Archive for Michael Kimmelman

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.

© 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.

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Printmaking, Words & Symbols with tags , , , , , , on August 3, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when most galleries and museums are traditionally closed. Every Monday we highlight a few current exhibitions, new installations, or art world tidbits. Get a jump on planning a week filled with art.

©Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

New York Times—Michael Kimmelman: At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus. Which of us isn’t guilty of this behavior on some level?

Caldwell/Snyder, 341 Sutter Street, SF—Guillermo Pacheco, Alejandro Santiago, Jose Villalobos. Three contemporary painters from Oaxaca inspired by the unique colors and traditions of this Mexican state. August 6-31

Andrea Schwartz Gallery, 525 2nd Street—WORD Cara Barer, Patrick Dintino, Mitch Jones, Sofia Harrison, Wendy Robushi, Samuel Messer, and others. Text and images, curated by Danielle Steel. August 5-29

Crown Point Press, 24 Hawthorne Lane, SF—Group Show (including Shoichi Ida, left) and Chris Ofili. Both until August 29.

“Accidental Masterpieces” in the Digital Age

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , on July 30, 2008 by Liz Hager

Photo ©n2linux/Matthew Freeman, Flickr Creative Commons license


In his sweetly-nostalgic, elegiac essay “The Art of Being Artless,” art critic Michael Kimmelman muses on “amateur” art, particularly the photographic snapshot and “paint-by-numbers” painting genre best exemplified by 70s-styled Bob Ross in his Joy of Painting TV series.  The Bob Ross phenomenon deserves its own Venetian Red post; suffice it to say, that at least once in every episode I ever watched (alright relax, it wasn’t that many), Bob intones, in his coma-inducing voice, some version of the claim: “No previous experience of any kind is required to make your masterpiece.”  

Kimmelman observes that every once in a while a private snapshot contains a serendipitous and unintended mixture of elements (composition, form, light) that give it “blythe innocence, immediacy, and surrealism and comic charm” and push it into the realm of the publicly-consumed art photograph. He maintains that the boundaries between private and public photography have always been somewhat fluid. An anonymous amateur points his/her camera at something, intends one thing, but gets another. That is the happy process of an “accidental masterpiece.” The result is no less meaningful or beautiful than what is presented in attributed high-art shots. Perhaps the only point of difference is that professionals don’t on rely to such a large extent on the unexpected. 

In this context, it stands to reason, that Kimmelman would go on to lament the popularity of digital photography: 

Since digital technology now permits people to delete mistakes before they are printed and to preserve images in computers rather than deal with deteriorating prints…posterity is being deprived of who knows how many similar examples of creative artlessness.

Although my experience moving from film to digital parallels Kimmelman’s statement, I’m not sure the demise the “accidental masterpiece” has descended upon us.  True, in the last generation and a half, photography has rooted itself inexorably as an art form. We’ve become more visually educated (although not necessarily more sophisticated). We have a huge and growing repository of images to study and emulate. Furthermore, amusing, but insidious, tools like Photoshop force “improvement,” competition even, around creating the most outrageous shot.   Amateurs are now free to pursue the oxymoronic accidental masterpiece. 

To test my hypothesis, I logged onto Flickr to see what “accidental masterpieces” might be buried there. Finding a happy mistake proved to be an exceedingly difficult affair. First, I culled through literally scores of pages, hundreds of shots, in the Portrait, Landscape and Still Life categories.   I’m not saying these shots don’t have a place, but duded up, tricked out, glitsy and slick shots might better have been listed under the “highly-derivative fine art photography” category.    Then, I thought search by the term “family shots.”

Pay dirt!

Among the 76,337 shots listed, I found a number of really interesting mistakes; some that even breeched the perimeter of Kimmelman’s magical realm. Take the above picture for example.  I imagine “n2linux” (aka Matthew Freeman) was attempting to record his young son in action on the mini-golf fairway, all smiles, club in hand.  He’s taken some care to get a good  shot.  The background stage is well-composed. The twin diagonals of the railing and two green fairways draw our eyes expertly back in space to the stairs, thus creating elements like depth and a sense of movement, hallmarks of many an “art” shot. Additionally, this the stairs at the end create anticipation in our minds of what’s beyond. The shadow of the pole shooting across the second green softens the otherwise overwhelming power of the diagonal. The child’s position creates two counterpoint diagonals—one through the lines of his hips, the other through the golf club.

The photographer was probably hoping that his child would look at the camera. But kids will be kids. Just before the press of the shutter, the boy decides he’s got more important things to do then wait for Dad. Whoops! In a flash, the picture is ruined. Or is it? As an anonymous record of a time and place—family leisure in the 21st century—it joins a larger category, “historical record.” More powerfully, the child’s pose the photo elevates the photo to a statement about childhood impatience. It’s not a portrait of a particular child, but of all children.

This photo perfectly illustrates Kimmelman’s point about the beauty of  “accidental masterpieces.”  All it took was luck and a split second. 

Additional resources:

Michael Kimmelman — books; NYTimes articles

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