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Friday, July 31, 2015

Painted Billboards

(Image 1) A dying breed of artist. Death by "oops"?                          
(Image 2) Billboard painting today.
No other form of art (stretching the definition a little) has changed more in the past hundred years than that of the painted billboard. Actually, strictly speaking in the traditional sense (Image 1, above), it has all but disappeared. In reality, this type of art has merely changed venue. No longer does the painter hang precariously, dozens of feet in the air, plying his skills. More often than not today, it's all done safely inside, flat on giant warehouse/studio floors (image 2, left), or mounted temporarily on a sizable wall fronted by scaffolding or a "cherry picker." Moreover, even at that, the painted billboard is all but a thing of the past, now replaced by the computer-driven "printed" billboard, though the gigantic, pigmented inkjet printers are, in fact, closer to painters than printers (Image 3, below). Originally they printed on strips of paper to be glued on the billboard much like wallpaper (Image 4, below). Advertisers even managed to invent a glue that deteriorated at roughly the same time as the billboard lease, causing the various layers of advertising to become an unsightly mess (Image 5, below).

(Image 3) The computer driven billboard printer (painter).
(Image 4) Billboards hung like wallpaper.

(Image 5) This is part of what gave billboards a bad name.
For better or worse billboards, as we think of them today (no one would dream of calling them art at that time), came with the automobile. Where there were cars, there was billboard advertising. The faster the cars traveled, the bigger the billboards in order to allow for words which could be read at forty miles an hour. They were totally unregulated as to size, number, placement, content, and taste. Often there was a sort of "billboard war" going on in which one billboard obstructed the view of others (Image 6, below). Ugly would be too mild an epithet for them. The famous Wall Drug of Wall, South Dakota, offering travelers "FREE ice water," practically lined the nearby highways "wall-to-wall" with their billboards. More recently there have even been musical billboards and scented billboards (near Mooresville, North Carolina, by the Bloom grocery chain). The signs depicted a giant cube of beef being pierced by a large fork that extended to the ground.

(Image 6) Billboard advertising circa 1920.
Obviously something had to be done; and thankfully, First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson took action. She persuaded her husband, the president, to push through Congress the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, which strongly encouraged states (through the threat of withholding federal highway funds) to pass certain specific laws governing billboards along interstate highways. For the most part the law has been effective, though some advertisers simply moved their billboards back from the highway the prescribed 300 yards and made them still bigger.

(Image 7) Still sold "everywhere" but for somewhat more.
Originally, all billboards were painted. Today, virtually none of them are. The painted billboard allowed existing surfaces such as the sides of buildings to become "billboards" (Image 7, above). Today, despite the ravages of old age, they often appear more quaint than unsightly. As with the antique Coca-Cola billboard, entire building today can sometimes be used as billboards. They take on such size and scale as to only be possible by painting them the old-fashioned way--by hand. Likewise, custom made billboards today, are sometimes of such size and/or creative invention as to rule out any digital printing device. The "bridge" billboard (Image 9, below) erected some years ago during the World Cup competition in Munich, Germany, could only have been hand painted, and may hold the record as to length and creative ingenuity as well. Sometimes, as with the bridge billboard, the locale suggests some rather creative adaptation of the billboard as seen in the Oldtimer rest stop ad incorporating, not a bridge, but a tunnel this time (Image 10, below, left).

(Image 8) The Nationwide wallscape (2007) stretches the definition of billboard
nearly to the breaking point with it's extreme advertising ingenuity.

(Image 9) Adidas Oliver Kahn bridge billboard, Munich, Germany.

(Image 10) How do you say, "Ahhh!" in Austrian?
Perhaps the last remaining stronghold for the billboard painter today is that of "billboards" painted on the fuselages of jet aircraft. Only good, old-fashioned, paint, hand-sprayed through stencils will withstand the speeds involved. In 1976, artist Alexander Calder was called upon by Braniff International Airlines to paint their new "Spirit of '76" Boeing 727 aircraft (Image 11, below). However, it might not have been a good idea. Braniff went bankrupt in 1982 and again in 1989. We probably can't blame Mr. Calder for that, though.

(Image 11) Alexander Calder's Braniff billboard.
Maybe he should have included the word "Braniff" somewhere.
Some billboards give the appearance of having been hand-painted when they're not. The shaped billboard for the Calcutta-based Berger Paints (Image 12, below) depicts the billboard painter creating a "fool the eye by matching the sky" image. The sky part is cut out. The billboard is not actually hand painted. I have to wonder sometimes if some of these billboards haven't caused traffic accidents.

(Image 12) Hand-painted? Not really, but the effect is not lost.
Occasionally, billboards are hand-painted out of necessity. Sharon Nelson of Salina, Kansas, has been on dialysis, waiting on the list for a kidney donor for six years. She has type "O" blood which makes locating a perfect match extremely difficult. When she heard that a Milwaukee man had obtained a donor by renting a billboard, her husband decided to do likewise. Unable to afford an artist, he painted the message himself (Image 13, below). That was nearly two years ago (2013). Sadly, they are still waiting.

(Image 13) A hand-painted plea for help.
And finally, hand-painted or otherwise, the traditional billboard is destined to undergo its most radical change ever. You've, no doubt, seen them, the digital LED billboards hovering over on of the busier highways in your area. At first they were little more than glorified electronic scoreboards. However, today, these digital wonders (Image 14, below) have a high-definition image to match your living room TV combined with gargantuan scale often making even the largest traditional billboards look puny. Moreover, though still quite expensive, they come in such a variety of sizes that small businesses or organization with even a modest advertising budget can afford them. Why post only one message, one image, when you can present a dozen or more? Let the passing drivers beware!

(Image 14) Only the sunset is more glorious.
The painted billboards of the past still haunt us.
This picturesque Mail Pouch barn is located in
southern Ohio not far from where we live.


Thursday, July 30, 2015

Sebastiano Ricci

The Judgment of Paris, 18th century, Sebastiano Ricci
Sebastiano Ricci Self-portrait.
It's no secret that, like most other areas of human endeavor, the male of the species has totally dominated the fine arts, especially painting and sculpture. One has only to contemplate the overwhelming number of nude female figures in subjective content down through the centuries to validate such a conclusion. And though this predominance has weakened in the last 150 years or so, it's still a fact of life. Assuming that women artists seldom paint the male nude (a safe assumption) one can almost judge the percentage of gay artists as well, throughout the history of art. I've never actually made a count, but my instincts tell me such a statistic would pretty accurately mirror the gay/straight ratio we've come to accept in today's society, a figure in the low single digits. Of course, it's impossible to say if this ratio has held steady or possibly increased slightly as homosexuality has gained some degree of socials acceptance. Perhaps it's too soon to tell. In any case, it's needless to point out that the female nude has been a favorite subject of the male dominated world of art, probably since the discovery of wet paint. Seldom, however, have I found an artist who has so completely devoted himself to the unclothed (or nearly so) female figure as the Italian artist of the Baroque era, Sebastiano Ricci.

Venus and Cupid, ca. 1700, Sebastiano Ricci

The Victory of David over Goliath,
Sebastiano Ricci
Although he occasionally painted the nearly nude male figure (right), it's a pretty safe assumption that Ricci was not gay. Far from it, in fact. Born in 1659, Ricci came of age in the Alpine town of Belluno (extreme northeastern Italy). He left for Venice at the age of fifteen only to make a hasty departure in 1681, having impregnated two women, one of whom he tried to poison. In Bologna, Ricci fell in love with the daughter of the landscape painter, Giovanni Peruzzini. He fled with her to Turin, abandoning his Venetian wife (whom he had been forced to marry) and their daughter. Ricci was denounced, arrested and sentenced to death for abduction and bigamy. Only the intercession of his good friend, the Duke of Parma, saved him. As punishment, Ricci was banished from the city of Turin. Though obviously not gay, the sexual overtones in virtually all of Ricci's work as seen in his Venus and Cupid (above), though thinly disguised, are never far beneath surface.

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, ca. 1695-97, Sebastiano Ricci
Fall of Phaeton, 1703,
Sebastiano Ricci.
The Duke bundled Ricci off to Rome where he employed the wayward young artist in copying Raphael's The Coronation of Charlemagne as a gift to Louis XIV of France. At a salary of 25 crowns a month, plus room and board in the Farnese Palace, it took Ricci nearly two years. When his protector died in 1694, Ricci lost his meal ticket and was forced to abandon Rome for Milan, having made himself notably unwelcomed in Venice, Bologna, and Turin. In Milan, Ricci found work painting frescoes to decorate various local churches. One of his best works, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (above) from around 1695-97 was likely created for one of these churches (and not a nude figure to be seen anywhere). By 1698, Ricci felt it safe to return to Venice where his growing reputation as a fresco painter brought him commissions decorating several of the newly-built churches in the city. (Venice has about one church per island and their are lots and lots of islands.) Ricci's ceiling fresco, Fall of Phaeton (left), though likely not painted for a church, was done during his time in Venice.

Sleeping Endymion, ca. 1700, Sebastiano Ricci
By 1706, Ricci's reputation had spread to Florence where he went to work for the Castelli family in decorating their newly built palace (now called the Palazzo Frenzi, a part of the University of Florence). His ceiling frescoes there, full of dramatic mythological figures (lots more nudity) are considered his masterpiece works. Impressed by these works, Ricci was chosen by no less than the Grand Duke Ferdinando de' Medici to decorate the Pitti Palace. One of Ricci's most erotic scenes was painted in Florence for one of these projects, his Sleeping Endymion (above) dating from around 1700. Now riding the high tide of his popularity, Ricci returned to Venice to work with his nephew, Marco Ricci, in painting a Madonna and Child for the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. From there, they were off to London to paint eight mythological canvases for Lord Burlington, decorate a chapel or two, and design some stained glass windows.

Bathsheba in Her Bath, 1725, Sebastiano Ricci
From England, on his way back to Venice, Ricci and his nephew assistant, stopped in Paris long enough to meet Jean-Antoine Watteau and accept admission into the Royal French Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Ricci returned to Venice a wealthy man with requests for more work than he could possibly handle. However, he chose instead to return to his hometown of Belluno to decorate the villa of an old friend, Giovanni Francesco Bembo. His Judgment of Paris (top) and his Bathsheba in Her Bath (above) were likely painted during this period of his career. The same is probably the case for one of Ricci's best religious works, his glorious Resurrection (below), painted sometime after 1700. Despite having once been banned from the city in his youth, Ricci spent his final years once more working in Turin, this time for the House of Savoy where he painted numerous similar religious works. He was admitted to the Clementine Academy in Venice in 1727 and it was there he died in 1734 at the age of seventy-five.

The Resurrection, 18th century, Sebastiano Ricci

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Théodule-Augustin Ribot

The Card Players, Theodule Ribot. Realism, though usually composed very carefully, often has a photographic "snapshot" quality which we, today, take for granted in painting, but which was really quite radical 150 years ago.
Cimabue Teaching Giotto to Draw,
Theodule Ribot. There's little doubt
which of the two figures Ribot most
identified with.
The term "realism" is probably the most misunderstood word in art. There are several reasons for this, the first being that it's so damned broad. A very large majority of people would consider any image in which you can identify the subject as being "realistic." That's manifestly not the case at all. Second, there is realism and then there is Realism (with a capital "R"). The first is generic, the second refers to a distinct, limited style first formulated in France around the middle of the 19th-century by painters such a Courbet, Millet, Daumier, Corot, Manet, and others, though both the term and its roots go back centuries before that to Flemish painters such as the van Eyck brothers. Third, Realism is often mistaken as a style of panting when really, it was more of an art movement. Realism involved a stripping away of all academic pretense in search of truth and gritty honesty in the depiction of everyday life at all levels of society. Primarily, though, it dealt with those who had, for so many centuries, been ignored or underrepresented by artists reflecting the tastes of their upper-class collectors (including the church) with enough money to pay them a decent living. Realism was often not a very lucrative type of art. Perhaps we can best understand this plain, simple, no-frills type of art by looking not at the leaders of the movement, those mentioned above, but at some of the lesser adherents whose work was, in many was, even more Realist than the "big four or five" named above. One of he best such artists to observe in this regard was the French painter, Theodule-Augustin Ribot (not to be confused with the early French psychologist, Theodule-Armand Ribot).

Still Life with Pumpkin, Plums, Cherries and Figs with Jar, ca. 1860, Theodule Ribot
Theodule Ribot Self-portrait
Theodule-Augustin Ribot was born in 1823. He grew up in the small French town of Saint-Nicolas-d'Attez (north-central France) where he studied at the École des Arts et Métiers de Châlons before moving on to Paris in 1845. There he worked decorating gilded frames for a mirror manufacturer. That, such as it was, came to be about the extent of his formal art training. In the late 1850s, while still working at peripheral art-related crafts, Ribot began to paint seriously, at night, after a full day's work, by lamplight. That's pretty serious. Having little exposure to anything else, Realism came naturally to him, as did this lower-class subjects. Judging from several of his still-life paintings, Ribot seems to have had a deep appreciation for food, and good friends with those who prepared it (below left and right). His self-portrait, (left) suggests he may have been a good friend of Vincent van Gogh as well.

The Kitchen Boy,
Theodule Ribot.
The Cook and the Cat,
Theodule Ribot.
To the Sermon, Theodule Ribot.
Even for the starving artist, food wasn't his only solemn content. Like many Realist painters, there was often a devotion to the spiritual, in Ribot's case, scenes from the New Testament such as his The Good Samaritan (below) from 1870, and his Saint Sebastian, Martyr (bottom). His more contemporary The Sermon, (left) is almost humorous in is dark solemnity. Despite the lower-class content of his work, Ribot was able to obtain a degree of acceptance, thanks to his devotion to the Baroque artists, Ribera, Rembrandt, and ultimately, harkening back as far as Caravaggio. Using his family as models, Ribot was able to place one of his kitchen paintings and one of his religious works, St. Sebastian, Martyr in the 1864 and 1865 Salon show. Collectors purchased them all. The final decade of his life, Ribot spent in Colombes in poor health. He died there in 1891.

The Good Samaritan, 1870, Theodule Ribot--extreme Realism.
Saint Sebastian, Martyr, before 1865, Theodule Ribot.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Guido Reni

Guido Reni Self-portrait, ca. 1630.
A year or two ago I put together a video (above) detailing the way artists down through the centuries have depicted the life of Christ. I spent several weeks researching, collecting, cataloging, and writing a narration. It was a labor of love. Since then, many of those images I've also used in various entries in this blog depicting major episodes from the Gospels. Today, I came upon an artist, not totally unknown to me previously, but one whom I'd never studied to any great extent. In perusing his considerable body of work, it looks as if I might have saved myself a lot of time and effort if I'd only stuck to this one artist--the Baroque painter from Bologna, Guido Reni. It would seem that few artists have been so conscientious in depicting virtually all the major events in Christ's life with such veracity and skill.
David with the Head of Goliath,
1605, Guido Reni
Guido Reni was born in 1575, the son a musician (perhaps a whole family of them). In any case, his art talent was recognized at a very early age. He was but nine years old when he was apprenticed to the painter, Denis Calvert, a Flemish artist living and working in Bologna at the time. There he was joined by two slightly lesser artists, Albani and Domenichino, all of whom were trained in a somewhat Flemish Mannerist style at creating religious works. When they were about twenty, the three of them moved to one of Italy's earliest art schools, called the Academy of the Progressives (loosely translated) founded by Lodovico Carracci and staffed by a couple of his more well-known cousins, Annibale and Agostino Carracci. In later years, the Carracci family and their followers like Reni went on to form the basis of the Bolognese school of art (a group who painted in a similar manner, not a formal school). One of Reni's earliest works, David with the Head of Goliath (right) from 1605, displays the strong influence of Caravaggio over any of Reni's earlier art instruction. Reni's later work was more eclectic as he melded all his instructional training into a single Baroque style all his own.

Apollo in his Chariot preceded by Dawn (Aurora), Guido Reni
Massacre of the Innocents,
1611, Guido Reni.
Around 1601, Annibale Carracci won the commission to decorate the Farnese Palace in Rome. He took Reni and several others from their academy with him and thus introduced Rome, and specifically the influential Borghese family to Guido Reni, and he to them. What followed was a sizable number of ceiling frescoes resulting from something of a "palace race" among the city's wealthiest families, all of whom were connected in various ways to the church hierarchy from the pope on down. Reni's Apollo in his Chariot preceded by Dawn (above) likely dates from around 1615. Today it's to be found in the large central hall of garden palace, Casino dell'Aurora, located on the grounds of the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi. It is considered Reni's masterpiece from his nearly two decades working in Rome and later in Naples. Reni's Massacre of the Innocents (left) dates from 1611, which would also put it during his period in Rome.

Bacchus and Ariadne, 1619-20, Guido Reni
St Dominic's Glory, crowning the
cupola of San Domenico,
after 1615, Guido Reni.
Fearing that he might be poisoned by his competitors if he remained in Naples, Reni returned home to Bologna sometime between 1615 and 1618 where he remained until his death in 1642. There he picked up the commission the decorate the ceiling of St Dominic's Glory , crowning the cupola of San Domenico in the Basilica of Saint Dominic (left). Reni's rather erotic mythological classic, Bacchus and Ariadne (above) dates from around 1619-20, which would place it as one of the artist's earliest works after returning to Bologna from Rome. It was about this same time also when Reni veered away from mythology toward the religious works in line with those he'd painted decades before while still an apprentice. However, in place of largely Old Testament depictions, Reni took up the life of Christ as the major focus of his work. His Christ with the Cross (below, left) dates from around 1620, while his Baptism of Christ (below, right) from around 1622-23. Together they are an indication of his rapidly evolving style as his work took a new direction toward the spiritual rather than the merely decorative.

Jesus Christ with the Cross,
1620, Guido Reni
The Baptism of Christ,
1622-23, Guido Reni
Although these early religious works are interesting for their stylistic development, the vast majority of Reni's more outstanding religious works date from the period 1635 to 1640. Two of my favorites are St Matthew and the Angel (below, left), 1635-40 and the exceptional depiction of Saint Joseph and the Christ Child, (below, right) from 1639. Paintings of the Madonna and Child by Raphael and virtually every other painter after him were quite common. As a result, Reni's touching "step-father and son" is highly unique and personal. It would appear that Reni used the same model for both works. Then, putting them all together, he painted something of a family reunion with his 1636 The Holy Family (bottom).

St. Matthew and the Angel,
1635-40, Guido Reni
Saint Joseph and the Christ Child,
1639, Guido Reni

The Holy Family, 1636, Guido Reni


Monday, July 27, 2015

Robert Lewis Reid

People Sketching by the Shore, Robert Reid.                         
Being an Impressionist portrait painter meant he could also paint landscapes.                     
When I come upon an artist I like, usually he or she has some primary style or area of content for which they're best known. If, for instance, the artist has painted portraits, which make up maybe ninety percent of their work, the first thing I look for is whatever else that artist may have done. I take it for granted that their portraiture is superb, or at least above average. Also, there's the fact that their portraits were likely not all that different from those turned out by a hundred or so of their peers. All of which tends to make them...if not boring, at least less interesting than any secondary content. This same works in reverse too, except that a landscape painter is not necessarily equally adept at painting portraits. In fact that's more often than not the case. Robert Lewis Reid was an American, turn-of-the century Impressionist who painted primarily portraits (below). Actually, he further limited himself almost exclusively to female subjects--very beautiful female subjects.
Tempting Sweets, 1924, Robert Reid, painted toward the end of his
career when his portraits became less impressionist.
An artist does not become an Impressionist by painting portraits. One first learns to paint at home then moves to Paris where one learns Impressionism by painting landscapes. Even Claude Monet did not start out painting Impressionist portraits. Robert Reid was born in 1862. He grew up in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and first studied art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, before moving on to New York and the Art Students League. Then in 1885, Reid was off to Paris and the Academie Julian. It was there he learned the art of landscape in the French Impressionist style. Though A Woodland Stream (below, left) dates from 1899, (long after Paris) and Autumn Sunlight (below, right) likely from around the same time, they both bear the mark of French, rather than American Impressionism, to a point so heavy with visual texture as to near abstraction.

A Woodland Stream, 1899, Robert Reid
Autumn Sunlight, Robert Reid

Lady with a Parasol, 1921, Robert Reid

Four years later, in returning to New York, Reid found a position teaching at the Art Students League and the Cooper Union (competing schools, but that seemed not to matter). On the side, he expanded his repertoire to include murals and stained glass. In so doing, he found work at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, specifically painting frescoes for the dome of the Liberal Arts Building. Then in 1897, Reid and ten other artists broke away from the Society of American Artists to form the Ten American Painters. In 1906 he became a full member of the National Academy of Design. Around the turn of the century, Reid worked on several mural projects, which affected his style. It became less Impressionist. Thus, when he returned to painting the lovely ladies around 1905, his work was more naturalistic (above, right and at top), his palette trending toward soft pastels shades.

Three Figures in an Italian Garden, Robert Reid

The refinement in Reid's painting style is no more evident as when Lady with a Parasol (above, right) is compared with his Three Figures in an Italian Garden (above) painted several years earlier. The latter has an academic quality which suggests it may, in fact, date from his four years studying in Paris. Most artists tire of painting the same type of work again and again (portraits in Reid's case) to the point they yearn to break free to something totally different. Being a New Englander, that may well be what we see in his Cornish Fisherman At Sea (below). Despite the reference to English fishermen in the title, the subject and style seems equally northeastern American. That's certainly the case with his Street Scene in Winter (bottom) which is obviously New York City in the 1920s. Though in retirement during that decade, Reid continued to paint right up to his death in 1929 at the age of sixty-seven.

Cornish Fisherman At Sea, Robert Reid

Street Scene in Winter, Robert Lewis Reid

I couldn't resist adding this very
uncharacteristic beauty. Why is
it so different? It's by Robert O. Reid.
(December, 1947).