Click on photos to enlarge.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

John Martin

The Ruins of Moscow, 2014, Jonas De Ro

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852, John Martin
The Bard, 1817, John Martin
There was a time when artists were merchants of beauty. Whether it was painting beautiful landscapes and seascapes, beautiful women, beautiful children, even beautiful men. I suppose that's still the case, but it seems to me that today's painters, especially digital painters, are a lot more pessimistic than in the past; and with pessimism comes ugliness. There are several reasons for this, I think. Not the least of them is the horrifically violent nature of computer gaming--warfare, destruction, fantasy beasts, etc., virtually all of which demand ugliness. Another possible cause is simply reactionary. Beauty can be boring. Deliberately painting that which is naturally ugly to start with, then painting it as ugly as possible, such artists find exciting. And finally, one doesn't have to spend much time reading political forum comments to come to the realization that society...people in general...are becoming more and more frightened, and thus more and more pessimistic. As a result, they have become more and more ugly, if not in countenance, than at least in attitude. The work of Jonas De Ro is emblematic of this trend as seen in his The Ruins of Moscow (top) from 2014. Comparing it to The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (above) from 1852, I'd have to conclude that its English painter John Martin, who lived some two-hundred years ago, would feel right at home in the 21st-century.

The Seventh Plague of Egypt, 1823, Martin, John
John Martin, 1838, Henry Warren
John Martin was the creator of a particularly nasty strain of Victorian art. He and his paintings are totally out of character with the vast majority of such works. You don't have to know much about 19th-century England, or its art, to know that Queen Victoria and her subjects liked pretty stuff. They pretty well stuffed their homes with pretty stuff. And, as anyone who has ever eaten (or even seen) too much pretty stuff knows, after a while it becomes sickeningly sweet. Personally, I have a very low tolerance for such stuff. Perhaps the British fascination with the apocalyptic painting of John Martin is a similar reaction. (I should point out there's a present-day British Impressionist by the name of John Martin too.) I should also note that John Martin could, when the mood struck him, paint some "pretty stuff" too, as his The Plains of Heaven (below), from 1851, would seem to prove.

Belshazzar's Feast, 1820, John Martin
Sadak, In Search of the Waters
of Oblivion, 1817, John Martin
John Martin was born in 1789 near Hexham in Northumberland. His father was a fencing master. John was the youngest of four sons. During that era, just because you exhibited a degree of painting talent as a child didn't automatically mean you were on your way to becoming an artist. Young John Martin was first apprenticed to a carriage maker as a heraldic painter. That fell through due to monetary squabbles so instead, John was sent off to learn the trade of an enamel painter (on ceramics). In 1806, Martin and his instructor moved to London. There Martin fell in love and married at the age of nineteen. He supported himself and his new bride by giving art lessons and painting plates. Only one of his plates survive and none of his art lessons. Although Martin began entering paintings in the Royal Academy competition in 1810, his first breakthrough as an artist didn't come until 1817 when he entered Sadak In Search of the Waters of Oblivion (right). It didn't win any gold medals, but when Martin brought it home and unwrapped it afterwards, he found a calling card from a member of Parliament who wanted to buy it. That sale led to a stream of patronage lasting the rest of his life. His Belshazzar's Feast (below) came next in 1820 followed by almost a dozen more such exercises in apocalyptic ugliness, each more biblically terrifying than the one before.

The Plains of Heaven, 1851, John Martin
The Coronation of Queen Victoria,
1839, John Martin
From that point on, Martin seems to have unleashed his wild imagination in conjuring up some of the wildest, worst-case scenarios ever seen in British art. In fact, he ended up painting a trilogy of godly power starting in 1851 with The Plains of Heaven (above), The Great Day of his Wrath (below) and The Last Judgment (bottom) the following year. Martin was also an exemplary printmaker, one of the first to explore and perfect the art of the mezzotint (half-tones used in an etching). These and the trilogy mentioned above were among Martin's last works. In general, critics never much like Martin's out-of-this-world and/or end-of-the-world paintings. But the public, meaning England's new middle-class springing forth from the Industrial Revolution, liked his giant showpieces based upon scenes from the book of Revelations. They couldn't afford to buy them (even copied into print format), but claims were made that as many as eight-million people paid to see his works wherever the paintings traveled around England (later to Australia).

The Great Day of His Wrath, 1851,John Martin
John Martin died in 1854. His work was exhibited publically for several years after his death, though his style and content faded in popularity around the end of the century. The three trilogy painting were sold separately. Two remained in the hands of a single collector. It was another hundred years before London's Tate Gallery managed to pull them back together for a commemorative exhibition in 1974. One can only imagine their popularity today, given the current infatuation we see on the Internet with the ugliness of death, destruction, destitution, devastation, and deterioration.

The Last Judgment, 1852, John Martin


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Name That Self-portrait

Back in March, I started a little game in which I asked readers to "Name that Artist" based upon one of their paintings or other works of art. Today, I'm going to do something not all that different, asking readers to "Name that Artist" based upon their self-portraits. Most of these artist are (or should be) household names, at least for those interested enough in art to read these words. Some people are good at remembering names, others in remembering faces. How many times have you told some, "Your face is familiar; I just can't remember your name." As I did before, I'll try to offer a clue that's helpful but not too helpful. I have also included the date the painting was done, which will at least put your thinking in the right century, although the artists' garb alone ought to help in that regard as well. Also, look at the style. Remember, these are portraits, painted by the artists themselves in their predominant style. They are not, however, necessarily the artists' most familiar self-portraits and some were done in their youth. By the way, don't go looking for the obvious ones like van Gogh, Picasso, Warhol, or Jim Lane. That would be too easy.

1623, His nickname might have been "Chipper."
1629, His first, but certainly not his last...
1925, Looking rather bleak...
ca. 1500, A thinker and a doer...
ca. 1600, Talent tempered by a temper...
1877, A momma's boy
1906, Forgers love him...

1893, Loved topless girls...
1979, His identity is a closely guarded secret...
1866, An American in Paris...

First and last names of each artist, please...

Please do not post your guesses to the "Comments" section below.

Send them to me at:

Be sure to include your name and e-mail address so I can contact you if you get them all correct.


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Charles Spencer Chaplin

                     Click above--
Charlie Chaplin and his Little Tramp as seen in City Lights
and depicted by painter,  Renato Casaro.
Hollywood has always loved "rags to riches" stories. Unfortunately, it's fond of "rags to riches to rags again" stories too. It often seems that Hollywood treats some of its greatest talents in the same manner as its movie sets--what Hollywood builds, Hollywood reserves the right to tear down. In a nutshell, that pretty well describes the life and times of Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin. It would be hard to overstate the impact Charlie Chaplin had on the American film capital almost exactly one hundred years ago. It's not so much the "Little Tramp," though that was a brilliant piece of prolonged improvisation never seen before and seldom seen since. Mostly, however, Chaplin brought to Hollywood not just a new way of filming comedy, but a whole new way of thinking of comedy. Without Chaplin, their would likely have been no Three Stooges, no Martin and Lewis, no Hope and Crosby, no Red Skelton, no Woody Allen, no Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, nor Ellen DeGeneres, at least not in the manner we know or remember them today. Each in their own way, owes a debt of gratitude to the genius and creativity of Charlie Chaplin.

The Little Tramp makes his debut, Kid Auto Races at Venice, 1914.
The Little Tramp's paper dolls from
the 1920s demonstrate the variants
in Chaplin's tramp wardrobe.
The silent comedy of the 1910-1930 era is often referred to as "slapstick." Though it may have begun that way, Charlie changed and refined that. His slapstick was not of the Barnum & Bailey variety but one of his own invention--an intelligent slapstick, equal parts humor, pathos, irony, restrained physicality, and subtle romanticism. The year was 1913. The Little Tramp was born in the wardrobe department of Max Sennet's Keystone Pictures where Chaplin pulled together a look of strong contradictions--baggy pants, tight vest, huge, oversized, floppy shoes, and tiny moustache (above). Although the character developed out of the costume, it's what Chaplin did with the tramp which makes them both Hollywood icons. He was more than a talented comic actor, also a screenwriter, music composer (who couldn't read music), director, innovator, and producer. Chaplin's son once claimed that if his father could have sewn the costumes, he would have done that too. The word workaholic comes to mind.

Charles Chaplin, ca. 1903-08
Charlie Chaplin learned to make people laugh from the ground up, starting as a boy, observing London vaudeville comedians, watching his actress mother imitate people they saw on their street, and by actually performing on stage himself. He was in a stage version of Sherlock Holmes at the age of fourteen. Born in 1889, young Charlie learned the pathos and driving ambition early in life. His father was an alcoholic, his mother, though she lived to be sixty-three, the final twenty-five years of her life she spent in and institution for the insane. To say that Charlie and his older half-brother, Sydney, were underprivileged and poverty stricken, while accurate, would be better described as simply starving. Twice Charlie was put in an orphanage. We could legitimately call them "street urchins." As practically his only means of survival, Charlie and his brother began performing on the London vaudeville stage, eventually landing spots in a boys' group called the Eight Lancashire Lads. Their act involved clog dancing.

By the time Chaplin was sixteen he was starring in a major West End stage production. Meanwhile, his brother had joined the highly successful Fred Karno Comedy Troupe, becoming one of their key performers. As a result, he managed to wrangle a two-week tryout for his little brother. The very first night, performing at the London Coliseum, Charlie stole the show, far outshining Sydney, receiving great press reviews, and a long-term contract. He was still in his teens. When the group moved to the United States to join the American vaudeville circuit, Charlie and his brother went with them. It was some forty years before either went back to London. Six months into the tour, Charlie landed his first movie contract, with Keystone Pictures. (Remember the Keystone Cops?) At the time they were still making motion pictures on the banks of the Hudson. The year was 1913, Charlie was earning $150 per week.

Chaplin's Modern Times deals with his take on the industrial dehumanization
of the Depression era. It was released in 1936, an attempt perhaps
to make the jobless less unhappy at not having jobs.
Shortly thereafter the company (along with Charlie and his brother) landed in sunny California (mostly because it was sunny), and a certain real estate development named Hollywood Land began to take off. From that point on, the rise of Charlie Chaplin from bit player to millionaire Hollywood producer could be considered nothing short of meteoric. His first film, a one-reeler, was called Making a Living (below), which Chaplin disliked. It did, however, allow him to learn the film-maker's art (limited as it was at the time) from the ground up. The "Tramp" made his first appearance in Chaplin's second film and was so successful with audiences as to become Chaplin's only screen persona for then next ten years.

Making A Living, 1914, Chaplin's first film.
Two or three other "tramp" films followed, in which Chaplin clashed with uncooperative directors to the point Max Sennet allowed Chaplin to direct his next film himself. It was called Caught in the Rain, debuting in May of 1914. Keep in mind Chaplin had been working in films less than a year. Additional one and two-reel silent epics followed at the rate of about one a week. By the end of the year, Charlie landed his first starring role in a feature-length film directed by Sennet called Tillie's Punctured Romance (these titles crack me up) opposite Marie Dressler. So successful was that movie that when his contract was up at the end of the year, Charlie asked for $1000 per week. Sennet refused, so Charlie took his talents elsewhere.

Charlie Chaplin Studios, La Brea Ave. at Sunset Blvd, Hollywood, ca 1920.

The Little Tramp doll, 1918
Elsewhere was down the street to Essanay Film Manufacturing Company where he negotiated a contract for $1,250 per week with a signing bonus of $10,000. At Essanay Charlie asserted himself, gaining a high level of control over his pictures. During his time at Essanay, the Little Tramp became more popular that Charlie Chaplin, spawning a line of dolls (action figures today) other toys, books, comic strips, and miscellaneous merchandise. Real money began to flow in. Charley began to recruit a troupe of talented players for his films including his future wife, Edna Purviance, who was to work with Charlie in some thirty-five of his films (their professional relationship lasted longer than their marriage). Another year passed, Charlie's contract with Essanay expired, and this time he demanded a signing bonus of $150,000 and $10,000 per week. Universal, Fox, and Vitagraph looked him over, considered the matter, then shook their heads in dismay. No one in Hollywood was making that kind of money and Chaplin had only been in town something just over three years. Mutual Film Studio, however, looked at the deal, rolled their eyes in amazement, then apparently decided, what the hell, it's only money. The contract netted Chaplin $670,000 the first year, not just outstripping everyone else in Hollywood, but making the twenty-six-year-old former street urchin from London one of the highest paid people in the world. The public was shocked, the press outraged, but the studio seemed to think they got their money's worth.

The Kid was Chaplin's first
film to exceed an hour in length.
Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in
The Kid, 1921
A Dog's Life, 1918
Chaplin could have taken the money and ran but instead he used it to start his own movie studio where he could film whatever he wanted, wherever he wanted, however he wanted, with whom he wanted, whenever he wanted, and take as long as he wanted--all of which he did, and still managed to show a profit. They began operations in January of 1918 and continued making movies at what was considered a ruinously leisure rate for the next thirty-four years. (Today, Chaplin's "leisurely" production schedule would be considered a breakneck pace). His most famous films all came from this period--The Kid, A Woman of Paris, A Dog's Life, Gold Rush (which earned $5-million), The Circus, City Lights, and in 1940 The Great Dictator which garnered five Academy Award nominations. It won none. The competition was simply too tough. Also, Chaplin's style of directing was starting to appear dated by that time.

The Great Dictator, 1940, ruthlessly mocked both Hitler and Mussolini while earning
Chaplin five Academy Award nominations. Chaplin plays both Hitler and a Jewish barber.
Even as his wealth, power, and popularity continued to soar, Hollywood began the process of disassembling Charlie Chaplin. It began when the British press excoriated Chaplin for not leaving his skyrocketing movie career to come home and fight in their so-called "war to end all wars." His difficulties exploded with his many legal battles and matrimonial squabbles (his divorce settlement with second wife, Lita Grey totaled out to some $600,000, a record at the time). Combined with these was his reluctance to embrace new technologies in film production (The Great Dictator in 1940, was his first talkie); his final film Countess from Hong Kong (1967) his only color or wide-screen film. Chaplin's troubles further escalated when his movies began to make strident, and highly effective social comments, which offended southern conservatives. Then, during the McCarthy era in the early 1950s, Chaplin, calling himself a "peacemonger" was accused of being a communist. Since he was still a British subject, he was threatened with deportation.

Actor, Jack Lemmon welcomes Charles Chaplain back to the United States for an Honorary Academy Award after having been gone for twenty years.
Angered, Chaplin simply closed up shop in Hollywood and head back to England where he was later welcomed by the queen herself with a knighthood in 1975. He continued to make a few movies, mostly autobiographical in nature (Limelight), but mostly sought peace and quiet with his newest wife, Oona O'Neill (daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill) who was thirty-six years his junior, and with whom he had eight children. Chaplin was vindicated somewhat when, in 1972 the AMPAAS invited him back to Hollywood for an Honorary Oscar citing his decades of excellence in motion picture achievement. In his later years, Chaplin suffered a series of minor strokes which gradually impaired him to the point he could no longer communicate. He died in Switzerland in 1977 at the age of eighty-eight.


Click below for a clip from Chaplin's Gold Rush from 1925, which he considered one of his best.


Monday, April 27, 2015

Sandy Skoglund

Sandy Skoglund's best efforts. (Some are shown below in larger format.)

Sandy Skoglund
Normally when I write about a photographer, I do so in a somewhat different manner than I would a painter. Painters create a limited number of images over their lifetime. Artist-Photographers, on the other hand, often seem to create a virtually unlimited output during their careers. Simply selecting which of their photos to use is an excruciating task. Moreover, photographers are different in that they take their camera and go on hunting expeditions, taking literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of different images (especially with the advent of digital photography, from which they may cull one or two masterpieces. There's an old controversy as to whether photographers make pictures or take them. That of course, depends on the photographer. The "hunter-gatherer" type of photographer "takes" pictures as the mood strikes them or circumstances allow. However, photographers such a Sandy Skoglund fall into the more limited group of photographic artists who "make" pictures, often going to extreme lengths to capture the precise art image they visualize long before they drag out their new, state-of-the-art Nikons. I need to write about Skoglund's art as if she were a painter.
Cheetos Cocktail Party, 1992-95, Sandy Skoglund, live models and manikins all decked out in cheese curls. I'm guessing she couldn't eat a Cheeto now if her life depended on it.
Bacon, 1992-95, Sandy Skoglund
Actually, Skoglund spends more time and effort in planning and creating her art than do virtually all painters today--as much as six months. Then It all comes down to a single day of photography, often with specially dressed live models as seen in her Cheetos Cocktail Party (above). In a similar vein, the art material is raw Bacon, (right) deftly glued over a manikin and a live model (foreground). However, perhaps most distressing of all her works is her Walking on Eggshells (below). I know the people and the eggshells are real, I'm less certain of the serpents (I would hope they're fake.) Here we begin to find a fuzzy line between the conceptual installation and the photos preserving it. Which are the more important? Are the photos merely the canvas upon which the Cheetos and bacon are painted?

Walking on Eggshells, 1996-2003, Sandy Skoglund...both literally and figuratively.
Notice the footprints across the floor and the cute little bunnies protecting the bathers.
1978, Sandy Skoglund
Sandy Skoglund is a New England artist. born in 1946. She graduated from Smith College, an all-girls school, in 1968 with time out to study art history at the Sorbonne and École du Louvre in Paris. After graduating from Smith College, she went to graduate school at the University of Iowa in 1969, where she studied filmmaking, multimedia art, and printmaking. In 1971, she earned her Master of Arts and in 1972 a Master of Fine Arts in painting. With credentials like that you might expect Sandy Skoglund to be a college professor, and you'd be right. She was an art professor at the University of Hartford between 1973 and 1976. She currently teaches photography and art installation/multimedia at Rutgers University.

Revenge of the Goldfish, 1979-84,
Sandy Skoglund
Sandy's early work, during the 1970s involved shooting multiple images of identical vacation cabins, mostly from the 1950s, from all appearances. Later, she moved on to brightly colored pattern repetitions and subtle, low contrast tableaus. Later she set up contrasting shapes juxtaposed against low contract colors and patterns (above, left) followed by the more and more complex tableaus (top) and her Revenge of the Goldfish (right) from 1979-84. Then in 2001, Skoglund teamed up with artist, Ellen Driscoll to create functional art at Smith College's John Michael Kohler Arts Center. They chose the theme "Catching the Drift" involving sea creatures and plant life for the women's facility and "Liquid Origins and Fluid Dreams," dealing with various cultural stories of creation for the Men's Room. These themes are depicted in ceramic tiles covering the walls. The two artists collaborated with the porcelain artists of the Kohler Company (the museums major benefactor) to create distinctive fixtures for their creation.

Liquid Origins and Fluid Dreams, 2001, Smith College, Ellen Driscoll and Sandy Skoglund.
Happy Flushing
Sandy Skoglund's most recent works involve ceramic snowflakes (about 18 inches in diameter) upon which she fires custom-made decals featuring black snowflakes in the center of which she has carefully Photo shopped a single eye, that of a close friend or pet. In so doing, she brings together one of the oldest arts known to man with one of the newest, not so much to be photographed but to exist in their own spaces. Sandy Skoglund, is, of course a photographer (self-taught, in fact) but as this broad sampling of her work would indicated she so very much more, everything, in fact but a painter.

This series Skoglund calls simply "Winter."


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona, Arizona

Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona, Arizona                                             

The chapel is not equally impressive at
night but still striking in its soaring presence
I could kick myself now for having missed it. Last April, as my wife and I were driving south on I-17 out of Flagstaff toward Phoenix, we passed Sedona, Arizona, a small tourist/retirement city some ten miles or so off the Interstate. In doing so, we also passed up the chance to see one of the most remarkable architectural landmarks in the Southwest, perhaps the entire country, the Chapel of the Holy Cross. That's what I get for not doing my homework as to places to go and things to see before leaving home. The little side trip would hardly have taken more than an hour. But, we were nearing our destination and our son and his family in Phoenix (two hours or so south) so we weren't really in the mood for side trips. It's a Catholic church and I'm Protestant, but hey, I can still light a candle and say a prayer when inspired by this kind of spiritual beauty.
The desert landscape of the area dwarfs the chapel. Sedona is off to the far left.
In seeing photos of the chapel such as the one at the top, the Arizona manmade wonder (one of seven)appears pretty impressive. It's only when seen against the grand sweep of the desert landscape (above) that one gets a feel for the God-made wonder in which it resides (the tiny white dot on the left). I'm used to writing that some such landmark has a long and colorful history. This one doesn't. Completed in 1956, meaning it's less than sixty years old; and in its timeless, minimalist simplicity, looks to be far less than that. Moreover, it almost didn't get least not in Arizona. The inspiration for the architectural work of art is somewhat strange--the Empire State Building--yes, the one in New York City. Alright, there is a slight resemblance, but very slight.

From the entry side (the terms front and back are useless here), the chapel is simple,
understated, and fairly unimpressive, far and away overwhelmed by the view.
Marguerite Brunswig Staude
The inspiration dates back to 1932 and a local rancher and sculptor, Marguerite Brunswig Staude. She originally had in mind to build the chapel in her native Hungary, in Budapest. She enlisted the help of Lloyd Wright, the son of architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, to help pull it off. The only problem was, it's pretty hard to build a new church when all around it, old churches are being brought to rubble by the bombs of WW II. So instead, the wealthy heiress decided to build her vision of the "Empire State Building Chapel," near her hometown of Sedona. She hired architects, Richard Hein as project architect, the design executed by architect, August K. Strotz, both of the firm Anshen and Allen. The chapel was to be built on Coconino National Forest land so Mrs. Staude turned to her senator, Barry Goldwater, for a Special-Use Permit. With the paperwork out of the way, construction began, the chapel being completed some eighteen months later at a cost of $300,000 ($2.5-million today).

The entry façade offers no hint as to the beauty inside and the view behind the altar.
With a view like this from the
pews, it might be hard to keep
one's mind on the homily.
Mrs. Staude got her money's worth. The following year (1957), the American Institute of Architects (AIA) gave her chapel its Award of Honor. Fifty years later, 2007, Arizonans voted the Chapel of the Holy Cross one of the Seven Manmade Wonders of Arizona. Lodged in such a magnificent setting, one might imagine a spectacular view of the sprawling desert landscape. Well, yes and no. If you gaze a far off, you see an impressive range of reddish and yellowish mountains (below). If, on the other hand, you look out and down, it's not hard to imagine where the chapel picked up its nickname, "Hollywood on the Rocks." Sprawling not more than a mile from the base of the chapel is one of several gated private estates, this particular one sprawling over several acres with its horrendous architecture, replete with lily pond, gazebos, four car garage, guard house and forecourt fountain (bottom). Seemingly God and man trying to outdo one another.

The view behind the altar.
Just down over the hill.