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Monday, February 25, 2019

Dinosaur Art

Dinosaurs--art and paleontology meet and mingle in this montage by Nadi Spencer.
Growing up way back in the 1980s, our son was quite fascinated by dinosaurs. Like hundreds of thousands of other kids, now and then, he enjoyed the pastime of playing with his collection of as many as two dozen plastic toy dinosaur replicas of various sizes and degrees of scientific accuracy. He outgrew them, of course and in his case moved up to live ones, I can recall more than one snake, chameleons, even a not-altogether-friendly iguana. They have, of course, all gone to that great snake pit down below, but the toy ones remained. I used to cart the whole lot into my elementary art classes for the kids to draw. There were enough of them they each could choose a different one to star in their imaginary prehistoric jungles. More recently my nephew, who's five years old, claimed the whole lot of them as if he'd discovered buried treasure.
Tyrannosaurus Rex, sometimes known as "Sexy Rexy."

Over the past couple centuries, artist too have embraced this paleontological subject with similar fervor. Artist at all levels from scientific illustration, illustrations in children's books, even cartoonists, have lingered with their childhood intrigue. One of my favorite comic strips in growing up was the caveman Alley Oop (left), who rode to and from his various misadventures on the back of his pet dinosaur, a Ceratosaurus named Dinny. First created by the cartoonist, V.T. Hamlin in 1930, Alley Oop is still riding high today in the hands of writer Joey Alison Sayers and artist Jonathan Lemon as of January 2019.
Prehistoric time traveler.

Nolan's Wilbur is disturbed in the night by a baby Apatosaurus' approach outside his window, shortly after he has put away his favorite dinosaur book and settled down to sleep (upper image). The lower images depict the red pajama-clad boy and his reptilian friend in a series of hair-raising adventures all of which may or may not be a dream.
Dinosaur art presents two theoretical problems. First, the natural tendency for artists is to paint and draw images they and others can relate to easily. A cartoon strip or children's storybook is far more captivating when human figures, be they the likes of Alley Oop or writer and illustrator Dennis Nolan's ten-year-old Wilbur in his juvenile literature classic, Dinosaur Dreams (above). Yet conventional scientific thinking places human development several million years after the Jurassic period when dinosaurs were out and about. However, some archaeologists and paleontologists claim to have found evidence in prehistoric carvings (below) and paintings of human hunters pursuing dinosaurs among their other prey.
During the late 1800s, Samuel Hubbard, Curator of Archaeology of the Oakland Museum, visited an area of the Grand Canyon known as the Havasupai Canyon. As an evolutionist, he was amazed to find a petroglyph (carved rock drawing) of an elephant next to a much deeper carving of a creature he took to be a dinosaur.
Behemoth and Leviathan,
a 19th century watercolor,
by William Blake.
Moreover, the Bible in the final chapter of Job (40:15-24) as depicted by the 19th-century British artist, William Blake (right), mentions the behemoth or leviathan, which many con-servative theologians contend is a scriptural reference to dinosaurs, though many others conjecture that the creature may well be an elephant, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, buffalo, or giant crocodile instead. Still others believe that this powerful creature is to be seen figuratively as the Devil or a composite of mythical creatures with enormous strength, which humans, like Job, could not hope to control. More recently, the World News Daily (a Zionist newspaper published in Israel) reports that a 67-year old shepherd in Kuwait, looking for one of his animals, stumbled upon what could be one of the most astonishing discoveries of modern archeology. The man noticed a barely visible entrance to a group of caves covered with prehistoric art depicting many humans and animals, but also depic-ting a few live dinosaurs, bringing many questions concerning the chronology of the extinction of these gigantic creatures (below).
Archaeological evidence or simply evidence of a vivid imagination?
The second "problem" is also theoretical, but one with which only art historians and museum curators might be concerned: is it a dinosaur or a dragon. There are few instances of dinosaur art much before the early 1900s, but hundreds, perhaps thousands, of works in which early (mostly Medieval) artists depicted dragons in combat with any number of historic and fictional figures. There is no firm rule governing this tempest in a teapot, but in general, if you can name the reptilian creature, it's probably a dinosaur. If it breathes fire, it's probably a dragon. If it's a work Japanese artist kazuhiko Sano, (below) it's definitely a dinosaur.

Evolutionists have their dinosaur artists too as seen in this painting by Kazuhiko Sano.
T-Rex by Isabelle Dillard
Regardless of the medium, watercolor (left), a child's collage (below), or a children's wall mural (bottom) that only a dinosaur lover could love, and though originating in the distant prehistoric past, dinosaurs are very much a part of the present. I should also note that it's artists, not paleontologists, that keep them before our eyes.

Paper plate dinosaurs
How would you like to wake up to this every morning,
if indeed, you managed to go to sleep the night before?


Monday, February 18, 2019

Snow Globes

Though long associated with Christmas, the snow globe is really as much or more an emblem of winter.
It's mid-February and so far, we've had a relatively mild winter--cold, but no blizzards or major accumulations of snow--while some areas have had more than their fill of the white stuff already. We do get a quickly-melting inch or so from time to time, what my wife calls "decorative" snowfalls, but seldom anything worth shoveling. (Hurray for global warming!) Regardless of the depth, snow makes an otherwise brown, gray, dreary landscape into an exquisitely beautiful winter wonderland. About a 130 years ago a company in Paris came out with a much smaller, more manageable "decorative snowfall" in the form of a glass orb filled with water and tiny white flakes featuring a miniature figure of a man holding an umbrella (in a snowstorm?). They promoted and sold them at the Paris World Exhibition in 1887.

A self-portrait by the inventor?
Probably not.
Be that as it may, the real "inventor" of the snow globe was an Austrian man named Erwin Perzy, though he apparently did so accidentally. In 1900, while living outside Vienna, where he ran a medical instrument supply business, Perzy was asked by a local surgeon to improve upon Thomas Edison’s then-new lightbulb, which the surgeon want-ed made brighter for his operating room. Drawing upon a method used by shoe-makers to make quasi-“spotlights,” Perzy placed a water-filled glass globe in front of a candle, which increased the light’s magni-fication. Then he sprinkled tiny bits of re-flective glitter into the globe to help brighten it. But the glitter sank too quickly, so Perzy tried semolina flakes (commonly found in baby food) instead. They didn’t quite work, either, but the appearance of the small, white particles drifting around the globe reminded Perzy of snowfall. Wasting no time, he quickly filed the first official patent for a snow globe, or Schneekugel (in German). By 1905, he was churning out handmade snow globes by the dozens. Often they featured small church figurines made from pewter—through his company, Firm Perzy. They became so popular among well-to-do Austrians that in 1908, Perzy was officially honored for his treasured item by Emperor Franz Joseph I.
Typical of the content, style, and decoration of late-19th-Century snow globes. Notice, it makes no reference whatsoever to either Christmas or winter.
The snow globe appeared at a time when upper-middle-class families, newly wealthy from the Industrial Revolution, began collecting intricate, artistic objects and displaying them in their homes. Though it’s unclear exactly how much these early globes cost, they were expensive due to the amount of time necessary to paint, mold, and assemble them. After World War I concluded in 1918, a boost in tourism led to greater demand for eye-catching souvenirs—especially snow globes. Gradually, news of the whimsical trinket reached America. In 1927, a Pittsburgh man named Joseph Garaja applied for the first snow globe patent in the U.S. and with it, he introduced a radical new means of production: underwater assembly. This ensured that each globe would be fully filled with liquid and saved a significant amount of time and money—transforming the snow globe from an expensive indulgence into the affordable commodity we know today. Within a few years, snow globes were being sold for as little as $1 (around $19 today).
Orson Wells/Citizen Kane's fragile, if somewhat melodramatic, snow globe.
Hollywood discovered the snow globe around 1940. The 1940 Oscar-nominated drama Kitty Foyle, used one as a plot device to trigger flashback scenes. And in 1941, the Orson Welles epic film, Citizen Kane, also featured a snow globe, (made by none other than Erwin Perzy) in its now-legendary opening sequence, wherein Charles Kane dies while holding a glass sphere containing a wintery miniature log cabin, which falls and shatters on the ground. Sales of snow globes increased 200-percent. By the 1950s, snow globes had become an American phenomenon employed for advertising, having been used to promote civilian morale during World War II featuring tiny soldiers. The introduction of plastics and injection-molding further improved the snow globe with pricey particles used for the “snow” replaced with cheap plastic “flitter.” Adding glycol to the water helped it fall more slowly. Snow globes could be found in gift shops across the country, becoming a highly sought-after souvenir during the post-war tourism boom. Walt Disney’s earliest-known snow globe, with its miniature Bambi, dates to 1959.
When arranged in a grouping, the impact of artisan snow globes is often greater than the sum of its parts.
As collectors' items or art objects, snow globes have since became so common they've earned the designation as "kitsch," a term reserved for art that has become too successful. Quite frankly, the label is often well-deserved. However, the key factor is not the globe itself, or even the "snow," but the tired, trite content commonly depicted. Notwithstanding Citizen Kane, when you've seen one stylized church, one Alpine village, or grove of woodland firs, you've pretty much seen them all. Yet, as illustrated in the snow globes above and below, there is room for a considerable range of uniquely original content if an artist takes the time to seek it out. (As seen in the video at the bottom.)
Snow globes evoke memories of childhood before snow became a shoveling nuisance.

The polar bear in a snowstorm.
Trite? Or cleverly humorous.
In recent years, artists have employed words within the snow globe as a medium to proclaim a message, or perhaps illustrate periods of art history as seen below. As an art instructor, I used to refer to a blank sheet of drawing paper as a "polar bear in a snowstorm" (right). Despite their century-long period of development, snow globes are not hard to make. In fact, they are ideal as DIY projects for both adults and children (under close supervision by adults, of course). 
The snow globe as a message medium--funny, educational, sometimes even obscene.
Amazon offers an empty snow globe kit priced at $32 (with free shipping). The kit includes easy to assemble instructions, floating bits of "snow," a dark cherry wood base, and a six-inch clear glass globe. Just add water and stir. For the more economy minded, materials needed are a glass or plastic jar (with screw-on lid), waterproof glue, plastic figures, trees, or other decorations, distilled water, glycerin, white glitter (available at craft stores) and an optional ribbon with an optional bow to cover up the base (lid). Be sure to remove the label from the jar.

The form is not important, it's what's inside that counts.


Monday, February 11, 2019

Kathy Drago

SofĂ­a, 2018, Kathy Drago
Almost from the time cavemen first put pigment to stone walls, one of the most consistent content areas in painting has been the human figure. It's hard to say which gender predominated going back that far, but not difficult to contend that since then images of the female figure have far outstripped those of men by (I'm guessing here) a factor of at least two to one. Given the fact that most paintings which survive today were painted by men and that men are stimulated by what they see, rather than what the feel, the reason for this lopsided emphasis on women down through the ages almost certainly has to do with the male sensual/sexual attraction inherent (and vital) in human relations. Strangely though, when women began to paint figures and portraits shortly after the Renaissance, they did not paint the opposite sex to any great extent but rather other women. Yet the one consistency painters of both genders shared in painting women (whether nude or clothed) was that they were invariably young women inasmuch as beauty and youth have long been equated.
Kathy Drago in her studio located in Houston's museum district.
Kathy Drago is a contemporary female painter living in Texas. Photos of her would suggest she's "middle-aged" beyond which I'm not willing to conjecture. And, like her historic counterparts, she paints women almost exclusively (she does a few nearly non-representational abstracts too). There, however, any vestige of traditional female renderings grinds to a screeching halt. Kathy Drago paints only elderly women, or as she puts it, women from "late life." She defines this period in a woman's life as between 75 and 100 years of age; and finds it very satisfying to paint a face of a completely lived life. As we view each old woman, she intends for us to think about her inner life, her story, who she used to be, and who she is now.
Kathy Drago bucks the tendency of contemporary artists to paint HUGE works. These are on panels approximately life-size.
Kathy Drago finds the physical part of painting aging to be the most compelling with its topography of eyelid drapes, droopy jowls, neck flab, and the asymmetry of the wrinkled face. Kathy's interest in painting elderly women began as she was reading Women in Late Life by Martha Holstein, a college professor who teaches gender and geriatric studies. She wrote that when you get old, unless you have some sort of debilitating, painful disease, you’re usually happy. Most elders say they’re the happiest they have ever been. Although some of Kathy Drago's women look none too happy, I would heartily agree. I'm nearing her chosen age group and I've never been happier.
Esther, Kathy Drago
A retired school principal, Kathy had long been painting abstracts (below). When she retired in 2012, she ordered a number of small, square, 10-inch wood panels upon which to practice. One of her first was Miss B, an old friend who had also been a school principal. That turned out to be the first of a long series. After having painted the first few, she came to realize why she was doing them. Her mother had died recently, leaving her the last of her childhood family alive. She asked herself: “How do I get old?” She was also thinking about women politically, as with the #MeToo movement. It’s like women become invisible when they’re no longer sexually attractive.
The artist insists it’s hard to paint a young woman. "There’s nothing you can do with the face. With the elderly, there’s so much going on—a whole lifetime on a face." Kathy notes that with these "old gals", there’s nothing symmetrical anymore. Their faces are like landscapes. Some of her portraits derive from photos found in obituary columns. In other cases, women have stop by her studio asking to be painted. The urge to be immortalized grows with advancing age. Other images are those of her mother's friends. They're not faithful portraits. One of her subjects in seeing her painted self complained, "Why did you give me so many wrinkles?" Kathy reminded her that she had left out many more. The woman was 93. When photographing women to paint, Kathy urges them to tell their story. Then while they’re talking, she takes a photo-burst. She notes that people make the best expressions when they’re talking. Later, when she paints, Kathy tries to build a character. She tries to visually discover what’s in her heart. What does she want? How does her voice sound? When finished, she gives them all names.
I Am So Upset, Kathy Drago. After several hours posing the model's patience was wearing thin. It shows.
Kathy Drago has a background in improvisational theater. It shows in her work, in the spontaneity and fearless exploration she exhibits. Like jazz, improvisational theater actually has an essential structure underlying the performance--something immediate and wonderful right away. This structure gives coherence and allows artistic choices to gain clarity by building upon each other. Her theatrical background speaks as to how she paints her abstracts: big, bold, somewhat figurative abstracts; cartoonish and flirty drawings that become paintings with masses of color and fearless brush work--figurative beginnings improvised to abstraction. Kathy explains that it’s a process of answering questions and improvising solutions, acknowledging the original figure by observing the lines and shapes and then playing with the motion and rhythm and how the shapes fit together, pushing and pulling on each other, all the time wrestling with how to address the drama and the calm. When people look at her paintings, the eye is urged to follow the lines, colors and shapes and be curious as they discover figurative and non-objective elements and surprises. Likewise in her female faces, Kathy hopes viewers will enjoy the expressive lines, notice the movement and texture of the brush strokes, and be thrilled with the colors. It's an effort to entertain as well as seeing spontaneity through a new lens.
I Tell You What..., Kathy Drago
In summing up her work, Kathy Drago makes the point that very old people, the majority of whom are women, make us uncomfortable: "They unnerve us; not only because their bodies are frail and slow, but because they remind us that, if we are lucky, we will be just like them someday. This fear makes us wary to engage and see them as they really are; we'd rather dismiss the inevitable and convince ourselves that our own aging will be different. It’s easier to ignore them and make them invisible. Yet they deserve to be painted. These women are living the old, old life and figuring it out. They are our guides. Almost all of them are looking directly at us and nudging us, the 'not yet old,' to see what’s next, and face up to the coming attraction."

Well, This Is a Deal, Kathy Drago


Monday, February 4, 2019

Decoding Holbein's Ambassadors

The Ambassadors, 1533, Hans Holbein (the younger).
For centuries it has been the job of artists to enlighten, educate, and elucidate. Artists were called upon to make the complex seem simple. The Catholic church, faced with widespread illiteracy among believers as a result of what we call the "dark ages" relied heavily upon artists to illustrate scriptures....or at least their papal-authorized version of them. Painters, sculptors, manuscript-illustrating monks, even architects were enlisted in the effort to bring religion to the uneducated masses. That is, until the advent of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation around 1517,followed by the Counter Reformation around 1548.In the years and centuries from then on, painters especially found themselves in gradually decreasing demand as the printed Word in local translations spread to the growing population of literate parishioners. This caused artists to seek the financial support and to reflect the tastes of the burgeoning upper and middle classes. One important result was the advent of modern-day portraiture, not to mention the growing popularity of secular domestic art content--still-lifes, landscapes, animals, etc. Even today, illustrators continue to be utilized for much the same talents as those during the Renaissance--to make the complex seem simple.

Self-portrait, Hans Holbein
(the younger), 1542
However, freed from the con-fines of ancient Catholic dog-ma, artists' work began to be less "transparent" as to con-tent and meaning. Science began to rise toward its pre-mier position today largely re-placing religion as the ultimate savior of mankind. One of the earliest and best of these "unleashed" artists was the German painter, Hans Holbein (the younger). Several years ago I wrote about the elder Hans Holbein, but only mentioned the son, (and his brother, Sigismund) in pas-sing. The contrast between the orthodox art of the father and that of the son as seen in his The Ambassadors (top), paint-ed by the younger Holbein in 1533, is a near-perfect example contrasting the two eras I spoke of earlier.

Jean de Dinteville, (detail), The Ambassadors.
When Holbein's The Ambassadors was acquired by London's National Gallery in 1890, the identity of the two stately figures was a mystery. It wasn’t until ten years later, with the publication of Mary F. S. Hervey’s book, Holbein's "Ambassadors": The Picture and the Men, that they were identified as Jean de Dinteville (above) and Georges de Selve (below). De Dinteville was a French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII, and de Selve was Bishop of Lavaur. The two young men were close friends of distinction. There’s an air of fraternal pride in their expressions. De Dinteville’s letters from the period attest to his joy at the visit of his friend. Tiny details inscribed on the scabbard of de Dinteville’s dagger and on de Selve’s book tell us that both men are in their twenties.

Georges de Selve (detail) The Ambassadors.
Apart from all else, the most famous aspect of Holbein's portrait masterpiece is what appears to be a "smear" in the lower center foreground, as if the artist had unsuccessfully attempted to "erase" some detail of the painting before it fully dried. Actually, it's anything but that. It's Anamorphosis. If that word causes you to head for Google's dictionary, let me save you the bother. Anamorphosis is the depiction of an object in a way that purposely distorts its perspective, requiring a specific viewing point to see it properly. Examples of anamorphic art date back to the 15th century, and include a Leonardo da Vinci sketch known today as Leonardo's Eye. If you look at The Ambassadors at an acute angle, the white and black smudge that cuts across the bottom of the painting becomes a fully realized human skull (below).

Holbein's apparent "smudge."
When people first looked at this picture in the 19th century, they quickly noticed the whiteish blur. Some thought it might be a cuttlefish bone. It took a while to work out that Holbein had very cleverly hidden a skull image on the front of his painting. The skull is believed to be a reference to "memento mori," the medieval Latin theory which focuses on man's inescapable mortality as a means of urging practitioners to reject vanity and the short-lived joys of earthly goods. Thus the "hidden" skull (below) was a symbol of the inevitability of death. A skull might seem like an ominous sign to place between two young gentlemen, who were draped in luxury, but Dinteville, who commissioned the painting, was a memento mori admirer. His personal motto was "Remember, thou shalt die."

Memento mori, "...thou shalt die."
Now, with that relatively well-known element out of the way, we can begin to look at some of the other exquisitely rendered details as well as the painting itself. Following in the footsteps of his father, the Bavarian-born artist-son made his name by dedicating his talents to religious subjects like The Body of the Dead Christ In The Tomb. As he neared his 30s, Holbein was making a successful living in this oeuvre, but he still decided to take a chance on new subject matter. Holbein painted The Ambassadors during a particularly tense period marked by rivalries between the Kings of England and France, the Roman Emperor, and the Pope. Furthermore, the French church was split over the question of the Reformation. The religious and political strife was reflected symbolically in the details of the painting. The work was commissioned to commemorate the visit to London of his friend de Selve. The two men were on a complex and ultimately unsuccessful diplomatic mission to heal the rift between Henry VIII and the Church of Rome. It may be, therefore, that the main theme of the painting comes down to the fact that no amount of material wealth, power or learning can prevent death--no man, including the pope, had any real power to halt what was inevitable. In this case, the 'inevitable' was Henry's decision to create his own Church. Dinteville commissioned the piece to immortalize himself and his friend. Following the tradition of such portraits, Holbein presented them in finery and furs and surrounded the duo with symbols of knowledge, such as books, globes, and musical instruments. However, the thoughtful painter also included symbols that pointed to the troubles these men faced.

A shepherd's dial
A polyhedral sundial.

The Ambassadors is also a still life painting featuring numerous meticulously rendered objects. Of course many sixteenth century portraits of learned men contain objects that reflect their occupations and interests, but Holbein's picture is particularly impressive owing to its extraordinary attention to detail, and the sheer amount of information it contains. It shows quite clearly that, as well as Gothic and Renaissance art, Holbein was also strongly influenced by the meticulous realism of early Flemish painting, exemplified by Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin.

Incredible details

Some experts also point to de Dinteville's secular roots and de Selve's clerical roots as symbolizing the dysfunctional nature of the alliance between France and the Vatican, as well as the general conflict between Church (the Pope) and State (King Henry VIII). The image of the lute, for instance, (upper image, above) with a broken string is a popular symbol of discord, either reinforcing the idea of a conflict between England and Rome, or alluding to the Continental schism between Protestants and Catholics. Laid out on the two shelves between the figures are numerous other objects with which they and their era are associated. They feature a mixture of navigational, astrological, and musical instruments, including two globes (one celestial, one terrestrial), a quadrant (below), a torque tum, a polyhedral shepherd's sundial (above, right), a T-square, a German math book, and a Lutheran hymn book.

The quadrant.
The setting for the portrait is an area of relatively shallow depth, curtained off by green-colored drapes decorated with complex, heraldic-style pattern work. The floor is covered with mosaic tiles, based on the design of the 'Cosmati pavement' (top image) in front of the High Altar in Westminster Abbey, suggesting the paramount nature of the English liturgy. Although The Ambassadors is a clear reminder of human mortality, a state which overrides all earthly matters, it is not a pessimistic picture. Tucked away in the top-left corner is a crucifix, a clear symbol that faith in Jesus Christ helps us to escape death and secure everlasting salvation.

Lutheran Psalms (detail) The Ambassadors.