Archive | November, 2012

Painting of the Day

29 Nov

Image

Son of Man (Le fils de l’homme). By Rene Magritte (1898-1967). Oil on canvas, 1964. Belongs to a private collection.

Notes from wikipaintings.org:

A Belgian surrealist painter, Rene Magritte’s witty and thought-provoking paintings sought to have viewers question their perceptions of reality, and become hypersensitive to the world around them. Magritte’s mother was a suicidal woman, which led her husband, Magritte’s father, to lock her up in her room. One day, she escaped, and was found down a nearby river dead, having drowned herself. According to legend, 13 year old Magritte was there when they retrieved the body from the river. As she was pulled from the water, her dress covered her face. This later became a theme in many of Magritte’s paintings in the 1920’s, portraying people with cloth covering their faces.

Magritte created two versions of this painting, of the same name, which both portray a large green apple in the middle of a room. This painting illustrates the many themes running through Magritte’s work. The first is the apple, which he uses to great lengths in many of his works, the most famous of which is The Son of Man, depicting a man wearing a bowling hat, with a green apple covering his face. The other theme is that of placing objects together in an unusual context. Unlike other surrealist artists, who mixed dreamlike images with abstract shapes, Magritte’s works included normal images, placed in surreal contextual situations. The Listening Room is one such painting, portraying a regular green apple, which just so happens to be large enough to fill and entire room.

The Listening Room - Rene Magritte

The Listening Room (La Chambre D’Ecoute). Oil on canvas 1952. Held by Menil Collection, Houston, Texas.

My comments:

I didn’t know much more about Rene Magritte other than that he was a surrealist, but wow, what an incredibly fascinating artist with an incredible oeuvre of works. In researching this painting, I discovered the website wikipaintings.org, which is an incredible online resource that gives you great images of paintings and includes an impressive array of information about the paintings as well as artists. I highly recommend it.

Anyway, viewing this in conjunction with Rousseau’s painting Carnival Evening that I posted yesterday is an excellent way to demonstrate how Rousseau is classified as a proto-surrealist rather than an actual surrealist. Magritte’s paintings do more than provoke questions; they leave  viewers almost dumbfounded based on how far they go in their absurdity. One of the great things about surrealist works is the psychological exploration they encourage. The apple in Magritte’s paintings may not be iconographical, as an apple could be in non-surrealist paintings, but rather a psychological symbol, or even an archetype, as Carl Jung or Sigmund Freud might have liked to think. I wonder if the apple covering the man’s face in Son of Man is an extension of the motif of cloth covering the face that is seen in other paintings, an allusion to the suicide of Magritte’s insane mother. It’s so interesting to know that Magritte’s mother was insane, because it makes me wonder if growing up with that somehow influenced Magritte’s interest in surrealism. It also makes me wonder how clinically insane people perceive surrealist artworks, and if their reaction differs from that of non-insane people. Would surrealist paintings such as this seem perfectly logical to a person diagnosed with, for example, paranoid schizophrenia? Or does surrealist art act on a whole other plane of its own, mystifying to humans of all psychological states?

It’s also interesting to note that The Listening Room was painted 12 years before Son of Man, and that was painted just 3 years before Magritte’s death. What was it about the green apple that made such an impression on his mind that he still wished to paint the motif 12 years later? Does the title of the later painting have any existential significance? I’ve also noticed that there may be a pattern of artists who tend to dwell on their impending death in their artworks near the end of their lives (Rembrandt and Caravaggio come to mind). Is this not surprising and just obvious that it would occur, or is it worth pondering? Does the way that artists express their personal feelings about death reveal something deep about their character?

Painting of the Day

28 Nov

Image

 

Carnival Evening. by Henri Rousseau (1844-1910). Oil on canvas, 1886. Currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

notes from philamuseum.org:

First shown in the second Salon des Indépendants in Paris in 1886, this painting is an early demonstration of Henri Rousseau’s unique chromatic imagination, his proto-Surrealist ability to juggle unexpected pictorial elements, and his untutored but brilliant skill in the stylization of forms. An officer in the French customs service, Rousseau scoured picture books of adventures in exotic locales in search of pictorial motifs. He combined these disparate elements in compelling images that early in the twentieth century attracted the devotion of vanguard artists such as Pablo Picasso. Here Rousseau locates mute, unmoving figures in carnival costume against a calligraphic backdrop of bare black tree trunks and branches. The dwindling light of dusk that filters down through the trees and the crisp winter chill, vividly evoked, both carry a hint of menace. Isolated and vulnerable in their fantasy clothing, the two figures confront the viewer bravely and with naïve conviction, like characters waiting for Samuel Beckett to write them a play. Christopher Riopelle, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 202.

My comments:

Rousseau only started painting in his early forties, devoting himself to painting fully when he quit his job as tax collector at age 49. So Carnival Evening, painted when Rousseau was 42 years old, must have been one of the first paintings that Rousseau accomplished. And what a fantastic start to his career, especially as a painter with no formal training. 

The painting itself is somewhat unique in Rousseau’s oeuvre, since he became most famous for and painted the most of his jungle scenes, featuring exotic animals and plants that he saw in the Paris Botanical Gardens. The caption above’s labeling of Rousseau as a proto-Surrealist is, I think, a perfect way to describe Rousseau: his paintings are not enigmatic and absurd enough to completely mystify us, but they certainly contain an air of mystery and they put figures into unusual situations that aren’t normally part of daily life–in other words, Rousseau doesn’t produce scenes of women at their toilette or a man working at his desk. Instead, in Carnival Evening we have this very strange situation presented to us, and if we try to impose logic onto the narrative of the painting, we may say that the two figures dressed in carnival attire are lost in these woods we see behind them and are searching for their way back to the carnival. And yet, the two figures don’t look lost at all, and look like they very much belong to these spooky yet somehow inviting woods, with spindly black trunks that weave over the sky behind them like delicate black lace. Although the house, the figures, and the woods all juxtaposed together don’t really make any sense, the image does not provoke fear of the unknown; in fact, it makes this carnival evening quite compelling.    

Painting of the Day

28 Nov

Image

 

The Red Studio. by Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Oil on canvas, 1911. Currently at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC. 

Notes from moma.org:

“Where I got the color red—to be sure, I just don’t know,” Matisse once remarked. “I find that all these things . . . only become what they are to me when I see them together with the color red.” This painting features a small retrospective of Matisse’s recent painting, sculpture, and ceramics, displayed in his studio. The artworks appear in color and in detail, while the room’s architecture and furnishings are indicated only by negative gaps in the red surface. The composition’s central axis is a grandfather clock without hands—it is as if, in the oasis of the artist’s studio, time were suspended.

“Modern art,” said Matisse, “spreads joy around it by its color, which calms us.” In this radiant painting he saturates a room—his own studio—with red. Art and decorative objects are painted solidly, but furniture and architecture are linear diagrams, silhouetted by “gaps” in the red surface. These gaps reveal earlier layers of yellow and blue paint beneath the red; Matisse changed the colors until they felt right to him. (The studio was actually white.)

The studio is an important place for any artist, and this one Matisse had built for himself, encouraged by new patronage in 1909. He shows in it a carefully arranged exhibition of his own works. Angled lines suggest depth, and the blue-green light of the window intensifies the sense of interior space, but the expanse of red flattens the image. Matisse heightens this effect by, for example, omitting the vertical line of the corner of the room.

The entire composition is clustered around the enigmatic axis of the grandfather clock, a flat rectangle whose face has no hands. Time is suspended in this magical space. On the foreground table, an open box of crayons, perhaps a symbolic stand-in for the artist, invites us into the room. But the studio itself, defined by ethereal lines and subtle spatial discontinuities, remains Matisse’s private universe.

We see examples of Matisse’s own works of art—a presentation of his career to date almost. If we look to the left of the clock in the center of the picture—interestingly a clock without any handswe can see at the bottom of the clock a little landscape, one of Matisse’s very earliest paintings. The big figure painting to the far right was done in 1907. And the white sculpture underneath it is a very recent work.

What he’s giving us is the studio as an exhibition place, but also the studio as bearing marks of the presence of the artist, most obviously by the crayons on the table in the foreground. And we realize that the only things, which are marked separately from the red are all things to do with the works of art themselves.

One of the fascinations of the picture is that it is very flat. On the other hand we really have the sense of a room being there. And its provided by drawing. But instead of drawing all the lines, which would actually very abruptly divide up the space, Matisse has carried the red up to the point of where those lines would be. And its the absences of the red which provide the sense of movement into the room.

For Matisse, color was an agent of expression, and he also obviously used it as a way of organizing the space of his pictures. Here, color has this quality of functioning a bit like the medium of time, where all these things are floating, but open up into different worlds.

My comments: 

This painting reminds me of portraits painted during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, some of which presented the subject surrounded by objects that symbolically related to the subject’s interests or line of work. In The Red Studio, Matisse the man is not present, but he is very much in the painting. The fact that the work is literally saturated with red is just one facet of the painting that instantly identifies with Matisse and his Fauvist style at this time in his life. The paintings that hang around the studio, which are clearly delineated from most of the other objects in the room and resemble actual paintings he has completed, also identify the studio as belonging to Matisse. 

Perhaps it’s cliched to say this, but when seen in person, the overwhelming use of a single color with little attempt to suggest depth really draws attention to the painting’s flatness. For me the acknowledgement of flatness here is different than that when seen in a non-objective abstract painting, such as a Kandinsky or a Duchamp. With works like theirs, the painting is obviously non-representational and so one expects it to be flat. But with The Red Studio, there is somewhat of an expectation for representation of nature since Matisse is depicting something actually seen in real life. But instead he turns 3D objects into 2D ones; thus, not only are the paintings he makes works of art, but even his studio is a work of art.

Painting of the Day

26 Nov

Image

The Last Supper. by Andy Warhol (1928-1987). Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas, 1986. Currently on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA).

Notes from the Baltimore Museum of Art:

Warhol’s Last Supper paintings were initially commissioned to inaugurate a gallery in Milan, Italy, across the street from the site of Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) fresco The Last Supper (c.1495-1498). They offer a historical perspective on the themes of celebrity, death, and immortality, which Warhol had pursued in his earlier portraits of Marilyn Monroe and his depictions of Jacqueline Kennedy in mourning. As with his soup cans, Coke bottles, and other subjects drawn from popular culture, Warhol repeated the image of Jesus Christ in many of these pictures, including the BMA’s example, as if to suggest that the repitition and cultural circulation of famous images was not only a recent mass media phenomenon, but prevalent throughout Western history. In all, Warhol produced more than 100 Last Supper paintings in slightly more than a year before his death. 

When asked whether the image of The Last Supper had any particular meaning for him, Warhol cagily replied, “No. It’s a good picture.” However, Warhol was a practicing Catholic. It remains unclear whether these works were intended to express the artist’s private religious beliefs or his irreverence towards the subject. 

My comments: 

This painting lives in a gallery dedicated to Warhol paintings in the newly renovated and opened Contemporary wing of the BMA, which I will be publishing a review in the Phoenix in a couple weeks (but I can say right now that it’s definitely worth making the trip to visit the wing). It’s a quite monumental work; you have to stand back a few feet in order to take in the entire piece. At its scale, the figures are life-size, but with the way the painting is hung viewers are looking up at their faces. 

It’s hard for me to decide whether Warhol demonstrates a reverence or disregard of Christianity with this work. Since he made over 100 paintings of this theme, I find it hard to believe that he’d be willing to devote so much time to a subject that he really didn’t like or didn’t respect. If he didn’t care about Christianity, why would he produce this iconic image of it so many times? And although “practicing Catholic” can mean many different things, if he cared enough about Catholicism to be labeled as practicing it, it seems illogical that he would practice a religion he didn’t care about. 

Regardless, if we assume that Warhol didn’t produce this painting to taunt religion, I think that instead he is calling on viewers who may be Catholics to consider how they treat sacred images. One of the major issues in the history of the practice of Christian faith has been whether to use images to worship; do they help people to visualize moments in Christ’s life and thus better understand Christ, or do they run the risk of becoming the object of worship (an idol) rather than simply the vehicle for worship? Warhol, who stands in an interesting position given his life’s work of producing iconic images while belonging to a religion that promotes the use of devotional images, perhaps wanted to show The Last Supper in a radically different style than the original and call viewers’ attention to its ultimate identity as an image and nothing more. If viewers really only use The Last Supper to help visualize, then Warhol’s altering of the image shouldn’t make  a significant difference. But if The Last Supper is more than that, Warhol’s interpretation may become disquieting.

Painting of the Day

21 Nov

Image

 

Fish Magic. by Paul Klee (1879-1940). Oil and watercolor on canvas on panel, 1925. Currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

Notes from philamuseum.org:

In Fish Magic, Paul Klee creates a magical realm where the aquatic, the celestial, and the earthly intermingle. A delicate black surface covers an underlayer of colors, which the artist revealed by scratching and scrawling designs in the black paint. At the center of the painting, a square of muslin is glued onto the canvas. A long diagonal line reaching to the top of the clock tower is poised as if to whisk off this subtle curtain.

Fish Magic is set squarely in the tradition of German Romanticism, with its blend of fantasy and natural empiricism, of poetry and pragmatics. That Romantic heritage led Klee to become one of modern art’s greatest fantasists as well as one of its major theorists, especially in the field of color. His art is most beloved for its unending reserve of charming whimsy, inevitably bringing smiles to the least likely faces. Yet, during his decade as an instructor at the Bauhaus, the renowned German art and design school, Klee produced volumes of writings in which technical advice rises to the level of the philosophical. These two seemingly opposite poles of Klee’s nature joined forces to inspire his unending experimentation with mediums and materials. Klee’s technical knowledge and exactitude allowed the magician in him to conjure visions that delight and amaze.

In Fish Magic, made in the middle of Klee’s period at the Bauhaus, the aquatic, celestial, and earthly realms intermingle. They do so in an inky black atmosphere of indeterminate scale and scope, where fish and flora float among human beings or clock towers. The delicate black surface that washes over the entire canvas covers an underlayer dense with multicolored pigments. Klee scraped and sanded the black paint to reveal mysterious specks and passages of glowing color underneath, a sophisticated version of the games children play with wax crayons. But Klee ingeniously conceived a device to imply that more mysteries await to be unveiled. The painting is, in fact, a collage, with a central square of muslin glued on top of the larger rectangular canvas surface. A long diagonal line reaching to the top of the clock tower from the side is poised to whisk off this subtle curtain. For Klee, art was always theater and, like all his paintings, this one provides a promise of more acts to follow. Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2000), p. 61.

Paul Klee is one of the greatest philosophers and theorists of twentieth-century art, particularly in the field of color, as well as one of its greatest fantasists. In paintings such as Fish Magic these two divergent gifts are reconciled, as intellect and imagination join forces. Klee has created a space that is not heavenly, earthly, or aquatic but rather exists elsewhere, in a realm in which all forms of life intermingle. The painting is actually a collage, with a central square of muslin glued over the larger rectangular canvas surface. The sense of magic increases when one sees that a long painted line from the side seems ready to pull the square off to reveal something underneath. The dark palette and fragile muslin support give the picture a sense of silence that reinforces the mystery enveloping the inky atmosphere. Ann Temkin, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 321.

My comments:

I find it interesting that the caption I provided above labels the painting as an example of German Romanticism, a term I’ve never come across in my art history escapades. In fact, I’ve always thought of Klee as a surrealist. Given the ambiguous, mysterious quality of Fish Magic and other paintings by Klee, the surrealist label seems much more fitting than that of German Romanticist. But regardless of whether Klee is surrealist or German Romanticist.

It’s also interesting that the captions above focus so much on Klee’s use of color in the painting. While Klee’s use of color is certainly an important element (as it is in just about every work of art), to me that is not what stands out about this painting. Instead, I think Klee’s arrangement of the figures and simply the whole conception of the subject matter is truly what makes this painting unique and memorable. When one really thinks about how Klee was able to bring together all the disparate elements featured and organize them in a way that emerged coherent and harmonious rather than just jumbled and confused, it’s really remarkable. Yes, the painting isn’t “good” in the very prosaic sense of mimicking real life perfectly and looking like a photograph, but it has distinct power that draws the eyes in and makes viewers really stop and think about it, care about it. If that’s not what makes for an actually “good” painting, I don’t know what does. 

Painting of the Day

19 Nov

 

Flayed Rabbit. by Chaim Soutine (1893-1943). Oil on canvas, c.1921. Currently at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.

Notes from the book Great French Paintings from the Barnes Foundation:

Dead animals are, with few exceptions, the principal theme of Soutine’s many still lifes. In these works, he expresses his obsession with death and bloodshed. This picture is among the most startling examples. It is devoid of anecdotal detail, unlike two other versions in which the simple addition of forks is enough to tame and transform the tragic scene into an evocation of familiar ktichen routine.

Soutine’s still lifes generally combine direct observation with a model taken, consciously or not, from the history of painting. His dead rabbits, suspended by their feet, bring to mind Chardin; turkeys with spread wings have their precedent in the numerous hunting trophies of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century painting; Rembrandt is the acknowledged prototype for various versions of The Slaughtered Ox

By depriving this sacrificed animal of all aesthetic and cultural embellishments, Soutine universalizes the motif. But the picture is not a straightfoward study, like Gericault’s paintings of cadaverous body parts; this is demonstrated by the care with which Soutine composed the work, framing the beast on three sides by the cloth, the table edge, and faint lines in the background. Soutine takes care to feature the rabbit carcass by representing it in perspective, while the table top is viewed instead from above. Such a sober presentation of a bloody carcass, this wretched body stripped of its own skin, reveals the moderation and restraint of Soutine’s expressionism. Dr. Barnes places Soutine after Daumier [in the collection’s display], from whom “he took the method of so simplifying and distorting objects as to make them appear monstrous or grotesque, but without loss of essential reality.” 

My comments:

If it wasn’t for Albert Barnes, Chaim Soutine may never have been “discovered” as an artist. When Barnes traveled to Europe to search for paintings for his new collection, he came upon Soutine’s work and immediately bought a large sum of his paintings, thus attracting attention to the artist in America and Europe and securing his place in posterity. 

As Barnes points out in his book, The Art of Painting (which I highly recommend), Soutine has a very similar technique to that of van Gogh, with copious amounts of paint slapped onto the canvas.The thickness of the paint becomes in itself a rhetorical effect on the painting, making it so much more expressive of its subject matter than it would have been otherwise. Its thickness symbolizes the thickness of the meat of the rabbit, and the carcass’s blood envelopes the whole painting, with that muddy red of blood pervading everything. This makes the whiteness of the sheet beneath the rabbit a bit surprising; it is doubtful that it would stay that clean with such a bloody animal laying upon it. But the white cloth is important, because without it the rabbit would be invisible and indiscernible from the background, since Soutine relies almost exclusively on color to create the figure of the rabbit.

Painting of the Day

18 Nov

Image

 

A Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers. by Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Oil on canvas, 1865. Currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Notes from metmuseum.org: 

The novelty of this composition has prompted many writers to suggest that the seated woman was an afterthought. Although there remains some doubt, she is probably the wife of Degas’s school friend Paul Valpinçon. Degas immensely enjoyed his visits to their country house, Ménil-Hubert, and the presence of dahlias, asters, and gaillardias in the bouquet makes it likely that this work was painted there in August or September 1865. It was preceded by an exquisite pencil drawing of the sitter, also dated 1865. Far from representing an afterthought, her presence in the composition was deliberate and intentionally provocative. As Degas himself once said, “I assure you that no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament.”

The painting is signed and dated 1865 twice. Infrared photographs made in 1987 show that the partly obscured date is 1865, not 1858 as was previously assumed. X-rays taken in 1987 reveal that the bouquet originally extended farther to the right, but that Degas scraped that part out and painted the figure of the woman over it.

My comments: 

For some reason, I’ve always known this painting as “Woman with Chrysanthemums,” although I’m not sure why. It’s probably for the same reason that people generally call James McNeill Whistler’s painting Arrangement in Grey and Black  “Whistler’s Mother” instead. 

I’ve always felt sentimental and emotionally connected to this painting because the woman featured in it strikes an uncanny resemblance to that of my grandmother, both in her facial features and expression. I have a photograph of my grandmother on a bus in which she is looking out the window with exactly the same expression the woman in Degas’s painting has. 

This is such a fascinating, unconventional painting, and for that I think it is one of Degas’s very best works. To put a large vase of delicately, beautifully depicted flowers at center stage and use them in a way that almost pushes a human figure to the side is such an interesting stylistic choice. Degas’s reasons for this choice is but one of the many mysteries in the painting. What is the woman looking at? Is she waiting for something or someone, or just pausing to contemplate? Is she just staring into space? Where is she? A public space or a private one?

In real life, if this woman was in a public space, such as a hotel lobby, she would most likely never catch the attention of many passerby. But here Degas takes what is a common and mundane moment in life’s daily grind and magnifies it, capturing it in a way that makes interesting–an excellent example of when the formal qualities of a painting become more striking than any represented subject matter.

%d bloggers like this: