Sunday, June 30, 2024

Queer in Art

Yesterday, we celebrated Pride Day, and it made me think what the celebration was about. Obviously, it is in acknowledgment that people of all persuasions should be accepted as they are and not be judged.

There is an entire segment of this country and probably the world that finds the LGBTQ+ community to be aberrant and a relatively new phenomenon. A common saying is that “A picture is worth a thousand words” so I want to look at some images from the past in order to show that this is nothing new.

My wife who attended the Institute of Fine Arts in New York often speaks of her professor who told his students that their papers should walk on their footnotes.

Here, I wish my Missive to stand on its images ...

If you are aware of history or more specifically art history, you know that images of queer couples and other manners of sexuality have existed as far back as images have been recorded. Books have been written about these subjects and I am not looking at queer artists or philosophies but just works of art in Western Culture and no further afield for this brief Missive.

There is no direct proof of queer men and women in Ancient Egypt but there is circumstantial evidence in some of the art. In this illustration we have two women assumed to be married as well as two men kising, depicted below (circa 2494-2345 BCE) who were buried together by their families. I have also included a more complete image of the two men.

Ancient Greece is better known as the beginning of depictions of homosexuals and lesbians. There is so much material here but one image that any collector would covet is this group of Lydian women. The kingdom of Lydia, in what is now Turkey, is recorded to have existed over 3 dynasties during the late Bronze age reaching its highest achievements during the 7th and 6th centuries BCE.

Then a bit later there is a courting couple illustrated on the interior of an Attic Greek Cup. The painter is said to be from Colmar circa 500-450 BCE. The object is in the Louvre.

After Greece, the next great period for art is in ancient Rome and here we find a fragment of a wall fresco showing two women dating back 1-75 CE.

An example of crossdressing or transgender identity dating from In Medieval is represented by St. Eugenia. On the 24th December the Eastern Orthodox Church remembers St Eugenia / Eugenios (monk) of Alexandria, one of the group of female saints in the early church who dressed as men to be admitted to all-male monasteries.

Then, of course, we come upon many examples of our theme dating from the Renaissance. Aside from nonspecific gender cavorting angels, a good example might be “Caravaggio’s, The Musicians (1595) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

Two Women Surprised by a Cat by Jean Alphonse Roehn, French (1799-1864) does not have to be explained.

At the beginning of the next century, we find Picasso exploring the subject with two women.

The New Museum’s 2021 Triennial showed a very large painting by Anbera Wellman (1982- ). Here is the painting and a detail to bring our tour near a close.

When we get into the twentieth century and abstract art, it is more difficult to find examples in paintings, but we do have plenty of material in photography, for instance, Diane Arbus’s “Female Intimacy”.

I will end with a 21st-century photographic image by Clifford Prince King.

Clearly, queerness in its many manifestations has been with us since the beginning of time and always will be. It is part of many cultures in our diverse world.

Sunday, June 23, 2024

Visual Arts That Inspire Music

We often say that art inspires, but are never too specific about it. It is interesting to think about how one field of art can inspire another and so it is with the visual arts and music. I am speaking of inspiration and not necessarily historical accuracy.

Coming across a list of contemporary art-inspired musicians and rappers brought to mind a song I remember from my youth, Dean Martin singing Mona Lisa. He was not the first person to sing it, but I know he was played on “The Make Believe Ball Room Time” with Martin Block in the 1950s when I listened to the show with my father. I doubt I have to explain the painting so here is the song.

Paul Simon drew on the surreal artist René Magritte for his song “René and Georgette Magritte with their Dog after the War.” Simon did not take his inspiration from a Magritte painting but rather from a photograph taken shortly before the artist died in 1967 which inspired his lyrics.

The images Simon references in the song suggest Magritte’s Post War return to Surrealism. Here is the lovely song.

For something a bit more contemporary in style, we have David Bowie’s song “Andy Warhol”. Sarah Gascone wrote of that song in 2016, “ ‘Andy Warhol, silver screen/Can’t tell them apart at all.’ The words reference Wahol’s wide range of creative achievements, from music to art to film, and capture just what an important figure he was for the evolution of art.” This in spite of the fact that they did not care for each other.

Funny, but I never have thought of the Statue of Liberty as a work of art but, of course, it is. As we know it was a gift from the people of France by the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. It was dedicated in New York Harbor on Liberty Island in 1886. In this case, the song in its honor is quite literal. A group I have never heard of before, XTC, sang the song that starts out:

The first time I saw you standing in the water
You must have been all of a thousand feet tall
Nearly naked, unashamed like Herod's daughter
Your love was so big it made New York look small …

A lot of works of art have inspired classical music but the relationship is not always as obvious as a song with lyrics. Therefore, I have left this example for last because it is not short but if you are into classical music you might want to hear it all. Here there is a very direct correlation between the artist and his influence on music. Modest Mussorgsky composed “Pictures at an Exhibition” in memory of his friend, the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann, who died at age 39 in 1873. The composer visited a retrospective of Hartmann’s sketches, stage designs, and architectural studies and felt the need to translate the experience to a piano suite in 10 movements.

Here is the orchestrated version by Maurice Ravel with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Orchestra. 

If I have piqued your curiosity there are many more examples you can find and you probably have a few favorites of your own.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Art on the Screen

The other day it got quite hot in Santa Fe and our swamp coolers were not doing a very good job. I was thinking that when my parents came to this country in 1939 and lived in a one-bedroom apartment backing up to a brick wall. They went to Radio City Music Hall to cool off, because there was air-conditioning in the theater. Now we watch a movie every week, but it is on our television set and we rarely go to a movie house.

Another result of the Pandemic is that television interviews are usually done remotely. Those interviewed often choose their kitchens for a background (though in one case, I saw their hotel room, bed and all) but sometimes we get to see art from their private collections.

We were watching “Franklin” the new limited series on Apple TV+ about Ben Franklin in Paris. Michael Douglas inhabits the role so convincingly that forever more we will envision him as Franklin. With great attention paid to the settings, scenes were filmed in several chateaux in France and even various rooms in Versailles! My wife and I enjoyed discussing the actual works of art that we could see in the shots.

I had not given it much thought before, but it made me look into films that are shot in locations where art is displayed, most notably museums but other places as well.

Of course, as subject matter, how many heist movies have there been with thefts from museums. Why? Because most of us have been to a museum and often we know the work of art that is being stolen. Such as in “The Thomas Crown Affair” where a bored billionaire Thomas Crown (Pierce Brosnan) decides to entertain himself by stealing a Monet from the Metropolitan Museum. Here Crown meets up with the detective, Catherine Banning (Rene Russo) who is investigating the case for the insurance company.

Why does art so often act as a backdrop for a film? I must admit here that for this question I went to Google’s Chat GPT. Here are some of the reasons I gleaned from that search. Art can set the atmosphere of a scene. One might use a shot in a gallery of abstract art in a lighthearted comedy or a scene in the Dutch galleries of the Rijksmuseum for a more somber spy film. If the plot takes place in a different country or time period art can better establish the moment.

I did not watch the popular television series “The Sopranos”, so I missed this bedroom scene where “The Visitation” (1528-29) by Jacopo Pontormo hung.

Since the characters in the series are mafioso I presume they stole the Pontormo from a small church ten miles west of Florence, in Carmignano where it belongs, or maybe when the painting was on tour in the U.S.!

I found there are several movies I look forward to streaming to catch a glimpse of the art. In Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 film “The Dreamers”, an American exchange student and French twins feeling isolated during the 1968 student riots in Paris take a romp through the Louvre.

In a 1961 movie called “The Duke” a 60-year-old taxi driver decides to abscond with the Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery, London, in order to blackmail the government into providing more care for the elderly. It is based on a true story!

I know that from now on I will pay more attention to identify works of art used in background settings. Maybe you will join me in this armchair art spotting.

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Waste Management

There is so much talk about the environment and how to save it. A number of artists are showing their support for this effort by using all kinds of recycled materials such as scrap metal, cans, floppy discs, old cassettes, plastic toys etc.

Recycling is, of course, not new. We have repurposed vessels and tools from ancient times. Until the rise of disposable items, it was the norm. But the idea of using discards to create art … when did that happen?

You might think that Recycle Art is fairly new. In the Outsider Art Fair, you can find a number of artists who create what has been called Upcycled Art Works but that Fair only started in 1993. However, already in 1912 Picasso, who has been said to have “invented” collage, used recycled materials with bits of paper, photos, newsprint, and small objects. He did the same with sculpture with bits of wood and other scavenged materials.

Bull’s Head, 1942

Though I lived in New York most of my life I did not know that in 1977 the Department of Sanitation in New York came up with the concept of an arts residency at a waste facility. The first artist to gain the residency was Mierle Landerman Ukeles. She has continued in that position until now as the official unpaid resident. Other sanitation departments have established such residencies as well.

The New York All Street Gallery on Hester Street even had an exhibition of the work of a number of these artists. The show included work by Philadelphia’s Recycle Artist in Residence, Lily Cox-Richard, and Jade Doskow Photographer in Residence from Staten Island who concentrates on the recent history of waste management. This is an example of Cox-Richard's work.

I continue to learn. The headline on this article from Artnet is “Taking Stock: A Massive Group Show Takes over a Queens Pantyhose Warehouse”! Andrew Russeth in this recent article makes a statement I never thought I would see: “Without hosiery, contemporary art would be a great deal poorer. “He continues “for decades, Senga Nengudi has stretched pantyhose into inventive sculptures, Sarah Lucas has dressed uncanny human figures in stockings, and Ernesto Neto has filled hose with all kinds of spices to build beguiling installations. Now those garments, in some sense, have inspired a spirited group show, “Means of Production,” at a warehouse on the edge of Queens with more than 70 participants—a few established, most emerging. You should see it.” Here is a brief video with Senga Nengudi on her use of pantyhose in her art ... 

This November Santa Fe will have its 25th annual Recycled Santa Fe Art Festival with juried adult and student exhibitions. With the work of over 100 artists, it claims to be the largest and oldest Recycle Art market. One of the most popular features has proven to be the highly imaginative fashion show. Here is an image from the Recycled Festival.

What better way to make a statement about recycling than creating art out of what others discard and there is a possible bonus that it will be again recycled when someone buys it and puts it on their wall or maybe even wears it!

Sunday, June 2, 2024

Gaza and the Art World

To make it clear I do not support attacks on any individual or on any country, much less the slaughter of the innocent. However, I have no trouble with peaceful protest no matter the cause: we can all learn from it.

What prompted this missive is a recent article that I saw in the online art journal Hyperallergic and then I found a longer article in Art News from last December. The UK-based Organization Artists for Palestine circulated a letter signed by thousands of artists. The signers included David Velasco, Editor-in-Chief of Art Forum, the magazine well known for its coverage of modern and contemporary art, along with several Art Forum staff members. The letter called for a cease-fire and Palestinian liberation. However, it neglected to mention the cause of the war, the attack by Hamas on Israel.

On October 26th the New York Times reported that Velasco had been fired. It has been further reported that 700 past contributors to these magazines have agreed to withdraw their participation from Art Forum and their sister publications Art News and Art in America. Their publisher, Penske Media, has disputed the number, which does sound exaggerated.

Not only have articles been withdrawn or censored, but exhibitions and lectures have also been canceled all over the world in fear of the repercussions from one side or the other in the Israel-Palestine issue. These actions result in the opposite of the desired effect as they inflame the other side.

Examples of the turmoil are enumerated in Widewalls, a publication dedicated to modern and contemporary art and aimed at connecting art lovers and art dealers with an online marketplace. Here are a few headings from the Widewalls article, if you can call it just an article since it is 57 pages long online ... 

Staffers Demand SFMOMA Break Silence on Palestine

Artwork in the Massive Quilt for Palestine Unveiled at The Met Goes on Sale for Gaza (the quilt was unfurled by protesters on the museum steps)

In An Open Letter, Metropolitan Museum Employees (over 150) Call on the Institution to 'Stand in Defense of Palestinians'

Ruth Patir Locks Down Israeli Pavilion in Venice, Calling for Ceasefire and Prisoner Exchange

Jewish Anti-Zionist Artists Withdraw from Contemporary Jewish Museum Show

Artists and Curators Call for the Reinstating of the Cancelled Palestinian Event at Manchester Venue

One heading is not a report of protest but a statement of fact that no protest can change:

Gazan Art Centre Destroyed During Israel's Raid on Al-Shifa Hospital

In writing about protests around art I have expressed my belief that monuments to currently unpopular causes should not be removed but rather accompanied by explanations of why the works are now offensive, and exhibitions of works showing the other side of a cause.

Last week Hyperallergic published the work of Native American artists who belong to a group called Red Nation that states its position clearly. The artwork illustrates solidarity with Palestine on the basis that all indigenous people are on a parallel path with the Palestinians striving for decolonization and the return of their lands.

The art world is passionate about issues. It always has been and should continue to be. However, suppressing art by canceling exhibitions or artists withdrawing their work only denies the public the opportunity to learn about the issue.