promise in art during his life, makes the end of his life doubly tragic. When the Franco-Prussian war broke out, the adventurous young man enlisted in the colorful Zouave cavalry. He was killed fighting at Beaune-la-Rolande near Orleans on November 28, 1870. He was 29. It would seem, the silver spoon of his birth was not bullet proof. It's just not fair.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Fractal Art

Photo by Don Archer
Benoit Mandelbrot, digital portrait, 2001
Imagine if you will, a whole, new type of art that didn't exist, couldn't even be imagined, as recently as 35 years ago. It's an art based upon geometry; not traditional, Euclidean geometry, but a whole new type of geometry. It's an abstract art, also one that is largely if not entirely serendipitous. It's an art based upon numbers, real and imaginary, and it's an art that, until the advent of computers, couldn't even be produced on paper. And, while it's based upon a formula, it's anything but formulaic. The simple, yet elegant formula is Z=Z X Z+ C, with C being a constant added each time the multiplication of Z X Z takes place. The result is a series of points, that, when connected, create a graphic image of infinite complexity when enlarged. In nature, a snowflake is a crude example, as are mountains, clouds, aggregates and galaxy clusters. And even though the formula is simple, it was the incredible number of calculations needed to produce this new art form which made it unthinkable, indeed, unimaginable before computers came to be fast enough to perform them and create the images.

Though strictly mathematical in origin, Mandelbrot graphics can be exquisitely beautiful.

It's called Fractal art, and it's first practitioner was Benoit Mandelbrot (above), a Polish-born scientist of French descent who came to this country in the 1970s to work for IBM. It was there he developed both Fractal geometry as a new branch of mathematics, and also wrote some of the first computer graphics programs to print out the art his new, abstract form of geometry could create. Mandelbrot was born in 1924. He came from a highly educated Jewish family. While his father was a clothes merchant, his mother was a doctor and his two uncles were both mathematicians. They fled Poland in 1936 for France where Mandelbrot came of age during the strife and uncertainties of WW II. His education in mathematics, economics, engineering, and physiology was constantly interrupted and irregular. In fact, in many areas, he is largely self-taught. As a result, though primarily a mathematician, he came to have a much more abstract view of geometry than he might have had he attended regularly at a university.  He also came to have a much broader grasp of the other sciences and their interrelationship to geometry.

Infinity, a swept fractal based upon the
Manowar set, a more recent application
If fractal geometry images came tightly bound with the development of computers, fractal art came bound with the Internet. A critical element in the definition of art involves it having an audience. It should come as no surprise then that the first fractal artists were some of the first computer "geeks" of the early 1980s. And the first art exhibitions came with one of the first broad, Internet communities in the early 1990s--CompuServe. But during these early years, the art they created was largely just a novelty traded back and forth among its creators. Then in 1994, a New York City high school English teacher named Don Archer, who also moonlighted as a massage therapist, co-founded the Museum of Computer Art (MoCA), not to be confused with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA).

Yes, even Mandelbrot tattoos
Even though this Cornell graduate has been creating and selling fractal art for several years now, perhaps Don Archer's greatest contribution has been in presenting, promoting, and preserving it (and other computer-generated images) through his Internet museum. Although in many ways it operates like any other museum, choosing its artist carefully, presenting them professionally, it has no brick and mortar address. Like Amazon or Ebay, it's only address is a URL,

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Fra Filippo Lippi

Every day we read about the wild carrying on of actors, musicians, rock groups, sports stars, and others in the entertainment industry. And for every story we read, there are probably ten that don't make the tabloids or the court dockets because of who's involved, their money, and their talent. Painters today have long since slipped below the status of celebrity stars of the entertainment world where individuals can get away with anything (even murder) if they have a big enough name and talent. But five or six hundred years ago that was not the case.

Fra Filippo Lippi Self-Portrait,
ca. 1450
In 1408, in Florence, a child of two was orphaned and placed in the custody of his aunt. When he was eight, worn down by poverty, she was forced to give the young boy over to the local Carmelite convent where he completed his studies and took the vows. He was sixteen. At the time, Masolino and Masaccio were in the process of decorating the Carmelite Brancacci chapel. Their work was responsible for revolutionizing Florentine painting. It also sparked the imagination of the teenage boy-monk. He may even have helped them with their work. His name was Fra Filippo Lippi.

Though his talented hand and eye were immediately apparent, never was there an individual less suited for the cloistered life. Though having taken vows of poverty and chastity, he was anything but chaste. And though his reputation and talent grew quite rapidly; and he was paid handsomely for his work, the poverty vows he had no trouble keeping in no small part because of his lack of chastity. His portraits depict a flat-nosed, thick-lipped, sensual face with a vivacious, outgoing personality. The Florentine court documents of his time are peppered with his name. His most important client, Cosimo DeMedici, had to literally lock him up to get him to complete commissions, and even then, the young rapscallion tied sheets together, end to end, and escaped out a second floor window on one occasion to "do the town." He was constantly in financial trouble and was known to resort to forgery on occasions to extricate himself from various economic difficulties, which in turn only led to further legal embarrassments.

Madonna and Child with Stories from the Life of St. Anne, 1452, Fra Filippo Lippi
But the man had talent. Quite apart from being his jailer from time to time, the house of Medici was also his protector, no doubt sheltering him from retribution for his misdeeds that would have gotten a lesser man hanged. Likewise the church, though undoubtedly embarrassed by his shenanigans, recognized his talent for annunciations, nativities, and adorations; and also served to shelter "one of their own." His tondo (round painting) Madonna and Child with Stories of the Life of St. Anne (above) from 1452 is typical of his work during the middle years of his life. It bears Medieval traces but also the influence of Fra Angelico, Masaccio, and the Florentine architect, Brunelleschi.

Filippino Lippi Self-Portrait, ca. 1480
In 1456, the "frolicking frater" (as Cosimo DeMedici called him) went too far. He had an affair with a Carmelite nun named Lucretia Buti and got her pregnant. They eloped. A son was born the following year; and like his father, he too became a painter. Eventually, Pope Pius II saw fit to release the two wayward Carmelites from their vows and they were married in 1461. A daughter was born in 1465.  Yet despite his scandalous private life (which really wasn't very private), all during this time, the "good father" continued to wear his monk's robes (even after being defrocked) and do some of his most impressive work for the church. His most notable pupil was the Renaissance painter, Sandro Botticelli.  "Fra" Lippi's influence can be seen even a generation after his death in 1469 in the painting style of Leonardo da Vinci.

The Vision of St. Bernard, 1468, Filippino Lippi
His son, Filippino, was twelve when his father died. Botticelli took the young boy under his wing, taught him how to paint, and though he never achieved anything like the greatness of his father as an artist, much of his father's influence, and that of Botticelli, can be seen in his work, such as his 1468 painting, The Vision of St. Bernard (left). It's a nervous, busy piece of work. To modern eyes it gives the impression of the Virgin Mary checking into a local Ramada Inn with a rambunctious entourage of childlike angels. Nonetheless it stands as a remarkable narrative painting exemplifying some of the best Florentine art had to offer during the early Renaissance.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Fairfield Porter

Fairfield Porter under the Elms,
He was a painter. Also, a writer, a Communist, an anarchist, an atheist, a husband, a father, a bisexual, and a realist painting in an abstract expressionist world. And though he steadfastly refused to partake of nonrepresentational art, he probably knew more about it and wrote more intelligently about it than anyone of his time. He was the first to recognize and propound the talent of his friend and fellow painter, Willem De Kooning. He had five children, one of them autistic (undiagnosed), a very liberal, understanding, tolerant, poet wife, and for something like 12 years, a gay house guest/lover (below). He came from a wealthy (though dysfunctional) Illinois family, was Harvard educated, traveled broadly, and once painted Leon Trotsky. He was fond of comparing himself to Dagwood Bumstead. His name was Fairfield Porter.

James Schuyler, 1955,  Fairfield Porter,
the man who came and stayed.
Porter was nothing if not complex.  He was a package of startling contradictions all of which coexisted beneath a surprisingly calm exterior. Born in 1907, it was well into the 1950s before he received any significant recognition for his work. Though some of his early work was steeped in socialist commentary, as he mellowed with age, so did his style and content. He was a wise and witty homebody, painting his family and the environs of his large, rambling house in Southampton, New York, and the family-owned Island off the coast of Maine. Surprisingly, Porter's painting is remarkably consistent. His early work is a little more controlled than that of the last two decades of his life, but never does he depart from his beloved landscapes, interiors, still-lifes, and portraits which are usually more figure studies than traditional posed portrayals.

The House with Three Chimneys, 1972,
Fairfield Porter, the family home.
Often Porter is intimately connected with the New York School, but the connection is more social than stylistic.  As a writer, he not only "discovered" De Kooning, but was instrumental in bringing to light the work of Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher, and Alex Katz as well. In turn, each of these abstractionists influenced his work. Porter's artistic roots hearken back to the French painters, Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard, whom he regarded as the true fathers of Modern Art. Setting aside the domesticity of his subject matter, Porter was a colorist often with decidedly Fauvist leanings. From his Abstract Expressionist friends he borrowed daring compositional proclivities, bolstered by their loose brushwork and sensitivities to the flatness of the painting surface. The illusions of Realism were always there, but so too was the recognition that his art was always first and foremost, paint on canvas. From the late 1950s on, Porter's work gained gradually, somewhat begrudging recognition not as a result of his own evolution as an artist, but as a result of an art world growing tired of Abstract Expressionism. Today, though still largely unknown by the public, he's recognized by the art world as one of the most important American painters of the 20th century. He didn't change...we did.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun Self-portriat,
When we think of great portrait artists down through history, names like Raphael, Titian, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Rubens, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Ingres, Sargent, and even Van Gogh come to mind. All of them were males. When you think of great female portrait artists, whoa...we draw a blank. Those with very good memories might recall Rosalba Carriera, Angelica Kauffman, Judith Leyster, or maybe Artemesia Gentileschi. There are others, but none of them, or these, are at all in the realm of household names.  For those really attuned to the feminine side of art history, perhaps you've noticed an important name missing, and probably the best female portrait painter of all time--Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun.

Her best customer, Marie Antoinette,
 1783, Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun

She was born in 1755. Her father was the respected portrait artist, Louise Vigee, her mother a peasant hairdresser. Both professionals, neither of them appear to have had time for her as a child. She was shunted oft to relatives in the country until the age of five when she returned to Paris and began taking drawing classes from her father. He died when she was twelve but by that time she was well on her way to stepping into his shoes. In fact, she was so successful, that by the time she was fifteen, she was making respectable sums painting very respectable portraits, so much so that she was threatened with arrest for...get this..."painting without a license." She quickly joined the Academie de Saint Luc. She was nineteen. And if a lifetime store of some forty self-portraits are to be believed, she was also very pretty, vivacious, witty, smart, charming, and talented. At the age of 21, she married an art dealer, J.B.P. Le Brun--something of a gambling playboy given to living off his family's wealth and her considerable earnings as an artist.

Alexandra and Elena Pavlovna,
Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, the granddaughters of
Catherine the Great painted during
her stay in Russia
Elizabeth was prodigious if nothing else. She is credited with painting over 800 portraits during her 87 year life span. Twenty of them were of her best friend and client, Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France. Her influence (or more precisely, her husband's) was responsible for Vigee Le Brun's acceptance into the French Academy in 1783 against the will of its almost exclusively male membership. But when the queen's fortunes fell into disarray in 1789 following the fall of Versailles to a French revolutionary mob, so did hers. She was forced to flee with her nine-year-old daughter, Julie, first to Rome, then Austria, and finally to St. Petersburg, painting hundreds of portraits along the way. Moreover, her private life was not without discord as well. Against her wishes, her daughter married a Russian nobleman and meanwhile, back home, because of her close ties to the monarchy, she was branded an emigre by the revolutionary French government. Her dismal excuse for a husband divorced her to protect his property from seizure.

Prince Heinrich Lubomirski
Posing  in Allegory of Alexander I,
1814, Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun,
one of her more unusual portraits
painted after her return to Pais.
Twelve years she spent in exile, allowed to return only after a petition signed by 255 international artists was presented to the French government. She continued painting prodigiously after her repatriation, her work becoming an important influence for a new breed of Neoclassical artist such as Jacques-Louis David and his student, Jean-Auguste Ingres. David noted, when Vigee Le Brun's work was compared along side his, that her portraits appeared to have been done by a man, while his own looked like that of a woman. I think that was a compliment (not sure). She took it that way at least. No less a portrait expert than Sir Joshua Reynolds termed her "...the equal of any portrait artist living or dead, including,"  he added (the Flemish portrait idol of his day), "Sir Anthony van Dyck."

Monday, February 20, 2012

Eliel and Eero Saarinen

Finnish Pavilion, Paris Exposition,
1900, Eliel Saarinen
In very many endeavors in life, it's not uncommon for fathers and sons to work together. It's a tradition dating back hundreds of years, though we're most usually aware of it when we see the "...and son" painted on the side of a truck as a business name. Painters brought their sons into the business, also musicians, writers, and today moviemakers, actors, sometimes even whole families get involved as in the case of the Fondas, Barrymores, Baldwins, and Bridges. It was also the case with a Finnish father and son who were both outstanding architects--Eliel and Eero Saarinen.

The father, Eliel, was born 1873 in Rantasalmi, Finland. His father was a minister. Early on he had in mind to be a painter. Growing up only a short distance from St. Petersburg, Russia, he spent many hours studying the paintings of the Hermitage, especially those of Rembrandt. But in his mid-twenties, Eliel gave up becoming a mediocre painter for a profession in which he felt he could make more of an impact. Just a few years later, in 1900, he did, with his design for the Finnish pavilion at the Paris Exposition. While not seeming too radical in appearance, he broke with the Beaux-arts tradition of decorating everything that didn't move with motifs from the past. A year later, he made an even bigger impact with his Helsinki railroad station. In the early 1920s, his influential second place finish in the Chicago Tribune tower composition gave him the money ($20,000) and the confidence to move his wife, daughter, and thirteen-year-old son, Eero, to Chicago where he worked with a group of designers, architects, and engineers in an early attempt at urban renewal in downtown Chicago. The plans were too far ahead of their time. They were never implemented.

Photo by Revontuli
Helsinki Railroad Station, 1901 Eliel Saarinen
TWA Terminal, JFK International Airport,
New York, 1962, Eero Saarinen
However, lured away from Chicago to suburban Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, the elder Saarinen did make a considerable impact with his designs for the Cranbrook Academy which included a boys school, a nearby girls school (Kingswood), and an art institute where he taught. It was there he began to work with his son, who later graduated not from Cranbrook, but Yale. The younger Saarinen's grand entry into the field of architecture came with his winning design for St. Louis's Gateway Arch in 1948.  Though it would be another 16 years before it was built, his majestic, stainless steel monument led to commissions for corporate headquarters buildings from GM, John Deere, Bell Telephone, and his Yale alma mater. These in turn led to his most celebrated structures, the birdlike TWA Terminal at JFK International Airport, and the even more spectacular Dulles International Airport Terminal outside Washington. In each case, there is exhibited an independence in his work from prevailing International Style glass boxes. They are dramatic, functional, often quite sculptural, and inevitably beautiful. Like his father, he detoured from the expected, prevailing styles, to the daring. Unlike his father, he evolved designs in no way evoking the past, and a style never etched in stone, yet always uniquely recognizable as his own.
Photo by Joe Ravi
Washington's Dulles International Airport Terminal, 1962, Eero Saarinen

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Edouard Vuillard

Edouard Vuillard Self-portrait, 1889
Everyone, I guess, has their own little peccadilloes. One of mine is clutter. I can stand a little dust, even the unattractive, but disarray makes me nervous. I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm a neatness freak or compulsive about it, but too much "stuff" sitting around drives me crazy. I either throw it away or put it away. Don't peek in my closets, however. At least there, it's stacked stuff, hidden, out of sight, though I'm sure Fibber McGee (an old radio character) would feel right at home. For this reason artists who paint clutter make me nervous too. Therefore, Edouard Vuillard is not one of my favorite artists. Busy, busy, busy, not a square inch without stripes, flowers, jim-cracks and gewgaws; pretty well describes his work. I sometimes wonder if he made even Victorian art lovers shudder in dismay at his prim and proper over-decorated interiors (below). But lest I be accused of "playing favorites," I should also point out his work does have certain redeeming qualities.

Interieur, 1902, Edouard Vuillard,  here a
restful, relatively benign, patterned clutter.
Vuillard was born in 1868. He died in 1940. I suppose he can be somewhat excused for his penchant toward Victorian excess in that quite frankly, he never knew anything else. He never married. He lived with his mother and sister all their lives. They were seamstresses. Patterned fabrics were their lives.  And inasmuch as he often used them as models, his figures and surroundings tend to have a soft, heavily upholstered look about them. Though he was not an Impressionist his style was impressionistic. It was also very individualistic. He's often cast among the Nabis (pronounced NOB-ies) but in fact, shared little with them other than a reactionary distaste for Impressionism. But like the impressionists, his canvases are loaded with paint. Also, his compositions have a somewhat "unbalanced" snapshot quality to them suggesting he was not unfamiliar with photographic art if not in fact, working from photos.

Edouard Vuillard Self-portrait, 1892
Notice the differences in this rather
expressionistic image and the
1889 effort at the top.
In addition to painting, Vuillard was also into lithography. And given the fact that the Paris of the 1890s in which he came of age artistically, was very much "into" posters, it's little wonder that the two meshed. Though not as flat or as well-designed as those of the ultimate poster lithographer, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, his posters, far more than his painting, were to have a broad influence on those artists of the early Picasso era struggling to free art from the very excesses so disturbingly common in so many of Vuillard's paintings. Yet as his 1892 self-portrait suggests, at least some of his painting was not far removed from the second and third generation avant-garde painters who came to idealize him, in spirit if not in their actual painting style. There is a very hard edged, unsentimental, almost cubist look to the strikingly stark image. A contemporary of Matisse, one might expect his work to be quite similar since both men loved to play with patterned surfaces, but that's not the case. Matisse's colors depart reality for points unknown. Vuillard's never do. Nor do his compositions defy reality as do those of Matisse. Unlike Matisse, few have ever made an attempt to paint like Vuillard. But that never kept him from influencing the way they saw and thought about their art.
Breakfast at Villerville, 1910, Edouard Vuillard, a nervous, almost abstract, clutter
of shapes, masses, and colors.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Theodor Seuss Geisel

Dr. Seuss and his created critters
He was not the greatest artist in the world, nor the greatest writer, but in mixing, mashing, mauling, manipulating, masticating, mutilating, and mystificating a moderate mastery of both, he was able to charm the socks off children, parents, and teachers alike for the better part of two generations. His name was Theodor Seuss Geisel. And since his father always wanted him to become a doctor, he wrote under the name, Dr. Seuss, preferring to save his "real" name for more serious literary efforts. He needn't have bothered. There never was a more serious literary goal than teaching young people to love to read. And even today, some 21 years after his death, he's still the best-selling author of children's books in the world.

The first Dr. Seuss, 1936, now available on iPad
The good doctor of juvenile letters was born in 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts, the son of the curator of the Forest Park Zoo. There's no record that the zoo ever housed Grinches, Yertles, or cats wearing hats, but there's little doubt young Theodor was intimately familiar with their zoological inspirations. Giesel graduated from Dartmouth in 1925 and immediately set sail for Oxford hoping to satisfy the dreams of his father in acquiring a doctorate in literature. Instead he met and married a Miss Helen Palmer before returning to the U.S. to work as a cartoonist and writer for Judge magazine (kind of a 1930s version of Mad). His work also found it's way into more upscale versions of Life, Vanity Fair, and Liberty.

The first Seuss bestseller, 1954
In 1936, while on the boat to Europe for a vacation, Geisel became fascinated by the rhythm of the ship's engines.  He wrote his first book, And to Think That I saw It on Mulberry Street (above). The book was published in 1937, having gone through rejection by no less than 43 publishers (other sources set the count at 29) before a friend put up the money to see it printed. It didn't make any bestseller lists but enjoyed moderate success. The war years saw Geisel working in Hollywood for Frank Capra's Signal Corps Unit where he won a Legion of Merit and two Oscars for such blockbusters as Hitler Lives and Design for Death, both documentaries for the military. His cartoon, Gerald McBoing-Boing also won him an Oscar.

Fifty words for breakfast
Dr. Seuss' first big success in publishing came in 1954 when he became aware of just how boring most children's books of the day really were. Using a list of 223 Dolch Reading List words, he penned the words and illustrations for his immortal Cat in the Hat. It was an instant success. In 1960, in response to a bet from humorist, Bennett Cerf, that he couldn't write a book using only fifty words, Seuss cooked up a batch of Green Eggs and Ham. Cerf welshed on the bet. No matter, Dr. Seuss didn't need the money. A Pulitzer Prize in 1984 and a total of forty-four children's books to his credit pretty well cemented him a place in the literary hall of fame. Fortunately for all the parents and others who have had to read them aloud, the books of Theodor Seuss Geisel are loaded with grown-up wit and satire set to a catchy, if somewhat quirky, rhythm that fascinates at least through the twentieth reading. I know.  I've used them dozens of times in the elementary classroom, reading aloud while my meditating munchkin moppets mull their own manifestations of Seuss' sagacious sonnets.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Domenico Veneziano

The St. Lucy Altarpiece, 1445, Domenico Veneziano
The Martyrdom of St. Lucy, 1445,
Domenico Veneziano
As an artist, do you ever pause to reflect as to how your work will be seen five hundred years from now? Moreover, maybe the real question is if it will be seen five hundred years from now. Things happen. Wars, floods, fires, theft, political insurrection--art, being the fragile luxury it is, often suffers. Given the history of human development, it's a miracle we even have any art more than a hundred or two hundred years old. But even during wars, famine, pestilence, and tribulations of other sorts, heroic men and women risk their lives to steal away man's greatest art treasures, hiding them until better times return. We saw this in our century during the Second World War in Europe; but it happened again and again before that. Unfortunately, sometimes it doesn't come out of hiding. Those responsible for "saving" it die, get killed, or perhaps just plain forget where they hid the stuff.

St. John in the Desert, 1450, Domenico Veneziano
One of the greatest Florentine painters of the early Renaissance was Domenico Veneziano. Though he undoubtedly painted dozens, maybe hundreds of works during his lifetime from 1400 to 1461, only three major works survive and one of them has been split and split again into three or four separate units, spread between Washington, Berlin, Florence, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. That would be the Santa Lucia del Magnoli Altarpiece (top), the central panel of which is now in the Uffizi.  Besides the center panel, there originally were possibly as many as four predellas (side panels), one of which has been lost. The other three are The Martyrdom of St. Lucy (above, right), St. John in the Desert (above, left), and The Adoration of the Magi (below, right)." There is some question as to whether the latter of these, in the Staatlich Museen in Berlin, along with his The Martyrdom of St. Lucy is, in fact, a predella or a separate work. There are others, but they are of doubtful attribution.

Adoration of the Magi, 1440-43, Domenico Veneziano
Veneziano was originally named Domenico, de Bartolomeo di Venezia (no wonder he shortened it).  Born and raised in Florence, where he spent his entire life, indications are  he studied under the great Florentine painter, Masaccio. However there is not in any way the "heaviness" of Masaccio's style in Veneziano's work. In fact his painting is most noted for the lightness, its carefully organized, spacious perspective, and careful attention to the human figure. In a word, there is a "naturalness" about his painting in marked contrast to that which went before and as a strong influence upon that which came after. Leonardo's work bears traces of it. His perspective is letter perfect, though still on the one-point variety, typical of his day. And his backgrounds, carefully rendered landscapes, spawned later attention to this area of painting among Florentine artists.

Carnescchi Tabernaclel,
1435, Domenico Veneziano
Also surviving the ravages of time, is a fresco, The Carnesecchi Tabernacle (left), painted around 1435 (now in London's National Gallery) in which Masaccio's influence can be detected. And that's about it, folks. A lifetime of painting distilled into a few surviving, masterful works (one of which is in rather poor condition). And while you're pausing to reflect upon your work and the odds of it rendering you some semblance of immortality, keep in mind that Veneziano was one of the greatest painters of his time, yet, we barely know him.