Sunday, November 27, 2011

Paintings of Deception

Valentin de Boulogne, Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice, c. 1618/20

A magnificent exhibition of Caravaggio and His Followers at the Kimbell Museum in Fort Wort
h features the Washington National Gallery of Art's Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice by Valentin de Boulogne. The painting tells a story of deception. Caravaggio had also painted Card Sharks with fewer figures. Boulogne, a Frenchman working in Rome, may have known of his composition.

Boulogne's painting is a tight, close-up composition with masterfully chosen areas of ligh
t. Two simultaneous episodes are taking place: dice throwing on the right and cheating card players on the left. The card sharks are the first to demand our attention, as they look startlingly real. Behind the central figure, who is in the process of cheating, another drama is happening. A man on the right looks down and covers his dice, perhaps hiding something while his adversary with the red hat seems about to erupt in anger. Although not a traditionally religious painting, Boulogne suggests two of the deadly sins, deception and anger. He warns of the hazards of gambling, exactly what these two vignettes represent.

The dice player with downcast eyes can be variously interpreted.

The sinister scene is set in a dark room. The well-dressed young man in front left is being duped by two soldiers, while two men cross behind them playing dice. The compact composition and the forceful use of diagonals heighten the tension, connecting the men who otherwise would be seen as individual character types. Colors are primarily earthy for these ruffians. But other colors fight for attention: white, scattered touches of blue clothes and the brilliant red hat in center (symbol of anger?), which is replicated in less vibrant red stockings on bottom facing the other direction.

A dark, sinister man in the upper left corner startles with his realistic presence. The details of faces come from a blog, Head for Art, May 24, 2010.

Eye movements and gestures pull us around the painting. At first glance, I am attracted to the white face and dark staring eye of the man in center (see below). His gaze goes past his competitor, to the man in shadow behind. Though the face of this man on the far left is darker than the others, his expression is so real as his fingers signal the number two (above). The shadowy compositions suggest that more than cheating is going on, something very dark, sinister and deceptive. Boulogne warns against taking chances in life. Intense light- dark contrast is a legacy of Caravaggio.

Viewers note the intensity of this soldier's stare and his slow, careful choice of cards pulls the viewer into the story.

Caravaggio, The Fortune Teller, of 1594, comes from the Capitoline Museum of Rome. The aristocratic young man falls in love as he is being duped.

Another allegory of deception Caravaggio painted is The Fortune Teller, 1594, a startlingly realistic depiction in the Kimbell's exhibition. An alluring young gypsy and fashionable aristocrat look at each other with an intense hold. Her face suggests she is attracted to him, or at least feigning an attraction. His puffed sleeve, puffed cheek, elbow, sway of hips and sword express confidence, but caution is thrown to the wind. As the girl reads his palm, she slyly slips off his golden ring. The viewer, captivated by the couple's loving gaze and beautiful clothing, is also tricked. We only see this detail by close inspection. The colors are primarily earth tones, black and white.

The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs, by Georges de la Tour, 1630-34. The cheat, who slyly looks at us and shows his deck, is a "shady" figure, both literally and figuratively.  The shadiness of the story is in contrast to the highly polished figures and their clothes.

Georges de la Tour's scene of card players, in the Kimbell's own collection, rounds out these tales of deception. Some elements of The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs are familiar-- its close-up view and dark background. But the colors are brilliant oranges, pinks and reds. The youngest boy will get duped, and everyone else knows they are taking advantage of him. Cheating begins with the large woman who glances sideways at the woman bringing wine, who in turn casts one eye towards the "shady" cardplayer. In shadow on the left, he holds out the cards for us to see and looks at us outside the painting, bringing the viewers into the drama. The boy on right is innocent, but flirting with a world beyond his experience. The background is completely black behind the evil threesome, while the young boy is still halfway "in the light" of the painting, midway between good and bad. He can choose to stay on the right side, both literally and figuratively.

Certain Baroque painters could visually portray situations comparable to the dramatizations of Shakespeare from the 1590s and early 1600s. Carefully calculated figure placements and compositional angles let the human drama unfold before our eyes. They moralize and forewarn viewers of evil. Caravaggio's Fortune Teller and de la Tour's Cheat with the Ace of Clubs also are also comedies, because the well-dressed young men, possibly aristocrats, do not realize their susceptibility to trickery.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

From the Childhood of Michelangelo

St Anthony Torment by the Demons, c. 1487, was painted by Michelangelo when he was only 13. The panel, 18 x 12 inches, is warped as happens to many panels over time.

The Torment of Saint Anthony is a small panel painting which was recently discovered to have been painted by Michelangelo in 1487/88. Intensive cleaning in 2008/9 led experts to believe that Michelangelo painted it when he was 12 or 13 years of age. Only four easel paintings by Michelangelo are known, and this one of is in North America, at Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum.

Michelangelo's St. Anthony looks remarkably calm despite the demons who are scratching him

St. Anthony was an early Christian of the 4th century who lived as a hermit for many years. According to his biographer, the rigorous asceticism practiced by St Anthony in the Egyptian desert allowed him to float in the air, where he was attacked by devils trying to beat him to the ground. Anthony defeated these demons on more than one occasion, but not without a big struggle. It is not at all surprising that a young Michelangelo would have been attracted to this subject, because the artist always seemed to be battling his own internal demons, as the poetry he wrote and certain sculptures of slaves he made later in life would suggest.

Schongauer's masterly engraving, St. Anthony Tormented by Demons, c. 1480, gave inspiration to the young Michelangelo
Michelangelo copied an engraving by a French-German artist, Martin Schongauer, who was Europe's greatest practitioner of printmaking at that time. Schongauer used a vivid imagination and great technical ability to show light, shadow and texture. These beasts are composite creatures of fanciful reptiles, fish and flying monsters, who scratch, pull and club the holy man. Schongauer left the landscape minimal, a small edge of rocks in the lower right-hand corner which describe the mountain he lived on in isolation. Saint Anthony seems to be suspended in the air, in a radiating, circular composition. Schongauer used short dots or stipples to get his deepest shadows into the small metal plate used for engraving.

We don't know the date of Schongauer's engraving--perhaps about 1480--but we know that his prints traveled throughout Europe. Michelangelo's biographers said that he made a painting after a Schongauer print when he was 13, and this new attribution fulfills that void in our knowledge. This connection also shows the important role of prints in spreading artistic ideas and iconography, with the engraving passed into Italy from Germany.I have seen the Schongauer original in the print room of the National Gallery and its details are incredible. No wonder the young genius was impressed.

Although Michelangelo borrowed many details
from the great German engraver, he went to
the fish market to observe. According to the
Kimball Art Museum, Michelangelo scraped away
lines of paint in the body of the fish-like creature,
revealing the primer beneath the paint in the
parallel lines of hatching.

When Michelangelo copied Schongauer, he was equally adept at detail. He straightened Saint Anthony's head, gave him a shorter beard and added an interesting landscape background. The brown-gray foreground is rocky and craggy, and in pristine detail. Critics of the Michelangelo attribution do not like the background. The painting has a high viewpoint just like St. Anthony who lived on a mountain near the Nile when the demons attacked and lifted him. So this landscape is a bird's eye view of river, hills and sky with a low horizon line. Using aerial perspective, it gets more and more indistinct as it goes back into space and turns nearly white as it hits the horizon. The cool colors of the background and the low horizon line allow the figures to come forward and stand out with warm colors. This setting may be more reminiscent of the Arno in Florence than the Nile River, but European artists of the time were not familiar with the desert.

Photos above and right were taken by the Kimball to AP. This demon was painted in tempera and oil with magnificent detail. Color changes and the meticulous line technique are visible.
His mouth is ferocious.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Forget Andy Warhol; Go to the Newseum

The Newseum in Washington, DC, opened near the Mall in 2008. This 7-floor, 653 square-foot building on Pennsylvania Avenue is a museum of photographic, print and broadcast journalism. Its architecture combines ultra-sleek glass with reinforced concrete.

Instead of going to the National Gallery's exhibition, Andy Warhol: Headlines, a trip to the Newseum across the street to learn about real headlines and the history of journalism would be more worthwhile. Warhol had a need for publicity, but that does not make his art interesting and real life news deserves more of the public's attention. The 14 galleries and 15 theaters involve many historic events. A few news programs are broadcast here, including This Week.

Seeing a Warhol in person offers nothing new, unless the colors are wrong in reproduction. Size is the only difference between a real Warhol and a reproduction, but big does not make the art good. A concurrent Warhol exhibition at the Hirshhorn has very large pieces.

In contrast to most large National Gallery exhibitions which are teaming with visitors who can't get their eyes off the paintings, prints or sculptures, a Warhol show gets visitors who walk through the exhibitions without stopping to look very frequently. On the Sunday I was there, no one had bought the $5 acoustiguide.
The photo above is from Wikipedia
Why has the National Gallery mounted a Warhol exhibition? Very wealthy collectors who had been lured into the hype have paid $18 million plus for his works, investments which could be worth little in 100 years. A recent news flash showed that actress Sandra Bullock's son received the gift of a Warhol print; even a one-year old baby is learning to be fashionable. While working at a blue chip Chicago art gallery (not as trendy as Hollywood or New York) in the 80s, I saw how some collectors buy to be in style or flaunt their prosperity rather than for love or interest in art. Collecting Warhol is often for people who fall prey to these scenarios.

A recent PBS
documentary about Warhol showed how many of his ideas were not his own ideas, even the soup cans. Contrary to the myth Warhol perpetuated, he was not the inventor of Pop Art. Better than going to a Warhol exhibition, one is advised to watch the PBS show on DVD or watch his imitators, today's reality trendsetters on TV.

Furthermore, he has completely done a disservice to artists by suggesting that the shallow, narcissistic and capitalistic instinct should be cultivated as art.

Before giving Warhol attention, we should recognize the drug culture he created with many young women and men at The Factory in New York, where workers help him mass produce images. The terrible addictions and deaths that some of these "groupies" experienced should not
be disregarded, as he promoted behavior influencing their demise in order to cultivate followers. Warhol received too much attention in his life and he does not deserve it now.

Instead of looking at his uninspired work, viewers should gaze at some of the stunning photojournalism in the Newseum, works of visionary power and depth which can be both illuminating and moving to viewers. The "Pictures of the Year" exhibition just closed. However, a traveling exhibition of Pulitzer-Prize winning photographs is on view through December 2011.

If you disagree, please feel free to comment on this blog and explain why his art has any value. If Andy is genuinely important, there will be persuasive argumen
ts in Warhol's favor. But if Warhol defenders don't come to the rescue, you will prove my point --- that the public should stay home and avoid these exhibitions. Writing your differences of opinion, just like freedom for artists to express themselves, is all important!

The Newseum is funded by Freedom Forum, a non-partisan group group dedi
cated to freedom of speech, freedom of the press and free spirit for all people. Its mission is "raise public awareness of the important role of a free press in a democratic society" and bring understanding between the public and the press. Like other institutions these days, it has hit hard financial times (isn't it time for the price of an Andy Warhol to go down?) and staff had to be cut. The price of admission is now $21.75. But exhibits are interactive and you can spend an entire day there.

Finally, the true artist is one who would do art regardless of fame or fortune, someone like Van Gogh who sold no paintings in his lifetime but whose art truly moves people to this day. In a hundred years, Warhol will be forgotten because his art is lacking.
Here is a blogger who also has poor things to say about Warhol:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Layering Paint

Georgia Nassikas's triptych, Stone Wall, is in the very old technique of encaustic..

McLean Project for the Arts is currently exhibiting three contemporary artists whose techniques involve layering. I was initially attracted there to look at Georgia Nassikas' paintings made in an encaustic technique. In this medium, paint pigment mixes with beeswax to create a very thick and rugged texture, as seen in Stone Wall, above. Paint must be kept hot during application and it sets quickly. The technique was introduced in Egypt during the Roman Empire, in portraits of the deceased encased in mummies. Nassikas uses the wax from the hives of bees she keeps, as it is necessary to cover the large areas of the multi-layered canvases she paints. Many diverse, uneven shades of color show through the wax in both abstract and landscape paintings.

Carolyn Case has small intimate paintings of oil which also feature layering of a different kind. Her exhibition is called Accidently, On Purpose, suggesting the the works are spontaneous. However, portions of her paintings seem to be cut out or stenciled with different patterns. Even if we cannot figure out how she gets her multi-layered effect with different colors and patterns appearing in front and behind each other, we can get lost in the intricacies and details of her paintings.

Carolyn Case's intimate paintings are 12" x 12"
They are Part Potion, left, and Blue vs Blue, right, featuring multiple layers

Finally, Seth Rosenberg's paintings do not have the layers and textures of paint that Carolyn Case and Georgia Nassikas give to their oils and encaustics. However, his paintings from the "Cleveland Years: 2005-2009" give the illusion of overlapping of abstract and realistic forms.
Hard Times represents the muted colors from Seth Rosenberg's Cleveland years, a change from the colorful style of his Washington years.
He mastered making compositions which combine several different patterns in single paintings which resemble collages. Colors are minimal, almost monochromatic. This artist lived in Washington, DC, for twenty years, but spent five years in Cleveland until his sudden death in 2009. The Rosenberg exhibition originated at the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art. Kudos to a small community art center, McLean Project for the Arts, for bringing in such a good traveling exhibition.