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.


Spontaneity According to The Cubist: Andre Lhote

Andre Lhote

La Danse au bar (Gypsy Bar), Andre Lhote

One of the novelist-bloggers that I follow, Christina Baker Kline, posted a quote by Andre Lhote (1923) that to me gets at the heart of writing (because that’s the craft, or some would argue art, that I know best):

The essence of art is sensitivity.  How does one retain the freshness of sensitivity?  Answer: By working without worry, freely.  How does one work freely?  By possessing a technique which permits one to work spontaneously:  it is necessary, therefore, to possess the elements of this technique.  Meditation in front of the works of the masters puts one in possession of the eternal rules of art.  Once these rules are learned there is nothing left but to know how to apply them to one’s own temperament.

Funny how a French sculptor and painter who worked in modernist styles including Fauvism and Cubism and was part of a group of revolutionaries including Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia and Jacques Villon, and writers somehow have the same world view. Bridging art and writing… It just shows that concepts and the words to describe those concepts are timeless…

Can’t Escape Gauguin…

Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven

I felt very cultural this weekend: on Sunday I went to see the symphony AND spent time at the Gauguin exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art. And I put the finishing touches on my rockin’ gingerbread house entry for the Cleveland Botanical Garden’s annual gingerbread show (which is actually a fantastical Museum of Contemporary Art made out of gingerbread). Whew!

This was my second trip to see the Gauguin show (first take I wrote about here), and I’m sure I’ll go back several more times before it leaves in January. But my impressions (Take II) were more complex (delightedly!) than the first round.

I’m not sure what other artists are so “self reflecting” — that is, in newer paintings, they physically paint in/allude to previous works — but Gauguin surely is a master. His motifs are bathers, pitchers, the color yellow, the white Brittany hats. I mentioned this in my previous blog, but it was even more apparent to me at Take II.

Gaugin’s use of yellow, particularly in his later years in Tahiti, is prolific. Perhaps it started in Arles with his Yellow House days with van Gogh and transcended time. The show’s catalog states that at first Gauguin claimed credit for van Gogh’s adoption of yellow as a favorite color. But ultimately the opposite was true: Gauguin embraced yellow after being impressed by van Gogh’s yellow-on-yellow paintings of sunflowers. And Gauguin used canary yellow paper for a series of zincographs (medium where an artist draws directly on a metal plate with a black crayon) that chronicled Gauguin’s early career and travels to Martinique, Brittany, and Arles and reiterated his motifs. (Interestingly, the CMA owns a complete set of the zincographs, which is rare, because Gauguin only made an edition of 30.) The zincographs were a watershed in Gaugin’s work: the motifs are resemblant of Claude Monet’s grainstacks and Jasper Johns’ stenciled number paintings.

I also noticed that Gaugin has a tendency to paint mid-pose — he captures a boy fixing his shoe, and blossoms just beggining to bud (rather than in full glory). I was struck by his interest in the non-interesting stages of hum drum daily life. But capturing these humdrum moments makes the viewer stop, go back, and look again. It’s inspiring that the humdrum can, in fact, be interesting.

And he disdained pointilism!


Van Gogh’s Letters: He Didn’t Always ‘Burst Forth’ With Emotion

Ahh. Starry Night will always be my favorite. And maybe the Yellow House too — both the painting and the book. If you haven’t read “The Yellow House” which is about Van Gogh’s and Gauguin’s nine months in Arles together, it’s an easy read and a gem!

But the “breaking” news is that Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum is out with a compendium of Van Gogh’s letters. Chock full of illuminating thoughts on his life, the letters are surely to entice Hollywood into a movie, right?

Shedding new light on the Arles painter:

In Lust for Life, Van Gogh is presented as writing his letters as a highly-strung personality, slapping his words onto paper in great emotion. This did happen, but only occasionally, usually when it involved a family row. In contrast, reading through the 2,180 pages of the new edition of the letters shows that the artist was highly focused. True, he was an obsessive in one sense, in his dedication to developing as an artist, but the letters are usually carefully (and sometimes beautifully) written, normally with a clear purpose in mind. 

The Letters also reminds us that Van Gogh approached his painting in a similar fashion. He did not throw his paint on the canvas in a burst of emotion, but considered carefully the effects he was striving to achieve. This comes through clearly in the stream of comments that he made to his brother Theo and his artist friends, in describing the pictures he was completing.

Life, Seen Through Art: Starting Young

A cherubic young girl lies in the bath, dark hair floating from her head. She is revelling in a moment of tranquil pleasure. In this self-portrait, 11-year-old Georgia Marshall Evangelou said “In other countries people would not have this water, or the time, to do such a thing.”

Nathan Roach, 17, presents a stark photographic image of himself hands stretched out in front, as if to escape the mass of dark images surrounding him, “the many pressures teenagers experience, the feeling of being trapped or suffocated under pressure to succeed, fears of being bullied because of the way we look and dress”.

The work of Emily Daniel,16, shows a girl’s face, the mouth held tight with a collection of safety pins, a strong representation of how young people feel silenced, censored and watched.

These are some of this year’s entrants in the Equality and Human Rights commission’s Young Brits at Art competition. The kids had a lot to say, socially, politically, but they are also young and inexperienced in technique. So why does this work as art?

Art is expression: the process starts with feeling some sort of emotion about some sort of something, and kids in their teens are just emerging into newer, fresher ideas, thoughts, concepts. They are trying to find a home for their new feelings, and so they are thinking deeply and trying to express themselves in ways other than through verbal or physical avenues. They are just emerging into the social sphere on a wider level, and so they have an unadulterated and perhaps unique perspective.

One competition judge said that she reviewed all the works based on the “emotional response” she felt from each work. And since younger artists have likely seen fewer and less varied works of art, they are therefore drawing from a more organic (less pre-defined or concrete) sense of expression. If so, a child’s work may convey a concept much differently than a more seasoned artist would. There’s a lot to learn by unlocking whatever runs rampant in the heads of kiddos.

Tour de Art/I Mean France: 1st Stop Monaco

John Dyer

John Dyer

I’m an avid Tour de France watcher — in fact I don’t miss much of the 21-stage tour that rolls over punishing terrain, up excruciating mountain climbs, and at times drops off into scandal and early defeat. The first leg of the tour this year is a Time Trial in Monaco. So who are current or past Monaco artists? I googled “monaco artists,” “monaco museums,” and only when googling the latter did I find the following (!):


  • Exhibition of H.S.H. The Prince of Monaco’s  Private Collection of Classic Cars
  • Museum of the Chapel of Visitation           
  • Museum of Napoleonic Souvenirs and Collection of the Palace’s Historic Archives
  • Museum of Prehistoric Anthropology
  • Museum of Stamps and Coins
  • National Museum: Automatons and Dolls of Yesteryear
  • Naval Museum
  • Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium

    OK, I’m not much for naval stuff or old cars. But I can’t hold it against Monaco because the entire principality is only 2 square miles, and it has only 30,000 residents. It is known for having “a rich legacy of art and culture,” however, and so this might mean it hosts a feeding frenzy of foreign-born artists. I decided to turn to a foreign-born artist who has at least used Monaco as the subject of a painting or two: John Dyer.

    If you’ve see John Dyer’s work, you can never miss it again. At the risk of sounding flippant, I think I’ve seen his work as the ubiquitous image on all $5.99 frames at Michaels. But given a second look, I’m engrossed. I’m happy. I’m ready to head to the tropics.

    His exhibit coming up in Monaco this summer, “Singing and Zinging,” is filled with (according to the program) 

    the essence of  locality with great love and humor. Swimmers, sunbathers, dogs and seagulls are all portrayed with his characteristic zest for life.

    So there you have it. One artist whose work is simply, well, a feast for the eyes. His works are playful, tropical. However, I have a fun twist for you…

    Check out the below photo. See the ballet dancers, but what’s in the background? The same artwork as at the top of this post! Dyer painted a special collection for the “Palais de Cristal” ballet in Menton, France, which was featured as the backdrop on stage. Each features a particular bird and crystal color. He’s got niche AND kitsch.  


    Palais de Crystal

    Palais de Crystal

    Palais de Cristal

    Palais de Cristal










    Giacometti: More Than You Know

    Giacometti - What You Know

    Giacometti - What You Know

    Everybody knows Giacometti’s emaciated figures — the ones  that should be grotesque, but are instead objects of our fascination, and despite ourselves, we find them strangely friendly. But these figures only comprised a small portion of his life’s work.

    Just ending is an exhibition at the Peter Freeman gallery in NYC that celebrates his drawings — drawings that are “figures…built up out of a complex web of searching line, form and erasure—as if the artist were in an unending process of stopping and starting, of decision and indecision. Their sense of becoming and of dissolving simultaneously are what made Giacometti’s figures the poster children for Existentialism.”

    But across his life’s work he focused not just on the human body, but on everyday things, like trees, flowers, apples rolling across a table. The guest curator, Meredith Harper, reinforces Giacometti’s range of styles across his career:

    It is as if Giacometti, as evinced from this remarkable exhibition, were reinventing the act of drawing every time he put pen, pencil or crayon to paper.

    I think the exhibition is a good example of an artist’s constant quest for metamorphosis and their constant effort to evolve — whether in brushstroke, texture, composition, or [insert endless range of possibilities]…

    Giacometti - What You May Not Know

    Giacometti - What You May Not Know

    ‘Alberto Giacometti: Drawings’