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”

Obsession: Eadweard Muybridge at SFMOMA

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , on February 27, 2011 by Liz Hager

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

Muybridge Fencing 1887
Eadweard Muybridge, Fencing (Movements. Male). 1887
Collotype on paper
(Corcoran Gallery of Art)

One of the many astonishing tasks assigned to me as an intern at the Worcester Art Museum one summer in the mid-70s was to cut mats for prints in the Museum’s collection of 19th-century photographs. Among the many prints I handled in the cellar workroom as part of that assignment, Eadweard Muybridge’s (1830-1904) motion studies made the most profound and lasting impression on me.

As I discovered this week at SFMOMA’s “Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change,” those plates still generate wonder and awe all these years later.

Eadweard Muybridge, Leland Stanford, Jr. on his Pony “Gypsy
(Phases of a Stride by a Pony While Cantering), 1879
Collodion positive on glass
(Wilson Centre for Photography, London; photo courtesy SF MOMA)

The grid presentation must have been part of their appeal. Although it has become a pervasive, even banal, visual presentation vehicle since, in the mid-70s the grid was a fresh aesthetic. In any case, the Muybridge have managed to retain originality. Each one of their “cells”—an individual “freeze frame”— contains its own inherent fascination; in the disconnect between what the eye sees but the brain does not register lies powerful affirmation of the marvel that is life on Earth.

Bernd & Hilla Becher, Framework Houses, negative 1970
Offset photolithograph, 24 3/4 x 19 3/4 in
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The motion study plates gives a tantalizing glimpse of the rich junction where science and art meet. The Victorians congregated en masse at this place; in their quest to understand ever deeper truths about the world around them, they obsessively experimented, collected and cataloged. During the latter half of the 19th century an understanding of scientific phenomenon expanded and with it came technological and cultural change.

Muybridge was a vigorous participant in this transformation. The most exciting characteristic of the intersection of art and science is its unpredictability. Muybridge’s work is no exception. Every once in a while a truly magnificent work of art emerges from among the uninspiring duds; for me Fencing, Boxing, Movement of the Hand; Lifting a Ball are among the best kind of aesthetic successes.

Eadweard Muybridge, Valley of the Yosemite,
Confluence of the Merced, and Yosemite Creek, No. 21, 1872
Albumen silver print
(The Society of California Pioneers)

As the SF MOMA show amply demonstrates, there is so much more to Eadweard Muybridge than motion.

In particular, walk through the rooms filled with sublime compositions of Yosemite and question why Carleton Watkins’ reputation as a landscape photographer has eclipsed that of Muybridge.

Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Valley, ca. 1865
(Library of Congress)

Muybridge distinguished himself as a chronicler of the urban world too. His 17-foot long view of San Francisco (1877) may have established him as first photographer to assemble plates into a panoramic view. This monumental piece is a fitting testament to the capabilities of man. The photograph provides inescapable fascination as one contemplates the notion of the passage of time. Logjams will form undoubtedly form in the room, as visitors take time to pour over the startling minute detail of this work.

Eadweard Muybridge, The Ramparts, Funnel Rock, Hole in the Wall,
Pyramid, Sugar Loaf, Oil House, and Landing Cove on
Fisherman’s Bay, South Farallon Island
1871
Albumen silver print
(U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office; photo courtesy of SF MOMA)

Eadweard Muybridge, Bridge on the Puerto Bello, Panama, 1875
Albumen silver print
(Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA;
Photo courtesy of SF MOMA)

With some seven rooms filled with photographs, surely no visitor will leave this show unconvinced of Eadweard Muybridge’s artistic legacy.

Wider Connections

SFMOMA catalog—Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change
Muybridge Collection, Lone Mountain College
Eadweard Muybridge SF Panorama

A Bow to Gesture Drawing

Posted in Drawing, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , , , on February 5, 2011 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

John Singer Sargent, Sketch of a Spanish Dancer, 1879
Pencil on paper, 11 1/2 x 9 ”
(Gardner Museum, Boston)

If you must, blame this afternoon’s post-ette (pitifully short by normal VR standards) on Diane Olivier, who is keeping me busy figure drawing in my sketchbook during the hours I’m not in her class. Diane is a teacher of the best kind—enthusiastic, relentless, inspirational, entertaining, and just plain over the top about drawing. (No painting for Diane; drawing is what she does.) I have no doubt that she will push me to miraculous places, if I let her.

In a few short weeks, Diane has taught me much about seeing beyond a pose to the essence of a gesture. And, as Sargent so skillfully demonstrates in his Sketch of a Spanish Dancer, the effect of a gestural drawing can go beyond the visual to penetrate our other senses. In the great whoosh of his pencil around the page, I feel the flamenco dance. In those few frenzied lines, I hear the quirky rhythm of the palo, the staccatto of the dancer’s feet, the clip-clip of the castanets.

In that bow, Sargent has captured the whole experience of her performance. Bravo!

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.

Notes from the Studio: Wise Athena

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Adolf Furtwängle, Lemnia Athena (reconstruction), 1891
Marble
Staatliche Museum, Albertinum, Dresden, Germany

For the past several months Athena, the Greek goddess of war, civilization, wisdom, strength, strategy, crafts, justice and skill (a versatile goddess if ever there was one) has been much on my mind. In fact, she’s become the central energy source of a commissioned piece I am now completing, a digital montage which owes its technical inspiration to the work of Hannah Höch. I’m hoping Athena will stick around even after our work together is completed; I’d be grateful if a bit of her majesty, grace, and wisdom would rub off on me.

Although best known as a Greek goddess, the cult of Athena predates the ancient Greeks. Perhaps she was brought to Greece from Egypt in the 2nd millennium BCE. Classicist Robert Graves tags the “birth” of the Athena myths to Crete as early as 4,000 BC. Nevertheless, the Greeks embraced her wholeheartedly; as early as the 7th c. BCE she had become a central player in the pantheon of the Gods and patron of city of Athens. On the Acropolis, besides the Parthenon, she has two other temples—the temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheum. The epithet Pallas frequently added to her title derives either from the Greek “to strike” or (more probably) from the Greek “girl.”

Athena Parthenos (replica)
Marble
Parthenon Museum

Throughout antiquity Athena (Hellenizing Romans turned her into Minerva) assumed many sculptural guises; undoubtedly the most famous of which is the Athena Parthenos, a massive ivory and gold statue (36 meters high) located on the Acropolis from the 5th century BCE to the 5th centure CE. The sculptor Pheidias set the Athena standard—in adition to the Parthenos, he also crafted a reputedly even-greater bronze statue, made out of the spoils taken by the Athenians in the battle of Marathon and a small bronze statue called the “beautiful” or the Lemnian Athena, as it  originally was dedicated in Athens by the Lemnians.

Alan LeQuire, Athena Parthenos (life-sized relica)
Steel, resin, paint
Nashville, USA

Helmeted Athena is the most common rendering of the goddess, likely to personify her mythic origins. Traditional stories recount that Zeus was warned by Gaia and Uranus that his children by first wife Metis would be dangerously clever. Fearing that Metis would bear a son mightier than himself, Zeus swallowed her. No doubt envisioning the power her daughter might possess, Metis immediately began to fashion a robe and helmet for her. The hammering of the helmet caused Zeus such great pain that he called out for his skilled son Hephaestus to split open his scull with an axe. As a result, Athena emerged, fully grown and wearing her mother’s robe and helmet. Eternally a virgin deity, Athena never took a lover or consort.

Athena
Ceramic
Pella Museum, Greece

Athena is an unusual goddess, as female deities are rarely depicted in full armor. Armored Athena wears any of a number of different types of helmets—the gorgeously-shaped Corinthian with its distinctive bubble; a Roman-type galea with plumage; and sometimes just a small cap-like covering. Traditionally, Athena’s shield and aegis (collar/belt) bear the face of the gorgon Medusa. Medusa serves a double purpose—as a reminder of Athena’s involvement with Perseus’ defeat of the famous monster and as device in battle with which to transfix her enemies with fear (Medusa is reputed to have turned men to stone as they looked on her). For followers of Athena, inclusion of the Medusa iconography  would have served as a reminder to visiting foreigners of the military power of the city.

Armored Athena is usually depicted with an extended right arm supporting a small representation of Nike, the Goddess of Victory, in the palm of her hand. Often she is also accompanied by the snake Erichthonius, whom she adopted. The first virgin mother?

Athena, ca. 350
Bronze
Piraeus Museum, Athens

Athena di Mirone
Vatican Museums, Rome
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

Sculpted versions of the armored Athena perfectly portray the androgyny of the goddess, who traditionally embodies both feminine and masculine attributes. Although girded for war, Athena disliked fighting without a purpose, preferring to use wisdom to settle disputes.

Athena, strong and sensible woman. The shrewd companion of heroes (Odysseus, for one). The goddess of heroic feats. Patron saint of the “useful and elegant” arts—weaving, pottery and music at any rate.

Ongoing visitor to my studio, please.

Bust of Athena,
Glyptothek, Munich

Athena (Lanckoronski relief)
University of Haifa Library, Israel

Mattei Athena
Louvre, Paris

Wider Connections

Robert Graves—The Greek Myths: Complete Edition

Sheila Dillon—The Female Portrait Statue in the Greek World

The many faces of Athena

Mimi Jensen’s Week at the Met: New Work at Hespe Gallery

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Christine Cariati, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Mimi Jensen, A Week at the Met (Lunch With Andy and Marilyn), 2010
Oil on canvas, 12″ x 20″

San Francisco artist Mimi Jensen updates the traditional still life—incorporating humor and visual puns in her arrangements of non-traditional subjects. Jensen’s love of language is apparent in the witty titles she chooses for her work, which add a layer of meaning to the imaginative narratives she portrays.

Jensen’s still life paintings contain an intriguing mix of everyday objects—things she finds at thrift stores, estate sales, farmers markets or at a friend’s house. Jensen takes a playful approach to her compositions, arranging and re-arranging until the conversation among the objects has just the right balance and chemistry. Objects  clearly relate to one another, and exist in distinct harmony—even when the placement is a bit precarious. Jensen is very interested in reflective surfaces (silver balls and sugar bowls, martini glasses) and saturated color, and the balance of these elements also play an important part in her work.

Mimi Jensen, Love Letter, 2006
Oil on canvas, 22″ x 28″

Once Jensen completes the set-up—a process that she says can either be quick or agonizingly slow—she dramatically lights the composition, putting it “on stage.” Jensen works in a darkened room to highlight the drama. I asked Mimi to explain what happens next:

VR: Once the composition and lighting are set, how do you get started?

MJ: After choosing the correct size canvas for the final set-up, I give the canvas a sepia wash of raw umber to make it a mid-range tone so that both light and dark marks will be discernible. Using a straight-edge I draw a line where the objects will sit (a tablecloth, a shelf) and I mark the inches along that line to help me place the objects in the painting. I also mark the inches on the actual still life set-up so that when I start laying it in, the objects on the canvas correspond exactly to the placement in the set-up. I paint the objects in true life size, so this method works well. Of course, I cheat a bit when needed—I’ll make a bottle taller or shorter if it serves the composition.

Next, still using raw umber, I loosely sketch the objects with paint, mostly just outlining their shapes at first. After I am content that the composition is good and that the objects are about the right size and shape, I start to refine the images, still using raw umber.

Next I paint the entire scene, covering the whole canvas in raw umber and white, painting everything realistically and getting the correct lights and darks established. This is a technique called grissaille. Traditionally, grissaille is followed by many transparent glazes, and although I use glazes later in my process, at this point, after the grissaille is finished, I almost always start painting in color rather than glazes.

Mimi Jensen, Limoncello, (detail in grissaille stage)

Mimi Jensen, Limoncello, 2003
Oil on canvas, 10″ x 20″

Once I am satisfied with the painting in monotone, I start applying the color, essentially repainting the entire canvas. Sometimes I like the painting so much in its monochromatic state that I am reluctant to paint over it in color. Once or twice I’ve completed a painting in umber and white.

Mimi Jensen, Sepia Dream II, 2006
Oil on canvas, 16″ x 20″

From there it’s a matter of refining all the objects depicted, making sure they look right to me—blending, blending, blending. Sometimes I notice some new detail even after becoming so familiar with the object. Finally, I glaze any parts that need a color adjustment, e.g., putting an even brighter red over a tomato, or a brown glaze over a metal object to give it warmth. It’s easy to go too far at this stage. In the very last session, I paint the background, adjusting the depth of color from the initial wash to the otherwise finished painting, cleaning up the edges while trying to keep them soft, slightly blurry. I try to avoid the hard-edged look. Most paintings take me about a month to complete.

Mimi Jensen, A Week at the Met (Midnight Supper), 2010
Oil on linen, 16″ x 20″

VR: You’ve been exhibiting your work for twenty-five years. When did you settle on still life?

MJ: For the first 15+ years, I kept admonishing myself to loosen up. Finally, after a two-week intensive workshop with John Morra in 2003, I gave myself permission to paint realistic, detailed paintings, and started concentrating on the still life. I think as artists we don’t necessarily value what comes easily to us, but I finally started to value my ability, allowing myself that pleasure, realizing that painting “tight” suits me.

I’m often reluctant to say I’m a still life painter because people have misconceptions about what a still life is—they imagine dead pheasants, bottles of wine, half-peeled tangerines. I find these boring and often merely a vehicle for exhibiting technical skill. I like to paint found objects and things like jars of olives, cigar boxes, martini glasses, toys—and, of course, post cards of famous paintings. I often reuse the same objects again and again, like old actors appearing together in a new play.

VR: Which still life painters do you admire?

MJ: Still life (historically) became interesting to me around the time of Cezanne—beginning in the late 1880s and increasingly to the present day. Painters whose work I return to again and again are Bonnard, Cezanne, Morandi—simplicity made interesting—and Paul Wonner. Fairfield Porter who said: “I don’t arrange them….it strikes me suddenly and so I paint it.” I also admire the work of Mark Tansey, who stages scenes with visual puns that poke fun at art and historical cliches. Also Jane Freilicher and Nell Blaine, who both studied with another favorite of mine, Hans Hoffman. Richard Diebenkorn‘s abstracted still lifes. Vija Clemins. Martha Alf (pears, pears, pears.)

Other contemporary favorites are Norman Lundin, a Seattle artist who paints realistic objects in abstracted settings and Bay Area artist Donald Bradford—there is a serenity about his books.

VR: What would you like people to take from your paintings?

MJ: I’m a realist and I am fascinated with the way things look. For me, painting is all about seeing—acute observation and attention to detail. Which is why I work from life, never from photographs. I want to create images that the viewer will linger over—I want to show them something they may otherwise have overlooked.

Trompe l’oeil or illusionism doesn’t hold my interest for very long unless there’s an idea behind it. It is important to me for the spectator to bring his own narrative.

I always enjoy when people “get” my jokes and allusions, which often involve the title. I presume an audience that is familiar with the reproductions I use because they are by well-known artists, but I also include what I hope are subtler references or jokes. For example, the recent painting The Blues, a painting of blue bottles, includes a black and white tablecloth that suggests piano keys, which I hope causes the viewer to wonder if the title refers to the color of the bottles or the music.

Mimi Jensen, The Blues, 2010
Oil on canvas, 16″ x 20″

VR: Six of your new paintings are titled A Week at the Met, what’s the story behind that?

MJ: I love the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and never felt I had enough time to spend there on my visits to New York. Recently, I was able to spend an entire week—all day, every day—at the Met (with some side trips to the Museum of Modern Art.) This resulted in an on-going series of paintings, the first six of which are in my current show at Hespe.

Mimi Jensen, American Idol, 2010
Oil on canvas, 12″ x 12″

Mimi Jensen’s new work will be on exhibit at the Hespe Gallery, 251 Post Street, Suite 420, San Francisco, from September 1-October 2, 2010. The opening reception is from 5-7 pm, Saturday, the 11th of September.

VR Film Review: “The Art of the Steal”

Posted in Contains Video Elements, Film & Video, Liz Hager with tags , , , , on August 28, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Anyone who thinks that art makes a dull film subject should see “The Art of the Steal.”  Last February, I was lucky enough to be at a screening at SF’s Roxy Theater with the Director Don Argott and one of his producers to field questions after the screening.  In addition to a piece of enthralling storytelling, the film raises a range of moral issues that effect (and afflict) our contemporary art world. Thankfully, its release on DVD insures that it will be available to many more viewers, and hopefully not just those interested in art.

An epic story propels “The Art of the Steal.”  The film chronicles a long and acrimonious battle to move the Barnes Foundation collection to downtown Philadelphia from its home in the suburban Merion. The battle took on a David & Goliath  Governmental, business and some non-profits (the Pew Charitable Trust most egregiously) interests threw their considerable weight behind the effort to move the collection. A small, but vocal, group of locals mounted a grass-roots effort to block the move. Though none of the players is entirely sympathetic, by the end of the film, it’s difficult not to have taken sides, depending on where your sympathies lie in the matter of public access to art.  It won’t be giving much away to say that the film itself has a considerable bias. (In the wake of Michael Moore, who thinks even-handed documentaries make for good entertainment?)

The tale begins with Alfred C. Barnes. In the first decades of the 20th century Barnes, a quirky, wealthy and largely antisocial business man (with a medical degree), assembled what is now considered to be the most important collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art (with Renaissance and African pieces to boot) anywhere. Some have estimated the current value of this collection at $25 billion.

A self-made man (and millionaire at 35), Barnes educated himself assiduously about art. During the 1910-20 period he was a passionate and energetic collector of “modern art.”  No body in the film seems to dispute that Barnes truly appreciated the works for their aesthetic qualities, rather than their potential value as a financial assets.

In 1922 Barnes established his foundation in suburban Merion, PA.  It was conceived as a holistic enterprise, comprised of his collection, a school (with educational program) and later an arboretum.  The design of the new structure built to house the collection was very much in keeping with a mansion, the suburban equivalent of the Frick or the Morgan Library or the Gardner.

The Barnes was not conceived as a public museum (although it has always been open to the public), but as a permanent educational facility attached to a collection. The film makes it clear that Barnes located it outside of Philadelphia, in large part due to the antagonism between him and the city’s elite establishment.  The collection was not hung as it would have been in a museum —i.e. chronologically or by school—but as a collector might, according to aesthetic preferences.

Barnes died in a car accident in 1951. His will stipulated that the Foundation remain intact with a Board of Trustees at its helm.  Most irritatingly to the Philadelphia establishment it seems, the will was clear in its intent that the collection could not be removed from the Foundation, either temporarily (i.e. on loan for exhibitions) or permanently.  For a long time under the watchful eye of his protegé, the provisions of Barnes’ will were steadfastly upheld.

At this chronological point “The Art of the Steal” kicks into overdrive, treating viewers to the devious, diabolical, and morally ambiguous ways in which the Philadelphia “oligarchy” (which included Barnes Board Trustees) began chipping away at Alfred Barnes’ will in the 1990s.  The stakes were huge. As then-Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell states succinctly on camera: “There isn’t a couple in the U.S., or Europe, or Asia who’s interested in arts and culture, who wouldn’t come to Philadelphia for at least a long weekend [if only the Barnes collection came to the city].”  One shouldn’t be surprised that pro-move interests deployed every Machiavellian tactic at their disposal.

It won’t be giving any of the viewing pleasure away to say that the opening of a new museum on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in downtown Philadelphia is imminent. According to the press releases, the Barnes’ new home will be a two-story, 93,000-square-foot building, with an additional level below grade. The collection will be displayed in 12,000 square feet of exhibition space that replicates the scale, proportion and configuration of the original galleries in Merion. There will be a 150-seat auditorium on the lower level. 

In the end, it may be that the true hero of the story is the art collection itself.  Although tossed around in a long game of political ping pong, they will survive the move, their beauty as individual objets d’art intact. Still, for all of us who love the private home museums, the viewing experience just won’t be quite the same.

One last disturbing element of the film remained with me after the screening. No matter where one stands on the issues involving private collections and public museums, the indisputable and heartbreaking fact is that Barnes ultimately could not control the legacy he worked so carefully to build. Let that be the real lesson to all of us mortals—wills can be broken.

Weigh in if you have seen the movie; if not, go directly to Netflix and rent it!

Wider Connections

NPR—” ‘Art of the Steal: Actual Heist or Conspiracy Theory?”

The Barnes Foundation

Richard J. Wattenmaker—Great French Paintings From The Barnes Foundation: Impressionist, Post-impressionist, and Early Modern

The Barnes Files

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