Art history

Open Your Eyes! It’s Proust on Art…

The Silver Goblet
Musee du Louvre, Paris

I’m in the midst of one of Alain de Botton’s erudite and vastly introspective essays on life — this one’s titled “How Proust Can Change Your Life“. In this barely 200-page book, de Botton relays a Proustian essay that details how Proust set out to “restore a smile on the face of a gloomy… young man”. This young man was lamenting how ugly and banal his surroundings were: the mundane scene of his mother doing her knitting, a cat curled up in the windowsill, unfolded laundry in a basket. The young man longed to visit the Louvre, where he could “feast his eyes” on gilded paintings and magnanimous sculptures to take away his gloom.

But Proust had plans for this young man.

Instead of writing into the plot that the young man finds happiness meandering through the great halls of the Louvre in the halls of richly ornamented works, Proust surrounded the young man in a tiny room with the  simple works of Jean Baptiste-Chardin.

Jean Baptiste-Chardin didn’t paint queens or palaces or riches. He painted ordinary things: milk jugs, bowls of fruit, coffeepots, loaves of bread. But, the outcome — however simplistic the subject — was extraordinary.

Chardin’s paintings succeeded in being extraordinarily beguiling and evocative. A peach by him was as pink and chubby as a cherubim; a plate of oysters or a slice of lemon were tempting symbols of gluttony and sensuality… There was a harmony, too, between objects: in one canvas, almost a friendship between the reddish colors of a hearthrug, a needle box, and a skein of wool.

With subdued colors and mellow lighting, Chardin’s work celebrates the beauty of commonplace subjects, with intimacy and domesticity.

Take that, young man! Look around you. The world is rich, wondrous, beautiful. Just open your eyes.

The ‘Art’ of Susan Sontag

Vesuvius Erupting During the Day

So I’m on a retro reading binge at the moment, and this moment very much revolves around Susan Sontag.

Read. Her. Again.

While “The Volcano Lover” as a title sort of trends toward bodice-ripper, this is one of the most literary of the literary fiction I’ve read. And it involves art. And it plunges to the depths and crests of character development. It is based on the life of Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy to the Neapolitan royal court in 1764 (“the Cavalier”). But it is really about his infatuation with collecting. Sculpture. Ancient Greek and Roman artifacts. Caravaggios. Anything and everything. He is driven by it. He even climbs into Mount Vesuvius and collects its lava rocks. He meets other collectors – but they are all different types of collectors than he. Some collect to show off their collections. Others collect Bellinis, golden candlesticks, reliquaries, Poussins,  but hide them from the world. Still others were more interested in the chase than staring at their newfound capture day in and day out – ”to find the xxxx!” they’d say. “On to something new!”

The Cavalier ponders the idea that art can either be temporary or eternal. War can torch the halls and massive buildings where artifacts are incinerated to dust. But other pieces live on eternally (e.g., relics from the ancient Greeks t hat have somehow survived centuries), and as humans we are just a fleeting image of life on earth. The holders, the caretakers, the admirers of these great objects have more of date with mortality than the artifacts themselves. He thinks that the reason we sometimes become beholden to certain objects is because they have no contract on life – there’s no predestined date with death like the one we have with another human.

Sontag is brilliant in “The Volcano Lover.” There’s so much more to savor. It definitely merits another read. But in a few years — I have so many other books on my list right now!

Art, Rio de Janeiro Style

Hélio Oiticica. Metaesquema No. 237. 1958

Metaesquema No. 237

Hélio Oiticica (Brazilian, 1937-1980) MoMA

When we learned that Rio d Janeiro had edged out Chicago and others for the title of host of the 2016 summer olympics, I flew straight to the computer (who am I kidding, I read the press release on the computer; I’m always ON the computer) and looked up the museums central to Brazil’s cultural climate.

What I found was a world that I’ve only marginally explored. I’m guilty of looking internally to US-focused art and artists, and to Western Europe as well. But South America and Latin America often get the short end of the stick. From Mexico, we have Diego Rivera and his muse and probably better half, Frieda, and others. But what other master artists are lurking behind their shadows, just to the south?

Brazil’s contemporary arts scene is alive, and it’s traveling all over the globe. I researched one Brazilian artist just to get a taste. Hélio Oiticica is showing atMuseum of Modern Art, LACMA, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and overseas at Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, and in Zurich at the Daros Exhibitions. He was an essential part of the geometric abstraction period between 1930s and the 1970s in Buenos Aires, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro. His Metaesquemas series (shown above) is composed of squares and rectangles, showing influences of Piet Mondrian.

An exhibition at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona provided a great overview of his life and outlook:

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1937, Oiticica began to study art in his home city where he formed links with Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape’s Neo-concrete Group and participated in the Frente Group. From the outset, his work was geared towards condemning the living conditions and the political situation affecting Brazil… Oiticica posited that for artistic production to be ethical, it must be activated by its audience. In the late sixties and early seventies, Oiticica began creating architectural environments he called Penetrables and tent/cape/banner works he named Parangolés. Both the Penetrables and Parangolés were made to be inhabited, examined, worn, even hidden in; they are environmental structures, experienced by the participant.

After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship, Oiticica moved to New York where he lived from 1970 to 1978. He began to make films influenced by the cinema of Jack Smith and Andy Warhol and the popular culture of the United States. He undertook a series of projects under the umbrella title Quasi-Cinemas. Some of these were Super 8 films, but most of them were “projection-performances.” In 1973, as part of the Quasi-Cinemas, he made the series Block Experiments in Cosmococa, Program in Progress. The Cosmococas are composed of slide projections, environments, soundtracks, and instructions.

Hélio Oiticica died in Rio de Janeiro in 1980 aged 43.

http://www.artcyclopedia.com/nationalities/Brazilian.html

Spanish Artists (and others) Referenced in Degrees of Freedom

The narrative of my novella Degrees of Freedom references several Spanish artists/works in the Museo de Bellas Artes, Sevilla, and other works around the world. Some readers have asked for a listing of all of these. Brilliant idea! I should have thought of this very thing months ago.
But first, check out the trailer here on YouTube: http://bit.ly/2AMIxJ
Secondly, here’s the synopsis:
A work of literary fiction that touches on themes of art history, food, and geography, Degrees of Freedom is set in Seville, Spain, and more specifically the city’s Museo de Bellas Artes gallery. The novella chronicles one man’s search to mend the unraveling seams of his life — a rocky relationship with a temperamental daughter, and a failing epistolary (and achingly platonic) friendship with an art critic for the Rome Times – using art as his therapy. As he immerses himself in the vibrancy of the Sevillan streets, the food, the people, and most compellingly, the portraiture housed in the maze of tiny galleries at the Museo, he is shaken into a surreal sense of consciousness by the profound impact that art, place, and history can stamp – sometimes favorably, and sometimes mercilessly — on life.
 
So, finally, here it is! A guide of all the works referenced — in the order in which they appear — in Degrees of Freedom.
The Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas, 1631, Franscisco de Zurbaran

The Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas, 1631, Franscisco de Zurbaran

Virgin and Child (La Servietta), 1670, Bartolomé Murillo

Virgin and Child (La Servietta), 1670, Bartolomé Murillo

Immaculate Conception (La Colosa), 1650, Bartolomé Murillo

Immaculate Conception (La Colosa), 1650, Bartolomé Murillo

Marriage of St. Catherine, 1682, Bartolomé Murillo

Marriage of St. Catherine, 1682, Bartolomé Murillo

Lamentation Over The Dead Christ, 1490, Pedro Millan

Lamentation Over The Dead Christ, 1490, Pedro Millan

St Hugo in the Refectory, 1655, Francisco de Zurbaran

St Hugo in the Refectory, 1655, Francisco de Zurbaran

Crucifixion, 1640, Francisco de Zurbaran

Crucifixion, 1640, Francisco de Zurbaran

Santa Teresa, Jusepe de Ribera

Santa Teresa, Jusepe de Ribera

Last Supper, 1603, Alonso Vazquez

Last Supper, 1603, Alonso Vazquez

Last Supper, 1635, Rembrandt

Last Supper, 1635, Rembrandt

Last Supper, 1467, Dieric Bouts

Last Supper, 1467, Dieric Bouts

Last Supper, 1568, El Greco

Last Supper, 1568, El Greco

Last Supper, 1498, Leonardo da Vinci

Last Supper, 1498, Leonardo da Vinci

Vision of Saint Francis of Paola, 1670, Bartolomé Murillo

Vision of Saint Francis of Paola, 1670, Bartolomé Murillo

Art Transposed: Is that a Man or a Woman?

MichelangeloDoniTondodet.jpgModern Art Notes’ Tyler Green posted an article about artists transposing men’s bodies on women. Michelangelo did this frequently.

“Believing (with most of his contemporaries) that the male was superior to the female,” Goffen writes, “Michelangelo intended to honor Mary by making her male… In images, the Renaissance norm remained the feminine ideal embodied by such Madonnas as Leonardo’s. But Michelangelo abandoned this tradition, masculinizing Mary in part to exempt her from his own society’s oppression of women and to shield her from dangerous and inappropriate female sexuality.”

Green writes: “Compare that to today: None of the discussion about Michelle Obama’s guns is about her build personifying an idealized male body, but is instead about her having an idealized female body. The first lady is proud of the body she’s built and she shows it off in sleeveless dresses and tops at every opportunity. While Michelangelo’s Mary is a woman masculinized to separate her from the way women were viewed in the 16thC, Michelle Obama’s presentation of herself explicitly associates herself with modernity.”

For the Memory, Not the Moment

Visitors at the Louvre: some engage directly with the art while others take pictures of pictures.

That NYT photo tagline above sums it up: museum crowds often snap a steady stream of photos for the “been there, done that” memory (think Mona  Lisa), not the  “aha moment” — the long, lingering introspective ponder that results in a myriad of intellectual streams to wander down and eons more insight into the artist’s world view.

A NYT “experiment” captured the museum scenario: for two hours the author watched passersby approach — and then walk by — the art on the walls.

A few game tourists glanced vainly in guidebooks or hopefully at wall labels… Almost nobody…paused before any object for as long as a full minute…

…tourists… wander through museums, seeking to fulfill their lifetime’s art history requirement in a day, wondering whether it may now be the quantity of material they pass by rather than the quality of concentration they bring to what few things they choose to focus upon that determines whether they have “done” the Louvre. It’s self-improvement on the fly.

The author mentioned that he and his 10-year-old brought along sketchbooks to St. Peter’s in Rome, “just for the fun of it… to help us look more slowly and carefully at what we found. Crowds occasionally gathered around us as if we were doing something totally strange and novel, as opposed to something normal, which sketching used to be.”

But is sketching enough? The author never posits how, exactly, we should look at art. Do you get the best “view” when you can get a grip on what appears beyond the actual paint, the charcoal, or the pencil to see the artist’s political motivations? How about the social undercurrents? Here lies the difference between an artwork’s “Visual” portrayal and it’s “Narrative” portrayal.

Just to flesh out some of the varying perspectives, I cobbled together this list of “how to look at art”:

  • Art is not just about the execution, it is about the concept. The concept of most nonrepresentational art is about the pleasing or satisfying arrangement of shape and color (art society).
  • to see how the pieces at the Met come together to tell a broader story–not so much a narrative, but a story (the Atlantic)
  • The way museums (art museums are often the worst) are designed today is terrible. You have a wall-spanning painting or massive sculpture, and then the only informational context is a 5 inch plaque next to it — often showing only the artist, the year, and perhaps the period/genre. Put interesting things there. Put how it fits into the region, the time, the culture. Put stories about how the artist had to hide it from his patron because he didn’t like it, or how that person in the foreground is actually based on his mistress, or how this type of paint had to be smuggled in from Egypt. (the Atlantic)
  • To really get into art, all you need to do is ask yourself a few questions that will get you thinking about what you’re looking at. There are only two questions that you really need to look at art, and those are: “What’s going on in this picture/sculpture/building?” and “What do I see that makes me say that?” (The Art History Blog)
  • 1. figure out what’s worth stealing
    2. move on to the next thing
    rinse and repeat (somebody’s Flickr page)

Another question is, how long do you have to perform the “lingering moment” before you can really get into the head of the artist? To figure out his world view?

For me, the jury is still out.

Someone said you can’t measure it (good point):

Timing people and picking the arbitrary minute as a measuring stick to differentiate who breezes through and who really stops and drinks it in seems unfair. If we go to a museum and its crowded, then the intimacy is harder to attain. If one goes with friends it might be a social occasion as much as an art encounter. Talkative friends at a museum can be a very different visit than going alone or with one’s wide-eyed-drink-it-all-in kid. Lots of people study a room full of Sargeant’s paintings longer than I do, but few people linger in front of a Franz Kline or Rothko or Milton Avery than I do. I check in on every room if I can, want to see everything everytime but my wife wants to see just an exhibit or two. I can’t get my daughter out of the Asian wing of the MFA. My wife was a ballerina so looking at paintings of Degas has a hundred more layers for her than some people. (the Atlantic)

All that I really know is that the curator around the corner would be most pleased if you stopped, stared, and ogled, only twenty minutes later coming to, not having realized that you had been drooling, lost to the world.

How To Look At Art (like an artist)

Kitschy or Cultural? (But definitely cute)

Matryoshka Dolls

Matryoshka Dolls

I simply can’t resist commenting on the ubiquitous and kitschy matryoshka dolls, especially since I’ve seen so many countries laying claim to them as part of their folk art tradition. The most recent being Budapest, where I was surprised to see them lining shelves at every knicknack shop. I’ll have to admit that I did a double-take, pinched myself, and thought “I’m not in Russia, right?” The Hermitage museum director would have cringed if he’d been in my head at that moment:

The Hermitage and the Russian government are politely clashing over whether “nested” matryoshka dolls are part of the national culture. Museum director Professor Mikhail Piotrovsky has banned their sale in the Hermitage’s gift shop in St Petersburg, saying that they are not part of Russian folk art. In an interview to mark the opening of the Hermitage’s Amsterdam branch last month, he explained: “The dolls are Japanese in origin, adapted to Russia…These dolls are frightful. They are symbols of the tourist industry. Let’s not sell any rubbish here, is what I say.”

The painted wooden dolls… are said to have been invented in 1890 by Russian folk painter Sergei Maliutin, who was inspired by a set of Japanese figures representing the Seven Gods of Fortune. However, one could argue that the concept of nested objects, such as eggs, was already part of Russian decorative art. Although traditionally matryoshka dolls portrayed girls, current bestsellers include a set of Russian leaders, starting with president Dmitry Medvedev and ending with a diminutive Lenin.

I started to wonder: is there one piece of folk art that so defines a country? Turkey, for example, has its “evil eye” to ward away bad omens. Mexico has its “Day of the Dead” art. The Middle East has its rugs. Africa  has its masks. I racked my brain trying to think of an American corollary to the matryoshka. What defines “Americana” that could sit on shelves at the gift shop, the gas station, the convenience store, the tourist kiosk? Is there one symbolic image of American folk art? Does the U.S. not have one national symbol like the matryoskha? 

The American Folk Art Museum in midtown Manhattan’s gallery is filled with quilts, quilts, and more quilts. There’s more than that, of course, and in some cases I was scratching my head as to why certain pieces were considered American folk art (this one, for example). And step inside Sante Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art and you see the whole concept of folk art expand even more so, perhaps beyond Wikipedia’s definition:

Folk art encompasses art produced from an indigenous culture or by peasants or other laboring tradespeople. In contrast to fine art, folk art is primarily utilitarian and decorative rather than purely aesthetic. As a phenomenon that can chronicle a move towards civilization yet rapidly diminish with modernity, industrialization, or outside influence, the nature of folk art is specific to its particular culture.

The article also mentioned that “pop art” has overlap with folk art. Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, would you mind being placed in this category?

I’ll have to admit that across years of travel and ogling over probably thousands of matryoshka dolls, I’ve never bought one, even though they are pretty darn cute.