I had seen Charles Sheeler’s work before, but it was only while pondering several of his things in “The Cult of the Machine”, the show at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, that I noticed his systematic use of fine black lines around almost all his shapes.

“American Landscape” 1930


You’d think such a mechanical device would be stultifying, but in fact it enables the delicacy of his tonal progressions. In this detail, the brights and shades, and especially the roofs and sky, are so close in value that without those lines they would have to be modeled much more robustly. By keeping the tones light and close he is able to keep this complicated little cluster of buildings as a unified bright shape in the center of his composition.


Even more surprisingly, we find him using the same device in his masterpiece, “Rolling Power.”

“Rolling Power” 1939

All those shapes, and even tonal shifts within shapes, sit on a layin of tiny black lines.


Of course, Sheeler didn’t invent the device. In this example from two hundred years before, Tiepolo saves his big, simple architectural shape from going mushy by throwing in a scattering of tiny black lines. 

Tiepolo “The Charlatan” 1756












My own art education happened when painting was bigger, splashier, more abstract. We were never taught this stuff. But there are always interesting new things to notice if you pay attention.



Rene Magritte (1898 – 1967) was an adroit painter, but his best work is not given to painterly luxuriance. His images revolve around their surrealistic joke, and the more simply and directly the point is made, the better. Imagine “The Son of Man” as richly composed and modeled as “Alfred Flechtheim.” The effect would be absurd rather than surrealistic. 

“The Son of Man” 1964

Otto Dix “Alfred Flechtheim” 1926


















Which is not to say that his works are not well painted. They are. Both day and night parts of “The Dominion of Light” are sensitively done. There are rather a lot of clouds in the sky, to make the point that it’s full day, and not dawn, and houses and trees are lively, albeit low key. But the trees, especially, are kept dark, strong, and simple, for contrast – lively silhouettes, but nowhere near as interesting as they would be if Magritte were not holding them in.

“The Dominion of Light” 1950


Similarly, the two skies in “The Grand Family” are each kept simple so that the grand point, the bird, doesn’t get lost.

“The Grand Family” 1963


The works shown here are included in a show of Magritte’s work currently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern art. It includes these and some other wonderful pieces together with a larger number that are pretty humdrum. The problem with works that depend on a joke is that once you’ve seen it, repetitions and slight variations have little to add, and incite comparisons of quality in which most examples can only disappoint.




A saucy challenge often underlies cultural fashion: This isn’t blowhard nonsense, it’s the New Real Thing! Don’t you get it?

For example, “Julian Schnabel: Symbols of Actual Life” at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Coming into the courtyard you are confronted by six 24-foot-square canvases (all titled “Untitled,” which is perhaps just as well) and three large plaster –– well, sculptures, for want of a more mordantly descriptive term.


The intention of all this, apparently, is to immerse the visitor in the esthetic experience of Actual Life. It does not. You wouldn’t look at these canvases twice if they were 24 inches instead of feet. Nor have they any resonance with the courtyard, its formal architecture, the prominent focus of the space — Rodin’s “Thinker”– or Actual Life as I, at any rate, have experienced it. The excitement apparently consists of their being painted in gesso on expanses of “found fabric”, and the fact that they are so daringly exposed to the elements. 



The three sculptures in the courtyard are plaster lumps. The one above, with the branches sticking up, is “Helen of Troy.” The piece below is “Gradiva”. Gradiva is an ancient Greek figure, “the woman who walks.” Schnabel’s contribution to this theme is opaque to me.


Gravida [Wikipedia]




















There are more pieces inside. Here, in a gallery featuring more Rodins, hangs “Untitled (The Sky of Illimitableness)”: a jokey picture of a goat with silly, as if daring, swoops of paint across it. 


Rodin’s St. John the Baptist seems to be making a break for the exit. You can’t blame him.



John the Fearless (1379-1419) was Duke of Burgundy during the Hundred Years War. The life he led was like so many of the upper crust, then and now: contention, scheming, betrayal, murder, and war. Portraits of such people tend to be muscular and assertive: I’m tough, get it?

Donald Trump c. 2018 [ABC]

Bellini: Giovanni Emo c.1475 [Wikipedia]


















Certainly, John was a busy player in the years leading up to his assassination. There was his artful dalliance with Henry V of England, his sneaky murder of the rival Duke of Orléans, his shifting political alliances, and so on. 


John the Fearless    unknown artist    [Wikipedia]

But then we have this portrait. It’s not about an overbearing big shot. Those half-closed eyes, the serious brows, the almost-smile. Also the straight, stiff neck: he’s thoughtful, but alert and disciplined. There is almost a puckish air about it, as if he were contemplating some unspoken, probably not very funny joke — perhaps even a regret.





    San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor has long been a reliable place to see old, reliable European art. A recent show, “Casanova: the Seduction of Europe”, for example, was several rooms full of work by those resplendent 18th Century names you see in all the art history books. Boucher’s “Portrait of Marie-Louise O’Murphy” (1752): there it was in the flesh (that happy turn of phrase being in this case barely sufficient). Along with many other super pieces.


       Recently, however, there has been an effort to jazz the place up a bit: get past the old stuff, shake off the dust. Last fall, for example, there was a show of Sarah Lucas sculpture. The come-on piece in the lobby was a plaster cast of a woman’s lower half, with a cigarette stuck up her anus. 

Sarah Lucas c. courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

        No doubt the guards accumulated a raft of hilarious anecdotes of parents, caught off guard, trying to explain this to their children. I didn’t ask.




Here we have two pieces–one by Cy Twombly (1928 – 2011), the other by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 – 1669)–that begin with different intentions, but end with similar results.

Cy Twombly "untitled" 2005

Twombly “untitled” 2005 []

The Twombly is not, at first, surprising; swirling and splashing is what his painting is about. But while it’s certainly abstract, it’s not quite non-representational. His swirlings have an intricate and repetitive tension about them that implies a narrative. The swoops  draw the eye around and around and toward the right, while the background veil of thin vertical drips provide stability for the swirls to play against.

So: abstract, but inclining to narrative.



Rembrandt - "Landskab med hytter under store træer" c.1650 (W'ped)

Rembrandt – “Landskab med hytter under store træer” c.1650 (W’ped)


While the Rembrandt, also predominantly composed of swirls,  proceeds from the opposite direction, from narrative to abstraction. We spot the subject, a view of cottage and trees, right away, but it isn’t a formal illustration of picturesque cottage and tree. What Rembrandt was responding to was the lashing, constantly changing shapes as the branches whip this way and that in a strong wind blowing from left to right. It’s the wildness, the disorderliness of it, that he’s after. The action is in the swirls of foliage. The straight, mostly vertical lines of the cottage, and the oblique foreground ditch, provide the same still grounding that Twombly gets from his thin vertical drips. And for a contrasting negative, each artist provides a blank space beginning at the upper left–not as spacious in the Twombly as in the Rembrandt, but present in both pieces, and for the same reason.


For a discussion of similar issues with respect to Turner, Constable, and Kline, go >blog>archive>May 12, 2012: abstract and not.


Hans Bol - "Landscape with the Fall of Phaethon" 1569

Hans Bol – “Landscape with the Fall of Phaethon” 1569  (Courtauld)

We grow so accustomed to seeing really good art that it’s easy to miss what makes it good–hence the comparison here between treatments by Hans Bol (1534-1593) and Rodolphe Bresdin (1822-1885) of figures in rather similar big landscapes.

The vital difference here is coherence. Nothing in Bol’s piece quite relates to anything else. It’s a jumble of elements in search of an overall narrative. The foreground group, four figures and a fish, is drawn as if each were a separate little study that has been cut out with scissors and pasted down wherever there is room. The whole group on its little island has the same lack of relation to the rest of the composition as  the pieces do to each other. It kisses the farther shore in a few places, enough to muddle, for example, the woman’s outline, without really connecting foreground and distance. Follow the shoreline as it drifts aimlessly, rising and falling. Middle tones baffle Bol. Shapes are left left white unless there is some immediate descriptive necessity. Objects are seen one by one, rather than as contributory pieces of a whole with a whole meaning. Poor Phaethon and his horses are lost in the muddle of shapeless clouds.

Rodolphe Bresdin - "Bathers in a Mountain Pool" 1865 (Art Institute of Chicago)

Rodolphe Bresdin – “Bathers in a Mountain Pool” 1865 (Art Institute of Chicago)

Bresdin’s landscape, on the other hand, while quite similar in design, is seen from large to small. The mountain shapes to left and right form a V, joining with the foreground copse of trees. The trees gather into strong darks above the water–so dark that the eye jumps to the whites of the bathers. Contrasted with the middle tone of the pond they are drawn very simply (compare with Bol’s muddled lady).

From the V the hills fold back, first in a long recession on the right, then a more distant formation on the left, and finally to the far horizon. The richly worked sky–several swoopy horizontal bands–links the mountains to right and left, and by its weight keeps the eye from floating away from the foreground.

Within this grand design there are many unifying themes. Look for bright white shapes. Look for textures. Again and again they are varied and repeated. The horizontal shading of the water reflects the sky. The light, meanwhile, comes consistently from the left.

In a word, Bresdin’s is a wonderfully intricate but in no way mechanical composition. Compare with Bol. You will, in fact, find resemblances, but the results are very different.



Those Monuments

On a recent trip to Monument Valley in Arizona I found the vertical ribs of the buttes strikingly reminiscent of medieval figure sculptures. Impossible to give the whole effect–as the light moved, figures appeared here and there, and then disappeared. But at this moment, four faces and figures.

Chartres Cathedral [Wikipedia]















In the next few minutes the shadow on the left, below, briefly but perfectly resembled a man on a subway platform lost in his iphone, while to the right another man, lugging a large bag, turns away.








Cezanne’s audacity

Paul Cezanne (1839 – 1906) was audacious in many ways, but especially in the vivacious and undisguised process of exploration and discovery with which he developed his paintings. Take the Large Bathers. It’s not naturalistic; there are logical parts and then parts that satisfied his need for a bit of dark or light someplace–the upper left and right corners, for example. Every painter faces such requirements, but most conceal the necessity by throwing in some convincing bit of scenery. Cezanne doesn’t bother. He paints till he gets the formal hit he wants, and then leaves it alone.

the large bathers c.1900 127x196cm (W'ped)

the large bathers c.1900 127x196cm (W’ped)

Cezanne bathers c.1900 --detail (W'pedia)

Cezanne bathers c.1900 –detail (W’pedia)


And then there are the smaller-scale improvisations. The foreground woman in the detail on the left–again, she’s not naturalistic, but she’s very carefully developed. Her back is thickly painted with a palette knife–warm & cool tones in great variety which nevertheless do not describe a woman’s back. No spine, for example.



But even more surprising than that is the way Cezanne draws over and around the figure. That long silhouette that begins at her left armpit and then swoops all the way around her right leg, ignoring the intricacies of waist and butt that would detain most painters. And even odder, braver, more questing, is the linework on her right side–detail right. That little line drawn with loose paint that departs from her arm and wanders out onto her side. Imagine if it weren’t there–the torso would take on the shape of a great pipe. That line gives her a waist. Barely, but it works. And the lines on the outside of the arm, correcting or at any rate finishing out the contour of the shoulder.

And while we’re there, the blue line of the next figure that drives right over the white fabric, which would otherwise dominate the figure. He doesn’t bother to invent a more realistic shape or location for the fabric, he just has it both ways at the same time.



A favorite: Seurat’s Pierrot

Georges Seurat (1859 – 1891) was 24 when he painted this image of a friend in a Pierrot costume. He hadn’t yet developed the severe pointilist method for which he is principally remembered, but the basis of it is here: the shapes are clean and simple, enlivened by repeated touches of color. Compare with Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin’s more conventional approach (below), in which the background is simply the ground color with a mottled application of the shadow tone.

Chardin – Girl with Shuttlecock – 1737 (W’com)

Another point of contrast is Seurat’s exceedingly restrained use of counterchange–the device of having the background go from dark to light in one direction, while the principal object goes from light to dark. The effect is to create a sense of space. But Seurat makes the darker side of his figure almost indistinguishable from the lighter side of his background. This way he gets the visual bounce from the contrast on the left, but has almost no depth of space at all. This keeps the whole image on one plane, and emphasizes the abstract quality of the shapes.

He undermines depth still further by having the wall meet the floor right at the tip of Pierrot’s shoe. Picture that division at, say, the top of the blue bow. That would place the figure a foot or two out from the wall, and define the space for the rest of the image. As it is, the floor constitutes little more than a reddish stripe along the bottom of the composition, stitched to the rest by that foggy left leg.