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Saturday, June 30, 2012

William Holman Hunt

William Holman Hunt Self-portrait, 1867
(Yes, he actually dressed that way.)
We have all known them. As an art teacher, I use to refer to this type as "someone who gives perfection a bad name." Today they're sometimes referred to as "Type A" personalities, which may refer to an older label, that being "Anal Retentive." Constipated or not, they are peculiar individuals to deal with in a classroom, and in their own way, every bit as difficult to teach as those right-brained, free spirits on the other end of the creative extreme. We've all seen the work of this type of artist. Sometimes we charitably call it "belabored." They're tenacious souls. Their working techniques are invariably "tight." Deadlines mean nothing to them. They take very well to technical instruction and usually have excellent eye-hand coordination, especially when working from two-dimensional sources, but any attempt to excite creative potential often flies right over their head, or bounces away like a ball off a wall. In the course of art history, around 1848, a small group of such individuals bloomed in English art when John Millais, William Michael Rosetti, and William Holman Hunt formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids, 1850, William Holman Hunt

Though not the most talented of the group, William Holman Hunt was by far the most dedicated, most productive, most persistent, and staunchest defender of this style of painting. It was, indeed, a way of life. It placed equal emphasis on moral rectitude, historical authenticity, and microscopic realism in pursuit of high-minded, spiritual subject matter. Drawing almost totally from literary sources, from English folklore, to Keats, to the Bible itself, Hunt in particular, was something of a workaholic poster boy for the group. During the early 1850s, he even went trekking off to the Middle-East in search of the kind of environmental authenticity that always marked his work. There he painted A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the persecution of the Druids (above). Any ambiguity in the painting was more that made up for in the title.

An Awakening of Conscience,
1853, William Holman Hunt
Though he later slogged through any number of paintings like this based upon religious subjects, one of Hunt's best from this early period was not religious at all. In 1853, he painted a relatively small work titled The Awakening of Conscious (left). The subject was prostitution. He was against it. In it Hunt depicted an attractive, fully clothed, young miss, wide-eyed as with some divine revelation, suddenly bolting upright from the lap of a young, stylishly attired, bearded, bespectacled, English gentleman. Apparently startled by some unseen elucidation she abruptly realizes the error of her ways. The painting attracted a storm of critical protest. Affluent Englishmen might keep beautiful young girls as mistresses; but an artist had no right to present such affairs on canvas. Today, we find the painting merely amusing in its Pre-Raphaelite, Victorian clutter, colors, and endlessly irritating attention to details. But at the time, it underlined graphically a secret sexual double standard; provoking outrage, not at the institution of prostitution, but because Hunt had dared shed light upon it. Insofar as the male-dominated, English social hierarchy was concerned, it was as if one of their own had suddenly turned upon them, stabbing them in the back with a paint brush.

Friday, June 29, 2012

William Blake

Songs of Innocense and of Experience,
1789, William Blake
One of the advantages artists enjoy today, is a more or less equal acceptance, at least in the art world, of all painting styles. There are, in the larger cities, commercial galleries featuring every conceivable style and type of art work, often under one roof, but if not, at least within easy walking distance from one another. Artists and buyers alike have come to take this equality for granted, but in fact, it's much less than a hundred years old. Although there have been a few avant-garde galleries for perhaps more than a hundred years, they were a few-and-far-between minority until well into our own era. In 1757, in London, there was born an artist, today considered one of England's greatest creative minds. He could have benefited immensely from our current blessings regarding the equality of the arts. He was born in poverty, the son of a lower-middle class hosier (sock maker), grew up in poverty, lived and worked just short of the penury all his life; and died in 1827, unrecognized, his body buried in a common grave. During his lifetime, a book of poems, Songs of Innocence and of Experience (above, left), one of several which he wrote himself, illustrated, engraved, printed, hand colored in watercolor (with the help of his wife), bound, and sold himself, could have been bought for a few shillings.  oday, it would sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Today, he has something approaching a cult following among English literati.  His name was William Blake.

The Descent of Christ, 1804-20,
William blake
Blake, as one of my high school students once noted after studying him, was "one strange dude." He meant it as a compliment. At the age of ten young William tried to convince his father that a bevy of angels spoke to him from a tree in the backyard. Though formally schooled only to the extent of learning to read and write, he was intimately familiar with the Bible, Milton, Dante, Greek, and Latin literature. He spoke often with devils, demons, angels, and miscellaneous spirits of other denominations, a fact he alternately complained of and boasted about all his life. Scholars today refer to him as living on the "cusp of sanity." This they equate with his genius--their way of saying Blake was "one strange dude." At the age of 14, Blake showed an early propensity for painting so his father apprenticed him to an engraver where for seven years he learned the skills that would serve him well in demonstrating both this artistic and literary genius. He tried studying at the Royal Academy of Art but had such a run-in with it's dictatorial headmaster, Sir Joshua Reynolds, he quit in disgust (Blake, not Reynolds). But it was there he met another artist, John Flaxman, who bankrolled him in setting up a small print shop at 27 Broad Street in London. The shop was a flop financially, but it gave the twenty-five-year-old artist the tools he needed to guarantee that his prose, poems, and pictures, would not forever remain in manuscript form in the bottom of some attic trunk.
Ancient of Days, 1794, William Blake

The shop, such as it was, also gave him the security to marry Catherine Boucher, the daughter of a gardener. He taught her to read and write, and in return, she gave his life the stability and manual labor every artist needs to produce important work. Perhaps his most recognized work of art, The Ancient of Days (above), depicts the nude figure of God, white hair and beard blowing in the wind, kneeling down from a solar orb, measuring out the earth with a compass. Like most of his work, it's an engraved print, watercolored, a mere seven by nine inches, but it quite neatly sums up Blake's feelings about organized religion. He felt confined by it. He was a radical, philosophizing, libertine, bound by his knowledge of God and forever struggling to escape those bonds. Add to this his psychic tendencies and artistic sensitivities, both his writings and his illustrative etchings placed him on the outer limits of social acceptability of his time. He was even arrested for sedition at one point. Though he gained an acquittal, his expressions of fear and hate of established political and ecclesiastic powers of the time are plainly visible in his words and his art. In fact, in viewing his life's work, we might safely say this "strange dude" was the world's very first expressionist artist.  I meant that as a compliment.
Nebuchadnezzer, 1805, William Blake

(Check out the post for August 1, 2011 for more on Blake.)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Willem Kalf

Still Life with Drinking-Horn of St. Sebastians Archers' Guild, 1653, Willem Kalf
I'm not a believer in reincarnation but there are times... I am a painter of still-lifes and I never pass one by without giving it a second glance. I don't care if it's a Sunday painter piece hanging on snow fence at an "art in the park" show or a William Harnett in the National Gallery, they all deserve a moment of silent contemplation. They roughly break down into two groups, the "I could do that" category and "WOW!" The latter group get somewhat more than a second glance. The other day I was loitering in Walden's Book Store, wearing thin the pages of books I couldn't afford to buy when I stumbled onto the work of a Dutch still-life artist that made the old eyes pop. Dutch artists and Dutch still-lifes are the creme-de-la-creme of the genre, but this guy was the creme-de-la-creme of the creme-de-la-creme. The painting had the enormous title, Still Life with the Drinking-Horn of the St. Sebastian Archers' Guild.  (With a title like that it had better be pretty spectacular.) It was weird. I had the feeling I had painted it.
Willem Kalf

The artist was Willem Kalf, and quite frankly, I'd never heard of him. As the title insists, one major aspect, dominating the entire upper half of the painting is a magnificent hollow horn, lavishly adorned with silver, supported upon a triumvirate of silver figures, the drinking edge topped by a golden brim. It's a spectacular creation. But the thing that caught my eye was not the baroque splendor of the horn but the equally baroque splendor of the magnificent red lobster sprawled out deliciously across a polished silver tray. And I don't even like lobster. Okay, I think they're beautifully ugly creatures to look at, and I once painted one in a fish-flavored still-life of my own, but this big guy really stole the show. The contrast between the manmade and the God-made is no contest. The lobster wins, hands down. That would seem to be as the artist intended.
Wine Glass on a Gilded Silver Foot  and
Bowl of Fruit, 1663, Willem Kalf

Kalf was born in 1619. Not much is known of his early life until he landed in Paris in 1642, not to study art apparently, since there's nothing at all French about his work, but to ply his trade as a painter. He stayed there five years then moved back home, settling in Hoom and finally in Amsterdam in 1653. His still-lifes are not hard to identify. They would seem to be the high-water mark of Baroque still-life painting. They're mostly vertical, featuring deep, dark, shadowy backgrounds and brilliantly lit foregrounds, of priceless, timeless objects--silver, gold, cut glass, and rich tapestry. Some of his exquisite glassware appears in more than one still-life. Imposed upon these icons of material exuberance are the temporal things, succulent fruit, drink, bread, and seafood, carefully arranged to look momentary in their glittering existence. Every single one of his works I've found since my ethereal Walden experience have a trademark half-peeled lemon, the rind dangling from the fruit, often hanging over the edge of the table. The "Horn with Lobster," as I call it for convenience, ranks at the top of my "WOW" wish-I-could-do-that list.  Did I do it?  Probably not.  But seldom have I felt such an affinity with a painting.
Still Life with Jug (detail), 1655-57, Willem Kalf

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Will Wilson

Self Portrait, 2000, Will Wilson
I've often wondered, if the old masters were alive today, would their work look as it did during their original lifetimes or would their paintings take on the look of some form of modern art as seen in the world today? It might seem like a fruitless, conjectural point to ponder, but it draws to the fore the question of just how much of an artist's work comes from within, and how much is influenced by outside, contemporary elements. If Vermeer, for instance, were painting today, would he still be painting young women gracing with their luminous presence, quiet, interior, domestic scenes, tightly rendered, probably with the aid of his high-tech (for its time) camera obscura, or would he be painting female athletes captured with the use of high-speed shutters and telephoto lenses? Would Rembrandt still be capturing deeply insightful faces with the striking lighting effects that became his trademark or would he...actually there's no need for conjecture here. One only has to look at the work of his modern day reincarnation, the 55-year-old Will Wilson, to conclude that this era, if not every era, has its own Rembrandt van Rijn.
Untitled, 1996, Will Wilson

Like Rembrandt, Wilson came to painting early in life. He chose his career at the age of ten when he saw an exhibit of the work of N. C. Wyeth at the Brandywine Museum. His art training was as classical as Rembrandt's. He studied at the Schuler school in Baltimore. He uses friends and relatives as models, or sometimes strangers he might meet in a bar. So did Rembrandt. He prepares his canvases as did the Flemish masters, using linen sized with two to four coats of rabbit skin glue, followed by two or three coats of white lead applied with a palette knife. Then the canvas is toned to a light gray.  He not only makes his own paints from dry pigments using a cooked, cold-pressed linseed oil and litharge, but goes even a step further by brewing up Maroger's medium, a toxic concoction of lead, washed linseed oil, and mastic varnish. This he claims allows the paint to glide off the brush more easily for a longer stroke and allows for luminous transparent glazes, which dry quickly.
Alchemy, 2011, Will Wilson

Also like Rembrandt, Wilson's preparatory drawings are often exhaustive, highly refined, works of art in themselves. A dozen or more is not unusual. But in painting, he seldom does any preliminary drawing on the canvas, preferring to work from life, immediately drawing his figures in paint using burnt umber, followed by thick strokes of initial color covering the entire canvas. These he blends using sable brushes before switching to smaller brushes and essentially redrawing details, wet on wet. A typical portrait takes five days to three weeks. And since, in the final stages, he relies upon glazes which must dry somewhat between layers, Wilson often has as many as ten paintings in the works at any given time. However, unlike many artists today, he seem not to have a favorite size or even a favorite subject matter. His paintings sometimes are as small as 9"x10" or as large as 50"x70". He paints as many still-lifes and florals as figures and portraits. However, as with Rembrandt, I've never seen any landscapes among his works.

Austin, 1999, Will Wilson
Wilson claims not to worry about style, perhaps even not to have one. Style, he says, takes care of itself. His still-lifes are tromp l'oeil in the best tradition of Peto and Harnett. His larger works have a clean, illustrative quality. Indeed, his work has graced the covers of periodicals such as Time, Newsweek, and Money Magazine. His work can also be seen from time to time on CD covers and in lithographs selling from $300 to $650 each. His originals sell in the low five-figure to low six-figure range. But it is in his portraits where the classical traits and training show themselves. Whether strikingly modern in their flash and sparkle, or nudes with Rubenesque proportions, or poses and painting techniques straight from the old masters, Will Wilson could easily be termed a contemporary "new master."
The Ages of Man, 1993, Will Wilson

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Wilhelm Leibl

Wilhelm Leibl Self-Portrait, 1871
Art has the power to change men's lives. (Women's too--but it's an old proverb.) It's a tall order. Behind all art there are artists, so to humanize it a bit, we might say, "artists have the power to change men's lives." Try telling that to a frazzled art teacher about mid-afternoon as she rides herd over twenty or thirty eighth graders. You might get anything from a sad sigh complemented by rolling eyes to a sinister snarl through gritted teeth.

The Desperate Man (self-portrait), 1843-45.
Gustave Courbet
In 1869, Gustave Courbet, the leading French Realist at the time, and something of a one-man traveling art extravaganza, took his wares to the Munich International Exhibition. Though you might never know it from seeing one of his self-portraits (left), Courbet preached a strict adherence to the simple, the humble, and the peasant over the academic, enlightened, and grandiose. His message struck a resounding chord with the German people and particularly one impressionable young painter who saw and admired his work. Courbet met him, and invited him back to Paris where they worked together, not so much as mentor-protege but as colleagues, though at the time Courbet was old enough to be his father. That young man was Wilhelm Leibl.

Portrait of the Young Rembrandt van Rijn,
Wilhelm Leibl. The two artists were not
contemporaries (by some 200 years). The
work typical of Leibl's early portraits and
is nearly identical to an 1864 portrait of
Rudolf Hirth du Frenes, a fellow student
at the Munich Art Academy.
Today, Wilhelm Leibl is considered the greatest German artist of the nineteenth century. Courbet is somewhat less well thought of among Frenchmen. Leibl was born in 1844 in Cologne, Germany. His father was the director of music at the Cologne Cathedral. He studied first under a local painter then moved up to the Munich Academy. He was very much an academic painter, heavily influenced by Dutch painting from which he derived his tight, unemotional style. By the time he met Courbet, he'd studied under a couple other local painters and had his first major exhibition in Munich, so he was no youthful upstart. It was not so much Leibl's style of painting Courbet changed but his life itself. Courbet introduced him to a different mindset as to what constituted art. He insisted that art was not a form of propaganda for the aristocracy, nor wall decorations for the bourgeoisie. It was a vehicle for change, a means of exalting the humble, painting it as noble, depicting the common people in their righteousness as the only morally valid subject for the conscientious artist.

Der Spargroschen, 1879, Wilhelm Leibl 
It was a lesson well-learned. After nine months, Leibl went back to Munich where he struggled for three years before retreating deep into obscurity among the Bavarian Bavarian Alps to the little village of Berbling. There he not only painted the German peasantry, he joined them in their simple, ragged, yet contented existence, painting modest, subtle, little morality lessons such as Der Spargroschen (right, 1879). The title translate as "Spare Change," or perhaps "The Nest-egg," and depicts an elderly German couple, meagerly the few coins of their life's savings. His more famous work, Three Women in Church (below), is what Courbet might have aspired to had he not been blinded by his own ambition. Three ladies are seen, on their knees, in church. One, middle-aged, her profile starkly etched against a white wall, looks off steadfastly in prayer. A second, much older, humbly bows her head, peering with some difficulty at her scripture. A third, perhaps her granddaughter, whose flawless complexion and white, delicately flowered shawl, contrast with a dark background, holds a prayer book in her huge hands against the white apron of her lap. Sitting stiffly upright, she has no trouble reading the words. Leibl does not idolize. He does not preach. He portrays, from life, that which is life, and that which makes even the most toiled life a spiritual triumph.
Three Women in Church, 1883, Wilhelm Leibl

Monday, June 25, 2012

Simon Rodia

The hands of the man
It would be hard to imagine a less likely address for a great work of art--1727 E. 107th St., Los Angeles, California 90002.  For those unfamiliar with the landscape, that's smack in the middle of east, LA in the area known as Watts.  Perhaps worst remembered for a series of riots in the late 1960s, this sunny, Southern California version of an Eastern ghetto would rather be known as the home of  on of the most unique architectural/sculptural constructions ever made--Simon Rodia's Watts Towers.

Simon Rodia
The Watts Towers plot plan

If the address is unlikely, the artist was equally so.  Simon Rodia was born in 1879 in Italy.  He came to this country around the turn of the century and found work as a construction laborer.  Eventually he ended up in California as a tile setter.  He bought a piece of property on what was then the outskirts of town and built himself a simple frame home.  Starting in 1921, in a desire to leave something of himself, and something important for posterity in his adopted country, Simon Rodia began building all around his home, what he called his "Nuestro Pueblo" on his modest, triangular piece of land situated on a dead end street.

A doorway to a land of fantasy and wonder.
He had no formal training as an architect, builder, engineer, or artist. He was a craftsman who learned as he built, employing bent steel rods, concrete he mixed himself, embedded with bits of colored glass, stones, seashells, and all manner of broken crockery. One would almost have to say he "invented" recycling, at least insofar as sculptural constructions are concerned. His work has often been compared to that of Antonio Gaudi, the Spanish architect from Barcelona. As time passed, in his spare time, after work and on weekends, he built and built, no plans, no final vision, no assistants, no governmental grants. One step at a time his towers rose, rings constructed around them served as scaffolding. He built a similar wall around his property, no doubt to discourage vandalism; and simply continued, day after day, year after year, for thirty-three years!

Watts Towers mosaic detail.
Among the towers, one of which eventually climbed to just under 100 feet in height, he constructed fountains, birdbaths, decorated posts, and oddments, using household colors, green 7-Up bottles, blue Milk of Magnesia bottles, tiny pebbles, seashells, and colored rocks. In fact, he may have used some of the same rocks that were often thrown at him by irate neighbors. The work of art is often compared to the improvisational nature of Jazz, also finding it's way during this time. Today, Watts Towers is, in fact, the home of the Watts Towers Jazz Festival, as well as the Watts Towers Arts Center (below). In 1954, at the age of 79, perhaps deciding it was finished, he handed over the keys to a neighbor and simply disappeared. In 1957, his house was destroyed by fire.

The Watts Towers Art Center
Years passed, and in 1975, the city of Los Angeles declared the whole thing a hazardous structure and tried to have it demolished. This time, instead of throwing rocks and hurling epithets, the Watts community organized to save Rodia's fantasy masterpiece. They called in a structural engineer who countered the claims of the city by certifying the whole fantastic amalgamation structurally sound. That same year, it was declared the national historic landmark it is today. And what ever happened to Simon Rodia? Shortly before his death in 1965, a reporter found him living near San Francisco. Asked why he left the towers, Rodia replied (perhaps not unsurprisingly), "I don't want to have anything more to do with them."
Simon Rodia lives on, continuing to soar majestically over the ghetto neighborhood he called home.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

George Washington the Architect

Though romanticized, this period illustration depicts
Washington while his home was under expansion
We all know George Washington as the father of our country. And whether cutting down cherry trees or throwing money across the Potomac, we know him as a man of myth and legend. We know him as a great general. We know him as a consummate statesman, political leader, as our first president, as a man of honesty, and high moral character. He was also an outstanding businessman, surveyor, scholar, and gentleman farmer. And while we're familiar with his role as one of our founding fathers and architect of a great nation, few of us are aware that he was also something of an architect in the traditional sense of the word. And though he didn't study the subject in great depth or ply his skills in this area to the degree his fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, did; we do see the refined taste and ingenuity of an artist in the single example of his architectural endeavors, his graceful home at Mount Vernon.

Though considered by Washington as the "front" and main entrance of the house, the west facade has a distinctly "back door" appearance.
In 1752, upon the death of his brother, Lawrence, Washington purchased the Mount Vernon plantation from his brother's widow. The house was a modest, one-and-a-half story, six-room farmhouse of frame construction situated high on a hill overlooking the Potomac River. It had been built by George's father, Augustine Washington, around 1735. His sons grew up there. Flanked by chimney's on either end with an asymmetrical arrangement of doors, dormers, and windows, the house was little different from hundreds of other rural Virginia homes of its time. Between 1752 and 1759, as he prepared to take a wife, Washington enlarged it by literally raising the roof, adding a full second story while maintaining the attic space, making a total of twelve rooms, eight of them bedrooms (the kitchen was in a separate structure to reduce the danger of fire). An office structure opposite the kitchen was built about his time also.

Mount Vernon's most uniquely Washingtonian architectural feature is the east portico overlooking the Potomac.
One of the things that sets Washington apart as an able architect was that when he next undertook to enlarge his home, he was forced to do so in absentia while off directing the American Revolution. On site, the project was directed by a distant cousin, Lund Washington who was manager of the plantation in the general's absence. Letters and reports were exchanged on a weekly basis, plans drawn before the war were revised, even the smallest of details were discussed and directed in this manner. All of this, of course, was in addition to routine plantation business and on top of Washington's pressing duties as commander of the Continental Army. Today, such an endeavor would be a considerable undertaking even with modern e-mail, faxes, and voice communication.  Two-hundred, thirty-five years ago, to have accomplished all this through hand written communication carried by postal couriers must have been the occasion for a significant case of writer's cramp and perhaps the equivalent of a small miracle.

The house grew as gracefully as the man.
Moreover the wartime expansion of Mount Vernon was no small undertaking either. During the 1770s, the house was effectively doubled in size with a two-story banquet hall/ballroom added on the north end, while a library and master bedroom (on the second floor) were added to the south end of the house. A wide, low central pediment on the west side helped to unite the entrance facade; and the innovative, two-story piazza did the same for the river-fronting east elevation. At the same time, a large cupola was added on the roof and curved, arched walkways connected the the main house with the kitchen and office structures; completing the graceful mansion we see today.

Washington's fake stone facade.
Although Washington had in his library English books on architecture from which he apparently drew the elegant Palladian window which graces the ballroom, the cupola as well as the piazza, with its eight slender, square columns, seem to have been of his own design. Though much imitated since, there can be found no example of either in this country before 1800. One hundred years before the first masonry veneers were applied to wood frame homes, another interesting innovation, apparently invented by Washington the architect, was the use of beveled wooden panels shaped to look like dressed stone and applied to the exterior of the structure.  They not only served to cover up the fact that the house had been enlarged twice in its early history, but when coated with a white paint to which was added a generous amount of sand, gave the appearance of limestone masonry. The sad irony in Washington's architectural efforts to design and build such an impressive, yet warm and graceful home was the fact that his duties in helping foster and guide a great nation in its infancy, left him little time to live there. He died on December 14, 1799, less than two and a half years after serving two terms as president and retiring to Mount Vernon.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman, 1887, Thomas Eakins
He never painted a stroke in his life, at least not in the pursuit of any artistic bent. He never drew a line, modeled a shape, or crafted an ornament aimed at decorating his world...or ours. Yet the vivid, lusty, even lustful images of life and limb he portrayed have grown with us for more than a hundred years. He painted not on canvas but on our brains. He conjured up vivid illusions so emotionally real and addictive they can only be compared with chocolate or sex. I have dealt with the work of many artists over the last two and a half years but I've never fawned over that of an artist who painted with words. I do so now. His name was Walt Whitman.

I'm no literary critic. I'm as much a self-taught writer as I am a self-taught artist. So you'll hear nothing critical from me regarding Walt Whitman. I've heard of his famous Leaves of Grass" since I was a teenager but I must confess, until recently, I'd never read a word of his work. You can tell I was an art major not an English major in college. I'm not sure his words effect everyone as the do me, but once I get started reading Whitman, it's like minutes become seconds. He writes in short bursts of non-rhyming verse. Like peanuts, popcorn, or potato chips, you can't stop with just one. You devour another, and yet another, only realizing an hour later that it is, indeed, an hour later. Whether he's writing on war, food, history, travel, nature, politics, or sex, his words infiltrate the mind. You find it hard to imagine they are more than a century old. Here is a poet who seems not the least bit poetic. Like a virtuoso painter or musician, his technique and medium are totally transparent. You don't think about form, only about meaning.

Whitman was a native born Long Islander who came to this life in 1819 on a small farm in West Hills near Huntington, New York. He was the second of nine children. At the age of four his parents, who were only semi-literate at best, moved to Brooklyn where he grew up with a mere six years of formal schooling. Just as important, perhaps even more so, to the writer he was to become, was his "Sunday schooling." It forever shaped his relationship with both man and his God. As an independent and adventurous young man, he was apprenticed to a Manhattan printer. He explored the city relentlessly, eventually becoming, a journalist and, at various intervals, editor of nearly a dozen usually short-lived, politically motivated newspapers over his lifetime. Politically, he was a Lincoln Republican and a dedicated Abolitionist. He also served for several years as a rural school teacher. He never married.  Scholars and historians have long debated his relationships with any number of women and men, and the likelihood he may have fathered one or more children. In any case, there is an ever-present bisexual quality in many of his verses.
Leaves of Grass,
1861 edition, Walt Whitman

Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855.  It was a meager collection of just twelve poems. As if its boldly sensuous content was not shocking enough for its Victorian Era, in form, it was nothing at all like the sentimental rhyming verse so common in American poetic literature at the time. His rhythmic style is often compared to that of the King James Bible. Later editions, published ever two or three years for the rest of his life, grew to several hundred pages, some of which he set the type himself. Mostly self-published, it was fortunate that he was also well-versed in the printer's art inasmuch as few publishers at the time would touch his often erotic content.

As it did so many men of his generation, the Civil War forever altered his life and lines. He was a stalwart nurse during the war, though his work centered more on providing emotional and moral support to the wounded and dying in the makeshift hospital system in and around Washington, DC than it offering medical care. He was a much-loved sight among the men in the rag-tag chain of improvised hospital wards which at one time included the U.S. Capitol itself. Supporting himself as a government clerk, he's credited also with bringing home from Virginia a large group of wounded Union soldiers in exchange for a similar group of Confederate troops.

After the war, his writings began to earn him some measure of fame and wealth, allowing him to buy a home and travel broadly here and around the world. He seemed especially mesmerized by California and the endless Pacific. He suffered a stroke in 1873, and from then until his death in 1892, he devoted his time to living life and writing about it so eloquently, yet honestly that a reader feels as if he has lived it too.

                     One day an obscure youth, a wanderer,
                      Known but to a few, lay musing with himself
                      About the chances of his future life.
                      In that youth's heart, there dwelt the cool
                     Ambition, burning and glowing; and he asked himself,
                     "Shall I, in time come to be great and famed?"

                                                                                  --Ambition:  Walt Whitman, 1840

Friday, June 22, 2012

Walker Evans

Walker Evans, 1937
A screwdriver is pretty much good for only one thing--driving screws. Okay, painters use it for prying lids off paint cans but that don't count. Hammers are for driving nails in or pulling them out. Unless, again, you're a painter, in which case they're for pounding lids back onto paint cans. The whole point of this is that most tools are designed for very limited usage, specializing in maybe one or two jobs...unless you're a painter of course. But one or two inventions of man have such broad usages we hardly even think of them as tools. One is languages. They come in two forms, written and spoken. The scientist uses this tool just as does a poet or ditch digger. But what each makes with this tool is vastly different. Its versatility in all its manifestation is second to none.

Reedsville, West Virginia, 1836, Walker Evans
And likewise, the artist's tools are second to none other than language in their versatility. Sometimes I think there may be just as many of them too. And the things we create using these tools are as vastly different visually as the auditory sounds which come from our use of words. We could demonstrate this in any number of different art media. Take photography for instance. The same camera can catch a baby's first smile, a used car dealer's fake smile, or a felon's mug shot. In so doing, it can document the way we live. Photographers have been doing this almost since the first Daguerreotype, though mostly by accident. However during the 1930s, the Farm Security Administration chose to do it by intent. And one of the first of their photographic artists to do so was Walker Evans.
Joe's Auto Graveyard Near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 1936, Walker Evans

While others in the FSA's small corps of documentary photographers sought to capture the faces of the Depression, Walker's works tend toward the things that demonstrated just as forcefully the blighted times in which he lived. His Joe's Auto Graveyard, Near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania from 1936 is one such photo. It's a landscape cluttered with discarded Model A's and Model T's. Today such a place would be a classic car buff's Garden of Eden. But 76 years ago, it was an eyesore which Walker turned into a work of art and a startling comment on what was wrong with America at the time. Later, Walker turned his fascination with cars into an important thread in his art, and again, was perhaps the first to see the automobile as capable of making an important statement as to who we are (or were) as a nation.

Bicycle, Robert Rauchenberg--Walker on a
It's an interesting irony, that in so many areas, it took a photographer to show painters and other artists that items they took for granted, using unthinkingly in their daily lives, were, in fact, creative vehicles (and not just the automobile) capable of making profound artistic comments as subject matter for their widely divergent creative endeavors. Walker's work can be seen as a starting point exerting influence upon artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Frank, and Lee Friedlander. It should make us ponder items we see and use daily as fodder for our own work.

American, Robert Frank, breaking the rules
Lee Friedlander, Walker with contrasts.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Versailles--perhaps not the most beautiful royal palace in Europe, but certainly the most architecturally influential. Royal families all over the continent spent billions imitating it.
Living in the year 2012, we assume an informal lifestyle so incredibly different from that of a hundred years ago, or two hundred, or three hundred years ago, that we can hardly imagine the life of the rich and powerful from those times. Consider if you can, being awaken each morning at eight o'clock, given a massage, checked by your doctor, then being dressed by a retinue of some forty courtiers, followed by a light breakfast, a shave and presumably a haircut, all over the course of more than an hour in a ceremony that varied only slightly over an entire lifetime. It was the start of a typical day if you were a king, your name happened to be Louis XIV, and you lived in a palace a quarter mile long rising three to five stories tall. Even the most decadent luxury-loving dilettante among us would shrink from such an existence...well, after the first week or so anyway. That was the life of the "Sun King" of Versailles.

The Versailles master plan, circa 1746, (the palace is to the right)
Versailles as we know it today, was begun around 1661 by Louis XIV to sustain just such a lifestyle. Located in what is now a suburb of Paris, it was then, a swamp-infested forest far enough from the big city to give the king the peace of mind in knowing any would-be rivals among the noble gentry were sleeping under the same roof as he, and close enough he could keep an eye on their every move...indeed, practically their every word and thought. His father had built a hunting lodge on the site around 1624 where the future king had enjoyed some of the happiest days of his youth pursuing his favorite sport. The woods abounded with wild boar, deer, wolves, and pheasant. Except that by the time Louis XV and his landscape architects got done with the place, much of the woods had given way to a neatly manicured, but dismaying maze of geometrical gardens that, while beautiful, would hardly be conducive to hunting wild boar.

Versailles around 1662 before enlargement, when the Sun King took a fancy to his father's hunting lodge.
For all intents and purposes various parts of the palace complex and its gardens were under construction for the better part of a hundred years. The original architect was  Louis Le Vau. The interiors were mostly by the painter, Charles Le Brun, while the gardens were the work of Andre Lenotre. Later, Jules Mansart, best known for the roof style which bears his name and dominates parts of the palace, was responsible for remodeling earlier construction and bringing the whole project to completion around 1769 (largely because funds dried up). The famous Hall of Mirrors (below) is one of his creations.

Galerie des Glaces, otherwise known as the Hall of Mirrors, undoubtedly the most famous room in the palace, was a relatively late addition, finished in 1684.
As much as Versailles had originally been built as a retreat from the intrigues of Parisian salons, the formality and intrigues were, in fact, not left behind but moved with the court to the new seat of government. As a result, smaller palaces, known as Trianons, began to spot the grounds as retreats themselves. Queen Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI, even went so far as to have a small peasant village recreated in a remote corner of the park landscape, complete with quaint mill where she could play at being a peasant milk maid. In its rustic charm, it's one of the lovelier structures on the grounds (bottom). And it was little wonder a queen would seek to be apart from the ceremonial hubbub of court. Often, during the winter months, as many as five thousand government officials, nobles, their wives, and families occupied the palace complex. Add to this a sizable zoo, horses and hounds numbering close to a thousand, plus the thousands of servants, grounds keepers, and those needed to maintain the buildings in their accustomed splendor, and one could come to the conclusion the king might just as well have stayed in Paris. But then, that would have meant living in an even less hospitable old barn of a palace--the Louvre.
Hameau de Petit Trianon, getaway playhouse of Marie Antoinette, and very unVersailles

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Utopian Art

Tatlin's Monument, 1920, Vladimir
Tatlin, often considered the leading
icon of Utopian art.
Pessimism pays. Today there is trending a psychological negativism as seen in the social and political fear mongering which, through the Internet, seems to have become an economic growth industry--conservative pessimism. Politically, we find it opposed to progressive optimism. It's a natural human ideal to wish and strive for a better life. We want it for ourselves. We want it for our children. And if we're particularly noble, we want it for our nation and indeed, all of mankind. This is idealism, and taken to its extreme, Utopianism. Utopianism is a striving not just for a better world but for the best world--a perfect world. We might call it heaven on earth. And while the world at one time may have been perfect, habitation by the imperfect species known as mankind for thousands of years (particularly the last 200 years) has made it anything but.
Utopian art meets utopian architecture in de Stijl,
Mondrian's painting inspired Gerrit Rietveld and
Theo van Doesburg in the Schroder House, 1924,
Utrecht, Holland.
However, one hundred years ago we didn't know this. Artists, writers, and philosophers in particular didn't know this. The 19th century had seen a few nasty little regional wars, but by and large, there was a feeling that war was somehow outmoded, having been replaced by logic, diplomacy, idealism, and economic common sense. Standing on the brink of a new, fresh, 20th century, there was reason to hope for a perfect, utopian world. June 28, 1914, brought all such unrealistic dreams crashing to the ground. With the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke, Ferdinand, and the first of several declarations of war just a month later, Utopian artists and idealists of the world got a rude reality check. War was not obsolete.

Utopia, 1945, Rene Magritte's
irrational Surrealism.
After the "war to end all wars," a phrase probably coined by a utopian dreamer, the Rational Utopians faded into the background. Utopian groups such as de Stijl, artists such as Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesberg, and Geroges Vantongerloo became passe. War was seen as an irrational act, utopian antiwar sentiment likewise became irrational. Though in its nascent form before the war, Dada sprouted, bloomed, and died of self-inflicted wounds. Artists such as Duchamp, Jean Arp, and Francis Picabia challenged the common sense that led to "rational war" in literature, music, drama, painting, and politics. Socialism, Communism, and in art, Surrealism followed. Surrealism was irrational, but not self-destructive as Dada had been. Artists such as Rene Magritte (below, left), Giorgio de Chirico, Salvadore Dali, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, Andre Masson, Joan Miro, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy, and even for a time, Pablo Picasso, climbed on board this new and improved Utopian bandwagon, wagering that the world had learned its lesson and that they, through art, could perfect all human endeavors.

New York City was never utopia, unless you were an artist there in the 1950s.

Boy, were they in for a surprise! With the crumbling of the utopian League of Nations, Hitler, anti-semitism, the holocaust, the atom bomb; the Second World War did what the first had failed to do. It stamped out Utopian dreams for a perfect world once and for all. The dreamers fled to New York, where they huddled in the shadow of yet another, somewhat less utopian institution, the United Nations. There they propounded their art if not their ideals, giving birth to the fabled New York School and the ultimate Utopian art, Abstract Expressionism.

The Prologue and the Promise, 1993, Robert McCall, Disney's Epcot Center--Utopian optimism seldom found today.