Tuesday, September 30, 2014

François Gérard, Psyche and Amor

François Gérard, Psyche and Amor, 1798

François Pascal Simon, Baron Gérard (1770-1837) was a successful French painter who studied under Neoclassical master Jacques-Louis David.  Born in Rome, where his father was French ambassador, Gérard achieved early successes but had many setbacks that precluded him from the acclaim he sought. Eventually, Gérard found great favor with the First French Empire and later the Bourbon Restoration as a portrait painter, painting all the leading figures of the Empire, including Napoleon.  Gérard also became a member of the high society of the Empire and was granted a barony.  

Psyche and Amor or Psyche Receiving Cupid's First Kiss is one of Gérard's history paintings and is a compelling representation of the myth of Cupid and Psyche.  We see Cupid lovingly kiss his wife, holding her gently.  Both figures are depicted with physical perfection, exquisite Classical nudes,  and a beautiful landscape stretches behind them, an exemplary piece of Neoclassical painting.  The feathers of Cupid's wings are rendered with remarkable detail and Psyche's fine garment drapes over her legs with beautiful folds, the light shining through perfectly.  Despite the physical perfection of these lovers and the tenderness that Cupid expresses, there is something missing in their interaction.  Psyche's hands enfold her torso; she appears guarded and somewhat fearful.  Even more significantly, she does not look at him.  Cupid has forbidden Psyche from looking upon him, and she does not know the face or identity of this man she has fallen in love with who comes to her every night.  Psyche's gaze away from Cupid, toward the viewer, becomes the central feature of the painting.  The painting comes alive in the beauty of her face.  We feel the alienation between the figures and lack of fulfillment that Psyche feels as she cannot fully be with Cupid.  Even in the embrace of her loving husband, Psyche's longing and fear are powerfully expressed.  Gérard has frozen the myth before the resolution Apuleius described.  Psyche remains in perpetual sadness and longing, unable to turn her gaze toward Cupid.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Mark Rothko, Sacrifice of Iphigenia

Mark Rothko, Sacrifice of Iphigenia, 1942

Mark Rothko (1903-1970) was one of the most prominent American artists of the postwar period.  Considered an Abstract Expressionist, Rothko is best known for his color field paintings, where large masses of one or two colors fill the entire canvas.  Before he began using that style Rothko explored many other forms of art and Sacrifice of Iphigenia exemplifies the artist's interest in Classical myth.  Iphigenia was the eldest daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra.  Agamemnon gathered the Greek fleet in Aulis but no wind rose to sail them to Troy.  Artemis prevented their departure in punishment for killing a sacred deer and to appease her Agamemnon had to sacrifice Iphigenia, if wished to sail on to Troy for his war that is.  Of course Agamemnon chose to sacrifice his daughter, a decision that would later lead to his death at the hands of Clytemnestra who was told to send Iphigenia so that she could marry Achilles.  It is certainly possible to identify figurative referents in Rothko's piece; the black cone with white stripes would be Iphigenia's garment, and her moon-like face recoils from menacing hands that reach out toward her.  Some have seen the figure on the right representing Clytemnestra, who is ripped open at the loss of her child.  However, what was always important to Rothko was the spirit of the myth.  While the story of Iphigenia has many implications, at its core it presents the willful death of a beloved innocent to perpetuate more killing.  In the midst of World War II, Rothko was certainly thinking along these lines.  Therefore he gives us a painting of deep pain and alienation.  There is a harshness to these shapes, such as those hell-red jaws that Iphigenia seems to stand in front of.  She wears a funerary shroud and her head is barely present, as her life fades away.  The entire scene is backgrounded by this deep yellow color, that is perhaps warm, but definitely sickly.  The extreme loss of life in these cataclysmic wars, such as the Trojan War and both World Wars, pervades this painting and tormented Rothko throughout his life.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Pierre Bonnard, Montmartre in the Rain

Pierre Bonnard, Montmartre in the Rain, 1897

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) was a major French Post-Impressionist painter and printmaker and a founding member of the avant-garde group known as Les Nabis, who were committed including symbols and spirituality in their work.  In this piece, Bonnard depicts Montmartre, the hill in Paris that had long been a center of the artistic community.  What particularly stands out in this work is the texture that Bonnard created; rain isn't explicitly discernible, but the viewer can feel its affects when looking at these buildings and rooftops.  The brown palette seems to glow with warm light and we feel invited to take shelter in these homes with their yellow lit windows.  Bonnard's painting conveys the romance of Montmartre, as well as a sense of community.  His shapes are unusual and somewhat distorted but that only adds to the beauty, and perhaps slight mystery, of the scene.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1930

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) was an American photographer and champion of modern art who was instrumental in the evolution of photography from a mere documentary tool into an art form.  Over his long career Stieglitz explored many styles and subjects, and he is perhaps most famous for his urban scenes.  He was also an avid landscape photographer but the Equivalents photographs that Stieglitz took from about 1925-34 are something quite different.  In this series, Stieglitz took at least 220 photographs of clouds and the sky.  The piece I have chosen is actually unusual in the inclusion of a tree at the bottom, as most of the pictures have no visible horizon or objects.  These photographs are intended to be free of literal interpretation, the first completely abstract photographic artworks.  The idea of the "equivalents" is that they were analogous to Stieglitz's own emotional experiences, and he was very influenced by Kandinsky's ideas–that with shapes, lines, and color, abstraction can reflect greater emotive truths than figurative art.  This particular photograph almost looks like a painting, the clouds are so unusual.  There is a great intensity here that Stieglitz manages to convey.  We see the size of the clouds and the cope of their power against the dark sky.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Marc Chagall, Bride with Blue Face

Marc Chagall, Bride with Blue Face, 1932

Marc Chagall (1887-1985) was a celebrated Russian-Jewish artist whose work crosses the boundaries between styles, employing elements of Expressionism, Impressionism, and Primitivism, among others.  Born in Vitebsk, now in Belarus, and having lived in Moscow, St. Petersburg, New York, and Paris (where he spent most of his life), the artist had a unique perspective on the changing nature of Jewish and European life in the twentieth century.  Chagall used vivid colors and fantastical folk imagery, raising serious questions about the nature of home, time, memory and longing.  Bride with Blue Face is exemplary of Chagall’s unique style, with vivid colors, disjointed space, personal themes, and unusual animals.  Here we see a bridal couple, one of the artist’s favorite subjects, towering over a village.  The groom's head is quite puzzling; it seems to be floating, supported only by the bride's veil, as though the groom's presence is not entirely realized and he is unable to join his bride.  The groom seems to dwell in the past, represented by the village in the lower right, and the burning village at the top.  The bride keeps him rooted to her present with her veil.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Today is my birthday!  So I decided to post one of my photographs, presented without comment.  I invite you to post your analysis in the comments!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

José Bedia, Estrella Fugaz and Señal del Cielo

José Bedia, Señal del Cielo       José Bedia, Estrella Fugaz

José Bedia Valdés (b.1959) is a celebrated Cuban painter who draws on African, Latin American, and Native American traditions in his work.  Bedia is interested in many different themes and styles, but often portrays cosmic motifs and explores humanity's relationship to the universe and spirituality.  These themes are quite present in this pair of paintings.  Señal del Cielo and Estrella Fugaz (Sign from Heaven and Shooting Star) are based largely on Egyptian imagery.  These figures recall the posture of Egyptian statuary where Pharaohs are seen sitting straight and stoic, hands resting on their knees.  The figures in these paintings are in the same pose and are clearly referencing this iconography, an association underlined by the male and female pair (for the Egyptian statues are often in pairs of Pharaoh and Wife).  However the impression here is very different.  Rather than sitting on thrones, they are on simple chairs, and they do not sit stoically, but instead they receive and emit the energies of the universe.  The connection to cosmic spirituality is further illustrated by the trees growing from their knees and the animals climbing their arms, a horse for the man and a giraffe for the woman.  The blue coloring of the pieces (and the silhouette of the trees and animals) gives the sense of a nighttime scene with the white dots that outline the figures looking like stars; therefore, the figures take on the appearance of constellations.  Each painting is marked with the outline of a head, surrounded in white and blowing wind.  This aspect seems to be the message from heaven and the shooting star that that the paintings are named after, again placing the paintings in the spiritual realm.  These pieces also have a sense of magical realism about them, a recurring feeling in Bedia's work.  Ultimately these beautiful paintings explore our connection to our world and depict the interconnectedness of the universe.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

James Abbott McNeil Whistler, Venetian Scene

Whistler, Venetian Scene, 1879

James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903) was born in Massachusetts and spent most of his life in England after studying art in France.  Generally considered one of the most important American painters, Whistler is often associated with the Impressionists and their predecessors (such as Manet, Courbet, and Fantin-Latour).  Thematically, Whistler does have some kinship with these artists, such as devotion to what one actually sees and interest in similar subject matter, such as water scenes.  However, Whistler does have a unique style that is quite evident in his most famous works, such as Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (popularly known as Whistler's Mother) and his series of Nocturnes.  In 1879 Whistler received a commission for twelve etchings of Venice over three months.  He ultimately stayed for fourteen months, during which Whistler produced over fifty etchings, several nocturnes, watercolors, and over one hundred pastels, of which this piece is one.  This particular work is stunning in its color.  Whistler's use of this orange color to produce water, clouds, buildings, even figures is quite remarkable.  By using this same color throughout the composition, the piece becomes about texture instead, while the color gives it a very strong character.  With this technique, Whistler leaves the viewer engaged but kept at a certain distance; he conveys the mood of the city but leaves its actual appearance obscured and mysterious.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Dürer, Young Hare

Albrecht Dürer, Young Hare, 1502

Unsurprisingly, my first repeated artist is Dürer (1471-1528).  As I previously discussed, Dürer is probably the most celebrated printmaker in history, but he was also a remarkably skilled and accomplished painter.  Indeed, his 1500 self-portrait is considered one of the most important paintings in the history of art.  This simple watercolor of a hare is also quite famous.  What is astounding about this piece is the texture that Dürer observed and managed to convey.  We can feel the animal's velvety fur, the power of its haunches, the taut sensitivity of its ears.  The painting is also quite soulful.  Just as he did with his own visage two years earlier, Dürer gives this hare a presence and depth that is incredibly engaging.  We feel experience and contemplation in its eyes, far beyond what one expects to see in a painting of an animal.  Astonishing in its accuracy and breathtaking in its beauty, this masterpiece is truly magnificent.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Peter Doig, Road House

Peter Doig, Road House, 1991

Peter Doig (b.1959) is a renowned Scottish painter who now lives in Trinidad. Doig is best known for his landscapes and for his paintings of architecture by Le Corbusier. Road House is like much of Doig's work in that it is clearly figurative, but employs some measure of abstraction. This piece employs a three-tiered stratification; the house sits in the middle register with the upper representing sky and the lower showing the earth below, like a geological cross section. The piece prompts a consideration of our ecological place in the world, and of our social stratification. The tranquility of the scene combines with the unusual, intense coloration to create a somewhat uneasy calm and a slightly dismal tone. This particular house stands small against the nature surrounding it. It is pressed on by the outer registers, blocked by a tree, and dwarfed by a forest to the right. Considering these themes, it is worth noting that this painting sold at Christie's this past May for $11.9 million.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Vanessa Bell, Monte Oliveto

Vanessa Bell, Monte Oliveto, 1912

Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) is well-known as Virginia Woolf's older sister. She was also a member of the Bloomsbury Group herself as a successful painter and interior designer. Bell (née Stephen) attended art school in 1896 and studied painting at the Royal Academy beginning in 1901. This beautiful painting of the Italian Campagna is very much of its time. In 1912, despite the beginnings of Modernism and Dada, a Post-Impressionist style still ruled the day. Bell's piece recalls the precedent of Cezanne and van Gogh, but with her own definitive stamp. The highly elongated trees and earthy tones portray nature infused with emotional attachment. Bell created a landscape of extreme beauty while also portraying the reality of her subject. We can imagine climbing this hill and reaching the forest of Cyprus trees. Bell's great gift to us in this painting is to offer a view that is simultaneously idealized and realistic and it is this tension that continues to hold our gaze. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Torsten Andersson, Spring Breeze

Torsten Andersson, Spring Breeze, 1946

Otto Torsten Andersson (1926-2009) was a Swedish Modernist painter known for painted depictions of sculptures and other three-dimensional objects. Thematically, Andersson repeatedly explored the question of whether or not painting can be considered a language. This painting contributes to that discussion. Spring Breeze explores the role of nature in our lives, and in the world of modernist painting where abstraction had primacy. This beautiful painting evokes the complexity of nature as well as its fluidity as this tree is blown about by the wind. The tree looks like a cherry, which, given the date of 1946, reminds me of the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ultimately the painting is a beautiful depiction of a natural scene that is quite evocative and speaks to art's ability to communicate complex ideas. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mikhail Nesterov, Vesper

Mikhail Nesterov, Vesper, 1904

Mikhail Nesterov (1862-1942) was a Russian painter and pioneer of Russian Symbolism. He is best known for his portraits and religious painting and remained a devout Orthodox Christian throughout his life. Although he opposed the Bolshevik Revolution on these grounds he chose to remain in Russia until his death. Vesper refers to the evening and particularly the evening star, which at first seems to have little connection to this piece. Vespers is also the name for evening prayers, but in addition it is likely referring to the central figure. The monk or holy man is bent with age, stooping between buildings. Despite this posture, Nesterov manages to give the man a quiet dignity and gravitas, even without showing his face; perhaps this is due to Nesterov's own piety. The beautiful landscape and surroundings are achieved through Nesterov's loose brushwork and paint handling, which give the rural setting a hazy, dreamlike quality. This technique is most evident in the trees and roofs. Overall the painting feels like a meditation on the twilight of this solitary monk as he carries on into night.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Vittore Carpaccio, The Dream of Saint Ursula

Vittore Carpaccio, The Dream of Saint Ursula, 1495

Vittore Carpaccio (c1465-1525/6) was a Venetian painter of the Italian Renaissance.  This scene is from Carpaccio's most series of paintings, The Legend of Saint Ursula.  The story is derived from Jacopo da Varagine's Golden Legend, a seminal text of the period, which is still an important source for many stories about the saints.  Ursula was a Christian princess of Brittany who, while returning from pilgrimage to Rome, was killed by the leader of the Huns for refusing to marry him.  (Some sources say it was Attila but Ursula would have lived over fifty years before his rule.)  Ursula is said to have been martyred along with 10,000 virgin handmaidens.  In this scene, an angel comes to inform Ursula of her impending martyrdom.  Among the many interesting features of this painting is the successful use of linear perspective.  It was still a fairly new invention at the time and Carpaccio was very effective in communicating the depth and space of the room; the open doorway on the far wall is a prime example.  This effect is also aided by Carpaccio's use of light.  The two doorways both let light into the room and the trajectories of the light realistically convey the space.  Ursula and her bed are lighted by the doorway that the angel stands in, while the opposite corner remains in shadow.  There is also fascinating realism in the rendering of the walls and ceiling; Carpaccio's brushwork gives a strong sense of texture.  This particular effect is reminiscent of the painting of Northern Europe, particularly the Netherlands, which had made its way into Italy and was a particular influence on Carpaccio.  I am taken by the calm energy of the piece and the many beautiful details of the room.  Much of the Saint Ursula series is made up of large crowd scenes, which are depicted quite skillfully and are striking in their intricacy and in contrast the simplicity of this painting is quite moving.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Vincent van Gogh, Stevedores in Arles

Vincent van Gogh, Stevedores in Arles, 1888

Another day, another sunset.  I've posted quite a few now and each one is a masterpiece in its own right.  Today we turn to Van Gogh (1853-1890) and this magnificent scene of dockworkers (stevedores) at sunset.  Van Gogh's command of color is perhaps considered his greatest gift, on fine display in this work.  The sky is alight with this vibrant orange that flows into a warm, pale green, an unusual choice for sky but one that feels completely natural.  The sunset over Arles casts the dockworkers in silhouette as they continue to labor through the end of the day.  Van Gogh's brushwork in this painting is also a bit different from most of his work; we can discern many horizontal strokes that come together to form this magnificent whole.  In this canvas we can sense the intensity of the sunset and the toil of these men, and in Van Gogh's ecstatic rendering each feels just as beautiful and important.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Romul Nutiu, Dynamic Universe I

Romul Nutiu, Dynamic Universe I, 1970

Romul Nutiu (1932-2012) was a Romanian artist who began his career in sculpture and conceptual art. When Nutiu moved into painting, his style was a very different type of abstraction that resembled some Dada and Expressionist works.  Soon, however, he found a style that was much more visceral and immediate.  Paintings like Dynamic Universe I are powerful expressions of emotion and struggle.  This piece depicts the chaotic flow of existence, a compelling portrayal of entropy.  Despite the chaos that seems to pervade the canvas, if we look closely (and keep the title in mind) we can discern a balance of shape and color that is really the vast movement of the universe.  Nutiu's command of color is astounding and his forms are actually quite precise and controlled.  The continual turmoil of the world is captured here, but Nutiu shows it, not with fear or overwhelming helplessness, but as something to embrace and join with.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Maurice Sapiro, Viscosity IX

Maurice Sapiro, Viscosity IX, 2011

Maurice Sapiro (b1932) is a contemporary artist who works in a variety of media.  He is mostly a painter, but also does sculpture, sketches, ad video art, and he paints with many different techniques.  This piece is from a style that he calls "pour painting" (a term also used to describe the work of Jackson Pollock and others), based on the viscosities of different paints.  Oil colors of different consistencies do not blend, and even repel each other, so Sapiro pours these repellent paints onto a flat surface and then tilts it to achieve the desired effect.  The paintings come out looking like intense cosmic scenes or weather effects, or in this case flowing lava.  The intensity of the color and the expanse of the paint, filling the picture space, give an extreme and ominous impression.  I find much of Sapiro's work to be quite compelling, and this is just one of many examples.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Salvador Dalí, Port of Cadaqués (Night)

Salvador Dalí, Port of Cadaqués, 1918

Although Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) is best known for his surrealism, he explored many other styles before he developed his unique vision in the mid-1920s.  Many of Dalí's earlier works are Cubist or Expressionist, but this piece is actually Post-Impressionist.  I can't help but notice that I've posted several pieces that feature boats and water or examine the relationship between light and water, and this painting portrays this interaction very effectively.  The rich colors of sky, water, and the reflected buildings all give the painting a deep, expressive tone.  Dalí used heavy impasto (very thick application of paint) to give the scene that shimmering feel.  The large boat on the left fulfills a similar role to the mountain in the background, framing and bounding the painting and becoming a feature of the landscape.  To me, the reflections of the buildings are the most potent element; the wavy lines almost look as though the paint is running, but instead Dalí used the technique to transport us to Cadaqués so that we can see these lights illluminating the water.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Howard Hodgkin, Grief

Howard Hodgkin, Grief, 2002

Howard Hodgkin (b1932) is a prominent British painter and printmaker known for his abstract works.  Many of Hodgkin's works are in the style of this painting, featuring large swaths of color, and many of his paintings contain more recognizable forms and are termed "semi-abstract".  One very interesting aspect of this piece is the blending of color and brushwork.  It is difficult to tell whether the vastly different  blues are due to actual different shades of paint or a difference the thickness of Hodgkin's application.  In fact, he achieves the effect using a combination of both techniques.  One thing this does is give the work a somewhat slapdash appearance so that it feels spontaneous and organic.  The grief of the title feels immediate and real, not contemplated and contrived.  The blue seems to overwhelm the little bit of orange that peeks out, as though it is sweeping into the space and overtaking everything.  One unusual aspect about Grief, and many of Hodgkin's paintings, is that it is painted on wood panel, a practice that went out of style centuries ago.  If you look closely you can see the recessed panel and the beveling and joints of the wood.  Painting on wood instead of canvas gives Hodgkin's work sturdiness, presence, and a more tangible materiality.  For me, this painting is quite engaging and powerful and beautifully expresses its grief.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Jusepe de Ribera, Ixion

Jusepe de Ribera, Ixion, 1632

José de Ribera (1592-1652), better known as Jusepe, was a leading Spanish painter and printmaker.  Ribera spent much of his life in Naples where he was exposed to the work of Caravaggio whose influence can be clearly seen in this work.  Caravaggio was a pioneer of dramatic chiaroscuro and tenebrism, high contrast of light and dark tones with a prominent use of dark shadows, and Ribera was one of the many Baroque artists who followed in this style.  This scene from Greek mythology depicts the torture of Ixion in the Underworld.  Ixion was an ancient king of the Lapiths who married Dia, but refused to pay the agreed dowry to her father, Deioneus.  Deioneus stole Ixion's horses as payment.  Ixion retaliated by inviting his father-in-law to dinner and promptly throwing him into a fire.  This murder was a severe violation of the guest-host relationship (xenia-a compact protected by Zeus) and a serious crime.  However Zeus took pity on Ixion and invited him to a banquet where Ixion attempted to seduce Hera, once again violating the guest-host relationship.  Zeus made a cloud resembling Hera, known as Nephele, for Ixion to seduce instead, and the first centaurs were born from this union.  For his crimes, Ixion was expelled from Olympus and Zeus ordered Hermes to bind him to a wheel (sometimes a wheel of fire) that would spin eternally.  Ribera's painting shows the beginning of Ixion's torment; the wheel is barely visible in the background just above Ixion's torso and we can see the chain around Ixion's legs.  There is a devilish imp binding Ixion, perhaps meant to represent Hermes but is more likely a generic demon.  This painting is remarkable for its masterful use of chiaroscuro and for the depiction of Ixion's body.  The contorting muscles and twisting shape are rendered with incredible detail and realism.  Even barely showing Ixion's face, Ribera successfully communicated his suffering using his body.  Overall the painting is stunning in its intensity.  Ribera painted several mythological scenes, always portraying the darkness of the stories and the pain of the figures.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Gustave Courbet, Sunset Over Lake Leman

Gustave Courbet, Sunset Over Lake Leman, 1874

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was a leading Realist painter committed to painting only what he could see.  His work demonstrates a wide range of subject matter, including peasant scenes, portraits, and landscapes, which was accompanied by a fairly diverse style.  Among Courbet's landscapes, this late work does not exhibit his usual style, but it is not the only example of this style.  Many of Courbet's paintings are marked by a strong, precise line which Courbet felt would most accurately portray the reality of what he saw.  In this painting, we see a much freer line in which Courbet's hand and brushstrokes are quite visible.  This looser brushwork is most common in Courbet's forest scenes, wherein the dappled light shining through the leaves lends itself to this technique.  In this sunset Courbet takes the same approach so that the power of the light becomes the most prominent feature in the scene as it plays off of the water and the clouds.  The intense color of the sunset is quite striking as it disperses through the clouds just above and reflects off the water and even the cliff.  This piece has some kinship with the Hiroshige I posted a few days ago, and although I don't believe Courbet would have seen the Japanese printmaker, we can see the similar ways that two very different masters portrayed the power of a glowing sunset on the water.