Herri met de Bles, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, ca. 1545, oil on panel, 11 7/10 x 17 in. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Flemish painter Herri met de Bles is known for his catastrophic, fantastical landscapes that often depicted Biblical accounts. In this instance, met de Bles gives visuality to the to the Biblical episode of Sodom and Gomorrah wherein God, in his righteous anger, destroyed the two impenitent cities. In the story, God promised Abraham to spare the cities for only ten righteous - Abraham having negotiated with God from fifty down to ten for the sake of his nephew Lot who was living in Sodom - but not ten righteous remained, and God destroyed the cities by raining down fire and sulphur from above.
In his depiction, met de Bles focuses on the raw power and visuality of the fire and brimstone pouring down. The viewer’s perspective is from on high looking down onto the burning cities and we are overwhelmed by the monumentality of the wall of red flame and black smoke issuing forth from the destruction. The central focal point of a black, rocky crag adds a deep sense of foreboding, partially obscuring what still remains of the nearby city buildings, while the remainder of the architecture is veiled behind a sheer wall of fire and sulphur. It is not until we are completely taken in by the terrifying rain of fire that we see the tiny figure of Lot’s wife, having looked back on the destruction and turned into salt.
Théodule-Augustin Ribot, The Morning Wash (The Children’s Home), ca. 1863, oil on canvas, 28 ⅘ x 24 in. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
French Realist painter Théodule Ribot produced still lifes, genre work, religious scenes and portraiture, exhibiting work at the official Paris Salon while also promoting the Salon des Refusés. Ribot’s The Morning Wash gives us a glimpse into the everyday setting of a school room, in this case - as we are told in the museum notes - a state-run school for low-income families. As a small grouping of students go about their morning wash with heads bowed kneeling before a wash basin, their stern headmistress looks on from a doorway in the background, while another small grouping of young students cower behind her.
Characteristic of much of his work, Ribot has concentrated the color palette on very muted, almost bleak tones - the children clothed in black robes or grey garments and the headmistress dressed head to foot in black are enveloped by walls of gloomy greyish-brown, the only decoration being the copper washing pot on the floor. Ribot often made use of chiaroscuro which we see represented here by the contrast of the doorway shadows shrouding the headmistress in near darkness while the faces of the three central students in the foreground are placed in highlight. The gaze of one schoolgirl is directed toward the viewer, her clear look drawing us in and providing a bit of cheerfulness in the midst of a dreary morning at school.
James Jacques Joseph Tissot, The Terrace at Trafalgar Tavern, Greenwich, ca. 1878, oil on panel New Orleans Museum of Art
Though his late career was spurred by religious fervor and a collection of paintings portraying the life of Christ, French painter and engraver James Tissot was also well-known for his earlier paintings of fashionable women and posh Victorian genre scenes. In this scene of London leisure life, Tissot has placed a small group at the forefront of the painting that gaze absently out toward the sea, as one woman near the center stares directly back at the viewer. Contrasting with the listless stares of her companions, the central figure’s sweet, almost hopeful expression draws us into the scene as if we are one of the elite crowd. As evidenced by the informal posture of the elaborately dressed subjects in the foreground as well as the black-hatted figures in the background that lean casually against the fence, the atmosphere is relaxed and leisurely, though the tone is not overly cheerful. The sun peeks through a grey, overcast sky that matches the overall color scheme of buildings, sea and figures’ clothing painted in various shades of grey, contrasted only by the brown elements of the wooden finishes. The brush strokes are smooth and precise evincing a realism of the figures and surface textures, and we wonder what can be happening beyond the painting’s frame to capture the attention of the tavern-goers.
It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a…Kitchen Utensil???
Constantin Brancusi, Golden Bird, 1919/1920 (base 1922), bronze, stone and wood, 86 x 11 ¾ x 11 ¾ in. The Art Institute of Chicago
Difficult though it is to believe now, abstract sculpture was not always so readily viewed as art, as evidenced by the “scandal” created by Constantin Brancusi’s sculpture Bird in Space. In 1926, as Marcel Duchamp accompanied crates containing 20 Brancusi works destined for exhibition in New York and Chicago through the Port of New York, U.S. customs denied duty free status as works of art, holding the pieces under the classification of “kitchen utensils and hospital supplies,” and charging the appropriate 40% custom fees. Ironically, the same thing had occurred earlier in the year when photographer Edward Steichen had attempted to bring his purchased Brancusi sculpture Bird in Space into New York. With an outcry of support from New York art elite, Steichen appealed the customs decision in court wherein the judges, usurping the typical artist’s role of calling into question what constitutes a work of art, ruled in favor of Steichen, stating:
There has been developing a so-called new school of art, whose exponents attempt to portray abstract ideas rather than to imitate natural objects…The object now under consideration…is beautiful and symmetrical in outline, and while some difficulty might be encountered in associating it with a bird, it is nevertheless pleasing to look at and highly ornamental, and as we hold under the evidence that it is the original production of a professional sculptor and is in fact a piece of sculpture and a work of art according to the authorities above referred to, we sustain the protest and find that it is entitled to free entry.
The emphasis placed by the judges on abstraction is not surprising, as Brancusi’s art is first and foremost known for his innovations in abstract sculptural form. Having worked for a short time as an assistant in the studio of Auguste Rodin, Brancusi quickly chose his own path. Chiseling directly from the block, Brancusi strove to bring the essence of the chosen material to life in forms abstracted, but not completely void of representation. His Golden Bird is one sculptural version from his “Bird” series partially inspired by a Romanian folk tale of a mythical bird with the power of rejuvenation - the first phase being the Maiastra produced from 1910 to 1915, the final phase represented by the now famous Bird in Space.1 In Golden Bird, Brancusi represents what he called “the essence of flight” with soaring lines and gleaming curves. Polishing the bronze to create a smooth, reflective surface that radiates light from all angles, Brancusi hints at representations of a bird’s soaring form while his exquisite simplification of the material captures the aura of a lofty bird, flying high and free.
1. Ashley Lazevnick, “Impossible Descriptions in Mina Loy and Constantin Brancusi’s Golden Bird,” Word and Image: A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry, 29 no. 2 (2013): 192-202.
Giacomo Balla, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912, oil on canvas, 35 ½ x 43 ¼ in. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo (viewed at the Modern Masters: 20th Century Icons from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery exhibit held at the Denver Art Museum)
A highlight for me from the Modern Masters exhibition recently held at the Denver Art Museum was viewing Giacomo Balla’s Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, the light-hearted and endearing painting considered a key work of the bombastic, politically motivated movement known as Futurism. A signer of the Manifesto of Futurist Painters published in 1910, Balla’s paintings associated with the movement translated the Futurist ideals of motion and speed, and were greatly impacted by the photographic motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge and the chronophotography of Étienne-Jules Marey.
Though much of his Futurist output conveyed the sensation of motion through geometric abstraction and the fragmentation of form and light, here Balla presents something figurative - a dachshund dog prancing merrily alongside the heavy skirts and black boots of his owner. Painted in bland hues of brown and black, the painting fascinates us not with representation of realistic subject matter, but by its depiction of dynamic movement. The dachshund’s springing paws and wagging tail and the owner’s scurrying steps are conveyed through multiple views of paws, tail, leash and boots presented at different points in space and time, the simultaneous display of multiple motion sequences resulting in whirling blurs of activity. Restraining the visual incident to only those elements conveying dynamic movement, Balla crops the image to include only the owner’s fluttering skirt and blurry boots, while employing diagonal, dashed lines which, when seen from a distance, elicit the sensation of the ground whizzing by underthe figures’ feet. Though the Futurist fascination with movement and speed had to do with industry and the glory of the machine, here Balla gives us a breather - something more delicate and fanciful to enjoy.
Vasily Kandinsky, Landscape with Two Poplars, 1912, oil on canvas, 31 x 39 ½ in. The Art Institute of Chicago
During the period 1908 to 1914, Vasily Kandinsky spent time in Murnau at the foothills of the Alps, painting the surrounding landscape and experimenting with color, perspective, and the distortion of forms .1 In Landscape with Two Poplars, Kandinsky presents a scene that has not been completely abstracted, yet neither are the forms entirely representational of nature. Utilizing intense hues of red, green, yellow and blue, Kandinsky has contorted the houses, trees and grounds into unmodulated patches of nonmimetic color and irregularly shaped triangular forms. As if taken from a dream, the setting is distorted into oddly bending roofs and off-kilter treetops that blend into an indeterminate landscape of jumbled red, yellow and blue blotches. Kandinsky creates an implied sense of perspective through the diagonal pathways that lead us into the center of the painting and by the cool, blue rise of the foothills beyond that appear to recede into the distance. Though we may have difficulty recognizing this scene as one from nature (where is that second poplar?), the tone is not off-putting; rather, the bold, bright colors elicit a cheerful, almost harmonious sensation.
1. Thomas B. Cole, “Landscape with Two Poplars, Wassily Kandinsky,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 310 No. 11 (2013): 1100.
Vasily Kandinsky, Painting with Green Center, 1913, oil on canvas, 43 ¼ x 47 ½ in. The Art Institute of Chicago
Seeing the Kandinsky retrospective at the Milwaukee Art Museum inspired me to spend some time exploring the work of Vasily Kandinsky, one of the first artists to focus on purely abstract subject matter. Inspired by Monet’s Haystacks and the bold color of the Fauves, Kandinsky’s paintings transitioned from early landscape and figurative paintings to Impressionist and Fauvist inspired work, later focusing on a more geometric style, and shifting in his last years to biomorphic and organic inspired watercolors. A founding member of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a German Expressionist group focused on the use of color and line to convey spiritual notions rather than focusing on materiality, spirituality conveyed through abstraction was the driving force behind Kandinsky’s work, on which he elaborated in his treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art.
Though not included in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Kandinsky retrospective, this painting owned by the Art Institute exemplifies the emotionally expressive color juxtapositions we so immediately associate with his work. Visually stunning us with bold swaths of intensely colored irregular forms interrupted by hard-edged lines and squiggles, the painting appears as if composed at random, yet Kandinsky carefully planned out every element. Believing color tones were each imbued with a specific emotional resonance, Kandinsky created color juxtapositions to deliver particular sensations. Here, a strong, descending diagonal demarcates a red plane, seemingly dividing the space between colors that elicit positive emotions - red: strength, energy, and joy; orange: radiance and health - and more negative sensations - gray: hopeless immovability; brown: dull and inhibited; yellow: madness in color, disturbing. In and around the flat planes of color, Kandinsky has interspersed misshapen blobs and smaller, heavily outlined segments of mixed hues that are less definable, as if to represent the plethora of conflicting emotions that shape our day to day lives. At the center, intense swaths of deep and peaceful blue surround and edge an angular shape of green, the color of stillness, peace and inner strength, perhaps meant to convey stability in the midst of an emotional storm.
Roy Lichtenstein, M-maybe, 1965, oil and magna on canvas, 60 x 60 in. Included in the international Lichtenstein retrospective first held at The Art Institute of Chicago
In the early 1960s, Roy Lichtenstein developed his signature style so famously associated with the Pop art movement - the reproduction of cartoon and other appropriated imagery on a large scale, making no (readily apparent) changes to the source material. With a pictorial language consisting of heavy, black outlines and flat colors, Lichtenstein combined the fine art technique of painting with machine reproduction in a manner that removed the trace of the artist’s hand altogether.1 In so doing, Lichtenstein depersonalized the images, making witty observations and jokey criticisms hidden behind a seemingly anonymous process.
Lichtenstein’s Duchampian appropriation of existing images resulted in some criticism that he was merely copying the material, even to the point of bordering on copyright infringement. But Lichtenstein was no mere copyist. His process involved projecting the appropriated images onto a large screen, hand-tracing the image, and applying paint through a screen to create gradated colors using the Benday dot system. Throughout his process, Lichtenstein was concerned with formal characteristics; as noted by Marco Livingstone, “a comparison of a Lichtenstein painting with its source image reveals the complex ways in which he has manipulated the material, from careful selection of a particular image…to subtle alterations that bring into focus its abstract formal unity.”2
Included in the international Lichtenstein retrospective first exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2012, M-Maybe presents us with one of Lichtenstein’s standards: an idealized, romance novel-type woman placed within a generic cityscape setting. Characteristically colored in the primary hues of red, yellow and blue, Benday dots color the woman’s skin while adding reflection to the background windows. Comprising nearly the entire surface of the painting, the blonde, windswept-haired woman holds her gloved hand to her face in worry, while we read her almost hopeful expression that her beau has become ill rather than, the viewer is forced to presume, having forgotten about her. Through this single comic strip image Lichtenstein creates an amusing tension - the viewer searches for a deeper narrative surrounding the absent companion even while the concern of the woman - impeccably dressed and hair stylishly coiffed - is overshadowed by her stylish glamour.
1. Marco Livingstone, Pop Art: A Continuing History, (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000), 73. 2. Ibid.
Andy Warhol, Five Deaths (Orange), 1963, synthetic polymer and silkscreen on linen Portland Art Museum
In 1962, after seeing - and subsequently painting - the New York Mirror headline “129 DIE IN JET!,” Andy Warhol focused his efforts on what is now known as his Death and Disaster series. Initially produced by hand painting, Warhol soon took to reproducing photographs of car accidents, electric chairs and other horrific images appropriated from daily newspapers and supermarket tabloids through the mechanized silkscreen process. Presented in a serialized, repeated format, the gruesome paintings both shocked viewers and divided critics. Some viewed Warhol’s work as a form of critique drawing on thematic issues such as the spectacle of violence. Others saw Warhol’s images as a simulacrum - all surface, with no meaning or reference - an argument ambiguously confirmed by Warhol himself who claimed, “If you want to know about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”1
Five Deaths (Orange) provides an example of this controversial work. In contrast to the majority of his Disaster series, Five Deaths is comprised of a single image rather than being repeated across the canvas. Created using the silkscreen reproduction process, the image has been rendered a bit blurry in places, adding a sense of deterioration to the already gruesome scene. The appropriated photograph depicts a Los Angeles car accident, the overturned car weighing down upon five victims, two of whom appear to still be alive despite the painting’s title alluding otherwise. Their haunting faces smudged dark with what is presumed to be blood, we in turn are haunted by the location of the other victims, which we can only distinguish through arms and legs trapped within the overturned car. Intensified by the glaring shade of orange Warhol has chosen, the image screams at us in alarm, yet we cannot look away, victims of our own morbid curiosity.
1. Burton, et al., Pop Art: Contemporary Perspectives, 103 (originally printed in East Village Other).
Perhaps the name most synonymous with Pop art is Andy Warhol. In his iconic creations, Warhol incorporated images of all kinds - newspaper photographs, consumer products and glamorous celebrities - drawing on the general public’s familiarity with popular culture and commodity goods. Consistent with many Pop artists, Warhol strove to remove the trace of his hand as artist by using mechanized reproduction methods, often having assistants perform the work for him. While Warhol’s famous photographic-silkscreen technique provided for an efficient means of image reproduction, his signature use of repetition also depersonalized and commoditized his work, likening it to the pre-packaged consumer goods and media images he painted.
After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the media blitz that ensued, Warhol created numerous portraits of his widow Jacqueline Kennedy in various configurations. The version displayed recently at the Museum of Contemporary Art is laid out in a horizontal panel, composed of images appropriated from media sources that have been cropped to focus on Jackie’s visage and colored in a brownish-bronze tint. Within the frieze, Warhol has juxtaposed photographs of Jackie taken both before and after her husband’s assassination, commingling her cult-like celebrity with her public grief. The flattened, monochromatic presentation of Jackie’s image drains some of the life from the painting, rendering it neither overly sensational nor completely empathetic. Though referencing a tragic assassination, Warhol’s repetitive presentation - similar to the mass media barrage he seems to be critiquing - numbs us to the horrific event and diminishes our reaction to it.
Doménikos Theotokópoulos, called El Greco, The Assumption of the Virgin, 1577/79, oil on canvas, 158 ¾ x 83 ¾ in. The Art Institute of Chicago
Greek by birth, late Mannerist/early Baroque artist Doménikos Theotokópoulos - given the name El Greco (The Greek) during his time in Italy and Spain - became one of the most renowned painters in 16th century Spain. Having spent time in both Venice and Rome and greatly inspired by the work of Titian and Tintoretto, El Greco developed a highly unique artistic style, merging Venetian color with the elongated, stylized elements of Mannerism. Settling finally in Toledo, Spain, El Greco concentrated on religious imagery, depicting Catholic themes such as saints, the sacraments, and the Virgin with intense emotion, well suited for Counter-Reformation efforts occurring at the time.
An oft-painted theme during this period, El Greco’s Assumption of the Virgin, commissioned for the high altar of the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, depicts the Catholic belief of the Virgin Mary being taken up to heaven at the end of her earthly life. El Greco has separated the picture space to portray two distinct realms - the confused apostles surrounding an empty grave on earth are separated by a field of clouds from the realm of heavenly glory, filled with serene angels hovering against a field of gold. The Virgin, clothed in traditional red and blue garments, rises on a crescent moon that symbolizes her purity, larger in scale than the other figures to indicate her ultimate place of importance within the scene.
El Greco has created a painting filled with nervous excitement and joyful exuberation intended to ignite religious fervor. There is nothing dark about this image, instead, El Greco uses a richly toned palette of bright colors to enliven the figures, filling the space with radiant energy. Twisting bodies and flowing, billowing garments create swirling movement and further activate the scene. We see the emotion on the highly individualized faces of the apostles which betray both amazement and confusion as they discuss this dramatic event, gesturing emphatically with hands uplifted, over hearts, and dramatically pointing to the skies. Above the ring of astounded apostles, angels float with wings aloft, hands folded in prayer or over their hearts, as their gazes focus on the rising Virgin whose arms are spread wide in eager anticipation.
Eugène Delacroix, Christ on the Sea of Galilee, ca. 1841, oil on canvas, 18 x 21 ½ in. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
A violent storm erupts on the sea, enveloping a boat full of men. Amidst the turmoil, only one appears calm - even more than calm, asleep - while the others flail about, helplessly thrashing at the storm. Here the famed battle between line and color is won with the latter - the figures are imprecise, even blurry in places, while the color of their garments - deep reds, purples and greens - distinguish the disciples from their resting Savior who is covered in light grayish-lavender robes. We see the emotions of the men contrasted with the rupture of the storm not through precisely drawn lines, but by colorful swirls entangled within billowing, cavernous emerald-green waves placed diagonally into the picture surface.
This painting owned by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art was sketched for a composition that Eugène Delacroix repeated in three different versions. Considered the preeminent French Romantic artist, Delacroix is renowned for work displaying passion and energy through use of emotive color rather than academic draftsmanship. His improvisational technique of developing a work instinctively rather than through deliberate study was influential on future Impressionists.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness, 1604-05, oil on canvas, 68 x 52 in. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
One of the most influential artists of all time, the work of Italian Baroque artist Caravaggio is still stunning to behold today. Rejecting the idealized figuration found in traditional religious art, Caravaggio brought religious painting down to earth by portraying saints and biblical figures in a realistic manner, modeling them after people found in the fields and streets around him. Though criticized for breaking with classical traditional in religious representation, Caravaggio gained recognition quickly, receiving many public and private commissions. His work, notable for displaying realism, violent contrast between light and dark, and use of perspective to draw viewers into the picture space is now instantly recognizable, and was profoundly influential throughout all of Europe.
St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness is a prized possession of the Nelson-Atkins museum of art in Kansas City, Missouri, and is breathtaking to behold. A large scale work, the painting consists of a simple subject placed in a simple setting, yet the dramatic painting instantly captivates the viewer. Most notable is Caravaggio’s characteristic use of tenebrism - heightened contrast of light and dark - wherein John the Baptist is enveloped within a dark shadow while a bright light shines down on him from above, placing the saint mostly in highlight but casting shadows across his torso and eyes. Though Caravaggio includes John the Baptist’s staff and animal hair covering, he eschews the traditional attributes of lamb and halo, choosing instead to wrap the saint within a billowing red garment, adding further drama to the image. Placing the contemplative saint directly at the front of the picture surface and casting him in brilliant highlight with contrasting dark shadows, the viewer is left with no action to witness, but rather emotion to contemplate.
Frans Floris, Study Head of a Bearded Man, c. 1565, oil on panel, 18 5/16 x 13 ¼ in. The Art Institute of Chicago
This portrait by Frans Floris is truly arresting, capturing my attention every time I pass by it in the halls of the Art Institute. A head study, possibly of Hercules or a figure from the Last Judgment, the painting conveys pure emotion through nothing more than the figure’s facial features. With eyes wrenched upward under strongly arched eyebrows, lips frozen in an almost painful grimace, and head raised toward the sky, we immediately sense the subject’s distress. The palpable texture and fine detail seen in the figure’s curling hair and beard, sunken cheeks and furry shoulder covering lend a sense of realism to the image, yet the viewer has no contextual understanding of the subject. We long to place the figure into a known setting and to visualize the mysterious outside forces creating his angst.
Flemish artist Frans Floris ran his own studio in Antwerp after returning from Italy and studying the works of Michelangelo and other High Renaissance masters. Credited as one of the Flemish artists who helped to assimilate Italian Renaissance concepts into the Netherlandish style, Floris is best known for large scale religious and mythological images produced for wealthy patrons. Yet as we see in this dramatic head study, Floris’s portrait work portraying strongly defined characters is also quite captivating.
Diego Velázquez, Kitchen Scene, 1618/20, oil on canvas, 21 ⅞ x 41 ⅛ in. The Art Institute of Chicago
Lauded for his masterful, fluid brushwork and true-to-life depictions, Diego Velázquez was a premier artist of the Spanish golden age. As court painter to King Philip IV, Velázquez spent the majority of his career producing portraits of the Spanish royal family and other European elites. This work from the Art Institute’s collection exemplifies Velázquez’s early career, in which he specialized in genre scenes with religious images often incorporated into the background.
Though a simple kitchen scene, Velázquez has rendered the image with great clarity of detail, from the folds of the woman’s head wrap to the weave of the baskets. Each vessel on the table has been carefully painted to convey their various textures - the smooth porcelain, the shiny pewter - while the use of modeling gives a life-like presence to the objects, as if we could reach out and touch them. Velázquez had studied the work of Caravaggio, whose influence is seen here - though he portrays an ordinary woman in a common, everyday setting, he presents her with dignity and grace.