Thursday, April 29, 2021

New and Old Master


Michelangelo age 15-16, Madonna of the Steps, 1490-1492, bronze.  First sculpted work.  Created while studying in the household of the Medicis in Florence.  The piece's sensitivity and multi-dimensionality was already ahead of the accepted practice of the day. 

"Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to release it"  

"I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set it free."

~ Michelangelo (Italian, 1475-1564)

Having spent a few days at the de Young Museum  in 1900's of Calder and Picasso, both of whom are celebrated for their sculptures, my thoughts now move to arguably (if anybody actually would) the greatest sculptor who ever lived: Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, best known simply as Michelangelo.  And to a few things I learned about him recently.  

First, biographically, I didn't know that he grew up, after the death of his mother, with his nanny and her husband who was a stone cutter.  Or that Michelangelo's father owned a marble quarry so that the young boy spent a great deal of time watching stone being quarried and carved as well as acquiring hands-on experience with the stone at an early age.  He also sought out the company of significant artists and worked in his early teens as an apprentice to one of the master painters who had been hired by the Vatican to decorate the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

Second, in terms of his technique.  Like many people I am familiar with the two famous quotes from Michelangelo above.  Because of them I have carried an image of the sculptor standing in front of a block of marble and artfully chipping away until he began to sense a presence inside.  And then gradually, carefully, laboriously continuing until, OMG, David!  Or, secondarily, that Michelangelo looked at a block of marble, sensed what figure was in it, and carved away "until he set it free." In both cases, the figure inside would have been a revelation to Michelangelo.

Turns out, yes, Michelangelo saw sculpture as the art of taking away to bring the form below into existance. But, no, the look of the form was not a surprise to him. Even before, and certainly in the multi year process of  actually carving, he produced detailed sketches -  over 900 of them remain.  The drawings are imbued with technical skill but, beyond that, with his own spiritual passion and desire to work with the marble to bring the soul of his subject to life. 

No higher goals for himself can be imagined, and the wonder is that he actually achieved them - at an early age.  During his twenties! he produced two of the world's greatest sculptural masterpieces, Pieta and David.  At the time the life and emotion he had brought to the grieving mother and the depiction of the human form he achieved with David were beyond ground breaking, beyond a revelation.  Nearly 450 years after his death in 1564 his work is as wondrous as it was at the time, remains ground breaking and is still the gold standard sculptors aim for.

Micheangelo, Pieta, 1498-99, Carrara marble

and then the very next year he began David

Michelangelo, David, 1501-1504, Marble

Brimming with Freshness


The Calder-Picasso show at the de Young is a visual delight.  The works on display look great individually and together coalesce into a magical environment.

Calder's fly along, bobbing on shaped delicate wires, delighting with primary colors in graceful, unpredictable motion.  Picasso's are strong, passionate, earthy, focussed on the inner self.  They look as if he stepped up to his easel and let his passions rip.  But, not at all.  All of Picasso's works started classically: with study of the great artists in museums, knowledge of classic themes throughout history and countless preliminary drawings. 

The show takes viewers back to the early and mid twentieth century when both Calder and Picasso did their most revolutionary - and freshest - work. One of my favorite art eras so I thoroughly enjoyed feeling close to those artistically alive times.  To my mind though the show's signage is too much technical 'art speak' trying to convey how radical the works were when they were first introduced.  That's a visual feeling thing, and to really get it she wishes she could have seen the exhibit at its original venue, The Picasso Museum in Paris:

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Stay Still Please


Jim Farrant (English), Sweet Peas and Daisies, undated (ca. 2010)


Ahh, the still life.  It has been a little while since I spent some time with one of the oldest art genres.  And quite a while since the San Francisco air was so fresh, the birdsong so loud, the sun so promising that I felt a touch of spring fever.

Still life was an art form long before it was officially deemed a 'genre' by the Dutch in the 16th century (who called it stilleven). And, although often associated with flowers, still lifes are any arrangement of inanimate objects like fruit, glassware and textiles, usually set on a table.   In western art history the earliest known still lifes were created by the Egyptians in the 15th century BCE with the most famous being at the Tomb of Menna whose walls are adorned with exceptionally detailed scenes of everyday life. 

Later, while the Greek and Roman craftsmen mostly reserved their still lifes for mosaics (or the mosaics were the most endurable), they also placed every day objects in their frescoes like this one from a 1st Century wall at Pompei.

Then in the Middle Ages you find still lifes used for religious purposes, often incorporated into bible scenes and illuminated manuscripts.  And then it was on to the Renaissance and astoundingly detailed paintings of everyday life.
Jan Brueghel the Elder, Flowers in a Wooden Vessel, 1606-1607

And the Dutch vanitas still lifes with their momento mori admonition: Don't forget, everything dies, including you.  So don't be too materialistic.  (Or something along those lines all symbolized by rotting fruit, molding bread, rats, clocks, and other deteriorating or dead objects in the canvases). 

Pieter Claelsz, Vanitas Still Life, 1625 

Pretty soon it was on to Impressionist and Post Impressionist art with multi million dollar paintings of Sunflowers.
Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1889

And of course modern art which often challenges (or defeats) the viewer trying to discern the object.
Georges Braque, Still Life with Metronome, 1909

The wonder in this long history is that the still life continues to be such a fresh art form.  Each one different, each with its own individual energy. And, among the inanimate objects, a part of each animate artist left behind. 

Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), May Basket, undated (20th C), o/c

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Only God Can Make....A Safety Pin*


Claes Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen, Corridor Pin Blue, 1999, stainless steel, aluminum and glazed acrylic enamel  (de Young Museum, San Francisco)

So, I was reading about outdoor sculpture gardens and some of their lovely, harmonious artistic offerings to nature.  Then I thought of our local de Young Museum's sculpture garden which is just off its cafeteria. You buy your food, take it on its tray to a table along the greenery,  hear the birds chirp and look out to  view ... a huge safety pin.  

Not harmonious, but that was just fine and had been long before its creation in 1999 with its team of artists, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.  In 1961 Oldenburg wrote in his poem I Am For Art "I am for an art that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum."  And later in the poem 'I am for an art that you can hammer with, stitch with, sew with, paste with, file with. I am for an art that tells you the time of day, or where such and such a street is. I am for an art that helps old ladies across the street....."

By the time he wrote all this Oldenburg was studying art at Yale and totally fed up with the freeform wholly personal meditations on canvas of the Abstract Expressionists.  He was one of several artists in England and then primarily New York and California who felt that art was not something separate and exalted from real life and began to celebrate real life with their "Pop Art" as it came to be called.  They turned to everyday sources the most famous of which are probably Andy Warhol's Campbell Soup Cans.  

Oldenburg, who later teamed with his wife, van Bruggen turned to sculpture and became known for his huge public sculptures.  Among their creations are 

shuttlecocks in Kansas City  

a clothespin in Philadelphia,


and, one of my personal favorites, a spoonbridge with cherry in Minneapolis .

Are they as impressive as a tree or just the green grass they sit in or as miraculous as the birds singing around them?  No, but in their ways, they do respect the environments they are set in. There's a grace to their forms and a quietness to their simple designs and minimal colors.  The joy and tongue-in-cheekiness is timelessly fresh.  And from my experience giving private art tours, they make people happy.

*A nod to Joyce Kilmer's poem, Trees, which ends with the line "But only God Can Make a Tree."

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Where's the Wedding?


Hugo van der Goes ((Flemish, ca 1440-1482), The Virgin and Child with Saints,
Oil on wood panel, @43" x 49" panel

I may have mentioned I have much to learn about how art is actually made so I was very interested to see the preparatory underdrawing Hugo van der Goes used to guide him while painting the altarpiece above in the mid 15th century.

Art experts and enthusiasts like me aren't certain what then guided an 18th century artist to strip away the Virgin and Child, add another panel and turn the painting into a scene of the wedding of Henry VII to Elizabeth of York.

The altered panel had been suspected as early as 1890 but then denied by the owner of the work at the time.  So the altarpiece came down through the ages as a wedding painting.  This until 1983 -1984 when a one year restoration was carried out by David Bull. His work was done so meticulously that the underdrawing was kept intact - a feat considered a masterpiece in itself - and an amazing and extremely rare rediscovery of a work by a famous master was made. 

Fabric + Artist = Fiber Art

 After something like 100,000 years, mankind evolved from covering itself with animal pelts, furs, probably leaves to being able to produce textiles so easily and inexpensively that there could be 'fiber art.'  That is, textile-based objects that have no intended practical use. And, particularly since the 1960's the dedication, creativity and skills of fabric artists around the world have elevated the field to high art.  Take a look at wonderfully imaginative works by a few of them.

Joana Vasconselos, Crochet Dog

Gabriel Dawe, Rainbow Thread

Svetlana Lyalina, Tapestry Dress/Canvas

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Let's Get Real


Ivan Kramskoi (Russian, 1837-87), Portrait of an Unknown Woman, 1883, o/c

So, here is a work by the Russian painter Ivan Kramskoi. The woman he depicts against a St. Petersburg palace has sensuous lips, hazy eyes, thick curved eyebrows.  If you look closely she also has skin imperfections, freckles, maybe a pimple on her nose.  She's not so much beautiful as impressive and 'chic,' dressed in the latest fashion of the time.  Demi-monde fashion to be exact.  Not without reason critics at the time called her "the courtesan in a carriage," and "an offspring of big cities." And these assessments must have pleased Kramskoi because it was his full intention to bring a real life prostitute, as she really looked, onto the canvas.

Does she in any way remind you of this woman, another, ah hem, odalisque?

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (French, 1780-1867), La Grande Olalisque, 1814, o/c

The artist here has made his courtesan or prostitute acceptable by portraying her as an exotic from the Far East.  He has also turned her into a statue of sorts with flawlessly unrealistic skin, and a body that is too long and lacks all signs of joints. Essentially, he has purified her and brought her out of private male salons into the public.  

The 'he' in this case is Dominque Ingres, a French neo-classical painter who was so influential in Paris, Rome and later Russia, that he could do whatever he wanted. The St.Petersburg Academy of Arts embraced him whole-heartedly sending some of its most notable painters abroad to France and Italy to learn his "statuesque" style.  Those who didn't go abroad were taught their art by studying and copying the Academy's sizeable collection of neo-classical artworks.

This until Kramskoi and some of his young fellow students challenged the Academy, asserting their freedom to paint realistically.  Unable to effect Academic changes and led by Kramskoi, they publically  broke with (and/or were expelled from) the Academy and began their own movement which became known as peredvizhniki or itinerants. Classically trained but now dedicated to portraying real life and bringing art to the people, they organized their own exhibitions, traveling from town to town across Russia.  

In the process, men went from looking like this: (Ingres, Male Torso, 1800)

to looking more like this 1867 Self-Portrait by Ivan Kramskoi.

Gradually Kramskoi's aspirations to portray the true expressiveness and real circumstances his images took hold with folowing generations of Russian artists. By the end of the 1800's portrait subjects were being painted with personalities and complex human emotions, and our 'unknown woman' and her ilk were out of their carriages and seen on the walls of Russian galleries, museums, dachas and some of those St. Petersburg palaces.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Considering Dessert


So the pandemic seems to be having an effect on my taste buds.  Never one for desserts (unless it is ice cream or pecan pie), I find myself eying the local bakery shelves more carefully these days.  And thinking of some lucious looking art -like these galettes Claude Monet has captured with golden perfection. 

Claude Monet, Les Galettes, 1882, 25.5" x 31.8", o/c

Most people know Monet was a painting genius as well as a master gardener, but they might not know that his third great obsession was food.  He was also an Anglophile who loved fast cars, tweeds, tea and certain English recipes from fine restaurants.  He brought those last back to Giverny where he worked with his private cook until the taste was exactly the same he remembered.  He also carried vegetable seeds home in his pockets from locales where they had tasted especially delicious and was the first to plant zucchini in Normandy - which until then grew none.

Monet in his yellow Giverny dining room with some of his extensive collection of Japanese prints on the walls

Or if I'm feeling a bit too pensive for pretty galette, perhaps I'll dim the lights, pour myself a glass of sherry and settle in with some grapes and cake.  Like the dessert Raphaelle Peale painted so exquisitely below.

Raphaelle Peale, Still Life with Cake, 1818, o/c, 10.7" x 15.2"  (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The first really distinguished still life specialist to emerge in this country, Peale struggled with lifelong melancholy.  Even his tightly grouped, spare, softly lit paintings are delicately permeated with it. Like his siblings (almost all of whom were named after famous artists or scientists), Raphaelle was trained as an artist by his artist/inventor/scientist/naturalist/and more father, Charles Willson Peale. By his early 30's he had begun suffering from the effects of arsenic and mercury poisoning brought on by working as a taxidermist in his father's museum.  In deterioriating health and frequently hospitalized after that, he died in his early 50's.  The paintings he left behind are exquisite.  Of all the many masterpieces in his exceptional collection,  the painting John D. Rockefeller, 3rd. kept close at his desk was Raphaelle Peale's Blackberries.

Blackberries, ca.1813, o/c,  7 1/4" x 10 1/4" (De Young Museum, San Francisco)

Or, Maybe one of these days I will decide to really dive in to those desserts I keep walking by.  And maybe that day I'll be tempted to buy all the cakes because they'll all look as sumptuous as Wayne Thiebaud's astonishing artistic odes to dessert.  Hopefully I'll remember they are as loaded with calories as Thiebaud's works are loaded with historic references to past techniques and artists like Morandi, Matisse (💗), Ingres (from yesterday's CIWT), Bonnard, Albers.  After 60 years of daily painting (he turned 100 this year) those artists and his own "American drive' have inspired him to keep exploring the perfect formal recipe for painting a dessert in a way that it has never been painted before.

Wayne Thiebaud, Cakes, 1963, o/c, 5' x 6'

Sunday, January 31, 2021



So, I thought I'd take a quick look at the history of fabric and clothes, then report.  

That turned out like taking a quick glance at the entire worldwide history of art.  In other words, it includes virtually everything.  First off,  everyone was naked for who knows how many tens of thousands of years or whether they had become humans yet.  Along the long, long way, discoveries were made or invented at different times in different parts of the world depending on myriad circumstances.

The more I researched, the happier I am (and you too!) that I wasn't one of our (pre) people ancestors. For instance, there's not a chance that I would have pulled fibers from the inside of tree bark and begun rolling and rolling them on my thigh.  And then! after weeks of rolling when I had enough strands, no way would I have thought to twist them around each other until I'd created string.  So, with me in charge there wouldn't have been fishing lines and nets, bows for hunting and creating fire, bags to wrap and carry bundles, straps to carry babies close to the chest and so much more that our civilization relied on.  Oh, and clothes!   

And the blue in those jeans we all - worldwide -  have multiple pairs of and wear for everything from work to fashion?  You can't imagine how much artifice and effort it took to produce that indigo dye from certain types of green plant leaves.  Once that stable pigment was figured out, it was terrific for ink or paint.  But getting it to adhere to cloth, well that was cave person rocket science.  Then there's all the, you know, factories, trading routes, money and banking and other things that needed to be invented before we could all step into our daily jeans.

The other day I was writing about Super Kids as if they are something new.  But, come to think of it, our ancestors were the original Super Kids.  They may have been 'primitive,' but boy were they smart, resourceful and creative.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

First Lady's Choice


Robert Seldon Duncanson (1821-1872), Landscape with Rainbow, 1859, 30 x 52.25", oil on canvas

I didn't catch this pastoral landscape on WSJ Live on Inauguration Day, but perhaps some of you watching on television did.  It had been selected by Jill Biden from the Smithsonian Collection to be on prominent display in the U.S. Capital during the inauguration.

The artist, Robert Seldon Duncanson, was one of very few established African-American artists active during the pre-and post-Civil War era.  'Established' meaning he was able to support himself by his art, even to travel to and receive art training in Paris.  These accomplishments are never easy for any artist; Duncanson was extremely gifted but he also worked tirelessly first as a house painter, then as an itinerant portrait painter particularly around Cincinnati and Detroit.  There was little formal art education for most Americans at the time and virutally none for African-American artists, so he taught himself to paint by copying prints and etchings of European artists and sketching from nature as he traveled seeking portrait commissions.  

He also became intrigued by travel prints, exploration journals and how Hudson River School artists whose works he encountered used nature to convey ideas about America and its ideals. With the goal of becoming a landscape artist himself, he came off the road, away from portraits and settled in Cincinnati, which had a large free slave population as well as a strong arts community.  There, in what was then called 'the Athens of the West' and filled with new inspiration, he received an important commission from Charles Avery, an abolitionist Methodist minister.  His work for Avery, combined with Avery's social reach,  cemented Duncanson's career by establishing him within a network of abolitionist patrons who purchased his art, sponsored his trips to study old masters abroad and sustained most of Duncanson's career.

Sadly, that career was shortened by dementia and early death at 51.  It is thought Duncanson's suffering, like perhaps Michaelangelo, Goya, Van Gogh among others, was caused by lead in the paints.  Even by then though he was one of the very few landscape painters of the nineteenth century and achieved levels of success unknown to his contemporaries.  By the 1860's American art critics were proclaiming  Duncanson the "greatest landscape painter in the West" while London newspapers held him in equal regard to other British artists at the time.  He is credited with developing the regional Ohio River Valley art style and to this day the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati maintains an artist-in-residence program for African-American artists in honor of Duncanson.

So, the First Lady chose very well indeed.  

Thursday, January 14, 2021

How'd You do That?


Here it is a little closer: 

It's at the highest point of the Church of Sant'Ignazio in Rome, near the Pantheon. isn't a dome at all. Ie, the ceiling up there is flat.

Backtracking a bit, I was thinking about those high church ceilings and wondering how artists got up there to decorate them. Many of us, particularly those who read Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstacy or saw the movie, know Michaelangelo worked from scaffolding to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling.  He actually designed a unique system of platforms attached by brackets to the Chapel's walls.  This was ingenius (of course), but he never did figure out a way to overcome the physical strain of the increasingly uncomfortable work. Definitely not by lying on his back to paint.  Contrary to the movie image of Charlton Heston, he and his assistants stood and reached above their heads to paint, for years!  Makes my muscles ache just thinking about it.

So far I haven't learned how other artists before the advent of modern technology went about painting those gorgeous vaulted and domed ceilings around the world.  But I did learn about the false dome above which was a major accomplishment in its own right and executed by another Renaissance genius, Brother Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709).

Pozzo may have been a Brother in the Jesuit order, but he appears to be the Father of the illusionistic artistic technique called trompe d'oeil.  The widely traveled virtuoso painter-priest was an expert in mathematics who wrote detailed treatises on theories of perspective. And, when he was put in charge of the interior decoration at Sant'Ignazio from 1685-94, he had a supreme opportunity to put his theories into practice.

The Catholic Church at the time was in the business of winning believers back from the new Protestant orders that had sprung up since Martin Luther.  One of their main techniques was filling their churches with dazzling, theatrical art that stirred the hearts and astonished the minds of worshippers.  So, the original plan for the new Sant'Ignazio church called for an impressive, soaring dome through which the light of the Lord would appear to stream.  

But, some time before completion, either the church ran out of money or the locals objected to a massive dome that would block their sun.  Enter Brother Pozzo who managed to make the bascilica's massive (and flat!) ceiling disappear, opening up an entirely convincing vista into the celestial world above.  What he was standing or sitting or lying on, I don't  know, but, however he did it,  Pozzo's masterpiece is one of the most impressive pieces of artistic illusion ever painted.

Brother Andrea Pozzo, S.J., Self-Portrait, 17th C.