Sunday, December 25, 2022

Quotes from the World of Art

I collect quotes as many of you know. I am going back to that theme but from the artist’s point of view so I trust some will be new to you. I will let the artists speak for themselves and marvel at their insights. I believe that to be an artist you must be able to see yourself first, in order to understand others. In their own words ...

I always think that I need to search for another subject to write about, but in this case, I can walk in Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) shoes. He said “I don’t search, I find” the subjects are right there before you. All you have to do, is open your eyes.

Patrick McGrath Muniz (1975-), a painter born in Puerto Rico now working in Texas, uses traditional Spanish religious images to give social commentary on current and existential events. His work depicts the past as well as the present as he puts it, “Nothing is Really Lost until it is Forgotten”. We say this about history as well as friends and relatives we have lost. The artist illustrates those memories.

In 1932 Diego Rivera (1886-1957) was commissioned to create a mural for Rockefeller Center. Even though he was told what was expected of him he added elements of his own socialist views. According to David Rockefeller, “The picture of Lenin was on the right-hand side, and on the left, a picture of [my] father drinking martinis with a harlot and various other things that were unflattering to the family and clearly inappropriate to have as the center of Rockefeller Center". When Rivera refused to paint over the offending passages the mural was destroyed. Rivera revisited his vision replicating the commission for the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City saying, “I restored the murdered painting”.

I think we can agree that Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986) was a great artist but what is it in her art that, as my father would have said, “gives us a heartbeat”. I think that a lady from the Philippines I was sitting next to on a long plane trip got it right. Out of the blue she said, “Georgia O’Keeffe reminds me how profound simplicity can be. It reminded me of a quote from Georgia, herself. In 1921 she was recorded as saying "I wish people were all trees and I think I could enjoy them then".

Robert Capa (1913-1954) was a famous war photographer, and he died as he lived. Shortly after his arrival in Hanoi to cover the war in Indochina for Life magazine he was killed when he stepped on a landmine. It is easy to understand his quote and its irony, "It is the War Photographer's fervent wish to be unemployed".

Being a portrait painter can be a comfortable profession if you have a clientele of important people and honor comes with the creating an iconic image like Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington. But it has its downside as well. Stuart (1755-1828) lamented this other side of the coin. "What a business this of a portrait painter - you bring him a potato and expect he will paint you a peach.”

I have so many more quotes I would like to share but I like to keep my Missives short in the hopes that they will be read! Let me take this opportunity to wish you all a happy and healthy 2023.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Accidental Art Discoveries

What a strange thought, to find a worthwhile work of art by accident. How does that happen? I have written about new technical advances that have allowed us to see the artist’s under drawing below the surface of a painting or see over-paint by another artist in order to cover the parts of a body thought to be unsuited for others to see. There is even a case of the discovery of a Goya that had underneath its surface, a whole other painting by the artist.

What seems to be not that unusual is finding coins on the beach. Not those that fell out of a sunbather’s pocket but ancient coins. There is a hobby of searching the sand with metal detectors for treasure that might have been swept ashore from shipwrecks. A 2011 article in the Maryland Dispatch reported a nine year old girl who was looking for sea glass for her collection came across what looked to be an old bracelet. Covered with grime it was hard to see exactly what it was, so the fourth grader and her mother took it to the nearby DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum on Fenwick Island, Delaware. The “Museum proprietor” Dale Clifton, is an expert in items from the many shipwrecks that are recorded off the Maryland and Delaware coast. Dipping the girl’s “bracelet” in a solution to remove the corrosion and grime, he revealed that it was a piece of wire that had become attached to a copper coin that was dated 1655. Although Mr. Clifton said the coin might be worth between $30 to $100, he thought the discoverer would not want to part with it, but rather keep it as a lifetime souvenir.

What about a discovery in your own kitchen? On the site of “Auction Central News” as well as other publications one can find a story about a British surgeon who bought a vase as a decoration for a nook in his kitchen. It cost him a few hundred pounds in the 1980’s. A visitor to his home, who happened to be an antiques specialist, spotted it in the kitchen and identified it as an 18th century ceramic made for the court of the Qianlong Emperor. It was inherited by the surgeon’s son who put it at action at Dreweatts in London. This exceptionally large 2 foot high vase was featured in their Chinese Ceramics sale with an estimate of £100,000-£150,000, it brought £1,449,000 ($1,700,000). Was this piece lost before it was “discovered”….you tell me.

Then there was a scrap metal dealer who paid the handsome price of $14,000 for a piece he found at a market thinking that he would melt it down and the object might be literally worth it’s weight in gold. To his good fortune and posterity’s, he did not melt it down before looking into what it might be. To his surprise he found out that it could be worth as much as thirty-three million dollars. Research had revealed that the piece was the third of fifty jeweled eggs made by Peter Carl Fabergé for the Russian Imperial family between 1885 and the end of its reign with the Russian revolution in 1917. This particular Imperial egg was presented by Czar Alexander III to Maria Feodorovna in 1887. It was displayed at Wartski’s in London in 2014 and is now in a private collection.

My favorite story of an art discovery was mentioned in a publication called Complex. In Montignac, France, in 1940 a group of teenagers were walking with their dog when it disappeared into a hole in the ground. (Judging from the handwritten signs posted all over Santa Fe, dogs are continuously getting lost particularly in our arroyos.) In this case, however, the kids were able to follow their pup into what turned out be a series of caves covered with paintings—hundreds of animal paintings. A publication called, of all things, “Dogster” elaborated on the story. The dog’s name was Robot, unusual at that time since the term was coined in a sci-fi movie just 20 years earlier. Robot had happened upon the famous Lascaux caves. Even at 15,000 - 17,000 years old, they weren't the most ancient cave art ever discovered in the region before World War II, but the significance of this find was the sophistication of the paintings. The horses and deer had been closely observed and rendered. The discovery showed an evolution that stretched over 20,000 years. What our mongrel-hero came upon that September day was nothing less than the evidence of our ancestors’ artistic evolution.

I believe serendipitous finds are more enjoyable and satisfying than stories of those seeking buried treasure.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Is Art Important?

I was told recently that art is just a frill we don’t really need it. Certainly not the first time I have heard that. Michael Kimmelman, while he was art critic for The New York Times, wrote about the Christo Gates, (1978- realized in 2005). "Art is never necessary. It is merely indispensable". Again, I have picked a subject that books can and have been written about, but here is my brief take.

It seems that in the public mind the term “Art” is just paintings, drawings and maybe sculpture and lately photography. People don’t seem to remember the terminology “The Arts” which would include, theater, music, dance, literature and design and not necessarily in that order. An emotionally moving piece of music and theater is a song that stirs me to want to march along. It is from the musicle, Les Misérables, “Do You Hear the People Sing?”

What is special about art? On a site called “Artwork Archive” I found this definition, “Art allows us to examine what it means to be human, to voice and express, and to bring people and ideas together.” When I asked a friend in Valentine, Nebraska why art was necessary, he wrote “Art makes us think and feel at the same time. It can provoke a vehemently repulsive response”, think of images regarding Ukraine today, “but it can also calm us and remind us of who we are or where we came from.”

The power of the visual is seen in the instinct of children to collect pebbles or shells. Visual art adds on an emotional and intellectual response. Then comes the desire to preserve and collect this evidence of times gone by.

As I mentioned in my Missive on Ukraine Banksy has been going around the country of Ukraine painting murals on the walls of buildings that have been bombed by the Russians. What better way to call attention to man’s inhumanity to man and I am quite sure some will be preserved in situ, even after the war.

Every culture has some form of ceramic art. Much of Native American culture has roots in the art of this medium I wrote recently about the exhibition “Grounded in Clay” In the first half of the 18th century both France and Germany went into competition establishing international prestige through their royal porcelain factories of Sèvres & Meissen. Their products are still appreciated while the factories continue innovating today. Historic pieces in this media teach future generations not only of ways people ate and drank but also what was considered of intangible value. 

Knowledge in all areas of life is based on what we have learned from the past and art could be considered the greatest teacher. My father talked about Grete Ring (1887-1952) who was one of the first women to study art history. Earning her doctorate under the famous German art historian Heinrich Wölfflin , she was highly regarded as a scholar and critic. From 1921 on she worked as an art dealer. Her comment on the subject sums it up for me, "Why should one talk about art, if not to open the eyes of others to it".

The statue of Laocoön and His Sons, this nearly life size marble sculpture was excavated in Rome in 1506 and placed on public display in the Vatican Museums where it remains. Whether it was created by the Greeks or Romans is under debate but there is little question that its origins go back to the Greeks. History, through its art, lives on.

What is it we remember from past civilizations? What has been preserved? … it is their art.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

The Italian Cover-Up

As we have seen in this country censorship is rampant. Children should not learn about sex … history should only be about pleasant subjects and not upset the children. Sad to see it happening but it is nothing new. A recent piece of art news makes me want to revisit the subject from a different perspective.

A recent article was published by the Guardian gleaned from the Associated Press, November 13, 2022. “Art Restorers in Florence have begun a 6 month project to clean and virtually “unveil” a long-censored nude painting by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653). With the discovery that the original subject was nude the painting has taken on new significance as a symbol of allowing women artists free expression. Artemisia who was one of the first to dare to break into the man’s world of art.

The work was commissioned in 1616 for the home of the great-nephew of Michelangelo which eventually became the Casa Buonarroti museum where it has been displayed on the ceiling. Veils and drapery were commissioned to cover the offending parts of the “Allegory of Inclination” about 70 years after it was painted. The nude is thought to be a self-portrait. Obviously, she would have been the most readily available model.

Restorers won’t be able to remove the cover-up because it was painted over too soon after the painting was finished. They can, however, distinguish the brush strokes of the original artist from those of the cover-up artist. The restoration team lead by the lead conservator Elizabeth Wicks plan to create a digital image of the original version and will be shown in an exhibition of the project opening next September.

The nude figure has long been a subject of censorship… protecting the innocent! In a 2016 issue of the Guardian, Jonathan Jones wrote an article titled, “The Great Cover-up: Renaissance Nudity Still has the Power to Shock” It recounts how Renaissance artists rediscovered the beauty of the nude in the art of the ancient Greeks and Romans. But then it “crashed into religious revivals, iconoclasm and holy wars during the Reformation and counter Reformation, not to mentions the later hypocrisies of the Victorian Age”.

Probably the best-known case is that of Michelangelo’s (1475-1564) “Last Judgement” in the Sistine Chapel (1508-1512). The depiction of male genetalia caused a critic at the time to say the fresco was more fit for a gay bathhouse than the Pope’s church. When Michelangelo died, a painter was hired to cover the crotches of the airborne nudes with draperies. The controversy was renewed during the 1980’s restoration of the fresco. The draperies were finally left untouched.

That was not the only Michelangelo cover-up. After the artist’s death a bronze loincloth was added to his sculpture of the “Risen Christ” (1519-1521) in Santa Maria Sopra.

Massacio’s (1401-1428) Adam and Eve, “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden”, circa 1425, in the Brancacci Chapel received a decency cover-up in the 17th century. These additions. However, were removed by a restorer in the 1980’s. Here we have before and after.

There are so many other examples and the battle continues all over the world. A news channel from Paw Paw, Michigan announced in 2019 that the Van Buren County Commission decided to cover up two, century-old murals inside the courthouse that depict women's bare breasts. The paintings were done by a local artist, Frank Lewis Van Ness in 1908 of classical Greek characters. Judge Kathleen Brinkly wrote in her recommendation letter to the commission, "To have paintings of bare breasted women in a courthouse displays a lack of respect for women, and for men who respect women."