I’m quite taken with the work of the Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui. He does big pieces assembled from aluminum strips taken from empty liquor bottles, punched and pieced together with copper wire.

Hovor II, 2004

Hovor II, 2004

So far, so good. But I wonder whether, as one museum label asserts, these pieces offer “a commentary on our global economy of consumption, obsolescence, and recycling.”



Really? I wonder what the “comment” might amount to. He’s done a lot of these pieces, and can’t be cranking them out all by himself–all those strips peeled off all those bottles; all those holes and little copper knots attaching the pieces. I wonder if the more pressing commentary would have to do with the availability of cheap labor in his neck of the woods.



Or perhaps the significance of the work isn’t enhanced by digging for “commentary.” It’s striking work; you’d think that would be significance enough.





One of the wonderful things about old Brooklyn houses is the way they slowly soften and relax. This doorway started as crisp shapes, but it has been trimmed and painted many times until even that wandering electric wire stapled to the right side has slowly become an organic part of the whole.

















There is so much first rate art available these days, in museums, books, and on the web, that when you encounter a more typical mix of fine and less than fine, as in “Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces From the National Galleries of Scotland,” recently at the de Young in San Francisco, the experience can be unsettling. You can’t help wondering if you’re missing something. But maybe you aren’t. Maybe your reactions are perfectly sensible.

The show had many wonderful pieces, so I had to wonder why I was being bothered with, for example, these decidedly mediocre works by Sir Anthony Van Dyck and Paolo Veronese.

Veronese-"Venus, Mars, and Cupid" 1580s [wikimedia]

Veronese  “Venus, Mars, and Cupid” 1580s [wikimedia]

van Dyck "St. Sabastian" 1620 [nationalgalleries.org]

van Dyck   “St. Sabastian” 1620 [nationalgalleries.org]

















What to say about them? Competently executed formula pieces, nothing more. If we didn’t know that van Dyck was a notable artist we might be surprised that this incoherent “St. Sabastian” was one of his. If we didn’t notice from the label that this cute, cute “Venus etc” was a Veronese, we might just roll our eyes at the whims of those naughty Venetians. But it is Veronese, and the show is titled “Masterpieces,” so we peer dutifully before shrugging guiltily and passing on.

I say “guiltily” because one of the key effects of education is to imbue us with the notion that we owe the works of the masters an attitude of humble study and contemplation. Art, music, literature–surely you remember 11th grade English, and how unsophisticated you were to be bored by George Eliot. So don’t be hasty, is the moral. Which is good, up to a point; but when are you justified in saying that the present object inhabits a gray area, or even beyond gray? Which you need to be able to say, because most art is less than stellar, and no amount of humble attention will promote it to excellence.

For example, a room or two on from Van Dyck, etc, we find these routine, life-sized celebrations of social grandeur. No doubt it was very gratifying to have such a work in the great room of the  family seat, but in a museum show they seem merely distracting. (Poor Raeburn–he of the wonderful “The Reverend Robert Walker Skating” admired last week. But I suppose we all have to make a living.)

Raeburn "Sir John Sinclair" 1790s [clanmacfarlanegenealogy.info]

Raeburn “Sir John Sinclair” 1790s [clanmacfarlanegenealogy.info]

Gainsborough "John Campbell, 4th Duke of Argyll" 1767 [Wikimedia]

Gainsborough “John Campbell, 4th Duke of Argyll” 1767 [Wikimedia]

Raeburn "Colonel Alastair Renaldson Macdonell" 1812 [nationalgalleries.org]

Raeburn “Colonel Alastair Renaldson Macdonell” 1812 [nationalgalleries.org]


And then it’s a disappointment to find, a little farther along, this tepid Claude Monet. Monet did several strong variations on this composition, but this isn’t one of them.

Monet "Poplars On the Epte" 1891 [scottishnationalgallery.org]

Monet “Poplars On the Epte” 1891 [scottishnationalgallery.org]

And so on, room after room. Strong and humdrum pieces interspersed. The mixture a result, I suppose, of a museum feeling that it needs examples of everything, and having to settle for what it can get.



For other discussions on the importance of not confusing strong and weak art, see post of August 24, 2013: French drawings at the Cantor; and July 19, 2014: Matisse: a range of quality.


By coincidence, as I was writing this post I was struggling humbly but with growing interest with Middlemarch (1871) by George Eliot herself, and encountered this passage on the subject of enthusiasm in art:

“. . . I never could see any beauty in the pictures which my uncle told me all judges thought very fine. And I have gone about with just the same ignorance in Rome. There are comparatively few paintings that I can really enjoy. At first when I enter a room where the walls are covered with frescoes, or with rare pictures, I feel a kind of awe–like a child present at great ceremonies where there are grand robes and processions; I feel myself in the presence of some higher life than my own. But then I begin to examine the pictures one by one, the life goes out of them . . . It must be my own dullness. I am seeing so much all at once, and not understanding half of it. That always makes one feel stupid. It is painful to be told that anything is very fine and not be able to feel that it is fine–something like being blind, while people talk of the sky.”

The recent show at the de Young in San Francisco, “Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces From the National Galleries of Scotland,” was a decidedly mixed bag. Here we admire three particularly fine pieces; next week we’ll consider some of the duds and their deadening effect.

Particularly fine: “The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch” (c.1795) by Henry Raeburn. Landscape and sky are grayed and softened, and the darks of the reverend’s clothes intensified, to maximize contrast. The overall effect is very strong, almost abstract. And droll. You don’t often see consciously droll portraits.

Raeburn "The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch" c.1795 [scottishnationalgalleries.org]


And then “Niagara Falls From the American Side” (1867) by Frederic Edwin Church. A big piece, almost environmental as you approach it from across the gallery. The effect is naturalistic, but this is an artfully structured piece. The farther dark bit of forest contrasts with all those light, foamy shapes and keeps them from fading into mush. The nearer dark cliff drops, softening as it goes, and then curls upward and disappears into the spray. The eye follows, drawing you into the action and also providing some definition, some hard shapes, in the middle of all that delicate mist. The figure on the observation deck provides the scale.

It seems very odd that such a uniquely American view normally lives in Scotland.

Church "Niagara Falls from the American Side" 1867 [wikipedia]


And finally, “The Painting Season” by Henri Matisse (1909). Thinly, wetly painted, with very direct drawing of the shapes. The intensity of the blacks is what holds it together, together with rhyming lines (the diagonals of the painter’s brush, brush on the table, edges of the book, edge of the table, her arm, collar, shoulder; the horizontals of the canvas, the table front, the lines in the mirror) and shapes (the head on the canvas, the painter’s head, shoulders, hips, the mirror, the flowers, the vase, the lemons, her hair).  Matisse’s loose drawing (like the length of the painter’s forearm, or the wandering shape of the mirror) can sometimes get sloppy, but here it’s superbly descriptive. If it were more “correct,” the organizing details would seem mechanical, and the freedom from pictorial literalism merely illogical.

Matisse "The Painting Season" 1909 [wikiart.org]


Conventions in portraiture are much concerned with identifying social category. These Elizabethans can’t have been interested in making themselves the subject of some artist’s sensitive exploration of personality; they wanted their images to evoke grandeur. The more an earl’s portrait resembled a duke’s, the better he’d be pleased.

Eng portraits


The same objective, group identification, applies to the War Gallery at the Hermatage.

the War Gallery of 1812 at the Hermatage [ekaterina-voyage]

the War Gallery of 1812 at the Hermatage [ekaterina-voyage]

So many generals (who would have thought there could be commands for so large a number?), all done in a uniform size and with minimal variation so as to form an orderly display. They are individuals, realistically depicted, but it is the ensemble–the imposing mass–and not individuality, that is the object here.


Of course, nobility and generals aren’t the only ones whose uniform representations are impressive en masse:

Great Purge





Life Magazine 6/27/69 [sajunk.wordpress.com]

Life Magazine 6/27/69 [sajunk.wordpress.com]

Ai Weiwei "The Fake Case" [youtube]

Ai Weiwei “The Fake Case” [youtube]



Years ago I saw a small book–“Uniforms,” I believe, was the title. There was almost no text; it consisted of full-page photos of  similarly dressed groups: bikers of various persuasions, gays, lesbians, mechanics, sports fans, groups of teenagers, different groups of teenagers, different bands of bikers, and on and on. We see those patterns every day, but to see so many examples in the same format, one right after another, was fascinating. I would include some examples here, but like a fool I didn’t buy the book, and haven’t been able to locate a copy since.

Museum wall labels are generally pretty humdrum, but not in the Martin Family Gallery at the deYoung in San Francisco. Here, each label includes a poem by an elementary school student responding to the piece in question. This is new to me. Clearly, these kids had a rich experience, and we have some teachers/docents/curators/administrators who are on to something wonderful. Three examples:


Mary Cassatt  "The Artist's Mother"  ca. 1889

Mary Cassatt “The Artist’s Mother” ca. 1889


Untitled, by Julien B. Fifth grade, the San Francisco School

Her hand crushes the handkerchief

as she becomes ashen,

pale with secrets buried in her mind.

Her beautiful, folded, crisp white cloth

becomes crumpled up into a ball.

Her memories, her thoughts, all her life

everything that has ever happened to her

Rushing through her mind

like a cheetah through the jungle.

Her silky shawl cloaks her, protecting her

from the brushing clear wind!

She tries to be peaceful,

but her thoughts trouble her.




William Merritt Chase  "Portrait of Miss D." ca. 1900

William Merritt Chase “Portrait of Miss D.” ca. 1900


Midnight Depress, by Lucy B. Fifth Grade, Frank C. Havens Elementary School

I stare into space

My tattered champagne coat is rough

but falls delicately to my leather shoes,

my lime chiffon scarf settles,

and my coal colored hat

with its shiny buckle tilts to the side,

but my face stays the same, a bored depressed look,

or I do not care what has to come









Everett Shinn  "Outdoor Stage, France" ca. 1905

Everett Shinn “Outdoor Stage, France” ca. 1905


Untitled, by Kendall T. Fourth grade, Ohlone Elementary School

I softly express winds of cold, dark rage.

My face is red as fury. It escapes my emotions.

A fine lady ignores me.

She gossips as if I am not here.

But I am. I feel rose expressions

On my face growing hot.

I am still graceful as the music.


End of scene.



whetting the sythe  etching 1905 [liveauctioneers.com]

“whetting the scythe”   etching   1905      [liveauctioneers.com]

Speaking of Kathe Kollwitz and her fixation on the theme of the peasants’ revolt (as we were last week), this etching hangs in my living room. Its powerful description arises from its monumental abstract strength– like a Franz Kline, with narrative.

On the wall next to Kollwitz we have David Levine’s puckish adaptation published in the New York Review of Books. In the corner he wrote, “Thanks, Kathe.”

Great as my admiration is for Levine’s work, and convincing as Stalin’s face is, it has to be admitted that for strength of drawing and boldness of design, Kollwitz is clearly the top dog here.



David Levine  "Stalin"  1978  [New York Review of Books]

David Levine “Stalin” 1978 [New York Review of Books]

Vincent Van Gogh’s early work is heavy on the hardships of peasant life.

"peasants planting potatoes" 1885 [Wkikipedia]

“peasants planting potatoes” 1885 [Wkikipedia]

As time passes, however, he becomes less involved with subject, and more with execution. Manner overtakes matter. The subject is much the same, but the dancing, suggestive brush strokes are what engage the viewer, and set a lighter tone.

"farmers hoeing" 1890 [  ]

Van Gogh “farmers hoeing” 1890 [? ]

As opposed to Georges Seurat, who in his mature manner could depict hard labor without distancing or diminishing it.

"peasant with hoe" 1882 [  ]

Seurat  “peasant with hoe” 1882 [ ?]

 Then there is the Victory Garden poster of WWI: it’s work, but redolent of spiritual uplift. And the Victory Bond poster, which manages to extol hard, unglamorous labor without presenting it as absolutely dismal (how clean their clothes are!) or reproachful; someone else will drag the plow, all you’re expected to do is buy bonds.

garden [W'ped][Wikipedia]

But with Kathe Kollwitz we come back to early Van Gogh, and even beyond him. Kollwitz never did progress to light-heartedness. To grim observation and dreams of peasant revolt she added only the terror or, alternatively, the liberation of death.

Kollwitz  "the plowmen" 1906 [annexgalleries.com]

Kollwitz “the plowmen” 1906 [annexgalleries.com]

Dancer [surf-matic.com]

Dancer [surf-matic.com]

The city views of Jean-Jacques Sempe manage to be lovingly observed, intriguing and complex, without getting bogged down in all the detail. Facades, roof vents, windows, cornices, traffic—rich as it is, it’s all summerized so that the eye isn’t diverted from the central point, the wonderful, intimate moment of delight. And yet that, too, is so gentle, so reserved, that while centering on it we never lose our sense of the busy whole, the grand context.




winter night

winter night




















painting in a window

painting in a window

Vitality is the first principle of the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, so it seems natural that if he were in a teasing mood he would go after the pallid “Sacred Grove” (1884), an ideal landscape by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, the noted symbolist. (If a landscape can be considered ideal with so many majorly underdressed women, and no male over the age of ten—but perhaps I digress).

"The Sacred Grove" 1884 [Wikimedia Commons]

“The Sacred Grove” 1884 [Wikimedia Commons]

T-L’s device is to introduce a column of real-life Parisians into Puvis’ bucolic idyll. Interesting how he does it: Puvis’s original is pale but has those dark trees and light water and figures for an overall contrast. T-L simplifies and flattens P’s tonal range, and then gives his Parisians (including himself, the short guy) all the serious darks.

Lautrec "The Sacred Grove"  1884 [Wikimedia Commons]

Lautrec “The Sacred Grove” 1884 [Wikimedia Commons]

 Well, that seemed like fun, and if Henri could do it, so could I. The piece that incited me was “Pythagoras Advocating Vegetarianism” (1620) by Peter Paul Rubens. Rubens knocked off many preposterous paintings, but this one, surely, stands by itself.

Rubens "Pythagoras Advocating Vegetarianism" 1620 [Wikimedia Commons]

Rubens “Pythagoras Advocating Vegetarianism” 1620 [Wikimedia Commons]

It’s not just the typically Rubensian propensity for nymphs and satyrs bounding around, but the oddly passive and inexpressive pose of the improbably meaty Pythagoras. It’s as if the model complained that he was too tired to tackle another standing pose that afternoon, and Rubens said Hey, never mind.

In any case, it seemed like a Sacred Grove opportunity to modify Peter Paul’s vision.

“Pythagoras Advocating Vegetarianism” 2013




So far as I know, Rubens and I are the only two artists ever to tackle this theme.