Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Came across a marvelous book called Mysteries of the Rectangle by Siri Hustvedt while looking through the Bellevue library yesterday. In it she talks about how mesmerized she was standing in front of Vermeer's Woman with a Pearl Neckace.

She stood so long and got so close to it that the guard got nervous and waved at her to step back.

During the four hours she stood there, she had this strange feeling that it was "something other then what it appeared to be." (p. 12)

As Hustvedt explains, the woman seems to be looking in a mirror, but there's so much light coming in the window that she almost seems to be looking out the window. She's holding up the necklace, but it is so subtly rendered the pearls don't seem to command much attention. She stands completely still, not really caught in a moment of action.

Unlike so many other Vermeers, this painting has an empty ce
nter. Vermeer had placed a map in the wall but x-rays show that he eliminated it. He covered much of the floor with great folds of cloth. He eliminated a musical instrument that had been on the chair. Nothing interrupts her gaze. She is not aware of any onlooker either.

As Hustvedt looks, she thinks about all those paintings in the genre of women at their toilet, but can't shake the feeling that this seems to be about something else, as well. The woman does not seem to be yearning for antyhing, nor is she caught up in her own vanity. All of a sudden, she says the word "Annunciation" popped into her mind. A pursuit of th
is possible allusion of Vermeer's sends her scurrying to art books, and she turns up several paintings in which Mary looks just as self-possessed and contemplative; her arms are raised this way, as well.

While Hustvedt is careful not to reduce the painting to this only possibility, she does feel there may be something suggested here by the artist. She notes the shape of the woman, who does look as though she might be pregnant. She is also somewhat amazed to notice what appears to be an egg in the window sill. Of course, she admits this is likely an architectural window detail, the painter doesn't include it in any of his other many-windowed paintings. Here's a slightly larger version; the egg is on the top of the sill by the drapes.

So, what do you think? While others have pointed out that Vermeer manages, through his use of light, to make the everyday somewhat sacred, she suggests that in this painting he might be intending to provide an allusion that hasn't been noticed before. (By the way, Vermeer scholar Arthur Wheelock was there at the exhibit and she mentioned this idea to him. He agreed it was possible.)

Monday, March 29, 2010

Maybe she thinks the hat is too big or she's wondering what happened to her blouse. Hmmmm. Thought about posting this without any words at all, asking commenters to say whatever they'd like about this Egon Schiele work entitled, The Scornful Woman. But as I read more about him, he seemed so interesting I couldn't resist including a few words about him.

When the artist was still a teenager, his father died of syphilis. Schiele passed the entrance exam for the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts and studied there for three years, although the school's conservative approach did not suit him. Eventually he approached Klimt who agreed to mentor him (although mentor was probably not used as a verb back then - I don't even like it as a verb today.) Mentor or not, he developed his own style of Expressionism and founded the New Art Group (Neukunstgruppe) and became part of the Viennese artistic world.

In 1911 he met Valerie (Wally) Neuzil. They decided to leave Vienna (see bio) and moved to his mother's hometown of Krumua in Bohemia. They lived together out of wedlock and he used her as well as other young women as models. Their bohemian lifestyle did not go over well (even in Bohemia), prompting a move to Neulengbach outside of Vienna. They continued to attract attention for their lifestyle, culminating in his arrest for allegedly seducing an underage girl.

While police were in his studio to arrest him, they seized scores of drawings they considered pornographic. Not one to waste time, he spent the days in jail creating a series of 12 sketches. Ultimately, he was only sentenced to three days for possessing "indecent" drawings. He continued with art in this vein; while many works share Klimt's decorative interests, Schiele seems to delve also into themes of sexuality and anguish. At left is Standing Woman in Red.

In 1914 he met Edith Harms, whose family lived near his studio. A year later, he decided to marry her, although evidently he expected to continue his relationship with Neuzil. She saw things differently and departed, never to see him again. In response to her departure, he created Death and the Maiden:

Art critics feel his work mellowed somewhat following his marriage. Not long after they married, WWI began. He made it through the war without fighting on the front; officers apparently noticed his talent and allowed him to guard prisoners, sketching while on duty.

Although he was successful in having his work included in a number of exhibitions, his life was cut short. In 1918 his wife contracted the Spanish flu and died. He died three days later at the age of 28. As I was posting this, my 9 year-old daughter came to peer over my shoulder. Looking at this Standing Man with Red Loincloth she said, "that's kind of scary." What do you think of his work? I think he's an amazing graphic artist. I do not have such a strong feeling for line; his use of line is so dramatic and intense, isn't it? While he seems mainly interested in the figure, there are occasional still lifes or landscapes, but even they are tortured. I will find one and add it.

Okay, here it is at left, a sunflower, dead of course, with all the angles of one of Schiele's human figures.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Sometimes it's refreshing to look at something that's nothing like anything you would ever try to undertake - all those curves and not one offset by a geometric shape. Do you like that it's pushed so far toward abstraction that you can really tell exactly what your vantage point is? After a few minutes, it seems to me that maybe the viewer is looking down on a beach and the sea from a great height. And what is the shape on the upper right that seems so necessary to the composition?

I even kind of like the artist's signature smack dab in the middle of the painting. Have you heard of him? This is Landscape by Thomas Mukarobgwa. Evidently he is entirely self taught. He developed an interest in art while working as a gallery attendant at the National Gallery of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He was fortunate to have the encouragement of the gallery's director and became one of the founding members of an art school that started in the museum's basement. He began to gain some notoriety during the 60s, and some feel his work shows similarities to that of the German Expressionists (Art, Dr. Robert Belton, p. 367). (By the way, he sculpted more than he painted, but also kept his job as gallery attendant until 1997 when he was in his seventies.)

And now it's off to make the dreaded school lunches which, by my calculations, I will still be making into my seventies. And you? Are you making something today - besides lunches, that is?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My brother-in-law, Fred Moody, sent me this funny story from the NY Daily News about how scholars have discovered that through the years, in various works of art, the portion sizes at the Last Supper have been super-sized, just as they have in life. But the article only included Da Vinci's fresco from 1495-8, leaving inquiring minds frustrated and looking for other works to study. So I did a little checking around to see what I could discover in the way of culinary evidence. You'll notice that only tiny rolls can be seen above. Maybe that's a platter of something on the right - hard to see on this screen. (Anyone have a larger version?)

A hundred years later, in 1592, the meal had morphed a bit in Tintoretto's version:

Okay, so this is actually a different meal, Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus (1601), but they seem to have a quite a lot of food groups covered here:

And lastly, this was created by Marcos Zapata in 1753, about a hundred and fifty years have Da Vinci's. By this time that bread is the size of a Subway sandwich, and not too unleavened looking either.

Credit for this photo:

The dish in the center looks like an alien life form but is actually a guinea pig, a local favorite in Peru where this graces the walls of the cathedral in Cuzco. A blogger pointed out what she believes is a resemblance between Judas (lower right) and conqueror Pizarro. She may be right. Here he is, at left.

If you're interested in following this trail any farther, I'll warn you that any Last Supper search online leads to a crushing number of versions and parodies, from the Simpsons to Star Wars.

Monday, March 22, 2010

If you listen to NPR on Saturdays you might hear the word puzzle show called Says You!. On it, panelists are asked to guess the definitions of obscure words. Saturday, one of the words was "ophthamolophilia" -one panelist guessed it meant being in love with your eye doctor, but in fact it means love of being stared at. I'll be on the lookout for chances to drop this in conversation.

The panelists would have had fun with some of the terms I've learned reading about icons. Virgin Glykophilousa? It's a term applied to certain icons classified as Virgin Elousa in which Mary bends tenderly to touch her cheek to the cheek of the infant Christ. Glykophilousa is from the Greek and means "sweetly kissing." There are seven different descriptors, all of Mary icons, each referring to a special way she is posed. This is Virgin Hodegetria - image of Mary holding the infant Christ on her left arm with Christ grasping a scroll with one hand and make a gesture of blessing with the other. This dates from the 13th century and is actually tempera and silver leaf on panel with pigmented glazes over gesso and parchment on panel. Scholars think this was made as a personal devotional piece and brought to Sinai during a pilgrimage, and then offered as a gift to the monastery. (Icons from Sinai, Robert Nelson and Kirsten Collins, J. Paul Getty, p. 141)

How about this one, below? The inspiration for Led Zeppelin perhaps? This dates from the late twelfth century and is based on St. John's Climacus' writings, "The Heavenly Ladder." As you can see, climbing those thirty rungs isn't that easy, with devils tempting you and causing some to fall along the way. As you can see, in the lower right a group of intercessors send up prayers to help the strugglers. And the guy second from the top in the fancy clothes? Evidently, it's the archbishop Holy Antonios who might have been either the donor or the recipient of this icon. (Didn't quite get the message about not being concerned with worldly things, I guess.)

One more thing - while it's obviously made to inspire, not entertain, you have to get a kick out of the devil giving this poor guy a rap on the head with his mallet.

I'll get back to more recent artworks later in the week, but I couldn't help but spend a little more time enjoying these creations. The time, the patience to make these amazes me. What do you think?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

While museums are great places, there is something to be said for seeing art in the place it was created, or at least NEAR the place. Maybe your appreciation is enhanced when more of your senses are involved (bus fumes, aching feet, coming in from the heat of the streeets). I remember the excitement of visiting Akrotiri in Santorini, and being so disappointed to learn that the mosaics uncovered there had all been moved to the museum in Athens. When we followed up a week later and saw them there, somehow they had lost a little of their enchantment.

Have any of you been to Sinai? I have not. Above is the monastery of St. Catherine's which houses the world's most important collection of Byzantine icons.

Get ready for this title: Archangel Michael with Donor Monk. I found these images in a beautiful book called Icons from Sinai by Robert Nelson and Kirsten Collins, but I have to say I chuckled to come across this description of the icon, depicting "the relatively diminished scale of the anonymous monk" who kneels before the archangel. Relatively diminished? I'd say so.

Although this dates to the 13th century, there does seem to be something contemporary about it, don't you think? What is it? The flatness, the expressionist lines of the wings and tunic, and I suppose that interesting way of playing with scale. What do you think?

It is fascinating to read about the details I'd never have noticed. Evidently archangel Michael is often depicted in court garb, but here he wears a purple tunic, dark blue mantle, and red shoes, which apparently are usually reserved only for the Byzantine emperor. Apparently Michael was important enough in Byzantium to have two feast days set aside for him.

Two possibilities are offered for the archangel's pose - the stance may call to mind the angels at Christ's baptism, who hold the clothes he will wear after he emerges from the Jordan; or the icon-maker was referring to the participants at the Divine Liturgy (Byzantine tradition) who receive the Eucharist with covered hands. (p. 151)

I'm not sure it matters that we'll never know what the intention was. It's just remarkable that something made with tempera on wood is still here at all.

Monday, March 15, 2010

There's something inherently ridiculous about a book called 1000 Paintings You must see Before you Die. So why did I pick it up at the library? Probably to see why they would have dedicated three whole pages to quattrocentro painter Tommaso di Giovanni Masaccio and not a single tiny entry to Milton Avery. . .and way too many entries for Unknown. Did come upon one I liked, although I'm not sure it warrants a trip all the way to Helsinki. So maybe this book is useful, after all.

Here's Autumn, the Five Crosses (1902) by Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Evidently he designed this for a mausoleum built in memory of an 11 year-old girl, with the crosses symbolizing the death of summer, or so says 1000 Paintings, page 553. (Seems more likely they symbolize the little girl's death, don't you think?) The distant blue is a vivid cobalt, but stays put somehow, and the large shapes are simple and powerful, especially those mysterious gold/green shapes in the ocean at right. What do you think?

Now that I think about it, maybe I like it because it reminds me of Milton Avery. Here's his Yellow Sky (1958):

Friday, March 12, 2010

Names of movements have a way of sounding dated pretty fast, don't they? How current does Futurism sound right about now? (Up with People, anyone?)

My friend, Bill, sent me a link to a site showing paintings of Giacomo Balla, who signed the Futurist manifesto a hundred years ago. At left is Flight of the Swallows (1913). He was interested in exploring the dynamism, speed, and vibrancy of the rapidly changing world; the movement later lost some steam and became associated with fascism, but that wasn't the early focus of its proponents.

Evidently, Balla studied the optical possibilities opened up by time-lapse photography and sought to depict rapid motion in paint. Here's Swifts: Paths of Movement and Dynamic Sequences (1913). The very idea of undertaking something so painstaking and ambitious just amazes me.

His most famous work is probably Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash - proves anything at all is a worthy subject.

I have not yet embarked (sorry) on a dog series, but perhaps it's time.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Here's a moody work I love for its bold brushstrokes and big blocks of color. There seems to be motion, everywhere, don't you think? In the slashes of the sky the foreground, those solid shapes of houses that lean like people in a moving crowd. The artist seems to have made good use of those dangerous thalo blues and greens. They have such strong tinting power they can really run away with your painting if you're not careful.

This is Paysage by Maurice de Vlaminck, who evidently spent a good deal of time in the company of Derain and Matisse, working in the Fauvist style initially, and then later, after the influence of Cezanne came into play, moved away from the earlier use of strong color.

Apparently this extroverted, largely self-taught artist was greatly affected by his World War I experience. Afterward, he withdrew to the French countryside, kept to himself, and limited his palette to more somber colors. (Art, Dr. Robert Belton, p. 483.) What do you think of his work?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Isn't this cool? It's called Portrait of Francesco, Julian and Bruno (1991). What looks like smudged vining charcoal is actually soot from a candle flame used to create this large work on canvas by Jiri Georg Dokoupil (born in Czechoslovakia in 1954).

The artist based this work on a photo of his Swiss art dealer, Bruno Bischofberger, who's flanked by the artists Julian Schnabel (right) and Francesco Clemente. What interests me are the just-rightness of his decisions of what to nail down and what to leave unfinished. The faces are just enough. The portions of painting in the background work as effective bookends, bleeding into the sleeves of the artists. Looks dashed off but everything works - including the missing feet and the space left empty in the foreground. What do you think of it?

He paints, as well, and I found those works equally intriguing, especially the way he plays with scale and perspective. See Galerie Bruno Bischofberger. Here's Haus und Malven, (1999) below. Since it doesn't look like I'm likely to attend the Oscars anytime soon, at least it might it be fun to look forward to saying one day, "Excuse me, I've got to take this call from my Swiss art dealer."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

"Music is what happens between the notes." Duke Ellington

Evidently, this is one of Nathan Oliveira's favorite remarks. At left is Man Walking (1958). According to biographer and curator Peter Selz, Oliveira has never been interested in creating narratives in his work, preferring to explore the figure more obliquely:

I do not look at modern art as a linear experience, continually in competition with itself, devouring itself - a game for popular sociaty to play. I rather believe in an art that layers time upon time, an art that simply reaffirms our presence and the depth of our existence on this earth, our planet in the universe. (Nathan Oliveira, Univ. of CA Press, p. 9)

I've been doing a lot of creating and destroying of layers, etc. with my work, and I tell you, it's really hard to settle on the right amount of presence and delineation of a figure or object. Somehow he seems to get it just right. Here's Spring Nude (1962):

Others have pointed out the echo of Munch's work, Puberty.

There are those hunched shoulders, but Oliveira's has a whole different feeling of expansiveness to the space around her, a she herself is more of a cipher with undelineated features. What do you think?

One of his teachers early in his career was Max Beckmann. Can you imagine? Here's
Oliveira is still alive and making prints at 81 years old. Here's Red Rocker (2005)from the website of DC Moore Gallery:

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

"expressing all the golden flashes of the mind..." Joan Miró

Yes, when I was young I thought Miró was female, perhaps a descendant of one of those other girls, St. Augustine. Even as I got older, I didn't really understand his work, so I'm trying to grasp it now. Shown here, Blue II (1961)

The more I read about him, the longer this post got, so I'm a day behind as I try to cut it down. Was it Mark Twain who said something along the lines of, "if you want it shorter, I'm going to need more time?"

Like so many others, Miró began with a more or less conventional, representational style, but as a young man he was certainly aware of what was happening in the art world (and even attended the same Spanish art school as Picasso, ten years after Picasso knocked everyone's socks off there). The son of a clockmaker, a shy boy driven to a nervous breakdown trying to follow his father's plans for him to work in commerce, he stuffed his early pictures with the things of the real world: animals, objects, places in the countryside of Catalan.

Author Mario Bucci (Miró, Hamlyn Publishing, 1970) traces the evolution of his style, pointing out influences in Portrait of Ricart. "In the background, an immensely intricate Japanese engraving shows Miro's love for the infinitely small and refined. . .; on the left, an area of pure yellow, on which the shape of a palette is. . .anticipates the ciphers and abbreviations" of Miro's later work.

The head is broken down into its fundamental masses, as are the disjointed hands, suddenly calling to mind the carved hands and faces of the Romanesque saints found in the ancient churches of Catalonia, which his friend, Jose Pasco, had shown him. (p.17)" This portrait dates from 1917.

According to Bucci, this next painting marks the last painting in which he strove to represent actual things and places in excruciatingly minute detail. Hemi
ngway loved it so much he bought it, taking up a collection among his friends to cover the cost. (Miró didn't really want to sell it, and so had put a high price on it.) It's called Farmhouse (1921-2).

Now, with The Farmer's Wife, he breaks with the realism
and heads toward pure symbolism. "He took for his model a figurine from a set depicting the birth of Christ in the manger, and the Farmer's Wife retains some of the plaster-cast immobility of this figurine, her enormous Picassoesque feet symbolizing her attachment to the earth, for she is the very incarnation of firmness and solidity.".

And by the time he painted Ploughed Earth, he'd completely abandoned any objective of rendering objects realistically. By the time he painted this, 1923-4, he was ready to join the newly formed group of Surrealists, but he remained always a bit on the fringes, following his own ideas of rendering the thoughts of the subconscious.

Miró said, "If I think of a a beetle or a snail, it can be as big as a hou
se, and my imagination can amplify a toy so that it symbolises the entire human race. Thus, if I want to depict these things as I imagine them and feel them inside me, I will allow my instinct to guide my hand on the canvas." Here's Catalonian Landscape (1923-4)

One must have a very strong personality and will to work to feels that the "golden flashes" in your mind are worth putting on canvas, especially when you are hungry and exhausted, don't you think? (Who knows what his work might have looked like with a Trader Joe's nearby.)

I wonder how aware Miró was of the work of Paul Klee. Do you know?