Archive for the Book Review Category

VR Bookshelf: Eric Fischl’s Bad Boy

Posted in Artists Speak, Book Review, Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , on December 17, 2013 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2013. All Rights Reserved

Working toward that moment—what painters call the frozen moment—led me to a new way of narrative painting. Painting is about trying to get to that instant that is pregnant with some special kind of energy. Done right, there’s an exquisite tension in the painting that comes from a precise set of relationships—between forms on an abstract level and between people on an image level. Finding where to arrest the action, where to stop time, is where artistry lives. The most dramatic moments are the moments just before or just after something happens. The viewer entering the scene at those moments rushes to complete the narrative with his or her own associations and feelings.

—Eric Fischl, Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas

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I remember when Eric Fischl first burst on the New York art scene at Mary Boone’s gallery in the early 80s. It was shortly after Julian Schnabel debuted his gimmicky broken plate paintings, which demonstrated the kind of vice grip conceptual art and non-traditional materials had on the art world at the time. By the early 80s plenty of pundits had arrogantly proclaimed painting “dead.” As if!

True, abstract painters—Bryce Marden and Elizabeth Murray come to mind—steadfastly carried a dim torch through those dark years. If the body abstract painting was anemic, the corpse of narrative painting was buried in a tightly sealed crypt, its coffin nailed by pretty much every modern art movement since Impressionism.

In 1982, it was hard to tell whether Fischl’s was a refreshing jolt of energy to the increasingly abstruse art world or just recklessly inane.

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Eric Fischl—Bad Boy, 1981
Oil on cavas, 66″ by 96″
(courtesy Mary Boone Gallery)

You know how this story plays out. Fischl stuck with his vision. Reports of painting’s demise were greatly exaggerated. During the last two decades of the 20th century, painting resurfaced with a vengeance. Resuscitated by painters like Fischl, Odd Nerdrum, Jack Beal, Alfred Leslie and others, narrative painting has been awakened from its century-long sleep.

Both memoir and manifesto, Bad Boy is a riveting read.  We know the end of the story, but getting there is fun reading. Fischl knows his share of celebrities and luminaries and many of them have contributed their own memories of the artist to the book. Everyone loves a snipe or two and Fischl proves he is not beyond snarky remarks, though not enough of them to make the book a dreary gripe.  I suppose all memoirists must “Povich-ize.”

While the memoir bits were engaging, I devoured the passages in Bad Boy devoted to the painting process and Fischl’s artistic philosophy.

In particular, this passage describing the magic that is artistic “brilliance”:

To translate vision artist uses materials that are, for lack of a better word, alchemical. Paint, for example, has this wonderful, mysterious quality—a smell and a sensuous, velvety feel an inability to hold color and light long—that  unlocks and speeds up one’s creative metabolism. Paint captures my every impulse—from my broadest conceptions to the tiniest text and tremors of my wrist.

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Eric Fischl—The Bed, The Chair, the Sitter,1999
Oil on linen, 78 x 93″

Not every image comes to life. In fact, very few do. Often my resistance is too strong. I grip my brush too tightly. Or risk too much. But then there have been those moments when I’ve felt as if I’ve broken through. Like when I made the violent swipe of white primer in the “Bed” painting. Or realized that the action in sleepwalker was taking place at night. Or that the 11 year old in Bad Boy was stealing from the woman’s purse. These moments are not the result of genius for any kind of rational intelligence. They’re more like flashes of epiphany, a desperate surrender to voices from within, usually after I’ve exhausted every other option.

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Eric Fischl—Tumbling Woman, 2002 Bronze. 37 x 74 x 50"

Eric Fischl—Tumbling Woman, 2002
Bronze. 37 x 74 x 50″

And, if I had a dollar for every artist who claims what Fischl refutes here, well then…

…The notion that artists make art only for themselves I reject totally. It is kind of bullshit an artist tells himself when he is in his studio alone. Of course he wants to see himself in his own work, but that is not what he hopes will be the end result. He is looking for other people who will see their selves in his work. Artist create art because they are seeking resonance for their thoughts and feelings. They are seeking connection. Any artist who tells you otherwise also believes that and an astronaut goes to the moon only to satisfy his own curiosity…

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Eric Fischl, Corrida in Ronda #3, 2008 Oil on canvas, 78 x 120" © Eric Fischl
Eric Fischl, Corrida in Ronda #3, 2008
Oil on canvas, 78 x 120″
© Eric Fischl

Fischl occasionally ascends to macro heights in Bad Boy:

The further art got away from the tradition of telling and retelling our dreams, reinvigorating our understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to us to be alive, the more it relinquished its central primacy in the culture. As artists focused on their own uniqueness, either as an idealization or as an existential tragedy, the language of art became more and more arcane, more private, and now can no longer claim to serve society the way it once did. Art is cultural glue. It binds us to each other by revealing what it is we share, what we have in common on the most intimate levels of our being. But in order for art to work, an audience has to be able to see themselves represented in the artist’s creation…

And every once in a while to the stratospher. This passage sounds absurdly grandiose out of context, but trust me, it works:

To rehabilitate the importance of the body in art, we have to come to terms with sex and with death. We have to come to terms with mortality, with how the body ages, with how are relationship to our needs and our fantasies in our dreams changes, with how our body deteriorates. We have to figure out what it means to die.

The Rabbit Hole
Here’s The Thing: Alec Baldwin interviews Eric Fischl
Dive Deep: Eric Fischl and the Process of Painting;
Eric Fischl: 1970-2000

Continuous narrative works—Trajan’s Column; Bayeaux Tapestry
Paul Barolsky—“There is No Such Thing as Narrative Art”
James Elkins—“Time & Narrative”
An Illustrated Dictionary of Narrative Painting

Hyperallergic: Painting on the Cusp (Abstraction in the 1980s)

Venetian Red Bookshelf: Unpublished Diebenkorn

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Book Review, Contemporary Art, Drawing, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , on July 30, 2013 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2013. All Rights Reserved

Editor’s Note: See our companion piece,“Rambling Through Diebenkorn Country”

There is nothing I cannot paint over. —Richard Diebenkorn (from Temperaments: Artists Facing Their Work)

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Richard Diebenkorn,Untitled #23,1981 Gouache and crayon on paper © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn,Untitled #23,1981
Gouache and crayon on paper
© The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

For many reasons works on paper can offer a more intimate viewing experience than their cousins on canvas. This is partially due to the fugitive nature of drawing materials—handmade papers, graphite, charcoal, gouache—which often keep works on paper in storage. When they are displayed, their relatively smaller sizes and their display under glass, compel the viewer to lean in to works on paper, thereby creating an exclusive relationship that shuts out the distractions of the world beyond. Further, an artist often works out his or her ideas on paper before moving to more expensive canvas. Many works on paper were never meant by the artist be seen publicly. But when they do see the light of day, collections of this kind of work can provide an exhilarating peek behind the curtain of the creative process.

Such was the case for me at the current retrospective of Diebenkorn’s Berkeley years at the de Young.

Now I have even more reasons to be cheerful, where Diebenkorn’s process is concerned. A writer friend recently sent me two exquisite visual monographs on the painter—Abstractions on Paper and From the Model. newly published by Kelly’s Cover Press. to accompany the exhibit “The Intimate Diebenkorn: Works on Paper, 1949-1992,” which opens in September at the College of Marin Fine Arts Gallery.

What’s immediately notable about these volumes is they contain largely unpublished work, “unknown” Diebenkorns, all works on paper.

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Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1957 Gouache on paper © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1957
Gouache on paper
© The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

The format of these volumes is a refreshingly departure from the expected catalog of artistic work. At 6 x 8″ and around 125 pages, each of these volumes can be held in the hand, put into a pocket for easy transport, pulled out to consult. Like the works on paper they reproduce these books offer an intimate and spontaneous experience.

The production value of these volumes is indistinguishable from a first-rate catalog, i.e. ample page-sized reproductions with great detail, good color veracity, coated paper stock. What a pleasure it is to have something such a beautiful book in your hand (and not anchored on a bookshelf or table)!

Kelly’s Cove Press has broken with another time-honored art publication tradition. Other than a few quotes from Diebenkorn and a biography, these volumes contain no commentary. We are free to form our own interpretations of the work, unencumbered by the flights of grandiose and sometimes tedious rhetoric that often accompany exhibit catalogs.

The volumes were conceived by editor Bart Schneider with the help of Bay Area painter Chester Arnold. I had occasion recently to discuss the project with Schneider.

VR: How did this project originate?

I’ve long been a Diebenkorn fan and in the 90s, I chose one of his paintings Large Still Life, 1966, which is featured prominently in the De Young show, for the cover of a magazine I then edited, Hungry Mind Review.

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Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1956 Gouache and ink on paper mounted on cardboard © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1956
Gouache and ink on paper mounted on cardboard
© The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

I happily blundered onto the treasures held by the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation, when I approached them last year about using some of his figure drawings for a book we published last fall, Poses, by Genine Lentine. When I learned that roughly 4,000 of the 5,000 known works by RD were on paper, I approached the foundation about doing a book of his works on paper in advance of the show at the De Young. Once I saw the vastness and glory of the Foundation’s collection, I realized it needed to be two books.

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1962 Graphite on paper © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1962
Graphite on paper
© The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

VR: Why this particular format?

My goal is to make a more casual style art book, with which viewers can have a more intimate experience of the artist’s work. That means small books you hold easily in your hands, or take to bed with you. Also, I like the idea of having very little text to mediate the direct experience between artist and viewer. And if you can make the books so they only cost $20, you have a chance of getting them into a lot of people’s hands. I’d like people who pick up these volumes to have the experience of walking into a gallery and discovering work they didn’t know.

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Richard Diebenkorn,  Untitled, c. 1988-92 Charcoal on handmade "Hawthorne of Larroque" paper © The RIchard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, c. 1988-92
Charcoal on handmade “Hawthorne of Larroque” paper
© The RIchard Diebenkorn Foundation

VR: What’s next from Kelly’s Cove Press?

I enjoy exploring the interplay between literature and art. Those kinds of collaborations are surprisingly rare in publishing. At present, I’m working with Squeak Carnwath on a book that should come out in the fall, Horizon on Fire: Works on Paper, 1979-2013. I’m also working on a Jack London book with William Wiley, for which Wiley’s done 19 original drawings and watercolors.

At $20 a piece, it would be a shame not to own these lovely volumes.

The Rabbit Hole

Squeek Carnath on the creative process

Tate Debate: Do you need to know an artist’s process when looking at art?

Smithsonian magazine—Q&A with William Wiley

Brewster Ghiselin—The Creative Process: Reflections on the Invention in the Arts and Sciences

Venetian Red Bookshelf: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

Posted in Artists Speak, Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Music & Dance with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2013 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2013. All Rights Reserved

Recollect that only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting fields of action—and consequently accumulate grain on grain of wilful choice like a very miser—never forgetting how one link dropped undoes indefinite number.   —William James

I wish I had a routine for writing. I get up in the morning and I go out to my studio and write. And then I tear it up! That’s the routine really. And then, occasionally, something sticks. The only image I can think of is a man walking around with an iron rod in his hand during a lightning storm.   —Arthur Miller

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0307273601?ie=UTF8&camp=213733&creative=393185&creativeASIN=0307273601&linkCode=shr&tag=venered-20&=books&qid=1371354568&sr=1-1&keywords=daily+rituals

Always struggling to create working discipline in my creative life, I snatched up Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals, hoping to glean a few actionable tidbits this compilation of anecdotes on the working habits of 161 writers, musicians and artists, from Voltaire to Abramović.  Culled from Curry’s blog of the name, the book is a fast and entertaining read.  Though I wasn’t struck by proverbial lightening bolts while reading, after digesting the book I did formulate one hugely-important overriding maxim for myself.  More about that below.

A disclaimer in the book’s introduction sets a modest stage:

“…this is a superficial book… it’s about the circumstances of creative activity, not the product; it deals with manufacturing rather than meaning.”

I suspect the book has been wildly popular precisely because it looks behind the curtain, so to speak, of the creative process.  Not exactly a “how to” book, Daily Rituals is nevertheless instructive.  In the introduction Curry purports to address (if not answer) the big hairy questions we all ponder:

How do you do meaningful creative work while also earning a living?

Is it better to devote yourself wholly to a project or to set aside a small portion of each day?

When there doesn’t seem to be enough time for all you hope to accomplish, must you give some things up or can you learn to condense activities, to work “smarter”?

Are comfort and creativity incompatible? Or is finding a basic level of daily comfort a prerequisite for sustained creative work?

yousuf-karsh-vladimir-nabokov-1899-1977-3-november-1972

Vladimir Nabokov
©Yousuf Karsh

The book is not organized around these questions (in fact, an organizing principle was not obvious to me), and leaves the reader to his or her own conclusions. Helpful patterns do emerge, however:

Wake Up.  Creatives rise around the clock.  At one end, rose Proust typically did not get up until 3 or 4 in the afternoon; on the other end,
Balzac rose at 1am.

Work Routine. This category too yielded no regularity.  As a visual artist, I was astonished (jealous?) to discover how few hours most of the writers purport to work day, usually just a few hours before noon. Many set word limits for themselves and then, working day completed, went on to the other parts of their lives. (To be fair, many writers held/hold down paying jobs—Trollope, Cornell, Eliot, Joyce.) Some, like Simon de Beauvoir did, work in two shifts, adding an after dinner session to the morning routine. Philip Roth reports all-day work. Conversely, Gertrude Stein habitually wrote only 30 minutes a day. Descartes believed idleness was essential to good mental work.  Henry Miller had to switch routines midway through life, realizing that he was a morning person. Francis Bacon’s routine was chaos. One look at his studio, faithfully reproduced in The Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, tells you all you need to know.

Bed. A big part of the routine, especially for writers… Proust wrote exclusively in bed, his head propped up by two pillows. Truman Capote always wrote “horizontally.” I particularly relish the image conjured up by James Joyce’s sister of the writer in bed”smothered in his own thoughts.”

Cecil Beaton, Dame Edith Sitwell, 1962 Bromide Print on card mount Courtesy National Gallery

Cecil Beaton, Dame Edith Sitwell, 1962
Bromide print on card mount
Courtesy National Gallery

Edith Sitwell, who was reputed to have slept in a coffin from time to time (one would have thought that would be Anne Rice’s territory…), also enjoyed her bed.  “All women should have a day a week in bed,”  she quipped. At the end of one particularly long day working in bed, she observed:  “I am honestly so tired that all I can do is lie on my bed with my mouth open.”

Although Frida Kahlo is not included in this book, one is reminded of her lengthy and involuntary stays in bed. So driven to work, she rigged ingenious set ups , which allowed her to paint while nearly immobilized.

Food. For breakfast, coffee or tea, toast and, more often than not, cigarettes. It seems that hardly anyone in the book skipped breakfast or at least the first meal of the day. (Possibly the advice imparted by a recent graduation speaker—”Never start something new on an empty stomach”—is already common wisdom among creatives.)  Lunch and dinner are also recorded, mostly as social events with family or friends.

Stimulants. Daily Rituals offers irrefutable confirmation that creatives consume copious amounts of alcohol, occasionally while working. (Or used to, at any rate. Maybe that has all changed in today’s health-conscious world.)  Francis Bacon was legendary, living a life of “hedonistic excess, eating many rich meals a day, drinking tremendous quantities of alcohol, taking whatever stimulants were handy, and generally staying out later and partying harder than any of his contemporaries.”

John Deakin, Francis Bacon. 1962

John Deakin Francis Bacon,1962
© The Estate of John Deakin

Patricia Highsmithalways downed a stiff drink before starting work, in order to calm her manic energy level. Toulouse-Lautrec was well-known for his nights of binge drinking. That routine probably cost him his life—he died at 36.

Smoking. Many many cigarettes of course, but also cigars (Georges Sand famously; Thomas Mann, continuously), and some pipes.  Bathus had a most evocative description of the uses of smoking:

“I’ve always painted while smoking. I am reminded of this habit in photographs from my youth. I intuitively understood that smoking double my faculty of concentration, allowing me to be entirely within a canvas.”

Other habits & diversions:  Creative people spend lots and lots of walking. (A body in motion is a powerful ideation tool.) And working at regular income jobs. On the subject of breaks, composer John Adams sensibly says: “The problem is that you do get run out of creative energy and sometimes you want to take a mental break.”

And indulge in your guilty pleasures! PG Wodehouse reportedly never missed an episode of “The Edge of Night” afternoon soap opera.

Henri Matisse at work Photograph © Alvin Langdon Coburn, courtesy Getty Images

Henri Matisse at work
© Alvin Langdon Coburn, courtesy Getty Images

On the pain and joy of the craft. Writers compete for superlatives on the distress of working. Philip Roth: “Writing isn’t hard work, it’s a nightmare.”  Styron similarly complains: “Let’s face it, writing is hell.” Ira Gershwin observed of his brother, George: “To me George was a little sad all the time because he had this compulsion to work. He never relaxed.”

On the other hand, joyful work be yours, if you happen to be a creative Gustave. The Austrian Mahler:  “You know that all I desire and demand of life is to feel an urge to work!” The French Flaubert quipped: ” After all, work is still the best way of escaping from life!”

Among visual artists, Matisse was perhaps the most relentless worker, even telling “all sorts of tales” to get his models to work on Sundays.  “I can’t sacrifice my Sundays for them just because they have boyfriends.” Matisse had the great fortune to basically enjoy everything. “I am never bored,” he often admitted.

Chuck Close, Self Portrait,  2006

Chuck Close, Self Portrait, 2006

I’m not sure Daily Rituals provides overt answers to the big questions Curry poses at the onset.  In the aggregate, its overwhelming message is that creative work, like all work, is often just relentless grind.  One has to find the ways to muscle through. On a personal note, I try to live by Chuck Close’s well-known adage: ” Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” Amidst our creative toil, who among us has not at times felt Kafka’s lament: “Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.”

If the 161 anecdotes in Daily Rituals offer any collective wisdom, it is that there is no one way to achieve regular production.  That’s permission to engage in whatever habits work best for one’s own creative process, as long as the habit is regular.  In a 2005 NY Times article, Michael Kimmelman noted: “Out of routine comes inspiration. That’s the idea, anyway. To grasp what’s exceptional, you first have to know what’s routine.”

Find a process and trust it.

The Rabbit Hole

Twyla Tharpe—The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life
More Artist Routines—How We Work
John Deakin: Photographs
Eric Fishl—Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas
NY Foundation for the Arts—”Ten Habits of Successful Artists

Venetian Red Bookshelf: Headlong

Posted in Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2011 by Liz Hager

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

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2013. All Rights Reserved

There are some paintings in the history of art that break free, just as some human beings do, from the confines of the particular little world into which they were born. They leave home—they escape from the tradition in which they were formed, and which seem at first to give them significance. They step out of their own time and place, and find some kind of universal and enduring fame. They become part of the common currency of names and images and stories that a whole culture takes for granted.   —Michael Frayn, Headlong, p. 53

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters, 1565
Oil on wood, 45 7/8 x 62 7/8 inches
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Who says art history has to be boring?

I recently reread Michael Frayn’s contribution to the artwork in fiction genre, Headlong (1999), curious to revisit what I had remembered as a thoroughly engaging tale of the easily distracted and ethically challenged philosopher, who convinces himself that he has discovered a “lost” Bruegel.  I’m happy to report that the novel is every bit as fun the second time around.

Headlong pits the distinctly unheroic Martin Clay against his aristocratic neighbor. Residing temporarily in the country to work on a long-delayed book, Clay and his wife are invited to dine with Tony Churt, the penurious squire next door. In the process of opining on a few of Churt’s Baroque paintings, Clay views a grimy canvas stored behind the breakfast room firescreen of the tattered estate.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Haymaking, 1565
Oil on wood, 28 x 39 inches
(National Gallery, Prague)

It’s a thrilling moment. Readers familiar with Bruegel especially will appreciate Clay’s description—

The high air is still cold, but as you move down into the valley the chill dies away. The colors change, from cool brilliant greens to deeper and deeper blues. The season seems to shift in front of you from April into May as you travel south into the eye of the sun. Among the trees just below me is a group of clumsy figures, some of them breaking branches of white blossom from the trees, some caught awkwardly in the middle of a heavy clumping dance. A bagpiper sits on a stump; you can almost hear the harsh pentatonic drone. People are dancing because it’s spring again and they’re alive to see it.  (Headlong p.39)

Though an admitted hack when it comes to art history, Clay nonetheless pompously declares (to himself and to us, though not to the picture’s owner): “I recognize it instantly.” In the next second, he qualifies: “I say I recognize it. I’ve never seen it before. I’ve never seen even a description of it. No description of it, so far as I know, has ever been given. No one knows for sure who, if anyone apart from the artist himself, has ever seen it.” (Headlong p.40)

One minute Clay acknowledges that he is “way out of his period with this one” and in the next he manages (in flowery abandon) to persuade himself of the painting’s authenticity:  “Already, even as I look at it in those first few instants, what I’m contemplating is not the picture but my accumulated recollection of it. . . All the same I know. It’s a friend, No, it’s the long-lost brother of a friend. A long-mourned child walking back into our lives the way the dead do in our dreams.” (Headlong p.40)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Return of the Herd, 1565
Oil on wood, 26 in × 62½ in
(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Delusions of grandeur sweep over Clay. He imagines himself as the cultural commando who will rescue this public treasure from private obscurity. Fame and fortune are not far behind in his thoughts.

I feel a flash of pure savagery. I’m going to have his property off him. He can’t make good his claim to it. It’s written in a language he can’t read, because the only language he can read in his necessity is money. If he knew what it was, he’d hold the world to ransom. And if the ransom wasn’t forthcoming, he’d sell it to any money that presented itself—to a Swiss bank, an American investment trust, a Japanese gangster. It would vanish even deeper into the darkness, even further from the light of common day. . .

. . . So I’m going to have it off him. I’m not going to do it by deceit. I’m not going to stoop to the kind of methods he might use himself. I’m going to do it by boldness and skill, in full accordance with the rules of war. —Headlong, p. 44-45

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Gloomy Day, 1565
Oil on wood, 46½ in × 64⅛ inches
(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

With the stage thus set, the remaining 290-odd pages present a pyrotechnic extravaganza of storytelling. The elaborate scheme Clay conceives unfolds.  Though a reader will realize early on (spoiler alert!) that this scheme can only end in failure, he or she will be gripped by the twists and turns of the plot until the denouement.

Success of Clay’s scheme depends on authentication of the painting. Equal in skill to the plot manouevering is the deftness with which Clay/Frayn, though painstaking research, fashions a highly readable and engaging tour through the critical canon on Bruegel’s life and works (and politics), 16th-century Nederlandish art, and the Spanish subjugation of their Dutch and Flemish lands.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Hunters in the Snow (Return of the Hunters), 1565
Oil on wood,
(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Turns out, the canvas of Headlong is based on a real painting, one missing from Bruegel’s only surviving cycle of paintings, commonly known as The Seasons. The six paintings of the cycle were completed in 1565 for a wealthy Antwerp merchant,  Niclaes Jongelinck.  By 1659, the set had been broken up and one was already missing. Five in the set survive —e.g. Gloomy Day, Return of the Herd, Hunters in the Snow, Haymaking, and The Harvesters.

The novel closes with an astute observation that could well apply to scores of other works of art:

And what happened to the pictures themselves, those six historyless panels painted as the torrents of history swept around the studio door in 1565? They were swept headlong into the current like everything else, and tumbled into the world’s changing politics. —Headlong p. 305

The Rabbit Hole

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Wine of St. Martin’s Day, ca. 1565
Glue-sized tempera on linen, 148 x 270.5 cm
(Museo Nacional del Prado)

Simultaneously with my plunge into Frayn’s fictitious world The New York Times published “When Overlooked Art Turns Celebrity,” Michael Kimmelman’s musings on the very real The Wine of St. Martin’s Day, the new-attributed Bruegel rescued last Fall by the Prado from the “proverbial dark corner” of an ancient family’s collection in Córdoba.

Ian Buchanan—“The Collection of Niclaes Jongelinck: The Months by Pieter Bruegel”

W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” (“About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters. . .”)

A short list of art and artists in fiction: Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth; Irving Stone’s Lust for Life and  The Agony and the Ecstasy; Tracy Chavalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring; and (gasp) Dan Stone’s The Da Vinci Code.

Venetian Red Bookshelf: A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book

Posted in Book Review, Ceramics, Christine Cariati, Design, Fine & Decorative Arts, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

A. S. Byatt‘s The Children’s Book is a complex tapestry of a book. It begins in 1895 and ends during the Great War. It is woven through with sensuous descriptions of textiles, pottery glazes, art, clothing and sexual longing, as well as musings on what it is to be an artist or a writer.

As usual, Byatt’s writing is erudite, some would say to a fault. The Children’s Book is unrepentantly intellectual, filled with long, complex digressions on art and nature—and it basks, unashamedly, in the life of ideas. In The Children’s Book, Byatt mines all of her interests—history and natural history, the visual arts, literature, fairy tales, the decorative arts—and weaves them together in an epic tale of two generations of several artistic families (including nearly 20 children) who live in the Kentish countryside.

Victoria & Albert

How could I not love a book that begins in the South Kensington Museum, (later the Victoria & Albert), and immediately engages us with lush descriptions of the forms, ornamentation and glazes of gorgeous decorative objects? The main characters live in a house decorated in the aesthetic of the Arts & Crafts movement, with furniture and wallpaper by William Morris and his cohorts. Their lives are, at first glance, idyllic—Midsummer parties on vast lawns, with theater and puppet shows, open conversation about sexuality, talk about the suffragette movement, the Fabian Society and Socialist idealism. But there’s a dark undercurrent that quickly becomes apparent—a web of adultery, selfishness and secrecy.

William Morris

Byatt is particularly good at illuminating the irony in the disparity between her characters’ professed beliefs and the way they live their lives—whether in the social, sexual or artistic realm. Byatt also doesn’t shy away from showing us the destructive effect that parents’ misguided creativity can have on their children. Most ominously, the carnage of the coming war looms unseen, and many of the children we meet in the opening chapters will be casualties of that war. We feel tragically helpless, even as we worry about the ill effects of  their haphazard upbringing, we suspect these children will not live far into adulthood.

1895 was the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the Edwardian age, when the cult of childhood began. It was the heyday of children’s literature—J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and E Nesbit were writing their masterpieces. In fact, Byatt’s heroine, Olive Wellwood, who lives with her husband Humphry and their seven children in a country cottage called Todefright—a beloved children’s writer of dark, somewhat Germanic versions of English fairy stories—is largely inspired by E Nesbit. Olive says:

Well, I sometimes feel, stories are the inner life of this house. A kind of spinning of energy. I am this spinning fairy in the attic, I am Mother Goose quacking away what sounds like comforting chatter but is really — is really what holds it all together.

Other characters suggest hybrids of H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence—and writers Virginia Woolf, Rupert Brooke, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde have cameos. It is also a conflicted age. As Byatt writes, “people talked, and thought, earnestly and frivolously, about sex,” at the same time showing “a paradoxical propensity to retreat into childhood, to read and write adventure stories, tales about furry animals, dramas about pre-pubertal children.”

This novel has a multi-stranded narrative, touches on many complex issues and has an enormous cast of characters. Among the interesting characters are Prosper Cain, Special Keeper of Precious Metals at the South Kensington Museum, and Benedict Fludd, a tempestuous and visionary potter (based largely on Eric Gill), who is also a monstrous, sexual predator. (Byatt’s choice of names, such as Cain and Fludd, seem somewhat biblical.) The book is filled with artists and political idealists. Midway through the book, many of the characters, in various combinations, attend the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, and there are riveting descriptions of the exposition and its exhibits—including the work of Klimt, Rodin and Lalique.

Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1900

The action often grinds to a halt while Byatt lectures us about pottery glazes, the history of puppet theater or discourses on social issues. Each character’s clothing is lovingly detailed, works of art are described, fairy stories told, historical facts abound. Many find this surfeit of digression an irritant in Byatt’s work, and think the book overstuffed with ideas and descriptions. I can’t really dispute Byatt’s verbosity and her tendency to lecture. Nevertheless, Byatt’s descriptive abilities border on the sublime, and I relish a novelist who thinks—no, knows— that art is important, and who invents characters, for all their serious flaws, who are engaged with the moral struggle to define (or evade) their responsibilities, assess their gifts and search for (or resist) some kind of enlightenment through creativity.

If you decide to read the book, I recommend you slow down and enjoy the ride, including the numerous side-trips and detours. It may, as some critics argue, be too much, but in my opinion, most contemporary novels offer way too little—so I’ll vote  for an excess of ideas, beautifully described, any day. If you’ve read The Children’s Book, please share your thoughts with Venetian Red.

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

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

Venetian Red Bookshelf: January Picks

Posted in Book Review, Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , , , , , on January 14, 2010 by Christine Cariati

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

Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan Museum (2009) by Michael Gross

Rogue’s Gallery is a very detailed, often disconcerting and sometimes humorous saga of the epic battle between Art and Commerce. Gross’ book is a gossipy and often lurid account of greed, shenanigans and skullduggery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 138-year history. Beginning with the post-Civil War moguls who founded the museum, Gross details the conflicts and wrangling over the museum’s mission and methods of acquisition that have taken place among the museum’s relative handful of directors, curators, donors and trustees. The collisions of these giant egos—people who often mistake their wealth and power for wisdom and expertise—does make for entertaining, if sometimes disturbing, reading. There are stories here of individuals committed to the public good, but more common are tales of stolen and looted art and the nefarious dealings of status-seeking philanthropists and ego-driven curators and directors.

Gross chronicles the succession of Met directors. The first director, Luigi Palma di Cesnola, (who was himself involved with some dubious tomb excavating in Cyprus) did not want the museum open on Sundays because he didn’t want the hoi polloi, the working people of New York, to sully his Museum.  Thomas Hoving, director from 1966-77, was a charismatic man who presided over a period of huge expansion and impressive acquisition (and has the dubious distinction of bequeathing the world the blockbuster exhibit.)  Philippe de Montebello, who recently stepped down after a thirty-year reign, largely realized his vision of making the Met a more culturally inclusive institution, witness the 84,000 items from an impressive array of world cultures acquired during his tenure.

Unfortunately, from my point of view, the fascinating artistic stories behind some of the two million paintings and objects that grace the Metropolitan’s stupendous and inspiring collection, are not the focus of this book. Gross, a journalist and best-selling author, often indulges in a gleefully vitriolic tone. There’s a lot in this book to make it worth reading, but I would have preferred to read more about the art itself, and the incredibly complex inner workings of the museum, and less Vanity Fair-style gossip.  As the author states:

[The Metropolitan] is a huge alchemical experiment, turning the worst of man’s attributes—extravagance, lust, envy, avarice, greed, egotism and pride—into the very best, translating deadly sins into priceless treasure.

Christine Cariati

Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything (2004)
by Bill Bryson

Hours in the studio for days on end sorely tests even the most voluminous of iPod playlists. That’s one reason I turned to audiobooks last year. The other reason was more expedient—there’s just too damn much out there to read only at night.

Were it not for the audio version (which SF Public Library allowed me to download right to my computer), I’m not sure I would have gotten through Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Not that the material isn’t fascinating or his narrative, engrossing; on the contrary, in A Short History… Bryson spins an absolutely riveting yarn. But at 500+ pages the book could well have sat on my bedside table for months.

While listening to the first disk, another advantage of the audio version became apparent. The ground that Bryson covers in this book is massive. Try to imagine compressing four million or so years of Earth’s history and human knowledge about that history into one volume and you’ll begin to understand the enormity of his task. (You’ll wonder how he held it to just one volume.) I was happy to be sitting in my own private lecture hall listening to an animated professor engage me in the material than to be slogging through the syllabus on my own.

In a whirlwind narrative Bryson covers the nature of space, the big bang, the formation of the planets (Earth in particular), geology, biology, physics, paleontology, plate tectonics, DNA, and the atomic bomb. And he makes some esoteric science all perfectly cogent. I enjoyed the background on the various disciplines, but it was his tales of the lives of various scientists, their discoveries,  and professional bickering that really captivated me.

Bryson summarizes the lives and achievements of celebrated scientists the likes of Newton, Darwin, and Einstein, but entices with tidbits about their peculiarities. Newton, for example, inserted a long needle into his eye socket and twirled it around, just to see what would happen. Einstein had a child out of wedlock.He covers lesser-known scientists like Englishman Fred Hoyle, controversial inventor of the “big Bang” phrase, whose cosmic theories ended up being completely debunked by later scientists. He also tackles the outright obscure, not to mention eccentric, scientists like Henry Cavendish, an English chemist, who perfected the means of capturing gases over water (which ultimately led to the discovery of hydrogen). Cavendish was so shy that his own housekeeper communicated with him by letter.

Bryson is a popular writer of the best kind—he wrangles an enormous amount of historical material into a lively and accessible narrative. At its core A Short History… is  the story of human progress, and what an amazing tale it is when you hear it encapsulated like this.

If I had any complaint about the book it would only be that its material requires close listening and even relistening, and this interrupted the process of working on my art. By the end of the book I was convinced the education I received was more than worth the inconvenience to my art.

Liz Hager

Buddha & the Heiress: The Doris Duke Collection of SE Asian Art

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , on December 26, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Note: The “Emerald Cities” exhibit at The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco runs through January 10, 2010.  These are the last weeks to view this large collection of Thai and Burmese art all together for an unspecified length of time.  Afterward, for conservation reasons, most of the articles in this exhibit will go back into storage.

Head of a Buddha image, Thailand,ca. 1800,
stucco, 46.4 x 40.6 cm.
(The Avery Brundage Collection, ©Asian Art Museum.)

In 2002, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum became one of only two U.S. institutions to receive a substantial donation of Southeast Asian art and antiques from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. (The other was Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum.) The bequest became the cornerstone of the Asian’s now preeminent collection of 18th- and 19th century Thai, and, to a lesser degree, Burmese art.

Doris Duke, circa 1939.

Doris Duke was a most reluctant celebrity. Born in 1912, she was the only child of James Duke, North Carolina tobacco and power magnate. When he died prematurely in 1925, the 12 year old became the sole beneficiary of his considerable fortune, between $30 to $100 million depending on the source.

Intensely private, Duke spent most of  her life trying to avoid the glare of publicity, hiding from cameras and refusing interviews. Though twice married and often romantically linked, Doris Duke died alone in 1993 at her Beverly Hills mansion. She left the bulk of her $1.3 billion estate to two foundations that bear her name.

Interior of the larger of two rooms in the Coach Barn,
Duke Farms, New Jersey (2002).

On an around-the-world honeymoon in 1935 with her first husband, Duke began a lifelong fascination with other cultures. She was a diligent and thorough student, and over the years, she developed a keen eye for art. Though a shy person, Duke was a bold collector. Over her lifetime, she amassed a large and well-known collection of Islamic art, which is housed at her Shangri La estate in Honolulu.

Miniature temple, Northern Thailand, 1850-1900,
lacquer, pigmented natural resin, paint and gilding on wood.
(Gift from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, ©Asian Art Museum.)

During the 1950s and 60s, Duke also assembled a lesser-known (though no less extensive) Southeast Asian art collection, an eclectic array of high caliber objects, which she planned to house in a “Thai village” on one of her many properties.  Although her dream of a village was never realized, her zeal for the project propelled her to amass more than 2,000 religious and secular works. Because she was the only Westerner at the time buying works of such stature, Duke’s collection has turned out to be the most important of its kind outside Asia.

Illustrated manuscript of excerpts from Buddhist texts, 1857,
paint, gold, lacquer, and ink on paper.
(Gift of Katherine Ball,  ©Asian Art Museum.)

Nearly 200 pieces from the Duke collection, as well as gifts from other collectors, are on display in the comprehensive “Emerald Cities” exhibition at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. Some of the pieces have been exquisitely preserved, while others have succumbed to lamentable states of deterioration. (The Asian’s conservation staff labored painstakingly for thousands of hours to bring a great number of these back from the brink.)

Seated crowned and bejeweled Buddha, Thailand, 1825-1900,
paint, gold, and lacquer on wood.
(Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. © Asian Art Museum.)

Despite the individual disappointments, in aggregate the exhibit is a success. First, it is a rare opportunity to view superior artworks from the lesser-studied Asian countries, whose cultures are often overshadowed in the Western world by China and Japan.  Additionally, through the inclusion of scores of 19th-century artifacts, the show illustrates the huge transformation in Thai and Burmese societies during that time through the influx of huge numbers of Chinese and Europeans. But most importantly, “Emerald Cities” brightly illuminates the multiplicity of artistic expression associated with Theravada Buddhism, still the key cultural glue of SE Asia.

Seated crowned and bejeweled Buddha, Burma, 1895,
gilded dry lacquer with mirrored glass, 180.8 x 99.2 cm
(Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. ©The Asian Art Museum.)

The practice of Theravada Buddism centers on devotion to the three “gems”—the Buddha, the dharma (an understanding of his teachings) and the sangha (monastic orders). All the religious works in the show relate to these three elements.

Like Byzantine icons, images of the Buddha were not considered art objects to be displayed for their beauty, but were regarded as the Buddha himself. The meaning of this seated bejeweled Buddha above would have been interpreted differently by devotees of different backgrounds and status. But the fact that he is robed in royal attire suggests that he is a “Jambupati” Buddha, referring to Buddha’s conversion of vain King Jambupati.  Additionally Buddha’s hands assume the Bhumisparsa Mudra gesture, which would signal enlightenment to devotees.

Vessantara and his wife see
the approach of Vessantara’s father’s retinue,

Chapter 12 of the Story of Prince Vessantara, Central Thailand,
ca. 1850-1900,
paint and gold on cloth, approximate 57 x 46 cm.
(Gift from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, ©The Asian Art Museum.)

Other than Buddha himself, the most popular subject in Theravada art is the depiction of scenes from the Buddha’s life.  Of particular note for its rarity is a stunning assemble of 13 paintings depicting the life of Prince Vessantara (one of the Buddha’s former selves) . Generally, visual elements were used in conjunction with oral recitations; as such, they were conceived to be used in one temple for a single celebration. Thus, complete sets of this cycle do not generally survive. This set is additionally noteworthy for the many elements of Western art, such as perspective,  that were incorporated into the compositions.

As the dharma spread across India in the decades after the Buddha’s death (given as 483 BCE), differing interpretations of the original teachings led to schisms within the sangha and the emergence of as many as 18 distinct sects of Buddhism. Today, sects fall into two general branches—”southern,” including Theravada, and “Northern” (i.e. sects in China, Tibet, India, Japan, Korea.)

Burmese manuscript of excerpts from Buddhist texts, ca. 1850-1900,
lacquer and gilding on stiffened cloth or paper with wooden covers.
(Gift of Katherine Ball, ©Asian Art Museum.)

Theravada draws its scriptural inspiration from the Tipitaka, or Pali canon, which scholars generally agree contains the earliest surviving record of the Buddha’s teachings. The Pali canon is extensive—the English translation, for example,  fills over 12,000 pages in approximately fifty hardbound volumes, taking up about five linear feet of shelf space! The elaborate manuscript above—an from the Buddhist texts regarding the conduct of monks—follows the tradition form, that is, six lines of text richly adorned with scenes of the Buddha’s life or, in this case, birds and celestial beings.

The holy monk Phra Malai visiting hell, Central Thailand, ca.1850-1900,
gilded bronze with mirrored glass inlay and pigment, 49.5 x 14 cm.
(Gift from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, ©The Asian Art Museum.)

And finally among the most delicious pieces in the “Emerald Cities” exhibit is the sculptural Phra Malai Visiting Hell. The four figures  emerging from the underworld at the monk’s feet, beseeching him with prayer, are a reminder that Hell is a nasty place, even in the benevolent practice of Buddhism.

Wider Connections

Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma 1775-1950—exhibition catalog
Thai History
Thai Buddhism
Buddha Images—a comprehensive look at the representation of the Buddha in Thai art.
Burmese Art
Backpacking Burma

Venetian Red Bookshelf: 2009 Picks

Posted in Book Review, Christine Cariati, Design, Female Artists, Fiber Arts, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Textiles, Wallpaper with tags , , , , on December 1, 2009 by Christine Cariati

Most every Venetian Red post cites a book or two related to the topic at hand. Occasionally we review books at length. Many readers have commented with appreciation, and we decided that more in this department just might be better. Today we introduce Venetian Red Bookshelf, a periodic round up of books, favorites from our bookshelves and studio worktables.

Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait, 1500

In her beautiful book,  A Face to the World, Laura Cumming writes engagingly about the art of the self-portrait. Cumming draws you into her subject with the mesmerizing self-portrait by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) on the cover and keeps your attention by her thoughtful inquiries into the intriguing art of the self portrait via literature, philosophy, history and biography. The book is thoroughly researched, very well-written, extremely entertaining and beautifully illustrated with self-portraits from Dürer to Warhol. —Christine Cariati.

The Grammar of Ornament, by Owen Jones. A classic in the annals of design; there isn’t much more to be said here. But if you do want want more, you might be interested in the VR post A Question of Ornament.Liz Hager

Necklace, Jaipur, mid-nineteenth century

Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts, edited by Anna Jackson and Amin Jaffer, was published as a companion to the current exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. It is a lushly illustrated book that explores both the reality and fantasy surrounding India’s maharajas, with knowledgeable essays about the splendid paintings, textiles, jewelry, metalwork and furniture of India’s rulers from the 18th century to 1947. —Christine Cariati.

Yasuhiro Suzuki—Cabbage Bowls, paperclay. Each leaf “peels” off to become its own functional bowl.

Designing Design, by Kenya Hara. “Creativity is to discover a question that has never been asked. If one brings up an idiosyncratic question, the answer he gives will necessarily be unique as well.” Quite possibly the most inspirational book in my collection.  This book by Japanese designer and curator Kenya Hara is chock full of pearls of deep wisdom on design as a philosophy of life. In between them are loads of images of creative solutions masquerading as products, graphics, systems, food, art. Think different!—Liz Hager

Gunta Stölzl, Untitled, watercolor and colored chalk, 1921

Finally, a book that does justice to the contributions of the women of the Bauhaus movement, Ulrike Müller’s Bauhaus Women: Art, Handicraft, Design. Müller explores the life and art of the more recognized artists—weavers Anni Albers and Gunta Stölzl and metalworker Marianne Brandt—along with those whose work has been largely neglected, such as Gertrud Grunow, Ida Kerkovius, Benite Otte, Otti Berger, Ilse Fehling, Lou Scheper-Berkenkamp, et al. An excellent companion book is Gunta Stolzl: Bauhaus Master, recently published by the Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with their current exhibition, Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity.Christine Cariati.

Color: A Natural History of the Palette, by Victoria Findlay. In this part travelogue, part historical investigation Findlay traverses the globe in search of the often-surprising origin of natural pigments and dyes. Maybe you know that the “Ultramarine Blue” pigment was originally ground up lapis lazuli mined only in Afghanistan. (Michaelangelo is reputed to have held up a painting waiting for the stuff.) But did you know that the royal purple of the ancient world was made from the mucous gland of a sea snail (murex brandaris) or that Napoleon might have died from the arsenic in the green paint of his wallpaper on St. Helena? This book is a welcomed addition to any painter’s bookshelf.  — Liz Hager

Winifred Gill, Sketch of dancers, 1916

Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshops 1913-19 was published to coincide with the exhibition of the same name at The Courtauld Gallery, London, which was held from June-September of this year. It is a beautiful book which, in addition to showing finished pieces, also includes many preliminary sketches for designs. For those of you in the San Francisco Bay Area, a related exhibition, A Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections is currently at Mills College, Oakland until December 13, 2009. —Christine Cariati.

William Kentridge: Five Themes (catalog). William Kentridge is quite possibly the most talented artist working today. He’s a man of enormous creative capacity, who has profound things to say. If you missed the “Five Themes” retrospective in San Francisco and absolutely cannot get to NY MOMA this spring to see it, this catalog may be a painful indication of what you have missed. If you did see the show, the catalog will forever be a reminder of his particular genius.  For more on the exhibition, see Last Days in San Francisco.Liz Hager

Wallpaper: The Ultimate Guide by Charlotte Abrahams is a rather giddy celebration of wallpaper, tracing its history, designers, manufacturers and uses—and has many full-page reproductions of contemporary designs. A good companion to the 2005 second edition of The Papered Wall: The History, Patterns and Techniques of Wallpaper edited by Leslie Hoskins which takes a comprehensive and detailed historical approach to the subject. —Christine Cariati.

Francisco Goya, from Los Caprichos, 1797-98, etching.

The Demon & The Angel, by Edward Hirsch. Mark Rothko once observed that “All art deals with intimations of mortality.” Drawing predominantly on Frederico Garcia Lorca’s concept of the the duende (literally translated as “demon,” although the Spanish word implies inspiration in the face of tragedy, even death), poet Edward Hirsch delves enthusiastically into the source of artistic inspiration, which he believes emanates from both the “irrational splendors” of the duende and the inspirational angel (divine, though not religious, notion). Not limiting himself to poets, Hirsch also invokes Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Jimi Hendrix, Portuguese Fado.  It’s heady to the point of obscurity in parts, but still worth the read for the thought-provoking nature of many of its insights.  —Liz Hager

Trade textile, block-printed and dyed cotton, Gujarat, c.1340-80

Each of the four small hard-cover books included in V&A Pattern: Slipcased Set #1 (William Morris, Digital Pioneers, Indian Florals and The Fifties) comes with a CD which designers can use to rework and redraw the patterns for their own use (after obtaining a license from the V&A.) The V&A plans to issue three more sets in this series, the next, V&A Pattern Slipcase #2, will be out in early 2010 and will include Owen Jones, Novelty Patterns, Secret Garden and Kimono. Not nearly as much fun as spending endless hours rifling through the V&A textile collections in person, but the books are lovely, with an interesting and somewhat unusual assortment of patterns that provide an inspiring glimpse into the vast resources in the V&A’s textile collection. —Christine Cariati.

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, oil, tempera & pastel on cardboard.

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles & Ted Orland.  What working artist facing the inspirational void hasn’t felt a fevered terror similar to the one depicted in Munch’s celebrated painting?  This booklet of 188 pages is both a pragmatic reminder of reality—i.e. “Making  art now means working in the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward”— and soothing medicinal balm—i.e. “The best you can do is make art you care about—and lot’s of it! The rest is largely a matter of perseverance.” No artist should be without this. —Liz Hager

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