Friday, April 8, 2016

Élisabeth Louise Vigee-Le Brun: Confident Prodigy Became an International Sensation

Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbons, c. 1782, Kimbell Art Museum
Vigée-Le Brun: Woman Artist of Revolutionary France is major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum until May 15.  Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun's Self-Portrait from the Kimbell Art Museum explains her quite well. She shines with the confidence and elegance of a woman who would eventually become an international superstar. It shows off her top-notch artistic skills. Touches of brilliant red for the ribbon, sash, lips and cheeks to add sensual pizzaz. Portraits are not my favorite genre of painting, but Vigée-Le Brun's portraits are always dazzling. The light radiating through her earring is just the right touch. One reason we never hear her mentioned among France's top ten or twenty painters is that she was a painter of royalty who supported the wrong side of the French Revolution.  It is only last year that France gave her a major retrospective, although her international reputation was strong back in her day.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Rebecca Kamen Continues Her Scientific Explorations Through Art

Rebecca Kamen, NeuroCantos, an installation at Greater Reston Arts Center 

Six years ago, The Elemental Garden, an exhibition at Greater Reston Arts Center (GRACE) prompted me to start blogging about art. Like TED talks, the news of something so visually fascinating and mentally stimulating as Rebecca Kamen's integration of art with sciences needs to spread.  GRACE presented her work in 2009 and did a followup exhibition, Continuum, which closed February 13, 2016.

Rebecca Kamen, Lobe, Digital print of silkscreen, 15" x 22"
Like the Elemental Garden, Kamen's new works visually evoke and replicate scientific principles.  For the non-scientist and the scientist, the works and their presentation are fascinating.  Kamen worked with a British poet and a composer/musician from Portland, Oregon, each with similar intellectual interests.

Two prints included in the show create a dialogue between her design and the words of poet Steven Fowler. I like how the idea of gray matter is overlapped by darker conduits, in Lobe, above.  There's a wonderful sense of density and depth.

While her last exhibition at GRACE was mainly about the Periodic table in chemistry, this time Rebecca Kamen's exhibition included additional themes such as neural connectivity, gravitational pull, black holes and other mysteries of the universe.  Why use art to talk about science?  In a statement for Continuum, Kamen starts with a quote by Einstein: "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science."

Both art and science are creative endeavors that start with questions. One time Kamen told me that she knows there is some connection between the design of the human brain and the design of the solar system, that has not yet been explained. NeuroCantos, the installation shown in the photo on top, explores this relationship. Floating, hanging cone-like structures made of mylar represent the neuronal networks in the brain, while circular shapes below symbolize the similarity of pattern between the brain and outer space, the micro and macro scales. It investigates "how the brain creates a conduit between inner and outer space through its ability to perceive similar patterns of complexity," Kamen explained in an interview for SciArt in America, December 2015. The installation brings together neuroscience and astrophysics, but it's initial spark came from a dialogue with poet Fowler. (They met as fellows at the Salzburg Global Seminar last February and participated in a 5-day seminar exploring The Art of Neuroscience.)

Rebecca Kamen, Portals, 2014, Mylar and fossils
Nearby another installation, Portals, also features suspended cones hanging over orbital patterns on the floor.  The installation interprets the tracery patterns of the orbits of black holes, and it celebrates the 100th anniversary of Einstein's discovery of general relativity. It's inspired by gravitational wave physics. To me, it's just beautiful. I can't pretend to really understand the rest. The entire exhibit is collaborative in nature, with Susan Alexjander, composer, recreating sounds originating from outer space.  The combination of sound, slow movement and suspension is mesmerizing.

Terry Lowenthal made a video projection of "Moving Poems" excerpts from Steven Fowler's poems and a quote from Santiago Ramon y Cajal, artist and neuroscientist.

There are also earlier works by Kamen, mainly steel and wire sculptures.  With names like Synapse, Wave Ride: For Albert and Doppler Effect, they obviously mimic scientific effects as she interprets them.  Doppler Effect, 2005, appears to replicate sound waves drawing contrast in how they are experienced from near or far away.
Rebecca Kamen, Doppler Effect, 2005, steel and copper wire

Kamen is Professor Emeritus at Northern Virginia Community College.  She has been an artist-in-residence at the National Institutes of Health. She did research Harvard's Center for Astrophysics and at the Cajal Institute in Madrid. Her art has been featured throughout the country; while her thoughts and concepts  have been shared around the world.

For more information, check out, (Susan Alexjander) and

The Elemental Garden 

Elemental Garden, 2011, mylar, fiberglass rods

To the left is a version of The Elemental Garden in Continuum.  An identical version is in the educational program of the Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, VA.

(The following is how I described it while writing the original blog back in 2010) Sculptor Rebecca Kamen has taken the elemental table to create a wondrous work of art. The beautiful floating universe of Divining Nature: The Elemental Garden--recently shown at Greater Reston Area Arts Center (GRACE)--is based on the formulas of 83 elements in chemistry. Its amazing that an artist can transform factual information into visual poetry with a lightweight, swirling rhythm of white flowers.

According to Kamen, she had the inspiration upon returning home from Chile. After 2 years of research, study and contemplation, she built 3-dimensional flowers based upon the orbital patterns of each atom of all 83 elements in nature, using Mylar to form the petals and thin fiberglass rods to hold each flower together. The 83 flowers vary in size, with the simplest elements being smallest and the most complex appearing larger. The infinite variety of shapes is like the varieties possible in snowflakes; the uniform white mylar material connects them, but individually they are quite different.

Rebecca Kamen, The Elemental Garden, 2009, as installed in GRACE in 2009 (from artist's website)
One could walk in the garden and feel a mystical sensation in the arrangement of flowers, as intriguing as the "floral arrangement" of each single element. After awhile I discovered that the atomic flowers were installed in a pattern based upon the spiral pattern of Fibonacci's sequence. Medieval writer Leonardo Fibonacci and ancient Indian mathematicians had discovered the divine proportion present in nature. This mystical phenomenon explains the spirals we see in nature: the bottom of a pine cone, the spirals of shells and the interior of sunflowers among other things. Greeks also created this pattern in the "golden section" which defines the measured harmony of their architecture. Kamen wanted to replicate this beauty found in nature

Kamen likened her flowers to the pagodas she had seen in Burma. However, there is an even more interesting, interdisciplinary connection. Research on the Internet brought Kamen to a musician, Susan Alexjander of Portland, OR, who composes music derived from Larmor Frequencies (radio waves)emitted from the nuclei of atoms and translated into tone. Alexjander collaborated, also, and her sound sequences were included with the installation. Putting music and art together with science mirrors the universe and it is pure pleasure to experience this mystery of creation.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Isamu Noguchi, Biomorphic Art and Design

Isamu Noguchi, Trinity, 1945, Gregory, 1948, Strange Bird (To the Sunflower)
Photo taken from the Hirshhorn's Facebook page
Biomorphic and anthropomorphic themes run through quite a few exhibitions of modern artists in Washington at the moment.  The Hirshhorn's Marvelous Objects: Surrealist Sculpture from Paris to New York has several of the abstract, biomorphic Surrealists such as Miro and Calder.  The wonderful exhibition will come to a close after this weekend.

Isamu Noguchi's many sculptures that are part of Marvelous Objects deal with an unexpected part of the artist's life and work. Noguchi was interned in a prison camp in Arizona for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Whatever the horrors of his experience, he dealt with it as an artist does -- making art and using creativity to express the experience by transforming it. 

Isamu Noguchi, Lunar Landscape, 1944
Lunar landscape comes from immediately after this difficult time period. The artist explained, "The memory of Arizona was like that of the moon... a moonscape of the mind...Not given the actual space of freedom, one makes its equivalent -- an illusion within the confines of a room or a box -- where imagination may roam, to the further limits of possibility and to the moon and beyond."   It's like taking tragedy and turning it into magic.

Strange Bird (To the Sunflower), 1945 Noguchi Museum, NY

The most interesting piece from this period is Strange Bird (To the Sunflower), 1945.  It is pictured here 2x -- on top photo, right side, and from a different angle on the left, from a photo in the Noguchi Museum. Between 1945 and 1948, Noguchi made a series of fantastic hybrid creatures that he called memories of humanity "transfigurative archetypes and magical distillations."  Yet the simplicity and the Zen quality I expect to see in his work is gone from this time of his life.

From the beginning of time, "humans have wanted a unifying vision by which to see the chaos of our world.  Artists fulfill this role," said Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto.

I'm reminded of the ancient Greeks who created satyrs and centaurs to deal with their animal nature.  At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there's a small Greek sculpture of a man and centaur from about 750 BCE, the Geometric period.  The  man confronting the centaur seems to be taming him or subduing his own animal nature. Like Noguchi's sculpture, it has hybrid forms and angularity, but it's made of bronze.  Noguchi's sculpture is of smooth green slate, which gives it much of its beauty and polish.
Man and Centaur, bronze, 4-3/4" mid-8th century BCE Metropolitan Museum

Noguchi was a landscape architect as well as a sculptor. When designing gardens, he rarely used sculpture other than his own.  Yet he bought garden seats by ceramicist Karen Karnes.  A pair of these benches by Karnes are now on display at the National Museum for Women in the Arts' exhibition of design visionaries.  Looking closely, one sees how she used flattened, hand-rolled coils of clay to build her chairs.  The craftsmanship is superb.  It's easy to see how her aesthetic fit into Noguchi's refined vision of nature.
Karen Karnes, Garden seats, ceramic, from the Museum of Arts in Design, now at NMWA
Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft and Design, Midcentury and Today is the current large-scale exhibition at National Museum for Women in the Arts-- on view until February 28.   So much in NMWA's exhibition continues the anthropomorphic and biomorphic qualities noticed in Isamu Noguchi's sculpture. It includes fiber artists and ceramic artists of the 20th century and today, an international group of women who have shaped the world of design. Scandinavian fabric designers and Native American ceramicists from the Southwest are brought together, along with Anni Albers, who brought German design ideas to America.  Here's a wonderful explanation of the exhibition, with a good summary of the major artists covered.   Even the works of furniture and fixture designers are on display, too.

Ruth Asawa, Form-Within-Form Sculpture, 1952, at NMWA
(This exhibition  encourages photo taking, so the following pictures are from my cell phone.)

There's an interesting piece by Ruth Asawa. It's a delicate wire crochet that hangs as a sculpture. It's interior and exterior forms are seemingly drawn in the air.  A photo found online shows here surrounded by her children and several of the sculptures.  The interior forms are like babies in the womb.

Asawa, a  Japanese-American artist, like Isamu Noguchi, had been in a prison camp during World War I, when she would have been in high school.  It was there that other prisoners taught her to draw. After the war, Asawa studied at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, as did other artists in the show.

When she reflected on the experience of internment Asawa said:  "I hold no hostilities for what happened; I blame no one. Sometimes good comes through adversity. I would not be who I am today had it not been for the Internment, and I like who I am."  Asawa settled in San Francisco and became an advocate for the arts in education. The DeYoung Museum of Art held a major retrospective of her work in 2006.

Eva Zeisel, candlesticks and Pepper and Salt Shaker, at NMWA

Many of the ceramic artists who really take their cues from the human body.   Perhaps the most famous of them is  Eva Zeisel, who was born in Hungary but had a long and distinguished career in beginning in Germany and then the United States.  Her works have been sold by Crate and Barrel, Design Within Reach, Red Wing Pottery and Hall China Company.  For more information see theNMWA's blog at

Eva Zeisel, Gravy Boat at NMWA's Pathmaker's exhibition

I like her Salt Shaker and Pepper Shakers and her candlesticks which have lovely flowing curves.  Zeisel's designs were picked up by major American china companies of the 20th century.   The most sensual of pieces to me, however, is a delicate white gravy boat.  Its handle reminded me of lips, and I think of how ancient Greek pottery is usually described by the neck, shoulders, belly, mouth and foot.

Eva Zeisel's Belly Button Room Divider was a model made of ceramic and metal rods, but it was never manufactured.  The colors shock and glow.  It's a nice change from all the subdued colors and also a blast of fun.  It seems like Zeisel had a wonderful sense of humor.   (Many of the works in this blog have important points of comparison with my last blog about Louise Bourgeois.)

Eve Zeisel, Belly Button Room Divider, 1957

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Louise Bourgeois, Abstraction and Archetypes in Modern Sculpture

"Contemporary and ancient art are like oil and water, seemingly opposite I have found the two melding ineffably into one, more like water and air."  Hiroshi Sugimoto, Japanese artist
Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 1952, Spring, 1949 and Mortise, 1950 National Gallery of Art

Two separate exhibitions in Washington at the moment illustrate the commonality of modern art and prehistoric -- especially in sculpture.  The me, that theme resonates with two sculptors who lived through most of the 20th century, Louise bourgeois and Isamu Noguchi.  The National Gallery has a two-room exhibition Louise Bourgeois:No Exit, and Noguchi (hopefully in another blog)'s works are part of the Hirshhorn's exhibition, Marvelous Objects: Surrealist Sculpture from Paris to New York.

Constantin Brancusi, Endless Column,1937

Three sculptures by Bourgeois in the National Gallery are what she called personages.  As a whole they're not unlike the archetypal images of Henry Moore or Constantin Brancusi.  Among these three works are a group of three piles of stones resting on stilts.  It's one of the Bourgeois sculptures that
Barbara Hepworth, Figure in Landscape,cast 1965
appears simple and somewhat primitive.  Untitled is above on the left.  The stones stand tall and top heavy; they seem to be wearing big hats.  I'm reminded of the precarious state of human existence. I am also thinking of the top-heavy candidates in the recent Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, weak on bottom and they may fall. Aesthetically these works form a link to Brancusi's birds on pedestals and the Endless Column, Targu Jui, Romania, part of a memorial for fallen soldiers in World War I.

The sculpture of Spring center above is reminiscent of a woman, or of the ancient Venus figures, which date to the Paleolithic era, around 20,000 BCE.  It can be compared the the elongated marble burial figures from prehistoric, Cycladic Greece as well.
"Venus" figures from Dolni Vestinici, Willendorf, Austria and Lespuge, France

A version of Alberto Giacometti's bronze Spoon Woman from the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas is in the surrealist exhibition (Example below from Art Institute of Chicago). Giacometti made this archetypal image in 1926/27, but the bronze was cast in 1954.  Henry Moore's Interior and Exterior Forms, is a theme he did over and over, is an archetype of the mother and child

Giacometti, Spoon Woman, 1926/27, cast 1954
In 1967, the Museum Ludwig, founded by chocolate manufacturers in Cologne, Germany, asked for one of her sculptures to be replicated in a single large piece of chocolate.  She chose Germinal, its name suggestive of germination and new beginnings.  (Germinal is also the name of Emile Zola's famous French novel of 19th century coal minors.  I wouldn't put it past her to be referring to the story, but don't have an idea as to how and why)
Germinal, 1967, promised gift of Dian Woodner, copyright

Bourgeois, who died in 2010, lived to be 98 years. She continually worked and invented anew. In time, I think she will be considered a giant among the sculptors of the 20th century, on par with Moore, Brancusi and Calder.  Her art was more varied than the others and she defied categorization and/or predictability.  However, certain themes seemed to carry her for long periods of time, such as the personages of her early to middle period and the cells she did late in her life.  She worked both vary large and very small and with an infinite variety of materials including fiber. She grew up in a family which worked in the tapestry business, primarily repairing antique tapestries.  To her, making art was making reparations making peace with the past.  Some wish to put her in the category of Surrealism, but she calls herself an Existentialist, in the philosophical realm of Jean-Paul Sartre.  Looking at some of the drawings in the National Gallery and how she explained it does give a clue into the existential thoughts and feelings.

Spider, 2003 (not in exhibition)
One of Bourgeois's best-known themes was the spider, having done several monumental statues in public places.  The spider stands for the protective mother, and her version of the archetype, as it also alludes to the weaving activity in her family.   It is large and embracing but can also have a dark side.  I like best the spiders that combine the metal sculpture with the delicate tapestry figures.  The delicacy and litheness of her spider people remind me of the wonderful organic acrobat sculptures from ancient Crete.

Bull-leaping acrobat, ivory, from Palace at Knossos, Crete, c. 1500 BCE
Bourgeois deals with metaphors.  She calls sculpture the architecture of memory.  She is poetic, but she's also quite humorous.   She also made a sculpture series of giant eyes.  She describes eyes mirrors reflecting various realities.  I'm reminded that in ancient times, the eyes were the mirrors of  a person's soul. As different as her works may be, she portrays a consistent voice and aesthetic throughout her career.
Eye Bench, 1996-97, Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle

When I went to the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle back in 2010, a friend of mine from California and I came upon her Eye Benches.  We sat down and enjoyed it.   She designed three different sets of eye benches made of granite.  In the end, it seems Bourgeois used her art to make sense of her very complicated world and our experience of that world. Sometimes she seems to laugh at it all, so this experience calls for a good laugh and relaxation.
Louise Bourgeois, Eye Bench, Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Gauguin, Picasso, Rouault and Split Identities in the Phillips' show

Paul Gauguin, NAFAE faaipoipo  (When Will You Marry?) 1892
 Rudolph Staechelin Collection
The Phillips Collection's latest loan exhibition, "Gauguin to Picasso: Masterworks from Switzerland," draws upon a pair of collections assembled by two prominent but very different Swiss art collectors. To me, the theme of dualism, pairs and split identities stands out strongly.  The exhibition highlights one of Gauguin's most famous paintings, When are You to be Married? -- a painting that recently was sold.  (The Staechelin and Im Oberstag collections of modern art are normally on display at the Basel Kunstmuseum. Here's an article for background on the collectors why the paintings are traveling.) 

Like so many other paintings by Gauguin, the two women in this infamous painting express two realities, which could represent the split identities within Tahitian society. He painted it during his first stay in Tahiti in 1892. The woman in front is natural, organic, relaxed and colorful in her red skirt. The orchid in her hair was said to suggest that she is looking for a mate.  A woman behind is taller, more severe and covered in a pink dress buttoned to the top--an influence of Western missionaries. The woman in back has a bigger head than the woman in front.  Does he mean to imply that she dominates? Or, is Gauguin imagining a single Tahitian woman who is torn between her native identity and the invasion of western civilization.

Eugene Delacroix, Women of Algiers, 1834, The Louvre
The woman in front may be inspired by one of the very beautiful, sensual women painted in Delacroix's Women of Algiers, one of my all-time favorite paintings. (Delacroix was allowed into the mayor's harem to sketch the women--pictured at right.  Like Gauguin, Delacroix was European observing women in an exotic, foreign land.)

Gauguin, Self-Portrait, 1889, NGA

In his self-portraits and so much of his art, Gauguin expresses the split nature in mankind, the areas where there is inner conflict. Symbolist Self-Portrait at the National Gallery of Art (NGA), Washington, is a divided person, both a saint and a sinner.  He has a choice in the matter, and we wonder what he'll choose.

The two Tahitian women are different, yet blended.  Warm brown skin tones unite them and the hot red skirt of the "natural" native woman flawlessly flows into the warm pink of the stiffer, "civilized" woman. The colors blend and contrast simultaneously into a beautiful harmony.  (Is it surprising that this picture was the most expensive painting ever sold?  Rumor has it that it was purchased by a Qatari for Qatar Museums.)
Georges Rouault, Landscape with Red Sail, 1939, Im Obersteg Foundation, permanent loan to the Kunstmuseum Basel. Photo © Mark Gisler, Müllheim. Image © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Other artists in this exhibition continue the theme of duality and split personality. Early 20th century Expressionist Georges Rouault was honest about his identity as a person belonging in another century, the age of the cathedrals.  His heavily-outlined Landscape with Red Sail uses colors reminiscent of the colors in stained glass and the way stained glass is divided by lines of lead. Yet, his paint is applied in a very rough, heavy manner, hardly like the smoothness of glass. His beautiful seascape does, however, evoke the light of a sunset peaking behind the sailboat--like the light filtering in medieval churches.

Alexej Jawlensky, Self-Portrait, 1911 Im Obersteg Collection

The Expressionist painter Alexej von Jawlensky was a Russian living in Switzerland, in exile there during World War I.  There's a haunting quality to his Self-Portrait, left. Jawlensky and Im Obersteg had a strong friendship throughout his career.

One side of a Picasso painting features a woman in a Post-Impressionist style, "Woman At the Theatre," and the other side has a sad woman, The Absinthe Drinker, from the beginning of the "Blue period." Both were painted in 1901. They could not be more different from each other.  Picasso  was very experimental at that
Picasso, The Absinthe Drinker, 1901 Im Obersteg Collection

time of his life and in his career.

Expressionism is a large part of the exhibition, especially with Wassily Kandinsky, Chaim Soutine, Marc Chagall and Alexej von Jawlinsky.  Swiss Symbolist Ferdinand Hodler shares with us his experience of love and death in a group of paintings of his dying lover Valentine Gode-Darel.  It is difficult to watch and for him painting may have been an attempt to make peace with the awful situation.  

The series of paintings by Hodler are some of the most powerful in the exhibition because we experience the unfolding of a tragedy.  Gode-Darel died of cancer in
Ferdinand Hodler, The Patient, painted 1914, dated 1915. The Rudolf Staechelin Collection © Kunstmuseum Basel, Martin P. Bühler
1915, a year after diagnosis.  The three paintings of rabbis by Marc Chagall continue in the theme of portraiture.

There are very fine small paintings by Cezanne, Monet, Manet, Renoir and Pissaro, two beautiful landscapes by Maurice de Vlaminck. Van Gogh's, The Garden of Daubigny, 1890 is one of three he did of the same subject weeks before his death. The black cat in the painting is small but curiously out of place. The 60 paintings on view, on view until January 10 -- are worth the trip to the Phillips. Here are some of the best photographs of the paintings in the show. These Swiss collections complement the Phillips own marvelous collection of early Modernism.  It is curious that the Swiss collections don't show the greatest of all 20th century Swiss artists, Paul Klee. 

Vincent Van Gogh. The Garden of Daubigny, 1890  Rudolf Staechelin Collection

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Images of a Collective Memory

Sally Mann, Candy Cigarette, 1989
Sally Mann created controversy two decades ago when she published photographs of her three children, Immediate Family. The photos are beautiful, artistic and arresting. The idea of publishing nude pictures of her children is startling, knowing it can and would attract pedophiles.  Did she really think the photos would only attract the photographers and art connoisseurs, as she claims? I would not do the same sharing of my children's private moments, but should I judge her? To me, art is reconciliation.  I look at art to bring opposites together and to negotiate the ambiguities of life, so that is what I am able to find in Sally Mann's work.  She, too, photographed her children to reconcile her need to be a mother without suppressing the artist in her.  They are one and the same.

In June Sally Mann spoke at the National Gallery of Art and read excerpts from her book, Hold Still.  She uses language exquisitely, much as she composes photographs with great artistry.  Like any good biographer, she succeeds in creating mythology.  While reading her book, I was thinking isn't everyone's life so rich and interesting?  It takes the artist to know that, to find that and to bring it to light. Her book is worth the read.

Candy Cigarette hits us in the gut about that time and place of transition into adolescence when we try to rush the process. It expresses the essential difference between her three children marked at a moment of time. The pre-pubescent daughter Jesse stands in center, in an affected pose.  The brother is on stilts behind. Virginia, the youngest turns her back to us. The children are together but very separate, each caught in their own version of reality, expressing their individual truths. Composition and placement make the photo work.  Jesse's strong, sharp elbow leads the way to both the brother and the little sister.  The angle of the cigarette points to the younger girl who in turn looks at the brother.  Of course in this image, she brings out the significance of the moment.  In many of her photos, she shows the not-so innocent quality of children, which is why many found it disturbing.
Sally Mann, The New Mothers

Mann's photos can be spontaneous or contrived, or a combination of each. A hallmark of her work is balancing the factual with the contrived. She takes happenstance and makes it better. Artists have an ability to see the significance in some event, enshrine it and visually communicate in way that maximizes its significance.  They help us, the viewers, to see inner states of mind as eternal truths.  Black and white photography -- with the emphasis on contrast -- sometimes is best.

When looking at The New Mothers, I'm reminded of the very first fine art photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron.  The children pose and act, much like Paul and Virginia, a heart-warming photograph of Victorian children acting as if 'in love" back in 1864. These kids were good at it.  Mann's own daughters are delightfully feminine and express the joy being that way.  We appreciate their strength in expressing themselves, as we move into a time period that tries to suppress expression of pride in one's gender.
Julia Margaret Cameron, Paul and Virginia, 1864

When judging on her artistic merit and on what makes her message resonate, I believe her work hits at something quite deep. Rarely does photography approach the artistry of painting, but Sally Mann does by finding what is special in the mundane world.  She can see the extraordinary in the ordinary.  She sees life in death and death in life.

What I personally look for in art is a way to reconcile opposites. All life is paradox, and Sally's art hints of this paradox. Art can unify.  Life is messy but in art there can be a place where all comes together and we can make peace with messy situations.

Among the descriptions of her children's pictures are disturbing, unsettling and "suggestive of violence. There's a wildness about the kids, freedom, strength and to some people, suggestiveness.
Cover photo, Sally Mann, Immediate Family

At the same time there's love written throughout. She loves what they represent and what they  taught her, as children have much to instruct us about uncontrived living. Perhaps it's that she portrays them without vulnerability that disturbs some people. When Mann photographed her children, she had their permission (at least until they reached a certain age). Most pictures don't show them as innocent and vulnerable. As long as they're under her watchful eye (and the camera's eye, they are protected by their mother. As she said in her talk, she saw her roles of being an artist and being a mother as one and the same. Her pictures are daily life. All of life is paradox, and her family photos show everyday life with hints of the paradox between innocence and experience.

How and why did she grow up to be an artist?  Sally claims to have had free-range parents, but lived at a time before free-range parenting became a buzz word meaning neglect. It was possible in ways it isn't today. Accordingly, Mann is an artist from a place, Lexington in southwest Virginia, the burial ground of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Her father, husband and one of her daughters attended school at Washington & Lee.  She went to the Putney School, where she was influenced by an inspirational photography teacher. She then went onto Bennington, but graduated from Rollins College. She has a masters in Creative Writing from Rollins.

Much of what she writes about and photographs is about her surroundings, her identity with the South, themes of life and death which she views together. Is her account a bit exaggerated? I believe so.  I really question if a few of these stories really are true, or if she is merely using her skill at creating a great story. She describers her parents as unemotional people, totally absorbed with matters of the intellect.  She wants to feel closeness to her children, perhaps sensing that she needed more from her own parents.  Of her ancestors, she feels special connection to the sentimental Welshman, her mother's father, and to her own father who had a fascination with death.  Her father was a country doctor who went to people's homes and was totally dedicated to his patients.  He had an artistic side that his profession prevented him from following. Her mother ran the bookstore of Washington & Lee University.  She sees herself as channeling her father's largely suppressed artistic side -- and his obsession with death.  He gave her a Leica camera at age 17 and started her on her photography obsession.

Mann and her husband returned to the Shenandoah Valley to raise their children, as it is a place the kids could run wild and in the nude, as she did as a child.  A nude photo of Jessie in a swan pose took some work.  While watching her kids, with the artist's eye, she noticed the significance of an event in passing. Then she worked on the photo of it, through trial and error until it reached the near perfect.  She grew up playing in old swimming holes.  There was nothing unnatural about skinny dipping in this environment.

Being a photographer was her way of being a hand's-on parent and truthfully I admire this much more than the hard-driving moms who separate their work life from family life and put that life ahead of appreciating the life of child.  (I should write another blog about children in art, and about how other artists treat the theme of childhood.)

Mann has published other books, including What Remains, 2003, Deep South, 2005 (photographed in Mississippi and Louisiana), At Twelve, 1988, Still Time, 1994, and Proud Flesh, 2009.  She is currently working on photos of the theme of black men.