Archive for Paul Cezanne

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.

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“Swan’s Way”: The Many Seductions of Leda

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved

 

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

—William Butler Yeats, excerpted from “Leda and the Swan”

MoreauLeda

Gustave Moreau, Leda and the Swan, 1865-75
Watercolor on paper, 34 x 21 cm
(Gustav Moreau Museum)

Since antiquity, when it was first associated with music (through Apollo), the swan has occupied rich symbolic territory within the annals of art. Other birds may have commanded more visible spots: the dove (peace, the Holy Spirit); the owl (wisdom); the crow (loquacious indiscretion), the peacock (pride), but the swan has adeptly defended a more difficult tract—the duality of human nature.  At once graceful and sinister, placid and nasty, chaste and sexual, poetic and prosaic, the swan has functioned as the representative of hypocrisy.

Leda-and-the-Swan—Sanctuary-of-AphroditeLeda and the Swan, mosaic from Sanctuary of Aphrodite on Palea Paphos, ca. 100-200 CE

The most oft-depicted swan motif in the history of art is of course Zeus’/Jupiter’s “seduction” of Leda—Jupiter, in the guise of a swan and seeking protection from a marauding eagle, “falls into” Leda’s arms. She is married to Tyndareus at the time, so this is an illicit affair. Depending on the version, the union produces either all celebrated offspring—i.e. Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra and Castor/Pollux—or just Helen and Pollux.

Rich with symbolic possibilities, the theme has inspired scores of artists to heights of visual poetry and understandable flights of eroticism.

After Timotheos, Leda and the Swan, AD 1-100
Marble, 52 inches
(The Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

Seduction and violation, fidelity, sex, love, and motherhood—Leda has it all.  The comparative ways in which artists through the ages have dealt with the myth illuminate different cultural touch points. But the Leda of art almost always seems to exude the enjoyment and satisfaction that comes with seduction, rather than the deminution, degradation, and shame brought on by violation. Perhaps this is because Leda has been largely rendered by men.

Beyond this, the male pantheon is nearly equally divided between those depicting the act of copulation itself and some other moment, either before—foreplay and caressing—or after—tending the babies.  Interestingly, not until the modern era have female artists in any numbers embraced the theme.

Apparently, the Greeks and Romans did not consider it permissible to depict a women in the act of copulation, so, in the few examples of classical sculpture that have survived, the swan slithers up Leda’s front side, its phallic neck telegraphing the act to come.

Leonardo da Vinci, Leda and the Swan, 1510-1515
Oil on panel, 112 x 86 cm
(Galleria Borghese, Rome)

The myth languished until the late Middle Ages, when Humanist rediscovery of classical texts (in this case, Ovid’s Metamorphoses) led to its rejuvenation. Renaissance artists were hugely enthusiastic about Leda, no doubt in part because it allowed them to depict copulation, a most profound human act. The mind-boggling paradox here is that at the time it was acceptable to depict a woman fornicating with an animal, though not with a man.

Many versions echo the Leonardo example above—narrative time has been erased, so that Leda may embrace the swan and her children in a pastoral scene of familial affection. (Note: Leonardo also expressed his naughtier side in this Leda.) Corregio and Pontormo provide further examples of this tradition.

Tintoretto, Leda and the Swan, 1555
Oil on canvas, 162 x 218 cm
(Galleria Uffizi, Florence)

Tintoretto twisted this convention and brought Leda inside, though who can blame him with sumptuous Venetian interiors all around him. The nude defensive gesture and the cage show us that she is protecting Zeus (swan) from being carried away by the eagle (domestic). But it’s hard not to think that Tintoretto is suggesting she might want more of a good thing.

Michelangelo went all the way, so to speak, by throwing Leda’s leg over the slithering swan. He set a more explicit standard and his painting, now lost, inspired numerous copies, most famously Rubens and Bartolomeo Ammanati, who executed the moment in sculptural form.

after Michelangelo, Leda and the Swan, after 1530
Oil on canvas, 105.4 x 141 cm
(National Gallery, London)

Subsequent artists were not so chaste. In the particular work below Boucher focuses greater attention on the sumptuous rippling of the flesh of the women than on the act of seduction/violation. But the painting is still rather tame—the phallic symbolism of the swans neck only hints at what is to come. (Is it too much to wonder about two women and a swan?) Other Bouchers are not so implicit.

Francois Boucher, Leda and the Swan, 1742,
Oil on Canvas, 23 1/8 x 29 1/4″
(Stair Sainty Matthiesen Museum, New York)

In his rendition below, Paul Cézanne used various figural attributes to compositional success. The exaggerated curves in Leda’s body mirror the bird’s graceful neck and arc of its wings; therein Cezanne achieves compositional balance. One senses that the story and its symbolism were of less important to Cézanne than the opportunity to show what he could do with shapes and color schemes. Although the scene isn’t as explicitly sexual as some of the other Ledas, though all those curves suggest enough.

Paul Cézanne, Leda and the Swan, 1880-1882 (best estimate)
Oil on canvas, 59.8 x 75 cm
(The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pa.)

A few years before Cézanne, Moreau painted his Leda series. Drawn to symbolism, Moreau focused predominantly on the union, the sacred marriage of woman and god. Reputedly, it was these paintings inspired Yeat’s poem.

Salvador Dali took a decidedly contemporary approach, linking Leda (a portrait of his wife Gala) to the atomic bomb (dropped on Hiroshima in 1945). Like suspended particles, all elements of the painting float more or less unconnected in space. Nevertheless, the composition is highly-organized, for Dali strictly followed divine proportions. It’s all connected with his deep belief in the efficacy of mathematical ratios. As Dali was deeply religious, this painting could also be interpreted as his version of the annunciation.

Salvador Dali, Leda Atomica, 1949
Oil on canvas
(Teatre-Museu Dalí)

Cy Twombly’s 1962 abstract version is powerful visual evocation of motion. One feels the beating of the swans wings, the pumping of the heart, the  flurry of activity inherent in the act of seduction.  On a more literal level, the work ties into the artist’s environment, specifically the graffiti-covered walls of Rome, where he lives.

Cy Twombly, Leda and the Swan, 1962
Oil, pencil, and crayon on canvas, 6′ 3″ x 6′ 6 3/4″
(Museum of Modern Art, NY)

Marie Laurencin was one of the first modern female artists  to tackle Leda. In her 1923 work, she elicits the protective mother through the tender embrace of the woman’s arm around her swan. Note the calming hand upon on the bird’s back. This painting speaks quietly but convincingly of the nurturing female.

Marie Laurencin, Leda and the Swan, 1923
Oil on canvas, 26 1/2 x 32 inches
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Contemporary women seemed to have pushed the myth beyond conventional interpretive boundaries. In her performances, Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta channels the myth through themes of violation, rage and revenge. Contemporary sculptress Barbara Balzer finds the whimsy in a swan literally “coming home to roost.”

LedaBarbara Balzer, Leda and the Swan
Ceramic sculpture.

The male contemporary renditions of the theme are fairly graphic—interestingly Steven Kenny adds a menacing swan, thus straying into the territory violation (though Leda doesn’t resist much).

And then there are the just plain weird interpretations, i.e. Bjork’s 2001 Oscar dress.

21st century Leda—Bjork in a distinctly unsuccessful interpretation.

Certainly, Leda and the Swan provided fodder for much artistic inspiration over the ages. And it’s gotten me thinking about the implications of an ancient myth in today’s cultural milieu.

The Rabbit Hole

More Ledas: Géricault; Pier Francesco Mola; Jean Thierry
The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats
A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke
“Sculpture by Barbara Balzer: Timeless World of Intellect and Beauty”

Alma Thomas: On the Shoulders of Giants

Posted in Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2009 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: Over the past several weeks our contributors have been on hiatus, in order to participate in SF Open Studios event. With this piece Venetian Red resumes its regular posting schedule.

By LIZ HAGER

Alma Thomas, Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music, 1976,
acrylic on canvas, 72 1/4 x 135 1/2″.
(The Smithsonian American Art Museum)

In 1924, Alma Thomas (1891-1978) became the first woman to graduate from Howard University’s newly-created fine arts department. Quite possibly, she was the first African-American to hold this kind of degree. She went on to become the first women to receive a Masters’ degree (teaching) from Columbia University. For 35 years, Thomas dedicated herself to teaching art to high school students. She retired in 1960, in order to focus on her own work. In her 70s, plagued by arthritis and degenerating eyesight, she threw herself into her work. In 1972, at age 80, she became the first African-American woman to have a solo show mounted by the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Two weeks ago, Alma Thomas made news yet again.

Alma Thomas—Blue Abstraction 1961Alma Thomas, Blue Abstraction, c.1961
oil on canvas, 34 x 40″.
(Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

Although the list of artworks the Obamas have requisitioned for the White House collection was released months ago, it wasn’t until a recent  New York Times’ article—“White House Art”—that members of the conservative blogosphere found another excuse to blast the Obama administration. Indignant, they locked their rifle scopes on one painting in particular, Alma Thomas’ Watusi (Hard Edge).  Free Republic and Michelle Malkin posted particularly exemplary pieces, decrying the work as an “almost exact replication” of Henri Matisse’s (1869-1954) The Snail. All Thomas had done, they argued, was to rotate Matisse’s canvas clockwise 90° and change some colors. “An embarrassment for the ‘sophisticates’ who failed to spot a copy hiding in plain sight,” one blogger hissed.

Henri Matisse, The Snail, 1953
gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted on canvas, approximately 113″ square.
(Tate Gallery)

Alma Thomas, Watusi (Hard Edge), 1963
acrylic on canvas, 47 5/8 x 44 1/4″.
(Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

The outcry was predictably bereft of thoughtful analysis. In the aggregate, the derisive comments—”my two year old could have done that” and “the crap that passes for art”— not to mention downright ugly sneers—”The original itself is a hoax. Most modern art is.”—might otherwise be a sobering reminder that a vocal segment of the population appears truly threatened by modern art. Predictably, though, the commentators revealed themselves to be neither knowledgeable nor interested in the subject of modern art. No, it was pretty clear from the particulars (including some nasty, racially-oriented snips) that Thomas and, by extension modern art, was merely the scapegoat here; Watusi was the vehicle through which the conservative fringe could ridicule, yet again, the President’s alleged lack of judgment. One self-appoint -ed cognoscente snickered: “He can’t even pick real art.”

Jean Arp, Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance), 1916-1917
torn-and-pasted paper and colored paper on colored paper, 19 1/8 x 13 5/8″.
(Museum of Modern Art; © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

Did Alma Thomas copy Matisse? When it comes to intellectual property, despite  legal guidelines, copying is often harder to prove than it would seem.

Alma Thomas, Early Cherry Blossoms, 1973,
acrylic on canvas, 69 x 50″.
(Michael Rosenfeld Gallery)

On the one hand, as any trained artist knows, examining the world through the eyes of others is a necessary step on the road to developing a “mature” personal style. Indeed, all of human progress has been built on the shoulders of previous giants. Matisse’s cutouts could not have existed without the work of the collagists who preceded him—Jean Arp,  Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Höch—who in turn owed debts to earlier Cubists, Picasso and Braque. And on it goes.

Henri Matisse, Snow Flowers,1951,
watercolor and gouache on cut and pasted papers, 75 11/16  x  35 7/8″.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

On the other hand, illegitimate copying is real. Both Richard Prince (See VR’s “Prince of Pilfer”) and Jeff Koons have  been sued by photographers for incorporating copyrighted work into their own. Koons lost the Rogers v. Koons case, but won a more recent suit under the “fair use” doctrine.  Readers will remember that earlier this year Damien Hirst threatened to sue a 16-year-old over his use of an image of Hirst’s diamond-incrusted skull, in the process demanding royalties.

Alma Thomas at work in her studio, 1970s?

In the imaginary case of Matisse v. Thomas, interpretations of the “substantially similar” clause suggest many ambiguities that would present a challenge to definitively proving copyright infringement. (Imagined cries of “I know copying when I see it!” from Thomas bashers aside.) Thomas always credited Matisse for the inspiration that produced Watusi. It is obvious that the work launched her on a journey of artistic discovery that produced her unique and forward-looking (if not radical) mosaic style.

To assert that Thomas was “simply copying” Matisse would be to deny the rich and varied underpinnings of her work.  Thomas was deeply impressed by the colors and patterns of the natural world around her.  “Light reveals to us the spirit and living soul of the world through colors,” she once said.

Lois Mailou Jones, Les Fetiches, 1938
oil on linen, approximately 21 x 25″.
(The Smithsonian American Art Museum)

At her best, Thomas adeptly fused her own interpretation of the modernist approaches to color with the craft traditions (textile-based in Thomas’ case) of black America to arrive at a style that, while abstract, never quite looses its connection with natural form.  In addition to Matisse, Thomas identified with the work of Cézanne, as well as her teachers Jacob KainenRobert Gates, Joe Summerford, and Lois Mailou Jones.

Alma Thomas, Oriental Garden Concerto, 1976
acrylic on canvas, 68 1/4 X 54 1/4″.
(Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

If there was any real “crime” committed by the Obamas in the selection of their White House collection, it was that only 6 (!) of the 45 pieces were by women. (Louise Nevelson and Susan Rothenberg also included.)  Worse perhaps, no Latinos/as were represented at all.  Not exactly  “Change We Can Believe In.”

Alma Thomas, White Roses Sing and Sing, 1976
acrylic on canvas, 72 1/2 x 52 3/8″.
(Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The Hullaballoo

Michelle Malkin—Do the Watusi: Art, Imitation, and the Obamas

greg.org—“On Wingnuts on Alma Thomas”

Steven Kaplan—“Watusi vs. L’Escargot: Another Desperate Republican Attempt to Smear Obama”

The Mississippifarian—“It’s Called ‘Having a Clue.’ “

Wider Connections

Holland Cotter—“Colors From a World of Black and White”

Self-taught sculptor William Edmondson was the first African-American to have a solo show in a major US museum. See “Doin’ the Lord’s Work.”

John Elderfield—The Cutouts of Henri Matisse

Merry Foresta—Alma Thomas: A Life in Art

News Grist: Audio Symposium—A Search for Comity in the Intellectual Property Wars

US Copyright Office

Ten plus One from the Musée d’Orsay

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2009 by Christine Cariati

Inspired by your “Fortune Smiles” blog post, I took myself on a tour of the collection of the Musee d’Orsay. I thought it would be impossible to choose, but it was easier than I imagined. There were ten clear winners–well, with an 11th thrown in for sentimental reasons. There were also a few I’d love to see as runner-ups, all oddities for one reason or another. Vuillard’s Au lit–a completely monochromatic, pattern-free study, more like a Morandi than a Vuillard. Tissot’s Faust and Marguerite, a quite wonderful pastiche that somehow combines the monumental quality of a procession from Piero della Francesca with the formality of a history painting—all in a theatrical format. And then there is Renoir’s portrait of my favorite composer, Wagner, odd because it has a softness and tentativeness so uncharacteristic of Wagner and so unlike any portraits or photographs of him that I have seen. As a curiosity, I’d be interested to see August Strindberg’s painting, Vague VII, predictably moody, dark and filled with anxiety. And I have to admit to a fondness for Gustave Moreau’s Galatea. It’s a bit overwrought but it has that quality of myth turned psychological study that I like.

This exercise is a bit of a Rorschach test. As I review my choices, the dominant themes seem to be the enclosed space and pattern. Clearly, I am drawn to interiors—the dark inhabited space—at home, in the theater, even the outdoors—or a portrait that draws you in to someone’s soul; they all have an element of drama and psychology—something has happened and we’re not sure what.

bonnard
Pierre Bonnard
, Dejeuner sous la Lampe (Lunch by Lamplight)

Love the dark and light, it is tender and funny and I love the way he framed the image, it is so intimate, you’re right there, in the space…

cezanne
Paul Cezanne, Portrait of Madame Cezanne

I know this is heretical, but I have never been drawn to Cezanne’s landscape and still life paintings. But I love his portraits. This one is a different type of interior, we enter into her stillness, her sense of peace, tranquility. The simplicity, the ethereal color palette, every brush stroke of this painting is in the service of creating a deep moving portrait, he must have loved her.

corot
Camille Corot, Une Matinee, danse des nymphes (The Dance of the Nymphs)

Very drawn to the inhabited landscape. This painting is mythological in its inspiration but doesn’t get stuck there. The humans and the landscape are one, distinctions blurred—it manages to co-exist on two levels—it is almost like a stage set and yet has a very primeval landscape-as-memory quality.

courbet
Gustave Courbet, Le ruisseau noir (The Black Stream)

Another interior landscape. It is dark and intimate, no panoramic views, nothing larger than life that causes you to simply step back and admire. This is a path you could walk in solitude or quiet companionship. Gorgeous rendering of foliage, so evocative with such a light touch.

degas
Edgar Degas, La Famille Bellelli

This painting is wonderfully subtle and sinister, so much tension and discomfort. A family portrait, yet everyone is so separate. The father, somewhat indifferent, turning his back to us; the mother so cool, her right hand on her daughter’s shoulder conveys no more affection than her left hand placed on the table. That daughter is already the image of her mother—the other girl looks ready to run off with the dog. I love the way he divided up the room, angles and partial glimpses of doorways–makes you feel that much more hemmed in. And then, there’s the wallpaper…

fantin-latour
Henri Fantin-Latour, La liseuse (Woman Reading)

What a beautiful painting. I love Fantin-Latour’s portraits. Here is an interior within an interior. She is so absorbed in her book, it is so peaceful, meditative. The whole image is so beautifully framed, the pile of books, the painting on the wall, the hint of detail in the wallpaper–and then that gorgeous curve of the sofa, its deep red, the only really warm color, enveloping her. Not only the reader, but every object in this painting seems to have an interior life.

gonzales
Eva Gonzales, Une loge aux Italiens (A Box at the Theatre des Italiens)

Here we are, another enclosed space, another mystery. I am not familiar with Gonzales’ work but I see from this painting that she learned her lesson well from Manet—present the relationship, don’t explain, leave the storytelling to the viewer. Beautifully painted curtain and flowers, wonderful light and dark. I love the way her arm is resting on the edge of the box, just the right amount of pressure, and the luminously painted skin, glove and jewelry just glow against the rich, dark velvet.

klimt
Gustav Klimt, Rosiers sur les arbres (Rosebushes under the Trees)

I’ve only recently become an admirer of Klimt’s landscapes. I love the shimmering, decorative quality and the subtle way the greens play against the pinks and mauves of the roses. It comes so close to abstraction but still keeps you firmly grounded in landscape. Especially like the patterns on the tree trunks and the little patch of sky in the upper right corner.

manet
Edouard Manet, Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass)

manet2
Edouard Manet, L’asperge (Asparagus)

Ideally, I would include every Manet in the world in this list, so I could not limit myself to a single one—so it’s a tie for my ninth pick.
I had to choose Dejeuner because the first time I came face to face with it, at the Jeu de Paume, I was absolutely thunderstruck by its beauty and power. I thought that a childhood and young adulthood spent gazing at masterpieces at the Frick, the Met and other great museums of New York had inoculated me from being knocked off my feet by seeing in person a painting I had so admired in reproduction. I can’t add anything to the volumes written about this painting, except to say that the crazy theatricality, the abstract light and dark, the sense of it being out of time and place, all combine to make it a painting you can never tire of looking at, there is always another mystery to unravel.

L’asperge is to me one of the most beautiful paintings ever made. In a way it has the quality of his late flower paintings, the still lifes painted as he was dying. Not their elegiac quality exactly, but the sense of clarity and light in every stroke of those flowers, is here in this asparagus. The luminous, infinite tones of white, the way it is hanging off the edge of the marble towards the dark wood of the table—it is one of those small paintings that manages to combine an amazing intimacy with a sense of monumentality, like a Turner seascape.

vuillard
Edouard Vuillard, Le salon aux trois lampes, Rue Saint-Florentin (Interior with Three Lamps)

This painting has it all—pattern everywhere you look, a wonderfully theatrical sense of space, lights and darks, an ambiguous mood. The figures are in repose but the room is animated with energy,  light and pattern. There are all these wonderful angles, recesses, a wonderful cool palette, set off by the glow of those three lamps. If they send this one, I am going to have to steal it.

Hidden Identity: Musings on the Backside (Part III)

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , on February 28, 2009 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts on portraits featuring sitters’ backsides. Others in the series may be found here.

By LIZ HAGER

matisse-back-ivHenri Matisse, The Back (III), spring-summer 1916,
Bronze, 6′ 2 1/2″ x 44″ x 6.”
(Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund. © 2009 Succession H. Matisse, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.)

Like Aguado’s photograph and Friedrich’s Wanderer in a Sea of Fog, the human backside was a prop through which Henri Matisse explored what interested him most, the essential character of things beneath their superficial and fleeting exteriors. Deconstruction and simplification of form were to be Matisse’s great helpmates in this search for essential character, particularly during the years between 1913-1917, a period of great artistic experimentation.

The Back III belongs to a series of bronze bas reliefs that the artist made roughly between 1909 and 1930. Although not conceived by Matisse as a series, the artist returned to this subject repeatedly with a continuity of purpose. Moreover, the panels share artistic DNA, for the artist created each new Back from a plaster cast of the previous relief and altered it through the application of clay.

The earliest panel is lost, but, as a group, the remaining bas reliefsThe Back I, 1908-09; The Back II, 1913; The Back III, 1916; The Back IV, c. 1931— superbly demonstrate the artist’s quest to for the essence of human-ness. The choice of pose in the Back series had its genesis predominantly in Cézanne’s painting, Three Bathers ca. 1880, which Matisse went into massive debt to own, but the artist also professed to have been influenced by Gauguin’s Tahitian Women painting.

With each subsequent state in the Back series Matisse created a bolder reduction of that back form into essential shapes, until he arrived (albeit much later in his career) at the radical and monolithic simplicity of Back IV.  By choosing the back  for this sculptural exploration, Matisse forced himself to search for the essence of female form beyond the most obvious differentiators.

With Back III Matisse reached a certain milestone in his quest for the essential identity of human form. He has reduced the figure to just a long tail of hair connected to the vertical spine, the tell-tale curve of the hip, and an arm gesture that speaks to particularly human ability to rotate the arms.

Interestingly, while human-ness is still very much in evidence in Back III, the human presence has receded. The superficial explanations, such as choice of materials metal—its coldness alienates us—and scale—despite the figure’s life-sized dimensions, Matisse has rendered her to feel more massive than we (we see her as the monument of all women)—apply equally, I think, to earlier versions. And yet they retain elements of the human presence.

I can’t help thinking that this absence is really due to the loss of individuality. In other words, has reducing the human form to its visual essence—by its definition the unvarying or universal “truth”—necessarily eliminated the variation and thus the individual identity inherent in the human form? In the artistic rendering of humans, is it possible to capture both individual and collective identity?

Matisse—Madame Matisse rouge

Henri Matisse, Mme. Matisse (madras rouge), 1907, oil on canvas, 39 1/8 x 31 3/4 ” (courtesy Barnes Foundation)

The process of simplification in Matisse’s work was influenced to some extent by Cubism, but also by the artist’s growing interest in sub-Saharan carvings. He once observed of reductive nature of African art: “they were conceived from the point of view of sculptural language. . . made in terms of their material according to invented planes and proportions.” Due to their essential “planes and proportions,” the aesthetic of these ethnographic items were embraced whole-heartedly by the artist in both his paintings and sculptures.

During the period from 1913-1917 in particular, Matisse made great strides pushing his naturalistic style toward abstraction of form. (He never leapt into pure abstraction, as his images were still derived from external realities.) This exploration was not limited to his sculptural works, as these paintings demonstrate.

matisse-portrait-of-sarah-stein-1916

Henri Matisse, Portrait of Sarah Stein, 1916, oil on canvas, 28 1/2 x 22 1/4″ (SF MOMA)

By 1916, the Matissean decorative exuberance had begun to creep back into his work. Matisse did not abandon abstraction altogether, but it took him until the 1940s and the experimentation with cut-out form to return full-force to this inquiry.

Hidden Identity—Parts I, II, IV

Wider Connections

Matisse’s drawings for the Back Series—I, II

Matisse’s cutouts

Antiques & the Arts: Cézanne’s influence on Modern Art


Hidden Identity: Musings on the Backside (Part II)

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2009 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts on portraits featuring sitters’ backsides. Others in the series may be found here.

By LIZ HAGER

It is easier to perceive error than to find truth, for the former lies on the surface and is easily seen, while the latter lies in the depth, where few are willing to search for it.

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, ca. 1818,
Oil on canvas, 94.8 x 74.8 cm
(Courtesy Kunsthalle, Hamburg)

The figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s landscape does not greet us or proudly point the way to the majestic landscape behind him.  Nor is he the variety of puny figure found in some landscapes, who are present mostly to demonstrate the monumental scale of the natural world. The “wanderer” deliberately turns his backside to us, assuming the stance of contemplation. His specific identity is not important.  He’s largely there as a symbolic reminder that this untamed landscape is the vehicle by which we humans experience heightened emotion.

The French sculptor David d’Angers reputedly observed of Friedrich: “Here is a man who has discovered the tragedy of landscape.” Thus he perfectly summed up the Romantic’s notion of the natural world. Working at the height of German Romanticism, Friedrich’s paintings referenced nature, not only as the antithesis to human civilization, but as the conduit to experience our deeper selves.

Partially as a reaction to the growing industrialization in Europe, the Romantic movement wound itself around the idea that strong emotion—including shock, horror, fear, awe—and sensitivity was a necessary and desired part of the aesthetic experience. The Romantics believed in the transformative power of the untrammeled landscape. The solitude of remote locales became the optimal environment in which to experience the true physical and spiritual isolation, necessary in itself to emotional depth and a deep understanding of the self. At the time, a mountain pinnacle such as the one depicted in Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog would have been ideal, for it was as far away from human civilization as any European could reasonably get.

While not concerned the figure’s identity, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog nonetheless delves into the notion of identity, at least in the way the Romantics might have pondered it. The figure is not a random person plucked from obscurity;  it happens to be Friedrich himself. The painter himself stands on the rocky outcropping lost, we presume by the stance, in melancholic thought induced by the wild and shrouded landscape.  He is emblematic of the journey toward self-discovery, which is, after all, is at the root of identity.

Wider Connections

Isaiah Berlin—The Roots of Romanticism
Romanticism & the visual arts (a short primer)
Caspar David Friedrich—other landscapes
ColourLovers—Color and the Romantic painters
Goethe’s  Faust

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