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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Mort Kunstler

The Blue and the Gray, 1982, Mort Kunstler.
Back several months ago I wrote an item on "Art Fails" detailing various incidents in which artists had made mistakes in the content of their work. They ranged from minor errors no one but the artist would notice to historical inaccuracies everybody, especially the art critics, noticed. One such error I cited was that of Emanuel Leutze in his famous Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted in 1851. For some, Leutze's errors ruined the whole painting. For others, the artist's bold rendering of Washington's heroism made all the minor departures from reality a exercise in nitpicking. In contrast, I presented a 2011 painting of the same subject by the American artist, Mort Kunstler in which the artist spent two months researching his subject in order to correct Leutze's historical errors (near the bottom of the linked page). That's why, yesterday, as I was researching another artist and stumbled over Kunstler's name, thinking I may have already written about him, I did some checking. I had, in fact, mentioned him; but not in the depth his work deserves.

The war artist who never went to war.
Mort Kunstler was born in 1927, which means he will soon be ninety years old. That's not quite old enough to remember the Civil War, but you'd never know it from his paintings. Though Kunstler has painted the battle scenes and military leaders of virtually every national conflict since the Revolution, it was the American Civil War which has brought him the greatest recognition, appreciation, and success. It was a success that didn't come easily nor quickly. Born in Brooklyn, New York, during the Great Depression, his family was Jewish, his parents from Poland and Austria. Kunstler's father was an amateur painter who, early on, recognized his young son's talent for drawing (when I say "young," I mean pre-kindergarten). His mother, a school teacher, enrolled him in Saturday afternoon classes at the Brooklyn Museum while their mornings were spent in one of New York's many art museums.

Birthing a new nation.
By the age of twelve, Kunstler claims he could draw as well as he can today. After high school he enrolled at Brooklyn College to study art, although his main focus soon shifted from art to athletics. He took up diving, was on the swimming team, became a hurdler on the track team, later earning awards for basketball, football, and track. Following induction into the Brooklyn College Sports Hall of Fame, Kunstler received a basketball scholarship from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he continued to focus on sports. Then reality struck. his father suffered a heart attack, forcing Kunstler to return to New York to help his family. Nonetheless, he enrolled in the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He studied to become a fine art illustrator, graduating after only three years. During his senior year he met and married his wife, Deborah, who was then a freshman at the school.

I Fought the Sea Killer, Adventure Cover, Mort Kunstler.
Art meets athletics.
The early 1950s were a terrible time for a young artist like Kunstler to start a career as an illustrator. He struggled to find work as a freelance artist in New York, pursuing assignments from book and magazine publishers. Künstler wanted to be a professional illustrator, but photography and television were replacing the need for artists. The few magazines that still relied on artists were folding. However, he did find a niche market as a freelancer for men's adventure magazines, which appreciated his art. Men's adventure magazines, still preferred having paintings made for their covers and interior illustrations. Kunstler did such work all throughout the 1950s and 60s. To make ends meet, he and his wife lived with his parents who helped support him during this difficult period. He worked twelve to fifteen-hour days, often seven days a week, from nine in the morning till ten or eleven at night.

"The Village of Amazon Man-Snatchers!" My dad used to
hide such magazines under the seat in his truck.
Don't ask me how I know.
In 1965, Kunstler received his first assignment from National Geographic Magazine. It was an illustration for a story about the history of St. Augustine, Florida. Kunstler traveled to Florida, where he spent an afternoon with the two National Park Service historians at the National Historic Site, Castillo de San Marcos, to learn whatever he could, before beginning. This attention to historical accuracy later led to assignment for Newsweek and Reader's Digest. Movie posters for a number of adventure films, such as the 1972 The Poseidon Adventure and in 1974, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three soon followed. By the early 1970s Kunstler's paintings were attracting serious art collectors. In 1975 he submitted a number of paintings to galleries. Much to his surprise, he sold every one. In 1977 his military art drew attention from still more important galleries, which enhanced his reputation as an accurate historical artist. The first major gallery to give him a one-man show was the prestigious Hammer Galleries in New York City. Over a period of several years, Kunstler would have thirteen additional one-man shows at the gallery. Armand Hammer, founder of Hammer Galleries, promoted Künstler's work, helping him to further gain stature as one of America's leading history artists.

John Hunt Morgan's Ohio Raid, Montgomery, Ohio
(northeast of Cincinnati,) July 14, 1863, Mort Kunstler.
In 1982, after getting a commission from CBS-TV to do a painting for the 3-part mini-series, The Blue and the Gray (top)Künstler's interest turned towards the Civil War. By 1988 he was concentrating almost entirely on Civil War subjects, which eventually made him the most collected Civil War artist in America. Kunstler's focus on that war led to his first one-man Civil War exhibitions at venues such as the Gettysburg National Battlefield, New York's Nassau County Museum of Art in 1998, the North Carolina Museum of History, Richmond's Museum of the Confederacy, and other centers of art and history. They included images such as that of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg (below).

Gettysburg Address, Mort Kunstler
With each new painting, Künstler takes on the role of a historian: "I feel like I'm opening a window on a little part of history. What I try to do is create an image that will make you feel like you were there. I try to make it as accurate and as dramatic as possible." Besides Lincoln, Kunstler has painted virtually all the major military figures on both sides of the conflict as well as battle scenes and vignettes of individual soldiers as they struggled to confront the tragedy of their personal conflicts resulting from the war.

Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee as seen by Kunstler.
Künstler takes a month or two to complete a painting, with many selling for over $100,000. Limited edition prints often sell out quickly. The American Print Gallery's limited edition of 4,150 of Moonlight and Magnolias was sold out in three weeks after publication. As of 2015, Künstler had painted more than 350 Civil War subjects. His later work has covered a wider range of subjects, including the Korean and Vietnam wars (below), with many paintings of World War II. He has painted historical events such as the Oklahoma Land Rush new immigrants at Ellis Island. Some experts feel that it has been Künstler's ability to humanize such moments that has distinguished his works from most other historical artists.

Candlelight and Roses, Mort Kunstler
One Man Army They Call Cong Buster,
Mort Kunstler


Monday, January 30, 2017

William Merritt Chase

End of the Season, 1884, William Merritt Chase
A few days ago, it came to my realization that I'd never written a comprehensive item on the American painter, William Merritt Chase. I've written on American Impressionism (which is almost the same thing) as well as numerous biographical pieces on several of Chase's students, such as Julian Onderdonk, Lydia Field Emmet, Jenny Eakin Delony (Rice), and most recently Alson Clark. I've also written about a number of Chase's many painting colleagues, including Edmund C. Tarbell, Childe Hassam,  Willard Metcalf, J. Alden Weir, and Frank Weston Benson, to name only a few. But never have I written anything definitive on William Merritt Chase himself, although with a cast of such outstanding students, friends, and colleagues like those above, anything more might be considered superfluous.

Ring Toss, 1896, William Merritt Chase
At some point in the time-consuming effort at choosing to highlight which of the hundreds of paintings Chase did over the course of his lifetime, I began to wonder how he ever found time to do anything besides paint. Judging by the fact that he and his wife also raised eight children, it would seem he was nothing if not prolific. Chase cultivated multiple personae. He was a sophisticated cosmopolitan, a devoted family man, and a highly esteemed teacher. The years in which his family was young and growing, were Chase's most energetic and productive. He frequently painted his wife Alice and their children, in individual portraits, and other times in scenes of domestic tranquility: playing (above), or relaxing at their summer home on Long Island, among the sand dunes of Shinnecock.
Chase's self-portraits cover nearly fifty years of his life.
James McNeill Whistler,
1885, William Merritt Chase
William Merritt Chase was born in Williamsburg (now Nineveh), Indiana, into the family of a local merchant. Born in 1849, his family moved to Indianapolis when he was twelve. As a young boy, Chase worked as a sales clerk in the family business. During this time, he showed an early interest in art, and studied under several local, artists. After a brief enlistment in the Navy, Chase's teachers urged him to go to New York and further his artistic training. He arrived in New York in 1869, where he enrolled in the National Academy of Design under Lemuel Wilmarth, a student of the famous French artist, Jean-Leon Gerome. However, with the family business failing, Chase was forced to leave New York for St. Louis, Missouri, in 1870. where his family resided. While working to help support his family, Chase became active in the St. Louis art community, where he won prizes for his paintings. He also exhibited his first painting at the National Academy in 1871. Chase's talent aroused the interest of wealthy St. Louis collectors who arranged for him to spend two years in Europe in exchange for paintings and Chase's help in securing European art for their collections. Chase settled at the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich, a long-standing center of art training for American art students. He studied under Alexander Von Wagner and Karl von Piloty, who taught him to paint in a loose-brush style popular at the time. One of his paintings, a portrait titled Keying Up--the Court Jester (below) won a medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, gaining Chase his first taste of fame.

Keying Up, the Court Jester, 1874, William Merritt Chase.
IN 1877, Chase traveled to Venice, along with friends, Frank Duveneck and John Henry Twachtman. They returned to the United States in the summer of 1878, as highly skilled artists representing the new wave of European-educated American talent. Back in New York, Chase with the newly-formed Society of American Artists. Chase opened a studio in New York in the Tenth Street Studio Building, home to many of the important painters of the day. In New York City, Chase became known for a flamboyance that he flaunted in his dress, his manners, and most of all in his Tenth Street studio (below). Chase had moved into Albert Bierstadt's old studio, which he had redecorated as an extension of his own art persona. Chase filled the studio with lavish furniture, decorative objects, stuffed birds, oriental carpets, and exotic musical instruments. The studio served as a focal point for the sophisticated and fashionable members of the New York City art world of the late 19th century. However, by 1895, the cost of maintaining the studio, in addition to his other residences, forced Chase to close it and auction the contents.

Chase's lavish Tenth Street Studio...a bit too lavish.
William Merritt Chase was primarily a highly versatile painter. However, in addition to his painting, he actively developed an interest in teaching. Later, somewhat against his will, he was persuaded to take charge of an art school at Shinnecock Hills, on Long Island. Chase opened the Shinnecock Hills Summer School in 1891. He taught there until 1902. Chase adopted the plein air method of painting just gaining popularity at the time, teaching his students in outdoor classes. He also opened the Chase School of Art in 1896, which became the New York School of Art two years later (now the Parsons School of Design). Chase stayed on as instructor until 1907. He also taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1896 to 1909; the Art Students League from 1878 to 1896 and again from 1907 to 1911; and the Brooklyn Art Association in 1887 and from 1891 to 1896. When the hell did the man find time to paint? Chase was the most important teacher of American artists around the turn of the 20th century.

Reflections: Canal Scene, 1885, watercolor, William Merritt Chase
Chase is best remembered for his summer landscapes at Shinnecock. Chase usually featured people prominently in his landscapes. Often he depicted woman and children in leisurely poses (top), relaxing on a park bench, on the beach, or lying in the summer grass at Shinnecock. His Reflections (above) from 1885 is unique for it's lack of any human presence. The Shinnecock works in particular have come to be thought of by art historians as among the best examples of American Impressionism. In addition to landscapes, Chase continued to paint still-lifes throughout his career as he had done since his student days. Decorative objects filled his studios and homes, and his interior figurative scenes frequently included still life images. He was particularly adept at capturing the effect of light on metallic surfaces such as copper bowls and pitchers as seen in his pastel work, Still-Life Brass and Glass (below), from 1888.

Still-Life Brass and Glass, 1888, Pastels, William Merritt Chase

Chase's creativity declined in his latter years, especially as modern art took hold in America, but he continued to paint and teach into the first decade of the 20th-century. During the summer of 1914, Chase taught his last summer class at Carmel-by-the-Sea along the rugged coast of California. He had over a hundred students. Suffering from declining health (cirrhosis of the liver), Chase died on October 25, 1916, at his home in New York City. He was sixty-seven years of age.

Unexpected Intrusion, 1876,
William Merritt Chase


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Constant Nieuwenhuys

Yellow Sector, 1958, Constant Nieuwenhuys, iron, aluminum, copper and ink on Plexiglas, as well as oil on wood.
It's difficult to overstate the hardships that wars bring to artists. They range from outright death to "fleedom" (fleeing to freedom). In between these extremes lie starvation, severe deprivation, political persecution, psychological trauma, creative restrictions, an existence underground, and sometimes simply abandoning all pretense of being a working artist, at least for the duration of the conflict. Worse still, its not just the artists themselves, but their families, who suffer, if not the same desperate circumstances, then simply in being separated as refugees from their loved ones. Moreover, wars are not kind to whatever meager output such artists produce. It's often destroyed, stolen, confiscated, abandoned, lost, or simply disappears for years. At the very least, wars often decimate a country's population of artists, (for all the reasons mentioned above) leaving a creative deficit to be felt for decades.
Bomb, 1950, Constant Nieuwenhuys
During WW II, the Dutch painter, Constant Nieuwenhuys, and his family suffered virtually all the wartime miseries (short of death) imaginable, and probably some unimaginable. Constant (he has always been known by his first name alone) lived and worked in Bergen (northern Holland) from 1941 to 1943. The city of Bergen was evacuated by the Germans in 1943 forcing Constant and his wife, Matie, (whom he married in July 1942) to moved back to Amsterdam (his birthplace in 1920). During this period Constant went into hiding and refrained from registering at the "Kulturkammer" (Nazi Chamber of Culture) to avoid the "Arbeitseinsatz" (labor supply for the Germans). Because of this he was unable to conventionally exercise his craft or to buy art supplies. To paint Constant used tablecloths and bed linen, which he had to rinse out before the paint dried in order to do his next painting. As with many painters in the war-torn countries of Europe, the death and destruction he saw all around him had an indelible effect on his art following the war (above). During the war Constant's brother-in-law, Jaap van Domselaer, moved into their apartment to hide. He introduced Constant to Plato, Spinoza, Descartes, Kant, Hegel and Marx. The writings of Karl Marx provided inspiration regarding Constant's later ideas on art and society. Coinciding with the winter famine of 1944, Constant's first son, Victor, was born. After the war, Constant, his wife and son moved back to Bergen only to return to Amsterdam in 1946.

The self-portrait above was painted during the war and reflects the Bergense School, which strongly influenced Constant's early works.
All wars come to an end, though some always seem reluctant to depart, leaving behind calling card reminders for several future generations to ponder. When this war ended, the trauma remained, but Constant was able to expand and grow as an artist, gradually overcoming the years of captivity and limitations. He liberated himself artistically by experimented with multiple techniques of art-making. He was inspired by Cubism, especially the work of Georges Braque. In 1946 Constant traveled to Paris for the first time where he met the young Danish painter Asger Jorn. The friendship between Jorn and Constant later formed the basis for CoBrA (an abbreviation for the three cities home to the artists involved--Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam. In July, 1948, Constant founded Reflex Exper-imentele Groep in Holland with Corneille, Karel Appel and his brother Jan Nieuwenhuys. The first edition of the magazine was published with a manifesto written by Constant. For Constant, art had to be experimental. He had deducted this from the French word "ex-périence." He believe that art springs from experience of the artist and thus is continuously changing.

Constant's highly experimental "freedom" period.
The director of the Municipal Museum of Amsterdam, Willem Sandberg, was very supportive of young artists and fully supported the CoBrA group by giving them seven large rooms in which to exhibit their work. Most of the CoBrA works had been fairly small due to their lack of money and so Sandberg gave the artists an advance to create some larger works in the week before the exhibition. Constant, Corneille, Appel and Eugène Brands created several large pieces of art that have become iconic for the movement. The architect Aldo van Eyck was commissioned to shape the exhibition. The exhibition was unconventional to say the least. The works of art as well as the way they were presented. The show aive rise to harsh critique from press and public. A critic from Het Vrije Volk (Free People) wrote, "Geklad, geklets en geklodder in het Stedelijk Museum" (Smirch, twaddle, and mess in the Urban Museum of Amsterdam). An often heard remark from the public was that their children could probably do the same, only better (a remark which soon traveled to the U.S.). The CoBrA artist came to be considered scribblers and con artists. The group dissolved itself in 1951, claiming they would rather "mourir en beauté" (die in beauty) than become a regular artist interest group. However, short the existence of CoBrA, it forever changed the creative thinking of postwar European artists.

The New Babylon, drawings and model, dating from 1958.
Constant’s interest in architecture and urban development began early in the 1950s when cities all over Europe, damaged during the war, were being rebuilt. Constant addressed himself to the rational, monotonous, functionalism then being utilized, which he maintained would limit a free and creative life. In 1956, The artist became directly involved with International Lettrism, a movement set up four years earlier by the Frenchman Guy Debord, who, like Constant, was campaigning against functional building. With Debord, he formulated “unitary urbanism”: the theory of the combined use of arts as a means of contributing to the construction of a unified milieu in dynamic relationship to experiments in human behavior (what a mouthful). In the intended social revolution the fine arts would play no role. An intensive correspondence between Constant and Guy Debord followed. in 1959 Constant wrote several theoretical articles for the French Situationist International (Sl) journal and staged events at several museums in Paris and Amsterdam, where he showed his New Babylon series of paintings, drawings, and models (below).

Entrance of the Labyrinth, 1972, Constant Nieuwenhuys
In 1974 the New Babylon project officially came to an end with a large exhibition in the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag (Municipal Museum of The Hague). Because Constant lacked room to store the vast collection of constructions, maquettes, maps, and structures, he sold them all to the museum. In 1999 Constant's New Babylon: City for Another Life, opened at the Drawing Center in New York. It was his first solo exhibition in the United States and included several of Constant's paintings done in conjunction with New Babylon (top and above). There was a symposium conducted in conjunction with the exhibition. According to the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, Constant made a lot of architects think anew about urban design with his New Babylon.

The Trap 2005 (above), was Constant's final painting.
He was still working on it at the time of his death.
In 1969, After ten years working exclusively on New Babylon, Constant returned to painting, watercolors, and graphics. More and more he was inspired by contemporary and political issues, including such things as the Vietnam War, African famines and Kosovo refugees. Marxism was a strong influence. There are people who consider Constant's later work after 1995 (below), as a return to tradition. In the tradition of the Venetian Renaissance painters, Titian and Tintoretto, Constant applies himself to the technique of colorism. He doesn't make use of charcoal or pencil sketches but applies color directly on the canvas with the paintbrush constructing soft transitions instead of sharp contours. The most important feature of this technique is the way light is expressed in the painting by integrating it into the color. This technique is laborious. The painting comes to life layer by layer. Constant paints with oil on canvas and every layer he applies then needs to dry. In this period Constant produced a mere 3 to 4 painting per year. He was eighty-five at the time of his death in 2005.

My Son, 1846, Constant Nieuwenhuys.
He would have been about two years
old at the time.


Saturday, January 28, 2017

Thomas Couture

WOW! Just the thing for decorating your indoor tennis court.
There's a lot to be said as to the Internet being the greatest teaching tool yet invented by man, far outstripping books, TV, and motion pictures. That's true in most fields but especially so in the case of art. It might be going too far to say that every work of art in the world can be found on the internet, but certainly examples of every type of art can be accessed by a computer, a search engine, and someone adept at using them. However, there is one aspect of art that the Internet is not good at rendering; and that is scale. A painting four by six inches very often looks much like one four by six feet. A couple years ago, this simple fact was brought home to me as I wearily trekked through the Orsay Museum in Paris where I came upon Thomas Couture's Romans of the Decadence (above). I'd seen the painting many times before online and in books but I was truly stunned in seeing its immense size in person. Couture's single greatest masterpiece is some twenty-five feet wide and fifteen feet tall. As the photo reveals, it dwarfs the viewer in every way. It's like standing before a life-size Roman orgy!
An artist who never lived up to his potential.
As French artists go, Thomas Couture was strange on several levels. Born in 1815 in the Province of Oise (north-central France) in the small town of Senlis, his family moved to Paris when he was eleven. He attended both the École des Arts et Métiers and the École des Beaux-Arts. He studied under such academic luminaries as Antoine-Jean Gros and Paul Delaroche becoming something of a "dyed in the wool" academician in his early years. During Couture's student years, and those in which he struggled for public recognition, sales, and respectable prices for his work, the ultimate goal of every young artist was to have work accepted into the Paris Salon and win the "jackpot" prize of an all expenses-paid, year-long trip to Rome (the Prix de Rome) in order to study at the French academy there.

Kiss of Judas, Thomas Couture
Perhaps one of the reasons Romans of the Decadence was so massive is that Couture had tried (and failed) six times to win this prestigious honor. Perhaps his thinking was that if his salon entry was the biggest, most decadent painting in the show, everyone (including especially the jury), would set up and take notice. Although Couture's Kiss of Judas (left) had been well-received, Ro-mans of the Decadence was con-sidered his best work to date. What-ever the case, the ploy worked. In 1847, at the ripe old age of thirty-two, he WON! He was off to Rome to study the Renaissance, Greek, and Roman antiquities firsthand! On top of that, the French government pur-chased the painting.

Romans of the Decadence, 1847, Thomas Couture
Thomas Couture has long been considered by art historians as something of a "one hit wonder." That's not entirely fair, though in fact, he was a man who, it would seem, would rather preach and teach art than create it. During his lifetime he left at least two major commissions unfinished. His students, on the other hand, include such painting icons as Edouard Manet, Eastman Johnson, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, and John Lafarge. He also published a textbook of sorts, Method and Workshop Interviews, which was later retranslated to Conversations on Art Methods.

Romans of the Decadence, (central detail)
Central sculpture detail
Inasmuch as Romans of the Decadence would seem to be Couture's major claim to fame, it's only just that we should take a closer look at this decadent monstrosity. First of all, it was not the first or last such orgiastic depiction to derive from French art. The French, along with the British and a few other nationalities loved painting sexual immorality. Of course to do so, society demanded that artists in no way glorify such debauchery, but instead condemn it, though the latter was often much more subtle than the former. A woman is the central figure (above), placed so that she will draw all eyes. She is stretched out in the middle of a large crowd of people who are abandoning themselves to all the vices that were said to have led to the downfall of Rome. The scene is framed by five larger-than-life-size sculptures (right) representing men from Roman history, their gestures seeming to demand a return to virtue.

Romans of the Decadence (left-central detail).
In the center-left detail of the painting, Couture has placed a group of debauched revelers, exhausted and disillusioned, or still drinking and dancing. In the foreground is a figure who is not taking part in the drunken revels having already succumbed to a drunken stupor. On the far left, a melancholic boy leans on a column. Meanwhile, on the far right (below) two foreign visitors cast a disapproving eye over the scene.

Romans of the Decadence, (far-right detail)
It took Thomas Couture three years to complete The Romans of the Decadence. He wanted to give fresh impetus to French painting by referring rather conventionally to the masters of ancient Greece, the Renaissance and the Flemish school. The work is a history painting, regarded as the noblest genre during the 19th-century. It therefore had to represent human behavior and convey a moral message. This was explained by Couture himself, who quoted two lines from the first-century Roman poet, Juvenal, in the catalogue for the 1847 Salon where the painting was exhibited: "Crueler than war, vice fell upon Rome and avenged the conquered world". Apart from illustrating an ancient text, Couture was also alluding to French society of his time. A Jacobin, Republican, and anticleric, he criticized the moral decadence of France under the July monarchy, the ruling class of which had been discredited by a series of scandals. This painting is therefore a "realist allegory." The art critics of 1847 were quick to see in these Romans "The French of the Decadence."

The Realist, 1865, Thomas Couture
Couture's innovative techniques gained much attention, resulting in his receiving government and church commissions for murals during the late 1840s and 1850s. He never completed the first two commissions while the third met with mixed reviews. Angered by the unfavorable reception of his murals, in 1860 he left Paris, for a time returning to his hometown of Senlis, where he continued to teach young artists who came to him. Couture was among the first to realize the danger arising from contempt of technique. He saw the mastery of craftsmanship as needed to express even the loftiest ideas, and that an ill-drawn colored cartoon could never be the supreme achievement in art. In his satirical painting The Realist (above) can be seen a painted caricature of Realism. He used this canvas to criticize the new direction in painting, whose adherents preferred everyday, and sometimes trivial, subjects, to literary or historical themes. This particular realist has 'demeaned' himself to such an extent that he is willing to portray a pig, a symbol of stupidity. Insignificant, everyday objects hang on the wall while the painter displays scant respect for classical culture. He is seated on a sculpted head of the Greek god, Zeus. Couture himself generally painted more exalted subjects, in a style better suited to the academic tradition.

Portrait of a Young Boy, Thomas Couture

Friday, January 27, 2017

Pillow Art

Rock hard Pillows or pillowy soft rocks?
Pillow art? After having written exactly 2363 different postings on (it would seem) almost that many different art topics, my wife accused me of having wrung the subject dry. "Getting kind of hard-up for content, aren't you?" she commented. The answer to that is a resounding: "yes and no." The answer is "yes" if you're talking about "easy" content, but "no" if you consider the broad history of creative endeavors artists have pursued over the course of human existence. Once survival of the species became a foredrawn conclusion, art evolved, becoming a big part of that which made such survival worthwhile. But...pillow art? That's an important enough human creative pursuit to be worth writing (and reading) about? Well, on the surface, maybe not, but as with all such types of art, once you scratch the surface, once you dig deeper, once you probe the depths, it turns out that there's a lot more to this art form than meets the tush.
The pillow has long been a device for supporting
the head while sleeping on ones side.
Did you know that the first pillows were not at all soft and cushiony? If you have read the Bible in any depth, you will recall that Jacob's pillow, in Genesis 28:18, was a stone. I'm not sure where that fits in the history of pillows but the designer of the "stone" pillows (top) seems to have had such a model in mind. They're apparently much softer than they look. The "pillows" of the ancient Egyptians and Chinese (above), in fact, look nothing at all like pillows today, or even that of Jacob. They're more on the order of neck braces.

A 400-year-old Italian silk-velvet fragment
pillow with silver metal thread, 1550-1600.
The earliest traditional pillow as we know them today dates back only to the 16th-century. It would seem that pillows, as works of art, are not very archival. Before that, it's pro-bable that soft pillows existed and they very likely were decorated with needlepoint or tapestries; but it would seem that none have survived the ravages of time and the heavy use such nighttime luxuries provided. Ancient civilizations have slept on straw mat-tresses and were probably aware of feather pillows, but four or five hundred years has a tendency to take its toll on such items.

The Jim Lane Collection at
My own interest in pillows has taken on a special significance this past year as has allowed me to market my own line of decorator pillows (sometimes called "throw" pillows) featuring reproductions of several of my more colorful paintings (above). Each pillow is approximately 18-inches square and is available at

This gorgeous tufted masterpiece is probably less than fifty years old.

For those who prefer "bling" over bland.
I should caution those int-erested in antique pillows. Most of those to be found on the Internet are not all that old...they just look that way, as with the beautiful tufted example at left. Keep in mind, if a pillow is a true antique, it's likely on display in a glass case, and probably doesn't belong on a couch in any case. For those too young to appreciate the "old" the seq-uined abstract pixel art pillow (above) features metallic seq-uin glitter, and is available from Zazzle.

"You should see the girls I slept with last night."
Today, pillows come in all sizes and shapes, and are no longer simply a means to comfortably support the head before, during, and after sleeping hours. The full body pillow (above) in one example said to be important for improving posture. It takes little imagination to guess what some pillow artists have done with this item. Fun with pillows has gone far beyond merely reproducing paintings in a fat, rectangular format. What's come to be called the "novelty" pillow has allowed the imaginations of pillow artist to soar to new heights, or plunge to new depths (depending on your point of view).

It's almost enough to make you give up painting on canvas.

Kute Kittie pillows by Chocoloverx3


Thursday, January 26, 2017

Cartoon Cars

Car toons from around the world
One of the most pervasive elements in American life today is the automobile. I dare say no other technical or mechanical development in recent history can match its importance in having changed the way we live--not the computer, not the airplane, TV, the telephone, or even the cell phone. Of course, like all these, the automobile was an end product amalgamation of several other important inventions coming of age during the 20th-century. The only other possible claim to such fame might be Edison's electric light and the complex power grid which powers it. Any major social revolution is prime meat for the cartoonist--also for other artists and those like myself who write about them. In the past I've dealt with this relationship in "The Automobile in Art," "Car Art" (full-size working sculptures) and "Does Your Car Smile at You?" As the final item in this list would suggest, at least in appearance, if not in fact, cars tend to have personalities. This one presence is the key to cartooning of any kind, not least of all the automobile.

It's a far cry from a Model-T, but Ford's 1936 "Woody"
certainly had personality.
As the automobile began to move toward the center of American life in the early decades of the 20th-century, virtually every owner of a Model-T Ford came to recognize their car's "personality." Often they even named their cars much as they had their horses--the "Tin Lizzy," for instance. Cartoonists picked up on this. In essence, the cartoon car might be said to date all the way back to the stone age and Fred Flintstone's vintage two-seater. Actually, Hanna-Barbera created a whole fleet of Neolithic vehicles for their 1960s TV series. From all indication, Fred seems to have had two cars, his little roadster and a big, family SUV for vacation road trips.

Hanna-Barbera probably set automotive design back a million years.
Quite apart from Hanna-Barbera, it took the Disney Studios back in 2006 with their feature-length cartoon Cars to probe in any great depth the cartoon potential of the automobile. Just as I suggested in writing about automobile "smiles," not only does the grillwork of a car suggest a personality, it can also be quite persuasive in expressing emotions, and even "talking." Certainly Disney has gotten great "mileage" from this cartoon franchise, coming out with a TV show Cars Toon in 2008, Cars 2 in 2011, and the upcoming Cars 3 in June of 2017.

Animated Autos
Some concepts cars are best left conceptual.
Most cartoon cars are, in fact, caricatures of readily ident-ifiable models whether anti-ques, classics, or even fut-uristic concept cars (right). The caricature usually does not have a storyline as in the Disney features. Even the Flintstones' car was periphe-ral to the weekly cartoon plot. Therefore like all caricatures, such cartoon cars must stand on their own, recognizable as to make, year, and model, along with the added burden of be-ing in some way "funny" through exaggeration. The Pontiac Firebirds (below) are the perfect example of the CARicature. The Firebird artist has converted the Mustang wannabes first to "muscle" cars and from there into "hotrods," an amusing pretension in both cases (I know, I used to own one).

The Pontiac Firebird was neither a bird, nor very fiery.
For a classic, inside look at a real hotrod, we must defer to Saturday Evening Post illustrator, Stevan Dohanos, and his 1950's cover in which he explores the real meaning of the word. The cover itself is a glorified cartoon. The humor inherent in the dilapidate jalopy is matched quite appropriately by the enthusiasm of the teenagers pouring over (and under) the machine. In fact, one doesn't have to search too deep to come up with a likely storyline. The wealth of details Dohanos has collected provides all the plot elements we need. Moreover, he predates both Hanna-Barbera and Disney's Cars. Best of all, the car doesn't have all the best lines.

One has to wonder if Dohanos' teenaged boys would be working so diligently on their group undertaking were it not for the watchful, admiring eyes of the girls.
Some cartoon cars take on a life of their own.