Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Roelofs was a member of The Hague School, a group of artists who were inspired by the French Barbizon school of painters, such as Rousseau, Millet, and Corot. These artists began painting the naturalistic landscape of the French countryside as early as the 1830s but came into their own by mid-century, thereafter helping to alter the respectability of landscape painting from something dismissed as a lesser art in prior generations. This idea of depicting the naturalistic landscape as it actually appears, rather than as an idealized scene for a narrative event, arguably goes back to British artists such as Constable and Turner, but in The Netherlands the most obvious source of inspiration goes back even further to the 17th century with the naturalistic Dutch landscapes by artists such as Ruisdael. You can read more about The Hague School here.
While there is an incredible charm to this painting because of the windmill and the beautiful, soft lighting and fluffy clouds, what is striking is how the windmill dominates the space in this vertical painting. Normally one expects to see landscapes as horizontal compositions, panoramic views that show sweeping swathes of nature. Here, however, by reverting to a vertical format, Roelofs transforms the windmill into a portrait, or at least a narrative composition. The pyramidal structure of the windmill and its arms dominate the center point and then moving out diagonally toward the lower left and right lines, creating a pseudo-head-and-shoulders figure. Although the title references the cattle, both they and the man are diminished by the monumentality of the windmill itself, a man-made machine that for the 19th-century viewer demonstrated the development of technology, i.e. man's dominance over nature. Even the arms of the windmill seem to be moving the air and clouds themselves with a superior strength--which is exactly what they are meant to. This interpretation may seem rather droll because the painting is quite beautiful. But this is where Roelofs succeeds. He portrays the power of the windmill as an object of beauty, conveying both its picturesque qualities and the harmonizing of man with nature.
Then back to New York
And skytowers had begun to grow
And front stoop houses started to go
And life became quite different
And it was as tho' someone had planted seeds
And people sprouted like common weeds
And seemed unaware of accepted things
And did all sorts of unheard of things
And out of it grew an amusing thing
Which I think is America having its fling
And what I should like is to paint this thing.
-- Florine Stettheimer, from Crystal Flowers: Poems and a Libretto, eds. I. Gammel & S. Zelazo (Toronto: BookThug, 2010)
For quite a while now, I have been wanting to start a series of posts about poems I encounter, and the meanings they have for me. This past week AA and I were in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, and one of the books I read was this collection of poetry by the painter Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944), about whom I have blogged before. Returning to New York from our vacation, and seeing the incredible skyline with the new World Trade Center dominating lower Manhattan, I was reminded that no matter how much I enjoy travel and seeing other cities, it is so rewarding to come back home to my "City." Stettheimer's own words convey this same idea. In the mid-1890s, she and her mother and sisters went to Europe, and they only returned in 1914 when the Great War broke out. Almost 20 years had passed since she had been in New York and in that time "skytowers" grew up, taking over the brownstones, and people of all races and creeds and ethnicities seemed to be accepted for doing their own thing. This was for Stettheimer part of the American spirit: "America having its fling." It is a view of New York City that makes me smile. It is as relevant now as it was a century ago.
Sunday, October 30, 2016
The marble sculpture measures almost 2 meters (78 inches) in height and weighs almost 5,000 pounds. The subject comes from Dante's Inferno, Book XXXIII, recounting the story of Ugolino (ca. 1200-1289), the tyrant of Pisa whom Dante and Virgil meet in the Underworld:
... When I beheld
My sons, and in four faces saw my own
Despair reflected, either hand I gnawed
For anguish, which they construed hunger. Straight
Arising all they cried, "Far less shall be
Our sufferings, sir, if you resume your gift;
These miserable limbs with flesh you clothed;
Take back what once was yours."
Ugolino had been imprisoned by his enemies, along with his 2 sons and 2 grandsons, all of whom died while in prison. Ugolino reportedly ate the flesh of his sons and grandsons in order to survive. Here, though, Dante has Ugolino claim that these men pleaded with him to eat them out of filial piety. Dante is not read by most people today, so at first seeing this sculpture in person one may not understand its context. However, once the viewer discovers the subject, there is an immediate sense of horror, but also sympathy. Carpeaux convinces the viewer of Ugolino's anguish as he contemplates survival in a desperate situation, while these men and boys around him die. This work is one of the most haunting sculptures of the 19th century.
The work was inspired by the ancient sculpture of the Laocoön and owes a great deal to the influence of Michelangelo. In the recent exhibition catalogue on Carpeaux, Edouard Papet writes: "Carpeaux's Ugolino remains a work of profoundly Romantic and pictorial inspiration. ... Like all of Carpeaux's monumental works, Ugolino was the product of a complex integration of disparate sources, both literary and visual, the latter absorbed on-site or in reproductions. This synthesis was combined with a nervous curiosity and irrepressible desire for formal renewal, which, in the days of eclecticism, in no way meant starting from a tabula rasa. ... Ugolino presented all the necessary features: structural complexity, narrative, terribilità, and a variety of expressions. ... Carpeaux's composition closes in upon themselves the open forms of the antique drama of Laocoön and turns it in on itself, while retaining its fundamental elements: nudity, a central paternal figure, conspicuous muscularity, the dying adolescent on the right, and the contrast between a body in its prime and youthful anatomies."
(Translation from Dante and quote: Edouard Papet, "Ugolino," in The Passions of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux [New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014], 66-69.)
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
Last week another essay of mine, entitled "The Sculptor, the Duke, and Queer Art Patronage: John Gibson's Mars Restrained by Cupid and Winckelmannian Aesthetics," was released in the new book Rome, Travel and the Sculpture Capital, c.1770-1825. The book was edited by my colleague Tomas Macsotay, whom I met years ago when we were both in Leeds on different fellowships. This latest essay may seem familiar to some as I have presented different versions of the subject at conferences in Montreal and Storrs, Connecticut. This is standard practice, as it allows for opportunities to "test the waters," so to speak, and see how arguments are received by peers before publishing them. I reread my essay on the subway today and, while I think it still holds up, I confess my chronic (obsessive?) need to re-edit my own work makes me wish I had changed a few things. For instance, I think that in a revised version I would likely not be so "all"-encompassing in certain parts, and qualify matters by saying things like "selective" and "most" instead. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that the essay is a valuable contribution to the literature on the homoerotics of neoclassical sculpture, and that it will add to an increased appreciation on Gibson himself.
The British School of Sculpture, c.1760-1832. This forthcoming essay relies more on biography and art-historical interpretation to consider the origins of Gibson's training and career before he moved to Rome in 1817 and set up a studio where he lived the rest of his life. That essay should be released around the time I go to a planned study day on Gibson in mid-December. This meeting (details are still under wraps) will be held in association with the new exhibition John Gibson RA: A British Sculptor in Rome, which opened a few weeks ago at the Royal Academy in London. Among the works on display is this one: The Meeting of Hero and Leander, ca. 1842, plaster (Collection: Royal Academy). This exhibition commemorates the 150th anniversary of Gibson's death, but surprisingly it is also the first monographic exhibition of Gibson's work since he died in 1866. Because he had bequeathed a substantial sum of money and numerous plaster casts and drawings to the RA, perhaps there never was a need to hold an exhibition in his memory as his bequest led to the opening of the Gibson Gallery to allow visitors and students to learn directly from his classical figures from the nineteenth century. But of course no one from his day foresaw the decline of classicism and the rise of abstraction, so that by the 1960s it is not surprising to know that the Gibson Gallery was taken down and the works scattered about and kept in storage.
This new exhibition has been curated by my colleagues Annette Wickham and Anna Frasca-Rath. There is a small publication, but to date I have not seen it, or the show, so I cannot comment on them. Anna (who completed her dissertation on Gibson in Vienna about a year or so after me) also has spear-headed the beautifully-designed online digital project The Gibson Trail, which provides images of his works with short essays, as well as a map outlining a 6-mile circle in London where one can view examples of his sculptures at places such as Westminster Abbey, the Tate, Buckingham Palace, and of course the RA. It's all quite impressive. In fact, I admit I'm a little envious of what they've accomplished. When one works so hard on a project, particularly a monographic project, one often becomes possessive over their individual. As a result it is difficult to acknowledge that one doesn't "own" that artist and that others are allowed to do work on him/her as well. In fact, they likely are doing equal (or even better!) work than oneself. So, inevitably, there can be a feeling of competition among us. (Some academics relish in this competition; these same academics also need serious therapy.) That said, one hopes that we still celebrate our collective achievements, because we are all working on the belief and spirit that this artist's masterpieces deserve reexamination and his career reevaluated and triumphed for what he accomplished at a particular moment in time. I am looking forward to seeing this exhibition and participating in the upcoming programs later this year. It will be a great opportunity for all the "Gibsonites" to come together and have a collegial meeting of the classical minds.
Sunday, September 11, 2016
On that day all those years ago, a state of emergency was called across the nation. I was still living in Florida, and it was my job to oversee building security and related issues at the FAU Library. I announced over the PA system, calmly, that the library and campus was closing, that the governor had declared a state of emergency. People were confused, some not even aware what had happened, but we emptied the library and vacated the campus, and then with frustration sat in traffic for over two hours trying to get home. But once we were there, we sat and stared at our TVs non-stop, tears in our eyes for days to come. For us in that area the next few days and weeks held other surprises for us. The terrorists had been living in Coral Springs, less than 15 minutes away from where I lived. Even more shocking, they had used our library and our computers in Boca Raton and they may have plotted some of this attack right in front of our very eyes, and we had had no idea. Innocence indeed.
Reflecting back on those days, it seems surreal, not just because of all the events that unfolded that day and afterward, but because since then, 15 years have passed, and I am stunned into silence to think about everything that has happened in my own life since then. I have experienced great sadness and painful death more raw and more personal than I did when I grieved on September 11, 2001. But I have also experienced incredible love and true companionship, and I have accomplished many personal triumphs along the way. It is true: we do prevail, we do move on. As it should be. With death comes life; with tragedy comes hope; with destruction, rebirth.
It was five years ago that I visited the 9/11 memorial fountains that had just opened. This morning AA and I went down to the waterfront along the Hudson River in Jersey City for a walk. We knew it was 9/11 and that anniversary events would be taking place. But somehow it didn't occur to us that events would be happening here in JC as well, so we stumbled on the beginning of these events and spent time with many others commemorating this day. I took the photos you see here. The image above shows the Freedom Tower in the center distance while the memorial ceremony took place before us. We are literally right across from where the Twin Towers once stood, their presence replaced by this single tower of rebirth and renewal, their invisible presence still felt by all those who remember the old skyline. The second picture you see here was at the other end of the avenue, where two firetrucks raised their ladders to unfurl this enormous American flag, which blew in the wind and reminded us of our strength and how we have survived, rebuilt, and moved on. But still we do not forget, and as we are home now and on TV downstairs they read the names of the victims once again, we know that all of these poor souls will not be forgotten. Similarly, all the victims of other terrorist attacks around the world will not be forgotten, from the attacks in Paris to the massacre in Orlando. It is our human spirit to commemorate and remember, but it is also in their memory that we must go on.
In the end, today for me is about life and living. This is a day to honor and remember all those we have lost throughout history and time, due to warfare, hatred, anger, sickness, poverty, famine, illness, accident, and natural causes. I struggle when I hear others perpetuate anger and hatred and fear and judgment, because at my core I am a pacifist. So today I try to focus instead on remembrance and honor, a day to commemorate all those we have lost in the spirit of humanity, love, and peace.
Monday, September 5, 2016
This year a work that captured my attention every time I walked down Commercial Street was the image you see above, what I've chosen for the latest Monthly Work of Art: Raven, 2015, by Julie Tremblay. (Coincidentally my friend Shermania blogged last week about this black duck painting by Marsden Hartley that he saw at the MFA Boston and thereafter dubbed "Madam X".) I purchased a photographic print of Raven and will be hanging it in our den not far from the computer where I am writing this post right now. Tremblay runs her own gallery (and full production center, from what it seemed) right at the center of town (I can't even begin to imagine what she must be paying in rent for that space). Much of her work on display is geared toward the tourist market, with lovely scenes of solitary boats in Provincetown Harbor at sunrise and whales emerging from the Atlantic Ocean. I don't meant to suggest anything negative by this remark. The images are charming and perfectly suited for those who want this type of imagery for their homes as souvenirs. Clearly she understands her market, as she makes available reduced-cost prints of some of her works to draw customers in and will even mat and frame them (hence the production center). That said, I'm sure die-hard artists might consider her to be selling out.
Raven, however, goes beyond tourist imagery, and that is what captured my eye. bklynbiblio readers know I love animals and nature, and so of course I am a fan of animal art (e.g. my post on Landseer). Tremblay's website showcases a number of examples of animal pictures that she has captured digitally and on film, and many of these are wonderful depictions of animals in their habitats. But this particular composition profiles this particular black bird as a psychological portrait. This is different from photos of dogs or wildlife animals, presented anthropomorphically posed or in-their-habitat. This image of a bird with its head bowed down, its eyes invisible to the viewer, suggests a form of blindness, not just for the bird unaware of us, but for us as well, our inability to meet its gaze and understand what this creature is. The less one can see, the more one desires to see. Tremblay has a comparably powerful photograph called Sun Screen, 1988, of an elderly woman blocking her eyes from the sun with intertwined fingers, masking her vision and thus our own, making it impossible for us to truly see her, making us realize how much we rely on vision and our need to look into someone's eyes in order to understand who they are. Vision is a form of control and it makes us, as viewers, feel more comfortable with the lives around us. The same holds true for this bird. The less I can see into the eyes of this bird, the more I appreciate everything else I can see, and the more I lament for those who cannot see at all, physically because of blindness, or perhaps worse, psychologically because they wear blinders in support of their own prejudices and agendas.
This photograph also works as an abstract composition, a solid black entity that could just as easily be a human in a black shroud and hood as much as a bird in black feathers. In the center of all that black is a sharp linear V, the bird's beak, accentuated by white hatch-marks that are the scars of its own existence. This is an image of a life well-worn, experienced, exhausted, but not yet a figure of death, despite the association with mourning in the black-so-black you can almost feel the soft downy feathers on your fingertips. Tremblay told me that she doesn't know if the bird was a crow or a raven (I think it's likely a crow), but her titling of it as Raven inevitably conjures up images of Edgar Allan Poe, the Tower of London, and the Gothic imagination. But, contained as it is, with a blurred red-white nature background and a white rectangular photographic edge, the bird's identity and association with darkness is called into question, and one realizes this is more a depiction of solitude, a single moment in this bird's raucous life. It is a black beauty all its own.
Monday, August 29, 2016
I'm writing my annual bklynbiblio birthday post from Provincetown, MA, which is rather appropriate considering that I started this blog 8 years ago today after returning from Provincetown. Among the posts in that first month were a recap of that trip (including a review of a play JM and I saw), a review of the book & then-forthcoming movie about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and highlights of upcoming Fall exhibitions in NYC (reviews of which subsequently appeared in the months afterward: Ernst Kirchner; Catherine Opie; and Gilbert & George). What amazes me when I look back on those early days and posts is how much more time I apparently had free to write! At least there is an archive, because I admit I sometimes forget that I ever wrote about certain exhibitions, books, films, plays, etc.
And so here we are again, 8 years later, in Provincetown. The photo above was taken by me this very afternoon from the pool area at Wave Bar at the Crown & Anchor, looking out toward Cape Cod Bay. It has been gorgeous since we arrived...in fact, a little too hot--I had high hopes it would be a bit cooler! But it is beautiful and relaxing, and that's why we are here.
Commemorating 8 years of bklynbiblio, we discover that this post is #544, and in tracking my most popular tags it comes as no surprise that things have not changed at all for the past few years, reinforcing the focus of this blog. "New York" still comes in at #1 (146 posts), followed by "19th-century art" (100), "England" (90), "photography" (88), and "art exhibitions" (77). So thank you to all my friends and colleagues who have continued to follow me for 8 productive years now. Your ongoing emails of support do encourage me to keep on blogging...
Sunday, August 14, 2016
If it were not for Dinah Roe's post on Twitter, I might have missed today as the 111th anniversary of Simeon Solomon's death in London. Tragically, he died after living in and out of workhouses and on the street, impoverished and in a destitute state, on August 14, 1905, despite having at one time tremendous success as an artist. As discussed and noted on this blog and on the Simeon Solomon Research Archive that I co-manage with Carolyn Conroy, it was after Solomon's arrest in 1873 for homosexual crimes that his public career largely ended, although he did have ups and downs over subsequent decades depending on his health and the support he was receiving from family and friends. A report of the inquest into his death appeared in the Times on August 18, 1905, and reads as follows:
Mr. Walter Schroder held an inquest at St. Giles's Coroner's Court yesterday regarding the death of Simeon Solomon, aged 63, bachelor, an oil-painter, who was described as of the pre-Raphaelite school and at one time an associate of Rossetti and Burne-Jones. Solomon, according to his cousin, Mr. G. J. Nathan, of late years had led an intemperate and irregular life. The witness last saw him alive in May, when he gave him an outfit of clothes and money. He also gave him a commission for a drawing which was never executed. People highly placed in society would have liked him to paint pictures for them, but he could not be relied on to execute any commission. Other evidence showed that Solomon had been "off and on" an inmate of St. Giles's Workhouse during the past five years. On Wednesday, May 24 last, after the visit to his cousin, he was found lying on the footpath in Great Turnstile, High Holborn. He complained of illness and was conveyed to King's College Hospital, whence he was transferred to St. Giles's Workhouse. He was then suffering from bronchitis and alcoholism. He remained in the house, and on Monday morning last suddenly expired in the dining hall from, as Dr. A. C. Allen, the medical officer testified, heart failure consequent on aortic disease of that organ and other ailments. The jury returned a verdict accordingly. It was stated that a picture by the deceased recently sold at Christie's realised 250 guineas and that in former days several of his paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy.It's interesting that the author laments that a picture by him had sold recently for 250 guineas at Christie's, considering just last month at the same Christie's, a record was broken when the picture above by Solomon sold for £182,500 ($242,500), the highest price ever paid for one of his pictures. Compared to his contemporaries, the aforementioned Rossetti and Burne-Jones whose works now sell in the millions of pounds, this amount is still a small sum. Nevertheless, considering Solomon was still barely acknowledged as a significant figure in the Pre-Raphaelite circle just fifteen years ago, this shift in the sale of his work is an incredible change in the market and appreciation for his work.
Painted in 1868, measuring 17 x 25 in., entitled A Prelude by Bach, Solomon's watercolor was first exhibited at the Dudley Gallery in London in February 1869 under the more generic title of A Song. It was largely disregarded by critics, the Times dismissing it as "a bevy of young men and maidens in the Watteauish costumes ... grouped round a lady at the piano," suggesting a subject that was either in the spirit of an 18th-century a fete galante or had randy Regency tendencies. Whatever the costumes, the picture seemed to be overtly sensual in its presentiment and lacking in the moral meaning preferred by those critics interested in mid-century Victorian narrative paintings. (To be clear, she is playing a harpsichord, not a piano, a perhaps important historical point if she is playing a Prelude by J.S. Bach.)
A Song was exhibited with Solomon's (now-lost) Sacramentum Amoris and A Saint of the Eastern Church (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, image right), single-figure works that respectively celebrated pagan and Christian rituals, all done in watercolors, a medium with which most always agree Solomon excelled. Both the Saint and the Amoris carry myrtle branches, as does the boy in A Song. Clearly this suggests there was intent to unite them as a trinity with meaning, but that understanding now seems to be lost. Indeed, the problem with A Song at the time of its exhibition was its lack of meaning, either grouped with the other two pictures or on its own. The 1860s were a time of transition in British art, as the radical medievalism and social consciousness of the Pre-Raphaelites evolved into the luscious Venetian colors and subjects of the Aesthetic Movement, subjects and meaning typically dissipated in favor of sheer expressions of beauty. Another key shift in this transition was the merging of the arts so that one form could express that of another, i.e. art with music, poetry with art, music with poetry. This stylistic development appeared not just in Solomon's pictures but also those of his colleagues and friends Rossetti, Albert Moore, and J.A.M. Whistler (think Symphony in White, No. 1). These pictures blended the arts, poetry/music/painting united in subject-less works. Whistler arguably succeeded in this goal more than his colleagues and friends, to the point that he took the critic John Ruskin to court for libel and defended what this aesthetic sensibility actually meant. And yet, after all this time, viewers today still seek out meaning in pictures such as these.
In the 2005 Solomon exhibition catalogue, Colin Cruise argued that A Prelude by Bach echoed the representation of figures in Botticelli's Primavera, with the lady at the harpsichord substituting Venus, and the boy on the left representing Mercury, holding instead of the caduceus a myrtle branch. I'm not convinced this interpretation is completely accurate, because Solomon made a number of pictures throughout his career depicting groups of people arranged as if they were part of a bas-relief, and I'm not sure this one is any different from the others that it is less or more like the Primavera. That said, I do agree with Cruise that the depiction of the two women embracing in Solomon's picture conveys another instance of his exploration of lesbian desire, something he began exploring at least five years earlier with his pictures of Sappho. I would go even further and say that almost all of the couplings depicted in this work exhibit a sense of decadent sensuality. Their lassitude suggests post-coital intercourse, as if listening to the Prelude has somehow satiated their sexual drives. The power of music indeed.
This picture is a simple work upon first seeing it, but gazing at it in more depth, and attempting to read the imagery, symbols, and pairings more closely, it leads to that deeper enigma that one finds in so many of Solomon's pictures. His was a coded language all his own, and one wonders if we will ever be able to fully comprehend all the meaning in his works. Sadly, he died 111 years ago today taking most, if not all, of those secrets with him to his grave.
Saturday, July 30, 2016
Few would disagree that one of the greatest painters of the nineteenth century was Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). An artist who specialized in landscapes that ranged from the classical to the sublime, he so impressed his contemporaries with his work as a young man that he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1799 and a full member in 1802. He excelled both in oil paintings and watercolors, and could paint in the spirit of the Old Masters while also introducing something new for his own modern world. Later in life Turner was criticized for his eccentricities in subjects and painting techniques, and the recent biopic Mr. Turner reportedly makes him a bit of a bumbling idiot rather than an eccentric painter (I have not seen the movie yet). During the last twenty years of his life he failed to impress most viewers, and he was often derided for his paintings because of their seemingly slipshod compositions and abstractions of color. His one defender late in life was the conservative art critic John Ruskin, who saw in Turner (perhaps surprisingly) the epitome of the principle of "truth to nature." Today, Turner is recognized as a master, and retroactively appreciated as a key figure who influenced many of the modernist tendencies in painting from the Impressionists through Abstract Expressionism.
I've selected as this Monthly Work of Art Turner's painting The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834, which he painted from 1834-35 and now is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. AA and I saw the painting once again on a visit there a few weeks ago, and it still continues to impress me every time. On the night of October 16, 1834, a tremendous conflagration burned down the Houses of Parliament in London. (The neo-Gothic building and Big Ben were the replacement buildings that stand today.) Hundreds, if not thousands, of spectators flocked to the shores of the Thames to watch the massive fire. Turner was among them, and he recorded on the spot a series of watercolor sketches that he later used to create two different oil paintings in his studio. This is one of them; the other is in the Cleveland Museum of Art. All of these works were cleverly brought together in 2007 when the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC hosted the exhibition J.M.W. Turner. I remember to this day how much I loved this one particular room that demonstrated Turner's understanding of energy and light and color in his watercolors and the oil paintings recording this cataclysmic event.
Christopher Riopelle writes in the PMA's handbook about this painting that Turner watched the blaze from the south bank of the Thames: "Here he exaggerates the scale of Westminster Bridge, which rises like a massive iceberg at right and then on the opposite bank seems to plunge down and dissolve in the blaze. At the dazzling heart of the flames is Saint Stephen's Hall, the House of Commons, while beyond the towers of Westminster Abbey, which would be spared, are eerily illuminated. Turner was drawn to depictions of nature in cataclysmic eruption, and here in the middle of London he confronted a scene of terrifying force and drama that he recorded in several watercolor sketches and two paintings."
Turner's vibrant palette of color and the swirls of energy emanating from the fire make this a magnificent painting. Even the smoke takes on a life of its own as it rushes like a wave into the night sky. One can understand why people today often see Turner as a proto-abstract painter. I am reading at present Jonathan Crary's Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, and a passage recently caught my eye (no pun intended) that made me think of this painting again from my visit to Philadelphia a few weeks ago. Crary's interest in this book is demonstrating how advances in physiology and socio-philosophical theory during the first half of the nineteenth century impacted the world of painting and the development of photography thereafter. Rather than reinforce the paradigmatic argument that modernist painters, from the Impressionists on, were so radical in how they saw the world as artists, he contends that their sense of the world was a natural development because of changes in the understanding of how people actually saw and perceived the world around them through scientific discoveries and hypotheses made earlier in the century. This led some to want to understand the essence of the "innocent" eye, what one sees before the brain interprets the imagery. Crary writes: "Ruskin was equally able to employ [this theory] in suggesting the possibility of a purified subjective vision, of an immediate and unfiltered access to the evidence of this privileged sense. But if the vision of Ruskin, Cezanne, Monet, and others has anything in common, it would be misleading to call it 'innocence.' Rather it is a question of a vision achieved at great cost that claimed for the eye a vantage point uncluttered by the weight of historical codes and conventions of seeing, a position from which vision can function without the imperative of composing its contents into a reified 'real' world." (pp.95-96)
What strikes me is that if we believe Crary's argument (and I confess I am doing a hack job summarizing it; read the book), then why do we have to leave it to the Impressionists in the 1870s to receive the credit for a new interpretation of this understanding of vision? Surely other artists experimented with these discoveries earlier? Indeed, Turner paints what his eye sees, not necessarily a photorealistic representation of what the viewer expects to see. He painted swirls of color as the eye sees them, but before the brain's interpretation of what they are. While this seems most apparent in the color and brushstroke of the background and upper left quadrant, other components of visual acuity are evident here too: the bridge, with its warped foreshortening and perspective. As the eye focuses on the rising flames of orange, yellow, and red, peripheral vision skews the natural alignment of the bridge. Similarly, the people in the foreground along the banks lack any physical features; they are shrouded in smoke and the night sky, and are only visible again in Turner's periphery. This painterly demonstration of what Turner "saw" relates well, then, to Ruskin, who praised Turner for his "truth to nature" approach in his art. It is not so much that his paintings capture a verisimilitude of the landscape; rather, his paintings convey an unadulterated understanding of what his eye saw. Such is the genius of Turner.
POSTSCRIPT 8/6/16: When I wrote this blog post, I was only just more than half-way through Crary's Techniques of the Observer. I should have glanced ahead. In his last chapter, Crary discusses Turner as exactly the prime example of artist who utilized new principles of vision in his art. He discusses briefly two of Turner's paintings from the 1840s that emphasize the vortex of light as their subjects. These paintings and Turner's late color/light-filled experiments are among those works most find inspiring today, largely because of their foreshadowing of abstraction yet to come. But for Crary it was the natural development of the understanding of a subjective sense of vision that made this possible. He writes: "Seemingly out of nowhere, [Turner's] painting of the late 1830s and 1840s signals the irrevocable loss of a fixed source of light, the dissolution of a cone of light rays, and the collapse of the distance separating an observer from the site of optical experience. ... Turner's direct confrontation with the sun ... dissolves the very possibility of representation that the camera obscura was meant to ensure. His solar preoccupations were 'visionary' in that he made central in his work the retinal processes of vision." (138-39) Crary thus utilizes Turner as the grande finale to his thesis. Fortunately, this coincides with my observation above: that one need not wait for the 1870s and the Impressionists to assume that scientific understandings in the subjectivity of vision manifested themselves in art. They were happening simultaneously.
Saturday, July 23, 2016
(For other works in my Portals series, click here.)
This door [made of walnut with various wood inlays, with iron lock and hinges] is from the central, ceremonial entranceway to the Stiegerhof room ..., a reception chamber from the second floor of a Renaissance manor house. The top panel of the door bears the name and coat of arms of Wolfgang Paul, the owner who had the house renovated, and the date 1589 (presumably the year the decoration of the room was completed). The bottom panel bears the name and coat of arms of Urban Holzwurm, the master woodworker and builder who was probably responsible for the renovation of the house as well as the creation of this door. The side of the door seen here was the most elaborately decorated one in the room and would have been visible only to people who were inside the room when the door was closed.
Sunday, June 26, 2016
I have been reading Sontag's book as one of my commute reads, and although some of her ideas seem dated now, I can tell how they were significant for a younger generation of connoisseurs, curators, and art historians in the 1970s when visual art was struggling to maintain its momentum with the rise of conceptual art and happenings in the contemporary scene. This particular essay, however, I have found very interesting because she proposed that the power of photography, as a democratized form of visual imagery and reproductive media, created for viewers a definition of what beauty is supposed to be. Although she focused on avant-garde practices and left out much discussion on commercial and fashion photography, the implication is clearly there as well. From the very beginning, advertising and mass media, through photographic imagery, have instructed us on how we are supposed to look and thus feel, and if we don't measure up somehow we fail as humans in our society. The role of photography to celebrity culture is tied to this and arguably today is even worse now than it ever was because of the onslaught of mass media and advertising impacting people 24/7.
I begin with this preface about beauty and photography to introduce what I've selected as the latest Monthly Work of Art. I first encountered the image you see above many years ago, and I believe it was one of the great images that motivated me along to my eventual career in art history. The photograph is a portrait of Gloria Swanson photographed by Edward Steichen. I first saw this work in person at an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg more than 25 years ago. When many years later I told my friend and photohistorian extraordinaire RL the story of how much I loved this photograph and how it had inspired me, his response was "Of course it did!" I took that to mean two things: first, that it was indeed an evocative and beautifully composed photograph; and second, that naturally it would also appeal to me because it was so queer.
Photographed in 1924 and published in Vanity Fair in February 1928, a vintage print went up for auction at Sotheby's in 2014 and sold for $629,000. But if you could put a price on the beautiful, this photograph would likely be among those whose worth was priceless. The subject is Gloria Swanson (1899-1983), who at the time of the shoot was the highest paid actress in the world. She was a star of the silent film era and made the transition to talkies, but fell out of favor in Hollywood until she starred as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), playing (ironically?) a fading film star from the silent film era who lives as a hermit in her Hollywood mansion but falls in love with a young screenwriter. In some ways, the photograph practically foreshadows Desmond's famous line "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up," spoken by Swanson in a husky voice that seeps through the translucent black veil in Steichen's image. The theatrical effects of the photograph and its references to old Hollywood and 1920s glamour are of course all of the stock traits that make it queer.
The photographer, Edward Steichen (1879-1973), established his career as a painter and Pictorialist photographer, but by the 1920s he had become a fashion and celebrity photographer, and later went on to become Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art. In his autobiography, Steichen wrote about photographing Swanson: "[We] had had a long session, with many changes of costume and different lighting effects. At the end of the session, I took a piece of black lace veil and hung it in front of her face. She recognized the idea at once. Her eyes dilated, and her look was that of a leopardess lurking behind leafy shrubbery, watching her prey" (Steichen, A Life in Photography, chapter 8). This description of the photo shoot suggests a few interesting notions. First, that the perfect image only came to them after an already-long, strenuous, exhausting day, implying then that it was not hard work but instantaneity and magical genius that had created this image. This notion of artistic strokes of genius is a trope one finds with every artist in history, and clearly was intended to make their work actually seem effortless and thus sophisticated. Second, the quotation also demonstrates that Swanson as the subject was equally involved in the creation of the image, specifically through performance and pose. Hence, it was a mutually-created stroke of genius, Adam-and-God touching fingers to spark Michelangelesque creation.
What Steichen does not seem to give credit to, however, is the power of the black veil. These netted fabrics have served to mask women's face for millennia, to allow them to feel a sense of protection against the staring eyes of others. In the case of mourning, a black veil permits the women to be private in her grief when she is in public, and informs people they should step away out of respect. In contrast, a white veil on a Western wedding dress masks the beauty of the woman's face, only to be revealed at the end when the new husband is permitted to kiss his bride. He lifts her veil, sees her face, and is now the sole owner of the commodity of beauty that has been hidden before that moment. Women in the Islamic community who wear full burqa often include veils, and regardless of the socio-political or gender-biased implications behind this practice, ultimately the veil here serves the same purpose: to disguise the woman and, by implication, make her invisible (even if, in Western society, it has the opposite effect).
The black veil in this photograph, seemingly thrown up haphazardly by Steichen, instantly creates a barrier that thereafter prevents the viewer from ever penetrating into the subject's space. It transforms a color of mourning into a commodity for showcasing beauty. But the veil also distances the subject from the gaze of the viewer, and thus creates an erotic tension between them. In many ways this was symptomatic of the role Swanson herself played in society as a film actress: visible and larger-than-life on the big screen for everyone to see, she was unavailable to the public as a real, live person. Unlike a full-length film, this single-frame image exacerbates this tension. She stares, eyes locked, leopardess-like, on her prey, the viewer, and thus shifts the power of the gaze back onto its source. Her gaze, specifically through that veil, empowers her and ultimately castrates (figuratively speaking) the (presumed male) viewer who has sought to penetrate her. The image is, indeed, one that showcases beauty, but at the same time it emphasizes the subject's power. Rather than subjugate her, the veil becomes the woman's armor.
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
But since then, life has continued rather well. I turned 46 (egads!). We had a very fun house re-warming party (because since my arrival in AA's abode, I have re-warmed it!). We went to Florida to visit family, then we had an amazing vacation to Mexico City, and I recently went to Portland (Maine) for work. The job itself, of course, has continued with numerous things taking place, aside from the above-mentioned drama. And I've been writing.
I admit I contemplated whether I should blog anymore. With over 500 posts covering almost 7 years, what more could bklynbiblio possibly say? (Please...you KNOW I always have something to say!) It is true that the "old" days of blogging in general have dissipated. The first "weblog" dates from 1997, so it's now 19 years in. But do people actively read blogs anymore? I actually do still read a few, and you can see the links on this blog, but in general I have a tendency to binge-read them, not read their posts regularly. I don't think, however, that most people active read blogs as they used to. What seems to have happened is that as a plethora of information on the Internet has exploded over the past few years, no one can process anything more than a simple paragraph of "facts" (quotation marks intentional) in one quick read. Reading, let alone writing, an essay online is simply beyond what most people can process or even want to process anymore.
All this made me question if writing new blog posts merited anything. As I said in the beginning, it was absolutely delightful to know that some people missed the posts. (Thank you, AA, PR, JAM, PC, and others.) But does blogging on its own provide the same important outlet for news and general information as it once did? Social media has exploded in creating a multiple-platform means in which to convey "facts" (quotation marks still intentional). In other words, if we have YouTube, apps, notifications, and so on, do we actually need full-text information at all? Curiously, this isn't a situation faced only by bloggers. Newspapers are facing it too, as demonstrated by the fact that they continue to lay off full-time reporters because no one wants to read, or has the time to read, actual reporting anymore.
But this blog isn't really about news like our conflicts with the Islamic State, Zika, terrorists, or the Presidential campaign. This blog has been about the arts in its broadest context, filled with personal reviews and original works of art, interviews and travelogues, and "best of" annual recaps. So it does still serve a purpose. What has changed, however, is me in that I now utilize social media more than this blog to disseminate information. My Instagram and Twitter accounts are both bklynbiblio, for instance. Therefore, if one really wants to keep up with bklynbiblio, apparently one has to follow not just this blog but all my social media outlets!! And if the very idea of doing that infuriates, upsets, or even disheartens you, then you're not alone. I feel the same way! It is, quite frankly, exhausting. Seriously.
24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. This erudite, short text outright warns us that we need to stop letting corporations control our lives through these online gadgets and media. Their ever-growing capitalist intent fools us into thinking we need the latest technology in order to stay in touch, and that if we aren't online all the time we will miss something important. Hence, the end of sleep, and the utter exhaustion that we are all feeling more and more every single day. (Read the book. It's worth it.)
What I have discovered about myself (and I'm sure others feel this way) is that I struggle between my constant use of various media platforms (as both a browser and a poster), and my desire to pull away from all of them because I can tell how much these various media outlets are exhausting me. And I hope that the latter part of that struggle is winning out. I consciously now try to live "in the moment." I realize that is incredibly cliche, and the quotation marks here are also intentional, but this time not for a negative reason. I really do mean "in the moment." I find myself more and more actually looking at people, admiring who they are and wondering about the lives they live. I look around at buildings and bushes and bodies of water and try to notice what makes each element in life unique or the same. I touch textiles and woods and metals to try to understand what they feel like. I listen for birds singing in trees. I gaze at paintings and walk around sculptures, simply to take in the beauty of what artistic creation. And I actually have grinned when I realize that I have stopped to smell lilacs, jasmine, and, yes, roses. And they smell divine.
Of course writing this blog post right now may seem contradictory to everything I've just written. But not really, because ultimately I've always perceived myself as a writer, and for me this is how I communicate my thoughts and feelings about all these things. So, yes, we are back on the blog! I can't promise how often I will be posting, or whether I will be posting things like I have in the past. But you can be sure: "writing" in some format or another is taking place, simply because living is happening off-line.
Tuesday, March 29, 2016
I'm back in the UK for a few days of research and exhibitions, so I'll see if I can maintain a daily blog highlighting what will have transpired. Not surprisingly, we departed late from Newark on Sunday evening, and arrived late into Heathrow. Not impressed by United's entertainment options, nor their food, on this trip. The trend toward using your own hand-held devices seems like a cop-out to me for the airlines to provide services, as prices keep increasing. And dinner was not appetizing at all. In any case, what did startle me was how quiet Heathrow was when we arrived, and how quickly we got through immigration. At first I couldn't imagine what was going on, but then I realized it was a bank holiday, Easter Monday, so oddly fewer people were actually working. In any case, the long day was ahead of me--making sure I stay awake!--and so I took the Heathrow Express and then a taxi to my hotel where, fortunately, my room was ready so I could rest and freshen up.
After doping up on more coffee and a sandwich at Costa (why, of why, has neither Caffe Nero or Costa made it across the pond to the U.S.? Starbucks needs more competition!), I could see that the streets were quieter than usual for the holiday. I made my way via the Northern line on the tube to Charing Cross, then walked to the National Portrait Gallery to see the exhibition "Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky." It was a small exhibition of portraits of Russian writers, musicians/composers, and thespians, all from the collection of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, what was once the private collection of an individual art collector. I was inspired to see this because of having recently finished reading Anna Karenina, so it was useful to see a few paintings I am less familiar with contemporaneous to Tolstoy's novel (1877) and late nineteenth-century art. Not surprisingly one could see the influences of Realism and Impressionism, and a few Cubist-style works from the 1890s that predate Cubism itself by a decade. The painter Ilia Repin stood out as clearly the most talented painter of the group, which may explain why he is the one name that appears in surveys of 19th-century European art. His life-size, whole-length portrait of Baroness Varvara Iksul von Hildenbrandt, which can be seen by clicking on the link above, was the highlight work in the show. Overall the show was interesting, but I was done in 20 minutes.
After stopping for a lovely blackberry-apple tart and English breakfast tea (yes, more caffeine needed) at the National Cafe, I went to see the exhibition "Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art." At an entry price of 15 pounds, I have to confess I was not impressed. Why oh why could they not just have an exhibition about Eugene Delacroix and his contemporaries? Why justify all the accomplishments in Delacroix's use of color and Rubenesque brush stroke by simply showing how more famous names like Renoir (yuck!) and Gauguin (more yuck!) were influenced by him?! Delacroix was an amazing artist and clearly changed the entire realm of 19th-century French art. The image above shows one example of a painting by him in the exhibition: Lion Hunt, 1860-61, from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. This was, in fact, the iconic image used as the headliner for the exhibition and it is arguably the best picture in the exhibition by Delacroix. It is just disappointing that half of the works in the show were by this masterful painter. I certainly would have preferred to see an actual Delacroix exhibition. I spent the rest of the afternoon (after another snack) walking through the National Gallery to see their incredible painting collection, one masterpiece after another.
Sunday, February 28, 2016
Saturday, February 20, 2016
Image Credits: All images taken by bklynbiblio/Roberto C. Ferrari. Top to bottom:
- Dying soldier from east pediment, Temple of Aegina, Greece, late 5th century BCE, marble, Glyptothek, Munich.
- Frederic, Lord Leighton, The Music Lesson, 1877, oil on canvas, Guildhall Art Gallery, London.
- Jean-Léon Gérôme, Moorish Bath, 1870, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
- Claude Monet, Boulevard des Capucines, 1873-74, oil on canvas, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.
- Botticelli, Madonna of the Magnificat, late 15th century, oil on canvas, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
Saturday, February 6, 2016
This painting "was Gainsborough’s first attempt at full length Van Dyck dress--knee breeches and a slashed doublet with a lace collar--which is based on the work of Anthony van Dyck, the 17th-century Flemish painter who had revolutionized British art. ... Though clearly indebted to Van Dyck, Gainsborough’s painting technique was entirely his own. Whereas Van Dyck applied color in discrete patches composed of short consecutive strokes, Gainsborough presents a chaos of erratic color and brushstrokes. The shimmering blue satin is rendered in a spectrum of minutely calibrated tints--indigo, lapis, cobalt, slate, turquoise, charcoal, and cream--that have been applied in extremely complex layers of vigorous slashes and fine strokes. At the proper distance, the diverse pigments crystallize into an illusion of solidity." (online catalogue entry)
"The Blue Boy is Gainsborough's most famous picture, and his most enigmatic. Through its elevation to iconic status in the twentieth century this picture, more than any other, has served to promote the artist's image as a romantic painter of chocolate-box cavaliers. Nothing could be further from the truth. The painting is a parody. The boy in question was not the offspring of an aristocrat but the teenage son of a prosperous Soho ironmonger, and a person friend of the artist. His costume was a popular form of fancy dress which ... was otherwise restricted to the ephemeral realm of the masquerade, then a popular form of entertainment in the capital. ... X-rays have revealed that Gainsborough painted The Blue Boy upon a discarded, cut-down canvas, which further suggests that this was not a straight-forward portrait commission but an impromptu jeu d'esprit." -- Martin Postle, Thomas Gainsborough (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2002), 46.