N. L. Peschier, Vanitas, 1660, oil on canvas, 27 11/20 x 35 6/25 in. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Little is known of the work of N. L. Peschier other than his production of vanitas paintings, an example of which can be seen at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Appearing around the early 17th century, the term vanitas comes from Ecclesiastes 1:2, wherein the Hebrew phrase “vapor of vapors” is used to describe man’s insubstantiality.1 Highly popular in the Netherlands during the 1600s, Dutch vanitas still lifes displayed conflicting ideals. While luxurious material goods revealed Dutch pride in their prosperity, contrasting Calvinist ideals such as the eschewing of worldly goods were depicted by memento mori - symbolic images representing the transience of earthly life.
Instantly recognizable by the skull - a universal symbol of death - featured in the center of the painting, Peschier has scattered the imagery in his vanitas scene in a horizontal manner over a table draped with a heavy, luxurious purple cloth. The scene is quite jumbled - lying about the table are rolled up prints, sheet music and written documents from which hang a wax seal and behind which sits a large box into which more crumpled papers have been haphazardly strewn. On top of these documents we see a bag of coins, a quill and ink set, and an open lantern holding an unlit candle placed on the wall. Set within an indeterminate dark space, the scene is off-putting and bleak. The unlit candle hints at the fleetingness of life, while the coins symbolize material possessions taken away upon death. Musical sheets, prints and letters with wax seals remind us of the ephemerality of life itself by alluding to memory and the passage of time,2 the fleeting moments surely to be halted by the inevitable death residing in the skull.
Jacob van Ruisdael, The Bleaching Grounds near Haarlem, ca. 1670, oil on canvas, 21 9/10 x 26 17/20 in. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Renowned Dutch landscape artist Jacob van Ruisdael painted a variety of subjects, including mountain and woodland river scenes, waterfalls, beach views, seascapes, and winterscapes. A key figure in the classical phase of Dutch landscape painting, van Ruisdael’s work represented a shift away from the “tonal phase” of atmospheric landscapes, focusing instead on naturalism imbued with strong forms and a broader range of colors.
One of van Ruisdael’s Haarlempjes, or Little Views of Haarlem, Bleaching Grounds portrays a selection of Haarlem landmarks in front of which workers labor among bleaching grounds, a major industry in Haarlem at the time. Looking down from on high, the viewer is met with a low horizon line that allows for a soaring blue-grey sky and billowing clouds to occupy over two-thirds of the canvas, creating an expansive, open space. Enhancing the vastness of the space is the horizontality of the painting - the low hillside ridge comprising the horizon line spans the entire width of the painting, while the cluster of buildings and trees and white linen strips being bleached also follow the same horizontal path. Though we see two women resting on a hill at the far right forefront of the painting, the other figures in the scene are miniscule, visible only as tiny specks alongside the streaks of white linen, while the nearby buildings are dwarfed by the immense sky overhead. Though this “little view” of Haarlem features the labor of industry, van Ruisdael has filled the painting with a quiet sense of grandeur through its rich color and soaring sky.
Nicolas André Monsiau, Ulysses, after Returning to His Palace and Slaying Penelope’s Suitors, Orders the Women to Remove the Bodies, 1791, oil on canvas, 38 ⅗ x 76 ¾ in. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
When I first viewed Nicolas André Monsiau’s Ulysses, I could not help but think of Jacques-Louis David’s well-known Neoclassical masterpiece Oath of the Horatii, and perhaps given the fact that David was a fellow student with Monsiau in Rome, such a connection might seem reasonable. Upon further inspection, I realize what was really capturing my attention were similarities in the primary male subjects in both paintings. Both Ulysses and the Horatii brothers are placed left-of-center, with right legs forward in a powerful stance and right arms outreached in gesture, but though both scenes are placed within classical architectural settings with weeping women surrounding, there is considerably more action taking place within Ulysses.
Monsiau’s Neoclassical image presents a scene from Homer’s The Odyssey in which Ulysses, upon returning from the Trojan war to Ithaca after an absence of 19 years, discovers and slaughters the suitors who have been courting his wife Penelope and enjoying the wealth of his palace. Here we see Ulysses overseeing the disloyal palace women who are in a state of distress as they work to remove the suitors’ bodies before Ulysses kills them as well.
As if a scene sculpted on the frieze of an ancient Greek temple, Monsiau portrays intense drama, contrasting the strength and determination of Ulysses with the dead and disarrayed. As bodies of the victims lay strewn about in heaps, some with arrows protruding from their neck or chest, a few of the palace women are bent over the dead, while others kneel or prostrate themselves before Ulysses, begging for mercy. Monsiau continues the frenzy deep into the background and to the edges of the painting where figures are seen fleeing, one particular suitor on the far right no doubt destined to be met with Ulysses’s arrow. Further adding to the drama is the highlight in which Monsiau has placed Ulysses, fully illuminating his commanding presence, while defeated suitors and women lurk in shadow. Consistent with Neoclassical painting, Monsiau gives careful attention to the architectural characteristics of the palace as well as the classical period clothing, and imbues Ulysses with an overwhelming sense of strength and desire for retribution.
Henri-Joseph Harpignies, Moonlight, 1889, oil on canvas, 43 ¾ x 33 ½ in. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Henri-Joseph Harpignies is typically associated with the Barbizon School of French Realist painters working during the period 1830 - 1880. Rejecting neo-classical Academic tradition, these artists focused instead on creating realistic representations of nature within landscape settings. Here, Harpignies presents a serene landscape purely for our visual enjoyment, displaying a reverence for nature with no human presence to be seen. In this pristine, moonlit setting, lush, green brush occupies the foreground, while a central footpath leads our eye to the meeting point of a grouping of leafy, statuesque trees and a crystal-clear, silver lake surrounded by abundantly green, tree-filled mountains. Harpignies’s composition presents a strong verticality; the statuesque trees occupy nearly the entire length of the painting while their presence so near the foreground overshadows the mountains in the background which appear as mere blips in the distant landscape. The towering trees are the real subjects of this painting, carefully drawn leaves operating as character traits while branches reach out like arms, each tree possessing a personality of its own and giving voice to the essence and beauty of nature, as blanketed under a silvery, moonlit night.
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.