Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year!

Raphael Kirchner (1876-1917),
Happy New Year, 1899
Childe Hassam (1859-1935),
New Year's Nocturne, New York, 1892

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ilse Bing, Self-Portrait in Mirrors

Ilse Bing, Self-Portrait in Mirrors, 1931

Ilse Bing (1899-1998) was a prominent avant-garde and commercial photographer.  Born in Frankfurt to a Jewish family, Bing was encouraged to explore the arts as a child, but when she first attended the University of Frankfurt she intended to study mathematics and physics. However she soon switched to Art History and bought a camera to illustrate her thesis in 1928. She taught herself photography and it quickly overtook her academic studies.  Bing moved to Paris in 1930 and became a part of the avant-garde art scene there.  She worked for Le Monde, Harper's Bazaar, and Vogue, helping to bring art photography into the realms of commercial photography and photojournalism.  She worked in a number of styles, including architectural photographyportraiture, still life, and social commentary.  Bing also experimented with perspective and capturing rapid movement.  In 1941 she moved from Paris to New York CIty with her husband to escape the war and spent the rest of her life in New York, and continued to work throughout her life.  Self-portrait with mirrors is a fascinating work.  It makes reference to an old self-portrait technique (which I have discussed before, most recently with Lawrence Alma-Tadema) whereby the painter looks in a mirror to portray themselves accurately, and the result is the appearance that the artist is gazing directly out of the painting to make eye contact with the viewer.  Photographers have many more options in taking a self-portrait, for they do not need to continuously looks at themselves and can press the shutter without being behind the camera. Yet Bing elected to use the mirror trick, and it thus becomes a commentary on the technique and the concept of self-portraits.  Like Alma-Tadema who holds is brush, Bing portrays herself holding her camera, the tool of her trade.  However, our view of her, and her gaze out at us, is obstructed by the camera; she and it become inextricably linked.  Bing also has the mirror on the left which reveals the mechanics of the process, full dispelling any pretense about how this art is created. To many viewers saturated with selfies in 2014 this setup may appear very familiar, but in 1931 it was revolutionary.  Ilse Bing recreated this famous photograph in 1986 to great effect.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Albert Pinkham Ryder, The Flying Dutchman

Albert Pinkham Ryder, The Flying Dutchman, c1887
14.25 x 17.25 in.

Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) was an American painter, who was just as well known for his temperamental and eccentric character as for his dramatic paintings.  While Ryder's style borrowed from European Romantic and Realist painting, he developed a style that was very different from the conventions of European art, and in some ways prefigured Modernism.  Ryder's painting is marked by high drama, thick application of paint, and subtle variations in color while retaining a detailed attention to form.  Many of his pieces are moody landscapes that often have an ominous quality.  Ryder also frequently painted rural and animal scenes, as well as demonstrating a keen interest in myth, such as in Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens.  Ryder was just as devoted to the process of painting as he was to the result, which makes him unusual for his time and a forerunner of Modernists.  For Ryder, much of this effort was devoted to the perfect appearance of his paint, which he always tried to make look as though it was glowing from within. The Flying Dutchman is a perfect example of Ryder's commitment.  The paint was worked over repeatedly to achieve the perfect look of thick, churning waves.  The Flying Dutchman was of course a legendary ghost ship that was doomed to wander the oceans.  In the version Ryder worked from, the captain was cursed for hubris when he attempted to round the Cape of Good Hope in adverse weather.  Frozen in time, he would only be allowed to make port if his son brought him a piece of the True Cross.  The son can be seen in the small boat in the foreground hailing his father's ship; already an old man himself, he has been unable to release his father from God's curse.  Ryder conveys the intense drama of the scene with his exceptional balance of color and form.  In addition to the thick impasto of the waves, they have been rendered with subtle variations in blue, white, and black, to create realistic and highly imposing waves.  However the top portion of the canvas emerges quite luminous, with clouds and sunset of such delicate color that it's hard to imagine them over such stormy seas.  With the titular ship in the distance against the glowing sky, the painting becomes a powerful mediation on defiance, powerlessness, and the pursuit of achievement and beauty.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Fritz Gartner, Schwebebahn (Cologne)

Fritz Gartner, Schwebebahn (Cologne), 1908
28.75 x 37.5 in.

Fritz Gartner (1882-1958) was a German artist originally from Sudetenland.  After studying in Munich, Gartner moved to Cologne to work as a magazine illustrator.  Gartner worked in a range of styles, with landscapes resembling Impressionism toward the beginning of  his career, but later finding his own voice in a number of idealized landscapes.  Gartner also frequently demonstrated an interest in industrial development, which this painting certainly fits with.  Schwebebahn means an elevated or suspended railway, as seen here traveling towards the viewer.  The famed Cologne Cathedral appears in the background.  The railroad itself, with its many struts and supports, and the railroad bridge behind it, have a rather futuristic feel, with the bright lights appearing somewhat unsettling.  Gartner used unusual colors blended together (such as the green glow that seems to emanate from the metal) give the scene a fantastical touch.  This piece is done in pastels, which have a smooth texture that adds to the hazy, dream-like tone of the piece.  With the cathedral in the background and the simple boat in the foreground floating unmoored on the Rhone, the piece is an exploration of the juxtaposition of modern and traditional ways of life, along with a sense of disbelief at the advancement of technology.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Self-Portrait

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Self-Portrait, 1896
20.79 x 25.87 in.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) was born in the Netherlands to Frisian ethnicity. Originally named Lourens Tadema, he later changed his first name to the more Anglo-sounding Lawrence and adopted his middle name of Alma as part of his surname so that he would appear at the beginning of exhibition catalogues.  His family intended Lawrence to become an attorney, but at fifteen he suffered a physical and mental breakdown.  He was diagnosed with consumption and allowed to spend his time painting since he was expected to die shortly.  However Lawrence did recover and chose to pursue a career in painting, attending the Royal Academy of Antwerp. In 1870 the Franco-Prussian War caused him to leave the continent and move to England where he lived the rest of his life, eventually earning a British knighthood.  Alma-Tadema is mostly known for his Academic style and draughtsmanship that he brought to portrayals of Classical scenes, such as The Death of Hippolytus and scenes of everyday life in the ancient world.  In addition to showing everyday life, Alma-Tadema also painted many quiet portraits that show the deep emotional resonance of events in Classical mythology and history.  One excellent example shows Agrippina holding the ashes of her husband Germanicus, who was mourned by all of Rome.  In England Alma-Tadema met the Pre-Raphaelites and became influenced by their style.  Many of his works bear their mark and show an interest in the lives of upper class women in the societies of ancient Greece and Rome, which many have related to the British society that Alma-Tadema observed.  The self-portrait I chose to post was in fact Alma-Tadema's second, having also painted himself in 1852.  The earlier painting was done just after his period of illness, when Lawrence was just beginning his artistic career.  It shows a boy setting out on his life, determined but trepidatious. The 1896 piece shows a mature man, sure of himself, and still determined.  One feature in both paintings is the gaze out toward the viewer. Many self-portraits have this feature due to the technique of painting with a mirror, but the way Alma-Tadema meets our eyes conveys much about his person.  He paints himself with an openness and authenticity, and retains a certain softness in both paintings despite the intervening decades.  The artist's skill certainly improved over the years.  The 1896 portrait has great delicacy and skill, each brushstroke carefully and deliberately applied to shape the forms and light, compared to the slightly blocky forms in the earlier work.  The mature portrait also demonstrates great attention to detail, in the hairs of his beard and the shine of his face, the pattern of the wallpaper behind him, and the gleaming wood of the easel. The painting is so alive, Alma-Tadema almost looks surprised to be discovered by us in the midst of his work.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Frits Thaulow, Moonlight in Beaulieu

Frits Thaulow, Moonlight in Beaulieu, 1904
17.3 x 20.9 in.

Frits Thaulow (1847-1906) was a Norwegian painter, considered a member of the Impressionist movement.  Educated in Copenhagen, Thaulow was one of the first painters to work in Skagen, the northernmost town in Denmark which became developed a community of artists known as the Skagen Group.  Thaulow also spent time in Paris, where he encountered both Realism and Impressionism.  Most of Thaulow's work follows the conventions of Realism, but he also explored Impressionism, and some of his work tends toward Symbolism.  One of the fascinating things about Moonlight in Beaulieu is that Thaulow manages to incorporate and balance these impulses. Overall the scene is Realist in its approach to the buildings and trees, however the paint handling and details draw on Impressionism.  This is particularly evident in the rendering of the stone road and, upon close inspection, the foliage and sky.  Meanwhile the intense white patch in the sky adds a Symbolist mystical quality; although likely just a cloud, it appears like a rip in the sky and suggests something beyond a simple nighttime scene.  The sense of a deeper substance is heightened by the striking use of shadows, which cut the nearest building at a very noticeable angle and are cast on the cobblestones by the leafless trees.  Here in this late painting, Thaulow holds all of these elements together to create a painting of great interest and fascinating beauty.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Hendrik Chabot, Rain

Hendrik Chabot, Rain, 1933

Hendrik Chabot (1894-1949) was a Dutch painter and sculptor.  He lived and studied in Rotterdam, and as a young man he began his career in art as a restorer.  He spent a few years traveling around Germany and Austria, where the many museums he visited had a significant impact on him and his work.  When Chabot worked in figure painting and portraits, he demonstrates a clear modernism, such as his self-portrait, with angular forms and large brushstrokes.  However his landscapes and exteriors suggest a more complex relationship to the styles of his day.  He has a striking depiction of Rotterdam burning and a minimal winter scene evokes the snows of the Netherlands quite successfully.  In these paintings Chabot synthesizes many styles and approaches.  Rain is largely a combination of Impressionism and German Expressionism.  Much of his brushwork and use of light is reminiscent of Impressionism, but the scene itself is more complex.  Expressionism is known for its use of subjective views to convey the feelings of the painter, and the more I look at Rain the less realistic it seems.  It is an established technique to show similarities in depictions of the sky and sea, but Chabot's roiling sky does not merely reflect the waves.  The clouds take on the appearance of the water to such a degree that it becomes easy to lose our grounding and stability.  The sky no longer looks like a sky, but a second ocean. Furthermore, the sky is named after the rain, not the waves or clouds, but there is no discernible rain falling.  Instead, Chabot depicts a sky so saturated with water that the entire thing has become the rain.  The approach is intense and effective, for the painting is gripping and chaotic in the fierce motion of the sky, successfully portrayed with the use of such varied shades of blue applied with such diverse and deliberate brushwork.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Jean Fouquet, Battle Between the Maccabees and the Bacchides

Jean Fouquet, Battle Between the Maccabees and the Bacchides, c1470

Jean Fouquet (1420-1481) was a leading painter in 15th century France.  Rather unusually, he was a master of both panel painting and manuscript illumination.  He also seems to be the inventor of portrait miniatures which are the forebear of all personal pictures that we carry with us (the portrait I linked to is also considered to be among the first formal self-portraits).  Like all European painters of his time, Fouquet worked mostly in Biblical scenes and his most famous work is his Madonna and Child Surrounded by Angels.  However Fouquet also did a series illustrating episodes from Antiquities of the Jews by Flavius Josephus.  Josephus (37-c100) was perhaps the most important Jewish historian of the ancient world, and certainly the most important in bringing knowledge of Jewish life and history to the non-Jewish world.  He is a crucial source for Jewish history, Grecco-Roman understandings of Judaism, particularly the Roman-Jewish Wars (including the famous Siege at Masada) as well as early Christianity.  Since it is the last night of Hanukkah, I chose this illustration of the Maccabees in battle.  The holiday centers on the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire (an offshoot of Alexander's Hellenistic Empire).  The scene shows the Battle of Elasa where the Jewish army, led by Judah Maccabee, fights the Greek army, led by Bacchides.  Although this battle would result in Jewish defeat and the death of Judah Maccabee, his brothers Jonathan and Simon would continue the fight, eventually defeating Bacchides and winning independence from the Seleucids to form an autonomous kingdom.  In addition to the powerful history portrayed in this piece, Fouquet's painting is a fascinating piece of art.  In many ways it conforms to the traditions of the time, such as the castle and town in the distance, and the way the trees are represented, but it also goes beyond these conventions.  The way Fouquet conveys the outcome of the battle is quite revolutionary.  The Seleucid force is portrayed as a mass of grey-clad soldiers; they blend into a single fighting force and emerge from out of view to be an indomitable swarm.  The Hebrew force, meanwhile, appears in disarray, with only a handful of soldiers visible, clearly being pushed back and overwhelmed.  The most powerful element of the work is the soldiers who are in the river.  Some are retreating, but some are wounded or dying, and their inability to face the force of their enemy is displayed prominently.  Nevertheless, the Maccabees continue to fight: two are still sitting tall on horses, raising their arms, even as they trample their fallen comrades.  Such poignancy is not commonplace for paintings of the period, but through his use of space and geography, Fouquet manages to appropriately depict the tragedy of defeat.

Monday, December 22, 2014

William Merritt Chase, The Young Orphan

William Merritt Chase, The Young Orphan
42 x 44 in.

William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) was an American painter and teacher.  He founded the Chase School, which later became the Parsons School of Design.  Chase is considered an Impressionist, but unlike other prominent American Impressionists (such as Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, and Lila Cabot Perry), he did not spend a significant amount of time in France, instead studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich.  Chase is probably best known for his portraits, including many prominent men and women of his time.  He also did many landscapes, often of places he frequented, such as Prospect Park and Shinnecock Hills, Long Island, where he had a school and summer home.  The Young Orphan is undated, but was exhibited in 1884.  The model was likely found at an Orphan Asylum near Chase's studio.  However when the piece was exhibited overseas, Chase chose the less provocative title of At Her Ease.  The piece is also known simply as Study of a Young Girl.  It is hard to say which is more intense in this painting–the vast expanse of red or the piercing look in the girl's eyes.  The red wall and chair make an imposing setting for this young girl dressed in black.  The expression on her face is very complex, as her eyes seem sad and pleading, but also warm and inviting.  There is also perhaps a suggestion that the girl is in ill health, seen in the way she is reclining as though unable to hold up her body, and she is holding a handkerchief in her right hand, which to my mind suggests she has tuberculosis and is constantly coughing.  Whether illness is literally present in the painting or not, the work does have a sad quality overall, as the girl becomes enveloped by this sea of red.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Edward Steichen, Wind Fire

Edward Steichen, Wind Fire – Thérèse Duncan on the Acropolis, 1821

Edward Steichen (1879-1973) is among the most prominent American photographers, as well as being a painter and a gallery and museum curator.  Steichen worked closely with Alfred Stieglitz, opening a gallery together that eventually became the famed 291.  Steichen was also an extremely successful commercial photographer, working for Vogue and Vanity Fair, and at one point was the highest paid photographer in the world.  He also did extremely important experiments in the medium, including early experiments with color.  Among Steichen's most famous images is the pictorialist photograph The Pond–Moonlight, an original print of which sold at auction for $2.9 million (then the highest price ever paid for a photograph).  Wind Fire is a fascinating image with an equally interesting backstory.  Steichen was visiting Venice when he met up with the famed dancer Isadora Duncan, whose troupe was on its way to Greece.  With the promise of capturing Duncan dancing on the Acropolis, Steichen tagged along.  The pair did produce some impressive photographs, but it is with Duncan's daughter Thérèse that Steichen produced this remarkable piece.  The younger Duncan posed around the Greek monuments wearing a Greek-style garment, and at one point Steichen lost sight of her.  When she called out to him he swung the camera around toward her and the wind pressed her garments to her while leaving the ends flapping around; "they actually crackled," said Steichen, giving the impression of fire, hence wind fire.  In Steichen's words, Thérèse was "the living incarnation of a Greek nymph."

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Akseli Gallen-Kalela, Imatra in Winter

Akseli Gallen-Kalela, Imatra in Winter, 1932

Akseli Gallen-Kalela (1865-1931) was a successful Finnish painter whose work has been very important to the development of Finnish national identity.  This is in part due to Gallen-Kalela's illustrations of scenes from the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, which are his best known works, such as The Defense of the Sampo and The Departure of Väinämöinen.  Gallen-Kalela was not able to study art until his disapproving father died in 1879, when he began drawing classes in Helsinki.  He then studied in Paris, where he met other significant Scandinavian artist and writers, such as August Strindberg.  Galen-Kallela had significant international success in his lifetime, having a joint show with Edvard Munch in Berlin in 1895, and showing all over the United States in the 1920s.  In 1900 he as commissioned to do a series of frescoes for the Finnish Pavilion at the Paris World Fair, and he fought on the front lines of the Finnish Civil War in 1918 until the regent invited him to design the flags and uniform decorations for the newly independent Finland.  I chose Imatra in Winter for today's painting in honor of the Winter Solstice on the 21st. It is a beautiful winter landscape that effectively communicates the crisp stillness of winter, evident in the snow that weighs down the trees, the bare branches that are entirely encased in ice, and the unmoving grey sky that suggests snowfall.  The only thing moving in the painting is the river, whose rushing waters are moving rapidly and purposefully through the center of the scene.  This landscape is an excellent representation of winter, with its intense calm, mingled with the rushing river to express the continual momentum of life and time.   Gallen-Kalela always insisted that his main inspiration was Finland itself, and this painting is a perfect example of how wonderfully he  was inspired.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Amrita Sher-Gil, Three Girls

Amrita Sher-Gil, Three Girls, 1935

Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941) was a prominent Indian painter born to a Punjabi Sikh father and a Hungarian Jewish mother.  She was born in Budapest and spent her early childhood there before the family relocated to India.  Sher-Gil trained in Paris and was influenced by such painters as Cezanne and Gauguin.  Her style and subjects demonstrate quite a range, from French academic style to a traditionalist aesthetic, from a minimal painting of elephants to an elaborate nude portrait.  Sher-Gil's mission was, in her own words, "to interpret the life of Indians and particularly the poor Indians pictorially; to paint those silent images of infinite submission and patience,... to reproduce on canvas the impression those sad eyes created on me."  Three Girls is certainly in furtherance of that mission.  The painting shows these young girls in contemplation of their futures and the limited choices that lay ahead for them.  They are dressed brightly and their faces are rendered quite beautifully, but their sadness is evident.  Sher-Gil always portrayed women with great strength of spirit, despite the difficult lives they so often faced.  These three girls are not depicted with any surroundings or context, but their situation is made quite clear.  Whether their marriages are imminent or not, they all face the same future over which they have no control. Sher-Gil conveys their emotions with every aspect of the painting, not just their faces. The brushwork is soft and molded to depict the beautiful texture and vividness of their garments, made more noticeable with the smoothness of their faces and hair.  The two pairs of hands that are visible appear tense and uncertain.  Very prominent are the girls' shadows, which significantly add to the drama and effectiveness of the scene.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Marie Laurencin, The Prisoner

Marie Laurencin, The Prisoner, 1917

Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) was a successful French painter, known as one of the few major female Cubists, although her art does not entirely fit that classification.  Laurencin was born in Paris and originally studied to be a porcelain painter, but she changed her focus to oil painting when she began studying at the Académie Humbert.  She became a prominent figure in the avant-garde scene in the early twentieth century, associating with such figures as Pablo Picasso, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger, and Jean Metzinger.  Laurencin also became lovers with poet Guillame Apollinaire and is often considered his muse.  Laurencin exhibited with these figures at several prominent galleries and independent salons in the early years of the century.  During World War I she lived in Spain with her husband, Baron Otto von Waëtjen and did not return to France until they divorced in 1920.  After returning to Paris, Laurencin finally achieved success in her own right and her paintings became quite highly valued (such as this portrait of Coco Chanel).  Although the Great Depression impinged upon her financial success, she remained critically successful and supplemented her income teaching art.  Although her relationship with Apollinaire continued to influence her, Laurencin remained single and independent for the rest of her life.  Some believe she took up with a series of women assistants in her employ.  Laurencin's young life was quite marked by her relationship with men, for both Apollinaire and von Waëtjen stifled her career and tried to confine her to the role of muse and wife respectively.  The title and premise of The Prisoner makes this situation clear.  This fine piece of work beautifully expresses Laurencin's feelings of oppression; although the subject is only confined by curtains, she remains a prisoner in her own life.  Whether in the confines of domesticity or the male dominated Paris art scene, Laurencin continually felt  trapped, until she broke out of these role in the twenties.  It is also worth mentioning that in marrying a German man, she revoked French citizenship and at this period was unable to return to Paris before the divorce, so she was also a prisoner in her marriage unable to return home.  This painting is quite beautiful in person, with the deep raspberry pink of the curtains complemented by the blue of the bow and garment.  A self-portrait from 1924 bears a resemblance to this subject, adding to the personal nature of this work.  Although the piece is dominated by a sense of loneliness and isolation, with one eye obscured by the curtain and one eye looking past it, there is the hope of breaking free of her prison.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Marsden Hartley, Mt. Katahdin, Maine, No. 2

Marsden Hartley, Mt. Katahdin, Maine, No. 2, 1939-40
30.25 x 40.25 in.

Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) was an American Modernist painter, as well as a writer.  Hartley was born in Maine and began studying art at the Cleveland Institute of Art when his family moved to Ohio. When he was twenty-two Hartley moved to New York City to study at the New York School of Art.  In 1909 he had his first solo show at Alfred Stieglitz's 291 gallery.  In 1912 Hartley traveled to Europe, first befriending Gertrude Stein and her circle, before moving on to Berlin.  There he befriended Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc and Hartley's style developed into a powerful combination of Cubism and German Expressionism.  He began painting the pomp and pageantry of Germany's militarism and these paintings were exhibited in the landmark 1913 Armory Show in New York.  However, Hartley's view of German militarism changed when World War I broke out, when war became no longer "a romantic but a reality."  In 1914, Hartley's close friend, whom he is thought to have been in love with, Karl von Freyburg, was killed in battle and Hartley was devastated.  The experience produced his best known painting, Portrait of a German Officer, which expresses his pain over his friend's death as well as feelings about the destructiveness of war; Freyburg's posthumous Iron Cross is featured prominently.  Hartley returned to the United States in 1916, though he left again in 1921.  When he moved back permanently in 1930 he traveled extensively and painted all over the country.  He returned to Maine in 1937 and spent the rest of his life there.  This view of Mount Katahdin is a fascinating interpretation of the landscape, one of eighteen that Hartley produced.  Mount Katahdin is the highest mountain in Maine and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.  This flat and rough depiction simultaneously reduces the scene to its most basic forms, while also conveying its expanse and impressiveness, its grandeur and importance.  The flat plane and bright colors also align the piece with folk art, a development in Hartley's work that was praised as thoroughly American.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Philip Govedare, Excavation #6

Philip Govedare, Excavation #6, 2010
66 x 59 in.

Philip Govedare (b.1954) is a contemporary painter from California.  Some of his earlier work resembles a pure abstraction that has been popular for decades, but in recent years he has focused entirely on unusual landscapes like Excavation #6.  Govedare's goal is to show the complex interactions of human activity and nature.  His firs requirement of a subject is that it be "visually compelling," but he also seeks to paint scenes that are marked by human activity.  His intention is not simply to show environmental degradation, although it of course plays a significant part, but to show the ways that the environmental conditions of a landscape alter its meaning. Ultimately his work depicts the fragility of the natural world and the effect we have on it, but nevertheless portraying the beauty of the landscape, both in spite of, and as a result of environmental damage.  The swirling colors and hazy shapes of Excavation #6 make quite an impression.  The twisting shapes at the fore of the painting suggest oil on water, but that appearance quickly gives way to one of mountains and clouds as we move further back in the picture plane.  The intense purple color that dominates the painting adds to that impression.  The bright colors that pervade the canvas, then, suggest the air pollution that brightens a sunset. While this particular association might not be made without Govedare's artist statement, it is clear that there is something unnatural in this scene.  Some of Govedare's scenes are more easily identifiable, but the vague shapes and scenery of this painting, which also suggest a crater of impact, make the piece extremely engaging and effective.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Philip Guston, For M

Philip Guston, For M, 1955
76.75 x 72.25 in.

Philip Guston (1913-1980) was a painter and printmaker of the New York School, and was a member of the Abstract Expressionist movement, however he is also known for Neo-expressionism, which he pioneered when he moved away from pure abstraction and returned to figuration.  The child of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, Guston was born in Montreal before the family relocated to Los Angeles.  Guston began painting at age fourteen, a few years after his father hanged himself and he found the body.  He attended the same high school as Jackson Pollock and studied with the same art teacher.  Guston moved to New York in 1935, where he worked for the WPA, like many New York School artists.  By 1967, Guston had grown frustrated with abstraction and returned to representational art.  For M is from the height of Abstract Expressionism, when Guston used thick strokes of paint in rich colors, applied over complex backgrounds.  In this piece we can see the complex shapes created by these many shades of red.  As the brightest colors at the center fade toward the edges, we can see the movement of Guston's hand.  He applied paint using traditional brushwork, but the energy and ferocity of his brushstrokes is quite visible.  The addition of a small amount of black gives a piece the sense of death and darkness, that may be suggested by the cluster of red at the center, but would likely not be so intense without the inclusion of the black.  Like many artists at the time, Guston is responding to the intense confusion of the postwar period, in this case with a thick knot of red marks to bloody up the canvas.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

William Frederic Ritschel, Boats Returning Home

William Frederic Ritschel, Boats Returning Home

William Frederic Ritschel (1864-1949) was a German-American painter.  He was born in Nuremberg and as a young man became a sailor.  He began sketching seascapes and then formally studied at the Royal Academy of Munich.  In 1895 Ritschel emigrated to New York City before moving across the country and settling in Carmel-by-the-sea in 1911.  He continued to depict the sea throughout his life and moving to Monterey, California gave him the opportunity to paint the Monterey Peninsula.  Ritschel's paintings are on view in many major collections in the world, particularly throughout the United States.  Boats Returning Home is a beautiful examples of Ritschel's style and skill.  The expanse of the scene portrayed is quite striking, as is the relationship between light and water that is portrayed.  Although the sun is not visible in the painting, we can clearly see its position by the band of reflected light through the center of the painting.  The sun casts dazzling colors on the water.  Furthermore, the boats are in silhouette. They appear quite small in the painting, compared to the wide expanse of sea that Ritschel chose to include, so their homecoming, that is their return to safety, is a very happy occasion.  The way Ritschel conveys the movement of the water is quite skillful; using little more than concentric curves and squiggly lines we feel the sway of the tide, and the effect becomes less discernible as it moves further away.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Ary Scheffer, Francesca da Rimini

Ary Scheffer, Francesca da Rimini, 1835
65.55 x 92 in.

Ary Scheffer (1795-1858) was a Dutch painter associated with Romanticism.  His father, mother, grandfather, and brother were all painters.  When his father, Bernard Scheffer, died, Ary's mother, Cornelia Lamme Scheffer, moved Ary and his brother Hendrik from Amsterdam to Paris to further their education.  While Ary had success in Paris, he did not follow the trend of the most popular painters, like Delacroix and Géricault.  He therefore developed his own style that is a combination of French and Dutch styles and exhibits elements of both Classicism & Romanticism. Francesca da Rimini (the alternate or full title is Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta appraised by Virgil) is considered one of Scheffer's greatest works.  I have discussed Dante's Divine Comedy twice before, with Botticelli's Abyss of Hell and Bouguereau's Dante and Virgil, and Scheffer presents another scene from the Inferno.  Scheffer also has another painting of a scene from Divine Comedy, showing Dante and Beatrice, but I find this work more interesting.  Francesca da Rimini was a real person (1255-c1285) who was the daughter of the Lord of Ravenna.  She was married to Giovanni Malatesta in a political marriage, but fell in love with his younger brother Paolo.  The two carried on an affair for ten years, before Giovanni discovered them and killed them.  In the years following her death, she became something of a notorious figure in Florence, about whom many stories sprung up.  Dante and Virgil encounter Francesca and Paolo in the second circle of hell, inhabited by the lustful, where they are swept up in an eternal whirlwind, just as they were swept up in their passion.  Upon hearing Francesca's account of her life, a story he already knows, Dante faints out of pity.  Since her inclusion in Dante's poem, Francesca da Rimini became a very popular subject of painting, theater, and opera. Scheffer's version is a powerfully dramatic rendering of the lovers.  He makes use of a dark background to make the couple's bodies even more striking.  They appear in simultaneous pain and passion, as they embrace but are also killed.  The single sword wound that killed both Francesca and Paolo is visible on her back and his chest.  The beautiful rendering of both bodies is the most compelling element of the painting, with the gentle touch of Paolo's hand, the desperate embrace of Francesca's arms around his neck, and Francesca's beautifully elongated back.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Samuel Palmer, A Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star

Samuel Palmer, A Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star, c1830
7.76 x 10.16 in.

Samuel Palmer (1805-1881) was a British landscape painter and printmaker, as well as a writer. His pastoral landscapes are considered a visionary and important contribution to British Romanticism.  Palmer first exhibited at the Royal Academy at age fourteen.  In 1824, Palmer met Williams Blake, who prove very influential to the young painter, encouraging him to pursue his vision of pastoral inncence.  Some of Palmer's paintings, such as Garden in Shoreham show the beautiful simplicity of the natural world.  One pair of paintings, A Hilly Scene and Coming from Evening Church show the balanced relationship of the natural, human, and divine.  In addition to showing the influence of Blake, these paintings also show a trajectory from Romanticism to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  A Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star is a beautiful example of Palmer's best work.  This small painting, painted when Palmer lived in relative isolation in the village of Shoreham, shows a shepherd and his dog walking alongside a field at night, while large hills rise up in the background.  The moon is rather large, but casts an unrealistically bright light on the scene.  The entire field pulsates with the richness of the moonlight.  While the scene is not very detailed, with most of the elements communicated with gestures rather than careful brushwork, the tenor of the scene is communicated quite effectively.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Gustave Doré, from Pradise Lost

Gustave Doré, from Paradise Lost Series, 1866

Gustave Doré (1832-1883) was one of the most renowned printmakers in nineteenth century France.  As a boy he began carving in cement, before beginning to work as a caricaturist. Although he was also a successful painter and sculptor, Doré worked mainly in wood engraving. Most of his commissions were for series of illustrations, beginning with the work of Lord Byron followed by the English Bible.  Some of the other literature he illustrated includes, Don Quixote, Edgar Allen Poe, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Idylls of the King, and Divine Comedy.  In 1866 Doré was hired to do a series of illustrations for Milton's Paradise Lost.  The series comprises fifty plates, illustrating the breadth of the epic, each depicting specific lines from the poem.  This particular scene shows Fallen Angels blowing their trumpets to call their horde to a council after having been cast out and begun exploring their new dominion (although several sources incorrectly identify the image as the Angels of Heaven blowing their horns in victory).  The accompanying lines are:

Mean while the winged Haralds by command
Of Sovran power, with awful Ceremony
And Trumpets sound throughout the Host proclaim
A solemn Councel forthwith to be held [ 755 ]
At Pandæmonium, the high Capital
Of Satan and his Peers: thir summons call'd
From every Band and squared Regiment
By place or choice the worthiest; they anon
With hunderds and with thousands trooping came
Attended: (I.752-61)

I chose to use this particular scene because of the complexity of the image and the great skill it required.    Doré successfully communicates the size of the Host of Hell, innumerable as the army recedes into the far distance of the scene.  Nevertheless, the angels in the foreground, and in the middle ground blowing their trumpets, are quite well defined and differentiated.  Doré's skill is perhaps most evident in the frontmost Fallen Angel, who is rendered with great care and detail, as is his horse, whose coat and musculature are clearly visible.  The entire series is a masterwork, expressing the great spiritual and emotional depth of Milton's words, culminating in Adam and Eve's departure from Eden:

They looking back, all th' Eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late thir happie seat,
Wav'd over by that flaming Brand, the Gate
With dreadful Faces throng'd and fierie Armes:
Som natural tears they drop'd, but wip'd them soon; 
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way. 

The entire series can be viewed here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

William Lamb Picknell, Eventide

William Lamb Picknell, Eventide
35 x 45.5 in.

William Lamb Picknell (1853-1897) was an American painter, mostly of landscapes and seascapes who was particularly known for his frequent use of reflected sunlight and for his scenes of receding space.  Born in Vermont, Picknell was orphaned as an adolescent and then lived with his uncle in Boston before going to Europe at age twenty.  He began studying fine art with George Inness in Rome before entering the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  Picknell found success in France and stayed there for a number of years.  He exhibited in the 1876 Paris Salon and participated in several after that.  He won a medal at the 1880 Salon, the first American to do so in landscape.  Picknell spent his last years in Massachusetts.  Picknell's best known works demonstrate a distinct academicism, borne out of his study in Europe.  Eventide is a rather different painting.  Rather than those crisp lines and carefully drawn scenes, this forest is wild and rough.  While it is not clear whether these trees or dead, or if it is just winter, the overall impression of the piece is a bit ominous, suggesting destruction and deterioration.  The palette is extremely interesting, mostly ranging between blue and green, with the grass and turquoise cast to the sky.  There is also the yellow sun with some brown on the ground.  Yet despite the overall brightness and richness of the colors, the canvas looks quite dark, giving that ominous pall.  The painting is quite intense, and, especially with the title of Eventide, gives the impression of a darkening and waning as night swallows these trees.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Odilon Redon, The Buddha

Odilon Redon, The Buddha, 1906-07
35.43 x 28.74 in.

Odilon Redon (1840-1916) was a French Symbolist artist who worked in painting, printmaking, and drawing.  A major tenet of Symbolism was the belief that art should communicate truths that cannot be described literally, and can only be faithfully represented with symbolic imagery or poetry.  Redon's work follows this ideal, in that he used his art to explore his own inner self and portray what he felt.  His work is filled with bright, airy colors, that represent both his own inner truth and the world's.  He often applied his technique to an unrealistic rendering of natural elements (Flower Clouds) or to portraits.  Redon also showed in interest in Classical myth; The Cyclops is probably his most famous work, and he created several views of Apollo in his chariot.  The Buddha is of course inspired by Redon's interest in Eastern culture.  He was very influenced by Japonism, as well as by both Hinduism and Buddhism.  This painting is a beautiful depiction of Redon's synthesis of Buddhist ideas.  Made with pastels on paper, the piece is simultaneously magnificently simple and stunningly intricate.  Redon portrays the Buddha in a natural setting, surrounded by the miraculous forms of plants and earth.  The extreme serenity that Redon shows in Buddha's expression is quite moving; his robe is quite noticeably not made of natural colors or shapes, but this actually serves to unite Buddha further with the natural world.  The shapes of the different plants are extremely compelling and the intense blue coloration of the sky is remarkable. However, the tree is the most fascinating natural element of the scene, and serves as a visual and thematic balance for the Buddha.  The tree trunk is quite well shaped, with the branches curving and twisting around each other.  At first the tree looks dead, with only bare branches remaining.  However, the mass of yellow at the top of the painting is in fact the tree's foliage; the branches it connects to just stretch out of the frame.  At the same time, these leaves and yellow flowers suggest the sun, filling the sky with its light, and they also suggest the light of the Buddha. Redon portrays the tree as the life giving force, perhaps alluding to the Bodhi Tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment.  The spiritual unity of this painting is quite powerful and greatly enhances its beauty.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Paul Nash, The Menin Road

Paul Nash, The Menin Road, 1919
72 x 125 in.

Paul Nash (1889-1946) was a British surrealist painter and photographer.  He is remembered as an important landscape painter and for his war art.  Nash reluctantly enlisted as private for home service at the beginning of World War I in September 1914.  Many of his assignments were guard duty, during which he continued to practice drawing and painting.  However he received officer training in 1916 and was promoted to second lieutenant before being sent to the Western Front.  Nash painted his first scenes of the war while recuperating from an injury, using sketches he had done on the battlefield.  While in hospital he learned that most of his unit was killed.  Nash had his first exhibition in June of 1917 and his depictions of the war were well received.  He was commissioned to do a battlefield scene of Flanders by the Ministry of Information for the Hall of Remembrance Project so he chose to portray the Battle of the Menin Road Bridge, part of the Third Battle of Ypres.  The Menin Road is an extremely large painting (in fact it is quite intentionally the same size as Paolo Uccello's iconic Battle of San Romano) so the impact would be quite impressive in person.  The most prominent feature of the canvas is the torn up landscape.  The devastaton looks post-apocalyptic to a modern viewer, with concrete blocks piled around, metal trash half buried, stagnant pools of muddy water, and the dead desiccated plant life.  The many trees the punctuate the middle ground, and then thicken into a forest in the background, are particularly striking, all dead and broken, their tops likely blown off by bombs.  Two pairs of soldiers attempt to make their way across the desolate field but are dwarfed by the destruction and devastation.  Perhaps the most chilling aspect of this painting is the two beams of light from unseen airplanes that shine through the clouds; they mirror the rays of divine light that shine through the clouds in so many religious paintings to represent God's presence.  They shine onto a scene completely devoid of grace or divinity.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Edward Hopper, Railroad Sunset

Edward Hopper, Railroad Sunset, 1929
29.25 x 48 in.

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) is a well known painter of Americana.  His most famous painting is undoubtedly Nighthawks (1942), which is emblematic of much of Hopper's career.  Although he also painted many landscapesseascapes, and cityscapes, Hopper is principally associated with his realist images of contemporary American everyday life.  Hopper strove to portray a wide range of the American experience, such as a rural gas station, a domestic scenea couple at home in New Yorka modern office, yet whether the piece presents an idealized outdoor scenea small business at work, or a sensitive portrait within the stylish city, there is always a vein of loneliness in Hopper's work.  The figures are alienated from each other, their surroundings, the artist, and the viewer.  Hopper depicts the progress of America, and all the things that should make people happy, yet they remain alone and uncertain.  Railroad Sunset features no figures, but contains these themes nonetheless.  Here we see this lone tower standing within a beautiful landscape with a magnificent sunset behind it.  Hopper is questioning the status of this construction, which intervenes on the view, but does it detract from it?  To my mind, the inclusion of a manmade element lends a profound thoughtfulness to the scene, for this isn't even anyone stationed at this tower to watch the sunset.  Hopper's skill is quite evident in this piece, as he successfully expresses the luminosity of this sky.  If you look closely, you can see that the sky and, to a lesser degree, the hills are rendered with looser brushwork than the tower, underscoring the disparity between the elements, but also communicating that we are seeing the distant landscape elements through the haze of the brilliant sun.  While the loneliness that pervades Hopper's figure painting is still present here, there is also a sense of acceptance and peace in the face of this spectacular view.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Giorgio Bonola, Miracle of Marco Spagnolo

Giorgio Bonola, Miracle of Marco Spagnolo, c1695

I'm feeling rather nauseated tonight with some sort of virus, so I chose this painting.  Giorgio Bonola (1657-1700) was an Italian Baroque painter who spent most of his life in Milan.  This piece is in the Milan Cathedral as part of a cycle honoring the life and miracles of St. Charles Borromeo.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Hieronymus Bosch, The Concert in the Egg

Hieronymus Bosch, The Concert in the Egg, c1475/c1561

This is not the actual painting by Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), but a copy of a lost work by an unknown follower.  This conclusion was reached by an analysis of the music in the open book, which contains notes written by Netherlandish composer Thomas Crecquillon in 1549.  We do have a drawing of the scene by Bosch, and some scholars believe the copy is of the drawing and that Bosch never rendered the scene in a full painting.  Whatever the true origins of the piece, and whether or not the details are from Bosch's own mind, the painting is quite representative of Bosch's distinctive style.  Bosch was, and is, extremely unusual within the canon of Renaissance painters.  His work is well known for its use of fantastic imagery, bizarre settings and situations, and grotesque occurrences.  Bosch's most famous piece is his monumental triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights.  The Concert in the Egg, though less well known, exhibits many of the same traits to a lesser degree, except perhaps t he religious philosophy that many have seen in the triptych.  Here, the group of musicians form the yolk of the egg, which apparently symbolizes their foolishness.  The monk with his back to us is attempting to lead the group, pointing to the score, but the others seem to have little interest in following him.  He is so engaged in his pointless task, either because of dedication or self-importance, that he does not notice his purse being stolen by the small man who stands with the donkey-headed lute player.  Much of the bizarre imagery in this piece is likely connected to popular Dutch expressions of the sixteenth century, the significance of which, like Bosch's original painting, have been lost to time.  Incorporating popular expressions and proverbs into paintings was a favorite practice of Netherlandish art of the time (in fact Pieter Brueghel the Elder devoted an entire painting to it) that Bosch used in other works.  Some of the features are a fish that a hand is reaching for but is also being eyed by a cat (lower left corner), a basket that contains a cooked bird but which live ones are now perched on (upper right), one man with a water bird on his head, another with an owl, and another with a building mid-construction. The lower right corner shows small people, both human and less-so, around a table and working, while the left side appears to show a town on fire.  All of these details are fascinating and the meticulous work of the unknown painter is very effective in bringing them to life.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Ian Fairweather, On the Lake

Ian Fairweather, On the Lake, 1964
26.5x38 in.

Ian Fairweather (1891-1974) is considered one of the greatest Australian painters.  His initial artistic impulse was borne out of his time in a German prisoner of war camp during World War I, where he was permitted to study drawing and Japanese.  After the war, he received formal art training and also studied Asian cultures.  Upon completing his studies, Fairweather traveled significantly, from Canada, Bali, Shanghai, and China, before settling in Australia.  Fairweather's art is the result of his many varied experiences, a combination of his reaction to war and his love of Asian culture and spirituality,  Buddhism in particular, as seen in his best known painting, 1961's Monastery.  On The Lake is one of thirteen large canvases that Fairweather created to accompany his own translation of the Chinese tales of Chi-Tien, a thirteenth century Buddhist monk known for his mischief and his constant drunkenness.  The publishing company would only print the book with illustrations, never expecting the 73-year-old Fairweather to produce such an extensive collection of large canvases.  Another piece from the series is Chi-tien stands on his head  Fairweather is considered an abstract artist, but the clearly defined boat in this piece somewhat blurs that designation and forces the viewer to think about the literal implications of this lake.  Certainly the blue coloration can suggest water, but the abstraction and disjunction of the surface elicits deeper resonances.  Perhaps this is a psychological lake, one that must be traversed to achieve peace or understanding.  Fairweather commented that he felt about painting the way other people felt about religion, and it is not hard to see him exploring the deep questions and truths about existence in his beautiful works.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

M.C. Escher, Birds

M.C. Escher, Birds, 1926

Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972) was an influential Dutch graphic artist, whose explorations of complex and impossible spaces and tessellations have become indelible fixtures of contemporary culture.  Although his work has largely been relegated to pop-culture cliche and math classes, Escher demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the brain, visual stimuli, spatial relations, the role of images in culture, and both modernism and postmodernism.  His most famous works are Drawing Hands (1948), depictions of impossible architecture like Relativity (1953), and tessellations of birds and fish like Sky and Water I (1938).  Birds is a rather different piece; it is not actually a tessellation, nor does it contain any impossible spaces or surreal use of gravity. Instead, this is a fairly straightforward depiction of several birds in flight.  Nevertheless, it gestures toward the work that would follow, with the repeated patterns on the central bird's plumage and the relationship of the smaller birds to the large one, each fitting into the negative space that the central bird creates.  Although perhaps not as innovative as Escher's famous style, this is a beautiful and fascinating work of art that suggests a link between his extremely modern works and the graphic art of traditional cultures.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Ben Shahn, The Red Stairway

Ben Shahn, The Red Stairway, 1944
16 x 24 in.

Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was a Jewish-American painter of the Social Realist style, also known for his left-wing politics.  Shahn was born in the Pale, in what is now Lithuania, but his family emigrated to the United States in 1906 and settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Among Shahn's most common themes is an exploration of the indomitable spirit of humanity.  The Red Stairway depicts a crippled man with only one leg as he climbs a very steep staircase.  He climbs away from rubble and devastation, but if he follows the stairs back down on the other side, he will only find the same destruction.  Nevertheless he keeps climbing, keeps moving forward, striving to reach a better place.  He doesn't see the destruction on the other side of the stairs, and because of that his fate remains uncertain.  As he overcomes his handicap, this man's final destination has not been decided.  This painting is considered a reaction to the destruction of World War II, when senseless violence wrought so much destruction.  Nevertheless, humanity has no choice but to keep moving forward.  Shahn wrote that this painting was about "both the hope and fate of man," and also spoke people's inability to communicate.  The disconnect between the man climbing the stairs and the figure on the right is palpable; they may be able to help each other but there is a gulf between them.  The painting is done in tempera, which accounts for the sense of flatness in the canvas. This gives the piece an interesting sense of space, wherein the other side of the staircase is both so far away and just in front of us.  Shahn created a painting that is deliberately ambiguous, reflecting the extreme uncertainty that pervaded the world as World War II swept Europe and the Pacific.