Archive for Pablo Picasso

Anselm Kiefer: Mirroring the Messy World

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Mixed Media, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , , , , on August 9, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: Nancy Ewart, whose posts appear on ChezNamasteNancy and, is a guest contributor at Venetian Red. Today she comments on German artist Anselm Kiefer.


Anselm Kiefer, Wolundlied (Wayland’s Song) 1982
Oil, emulsion, and straw on canvas
with lead wing and gelatin silver print on projection paper
(SF MOMA, Fisher Collection, photograph ©Liz Hager)

Anselm Kiefer is an artist with large ambitions. He engages head on with the darkest period in the 20th century—National Socialism—searching for transcendence and the human place in the cosmos. Over the course of this decades-long investigation the artist has created works that manage to combine elements of destruction, creation, self-reproach, agonizing memory, the ghosts of militarism, anti-Semitism and the worship of violence. In his art Kiefer references, among other things, the occult, the Kabala, Biblical stories, and the Holocaust. He draws on a diverse array of Germanic spiritual guides including Richard Wagner, Frederick II, Joseph Beuys, painters Arnold Bocklin and Caspar David Friedrich and novelist Robert Musil, the Symbolists and the German Expressionists (i.e. Nolde, Kirchner, Beckmann), whose dramatic emotive paintings often focused on societal critiques.

Examining the Nazi past was an ambitious, if not hugely unpopular, proposition for a post-war German artist living in a country that likely preferred amnesia to analysis. Naturally,  Kiefer has said that he always wanted to deal with large issues in his art. He has not been shy about it, visually quoting from the Fascist architecture of Albert Speer and plumbing the German myths and legends so beloved by the Reich.  From the start Kiefer’s work was a loud and uncomfortable reminder that the nation had unfinished business. It has been hugely popular and greatly unpopular. In the hands of a lesser artist an agenda this challenging might have been reduced to grandiose or banal statements. Kiefer, however, has managed to stay true to the powerful emotions inherent in his subject matter, producing visually complex paintings that can still elicit raw emotion, nearly 70 years after the end of the War. A viewer of a Kiefer work today can count on confronting the messiness of the German cultural legacy—its inherent paradoxes, ambiguities, sublime achievements and horrific disasters.

In 1987, as Kiefer was claiming notoriety, Robert Hughes pointed out in his essay “Germany’s Master in the Making”: “His ambitions for painting range across myth and history, they cover an immense terrain of cultural reference and pictorial techniques, and on the whole they do it without the megalomaniac narcissism that fatally trivializes the work of other artists to whom Kiefer is sometimes compared— Julian Schnabel, for instance.”

Anselm Kiefer, Zim Zum, 1990
Acrylic, emulsion, crayon, shellac, ashes, and canvas on lead, 149 3/4 x 220 1/2 in.
(National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Born in Donaueschingen in southwest Germany in 1945, a few months before the end of the war, Anselm Kiefer was the child of a devastated country. He grew up in a Germany struggling to recover from the disasters of war. Fundamental to his art, however, were his observations of the ways in which Germany dealt with the Nazi past during the boom of the postwar economic miracle.

In 1964, before deciding to pursue a career as an artist, Kiefer began to study law. Even as a very young man (Kiefer was 20 at the time), he was drawn to the larger philosophical questions, specifically the relationship between history, philosophy and religion, as a way of making sense of the moral dilemmas inherent in Germany’s Nazi past.

As a law student, he was intrigued by the theories of Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). Schmitt’s philosophy “explored the most fundamental challenge of law and government; to reconcile the inherent tension between the concepts of free will, authoritarianism and spirituality.” (Wikipedia?) He formulated a world-view that mankind is self-interested and therefore, governments must be authoritarian for the sake of progress. Schmitt joined the Nazi party (as many, but not all, Germans did) but his interest in esoteric traditions, secret societies, the Jewish Kabala and Freemasonry caused him to be soon viewed with distrust.

Anselm Kiefer, Die Milchstrasse (The Milky Way), 1985-87
Emulsion paint, oil, acrylic and shellac on canvas with applied wires and lead
(Courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery)

But for Kiefer, Schmidt’s texts introduced him to esoteric theology that would later influence his artistic endeavors. “I was interested in people like Schmidt,” the artist has said, “because they got caught between the power of government and the power of God.” (Heaven and Earth, Auping, p. 28)

An increasing desire for solitude led Kiefer to the Dominican monastery of La Tourette. He spent three weeks living as a guest of the monks, “just thinking quietly—about the larger questions.” (Heaven and Earth, p 29). This marked a turning point in his life; soon thereafter he abandoned his law studies and turned to art.

At the Dusseldorf Academy Kiefer came under the spell of Joseph Beuys, who inspired him to think about the role of cultural myths, metaphors, and symbols in understanding history. Beuys, the older artist, was perceived as much a performance artist as a shaman, given to transitory and mystical events (talking to a dead hare, sweeping a pavement). As the protégé, the younger artist Kiefer was more interested in traditional expression. He began to be serious about art in the mid-1960s, jas Germany entered an era of hope and prosperity. The public wasn’t altogether ready in revisiting the shameful Nazi past.

Kiefer wanted to open up the wounds of Germany’s past that were still festering from the unexamined infections of anti-Semitism and rabid nationalism. He has been accused of trying to glamorize the Teutonic sagas and racism that led to the Holocaust. The 1975 photographs of Kiefer giving the Sieg Heil salute in front of various historical locations were categorized as neo-fascist and a “sinister nostalgia for Hitler.” It’s a difficult business to attempt to simultaneously mock, criticize and parody Nazism. Sometimes, Kiefer’s work can be too dense with allegory to be understood.

Anselm Kiefer, Die Meistersinger, 1981
Oil, emulsion, and sand on photograph, mounted on canvas
(SF MOMA, Fisher Collection, photograph ©Liz Hager)

He was much more successful in his response to the poet Paul Celan’s haunting meditations on the Holocaust. In his poem “Death Fugue,” Celan, a concentration camp survivor, evokes the death camps, the black sky, burning fields and omnipresent color of lead, which became one of Kiefer’s predominant materials.

Kiefer’s use of lead (both as color and material) in his work is a deliberate choice. The medieval alchemists used lead as a catalyst in their attempts to turn dross into gold. It was a basic ingredient in the search for the Philosopher’s Stone. Later alchemists such as Paracelsus viewed alchemy as a spiritual discipline and alchemical rituals as metaphors for transformations. Lead is also the symbol of creativity since it has been associated, since antiquity, with Saturn, the outermost planet known in the medieval cosmos and the Roman God often identified with melancholia and artistic creation. Additionally, in the book Heaven And Earth (p.39) Michael Auping quotes Kiefer as saying “For me, lead is a very important material. It is, of course, a symbolic material, but also the color is very important. You cannot say that it is light or dark. It is a color or non-color that I identify with. I don’t believe in absolutes. The truth is always gray.”

Kiefer does not believe in permanence. His monumental works have disintegration and decay built into them as a way to emphasize meaning and morality. They do not exalt power or the Aryan ideal of classical, “white” masculinity or the Nazi fantasy of a 1000-year Reich. By confronting “the still disturbing underlying bogeys of modern German society,” he seems to live up to the radical avant-garde stance taken by those artists branded as degenerate in the 1930’s by the Nazi government.

According to Dore Ashton, Picasso is supposed to have once asked rhetorically, “What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes of he’s a painter, ears if he’s a musician or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he’s a poet.” He continued: “Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events in the world…”

Kiefer holds up a mirror to Germany, and, by extension, to the world. He shows us our wounded body and broken spirit; he reminds us of the suffering that we have both caused and experienced. In this way, his works evoke secular altarpieces, contemporary Grünewalds, which evoke history’s suffering victims nailed to the cross of war. His enormous landscapes function as postwar battlefields. They are barren to be sure, and mysterious fires burn in the muck, but the distant hope of regeneration and redemption is present. Kiefer’s paintings seem to be saying that it is only through self awareness that we will be liberated.

Wider Connections

Anselm Kiefer: Heaven And Earth, ed. Michael Auping
Monumenta 2007—“Women in the Work of Anselm Kiefer”
Dore Ashton—PICASSO ON ART: A selection of views

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Installation, Liz Hager, Painting, Photography, Printmaking, Sculpture with tags , , , on June 8, 2009 by Liz Hager

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

Lincart, 1632C Market Street, SF—Smart Art: Trash to Treasure through June 25.

SF MoMA—Robert Frank’s The Americans, through August 23.

Weinstein Gallery,  383 Geary Street, SF—Chagall and Picasso prints

Fortune Smiles: Thoughts on Musée d’Orsay and Picasso Collections at the deYoung

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Photography, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2009 by Liz Hager


Last week’s breaking news that both the Musées d’Orsay and Picasso will be sending a part of their collections to the de Young next year, while they renovate their facilities. The news made me want to shout for joy. How lucky can a provincial metropolis be?  Praise be to John Buchanan and Dede Wilsey for closing the deal.

The prospect of this once in a lifetime exhibition set me to dreaming. No doubt only a small number of the choice holdings will come our way. Still, if by some stroke of unimaginable luck, I were to have a say in the matter, which of the works in these glorious collections would I include?

I’m aching to see my best loves again, Manet’s Olympia for starters. Further, all things being equal, I’d prefer to view works from artists not generally well represented in the Bay Area. That is why there are no Rodins on my list, even though he counts as one of my favorite sculptors. Also, I’d want lesser known works from well-known artists included, which is why there aren’t any Picasso Cubist pieces on the list. (OK, I’ll admit: while I always found Cubism intellectually exciting, actually enjoying the work has always been challenging.)  Though it’s hard to limit the list, for the purposes of this space, limit I must.

My “Fortune Smiles” Top 10 list (in priority order):


Edouard Manet,Olympia, 1863,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

Of the French painters at d’Orsay, Manet will always top the list for me. Olympia is the most fetching of his works—the first truly-naked nude in the history of art. That brazen stare says it all.


Bonnard—Croquet Game

Pierre Bonnard, Twilight (or The Croquet Game), 1892,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

Ever since reading Michael Kimmelman’s essay on Bonnard (“Introduction” to The Accidental Masterpiece), I’ve been hooked on Bonnard’s unique ability to make great art out of the seemingly monotonous details of his life.


Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers, 1875,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

The technical aspects of this painting—the perspective, the sheen of light captured as reflection off the floor and backs of the worker, the interacting poses of the workers, the stripes of the floor broken up by the circular curls of shaved wood. . . Stop me,  I could go on forever about this painting! And, on top of it all, a groundbreaking example of urban “realism,” to counter all those rural Courbet scenes.


Pablo Picasso, Two Women Running on the Beach (La course), 1922,
Gouache on board, Musée National Picasso.
I’ve always loved Picasso’s big chunky, neo-classical figures the most. Though thoroughly weighty, these two nymphs move with the spriest of strides.  They are joy personified.


Degas—The Tub

Edgar Degas, The Tub, between 1886-1889,
Bronze, Musée d’Orsay.

There are lots of Degas paintings around the Bay Area, but one of his sculptural works would certainly make my d’Orsay list. Not the young dancer—she’s everywhere—but a bather, another of his other emblematic themes. Like da Vinci, this form is squeezed elegantly into the circumference of a circle. See how her toes gently violate the frame. . .


Whistler—Variations in Violet & Green, 1871

James Abbott McNeill Whistler,Variations in Violet and Green1871,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

Whistler’s place in the pantheon of great artists is finally assured. Bets are that the de Young will want his more famous Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, known colloquially as Whistler’s Mother, but I’m hoping the d’Orsay sends this one instead. Since viewing Whistler’s Six Projects at the Freer, I’ve been inexorably drawn to his more ethereal works.


Gauguin—Portrait of the Artist with the Yellow Christ

Paul Gauguin, Portrait of the Artist with the Yellow Christ, 1890-91,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

The d’Orsay doesn’t own the original Yellow Christ (luckily, however, this painting is at the Albright-Knox and Buffalo is not nearly as far as Paris), but I hope we will get the next best thing, Gauguin’s self-portrait with the Yellow Christ.  I never tire of Gauguin’s palette, which gave a later generation of artists—Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter in particular—the permission to go wild with color.


Gabriel Loppé—TheEiffel tower struck by lightening, 1902

Gabriel Loppé, The Eiffel Tower Struck by Lightening, 1902,
Paper print photograph, Musée d’Orsay.

The French were instrumental in the birth of the photography, so it seems only fitting to include a representative of this medium on the Top 10. Loppé’s photograph achieves several aims—it uniquely speaks to to the role that photography played in the 19th century in documenting the natural sciences; it portrays this most most French of icons in all its majesty (the Tower built in 1889 was the tallest man-made structure until 1930); and ultimately it depicts unending the battle between the hand of man and the forces of nature.


Pablo Picasso, Groupe de Saltimbanques, 1905,
Pen, ink, gouache and traces of charcoal on vellum, Musée National Picasso.

I like the Picasso renderings of the Saltimbanques (acrobats), but frankly any of Picasso’s drawings would do nicely as demonstrations that the artist was in fact a master draftsman. Picasso famously noted that he spent a lifetime learning how to paint like a child.


Henri Rousseau—Portrait of Madame M 1895-97

Henri Rousseau, Portrait of Madame M., 1895-97,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

In this case, Le Douanier’s naive style of painting reminds me of the rigid and unpretentious folk portraits created by itinerant painters of 18th century Colonial America. Rousseau’s stylized treatment of the flora gives this painting a naively decorative quality not found in most other paintings of his day.

The (Other) 20th-Century Spanish Virtuoso

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , on April 29, 2009 by Liz Hager


. . . Nothing but a painter! If you had been able to follow my life, step by step, at my side all the way, you would be convinced that I have never wanted to be, nor do I want to be, nor will I ever want to be anything but a painter. . .

—Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, 1913 interview


Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Segovian Figures, 1912, oil on canvas, approximately 78 x 80″ (Museo Sorolla).

Though widely popular in Europe and America at the time of his death in 1923, Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla (y Bastida) has been largely ignored since then by art critics and historians outside his native country.  A follower of Manet, Sorolla’s reputation hasn’t sustained a similar level of acclaim, which is curious, for to this artist’s eye he was in every way as accomplished a painter as Manet. Many other painters of note, including Sargent and Thiebaud, have been influenced by Sorolla’s lyrical brushwork, broad but harmonious color palette, and virtuosic depictions of light. Indeed, the Sorolla techniques visible in many a contemporary realist painter.


Edouard Manet, The Fifer, 1866, oil on canvas, 63 x 38 5/8 ” (Musée d’Orsay).

Sorolla’s only crime may have been that, unlike his equally-prolific compatriot, Pablo Picasso, he resolutely chose not to live in Paris. France’s stranglehold on Western connoisseurship lasted more or less from the Baroque period until the mid-20th century, when the Abstract Expressionists managed to make New York the working center of the world. During this period a fistful of non-French artists have found their way to the eternal spotlight. Perhaps this was due to talent or sheer persistence, but often too the dumb luck of being in the right place at the right time (and purchased by the right collector). What else would explain Sorolla’s present absence from the group of recognized world Masters?

Despite a recognized Spanish artistic tradition, which included the significant accomplishments of Velázquez, El Greco (an immigrant from Crete), and Goya, as well as his own considerable talent, Sorolla likely abdicated some measure of posthumous fame, by choosing to remain in Spain while the turn-of-the-century spotlight shined on Paris.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, The Horse’s Bath, 1909, oil on canvas, approximately (Museo del Prado).

Still, reputations can be remade. (One is reminded of Caravaggio.) And Sorolla’s lesser status in the annals of art history doesn’t diminish the grandeur of his achievement. Like the Impressionists, Sorolla was a dedicated plein-air painter. His signature style—thick and aggressive application of paint contrasted with areas of exposed canvas and virtuosic rendering of light and atmospheric effects—was closely linked to the Impressionists.

Diego Velázquez, Pope Innocent X,  1650,  oil on canvas. (Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome).

Like his contemporaries, the Post-Impressionists, Sorolla aimed for a modern type of painting, although he found his way to that through the naturalist tradition, rather than increasingly-abstract means. It was this proclivity for naturalism that led first led Sorolla to Velázquez. But one suspects that it was also Valázquez’s exquisite treatment of light that captured the young artist’s attention.


Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Sewing the Sail, 1904, oil on canvas, approximately 36.5 x 51 ” (Colección Masaveu).

Though linked to these movements, Sorolla remained staunchly aloof from them.  Still one cannot deny that the artist pushed the depiction of light and color to vertiginous heights.

Born in Valencia in 1863, Sorolla showed early artistic talent. In a prophetic tale, he is reputed to have doodled endlessly during school, rather than learn his lessons. Formally trained from the age of 14, at 18 Sorolla left Valencia for Madrid, where he relentlessly copied Old Masters in the Prado. He is recorded as having made 16 copies alone of Velázquez paintings. He went on to study in Rome. Despite the early formal training, Sorolla didn’t hit his artistic stride until the 1890s. One sees the artist’s progression plainly in the chronology of the paintings in the Museo Sorolla collection.


Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, View of Avila, 1912, oil on canvas, 58 x 84 cm (Museo Sorolla).

Although best known for his luscious, luminous seaside scenes, Sorolla was a versatile painter, who rendered portraits of the high-bred and low-brow, everyday street scenes, and loads of landscapes. His works from 1904 onward display a prodigious command of a wide color palette.  His portraits of Spanish folk are at once a solemn and joyful chronicle of a uniquely Spanish tradition that look almost anthropological today. To make his folk depictions authentic, Sorolla often delved deeply into local customs and insisted upon personal accessories.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, La Siesta, 1911, oil on canvas, (Museo Sorolla).

John Singer Sargent too admired the work of Velázquez.  Sargent and Sorolla most likely met in 1900 at the Universal Exposition in Paris, where both were awarded medals for their work. Sorolla inscribed a small sketch for his painting Triste Herencia (Sad Inheritance), one of the most popular at the Exposition, to Sargent. Sargent returned the favor by sending a small watercolor. In the work of both, one sees the similar insistence on hearty brushwork and close attention to capturing effects of light on their subjects.


John Singer Sargent, Nonchaloir, 1911, oil on canvas, 25 1/8 x 30″ (National Gallery of Art, Washington).

In the first decades of the 20th century,  Sorolla exhibits attracted huge crowds, both on the continent and in the United States. A special exhibition of  his paintings at the Gallerie Georges Petit in Paris in 1906 led to his appointment as Officer of the Legion of Honour. Wide introduction to the American public came in 1909 with a massively successful exhibit staged at the Hispanic Society in New York. The show, featuring more than 350 (!) of his works, reputedly drew 160,000 visitors over the course of its opening month.


Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, The Cathedral of Burgos in the Snow, 1910, oil on canvas, approximately 41 x 32.5″ (Museo Sorolla).

In fact, many consider Sorolla’s crowning work to be panoramic series of paintings in the Hispanic Society of America (New York), completed in 1920 just before a paralytic stroke ended his ability to paint. The work depicts the 49 Provinces of Spain, through their specific scenery, costumes and customs.


Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Rainbow, El Pardo, 1907, oil on canvas, approximately 24.5 x 36″ (Museo Sorolla).

This summer, Madrid’s Prado will present the first comprehensive solo exhibit of Sorolla’s work since 1963. Perhaps the reputation of the other 20th-century Spanish virtuoso will at last be secured.

Wider Connections

Sorolla in American collections: San Diego Museum of Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Sargent/Sorolla Exhibition (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, 2006)

Miles Mathis on Sargent/Sorolla

Edmund Peel—The Painter Sorolla

Mary Elizabeth Boone—Vistas de España

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