Sunday, December 5, 2010

Why the Hudson River School Still Amazes

Thomas Cole, Sunset on the Arno, 1837, is at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley until January 23. The exhibition, organized by the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, is from a private collection. Whispy clouds hover above, almost like angels.

Forty paintings from the Hudson River School of painting glow in the Shenandoah Valley, in the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, Winchester, VA. Certainly this location has some resemblance to the Hudson River Valley and these paintings would naturally resonate in the community. Just as the 19th century artists centered mainly in New York and New England hoped to capture and hold onto the natural beauty of their unspoiled nature, the Shenandoah Valley still offers a resting place from too much human development. Entitled "Different Views of Hudson River Painting," the paintings will be in Winchester until January 23.

Jasper Francis Cropsey, The Narrows of Lake George, in the Hudson River Museum. A smaller, view of Lake
George with similar colors is on view is in the in the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley

In this two-room exhibition, many pristine paintings are arranged amongst poetry and quotations by Walt Whitman, William Cullen Bryant and others. The four seasons and many sunsets are on view. These paintings capture views we occasionally see in the mountains or countryside in those moments of nature's most beautiful light and color. I was particularly drawn to Jasper Francis Cropsey's radiant, reflecting color in Lake George, reminding me of the beautiful autumn that has just passed. Much if its appeal is that this painting and several others allow us to remember something and then hold onto it.

John William Casilear, Quiet River (Genesee), 1874. Often there are usually more cattle than people in the Hudson River paintings.

The majority of paintings are small and intimate; brushstrokes are minute and very detailed. People and animals, if depicted, are extremely small to show the grandeur of the natural world. The air is clean, often hazy, and the water is totally placid. We are invited into contemplation.

There are majestic views of Niagara Falls and Mount Washington, but also simple scenes of unknown places such as John William Casilear's Quiet River (Genesee),1874. There is nothing intellectual about the exhibition, only the opportunity for reverie in peaceful, pastoral places. Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson School and painter of the Journey of Life series in Washington's National Gallery, often painted his landscapes as allegories, but there doesn't seem to be an underlying message in this Italian scene, Sunset on the Arno--unless the clouds are seen as angels.

Laura Woodward, Adirondeck Woodland with Deer, has an infinite variety of greens, from very light to dark. The two deer are barely shown against the daylight around the bend of a stream and under the tall trees on the right.

The entire exhibition helps us understand why the Hudson River School is still admired. Alexis Rockman, a contemporary New York painter featured in this blog's next entry was influenced by the Hudson River School.This distinctive American style of painting was important from the 1830s to 1880s. Impressionism in France had a much bigger influence on modernism and is usually more popular, but these artists--and there are so many of them-- deserve a long look and a lot of our respect.
At home I have a small painting on a plate, done in the Hudson River style by my great-grandmother. A gift to my great-grandfather, it is signed on the reverse, "From Helen to James, painted between Xmas and New Year's 1889.

George Inness, Moonlight, Tarpons Springs, 1892, is in the Phillips Collection and part of the current exhibition, Side by Side, which offers comparison to paintings in Oberlin College's Allen Art Museum. Along with Ralph Blakelock's Moonlight and three other moonlight paintings, it can be seen until January 16
Washington museums also have several paintings of the Tonalists who came after the Hudson River School and were generally more painterly. These artists used more layers and show greater influence from the techniques of French painters, particularly from the Barbizon School. The Tonalist painters of moonlight scenes, offer a nice comparison with the sunsets of Hudson River painters---less color but perhaps even more evocative of moods. These paintings include several by Ralph Albert Blakelock at the National Gallery, Phillips, Corcoran and Smithsonian American Art Museum, as well as paintings by George Inness.
Here is a blog devoted to the Hudson River School:

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Arcimboldo: Where Art and Science Meet

"Vertumnus," 1590, is a portrait of a Habsburg ruler, the
Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Arcimboldo betrays a knowledge of plants from the New World: corn and pumpkins. This painting may suggest Rudolf II's worldliness and the bounty of his reign.
In the tradition of Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Durer, 16th century painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo used his artistic skills to record his knowledge of the animals, plants, birds and fish, and he combined the seemingly opposite disciplines of art and science in a unexpected way. The National Gallery exhibition of his paintings is called Arcimboldo 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy. The paintings on display are primarily portraits. But instead of recognizable faces with traditional features, he composed his portrait heads of painted vegetables, fruits, flowers, fire, fowl, fish and frogs. His human beings are a rich composite of the natural world.

Arcimboldo worked in Vienna as the court painter for the Holy Roman Emperor, first Maximilian II and then his son, Rudolf, II. When Rudolf II moved the capital to Prague, the artist followed. However, his life began in Milan, where Leonardo da Vinci had spent 17 y
ears and had defined the artistic legacy of the region with its special interest in naturalism. Both Arcimboldo and his father made designs for the stained-glass windows of Milan Cathedral. Emperor Maximilian II was known for his interest in scientific studies, botanical gardens and zoological habitats with exotic creatures, and it is likely that Arcimboldo was already recognized for his drawings of the animal and plant worlds when the Emperor summoned him to Vienna in 1562.

Shortly after arriving in Vienna, Arcimboldo did a series of the Four seasons. " Spring," right, contains some 80 variety of flowering plants. Fruits and vegetables make up the bounty of "Summer," below.

In 1563, Arcimboldo made his first set of paintings: four profile portrait heads to personify the Four Seasons. Spring is the most beautiful, comprised of eighty varieties of flowering plants to form a man's head and shoulders.

Summer shows a pro
file of fruits and vegetables facing the opposite direction. There's a cucumber nose, teeth made of peas, a big apple cheek (or peach?), an ear of corn and a cloak woven of wheat.

It's interesting to compare th
ese depictions of the seasons next to Pieter Bruegel's paintings of the months, a series of perhaps six landscapes (only 5 exist) painted in 1565, around nearly the same time. Bruegel's The Harvesters depicts a late summer landscape of men and women working and living in nature. Bruegel's peasants are in harmony with nature, but Arcimboldo's man has become nature.One of my favorite paintings in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, is Pieter Bruegel's "The Harvesters," a late summer scene that is part of a series, also. It dates two years later than Arcimboldo's Four Seasons.Shortly after Arcimboldo painted the Four Seasons, he painted a group of the Four Elements. Earth, Air, Fire and Water contain creatures found in the sources from which all matter was believed to have originated. Although Air has not survived, it was made entirely of birds and prominently featured the peacock and eagle, symbols of the Habsburgs. Fire's hair is aflame, his lips made of matches and his tongue is the light of an oil lamp. Earth and Water are the most complex, formed out of myriads of creatures. The species were portrayed accurately, although the artist distorted sizes to fit into facial features. These men, personifications of earth and water, are hideously ugly! (See the picture of Water in part II)

Arcimboldo, Part II: The Portrait Artist

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has acquired a fascinating portrait, "The Four Seasons in One Head," now on view with the Arcimboldo exhibition.

The artist painted this composite of the seasons in 1590, while still in service to the emperor but after he had returned to Milan. He chose a naked, gnarled tree stump of winter for the man's head, but draped it in spring flowers for a necklace. Further up the head are branches holding summer wheat, then several branches that translate into horns. Cherries hang over the left ear, while apples and autumn grapes poke through the branches for his headdress. Curiously, this ugly creature smirks at us with crooked eyes in a 3/4 view.

A closer look at this allegorical head shows that Arcimboldo peeled away the bark of one branch growing out of the head and signed his name on the exposed wood, perhaps indicating it is a self-portrait. The artist gave this painting to a friend. Experts have suggested that the painting reflects the subject in his state of decay; Arcimboldo was in the late season of his life at this time. He died three years after completing this portrait. Certainly it took a fine sense of humor to see mankind the way Arcimboldo did.

What are we to think of him describing human nature in such unflattering terms? It is a far cry from the idealized portraits of Raphael (see The Veiled Woman, Parts I & II, January 2010 of this blog). Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa and other beautiful, benignant figures. Surprisingly, he also did drawings of extremely ugly men and women, with disfigured or exaggerated features too large or too small. A few of these tiny drawings are on view in the same exhibition.

The sea creatures used to describe "Water," part of the Four Elements series, are accurate and have been identified in the display at the National Gallery.

Alcimboldo was familiar with Leonardo's grotesque portraits and chose to make his portraits in that vein rather than in the beautiful manner of the High Renaissance. High Renaissance artists had used outward beauty to symbolize inner virtue.

If the earlier artists saw truth in perfection, Arcimboldo suggests he saw truth in something quite opposite. In his men (and sometimes women), exquisitely painted images of fish, fruit, lizards or frogs make up the small details of their faces. These creatures are part of us and we are made of them. We're an ugly conglomerate. Arcimboldo exposes our human nature, a nature made no better than the natural world. Is our own ugliness his truth?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Arcimboldo, Part III: A Surrealist Before his Time

I have often thought the Mannerist style of late Renaissance art had a lot in common with the Surrealism of the 20th century. After viewing the National Gallery's Arcimboldo exhibition, this analogy seems stronger. Arcimboldo was a Mannerist from Milan who worked for the Court of Maximilian II in Vienna, and for his son, Rudolf II, in Vienna and in Prague. It is interesting that his reputation went down for a number of years until the Surrealists of the 20th Century revived the interest in his art.

"Librarian," 1566, could easily be mistaken for an early 20th century Surrealist painting, at first glance. Arcimboldo painted various professions. "The Jurist," also on display at the National Gallery, is a scathing portrayal of the legal profession.

Mannerism came after the High Renaissance style of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, which had lasted only about 20 years. The idealism of their style seemed to perish as Europe descended into the wars and devastation that occurred after the Reformation began. Much of life may have seemed surreal, or like a very bad dream. In the same vein, Dadaism and Surrealism resulted from the irrationality of World War I, when a Europe that had supposedly reached a high level of civilization was torn asunder by senseless war.

Arcimboldo, the keen observer of nature, introduces the still life, a new genre
of painting. His vegetable harvest is bountiful BUT......

Mannerist artists enjoyed clever, disguised subjects. Surrealists loved to play tricks, too, often playing pranks on each other.

Arcimboldo was every bit the jokester. The Vegetable Gardener, above and below, is full of onions, carrots, mushrooms, etc., but it can be turned over. (The National Gallery uses mirrors to show the reversal. )
"The Vegetable Gardener" is one of three reversible food images in
the exhibition which uses mirrors to show the illusion.

In Arcimboldo's world, plants, flowers and fruits metamorphose into human heads. Also there are lizards, bats and hideous creatures that make up human beings. While Surrealism had the goal to make the subconscious visible, Mannerism may have been doing much the same, accidentally, or subconsciously, but four centuries earlier.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Kerry James Marshall

In My Mother's Home There are Many Mansions, 1994, by Kerry James Marshall, Denver Museum of Art

Kerry James Marshall, a preeminent artist of today, presents a strong voice of an identity for a middle-aged African
American who has witnessed changes in his lifetime. He addresses issues of race and culture in a Post-Modern style that recognizes past, current and other issues that his generation has faced. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955, but moved to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1963, a fact not lost on the subjects of his paintings.

Marshall paints large acrylic canvas and plexi-glass images with wit and irony. Sometimes he's influenced by comic books and in other ways he commands the authority of histo
rical paintings, using a structure he says is inspired by artists like Gericault. In his Post-Modern style of art, it's easy to see the inspiration of many twentieth century movements, such as the collage effects of Cubism and splashes like an Abstract Expressionist painting. One would guess he is great admirer of Romare Bearden, too. But he combines these historical styles with realism and most of all he presents an urban, black culture without taking himself, or life, too seriously. In a series of large paintings from 1994, he portrayed life in various public housing complexes, particularly in Chicago, where he currently lives. He hints at both undesirable aspects of these complexes, and certain joys that can come through community, such as the planting flowers and Easter baskets. In his own words, he believed that moments of happiness and finding the goodness of life can still be present. Marshall's titles cleverly make us think about things with references to larger society. One example: "Better Homes, Better Gardens." However, the housing projects are just one of the many themes that Marshall has been exploring in his art.

The Stile, 1993, a view inside the barbershop, is now in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Marshall grew up primarily in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.

All of Marshall's paintings relate to his identity as an African American. The people he paints are indeed very black, the deepness of their color being the theme of his presentatio
n. One painting called Black Painting is black on black, with many variations of black. He was inspired by Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, recognizing how it was so possible to be present yet invisible in American life.

A recent series is of vignettes, romances meant to be a footnote to a larger story. In these illustrations, he flirts with kitsch, the type of art that is supposed to make you the viewer feel good and good about yourself for liking it. He makes these paintings primarily monochromatic; specifically they are almost exclusively painted in shades of black, white and gray. In contrast to these neutral tones, pink hearts accent the sky, reminding us of the fun of romance.

Vignette #6, 2005

Marshall often portrays couples and seems to like the balance of male and fema
le in his large, major paintings as well as those paintings presented in pairs. Love seems to be a recurring theme in his art, but so is the home, whether it is outside in an urban setting, or an interior where groups of unrelated people can meet and congregate in a domestic setting. He is witty but never trite.

Souvenir III, 1998, is in a series of memorializing paintings, this one in the collection of MoMA, New York

In a group of paintings dedicated to deceased heroes of African American achievement and the Civil Rights movement, he always includes a living woman with glittered angel wings in the composition, a so-called living angel. Those who are above in a heavenl
y enclave also have wings. These interior settings resemble a living room, and Marshall hints that feelings of tranquility in the present life are possible because others have gone beforehand and made things better. He leaves the viewer with a lot to contemplate, without making his message too obtuse or complex. Even if a subject, like romance, seems commonplace, we always must take Marshall seriously and stop to observe what he is communicating.

Marshall decided to become an artist at age five, when his kindergarten teacher brought out a scrapbook of pictures.....Thankfully, he never changed his mind and he continues to show us a diverse display of the ideas and pictures that have shaped a colorful life.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Many Voices of Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch's The Scream is so powerful that the other works of this great Norwegian artist are overlooked. Other art by Munch articulated his feelings about the sad passages of life--sickness, death and breakups. Currently at The National Gallery of Art in Washington is an exhibition of Munch's graphic art which represents many of the other themes he dealt with intensely, including illness, love, loss, and loneliness. The museum has pulled together prints from its own collection with images from two private collections to present a fuller view of the real artist. In fact, the sounds of silence in Munch's work are as frequent and powerful as the voices of pain.
Waves of Love, a lithograph

Munch also can be subtle. He explores the possibilities of images morphing into something else. In Waves of Love, we see a floating woman but don't notice the man right away. Yet, when we discover him, the work becomes even more powerful.

Munch, Vampire II, 1895, lithograph with watercolor, from the National Gallery of Art

Whether there is silence or pain depends on who you are and when you see these works. Vampire II, above, can be seen as a comforting relationship, but the playwright August Strindberg renamed it with a more provocative title and Munch let it stand. Munch's original title was Love and Pain, suggesting that falling in love ultimately causes pain, or, more optimistically, that love will console you from the other pains of life.The Vampire series of prints, three prints entitled Sin, and a group of images from the Ashes and Madonna series may suggest unkind, fearful views of women or anxiety in regards to relationships. However, Munch was deeply hurt by the loss of his mother at age five and his older sister when he was 14, both of whom he adored. They died of tuberculosis and he feared the same for himself. Interpreting his images as misogyny is too simplistic.
The Ashes series of prints, above, explores the turmoil after a breakup.

A group of prints entitled The Kiss
can be seen as more harmonious symbols of love. One of these prints, an early intaglio example of The Kiss, is sensual in a idealized, classical form. You can see how it became a precursor to Munch's symbiotic, unified idea of love in the woodcut versions, such as the one on the left, The Kiss IV of 1902. Here, Munch used different colors of ink and exploited the grain of wood to replicate the curves of the couple. Notice that the side view of "his" face is the front of "her" face. This print was certainly an inspiration for Gustav Klimt's The Kiss--with its colors and mosaic patterns-- much more popular and famous than Munch's versions. Klimt borrowed Munch's vertical emphasis and upward sweep of motion ending in the curving form of "oneness," the back of a man's head and the front of a woman's face. In Munch's version the man and woman's face become one, a prelude to the unity of form that Constantin Brancusi used for his abstract rectangular block sculpture of The Kiss in 1910, where the eye of two becomes the eye of one.

Klimt's The Kiss shows the influence
of Munch, above left

The beauty of seeing these
graphic images is to see how he reworked themes over many years, changing the content as he made minor changes to the works. His prints are done in multiple colors and states, and vary in graphic techniques, from woodcut to etching, lithograph, aquatint and more. The Impressionists influenced his color and Van Gogh inspired his line, but he tried to reduce expressions even further than Van Gogh, making each of his images powerful symbols of human experiences.

Two Women on the Shore focuses on one central standing woman, with the seated person behind her -- perhaps alluding to an elderly figure in her life, a ghost from her past, an alter ego, or a projection of whom she will become. Munch probably wished to evoke diff
erent viewpoints and we are likely to experience her differently depending on our individual conception. The colors changed a great deal from print to print, and this series of prints evokes variety of meanings. I am particularly fond of the way Munch repeatedly used a large bright symbol resembling the letter i -- the sunlight or moonlight reflecting on water.
Two Women on the Shore, 1920s, color woodcut National Gallery of Art

Often the power in Munch's imagery comes from the push-pull effect of space: figures in front, space rushing behind, or figures in both places so we can't help but be aware of the drama of their distance. Ashes explores the debris left over at the end of a relationship. Repeatedly, Munch used the figure in a landscape as a vehicle to summarize feeling. His women can be brash, his men often hurting. It's likely that two of the great images of the early 20th century, Matisse's Blue Nude and Picasso's Les desmoiselles d'Avignon fell under the influence of Munch's slightly earlier, unforgettable figures, the women in Ashes and Madonna. Some find Munch's art too pessimistic; others say his art was less inspired after a breakdown at age 45 after which he gave up drinking.  

The exhibition--which lasts until October 31--includes a painted version of Madonna and her power is strong!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Ceramic Art: The wonderful tiles of Caltagirone

In the hills of central Sicily the Cathedral of Caltagirone--its dome covered with ceramic tiles--is just one the many wonders in this city of colorful tile (Baroque and Art Nouveau buildings, too). Ceramics everywhere.......I resisted the temptation to buy more pottery (my house has enough and there's no more room), except one small putto, because I can look at these beautiful photos and remember how it felt to be there.

The green pinecone i
s a prominent symbol in this region. It reminds me of the pineapples in Williamsburg.

A stroll through the local park reveal planters, light fixtures, fences in a variety of colors. The common colors for the tiles are blue, green, yellow and orange, in an endless variety of creative patterns. Figural designs and shapes are thoroughly Italian, especially with the masks, but some geometric designs in the tiles hint of an Arabic background.

Nearby is a ceramics museum. Scalloped arches are an Islamic feature. The town's name comes from the Arab "kalat" meaning castle and "geron" meanting caves. Arabs or Saracens ruled Sicily from the 9th-11th centuries, contributed much to the local pottery industry before the Normans came. Like so many parts of medieval Sicily, the Arab-Norman genius combined to form a marvelous craftsmanship.

Then in the 17th an Italian style came on with
strong force in its Baroque phase, as on the steps below built in 1606.
Thanks to Mark for the photos immediately above and below.

Each of the 142 steps of the Scala Monte Santa Maria del Monte has a different ceramic tile design. Today ceramic shops line the streets at the foot of the steps, and its a particularly good place to buy dinnerware, or ceramic figurines. Even the Bridge of San Francesco is patterned with Majolica tiles

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ancient Buildings, Modern Use, Part II

The Cathedral of Sircusa (Syracuse), Sicily is built within the colonnades of Greek temple to Athena from the early 5th century BC. Byzantine Christians converted the ruins of it into their Cathedral in the 7th century. The fluted columns are engaged in the outer side wall, along with triglyphs, metopes, etc. (the parts of the Doric Order in Greek architecture). The arched windows and crenelated top date from the Middle Ages. (It even had been a mosque at one time.) However, around the corner, the facade is thoroughly Baroque, built in 1700s! Old and new don't clash, though -- because they aren't seen simultaneously.

Behind the door of this
Cathedral's Baroque
facade, the simplicity of an
actual Doric temple
colonnades are hidden.

The medieval barrel vault
comfortably meets
the ancient Greek
colonnade to form
a side aisle.

The temple's floor plan easily adapts to the
7th century Basilican plan church. The
darkest components of this plan belong
to the original Doric Greek temple.

Ancient Buildings, Modern Use

The gigantic Temple of Olympian Zeus, Agrigento, was damaged by earthquakes before completion. This new statue, a flying bronze, echoes the temple's fallen state. The wing overlaps and seems to touch a huge Doric capital to the right of the middle.

I was recently in Sicily to view mainly the ancient Greek sites. My camera broke and thankfully Kelli Palmer is letting me share her pictures of Agrigento, a city known for the beauty of its golden limestone.

The Temple of Concord in Agrigento is one of the best preserved Greek temples standing today, probably due to the fact that it was used as a church in the Middle Ages. Right now contemporary sculpture is on display there and at the other temples in Agrigento. The combination of antique/modern -- though not always successful -- is particularly well done at this site because it does not detract from the ancient architecture while displaying the new work effectively. The sculptures seem to be made for this purpose.

A nude comfortably "bronzes"herself on the
porch of a 5th
century BC Doric temple. It is
not known to whom the temp
le wasdedicated.

Bronze hands reach upward, perhaps
expressing aspirations appropriate to
either church or temple. The arches date from the middle ages. The medieval builders cut arches into the walls, changing the ancient temple's "cella"
into a church's nave.

The modern marble figure, draped in a fashion reminiscent of the Venus de Milo, is far more sensual than a cult statue to Demeter, Persephone, Aphrodite or even the Christian Mary would have been in a religious building. But it stands harmoniously in this room which had been converted into a church's nave in the 6th century. The relationship of a church's nave to its side aisles is similar to the relationship of an inner temple (the cella) to the outer colonnade.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Seattle's New Architecture

The Space Needle and Frank Gehry's Experience Music define Seattle, along with the Library. 

Seattle's new Library is a busy place. Completed in 2004, it is made up of steel diamond shapes, holding the glass--letting lots of light inside for this typically rainy city. It integrates all kinds of new technologies into the library's traditional function. Rem Koolhaas is the architect. Both Koolhaas and Frank Gehry rely on CAD-(computer-aided) design.

The main building of Olympic Sculpture Park, above and below, was finished in 2008 and has won architectural awards. It is by the husband and wife team of Weiss/Manfredi

Nearby is the Space Needle, but it seems to "deconstruct"
in front of Experience Music Building, designed by
Frank Gehry in the late 1990s.

Mass transit comes right inside to the front of the building.

The entry gives only a glimpse of the ever-changing colors
and shapes, in and out.