We don’t do politics on this blog—but we came across these Calvin and Hobbes cartoons from January 4 and 19, 1995. The more things change, the more they stay the same, etc.
from The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Book Three. 2005
Titian’s Odd Edges
I don’t quibble lightly with the great Titian, but I’m puzzled by his propensity for jamming the focus of a piece way over to the side. In his fabulous “Bacchus and Ariadne,” a great torrent of life tumbles out of the right side toward Ariadne on the left—and almost pushes her out of the painting. It’s as if a fifth of the canvas has been chopped off the left side. I picture sea and sky continuing on past Ariadne. The foreground would angle down to the lower left-hand corner so that the whole left side would be variations in blue except for those delicate stripes of warm cloud shapes and her flesh tones and red ribbon. The image would be both wilder and more mythical if it were more spacious.
And it’s not that piece alone. In his “Perseus and Andromeda” he does the same edge-crowding thing, but here it’s even worse. Ariadne is at least held firmly in the design by various subtle devices (for example, pick any limb of hers, and you’ll find a parallel or perpendicular in Bacchus), and the terrific eye contact between the parties. But despite her chains, poor Andromeda seems to be floating away from the action. There is almost no connection between her and the battle of Perseus and the monster. But picture an additional body’s width of rock on the left to hold her in and impart more weight, more balance.
Which is how Delacroix handles it in his homage to, and rework of, the Titian. Although it must be admitted that, while avoiding Titian’s error, he falls into one of his own: his Andromeda is so sparkly white, and so self-contained, that the eye can scarcely get past her. If he’d inclined her body toward the upper right corner, the whole would have been comprehensible at a glance, and the details absorbed one by one.
Back to Titian: he does it again in his amazing “Rape of Europa,” cramping the poor bull, and driving him almost off the canvas.
No doubt he had his reasons, but I can’t think what they might have been.
On a side note, pallid reproductions of “Bacchus and Ariadne” were standard in the art history texts I had when I was in art school. I thought it a cluttered and silly piece until my first visit to the National Gallery in London. The real thing is simply stunning. The reproduction here is better than most, but still not a patch on the original. Trot along to London, and see for yourself.
this post is a reprise of April 7, 2012
Art has so many variables, and so many elements that are necessarily judged on the basis of style and personal taste, that perfection is perhaps a dubious concept. But sometimes everything coheres, ends and means conjoin, nothing strains, nothing is wasted. This Roman mosaic, for example. It’s not profound in any philosophical sense, but it is perfectly what it is: an evocation of fishness and wateriness.
The delineation of the fish is crisp and economical, the checkerboard variations in its scales a delightful translation from life into stone. There’s that wonderful eye that breaks through the outline. Several rows outside the fish parallel it, supporting it, flowing along with it. There are those ingenious and entirely abstract crenelation shapes floating around that keep the open expanses from losing focus. There is even drama: the rows in front of the head oppose its progress, but then the rows flowing off the tail restore order and harmony.
We get the same mastery in Leda and the Swan, below. The more closely you look, the more free, almost abstract, the handling is–a delight to the eye wherever the eye falls.The figure is modeled up to a point, but it’s the clarity of the poses, both hers and his, that makes it sing. The landscape bits–those plants at the lower left–are planty without being at all representational. And the background, while merely background, is so busy surrounding the principal forms that it hardly can find peaceful areas to set off the busyness of the rest. Her robe is a wonderful abstract riff of lines, colors, and tones–especially as compared with the drapery in the piece below, where we have an excursion by someone who didn’t quite get it. Too literal in its descriptions, too earnest and passively pictorial, too flat-footed in design. Boring. Scroll back up and compare with the charge in Leda. Alas, there isn’t anything inherently exciting about mosaics.
This post is partially based on that of Oct 6, 2012
This blog is resting until the new year.
DYLANN ROOF’S SELFIE
Dylann Roof, convicted last Thursday in the murder of nine black parishioners who welcomed him to a prayer service at a Charleston, S.C., church in June, 2015, “. . . confessed—calmly, clinically, occasionally chortling—to killing nine people who he acknowledged could not have been more innocent.” (New York Times, 12/10/16)This blog is about art, and art is the selection of information for an expressive purpose. Roof’s selfie, below, is a font of information both about what he wanted to express, and also about what was going on in his head.
He wanted menace, clearly. Fearsome Dylann, like the ISIS fighters here: Scary weapons. Pitiless expressions. Conquest. Massacres. Beheadings.
The center of his intended message is his face, and then the hand holding the pistol. But the face is almost lost in the clutter of puffy hair and sunglasses. The sunglasses might have conveyed an intimidating distance if he’d kept his head up, but he also wanted to fix us with his menacing scowl. Couldn’t choose.
0 for 1.
The pistol is smooth and dangerous, his finger on the trigger. But his pale, bare legs and knobby knees–the biggest, brightest shapes in the pic–overwhelm his hand, while the pistol itself almost disappears into the shadows behind it and the tray of happy little flowers in front.
0 for 2.
Then there is the Confederate flag on its little white dowel–too big to be simply a symbol, too small to be impressive–dangled off at an odd, half-lit angle, and muddled by those bright, shiny pots behind.
And those pots to his right and left–after his legs, the brightest and most coherent objects in the scene–were they there, and he just didn’t notice them, or did he pose them as visual buttresses? More distraction, either way.
And that lovely suburban grass. Not the bracing environs that characterize your typical fearsome warrior.
So, while utterly inept, it is, ironically, the truthful image of a wacko. A murderous wacko.
KENSETT EARLY AND LATE
It’s hard to believe that the same artist, John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872), painted two such different pieces.
“Mount Washington” is a conventional “view” organized on a series of obliques (diagonals receding into space) beginning simultaneously at the lower right and left, shooting to the middle right, then swooping gently back and forth into the far distance. Clumps of trees on each side frame the scene and stitch the foreground to the far distance.
And then “Eaton’s Neck,” painted the summer before he died. It’s minimal but not simple. The big shapes of sea and sky are delicately but decisively modulated, the shapes of beach and spit active and inventive. The far promontory and white sails (look carefully) catch the eye in the huge, simple shapes that surround them. “Mount Washington” is busy busy busy, meandering among its rocks and trees and sheep and houses and squishy shapes in wavery light, but “Eaton’s Neck” is all tautness. It fixes the eye in one place, one moment. You can almost hear the silence.
This post is a reprise of April 28, 2012.
The striking thing about the cartoons of Peter Arno (1904-1968) is their combination of bold formal decision with emotional complexity. His situations are vivid, his characters varied, closely observed, and full of attitude. His pieces are so dramatic because his characters have a pressing stake in the action he depicts.
“Cabaret” is a prime example. The women are your basic gorgeous sex objects, but the gent on the left is not your basic roué. He’s entranced, but observes, as it were, from a great, sad distance. He’s no longer in the game. The other members of the audience watch more tepidly. No one competes with the gent; his eyebrow is where the action is.
Formally, what is striking is that despite its richness, this piece uses only black and white and two grays. Features and outlines and a few major shapes are done in black; a middle gray is added loosely but tellingly for shadows; a darker gray folds the audience back into the far wall.
Arno’s freedom of execution is both glorious and adroit dramatically. The gent’s round table is much too high and not level, but by truncating his torso it presses the eye up toward his face. Details–the glasses on the table, the background faces, the hair and necklace of the foreground woman–are descriptive as narrative elements, but never catchy enough to distract from the main action. Even the framing rectangle is rendered in the same lively manner as the figure outlines, with little irregularities and spillovers here and there.
A strong and wonderfully sophisticated work of art.
(I can’t recollect the source or find a date for this piece.)
The work of Giovanni Battista di Jacopo (1494 – 1540), known as Rosso Fiorentino–“the Red Florentine”–is irregular, with some pretty ho-hum stuff, and some that’s really wonderful. In the wonderful category is “Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro.”
I love the animation of the thing, with Moses going at it in the foreground, and the swirling pink cloak of the ruffian behind; but then there are the coyly placid sheep in the middle, and the daughters, who, except for the blue-dressed gal in front, seem pretty calm. Notice the two faces just over her left shoulder–they seem only this moment to have noticed the action.
And the composition, with the body shapes getting more geometric and abstract as they are jammed together toward the bottom–as if everyone were falling down a well.
A teasing detail here is the dark blue wrap, the rhyme of the ruffian’s pink, that Moses wears about him. It provides a sharp, dark contrast to set off the generally light tones of the figures, and to give Moses’ face a contrasty background, but the primary function of such improbable, gravity-defying garments is usually to conceal the private parts. Here it pointedly does not.
Renaissance humor, perhaps? One of those sly artist’s jokes? Or maybe just catering to the market. Then, as now, the wishes of the grandee with the ducats got close attention.
This post is a reprise of April 14, 2012.
AN UNEXPECTED GEM
John Aubrey (1626-97) is noted for his lively and succinct notations on the life around him. He was fascinated with people, but also advanced the understanding of Stonehenge and suchlike prehistoric monuments in England.
He also drew lots of pictures. Many of these are included in the recent book John Aubrey, My Own Life by Ruth Scurr, generally in tiny, cramped images scattered through the text. They are pretty bad. He was not a competent artist. But then we have the delightful piece below.“Sir James Long of Draycot and J. Aubrey, Hawking” decorates the dust jacket. The drawing is generally inept–that horse and rider!–but the thoughtful and unaffected observation of the humans and beasts, the happy shapes of the landscape, the calm, generous sky setting off the busier foreground shapes, the delicate color–all this convinces entirely. Despite the shakiness of the parts, the ensemble is fine. Aubrey had the eye and the sensibility; what a pity he didn’t get the craft.
Which reminds us that art happens one work at a time. Even great artists knock off a dud occasionally, and even the rankest amateur can score the odd hit, if only by accident. As here.
Giuseppi Arcimboldo (1527 – 1593) is one of those fascinating artists who can’t be put in one box.
The self-portrait below is competent but pedestrian: “This is what I look like.” No doubt, but so what? A self-portrait should be about inner states.
His portrait of the Emperor Maximilian and family, an early work, is charming but almost naive. The figures read like a group of cutouts pasted down on the background. The composition is iffy (that jumble of children!). There are parts that are not badly painted, but the pieces don’t cohere. It seems the work of a pretty-well trained craftsman, without genius.
But then we encounter his later, fantastical work. He’s made a great advance in craft — how to make a piece hang together and give it presence — but imagination is the big hit now. In this vein he did many wonderful images of the seasons and the elements, and fantastic portraits. The manipulation of objects into complex images is a gimmick, but the images aren’t just gimmicky. A piece like Winter has an attitude somewhere between funny and something else. Arcimboldo’s intention is subtle enough to leave you plenty of space to wonder about it, and try on your own interpretations. You see it differently if you come to it in different moods and different states of mind. This is uncommon even in the best art.
And then a late piece: the bowl of vegetables, turned upside down, becomes The Greengrocer. It’s a playful concept, but the result is not quite playful. There’s an edge to it. Look at the eyes and the mouth: the expression is reminiscent of Henry Tonks’ disfigured soldiers (July 9) — of someone way inside, looking out.
And having had that thought, if I go back to the self-portrait I see less dullness, and more calculated reserve — more tension, more distance — than there seemed at first. Perhaps that really was what he was like.
(All pieces here from Wikipedia. Arcimboldo > Commons > “paintings by Giuseppi Arcimboldo” for more examples.)
This entry is a reprise of March 12, 2012.