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'