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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Pedro Figari

Pericon Under the Orange Trees, Pedro Figari.
Pedro Figari Self-portrait
A couple months ago I wrote about the phenomena known as the "National Artist." I pointed out at the time that this designation has far less meaning for a large, artistically historic country like France, Spain, England, Italy, etc than for smaller countries. I believe I was talking about at the time Fernando Amorsolo, the national artist of the Philippines. There are any number of small countries of which I've never written about in discussing their art heritage. Many of them are in South America. One of them is the nation of Uruguay. And though he's never really been officially designated the "national artist," I'd like to rectify that in claiming the title for Pedro Figari. If you've never heard the name before, don't worry about it, you'd be almost as likely to have heard of Pedro Figari, the lawyer, of Pedro Figari the legislator, educator, administrator, and heroic foe of social injustice, as you would Pedro Figari the artist.

When your face starts appearing on your country's currency, you know you're a candidate for "national artist" honors. Two-hundred Uruguayan pesos is worth about $9.05 USD.
Pedro Figari was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1861. Though he showed no small amount of art talent as a child, as so often happens, young Pedro was guided (or perhaps, pushed) into law school, from which he graduated in 1886. Though he painted some as an amateur virtually all his life, Figari began a law career as what we in the U.S. call a public defender. That means he represented in court cases of those too poor to afford private counsel. The job seldom paid very well (even today) but it's steady work. As a result, Figari was exposed to the many areas of social injustice prevalent not just in his homeland but throughout all the slowly developing nations of South America.

Colonial Minuet, Pedro Figari
Eventually, probably around 1900, Figari traveled to Europe where he studied under various French and Italian artists and gained exposure to the rough and tumble art movements we've come to lump together as Post-Impressionism. Figari was especially influenced by the rebellious nature of the Post-Impressionist movements and the fact that they were veering further and further from traditional European academicism. In returning to Uruguay in 1826, Figari began painting and exhibiting more, attempting to define for his country a native style of painting. He was not alone in this effort; better known artists such as Diego Rivera, Gonzalo Endara Crow, Emiliano Di Cavalcanti were doing the same thing in their own countries during the first half of the 20th century. He helped establish a school of fine arts in his country while serving as a member of the Uruguayan Parliament and president of the University of Montevideo.

Picking up a Passenger, Pedro Figari. He frequently painted coaches.
Then, in 1921, at the age of sixty, Figari retired from the practice of law and most of his political activities to paint full time. In seeing Figari's work it quickly become apparent he cared little for natural or realistic academic elements. In fact he went out of his way to distance himself from such European influences. His work is "figurative." By that I don't mean "figural," though his paintings are sometimes heavily populated with people. Instead, Figari sought to convey scenes from the common cultural life he'd come to know so well with an almost child-like simplicity. Linear perspective is used sparingly and seemingly in a haphazard manner while social interaction dominates, usually celebrations, dancing, ceremonies, special events, and joyous occasions. Figari died in 1938. Don't expect to find dates associated with Figari's paintings. As is frequently the case with such artists, virtually none of them are dated. Today, Fernando Saavedra Faget operates a small gallery and Website promoting the sale of his grandfather's work. As the prices for Pedro Figari's work rise, his grandson has come to encounter a problem many such families of artists working in a highly simplified (or folk) style--fakes. Forgers see such work as easy-picking for their "skills."

Cat, Pedro Figari. (Look carefully, you'll find it.)


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Mahmoud Farshchian

Scene from the Demotte or Great Mongol, 1320s, Illustration of the Great Mongol
Shah Nama. Bahram Gur is fighting a lion. A rich tradition of painted images
can be found, usually in miniature, if you go back far enough.
Mahmoud Farshchian Self-portrait
Until recently, I was under the impression that discussing Iranian art was tantamount to a similar discourse on Somali art--what art? Inasmuch as Quran forbids (or at least strongly discourages) anything more than exquisite calligraphy, which I'm currently unable to translate, I've pretty much ignored the Middle East insofar as art is concerned. Then I came across the work of Mahmoud Farshchian, an Iranian-born painter now living and working in New Jersey. His strikingly beautiful paintings sent me in search of other Iranian artists; and I found quite a few. Taken as a whole, their style and content is relatively broad, from ancient looking to cutting edge conceptual. Persian motifs and calligraphy are not uncommon, but neither do they dominate. The Farshchian influence is often notable. However, about the only thing these artists have in common is that, like Farshchian, they don't live in Iran.
The Fifth Day of Creation, 2007-12, Mahmoud Farshchian.
If Michelangelo had been Persian, the Sistine ceiling might have looked like this.
A long, Persian tradition of miniature
painting on paper is evident in
Farshchian's technical prowess. 
If I had to describe Mahmoud Farshchian's art in a single word, I'd say it was lyrical. Unlike painting, their is a strong tradition of poetry running deep and wide through Middle Eastern culture. Farshchian draws upon this, reading Persian poetry and listening to Persian music as his major source of inspiration. Without employing a single swish of Farsi, Farshchian's work manages to be poetic. He doesn't paint scenes so much as poetic images, usually involving female figures, horses, and other stylized flora and fauna in a swirling whirl of color, lines, and masses that often comes close to Surrealism in its dreamy (not dreamlike) focus. Painting has a surprisingly strong presence in ancient Middle-Eastern culture, although not in the realm of large scale public presentations to which we're accustomed in Western Art. Painting was an art mostly limited to manuscript illustration, thus images are precisely draw, carefully composed, and exquisitely rendered. Though Farshchian seldom paints miniatures today, his style and technique reflects this background.

Oh, God, Mahmoud Farshchian.
Worship, Mahmoud Farschian
Mahmoud Farshchian was born in 1930 in Isfahan, in central Iran (south of Tehran), a city once the capital of the ancient Persian Kingdom the art capital of the country at the time. His father was a rug merchant. After high school, the talented teenager was sent off to Europe to study Western Art, which accounts for some of the uniqueness in his style--a blending of East and West. When Farshchian returned to Iran he held various governmental position in the arts while painting and making a name for himself exhibiting in both Europe and Iran. So dominant was his artistic presence and his teaching skills, their developed a "Farshchian School" of painting centered upon his style, content, and technique.

Evening of Ashura, 1976, Mahmoud Farshchian
With the onslaught of the Iranian Revolution and the fall of the Shah in 1979, Farshchian moved his family to the United States, though his work continues to be shown in his homeland where he even has a hometown museum in his name. He has published six books on his art. And though his work is often spiritual, it is never overtly religious. His Oh God (above. left) and Worship (above, right) are about as close to the religious realm as he ventures. His Evening of Ashura (above) focuses upon mourning rather than the religious aspects involving the death of a great warrior.

Self-portrait, Mahmoud Farshchian. The artist apparently has a sense of humor.


Monday, April 28, 2014

Art and Jesus--The Last Suppers

The Last Supper, 1495-98, Leonardo da Vinci
The Last Supper (detail), Leonardo
In partaking of Communion (Eucharist, Mass, the Lord's Supper), our most common mental image is, of course, that of Jesus' last meal with his apostles in the upper room. And of all the hundreds of artists' depictions of this iconic event, standing out above all the rest is that of Leonardo da Vinci (above), despite the fact that it was neither the first, the last, or even necessarily the best. It is, as you can see however, certainly the one in the worst condition (left).

The Last Supper, 1442, Fra Angelico
Among the earliest surviving paintings of Christ's Last Supper is that of Fra Angelico dating from 1442 (above). You'll notice there are only eight apostles at the table. The good father, in rendering his fresco, apparently ran out of space at the table, so he depicted the other four kneeling in the lower right corner with Christ standing in their midst--likely NOT your typical communion image. It was, however, a seating problem that was to plague numerous later artists as well.

The Last supper, 1360, Taddeo Gaddi
The early Renaissance artist, Gaddi (above), had previously solved the seating problem as far back as 1360 by giving himself a very elongated space. Because of it's awkward shape, most later artists rejected this solution. Gaddi was the first to depict Judas on the near side of the table.

The Last Supper, 1447, Andrea del Castagno
The Florentine painter, Andrea del Castagno (above) followed Gaddi's lead in his very static, orderly, highly decorative depiction. You find yourself having to hunt for the figure of Christ. Leonardo's influence can be seen in Domenico Ghirlandaio's Ognissanti depiction (below), which comes perilously close to looking like a terrace garden party.

The Last Supper, 1480, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Church of Ognissanti, Florence
In Florence's convent of San Salvi, Andrea Del Sarto's Last Supper (below) dating from 1520-25, is quite sedate and one of the best Renaissance era depictions of the last supper. It appears to have been heavily influenced by Leonardo's version, but in many ways surpasses it. The painting so impressed an army invading Florence in the 16th century they chose to spare its entire church from destruction.

Last Supper, 1520-25, Andrea del Sarto, Florence
The Catholic church by no means had a monopoly on last suppers. The Russian artist, Simon Ushakov, casts his 1685 Last Supper (below) in an Eastern Orthodox light around what seems to be a square table.

The Last Supper, 1685, Simon Ushakov
Over later centuries, last suppers became a staple of Christian artists, starting with the rather frenzied scene by Tintoretto (below) in the 16th century painted in the Mannerist style.

The 16th Century--
The Last Supper, 16th Century, Tintoretto, San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice
The 17th century--
17th Century Last Supper
The 18th century--
An 18th century Last Supper
The 19th century--
A 19th century Last Supper
The 20th century--

And finally this 20th century image which seems to have been influenced somewhat by Hollywood's idea of Christ's final meal with his apostles.
A 20th Century Last Supper (20th Century Fox perhaps?)

The 21st century--

I found the Postmodern sculpture of beach sand seeking to convey the same mental and emotional meaning as Fra Angelico more than 500 years ago (replete with the perplexing crowded table).

A 21st century Postmodern Last Supper sculptured in beach sand.
My favorite last supper is from the mid-20th century, though having little to do with sand or motion pictures. It is Salvador Dali's Last Supper (below), painted in 1956, which to me carries with it a spiritual embodiment seen in few artists' work.
The Last Supper, 1956, Salvador Dali
The Last Supper has also been translated into ceramic clay (below) in a tableau display from the small Italian town of Sacro Monte di Varallo. It is loosely based upon Leonardo's version and dates from the mid-1500s. It is one of many such sculptural depictions of the life of Jesus at the same site.

Last Supper, Sacro Monte di Varallo, Italy
Also related--

Incidentally, often lumped in with last suppers, though quite apart from them scripturally, is Jesus' Supper at Emmaus, seen first by the Italian artist, Caravaggio (below), and a century later by the Dutch artist, Rembrandt van Rijn (bottom).

Supper at Emmaus, 1606, Caravaggio

Supper at Emmaus, 1648, Rembrandt


Sunday, April 27, 2014

Julian Falat

Snow, 1907, Julian Falat
Julian Falat, Self-portrait, 1896
Many artists might disagree with me, but I've always felt that winter was the most beautiful time of the year. Winter, of course, can be ugly--gray, tan, brown, cold, dead--but just let the weather turn white, add a heavy blanket of snow, and then a wash of blinding sunlight (especially at sunset), and every other season of the year pales by comparison. Julian Falat's Snow (above) from 1907, I offer as proof. Summer is too green. Spring is pretty but its beauty is thin. Autumn comes a close second to winter in my book, but it also bears the stench of death and dying. Winter, as I've described it, is powerful, strong, glorious in its simplicity, brilliant in color, and exciting when the artist adds robust revelers enjoying it all. I've painted many winterscape scenes, but I must admit, always fallen short in the "robust revelers" category. Maybe its because they're always leaving tracks in my fresh, virgin snow. As cited above, an artist who did all this better than just about anyone I've ever encountered was the turn of the (20th) century Polish artist, Julian Falat. (I love Polish artists I can pronounce.)
Parsonage at Wyszatycach, 1870, Julian Falat
Old Man Praying, 1881, Julian Falat
Born in 1853, Julian Falat was one of the most prolific painters Poland ever produced. He specialized in landscapes, many of them in watercolor, and though his winter scenes are by far the most eye-catching, he was equally adept the other nine months of the year. His Parsonage at Wyszatycach (above) is a quaint, authentically 19th century rural landscape, that, while a good six-inch snowfall might have helped, is quite attractive in summer as well (the greens are subdued and minimal). However it was not Falat's landscapes, with or without snow, which first caught my eye, but his genre portraits such as Old Man Praying (right). This was an artist, though academically trained, who never let the academic penchant for "high art" get in the way of painting the really important "higher art" all around him. The old man and the parsonage co-exist as if they might have lived together.

Hunters in the Forest, 1889, Julian Falat.
This hunting scene could really use a good snowfall.
Winter, 1910, Julian Falat
As any painter will tell you, landscapes are mostly a matter of learning a few painterly techniques and a modestly accurate (or inherent aesthetic) for color. Outstanding genre painting requires in-depth familiarity with the pointed end of a pencil (the other end too, I suppose), but also the ability to probe beneath the obvious features, the surface anatomy, clothing, and props to a discover the character of portrayed by the actors upon the artists' carefully constructed stage setting. As Falat demonstrates in his Winter (right), in essence, God sets the stage for the landscape artist. Not unlike a screen writer or movie director, however, the genre artist must set the stage, provide the costumes, hire the actors, arrange them compositionally, facilitate the right lighting, and all of that before he or she draws the first line, much less begins deftly stroking pigment to canvas. Falat's Popielec (below) is the genre artist at his best.

Popielec, 1881, Julian Falat. No, it's not John Paul II, though we might like to imagine that one of the youthful penitents might be...except the painting is too old for that.
Athletes, 1891, Julian Falat
Falat studied art in Krakow and Munich and was blessed early on by the royal patronage of the German Emperor, Wilhelm II, who brought him to Berlin in 1886. Quite apart from exceptionally facile handling of genre subjects, Falat seems to have had been especially fond of hunting--whether an active participant or merely an observer is uncertain. Though winter in Poland can be brutal, Falat's hunters take the excitement, the camaraderie, the sportsman struggle in stride, not cursing the snow and cold but enjoying it. His Athletes (right) combines Falat's knack for genre with the exciting drama of the winter hunt. Whether in small groups or large hunting parties, such as his Hunting in Nieswieze (below), they seem to embrace the cold along with the frigid beauty like Christmas in January...or any other month of the long northern European winter. Brrrrrrrr...

Hunting in Nieswieze, 1891, Julian Falat


Saturday, April 26, 2014

Julius Exner

From the Art Academy's Plaster Molds, 1843, Julius Exner
(possibly a self-portrait).
It's not often in dealing with a given artist that one has the chance to compare his or her first painting with that person's last. Of course, such comparisons, while interesting, may not be particularly enlightening. Recently I came upon a little-known Danish painter named Julius Exner, born in 1825. Although he longed to become a history painter in his youth, the Danish academic art world he grew into during the 1840s was, instead encouraging young artist to paint that which was Danish...virtually anything that was Danish...especially as having to do with the rapidly changing way of life among the rural middle classes. Translated, that meant genre painting. So, the ambitious young artist, after traveling about Europe for a few years, returned to Copenhagen and worked to capture on canvas the "now and then" of Danish life. What he painted and how he painted was a moving target. He lived to be eighty-five, dying in 1910. His first major painting, From the Art Academy's Plaster Molds (top), was painted when he was eighteen. One or both figures may be self-portraits. He was awarded a "Little Silver Medallion" for it.

Portrait of the Artist, 1910, Julius Exner (his last work).
Whether or not young Julius Exner used himself as a model in his student work, there is no doubt he finally got around to painting himself in 1910. His Portrait of the Artist (above), painted sixty-seven years later, was his final work. With the possible exception of the 1843 painting, it is one of only two self-portraits (an earlier one dates from 1906). Both the 1843 and the 1910 paintings are remarkable works, the first for its surprising precocity, the second for its warmth and quiet verisimilitude in coming from the brush of an octogenarian. The first depicts how he learned his art, the last the temporal nature of such learning. That is, art persists, life does not.

Visiting Grandfather, 1855, Julius Exner--one of his most popular works
(judging from the number of artists who have copied it).
We are also fortunate in dealing with Exner in that his art and life were well chronicled. We can pick and choose examples from virtually every decade of his career, from his 1855 Visiting Grandfather (above) followed by his Meal Time Gathering (below) painted in 1868. In the interim, Exner's work grew darker; his light is more focused. The 1868 work seems livelier and more lighthearted. He seems to have encountered Caravaggio in his travels to Italy.

Meal Time Gathering, 1868, Julius Exner
I love Exner's 1878 painting from his time spent on the Danish island of Fano. As the excessively long title suggests, Fano Farmers Laughing at the Painter's Work in His Absence (below), genre art was as entertaining and exciting to the culturally starved peasants of this remote island as a modern-day 3-D movie seemed to us a few years ago when they were again revived. It's uncertain whether they found the painting itself amusing, or were simply amazed at the novelty of it.

Fano Farmers Laughing at the Painter's Work in His Absence, 1878, Julius Exner
Milk Chamber, 1909, Julius Exner
The 1880s were Julius Exner's academic years, the time during his prime when he did most of his teaching at the Danish Royal Academy where he fostered such talent as Paul Gustav Fischer, G.F. Clement, Vilhelm Hammershøi, Julius Paulsen, Peder Severin Krøyer, and a group which later came to be known as the Skagen Painters. However, from the late 1890s, we see Exner's Morning Industry (below, 1899), a soft, gentle, quiet little moment of rural Danish peace and tranquility. We might come to the conclusion that Exner was mellowing somewhat in his later years, except for the delightful wooing of the peasant milkmaid in his 1909 Milk Chamber (left), possibly his final genre painting. Despite the rural trappings, there seems a distinctly modern ambience to the work, a brash, "hands-on" courtship unlikely, especially in a rural setting, only a few years before.

Morning Industry, 1899, Julius Exner


Friday, April 25, 2014

An Architect's Worst Nightmare

Pisa's Piazza del Duomo at sunrise.
His name was Diotisalvi, and you have to feel at least a little sorry for the man. It was the twelfth century, the city was Pisa, Italy, and he was the closest thing they had to a bonafide architect. Moreover, the man had at least three projects going at once and none of them were going well. Work nearby on his Church of Santo Sepolcro was almost complete, but the bell tower was going much too slowly. There were foundation problems with St. John's Baptistery in front of the Pisa Cathedral; but worst of all, out back of the cathedral, there was the campanile. That's what was keeping him awake at nights. Work on the second floor had hardly begun and already there were signs the whole structure was starting to lean. The bell tower would eventually rise eight stories (183 feet) into the air. The lean would only get worse when finished, if indeed, the whole thing didn't topple over with the first strong breeze even before then. The problem was becoming ever more apparent to Diotisalvi, if to no one else. Pisa was a terrible place to build heavy stone structures (especially tall ones). The sandy soil was unstable. The problem with the baptistery was relatively minor. He could fix that, but the bell tower... The ground on the north side was firmer than that on the south side. Tons of stone and tons of money had already been spent. He couldn't just move the whole thing. And even if he could, who's to say a new location would be any better? What's an architect to do? History tells us what Diotisalvi did was to die. In Italian his name means "God save you," which apparently, He did.

The Pisa "Prato dei Miracoli" (Meadow of Miracles) as seen by the French artist, Charles Louis Clerisseau, in 1757. The baptistery is to the left. Artists have long tended to exaggerate the tower's lean slightly in their renderings.
There's no record as to when Diotisalvi was born nor precisely when he died (sometime after 1178). About that time, work was halted on the misbegotten bell tower for almost a hundred years while the city-state of Pisa licked its wounds following several military defeats meted out by its Italian neighbors, Genoa, Lucca, and Florence. This allowed the unfinished pile of cut marble to settle somewhat, righting itself enough to allow architect Giovanni di Simone (who hadn't even been born when the tower was begun), to try to correct the problem. His "solution" was mostly cosmetic. He built the remaining stories taller on the low side, shorter on the high side, thus, in effect, causing the building to curve slightly. Visually, it's largely imperceptible and structurally had little effect. The bell tower continued to lean.

Inside the campanile, seven bells for seven musical notes.
In 1294, with six stories tilting into the sky, construction was once more halted as Pisa once more fought with Genoa...and lost. It wasn't until 1319 that yet another architect, Tommaso di Andrea Pisano was able to top off the seventh floor followed by the Gothic bell housing on the eighth floor in 1372. Seven bells were installed, one for each note on the musical scale. The story of the astronomer, Galileo, dropping cannonballs from the top of the tower in a scientific experiment seems to have been a fabrication by his secretary. It probably never happen. But the story of how a U.S. Army Sergeant saved the troubled tower from an artillery bombardment by the Allies to take out a lofty German observation post did happen. Impressed by the beauty of the tower and cathedral, "saving" it was easy. He simply did nothing. The Germans and the tower survived.

Today, the tower leans at around four degrees, about the same angle as in 1838
(though you'd never guess it from this horrifying 1830 color etching).

The solution looks simple and logical
enough, but took 26 years to devise.
After the war, as Italy once more struggled to pull itself together following yet another military defeat, the tower's survival gradually became ever more problematical. The lean had reached a treacherous 5.5 degrees. The tower was some three feet taller on the north side than the south. If, for no other reason than to save a valuable tourist attraction, something had to be done. Italy called upon the world's best engineering minds to come up with a solution. Actually they got more than they bargained for, from the sublime (800 tons of lead to counterbalance on the north side) to the ridiculous (helium balloons moored overhead to keep the structure from falling over). They tried the lead weights (still in place today) but to little effect. They removed the bells lessening weight at the top. Still the lean not only remained, but continued to grow worse.

Only in seeing the entrance to the tower can one accurately judge the extent to which the tower tilted over the centuries and the massive effort to make it right (almost).
Having straightened up the place somewhat,
 they decided to clean it up too.
Finally, in 1990, more than twenty-five years after they began to study the problem, work began on righting the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Cables were looped around the third level then anchored a good distance away while engineers drilled diagonally under the north foundation to remove more than 38 cubic meters of soil, which slowly nudged the tilting tower back to 3.99 degrees. They could have actually reset it upright, but why waste a perfectly good tourist attraction? The tower was reopened to tourists in December, 2001, about eight months after my wife visited the area. (I chose to visit Florence instead).

Pisa's "Meadow of Miracles" according to Google. The baptistery is at left (the dome being restored), the cathedral in the middle, the campanile to the right, with tourists everywhere in between. My wife's the one about halfway between the tower and the cathedral.