I have been soooo busy the last few months on things that required my absolute focus – such as making my wedding dress, teaching, and preparing for an upcoming solo exhibition. I was literally up to my eyeballs in yards and yards of ivory silk, wool and cream, and I discovered some truly wonderful people and places in the process. I am now returning more full-time to the world of paint just when spring has begun in the most glorious fashion, and I am hoping that I will have a little more time for writing about painting.
The Palace of Donn’Anna, Naples, Jules Coignet 1843
One of the images constantly in my mind’s horizon is that of Mount Vesuvius, my next-door neighbor. For those of you who have never been to Naples and have heard rumors about how “dangerous” it is, be aware that the real danger is Vesuvius – a silent fountain of “rebirth” from which gushes the thrills, the fire, the dust, the goosebumps and the chaos that form Naples today, a modern city perched on a delicate historical tapestry. The experience is invigorating and intoxicating for an artist, a true adrenalin rush similar to that first enormous crush. But when in Naples, do as the Neapolitans do: Don’t worry about it. Let it overwhelm you, and in the meantime, if you can concentrate on getting some decent painting done, someday someone might really appreciate it.
Here below are some images/fantasies inspired by the presence of this potent volcano, a little tribute to “playing with fire.”
Artists featured in alphabetical order include: August Wihlem Julius Ahlhorn, Henry Brokman, Achille Carelli, Henri Carr, Franz Ludwig Catel, Edward William Cooke, Jules Coignet, Christopher DiPietro, Johan Christian Claussen Dahl, Robert Dukes, Robert S. Duncanson, Jacob Philipp Hackert, Alessandro La Volpe, Heinrich Reinhold, Charles Remond, Kajetonas Sklėrius, Gustaf Soderberg, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Pierre Jacques Volaire, Michael Wetzel, Joseph Wright of Derby, Michael Wutky
Qu’est-ce qu’une tête? A good question, always. I came across this French film on Alberto Giacometti today quite by accident, and as it deepened my Sunday, I am sharing it here in its five parts. After the buttery introduction in French, the English subtitles kick in.
Not so long ago, I was wandering the glorious halls of the Capodimonte museum in Naples, delirious like a child over having the museum practically all to myself (such is the case with the museums in Naples), when I was stopped by two very beautifully crafted paintings appearing in the left corner of my eye, “The Misanthrope” and the “Blind Leading the Blind” by Bruegel. I am not sure if there is anything quite like coming across a Bruegel painting when visiting a museum, being both very poignant and invigorating for the eye and mind at the same time. There are times when I am just exhausted from seeing so many famous paintings and crumbling fragments and “formal concerns.” Coming across a panel of such perfectly sustained, fragrant colors that are hundreds of years old, with so many details to linger over and a continually relevant life theme to ponder, is perhaps art absorption at its dearest and finest. All sounds around me went faint as I heard my blood pulsing and my heart aching; the goosebumps finally overwhelmed me, turning me into one big slushy mess of an artist-tourist who would have to try to put her life back together.
The Misanthrope, 1568 – A ragged figure in a glass globe is cutting the purse strings of an old man wearing a dark habit. Under the picture are the words: “Since the world is so unfaithful, I am in mourning.”
When I was a child, I used to love looking at Bruegel’s painting of the Hunters in the Snow. That snow looked just as real and cold as snow, and I longed to get out there with the other skaters in what seemed a perfect winter wonderland of paint. The hunters, however, gave me a shudder of something with a different, inexplicable quality of cold. Still today, I feel the same in looking at this painting, preferring the skaters over the hunters, having learned a bit more about that second kind of chill.
The Hunters in the Snow, 1565
As for the painting Dulle Griet, also known as Mad Meg, I am relieved I learned about it as an adult, for the nightmare probability is quite high from viewing such a magnificent painting like this. Mad Meg is the Anglicized version of Dulle Griet, a peasant woman figure of Flemish folklore who leads an army of women to pillage Hell, wearing an apron and armed with rough language and tools of male aggression. She is also the subject of a 1640s painting by Flemish painter David Teniers the Younger, and she appears as a character in Caryl Churchill’s Play “Top Girls” (1982), where she recounts her invasion of Hell: “I’d had enough, I was mad, I hate the bastards. I come out my front door that morning and shout till my neighbors come out and I said, “Come on, we’re going where the evil come from and pay the bastards out.'” (Churchill, 28).
Dulle Griet, 1562
But mostly, Bruegel created paintings that richly suggest that we stop to reflect, no matter if we are contemplating ice skaters, hunters, crucifixions, demonic peasant women or Icarus falling from the sky. As W.H. Auden explains in his poem, great masters such as Bruegel show how most people are too oblivious to care.
“Musée des Beaux Arts”
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, 1558
Aldous Huxley wrote a very interesting essay on Brueghel which was circulating around on facebook recently, in which he prefaces his thoughts on Brueghel with an interesting opinion on the modern art values of his day. I have written before about my disappointment in the fact that current artmaking seems to eschew emotional content, any narrative and any focus on any real subject matter, other than the artist’s “formal concerns.” Thus, I found I could not agree more when Huxley writes about the value of feelings in painting,
One feeling is excited by another. Our faculties work best in a congenial emotional atmosphere.
I also enjoyed his discussion about the value of “the sentiment of the buttocks”:
The contemporary fashion is to admire beyond all others the painter who can concentrate on the formal side of his art and produce pictures which are entirely devoid of literature. Old Renoir’s apophthegm, “Un peintre, voyez-vous, qui a le sentiment du téton et des fesses, est un homme sauvé,” is considered by the purists suspiciously latitudinarian. A painter who has the sentiment of the pap and the buttocks is a painter who portrays real models with gusto. Your pure aesthete should only have a feeling for hemispheres, curved lines and surfaces. But this “sentiment of the buttocks” is common to all good painters. It is the lowest common measure of the whole profession. It is possible, like Mantegna, to have a passionate feeling for all that is solid, and at the same time to be a stoic philosopher and a hero-worshiper; possible, with Michelangelo, to have a complete realization of breasts and also an interest in the soul or, like Rubens, to have a sentiment for human greatness as well as for human rumps. The greater includes the less; great dramatic or reflective painters know everything that the aestheticians who paint geometrical pictures, apples or buttocks know, and a great deal more besides. What they have to say about formal relations, though important, is only a part of what they have to express. The contemporary insistence on form to the exclusion of everything else is an absurdity. So was the older insistence on exact imitation and sentiment to the exclusion of form. There need be no exclusions. In spite of the single name, there are many different kinds of painters and all of them, with the exception of those who cannot paint, and those whose minds are trivial, vulgar and tedious, have a right to exist.
And just a bit later he writes,
Every good painter invents a new way of painting. Is this man a competent painter? Has he something to say, is he genuine? These are the questions a critic must ask himself. Not, Does he conform with my theory of imitation, or distortion, or moral purity, or significant form?
Like Auden, Huxley also recognized the tremendous impact Bruegel creates by presenting a scene of “regular” people in which the mourners of an “important” tragedy go unnoticed, discussing it particularly in The Procession to Calvary (1564):
“Breughel… represents the scene as it would have appeared to any casual spectator on the road to Golgotha on a certain spring morning in the year 33 A.D. Other artists have pretended to be angels, painting the scene with a knowledge of its significance. But Brueghel resolutely remains a human onlooker. What he shows is a crowd of people walking briskly in holiday joyfulness up the slopes of a hill. On the top of the hill, which is seen in the middle distance on the right, are two crosses with thieves fastened to them, and between them a little hole in the ground in which another cross is soon to be planted. Round the crosses, on the bare hill top stands a ring of people, who have come out with their picnic baskets to look on at the free entertainment offered by the ministers of justice. Those who have already taken their stand round the crosses are the prudent ones; in these days we should see them with camp stools and thermos flasks, six hours ahead of time, in the vanguard of the queue for a Melba night at Covent Garden…
That eager, tremulous, lascivious interest in blood and beastliness which in these more civilized days we can only satisfy at one remove from reality in the pages of our newspapers, was franklier indulged in Brueghel’s day; the naïve ingenuous brute in man was less sophisticated, was given longer rope, and joyously barks and wags its tail round the appointed victim. Seen thus, impassively, from the outside, the tragedy does not purge or uplift; it appalls and makes desperate; or it may even inspire a kind of gruesome mirth. The same situation may often be either tragic or comic, according as it is seen through the eyes of those who suffer or those who look on. (Shift the point of vision a little and Macbeth could be paraphrased as a roaring farce.) Breughel makes a concession to the high tragic convention by placing in the foreground of his picture a little group made up of the holy women weeping and wringing their hands. They stand quite apart from the other figures in the picture and are fundamentally out of harmony with them, being painted in the style of Roger van der Weyden. A little oasis of passionate spirituality, an island of consciousness and comprehension in the midst of the pervading stupidity and brutishness. Why Breughel put them into his picture is difficult to guess; perhaps for the benefit of the conventionally religious, perhaps out of respect for tradition; or perhaps he found his own creation too depressing and added this noble irrelevance to reassure himself.”
You can read the rest of Huxley’s essay here. No need to rush off, though, as each image below is an “island of consciousness” well worth visiting.
Napoli. Che meraviglia is pretty much all I have to say so far since my arrival. Now that I am feeling a little more settled and have learned my way around in a general way, I am looking forward to exploring all the nooks and crannies – being careful of course when venturing down dark alleys by myself. I have begun painting as well, and I like to keep the windows open so that I can hear the sounds of the motorini, distant hammering, the soccer ball kicking around the courtyard and the sounds of plates clattering. I am wondering if I will be able to incorporate those sounds into the paintings I am beginning.
Whatever one might say about the great sun and light in Israel, I can now personally vouch that it is way over-rated. Just too much of it all the time, never changing, and just too hot. So hot that it bleaches rather than burns, in my opinion, so that if I had stayed any longer I may have disappeared. And who wants to feel sticky all the time, from breakfast to dinner? I was once talking to a taxi driver in Israel as we were going from Rehovot to Jerusalem, and he said to me that he loves the heat and sun of Israel, “The hotter the better.” And this he says as we are sitting in sub-zero temperatures of the air-conditioning he has cranked up in his car, for that is how much he “enjoys” the hot weather.
The weather in Naples is changing now from summer sun to autumn rain, and as I make my way around the city to see the different Caravaggio paintings and erotic frescos, it made me think about the work of Walter Sickert (31 May 1860 – 22 January 1942). A German-born English painter and a member of the Camden Town Group, Sickert often favoured somber colors and ordinary people and urban scenes as his subjects, and his works were considered very controversial, even connecting him to murder. He is considered a prominent figure in the transition from Impressionism to modernism, and I can see how he might have been an important influence on certain British painters, particularly Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon and even the young Jenny Saville.
I personally think that his nude paintings are his best works, but I have included here below as many as I could find. Following Degas’ advice, Sickert painted in the studio, working from drawings and memory as an escape from “the tyranny of nature.” His oeuvre also included portraits of well known personalities and friends, as well as images derived from press photographs. Continued biographical information on Sickert is available here on WetCanvas, and here on Wikipedia.
As much as I do like looking at “dark” paintings from time to time, I don’t particularly revel in them; a good dip down now and then though provides some variety, something I do vastly appreciate, like an enormous platter of antipasti. And of course, Napoli itself. Today I took advantage of a questionable sky and brisk air to explore the neighborhood of Chiaia, with occasional jaunts into alluring doorways and enticing stairs going up up up, ending with an inhalation of sun, salt and surf along Naples’ Riviera.
Though relatively unknown today in the art school and painters circles, Fausto Pirandello (1899-1975) is one of my most favorite modern artists, and one I dutifully try to find every time I am in Italy. Pirandello’s approach into different layers of reality, while also focusing on the mundane behind closed doors, strikes deep chords in me. I also appreciate immensely his very original motifs and compositions, as well as his ongoing explorations of the figure and bathers. Son of the dramatist Luigi Pirandello, he trained with the sculptor Sigismondo Lipinsky between 1919 and 1920, before turning to painting. His early work was influenced by Armando Spadini and Felice Carena, colleagues of his, as well as by Gauguin, Kokoschka and van Gogh.
After a four year experience in Paris, where he mingled with some of the more important Italian-Parigian artists of the 1920s and 30s, Pirandello returned to Rome in 1931 and was welcomed into the Roman School, distinguishing himself by his originality and solitary research. Pirandello’s painting was oriented towards a realism of daily life, including the grimy and gritty, and expressing himself through dense painting. His intellectual vision translated the naturalistic facts, even those most brutal, in a sort of magical or poetic realism with archaic and metaphysical tones, adding spatial concerns stemming from cubism, tonalism and expressionistic painting, such as in La Scala, depicting a woman ascending and descending a staircase in a brothel, or in Pioggia D’Oro, with a foreshortened female figure falling out of a domestic scene.
During the 1950s, Pirandello develops his style further, reabsorbing cubist suggestions from Braque and Picasso, and living through the difficult phase afflicting Italian painting at that time, the split between realism and neocubism. Through expressionistic deformations, he comes up with new solutions that sit between abstraction and figuration, with paintings that refer strongly towards a cubist synthesis in the tiling of colors and in compositions which slowly lose their narrative.
(La Scala – no better resolution found)
Pirandello exhibited widely during his career, including the Venice Biennale and the Rome Quadriennali, along with solo exhibitions at the Galleria della Cometa, Galleria del Secolo, and Galleria di Roma. After the war, he held a solo exhibition at the Catherine Viviano Gallery in New York in 1955, and the solo show “Nuova Pesa” (New Weight) in Rome in 1968.
Nowadays, it is considered taboo in figurative painting to betray any sense of feeling if you want to be taken seriously. Objective analysis of form and color is heralded as a higher goal for a painter, and yet I am not sure I agree. The art can then very easily become just as boring as photorealism. There is a lot of excellent painting happening today, but when I feel that it is being conducted in a mechanical method or pixelized way, rather than perhaps being something pounced upon and pushed through an emotional instinct, it does not seem to go beyond craft and decoration for me. I think this becomes even more interesting to examine the closer you edge to the extremes of more abstract versus highly rendered paintings. When I look at Andrew Wyeth’s paintings, the last thing that comes to mind is painstaking, empty illustration. There is a love driving his work, both found and lost. I always feel privileged to look at his paintings, swept away by the chance to stand in his shoes and look deeply at his recordings of the people, places and weather around him. It is a rare gift that someone looked so stubbornly, poignantly and faithfully – not afraid to expose himself so, despite the trends of the commercial art world.
Andrew Wyeth (July 12, 1917 – January 16, 2009) was primarily classified as a realist painter and is one of the artists I have consistently looked at in astonishment during the past 20 years. In a “Life Magazine” article in 1965, Wyeth said that although he was thought of as a realist, he thought of himself as an abstractionist:
My people, my objects breathe in a different way: there’s another core — an excitement that’s definitely abstract. My God, when you really begin to peer into something, a simple object, and realize the profound meaning of that thing — if you have an emotion about it, there’s no end.
Wyeth’s favorite subjects were the land and people around him, both in his hometown of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and at his summer home in Cushing, Maine. With his father’s guidance, painter and illustrator N.C. Wyeth, he mastered figure study and watercolor, and later learned egg tempera from his brother-in-law Peter Hurd. He studied art history on his own, admiring many masters of Renaissance and American painting, especially Winslow Homer.
N.C. fostered an inner self-confidence to follow one’s own talents without thought of how the work is received. In a letter to Andrew in 1944, N.C. wrote:
The great men [Thoreau, Goethe, Emerson, Tolstoy] forever radiate a sharp sense of that profound requirement of an artist, to fully understand that consequences of what he creates are unimportant. Let the motive for action be in the action itself and not in the event. I know from my own experience that when I create with any degree of strength and beauty I have no thought of consequences. Anyone who creates for effect — to score a hit — does not know what he is missing!
In October 1945, Wyeth’s father and three-year-old nephew were killed when their car stalled on railroad tracks near their home and was struck by a train. The strong emotions arising from this tragedy engulfed Wyeth personally and artistically, finding an outlet in what would become his enduring style. For further biographical reading on Wyeth in Wikipedia, click here. There is a great video of “Andrew Wyeth Draws a Portrait” on the Painting Perceptions forum. Sharing below images I have collected over time for others to enjoy.
I have managed to make it through July, but now August lies ahead menacingly. September won’t bring a drop of rain either, only constant sunshine and continued high temperatures. For some relief, I turned to paintings of bathers for a nice splash of cold water. Not often do I envy models, but at the moment I most certainly envy these!
Artists in alphabetical order: Bonnard, Botero, Eugene Boudin, Boughereau, Emanuele Cavalli, Cezanne, Courbet, Edgar Degas, Puvis de Chavannes, Fantin-Latour, Fragonard, Gauguin, William Morris Hunt, Ingres, Manet, Millet, Thomas Moran, Domenico Morelli, Otto Mueller, David Park, Picasso, Pirandello, Pissarro, Prendergast, Potthast, Rembrandt, Renoir, Repin, Rousseau, Sargent, Seurat, Sorolla, Stanislas
On a recent trip to the US, I had the enormous privilege to meet and talk at length with the artist Dean Fisher. An accomplished artist and gifted teacher based in Connecticut, Fisher recently put together “Pathways to Landscapes,” an extensive exhibition of landscape paintings by 25 contemporary artists at the Ridgefield Guild of Artists. As a survey of this nature and size is so rare today, I recommend that you run over to visit it before it closes on Saturday, March 26.
Dean Fisher is a contemporary classically oriented realist painter and has shown at Hirschl & Adler Gallery and Tatistcheff Gallery in New York. A highly respected teacher and exquisite painter of stillife, landscapes and the nude, he is a guild artist and instructor of painting at the Silvermine Arts Center in New Canaan, Connecticut and conducts workshops in Italy during the summer, including the new landscape painting program at the Certosa di Pontignano from August 27 – September 3, 2011, with details of the course yet to be announced.