Archive for Theodore Gericault

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

“Some Source of Elixir”: Leonard Baskin’s Artist Portraits

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Printmaking with tags , , , , , , on May 1, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Leonard Baskin, Wiliam Blake, 1962
Etching, 45 x 37.5 cm

VR’s recent post on “The Beautiful Vagabonds: Birds in Art” prompted my renewed interest in Leonard Baskin. Those crows were just the tip of the iceberg!

Leonard Baskin, Edvard Munch, 1964
Etching, 30 x 45 cm

Baskin (1922-2000) first came into public view in 1952 as a printmaker. His creative expression was deeply influenced by rabinical training, a creative kinship with William Blake, and Gothic and early Renaissance art. Given these, perhaps it was inevitable that he would stake out a territory in his art very much in opposition to the reigning style of the time, Abstract Expressionism. And though Baskin went on to become a reknown sculptor, his stark black and white prints remain for me most emblematic of his distinctive legacy.

Leonard Baskin, Thomas Eakins, 1964
Etching, 45 x 33.5 cm

Baskin’s prints call forth a figurative world filled with introspection and brooding, with pain, transformation and, ultimately redemption. Even his choice of medium was ruled by this cosmos, for prints are made by incising a wound upon the block or plate. Baskin evoked the commonality of our suffering in endless ways, even through the most benign of subject matter.

Leonard Baskin, Gericault, 1969
Etching, 42.5 x 35 cm

Leonard Baskin, Mathias Grünewald, 1969
Etching, 45 x 37.5 cm

His close friend, poet Ted Hughes, is particularly eloquent on the subject:

This startling, sinister beauty, characteristic of all his works, cannot easily be called “content.” Yet it is something more than style, something other than the masterful technical expertise that gives his image the foot-poundage of its striking power and penetration. The subject matter of his image may shock us, and his phenomenal technique may overpower us, but this other thing does not attack in any way. It summons us very quietly. But more and more strongly. In the end it makes us seek his work out as if we needed it, and makes us cherish it, as some source of elixir, long after more documentary or photographic evidence of “our common suffering” has become a sad blur.

—Ted Hughes, “The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly,” (from The Complete Prints of Leonard Baskin: A Catalogue Raisonne 1948-1983)

Leonard Baskin, Self Portrait, 1951
Woodcut, 52.4 x 46.5 cm

Wider Connections

Baskin biography

Cornell University—Artifex: Leonard Baskin and the Gehanna Press
Smith College—“Leonard Baskin’s Images of Woman”

Fake Takes: Photography & the Doctoring of War

Posted in Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , on August 27, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Timothy O’Sullivan, Battlefield of Gettysburg—Dead Confederate sharpshooter at foot of Little Round Top, photographed 1863, printed later
Albumen print
(Courtesy Library of Congress)

During the first great flowering of the photographic medium, Timothy O’Sullivan (1840-1882) began his career as an apprentice in Matthew Brady’s studio, capturing field images of the Civil War.  Brady is reputed to have once said, “the camera is the eye of history.”  Certainly, the public has colluded with this view, although the only one it deceives is us.   Since the invention of the camera, we have had difficulty distancing ourselves from the veracity promised by the instrument.  If a picture does not accurately portray events as they happened, we’ve been quick to label it a “fake.”  Curiously, however, photographers have held themselves to no such standard.

It is now common knowledge that O’Sullivan (and perhaps accomplices) relocated a dead Confederate soldier from where he had fallen on a battlefield to the empty cove pictured above. In death he became an actor in scene—no doubt this scene replicated many real occurrences, but it was staged for the purposes of this photograph.  What ultimately gave it away?  Apparently, O’Sullivan either didn’t know or didn’t care that the rifle he added as a prop was not a variety used by Confederate sharpshooters.

Joe Rosenthal, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, 1945 (©Joe Rosenthal/AP)

In her 2003 essay on the visual representation of violence, “Regarding the Pain of Others,” Susan Sontag discusses a number staged photographs taken since the Civil War, including the above Pulitzer Prize-winning shot of the flag raising on Iwo Jima, possibly the most widely-reproduced war photograph. As a footnote, I must add that what is actually fake about the picture was still disputed during Rosenthal’s life. (For more on that, see linkage below.)  Sontag is quick to add that this was NOT a feature of Vietnam-era photographs, or of subsequent wars, opining that the ubiquity of  TV crews make it virtually impossible for the photographer to operate as a solitary chronicler, inventing dramatic news.

Soon she dives into the crux of the matter:

What is odd is not that so many of the iconic news photos of the past, including some of the best-remembered pictures from the Second World War, appear to have been staged. It is that we are surprised to learn that they were staged, and always disappointed. . . We want the photographer to be a spy in the house of love and of death. . .No sophisticated sense of what photography is or can be will ever weaken the satisfactions of picture of an unexpected event seized in mid-action by an alert photographer. 

Why should “fake takes” be any less evocative or important in the photographic lexicon? One might, convincingly argue that, before the advent of the camera, artists always took license with depiction of real events. Not normally on the scene at the moment of occurrance, painters created a synthesis of images to represent an event. Today, no one seriously believes that Théodore Géricault’s monumental canvas “The Raft of the Medusa” is the actual depiction of the survivors of the historic shipwreck. Further, in a contemporary world drowning in photographic images, one would argue without much opposition that image makers must resort to shock value to get the public’s attention. And shock value doesn’t always turn up under deadline. Thus, in some manner—whether through placement of elements or through the wizardry of Photoshop—it must be staged.

Despite mounting daily evidence to the contrary we persist in categorizing the camera as an instrument of veracity and dismissing outright those images that are fabricated creatively.

One thing seems certain to me—if photography is to mature as an artistic medium, it will need to convince us that embracing artistry doesn’t necessarily leave the truth behind.

Wider Connections

For more on the photography of war, see Venetian Red post “Into the Valley of Death
Susan Sontag—Regarding the Pain of Others
Joe Rosenthal’s version of the “Iwo Jima moment”

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