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Monday, August 27, 2018

1920s Art

Artist John Held Jr. perfectly captured the awkward frivolity
of both the era of the 1920s as well as its art.
Virtually every decade in art has its own peculiar stereotype. Some have to do with a prevailing style popular at the time. Some are marked by the important social issues or news events (such as decades strewn with wars). Fortunately, there were no major conflicts during the 1920s to harden the art of that era. In fact, quite the opposite; this period reveled in the desperately optimistic hope for an unending peace following the "war to end all wars." It was an era blind to the fact that a forced peace was sprouting the seeds for yet another world war more terrible than the first. No, instead, two elements came together to form our enduring image on the art of the 1920s, an Art Deco-flavored transition to Modernism and a hopeful optimism that the good (though somewhat decadent) times would go on and on forever...or at least the foreseeable future. As it turned, out the foreseeable future was dismally short, lasting a little less time than the decade itself.
Never was there a greater contrasts in the art of two decades.
One might hesitate to consider the 1930s documentary photos of Dorothea Lange (above, right) as art. However, one might also make a case that images of the Charleston dance craze (above, left) were far from high art as well. Yet the two accurately depict radically opposing eras separated by just a few months...a few years at best. I could go on and on contrasting these two eras but I've already covered the art of the 1930s, while that of the 1920s, in its simplicity and superficiality, needs a more comprehensive look.

Cloth hats, cropped locks, and straight vertical lines were "in."
Art Deco for women?
No art is more superficial than that of the fashion designer, particularly in designing for women. Not that men's fashions don't exhibit a certain air for flair, but nothing like the frocks and locks (and in the case of the 1920s, hats) which festoon the fairer sex. If the female fashions of the 1920s seem to have a decided similarity to those of the 1930s, it's no accident. During the Depression decade, even fashion conscious ladies often found that updating their wardrobe to the new, more "tailored" look of the somewhat more conservative decade to be a luxury they could little afford. Poverty and art have long been considered antithetical.

Though the Vitaphone sound-on-
disk recording system was
considered a huge technical
breakthrough at the time,

far less than half of The Jazz
Singer featured sound.
Considering the cultural and social upheavals of the 1920s, one of the greatest reflections to be found during most art eras--motion pictures--was surprisingly dim. Moviemaking became a corporate industry. Money was the dominant factor, not art. Most movies from most of this decade were short, unimag-inative, formulaic, and at best, forgettable. There were exceptions, such as Eisenstein's 1925 Battleship Potemkin, but even among these, few were made in the U.S. and even those were more entertainment than art. They were, that is, until October 6, 1927, when Warner Brothers' producer, Darryl Zanuck, debuted the company's "Supreme Triumph," The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jol-son, as a fine Jewish lad who embraced the "sinful," avant-garde, jazz of his time. While the film was mostly silent, it did contained sequences of prerecorded synchronized music and dialogue, something movie audi-ences had never heard before. Considered a fad at the time, the movie's most memorable line, "You ain't heard nothing yet," was nothing if not prophetic.

Having "invented" it, then wrung Cubism dry, Picasso morphed it into a Synthetic Cubism as seen in his 3 Musicians from 1921, before discarding the style entirely for a new classism represented by his
Woman in White from 1923.
In reviewing what I've written regarding previous art eras, I came to realize that I have "doted" on the fine art of painting. Though painting was a vibrant artform in the 1920s, I think I can best express the diversity of the era by highlighting the contrasts between just two --Pablo Picasso and Thomas Hart Benton. One made tremendous international strides as he searched his soul and bent his style to his varied themes. The other remained only a region force to be reckoned with, his style and content remaining virtually unchanged over the course of his entire career. Though Picasso was notorious for almost randomly changing his style of painting, the contrasts between the two paintings above, spanning a mere two years of the decade, is little short of remarkable.

Self-portrait With Rita (his wife), 1922, Thomas Hart Benton
Thomas Hart Benton was, as they say, "no Picasso," nor did he try to be. Picasso was Spanish/French. Benton was an American--a Missourian. His father was a Congressman, his grandfather, for whom he was named, was a five-term senator from that state. Though Benton studied in Paris for a time, his somewhat lyrical realism was firmly established by the 1920s. And though the scope of his work rivaled that of Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, his style was all his own, and would remain so until his death in 1975 at the age of 86. Picasso led the international art world into Modernism. Americans in the 1920s were not ready for Picasso nor his radical, even whimsical, stylistic gyrations. Neither was Benton; yet both men neatly reflected the nationalism and nature of the painter's art during this period of cultural upheavals.

Chrysler Building, William Van Alen, architect.
If painters were beset by a myriad of competing styles, the same was not the case as to the architect's art. Having long-since discarded the decorative niceties of Art Nouveau, architecture during the 1920s had but one dominant style--Art Deco. In fact, so pronounced was this transitional movement between Classicism and Modernism, in one manifestation or another, it permeated much of the stylistic elements of virtually every artform of the time. William Van Alen's and Walter Chrysler's Art Deco "race into space" (The Chrysler Building, above) was to stoke the latter's ego. Their efforts saw the construction of the tallest skyscraper in the world, completed in 1930. However, just eleven months later, its 77 floors were superseded by over 400-feet in height. The 102-story Empire State Building, just twelve blocks away, held "World's Tallest Building" honors for the next 41 years.

Domestic architecture eschewed the streamline Art Deco in favor of yet another "revival," this one referred to as Colonial Revival.
The Colonial Revival style (above-top), which was only slightly reminiscent of colonial architecture. Rather, it was economical, compact, and practical for the nation's first (but rapidly-expanding) suburbs. The two-story houses, frequently built just a few feet apart, offered large front porches for escaping the summer heat and socializing with close neighbors. Often the space between such homes offered barely enough width for a driveway to a garage in back for the Model T (I grew up in one such abode). For the ambitious, yet frugal do-it-yourselfer, such houses (above, slightly simplified and later heavily remodeled) could be purchased as a package from a catalog. The Craftsman Style building materials, right down to the front doorknob, could then be delivered by railroad to the proud new homeowner's local community.

Inspired perhaps by the "Gatsby" look, Art Deco furniture and interiors were often stark, simple in design, and maybe just a little too stiff, uncomfortable, and formal looking.
For the more upscale home of the 1920s, whose owner could afford the services of an interior "decorator," though the exterior might exhibit traces of the colonial past, inside the rooms and new furniture (above) swung to the prevailing Art Deco stylings. As compared to the fuss of Art Nouveau and the real fussiness of earlier Victorian interiors, Art Deco offered a clean, hopeful, modern look Americans saw as an optimistic future.

From an artistic or aesthetic point of view, auto design
progressed little in the 1920s.
And finally, during many decades one can trace art and design tastes through the "art" of automobile design (especially in the Post-WW II era). However, during the 1920s, though the automobile rapidly changed virtually every aspect of human endeavor, the auto designer's art changed little. The emphasis was on reliability, convenience, and price rather than chrome (then reserved only for radiator housings) or the art of streamlining, and tail fins. Henry Ford, at the beginning of the decade, dictated that the buyer could choose any color so long as it was black (an enamel which dried quickly on his assembly line). He treated his famed "Model T" as an everlasting design ideal, and nearly ran his fledgling company into the ground by his obstinacy. Only as the 1924 upstart, Chevrolet, began to gain popularity (and market-share) did Ford bring forth his "Model A" and a somewhat more colorful palette for the buyer to peruse. Only Chrysler made any effort to blend the prevailing Art Deco influences into the design of the company's slightly "jazzy" output. For some arts and artists, the "roaring 20s" was, indeed, a rousing cheer for a newfound peace and prosperity. For others, it could best be described as a contented purr.

Though Norman Rockwell designed
his first Post cover in 1916, it was
during the rambunctious 1920s
that his art first became the social
icon we recall today.


Monday, August 20, 2018

James Earley

About as ugly as it gets--Jesus Christ, James Earley
Artists have long been addicted to beauty. For many, if not most, painters as they choose a subject, beauty may well be the first and foremost consideration. There have long been exceptions, of course--Gericault's Raft of the Medusa comes to mind. Gericault, though, was a history painter, one of many who have explored the darker (dare we say ugly) side of human existence. Ugly is not a common theme in art, especially as applies to portrait artists (not intentionally, at least). If the truth be told, most artist tend to err on the side of flattering their subjects, human or otherwise, adding a touch of beauty here and there at the expense of verisimilitude. The tendency helps sell the art and feed the wife and kids.

Mary is a homeless girl living on the streets of New York.
By traditional standards, the British painter, James Earley, deliberately paints ugliness. Notice, I didn't say ugly paintings. Ugliness, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and despite his often unpleasant subject matter, as in his Jesus Christ (top) there is also a strangely touching beauty inherent in many of the images of homeless street people he produces. Mary (above) strikes many emotions in seeing it. The artist added only two things to the painting, the first being a slogan on the back of her jacket which reads “You were supposed to Love Me.” The second is a barely visible jug on the floor that is labelled “Anointing”. This nearly “invisible” jug gives the painting a completely different meaning as a modern parallel to Mary Magdalene and the anointing of Jesus Christ.

Shadows, 2018, James Earley
James Earley Self-portrait
James Earley is a British contemporary painter currently living in France. He is renowned for his emotional portraiture, in which he depicts individuals who have been through trauma and exist on a emotional knife edge. Earley favors oil paints for their flexibility, allowing him to mix his paints on the canvas rather than on a palette. While his style is principally realistic, he adds many elements to create the desired emotional response in the viewer. He does not focus on art as an aesthetic object, but instead sees art as a way to express his personal emotions. The painting, Shadows (above) demonstrates the fragility and danger of the situation--a man sleeping, peaceful yet only inches away from a busy road. Earley accentuates the contradiction with the litter bin, which seems to suggest the man as litter. In many ways the homeless are seen as untidy litter. These contradictions spin around the painting yet come together in the shadows Earley has exaggerated with a deep purple. Shadows are the contrast, the contradiction to our physical form, the problem that prevents a cure to be found on the homeless issue. It is only when we see the homeless as people and not shadows that we can take the first steps in helping them.

La Vie Est Belle, 2017, James Earley
La Vie est Belle
(above) is an oil painting of a homeless mother and daughter on the streets of Nice, France. The title translates to English as Life Is Beautiful. The artist met them in 2016 just days after a terrorist attack. The atmosphere was volatile and seemed to come to a crescendo at meeting these two people. I particularly wanted to paint this due to all the contradictions, the mother and daughter begging against a back ground of expensive clothes shops with slogans such as “life is beautiful”. The mother's sign, as nearly as I can translate the broken French reads: "Good day Please, a small pece pure monye I 2, be thank you."

Homeless Man, Carcassonne,
James Earley
Born in 1972, Earley began as a traditional portrait artist. However, in 2015 the work of James Earley took a radical turn with his powerful, emotional studies of homeless people, victims of war, and religious martyrs. This work took him to another level in the art world as he was nominated by The BP award, The Royal Institute of Oil Painters and The Royal Institute Of Portrait Painters culminating in his work being displayed at the iconic Mall Gallery in the heart of London. Since then, James Earley has emerged as one of the foremost pioneers of figurative painting in Britain today, a fact all the more remarkable since he is a self-taught artist. He has had an affinity for the homeless since childhood. Earley has often been urged by others to change his subject matter, producing paintings that would look nice on someone's wall. He counters such advice by insisting that when someone purchases one of his paintings, they are purchasing a bit of the artist as well, the canvas simply being an emotional battleground.

Earley first met the homeless man (right) in Toulouse, France, in 2014. You can see the artist's reflection on the window of the painting as he was taking one of several photos. There is sadness in his eyes, coupled with a certain noble dignity marked by his tiny tattoos and the stark contrast of the brickwork. Much the same effect can be seen in He Is Silent Now (below), of Aaron, a homeless man living on the streets of London. Earley's work makes us painfully aware that homelessness is not limited by gender, by age, nation-ality, mental condition, or any other of the common stereotypes we tend to invent. Sadly, it seems to be universal.

Toulouse Homeless Man, 2015, James Earley.

Stop and Cross (2017) is of a homeless man in Limoux, in the south of France.
The man and his best friend, his dog, seem to have the same expression, of despair and fear, yet there is a feeling that together they are strong and they have not given up. The artist added a reference to the disciple Matthew who described in the Bible his views on homelessness. The chapter and verse reference can be seen embroidered in the coat of the homeless man. He also added a crucifix which can be seen on the mat where the dog sits.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Gardens on Wheels

Enjoy the Fall, Tanaka Landscaping Co.
From the people who may well have originally invented and exported to the West the whole concept of "less is more;" from the culture which gave us miniature trees they call Bonsai; from the artists who may have been the first to embrace Minimalist landscapes; we are now gifted with yet another new art form--portable landscapes. The Japanese have done it again, creating works of the landscapers' art in the back of their tiny Kei-tara utility trucks. It's an artform so new Japan seems to be the only place in the world it can be found. Such art is admittedly, not yet widespread (even in Japan), but it comes with its own design competition, and each year seems to grow more and more popular with the Japanese public. The Kei Truck Garden Contest is an annual event sponsored by the Japan Federation of Landscape Contractors. The new artform combines the centuries-old Japanese knack for compact, highly structured gardening, with the modern-day "need for speed."

Autumn Falls, a Kei truck garden with its own pond (and a few fish), by landscaping contractor Inui Zouen.
The Kei Truck, is a tiny, but practical, vehicle that originated in Japan. (These days it’s also widely built and used throughout Asia and other parts of the world.) In Japan you’ll often see them used at construction sites and agriculture industries inasmuch as they can maneuver through that country's small side streets and easily park in spaces hardly bigger than that of a motor scooter. And in a more recent turn of events, apparently they’re also used as a canvas for gardening contests. The truck bed is a mere 54 inches wide by 79 inches long (about the size of a standard double bed).

Takahashi Landscape Construction created this garden that feels like a secret place.
The contest comes with stringent rules--it must include a Kei Truck. That's it, inventive creativity rules. You want to include a working waterfall? Sure, why not. You like fish? How about an aquarium running the length of the truck bed? Each year, participants are raising the bar for the following years. Here, it is possible to see beautiful landscapes with an aquarium or admire exquisite Bonsai trees of all sizes. In the U.S., the closest similar competition would be the floats of the Rose Bowl Parade--not quite the same.

1. Garden with a Coffee Table and Bench created by landscaping   
    contractor Fukuharu Zouen.
2. Bamboo Waterfall, Matsuda Zouen, a traditional rock garden.
3. Bamboo Water Well.
4. Both interior and exterior gardens grace the beds of Japanese Kei
    trucks...sometimes, both at the same time.
At the opening of the 21st-century, superficial impressions of Japan still fostered a nagging schizophrenic image combining the polar characteristics of elegant refinement and those of economic prowess. As the Mimalist artists in the U.S. and elsewhere discovered, there are pitfalls to oversimplification. A visual comparison of Kei truck gardens and the monstrous (in size, if not design) Rose Bowl floats, demonstrate the results provided by a century of scholarship, (both Japanese and Western). They provide ample evidence of a Japanese heritage of visual expression that is as both utterly complex and yet varied as the wider culture that produced them. 

Most Kei truck gardens are intended for viewing from only two sides
--left or right, and rear.
Just as the aesthetics are complex, the competition is high, making it difficult, even for Japanese art experts to decide who is the winner. In this contest, judges score each landscape based on three criteria. They look at the planned expression of the landscape; how the landscape design was executed; and the overall environment presented in the garden. Although there is only one winner, all landscapes in Kei Truck Garden Contest are glamorous and beautiful.

a large bonsai takes center stage in this piece,
by Kansai Uek

It all begins here...


Monday, August 6, 2018

Summer Art

Summer is by far most kid's favorite season (no school). Beyond that it's about "beatin" the heat as depicted by Dolan Zolan's Summer Cooler.
Inasmuch as I try to stay six weeks ahead of my publication date, I suddenly realized yesterday that I'd not completed my most recent series on seasonal art. I'd not done anything on summer art. At the rate I was going summer could be be over before I'd adequately covered the subject. Then I once more came face to face with the fact that, unlike my series of monthly paintings when I relied on holidays and history to flesh out my selection of outstanding works, that approach would be impractical. With seasonal art there were just too many holidays involved, too much history, and way too many excellent artists. So, I had to refine my selection to works highlighting much more generic creative efforts--art that almost screams summer.

Summer, 1909, Frank Weston Benson
There's something about the warm (sometimes hot ) summer days that brings artists of all caliber out of their studios (unless they're addicted to air conditioning). Summer days also invite far to many artists, all creating outstanding works for me to even begin to claim much in the way of evaluation. That's not to say I don't have several broad standards by which to legitimize my choices. Moreover, many of these criteria cut neatly across virtually all art genre, media, style, techniques, and content. I've listed some them below:
Home From Camp, 1976, Norman Rockwell. The famed artist could have chosen to depict a young man's first solo foray into the world outside his "safety zone." Instead Rockwell chose to document the boy's joyous return from having conquered it.

Originality--Does the artist bring a new understanding or approach to his or her undertaking? Or, is it imitative, tired, and trite? Compare Abel Grimmer's Summer to Bruegel's handling of the same subject a generation earlier (below).

Pieter Bruegel painted virtually the same scene more than forty years before Abel Grimmer.
Technical Proficiency--Is the artist sufficiently skilled in his chosen media to successfully render his or her work? Does an awkward, uncertain, poorly drawn image detract from the overall impact of the work?

Summer Evening, 1947, Edward Hopper
Appropriate Style--Is the artist's subject appropriate to his or her style? It's quite difficult for an artists to vary their style to accommodate a certain subject, especially when it's as deeply ingrained as was that of Edward Hopper (above). Choosing a mood or activity lending itself to an established style as Hopper did, is not just easier, but inevitably results in a superior work of art. You can almost feel the oppressive humidity lingering from a hot summer day, which Hopper suggests with his Summer Evening. In contrast, Richard Bergh's Nordic Summer Evening (below) from around 1900 presents nearly the same content, but imparts a feeling of refreshing coolness.

Nordic Summer Evening, 1899-1900, Richard Bergh.
Unambiguous--Does the work leave the viewer with a clear understanding of the message the artist seeks to convey? Or, as with Stephan Darbishire's Wild Flowers and Summer Wine (below), is the artist attempting to have it both ways, combining two largely incompatible genres (landscape and still-life) in the same work.

Wild Flowers and Summer Wine, Stephan Darbishire.
Clarity of Vision--Is there a single visual image as with Albert Bierstadt's Merced River, Yosemite Valley (upper image, below)? Or, is the artist torn between two opposite environments as seen in Jeremy Wimborg's Timpanogos Tipis (lower image, below). The painting has much going for it, but visual unity is not among them.

Timpanogos Tipis, Jeremy Winborg--too much depth of field.
Emotional Impact--Does the work of art reach out and touch the viewer, arousing feelings, whether calm and peaceful (as with Monet's Vetheuil in Summer (below), dating from the summer of 1880? Or quite the opposite, as with van Gogh's Fourteenth of July Celebration in Paris, does it excite the spirit with the wildly rau-cous uproar of color he associates with France's Bastille Day (similar to the U.S. Fourth of July)?

Fourteenth of July Celebration
in Paris, Vincent van Gogh

Each artist and each work seeks to capture both the essence and the details of the summer season. Some do so better than others. Their visions and summertime memories span several centuries while embracing different cultures and their attempts to cope with and enjoy this warmest (or hottest) season of the year. Below is my own effort in this regard. I call it Treed. Let's just hope the boy is not startled into a rude awakening.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Treed, Jim Lane