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.
AN ABSURD “HALS”
Frans Hals (1582-1666) did a lot of portraits, notable for their loose, painterly execution. For a comprehensive view, check out Wikipedia’s “Frans Hals catalogue raisonné,” but this cluster gives you a pretty good idea. He found his formula early on, and stuck with it: subjects at ease but energetic, as if in the middle of some lively conversation.
Which brings us to “Portrait of a Man”–a proven fake, a technical analysis having found traces of modern materials.
Run your eye over the set of real Hals, and then eyeball this. The contrast jars. It’s too splashily painted, and the background is too modernly loose by half, but the overriding, first-glance hit is its very present-day aura. How soulful he is, how passive, whereas Hals subjects are active–hovering, shifting.
Someone—I can’t remember who—once made the point that there is a broad, continually shifting, only partially conscious visual sensibility that pervades daily life. It affects clothes, advertisements, newspaper design, fashion, movie stars—everything we look at. In a few years it’ll have moved on, but at the moment we absorb it without really noticing or thinking about it.
Forgers breathe this air along with everybody else, and in subtle, unconscious ways they incorporate these transient elements into their work. They may convince at first glance, because they are familiar, but seem suddenly wacky next to an original from another time. Thus this modern gent, masquerading as a 17th Century dandy.
So how could this piece have been accepted at all? Excitement: an undiscovered Hals! Money: before it was exposed, an eager collector forked out $10 million for it. Professional reputation: nobody wants to be the one who casts doubt on a work that later is proven to be genuine, and experts risk being sued for declaring against a problematic work and thus debasing its potential value. For a lively discussion of the ups and downs of “Portrait of a Man”, check out “When a Masterpiece Is Not”, New York Times, October 31.
Hals selection from Wikipedia; fake from the New York Times.
I think of English art before the mid-19th Century or so as a decorous celebration of life of or from the viewpoint of the upper crust. When Constable’s Bishop (down in the lower left-hand corner–click to enlarge) looked around him and saw harvest wagons, I expect he saw something idyllic like the Gainsborough. Perhaps I sell him short, but that’s the impression I get.
Well, there was Hogarth. No doubt the Bishop got to London from time to time, where Gin Lane would have been hard to overlook. But Beer Street, with its well-fed, contented workers, is the urban counterpart of Gainsborough’s wholesome countryside.
But then we come to George Stubbs (1724-1806), and this painting of dragoons. The class order is clear enough, but that is not the point. This is not a social document. It is a self-referential work of art. The overwhelming impact is one of operatic unreality.
Most posed paintings make at least a pretense of representing a real moment, but this does not. It goes for intensity. The severe whites against the deep and unnatural blacks (how can the whites be so white when the shadows are so consuming?); the dark, romantic sky; the gorgeously abstract formation of mounted officer and three distinctly uniformed troops standing to attention. Uniformed, but not uniform: examine the two on the right, detail by detail–everything from plume to crossbelts to shoes is subtly different from one to the other.
The figures are stitched by the interlocking, greenish wedges receeding from foreground to background. And notice how adroitly the repetition of the buff color of saddlecloth and bugler’s waistcoat carry the eye across that complicated negative space between the bugler and the horse. And the odd angle of the bugle–it’s at 90 degrees to the officer’s carbine, which again bridges the gap, and subtly links them. And curves: the same curve occurs in the sabre, the horse’s neck, belly, and hind legs, the bugler’s left arm, the center trooper’s right leg.
And the horse: horses were Stubb’s speciality, which perhaps explains his attention to the elegance of the beast rather than the usual dramatic function of horses in military depictions, which is to display the intrepidity of the rider.
All together, a very unexpected, very painterly piece. Strange and wonderful. And quite a jump from Gainsborough.
(this post is a reprise of Jan 28, 2012)
JOKE (OR NOT)
Years ago, passing through Philadelphia, coming around the corner into Center Square Plaza, I encountered “Clothespin” by the collaborative team of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Forty-five feet tall. I thought, “That’s fine.”
On one level it’s a joke, like their soft objects—the cheeseburgers, the instruments. But those are indoor objects. Striking, but comfortably within expectation in a museum.
“Clothespin” has a more challenging task, surrounded by so much competing spectacle. But it’s such a taut, dynamic shape, and so in keeping, however oddly, with the tall, rather mechanical buildings that surround it, that it convinces as a vital and compelling piece of the cityscape.
As opposed to many of Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s other big pieces, which I suppose are intended to be droll, but don’t hold up for me. I’m thinking especially of “Cupid’s Span” on the San Francisco waterfront.
Sixty feet high. I see it every time I go to the City. It doesn’t wear well. If it were up for a month I suppose it would be funny because it’s so unexpected, but after a few years it’s entirely expected. It’s gotten tired.
The waterfront is a very active place, full of its own flavor. This whimsy has no relation to it, and lacks the formal rigor that makes “Clothespin” so convincing.
It all gets pretty subtle. When is the joke convincing enough that you smile even after the upteenth exposure? But speaking of clothespins, there is this piece in a park in Liege, Belgium, by Mehmet Ali Uysal. Uysal has made a specialty of clothespins, some rather ho-hum, but this is bizarrely wonderful. It plays with the landscape it’s in, rather than simply encroaching.
A drawing and a photo, very engaging side by side.
HOLDING THE EYE
The landscape work of Claude Lorrain was enormously influential from the mid-17th Century on.
“Pastoral Landscape” is a typical example. On the right, a large, dark mass of trees with the bright figures in the lower corner. From there the eye follows their gestures and left-leaning body language, and the cows amble toward the lighter left side until the progression is stopped by the smaller tree mass at the left. Onward to the right the eye is led by contrary obliques–the bridge and its reflection–to the broad stripes of fields, and beyond them to the warm, intriguing shape of the castle. Then cooler and paler mountains lead to the sky—at which point the shapes are so pale that the eye is caught by the yellow tree on the right, and back to the foreground and figures where we began. Round and round. Claude did a zillion of these, and what they lack in variety from one to the next, they make up for in visual richness and delight when contemplated one by one. (By the way, notice how big the piece seems, and how small it actually is.)
But we find an interesting formal contrast in “View of La Crescenza,” the piece I always go to see when I’m at the Met in New York.
This is painted on quite a different scheme. The trees form a screen across the foreground, rather than a mass to one side. The foreground obliques, while lively, take the eye no farther than the shadowy treeline in the middle distance. Directly above is the castle, which is square in the middle, at the extreme rear of the pictorial space. Judging from the light coming in from the right, the castle has a view—probably something grand and spacious like the Pastoral Landscape–but we don’t share it. Nor is there a cycle that takes us around the composition. When we get to the castle, we stop: that’s it. The softness of the castle allows the more contrasty foreground to reassert itself, but back and forth is all the action: nothing travels on. The effect is to make this the remembrance of a particular place–it’s a real castle, near Rome–rather than a romantic ideal. This is why I like it. It’s a very knowing and artful piece of work, but it’s a direct response to something Claude saw, without so much sweat on it.
Of course, while Claude used the oblique progression device to great effect, he wasn’t the first to employ it. Ma Yuan worked in 13th Century China.
He doesn’t go see-sawing into the distance, as Claude does. From the foreground the landscape dissolves immediately into contemplative space. But the strong inscription on the right operates like Claude’s secondary mass of trees, if more abstractly, to keep the eye from drifting away. As you focus on the inscription, the softer image to the left reasserts itself, while the bird and the delicate fall of branches guide us back to the foreground.
this post is a reprise of October 8, 2011