Abstract and Not

All art begins with a design for the purpose of setting up some narrative. In abstract art the narrative is inferential rather than explicit, but it’s still there.

In some pieces the dividing line is blurry. The abstract Kline and narrative Turner below sit very comfortably together. In the Turner, the artist’s delight is clearly in his swooping dark and light shapes. Poor Hannibal and his army along the bottom edge are relegated to providing the sense of scale.

Franz Kline – untitled drawing 1950

Turner – Snow Storm – Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps – oil on canvas, 58 x 94″ – 1812













And then this amazing Constable:

Constable – Study with rain cloud – oil on paper, 9 x 12″ – 1827

The abstract rigor of the Turner is somewhat softened by its rich color and fruity glazes, but the Constable, a study, is rougher and franker in its application of paint to surface. It isn’t until you notice the tiny ships along the horizon that you get the story, the grandeur of the thing.



The artists: J.M.W. Turner, 1775-1851; John Constable, 1776-1837; Franz Kline, 1910-1962



[New York Times via Sotheby’s]

On November 5th I discussed a fake Frans Hals which cried fake to me, even without the testing that revealed that it included pigments that were not invented until the 20th Century. Just the look of the thing was wrong—too cool, too modern.

Then last week this image of St. Jerome, supposedly by the 16th Century Mannerist Parmigianino, turns out to be a fake, again betrayed by the presence of modern pigments.

But while the “Hals” jumped out at me, this did not. I haven’t looked at enough genuine Parmigianinos to get my eye in tune. It doesn’t seem wrong to me the way the “Hals” did. It just seems rather blah, whatever it might be. But enthusiasts keen to collect a famous name, even enthusiasts familiar with Parmigianino’s altogether more muscular and decisive “Madonna With The Long Neck” (below), wouldn’t necessarily be put off. A slack Parmigianino is still a Parmigianino. Sotheby’s thought it good enough to put up for sale. Some unfortunate collector was convinced enough to fork over $672,000 for it.


($672,000! Would you rather have that painting on your wall, or $672,000 in the bank?)

Forgers, of course, feed on the appetite for the unexpected treasures that turn up from time to time, often in attics and suchlike places. Provenance of such discoveries is, naturally, obscure. All you can do is look.


The background landscape is really pretty good.

And we are, after all, at no less a house than Sotheby’s.



Forgers delight in taunting the art world—okay, they’ve been caught this time, but most of the time they’ve gotten away with it. The bulk of their work, they chuckle, is out there in the best museums, admired by all. And no doubt, at least occasionally, this is true. And anyway, how do I know that the “Madonna” is the genuine article? Wikipedia gives it that dignity, but are we really. . . ?






For the story of this “Parmigianino,” check out “Second Old Master Painting a Fake, Says Sotheby’s in Lawsuit” in The New York Times, 1/17/17.




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.

Bacchus & Ariadne      1522-3        (National Gallery, London)

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.

Delacroix-Perseus & Andromeda        1853

Perseus and Andromeda       c.1555














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.

The Rape of Europa       1562




















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.


Roman, 2nd Century [Pinterest.com]

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