Click on photos to enlarge.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Whitechapel Art Gallery

Whitechapel Art Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London, England
English artist, David Hockney, now living in California, recalls that as a teenager growing up in Yorkshire, located in central England north of London, he often used to hitchhike to London to see the various museums there. There were the Tate, the National Gallery, and a couple other biggies, but there was also one smaller museum he always liked to go to. It was called (then and now) the Whitechapel Art Gallery. Hockney recalls going there to see American Art. During the mid-1950s, it was one of the few places in London where one could do so. There he remembers being "bowled over" by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and a bit later, Andy Warhol. And it was there, where David Hockney later joined these Modern Art icons along with such famous names as Rembrandt van Rijn, J.M.W. Turner, Emil Nolde and Lucian Freud as this modest little art gallery celebrated its first century of operation.

Closed since 2007, the newly reopened Whitechapel Gallery expansion.
On March 12, 1901, a Church of England priest, Canon Samuel Barnett and his wife, Henrietta, opened the gallery with a show of "Modern Pictures by Living Artists." The show lasted six weeks and drew some 206,000 visitors from all over London. In one day, some 16,000 toured the premises. However, Barnett was shocked and disappointed when he counted the contents of the donation box. It amounted to only $487. Despite this meager showing, the gallery survived. Today, there are hundreds of other, newer galleries in the area, along with a similar number of artists' studios. Back in 1901, Whitechapel was quite poor. Actually, it still is today. Whitechapel is where London's notorious East End begins, also the home of Whitechapel Road, the favorite haunt of the notorious serial killer, Jack the Ripper around 1888. And then, as now, it had a rather sordid, impoverished look about it. The Whitechapel Art Gallery was opened by the civic-minded priest in order to try and do something about this fault, " attempt to fill the minds of the people with thoughts to exclude those created by gloom or sordid temptation."

The Centenary Exhibition Program
The Whitechapel Art Gallery was never just locally focused. The first year in operation it hosted an exhibit, "Chinese Life and Art," while the following year it featured an exhibit of Japanese art, and a year or two later, Dutch old masters. During the 1930s, the gallery managed the coup of the century, in snagging Picasso's Guernica for a two-week exhibit (the first and only time the painting was ever displayed in England). Their centennial exhibit in 2001 reflected this international diversity--79 works culled from some of the 10,000 shown at the gallery in 725 exhibitions over the course of 100 years. The Centenary Exhibition had over 22,000 visitors in just its first month. Twentieth century artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, Jasper Johns, Morris Louis, and Robert Motherwell were shown as well as 18th century painters such as George Stubbs, 12th century Chinese sculpture, and contemporary British sculptors Anthony Gormley and Tony Crag. American video artist Bill Viola was also featured. Hockney credits the gallery's success to its simplicity and humility. It has no front steps; you walk into it right off the street. It's right next door to the Aldgate East subway station. And it's still free, though the donation box has more recently yielded a few more shillings than it did a hundred years ago. Also, Hockney no longer hitchhikes to Whitechapel.

Click below for video:
A History, Whitechapel Art Gallery

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Literary Vermeer

Tracy Chevalier's 2002
Girl with a Pearl Earring
For hundreds of years, artists have taken their inspiration from literary works. Often, such art works actually served as illustrations for the various books which inspired them. I wrote several months ago about the powerful illustrations accompanying Dante's Inferno and their influence upon Portuguese artist, Paula Rego (04-17-12). The Pre-Raphaelites also drew heavily from fiction, in their case that from the Medieval period. Likewise, the Bible, the greatest literary work in the history of mankind, has served as an endless source of inspiration for artists of every ilk. But it's not often that it works the other way around. There is, of course, no end to books written about art, (my own included) but when it comes to literary works inspired by great art, then the list dwindles significantly.

Susan Vreeland's 1999
Girl in Hyacinth Blue

During the past several years, for some strange reason, one particular artist seems to have inspired more than his share of printed fictional verbiage. One might expect him to have led a colorful life such as did Michelangelo, or Caravaggio, or perhaps Rembrandt. And of course, all these men have been written about to some extent. But in this case, the artist was not at all colorful. In fact he wasn't even particularly painting at least. He did have eleven children, however. His paintings are not exciting in the Baroque sense of Rubens, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, or any of their followers. His work, what there is of it, is striking in its apparent simplicity, dramatically lit, endlessly fascinating, always pleasant, and in a quiet sort of way, quite beautiful. For years, speculation has abounded regarding his use of optical devices in drawing his quiet interiors, particularly the camera obscura. And many of his domestic scenes featuring young women going about their daily routines, do have a certain sameness to their lighting and compositions that would suggest this working technique. Most even appear to have been set in the same room.

Deborah Moggach's
1999 Tulip Fever
Johannes Vermeer (usually called Jan) was born in Delft, Holland, in 1632. He died in 1775 at the age of 43. Only about forty of his paintings are known to exist, which may explain to some extent the fascination present day writers seem to have found in him. And it seems to be mostly a female thing. Vermeer currently has at least six novels in print about his life, times, and work. Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring (top, right), seems to be the most popular, but there's also Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue (above, left), Deborah Moggach's Tulip Fever (right), and Katherine Weber's The Music Lesson (below, left).

Katherine Weber's 1999
The Music Lesson
Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid,
1670-72, Jan Vermeer
However at least one male writer seems to have caught the bug, not in writing a novel, but an opera. Titled Writing to Vermeer, the 100-minute opera premiered at Lincoln Center in New York in 2001 having previously been staged in Amsterdam and the year before in Australia. It was written by film writer Peter Greenaway with music by Dutch composer, Michael vanderaa. Vermeer himself is not a character. The letters are fictional epistles penned ostensibly by Vermeer's wife, his mother-in-law, and a female model while the painter was away from home, living in The Hague around 1672. As might befit an artist of Vermeer's domestic tranquility, the letters and the opera are about the harmony in Vermeer's life, juxtaposed against the backdrop of economic crises in the tulip market, a fatal explosion at an armory in Delft, street riots between Catholics and Protestants, a killing by a mob, and the deliberate flooding of Holland to drive out an invading French Army. And though the letters themselves deal with quite mundane matters such as the best place to by ultramarine, the price of canvas, and (not surprisingly) raising children. With a backdrop as violent and unstable as that, who needs domestic crises? Do you suppose someday writers will pour over our letters (and e-mail) in search of literary inspiration? I think I'll destroy all of mine; make them write their own as Greenaway did. I'm sure they'd be more interesting.
A scene from the 2010 Lincoln Center opera production Writing to Vermeer.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

When Is It Finished?

As just about any artist will tell you, the final, decisive act in painting is that of telling oneself, "This work is finished." It may well be the most difficult decision in the entire painting process. It's a decision that has bedeviled every artist from Leonardo to the kindergartner daubing around with his or her first strokes of tempera. It never used to bother me too much when I relied more heavily in painting from a single photo than I do now. I'd cover the canvas, go back the next day and touch it up a bit, then, presto, it was done. However more recently, in working on more complex pieces, usually from multiple photos, and often dealing with conceptual themes, it's gotten more difficult. I used to post "in progress" work on my Web site asking friends to comment and offer expert guidance. That helped, although it may also have lengthened the agony in some cases. Now, my touch-ups often stretch over several days. 

Woman in Blue, 1937, Henri Matisse. The initial painting (using the model) is at right, the final version on the left. 
Artists down through history have dealt with this problem in a number of interesting ways. Leonardo may have simply chosen to keep the Mona Lisa, reportedly working on it over a period of years, thus postponing the decision forever. Matisse, on the other hand, seems to have enjoyed the "touch-up" period more than any other part. He'd hire a model, cover his canvas, (as illustrated above, right) and then spend days, even weeks, without the model perfecting his image (above, left) thus saving costly modeling fees, if nothing else. I've also written about Titian during the Renaissance, who became so fond of a hand and arm he'd painted  as part of a double portrait, he chose to paint out everything else, turn the canvas 90-degrees, and then begin anew, building a whole new painting (below, left) utilizing the hand and arm from the first ( see 07-21-11). Other artists, Manet, for instance, was sometimes known to "finish" his paintings by cutting them apart and framing different sections separately. These are extreme solutions of course, but also the stuff which makes life interesting for curators, restoration experts, and art historians.
Titian's Venus with a Mirror, 1555.
The left arm was once a part of a
double portrait.
Harry Cooper and Ron Spronk have investigated this sort of thing. In particular, they chose to look at the way Piet Mondrian handled the "when is it finished?" question. Cooper and Spronk several years ago worked as curators for Harvard University's Busch-Reisinger Museum. They mounted a show titled, "Mondrian: The Trans-Atlantic Paintings" made up of eleven paintings by Mondrian each having undergone high-tech detective work studying the apparently excruciating period of indecision Mondrian seems to have gone through in completing these particular works. There is evidence of much scraping away of dried paint, repainting, and repainting the repainting. Using electronic devices employing ultraviolet light, infrared light, x-rays, and digital imaging, they were able to probe the indecision, and the revaluation process Mondrian seems to have grappled with as he strove to complete each work. Actually there were some 17 paintings in which Mondrian made major changes as long as several years after apparently completing them. The owners of six of the Trans-Atlantic paintings refused to loan them because of the fragility of the paint itself, owing to Mondrian's painted alterations.
Ron Spronk examines x-rays of Mondrian's
Rhythm of Black Lines and Composition No. 7.

In 1940, Mondrian left London and visited New York. There he arranged a one-man show of his work. In returning to London, inspired by the highly charged atmosphere of New York and his American experience, Mondrian decided to revise the 17 paintings he planned to show in New York to be more in line with what eventually evolved into a totally different style--a new era in his work. Until Cooper's and Spronk's work, the only evidence of this has been the fact that these works bore two different dates. However, as these paintings have aged, the changes made by the artist have become more and more noticeable, the paintings themselves essentially "giving away" the artist's secret insecurities about his work. Until Cooper and Spronk got their hands on the Mondrians, no one had any idea how they looked before Mondrian touched them up. There were no photos and only sketchy written accounts of the original images.

Composition in Red, Blue, and
Yellow, 1928, Piet Mondrian
Ironically, once Mondrian took his newly altered work to New York for the show, the critics were either indifferent, or less than kind. What Mondrian had attempted to do was to bridge the gap between his former simpler style, as seen in works such as Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow from 1928, and a new, more linear, more complex, New York style as seen later in his famous Broadway Boogie Woogie series. The altered paintings illustrate the folly of such an effort as well as the validity of the old adage many artists, myself included, have all too often ignored--leave well enough alone.

Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43,
Piet Mondrian

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Whitney Biennial

2012 Whitney Biennial, sculpture and paintings by Vincent Fecteau and Andrew Masullo.
We artists all enter juried art shows from time to time. It's fun.  It's like legalized gambling for artists. Ya pays ya money and ya takes ya chances. Worse, there is an inverse relationship between your chances of even getting in, and the prestige of the show. The greater the prestige, the more artists enter, the higher the entry fee, and the greater the unlikelihood you're art will be selected. Of course, just getting in doesn't guarantee any more than some bragging rights, perhaps a few column inches in your local paper, and the hassle of shipping or delivering your work. Naturally, the big payoff comes with a possible prize or maybe a sale. It's a little better odds than the lottery, but not by much.

Hearsay of the Soul, 2012,  Werner Herzog
The really prestigious shows in this country you can count on the fingers of one hand...two if you want to be generous. There's the Carnegie, and the Whitney...and a couple more on the West coast, one or two in the midlands, one I think in Seattle, and another one in Texas, but otherwise, they're all pretty much back room poker games for the locals.  This past year it was the Whitney Biennial which occupied center stage, from March 1, 2012 through May 27.  This year's show had four co-curators, writers and museum directors from various parts of the country. They met and compromised, and the result has been declared everything from mildly interesting to downright bland by writers and art people who get paid big bucks to decide such things. Jerry Saltz of the New Yorker  called it: "...a quiet, incomplete manifesto."  Not exactly a rave review.

Despite all the multi-media
installations, there were
still a few "traditional"
paintings such as Tom Thayer's
This Life is Nothing More Than
Waiting for the Sky to Open, 2011.
This is not good.  In previous years the show has been called “grim,” “flimsy,” and “pious.” Thus there were no TV cameras shooting lines wrapped around the block, no vandalism, no art short, nothing to write home about. The show was mostly politically correct, ecumenical, independent, eclectic, geographically diverse, with bows to all media, and endorses an almost mathematical sexual diversity. Actually, there were more women artists in the show this past year than there were men. It blithely does what Biennials are suppose to do, report on the art scene from across the country. The difficulty is, there's not much to report. There were a few hot artist like Matthew Barney, Glenn Ligon, Janine Antoni, Charles Ray, Robert Gober, Charles Atlas, Mike Kelley, and Andrea Fraser, a few veterans like Werner Herzog and Mike Kelley, but most were relatively unknown, including a few who should remain that way. Almost like a convention, there was a delegation from Texas, one from California, and another from the East coast, with the rest of the 51 lucky ducks having been elected "at large." And for this they charge fourteen to eighteen bucks, unless you're under 18, then it's free. I might cross the street, but I wouldn't make a special trip to the "big apple" just to see it. I'll wait for this year's Carnegie International in October. Besides, for me at least, Pittsburgh is closer.
Working the No Work (detail), 2011, Georgia Sagri--more process than product.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Watercolor Portraits

Liz and Dick, 1970, Jim Lane, from
the Cleopatra era. Celebrity portraits
are always demanding, but ever
so much more so in Watercolor.
(Doubly so for a double portrait.)
Some time ago, an artist friend of mine and I were discussing her attempt at doing a watercolor portrait. She showed me her work and it was surprisingly good for a first effort. She was no stranger to painting portraits or watercolor either but we both had to admit she had a ways to go in learning to merge the two. Watercolor portraits are probably the most challenging thing any painter can do. When I was in college (a senior) I did an honors paper on portraiture (comparing various methods, sources, and media). Several of them were done in watercolor. It was good in that it prepared me later for working in colored pencil because of the similarities in handling color. And, while I'm no expert in watercolor portraits, and haven't even attempted one since my college days, I'm going to here give a short, personal discourse on how I went about it. This is by no means the only way to do them, and probably not even the best way, but it worked for me, and in any case, gives me another opportunity for the "shameless self-promotion" I wrote about a few days ago.

Lazing by the Lattice, 1971, Jim Lane. Background is always a vital element in portraiture.
A good portrait should always be more than just a pretty face. Here the figure frames
the background. Never ignore composition in subservience to a good likeness.
With watercolor portraits I first begin with a low-contrast, but quite accurate, pencil drawing (from life or photo, doesn't matter, even a combination of the two). Then I complete the background, hair, clothes, and smaller, usually simpler, areas of flesh tones (arms, hands, the neck, etc.). I also paint in the mouth, eyes, and nostrils (all not very different from my working in oils/acrylics). Once the rest of the painting is dry, I begin the flesh tones by first wetting the entire unpainted facial surface with plain water (no puddles). Then, I begin with a layer of yellow ochre over all but the very strongest highlights of the flesh tones with more intensity in the shaded areas. Then, maintaining wetness, I moved to a cadmium red light and worked over most of the same area, concentrating it in the darker areas of the face. The trick is to work quickly and keep the entire facial area wet at all times. (A humid environment helps in this regard.)  This avoids tendency of watercolor to form hard edges where you don't want them. Following that, I introduced cerulean blue into the darker areas where needed to cool off the other colors, followed by a little umber (or if I'm really brave, sometimes thalo blue or green) in a few of the very darkest areas. This is highly simplified. Believe me, it's not as easy as I make it sound.

Posing Patiently, 1971, Jim Lane. Keep in mind these were done more than 40 years ago.
I was still an undergraduate student learning the ropes.
As all watercolorists know, the medium demands "looseness" and usually looks better when handled that way. Portraits, on the other hand, are such a demanding endeavor they tend to pull the artist in the other direction, causing him or her to "tighten up." In learning to do watercolor portraits, I think this is good. In watercolor portraiture, you've got to maintain a certain "tightness" in order to turn out a good likeness. And most of all, you've got to not think like an oil painter in handling the paint. I suppose this is why you see so very few watercolorist doing portraits, and of those, so few that are really top-notch. Watercolorists love the looseness of their mature painting technique and especially if they've painted portraits in oils, find it quite difficult to make the transition to a medium demanding the antithesis of their traditional watercolor and  of their traditional oil portrait techniques.

Getting a Head, 1971, Jim Lane
So, having said that, the key to success in doing watercolor portraits therefore becomes speed! You have to keep that face wet (especially with younger, smooth-faced subjects) so therefore, every instinct of oil portrait painting technique with regard to handling flesh tones (what I call "lovingly lingering"), must go out the window. Transparent watercolor is a glazing technique not unlike doing so in oils, but with the timeline speeded up by a factor of about a million to one. Drying takes seconds instead of days. You are literally "wrestling" with the elements to keep your likeness, the colors, the blending, the edges, the bleeding, and the values all under control--which means any "looseness" is an accident (and usually not a pleasant one), at least until all these control problems are mastered, at which time I think the loosening up will come naturally.
A watercolor study done in figure painting class, probably the last watercolor portrait/figure study I ever did.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Warhol, the Social Observer

Andy Warhol Self-portrait, 1986
Traditionally, one of the worst judgments that can be made about a person or about art is that of shallowness. With art, it's seen as doubly negative if both the art and the artist bear these qualities. Perhaps as a shield in defense of his own ego, Andy Warhol, his entire career, proclaimed himself shallow. "...If you want to know about Andy Warhol just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." And if you know Andy Warhol only by his popular image and popular work, this popular artist would seem to have had a good handle on his own character and psyche. Whether looking at a seemingly endless array of Campbell's soup cans or Jackies, or Marilyns, or Maos, the impression is easily attained that his art, at least, was quite shallow, all for show, all image, no meaning. Furthermore, his own efforts at self-promotion, his constant search for celebrity, his merry-go-round nightlife, his relentless pursuit of the limelight--attempting to be seen in all the right places with all the right people--would tend to underscore his own shallowness as well.

More to Warhol than met the eye
However, several years ago (2000-01), Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC took issue with this popular image of Warhol. With its exhibition, "Andy Warhol: Social Observer," the show's curators proposed the theory that this image of shallowness was, itself, a shallow façade hiding a man who cared deeply about the society in which he lived, its social issues, its tragedies, and its triumphs. Assuming that the most likely criticism of Pop Art is that it is shallow, in pre-empting this criticism, in proclaiming himself a pure artist and his work pure art, Warhol attempted to deflect criticism when in fact, at times, he could be quite profound. The exhibition contained sections on death and disaster, advertising, politics, cover stories, celebrity, and symbolism. It displayed some of his most powerful series, Car Crashes, Most Wanted Men, Race Riots, Electric Chairs, as well as his ubiquitous Celebrity Portraits.

Despite the tendency of Pop Art to be "easy" art (easy to understand, that is), this aspect of Warhol's contribution to the genre is not. It's multifaceted and difficult to nail down. Warhol's life-long devotion to the photo for source material is evident at all levels, but while there is an attempt sometimes to conceal it, the hand of the artist is never far removed from the art product. The result is a surprisingly acute portrait of the mid-20th century, its culture, its cultural icons, certainly, but also its complexities, its still-unsolved social problems, and its sins of omission and commission.

Flash - November 22, 1963, 1968, Andy Warhol

One of the most telling pieces, Flash - November 22, 1963 (above),  makes use of Warhol's trademark panels (12 of them), except that each one, in this case, is not merely a color variation of the one before, but on the order of a late-breaking news story, a carefully organized montage of scenes fading from one into the other--among them a veiled Jackie, President Kennedy at a press conference, images of the blue presidential seal, a stark, black panel, concluding with a print of a constantly updated wire story culminating in the assassination. No artist has ever recounted the event with more insight or zeal. The result is a new image of Andy Warhol--a sly, sensitive, superlative reader of his own times, as shallow or as profound as he wanted to be at any given moment.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Wanted Art

When I was a teenager, I used to go to our local post office each afternoon to pick up my stack of newspapers to deliver around town. Yes, I was once a "paperboy." I delivered about 25 copies each afternoon and maybe 30 or so each Sunday morning. For this I earned the princely sum of about $4.25 per week. As I waited for them to pass me the bundle of papers, I used to kill time reading the wanted posters. Okay, so it wasn't War and Peace, maybe more like Crime and Punishment. I mention this because if you happened to be around Berlin a few years ago, you might have spotted a rather unusual "wanted" poster designed by the famous British artist, Lucian Freud, depicting his friend, fellow artist Francis Bacon. No, Bacon did nothing wrong (unless you happen to be an art critic). In any make a long story short...

Francis Bacon, 1952, Lucien Freud
Way back in 1952, some sixty years ago, Lucien painted a tiny portrait of his friend Francis on a piece of copper plate. It measured a mere 18 x 13 cm (about the size of a postcard). In what may have been the shrewdest art purchase of the year, the Tate Gallery in London bought the portrait painted by the then-unknown Freud (unknown, that is, except for the name he shared with his famous grandfather). Thirty-seven years later, in 1988, the British Council organized a foreign retrospective of Freud's work (Lucien, not Sigmund). The tiny portrait was one of the star attractions of the show. But on Friday, May 27, 1988, someone stole it. It was not exactly the art heist of the century. In fact, except for its value, it was more akin to shoplifting than grand larceny. Remarkably, security at the Neue Nationalgalerie on Potsdamer Strausse in what was then West Berlin, on that day was practically non-existent. Not a single guard was on duty from the hours of eleven a.m. to four p.m. And of course the work was so small, it would have easily fit into a jacket pocket.

None of the "wanted" posters were ever
recovered either.
There was mention of the theft in the international press at the time, but due in no small part to the embarrassment of Berlin museum officials and the Tate, the British Council made little effort to get the work back. The show was immediately closed and some nefarious character had a free portrait of a rather homely looking famous artist. Thirteen years passed and Lucien Freud decided he wanted the painting back. He offered a reward of 300,000 deutschemarks (100,000 pounds or roughly $160,000) for its return--no questions asked. Nowhere on the 2,200 wanted posters was mentioned either artist's names, only the request: "Would the person who now has possession, kindly consider allowing me to show the painting in my exhibition at the Tate next June?" The cost of the international publicity campaign was underwritten by two anonymous individuals. To date, the portrait and its heister are still at large. It was a long shot by any reckoning. Oh, and another problem, many of the "wanted" posters were stolen as collectors' items. I wonder if post offices ever have that problem?

Thursday, January 24, 2013


The Continence of Scipio, 1565, Gian Battista Zelotti, is based upon the writings of
Roman historian, Valerius Maximus. Note the tromp l'oel qualities of the fresco
(only the doors are real).
In the western world today, we often think of the word "virtue" only in terms of Christian virtue. And, indeed, there's certainly much in the way of teachings along that line in the Bible and Judeo-Christian heritage. But if we look at any number of Post-Renaissance paintings from France, Italy, and England especially, we find that religious teachings by no means have a lock on the high minded subject of virtue. As far back as the first century, the Roman writer, Valerius Maximus, compiled nine volumes of memorable deeds and sayings on the subject. His writings might not top any list of best-sellers today, but the art he inspired continues to hang on museum walls all over the world (as seen in the fresco above). And, in fact, the paintings themselves have sometimes inspired later artists.

The Intervention of the Sabine Women, 1799, Jacques-Louis David
An interesting case in point is Jacques-Louis David's dynamic The Intervention of the Sabine Women (above) from 1799. The incident depicted comes straight from Valerius Maximus. It details the intervention of Hersila, wife of Romulus, as she, and the wives and children she led dramatically stepped between their husbands and fathers and the Romans, as the former stood ready to avenge the Sabine women's having been raped. Some 164 years later, Picasso paid homage to David in his own version, which I mentioned several days ago in a different context. His The Intervention of the Sabine Women (after David) bears little resemblance stylistically or compositionally to David's work but yet manages to convey the same swords-drawn spirit and tension. Actually, Picasso's effort more closely resembles a work by the Italian artist, Guercino, on the same subject dating from 1645 which, in fact, may have influenced David.

St. Sebastian , ca. 1620, Jacques Blanchard
French artists, especially, found much in the way of virtue to paint as derived from Greek and Roman history. Jacques Blanchard's St. Sebastian (above), dating from around 1620, manages to combine both Roman and Christian virtue in his depiction of three Roman nurses caring for the Christian martyr who was condemned to death by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the third century for refusing to renounce Christianity. Usually we see St. Sebastian bound to a tree or pillar and shot full of arrows. In Blanchard's work, there's not an arrow to be found, hardly even any evidence of wounds, as the dying saint mirrors the figure of Christ while the nurses re-enact the pieta elements of his mother. Rubens depicts the similar virtue of a filial devotion from Valerius Maximus in his Roman Charity (1612), a scene involving Pero, a young daughter visiting her semi-nude father, Cimon, in prison where he has been sentenced to starve. She is seen breast feeding him as if he were an infant. The subject's secretive, as well as titillating (no pun intended), nature made this story popular with many artists in both northern and southern Europe.

The Continence of Scipio, 1640, Nicholas Poussin. Note the differences in this work and 
Zelotti's fresco (top). 
Other artists such as Nicholas Poussin and Angelica Kauffmann also chose virtuous subjects from Roman history for their work as in Poussin's The Continence of Scipio (above, 1640) and Kauffmann's Hector Taking Leave of Andromache (below). And quite apart from Roman virtue, we find in England Joseph Wright of Derby painting a group of no doubt virtuous young artists as they sketch and discuss a semi-nude young maiden, in classical statuary form, perched on a pedestal and dramatically lit a la Caravaggio. The painting is titled An Academy by Lamplight (bottom) and dates from around 1768. The work was highly topical at the time in that it related to the founding of the Royal Academy that same year as a means of promoting an English school of virtuous history painting in what was then (and now) known as "The Grand Manner."

Hector Taking Leave of Andromache, Angelica Kauffmann
Today, virtue is not real high on artists' "must paint" list. Even Christian virtue is considered best left to writers, theologians, politicians, and other purveyors of the spoken word. And, notwithstanding recent photos of heroic first responders, perhaps that's just as well. Such depictions in the hands of painters would invariably seem corny--overly and overtly sentimental. Today, there seems to be a pretentious quality to painted art that would be seen as cheapening virtue. Virtue must be demonstrated and, in the case of painting, demonstrated with a great degree of drama that, unfortunately, smacks of melodrama in today's soap opera world. The same could be said of the ancient efforts, except that we're prone to excuse such academic excesses in depicting past virtues. Vices, on the other hand, are already cheapened, so they, of course, are much more readily apparent in today's arts.
An Art Academy by Lamplight, 1768, Joseph Wright

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Shameless Self-promotion

My first and only foray into print reproductions--too little shameless self-promotion.
Virtually every successful individual, regardless of their field of endeavor, does it. Some do it more and better than others. In the field of art, there seems to be a direct correlation between those who do it the most/best and an artists success/fame. I'm talking about what some have come to call "shameless self-promotion." In modern times the list of artists who have excelled in this "art within their art" ranges from Thomas Kinkade and Jeff Koons to Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali. Whether it's their art itself, or reproductions, workshops, prints, books, videos, the more of these products and activities the artist can master the more successful he or she tends to be. Speaking personally, I, too, have dabbled in this art/science. For more than thirty years I did the local art show circuit which is heavily laden with self-promotion. Some thirty years ago I produced my first and only print reproduction (above). Off and on for some fifteen years, I've been a blogger (even before the term was invented). I've also dabbled in art videos on YouTube, nursed a website, and for the past two years I've been working on a book, first published by in e-book form and just yesterday, in book form available on

Although I've done a lot of it, I'm not very good at it. Really successful shameless self-promotion takes an ego the size of Siberia, not to mention very often more time and effort than the art work itself. I'm probably lacking in both areas. Maybe I should try harder. Very well, in an attempt to do so, let me tell you about my new book, available in full color from for  $44.95, titled Art Think (below). The writing effort started almost fifteen years ago when I began posting a daily "blurb" about various art topics on a mailing list for painters called Paint-l. It proved popular enough to encourage me to continue doing so for more than three years. One of the members of that list was an artist/illustrator named Brenda Hoddinott from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Like myself, she was also an avid artist/writer and self-promoter (much better at all three than myself). She developed specializing in online art lessons and publishing e-books. She has nearly a dozen books there and on Amazon.

Shameless Self-promotion
Brenda (whom I've never met in person), apparently liked what I wrote. She spent an inordinate amount of time and effort over the course of two years in helping me get published, everything from the actual layouts and upgrading photos to "browbeating" me into hiring an editor. Now she's guiding me into strange new realms of shameless self-promotion. Just as she showed me how shoddy my photography and writing skills were (I tend to write the way I talk) she is now shepherding me through the intricacies of publishing, advertising, and promotion. Thanks in no small part to her effort, it's a good book. Okay, make that GREAT book (remember the part about ego?). Several reviewers have told me so. It's a big book, 8.5" by 11" (one and a half pounds) and almost 300 pages in full color. The e-book I titled Learning to Think Like an Artist (notice the ad at above, right). Ms. Hoddinott wisely advised that the title was a bit overweight for the Amazon market so we shortened it to merely Art Think. And in a final bit of shameless self-promotion, here's a link to the Amazon listing:

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Vermeer's Allegory of Faith

Self-portrait with a Palette, 1878, Edouard Manet,
artist deification to the tune of $35 million.
Thanks to the availability of art education, particularly art appreciation classes, with their heavy emphasis on art history, and the easy accessibility of the huge, mega-museums online and in all our major cities, we often come to a certain mindset in which we elevate our greatest artists to a godlike level of perfection. We tend to think that all great artists were completely successful all the time. Absolutes are dangerous and that's three in just one sentence. Not only is such overkill not the case, it would be untrue even it we limited it to only two. Some time ago, I discussed the evident problems the great Edouard Manet encountered in trying to learn how to use photography as a tool in his painting. Several of his major works from the 1860s and thereafter, while not artistic disasters, nonetheless exhibited technical difficulties quite evidently photographic to modern eyes. Possibly because he may have tried to hide his use of photographs in creating his work, his Academic enemies simply chalked them up to his brazen flouting of the rules of good taste and the rejection of the technical virtuosity he'd been taught as a student. At his best, Manet was most successful when he succeeded in stretching the definition of fine art and when he worked exploring the use of new visual aids in his painting. For that we should give him high marks, but stop well short of deification.

Jan Vermeer Self-portrait
Two hundred years before Manet there was a Dutch artist in very much the same vein. He was quite unlike Manet in temperament and style, but quite similar in his embrace of scientific aids in creating his works. His name was Jan Vermeer. During his lifetime, he was a quiet, modestly successful, journeyman artist, living in a very modest household in Delft, Holland, with his wife, mother-in-law, and eleven children--about as different from the bon vivant Manet as imaginable. After his death in 1675, his work was virtually unknown until about the time of Manet. He left behind a meager collection of but 35 exquisite masterpieces of Dutch genre chronicling the intimate home life and times in which he lived. His quiet, trademark scenes of pleasant women involved in various acts of domestic tranquility are instantly recognizable the world over. Perhaps not so well known, but just as evident, was his customized use of the room-size camera obscura as a drawing aid. This tool gave his work a remarkable level of consistency in style, composition, setting, and technical virtuosity. But it also imposed limitations.

Allegory of Faith, 1670, Jan Vermeer
You'd never know it from looking at his work, but Vermeer lived during turbulent times in Holland. Political and religious strife between Protestants and Catholics in Holland was at a peak during the mid-1600s. Vermeer was born and raised a staunch Protestant. But, much to the consternation of his parents and friends, he fell in love with a Catholic girl, converted, and married her. Even today, the saying goes that, "There is no more devout Catholic than a Catholic convert." This was probably even more the case in Vermeer's troubled time. His faith was important to him. That's why, when he was asked by his church to paint an allegory of faith, he could neither refuse nor resist the challenge, even though such a work was completely foreign to his artistic background. This also accounts for the fact that his Allegory of the Faith, painted in 1670, is easily his least satisfying, least successful work.

Allegory of Faith (detail). Most of the problems
are in the lower portion of the painting.

First of all, the painting is larger than he was accustomed to working. His female figure, emoting melodramatically before a painted crucifixion, which occupies the major portion of his background, is relatively smaller than those in any of his other "female" paintings. Moreover, her pose, leaning against a draped altar, her foot resting uncomfortably high upon a globe, is decidedly unfeminine, seemingly unstable, anatomically awkward at best, even bordering on the impossible, given her modest height. To the right of this stylishly dressed female figure symbolizing faith is a gold chalice, an open Bible, and a towering crucifix. Her foot, resting upon the globe, symbolizes the trampling of worldly temptations. At her feet lies a "sinful" apple and a serpent, its head crushed, its blood spewing across the familiar checkerboard marble of Vermeer's studio floor.

The hallmarks of Vermeer's typical interior scenes are all present (see below). A massive, intricately painted drapery in the form of a brocade tapestry depicting worldly delights is drawn back to reveal symbolically the private nature of faith. A strong light from the left, likewise typical of Vermeer, illuminates the drapery and displays the artist's complete mastery of its volume, texture, light, and color. It is by far the strongest, most satisfying part of the painting. But the painting as a whole is little more than an intellectual exercise, a carefully contrived work in which all its many parts simply fail to mesh. To call it Vermeer's "least admired" work is putting it kindly. Compositionally, it doesn't "come together" at all like virtually every one of Vermeer's other paintings. One has to wonder if the artist himself saw this valiant effort as a failure or if he was, instead, caught up solely in the effort to convey a faith which he deeply felt yet was quite ill-equipped to realize in paint. In any case, one is forced to admire an artist with the strength, faith, and daring to allow himself to be vulnerable in stretching to accomplish that which was beyond his reach.
The complete (albeit somewhat fuzzy) works of Jan Vermeer.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Velazquez's Juan de Pareja

Frederick Howard, fifth Earl of Carlisle
In 1758, Henry Howard, the fourth Earl of Carlisle died. His son, Frederick, inherited his title and became the fifth Earl of Carlisle. He was ten years old at the time. He also inherited Castle Howard, a magnificent country estate built by his grandfather some fifteen miles Northwest of York, England (in the 20th century, Castle Howard was the backdrop for the PBS TV series Brideshead Revisited). It was there Frederick grew up. In the process, he became something of a playboy, and unlike his considerable list of ancestors, was more interested in enjoying the good life, seeing Europe, and collecting art than in any kind of public service. But he shared with his father and grandfather a love of art and a mania for collecting it. With a male "friend" he toured Italy and brought home to the family estate a considerable collection of works by such Italian masters as Titian, Veronese, Raphael, Canaletto, and Tintoretto. Along with this treasure trove came a rather obscure portrait by the Spanish court painter, Diego Velázquez (which had somehow got mixed in with the otherwise all Italian works of the Orleans Collection, which Howard and two other English gentlemen had purchased and divided among themselves).

Castle Howard, North Yorkshire, England
The paintings were to remain at Castle Howard for the next 150 years. In 1940, the castle suffered a devastating fire. Much of the Howard family art collection as well as some 20 rooms (out of close to 100) of the family manor house were destroyed. Fortunately, the Velázquez escaped harm. However, the war was on, and afterwards, rebuilding castles was not very high on anyone's list of priorities. But, over the next 25 years, Castle Howard was gradually restored. And although the family was relatively wealthy, it was a horrendously expensive undertaking. In 1972, the project needed a big dose of money to restore the dome and re-roof a large part of the house, so the decision was made to sell the Velázquez. When word leaked out, there were demonstrations and a storm of protest that such an important work of art would likely leave the country. Despite this, the painting was sold, the roof was rebuilt, and so was the dome. And as a consequence, Velázquez's portrait of his mulatto slave, Juan de Pareja, came to rest in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Juan de Pareja, 1650, Diego Velazquez
Velázquez painted the portrait in 1650 during a trip to Italy (which might explain how the painting ended up there). Although Velázquez was a household name as in Spain, he was dismayed to discover that his fame did not extend much beyond his country's borders. Though Juan de Pareja was technically a slave, the light-skinned North African was actually much more a friend and assistant (Velázquez eventually granted him his freedom). As something of a public relations ploy, Velázquez painted his assistant's portrait with the understanding that Pareja would carry the painting to the studio of every painter in Rome, knocking on the door, then holding it up in front of his face when the door opened, allowing everyone to see and admire the technical virtuosity and fine aesthetic qualities the portrait possessed, before being impressed by the amazing likeness Velázquez had captured. Though a bit unorthodox, the plan worked. Word travelled quickly all over Rome and eventually Italy: "All other paintings are art. But this, this is truth."

It's an apt description of the painting. The work is relatively monochromatic except for the vibrant, rich, warm tones Velázquez uses to capture the striking African features of his friend and colleague. The dark cloak and velvet sleeve are subdued. The background varies in value but is uniformly indistinct and neutral in tone. Only the fashionable, white lace collar, reflecting the lively flesh tones of the dramatically lit face and features capture our attention, riveting it to the characteristic truth and honesty that have always been a hallmark of the artist's work. A noted critic has described the painting as the best the Metropolitan Museum of Art has to offer, while at the same time calling the Met the best museum in the world. Though this, of course, doesn't mean Velázquez's Juan de Pareja is the best painting in the world, in that light, it has certainly travelled an interesting road to whatever distinction we may choose to award it.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The van Gogh Show

The 1972 Vincent van Gogh Museum,
Amsterdam, before expansion and
renovations in 1998-99.
The van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is now under renovation. In the meantime, a significant part of the collection, including some 76 paintings, has been transferred to Amsterdam's Hermitage Museum. When the van Gogh Museum closed for renovation in 1999, they shipped some 72 paintings off to Washington's National Gallery of Art--a traveling show which went on to Los Angeles. Some called it "van Gogh to Go." The line each day in Washington stretched around the block--men, women, children of all ages, each one waiting and hoping for a pass to get in. Those who didn't get one of the 600 tickets handed out each day had to come back the next day (perhaps a little earlier). As the line formed daily, in Amsterdam, the van Gogh museum more than doubled in size from it's original, 1973 incarnation when it handled some 60,000 visitors a year (not exactly a trickle) to more than a million (check my blog for 7-23-12 for more on the van Gogh Museum").

Vincent as portrayed by Kirk Douglas in
the 1956 film, Lust for Life.

It's difficult to account for the popularity of Vincent van Gogh today. There are a lot of theories. His paintings sell for tens of millions of dollars. He's perhaps one of the most tragically romantic figures in the history of art, though the bit about cutting off his ear is grossly exaggerated (it was only his ear lobe). However he did live with a prostitute for a short time, threatened Gauguin with a razor, suffered from a (then) incurable mental illness, committed himself to an asylum, and later committed suicide. Even the barest outline of the facts of his life make for great historic fiction, such as Irving Stone's Lust for Life, and great material for a movie by the same name starring Kirk Douglas (right) as the deranged genius. But this alone cannot account for the love people have for this man and his work.

If his fame relied solely upon his brief, tragic, 37 years of existence, we would do the artist and his work a gross injustice. A van Gogh painting "sparkles" as the artist never could. It invites contemplation. It evokes awe. It soars above anything done by any other artist in the 19th century with the possible exception of Monet. Camille Pissarro, late in his long life, recognized van Gogh's genius. "I thought he would either go mad or leave all of us far behind. But I didn't know he would do both." The 72 paintings in the 1999 National Gallery show were family heirlooms. They all passed directly from Vincent, to his brother, Theo, then to Theo's wife, and later to his son, who founded the Van Gogh Museum in the 1920s. And while the authenticity of some of Van Gogh's work has been questioned from time to time (including his immortal The Sunflowers), the works in the National Gallery Show were not. And likewise, neither has the authenticity of Vincent van Gogh himself, the troubled painting genius who left "far behind" an entire generation of artists.

The 1999 van Gogh Museum Exhibition Wing, Kisho Kurokawa, architect.

His museum in Amsterdam is expected to reopen in late March 2013.