Friday, August 26, 2016
Diego Rivera (Mexican, 1886-1957), The Flower Carrier, 1935, oil and tempera on Masonite, 48" x 47 3/4"
The other day I was expecting a delivery of a fairly expensive garment I'd ordered on line. As the day went into evening, I kept going to my front door to see if the package was there. Finally, just before going to bed I looked one more time - and there it was on my doorstep. At 10 p.m. - which meant that someone had to drive alone in the dark of night to bring me a luxury item I had effortlessly ordered on my computer. I felt relieved the delivery was safe, but, more than anything now, I felt forlorn and guilty. (Perhaps needlessly, it might be said, because the driver could have been someone like a student who was delighted to have part time work that suited a student's schedule).
So, what does my new delivery have to do Diego Rivera's The Flower Carrier painting above? It's a much reproduced image and a painting I've seen many times at its artistic home right here in San Francisco. But the last time I walked past it, I realized she was feeling that same sadness and guilt from the evening home delivery.
And this of course goes to Rivera's brilliant ability to tell seemingly simple stories with an economy of form and color that gives them powerful, transcendent meaning. Here we see two dark-skinned, big-boned individuals. The small man's burden is so heavy he must rely on the assistance of the woman to hold it as he struggles to stand. Every strand of the basket, every leaf and even each blade of grass is earthy and highly individualized. This is not a cozy man and nature painting.
And what is in the basket? Bunches and bunches and bunches of beautiful flowers. Flowers for ladies' hair, for extravagant arrangements on sideboards and tables of restaurants and haciendas. Flowers for enjoyment and visual delight - but not for these laborers who don't - can't actually - relate to them that in way at all. Flowers for people like me.
Rivera's message is not hidden, nor is it bracketed by the era in which he painted. It poses timeless, uncomfortable realities of economic and class differences that go back to the beginning of human societies and are in every headline today. Realities that, unless prodded to do so by art, I would just as soon not dwell on because they make me feel forlorn and guilty.
Saturday, February 13, 2016
Louis (?) Le Nain, French (1600/1610 -1648)
Peasants Before Their House ca. 1641
Oil on Canvas
So, why the question mark after the artist’s first name? Louis was one of three never married Le Nain brothers who were all born in Laon, formed a workshop together in Paris, painted similar subjects collaboratively as well as individually, specialized in paintings of peasant life, stopped dating their works early on and never signed their work with their first names – just Le Nain. Clearly this has made life a challenge for art historians, and it has become common to treat their work as a single artist.
One brother though, Louis, is regarded as the ‘genius of the family,’ (1) and there is scholarly agreement (although no proof) that this canvas ‘can only have come’ from him. (2) Louis is described as appearing to have been a somber artist, pensive and self-contained, who shunned elegance and restlessly explored new horizons.” (3) With their air of melancholy, it could be that he modeled these peasants on himself.
Everything about this painting is earthbound and everything on the earth Le Nain paints is bound to each other. This is largely achieved by his overall use of subdued, chalky greys and ochres. The earth, the clothing, the stone of the house, the dog, the pet rooster, the skin tones – even the sky - are in these muted hues. The sole exceptions are the red cloak, the rooster’s comb and a red sleeve in the background, and one senses these were simply painterly decisions to add some contrast and energy to the canvas.
In many technical ways this is a remarkable canvas. Le Nain’s brushwork is confident and proficient. At times he paints loosely, openly as in the sky, at others his shading and attention to detail make for beautiful portraiture, and finally his fine brushwork carefully delineates the wispy grasses on the shed’s roof and the details of the mother and child standing on the stairs in the background. The peasant poses are static but varied and point to Louis’s known ability to “make a thousand different poses taken from life.”(4) The overall the composition is unified by a network of straight lines which intersect most dramatically at the man and boy in the foreground and is noteworthy its unusual and high abstractness. (5)
Besides binding earth and peasant, the monochromatic palette lends a quiet, stable air of dignity almost serenity to this family grouping. They may be peasants but we do not get the sense they are threadbare, destitute, lonely or in emotional or physical impoverishment. They have each other, infants, pets, a solid home, things look clean, their bodies appear strong and healthy. Rather than being unhappy, they are calm, expressionless, restrained, at worst stoic from hardship. In many senses their balance and restraint echoes classicism as does the statuesque stance of the father, the loose, flowing draping of the clothing worn by the three figures in the foreground.
However, for all its realistic and sympathetic portrayal of peasants, there are some critics who question how “taken from life” Le Nain’s work really was. Are these really peasants of their time? Assuming Le Nain painted the peasants with which he was intimate, those of his native Laon, these peasants were living in the midst of the Thirty Years War. This was a time of severe hardship, anguish, depredation by cruel armies marauding and living off the countryside. Yet these peasants are portrayed as calm, almost docilely engaged in homely activities despite real world conditions around them. Because of this disparity, some scholars have suggested Le Nain intentionally downplayed any misery to please wealthy urban patrons with these paintings. (5) Ciwt believes this thinking is reinforced by the miniature Madonna and Child on the steps in the background which would also have appealed to the patrons who, being French, were almost entirely Catholic.
But in conclusion, whether or not these peasants were entirely realistic in their portrayal, it is highly significant that they were portrayed at all and so masterfully. Their inclusion as subject matter represents a very original continuation of Caravaggio’s early Baroque humanism as well as the peasant paintings of 17th C Holland. More importantly, Le Nain’s art was placed in the Louvre in 1848, and likely had an effect on Jean Francois Millet, the influential painter of melancholy scenes of peasant labor, as well as the great French Realist Gustave Courbet.
Friday, January 22, 2016
Those who know Picasso's brutish and misogynistic reputation must wonder about today's headline. Let Ciwt explain:
Minus the predicted East Coast blizzard, today Ciwt would be at MoMA at the Picasso Sculpture show, and she'd like to add to her comments on the show even without attending. (Speaking of Ego).
But first she'd like to give a shout out to Virgin Airlines who gave her a waiver on flight cancellation fees. Just one more on the Virgin chart.
Now on to comments on the show not seen.
First, let Ciwt say she has seen some of the best Picasso sculptures in the show, including:
And several others. All thought and heart provoking - and often quite amusing.
Which leads to her second comment: The show exhibits over 140 sculptures and Ciwt can't help wondering whether the truly stirring works are swallowed up in the crowd of smaller, (repetitive?, lesser?) works. She assumes so, actually; she has seen this (uncritical) over abundance with other artists in past shows over the years.
And, speaking of crowds, even though Ciwt's MoMA membership allows her to enter the show an hour early, there is still a goodly number of members at that hour. Then when the timed/non-member admissions begin, the true blockbuster nature of the exhibit takes over. In these conditions it is virtually impossible to find and read signage or see much much less commune with the art.
So, maybe it is just sour grapes because Ciwt wasn't able to get back for the show(unless she takes a brief, wild, last-minute trip), but Ciwt is thinking she's lucky to have studied Picasso's paintings, drawings and prints so extensively in college and seen so much of his work in the past. To her, Picasso wasn't (and didn't aspire to be) as talented a sculptor as he was a painter, draftsman and printmaker - so missing this show is a disappointment but not the end of the world. On the other hand, the show sounds like an absolute Must See for those beginning to educate their art eyes and What an amazing opportunity to feast them on one of the world's greatest artists being creative, playful, whimsical, and witty.
1. She-Goat, 1950 (cast 1952), bronze
2. Bull, ca. 1958, Cannes, plywood, tree branch
3. Bull's Head, 1942, bicycle seat and handlebars
4. Man with Lamb, 1942, bronze
Pablo Picasso, Woman and Child, 1962, sheetmetal and painting
Before going back East to attend MoMA's Picasso Sculpture exhibition I will be bold to say I believe sculpture was where Picasso went to rejoin those creative child energies he held so dear.
So I will head to the MoMA Picasso Sculpture Show this week and I want to be on record before viewing it that I see his sculptures more as (amusing) pass times, doodles, or ways for him to work out spacial relationships in preparation for a painting. *
I also think Picasso's primary means of expression - the media he most valued - were canvas and paper. Ie, painting and drawing. A few of his sculptural pieces I have seen are clearly more important than others and were likely completed for public consumption or display. ** To me, even these do not carry the expressive visceral energy of the paintings and drawings. ***
BUT I haven't seen that many Picasso sculptures in person nor studied in depth the level of Picasso's devotion and relationship to sculpture, so it will be interesting to see if (how, probably) this ambitious, sweeping, 'once-in-a-lifetime' survey expands my understanding and appreciation.
*Woman in the Garden, Paris, 1929-30, welded and painted iron
**The Goat, 1950, Palm lead, iron and plaster
***Goat Skull, Bottle and Candle, 1954, oil on canvas
So now that I've gotten back to the Asian Art's Looking East show for a more thorough viewing, what did have I concluded? Well, it's a very high quality show, broad-based from fine art to clothing, furniture, photography, the decorative arts. The signage is thorough and informative and the crowds it is attracting would be the envy of most museums.
What's missing for me is impossible to include. It's the shock of the new. Once upon a time, in about 1849 in Paris, virtually no one had laid eyes on anything Japanese. The operable aesthetic was that of Louis XIV as it had wended its way through rococo, neo-classicism. It was F-r-e-n-c-h; if you wanted to be chic, in the know, you collected French, hung it on your walls, dressed in it, ate off it and sat in it. And if you weren't chic, not adhering to the current French mot, well, au revoir to you.
Into this aesthetic stranglehold, slowly began to appear Japanese images: shockingly colorful prints with unheard of proportions and use of lines. Shortly after the woodblocks came silk tapestries and kimonos with non-heraldic designs like butterflies, cranes, fans and lotus flowers. Then on other boats began arriving dinnerware, desk and table top accessories, screens. It was all so Decorative and the rage was on!! People of all classes were wild for the Japanisme; wearing it and collecting it became what status-conscious Parisians simply had to do. The effects were suddenly everywhere from the new more fully realized and sensual view of women (more sexy in their kimonos), to the use of posters for promotion (the beginning of advertising as we know it) , and certainly in painting which was already being transformed (into Impressionism) by new information about the science of light.
*Perhaps because the show is tackles such a large and complex topic and includes so many excellent examples of Japanese and French art, I found myself most drawn to this print, one of the simplest images in the show.
Friday, December 18, 2015
Johannes Vermeer, The Little Street, ca 1657-1661, 21 3/8" x 17 3/8" oil on canvas
Oh Goodie!! A Vermeer painting Ciwt didn't know existed until today! And being (always) a homebody and (now) a city person, she was instantly taken by this naturalistic townscape. It is a slice of daily, domestic 17th century life in Delft so exquisitely rendered that it captures the poetic beauty of and reverence for everyday life throughout Holland. In its tidy, clean, unadorned simplicity, The Little Street is essentially a portrait of Holland.
In Vermeer's time, the virtuous Dutch home had risen to the level of sanctuary, the seat of the individual soul where all domestic and good citizenship values were modeled and passed on. Unlike European countries at the time, women's work was highly valued and so was the play of children. Sewing, like spinning was considered an attribute of Biblical origins, and cleanliness, washing and sweeping were associated with spiritual cleanliness and purity. So too the purity of children who were dressed plainly in frugal, hand-me-down clothes. All these values and thoughts - and so much more - are rendered easily, naturally and, to Ciwt, with such great love that Vermeer has quietly made his viewer an active participant in The Little Street's silent townscape narrative.
This spring, after 320 years, The Little Street will be reunited with the place where it was created. It will be in Museum Prinsenhof Delft from March 25 to July 17, 2016 in case you are planning a trip or live abroad.