Click on photos to enlarge.

Thursday, February 28, 2013


The Last Judgment (detail), 1536-41, Michelangelo.
The history of art is replete with religious controversy sparked by the work of one painter or another--the nudes in the Sistine Chapel ceiling for example, or Michelangelo's Last Judgment in which the nude figures were given "britches", as art purists called them, by counter-reformation painting hacks less than a century after their completion. Though his mother seems not to have been depicted nude, Christ was not so lucky. Ridiculed at the time, the so-called "britches" do not detract from the power and magnificence of the Savior's image. A similar fate might have befallen Michelangelo's ceiling had it not been so inconveniently located.

Adam and Eve, 1504, Albrecht Durer,
the great belly button booboo.

One of the stranger, more humorous religious controversies evolved from errors made by the Northern Renaissance engraver Albrecht Dürer about 1504 in his etchings of Adam and Eve. He depicted them both with navels. Artistically speaking, it was a relatively minor thing. However, biblically speaking, given the circumstances of their births (or lack thereof), it was treated as something close to heresy by the clergy of the time.

Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, Emanuel Leutze.
Sit down, George, you're rockin' the boat.
The German-American artist, Emanuel Leutze may have created the largest framed painting of all time with his 1851 Washington Crossing the Delaware, but as a history painter, he could have better done his homework. The event occurred in 1776. The stars and stripes flag in the background was not designed until the following year. On top of that, critics have claimed the boat is too small for so many men, yet in fact, it is larger (as compared to the actual watercraft). Also, the river is seen as being too wide (perhaps it was at flood stage). Most notable, however, with regard to errors, was that of depicting the father of our country as being foolhardy enough to stand up in an overloaded boat in the midst of a blinding snowstorm while crossing a swift, ice-strewn river. Idealistic bravery and heroism aside, not to mention the dynamics of artistic composition, Leutze should have known better. Oh, did I mention, the event took place in the dead of night?
Moses, 1513-15, Michelangelo.
Fortunately, Cecil B. DeMille didn't
make the same mistake.
Perhaps one of the most notable artist errors was not in a painting but in a piece of sculpture and by probably the most famous sculptor in history--Michelangelo. Did you ever look at his famous sculpture of Moses and wonder why the man had horns protruding from his head? Actually, the mistake was not so much that of Michelangelo but came as the result of a mistranslation by Jerome of the word "karan," from ancient Masoretic texts. The word often means horn, but can also mean rays of light. More accurate modern translations use the word "glorified" in referring to Moses face as he returned from the lofty heights of Mt. Sinai with the ten commandments. Michelangelo simply caused the error to be literally "carved in stone."

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Paul Gauguin Self-portrait,
1902, his last self-image
The secret fantasy of every hen-pecked husband is to escape to some sunbathed island in the South Pacific and there to frolic merrily in the soft blue waters, lie back in the warm white sands, eat mangoes or some such other tropical fruit while all the while being fawned over by beautiful, scantily clad, native girls for the rest of his natural life. Okay, the mangoes might be a bit much, but you get the idea. The French Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin did just that over a hundred years ago. A stock broker by profession, and a weekend painter, he first tried living with his friend Vincent van Gogh. Clashing violently with the unstable genius, while being more than a little unstable himself, he vowed to escape civilization. He left his wife and five children and fled first to Panama, then to Martinique, and finally to the French colony of Tahiti where his existence in the midst of the island's bare-breasted beauty transformed his art and won him a measure of success as the exotic masterpieces were shipped back to Paris for sale. 
Tahitien: Fatata te Miti, 1893, Paul Gauguin 
All Gauguin needed was a break. More than just a break from the ennui of the 19th century middle-class rat race, Gauguin needed a break from reality. His art itself needed a break from the French bourgeois pretensions which dominated even those such as himself and van Gogh painting on the cutting edge of the artistic norms of their day. It was hard to sell, hard to rise above the crowd of literally thousands of other artists painting staid landscapes, static still-lifes, stolid portraits, and the stratified social milieu of Parisian street scenes. Defying social taboos as to how a French family man, even how a French artist should behave, Tahiti provided that break. The French island colony in the south Pacific was exotic, not to mention erotic, especially as portrayed by Gauguin. Only after he began sending back to his Parisian art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, his colorful painted encounters with these elements of his new, unfettered lifestyle did he gain any measure of success. His work found an audience. He began to sell.
Women and a White Horse, 1903, Paul Gauguin, one of his last paintings.
Sadly though, success came too late. The "good life" was beyond his grasp. He tried going back to France for a few months, only to return to the south Pacific, disillusioned with European art. He set up shop in the Marquesas Islands. But alcohol and sexual promiscuity had, by then, taken its toll. He attempted suicide and failed. Five years later, May 8, 1903, facing a prison term, deeply in debt, largely unable to paint, he died of syphilis, a failure in his own eyes. Much of his debt he owed a wealthy plantation owner who was angered that Gauguin had the nerve to die without having first settled his debt. In a strange fit of senseless outrage, he burned Gauguin's small island cottage, and with it dozens of paintings worth, even then, thousands of Francs--and worth many millions today.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick
Several months ago (06-17-12) I wrote proposing my own list of top ten movies of all time. I won't list them here nor list the artists who produced them. I will mention those I've written about including most recently (number one on my list) Schindler's List producer, Steven Spielberg (he was robbed at the 2013 Academy Awards, but that's another matter). I've also written on Orson Wells (#2 on my list), David O. Selznick (#3), and D.W. Griffith (#8). Stanley Kubrick came in at number 9 on my list with his low-budget, 1963, satire Dr. Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). If nothing else, Kubrick's full film title, at thirteen words in length, undoubtedly wins the award for the longest in history. I could spend this entire blog writing about just this one film. (I may do just that someday with not just this one, but each film on my top ten list.)
Kubrick learned all there
was to know about film making
all in an effort to save a buck.
Stanley Kubrick was born in the Bronx in 1928 of Jewish parents, the older of two children. At the age of thirteen, Kubrick took up still photography, though in high school he barely made passing grades. After WWII Kubrick became an apprentice photographer for Look magazine and shortly thereafter joined the full-time staff. It was during this time he began unofficially studying film making at the Museum of Modern Art through their screenings of the work of directors Max Ophuls and Elia Kazan, both of whom were to influence his later directorial work. By 1951 Kubrick was directing March of Time newsreels. He made his first film the same year, the sixteen-minute-long Day of the Fight in which he was cameraman, director, editor, assistant editor, and sound effects man all rolled into one, all in the name of saving money. However, more important than the money he saved was the broad experience in film making he gained. The early 1950s found Kubrick making documentaries, one of which (on Abraham Lincoln) became a part of the Omnibus TV series.
Early Kubrick, early Douglas.

Kubrick reprised his one-man-band act in making his first feature film Fear and Desire (1953), a war film in which Kubrick and his wife comprised the entire crew. As in the case of most first films, it was not a success at the box-office and Kubrick was forever embarrassed by what he termed a "bumbling and boring" first effort. However the film demonstrated his interests in the conflict between rational and irrational elements in warfare planning that were to show up in later films, Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, and Full Metal Jacket. By the mid-1950s, Kubrick was making low-budget feature films with a full crew and rising young actors like Sterling Heyden (the Killing) and Kirk Douglas (Paths of Glory), a WW I anti-war film where he demonstrated for the first time his trademark long tracking shot.
Kubrick found himself in the awkward position
of working for the star of his film. Kirk Douglas
owned the movie rights to Spartacus.
By 1960, Kubrick had hit the big time. Working with a cast of 10,000 and a million-dollar budget, Spartacus, also starring Kirk Douglas, was only his fourth feature film...and it showed. His low-budget one-man-band approach rankled the Hollywood pros, creating numerous conflicts on the set. Though the film was a critical and financial success, winning four Academy Awards, it was the first and last film Kubrick ever made not having complete financial and creative control of the project. His next film, Lolita, in 1962, was as far removed from the epic Spartacus as could be imagined. And even after having removed most of the eroticism of Vladimir Nabokov's steamy, pedophilic novel, the film was his most controversial. It was also his first time working with Peter Sellers.
Kubrick discovered Peter Sellers
and Sue Lyon. Lolita made them stars.
Lolita proved Kubrick's dark comedic talent. Dr. Strangelove and his genius in casting Sellers in all three major roles of the film proved his mastery of the genre. Despite his numerous other outstanding works, Strangelove I consider to be the cumulative epitome of Kubrick's career. His name in the hand drawn opening credits rolling up the screen occurred so often as to be embarrassing were it not for the fact Seller's name appeared almost as often (click the link below, right). The film was a satiric rewrite of the Peter George novel, Red Alert, controversial if for no other reason than Kubrick turned it into a black comedy at a time when the public found little amusing about nuclear warfare. Kubrick and Sellers changed all that. Even "mutually assured destruction" had its lighter side in contrast to the darker side of bumbling generals, statesmen, and policy wonks. Together with British screenwriter, Terry Southern, they penned such outrageous, "strangelovian" dialogue as: "You can't fight here, this is the war room."
Despite the outstanding performance
of Peter Sellers in three roles, it was
this iconic image of Slim Pickins wildly 
riding an H-bomb to his death which
has become forever associate with
Dr. Strangelove.
If Dr. Strangelove changed forever the way we looked at the cold war, Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey forever changed the way we looked at the future and particularly space exploration. Kubrick took the science fiction genre from silly hubcap flying saucers on fishing line into what has proven to be the 21st century cinematography, though his timeline regarding space travel has proven to be ridiculously optimistic. However, his 1968 predictions as to computer development have tended to be quite accurate (below). And, though Kubrick's (and Arthur C. Clarke's) subtle, tripartite, screenplay proved to be too erudite for most movie goers at the time, needless to say, George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Kubrick for his ground breaking, mind-bending visuals which, even today, almost fifty years later, appear to be state-of-the-art.
Irony has always been Kubrick's stock
in trade and never more so than in
2001: a Space Odyssey in which the
stunning visuals and a computer
named HAL 9000 upstaged the actors. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Elaine de Kooning

Elaine and Willem de Kooning
It's common knowledge that artists marry artists. It's not so commonly known that it really doesn't happen all that often. Most often, we become aware of such unions when one or both partners attain some level of acclaim in their art. However, one of the common threads running through such marriages is the uncertainty as to the degree of legitimacy the wife's work might have in its own right as opposed to that which it might have as a result of same name association and the reflected light of her usually more famous spouse. I could cite (and have) any number of artist-marriages in which this was the case. In some instances, time has allowed us to see that the work of the female half of the marital partnership has stood up quite well against that of the male. In others, the wife's work has come to be viewed as a pale imitation of that of her husband. And, in some cases, there seems to be a sort of equity, even a sameness in the work of both husband and wife. This whole artist-marriage phenomenon is, of course, one of the twentieth century. Before that time, women were rarely professional artists and, in any case, few male artists would have had the nerve to marry one.

Willem and Elaine, 1940s
In 1943, such a wedding took place. It was during the war. He was a struggling painting instructor at the da Vinci School in New York, working on the avant-garde cutting edge of the nascent Abstract Expressionist movement. She was a painting student who later became his model. He was quiet, almost shy, introspective, and ever so serious. She was anything but. She was very outgoing, highly social, opinionated, expressive, as much a writer and critic as a painter, and highly supportive of her husband's work. All through the 1940s they struggled. As the New York School gained notoriety and, gradually, some degree of acceptance, then overwhelming dominance in the new American world of Modern art during the 1950s, the name Willem de Kooning floated to the top along with those of Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, and a few others. Elaine de Kooning was the power behind her husband's name. Yet, at the same time, she yearned see her own work attain the same or similar prominence.

Elaine de Kooning Self-portrait, 1946
The New York art scene during the 1940s and 50s was a male dominated, testosterone-driven world of bed-hopping blowhards, brawlers, and bigots in which only the strong survived. Elaine de Kooning was a strong woman, a determined woman, and one who, if she couldn't ignite an independent career of her own, could at least see to it that her reserved, highly insecure husband could claw his way to the top. Theirs was a troubled marriage, an open marriage, and yet a strangely successful marriage--so long as it lasted. Theirs was a life revolving around the da Vinci School, East Tenth Street, The Club, and the Cedar Street Tavern. Theirs was a world in which the critics, and what they had to say, mattered. It was a world in which sexual favors were traded for good reviews. It was a world of drugs and alcohol, of rehab and drunken benders. And it was a world in which Elaine de Kooning knew all the right moves and was not above making them if it would help her husband's career...or her own. It was a competitive world largely between two artists, de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, not just to see who could make the biggest splash on canvas, but a "pissing contest" to see who could bring the highest prices, best hold their liquor, and bed the most women. And when Pollock "lost" with his drunken, late-night car crash in 1956, de Kooning's work immediately soared to the top of the Abstract Expressionist world.

Portrait of JFK, 1963
Elaine de Kooning
While her husband painted women (often her), she painted men, though somewhat less abstractly. She was highly conscious of the physical presence and dynamism of the male human figure in her work. She was fascinated by its division into two segment--shirt-jacket-tie and trousers. She painted portraits of her husband's friends--painter Fairfield Porter (below, right), poet Frank O'Hara, and dancer Merce Cunningham. She depicted the way some of them sat with legs crossed, arms folded, while others lounged in a wide-open fashion as seen in comparing the JFK portrait (left) with that of Porter (below). She was fascinated by the way the poses and folds in their clothing created structure and character. During the 1950s, she created complex, multi-figured compositions of basketball and baseball players and bullfighters. But always, she worked in the shadow of her much more famous husband even though, ironically, it was a shadow she herself had helped create.

Fairfield Porter, 1954,
Elaine de Kooning
After some twenty years of marriage, the parties, the alcohol, the freewheeling sex took their toll. Willem fathered an illegitimate child, she had a nervous breakdown, and they both sank deeper and deeper into alcoholism. They separated. As women's place in the New York art world became more prominent during the 1970s, Elaine de Kooning, despite intermittent bouts with rehab and the bottle, was in a position to capitalize on her name, her art, her intimate knowledge of the SOHO art jungle, and her strong, dogged determination to succeed, this time on her own. Her Bacchus series (bottom) from the mid-1970s was a critical success--her first use of acrylic paints--powered by her twisting, turning, torquing, black brushstrokes interwoven with ribbons of light, intense greens, lavenders and yellows, transforming her drunken deity and his handmaidens into an energized spiral of swirling lines and intense color. In the 1980s, she visited the cave paintings near Les Eyzies in the Dordogne region of southern France. She began styling her work in reaction to the painted images of the Palaeolithic era (30,000 to 10,000 BCE), ringing up images of necromantic etchings of bulls, stags, mammoths, and bison. Around the same time, after twenty years of separation, she returned to her husband and devoted her final years to protecting his health and reputation as he endured the progressively debilitating stages of Alzheimer's. Ironically, she died in 1989. He endured until 1997.
Bacchus #3, 1978, Elaine de Kooning

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Death and Art

Helena--Birdseye View, 2000, Marco Evaristti
It's a subject artists are no less reluctant to talk about than the rest of the general population--death. Everyone knows it's as certain as taxes and perhaps a little less painful yet we'd far rather talk about the former than the latter. And in fact, with our present economy, we talk a lot about taxes. And even though they are historically low, mostly we talk complaining about them. However, unless it's imminent, usually a pet or loved one, we don't complain about death, first because it would do little good, and second, well, again, that would mean talking about it. Today death usually happens only in automobiles or intensive care units. We've anesthetized ourselves to it. But in the past, death and art, and indeed life itself, were inextricably linked. Until a few hundred years ago, it was one of the most pervasive and persistent subjects in all art. Antique art is full of murder, mayhem, fatal suffering, and death. In modern times, it would seem one has to go to either Copenhagen, Denmark, or Corpus Christi, Texas, to find any link between the two.

Goldfish art, Helena, 2000, Marco Evaristti
In Copenhagen, at the modest Trapholt Art Museum several years ago, death and art met in an exhibit that has animal rights advocates outraged, and there's no one more opposed to death than an outraged animal rights advocate. Maybe you read about it at the time. At a museum that normally sees maybe 80,000 visitors a year, one thousand people trooped through in a single weekend. The exhibit featuring ten blenders. Each was filled with water and a single goldfish. Behind them was a life-size nude picture of the artists, eyes blackened, with a bazooka missile surrounded by tubes of lipstick. There's no sign that says, "Please feel free to puree the goldfish." Two met that fate at the opening, however. Five more got blended the next day. And the following day, five were stolen (which, I guess, is an artistic statement in itself). Danish officials ordered the power disconnected to the exhibit though any viewer still interested in making his own fish soup had only to plug in the extension cord and push the right button. The whole episode ended up in a Danish court which ruled the goldfish were not treated cruelly because their death was instantaneous. The point of the whole effort was to bring to people's consciousness the degree of control we have now learned to exert over death through abortion, organ transplants, respirators, suicide, and as always, our own self-destructive lifestyles. But is it a point well taken? I mean, they're only goldfish, and certainly no less disgusting than swallowing one whole (not to mention less traumatic for the goldfish).

Heavenly Dreams, Mona
In Corpus Christi, Texas, an artist going by the name of Mona (no last name) is also mixing death and art. Among her conventional abstract oil paintings, she literally mixes the two. She paints abstracts, and the not-so-secret ingredient in her paint is human ashes (cremains). Though she admits not everyone is ready for such a memorial, she's not without buyers and supporters, even among the funeral industry. Though a painting is probably no less a final resting place than a bronze urn on the mantel, she sees something eternal in beauty quite apropos to the eternal rest of death. She's sold a large number of her abstracts, ornately framed, mostly through an Internet website and funeral homes across the country. She has to use a national chain, coming from a part of the country where cremations are uncommon (23% in Texas). Nationally, the cremation rate is 40%. Most of her marketing success has been in California where the rate is 46% (nearby Nevada leads the nation at 68%). Prices range from $1,200 to $1,500. Admittedly, it's a gimmick for otherwise unexceptional painting.

Fireworks of Life, Mona

Two, largely unrelated stories separated by geography and culture. I'm not sure which is the most startling. What I am sure of is that, though we might argue its form, death should still have a place in art. And personally, I can see no reason why art shouldn't have a place in death.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Daumier the Painter

Honore Daumier Self-portrait, c. 1829
When we think of the work of Honore Daumier (pronounced AWN-o-ray DOE-me-yay), his brilliantly satirical drawings, etchings, and lithographs come to mind. Though not the first political cartoonist, he perfected the genre very nearly to that which we know today. In fact, so cutting were his efforts that his published caricature of Emperor Louis-Philippe once landed him jail for six months. Typically, he used the time in confinement to teach himself the gentle art of watercolor. Which serves to underscore the fact that if we only recall Daumier's political drawings, we miss an equally important segment of his work--his strikingly modern-looking paintings. It's difficult to say which of his two artistic endeavors may have been his preferred calling, but in either case, he appears to have been a man ahead of his time.

The Burden, 1853, Honore Daumier

There is a no-nonsense quality to Daumier's oil painting that is typically French. This attitude is reflect in French speech. In France, people don't "pass away", they die. Nor are the elderly referred to as "senior citizens", they're old men and old women. Daumier paints with this same bold, directness. His work is heavy, with high contrasts, few details, and eloquent, dark, painted outlines. It looks something like a 19th century version of Picasso during his classical period. Like Picasso, Daumier was no colorist. At best, his colors tend to be muddy and inconsequential. Used to the limitation of the print medium, he employed color only incidentally, almost as an afterthought. His 1860 painting, The Burden (left) is a typical example of this.

The Washerwoman, c.1863,
Honore Daumier

Daumier was born in 1808, the son of a glazier. At the age of eight, he went to work for a lithographer. This was to influence his work for most of his life. His first signed work was a published drawing in the satiric weekly La Silhouette. He was twenty-two. The same year, he went to work for the liberal opposition newspaper, La Caricature. It was here his work landed him in jail. Having taken on the emperor and paid the price, he went on to mercilessly caricature art experts, judges, actors, artists, and especially lawyers. But his paintings were always of a gentler sort, sympathetic to the quiet, sometimes desperate plight of the common people of his time. Like The Burden, his 1863 painting, The Washerwomen (right), perhaps depicting the same mother and child, is strong, eloquent, while at the same time, warm, with rich, yet typically subdued colors. Seeing it, one might easily mistake its massive figures for those of Picasso of perhaps fifty years later.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Art and Organized Religion

El Paso's Scottsdale Baptist Church--no art in sight.
But take note of the projection screen and the unlimited creative potential it represents.
Some time ago, I wrote regarding iconography in church art. A reader observed: "[Art] was permitted and embraced by the Catholic Church (and still is to a great extent); but, in recent history, I sense a strong distrust towards art in many Protestant churches." The reader went on to question whether this was due to the general public's opinion of art (perhaps their distrust of expressing their opinion of art) or their concern that the art might be worshiped instead of being merely decorative or inspirational. The reader continued by suggesting the possibility that the Church does not support the Arts simply because they no longer have the money and power they once did?

The Tribute Money, 1426, Masaccio, Brancacci Chapel, Florence, Italy.
The fresco reads like a Sunday School lesson only starting in the middle
and moving first to the far left, then to the far right. The guy in the cute little
mini-skirt is the temple tax collector (seen twice).

Even when religious art finds its way into
the home, there is a difference between
Protestant and Catholic art. Protestant art
tends to center on words.
I imagine all the suggestions mentioned above regarding church support of the arts today are probably true to some degree, however I think the primary factor involved is that the church no longer needs the arts as a tool for spreading the gospel as they did in an era when 90% of the populace were illiterate (as in Masaccio's time, above). Today, money that would have been spent in ancient times to support painting and sculpture, is spent instead on mass media, (television in particular) or multi-media presentations (films, DVDs, and the like). It's still money spent supporting the "arts" as broadly defined by the church, but it's not in the form of lasting, monumental works as in the past.

Catholic homes tend to feature iconographic
art not unlike that found in their churches.

Today, I might add, the reverse is also true. The arts no longer need the church. Relatively speaking, wealth is spread much more evenly today than in the ancient past. The wealthy, even the middle classes,  can and will pay adequate sums to add color and excitement to their places of work and rest. More importantly, the art of painting and sculpture, can no longer deliver to the church the audience it once did in the past when it was the primary, perhaps the sole visual form of communication with the masses. Support for the arts is now institutionalized (for better or worse), or commercialized, as in film, music, television, and now, the Internet. The painter is left with his primary source of patronage being private individuals, needing the quiet repose of interior decoration to enrich their tired, hyperactive, logged-in lives.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


A spectacular view of Brasilia's Presidential Palace on the right and the
office towers of the Congressional Palace to the left.
Virtually all the major cities of the world are centuries (sometimes millenniums) old...except for one. With a population of 2.5 million people, Brasilia is the largest city on earth that did not exist at the beginning of the 20th century. Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, is barely fifty years old. A few days ago (02-08-13) I mentioned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in connection with his work in designing New York's United Nations Complex. In doing so, I touched briefly at the end on his most important architectural effort, in designing the major elements of his national capital. In rereading what I wrote, I found I gave the impression Niemeyer was solely responsible for Brasilia being one of the most beautiful capital cities today. Actually, he was only one of three designers.

Lucio Costa's "Big Bird" urban design of Brasilia.
Besides Niemeyer, the principal architect, there was also Lucio Costa the urban planner, and Roberto Burle Marx the landscape designer. Located in the central highlands some 500 miles northwest of the previous capital, Rio de Janeiro, the new Federal District Lucio Costa surveyed in 1956 was a 2,240 square mile blank canvas spread out next to a picturesque lake. Few artist ever encounter the opportunity to create on such a vast scale. Costa's plan called for a central axis at one end of which would be the Plaza of the Three Powers consisting of the Congressional Palace, the Supreme Court, and Executive offices. The Presidential Palace (Palazio da Alvarado) was situated off to one side on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Paranoa. At the opposite end of the broad central axis would the various municipal buildings. Arching off to the north and south of his central axis would be the residential areas of the city. The whole plan, from the air, resembles a bird with the Plaza of the Three powers being the head.

Brasilia's Congressional Palace as designed by Oscar Niemeyer, 1960
In a very real sense, Lucio Costa primed the canvas allowing architect, Oscar Niemeyer to paint the picture of a brand new city in a style marking the best of what Modern Architecture had to offer at the time. His Palacio da Alvorado (Palace of the Dawn, top) is possibly the most beautiful head of state residence in the world. Likewise, Niemeyer's Congressional Palace complex  with its twin monolithic towers, domed Senate, and bowl-shaped House of Delegates, rivals other legislative structures of its kind anywhere in the world in its sheer stately simplicity. Add to these his National Cathedral (bottom, right) and National Library (bottom, left), combined with the impressive repetition of identically shaped government office buildings along Costa's central axis (below)  and the overall effect is a kind of Utopian city of the future. Still more impressive is the fact that the whole basic city was constructed in a mere forty-one months. 
Brasilia's rhythmic office architecture.

Brasilia's National Library,
Oscar Niemeyer
Brasilia's National Cathedral,
Oscar Niemeyer

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Body and Soul

Kouros, 615-590 BCE,
one of the earliest Greek
nude figures.
In all of Western art, there is no more highly charged subject than the nude figure. I make the point of saying Western art because, with the exception of India, the nude plays little part in any other artistic culture. The roots of this fascination with the nude figure date back to ancient Greece and the idealization of the classical regard for the merging of body and soul as represented by principally the male nude. Although there are a few highly regarded female nudes in Greek art, it was largely their Roman imitators who elevated Venus over Apollo in their sculptural favoritism. With the fall of the Roman Empire, the nude virtually disappeared in art. In Medieval art, a few highly stylized, semi-nude figures of Christ crucified exist, as well as a few religious works depicting Adam and Eve in a sinful context, and sometimes you see the nude figure in the occasional last judgment (provided the figures represent sin and shame). But in essence, the church chose to separate the Greek body and soul into two separate elements, one sinful and shameful, the other spiritual with the hope of redemption.

Laocoon, 200 BCE
Most art scholars pinpoint the year 1506 as the time when a reawakening to the nude figure occurred in Renaissance art (though Botticelli's and some of Michelangelo's work predate this). That was the year, legend has it, that an Italian farmer, plowing his field, stumbled upon the buried fragments of the first century sculptural group known today as Laocoon (pronounced lay-OCK-o-wawn). Believed to be from the workshop of Athenodorus, Hegasandrus, and Polydorus of Rhodes, the work depicts a scene from Virgil's Aeneid of a blind "seer" famous for his immortal warning "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts" (as in the Trojan horse), and his two sons battling a sea serpent. Michelangelo is said to have supervised its disinterment. The newly discovered antiquity breathed new life not only into Renaissance sculpture, but also into the study of the nude body itself, especially as depicted under stress. The figures in Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling reflect this.

The Judgment of Paris, 1635, Peter Paul Rubens
Raphael, especially, seems to have been influenced by this new found emphasis on the nude figure, though in fact he painted few of them. Instead, he often posed figures in his paintings nude, then drew clothes upon them just before or during the painting process. This procedure carried over into the first art academies in Florence and elsewhere where the nude figure became the keystone of all art education. And even though the Catholic church gradually became more tolerant of the nude figure in art, there was no relenting in their persistent belief in the shameful nature of the naked body as an important root cause of sin. As a result, the nude figure was instead embraced by the growing secular taste in mythological subjects, and inasmuch as most artists and their patrons were of the male persuasion, the female nude virtually dominated painting especially from the sixteenth century on, at times, to the near exclusion of the male figure. Peter Paul Rubens' The Judgment of Paris (above) of 1635 is a typical example.

Reclining Girl (Portrait of Louise O'Murphy), 1752, Francois Boucher
During the eighteenth century, the overtly sexual, contemporary female nude, as seen in François Boucher's Reclining Girl (Portrait of Louise O'Murphy) from 1752, infiltrated the mainstream of art where it remained important in the work of Ingres, Delacroix, and others through most of the nineteenth century, reaching a blatant pinnacle in Manet's Olympia around 1863, until such time as Picasso and Matisse began using it merely as a pleasing shape or symbol, rather than a human figure with sexual overtones. Today, whether male of female, contemporary artists continue to de-sexualize the nude figure, often depicting it in such a brutally realistic manner--so grossly fat or thin, or stylized to such a degree, as to remove most if not all its erotic content--which has, in any case, largely moved on to the art of photography and its bastard cousin, pornography.
Olympia, 1863, Edouard Manet

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

P. Ruiz ?

A couple years ago, in writing about Picasso's father (12-28-10), I received an interesting  reaction from one of my readers. In checking my guest book I found an entry from a Ms. Donna Castlegrant taking issue with what I'd written on Jose Ruiz Blasco. Here is part of what she had to say:

Don Jose Ruiz Blasco, 1870
"I read your bio on Jose Ruiz, and it is misleading and filled with disinformation. This is not your fault as Picasso's father was a very good artist and worked his craft like the masters. In fact after speaking to an expert in the field of Picasso and his family, [I found that] Picasso did not paint his first painting until 1900. All the portraits that came before were in fact painted by his father. Jose Ruiz looked to make money off of his son's talent. Currently there are over 500 paintings in various museums in Europe and Istanbul and France, signed P. Ruiz. Picasso never signed a painting P. Ruiz. His father in his zeal to have the young protégé noticed and made famous, painted many, many paintings and signed it P Ruiz. Picasso's father signed all of his own paintings J Ruiz. There has been a very large cover up by the family.

Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1896,
clearly signed (lower left corner),
P. Ruiz Picasso. Pablo would have been
fifteen at the time. Was the "Picasso"
added later?
Ms. Castlegrant continues: "These are the facts. My Aunt worked for the American Consulate in Spain in Madrid. She worked there in the late 1940's to early 50's. She went to Barcelona with the distinct intent on buying a Picasso. She went to his Studio and had seen literally hundreds of paintings. None of the paintings were signed, and none were dated. Something that Picasso did when he first started to sign Picasso. Picasso signed all of his own paintings, PICASSO. When his father died, Picasso received all of his father's work. What he did was erase the name P Ruiz from all of the paintings because his father fondly signed most of his work P Ruiz. The Picasso family knows full well that none of this work was done by Picasso. You can clearly see the difference in the work. Just take a look at an early Picasso portrait of Picasso as a young boy, painted by his father. It is painted in the way of the masters. [I've been unable to find any such painting.] Another portrait done in the way of Velasquez attributed to Picasso was clearly done by his father. The family sold Picasso's paintings for millions. Picasso changed his style and changed his name to distance himself from his father, [the latter part said to be true] because his father was clearly making money off of his son's name. Picasso took his mother's name, because his father was signing all of his own work, P Ruiz."
View of the port of Malaga, 1888-90, claimed
 by Picasso to be his first painting, copied from
memory of a painting by his father. According to
Picasso. It was painted by candle light while
hiding under his sister's bed.  It's just outlandish
enough to be true. The signature is clearly
"P. Ruiz." (The father's painting was also a copy.)
Note: I've been unable to substantiate most of  Ms. Castlegrant's claims from any other source.
Pigeons, 1888, Don Jose
Ruiz Blasco, note the
"signature," lower right

Monday, February 18, 2013

Continuous Sculpture

G & G at Via del Paradiso, 1972,
Gilbert and George, This type of work
photographs well.
About a year and a half ago  (10-07-11) I wrote regarding the work of Duane Hanson and the fact that if you tried to strike up a conversation with one of the security guards at a Hanson exhibit, you might just find yourself talking to one of the lifelike, life-size, figural sculptures in the exhibit. There is an obverse side to this experience as well. In 1972, at the Attico Gallery in Rome, two young British artists known only by the names, Gilbert and George installed themselves as works of art, together upon a pedestal, nattily dressed in three-piece suits, arranged in various static poses for the benefit of visiting gallery viewers. The work was titled G & G at Via del Paradiso (left).  They dubbed their work "continuous sculptures" as they posed, unmoving, for several minutes at a time before changing to a new posed relationship similar to what might be expected of two men standing on a street corner in Rome. Viewers commented, "They look so real."

Duchamp as Rose Selavy, 1923, as
photographed by Man Ray. The nude
photo was, thankfully, unavailable.
Some call it "Body Art." Some just call it just plain "dumb" (which is not exactly inappropriate in that the figures don't speak). Whatever the case, it's not really new. It wasn't even new in 1972. Our old friend, Marcel Duchamp (remember, Nude Descending a Staircase, or the incident with the urinal at the 1913 Armory Show), is said to have dressed as his feminine alter ego Rose Selavy, and on another occasion, posed nude, having covered various strategic parts of his body with shaving foam, all for the camera lens of his friend Man Ray. At another time, he had a star shape shaved on the back of his head, transforming it and himself into a work of art. And if you want to press the point, those exhibiting a fondness for tattoos have been doing it for years. (Which is why I'm not crazy about the designation, "Body Art." It's too broad.)

le Violin Dingres, 1924,
Man Ray's own version of Body Art
There awakened a new interest in Body Art in the 1960s as artists began to look for newer, ever more outlandish ways in which to make artistic statements amid the last, dying breaths of the era of Modern Art. Italian artist Piero Manzoni began sculpting with living bodies, posing them, and keeping them stone still for sustained periods of time. In Copenhagen last year, I saw a street artist (with tip receptacle) displaying this form of  art. He was quite good and somewhat startling. Fascinated, I watched him "not move" for several minutes. Going beyond "not moving" however, Manzoni even had the "displays" adorned with certificates of authenticity. In 1974, Gina Pane went still further, wounding herself with the thorns of roses in Azione sentimentale.  Her work assigned negative feelings to objects usually viewed in a positive context as she exalted not the beauty of roses, but the pain they could inflict. Austrian artist, Arnulf Rainer painted on himself, then had himself photographed in excruciating, unnatural poses, which he further emphasized by painting with strong, violent brushstrokes on the enlarged prints. I think I'll stick to canvas.
Azione sentimentale, 1974, Gina Pane--stopping to feel the rose's thorns.

Bad joke: Is there art after death?
Bad joke punch line: Only if you dig Body Art (as in disinter?).