Archive for May, 2010

Venetian Red in Rome: Native Son

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on May 30, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note:  Summer being the travel season, Venetian Red is hitting the road. Christine Cariati holds down the fort in San Francisco, while Liz Hager files all month from Italy.

By LIZ HAGER

Michelangelo Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew, 1599-1600
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesci, Rome
The upper source of light in the painting mimics the natural light from the Chapel windowbut what about the mysterious second source of light?

Though Michelangelo Merisi (1571—1610) hailed from the little village of Caravaggio in Lombardi, Rome claims the painter as its own. The Eternal City is already home to a dozen or more of the attributed Carravaggios, which are spread among its churches and gallerias. The current exhibit at the Scuderie del Quirinale has brought perhaps 20 more Carravaggios to the city.  In a world that contains perhaps 60- 80 authenticated Carravaggios, June was beginning to look like a month in which one might temporarily satisfy a life-long craving for the painter’s work.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Inspiration of St. Matthew, 1599-1600
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesci, Rome

Despite being a braggart, brawler and rogue (or maybe because of them), Carravaggio was an enormously popular painter during his lifetime. Given his lifestyle, however, he was dead at 39.  His reputation fell into neglect for 300 years, until Roberto Longhi single-handedly put him back onto art historical map. Longhi made a persuasive argument for the originality of Carravaggio’s charioscura technique and his influence on subsequent masters, including Gerritt von Honthorst, Rembrandt, Georges de la Tour and Joseph Wright of Derby.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, 1599-1600
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesci,

Carravaggio moved to Rome in 1591 or 92. It was tough going at first (lots of paintings of fruit bowls), but he eventually found work on important projects through the cultured and powerful Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte . (The Cardinal was also a supporter of Galileo.)

It was the Cardinal who in 1596 recommended the young painter for the Contarelli Chapel project (through Pope Clement VIII to project overseer Virgilio Crescenzi).  Nothing Carravaggio had done before the St. Matthew cycle approached the scope and power of this first public commission. The paintings are massive—the two horizontal paintings occupy most of their respective walls, right and left of the altar.

Venetian Red captures the Carravaggio viewing frenzy at the Contarelli Chapel, 5/30/2010

The cycle was instantly controversial, and one glance at any of the other typically Baroque paintings in the church will instantly convey why. As near perfect examples of the Carravaggio’s mature style, the paintings feature the intense light and dark rendering that paradoxically obscures the human form (that Renaissance artists had worked so hard to promote) and defines it in highly naturalistic way. In respect to the latter accomplishment, it would seem that Carravaggio was thumbing his artistic nose at then current Baroque and Mannerist conventions. Further to the probable annoyance of his patrons, it’s as if the primary subject of each painting is not St. Matthew, but the unseen, divine source of light.  The first version of  The Inspiration of St. Matthew was actually rejected (and subsequently destroyed during the bombing of Dresden in WW2).

Whew, that’s better.

There was a substantial crowd jammed in front of the chapel, but for a Carravaggio lover the wait to get to the front was well worth it.

Wider Connections

Carravaggio.com
Carravaggio: The Final Years
Jonathan Harr—The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece

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What’s Trending: The SF Fine Art Fair

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Mixed Media, Painting, Photography, Printmaking, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Klari Reis, Hypochrondria
Installation: Epoxy resin in 150 petri dishes
(The Cynthia Corbett Gallery)

How visitors to Miami Basel do it?  Walking the comparatively-miniscule 80+ booth show at the SF Fine Art Fair yesterday afternoon left me psychologically knackered.  Of course, I only stopped at a small portion of what was on view. Drive by scanning is a necessity. Still, I’m not sure I could be an Art Fair warrior.

Klari Reis, Hypochrondria (detail)
Installation: Epoxy resin in 150 petri dishes
(The Cynthia Corbett Gallery)

Despite the fatigue factor, fairs offer the most effective platform from which to view the commerce of contemporary art. Given the necessities of the gallery business, fairs aren’t always the best place to see truly inspiring new work (isn’t the much touted “up and coming star” an oxymoron?), but they do offer an unparalleled opportunity to reflect on “trending” in both the art- making and art-buying communities. Evesdropping among the Influencers and Buyers is inevitable, but it can be both an enlightening and depressing experience.

Jae-Hyo Lee,  0121-1110=106062, 2010
Stainless steel bolts, nails, burnt wood,  and sealer

Jae-Hyo Lee,  0121-1110=106062 (detail), 2010
Stainless steel bolts, nails, burnt wood,  and sealer

In terms of art making, the SF Fair (through Sunday at Fort Mason) sports the spectrum of expected artists: the established (and dead), the well-vetted,  and a sprinkling of the nearly newly-minted MFAs.  Painting dominates; no new trend there.

Alyssa Monks, Vapor, 2008
Oil on linen
(Scott White Contemporary Art)

Alyssa Monks, Vapor (detail: just to make sure it was actually painted. . . ) 2008
Oil on linen
(Scott White Contemporary Art)

Figurative styles, in particular hyper-realism, are alive and well—Janet Fish, Alyssa Monks (gloriously rendered bathing water, a subgenre all her own), Jeanette Pasin Sloan, and Alan Magee (he’s cornered the stone market, but VR readers will appreciate his portrait of Hannah Höch) are all on the walls. Much abstraction too adorns the walls; lots of dots, it seemed, though for my taste Barbara Takenaga and Teo González do them best. Patterns abound: Mark Emerson’s Utfart (at JayJay’s booth) is the equivalent of Steve Martin’s “wild and crazy guy.” Stylistic granddaddy of the genre Robert Kushner, represented by a stunning and muscular gold and copper infused arabesque at DC Moore booth, makes everyone else’s attempt look whimpy. Figurative/abstract mixes à la Squeak Carnith and Inez Storer are very much in evidence. Does the scratchy gestural style still have runway? Text also puts in a strong showing, from the obvious attempts to engage the viewer—Carnith’s Is This Painting?—to the more subtle  like Dunce at Rebecca Hossack’s booth.

Teo González, Beach (study), 2010
Acrylic on clayboard
(Richard Levy Gallery)

Barbara Takenaga, Black/White/Blue, 2008
Acrylic on canvas
(DC Moore Gallery)

Anecdotally-speaking, acrylic seems to be gaining ground on oil. Perhaps understandably (it doesn’t have the sell-power of painting), drawing was not much around, Alice Attie‘s pen and ink text-pictures caught my attention for their use of text as a structural element and finely-detailed work.

Katherine Sherwood, Neuron Nurse, 2010
Mixed Media
(Gallery Paule Anglim)

On the photography front: Sebastiao Salgado’s magnificent black & white journalistic shots inspire awe no matter what their environment; Erika Blumenfeld‘s ethereal abstractions of the Polar environment are a welcome change on both a visual and intellectual level from the legions of more mundane landscapes; and Isidro Blasco‘s  3-D stage set-like landscapes are intimate visual delights. I can’t shake the feeling that Robert Silvers’s work (Marilyn and dollar bill ) feels like a photographic retread of Chuck Close territory, but I imagine his prints are wildly popular for the a-ha moment inherent in the gimmick..

Stuart Frost, Gaiola, 2009
Medium seagull feather quills
(Richard Levy Gallery)

However, a lot of unconventional fine art media were on display, though not all of the pieces were successful.  Jaehyo Lee’s burnt wood and nail “Starry Night”-ish abstraction was sublime majesty, but Gugger Petter’s  “Madonna” at Andrea Schwartz’s booth felt overly gimmicky.  (“Look Ma, I can weave newspaper into a real picture.”) In a refreshing moment, glass artist Jeff Wallin was actually in the Patrajdas booth talking about his portraits.  Canadian artist Cybelé Young’s quirky miniature sculptures (at Rebecca Hossack) offered a refreshing respite from the scores of more self-consciously wrought work (which is not to overlook the loads of care that went into fashioning them).

Cybelé Young (no identifying tag)
Rebecca Hossack Gallery

A special thanks to Catherine Clark for the only two (that I saw) video-related pieces—John Slepian’s stamen and a Lincoln Schatz “generative” video, both of which use the digital medium in richly-complex and visually-arresting ways.

John Slepian, stamen, 2009
Computer-based sculpture: computer, LCD monitor, speakers, glass bell jar, moss, stand
(The Catherine Clark Gallery)

And finally, but not least, San Francisco’s own Arion Press had a small sampling of its collection of artists’ books—I could have looked at more.

And on the art buying side, I think Fine Art Fair Director summed it up perfectly in his introduction to the Guide: “With a rebounding economy, there is no better time to invest in art.” Consultants and designers referred to large-scale paintings as “right for the so-and-so project” and legions of young blonds, as well as older couples, seemed intent on buying.

VR Sees RED

Posted in Artists Speak, Christine Cariati, Contains Video Elements, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Red, a two-character play by John Logan, is about Mark Rothko and his young studio assistant (a fictional amalgam of various actual Rothko assistants) that pivots on the often-told story about the commission that Rothko undertook, and then ultimately rejected, to paint a set of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building.

At the time, around 1958, Rothko and his generation of abstract expressionist painters—Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline—were beginning to be eclipsed by pop artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Through Rothko’s often-heated dialogue with his young assistant, we get to eavesdrop on his ideas about art in general and his own work in particular—and to understand how he came to reject the commission and return what was then the enormous fee of $35,000. (The paintings are now at the Tate Modern in London.)

Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon Sketch (for Mural #6), 1958

The play attempts the near-impossible task of conveying something truthful about the thought and emotion that propels the creative process—and more often than not, it succeeds. Yes, the arc of the story is predictable, as is the evolution of the father/son, mentor/student relationship between Rothko and the assistant, Ken—but I thought that Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne transcended those limitations and often seemed to be having a real conversation.

As you take your seat in the theater, the stage, which reeks of turpentine, presents a believable recreation of Rothko’s New York studio at 222 Bowery. You then notice that Alfred Molina, as Rothko, is already on stage, sitting in a chair, studying the painting in front of him. Throughout the play, Rothko and his assistant are stretching canvases, mixing paints—and in one particularly moving scene, priming a huge canvas a brilliant red.

Mark Rothko, c. 1953
Photo courtesy Henry Elkan

Venetian Red particularly enjoyed Rothko’s violent outburst when he addresses the question: what do you see? to his assistant standing in front of a blood-red canvas. When the assistant tentatively responds: red, Rothko flies into a rage at this reductive answer, and begins to passionately enumerate the dozens of possible complex colors that the word “red” could represent.

Mark Rothko, Untitled Mural for End Wall, 1959

While Rothko is accurately portrayed as monstrously egotistical, pontificating and self-involved, that doesn’t mean that he’s not right or that he doesn’t have a lot of interesting and true things to say. Going in, I was not particularly a fan of Rothko’s work, but watching the play I got a better grasp of the intellectual and spiritual motivation for his work and its underlying sense of tragedy. And, yes, since seeing the play I’ve taken the time to look at his work more carefully.

What was important to me about the play was Rothko’s passionate insistence that art matters—that the artist must believe deeply in what he is doing. He also insisted that the viewer cannot be passive, but has to bring something to looking at a work art, not merely consume. When  Rothko badgers his young assistant that he must educate himself, read philosophy, great literature, look at all the art he possibly can—before he deserves to have an opinion—he makes a strong case. Rothko’s ego is enormous, but so is his passion. It was actually thrilling to hear someone talk with such fury about their work and the importance of making art, all with a complete lack of irony.

The only thing I care about is the expression of man’s basic emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, destiny  — Mark Rothko

Crucial to the effectiveness of the play is the lighting. The canvases—all saturated blacks and reds—are luminous. They are lit so that they glow, morph and radiate energy before your eyes, which fast-forwards the experience that unfolds more slowly when you sit for a while with Rothko’s work.

Red is playing in New York through June 27th. If you’ve seen it, let us know what you think.

Wider connections:
Joanne Mattera’s thoughts on Red.
Roberta Smith, New York Times

Venetian Red Bookshelf: Inside the Painter’s Studio

Posted in Artists Speak, Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 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

Ross Bleckner, Throbbing Hearts, 1994
Oil, powdered pigment, and wax on canvas, 96 1/8 x 120 1/4 inches
(Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Gift of the artist © Ross Bleckner)

Thanks to a friend of Venetian Red, who passed along an excellent tip regarding Joe Fig’s 2009 compilation of interviews, Inside the Painter’s Studio. I casually picked up the book one evening recently, thinking it was the sort of work in which one could dabble, leaf through an interview or two, put it down, come back to it intermittently. By the second interview (Ross Bleckner, as it turns out) the book had hooked me, and I read straight through to the end. (A 90 minute investment.)

Fig asked the same 18 questions of 24 accomplished artists of different generations (with himself as the 25th). Most of Fig’s questions reflected his primary interest in exploring the nature of the creative process and the role the studio space plays in that. While he fixed-question method has its uses (i.e. levels the playing field, creates boundaries for information), it can also hinder the process of collecting truly penetrating information from interviewees.

On the face of it, some of his questions seemed banal—How long have you been in this studio?, How often do you clean your studio? Do you listen to music or have the TV on or something like that? But other queries drew out more philosophical responses, though, in a number of instances, even those just plain stumped a few interviewees (or they were just unwilling to answer). In these cases, the conversation appeared be grinding to a halt, though Fig skillfully pulled the session back the brink by guiding the artist to the next topic on his list. (That, or interviews were rescued in the editing process.)

Chuck Close, Self Portrait, 1997
Oil on canvas, 8′ 6″ x 7′
(Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Agnes Gund, Jo Carole
and Ronald S. Lauder, Donald L. Bryant, Jr., Leon Black,
Michael and Judy Ovitz, Anna Marie and Robert F. Shapiro,
Leila and Melville Straus, Doris and Donald Fisher, and purchase.)
© 2010 Chuck Close

You will find no profound revelations in Inside the Painter’s Studio. Instead, its pages are punctuated with important (and often eloquently articulated) reminders regarding the creative process (and the business of art). The artists among us may viscerally or intuitively understand these pearls, but hearing them repeated in different ways is always welcome.

More fascinating are those moments when a particular personality emerges through the interview process. Malcolm Morley comes off as a pragmatic curmudgeon; Amy Sillman appears to shoot from the hip (though looking at her paintings you don’t see how that can be true) ; Philip Pearlstein seems plainly sincere; a tinge of haughtiness colors Matthew Ritchie’s responses, etc.

And finally, because you just can’t keep track of everyone, the book was useful in prompting an exploration of artists’ work unknown to me, specifically Inka Essenhigh and Barnaby Furnas, who paints on his canvasses on the floor.

Malcolm Morley, Messerschmitt with Spitfire, 2000
Oil on linen, 79 x 111.3 inches

Following is a brief selection of extracts from some of my favorite responses:

How long have you been in your studio?

Malcolm Morley: That’s totally irrelevant.

Joan Snyder, Blood On Our Hands, 2003
Mixed media on board, 16 x 16 inches

Can you describe a typical day, being as specific as possible?

As Fig expresses surprise at Ross Bleckner’s 7-day a week work habit, Bleckner further elaborates:

Ross Bleckner: Yup. That’s the way I work. It’s very athletic. It’s just good for me, and it is the only way I can really create the rhythm of concentration. For me it is all about the process. There is no idea that I have ever had that comes to me outside the process of work. So therefore, the few months in a row I am working seven days a week—and if I am having a show or not is irrelevant—I guess the operative metaphor for me is that I am a scientist in a lab, on the verge of discovering something. Or  I am just a hound dog sniffing around trying to catch the scent. But in order to do that, I need consistency.  Then when I stop working, when I take a break, I take a break for a month or two.

Amy Sillman, Cliff 2, 2005
Oil on canvas, 183 x 152 cm.
(Saatchi Gallery)

How often do you clean your studio and does it affect your work?

Ross Bleckner: It affects my work a lot. I clean my studio many times a day. But specifically when I come in and when I leave. I don’t like to leave any traces of the day before. . . Brancusi said something that I have always felt was true, which is “All you have to do is show up. All you have to do is get to your studio and put a broom in your hand. Just by the act of sweeping and cleaning you will start working.”

Amy Sillman: I never clean my studio. I’m sure my work would be better if I would. Again, I wish that somebody could come over and help me, but I would have to tell them where everything is, every single thing. I can’t explain it to anyone. . . Once in a while I go around with a huge garbage bag and pretty much throw everything away. . .

Eric Fischl, Bedroom Scene #6 (Surviving the Fall Meant Using You for Handholds)2004
Oil on linen, 72″ x 90″
(Mary Boone Gallery)

Do you have a motto or creed that as an artist you live by?

Bill Jensen: . . . Artists are people who go in a room everyday, let the art drag them a little further, and then sitting back twenty years later say, “How did I get here?” You’ve made this whole other world. You know, there was no idea of what heaven and hell used to look like. Artists made the idea of what heaven and hell looked like. We have the same kind of job today. We’re making these worlds that no one ever dreamed of, yet they are very real. They come from reality.

Chuck Close:  Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work. . .

Julie Mehretu: To take care of my work as best I can. . . you know, really put everything into my work, and the work would return that to me. . .

Jane Hammond, Some Species Like It Hot, 2002
Oil on wood panel, 52 1/2” x 89 “ x 6”

What advice would you give a young artist who’s just starting out?

James Siena: . . . Don’t go knocking on Willem de Kooning’s back door saying “Can you look at my work?” He’s busy!

Bill Jensen: . . . You have to spend the time and pack as much energy into the work, and it will over flow into the world.

Malcolm Morley:  . . . (A) young composer asked Mozart for advice on what he though he should write: whether he should write a saraband, a suite, a romance, a symphony, etcetera. So Mozart looked at him and said, “Well, in your case I’d write a waltz.” So the young composer was very sort of angry. And he said, “But Mozart! At the age of ten you wrote a symphony.” And Mozart replied, “Yes, but I didn’t have to ask anybody’s advice.” So any artist or student that asks advice is already a failure in my view.’

Joan Snyder: My secret is. . . well, it’s not a secret that I have never hung out too much, and I’ve just worked very, very hard for thirty-five years. It’s just a lot of hard work. That’s my secret—it’s a big secret (laughs). . .

Joe Fig, Jackson Pollock, 2008
Wood, polymer clay, oil/acrylic paint, metal, plastic, paper, canvas
(Byron C. Cohen Gallery for Contemporary Art)

Wider Connections

Joe Fig—Inside the Painter’s Studio

Anna Atkins, Mistress of Blueprint Manor

Posted in Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography, Science with tags , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

The difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects as minute as many of the Algae and Confera, has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel’s beautiful process of Cyanotype, to obtain impressions of the plants themselves, which I have much pleasure in offering to my botanical friends.
—Anna Atkins, October 1843

Anna Atkins, Alaria esculenta (from British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions),  1843-53
Cyanotype
(New York Public Library)

In August 1839 at the meeting of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris Louis Daguerre debuted his eponymous photographic process. To the French public of that time, his “drawing by light” method was nothing short of miraculous; as if by magic, a singular image appeared on a chemically-prepared copper plate after its exposure to light in a camera.

Daguerre’s announcement dealt William Henry Fox Talbot a severe personal blow, for Talbot had discovered his own way to burn photographic images on to paper as a result of  experimentations begun in 1833.

Louis Daguerre, Arrangement of Fossil Shells, 1837-39
Daguerreotype
(Musée des arts et métiers, Paris)

Talbot would often bypass the camera by simply laying objects on top of the paper and exposing it to sunlight. The first exposure of these “photogenic drawings” (or “photograms” as they known today) resulted in a negative image, so Talbot simply laid the paper negative over a new sheet of sensitized paper to produce the corresponding positive image.

William Henry Fox Talbot, Leaf, ca 1840
Photogenic drawing
(©The Estate of William Henry Fox Talbot)

Unlike Daguerre, Talbot had kept his discoveries largely private.” Although the announcement forced Talbot to make his findings public through patent application, nonetheless, the Frenchman secured a place in history as “the father of photography.”  Ironically, it was Talbot’s wet-chemical, paper-based process that would create the basic framework for all subsequent photography until the digital age.

Despite initial disappointment, Talbot would have his own victory. His dream that photography allow “every man to be his own printer and publisher” was realized through Anna Atkins’s publication of the 12-part British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, the first book be illustrated by the photographic medium. The work proved that an individual could print near-perfect reproductions, while preserving precise details of the subject matter.

Anna Atkins, Chordaria flagelliformis
(from British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions),  1843-53
Cyanotype
(New York Public Library)

In many ways Anna Atkins (1799-1871) was typical of a certain early Victorian gentlewomen. In an era when refined women like Atkins were not encouraged to participate professionally in science, they nonetheless became skillful amateur helpmates of their fathers, husbands or other male friends. Attitudes toward the seashore were changing greatly—the notion of the ocean’s edge as a territory marked by piracy, smuggling and wreckage was beginning to disappear and the concept of  the “beach,” a recreational area populated by the leisure-seeking masses, was still decades away. Though Darwin had yet to publish his Origin of Species (1859), public interest in natural world was high. Marine debris was a source of curiosity. As botany was the one science in which it was permissible for women to involve themselves, many, like Anna Atkins, spent hours at the seashore collecting specimens, not just for their scientific value but as aesthetic and collectibles objects.

Unknown Photographer, Anna Atkins,1861
Albumen print

Atkins was a knowledgeable amateur botanist and superb botanical illustrator to boot. She was enthusiastically supported by her widower father, John George Children, who was, among other things, Keeper of the Department of Natural History Modern Curiosities at the British Museum. Thus, Atkins had extraordinary access to botanical knowledge of the day. By the late 1830s, she had already illustrated her father’s translation of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s Genera of Shells. At his urging, she set out to provide the visual companion to William Harvey’s pioneering but un-illustrated 1841 Manual of British Algae. It was not for lack of drawing ability that she turned to photographic processes in this effort.

Anna Atkins, Equisetum sylvaticum
from Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns, 1853
Cyanotype

Atkins’ father chaired the Royal Society meeting at which Talbot first disclosed the details of his “photogenic drawing.” Subsequently Atkins and her father received many tutorials on the method. Thus, it would have been only natural that she employ Talbot’s approach (if not his actual method) on her project; after all, arranging specimens on sheets of glass and letting the interaction of light and chemistry do the rest would have been far less time consuming than hand drawing the 400 plates.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Sir John Herschel with Cap, 1867.
Cameron considered Herschel “my first Teacher.”

Atkins’ neighbor in Kent, Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), greatly influenced the project. Herschel, the only son of the distinguished British astronomer William Herschel, was a well-known astronomer in his own right. By the time of Daguerre’s announcement, he too had been independently experimenting with various photographic processes for several years.

Sir John Herschel, Lady with a Harp, 1842
Cyanotype
(Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford)

Herschel had met Talbot a decade previously. With Daguerre’s discovery Sir John suggested Talbot come to his estate to view the latter’s own photographic discoveries.  Herschel ended up making many contributions to the emerging medium, the most important of which was something Talbot probably saw on the day he visited: the use of sodium thiosulfate  or “hyposulphite of soda” (“hypo” for short) to permanently “fix” (i.e. stabilize) photographs.  (Later, Herschel would be the first to coin the terms “positive,” “negative,” “snap-shot” and  to regularly use “photograph” to describe the prints.)

Anna Atkins, Himanthalia lorea
(from British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions),  1843-53
Cyanotype

Perhaps the astronomer’s most influential discovery occurred in late 1842, when he realized that, when exposed to UV light (i.e. sun) a paper soaked a with a complex iron salt solution durably captured a blue “negative” image, once the salts had been rinsed away. For obvious reasons, Herschel named these prints Cyanotypes, or more colloquially, blueprints.

Anna Atkins, Papaver orientale
(from Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns, 1854-1861
Cyanotype
(Victoria & Albert Museum)

Ironically, Herschel had little interest in producing images; he was more engaged with understanding the nature of light. His neighbor Anna Atkins, on the other hand, put his process to good use. She made 13 known versions of British Algae and, following its completion, went on to produce two other volumes—British and Foreign Ferns and, in conjunction with Anna Austen Dixon (relative of writer Jane), British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns. She was responsible for thousands of Cyanotypes.

Anna Atkins, Anatomized Leaves
(
from Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns), 1854-1861
Cyanotype

Atkins’ previous work reveals an illustrator driven more by artistic than scientific considerations. She may have chosen to use the Cyanotype process because its ethereal blue prints perfectly suggested the watery depths in which her algae specimens had lived.  It’s equally likely, given prevailing sentiments about nature,  that in the “photogenic” process Atkins found the truest way to replicate a plant just as nature had made it, edges, wrinkles and folds perfectly rendered. Her blue prints—taken from the plants themselves—were in a sense, the purest botanical drawings, drawn not by the hand of wo/man, but by light under the direction of nature.

Anna Atkins, Titlepage of British Ferns, ca. 1852
Cyanotype
(Victoria & Albert Museum)

Wider Connections

Alternative Photographysource for alternative photographic processes
Geoffrey Batchen—William Henry Fox Talbot
“In the Darkroom: Photographic Processes Before the Digital Age”—r
eview of National Gallery exhibition
Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860

Monkey Business: The Paintings of Ferdinand van Kessel

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, Painting with tags , , , , , , on May 4, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Ferdinand van Kessel, Monkey’s Feast

Ferdinand van Kessel’s (1648-1696) humorous and engaging monkey paintings feature many types of monkeys and apes indulging in various human activities. Like other painters of the 17th century, van Kessel was very interested in the natural sciences and painted all kinds of specimens and wildlife very much in the cabinet of curiosities style. The monkey paintings are a hybrid of his natural history and allegorical work.

Ferdinand van Kessel, Landscape with Birds, 1681
Oil on copperplate
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

In the history of western art, monkeys have appeared in several different guises. Earlier on, monkeys were often depicted chained or tethered—representing man trapped by his senses and earthly desires. Monkeys were also often depicted eating an apple, symbolizing man’s fall from grace. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as interest in natural history grew, monkeys in art were no longer symbols of sin and enslavement, but mimics of the foolish behavior of humans. It is only in some of the great natural history illustrations of the 19th century, that monkeys, drawn in their natural habitats, are depicted with autonomy, respect and dignity–although it is still very rare that human characteristics and expressions are not attributed to them.

Albrecht Dürer, Virgin and Child with Monkey, c. 1498
Copperplate engraving
The British Museum

18th century engraving from a painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625)
Courtauld Institute, London

Frans Francken and David Teniers, The Interior of a Picture Gallery, c. 1615-50
Oil on panel
Courtauld Institute, London

There is not much information available about Ferdinand van Kessel. All that I’ve really been able to determine is that he is the son of the great Jan van Kessel of Antwerp, and thus a part of the extended van Kessel/Brueghel family that produced so many great artists.

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

Circle of Jan van Kessel, Study of Birds and Monkeys, c. 1660-1670
Oil on copper
National Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Ferdinand’s father, Jan van Kessel (1626-1679), was the grandson of Jan Brueghel, and largely continued in his tradition, painting still-lifes of flowers, insects and animals. Jan van Kessel also painted allegorical works depicting animals, the four elements and the senses. Accuracy was very important to him—he worked both from nature and scientific texts. Jan van Kessel worked mostly in oil on copper—his paintings are small-scale gems, intensely colored and filled with meticulous detail.

Jan van Kessel was very influenced by the scientific naturalism of Joris Hoefnagel (1542-1600), particularly his studies of flowers and insects. A folio of fifty-two of Hoefnagel’s engravings, Archetypa studiaque patris Georgii Hoefnagelii, based on his father Georg’s watercolor paintings, was published in Frankfurt in 1592.

Joris Hoefnagel, detail of frontispiece from Archetypa studiaque patris Georgii Hoefnagelii

Jan van Kessel, A Cockchafer, Beetle, Woodlice and other Insects, with a Sprig of Auricula, c. 1650s
Oil on copper
The Ashmolean, Oxford

Here are three more of Ferdinand van Kessel’s monkey paintings. I wasn’t able to find out where they are located, so I’ll assume for now that they are in private collections. I’d love to know more about them, if anyone has information, please join the conversation.

Ferdinand van Kessel, The Painting Monkey

Ferdinand van Kessel, Apes Celebrating in the Kitchen

Ferdinand van Kessel, A Monkey Smoking and Drinking with an Owl

In the future, Venetian Red will do a second installment about primates in art, discussing the work of Chardin, Watteau and others—leading up to the multitude of monkey paintings as social commentary in the age of Darwin.

“Some Source of Elixir”: Leonard Baskin’s Artist Portraits

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Printmaking with tags , , , , , , on May 1, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Leonard Baskin, Wiliam Blake, 1962
Etching, 45 x 37.5 cm

VR’s recent post on “The Beautiful Vagabonds: Birds in Art” prompted my renewed interest in Leonard Baskin. Those crows were just the tip of the iceberg!

Leonard Baskin, Edvard Munch, 1964
Etching, 30 x 45 cm

Baskin (1922-2000) first came into public view in 1952 as a printmaker. His creative expression was deeply influenced by rabinical training, a creative kinship with William Blake, and Gothic and early Renaissance art. Given these, perhaps it was inevitable that he would stake out a territory in his art very much in opposition to the reigning style of the time, Abstract Expressionism. And though Baskin went on to become a reknown sculptor, his stark black and white prints remain for me most emblematic of his distinctive legacy.

Leonard Baskin, Thomas Eakins, 1964
Etching, 45 x 33.5 cm

Baskin’s prints call forth a figurative world filled with introspection and brooding, with pain, transformation and, ultimately redemption. Even his choice of medium was ruled by this cosmos, for prints are made by incising a wound upon the block or plate. Baskin evoked the commonality of our suffering in endless ways, even through the most benign of subject matter.

Leonard Baskin, Gericault, 1969
Etching, 42.5 x 35 cm

Leonard Baskin, Mathias Grünewald, 1969
Etching, 45 x 37.5 cm

His close friend, poet Ted Hughes, is particularly eloquent on the subject:

This startling, sinister beauty, characteristic of all his works, cannot easily be called “content.” Yet it is something more than style, something other than the masterful technical expertise that gives his image the foot-poundage of its striking power and penetration. The subject matter of his image may shock us, and his phenomenal technique may overpower us, but this other thing does not attack in any way. It summons us very quietly. But more and more strongly. In the end it makes us seek his work out as if we needed it, and makes us cherish it, as some source of elixir, long after more documentary or photographic evidence of “our common suffering” has become a sad blur.

—Ted Hughes, “The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly,” (from The Complete Prints of Leonard Baskin: A Catalogue Raisonne 1948-1983)

Leonard Baskin, Self Portrait, 1951
Woodcut, 52.4 x 46.5 cm

Wider Connections

Baskin biography

Cornell University—Artifex: Leonard Baskin and the Gehanna Press
Smith College—“Leonard Baskin’s Images of Woman”

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