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

Advertisements

Time Waits For No One: Christian Marclay’s The Clock at SFMOMA

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Collage & Photomontage, Contemporary Art, Digital, Film & Video, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , , , on April 7, 2013 by Liz Hager

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

20130407-073914.jpg

Harold Lloyd, still from Safety Last.

Do not wait to see Christian Marclay’s The Clock at SFMOMA. Its limited screening ends June 2, when the Museum will close its main building for a 3-year expansion project to accommodate the Fisher collection.

Marclay’s 24-hour digitized film montage, fabricated from film and TV clips, unfolds in an endless loop in real time. Each moment in the piece is marked is marked by a visual timepiece or announcement of time, simultaneous to actual time.  The gargantuan effort required to assemble at least 1440 shots culled from incalculable hours of footage is mind-boggling.  (The OED effort springs to mind.)  Marclay did not stop at these clips.  In a feat of virtuosic visual and sound editing, the artist wove the marked moments together with other, non time-specific, footage. The resulting 86,400 seconds is an unforgettable experience.

Like all truly impressive works of art, The Clock is both instantly accessible and unfathomably deep.  The film clips are a seductive conceit; for the first while a viewer engages in an entertaining game of recognizing actors/tresses and identifying movie scenes.  Over longer chunks of time, the rhythmic ebb and flow of the piece becomes apparent.  Countless themes emerge, recede, re-emerge. Viewers see glimpses of a bigger message, while individual characters fall into the background.

The Clock is strewn with clichés about time.  In my 2+ hour segment a lot seemed to happen in the nick of time. Numerous scenes related to various interpretations of hard time. Time never stands still, and Clock people sure were frustrated by that.  On a lighter note, I chuckled at the innuendo embedded in a brief scene depicting a character on a plane consulting his watch. Time flies!  Time is all-pervasive and language reflects our (at best) contradictory relationship to time. But this is only an ancillary message of The Clock.

20130407-074410.jpg

Christian Marclay discusses The Clock, 4/3/13

In its 24 hours The Clock captures a microcosm of the human experience, or at least a particular distillation of that microcosm as recorded by filmmakers. While I look forward to chancing upon a moment of birth in the work (no spoilers please!), most other activities that constitute a human life—sleeping, eating, working, plotting & scheming, driving & riding, walking & running, sex, death—seem to have been recorded here over and over in the variation that different clips provide.  And yet those 1440+ shots of punctuated time underscore an important message of The Clock—i.e. life is repetitive.

Emotions are The Clock’s underpinning.  Bliss. Curiosity. Mirth. Loyalty. Anger. Love. Anticipation. Fear. If emotions are the core of the work, then existential anxiety is its molten center. This is where the film’s monumental power lies. You won’t have to watch for too long before you feel gripped on a visceral level by the anxiety that comes with marking the inexorable passage of time. After a longer while, you may even start to notice moments of anxiety. Your own life is passing. Tick, tick, tick.  No, please, make it stop!  Paradoxically, you won’t be asking yourself if there is more exciting way to spend that moment.

In this age of point and click consumption of art, the most important thing about The Clock may well be its “stickiness.” It’s a fair guess that most people will spend exponentially more time in the presence of  The Clock than they ever have or might with another work of contemporary art.  Marclay has discouraged viewing all 24-hours in one sitting, although I’m sure that hasn’t stopped people from trying.  Ronald Reagan’s character (from The Killers) sums it up best at 1:20pm— “If you want in, you’re in all the way.”

Wider Connections

Daniel Zalewski’s Marclay profile in The New Yorker
Alain de Botton speaks with Christian Marclay
YouTube excerpt—Marclay’s Chalkboard
Max Weintraub on The Clock
Zadie Smith (NY Review of Books): “Killing Orson Welles at Midnight”

Thinking Differently About Art: Anne Patterson’s Seeing the Voice at Grace Cathedral

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Installation, Liz Hager with tags , , , , , , on March 21, 2013 by Liz Hager

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

Seeing the Voice (performance still) ©Sean O'Leary

Seeing the Voice (performance still) ©Sean O’Leary

At some point in the recent debut of Anne Patterson’s striking work Seeing the Voice: A Synthesis of Light, Color, and Music at Grace Cathedral, my mind drifted to Piero della Francesca’s fresco cycle in the Basilica of San Francisco.  On the face of it, The Legend of the True Cross would seem worlds away from Patterson’s collaboration with cellist Joshua Roman, which produced a synergistic evening of light, streamers, and music.

The pictorial art commissioned by Popes and princes from the 14-17th centuries served a fundamentally didactic purpose—to instruct a largely illiterate congregation on biblical narratives—while presumably invigorating the collective belief in mysteries and miracles (not to mention the Church’s temporal prestige).

Seeing the Voice (performance still) ©Esteban Allard-Valdivieso

Seeing the Voice (performance still) ©Esteban Allard-Valdivieso

In contrast, today’s literate first-world citizen is likely to be deeply skeptical of religion. If spiritually disposed at all, s/he has a seemingly infinite array of venerable and newly-minted traditions from which to create any number of hyphenated identities. As Dr. Jane Shaw, Dean of Grace Cathedral, has expressed: this à la carte mentality stems from the deep need we have to belong without wanting to believe.

Further, the decoupling of art from religion, largely accomplished by cultural shifts in the 19th & 20th centuries, means that for most of us, if we enter a contemporary sacred space at all, the last thing we might expect to see is a work of contemporary (non-figurative) art.

Understandable then that I, resolutely wary of organized religion, approached Seeing the Voice with minimal expectations. Unpredictably, the evening was a complete delight.

Seeing the Voice (performance still) ©Estaban Allard-Valdivieso

Seeing the Voice (performance still) ©Estaban Allard-Valdivieso

Patterson conceived Seeing the Voice as the debut of her year-long artist in residency at Grace Cathedral. The installation itself (which Patterson calls Graced With Light) was worth the price of admission. Some 200 miles of light-reflecting ribbon strands hung from the ceiling of the nave, catching the rays from various colored spotlights as they lazily twisted in the air currents.  The effect was mesmerizing, evoking at times primitive worms responding to stimuli, a mad highway of car headlights at night, and comets in the night sky. Underneath this stage set, Roman played two cello pieces composed especially for the evening. The cellist sat behind a long white banner, while fragments of his silhouette danced and flickered on the banner as a result of some clever back lighting.

The wow factor of the evening was pretty high, even before we were invited, no encouraged, to lie in the pews and look up at the ribbons, while Roman played Bach’s Suite #4. Outstanding! Shooting meteor effect!

More than the sophisticated elegance of the installation and the interesting, often lovely music, the piece caused me to think more explicitly about the nature of art and religion.  Specifically, does art have fundamentally different meaning in sacred vs. secular settings?  If not didacticism (story telling), what are the effective uses of art in contemporary faith? While art certainly has a spiritual component, does it move people to become spiritual?  Practically what does a spiritual life look like, if organized religion is not a component? Does art bring the non-believer closer to understanding the believing community and vice versa?

Seeing the Voice (performance still) ©Sean O'Leary

Seeing the Voice (performance still) ©Sean O’Leary

Seeing the Voice sparked me to experience art a bit differently. After a week or so of rumination, I still have no firm answers to the questions above.  (See below for links to what others have said on the topic.) However, as a result of my explorations, one thing does seem evident to me.   Although time and traditions separate Seeing the Voice and Legend of the True Cross, in their own ways each invites the viewer to imagine a world they don’t exactly live in. And that may be at the heart of a spiritual life.

Wider Connections

Anne Patterson—Seeing the Voice (video); Seeing the Voice is a yearlong exploration of the synthesis for the spirit with our traditional five senses. Although it is unclear whether the performance will be repeated, the installation Graced With Light will remain, growing and changing over time. Patterson is scheduled to present a new piece at  Grace Cathedral this fall.

Aspen Ideas Festival: Jane Shaw—”Our Moral Imagination”, What Sustains Us

SFMOMA (in conjunction with The Contemporary Jewish Museum)—“100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art”

Ecclesiart

The growing intersection of contemporary art and faith: ArtNews—“The Church Gives Contemporary Art Its Blessing;” Contemporary Art Flourishes at New York City Churches

Michael Sandell—What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

Mark Rothko, Houston Chapel

Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire

Bright Lights, Big(ger) City: Bay Lights Goes Live

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Public Art, Site Work with tags , , , , , , , on March 6, 2013 by Liz Hager

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

Last night I gathered with a few friends at the Ferry Building on the patio outside Boulette’s Larder, to witness the official lighting of the Leo Villareal project on the Bay Bridge. Mille grazie to Lori, who set us at a table in the heart of primo viewing real estate. We shared a picnic and some wine, as the crowd and storm clouds slowly enveloped us.

Bay Lights—The Bay Bridge unadorned  ©Liz Hager 2013

Bay Lights—The Bay Bridge unadorned ©Liz Hager 2013

Long before the official “lights on,” the atmosphere was charged with anticipation. Thousands of people gathering, conversing (Christo came up a lot), waiting patiently, as the drizzle turned into a downpour. The concentration of ions! The absolute wonder of of it all was that we had amassed not for an Obama speech, a Lady Gaga concert, a SF Giants parade, but for a WORK OF ART. As an artist, I experienced a truly a thrilling moment when the bridge went live and the crowd cheered heartily.

What a star Bay Lights is! 25,000 twinkly lights programmed in dynamic water-related themes—fish, reflective patterns, and wave forms undulated along the bridge’s spans. The ebb and flow of the rain added the perfect theme-based notes to the evening.

Bay Lights—The Ferry Bldg nods to the bridge ©Liz Hager 2013

Bay Lights—The Ferry Bldg nods to the bridge ©Liz Hager 2013

I will always refer to this work affectionately as “tiny bubbles,” for the first blast of lights, which floated up the bridge cables like bubbles in a champagne glass. Kudos to the private consortium who raised major funding for the piece—it is a fitting congratulatory toast to our city by the bay.

Bay Lights—A crowd gathers at Ferry Bldg ©Liz Hager 2013

Bay Lights—A crowd gathers at Ferry Bldg ©Liz Hager 2013

The bridge will be lit for 2 years. As we left the site last night, still basking in the glow of those light-emitting diodes, all we could think about was how sad a day it will be for us when the bridge returns to unadorned darkness.

Though the Villareal Bridge (maybe our bridge will acquire a proper noun through all of this?) does not rank as the largest public art project in the US (that honor may belong to Christo’s Gates), for us this is a big deal, a bona fide celebrity art piece. Along with SFMOMA expansion for the Fisher collection of contemporary art and the Andy Goldsworthy Presidio and de Young projects, Bay Lights demonstrates how San Francisco is inching ever closer to recognition as a destination spot for art.

I hope the success of this project encourages the SF art community to step up the level of its commitment with respect to nurturing and promoting locally-grown artists. One day we may not have to import a New Yorker to make our celebrity art piece.

Bay Lights, Bikers waiting in the rain

Bay Lights—Bikers waiting in the rain ©Liz Hager 2013

Wider Connections

Venetian Red—“Programming the Cosmos”
Bay Lights project website
Leo Villareal

Hope and Despair (and Géricault) in 2012

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Pop Culture Miscellany with tags , , , , on January 9, 2012 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1819
Oil on canvas, approximately  16 x 23.5 feet
(Louvre, Paris)

Over most of my adult life, I have habitually devoted sizable chunks of time at year’s end compiling a well-reasoned list of New Year’s resolutions. The best intentions were poured into these annual exercises.  Not surprisingly, however, very little ever came of my earnestly-wrought declarations. Invariably, by mid-to-late January I had put most resolutions quietly aside. In February, the lists themselves had become loathsome to me, glaring signposts on the pathway to personal defeat.

This year I finally resisted the urge to make a list.  Perhaps not so coincidentally, on New Year’s Eve, in a last ditch effort at helpful guidance, a friend suggested he read the Tarot for me.  Three cards pulled from his Buddhist-inspired deck provided an elegant composite answer to my burning question: “What should I focus on this year?” In order, they were:

Patience
Alertness (Technically, the card is “Laziness” but, ever the optimist, I prefer a more positive meaning. . .)
Inner Voice

We flail about during our blip of a physical lifetime.  Julian Barnes forcefully captured the emotions that shape our existence in his fictional treatment of Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (from  A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters)

All that straining—to what end? There is no formal response to the painting’s main surge, just as there is no response to most human feelings. Not merely hope, but any burdensome yearning: ambition, hatred, love (especially love)—how rarely do our emotions meet the object they seem to deserve? How hopelessly we signal; how dark the sky; how big the waves. We are all lost at sea, washed between hope and despair, hailing something that may never come to rescue us.

In point of fact, M. Géricault, the real Medusa castaways were, at long last, rescued.  Fittingly, my Tarot reading suggests hope in the face of existential despair. Snippets include:

We have forgotten how to wait; it is almost an abandoned space. And it is our greatest treasure to be able to wait for the right moment. This card reminds us that now is a time when all that is required is to be simply alert, patient, waiting. . . The poolside resort is not your final destination. The journey isn’t over yet. Your complacency might have arisen from a real sense of achievement, but now it’s time to move on. No matter how fuzzy the slippers, how tasty the piña colada, there are skies upon skies still waiting to be explored. . . There are times in our lives when too many voices seem to be pulling us this way and that. Our very confusion in such situations is a reminder to seek silence and centering within. Only then are we able to hear our truth.

My takeaway for 2012: The seas of life may toss me, but all there is to do is wait patiently, on alert, for the arrival of my next Argus. My life raft is beneath me.

Wider Connections

“Art & Perception”—The Raft of the Medusa
Adad Hannah’s Raft of the Medusa tableau vivant
Osho Zen Tarot CarddeckOsho Zen Tarot: The Transcendental Game Of Zen

Man With a Mirror: Ian Ingram At artMRKT

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Drawing, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , , , , on May 23, 2011 by Liz Hager

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

Ian Ingram, Forgotten Offerings, 2010
Charcoal, pastel, beads, and string on paper, 82 1/2 x 51″
(Courtesy Barry Friedman Ltd.)

Last Friday at artMKRT, the renegade spin off of the SF Fine Art Fair, I was instantly (and blissfully) seduced by the mighty sirens of Ian Ingram‘s monumental self portraits. The two on display—Forgotten Offerings and Pierrot—are startling achievements in the portraiture genre, technically brilliant and dense with iconography. And, in a truly refreshing turn, these nearly seven foot tall works are drawings (!!), executed in an almost laborious level of detail through graphite, charcoal, pastel. Further, real-world elements—string, fabric, beads, gold leaf and wire mesh—expertly integrated into the drawings add a unique physical dimension to the work. But they also heighten the symbolic meaning of the drawings. Reality and rendered reality play fluidly with one another.

Ian Ingram, He His, Me My, (Seashells), 2008
Charcoal and pastel on paper, 60 x 44″

The artist’s most important tool might just be his high-magnification shaving mirror.

I recall as a child loving the alone time I was allowed in bathrooms. The assurance of a locked door and walls surrounding ones own personal space provided meditative retreats from chattery school days. . .

I have been staring at my face in a magnified mirror for over 7 years now. Patterns emerge and dissolve. . . . .

When I was working on The Geometry of Happy Children, one of the lines began standing out and demanding attention. It was the line that ran along the side of the nose approximately where the bone ends and the cartilage begins. I actually grew annoyed with this line’s insistence, and erased it hoping to quiet it’s demands but it only added significance and so I drew it back in. Paper never forgets though, and that line kept it’s heat and at times I could see little else. Looking back and forth from mirror to paper, the line started taking it’s place on the surface of my skin. When my eyes weren’t on that line, but focused elsewhere, it would begin a trampy little dance for attention in bright magentas and blues until my eyes would dart over to see, and back to flesh it would go. . .

Ian Ingram, Pierrot, 2010
Charcoal, pastel, watercolor, gold leaf, and tulle on paper
82 1/2″ x 51″
(Courtesy Barry Friedman Ltd.)

Forgotten Offerings began with an “insistent line.” Over the period of the drawing’s gestation (Ingram’s large scale works can take up to three months to complete), this line led the artist on a journey through his subconscious, an investigation that had Ingram wrestling with his “judgmental/editorial” self. Ingram’s startled expression suggests being “caught in the act,” as if delving into the subconscious were a secrete and illicit undertaking.

With Pierrot Ingram pushes farther down the road of the subconscious. Infinitely more sinister than Watteau’s famous mime, Ingram’s bust suggests a different dimension of the famous clown. Here, fear is palpable. Greek tragedy (Argemenon’s mask?); medieval armor (the mesh); a disturbing cleaved scull. Pierrot as the reflection of ego and id, the two halves of man. I am reminded of Pogo’s oft-quoted remark: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Says Ingram of the two works:

Pierrot is the companion piece to Forgotten Offerings. Pierrot is vacant and shows the interior space as a void whereas Forgotten Offerings is full of light. The poses obviously mirror one another. They are independent, but polar. The gold leaf in both brings focus to the border—an incredibly potent part of the composition as it is the dividing line between the “real world” and this imagined space of illusion and constructed meaning.

Wider Connections

Ian Ingram—Divining
Antoine Watteau: The Drawings
Daniel Bordet—Les 100 Plus Belles Images de Pierrot

Life? or Theater? at the CJM/SF

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2011 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Above average.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

From 1940 to 1942, while hiding in the South of France from the worsening situation in Nazi Germany, Charlotte Salomon devoted herself wholeheartedly and relentlessly to the realization of a fictionalized autobiography, Life? or Theater?: A Play With Music.  The resulting opus—769 of gouache paintings with text and musical references (edited from the over 1,300 pages she completed) —is a triumph of mixed-media storytelling, a richly thematic and profusely imaginative narrative.

The marriage of Franziska and Albert, Charlotte*s parents, imagined to the tune "We twine for thee the maidens wreath" (from von Webers "Der Freischütz")

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

The 300 pages currently on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (through July 31) encapsulate the essence of the work well enough; I wish there had been some of the pages from Salomon’s art school days. They evoke a happy sense of belonging that was missing for me in most of the rest of the work. Viewers hungry for more may want to consult Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?, which catalogs the entire oeuvre.


Charlotte: Why doesn*t she come, my Mummy—she promised.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

Life? or Theater? traces the arc of a fictional Charlotte’s (Kann) life from infancy to young adulthood. On the simplest level the narrative is about the close relationships of her life, though it actually begins before the fictional Charlotte’s birth with the courtship and subsequent marriage of her parents.  Like her creator, Kann lives in Berlin between the wars. She is the only child in a prosperous middle-class German-Jewish family. The people who intersected Salomon’s real life are given similar aliases here—Papa and Mama Kann (like Salomon’s mother, Mrs. Kann commits suicide while Charlotte is a young child); stepmother, Paulinka Bimbam (Paula Salomon-Lindberg); grandparents Knarres (Grunwalds); and perhaps most importantly Paulinka’s voice coach Albert Daberlohn (Albert Wolfsohn) with whom Kann/Salomon becomes utterly infatuated.


I*ve no one left now. Fate, fate, how harsh you are. And. . .

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

I’ve no one left now. Fate, fate, how harsh you are. And. .

Throughout Life? or Theater? the tension is palpable—between Charlotte and her family, between her and Daberlohn (it’s not clear whether her infatuation was ever more), between the Jewish struggle for acceptance through assimilation and impending destruction.  On a deeper level Life? or Theater? operates as subtle commentary on the range of culture available to middle class German-Jews in Berlin between the wars. Trips to Venice and Rome, recitals and concerts, schooling in art, literature and philosophy are all referenced in Life? or Theater? with imagination, poignancy and sometimes even sarcasm.

The German Jews, of whom each one is so preoccupied with himself that at a dinner party a silent observer feels as if he were in a goose pen. Albert—"First of all I*m sending away my daughter." Woman to his right—"And were going to Australia!" Man to her right—"And what will you do?" Sculptor—And I*ll go to the United States and become the greatest sculptor in the world." Paulinka—"We*ll be staying here for the time being." Mr. Blähn—"And I*ll go to the United States and there Ill become the greatest singer in the world." Daberlohn*s fiancée—"And were going to American, aren*t we Mucki. . ." Maid—"Take this piece, Professor, it*s the best one."

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

In the main section Life? or Theater? is punctuated with references to the growing persecution of Jews. While sometimes direct, they are just as often oblique, such as the series of paintings depicting Charlotte leaving Berlin for France. Salomon was apparently a quiet and timid girl; the paintings are commentary, not the biting satire of Georg Grosz.

Der Stürmer, organ of popular enlightenment. The Jew has made only money from your blood. The Jewish bosses financed the World War. The Jew has deceived and betrayed you, so— German men and women. Take your revenge!!! Once Jewish blood spurts from the knife, you*ll have by far a better life. Hunt the swine until he sweats and smash his windowpanes to bits. April 1, 1933—Boycott the Jews! Whoever buys from any Jew, himself a filthy swine is too.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)


Amadeus Daberlohn, prophet of song, enters to the tune of the Toreador*s Song from Carmen.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)

True to her rich cultural upbringing Salomon was said to have an endless repertory of musical references in her head, and was observed singing while she worked.  No doubt this is why conceived of music as an integral part of the experience of Life? or Theater? to recall musical bits.  In the Prologue,  Salomon describes the role of music in her work:

The creation of the following paintings is to be imagined as follows: A person is sitting beside the sea. She is painting. A tune suddenly enters her mind. As she starts to hum it, she notices that the tune exactly matches what she is trying to commit to paper. A text forms in her head, and she starts to sing the tune, with her own words, over and over again in a loud voice until the painting seems complete. . . The author has tried—as is apparent perhaps most clearly in the Main Section—to go completely out of herself and to allow the characters to sing or speak in their own voices. In order to achieve this, many artistic values had to be renounced, but I hope that, in view of the soul-penetrating nature of the work, this will be forgiven.

While his face is being worked on, the following is taking place in his mind. The vision dominating his senses blends color and music: out of a confusion of swirling lines a theatrical mask of Paulinka takes shape.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)

At first go around, one might be tempted to judge Salomon a naive painter. She did have formal training in art, however, through enrollment in both arts high school and college.   Possibly she rejected more academic styles for this intimate work. Though very little of Salomon’s other work survives to compare, on the Life? or Theater? pages one clearly sees sophisticated influences—of the Expressionists, post-Impressionists, Fauves—and stylistic similarities (to Chagall in particular, as well as references to Michelangelo and Giotto.

And again, when I saw these two pictures, I was reminded of the essay by that other young girl. She makes it very clear: when she is happy and begins to paint, bright colors and red and yellow dots flow from her brush, and when her mood is dark her colors turn dusky gray. And it should of course be noted that this applies regardless of the subject the artist has in mind. When, as in these two pictures, the spiritual mood at the moment of creation happens to coincide wit the despair-filled theme "Death and the Maiden," the result, together with the optimistic "Meadow with the Yellow Flowers," is—on a very minor scale of course—true art. . . My discovery of the similarity between what young girls produce and what certain geniuses produce is completely justified. Like young girls. . .

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

Amazingly, Salomon used just the three primary colors and white for her paintings. The blue of depression, the yellow of joy, the red of passion were her pictorial language. The 769 compositions are amazingly varied—scenes move freely between achingly intimate tête-à-têtes, sequential scenes bound together on a single page, boisterous group gatherings, “talking head” monologues and crowd activities.

For a long time I was covered by the earth. And I woke up among the corpses. And when I then miraculously came home again, I had partially lost my memory.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)


High on a cliff grow pepper trees—softly the wind stirs the small silvery leaves. Far below, foam eddies and melts in the infinite span of the sea. Foam, dreams—my dreams on a blue surface...

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)

Beyond the thematic complexity, the inventive compositions and fetching use of color the most intriguing aspect of Life? or Theater? is the message embodied by the work itself.   Four-months pregnant, Salomon was murdered, almost certainly upon her arrival, at Auschwitz in 1943.  Thus, Life? or Theater? exists as a most poignant reminder that art is tangible evidence of a life lived. Art  affirms life.

The circumstances of Life? or Theater? suggest another, equally significant, nuance—the power of art to affirm life as it is being lived. Salomon conceived Life? or Theater? in the throes of deep despair. Having learned of the dark secret of her family—the suicides of many of her female relatives—Charlotte felt a mounting pressure to do the same. This project saved her. As she recounts in the Epilogue: “And with dream-awakened eyes she saw all the beauty around her, saw the sea, felt the sun, and knew: she had to vanish for a while from the human plane and make every sacrifice in order to create her world anew out of the depths.”  Perhaps then it should be no mystery why Charlotte Salomon named her fictional protagonist “Kann,” the first-person conjugate of the German verb können. I can, affirmation of being alive.

Charlotte Salomon gave herself to this work with the ferocity of someone fighting for her life.

. . . there awoke in a suffering yet somewhat aloof creature a sense of helplessness of all those who try to grasp at straws in the most violent thunderstorms. Despite her utter weakness, however, she refused to be drawn into the circle of the straw-graspers. . . and remained alone with her experiences and her paint brush. Yet, in the long run, to live day and night like this became intolerable even to a creature thus predisposed. And she found herself facing the question of whether to commit suicide or to undertake something wildly eccentric.Thus in the presence of the scorching sun, purple sea, and luxuriant blossoms, the memory of an experience of her fervid early love came back to her. And she tried to visualize that face, that figure. . . For she discovered that her figure might possibly preserve her from suicide inasmuch as she remembered one of Amadeus*s favorite utterances: Love, know thyself first in order to love thy neighbor. And then: one has to go into oneself—into one*s childhood—to be able to get out of oneself. . . then she did not have to kill herself like her ancestors, for according to his method one can be resurrected in fact, in order to love life still more, one should once have died. . . And with dream-awakened eyes she saw all the beauty around her, saw the sea, felt the sun, and knew: she had to vanish for a while from the human plane and make every sacrifice in order to create her world anew out of the depths. And from that came: Life? or Theater?

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)

Charlotte and her father Albert Salomon, ca. 1927-28

Wider Connections

The complete Life? or Theater? opus—Reading Charlotte Salomon

Michael Kimmelman— The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa. Among the 10 essays in this book “The Art of Maximizing Your Time” offers a  most beautiful mediation on the redemptive power of art, as evidenced through the work of Salomon, Eva Hesse and Jay deFeo.

Venetian Red“A Different Canvas: Raoul Dufy”

%d bloggers like this: