Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Day at the Museum

The library has now become the first place I go whenever I visit the Art Institute -- because it's so quiet -- and I feel so comfortable surrounded by the the early 20th American painting on its walls (and it even has the last remnant of the plaster cast collection: a life-size Khmer figure)

It's generally the stuff that otherwise would be in the basement -- but today I found something new --in the big glass display cases: some hand colored aquatints by Samuel Howitt serving as illustrations for the first, 1807 edition of "Oriental Field Sports" by Captain Thomas Williamson:


Here's the text that accompanied by favorite picture -- and I'd like to pretend I'm Conrad, analyzing its peculiar sonorities, diction, and strings of subordinate clauses.

I like Captain Williamson (he served 20 years in Bengali)
He has a neat way of putting things.

Here's the full picture -- which is good -- but maybe not as exciting as Delacroix would have done -- or as gorgeous as a Mughal miniature.
And I especially like the detail that I posted at the top -- reminding me -- with its action and balance -- of the Sung calligraphy that I've recently been cutting and pasting.

And I have to mention -- this book was ENORMOUS.

Each page was nearly 24" wide -- so when open -- the book stretched out nearly 4 feet.
Now that's a coffee table book !

Then I went to re-visit the Vollard: Cezanne to Picasso exhibit
..but I had to wait in line for a few minutes
..which gave me the opportunity to notice things in the adjoining galleries that I might not have ordinarily looked at.

Like this Arthur Dove "Weathervane and crucifix"
God knows what it means (presumably something quite profound)
..but it did dominate the wall in that gallery -- reminding me, again, of a character from Sung calligraphy, perhaps Mi Fu -- being just as goofy -- but maybe more casual.

It feels like a sunny Easter Sunday to me -- where everyone has eaten too much and is ready to fall asleep in church.

Then ... finally .. I got into the exhibit .. and dived right into the detail areas of the Van Gogh.

(note: this is probably the place to mention that I am soooo grateful for the museum's new policy of unlimited free access for members to special ticketed exhibitions)

And moved on to the details made by Maurice de Vlaminck.

He claimed -- quite provocatively -- that he never set foot in the Louvre -- but I think he should be considered a kind of folk artist. He found somebody making things that he liked (Derain) and got coached on how to make more of same.

So what should we call him -- an urban folk artist ? Or maybe just another Flemish genius.

These detail-areas seem like fabrics to me --- except that each thread has been drawn -- and I think that what can make it so electric (too exciting by-a-half as Gawain might say)

For whatever reason -- broad strokes of intense colors seems to have fascinated several painters of this period (c. 1905) -- but when you see how terrible the results can be in the contemporary paintings found in summer art fairs -- you have to appreciate the special ability that was required to make it work out.

I recall a commentary suggesting that Vlaminck's landscapes recall the images that would have been flashing by his face as he pursued his earlier career as a competitive cyclist.

Roualt was no cyclist -- and the images aren't flashing by -- but there's still that love of intense colors

-- and enjoyment of textures that reminds of some photographers

(note: I'm only showing the details of this painting -- because I didn't like the whole thing)

Then I strolled over to the Chinese rooms to make some comparisons with things recently discussed over on Heaventree.

How does this piece (c. 1630)...

Or these pieces (c. 1730) compare with these that Gawain recently purchased in Taipei ?

What do you think ?

I'd say that these older pieces seem to demand more attention -- while the 21st C. pieces want to be more ambient -- creating a delicious - not so obtrusive - background for domestic behavior.

Similar to the difference I'd find between the following examples of 18th. C. carved calligraphy -- compared with the 11th. C. calligraphy examined a few posts ago.

These are actually rubbings taken from slabs -- and used in their own time as a kind of printed edition -- where a master copy would be carved and then copies could distributed throughout the empire.

These letters are very pleasant -- well balanced - well designed -- elegant and all that

..but I don't think they're intended to distract the reader from the text's message.

This is the first time I've gone to the museum -- wandered around looking at whatever catches my interest -- and then jammed it all into the same post in a rather confused, arbitrary way.

Hopefully, future posts will be a bit more focused -- but then -- maybe not.

This might be the first of many aimless excursions.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

All the young dudes

One of my favorite internet interlocutors has proposed that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is meaningless because (among other things) there are all these nude figures (the 20 "ignudi") that have no iconographic function.

But isn't a handsome young dude function enough ?

Why are these cute guys lounging around with all their clothes off ?

They all have nice, healthy, strong looking bodies -- but they don't seem to be the bodies of workers, athletes, or soldiers.

What could they be -- other than lovers ?

Doesn't this one feel a bit shy and self conscious ?

These are not the slutty boys of the bath house -- they have some self respect

And they all feel dynamic -- that's how M. makes a figure -- as a confluence of forces -- so they feel tense -- and ready to something rather than just lounge around
(although that's all any of them are doing)

Lounging around and thinking how beautiful they are.

Not exactly a pose you'd expect in a church.
He's covering his face -- but not both eyes
His eye is peeking through his arm -- but not at you.
(he has much more important things to think about)
Are we being teased ?

Again - the body is available -- the eyes are not - and why is he so afraid ?
These are bodies somewhere between strong adult men and soft, flabby boys,
and this poor boy will probably do anything you tell him.

Most of them are not all that happy to be here

Except for him -- who also seems to be the most boyish

Is he hiding a smile ?
Some boys are more available than others.

Some boys are more dreamy and moody than others.

Such a big body - such a small head,
and his face has such soft, gentle features

A nice dreamy, trusting face,
as he leans back on that big, soft cushion

He's posing -- and he looks away
because he knows that we're looking at him

In the throes of passion ?
He's already being loved.

They all seem innocent ..
but some seem more (deliciously) so than others

He seems more raucous and playful than the rest

Look familiar ? I wrote about the study for ithere

And-- though maybe the electricity is gone -- the final painting is much more satisfying - and fleshy.

Again -- why is this boy so terrified ?
(it reminds me of romantic scenes in "Tales of Genji" -- where the young woman is usually terrified of her gentleman visitor -- and for good reason !)

The reverse of several other scenes -- here the eye looks straight at the viewer -- even as the boy seems to be withdrawing to protect and conceal himself.
(Just more teasing)

More small head -- big soft body -- modesty -- hide-and-seek
.. and that sinuosity of line-- coiled like a spring

This is the only one who feels more like a man than a boy to me -- and I could even imagine seeing him as a "tribute to the working man" --

But overall ......................

I'd say that these 20 figures --- positioned at the corner of the boxes that frame each biblical scene --- serve as a kind of grid of sensuality -- through which we poor, carnal humans must view the divine truths of God's role in our creation.

So why didn't he put cute girls instead of cute boys up there ?

Maybe because even those (men) who like to see cute boys are little uncomfortable about it -- and I think that's the point:

Carnality is the human condition -- we can't avoid it -- but let's not get too comfortable with it -- we serve a higher purpose.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Ambroise Vollard -- Doctor Evil ?

I'm just back from "C├ęzanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde " at the Art Institute -- where Pierre Bonnard's portraits of him are the ones that stick in my mind.

This portrays the dealer at one of his famous dinner parties thrown in the basement beneath his gallery -- apparently a very damp place -- with no pictures on the wall -- and Vollard's own chicken curry the only item ever on the menu.

But Bonnard also portrays the dealer with his best friend -- which has possibly been the inspiration for a notorious villian in late 20th Century cinema.

Doctor Evil ? Maybe not -- but I also don't think he should be called a "patron" of the avant garde.

He wasn't a patron -- he was a salesman/promoter/publisher -- just like the role Clive Davis famously played in the American popular music industry.

No matter how much you like something -- when your living depends on selling it -- you become a businessman, not a patron (I know ! -- that's my life as record dealer) -- and the first question you HAVE to ask is : "where's my money in this ?"

Ambroise Vollard discovered, promoted, commissioned many wonderful artists in that great European golden age at the turn of the last century -- but when you look at the things he chose for himself -- he was not especially a man of taste. He appears to have mostly collected things of personal interest -- portraits of friends etc -- while the very best things he bought were sold (at a profit) to others.

And here's the man who made him rich -- Paul Cezanne (who also did the portrait shown above)

Vollard is credited with "discovering" Cezanne -- like Colonel Parker discovered Elvis -- and since Cezanne, the trust fund child, never needed money, he let Vollard keep most of it -- which was quite a bit -- considering that over 650 Cezannes passed through his ledgers.

And this is a question I have to ask: has the market for avant garde painting ever been especially more sophisticated than the market for rock-n-roll records ?

Regarding Cezanne -- he spent, apparently, hundreds of hours working on that portrait (while Vollard was patiently posing) -- though I don't really see how that time was well spent. And the exhibit had a room full of his multi-figure mock-classical compositions (I 'm not showing them because I can't stand a single one)

But I enjoy his still life -- and especially his landscape --like the one shown above.

(the great Chinese landscape painters were not known for ever making any figure compositions -- and maybe Cezanne should has followed their example)

But the highlight of the show -- for me -- was Vincent!

His paintings are so alive -- they crackle with energy -- like this pair of old boots shown above.

..or this sunflower from the Met. (I'm not sure that Gawain would like them -- but Vincnet reminds me of those eccentric Sung calligraphers -- like the beloved "Recluse of Verdant Obtuseness")

...or this street scene -- with the judicious use of heavy-texture paint -- that can only be sensed in person (so the jpg's don't work)

But Vincent was already dead when Vollard became a dealer -- so although he did some shows with the estate --- very little sold --- and he sold the remainders off cheap. Why keep it ? It didn't look like a good investment -- at the time.

Oh, and really love this Vuillard -- it's hard to tell from the jpg -- but the pattern on the lady's blouse feels like a cluster of precious stones.

I so much like to be lolling about while a woman is preparing me dinner !

And, of course, I also like young women with their shirts off.

This Renoir is really glowing -- and the drawing is perfect -- even as it sometimes appears to be careless. (BTW -- Rodin saw this painting and bought it -- so now it can be seen at the Hotel Biron

Speaking of Rodin -- here's a design he made to accompany one of Vuillard's art books.. The story involves some kind of torture garden (ouch!). A bit misogynistic, perhaps, but so beautiful -- and the feeling that Rodin's figures settle into a delicious design the way I might settle into a big comfy chair.

And speaking of publications -- I never realized that Vollard was responsible for all my favorite Picassos -- i.e. the etchings he made for the Vollard edition of "The Sculptor's Studio"

Usually I condemn Picasso for his arrogant -- sloppy -- self indulgence -- but here's he's indulging my favorite fantasies -- and drawing like Raphael -- so I forgive him everything !

Vollard is also known for his investment in the late work of Degas --- the things that Degas never gave to his dealers -- for what, I think, was good reason -- i.e. the sharpness -- and maybe his eyesight -- was gone.

There was an exhibit of late Degas here in Chicago about 15 years ago -- and I hated it -- and especially its promotion as "Degas the Modernist" - "modern" because the work was so loose approaching ugly.

But I really like the large painting (above) that accompanied this exhibit.


I also liked Degas' memoirs of the whorehouse -- monoprints that were not marketed in his lifetime. Very poignant -- very tasty --and kind of sad.

Vollard is credited with getting the aging Renoir to sculpt -- or, not actually to sculpt -- since his arthritic hands were too crippled -- but to collaborate with a young Spanish sculptor, Richard Guino -- and I think the word "collaborate" is giving Renoir a bit too much credit -- since Guino actually modeled the things -- Renoir was more like the producer (with Vollard as the "executive producer") Just like Billy Strayhorn with Duke Ellington -- Renoir, at first, got all the credit -- but since the 50's, the Guino family has been given the copyrights.

But Vollard's greatest achievement, so far as I'm concerned, was making Maillol a sculptor !

Yes! --- he is somewhat credited with directing Maillol's career toward sculpture. For example, he bought the above wood carving -- made a mold -- and began to cast copies in bronze -- circulating them throughout the artworld (Rodin bought one) and then giving Maillol his first solo sculpture show (before then he made decorative paintings and tapestries)

I have no illusions about Vollard's taste --- he did the same thing for Picasso's clumsy/ugly sculptural events -- and he sold quite a few --- but still ---- what if Maillol had never become an art star ? What if Elvis had spent his life driving trucks ? Businessmen are needed !

But my biggest disappointment in the show -- was that it didn't include any of the Vollard artists who DID NOT become art super-stars (the unfamiliar will always interest me the most)

This show -- like every museum show about art after 1850 --- is a kind of sacred narrative -- about the days when art-gods descended to earth -- and the great faith of MODERNISM was revealed to ignorant humanity.

And I'm just not sure that public institutions should be used to promote religious faith.