Archive | May, 2013

Painting of the Day

31 May

David Hockney, ‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’ 1970-1

Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy. by David Hockney (born 1937). Acrylic on canvas, 1970-71. Currently on view at the Tate Britain, London.

Notes from 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die:

Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy by David Hockney is one of a series of double portraits of the artist’s famous friends made during the 1970s. Critics have remarked on Hockney’s ability to appeal to viewers’ escapist instincts; the Los Angeles swimming pools series and the celebrity portraits share this characteristic. Along with The Room, Manchester Street 1967, this is the only explicit picture of London that Hockney painted before he moved to California. In this work, the furnishings, the view through the balcony, and the muted light in the picture establish the sense of place. Hockney’s own comments on the painting suggest that achieving the quality of light was his main concern; he worked both from life and from a series of photographs to achieve the desired effect. Leaving behind the stylistic devices of his previous works, which draw attention to the status of his subjects as pictures, the artist here returns to a more traditional style. The couple’s formal poses and their relationship to one another in the room reinforce the reference to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century portraiture. However, on close examination of Hockney’s treatment of large areas of the canvas, the viewer finds that the artist has abstracted the room’s background surfaces, while paying significant attention to detail in his subject’s faces, the telephone, and the vase of flowers. It would be a mistake to take this work as an example of simple, realistic naturalism; here, Hockney is experimenting with new ways of constructing and painting the portrait.

Additional notes from

This is one of a series of large double portraits which Hockney began in 1968. He had painted imaginary couples in such earlier paintings as The First Marriage (A Marriage of Styles) 1963. In the later paintings, the subjects are real couples who were Hockney’s friends. They are portrayed in their home environment in a style which is both realistic and highly simplified. Hockney worked from photographs and life observation, making drawings to resolve composition. Usually one character looks at the other, who looks out of the painting at the viewer, thus creating a cyclical movement of looking. Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy is unusual in that both subjects, Mr and Mrs Clark, look out at the artist and viewer from either side of a large open window which is in the centre of the painting. The viewer, who looks at the painting from a central perspective, will be at the apex of the couple’s gaze out of the painting, a third in the relationship. Percy is the name of one of the Clarks’ cats and refers to the cat sitting statue-like on Mr Clark’s knee, looking out of the window. ‘Mr and Mrs Clark’ are the dress designer Ozzie Clark and the fabric designer Celia Birtwell. Like Hockney, the two came from the north of England and met the artist in 1961 in Manchester, where Ozzie was studying at Manchester College of Art. Both men went on to study at the Royal College of Art in London. When Ozzie and Celia married in 1969, Hockney was their best man. He painted them in their flat in Notting Hill Gate, west London, an area where the artist and a number of his friends then lived. Hockney chose to paint them in their bedroom because he liked the light there. An etching from his earlier series A Rake’s Progress 1961-3 (Tate P07029-44) is portrayed on the left side of the painting. He began to make drawings and take photographs for the painting in 1969 and began working on the canvas in the spring of 1970, completing the painting in early 1971. In 1976 he described the painting as one of two works of his to come close to naturalism (Kinley 1992), although many areas of the image have been flattened and emptied of detail.

Hockney has commented that his aim in this painting was to ‘achieve … the presence of two people in this room. All the technical problems were caused because my main aim was to paint the relationship of these two people.’ (Quoted in Kinley 1992, [p.6].) One technical problem was to paint the figures contre jour, or against the light, something he had been experimenting with in earlier pictures of single figures in interiors. As in a photograph, it was difficult to achieve a balance between the bright daylight outside the window and the relative shade indoors. Because the canvas was so big, Hockney worked on it in his studio, where he set up light conditions that approximated those in the Clarks’ bedroom. He painted the lilies, sitting in a vase on a small table in the foreground of the painting, from life at the studio. He found the nearly life-size scale of the figures difficult to realise and both Clarks posed for him many times. In the event, Hockney painted Ozzie Clark’s head as many as twelve times before he was satisfied. He is depicted lounging on a chair, his bare feet buried in the long pile of a fur rug. His pose is relaxed but his expression is watchful. Celia stands with one hand on her waist wearing a long, flowing dress and a rather wistful expression. Close to her and therefore, perhaps, associated with her are the lilies, traditionally a symbol of the Annunciation and feminine purity. Likewise, the cat on Ozzie’s lap carries symbolic resonances of the libertine and somebody who disregards rules and does as they please. Viewed in this way, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy recalls the famous portrait of a married couple, The Arnolfini Marriage 1434 (National Gallery, London) by Flemish renaissance painter Jan van Eyck (approximately 1395-1441), in which a small dog at the couple’s feet represents fidelity. Hockney has pointed out that his painting reversed one of the conventions of wedding portraiture, by seating the man while the woman stands. The gulf between the couple represented by the open window and the gaze of the third party (artist or viewer) turned out to be prophetic: the marriage did not last.

My comments:

I absolutely love Hockney’s brushwork style. He is such a master at communicating differing textures of different materials in a painting, yet without letting his painting dissolve into an exercise in photo-realism. The way that he captured the changes in light in different parts of the room is also unbelievable as well; he is able strike this incredible balance between realism and abstraction in these paintings. They somehow look so realistic while never being so much so as to fool the viewer into thinking that they’re looking at a photograph. It reminds me a lot of the brushwork style of Rene Magritte and Edward Hopper. Both of these artists, although with subtle variations, had similar ways of applying paint to canvas that achieved this middle ground in the realm between abstraction and realism. It’s interesting that Hockney chose to paint this work in acrylic rather than oil paint, since most artists usually work in oil due to its greater flexibility and longer drying time compared to acrylic nowadays. I’m not sure exactly how acrylic paint looks compared to oil paint, but that is something I hope to learn in the Oil Painting class I’m taking at Swarthmore next semester.

It’s also so fascinating how predictive this painting would be of the course of the marriage of the depicted couple. It’s expressively incredibly accurate of what would happen to them. Whether or not they consciously were aware of this, the couple does not look like they love each other very much. If it weren’t for the background information and the title that I’m aware of, I never would have guessed that this man and woman were a couple, let alone married. There is a palpable cold distance between them that’s communicated in the painting by the strong, almost opaque light that separates them as if it is a solid living entity with real mass standing between them.

Painting of the Day

30 May

To Martha’s Memory. by Jiro Yoshihara (1905-1972). Oil on canvas, 1970. Currently on view at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.

Notes from the book 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die:

After earning his fortune as an industrialist, Jiro Yoshihara taught himself to paint and became one of Japan’s first abstract painters. His work hangs in many international collections all over the world. In 1954 he founded and funded the Gutai Group, a circle of avant-garde performance artists and painters based in Osaka. Some of the “happenings” the Gutai Group staged would involve dancers carrying paper screens into public areas and shredding and jumping through them impromptu. In the 1950s Yoshihara began to exhibit with midtown Manhattan’s Martha Jackson Gallery. Jackson had been born into the prominent Kellogg family, but was hardly a pampered socialite. Instead she attended the intellectually rigorous all-women’s Smith College and worked at what is now known as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (that owns most of her private collection). After she married her second husband, she began avidly collecting art, met and befriended artists such as John Marin, Reginald Marsh, Hans Hoffman, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock, and established her iconoclastic art gallery in New York in 1953. Part of Martha Jackson’s mission was to exhibit works by emerging Abstract Expressionist and Pop artists, especially those still unknown in the United States. Yoshihara was one of her proudest discoveries. After her death in 1969, several artists in her  gallery’s roster created memorial art, but Yoshihara’s jagged white circle on a black background was perhaps the purest representation of her minimalist aesthetic. 

Additional notes from the art blog Silver and Exact (

In the final years of Yoshihara’s life, the artist devoted himself entirely to paint circles. Circles, circles and more circles.

As we may guess, Yoshihara’s circles are not justa n attempt to copy a geometric form, but they have another meaning, deeper.

The mania of the artist for drawing circles was nothing new in his country. The zen buddhist monks do it constantly, as they believe that you can know everything of a person just looking at their drawing of the shape. The symbol of the circle is, for them, one of the most important in their philosophy, as it illustrates the unity of the world. Of an interconnected whole. Of a nothingness that generates being and being that turns into nothing (which is the real signification of the yin yang symbol). The shape of the circle is, then, perfecto. And that’s why the monks and Yoshihara are constantly looking to create the perfect circle: as a way of introspection, to see how deeply they are connected with their inner being and how deeply they are connected to the world around them.

My comments:

I’m not sure how reliable the information from the art blog is, so I debated including it in this post. But it was such an interesting theory that I decided it was worth posting if only as a hypothetical exercise. If we accept that Yoshihara was thinking about the Zen Buddhist philosophy when he painted To Martha’s Memory, it’s interesting to think about how that philosophy/religion’s ideas about the circle would apply as a homage to Martha Jackson. Perhaps the artist was pointing out how Jackson had a talent for understanding everything about an artist based on a single artwork by analogizing this to the Zen Buddhist belief that the way one draws a circle reveals everything about a person’s identity. Perhaps the unity that the Zen Buddhists perceive in the circle is a metaphor for Jackson’s ability to unify artists who were emerging in the Abstract Expressionist and Pop art movements with the upper echelons of the visual art world. Maybe Yoshihara sees art in general as being “of a nothingness that generates being and being that turns into nothing,” a sentiment that Jackson also shared. No matter what, I would suspect that Jackson really appreciated this artwork as a tribute to her legacy and memory, even if it’s not outrightly memorial in appearance.

Anyway, I found this painting by randomly opening my copy of 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die, and I actually like it very much. I think there’s more to it than Minimalism because the circle isn’t perfectly, flawlessly painted. Therefore the artist’s, or even just the human’s, hand is present in the work. It’s also interesting how the circle is not perfectly centered in the painting, and I wonder if the artist deliberately did that or he just started and then realized what had happened after he already started and decided to just go with it? As someone who now has recent experience making paintings, I could see that process playing out either way very easily. One of the most illuminating things I learned in the Studio Art class I took this semester is that even when an artist isn’t intentionally trying to invoke chance in his or her work (such as Marcel Duchamp and Jean Arp did, to name just a few artists), making an art piece, especially as it gets larger and more complex, always involves mistakes and unexpected discoveries. And I suspect almost all of the paintings that have been made in the history of art, even those we hold most dear and hold up as pinnacles of artistic genius, have mistakes in them by which the artist may very well have been pleasantly surprised and decided to keep.

Art of the Day

29 May

Fashion Design by Karl Lagerfeld (born 1938)  for Chanel. Seen in March 2011 issue of Vogue. Photograph currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Punk: Chaos to Couture.”

Notes about exhibition from

Andrew Bolton [curator of exhibit]: For several years I wanted to do an exhibition on punk, its origins, but primarily punk as an aesthetic and how that aesthetic has impacted on high fashion. In a way punk introduced a language of postmodernism into fashion: the idea of eclecticism, the idea of deconstructionism, the idea of mixing different stylistic references into one ensemble actually evolved from the punk aesthetic of the 1970s.

We always felt that punks were heroic. They were these brave characters, and its impact, not just on fashion, but on the cultural landscape in general is so enormous that we wanted to showcase it and give it its authority with prestige that we feel it deserves.

In the entranceway, we see a video of punks pogoing, which was a dance that was jumping up and down. It’s basically punks in the mosh pit. And straddling the video on either side is an original punk garment by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren.
And on the other side is an ensemble by John Galliano for Christian Dior haute couture. I think more than any other designer, John Galliano has taken on the mantle of punk, in terms of his clothes being about provocation, being about confrontation. It’s really about
a story from the sidewalk to the catwalk.

The punk ethos of do-it-yourself does seem, you know, on the surface, at odds with the couture ethos of made-to-measure, but I think both are defined and driven by these impulses of originality and individuality.

The first three galleries are an origin story, and the tale of two cities where we focus on the origins of punk in London and New York.

The first gallery you enter is New York, where we’ve re-created the toilets at a club, CBGBs. The toilets were always “a place that  all the action occurred,” in a famous quotation by Patti Smith. And CBGBs was really the center in which punk rose up, with bands like Television, the Ramones, Debbie Harry, and Patti Smith. The focus was music, rather than fashion, and it had more intellectual and artistic underpinnings than it had in London. The seeds of the look of punk very much were germinating in New York at the time. And Malcolm McLaren took it back to London and gave it much more of a British spin.

After CBGBs we go into a gallery called “Clothes for Heroes,” which also has another period room—430 Kings Road, which was the boutique owned by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. In New York punk very much centered around a club, CBGBs, and nighttime sort of movement. In London, people lived and breathed punk in the daytime. You saw them on the Kings Road, these extraordinary characters with their tribal makeup and tribal hair and tribal body piercings. They were these extraordinary peacocks.

To me, the look of punk, or what we know as the look of punk, very much was crystallized in London. So in a way I wanted the first fashions you saw in the exhibition to be those created by the designers Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.

Hair and makeup was something we thought about long and hard. Hair artist Guido Pilau came up with this extraordinary haircut based on Sid Vicious and Debbie Juvenile—again this idea of do-it-yourself, getting scissors and hacking at your hair.

And on the perimeter of the gallery we have T-shirts with overt sexual and political imagery and slogans. Punks used T-shirts, about sex, about politics, as a deliberate provocation and deliberate confrontation. Punks were, in a way, very brave. They were these people who didn’t really care. They broke all the rules in terms of age or gender or even sexuality. So I think that punks became these sort of rebellious heroes, these anti-heroes.

In “Clothes for Heroes” there is a sixteen-foot monitor showing Jordan, in a way, the queen of punk. A highly original dresser, and she was also the main shop assistant at 430 Kings Road. She certainly had a huge influence on how punks looked in London.

After “A Tale of Two Cities” we now have a suite of four galleries in which we have four different manifestations of the do-it-yourself aesthetic that was created by punks in the mid- to late-seventies and its impact on high fashion. “Hardware” is actually presented
as a sculpture corridor made out of Styrofoam, where we look at designers who have co-opted the spikes, the safety pins, the studs, the chains, the hardware of punk, and adapted it into haute couture and high fashion. In a way, punks originally adopted this sort of sadomasochistic, rather brutish hardware as a symbol of violence, even of cruelty. And of course, whenever fashion co-opts street style it inevitably sanitizes the origins and the meanings of its original manifestation.

I think with designers like Versace, Thom Browne, Givenchy, they’ve adopted these trappings in a way to imbue their fashions with a sort of youthful rebelliousness. I think perhaps two of the most famous pieces in this gallery, the dress by Versace from 1994, forever going to be known as the Liz Hurley dress, as she wore it to premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral. And it’s a sheath dress with large safety pins in gilt running down the side of it. It’s this couture version of the safety pin.

And the other dress, two dresses actually, by Zandra Rhodes. Zandra Rhodes was the first designer to co-opt fashion for the runway in 1977. It was part of a conceptual chic collection and it was very much influenced by punks on the street, but it also referenced dress history, it also referenced renaissance slashing, and also the famous tear dress by Schiaparelli that she created in the late thirties.

At the end of the corridor we have another large screen showcasing Sid Vicious, actually the very last performance that the Sex Pistols performed in San Francisco in the seventies. And it shows him bare chested with his famous lock and chain that was used
by several designers, particularly Dolce & Gabbana, as inspiration.

After you walk through “Hardware,” we come to a gallery called “Bricolage,” and the idea of bricolage in a way strikes at the heart of what punk is all about. A bricoleur was an amateur who found objects from everyday life and created something new from them.
And the architecture of this space is vacuum-packed trash in this sort of Pepto-Bismol pink.

Punk appropriated objects, often from domestic contexts. Punk was about artificiality; it was about creating looks from trash culture, from consumer culture, really as a critique of it. And this gallery looks at designers who are also known for recycling everyday objects and creating new fashions out of them. Martin Margiela in a way is the consummate bricoleur in terms of using objects like broken plates, found posters on the street, cheap necklaces, paper, and creating extraordinary fashions out of them, in a way as a critique of the excesses of fashion.

And the hero of this gallery is Wayne County, now Jayne County, who was known for wearing found objects and incorporating them into her fashions.

After “Bricolage,” we come into a gallery called “DIY-Graffiti and Agitprop,” and it looks at the images and slogans that punks incorporated into their fashions, which in a way is the most self-evident expression of do-it-yourself.

The gallery itself is like a bombed-out building. In terms of the whole suite of galleries it looks the most like a club. In the center of the gallery are four ball gowns by Dolce & Gabbana which were actually inspired by Julian Schnabel’s paintings. In terms of the
manifestation of the do-it-yourself aesthetic, graffiti was certainly in a way the most political.

While many types of graffiti were popular among punks. One of the most famous was a splatter or flicker painting. And in this gallery we have designers who have looked to these punk scrawlings and incorporated them into their clothing, people like Alexander
McQueen. A dress that was worn by Shalom Harlow in the collection called No. 13 in which she rotated like a doll and she was sprayed with acid green and black paint by a Fiat car-sprayer.

And we also have people like Stephen Sprouse, who’s very well known for incorporating graffiti into his clothing, less politically, more as an aesthetic expression.

We also have designers who have used the T-shirt as a vehicle for propaganda. People like Vivienne Westwood and Moschino, Martin Margiela. Punks often used T-shirts and their clothing as banners, and designers have continued that tradition, often for political and environmental purposes.

The final gallery in the exhibition is called “DIY Destroy” and I wanted to end the exhibition with this concept. I think perhaps more than any other aspect of the punk ethos of do-it-yourself, it’s the practice of destroy or deconstruction that’s had the greatest impact on fashion. And for punks this practice manifested itself in rips and tears. These slashes became the ultimate emblems of urban dereliction or disaffection. And there are designers—Hussein Chalayan, Martin Margiela—who have taken on the political underpinnings of rips and tears, where it is a political statement about poverty, about disaffection.

On the whole the designers in the exhibition, it’s more about an aesthetic of poverty. And you think about the Chanel suit by Karl Lagerfeld, in a way the ultimate symbol of bourgeois fashionability. And by slashing it he turns that idea on its head, but at the
same time he still retains the symbols of the Chanel suit. But Lagerfeld is a postmodernist in the fact that he constantly looks back into the history of Chanel and reinterprets it with a very modern sensibility.

The ultimate deconstructionist is Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons. I think more than any other designer, Rei Kawakubo constantly changes your eye in terms of her collections. She’s also somebody who offers a critique of platonic ideals of beauty. She
turns them all on its head to present new definitions of beauty, new definitions of fashion, and that really is what punk was all about—to expand the parameters of fashion and to question fashion in general. Rei Kawakubo is as brave and as heroic in her creativity as punks were. In a way nothing has come since then that’s been as radical, which is probably why designers still look to punk, because of its innovation.

My comments:

It’s interesting to think about whether fashion is actually art or just an artistic form of expression. Is it simply art that happens to be wearable, or does its primary purpose of function make it fall more in the realm of design rather than art making? I’m not completely sure. While some clothes are made purely to be worn and cover up the body, some clothes are made as something to wear, yes, but mostly as something to make an important expressive statement. But in both situations, the clothing expresses something about the person who wears it. Because it is expressive and because it is also visual, it’s almost like sculpture that happens to be very interactive, one might argue.

I really hope that I get to see this exhibition because the punk aesthetic is something that appeals to me personally although I’ve never considered its history. It’ll be interesting to see how the Met deals with the irony of what appears to be a fashion movement that was built on clothing that’s made personal by the people who wear it (via ripping jeans and shirts, adding paint, sticking on studs, what have you) being incorporated into the couture of high fashion houses, who make the clothes in their entirety for clientele who then wear them right off the runway.

Art of the Day + Updates

28 May

Untitled. by Laurence Salzmann (born 1944). Photograph, 1991.

Note on Updates:

I added a new page today that will chronicle my internship this summer with Laurence Salzmann. I also updated my page on the Modern Art course I took this semester as well as the Foundation Drawing course I took this semester, so check out those three pages!

Notes from

A Year in the Life of Rittenhouse SquareYou might say that I grew up in the shadow of Rittenhouse Square. I spent a good part of my childhood there. My parent’s house nearby made the Square quite accessible. My mother told me that I was first taken there in a pram in February of 1944. My older brother who used to like to tell tall stories told me that at one time the ocean had covered the Square and that pirates had their treasures there when the seas receded. He produced for me a pirate’s map, which indicated a large treassure, buried right at the center of the Square.

Needles to say I never found it.
The Square was for me as a little child a source of endless surprises and fun. The flower show with its candied lemon sticks was something I looked forward to each year. In the warm months, I sailed my sailboat to far away shores in the Square’s pond. Although over the years I have roamed far and wide from Philadelphia, the Square remains a familiar place to come back to, where friends and memories from the past are always waiting to be rediscovered.

This work was first shown at the Philadelphia Art Alliance in May 1995 as part of a larger show entitled: A Year in the Life of Rittenhouse Square.
Curated by Stephen Perloff

My comments:

I don’t know why, but for some reason I absolutely love this photograph, and I find it quite moving. Firstly I find it interesting because the dress of the people photographed and somehow even the overall tones of the photograph are very reminiscent of the 1990s, at least of the movies made in the 1990s. I think what’s amazing about this photograph is that all of its formal elements are so perfectly composed and in harmony with each other that it’s almost difficult to pull them apart and figure out exactly where the expressive power of this photograph comes from. There are lots of interesting lines going in different directions which balance the composition, I believe. The expressions on the figures’ faces are pretty interesting as well. They seem somewhat neutral in terms of emotions, but they are not blank. They are kind of mysterious, and they make you so curious as to what the lives of these people are like. I also wonder how they are related to each other: are they siblings, classmates, friends, lovers, strangers? And since this photograph was taken 22 years ago, where are they now?

Art of the Day

6 May


Bird in Space and Fish. both by Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957). Bird in Space was made of polished bronze with a black marble base in 1924, and Fish was made of veined marble with a two-part mirror and oak base in 1922. Both on are view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia.

Notes from

Unlike other motifs, the Fish occupied Brancusi’s interest for less than a decade. The series began with this sculpture, continued with five casts in bronze, and ended in 1930 with a much larger version in blue-gray marble (The Museum of Modern Art, New York). While the horizontal orientation of Fish is opposite that of the bird sculptures, the two motifs share a sense of barely contained motion and a would-be defiance of gravity. Fish, because it cannot remain upright without support, exemplifies the symbiosis between base and sculpture that characterizes so much of Brancusi’s work. The mirror-and-wood form in this version provides an environment outside of which the sculpted shape on top cannot function. Removed from its base, this sculpture cannot stand, but must be lain on its side, where it appears abstract and lifeless. When assembled, however, the mirror below the Fish surrounds and supports it and allows it to float weightlessly. The marble’s veining is set into rippling motion as the viewer walks around the sculpture, and at the correct angle the creature suddenly vanishes into a sliver of reflected light. Because the Fish begins to move only as the viewer does, change, not fixity, becomes the determinant of the sculpture’s identity. In 1927, less than three moths after Marcel Duchamp and Henri-Pierre Roché completed their purchase of John Quinn’s collection of Brancusi sculptures, Katherine Dreier singled out this Fish along with Yellow Bird to add to her collection (see Dreier to Duchamp, January 10, 1927, Dreier Collection, YCAL). Fish was sold in 1942 to Peggy Guggenheim, who owned the work briefly before it entered the collection of Walter and Louise Arensberg in 1948.

This is Brancusi’s first and smallest polished bronze Bird in Space. Its dimensions suggest that it derives from a plaster cast of the first marble Bird in Space (1923). However, the footing was changed, presumably benefiting from the innovations of the second marble Bird in Space (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1950-134-19). The lower section of this new footing flares out like a skirt, a stylization unique among these works. The bottom of this element, like those of all versions of Bird in Space, is longer than it is wide; it traces an egg-shaped outline on the cylinder below. Sidney Geist has identified this work as the subject of a famous photograph by Edward Steichen, taken at the Brummer Gallery in New York in 1926. The photograph was formerly assumed to portray Steichen’s own bronze Bird in Space because it appears on the base that now supports that sculpture (Geist, Sidney. “The Birds.” Review of Brancusi’s Birds, by Athena T. Spear. Artforum {New York}, vol. 9, no. 3 {November 1970}, p. 80). Apparently the Arensbergs purchased this bronze Bird in Space with only the black marble cylinder for a support. Photographs of their house reveal that the Arensbergs later displayed this work on the wooden base Brancusi sent them with Mademoiselle Pogany [III] (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1950-134-21) in the early 1930s. When the two sculptures were acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1950, the wooden based was shown beneath Bird in Space, but it was restored to Mademoiselle Pogany [III] in the 1970s.

My comments:

I had to write an essay comparing these two sculptures for my Modern Art class, so below is that essay:

The Devil is in the Details: Brancusi’s Manifesto for the Beauty of the Straightforward

As the adage “missing the forest for the trees” implies, sometimes it is all too easy to get lost in the details of a concept to the point where the essential idea is lost. Taking this cautionary phrase to heart, Constantin Brancusi aims to create sculptures such as his Fish and Bird in Space that, in his own words, “pursue the inner, hidden reality, the very essence of objects in their own intrinsic fundamental nature.”[1] He accomplishes this goal by eliminating the naturalistic details of the subjects in his sculptures and paring the figure down to simple, geometric forms. With this modus operandi, Brancusi is not trying to make an art object that physically resembles a bird or a fish. Instead, he aims to express the fundamental qualities of the bird and the fish that make them unique creatures. In doing so, he also reveals what he associates with these animals, what he finds to be beautiful about them and where he thinks beauty comes from: the simple, the elegant, and the true.

Brancusi’s deliberate efforts to minimally use the materials at his disposal result in a depiction of fish and birds that reduces them to their intangible characteristics. While Brancusi is not simplifying these animals’ forms merely for the sake of simplicity, he admits that in simplicity one often finds the truest reality: “Simplicity is not an end in art, but we usually arrive at simplicity as we approach the true sense of things.”[2] For Fish and Bird in Space, Brancusi carved veined marble and polished bronze respectively to create incredibly simple shapes. These shapes do not physically resemble a fish or a bird: they do not have eyes, scales, feathers, or any other anatomical details that we observe of fish and birds in the natural world. The shapes that Brancusi sculpts to depict the fish and the bird are not even realistic silhouettes of these animals, and yet they are able to effectively express the spirit of the fish and the bird.

He achieves such as expression through an economy of detail, maximizing the potential of the veined marble and polished bronze to communicate the concept of the fish and the concept of the bird without having to resort to additional materials and accoutrements. For Fish, Brancusi utilized the veined marble pattern to resemble scales on a fish’s body. The cold smoothness of the marble also lends itself to the fish form, since cold and smooth are two common qualities of fish. The straightforward shape of the marble—an oval that tapers to an acute sharp angle—does not literally mimic the shape of a fish, but it does resemble the iconic image of the fish as we know it from the Christian symbol, and thus it is easily recognizable as a fish. It is also most likely what the average person would draw if he or she were asked to draw a fish in the simplest way possible.   This resemblance reveals that Brancusi is attracted to a reductive approach to making art, eschewing decadence and excessive ornamentation as elements of true beauty. Where Brancusi could have articulated all the veins and the literal shape of a fish’s tale or carved in every individual scale with technical accuracy, instead he simply carves a pointed angle for a tale and lets the veins of the marble naturally imply scales.

Brancusi adopted the same method for Bird in Space. The sphere at the top of the sculpture that tapers to a fine point does not look like an actual bird, and yet it is still easy to see that Brancusi is depicting a bird. This recognition comes from the fact that what Brancusi’s Bird in Space does literally communicate is the vertical motion of a bird in flight as well as the natural swelled chest and thin legs that are a part of its corporeal composition. Although bronze is actually a quite heavy material, Brancusi has effectively made the Bird in Space appear weightless by virtue of the sculpting of the material: the bird has the densest part of its body located at the top of the sculpture, which rest on a relatively much thinner base. It provokes the illusion that if a base so thin can support a top that appears so dense, the sculpture must actually be of very little weight at all. As a result, it possesses a grace that large yet elegant birds such as the bald eagle exude. The golden tone of the polished bronze is reminiscent of the sun, and along with the shape of the sculpture it expresses the idea of a bird flying up into the air soaked in radiant light.

The display of Fish and Bird in Space is crucial to their expressive effects and both continue the theme of simplicity. For the base of Fish the circular mirror with a blue-green band that traces its edge over which the fish figure hovers serves as a metaphor for the glassy surface of the ocean, which often has a reflective quality. The dark wooden base that supports the mirror and the fish symbolizes the opacity that one reaches at certain depths in the ocean when one can no longer see into the black abyss. The short, black marble cylinder and limestone base upon which the Bird in Space stands similarly imitates the natural surroundings of birds: it is reminiscent of a perch on a branch of a giant tree from which the bird is about to take flight.

While Brancusi’s manipulation of the formal elements of his sculptures expresses the intrinsic qualities of the bird and the fish with as little superfluousness as possible, these qualities do not apply to all species of birds or fish. Consequently, Brancusi reveals what he associates with these animals and also what he finds to be beautiful about them. His Fish does not exhibit the characteristics that one would probably associate with sharks, such as power, dominance over the ocean, and even danger. It’s not colorful, has an almost paper-thin body, and seems pretty stereotypical in its form—it doesn’t have an unusual tail or body shape that some fish possess. Brancusi’s Fish instead seems much more related to a small, speedy, almost unnoticeable minnow. Similarly, the bird that Bird in Space evokes is a certain kind of bird. It is most like a majestic eagle due to its large size and swelled chest. It communicates the paradoxical nature of a bird that is above average in size compared with other birds and yet appears to have little mass due to its ability to float on the air.

Brancusi’s choice of species of fish and birds that serve more or less as archetypes for the rest of their animal’s class underscores the observation that Brancusi is not concerned with depicting particular fish or birds themselves, but rather with revealing the abstract qualities that he associates with them. For Fish this includes its constant horizontal motion, its flatness, and its diminutive imperceptibility. His depiction of birds according to Bird in Space indicates his association of them with the tendency towards upward travel and density juxtaposed with airy buoyancy. These well-defined and clear-cut associations open a window onto the artist’s values of unambiguity and consistency. While some artists thrive in the grey, murky areas of life, Brancusi shines in his embrace of the black and white.

[1] “Constantin Brancusi,” The Art Story, last modified 2012, accessed April 21, 2013,

[2] Ibid.

Painting of the Day

3 May

emil nolde masks

Masks. by Emil Nolde (1867-1956). Oil on canvas, 1911. Currently on view at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, Missouri.

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

Although not part of the original Die Brucke group, Emil Nolde joined in 1906 and quickly became its most committed member. Nolde originally trained in industrial design, studying academic painting privately in Paris for a few months in 1900, but he never painted as he was taught. Rather, Nolde regularly visited ethnographic museums to study the tribal arts of Africa and Oceania. He was impressed by the radical and forceful visual presence of the figural arts that he saw there. One result of his research was Masks of 1911, in which he seems to refer both to the masks he studied in Paris, and to those familiar to him from European carnivals. By collapsing these traditions together, Nolde transforms sources drawn from art beyond the Western tradition into a European nightmare full of horror and implicit violence. The gaping mouths and hollow eyes of the hideously colored and roughly drawn masks seem to mock the viewer, appearing to advance from the picture plane. Nolde also uses the juxtaposition of complementaries to intensify his colors and the violent emotions they are intended to communicate. On the eve of World War I, Nolde accompanied a German scientific expedition to New Guinea, explaining that what attracted him to the arts of Oceania was their “primitivism,” their “absolute originality, the intense and often grotesque expression of power and life in very simple forms–that may be why we like these works of native art.”

My comments:

I haven’t been able to post in a few weeks because I’ve been very busy with school work, but I finally found some time to post a painting. This painting jumped out at me for its rich color harmonies, which are absolutely breathtaking. Usually I find Nolde’s work to be  a little too garish, but in this painting he successfully keeps himself from crossing that line, and the colors both individually and in relation to each other are so beautiful. He does a really good job of balancing warm colors against cool ones.

In the notes above, Nolde specifically mentions the “primitivism” of Oceanic cultures, a word that has commonly been considered derogatory. In his quote, Nolde does seem to admire Oceanic art, but it could be argued that he does so in a condescending way, something that’s suggested even by calling it primitive art. He also tries to exaggerate the horrific qualities of the masks, even though there’s the possibility that they are not intended to be terrifying in that culture’s context. So he might be unfairly misinterpreting their culture’s traditions and spiritual practices in a way that might be offensive or inconsiderate. I’m leaning towards the interpretation that Nolde is in fact being condescending, because there’s nothing that gives evidence to the contrary in this textbook at least. Then again, the painting he made is indeed very beautiful, so perhaps this is just an example of non-malicious ignorance.


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