Archive for March, 2010

The Beautiful Vagabonds: Birds in Art

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, XC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

The very idea of a bird is a symbol and a suggestion to the poet. A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and intense his life. . . . The beautiful vagabonds, endowed with every grace, masters of all climes, and knowing no bounds — how many human aspirations are realised in their free, holiday-lives — and how many suggestions to the poet in their flight and song! — John Burroughs (1837-1921)

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, center panel, detail,
c. 1503-04
Oil on wood
The Prado, Madrid

In his mysterious and enigmatic allegorical triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) painted enormous fruits and giant birds cavorting with tiny people of all races in a sumptuous garden. This painting presents a complex labyrinth of seemingly contradictory ideas and motifs. The triptych has been interpreted as a critique of the Catholic Church, a panorama of the Creation or a reflection on the humanist writings of Thomas More. Whatever his intent, Bosch’s giant birds are wonderful examples of the way that painters throughout history have used birds—as symbols of nature and the soul, as go-betweens, harbingers and messengers—and as intriguing examples of the wonders of nature.

Here are some of my favorites.

Roman garden painting, detail, first century A.D.
Casa del Bracciale d’Oro, Pompeii

Roman garden painting, detail, first century A.D.
Casa del Bracciale d’Oro, Pompeii

Gardens were often depicted in tomb and wall paintings in the ancient world. There is evidence that many types of gardens flourished—domestic gardens for both relaxation and as sources of food, gardens with sacred and religious meaning, cemetery gardens, opulent orchards and parks. Where there are gardens, there are birds.

Hans Holbein, A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, c. 1526-1528
Oil on oak
National Gallery of Art, London

German painter Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543) was a very versatile artist who did portraits, religious paintings, frescoes and woodcuts, as well as designing jewelry and metalwork. Holbein first traveled to England in 1528 with an introduction to Thomas More from the Renaissance Humanist scholar Erasmus, whose portrait Holbein had painted in  1523. Holbein moved to England permanently in 1532, as court painter to Henry VIII, and there he perfected his art as a portraitist. This wonderfully detailed painting is a study in contrasts, the serious pose of the sitter playing against the lively squirrel and starling (which may have represented the lady’s family coat of arms.) A luminous and rich blue background sets this enigmatic and fascinating portrait off like a jewel.

Georg Flegel, Fruit and Dead Birds, n.d.
Oil on canvas
Private collection, Germany

German still-life painter George Flegel (1566-1638) specialized in paintings of tables set for meals with food, wine and flowers. I find this particular painting of Flegel’s very unusual and idiosyncratic. The elements of the composition are very deliberately laid out on the table and amidst the dead birds, feathers and fruits—all rather scientifically painted in a presentational manner—is perched a little goldfinch, very much alive.

Melchior d’Hondecoeter, The Floating Feather, c. 1680
Oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636-1695) was a Dutch Baroque painter who specialized in painting animals, particularly birds. What is interesting to me about d’Hondecoeter is that he didn’t paint birds merely as trophies of the hunt or table, but as creatures with moods as well as relationships, feelings and inner lives.

Jan van Kessel, Concert of Birds, c. 1660-1670
Oil on copper
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Flemish painter Jan Van Kessel (1626-1679), the grandson of the great floral painter Jan Breughel the Elder, did beautifully detailed intimate paintings on copper. He was an avid student of the scientific naturalism of his day and excelled at painting insects. I am particularly interested in his panoramic scenes of birds—with their attention to detail and rich coloration, they have a cabinet of curiosities ambiance. Van Kessel also did some very beautiful still lifes, like this one, which includes a lively little bird that is depicted with wonderful movement and energy.

Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch, 1654
Oil on panel
Royal Picture Gallery, Mauritshuis, The Hague

This delightful painting by Dutch painter Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) is very much a portrait—you feel he has captured the essence of a particular bird. Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt, was very interested in exploring spatial effects and trompe l’oeil. This little goldfinch looks like he could fly off his perch at any moment—if he was not held captive by the little chain attached to his leg. Fabritius very much created his own style. Eschewing the dark backgrounds and dramatically lit subjects popular at the time, he applied paint thickly, using a light-colored textured background and subtle lighting on his subjects.

Indian miniature, Akbar period, 1600-1605
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Royal figures with their falcons are a fairly common theme in Indian miniatures. In this beautifully naturalistic portrait, the bird is imbued with a definite personality and temperament. Only a member of a royal family would have worn such a magnificent robe. The silk brocade, which depicts animals, birds and plants in a lush landscape, was probably woven in Iran.

Mark Catesby, The White Crown Pigeon, The Coco Plum
Natural History, Volume 1, Plate 25
Hand-colored Etching, London, 1727-1731

Mark Catesby (1682-1749) was an English naturalist who spent 10 years in the American colonies observing the natural history of the New World and collecting specimens. The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, which he wrote and illustrated, is a magnificent achievement. Catesby’s etchings were innovative—whenever possible, he drew from life, and he often portrays his subjects in flight or in motion, with bits of plants and landscape that suggest their native habitat. His fascination and love of the natural world is evident in each illustration, especially the ones from the original edition, which he personally hand-colored.

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Captive Robin, c. 1864
Oil on canvas
Private collection

At first glance, the work of  Victorian fairy painter John Anster Fitzgerald (1819-1906) is very deceptive—the intense, saturated colors and the beauty of the images initially distract from the often macabre, nightmarish or sadistic subtexts. There’s plenty of evidence that Fitzgerald’s imagery owed more than a little to opium and laudanum use, not an uncommon vice in Victorian England. Robins have a complicated role in fairy-lore which is often ambiguous—they are variously allies and enemies. Fitzgerald painted a number of paintings about robins. As was often the case with fairy paintings, The Captive Robin is mounted in a large hand-made gilded twig frame that is quite extraordinary.

Paul Klee, Twittering Machine, 1922
Oil transfer drawing on paper with watercolor and ink on board with gouache and ink borders
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) brings us into the modern era, which reveals a new kind of menace. His Twittering Machine seems to be about the uneasy alliance between nature and the mechanical, with the distinct possibility that mayhem will ensue. Klee’s nervous, edgy line, contrasted with the soothing blue and violet background, adds another layer of meaning to this unsettling fusion of bird and machine.

René Magritte, The Natural Graces, c. 1961
Oil  on canvas
Private collection

Belgian Surrealist painter René Magritte (1898-1967) transformed and juxtaposed every day things—the changed context jolts us into seeing things we thought were familiar in a new light. Magritte described painting as:

…the art of putting colors side by side in such a way that their real aspect is effaced, so that familiar objects—the sky, people, trees, mountains, furniture, the stars, solid structures, graffiti—become united in a single poetically disciplined image. The poetry of this image dispenses with any symbolic significance, old or new.

Remedios Varo, Troubadour, 1959
Oil on masonite
Private collection

Remedios Varo (1908-1963) was a Spanish-born Surrealist painter who adopted Mexico as her home. Varo’s imagery was drawn from nature, and she had an intense and abiding interest in science. As a child she often visited the Prado with her father, and it there that she discovered Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, whose mixture of wit and menace she found inspiring. Birds play a large role in Varo’s personal iconography and appear often in various stages of transformation in her work.

Walton Ford, Eothen, 2001
Watercolor, gouache, pencil and ink on paper
Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York

American watercolorist and printmaker Walton Ford (1960-) creates beautifully rendered large-scale images of nature gone amok. At first we are seduced by the beauty of the image, then we realize that the work is haunted by a sense of impending doom—something sinister and violent is taking place. Ford’s work operates on several levels at once, seeming to celebrate the romantic beauty of the work of naturalist John James Audubon while it satirizes colonialism and consumerism, mourns the extinction of species and dispassionately chronicles the destructive forces inherent in nature.

Darwin’s finches from the Galapagos Islands

No other creatures in nature represent as complex and intriguing a variety of qualities as birds. Artists have pictured them in many guises—as harbingers of doom, symbols of resurrection and as intermediaries between man and the Divine. They represent dreams, magical powers, clairvoyance and the mysteries of the unconscious. With their enormous variety and often spectacular beauty they embody the infinite and fearful powers of nature. As Charles Darwin wrote:

We behold the face of nature bright with gladness. We do not see, or we forget, that the birds singing around us live on insects or seeds, constantly destroying life.


Advertisements

Robert Motherwell: “On the Humanism of Abstraction”

Posted in Artists Speak, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , on March 29, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Robert Motherwell, Summertime in Italy (with Blue), 1965-1966
Lithograph (zinc) in blue on Arches Cover paper, 30 x 22 inches
(National Gallery, Washington)

Before an introduction to Meyer Schapiro convinced him to devote his life to painting, Robert Motherwell studied philosophy and aesthetics at Stanford and Harvard. Thus, it is no suprirse that Motherwell became one of the few first-generation Abstract Expressionists who regularly made information about his art and theory publicly available through frequent lectures, writing and interviews.

He considered his essay “On the Humanism of Abstraction” (The Writings of Robert Motherwell) to be one of the most philosophical texts he ever wrote. To my mind, this essay is one of the most accessible and convincing statements I have come across on the nature of abstraction in painting.

What follows is a long excerpt from the essay.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1954
Oil on unprimed canvas, 93 x 56 3/16 inches
(Yale University Art Gallery

As the dictionary says, the purpose of abstraction in any field —art, science, mathematics—is, out of incredible richness and complexity and detail of reality, “to separate,” “to select from” the complexity of reality that which you want to emphasize, or to deal with. . . it is not feasible to re-create the Battle of Gettysburg; yet the ultimate aspiration of that naturalistic notion of what a work of art is remains of reproduction of reality itself; hence the popularity of the cinema in the 20th century, as of the novel in the 19th.

Joan Mitchell, Land, 1989
Oil on canvas, overall size (two joined panels): 110 1/4 x 157 1/2 inches
(National Gallery, Washington)

. . . All our forms of communication are abstractions from the whole context of reality.  I have often quoted Alfred North Whitehead in what I think is one of the crucial statements on abstraction, that “the higher the degree of abstraction, the lower the degree of complexity.”  In that sense, mathematical formulae are (ironically) by nature of a lower degree of complexity than a painted surface with three lines, even it it’s an Einsteinian equation. Once one understands that every expression is a form of abstraction, then choices are made in relation to emphasis, i.e., to significance. . .


Amy Sillman, N&V, 2007
Color soft ground etching with soap ground and spit bite aquatints, 35 x 28 inches
Crown Point Press

Once one can get over one’s inherited primitive feeling that what a picture is, is a picture of something in nature, and think instead that a picture is a deliberate choice of a certain degree of abstraction (which in the case of Andrew Wyeth or Norman Rockwell, for example, is a very low degree of abstraction and a relatively high degree of abstraction, or moving from them to, say, Mondrian, a high degree of abstraction and a low degree of complexity), then one begins to view painting in an entirely different way. . .

Irene Rice Pereira, Mecca, 1953
Oil on canvas 40 1/8 x 50 in.
(Smithsonian American Art Museum)

A difficulty for an artist speaking to you (in comparison with a composer or a mime) is that they can give you a performance, and the painter cannot. . . Painting is also a language that is universal by nature, but one highly-sophisticated and elite, in terms of the general run of people. If one is a very skillful abstract painter, it’s difficult for many people to be aware of it. . .

Janet Sobel, Untitled, 1946
Oil on canvas
(Gary Snyder Gallery)

Most people have a prejudice against abstraction in anything. . . And I must say that when I look at an advanced mathematical equation, it’s meaningless to me. I can’t read it, any more than I can read Chinese. But I don’t have a resistance to it for its being abstract, because I regard abstraction as a most powerful weapon. It is also true that abstraction can become so removed from one’s experience—one’s sensed experience—that it become remote from its origins. Most people’s resistance toward abstraction is just that it is remote. . .

Willem de Koonig, Painting, 1948
Enamel and oil on canvas, 42 5/8 x 56 1/8 inches
(Museum of Modern Art, NY)

. . . You see, art is a triangle. Let’s say, in the case of painting—most people think that the triangle is composed of yourself and the canvas and “nature,” and that I, as a painter, look at nature and then stick over there on the canvas what I’m looking at. Actually, the triangle is composed of oneself, the medium and human culture, not brute nature alone, which is but an aspect of culture; the sum total of one’s human experience in relation to one’s culture in painting. So in many ways, rather than looking at a tree, one is playing a game with other painters. . .

Jackson Pollock, Number 13A: Arabesque, 1948
Oil on canvas, 37 x 117 inches
(Yale University Art Gallery)

. . . In painting or music or poetry, one is concerned with how a specific medium functions, and paradoxically, in how it is functioning, the whole human soul is revealed, more than if one tried to paint a “picture” of the soul. It’s one’s soul that’s being communicated, how one feels about the character of reality. . . In the end, more hits your heart and your gut than can a photograph of a massacre or a photograph of two lovers embracing and so on, because abstract art. . . can convey feeling in its “essence” (in the Platonic sense) in a way that “naturalism” cannot: it has far too many extraneous details, and loses its emphasis, its focus. . .

Agnes Martin, Water Flower, 1964
Pen and white and red ink(?) with gray wash, 11 7/8 x 11 15/16 inches
(National Gallery of Art, Washington)

. . .In this sense, abstract art is active and decisive, not passive and undifferentiated, and only becomes remote, by definition, when it becomes too distant from its original discriminations among the complexities of concrete reality.

Wider Connections
Mary Ann Caws—Robert Motherwell: What Art Holds
Hello Monday: “The Rothko Chapel

The Still Life Examined: Asparagus in Art

Posted in Christine Cariati, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, Food, Painting with tags , , , , , , on March 23, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Édouard Manet, Asparagus, 1880
Oil on canvas
Musée d’Orsay, Paris

In honor of the arrival of spring, I thought I’d continue my exploration of the art of the still life by concentrating on images which depict that quintessential spring vegetable, asparagus. The subtle whites, mauves, purples and greens of asparagus are beautifully portrayed in this famous image (above)—Édouard Manet’s single white asparagus, which was a gift from Manet to Charles Ephrussi. Manet had just sold A Bunch of Asparagus (below) to Ephrussi for 800 francs. When Ephrussi sent him 1000 francs instead, Manet painted this single white spear and sent it to Ephrussi with the note: “There was one missing from your bunch.”

Édouard Manet, A Bunch of Asparagus, 1880
Oil on canvas
Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne

Through the use of subtle color, volume, atmosphere and light, a beautifully rendered still life takes something that no longer exists—and shows it to us as a palpable, living thing. The Golden Age of still life painting was  1500-1800 and flourished in the Netherlands, France and Germany. Still-life painting was not merely an aesthetic exercise, although technique and composition was extremely important. It was also meant to provide a record of familiar objects—china, flowers, vegetables, fruits, dead birds, game and fish, et al—and to provide reference points for the flow of the seasons, the passing of time and mortality (tempus omnia terminat—time brings an end to all things.) Still life painting also reflected the wealth and social standing of the patrons—and often the sources of that wealth and position were depicted in the work: exotic spices, Venetian glass, porcelain from China.

Cornelis de Heem, Vegetables and Fruit before a Garden Balustrade, 1658
(detail)
Oil  on copper
Städel Museum, Frankfurt

Art historians like to ascribe an iron-clad iconography to still life painting, where every element is depicted for a specific reason, each with absolute symbolic meaning. This may be largely true, but I believe that individual artists also included objects based on aesthetic and personal criteria that superceded the established iconography.

Asparagus has been around a long time. The oldest known recipe for cooking asparagus appeared in Apicius’ De re coquinaria, Book III, in the third century. Since the 17th century, it has been highly valued for its culinary and medicinal properties.

The only painter I have come across, prior to Manet, who made asparagus a primary subject in his work, is Adriaen Coorte (active c. 1683-1707.) This 17th-century Dutch master, whose work was largely unknown until the 1950s, painted many pictures where asparagus is a very important—or sole—element in the composition. This was unusual among his peers, not least because asparagus was a luxury item in the 17th century.

A. Coorte, Still Life with Asparagus and Spray of Red-Currants, c. 1696
Paper on cardboard
Pieter C.W.M. Dreesmann Collection

Adriaen Coorte, A bundle of Asparagus, 1703
Paper on canvas
The Fitzwilliam, Cambridge

Adriaen Coorte, Still Life with Asparagus, Cherries and a Butterfly,
c. 1693-95
Paper on panel
Private collection, Switzerland

Many 17th-century European artists painted asparagus in combination with other still life elements. The painting below is one of almost two identical compositions by German painter Peter Binoit (1590/93-1632/39)—only in this version, he added a squirrel.

Peter Binoit, Fruit and Vegetables, Roses in a Glass Vase, and a Squirrel, probably 1631
Oil on wood
Private collection

Isaak Soreau, Basket of Fruit and Vegetables, c. 1628
Oil on wood
Private collection

François Habert, Kitchen Bench with Carp, c. 1645-1651
Oil on canvas
Hessiches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt

French artist Louise Moillon (1610-1696) had a long and successful career as a painter of Naturalist still life. She was noted for her sensitive rendering of plants and her exceptional use of chiaruscuro. Moillon was raised in a family of painters and her father also owned a prominent art gallery on the Left Bank.

Louise Moillon, Still Life with a Basket of Fruit and a Bunch of Asparagus, 1630
Oil on panel
The Art Institute of Chicago

Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670), known as the miniatura (miniaturist)  was an accomplished still life painter who had a long and successful career. Her paintings, mostly gouache or tempera on vellum, were collected by the Medicis and other aristocratic families and were highly prized and valued. This painting, unusual with it’s white background, has an extremely light and contemporary feel. A contemporary art historian, Emanuele Tesauro, wrote that Garzoni had the ability “to penetrate the most minute and subtle causes underlying every subject.”

Giovanna Garzoni, Plate of Asparagus with Carnations and a Grasshopper, undated
Gouache on vellum
Private collection, Italy

I will close my homage to the asparagus with this amusing 18th century etching which I found on Bibliodyssey. Elaborate wigs were all the rage at the time and many satirical artists found it irresistible to parody them. Among the vegetables and herbs adorning this creation, note the large bunch of asparagus at the top.

Wider connections

The Magic of Things, Still-Life Painting 1500-1800, edited by Jochen Sander

The Still Lifes of Adriaen Coorte 1683-1707 by Quentin Buvelot

Venetian Red Bookshelf: Gardens in Art

Posted in Book Review, Liz Hager with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 20, 2010 by Liz Hager

Venetian Red Bookshelf is a monthly feature which highlights books of interest from our bookshelves and studio worktables.

By LIZ HAGER

Edward Manet, Music in the Tuileries Garden, 1862
Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 118.1 cm
(Courtesy of National Gallery, London)

In the history of painting all too often the garden has been relegated to backdrop status, playing the role of “exterior décor” in support of the central character—a portrait or depiction of human activity. Unlike its uncultivated cousin the landscape, the garden never caught on as noble subject matter, though Monet’s paintings of Giverny are a notable exception.

Nebamun’s garden
(Fragment of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun)
Thebes, Egypt; Late 18th Dynasty, around 1350 BC
(Courtesy of The Britsh Museum)

Still, this doesn’t mean that gardens are meaningless. As Lucia Impelluso’s Gardens in Art so well demonstrates, gardens are awash in symbols. Wild nature may have no pre-ordained plan, but gardens necessarily do. With the human psyche as creator of the garden, meaning was accorded beyond the sum of its botanical parts. Thus, the motifs and allegories found in the garden offer a tantalizing reflection of human culture and psychology.

Andrea Mantegna, Madonna of Victory, 1496
(Courtesy of Louvre, Paris)

Gardens in Art is 370-plus pages of pure visual delight. While covering a lot of bases, the book educates without resorting to copious amounts of pretentious text. As with the others in the “Guide to Imagery” series, this volume too is filled a diverse selection of illustrations, ranging from ancient frescoes to contemporary sculpture. The text on each topic is contained within one page and each image is accompanied by three or four carefully chosen points that elaborate on the topic at hand.

Johann Jakob Walther, Dutch Garden, 1650
(Victoria & Albert Museum)

The first part of the book concerns itself with the history of the garden—the concept of sacred and profane gardens in ancient civilizations; the elaborate gardens of Renaissance popes and princes; the regal gardens of the Baroque; the Enlightenment ideals, which liberated the garden from rigid constructs; and the manifestations of the public garden.

It’s no surprise that Baroque gardens were a natural extension of the pomp and circumstance of the aristocracy of the time. But the section on Monastic gardens truly enlightens on the symbolism of the Medieval quadrant-design and the connection of various plants to the Virgin Mary.

Thomas Rowlandson, The Temple of the British Worthies, late 18th century
Pen and watercolor on board, 10 7/8 x 17 inches
(Courtesy Huntington Library)

The second, and longer, section of Gardens in Art guides the reader through chapters on the various elements of the garden—plants and pruning methods, water, statuary, architectural structures. While the elements themselves have have remained remarkably constant through the ages, their expression has changed, depending on the aesthetic requirements of the day.

The book concludes with three chapters on “Life in the Garden,” “Symbolic Gardens” and “Literary Gardens.”

William Blake, Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Faeries Dancing, 1785
Pencil and watercolour on paper support, approximately 18.75 x 26 1/2 inches
(Courtesy Tate, London)

Within the serious discussion regarding the meaning of gardens lie fascinating cultural tidbits, such as,

The circular garden was created in the Medieval era as a reflection of the universe.

“Gardens of the dead” arose after an 18th-century ban on cemeteries. The concept of the secret garden originated in the Renaissance derived from the Medieval courtly love tradition.

The Versailles garden became a nonpareil “outdoor stage” for theatrical productions, its ever-changing “sets” suggesting infinite dreams and illusions.

The number of exotic plan species in 19th-century England increased considerably after the invention of the Wardian case, a kind of portable greenhouse that made the long sea voyage transport possible.

In the 18th century, it was permissible for high society to strut and “pose” in public gardens.

Sharawaggi, the term for a popular 17th-century asymmetrical garden,which emulated Chinese examples, was a Dutch corruption of a Japanese word.

 

Edward John Poynter, In a Garden, 1891
Oil on canvas, 30 x 20 inches
(Courtesy of Delaware Art Museum)

The book offered me many more reasons for remaining in love with Gainsborough’s portraiture, the Van Gogh irises, Titan, Lucas Cranach, Manet, Arnold Böcklin, William Blake. . . And it introduced me to the work of artists Hans Bol, Sir Edward John Poynter, Hubert Robert (a painter as well as a garden designer), Filarete. All delicious in their own way!

Niki de Saint Phalle, Tarot Garden,
Sculpture park, Garavicchio, Tuscany

My only disappointment with the book is almost its near exclusive focus on Western art. One would have thought there was more to say about Asian garden symbolism than what’s contained in the chapter on “Gardens of Meditation.”

 

Still, it’s a small price to pay for what is on balance is a thoroughly engaging education. I doubt I shall enter another garden without the contents of this book on my mind.

Next on my reading list: Nature and Its Symbols

Wider Connections
Guide to Imagery series
Codex de sphaera (unique feature that allows you to turn the pages of this beautiful Renaissance book)
Tomb chapel of Nebamun
More Gardens in Art

In Memoriam: Charles Moore

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , on March 16, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Pictures can and do make a difference. Strong images of historical events do have an impact on society. —Charles Moore.

Birmingham Protests, 1963. ©Charles Moore/Blackstar/Eyevine.

Charles Moore was always in the “middle of the scrum,” as journalist Hank Klibanoff once observed, often risking his own personal safety to document the Civil Rights movement. Moore died Thursday at age 79. He left behind a body of work that testifies to potential that the camera has to be both objective recorder and subjective persuader.

Arrest of Dr. Martin Luther King, 1958. ©Charles Moore/Blackstar/Eyevine.

Moore didn’t set out to photograph the civil rights movement. In September, 1958, as a 27-year-old photographer for the Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser, he was the only photographer on the scene when an argument broke out between the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and two policemen.  His pictures of the police manhandling Dr. King during his arrest were compelling for their irony; the foremost advocate of non-violence is being roughed up like a petty criminal. The pictures were distributed nationwide by the Associated Press. Life magazine published one of them and quickly put Moore under contract.

Montgomery, Alabama, 1960/Man following woman with baseball bat.
(Courtesy Mason Murer Gallery)

Moore documented James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi on October 1, 1962. He captured the “facts”—Meredith’s arrival and enrollment, the bloody student rioting in response to the first African American at “Ole Miss,” and the presence of the several thousand US troops sent by President Kennedy to quell the rioting. (Armed federal marshalls protected Meredith in every class until he graduated in 1963.) In recording the events, Moore told a compelling story to an otherwise ignorant American public of what would turn out to the first flashpoint in race relations.

In May 1963 Life published eleven pages of Moore’s graphic photos of rioting in Birmingham, Alabama.

Birmingham Protests, 1963. ©Charles Moore/Blackstar/Eyevine.

Birmingham was pretty tough for me, yet I was very aggressive. I was determined because I hated to see what happened in Birmingham. But I did get arrested, and with my reporter who was working along side me. I went out on my own when I resigned from the paper and decided to freelance. And I went to Mississippi when I knew there would be some problems. It was important for me to become involved. Birmingham was the most important.  —Charles Moore, in an interview with Mary Morin

His photos captured peaceful protesters being beaten by police, blasted with powerful fire hoses,  and threatened by the Klu Klux Klan. These singular images helped spark powerful international, and eventually, national reaction. Confronted with an irrefutable story, the mood of the country began to change.

With his camera Charles Moore made a difference. For that we honor him.

Charles Moore surrounded by tear gas cannisters, 1963.

Wider Connections

Powerful Days: The Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore

Charles Moore interview (PDF file)

Charles Moore: I Fight With My Camera (trailer and film information)

Art for Life’s Sake: The Necessity of Making and Viewing Art

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Science with tags , , , , on March 10, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Bruce Beasley, Arristus, 1981
Stainless steel, 148″ (h) x 168 “(w) x 132” (d)
(Courtesy Bruce Beasley)

Yesterday, the formal remarks of Bay Area sculptor Bruce Beasley at an Art in Action event reminded me once again of the absolute necessity to humankind of making and viewing art.

Beasley acknowledged that he was preaching to the choir; the room was filled with artists, educators, and parents sympathetic to the mission of Art in Action, which for 28 years has been bringing an otherwise-absent art curriculum into K-8 grades throughout the country.

A sea of heads bobbed in assent as Beasley talked about the right/left-brain dichotomy. Today there is much empirical evidence pointing to the hemispherical location of various cognitive tasks—sequential processing (left brain) versus parallel processing (right brain); rational versus intuitive thinking; recognition of parts versus recognition of the whole; rational thinking versus spatial recognition; words (labels) versus pictures (images).

Why should contemporary humankind, which operates in a culture that prizes  left-brain competencies, care about fostering right-“brainedness”?

Simply put, survival of the species.

In prosaic terms, humans with well-developed “ambi-hemispherical” cognitive abilities have had a better chance of survival (and thus of procreation). In a culture that focuses nearly exclusively on the development of left-brain skills, art is compelling for its ability to develop the right-sided brain.

Artists understand the ways in which they benefit from right-brain competencies, even beyond the process of making their art. While fashioning a piece of art, for example, an artist makes hundreds, maybe thousands, of decisions. That decision-making skill is invaluable for success in the world-at-large.

Dayak Shield, early 20th century.

Further, the ability of artists to imagine the whole picture (a right-brain activity) is a fundamental to problem-solving, no matter what the problem. Imagine what a fantastic holistic tool is created when seeing the whole is combined with a well-tuned ability to conceptualize the parts (a left-brain activity).

Artists are trained to see patterns, enormously beneficial in the navigation of the array of stimuli life throws up.

Organizations like Art in Action understand that teaching kids art is not necessarily about teaching them to be artists; it’s about fostering right-brain skills to make them better at creating open-ended ideas; better at solving problems; better at trusting their intuitions.

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Tomato Soup, 1962
Synthetic polymer paint on thirty-two canvases, Each canvas 20 x 16″
(MOMA, New York)

The profound answer to “Why should we care about (making and appreciating) art?” which also has to do with the role of art in evolutionary adaptation of the human race. It’s a complicated discussion that has been approached in diverse ways not just by scientists, but by ethologists and aestheticians as well.

If art were just nice, instead of necessary, they reason, it would have disappeared long ago from the repertoire of human activities. Quite the opposite: from the Paleolithic cave paintings onward, making and appreciating art have been universally important to human beings. It has stayed pervasive across cultures and time.

Hmong girls in traditional costume.

Ellen Dissanayake, who has devoted her career to exploring the biological reasons for art, cautions that this is a topic that requires us to “step outside our Western-oriented paradigm of art as something rare and elite.” She looks back before the Renaissance (when our modern concept of “art” took shape) to conclude that at its core art has to do with “making special.” It is a fundamentally non-trivial social activity, which, in its various forms, articulates a group’s deepest held beliefs and concerns. I would add that, in this construct, a group includes both “artist” and “audience.”

“As the vehicle for group meaning and a galvanizer for group one-heartedness, art-conjoined-with ritual is essential to group survival; in traditional societies ‘art for life’s sake,” not ‘art for art’s sake,’ is the rule.” (Homo Aestheticus, p.222).

The separation of art from life is peculiar to modern (“advanced”) societies. Still, there’s no denying it: “making special,” whether in visual endeavors, singing, cooking, or dressing is still a fundamental human need.

Wider Connections

Ellen Dissanyake—Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why
Betty Edwards—The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Malcolm Gladwell—Outliers: The Story of Success

Hans Holbein: Tricks of the Trade

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Oh Stranger, would you like to see pictures that appear to be alive? Then look at these, made by the hands of Holbein. Nicolas Bourbon

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Henry VIII, 1540
Oil on wood, approximately 35 x 29 1/3 inches
(Galeria Nationale d’Arte Antica, Rome)

Three European countries claim Hans Holbein (the Younger) as their own—Germany, where he was born (in the Bavarian town of Augsburg circa 1497 or 98); Switzerland, where he received his artistic training; and England, where many of his most celebrated works were produced under the patronage of Henry VIII.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Jane Seymour, ca. 1536
Oil on panel, approximately 35 x 26 inches
(Künsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Henry was notoriously passionate about splendor and Holbein had the artistic ingenuity that allowed him to fulfill any of the King’s many and varied whims. By 1537 Holbein was not only the most fashionable painter at Henry’s court, he was functioning as the King’s “designer,” creating interiors, jewelry, place settings and other precious objects.

It is safe to say that the more than 100 miniature and full-sized portraits completed by Holbein during his time at court have informed all subsequent generations’ sense of the Tutor era.

Hans Holbein, Thomas More, 1527,
oil on oak panel, 29 1/2 in. x 23 3/4 inches
(Frick Collection; Henry Clay Frick Bequest)

Holbein is judged today as a virtuoso portraitist, in part because much of his other work—monumental and religious paintings—survives only through preparatory drawings. Through the portraits one immediately grasps the ways in which Holbein differentiated himself—a brilliant mastery of the paint medium; obsessive attention to visual detail; and access to the important personages of his day whose own reputations would endure through history.

Holbein’s style was driven by reason, rather than emotion. He was obsessed with the richness of details, compelled to precision in rendering the myriad of visual “facts” that lay before him. According to expert Paul Ganz Holbein “was an artist who attained his mastership by long and hard struggle; under every conceivable circumstance he trained himself to keep his eyes open to see and learn. . . ”

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Anne of Cleves, 1523,
Watercolor on parchment, approximately 25 1/2 x 19 inches
(Louvre, Paris)

Contemporaries have left records marveling at his ability to capture the exact likeness of sitters and the elegance of their garments. Indeed, his figures are so real as to seem as if they could walk off their picture planes plastically intact.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Erasmus, 1523
Oil on limewood, approximately 17 x 23 inches.
(Louvre, Paris)

Yet, Holbein’s true genius may have lain in his ability to effectively edit the details. He grasped the notion that a sitter is defined by his/her salient physical features.  In the portrait of Erasmus above, for example, he perfectly captures the essence of a scholar absorbed in concentration. We know, because he’s pursing his lips in profile.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Merchant George Grisze, 1532
Oil on wood, 96.3 x 85.7 cm
(Gemaldegalerie, Berlin)

In his 1923 The Mastery of Drawing, art historian Joseph Meder advanced the theory that Holbein had utilized the tracing (perspective) apparatus first described by Albrecht Dürer in his The Painter’s Manual (1525). Or perhaps, like the artist below, he painted on glass to get contours and spatial relationships just right.
Albrecht Dürer—Woodcut illustration from his Underweysung der Messung. . . (Instruction in Measurement. . . ), 1538.

Albrecht Dürer—see above.

It’s not so far-fetched an idea. In his fascinating book book Secret Knowledge , David Hockney posits a similar theory about Ingres, Velázquez, and Caravaggio (among others) use of optics and lenses to “improve” their draftsmanship, and with it portraits that were far and away more naturalistic than those of their contemporaries.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Margaret More (daughter of Thomas More), 1535
Vellum laid on playing card, approximately 1 3/4 inches in diameter
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)

It is widely acknowledged that Holbein started with chalk drawings of his sitters, which he (or others) transferred (in puzzle assembly mode) to larger wood panels using the pouncing method or metal stylist.

Some contemporary scholars, however, are not at all persuaded by Meder’s argument. Through infrared investigation they conclude that Holbein’s drawings were not meant to be complete finished likenesses of his sitters, but simply records of their essential features. Further, their studies confirm that many of Holbein’s drawings were in fact used as patterns for other paintings, both by him and by others after his death. In some cases the drawing and “corresponding” painting are not as closely related as had been supposed. All of which would argue against “tracing.”

The jury is still out. Whatever the case may be, let’s remember that in most hands a tool is just a tool.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Nicolas Bourbon, ca. 1535
Colored chalks, pen and ink on paper, 38.4 × 28.3 cm
(Royal Collection, Windsor Castle)

Wider Connections

Holbein and England (Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art)
The Rare Book Room
Holbein Portrait Drawings (Dover Art Library)
SUNY-Oneonta—“Albrecht Dürer: Artist Drawing a Nude with Perspective Device

%d bloggers like this: