Click on photos to enlarge.

Thursday, May 31, 2012


As an extension of a recent discussion regarding German Bauhaus design influences, I've come to realize that there are a few misconceptions regarding what Bauhaus was and is. Though Hitler forced the school to close its doors in 1933, the Bauhaus didn't really cease to exist with its demise in Germany. Most of the school's faculty (and some of its students) emigrated to the U.S. where they (individually, if not as a group) continued the development of the International Style. They brought with them things such as lightweight, welded steel furniture and some of the more creative incarnations of reinforced concrete. Far from being unknown to Bauhaus designers, their designs would have been architecturally impossible without them. Keep in mind that Marcel Breuer's classic, chrome-plated, "Vasily chair" (named after his friend, Kandinsky) dates from as far back as 1928.

Schroder House, Utrecht, Germany, 1924, Gerrit Rietveldt
Many Bauhaus design principals were an outgrowth of Cubism. Mondrian, Klee, and of course, Gropius were all indebted to the latter stages of Picasso's genius. There was an element of simple, handmade, medieval craftsmanship as well, but some of it's earliest manifestations in domestic architecture, such as Gerrit Rietveldt's 1924 Schroeder House in Utrecht, Germany, for instance, while aesthetically pleasing even by current standards of modern art, is about as inviting to abide within as the stark, Mondrian lines and colored rectangles which inspired it. Inside, the decor is quite similar.  The rational was that the life of the inhabitants could be uplifted to a level of perfect harmony by the clean perfection of the art in which they lived, thus making life itself an art form and therefore, art a way of life. It was a nice idea, but human existence is way too sloppy for such high ideals.

Schroder House, Interior
But that didn't keep Bauhaus-trained designers from continuing such thoughts here in grabbing onto new materials like plastic, vinyl, neon, chrome, etc. which they pursued to their cold, logical conclusions. So lest anyone get a lot of warm fuzzies regarding Bauhaus design, while it did revolutionize both exterior and interior architectural spaces (and that which filled them), it did not manifest itself in the coziest environments ever created. In fact it was often criticized as being dehumanizing. It was inviting only as a relief from the cluttered, overstuffed, chintz of Victorian eclectic and the (not-unrelated) Art Nouveau curlicues prevalent before WW I. It was only in the 1960s and later that Americans (and others) began "warming it up" so to speak with a little padding here and there, plant life, and natural materials. The Bauhaus was, at its heart, as much an industrial school as art school; predicated on the design of of simple, clean, practical, and hence attractive items for economical mass production. It employed a new aesthetic, and one that attracted admirers only so long as it was new.  Thus, it has been only in its derivative formulations that most of us have come to know and love its beauty.
Bauhaus humanized, Pitsou Kedem, Haifa House, 2011

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Dangers of Success

There is always a danger in success. It begins with talent, continues with training and experience, blooms with surprising genius, flowers into widespread acclaim, culminates in fame and fortune, and then, all too often deteriorates into formulaic monotony. It's the broken record story of all too many very famous artists. Part of it can be attributed simply to the nature of the human life cycle from explosive youth to the decrepitude of old age. Yet a few artists manage to avoid it--Claude Monet for one, also Winslow Homer, Matisse, Cezanne, Rembrandt, and Salvador Dali--just to name a few; artists whose last works were as fresh and expressive as the work from any other portion of their lives.

Pietro Perugino Self-portrait, 1446
Yet the list of those who succumbed to what I would call the loss of spirit in their work is just as illustrious. No less an art icon than Leonardo da Vinci suffered this fate. Many of his works were exceptional only in their conception, not in their execution.  His declining years were spent as a royal pet of the French King Francis I. Picasso coasted through the last quarter century of his life on the styles, symbols, and trademark images he'd made popular in his prime. And another interesting study in this phenomena was the Early Renaissance artist Pietro Perugino.

Born in 1445 in Italy near Perugia (from whence he got his nickname), his real name was Pietro di Cristofor Vannuci. He was fortunate from birth, acquiring a background in art from the Umbrian school, then moving to Florence, the hotbed of artistic flower, at a time when artists such as Leonardo, Verrocchio, della Francesco, and Ghirlandaio were either teaching or learning their craft. It was the Medici era. Lorenzo the Magnificent held court, teaching and sheltering artist and intellectuals of all stripes. Though none of his early works survive, Perugino's reputation for a time even outshone that of his colleague, Leonardo. He was called to Rome to work with Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, and Cosimo Roselli in decorating the newly completed Sistine Chapel.  His Delivery of the Keys to St. Peter is probably his earliest existent work.
Delivery of the Keys to St. Peter, 1481-82, Pietro Perugino 
Returning to Florence and Perugia, he was very much in demand for his religious works and portraits.  It was at this time he took on his best and brightest student, Raphael Sanzio. At this apogee of his career, his spectacular, if somewhat sentimental, altarpieces brought him vast fame and fortune.  He was not a religious man, however. Vasari writes that he would do anything for money, which seems to have been the case in that many of his commissions during the last years of his life were formulaic wall decorations which gradually became more and more old fashioned in appearance. After 1500 until his death in 1525, there is a tired sameness, a sort of lifeless, uninspiring calligraphy to his figures which today, unfortunately, makes up the bulk of his existing work. Perugino even suffered the ignominious fate of having some of his deteriorating frescoes torn from the walls of his beloved Sistine Chapel within just a few years after his death. They were replaced by Michelangelo's Last Judgment.
Combat of Love and Chastity, 1505, Pietro Perugino

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Pieter Lastman

When two small streams meet, they very often form a river.  And that river is often more than the sum of its two parts, especially if we apply this analogy to art. During the sixteenth century, there were two mainstreams in art--the Northern Renaissance and the Italian Renaissance. In the North, there was the bare knuckles, no nonsense tradition of German art and its slightly more elegant Flemish neighbor.  Durer on the one hand and Van Eyck on the other. In the South, there was the Italian Renaissance in the grand tradition of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and a bit later, Caravaggio. There was some intermittent communication between these two flowing rivers but for the most part, they flowed parallel until the early seventeenth century. It was then, that a Dutch artist named Pieter Lastman, among others, made his way south to see what all the fuss was about in Italian painting. There he came face to face with Caravaggio and came away a convert to his dramatic use of extreme chiaroscuro. The single light source that became the hallmark of Baroque painting he carried back over the Alps to Amsterdam. In him, the two flowing streams met.

Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io. 1618, Peter Lastman
The river they formed, we call today, Rembrandt. Lastman was Rembrandt's primary source of art instruction. Lastman's work melded the stark precision of Flemish painting with the drama of Caravaggio. Rembrandt became more than the sum of these two parts. The drama is there. So is the Italian painting tradition of Michelangelo. But it's tempered by the realism, clarity, and attention to detail that marks the Northern Renaissance. Rembrandt was a hybrid. In Lastman's work the two styles clash. Rembrandt made them complement one another. We have only to look at Lastman's 1618 Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io to see what I mean. One might think Durer and Caravaggio collaborated in painting it and that it was a turbulent unhappy pairing at that. Juno, at the apex of the diagonal composition, arrives amidst a cloud of dust in her peacock-drawn carriage almost catching her husband red-handed embracing his mistress, Io into a cow. In seeing her coming, Jupiter, with the help of Fraud, changes Io. Realizing what's happened, Juno requests that Jupiter make her a gift of the cow. Jupiter, unable to deny such a seemingly simple request, is thus trapped into making his mistress a gift to his wife.
Abraham on the Way to Caanan, 1614, Pieter Lastman
Fortunately, in his travels in Italy, Lastman picked up a penchant for painting biblical scenes as well, allowing him to rise above such mythological silliness. His earlier, painting, Abraham on the Way to Canaan, depicts the wealthy father of the Jewish nation as he leaves behind in Ur most of his worldly possession to follow the will of God while his unenlightened wife and servants carry on as one might expect, given such an irrational turn of events. And ,while the painting exhibits many of the same wonders and woes as his secular work, this one has the added burden of a scene-stealing (but masterfully painted) goat in the lower right corner, making eye contact with the viewer as if to say, "Can you believe this?"  And despite Lastman's trademark realism, the answer is, no.  We have to wonder, had it not been for Rembrandt, if this meeting of North and South might not have meant a new low in the art and craft of painting, rather than the artistic apex in the painters art which flowered from the brush of Lastman's masterful pupil.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon

Los Angeles and Las Vegas are two of the most spectacular cities in this country. But Interstate 15 across the Mojave Desert of Southern California, which connects them, has to be one of the bleakest, most barren stretches of super highway ever built. Yet, it's how you get from one place to the other. The French painter, Pierre-Paul Prud'hon is like that road. Art historians would cast him as a minor talent from the early nineteenth century. He was far overshadowed by the great Neoclassical painter, Jacques-Louis David, and by Eugene Delacroix and Theodore Gericault, the masters of the Romantic era. But Prud'hon is how you get from one to the other. The word "bleak" might be a bit harsh in describing his work, but by the same token, his scenery is nothing to write home about.

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon Self-portrait
Prud'hon was born in 1758 in Cluny. His training began in Dijon, then continued in Paris, where, in 1784, he won the Prix de Rome allowing him to absorb the best the Italian Renaissance had to offer. It was an experience that marked his style for the rest of his life. Back in Paris, while everyone else was doing their best to be Davidian, Prudhon was being Leonardian and Raphaelian and Correggian. He was also heavily influenced by the Neoclassical Italian sculptor, Antonio Canova. Jacques-Louis David described him as the "Boucher of our time." Inasmuch as Boucher's Rococo style of painting had long been out of favor, it was not a compliment.

Portrait of Joséphine de Beauharnais
Much of Prud'hon's early work consisted of book illustration. He came to prominence during the Napoleonic era working for the publisher, Didot. His designs for government stationery won him notice by Napoleon and particular his wife, the Empress Josephine, whom he painted in 1805 (right). It's a dark portrait, the figure dramatically lit by the setting sun, and posed in a romantic, glimmering gauze gown with a red stole. There is a melancholy quality to the work, as if the empress has come to realize that she is about to be cast off because she's been unable to provide Bonapart an heir.

Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime, 1808, Pierre-Paul Prudhon
Prud'hon's most dramatic work came in 1808, an enormous canvas commissioned for the Palais de Justice (now in the Louvre). It's grand title, Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime (above), depicts Cain fleeing the scene of his crime, having not only killed his brother but stolen his clothes as well.  The dramatically foreshortened, nude body of Abel is arrayed in a harsh, moonlit arc across the bottom of the canvas. It ought to win some kind of prize as the most erotically pose dead body in the history of art. Up above, the angels of human justice and divine vengeance remind those having business in the French court system of the time that, as we might say today, if the left one don't get you the right one will.

Raft of the Medusa, 1819, Theodore Gericault
The figure of Abel in the painting must have made quite an impression on the Romantic era artist Theodore Gericault. One finds a very similar anatomical presentation of a seminude body in his famed The Raft of the Medusa (above). It's not surprising. Early in his life Prud'hon was a victim of what we would call today, husband beating. It was a marriage that lasted most of his life and brought him no small amount of misery. Toward the end of his life, he was much adored by the growing group of Romantic artists, as much for his resistance to "Davidian tyranny" and his own tragic marital situation, as for his painting skills. He was seen even then as the road they traveled to get from Neoclassicism to Romanticism--not a particularly scenic drive, but straight and true as I-15 across the Mojave Desert.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Renoir Self-portrait, 1875
Just when I'm at a loss in writing about any artist that anyone has ever heard of before, I stumble upon the realization that an artists everyone has heard of  hasn't had his very own blog post in the many months I've been churning them out. Part of the problem is that Pierre-Auguste Renoir is a man often taken for granted in art circles. His work with Claude Monet in the nascent days of Impressionism during the late 1860s not only puts him in the shadow of the king of Impressionism but on top of that, makes their work from that period nearly indistinguishable. Indeed, they often painted side by side and shared their little visual and painterly discoveries. They're like the Picasso and Braque of Impressionism. But Renoir, we might say, "lost the faith." In fundamentalist religious terms, we might call him a "backslider."

Moulin de la Galette, 1876, Pierre-Auguste Renoir 
Born in 1841, the son of a Paris tailor, Renoir met Monet some twenty years later as they both found themselves misfits in the Ecole des Beaux-arts. Renoir, early on, had a taste for painting figures (a staple of the academy) but he followed the much more forceful Monet into the fields and for ten years or so, concentrated mostly on landscapes. It was only after he began to tire of Impressionism that he moved back to the figure, often large groups of them such as his 1876 Moulin de la Galette (the pancake mill) now in the Orsay Museum in Paris. For a time, he was satisfied to apply Impressionist principles to his middle-class social scenes, but the figural draftsman in him gradually began to reassert itself along with what might be termed something of a schoolboy fascination with the female nude. At the time they would have been considered voluptuous though by today's standards we'd use the euphamism,  "pleasingly plump." And, as he progressed in his studies of their generous anatomical gifts, his Impressionist tendencies slipped away toward more literal, though no less colorful presentations.

Calm After the Bath, 1918-19, Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Unlike Monet, who outlived him by seven years, Renoir's 20th century work is somewhat underwhelming. Monet, perhaps because of failing eyesight and arthritis, tended toward very large works as he grew older. Much of Renoir's late work would fit very comfortably over the couch. And while Monet can easily be pigeonholed, Renoir can't. Though the term, Impressionist, fits if we stretch it tighter and tighter over the course of Renoir's career, once he breaks its elastic bonds, it's hard to pass him off as a Post-impressionist because one has the feeling, perhaps in spite of himself, that he was unable to shed his love of solid, academic, figural imagery. Though there's no record of his having proclaimed it, one has the feeling from both his painting and writings that he may have felt Monet had led him astray during his Impressionist years. Yet it is his "Monet-ish" landscapes that have afforded him the acceptance of collectors unable to assimilate his very unimpressionist figural work later on.  So Renoir presents an enigmatic quandary. Was he merely an academic hack whom Monet briefly led into the sunlight of Impressionism at its best; or a gifted painter of naked feminine beauty momentarily distracted by Impressionism?  Or, are we doing him a disservice by trying to shoe horn him into either mold?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Philip Johnson

Phillip Johnson, 95, architect
Recently, several of my friends and I have begun comparing notes online about the economic and architectural variations of the domiciles in the areas in which they live. The variations are astounding. They range from castles to crackerboxes. And the costs certainly confirm the old real estate adage, that only three things are important determinants--location, location, and location. These one might translate into proximity to natural beauty, metropolitan areas, and service infrastructure. On the theory that "a man's home is his castle" architects down through the ages have moved from literally designing stone castles to bricks and mortar, wood, steel, glass, and in some cases, such as the houses of Frank Lloyd Wright, all of the above. Along this line, the most recent innovations have come in the area of glass and steel, and no doubt influenced by Wright, as well as Mies van der Rohe, the home of American architect, Philip Johnson, stands with those of Wright as one of the most important houses of the 20th  century.

Phillip Johnson Glass House, 1949, New Caanan, Connecticut
It sits quite unobtrusively amidst thirty-two acres of rolling, wooded countryside near New Canaan, Connecticut (above). It's not large by today's standards, approximately 30 feet by sixty feet. Though built in 1949, it has such an ageless, understated grace about it that things like time, eras, and style are absolutely meaningless. Basically, the structure is a steel cage of slender black columns supporting a flat roof and framing four walls composed solely of glass. The house sits on a concrete and brick slab rising barely a foot above the ground. Its only interior walls are a cylindrical bathroom/fireplace unit made of brick which also serves to conceal the necessary service elements; and rises in height slightly above the roof level. Inside, one enters a spacious foyer. A cooking area is to the left, the bathroom "tower" off to the right, and straight ahead, the living area. To the left of that is the dining area, and to the right, the single sleeping area. Broad shades near the ceiling may be pulled down for privacy or to ward off the sun.

Simplicity itself, no rooms, only spacious, open areas.
The kitchen is to the left of the entrance. Each side features a door.
The house is an archetype--a fundamental piece of architecture. It's not a house for the untidy, for children, those demanding privacy, or for whom comfort is more important than aesthetic satisfaction. In fact, architectural critic, Paul Goldberger, suggested, it's probably not a house for anyone but Philip Johnson. The ambiance is somewhere between that of an art gallery and a picnic shelter. The furniture is of chrome and black leather designed by van der Rohe. The floor is hardwood accented with area rugs. The various functional areas are broken up only by cabinets in the kitchen and a row of wardrobes separating the living and sleeping areas. Each side of the house has access to the outside but the only traditional door in the house is that into the circular bathroom. The wallpaper is by mother nature as carefully manicured by Johnson himself. The structures wide-openness seems to belie the cliche regarding a man's home being his castle, but one wonders if Johnson has ever heard the one about people who live in glass houses.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Paulus Potter

Paulus Potter, Bartholomeus van de Heist
I grew up in a small town, a first generation "city boy." Never mind that the so-called "city" had less than 500 inhabitants, and out behind many homes in this city was a requisite barn, a reminder that the horse and buggy days were less than fifty years earlier. Most of them are gone now, but many were still in use in the early 1950s. I can remember our barn, a fine, unpainted, upstanding structure. In it we at one time had chickens housed in one end, pigs in the other. At one point, I believe we rented out part of the structure to a neighbor who had horses. In front of the barn was a sizable garden of which I was never too fond. You know how boring it is hoeing weeds?  The total size of our urban agricultural complex was probably about an acre, three-fourths of which was grass. I hated that too. You know how boring it is cutting grass? As I grew up, my parents, both of whom grew up on farms, considered it character building that their son likewise have a taste of the rural life, so I was regularly, each summer, shuttled off to the farm of an uncle or grandparent to "work in the hay" or later to a local truck farm to "pick (up) potatoes." You know how boring it is doing either one?

The Young Bull, ca. 1647, Paulus Potter
I don't know, maybe it was this early "farming out" or maybe just a natural love of animals, but in any case, I have always liked to paint animals, and look at paintings of animals. Some time ago I wrote of Aelbert Cuyp, the "cow painter" and Melchior D'Hondecoeter, the "chicken painter." It is only more recently as I've poked around in the barns and farmyards of Dutch seventeenth century art that I've come to realize, hey, these guys were great, but just the tip of the haystack, so to speak. Another quite delightful artist of their ilk was Paulus Potter. Who else would paint a life-size bull in all his anatomically correct glory, presiding over his resting mate, a family of sheep, and an almost incidental farmer. The painting is titled The Young Bull and may well be the first and only barnyard scene ever painted in which the artist included a cow patty for authenticity sake.

Paulus Potter was born in 1625. His father was the Dutch painter, Pieter Potter, who was his son's primary source of art instruction. His life is fairly unremarkable. He grew up near Amsterdam, married the daughter of the city's architect, and used his in-law's connections to obtain painting commissions. He died at the age of 28 of tuberculosis. But in this short working life span of maybe ten years, we find a devotion to animal art second to none in Dutch painting. Unlike Cuyp, who painted cows merely as interesting foregrounds to his airy, sun setting landscapes, Potter treated his cows and their mates with a dignity approaching that of portraiture. Anyone who's ever been around cows knows each one has a personality. (My wife grew up on a dairy farm.) Potter knew that too, and captured them. His drawings and etchings speak of an intimate, on-site knowledge of their "human" traits. Yet never is there a "cutesy" look to any of his creatures. He may not have grown up on a farm, but like me, he knew them well. One of his etchings is titled Cow Pissing. Even Cuyp didn't go that far. Nothing boring about that! 
Cow Pissing, ca. 1650, Paulus Potter

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Liu Kang

Liu Kang and his wife
Liu Kang died in 2004 at the age of 94. Today's generation might recognize the name as the muscular, barechested video game character from Mortal Kombat. I don't know if there's a connection but I'm not talking about that Liu Kang. My Liu Kang was the venerable painter and national treasure of Singapore. He was born in Fujian Province, China in 1910 where he lived until he was six. It was then his family moved to Muar, Malaysia where his father established himself in the rubber business. At the age of fifteen, an extraordinary art talent already evidencing itself, Kang returned to China to study at the Shanghai College of Fine Arts, then at a neighboring school where he graduated in 1928. With an artist friend (who later became his brother-in-law), Liu Kang set off to study in Paris where he met and was influenced by Matisse and Picasso, as well as the earlier Post-impressionist, van Gogh and Gauguin. He returned to Shanghai in 1933 where he became a professor of art until the Chinese war with Japan forced him to flee back to Muar in 1937.

Sketch of the Burmese Railroad, 1944, Liu Kang
However, the war followed him. The Japanese captured Malaysia and Kang saw firsthand its horrors. In 1946, following the surrender, Kang began his "Chop Suey" series, which he later published in an illustrated book. Named for the popular Chinese-American "hash" with no set recipe, its ingredients, chosen at the whim of the chef, Kang's work during this period depicts in graphic detail the brutality, and humiliation suffered at the hands of Japanese occupying forces. Scenes of bodily torture, rape, killings, and public defilement of streets and churches witnessed himself, and based upon accounts of others, are displayed in horrific detail. At one point, he narrowly escaped torture and death himself by agreeing to paint a portrait of one of his interrogators. Kang hoped his work would cause the older generation of Japanese to feel shame while revealing such atrocities to the younger generation so that such things would never happen again. They are not a pretty sight. Click here to see a copy of Chop Suey.

Back to Nature, Liu Kang
Juxtaposed against the "Chop Suey" series are works from both before and after the war years exhibiting a charming oriental/French quality that has made his work and style unique in the world of art. At first glance, there is the mark of Gauguin, plenty of nudes, deep greens and raw blues, but in studying his images more closely, one sees Impressionist qualities, Renoir in his female figures, Matisse in his patterned interiors, and van Gogh in his intensely colorful landscapes. His "Nanyang" (south seas) period starting in the 1950s bears no resemblance or relationship to his "Chop Suey" work. They could be by two different artists. Liu Kang is a traditional artist. Never forgetting his teaching days, he advised students to learn the fundamentals, practice basic painting techniques, travel widely, and never cease learning to draw. From someone who, despite the personal ravages of war, did exactly that for most of a century, it's sage advice.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Cezanne the Gardener

Paul Cezanne Self-portrait
Paul Cézanne is often referred to as the "father of Modern Art." While that may be apt, I prefer to think of him more in the light of a gardener--as having planted the seeds of Modern Art. And while we're speaking metaphorically, we could also refer to him as a bridge. By that I mean his life's work bridged the gap between Impressionism and Expressionism. In his earliest paintings, Cézanne was at least nearly an Impressionist. He knew them, shared many of their ideals and exhibited with them; though in fact, his work itself may have been a step beyond their efforts in capturing fleeting effects of light and color in favor of more stable and permanent aspects of the natural world. But as Impressionism veered off in the direction of pretty pictures (artists have to eat, you know), Cézanne’s independent financial situation permitted him the freedom to explore principally color, perspective, mass, and composition though his landscapes, figures, and especially his still-lifes from a theoretical point of view, eschewing a search for beauty of nature in favor of a search for what we might call the nature of nature.

Still-life with Ginger Jar and Eggplant,
1890-94, Paul Cezanne

Particularly in Cézanne’s still-lifes we see him stretching even past that, in a yearning toward painting more than simple pictures, but in fact capturing the objects themselves. And that, my friends, is not Impressionism, but a knocking on the door of Expressionism. We see him sublimating illusionary perspective first in his search for the true nature of his carefully arranged still-lifes, followed by the omission of seductive details and reasonable logic in favor of tension and balance. For the first time in art, Cezanne pursued multiple points of view, as if he painted first using one eye, then the other. But Cézanne was such a reclusive, hard-nosed, aesthetic effete, even the knowledge of his work was quite limited during his lifetime. Like a seed, he had to die in order to make an impact--which he did--in1906.

Violin and Palette,
1909, Georges Braque

The following year, art dealer Durand Ruel organized a retrospective of Cézanne’s work in Paris that was to have a profound effect upon the work of three young artists who, themselves, were to have a profound effect on twentieth century art--Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque. It was almost as if these three immediately went back to their studios and took a whole new look at their own work. We see Matisse suddenly moving toward a flattened picture plane in which there is neither foreground nor background but simply the surface of the canvas itself. Cézanne seems to have unlocked within him a direct route to Expressionism. But it's in the work of Picasso and Braque, as they began working in tandem, taking a more developmental approach to their new vision, that we see the most enlightened flowering of Cézanne’s early exploration of multidimensional perspectives. Braque's Violin and Palette from 1909 is typical, as are many of Picasso's portraits from that era also. Today, we've come to know this blooming of the seeds planted by the "gardener of Modern Art" as Cubism.
Nature Morte au Magnolia, 1950, Henri Matisse

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cecilia Beaux

Cecilia Beaux Self-portrait, 1894
When we think of the top portrait artists around the turn of the century the names John Singer Sargent or James McNeill Whistler often come to mind, but not that of Cecilia Beaux. Yet on the America n scene at least, she was not just one of the best female artists working at the time, but among a select few first-rate portrait painters of either sex to be found. Her work won awards in New York, Philadelphia, and Paris, she was a full-fledged member of the male-dominated National Academy, and in 1902, she set up her easel in the White House, painting Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and her daughter, Ethel. Her work is, in fact, often compared to that of Sargent but there are also notable influences from Manet and Degas as well. There are Impressionistic elements too, and also a thorough understanding of Japanese art in her tendency to flatten the picture plane and utilize strong, cropped, reductive masses in her portraits.

Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt
and Daughter Ethel,
1902, Cecilia Beaux
Cecilia was born in 1855, the daughter of a French father and an invalid mother. Her mother died during Cecilia's early childhood whereupon her father departed for his homeland, leaving his daughter's upbringing to her maternal grandmother and aunt. The aunt just happened to be the painter, Eliza Lewitt, and a strong role model for her niece. Raised in a matriarchal family, and with their wholehearted blessings, she decided early on to become an artist (a circumstance rare for a woman at that time). By the time she was sixteen, she was studying with the historical/religious painter, Catherine Drinker (whose brother happened to be married to Cecilia's sister). From there she moved on to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine arts where she studied under Thomas Eakins as well as William Sartain and a Dutch artist, Adolf Van der Whalen. Topping off her education in the best male tradition, she next traveled to Paris where she enrolled in the Academie Julian and studied under academicians, Bouguereau, Fleury, Dagnan-Bouvert, and Courtois. It was a rich pedigree for any artist and a very rare mix for a young woman barely into her thirties.

Man with the Cat (Henry Sturgis Drinker),
1898, Cecilia Beaux
Back in New York, as many artist have done, she got her start painting portraits of friends and family. The Dreamer from 1894 is a typical, richly evocative example of her work from this period in which she goes far in achieving an overall mood, not just a good likeness from her sitter. Her work can be seen maturing in her Ernesta with Nurse, also from 1894, and her portrait of Man with the Cat (Henry Sturgis Drinker) from 1898. Art historians consider these years her peak as she gained popularity, and indeed, some degree of world renown. However with her growing popularity and no doubt increased demands on her time and talents, many consider her later work, while being extraordinarily adept technically, as lacking in insight and gradually more and more superficial. By the 1920s, styles and tastes had changed but hers hadn't. She died in 1942 in relative obscurity at the age of 87, having made her marks as an artist, and passed her brushes on to others of her sex to carry on in her place.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Cecil B. DeMille

Cecil B. DeMille, 1934,
during the making of
For painters, it's not uncommon to find something that works, then "milk it" into fame and fortune. Okay, it is uncommon to go that far, but you know what I mean. It might be something as simple as vertical landscapes, or something as complex as a certain winning color combination. Sometimes it has to do with subject matter. I once discovered I could sell all the cat paintings I could produce for between twenty-five and fifty dollars (usually one or two hours work for an average 12"x18" format). I still could. But I haven't painted a cat in years. This phenomena is called a "winning formula" and for some artists, once they discover the secret, it dominates their careers forever. It should come as no surprise that this "success formula" carries over into other areas of the arts as well. I'm thinking specifically of the movie industry, but the same is true in music, literature, and drama...perhaps even more so.

Hollywood's first film...also
DeMille's first, 1913
Did you ever wonder who made the first Hollywood movie?  The year was 1913, the movie was a silent film, of course, a six-reeler called The Squaw Man (right), produced by the Jesse Lasky Feature Play Company. Besides Lasky, two other film pioneers were involved, Sam Goldfish and the director, Cecil B. DeMille. It was his first movie. Sam Goldfish (I swear, that was his real name) later changed, for obvious reasons, to Samuel Goldwyn, later the middle initial and godfather of MGM. The Lasky company later merged with Adolf Zukor's Famous Players to form the nucleus of a corporation that would eventually become Paramount Pictures.

Demille's pre-production-code Madam Satan
from the 1920s displays the typical of the racy
costumes of the director's early pot-boiler comedies.
Born in 1881, into a theatrical family (his mother, Beatrice, wrote plays, Cecil and his brother, William, produced and directed them), DeMille cut his teeth on silent films,--The Warrens of Virginia (1915), Joan the Woman (1916), and the Whispering Chorus (1918, interesting title for a silent film) among others. In the process, he also defined forever the stereotype of the early movie producer/director as a swaggering, loudmouthed, megaphone-toting, womanizing, dictator with an ego the size of Hollywood itself. To his crew he once blasted, "You are here to please me. Nothing else on earth matters." He was a bodacious self-promoter. He made himself a household word long before there was even movie stars. A series of small, social comedies he made in the early 1920s promoted a liberated sexual morality, wrapping it in traditional values. Apparently they weren't wrapped tight enough for the result was the movie industry's famed, self-imposed "Production Code of Ethics" (a board of censors) which dominated Hollywood output for the next forty-five years until our current rating system replaced it in the late 1960s.

The original, 1923 silent version to
be revived in 1956
In reaction to this, DeMille stumbled upon his formula for success. Basically it boiled down to the fact that he could sexually titillate all he wanted so long as the movie was of blockbuster proportions and cloaked in some pious epic, often biblical, while studded with overblown spectacle and a big name cast. Gloria Swanson was one of his discoveries. His silent Ten Commandments (1923, right) and The King of Kings (1927) proved the box office validity of such a combination. In the 1930s, Cecil B. DeMille Productions, under the shield of Paramount, tested the formula with talkies in their 1932 epic, Sign of the Cross, then pulled out all the stops to unveil (literally) Cleopatra (1934), and The Crusades (1935). From that time on it was just one big-budget (for that era) hit after another Including such films as The Plainsman (1936), Union Pacific (1939), Reap the Wild Wind (1942) and Samson and Delilah (1949). 

Forty years to win an Academy Award
Demille's final film, the first
of the "remakes" that later kept
Hollywood occupied for half a
In 1952, DeMille won an Academy Award for The Greatest Show on Earth (above) and in the process made of Charles Heston a hero ready to step into the lead of his next and last big mega-film for which he is best known, The Ten Commandments (1956, right). It was a suitable exit number (he died in 1959). It was also the first time a producer/director had ever done a remake of one of his earlier films. And it was, indeed, the hallmark of blockbuster films--a standard against which all other blockbusters would forever be measured. The special effects were impressive (for their time), the star was too, and so were the scantily clad female bodies dancing around the golden calf. It was the same DeMille, seventy pictures later, the same formula, even the same story which had launched him thirty-two years before. Hmm...maybe I'll go back to painting cats.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Maderno's St. Peter's Facade

Vatican environs featuring  the Circus of Nero,
Old St. Peter's Basilica, and the present-day
St. Peters (lightly outlined)
Anyone who has ever traveled to Rome with even a few hours to spare seems to automatically gravitate, not to the seven ancient hills upon which the city was founded, presumably by the brothers, Romulus and Remus, but instead, across the Tiber to another, hill, historically referred to as Vatican Hill. The valley next to it, once held the Circus of Nero, the hill itself a cemetery. Catholic tradition has it the apostle Peter was slain in the circus, and buried just outside its walls  Eventually the cemetery was essentially "roofed over" to form a necropolis upon which the original St. Peter's Basilica church was build, its high altar placed strategically over the tomb of the apostle and first bishop of Rome.

Michelangelo's St. Peter's plan, 1547
Bramante's St. Peter's plan, 1506

Around 1506, during the first years of his reign as pope, Julius II and his erstwhile architect, Donato Bramante, decided to tear down the badly deteriorated, thousand-year-old church and erect one more worthy of the center of world-wide Catholicism. Bramante fabricated a Greek cross plan housed in the center of a square with a complex of auxiliary chapels occupying the corners of the square (above, left). Work was begun, literally building around the old church for a time before it was finally torn down as being in the way of construction for the new cathedral. Forty-one years after Bramante began, Michelangelo significantly altered, simplified, and improved the design, adding an east portico and his famed dome (above, right). And had his design, or even that of Bramante, been carried through to completion, we would, today, have one of the most beautiful churches in Christendom. One can best get a feel for the organic unity of design Michelangelo contemplated by looking at St.Peter's from the Southwest (below, left), or virtually any side other than the front with its ungainly Baroque facade designed by Carlo Maderno around 1606-12.

St. Peter's from the southwest
Maderno was not a bad architect. His debut piece, the facade of Sta. Susanna constructed in Rome between 1597-1603 is a masterful handling of Late Renaissance/Early Baroque style and an adept solving of the problem created by a tall central nave and low side aisles. It undoubtedly won him the admiration of Pope Paul V and the job as architect of St. Peters. No, the problem was not the pope's architect but the pope himself. As the church neared completion around 1600 based approximately of Michelangelo's design, the decision was made by certain architecturally illiterate clergy to extend the east arm of the Bramante/Michelangelo Greek cross to the east by several hundred feet (three bays). To his credit, on the inside at least, Maderno carried off the misguided extension with a seamless design and execution hinting not in the least at the unmitigated disaster caused by the design change on the outside. He was a superb interior decorator.

Maderno's St. Peter's facade as seen today.  Even from well out
in the plaza, Michelangelo's dome is almost totaly obscured.
Outside the effect of the improvised Classical facade with its brownstone lower two levels and its white marble "attic" is, for lack of a better term, dismal. From the immediate environs in front of the cathedral, the massive stage set of unevenly spaced columns, superhuman portals, and windows, virtually eliminates the view of Michelangelo's magnificent dome. And to make matters worse, as Maderno's "wedding cake" facade was nearing completion, the decision was made by the same red-hatted architect wannabes to build twin bell towers, one on either end of the facade. Work was begun. An additional vault was added on each end connecting the largely freestanding tower bases with the already way-too-wide facade.

Sangallo's St. Peter's with the ill-fated
bell towers, 1539
However, had the towers grown to completion they would have somewhat mitigated the distressingly horizontal tendencies of the facade. Unfortunately, as work progressed on the North tower, it began to tilt. The foundation and subsoil of the ancient cemetery would not support the intended tower's immense weight. So, it was torn down level with the top of the new facade and work was halted on the South tower at the same level. Thus the facade ended up being more than two and a half times as wide as it was tall. As a result, only from a great distance does one even get the feeling of standing before a church. Up close, the effect is more one of some enormous government ministry building over-decorated with triple life-size statuary and every form of architectural adornment known to man.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Carl Herrman

He's probably one of the most popular artists of this century. My guess is you've probably purchased at least one of his works. In fact, I'd go so far as to say you've probably purchased many of them. Some collectors point with pride in saying they own all of his works, and that's no small feat in that he published more than 400. He was not a painter. You're unlikely see any of his originals on the walls of an art museum, or anywhere else, for that matter. He has a few on the walls of his studio but that's about as far as they go. Most are locked up in vaults and that's where they're likely to stay. And unless you're a philatelist, you've probably never heard the name of Carl Herrman. That's right, he did the kind of artwork people spit on, or lick, or more recently, peeled from waxed sheets and stuck on their letters, which they then pop into mail boxes, never to see again. But it's still art. It's very good art, in fact. It's the art of postage stamp design.

Carl Herrman's first
Carl Herrman lives in North Las Vegas. Retired now, Carl works on his trusty Mac, and  has done postage stamps for around 20 years. That's something like 20 stamps per year. He's nothing if not prolific. His first, the image of the Statue of Liberty before a glorious sunset earned him a following from his number one customer, the US Postal Service. Sometimes they came to him for designs, sometimes he sent them his ideas. In every case, they had to be approved by a citizens' stamp review committee. Very rarely did he have one turned down. Originally from Massapequa, New York, Herrman designed some of the most famous stamps of all time, including one featuring Marilyn Monroe, as well as such other American luminaries as Elvis Presley, James Dean, and Barbie.

Happy New Century
Maybe you recall the official US Postal Service Millennium issue based upon the work of American Illustrator J. C. Leyendecker. Leyendecker's original design appeared on the January 1937, cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Herrman's design included the traditional New Year's baby decked out in top hat, streamers, and confetti with his "2000 banner" having slipped off, lying at his feet. Herman's other work has included stamps dedicated to Slinky, the microchip, submarines, the Vietnam War Memorial, and Cats (those on Broadway). His favorites though, are those devoted to cartoon and comic strip characters. He's especially fond of his Dick Tracy and Prince Valiant designs. And while I said you're unlikely to ever see the originals hanging on any walls other than his own, people do frame his work, either in multiples of four, or whole sheets (panes). Despite his retirement from the USPS in 2008, Carl Herrman has some 30 more stamps scheduled to be released through 2013. His most recent designs features Hawaiian Aloha shirts. Run out and get some today, only 32 cents each, one size fits all.
Herman's Aloha Series released in January 2012

Friday, May 18, 2012

Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley making waves.
As a portrait painter, I've always held to the feeling that portraits are the most demanding area of art there is for the realistic painter. I'm sure painters specializing in other realistic pursuits would probably argue with me on this. And, I suppose, I might be persuaded by a really outstanding presentation that maybe tromp l'oeil still-lifes could be more difficult. Of course in either case I might be a tad bit bias, having done both. To the other extreme, in the area of non-representational art, my personal feeling is that the debate would be a little more cut and dried. All one has to do is take a look at the work of the British painter, Bridget Riley, to see my point. Op Art, as it's called, would win hands down.

Fall, 1963, Bridget Riley
Consider Fall. Painted by Riley in 1963, it's a wonder the artist didn't go blind. Certainly more than a few viewers have come to question their eyesight in seeing it. Strangely enough, it (and related works) are unique in the fact that though painted strictly in black and white, they are works in which our eyes often see color. The painting works because of the undulating precision of the dozens of carefully spaced black lines which rhythmically snake vertically up and down the canvas. Abstract artists talk often about the physical and emotional sensations they hope to exact from their viewers. I'm not sure about emotions in this case, but she certainly incites physical sensations. Nausea and vertigo come to mind.

Yet, it's all cold, hard, calculated science. Op works because of the physiological phenomena known as retinal fatigue. Our eyes can only take so much. When overwhelmed by repeated patterns such as Riley produces, they cop out and begin sending to the brain false sensations of movement and yes, of color where in fact, there is neither. We're most familiar with this in the fact that when deluged with images approaching 24 per second, the optical senses give up trying to discern individual pictures and report movement instead.  Of course in today's video-rich world, maybe we're not all that familiar with this trait. We take it for granted.

Conversation, 1992, Bridget Riley
Bridget Louise Riley was born in 1931 in London, she grew up knowing the worst terrors of the WW II bombing blitz. After the war she studied at Goldsmith's College of Art and then at the Royal College of Art. She was forced to quit school before graduating however to care for her father. One of her earliest works involved the color scheme for the hallways of the Liverpool Royal Hospital. Her bands of soft, pastel colors had the effect of all but eliminating vandalism in that institution. She studied in depth the pointillist work of Seurat and was also influenced by Victor Vasarely, often considered the "inventor" of Op Art. Later trips to Egypt and Italy introduced her to the use of color in her optical exercises. In 1968, she won the Grand Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale. Her 1992 painting, Conversation illustrates her ability to excite the eyes using hard edged color juxtapositions. Is this the most challenging form of non-representational art? Look at her work. I'm sold. What about you?