Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Honore Daumier's work makes me think of Dickens, maybe because he reminds me of Arthur Rackham, who illustrated the version of The Christmas Carol we read last week. Aren't the faces marvelous? I love the lack of finish and the dashed-off quality to this print, called Deux Buveurs (Two Drinkers) 1857-60.

Apparently he developed a lifelong hatred of bureaucrats and attorneys during his first job in a bailiff's office. (Those first jobs stay with you - explains w
hy I never go into Kentucky Fried Chicken.) He learned lithography and became very accomplished as a political cartoonist, once landing in prison for his sketch of King Louis-Philippe as Gargantua. (1832)

At the end of his life after his eyesight had failed him and he was reduced to penury, his friends organized a retrospective of his paintings. For the first time, his talents as a painter became known to a wider audience. It really was long after he died that his renown grew.

Here's Reading a Poem, 1857-58. Despite the cracks in this oil, I hope you can make out the lovely hands emerging out the deep shadows. I love that red curve of the sofa tying the figures together and the repeated curves and lines of the framed portraits. What do you think?

Finally, here's Two Sculptors (1872-75), painted during the last decade of his life. According to Michael Pantassi, writing in Daumier, the figure on the rig
ht probably represents a student awaiting the appraisal of his elderly instructor who peers closely at the student's work. Always an uncomfortable moment - with the economy of a caricaturist, Daumier conjures up those faces with only a few strokes. I still can't do that.

Monday, December 28, 2009

I always seem to be interested in influences and beginnings, so I was intrigued to learn that Henry Moore was the seventh child of a Yorkshire miner. (Awful to think about the amount of talent never developed because the artist is stuck in a mine somewhere in England or China or Africa.)

So where did that early impulse toward making art come from? Apparently he had decided to become a sculptor by age 10 or 11. He was blessed with the good fortune of receiving support for his artistic interests, with great encouragement coming from a grammar school teacher. And ten years later, after two years of war service he was able to study art with the help of an ex-serviceman's grant, studying first at Leeds and then in London.

He made countless trips to the British Museum to study art and sculpture of many cultures. I guess it's not that surprising to learn that seeing a pre-Columbian chac mool (above) had a powerful effect on him and led to one of his most important early sculptures, below, Reclining Nude (1929).

(He was also knocked out after seeing Matisse's The Bathers.)

Moore describes the kind of sculpture he most admires: it's "not perfectly symmetrical, it is static and it is strong and vital, giving off something of the energy and power of great mountains." His interest in the English landscape comes through in his creations, where knees and breasts are like hills and mountains. And those empty spaces within the sculptures are made use of, too, aren't they? Here's Reclining Nude, created when he was in his early thirties.

Through all the many years of work, he never really headed into complete abstraction; there always seems to be some connection to the human figure. I don't think you ever get tired of looking at his work. What do you think?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Fifteen minutes of fame arrive at the last second. . .

Something encouraging seems called for on Christmas Day. Did you see the widely reprinted piece about Carmen Herrera, the 94 year-old artist who finally achieved some measure of notoriety at age 89? (This is Untitled, 1958)

If you didn't see it, here's the short version: this Cuban-born artist had been painting seven decades, had several shows over the years at respected venues, but never really gained broad recognition or even sold any work (any!). And then, five years ago, collectors and art historians started to take notice. Her minimalist paintings with geometric designs are now hanging at the Tate Modern and MOMA, to name a few. The article is worth a few minutes.

So there's still time! I'm going to get to work now on one I can sell around 2046 or so.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

"One must have a mind of winter. . ." Wallace Stevens

The other day I heard a wonderful snippet of a local public radio piece about Wallace Stevens' The Snow Man and woke up thinking about winter paintings.

I guess it's not that surprising to learn that Bruegel was influenced by Hieronymus Bosch who packed so much into his work. You can make out hunters returning to the village, skaters on the lake, a figure crossing the bridge, birds overhead. And he organized all this along the two diagonals, the hillside line stronger than the diagonal created by the hunters and tree trunks. That green of the sky and water really lends a feeling of cold and misery, doesn't it, despite the way the villagers seem to be carrying on? No pocket warmers or battery-powered socks in 1545. It's said that the artist was sometimes referred to as Bruegel the Peasant because he'd go to the trouble of donning disguises in order to blend in at weddings, etc., the better to gain insight into the lives of the people he wished to depict. (Wondering about the "h" in Brueghel? It seems that he dropped it after 1559, but his two sons, also painters, continued to use the "h".)

This second painting, Snow at Louveciennes
was painted in 1878, the year before Wallace Stevens was born far away in Pennsylvania and more than 300 years after Bruegel let the "h" go.

This Sisley painting draws you in like a vorte
x, with the one-point perspective and central figure. You are drawn to that solitary figure like a magnet. Lonelier than the Bruegel, isn't it? And monochromatic rather than high contrast - creates a very different feeling.

The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Does your dentist look like this? Grant Wood grew up in Iowa, drew camouflage on cannons during WWI, traveled to Europe to learn about art, and returned with a conviction that he preferred to paint in the style of the old masters. He spotted this structure with its Gothic revival window and created a subject by enlisting the aid of his dentist and his own sister, Nan. Some suggested he was making fun of stalwart, Midwesterners, but he denied the accusation. Not sure just why American Gothic has become such an icon - what do you think? I had never really looked closely at it 'til now since there's that "I already know this painting" feeling about it.

Sr. Wendy often has something interesting to say, so I searched for her viewpoint:

The subjects' motivations, even when considered as father and daughter, are unclear: The man may be a farmer holding a pitchfork, nothing more than a piece of farming equipment. Or he may not be a farmer at all, but a preacher, perhaps, jealously guarding his daughter from male suitors. Critics who interpret the woman as his daughter have often assumed she was a spinster -- but just what kind of spinster is left to the imagination. Some see the stray curl at the nape of her neck as related to the snake plant in the background, each one symbolizing a sharp-tongued "old maid." Sister Wendy sees in the curl, however, a sign that she is not as repressed as her buttoned-up exterior might indicate.

Let's hope she's right about that curl. Here's another - his mother with a plant. Maybe I'm just in a punchy, pre-holiday mood, but it made me laugh. It's called Woman with Plants and according to Wood's estate website, it depicts his loving, strong Midwestern mom against the landscape she knew and loved. The decision of his to make her loom so large must be the feature that gives it such a sense of caricature, I guess. What do you think?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Wow, and you thought you hadn't been hitting the gym often enough. . . isn't this intriguing? It's been awhile since I've been to the Art Institute of Chicago, but it's hard to forget this meticulously rendered portrait. (By the way, did you read in last Sunday's NY Times that "meticulous" also means fearful? This is definitely scary.)

Was interested to find out that Albright painted this in 1929-30 working from a model who was about 20 years old. Apparently he was fascinated by all things related to aging and death and drew upon his experience as a medical illustrator during WWI to render incredibly detailed portraits or macabre but somehow dignified individuals.

What do you think? Those objects on the table and floor are slipping out of the frame; in fact doesn't everything appear askew, adding to the mood of unease and precariousness? The title is Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida (The Lord is in His Heaven and I in My Room Below). What do you make of the subtitle with its echoes of Robert Browning?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Lots of people will protest that it's quite unreal and that I'm out of my mind, but that's just too bad... Claude Monet

This photo of Monet in his third studio at Giverny was taken in the 20's - check out the size of that palette.

Among the frustrations that plagued him as he sought to finish his water lilies panels were some problems with his eyesight. He suffered from cataract problems and a rare condition called xanthopsia:

"Monet is most upset by the colors; he sees everything yellow," noted opthomologist, Dr. Coutela, in 1923. By the next year, he'd had several operat
ions and the xanthopsia no longer plagued him. He continued work on the water lilies and received ongoing communication and encouragement from Prime Minister Clemenceau. Problems with his eyes continued to drive him to distraction. "It's disgusting, now I see everything in blue!" he explained to visiting Professor Jacques Mawas in 1924. "How do you know you are painting in blue?" the professor asked. "By the tubes of paint I choose."

Special glasses were made for him that helped a good deal, and once more he dove into his work. Apparently he was somewhat mercurial, working feverishly and then stopping for days and not painting at all. He had plans to bequeath to his country the best of the water lilies (what he called the Decorations, designed to adorn the walls of a large room). I guess frustration with government was common in his era too. In 1920 he sniped, "I will bequeath the four best series to France, which will do nothing with them."

Here's The House from the Garden, painted in 1922, the year before he died at age 86. Apparently, during the latter years, he could no longer back up 15 feet or so and still see the work well. You have to wonder how much of the increasingly abstract nature of his work was due to eyesight and how much was artistic vision and intention.

Monday, December 14, 2009

"Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment." Claude Monet

Thinking about water lately, as I've logged a lot of time watching moving water at swim meets. (Dali's melting clocks come to mind, too.) Been thinking about Monet's lifelong fascination with water and persistence in looking endlessly at nature as it changed around him.

At a remove of a century, I think it's common to look back and assume that an artist would recognize a subject where and as he/she found it, and just set up to capture the scene. I was in
terested to learn that there was a fair amount of stage managing that Monet undertook to get his subjects the way he wanted them. And he faced his share of frustrations along the way.

When he first moved to Giverny in 1883 he encountered a few problems. He had brought 4 boats with him from Paris, but because of the tides and the narrowness of the channel, he could not bring the barge he used as a studio close to the house at nig
ht (he wanted to paint from the boat instead of the riverbank.) "I'm afraid I've made a mistake by settling so far away. It all seems quite hopeless" he wrote to gallery owner Georges Durand-Ruel. He started to feel better about things once he found a place to leave the boat, settled in, and started "to get to know a new landscape." (p. 19, Monet's Years at Giverny, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

He discovered a row of poplars less than two miles aw
ay in a marsh in Limetz. He was so entranced by them that he paid a lumber dealer not to cut them down immediately after they had been sold.

He also had to make some arrangements to make sure he co
uld work on his largest series, the water lilies. He had to get permission from the city council to decree that he could divert a branch of the Epte River which crossed his land. The council made the diversion conditional - he was not allowed to impede the flow of the water with sluices; it needed to flow freely to ensure there was no health hazard to those living along the river.

What makes them so mesmerizing? No reproduction does them justice. Have you seen them? This description offered by Maurice Guillemot seems to get at the shimmering, changing quality of the painting:

On the glassy surface of the water float lilies, those extra
ordinary aquatic plants whose large leaves spread wide and whose large exotic blossoms are curiously unsettling. . . .The colors are fluid, with marvelous nuances, ephemeral as a dream.

Friday, December 11, 2009

"No longer diverted by other emotions, I work the way a cow grazes."

As one who tries to tear through work at 100 mph, this idea has a certain appeal. Doesn't this drawing have a restful, haunting look? It's called Mother and Child and was drawn a century ago in 1910. The decision to give features to only one figure makes it more powerful, somehow, and also more contemporary looking. What do you think?

Came across the work of this artist I knew nothing about, Kathe Kollwitz. She left East Prussia (now Russia) to move to Berlin, married a doctor there who operated a clinic in a very poor area. There she saw first-hand the effects of poverty in the early years of the 1900s. She managed to combine motherhood with her work as an artist focusing on printing, etching and drawing. Kollwitz was quite affected by the struggles of the common workers and families in difficulty:

"I must express the suffering of humanity that never ends." In her journals she described "the woman watching who feels everything. …"

The youngest of her two sons was killed in the first World War. She was initially supportive of his patriotic wish to volunteer for the war, and so was thrown into years of second-guessing and regret after his death. It took her twelve years to complete a memorial sculpture, called The Grieving Parents. It stands in Vladslo, Germany, a few miles from Ypres, the site of the vast cemetery for the dead of WWI.

She did not leave Germany during the war, but was forced to leave her home and studio since it was largely destroyed during bombing raids. She worked up into her seventies and died in 1945 just before the war ended. She also lost a grandson during the second World War. She always retained her passion for making art: "For the last third of life there remains only work. It alone is always stimulating, rejuvenating, exciting and satisfying."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

I realize I'm missing a Kandinsky show in New York right now at the Guggenheim. Have you seen it? (This link will take you to a 5 minute, very interesting video put together by the museum to explain his working methods, themes, etc. Do not be distracted by the curator's hair - she is quite impressive.) It seems like Kandinsky is popping up all over the place, even in Tuesday's Science page of the NY Times with these marvelous circles:

Doesn't it seem like these blurred out edges are crucial to the rightness of the painting? Makes the circles appear to be weightless, perhaps. He prepared to be a lawyer, but after seeing an exhibit of Monet's work, he decided to turn to art. How often has that happened? Apparently Kandinsky moved through a number of styles in his career.

According to Dr. Robert Belton, writing in his survey, Art, Kandinsky's move toward abstraction was hastened after a singular incident. He returned to his studio one evening, and was "enchanted by a picture he did not recognize. It turned out to be one of his own paintings lying on its side. Kandinsky immediately realized that subject matter lessened the impact of his pictures. . ." Many of his works were greatly planned, and X-rays reveal grid patterns on the canvas along with notations in German as to colors to use in various portions of the painting. Curators have noted that he sometimes departed from his plans.

I think Impression II (below) is just fabulous - so full of movemen
t and so spontaneous looking. I didn't realize that Kandinsky had studied the cello and was an amateur chamber musician. He painted this in 1911 two days after attending a New Year's concert of Schoenberg's music in Munich.

Apparently some preparatory sketches reveal that the large black sha
pe suggests a grand piano. The diagonal compositional scheme is interesting and contributes to the sense of motion. The music he heard would have been atonal; no doubt he is trying to capture a sense of what was heard that night. If a painting can look loud, this is it. What do you think of it?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

As I play around with color and shape, I am ever more amazed at how Van Gogh could get away with such strong color. He didn't choose all pure colors, though. In L'Arlesienne (Madame Ginoux) the yellow background does not have to fight against the dark green table or the dull flesh tones of her face and hand.

The portrait seems to be all angles and directions - the books, the c
urvy chair, the yellow shapes under her right arm and between her back and the chair - and most interesting to me, the eyelashes projecting from the outline of her face.

Elsewhere, Van Gogh wrote: "I want to paint men and women with something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we now seek to give the actual radiance and vibrancy of our colorings."

Should we be depressed or inspired to read that this picture was "slashed on in an hour"? (p. 88, Van Gogh, Meyer Schapiro)

Here's another I wasn't familiar with. Have you seen it? (Maybe not - just noticed it's in a private collection in South America.) Really interesting use of perspec
tive, position of the legs, and means of pulling together the lower and upper halves of the painting by use of color and line. Again there are those little jigsaw bits seen in the first painting - under his right arm and between his hat and shoulder. He's always looking around for a shape to delineate, but somehow it seems right and inevitable.

This one probably took a full 90 minutes. . .

Friday, December 4, 2009

Cezanne's Still Life with Apples, 1890-94

Ever since seeing Milton Avery's work about 5 years ago at the Hammer in UCLA, I've long been fascinated by him. (I realize there's a Cezanne posted above - getting to that.)
I'm still trying to figure out why. His work looks so simple - but there's something not so simple going on. In Milton Avery, The Late Paintings, there's a whole lot of erudite analysis of Clement Greenberg's view of Avery's work along with a lot of speculation as to the degree to which Wallace Stevens poetry may have influenced him. . . but for my money, the best insight comes from the words of the artist himself:

To the so-called conservative art lover, a picture is beautiful if it looks just like the subject, and, of course, the subject must itself be pretty. Then again if the subject is a poetical landscape, a lively snow scene, or if, in a nude, the model is voluptuous and pretty, this viewer has gotten his thrill and is satisfied that he has seen and knows what is "great art."

With this attitude there is no argument, for it is [as] futile to argue about art as it is about religion. But I cannot help but feel that this attitude is unfortunate. The so-called modern artist (and I insist the work "modern" is as confusing and ambiguous as the word "beautiful"" looks for plastic values where the conservative seeks representation. that is, the modern looks for design of form, line, color and spatial arrangement, where the conservative looks for "soul," "beautiful expression," and so-called "realism." Personally, I can see as much if not more, spirituality and soul in a painting of apples by Cezanne as in a Madonna and Child Surrounded by Angels and All the Hosts of Heaven by Murillo for the reasons I have expressed above. If people do not agree with this conception, well and good. All I can say is that they do not get the same experiences out of life and art as I do. (p. 26, Milton Avery/The Late Paintings, Robert Hobbs)

His paintings are known for their interlocking forms, design stripped to essentials, achievement of depth through the use of color instead of linear pers
pective, and focus on seizing "the one sharp instant in Nature, to imprison it by means of ordered shapes and space relationships." (p. 53) I struggle a lot with what to leave out. He just seems to know.

Here's Breaking Sea (1952):

His daughter, March, was a frequent subject of his paintings. Here's Adolescence, (1947). The reproductions do not have the same presence as the originals. What do you think of his work?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Here's Velasquez' The Surrender at Breda (1634-5).

I remember seeing this at the Prado some years ago. Honestly, I think the only reason I stopped is that I lived near Breda (in Holland) as a child. To the contemporary eye it looks so conventional, with the Mona-Lisa-like plains in distance, all that attention paid to uniforms, the spears of the winning side thick and vertical, the ceremony of the vanquished handing over the keys to the city, etc. But the soldier on the left staring at the viewer strikes a more modern chord. Kind of arresting in his gaze. Almost steals the painting. There's another face looking out from the far right -- who is it? Some have suggested it's Velasquez himself.

I started writing this post last week, and lo and behold in today's NY Times there's a review of a show at the Metropolitan in NY about Velazquez and the controversy surrounding the painting, Portrait of a Man. The questions are two - who is it? and was it painted by Velasquez or his pupil, son-in-law Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo? Although you practically need a magnifying glass to compare the figure on the far right of the Breda painting to the figure in Portrait of a Man, there definitely is a resemblance. A Facebook page for Velazquez would be really handy right now - or would he have been a MySpace guy?

Experts are leaning toward attributing the Portrait to Velazquez. By examining other paintings known to be created by his pupils, they point to those lesser paintings flaws: less confident brushwork, a less-taut shape of the collar, a muddiness around the jaw. To my untrained eye the Portrait certainly does seem to have been painted with an air of authority. Nothing equivocal about the choices made. What do you think?

(All the pictures on-line are muddy looking because the picture has just been restored; this one I took with my camera from the newspaper, so you can see the crease in the paper- sorry.)