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.
Louise Nevelson, End of Day Nightscape II, 1973, painted wood, 65 ½ x 58 x 3 in. Portland Art Museum
Calling herself the original recycler, sculptor, printmaker and draughtswoman Louise Nevelson made an art of out amassing and assembling used and discarded wooden objects, transforming common refuse into dream-like sculpture. Having studied at the Art Students League in New York and later under Hans Hofmann, Cubism, Surrealism and collage were profound impacts on her artistic development, as were elements of African, American Indian and Pre-Columbian art.1 Nevelson’s mature style - assemblages in which she combined and compartmentalized found wooden objects into grid-like structures, painted at first all black, later all white or gold - are instantly recognizable today. During the height of her career, Nevelson filled entire rooms with her large-scale assemblages, creating mystical, dream-like environments that enveloped viewers and transported them to a mysterious, imaginary place.
Characteristic of her signature style, End of Day Nightscape II is composed of found wooden objects such as rings, wedges and blocks encased within a rectangular frame. An expansion of the minimalist grid, Nevelson has allocated portions of the interior space to larger open rectangles, while other areas have been segmented into smaller openings filled with geometric elements. Through careful placement and repetition of the smaller, geometric parts, Nevelson elicits the feeling of structured order and has enhanced it by painting the entire sculpture black, uniting the elements into a cohesive unit and disguising their found object lineage. We are told Nevelson took inspiration from the art of the North Americans and the Maya, and indeed, one can envision Nevelson’s forms as the geometric glyphs found on ancient relief sculpture, shrouded in mystery and dark as the night.
Double Vision Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, 1871-72, oil on canvas, 34 7/16 x 27 ¼ in. (predella 10 ⅖ x 27 ⅕ in.) The Art Institute of Chicago
An admirer of the work of Dante Alighieri, Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti not only translated some of the Florentine poet’s works, but also used them as subject matter for a number of his paintings. Perhaps one of the most famous of these is Beata Beatrix, which, while portraying Dante’s great love Beatrice written about in Vita Nuova, also pays tribute to Rossetti’s beloved late wife Lizzie Siddal, who had committed suicide following the stillborn death of their first child. Just as Beatrice represented Dante’s idealized love separated from him by death, so also was Siddal portrayed as Rossetti’s perfect love, tragically separated from him, hovering at the void between life and death.
Here, while Beatrice sits with hands folded and head uplifted awaiting death, her face betrays not fear but tranquility as she graciously accepts poppies from a red dove. Behind her, Dante gazes at a personified version of Love - within whose hand Beatrice’s fading life flickers as flame - the figures placed in a setting of green trees. While a sundial is placed prominently in the middle ground, the Ponte Vecchio is seen far off in the background, exuding a bright, golden glow. Concentrating the color palette in complementary reds and greens, Rossetti further envelopes the figures in a dream-like haze with blurred, fuzzy brush strokes. This replica owned by the Art Institute of Chicago is the only version that includes the small predella underneath, in which Rossetti has portrayed Dante and Beatrice’s joyful reunion in a blooming, lush vision of the Garden of Eden.
As were many of his paintings, Beata Beatrix is awash with symbolism, the explanations for which I have relied upon information provided by the Tate Modern, owner of the original painting upon which the Art Institute’s replica was based. The dove - an omen of death, but also Rossetti’s pet name for Siddal - holds opium poppies symbolizing not only sleep, dreaming and death but also the laudanum Siddal used to take her own life. The dove and garments of Beatrice and the Angel have been painted red to signify love, while the green hues are representative of hope and sorrow. The sundial is set to nine, which, as written by Rossetti, was a number Dante connected mystically with Beatrice and her death. Rossetti has commingled references to Dante’s text as well as allusions to his own beloved wife, creating a mystical tribute that, rather than mourning Siddal, glorifies her as a vision of perfect love.