Sunday, December 31, 2023

Caspar David Friedrich

Happy New Year to all. It took me a moment to realize I had to start a 2024 folder for this Missive and that this is my 15th year of writing them! I am therefore treating myself to writing about one of my favorite artists, at least a favorite from the early 19th Century.

Germany is celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of their beloved painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). The Hamburger Kunsthalle is kicking it off with “Caspar David Friedrich: Art for a New Age”. The exhibition opened on December 15 and will run until April 1 with 60 paintings by Friedrich and 100 of his drawings as well as selected works by the artist’s friends including Carl Blechen, Carl Gustav Carus, and Johan Christian Dahl. The Kunsthalle will not be the only museum celebrating this occasion, there will be additional shows in Berlin and Dresden.

Friedrich was a major figure in the movement that became known as Romanticism. The Tate Museum website defines it as “the movement in art and literature distinguished by a new interest in human psychology, expression of personal feeling and interest in the natural world.” Our current concern over climate change and the efforts of much of the world to slow it down seems another reason to celebrate this artist who captured our relationship with the natural world so beautifully. In 1823-1825 Friedrich painted “The Sea of Ice” which is now in the Hamburger Kunsthalle but could not be sold in his day. His imagined view of the Arctic resembles recent imagery of global warming though not on anyone’s radar in the artist’s day.

Friedrich’s figures never face the viewer but are gazing out and away. We do not know if they are actually looking at an event or gazing reflectively into the distance. This image of “Two Men Contemplating the Moon” (1825-1830) is from the Metropolitan Museum.

Friedrich suffered from lifelong depression. His childhood had been marked by the death of his mother two sisters and his younger brother, who he witnessed drown after falling through the ice. One can feel his loneliness in his work. This painting “The Tree of Crows” (1822) in the Louvre reminds me of what Georgia O’Keeffe said in 1921, "I wish people were all trees and I think I could enjoy them then."

Having always been taken by Friedrich’s paintings, which I find all-encompassing, I never paid that much attention to his draftsmanship. I have discovered that his drawings are, quite marvelous. In this self-portrait (1802) in the Hamburger Kunsthalle, he seems to capture his melancholy. Again, we wonder what he is thinking about. Is it something he wishes to do or is he daydreaming or brooding? His work always conveys this introspection which infuses the viewer with that same feeling of soul searching.

I will finish with a quote by Friedrich. “Close your bodily eye, that you may see your picture first with the eye of the spirit. Then bring to light what you have seen in the darkness, that its effect may work back, from without to within.” For me, the painting that says it all is “The Wanderer over the Sea of Fog” (1817-1818) in the Hamburger Kunsthalle. I have always loved the mountains more than the sea, and this image reminds me of the experience of being high above the clouds and looking down on them. I also interpret this painting as a symbol of hope and inspiration.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

The Tarot Deck

I think this is an appropriate day to look into something unrelated to the holidays, -- Tarot cards. What got me curious about the Arcana Tarot Deck of Cards was a book I just read, “The Cloisters” by Katy Hays. It is a mystery at the Cloisters, the medieval branch of the Metropolitan Museum seven miles north of the main building, where they are putting together an exhibition about Tarot cards. There are secrets galore including who believes in the abilities of the Tarot cards to predict the future and who does not. As the game that is being played within the Cloisters spirals out of control, the central figure must decide whether she is truly able to defy the cards and shape her own destiny.

The Tarot game deck is thought to date back to the 1430s in Italy. Other sources say it was already in the early 1390s. Then the deck was used for a game called tarocchi, which was similar to Bridge and it became popular throughout Europe. The Pierpont Morgan Library in New York has a deck made for the Visconti-Sforza family and believed to be by Bonifacio Bembo (1447-1480). Here from the deck is the Wheel of Fortune ...

The modern-day card game has 52 cards in 4 suits including numbers and face cards. The Tarot deck has 78 cards in it. The “major arcana” consists of 22 cards also known as trumps. And the minor arcana of 56 cards. The major arcana have images of various forces, characters, virtue and vices. Some believe Tarot is just a game and others believe in its mystic powers. The British Museum has an 18th century deck Published in Germany by Johanes Neumur but with French titles and Italian suits.

As time went on the Arcana deck of Tarot cards became more than a game. The derivation of the word Arcana is from the Latin arcanus meaning “secret”. It was often used to speak of the mysteries of the physical and spiritual world. Alchemists pursued the arcana of nature in their search for elixirs that would turn base metals into gold.

Coincidently, we were given a set of Tarot cards at a recent talk at Evoke Gallery given by an artist we greatly admire, and whom I have written about in the past, Patrick McGrath Muñiz.

He has introduced imagery from the Tarot in his paintings for close to 20 years and in 2021 he published his own deck the “Tarot Neocolonial de las Americas”. The most powerful card in the Tarot deck is that of The Fool, here he is from Muñiz’s deck and inspired by his best friend.

Muniz’s deck has specific meanings as he addresses current and historical social issues in the Americas in his art. Muniz talks about his development of Tarot figures as archetypes for patterns of behavior. This fits with the definition I found of archetype as “a prototype upon which others are copied, patterned, or emulated. Archetypes are often used in myths and storytelling across different cultures.”

How do you “read” Tarot cards? If you want to be cynical, the answer is any way you want to, as they can have both positive and negative meanings. It seems that 3 and 5 card spreads are most popular. You shuffle the cards and place them in 3 or 5 piles. You then read each card individually based on its placement in the spread and finally see how they blend to form an overall story imbued with layered meaning.

Maybe this will be clearer:

1. Choose a deck of tarot cards that speaks to you.

2. Familiarize yourself with the meanings of the tarot cards. ...

3. Set your intention for the reading. ...

4. Shuffle the cards and focus on your question or intention as you do so. ...

5. Lay out the cards in a spread. ...

6. Interpret the cards in the spread.

Confused yet? Good. As you can tell I am one of the doubters, though it seems like great fun to pursue this endeavor. To my surprise I found there are even classes on how to study and learn about the cards.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

The Case For Ugly Art

I did a search of my Missives and in the past 14 years, I have used the word “ugly” in less than 2% of them. One of my schoolmates, way back when said, “The Evil is in the mind of the beholder”. That goes for the word “ugly” as well. How often have you seen a couple and you think one of them is so good looking how can that individual be with that ugly person? Obviously, that is not how they see each other.

We have been taught to think of art as beautiful in one sense or another even though that term is now often disparaged. When we see unpleasant subject matter such as Judith Slaying Holofernes (ca. 1616-1618) by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593- ca. 1656) we can still react to it as a beautiful painting.

This past July Ayanna Dozier published an article, “Why ‘Ugly’ Paintings are so Popular” in the on-line “”. It delves into an exhibition at Nahmad Contemporary in New York called “Ugly Painting” curated by Eleanor Cayre and Dean Kissick. Their definition of ugly painting is artists who make “deliberate use of grotesque, garish, or abject styles of brushwork, representation, composition, or coloring to form a singular vision. Painting that is bold, confrontational, and confident, rather than pretty, decorative, polite, conservative, or overly realistic.” Of course, they are just speaking of contemporary art. One of the paintings in the show by Connor Marie, called “Pork, 2023” is an unpleasant commentary but beautifully painted.

They go on to say, “Ugliness can be powerful, moving, and even sublime. Many great historical works were considered unpleasant in their time because they broke with convention or simply because they were extremely grotesque.” A prime example is a painting I have reproduced before titled “The Ugly Duchess” (circa 1513) by Quentin Massys (1466-1530) in the National Gallery in London.

Do we have to rethink what is ugly and what is beautiful or are they just part of a single spectrum?

Willem de Kooning’s “Woman 1” (1950-1952) is an example of what could be deemed ugly. I had a professor who said Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). painted women as if they had fallen out of a third-story window. In this painting, we can hit all the points that Cayre and Kissick make, and by that measure, I would tend towards ugly!

I could go on and on with subjective thoughts on what is ugly in art. Next time you visit a museum or a gallery and have an initial visceral reaction to a work of art consider where you would put it on the beautiful/ugly scale and see it through different eyes.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

What’s So Funny?

There are so many ways to look at art and I started to think about the artists who are intentionally poking fun at the world or inadvertently creating an image I find funny. Humor is always in the mind of the beholder. That is why you can sit in a comedy club doubled over with laughter while the person sitting next to you is trying to figure out what you think is so funny.

One of the Old Masters who seems to be enjoying himself is Pieter Breughel the Elder (1526/30-1569). In the Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin you will find a painting called “Netherlandish Proverbs” of 1559. All kinds of mayhem are going on: notice the guy hitting his head against a wall on the left and that one fellow who seems to be digging a grave for the man crawling away at the bottom center. There are many other vignettes that viewers of the period would have recognized as illustrating proverbs that make fun of human behavior.

I particularly enjoy this painting by Pere Borrell del Caso (1835-1910), “Escaping Criticism’ (1874), in a private collection (Bank of Spain, Madrid). Aside from the ironic title, seeing the figure jump out of the frame as if to join the viewer adds to the humor.

This painting by Domenichino, “St. Cecilia with an Angel Holding a Musical Score,” ca. 1617 has a couple of points of humor to my eyes. Not only is the angel holding the score above his head trying in vain to get St. Cecilia’s attention, but she is so distracted it looks like she is going to poke him in the tummy with her bow.

In the Gazette de l’ Hotel Drouot an auction was announced for December 18-20th that includes a painting by Giampietrino (circa 1500-1550) titled “Ecce Homo” or Behold the Man. The image of Christ with hands bound and a crown of thorns as Pontius Pilate presented him to the hostile crowd was a traditional subject for private devotion. But instead of an inspiring picture of suffering and resignation, what about this Christ’s countenance? To me he seems to be glancing toward one of his tormentors as if to say “This is so tiresome. Let’s get on with it”.

I thought I would take a look at our own collection. As a child I loved works of Honoré-Victorin Daumier (1808-1879). The painter, sculptor and graphic artist often did cartoons for the newspaper. As a birthday present my parents went to Walter Schatzki’s on 57th Street in New York that specialized in the graphic arts and bought me this original newspaper clipping. The title is “The Auction House” and the story in the caption loosely translated says, “My wife told me to bring her my portrait painted in Paris…..But that doesn’t look like you….I know that but I will have the face touched up and that will cost me less than to have it done from scratch!”

To finish up in the 20th century we have a well-known image from the early 1950’s, that seems appropriate for the season, Norman Rockwell’s “The Jolly Postman”. All the children want their presents before the postman has reached their house. Guess they caught on that Santa is not going to come down the chimney and Amazon didn’t exist yet!

Tip for parents: If you take children, kicking and screaming, to a museum, tell them to look at the paintings and see what they might find funny or let them make up what the stories might be. They will enjoy the experience far better!

To illustrate the point from a book called “Parenting Advice to Ignore in Art and Life” by Nicole Tersigni this example from many old masters with comments. This Ercole de’ Roberti (1451-1496) in the National Gallery, Washington D.C.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Backside

When we speak of paintings it is always the image on the recto (front) that we speak of. It has been painted over a primer so that the paint will stick to the canvas or the knots in the wood will not interrupt the flow of the paint. How often, however, do we speak of the verso (the back) of the canvas or panel. What goes on there?

An exhibition at the Museo del Prado in Madrid has taken on this question. It is called in English “On the Reverse” and will be up until March 3, 2024. I love the idea of going into a gallery where all the paintings have turned their backs on us! Some of the works are installed so that you can see the view the artist intended as well. This exhibition of one hundred works drawn from the Prado’s own collection and 29 other museums covers a span of 400 years.

As an art dealer, I had to look at the backs of pictures to see if the canvas was thin or had already been relined, or whether the stretcher needed reinforcement. There is, of course, so much more to see there. There are hints at, or explicit acknowledgment of, provenance and other surprises. Sometimes there may be a preparatory sketch or an idea for another work. Here is a work from the Prado’s own collection of “The Holy Family” by Bernard van Orley (1487-1541) together with its verso showing the artist’s elaborate inscription.

The Getty Museum shows the versos of 320 paintings in their collection pages online. There they write about what one might find like wax seals of previous, handwritten inscriptions as well as customs stamps if the picture crossed borders.

Here is a picture Diana and her Dog 1717-1720 by Sebastiano Ricci ( 1659-1734) from the show with the labels on the back - information that might be gleaned by the art detective.

A happy surprise is if you might find a preparatory sketch or a picture by a student such as this by Anibale Carracci (1560-1609) and students from the Prado.

The artist Cornelius Norbertus Giesbrechts (circa 1630 – after 1683) made the verso the subject of his painting “Trompe l'oeil. The Reverse of a Framed Painting” circa 1670, in the National Gallery of Denmark. Was the artist making fun of clients or dealers who would immediately look at the back of a picture presented to them?

On Christie’s website, I found this verso of a still-life by Ben Nicholson (1894-1982). Though you may not be able to see it in the illustration the artist has included his address in Cornwall on the bottom, left.

Perhaps the most surprising painting in the Prado exhibition is by Martin Mytens (1648-1736) “Kneeling Nun” circa 1731, from the Stockholm National Museum. Mytens took the theme quite literally completing his seemingly pious frontal image with a rear view. Do note the nun peering in the window on the front whose view you only catch onto when you see the back. The picture belonged to the Swedish Ambassador to Paris who presumably kept the verso of the pious image to enjoy privately or with select friends.

The next time you want to acquire a painting you might want to take a look at the verso as well, but please make your priority looking at the recto and don’t be seduced by the verso.