In 1959, at the age of sixteen, studying baboons with my father at the Amboseli game reserve in Kenya, I encountered Eliot Elisofon (1911-73), the noted Life photographer. He was there on assignment for an article on Literary Africa. Among other things he needed a photo to match a line from Hemingway: “Three vultures squatting obscenely.” As it happened, we knew where there was a fresh elephant kill–vultures galore. We took him. He got his shot. He was delighted, and for the next few days I became his guide and driver. He paid me with instruction. He composed his shots using a tripod, and when he had something going he would step aside for five seconds so I could peer through the viewfinder and see exactly what, out of all the information in front of us, he was selecting. I was at his elbow when he took the photo below.

Elisofon my elephants

What struck me was how tightly he composed the shot—the foreground compressed into a thin, hard shape of white ground along the bottom  supporting the dark solidity of the herd—and then that glorious cascade of light and diagonals falling from the central adult down over the standing calf and then the recumbent, contrary, watchful one, all against the loose, wavy pattern of the trees. The long telephoto lens compressed the whole into a hip, 50s-style flatness.

It was a key experience for me. Until then, art had always been distant: I’m here, and the Mona Lisa is over there. In perhaps a minute of cumulative glances over several days, Elisofon showed me how art and life happen in the same place.

But there are other lessons here. It was only years later that I happened to look at the Elisofon and Robert Motherwell’s “Elegy to the Spanish Republic #57,” painted at about the same time, in close proximity. Not the same thing, of course, but not quite different ones either. The longer you look, the more similarities you find. Begin with the white shape along the bottom, and the tusk shapes in both pieces.

Elegy to the Spanish Republic #57 1957-61

This post is a reprise of September 15, 2012

Copyright © 2016 · All Rights Reserved · Stan Washburn



I’ve long been an admirer-with-reservations about the work of Robert Motherwell (1915-91), presently the subject of a small show at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco.

My admiration is based on his fairly early work–pieces such as “At Five In the Afternoon” from 1950,


At Five in the Afternoon 1950


or “Elegy to the Spanish Republic #57” from 1957-61. There is a primness about them–they haven’t the sense of explosive exploration that I get from Franz Kline, for example–but they are richly worked-out paintings, with each shape, each edge, each bit of surface, live and full of tension. It’s grand stuff, only imperfectly represented by these snapshots from the show. Sorry.


Elegy to the Spanish Republic #57 1957-61


Wonderful as the paintings themselves are, I’ve always grumbled at the titles. “At Five in the Afternoon” refers to a poem by Frederico Garcia Lorca about the death of a famous bullfighter. Motherwell’s ovals, we are told, represent the testicles of dead bulls. This information has never cranked up the emotional temperature for me. If a painting is intended to evoke a theme of some sort, it ought to be apparent without reading the wall label. That doesn’t apply here. I would never have said Ah! Bull testicles! Tragic fate!

The Elegies to the Spanish Republic similarly fail to convince as historical reference. The context is broader, but it seems that we’re still looking at bull testicles. This doesn’t, for me, establish an elegiac mood. It seems merely a grab at something BIG so as to make the work seem somehow grander than it is. (In the entry of 6/14/15 I dinged Barnett Newman for naming a series of his rich but thematically opaque abstracts “Stations of the Cross.” I mean, c’mon.)

And so many similar pieces, decade after decade! You can see the strain as Motherwell struggled to vary his signature composition of bars and ovals. Some, as here–“Untitled (Elegy)”–1970-75, are merely sketches, toying with the theme of testicles or whatever; others, as below–“Elegy to the Spanish Republic (with Lemon-Yellow Panel)”– 1971, exude sweat in a search for some variety. The last Elegy in the DeYoung show is dated 1990.


Untitled (Elegy) 1970-75

Elegy to the Spanish Republic (with Lemon-Yellow Panel0 1971


In spite of all this, of course, a fair question is whether even a less-than-first rank Motherwell is nevertheless more interesting than first-rank works by other, lesser artists. One of those questions that viewers must answer for themselves.




A train of thought:

Henry VIII [w'ped]


Mussolini [w'ped}


truck front []


Chris Christie []


Donald Trump []


Ted Cruz []





A Favorite Bechtle

Robert Bechtle’s work is very “realistic,” but his compositions can be so deftly out of left field that the effect verges on the abstract.

Bechtle - Potrero table 1994 36x77"

As here, in “Potrero Table” (1994). All the shapes are deliciously realized–run your eye around the table and the chairs, the plates, the light window frame shape that just touches the far chair. The reflections in the windows. Every shape is considered and important in itself. Nothing is awkward or “left over.”

And there’s that psychological element. Where are they looking? And why? It’s not a story, but not just a pose, either.

All very rich and satisfying.



Peanuts Gone Wrong

I will not be going to see the new Peanuts movie, which, to judge from on-line stills like the one below, will be like bathing in some icky visual goo. Part of the genius of Peanuts inventor Charles Schulz was his economy of means. This the movie has abandoned, perhaps thinking to add richness. But here, for example–what does the cutsie landscape have to do with anything?

_The Peanuts Movie_ 20th C.Fox [nyt 11_3_15]

For better or worse, every bit of information in a work of art is part of the overall effect. In Schulz’s drawings you have the figures, the merest indication of the ground, and the text. Nothing else–no background, nothing to distract from the action.


But in the movie we’re looking at trees, grass, plants, rocks, an artfully winding path, sky, balloon-y rendering of figures (with painted-on features)–football–Lucy’s glossy dress–everything limply and pedantically detailed–which set the eye off on irrelevant detours, all watering, and therefore detracting from, the central event. A fundamental contradiction of ends and means. A great mistake.


[On a similar train of thought, see the entry for November 14: debate cacophonies. The principle is the same: too much inane visual information simply gets in the way.]



'40s fashion inventions []

’40s fashion inventions []

 Fashion Agony

I realize that fashion in the presentation of fashion is an ever-changing thing, but it seemed to me in the old days that clothes were intended to engender happiness. Models smiled.

No longer, it seems. The tack now seems to be drama: these aren’t women such as one encounters in life, but supercharged, attitudinous goddesses who, for whatever reason, cling closely to their handbags.


























And what drama do we find below? Ought we to be admiring her hair, or dialing 911? She appears to be just staggering to her feet in the wake of some ghastly experience.




Of course I’m not the intended audience for Prada or Dior, except, I suppose, as I may be titillated by the implied challenge: Have you got the bucks? Can you afford these creatures?



An artist’s compositions tend to employ characteristic devices. For example, these two Bruegels use the foreground oblique (the triangular shape beginning at one corner), block it with a tree at the edge of the canvas, and then zigzag into the distance.

Bruegel - The Magpie on the Gallows 1568Bruegel - Return of the Herd (November) 1565












Corot uses a foreground screen of trees and then a subordinate distance visible beyond.

Corot - cathedral of Mantes 1860 42x55cm Corot - Concert Champetre 1844











And so on. How striking, then, is the wonderfully varied work of Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). No doubt his variety of means was driven in part by the fact that he did a lot of sets–the examples here are from “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo”–and it would have been pretty boring to have one after another done the same way. But whatever his motivation it’s impressive to see how boldly inventive, to say nothing of masterful, his views could be.


views of Edo #58

Here Hiroshige uses the foreground oblique, like Bruegel. The far shore zags back, and then the whole composition is boxed in with the dark blue above and below so that the eye stays in the bright and lively middle.

An advantage Hiroshige has, for which European artists have no traditional equivalent, is the use of the red text blocks, which draw the eye across the central space as well as picking up the robes of two pedestrians, and the square one, which is rhymed by hat, umbrella, and whatever-it-is to the right.


Edo #6

Above, this would be a pretty humdrum village view with the foreground oblique, except that the view is interrupted by the swoops of drying material that Hiroshige hangs from the left edge as if it were a pole, and then drives right off the right side in an unapologetically abstract stroke. The color of the square text block matches the lower part of the sky. Again, the dark blue at the top.


Hiroshige Edo #78

Here, a pretty severe landscape of horizontal bands, enlivened by those wonderful sail shapes. The darkening blue keeps the front pair from falling out of the bottom of the composition.

And finally, this improbably asymmetrical extravaganza of orange, green, and delicate off-white fading to black at the top, picking up the black in the lantern and fixing it, as the sails above were fixed by the water. Notice the trees–how delicately and suggestively they are drawn, rhyming the rooflines of the buildings. That little bit of dark gray sky holds the lantern in place, and keeps it from floating away.

How novel and unexpected is the whole design. You have to admit that Hiroshige really knew what he was doing.

Hiroshige Edo #99


One Hundred Views of Edo #58, #6, #78, and #99. All images from Wikipedia, which shows the whole series.


I think of the ’50s and ’60s as a visually as well as socially discordant period—the Gray Flannel Suit on the one hand, and hippie tie-dye on the other. But some things made sense. Perhaps it was only that television was still in its comparative infancy, but the Kennedy-Nixon debates, for example, were presented as a spirited discussion of issues without distractions. The visuals were dull as ditchwater, but the point was to offer a clear look at the candidates, not to torque up the viewers with spectacle.


As opposed to the set for the most recent Republican debate, below—rampant visual clamor.


nyt 11-10-15

Of course you might defend the set as quite in keeping with the antics of the candidates, but perhaps we won’t go there.

But while the shapes and colors were gross and distracting, one must admit that the lighting was held in enough that the candidates’ faces stood out against the background. As compared with the most recent Democratic debate . . .



. . . which went from bad to worse. It was as if the set designers had instructions to demonstrate that Fox has nothing to teach CBS about vulgarity, and to ensure that nothing a candidate could do or say would distract attention from the venue. In the long shots, as below, it took a moment even to find the bodies amidst all the shrieking visual clutter. Closeups were even worse, with constantly changing, bright white, face-size labels popping up right beside the faces of the speakers, and shadowy shapes slowly drifting across the stars and bars.



At least there wasn’t a soundtrack under the voices–ardent, pulsing undertones to accentuate the drama of the thing, in case arguments over Wall Street machinations and Paris attacks couldn’t sustain viewer interest on their own.

No doubt that comes next.




The other day I looked down at my coffee table, which is typically a jumble of odds and ends in the process of being read, and there was Swann’s Way sitting on the current issue of the New Yorker. Proust and Jeb Bush–the odd couple, surely.


Proust & New Yorker




I’ve often wondered about Christ’s odd stomach in Ruben’s “The Tribute Money” at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Clearly it represents no anatomical feature.

Rubens The Tribute Money 1612

All I can think is that there must have been a foreground figure–some child or dwarf or crouching somebody–who turned out to be a distraction. Billowing out the cloak would be a simple way of covering him.

It would be interesting to know if the piece has ever been x-rayed, which, presumably, would clear the matter up. The Legion says that, due to the volume of email it receives, it doesn’t answer questions about works of art, but if any renegade working there happens to notice this, and has the answer, I’d be intrigued, and happy to pass it along.