Archive | March, 2013

Art of the Day

31 Mar

Vogue Paris Studio. Made by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. Digital video, black and white, 2012. 3:02 minutes long. Currently on view in the exhibition “White Petals Surround Your Yellow Heart” at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia.

Notes on the artists from

For over two decades, the meticulous and audacious imagery created by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin has challenged and inspired the  field of fashion photography.  Working together since 1986, the Dutch partnership rose to fame in the early 1990s.  Experimenting with the latest digital imaging technologies, their early work captured the imagination of art critics,  who were mesmerized by the sophisticated interplay of elegance and horror in their images.  As their notoriety burgeoned in the art world, the fashion community became equally captivated by early editorial work for British style magazine The Face, which added high-octane glamour to their dark and unsettling aesthetic.  Collaborating with Belgian designer Véronique Leroy, they formulated a vocabulary of attenuated predatory figures in hyperreal environments, flying in the face of the prevailing ‘grunge’ movement and signaling the end of that genre of fashion photography.  Exerting considerable influence in fashion and in art, van Lamsweerde and Matadin are exceptional in balancing successful careers in both.

The pair met whilst studying at the Art Academy in Amsterdam and following careers in and around fashion, began working formally together as artists in the early 1990s.  Their provocative breakthrough 1993 series “Thank You Thighmaster” and “Final Fantasy” challenged preconceptions about the female form through innovative use of computer manipulations, whilst “The Forest (1995)” seamlessly conflated the features of men and women’s bodies to pose questions about gender and beauty.  Starting to translate these challenging techniques into fashion imagery in 1994, van Lamsweerde and Matadin attracted enormous attention for their sensational editorial for The Face and they instantly began photographing for the most prestigious and progressive magazines.

They are regular contributors to Vogue Paris, Purple Magazine, W Magazine and V Magazine among many others and have created iconic advertising campaigns for leading fashion and fragrance brands including: Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Gucci, Chloë, Givenchy, Balenciaga, Chanel, Robeto Cavalli and Viktor & Rolf Parfum.  In collaboration with the choreographer Stephen Galloway, van Lamsweerde and Matadin have devised a unique and highly recognizable language of poses that imbues their work with individuality and produces vivacious, playful portraiture.  Enjoying working with young and more established models equally, the pair have longstanding, collaborative relationships with the faces of our age, including Kate Moss, Shalom Harlow, Christy Turlington, Chloë Sevigny, Lou Doillon and Sophia Loren.  van Lamsweerde and Matadin are highly sought after as society photographers and have created definitive, iconic portraits of many of the key figures of film and celebrity, from Bill Murray, Clint Eastwood, Daniel Day Lewis and Yves Saint Laurent to Madonna, Natalie Portman, Shirley MacLaine and Julianne Moore.

van Lamsweerde and Matadin’s career in art is equally prolific; their work is exhibited internationally and held in public and private collections across the world.  Motifs from imagery produced for commercial commissions are often carried through into their artwork and the pair regard this dialogue between commerce and art a central theme of their practice.  Their work can have diverse and unexpected outcomes, such as their ongoing collaboration with van Lamsweerde’s uncle, the esteemed sculptor Eugene van Lamsweerde, or their richly experimental work with the art directors M/M (Paris).

My comments:

I saw this yesterday in the exhibition mentioned above, and something about it was extremely mesmerizing and compelling to me. It was so captivating that I watched the movie several times while I was in the exhibit gallery. I remember that the first time I watched it, the sudden distortion that occurred while the woman in the video was touching her mouth was incredibly surprising, although a smaller distortion occurs earlier in the video (about 20 seconds in, when her head suddenly stretches upward) that hints at the more dramatic distortions to come. I have no idea what I find so attention-grabbing about this video, but something about it I find absolutely beautiful. I find the expressions and motions of the women in it so honest and raw, as well as very unique. I particularly like how she makes her hands into claws at the beginning. I also love all the clothes she wears, and I wonder how much that contributes to my liking of the video as a whole. Even if this was suppose to merely be an ad for the Paris edition of Vogue (which I don’t know if it was, I’m just assuming that due to the title and the fact that the people who made it are fashion photographers who freelance for Vogue), it is much more than that, and it has an expressive power that equals that of artwork that isn’t meant to sell something.

Art of the Day

30 Mar


Llama made of cast silver with gold and cinnabar. From Bolivia or Peru, found near Lake Titicaca, Bolivia. Inca, 15th century. Currently on view at the American Museum of Natural History, New York.

Notes from Stokstad & Cothren’s Art History, 4th edition:

When they arrived in Peru in 1532, the Spanish were far less interested in Inca cloth than in their vast quantities of gold and silver. The Inca valued objects made of gold and silver not for their precious metal, but because they saw in them symbols of the sun and the moon. They are said to have called gold the “sweat of the sun” and silver the “tears of the moon.” On the other hand, the Spanish exploration of the New World was propelled by feverish tales of native treasure. Whatever gold and silver objects the Spanish could obtain were melted down to enrich their royal coffers. Only a few small figures buried as offerings, like the little llama above, escaped the conquerors. The llama was thought to have a special connection with the sun, with rain, and with fertility, and a llama was sacrificed to the sun every morning in Cuzco. In this small silver figurine, the essential character of a llama is rendered with a few well-chosen details, but in keeping with the value that Andeans placed on textiles the blanket on its back is carefully described.


My comments:

The choice of the maker of this llama to express the essential character of the llama with “few well-chosen details” reminds me of the Modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi, who said that “What my work is aiming at is, above all, realism: I pursue the inner, hidden reality, the very essence of objects in their own intrinsic fundamental nature; this is my only deep preoccupation.” It’s so interesting to see that at times artists from much older cultures than that of Brancusi approached art-making with similar goals in mind. Of course the purposes of this llama sculpture and others like it had purposes beyond communicating the essence of a subject, so in that way they are not completely parallel to Brancusi’s artistic motives; for the Incas, art was not for art’s sake.

But this leads us to another question: is this llama sculpture really art? Interestingly, it belongs to the collection of a natural history museum, not an art museum. And yet, it is not regarded, by art historians at least, merely as an artifact, but as an art object. Why is this? The question of what constitutes art is a debate that contemporary artists in particular love to bandy about through their artwork, but their art is not the only art that prompts this inquiry. Our very categorization of objects like this llama as art raises some interesting questions about why it is that we label this llama as an artwork. When we were trying to parcel out a definition of art in my art history seminar last semester, taught by Professor Cothren in fact, one student offered that the designation of an object as art depends on the maker’s intention. If this is so, can we ever be sure that the makers of this llama considered it art? Since “art” was much more integrated into ancient societies than it is now due to the homogenous nature of many cultures such as the Incans (who practiced one religion and one set of cultural traditions within their empire, something we certainly wouldn’t say about the United States), they did not talk about it in the same way that Western developed societies discuss it today. Because of this disparity in conception, it would most likely be impossible to know if the maker of this llama considered him or herself an artist and thought that this llama was indeed art.

So this leaves us back at square one, because we don’t know the artist’s intent with this llama, yet we still find it in an art history textbook. We can’t even say that art is that which has no function other than providing some sort of visual experience, because this llama served a very functional purpose as a burial offering. So it seems clear that we have to acknowledge that we look at art objects in a different way than their creators did; whether this makes our study of art history contrived in a way would be an important discourse in which to engage.

Art of the Day

30 Mar

matisse chapelmatisse chapel 2

Vence. Chapel of the Rosary. Interior view, Altar &  Tree of Life. by Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Stained glass, 1950-51. In Vence, France.

Notes from

The Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence (Chapel of the Rosary), often referred to as the Matisse Chapel or the Vence Chapel, is a small chapel built for Dominican nuns in the town of Vence on the French Riviera. It was built and decorated between 1949 and 1951 under a plan devised by Henri Matisse.It houses a number of Matisse originals and was regarded by Matisse himself as his “masterpiece.” While the simple white exterior has drawn mixed reviews from casual observers, many regard it as one of the great religious structures of the 20th century.


In 1941, Matisse, who lived most of the year in Nice in the south of France, developed cancer and underwent surgery. During the long recovery he was particularly helped by a young part-time nurse, Monique Bourgeois, who had answered his ad seeking “a young and pretty nurse”[3] and who took care of Matisse with great tenderness. Matisse asked her to pose for him, which she did, and several drawings and paintings exist. In 1943 Monique decided to enter the Dominican convent in Vence, a nearby hill town to Nice, and she became Sister Jacques-Marie. Matisse eventually bought a home at Vence, not far from the convent where the young nun was stationed. She visited him and told him of the plans the Dominicans had to build a chapel beside the girls’ high school which they operated in Vence. She asked Matisse if he would help with the design of the chapel. He had never done anything like it, but Matisse agreed to help, beginning in 1947. Father Marie-Alain Couturier, who collaborated on several artistic Catholic churches after World War II, was also involved in the project.

At the age of 77, Matisse began the greatest project of his life and spent more than 4 years working on the chapel, its architecture, its stained glass windows, its interior furnishings, its murals, and the vestments of the priests. It is perhaps the greatest ensemble artwork of the 20th century, and certainly the greatest religious commission. While Matisse had been baptized a Catholic, he had not practiced the religion for many years. He designed the chapel as an artistic challenge.

The story of the friendship and collaboration of Matisse and Sister Jacques Marie is related in her 1992 book Henri Matisse: La Chapelle de Vence and in the 2003 documentary Model for Matisse.Sister Jacques Marie died in 2004, aged 84.


The chapel is built on a hillside and one enters by descending a flight of stairs, and then turning to the right. The chapel is in an L shape, with the longer portion directly inside the door. The altar is placed at an angle where the two legs of the L join. The chapel is 15 meters long by 6 meters wide. The longer/larger segment is for the students or townspeople; the shorter section was for the nuns who lived and taught at the school. Both sides face the altar.


The altar is made of warm brown stone, chosen for its resemblance to the color of bread and the Eucharist. Matisse also designed the bronze crucifix on the altar, the candle holders in bronze, and the small tabernacle. The wrought iron candle holder with a flame always burning and hanging from the ceiling was made by local craftsmen who have a special tradition of making wrought iron.

Stained glass windows

There are three sets of stained glass windows, upon which Matisse spent a great deal of time. All three sets make use of just three colors: an intense yellow for the sun, an intense green for vegetation and cactus forms, and a vivid blue for the Mediterranean Sea, the Riviera sky and the Madonna. The two windows beside the altar are named the “Tree of Life,” but the forms are abstract. The color from the windows floods the interior of the chapel, which is otherwise all white.

My comments:

We talked about these stained glass pieces in my Modern Art class last week, and I had never seen them before and was never aware that Matisse had made them. I knew that towards the end of his life he started to make collages of very simple shapes that were reminiscent of the arabesque line he used to paint women and still lifes earlier in his career, but I did not know that he made stained glass. I do, however, really like these artworks by Matisse; I like them much more than a lot of the paintings he made at the height of his career. While the design of these stained glass pieces is very simple, and seems easy enough  to execute that an amateur who knew how to make stained glass could make them, I think that they are deceptively simple. I wouldn’t have thought this a few months ago, before I had started my Foundation Drawing class, but after actually being in practice with drawing, I realize that even the figures and objects that seem the easiest to draw can actually be incredibly difficult. Even when you don’t have to worry about shading and trying to create the illusion of three-dimensionality, drawing only lines by themselves in purely two-dimensional planes is a very difficult endeavor. So I appreciate very much what Matisse accomplished in terms of its formal difficulty. But besides that, I think the design as an intellectual creation is also wonderful. It is quite different from the kind of art we’re used to seeing in Christian sacred spaces, but I like it a lot because it is so refreshing and unusual. It is also very relaxing and simple enough to free the mind to meditate and move into a state of contemplative worship, and so  I really appreciate the practical utility of the artwork as well.


Painting of the Day

29 Mar

La Vie. by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Oil on canvas, 1903. Currently on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio.

Notes from

In 1901, depressed over the suicide of a close friend, Picasso launched into the melancholic paintings of his Blue Period (1901-4). Only 20 years old and desperately poor, he restricted his palette to cold colors suggestive of night, mystery, dreams, and death. His obsession with themes of human misery and social alienation reached its climax with this painting. The subject has been interpreted variously as an allegory of sacred and profane love, a symbolic representation of the cycle of life, and a working-class couple facing the hazards of real life.

Additional notes from

“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”–Picasso

Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period refers to a series of paintings in which the color blue dominates and which he painted between 1901 and 1904. The blue period is a marvelous expression of poetic subtlety and personal melancholy and contributes to the transition of Picasso’s style from classicism to abstract art.
As one of the founders of modern abstract art, Pablo Picasso is generally associated with cubism and related styles which are predominantly abstract. It is therefore essential to realize that at the time of Picasso’s blue period, abstract art as we know it today didn’t yet exist. As a twenty year old man Pablo Picasso was an accomplished classicist painter, but like many young artists of his time, he was dissatisfied with the dogmas of traditional art. Predecessors like Cézanne and the impressionists had shown how departures from classicism could result in a more direct visual language. And to a great extent Picasso and his contemporaries were experiencing the after-shock of an artistic eruption called Vincent Van Gogh, which hurdled an astonished art world into the 20th century and towards abstract art. Inspired by a tradition that had grown suspicious of classicism, the blue period marks the end of a development in which the young Pablo Picasso is trying to formulate his pictorial means that solve the problems and limitations of classicism and would eventually culminate in cubism and the first steps towards modern abstract art.
On an emotional note, melancholy and resignation best characterize Picasso’s blue period. When Picasso’s close friend Carlos Casagemas commits suicide, Picasso’s trauma finds expression in a series of deeply sentimental paintings which comprise his blue period.

In October 1900, at the age of 19, Pablo Picasso moved to Paris, in the company of Carlos Casagemas. They had known each other since 1899, having met at the Els Quatre Gats café in Barcelona, which was a meeting place for artists and intellectuals. Picasso’s early days in Paris are characterized by poverty, which may have contributed to the melancholy of his blue period paintings, but it’s certain that the sadness of his blue period paintings alienated potential buyers of his art work and thus, in turn, contributed to his poverty. While his time in Paris is of fundamental importance to his artistic development during the blue period, Picasso spent most of his time in Barcelona, until in 1904 he moved to Paris definitively. While Casagemas takes his own life in Paris, Picasso is in Spain.
The death of Casagemas painting testifies of Picasso’s shock and horror over the suicide of his friend. In the sense of Picasso dealing with his trauma this painting belongs to the blue period, but it doesn’t have the atmosphere of resignation and silent mourning that his blue paintings would have.

Pablo Picasso blue period - Evocation, the burial of CasagemasPablo Picasso blue period - Evocation, the burial of Casagemas


Possibly in the tradition of marrying the divine to the profane the lower half of the Evocation – the burial of Casagemas painting shows a burial, while the upper half may represent how these two young men envisaged heaven: plenty of scarcely dressed women and a mother with children.

Pablo Picasso blue period, LifePablo Picasso blue period, Life


This theme returns in one of Picasso’s last blue period paintings, called Life. Casagemas had shot himself in a Parisian café after having been refused by a woman he was in love with. The Life painting shows Casagemas, again with a lover and a mother with child, but this time Picasso shows a Casagemas who is alive, the faces of the company of people still melancholic, but the left leg of Casagemas treading forward and a left finger pointing upward, showing an undefeated Casagemas. It seems that his painting marks the end of Picasso’s trauma and his blue period. The main theme of both Evocation – the burial of Casagemas and Life is that they contain Picasso’s best wishes for his friend and may be related to the the reason of Casagemas’ suicide: in both paintings Casagemas is surrounded by lovers and the family that Picasso would have wished him.
Picasso’s depression didn’t end with the beginning of his rose period, which succeeded the blue period and in which the color pink dominates in many of his paintings. In fact, it lasted until the end of his cubist period (which followed the rose period) and only in the period thereafter, which was his neo-classicist period, did Picasso’s work begin the show the playfulness that would remain a prominent feature of his work for the rest of his life. Picasso’s contemporaries didn’t even distinguish between a blue and a rose period but regarded the two as one single period.

Pablo Picasso blue period, portrait of Jaime SabartésPablo Picasso blue period, portrait of Jaime Sabartés

Portrait of Jaime Sabartés

A very interesting trait of Picasso was the way in which he was able to emulate the styles and methods of other painters and as such create paintings that were still original.

Pablo Picasso blue period, the absinthe drinkerPablo Picasso blue period, the absinthe drinker

The Absinthe Drinker

The influence of Van Gogh is clearly visible in The Death of Casagemas, as well as in Portrait of Jaime Sabartés (The beer glass) with their heavily textured impasto, dark contours and contrasting colors. The accuracy with which Picasso reproduces the style of Gauguin in The Absinthe Drinker is uncanny, but he adds his own subtle Picasso line. Picasso would continue to occasionally emulate the styles of other artists, but these paintings never raise the impression that Picasso tried to appropriate the style and deny its source – he simply enjoyed to imitate other artists, like an actor.

Pablo Picasso blue period, portrait of Mateu Fernandez de Soto

Mateu Fernandez de Soto

Portrait of Mateu Fernandez de Soto is again in Van Gogh’s style, with Picasso probably referring to the burial of Casagemas in the upper-right corner.
These paintings give a very vivid picture of the Montmartre nightlife, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a life style to which the young Pablo Picasso was no stranger.

Pablo Picasso blue period, two sisters (the meeting)Pablo Picasso blue period, two sisters (the meeting)

Two sisters (the meeting)

A significant influence on Picasso’s blue period paintings was his visit to a woman’s prison called St. Lazare in Paris, were nuns served as guards. The Two sisters in the painting on the right that bears the same name, were in fact a prisoner and a nun and the painting is an example of how Picasso used to mix daily reality with Christian iconography. The posture and gestures of the women were derived from the way artists depict the visitation, the color blue symbolizing Mary, the Mother of God. The meeting, or visitation, refers to the meeting between Mary, Mother of God and the mother of John the Baptist.
An ever returning theme in Picasso’s blue period (and also in his rose period) is the desolation of social outsiders, whether they be prisoners, beggars, circus people or poor or despairing people in general. Not only did this theme answer to his blue mood, but it also answered to the zeitgeist (the spirit of the time) of the artistic and intellectual avant garde at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The color blue

Some people believe that, by nature, man associates colors with emotions, the color blue being associated with melancholy. In the Anglo-Saxon culture blue is still interpreted as such and so it was in France during the nineteenth century when the color blue was particularly fashionable among artists and the general public. In Christian iconography blue represents the divine and in a rather more secular (non-religious) sense it stands for the super-natural as well as the erotic.
For Picasso the blue period was an exercise in painting scenes of low light conditions. He would borrow from the Spanish painter El Greco, the light-yellow, almost white, macabre skin color that adds to the mystique and sense of death of Picasso’s blue period paintings, see Two Sisters, above and Poor people on the seashore.
Although Picasso’s blue period melancholy was sincere, the people he painted have an element of pathos and melodrama. The reason for the starving artist myth having become so popular, is that intellectuals and artists at the beginning of the twentieth century would like to see themselves as such. To them an artist was a social outsider by definition and they would indulge in cultivated depression and romanticize their own supposed martyrdom. Typical of this is the comment of Picasso’s friend and poet Rainer Maria Rilke when he saw Picasso’s painting the acrobats (family of saltimbanques):But who, tell me, are these wanderers, who are yet more fugitive than we are…

My comments:

It’s interesting that the second set of notes says that the male figure in the painting is supposed to be Casagemas because in my Modern Art Class, we discussed that the likeness of the male figure’s face resembles that of Picasso. So either there are two competing ideas here, or they are existing together and Picasso is identifying himself with Casagemas. This could make sense, since Picasso actually had an affair with the woman who rejected Casagemas and caused his suicide. So it would be very interesting if Picasso was identifying himself with Casagemas in this way, because he is visually implying that he has replaced Casagemas and taken his spot next to his lover. I can’t believe that Picasso still chose to maintain his relationship with the woman that caused his friend to commit suicide; it seems incredibly cold and selfish, and I wonder if he would have felt so sad and been compelled to go through a Blue Period in his art if he had ended his relationship with her. Ironically, although they were caused by so much emotional turmoil and pain, I find these Blue Period paintings to be the best in Picasso’s whole career. Although he is most famous for the co-founding of Cubism and some of his more Surrealist paintings, I find the Blue Period paintings to be the most expressive and emotionally stirring by far. It’s not just because they are blue, a color traditionally associated with sadness. It’s not even just because all of his subjects in these paintings do not look particularly happy. I think the power of these artworks comes from the compositional arrangements, the shape relationships of the figures, the subtle blending of the different shades of blue, and the interaction of positive and negative space, as these formal elements are synthesized to create something incredibly beautiful.

Art of the Day

28 Mar

Newborn. by Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957). Marble, 1915. Currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Notes from

Brancusi’s long sequence of sculptures on the theme of an infant’s head began with the realistic portrayals such as Head of a Sleeping Child (Private Collection) and became more conceptual with Prometheus (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1950-134-5). With the wooden Head of a Child (Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou) the head itself became the object, and all traces of the neck below or hair above were eliminated. The curving central ridge of the Newborn echoes that of the wooden Head of a Child, but the mouth is much more radically stylized: the ovoid is sharply sliced off into a flat oval plane. Only a small curl of marble remains at the bottom to suggest a chin. The oversized opening indicates a baby’s wide-open mouth emitting a noisy wail, thus lending affectionate wit to the elegant form.

With it’s evocation of either an egg or a cell, Newborn is a metaphor for birth as well as a portrayal of an infant’s head. The theme also points to the newborn quality of Brancusi’s art and this particularly bold sculpture. The sculptor’s obsession with the moment of origin reveals his aspirations toward originality, perhaps the preeminent claim to merit among the modernist vanguard. The serial motifs that characterize Brancusi’s work prove his originality by testing it: the seeming repetitiveness of his sculptures only demonstrates more compellingly the individual distinction of each.

Brancusi cast one bronze version of this work, in slightly modified form, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Additional notes on Brancusi from

Constantin Brancusi is often regarded as the most important sculptor of the twentieth century. His visionary sculptures often exemplify ideal and archetypal representations of their subject matter. Bearing laconic titles such as Fish, Princess X, and Bird in Space, his sculptures are deceptively simple, with their reduced forms aiming to reveal hidden truths. Unlike the towering figure of Auguste Rodin, for whom Brancusi briefly assisted early in his career, Brancusi worked directly with his materials, pioneering the technique of direct carving, rather than working with intermediaries such as plaster or clay models.

Explaining that “The artist should know how to dig out the being that is within matter,” Brancusi sought to create sculptures that conveyed the true essence of his subjects, be they animals, people, or objects by concentrating on highly simplified forms free from ornamentation. While many regarded his art as abstract, the artist disagreed; he insisted on the representational nature of his works, asserting that they disclosed a fundamental, often concealed, reality.
Brancusi’s work was largely fueled by myths, folklore,  and “primitive” cultures. These traditional, old-world sources of inspiration formed a unique contrast to the often sleek appearance of his works, resulting in a distinctive blend of modernity and timelessness.
The materials Brancusi used – primarily marble, stone, bronze, wood, and metal – guided the specific forms he produced. He paid close attention to his mediums, meticulously polishing pieces for days to achieve a gleam that suggested infinite continuity into the surrounding space – “as though they proceeded out from the mass into some perfect and complete existence.”
My comments:
First of all, I find it fascinating and super cool that Brancusi briefly worked under Rodin; I had no idea that they had any connection with each other and it’s interesting that they did work together, considering how different their styles are. But anyway, Brancusi is one of my favorite sculptors because his sculptures aren’t abstract for the sake of being abstract and defying convention and maximizing shock value. He doesn’t even like to call his art abstract, as it says above in the notes I provided. Since Brancusi sought to identify the fundamental reality of the subjects of his sculptures, it’s interesting to consider what he suggests is the essence of newborns as he conveyed in this sculpture. When we talked about this sculpture in my Modern Art class today, our professor told us that Brancusi had specifically stipulated that this sculpture not be placed on a base or pedestal of some sort, apparently liking the quality of vulnerability that the lack of a supporting base would provide. The almost perfect egg shape of the sculpture, plus its pure white color, add to the sense of innocence and purity that the object conveys, which are characteristics that could be applied to newborns as well. Yet with the carving out of the wide mouth and the arc that implies a furrowed brow as the newborn wails, it reminds us that newborns are far from perfect angels. But this aspect of the newborn is strongly tempered by the other more pure and pristine elements that I mentioned, creating a kind of paradox with a newborn that is usually an object of flowing adoration even as it has some quite unpleasant behaviors. But that kind of mimics the way people treat babies in general: everyone who isn’t already a parent wants to have one and has this idealized image of the beautiful and perfect baby, willfully ignoring the nuisance that babies can be at the same time.

Painting of the Day

25 Mar

Edward Hopper. Night Windows. 1928

Night Windows. by Edward Hopper (1882-1967). Oil on canvas, 1928. Belongs to the collection of MoMA, NYC.

Notes from

Edward Hopper was born in Nyack, New York, a town located on the west side of the Hudson River, to a middle-class family that encouraged his artistic abilities. After graduating from high school, he studied briefly at the Correspondence School of Illustrating in New York City (1899–1900), and then he enrolled in classes at the New York School of Art (1900–1906). In his shift from illustration to the fine arts, he studied with William Merritt Chase, a leading American Impressionist painter, and with Robert Henri, who exhorted his students to paint the everyday conditions of their own world in a realistic manner. His classmates at the school included George Bellows, Guy Pène Du Bois, and Rockwell Kent. After working as an illustrator for a short time, Hopper made three trips abroad: first to Paris and various locations across Europe (1906–7), a second trip to Paris (1909), and a short visit to Paris and Spain the following year (1910). Although he had little interest in the vanguard developments of Fauvism or Cubism, he developed an enduring attachment to the work of Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet, whose compositional devices and depictions of modern urban life would influence him for years to come.

Hopper sought and explored his chosen themes: the tensions between individuals (particularly men and women), the conflict between tradition and progress in both rural and urban settings, and the moods evoked by various times of day.

In the 1910s, Hopper struggled for recognition. He exhibited his work in a variety of group shows in New York, including the Exhibition of Independent Artists (1910) and the famous Armory Show of 1913, in which he was represented by a painting titled Sailing. Although he worked primarily in oil painting, he also mastered the medium of etching, which brought him more immediate success in sales. He began living in the Greenwich Village neighborhood, where he would continue to maintain a studio throughout his career, and he adopted a lifelong pattern of spending the summers in New England. In 1920, at the age of thirty-seven, he received his first one-person exhibition. The Whitney Studio Club, recently founded by the heiress and arts patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, showed sixteen of his paintings. Although nothing was sold from the exhibition, it was a symbolic milestone in Hopper’s career.
Just a few years later, Hopper found himself in a far more prosperous and prominent position as an artist. His second one-person exhibition, at the Frank K. M. Rehn Gallery in New York, was such a commercial success that every painting was sold; the Rehn Gallery would represent him for the rest of his career. In 1930, his painting House by the Railroad was the first work to be acquired for the collections of the newly founded Museum of Modern Art. This image embodied the characteristics of Hopper’s style: clearly outlined forms in strongly defined lighting, a cropped composition with an almost “cinematic” viewpoint, and a mood of eerie stillness. Meanwhile, Hopper’s personal life had also advanced: in 1923, he married the artist Josephine Verstille Nivison, who had been a fellow student in Robert Henri’s class. Jo, as Hopper called her, would become an indispensable element of his art. She posed for nearly all of his female figures and assisted him with arranging the props and settings of his studio sessions; she also encouraged him to work more extensively in the medium of watercolor painting, and kept meticulous records of his completed works, exhibitions, and sales.
In 1933, Hopper received further critical recognition as the subject of a retrospective exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art. He was by then celebrated for his highly identifiable mature style, in which urban settings, New England landscapes, and interiors are all pervaded by a sense of silence and estrangement. His chosen locations are often vacant of human activity, and they frequently imply the transitory nature of contemporary life. At deserted gas stations, railroad tracks, and bridges, the idea of travel is fraught with loneliness and mystery. Other scenes are inhabited only by a single pensive figure or by a pair of figures who seem not to communicate with one another. These people are rarely represented in their own homes; instead, they pass time in the temporary shelter of movie theaters, hotel rooms, or restaurants. In Hopper’s most iconic painting, Nighthawks, four customers and a waiter inhabit the brightly lit interior of a city diner at night. They appear lost in their own weariness and private concerns, their disconnection perhaps echoing the wartime anxiety felt by the nation as a whole.
The Hoppers spent nearly every summer from 1930 through the 1950s in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, particularly in the town of Truro, where they built their own house. Hopper used several nearby locations as frequent, repeated subjects in his art. He also began to travel farther for new imagery, to locations ranging from Vermont to Charleston, an automobile trip through the Southwest to California, and four visits to Mexico. Wherever he traveled, however, Hopper sought and explored his chosen themes: the tensions between individuals (particularly men and women), the conflict between tradition and progress in both rural and urban settings, and the moods evoked by various times of day.
Hopper’s work was showcased in several further retrospective exhibitions throughout his later career, particularly at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; in 1952, he was chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. Despite commercial success and the awards he received in the 1940s and 1950s, Hopper found himself losing critical favor as the school of Abstract Expressionism came to dominate the art world. Even during an era of national prosperity and cultural optimism, moreover, his art continued to suggest that the individual could still suffer a powerful sense of isolation in postwar America. He never lacked popular appeal, however, and by the time of his death in 1967, Hopper had been reclaimed as a major influence by a new generation of American realist artists.

My comments:

Hopper doesn’t really fit into any particular artistic movement, yet his art is unmistakable. His trademark subject matter combined with his signature color palette and pristine brushwork is always instantly recognizable, but instead of getting repetitive and boring, it really shines because Hopper has really perfected his style. The painting above is pretty interesting because it reminds me of the movie I just watched for the first time last Saturday, “American Beauty.” In that movie, there are various scenes with the characters are framed by windows, and there are a few scenes in particular where our vantage point as the viewer is the same as our vantage point in this painting: we are in a building looking through a window on our building and through a window into the adjacent building. The cool thing was that even the director of “American Beauty”, Sam Mendes, referenced Hopper as an inspiration for this motif when commenting on the movie. But besides that this picture is also interesting because it makes the only figure in the painting, a woman with what appears to be a pink towel wrapped around her body leaning over, the main attraction in the painting while retaining her anonymity. I’m also curious about what we are seeing in the window furthest to the right. There is this blooming of warm orange and red hues, but I can’t tell what it is supposed to be. I can’t even throw out a guess about what it is. It’s also interesting how the drape hanging in the window on the left side is blowing outward towards the exterior of the building rather than inward. It suggests that there is a wind source of some kind blowing within the room that is causing this curtain to push out.

But this is such a complex painting filled with so much even though it seems deceptively simple. That’s what I love about Edward Hopper.

Painting of the Day

24 Mar

picasso vollardcezanne vollardrenoir vollard

All three paintings are portraits of Ambroise Vollard.

From Left to Right:

by Pablo Picasso (1881-1971). Oil on canvas, 1909-1910. Belongs to the collection of the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

by Paul Cezanne (1875-1906). Oil on canvas, 1899. Belongs to the collection of the Petit Palais, Paris.

by Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). Oil on canvas, 1910. Belongs to the collection of the Courtauld Institute, London.

Notes on Cubism from

Cubism was one of the first truly modern movements to emerge in art.  It evolved during a period of heroic and rapid innovation between Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. The movement has been described as having two stages: ‘Analytic’ Cubism, in which forms seem to be ‘analyzed’ and fragmented; and ‘Synthetic’ Cubism, in which newspaper and other foreign materials such as chair caning and wood veneer, are collaged to the surface of the canvas as ‘synthetic’ signs for depicted objects.  The style was significantly developed by Fernand Léger and Juan Gris, but it attracted a host of adherents, both in Paris and abroad, and it would go on to influence the Abstract Expressionists, particularly Willem de Kooning.

Analytic Cubism staged modern art’s most radical break with traditional models of representation. It abandoned perspective,  which artists had used to order space since the Renaissance. And it turned away from the realistic modeling of figures and towards  a system of representing bodies in space that employed small, tilted planes, set in a shallow space. Over time, Picasso and Braque  also moved towards open form – they pierced the bodies of their figures, let the space flow through them, and blended background  into foreground. Some historians have argued that its innovations represent a response to the changing experience of space,  movement, and time in the modern world.
Additional notes on Cezanne from
Paul Cézanne was the preeminent French artist of the Post-Impressionist era, widely appreciated toward the end of his life for insisting that painting stay in touch with its material, if not virtually sculptural origins. Also known as the “Master of Aix” after his ancestral home in the South of France, Cézanne is credited with paving the way for the emergence of modern art, both visually and conceptually. In retrospect, his work constitutes the most powerful and essential link between the ephemeral aspects of Impressionism and the more materialist, early twentieth century artistic movements of Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, and even complete abstraction.
Cézanne ultimately came to regard color, line, and “form” as constituting one and the same thing, or inseparable aspects for describing how the human eye actually experiences Nature.
  Unsatisfied with the Impressionist dictum that painting is primarily a reflection of visual perception, Cézanne sought to make of his artistic practice a new kind of analytical discipline. In his hands, the canvas itself takes on the role of a screen where an artist’s visual sensations are registered as he gazes intensely, and often repeatedly, at a given subject.
  Cézanne applied his pigments to the canvas in a series of discrete, methodical brushstrokes, indeed as though he were “constructing” a picture rather than “painting” it, thus remaining true to an underlying architectural ideal: every portion of the canvas should contribute to its overall structural integrity.
  In Cézanne’s mature pictures, even a simple apple might display a distinctly sculptural dimension. It is as if each item of still life, landscape, or portrait had been examined not from one but several or more angles, its material properties then recombined by the artist as no mere copy, but as what Cézanne called “a harmony parallel to nature.”  It was this aspect of Cézanne’s analytical, time-based practice that led the future Cubists to regard him their true mentor.
Additional notes on Renoir from

Renoir’s paintings are notable for their vibrant light and saturated colour, most often focusing on people in intimate and candid compositions. The female nude was one of his primary subjects. In characteristic Impressionist style, Renoir suggested the details of a scene through freely brushed touches of colour, so that his figures softly fuse with one another and their surroundings.

His initial paintings show the influence of the colourism of Eugène Delacroix and the luminosity of Camille Corot. He also admired the realism of Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet, and his early work resembles theirs in his use of black as a color. As well, Renoir admired Edgar Degas’ sense of movement. Another painter Renoir greatly admired was the 18th-century master François Boucher.

A fine example of Renoir’s early work, and evidence of the influence of Courbet’s realism, is Diana, 1867. Ostensibly a mythological subject, the painting is a naturalistic studio work, the figure carefully observed, solidly modeled, and superimposed upon a contrived landscape. If the work is still a ‘student’ piece, already Renoir’s heightened personal response to female sensuality is present. The model was Lise Tréhot, then the artist’s mistress and inspiration for a number of paintings.

In the late 1860s, through the practice of painting light and water en plein air (outdoors), he and his friend Claude Monet discovered that the colour of shadows is not brown or black, but the reflected color of the objects surrounding them, an effect today known as diffuse reflection. Several pairs of paintings exist in which Renoir and Monet, working side-by-side, depicted the same scenes (La Grenouillère, 1869).

One of the best known Impressionist works is Renoir’s 1876 Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (Bal du moulin de la Galette). The painting depicts an open-air scene, crowded with people, at a popular dance garden on the Butte Montmartre, close to where he lived.

The works of his early maturity were typically Impressionist snapshots of real life, full of sparkling colour and light. By the mid-1880s, however, he had broken with the movement to apply a more disciplined, formal technique to portraits and figure paintings, particularly of women, such as The Bathers, which was created during 1884–87. It was a trip to Italy in 1881, when he saw works by Raphael and other Renaissance masters, that convinced him that he was on the wrong path, and for the next several years he painted in a more severe style, in an attempt to return to classicism.This is sometimes called his “Ingres period”, as he concentrated on his drawing and emphasized the outlines of figures.

After 1890, however, he changed direction again, returning to thinly brushed colour to dissolve outlines as in his earlier work. From this period onward he concentrated especially on monumental nudes and domestic scenes, fine examples of which are Girls at the Piano, 1892, and Grandes Baigneuses, 1887. The latter painting is the most typical and successful of Renoir’s late, abundantly fleshed nudes.

My comments:

So these are three artists that lived somewhat near each other in time but belonged to three quite different movements within Modernism. Renoir belonged to the first completely Modernist movement, Impressionism. Cezanne was a Postimpressionist, and Picasso went through many artistic stages in his long career, but the painting of his above comes from his Cubist period, and is specifically an example of his Analytic Cubist works. Although these artists were very concerned with exploring the formal elements of these paintings, their effects give a unique character to the sitter in the process. In Renoir’s version, Vollard, who was a dealer for all of these three painters, seems more warm and congenial than in the other two artists’ versions. In Cezanne’s, he seems more introverted and introspective. In Picasso’s version, we lose a sense of Vollard’s identity, and he appears as if he is slowly fading away. I don’t know which version is closer to how Vollard was in real life, but it’s interesting to see how each artist’s style not only changes the aesthetics of their painting, but the perceived personality of the sitter as well.

Painting of the Day

24 Mar


Still Life with Compote, Apples, and Oranges. by Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Oil on canvas, 1899. Belongs to the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland.

Notes from

Henri Matisse is widely regarded as the greatest colorist of the twentieth century and as a rival to Pablo Picasso in the importance of his innovations. He emerged as a Post-Impressionist, and first achieved prominence as the leader of the French movement Fauvism. Although interested in Cubism, he rejected it, and instead sought to use color as the foundation for expressive, decorative, and often monumental paintings. As he once controversially wrote, he sought to create an art that would be “a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair.” Still life and the nude remained favorite subjects throughout his career; North Africa was also an important inspiration, and, towards the end of his life, he made an important contribution to collage with a series of works using cut-out shapes of color. He is also highly regarded as a sculptor.

Matisse used pure colors and the white of exposed canvas to create a light-filled atmosphere in his Fauve paintings. Rather than using modeling or shading to lend volume and structure to his pictures, Matisse used contrasting areas of pure, unmodulated color. These ideas continued to be important to him throughout his career.
His art was important in endorsing the value of decoration in modern art. However, although he is popularly regarded as a painter devoted to pleasure and contentment, his use of color and pattern is often deliberately disorientating and unsettling.
Matisse was heavily influenced by art from other cultures. Having seen several exhibitions of Asian art, and having traveled to North Africa, he incorporated some of the decorative qualities of Islamic art, the angularity of African sculpture, and the flatness of Japanese prints into his own style.
Matisse once declared that he wanted his art to be one “of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter,” and this aspiration was an important influence on some, such as Clement Greenberg, who looked to art to provide shelter from the disorientation of the modern world.
The human figure was central to Matisse’s work both in sculpture and painting. Its importance for his Fauvist work reflects his feeling that the subject had been neglected in Impressionism, and it continued to be important to him. At times he fragmented the figure harshly, at other times he treated it almost as a curvilinear, decorative element. Some of his work reflects the mood and personality of his models, but more often he used them merely as vehicles for his own feelings, reducing them to ciphers in his monumental designs.
My comments:
This was one of the first paintings visitors saw when the entered the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recently closed exhibition titled “Matisse: In Search of True Painting.” To me, it was the best painting in the exhibition. This digital image makes the painting lose nearly all of it magic; it almost feels like I’m looking at a different painting when I look at the reproduction above compared to how it looked when I saw it in person at the exhibition. Nevertheless, you get a hint of the mastery of Matisse’s ability to use color. His choices of color and the way he blends them here is truly sublime, in every sense of the word. None of the colors he uses would really appear in real life, so it’s amazing to me that he was able to imagine the perfect color relationships essentially all in his head and mix the paints in just the right way to achieve the really perfect tones. He is able to communicate light here in such an amazing, expressive way, it’s so remarkable. And the composition itself is really nicely arranged as well; there is a sense of calmness amidst utter beauty here. It’s so easy to forget that this is quite mundane subject matter. It’s something that we all see every single day and which doesn’t have much inherent value. But Matisse is genius enough in his ability to handle formal elements as to render these oranges and dishware in a stunning way. It’s one of the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever seen, let alone one of the most beautiful still lifes I’ve ever seen. And I think it’s also one of my favorite works by Matisse. I like it much better than his other paintings that get much more fanfare, such as “Bonheur de vivre” or “Woman with a Hat.” What makes those works more special, I’m not exactly sure. I have a feeling it has to do with the fact that those were more shocking to the public and to art critics when they were first exhibited, but does shock value or even historical significance make them better? I guess that’s where the work of art historians departs from the work of art critics: Art historians concentrate on artwork based on their historical/cultural value rather than their perceived aesthetic quality, while art critics do just the opposite. What would happen if these two approaches merged, or their takers switched approaches?


Art of the Day

23 Mar

rock garden

Rock Garden, Ryoanji, Kyoto. Made during the Muromachi period, c. 1480. UNESCO World Heritage Site, National Treasure.

Notes from Stokstad & Cothren’s Art History, 4th edition:

The dry landscape gardens of Japan, karesansui (“dried-up mountains and water”), exist in perfect harmony with Zen Buddhism. The dry garden in front of the abbot’s quarters in the Zen temple at Ryoanji is one of the most renowned Zen creations in Japan. A flat rectangle of raked gravel, about 29 by 70 feet, surrounds 15 stones of different sizes in islands of moss. The stones are set in asymmetrical groups of two, three, and five. Low, plaster-covered walls establish the garden’s boundaries, but beyond the perimeter wall maple, pine, and cherry trees add color and texture to the scene. Called “borrowed scenery,” these elements are a considered part of the design even though they grow outside the garden. The garden is celebrated for its severity and emptiness.

Dry gardens began to be built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Japan. By the sixteenth century, Chinese landscape painting influenced the gardens’ composition, and miniature clipped plant and beautiful stones were arranged to resemble famous paintings. Especially fine and unusual stones were coveted and even carried off as war booty, such was the cultural value of these seemingly mundane objects.

The Ryoanji garden’s design, as we see it today, probably dates from the mid seventeenth century. By the time the garden was created, such stone and gravel gardens had become highly intellectualized, abstract reflections of nature. This garden has been interpreted as representing islands in the sea, or mountain peaks rising above the clouds, perhaps even a swimming tigress with her cubs, or constellations of stars and planets. All or none of these interpretations may be equally satisfying—or irrelevant—to a monk seeking clarity of mind through contemplation.

My comments:

Interestingly, we see here the Japanese making site-specific installation artworks, a concept that didn’t appear in the West until the arrival of Contemporary art in the second half of the twentieth century. This work is also interactive, another impressively prescient aspect of the garden for the time in which it was created. Viewers are not only able to passively look at it, but can actually walk through and experience it from within, something that one cannot do with painting, sculpture, or other traditional two-dimensional medium. An additional facet of this rock garden that puts it ahead of its time is the openness to interpretation based on the ideas of the viewer. As mentioned in the caption above, viewers can see the rocks, moss, and gravel as symbols of number of different types of ensembles, with each one equally valid as long as it leads to the ultimate objective of mental clarity. This is quite different from Western art that was being made at the same time as this work was formed: fifteenth century Western art was primarily Christian and concerned with promoting the Church’s dogma. The idea of interpretation sourcing from the viewer instead of the artist or the patron of the artist is a fairly novel idea in the West, and so the fact that fifteenth century Japanese artists already possessed this concept reveals how, in many ways, they were ahead of their time. It’s fascinating to see the different ways in which the West and the East developed in history compared to each other, for both cultures seemed to discover innovations earlier than the other. The same is true as evidenced by this art, which is more “progressive” than the art being made in other parts of the world during the same era. This is not to suggest that one theory about the proper way to interpret art is more correct than the other, but rather that not every artist in every civilization had the same aesthetic values at the same time behind their art. Whether this implies a need for cultural relativism when it calls to art criticism is yet another question that this consideration of this 1480 rock garden calls forth.

My opinion on that? Well, I feel like the best art expresses what the artist wanted with absolute honesty and truthfulness. Art should, essentially, express something about the human condition in a truthful way that genuinely expresses that aspect of the human condition that it addresses. So if an artwork has the allegoric subject matter of love, than whatever it is stipulating about love should come through clearly in the best way that the artwork could express that specific stance on love. This doesn’t mean the art should express something that we agree with; it only means it should express whatever it aims to express eloquently and articulate.

Painting of the Day

21 Mar

Black Abstraction. by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986). Oil on canvas, 1927. Currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Notes from

Georgia O’Keeffe played a pivotal role in the development of American modernism and its relationship with European vanguard movements of the early 20th century.  Producing a substantial body of work over eight decades, she sought to capture the emotion and power of objects through abstracting the natural world.  Aware of own importance as an artist from early on, she used signs, symbols and a palette unlike any artist before her.  Alfred Stieglitz identified her as the first female American Modernist, whose paintings of flowers, barren landscapes and close up still-lifes have become a part of the mythology and iconography of the American artistic landscape. Her vibrant palette, rigorous formalism and explorations of scale makes her signature style among the most recognized internationally.

O’Keeffe was one of the first American artists to adapt abstraction to American motifs. Heavily influenced by the cropping techniques of Paul Strand’s photography, she managed to both synthesize aspects of art that was being produced around her and forge her own energetic style.

Her unique vision did not adhere to any art movement; rather she synthesized abstraction and realism to produce works, often in series that distilled her formal technique and emotive content.

Her technical contributions include use of intense color, linear precision and experimentation with the scale of objects, as well as maintaining a reductive quality and formal balance in her compositions.

My comments:

When I saw this painting at the Met, I was very surprised that it was by Georgia O’Keeffe because of the subject matter. I’m so used to seeing her paintings of flowers and animal skulls or the desert that to see something like this that is for certain abstract but ambiguous in terms of whether it is derived completely from the imagination or from something the artist saw in real life. I very much recognize O’Keeffe’s painting style here in terms of the way she applies paint to the canvas, the texture of the canvas, and how she blends and uses color, but the abstract image here is strikingly unusual compared to what she is most famous for in her oeuvre. But as an abstract image, it’s very interesting and even manages to be unique after there has been nearly 100 years now of abstract paintings.

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