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Archive for the ‘Semiotics’ Category

It’s 1906.  Imagine these law-abiding citizens of Northern Europe, who dress well, behave politely and enjoy going to cultural events, like art exhibitions.  One Sunday afternoon they put on their hats and tell their coach man to take them to that new art exhibit in the hope of finding edification in high art.  They find themselves confronted by this.

André Derain was born near Paris in 1880.  He grew up in Victorian clutter, in rooms with flowered wallpaper; velvet tasseled curtains; heavy carved furniture; and gilded this and that.  His family was comfortably middle class. He had the means to travel.  When he came back from a trip to London, his family and friends must have eagerly awaited nice touristy paintings, like scenic post cards. Instead, he had this to show.

In 1906 nobody knew that this was the art of the future and that 100+ years later  people like us would paint our walls white so that nothing would distract us from contemplating the painting.

The critic Louis Vauxcelles called these artists –Derain, Matisse and Vlaminck—“Les Fauves,” which means “the wild beasts.”   To be called a wild beast was pretty close to being called an idiot.

Imagine what it took to paint like this at that time.  That’s all, just imagine that.

The Fauvist painters:

André Derain, 1880-1954

Henri Matisse, 1869-1954

Maurice de Vlaminck, 1876-1958

P.S.  Some of our contemporaries now want to make a quick buck by teaching you a formula: “How to paint Fauvist style.”  Such trash!   You can find this mindless how-to on Pinterest, for example.

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Even as a child, Soulage says, he liked black because it made the rest of the paper look all the more white.

When he was sixty, his paintings became all black, a black he calls outrenoir, which translates roughly as “beyond black.”

He doesn’t think of himself as painting with black paint, but with light.  The light reflects off the thick, textured black paint and that is what you see.  “I made these because I found that the light reflected by the black surface elicits certain emotions in me. These aren’t monochromes. The fact that light can come from the color which is supposedly the absence of light is already quite moving, and it is interesting to see how this happens.”

He was born December 24, 1919.  Approaching 101, he says he’s looking forward to more ideas to come to him.

The Musée Soulage, in Rodez , Southern France,  is devoted to his work.

 

 

I recommend the following links for more images of his work and of interviews with him:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gw7tkgVnRTw

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azb6K-R_q8M

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylZGz3NuidA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eydws5jJ6ys

https://www.google.com/search?q=pierre%20soulages&tbm=isch&tbs=rimg:CR8aTYMxIqhvYaEYr1reAWak&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CBsQuIIBahcKEwjQo_2WloPtAhUAAAAAHQAAAAAQFw&biw=1294&bih=836#imgrc=R9rQFXyA7wEFTM&imgdii=4-kpwBo3-mMrfM

https://www.google.com/search?sxsrf=ALeKk01-AFktcIGO9n0dcMT9GRy-irtSdw:1605223481914&source=univ&tbm=isch&q=pierre+soulages&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj3oLK7k_7sAhVSgK0KHVh7AGIQiR56BAgPEBA&biw=1378&bih=836#imgrc=Tj_-pYUAPfkJYM&imgdii=AM1Kn5-I38wLFM

 

Two days ago I was reminded of Pierre Soulage when I took the photo posted as “Not Levitating.”  When I framed the shot I saw the uncanny light that was coming through the front doors glass panel in late afternoon.  On the photo, which is unedited, the light “column” at the left appears so substantial that its weight equals that of the blue sphere, which would otherwise have to dominant the composition.

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/11/12/not-levitating/

 

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Time to watch “Blow Up” again.

 

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If you plowed through those two pages from Fairfield Porter (in the last post), you noticed that his thinking has peaks of clarity and ruts of generalizations.

He says, the new American painting is “more accurately called non-objective than abstract.” That’s a peak. It’s a good distinction.  Whenever we hear painting described as “abstract” we should translate that as “non-objective.”  Thank you, Fairfield.

Then, on the second page, we have “art does not stand for something outside itself.”  That’s another peak.  Oh, thank you, thank you, Mr. Porter!!!!

The rest of that page is erudite theorizing that must have pleased his publisher.  This new non-objective art was shocking enough; the critical language had to break it gently to the public.    After all, everybody assumed that art had to represent something. It was a cultural given that it would be absurd to look at art that was so presumptuous as to stand on its own.  It took a while for the shock of the new to wear off.  But the shock did gradually dampen down and now Artspeak unabashedly talks about art as it is.

Here’s a review, chosen randomly, from last September’s Art in America.

The whole review describes the physical materials and how they were placed in the exhibit space. There’s no mention of symbolism, historical references or why anybody should go see this.

Yes, indeed, art does not stand for something outside itself, as Fairfield Porter said sixty years ago.  But I wonder if he would find this installation too challenging to look at. Too absurd?  Too hard to pay attention to?

Paying attention!  That’s the key. Paying attention to what’s actually in front of you is not so easy.

In the next few posts, let’s zoom in on this problem of paying attention. How hard can that be!? For example, if I say this image is art, can I say it does not stand for something outside itself?  That is, how hard can it be to pay attention to this image–as image?

 

 

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/10/27/artspeak-then/

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We’ve met Fairfield Porter (1907-1975)  before, back in August:

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/08/30/fairfield-porter-and-your-interesting-junk-mail/

Surprisingly, while he was a hugely successful painter, Porter thought of himself primarily as an art critic.  His criticism was featured in Art Journal, which was started in 1941.  The book,  Art in its Own Terms, is a selection of his critical writings, edited by the itchingly named Rackstraw Downes. I scratched around in these pages and found some insights about Artspeak, then and now.

In the 1940’s New York Abstract Expressionism had hit America’s culture fan with shocking force. It must have felt like a threat to common decency, meaning American decency. In 1959, for example, the popular, middle-brow Life Magazine called Jackson Pollack “Jack the Dripper.” But fairly high-brow readers were also puzzled. These were the cultured-and-curious who would have read Art Journal to find some guiding thread through this new art mess.

Who better for the job than someone who knew art from within, a painter who could convincingly use the word “soul” and still could articulate his way through the maze of these new art-isms.

I imagine that if you could memorize a few of Porter’s sentences and quote them at the next cocktail party (it was the 50’s), you would be assured that you looked as smart as your suede pumps.

Who could challenge a quote like, “Polish artists admire American painting, and Russian art circles take time to express disapproval”?  If you said “Picasso derives from Toulouse-Lautrec,” would the hostess whip out a screen and a Kodak Carousel complete with relevant slides so that you could demonstrate exactly what you were talking about?  She would not. She would pour you more champagne, darling, aren’t you clever.

Was Porter ever asked to give a slide show at the 92nd Street Y to illuminate his generalities?  Today he would be asked. Today he would be expected to present split screen comparisons and be specific about what he was comparing to what.  By the time of the Q&A people would have fact-checked his historical claims and editorial generalities.

Here’s a split screen for the claim that Picasso derives from Toulouse-Lautrec.  He would have some splainin’ to do, wouldn’t he.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1864-1901

Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973

Fairfield Porter, 1907-1975

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This article appeared in The Conversation on October 9, 2020. The author is Sally Hickson, Associate Professor, Art History, University of Guelph 

After this week’s vice-presidential debate in the United States, the fly that landed on Vice-President Mike Pence’s head was more of a sensation than the details of the debate — at least on social media. The fly has already been immortalized as a Biden/Harris fly swatter (sorry, they’re all sold out) and sparked a Halloween costume.

In many circumstances, flies are unremarkable. That’s probably why a French word for spy is connected to the same word for fly, mouche. When a fly becomes famous, it’s worth wondering why.

Flies have long held symbolic meaning in the history of art. In portraits made in Renaissance Europe, the presence of a fly symbolizes the transience of human life (buzzbuzzpfft!). In the great scheme of things, our lives are no longer than that of a fly. For me as an art historian, the fly was a moment to reflect not only on the history of flies in western painting, but to begin considering what the long history of this symbolism may reveal about why the fly generated so much buzz.

Humility, impermanence, illusion

Take, for example, an extraordinary little painting known today as Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family, painted in about 1470 by an artist from the German (Swabian) School, now in the National Gallery in London. Her elaborate white head covering highlights a perfect little fly, that’s settled on her just to remind us that our life, like hers, is impermanent.

The corollary is that we’re supposed to do the best we can with the time we’ve got. When it comes to time and eternity, as painter and poet William Blake wrote: “Am not I / A fly like thee? / Or art not thou / A man like me?” The fly is a little reminder of humility.

Painters could also include a fly to draw attention to themselves, demonstrating with their “trompe-l’oeil” (deceiving the eye) tricks that they could paint in a manner that seemed so real, a viewer of the portrait would be tempted to try to swat the fly away. The 16th-century Italian painter Giorgio Vasari, biographer of Italian Renaissance artists, tells a story about the painter Giotto fooling his teacher Cimabue by adding a realistic-looking fly to a painting.

Salvador Dalí, who was pretty much the lord of the flies (he painted them a lot) included a fly on the watch face of his painting The Persistence of Memory (now housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York). He also used an army of ants to signify the decay of time and life’s impermanence.

All is not what it appears

Portrait of a Carthusian, the most famous portrait featuring a fly, now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, was painted by Petrus Christus in 1446. It depicts a bearded monk. The fly perched on the ledge in front of him signifies we’re entering a zone where all is not what it appears: we might say that what seems real is only an illusion. Or, perhaps the artist has enhanced “the quality of the subject’s ‘real’ presence by the fly resting momentarily on the fictive frame,” according to the museum.

 

Entomologist Ron Cherry has explored how insects have long-standing mythological associations with death. In Renaissance thought, which tended to blend medieval fabulist tales about nature with ideas about religion, flies were considered to represent supernatural power, mostly associated with evil and corruption, because they seemed to be spontaneously born from decaying fruit and rotting organic matter.

In the book of Exodus in the Bible, God mustered swarms of flies as punishment. They were harbingers of worse things, like pestilence and death. That’s a lot of deliverables for a bunch of tiny flies.

The point is that flies still remind us of unpleasant things, or as commentator David Frum noted, unpleasant things in a presidency we’d rather ignore — which is why, I suspect, given the administration’s record, some people found it so delightful.

________________________________________________________________________________________

The Conversation is a network of not-for-profit media outlets that publish news stories written by academics and researchers.

Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family,’ c. 1470, by an artist from the German (Swabian) School. (Wikimedia Commons), CC BY

Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, 1931. Museum of Modern Art, New York City

‘Portrait of a Carthusian’ (1446), by Petrus Christus, oil on wood. Held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Wikimedia Commons), CC BY

Original article by Sally Hickson:   https://theconversation.com/mike-pences-fly-from-renaissance-portraits-to-salvador-dali-artists-used-flies-to-make-a-point-about-appearances-147815

SNL: Fly Debate:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xI_lxFv203I&list=PLS_gQd8UB-hLlAHDdSUdIYLjk9WCDnjWx

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Conversation_(website)

 

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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Alain de Botton published this book in 2006. His prose can be purple and dense.  You’ll be inclined to read slowly and thoughtfully.  That’s a good thing because you’ll want to reflect on our built environment.  How does the space you live in effect you—your view of life and your  imagination?

I recommend you savor the book at your own pace whenever you get to it, but watch the three episodes that he narrates on you tube—as soon as possible:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80fb7Lt0z58

Why the urgency and why now? Simply put, because we go for walks now.  It’s nice to head for the woods, but it’s also stimulating to walk through the half deserted streets of our towns.  Alain de Botton will nudge you to observe and question why buildings are the way they are.  Do the buildings you encounter and the spaces you enter make you feel happy, optimistic, resourceful, energetic?  Or, do you feel, ermm, locked down?

 

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A banana in a grocery store is an excellent source of potassium.  You go to the grocery store for practical reasons. You evaluate the displayed fruits and vegetables according to how they will benefit your body.  You pay money for things that will impact your life and improve it immediately.

A banana taped to a  museum wall is a mind game.

You go to the museum for no practical reason at all.  The entrance you pay at a museum doesn’t get you anything.  Why on earth would you go to such a place?!  You go precisely because you feel it’s time for a mind game.  You want to have your brain scrambled.  Name a piece of art that didn’t have that effect on you!

Correction:  Name a piece of MODERN Art that wasn’t a mind game. That’s because art since the middle of the 19th century has engaged the viewer in the literal sense of that word,   meaning involve.  Meaning you have to think about it, to puzzle it out.

Engaging with Modern Art means identifying your assumptions and expectations.  That takes practice.

You don’t even have to go to a museum to practice that, you can do it anywhere, with anything.  Right now, for example.  Go to your kitchen and look at a banana and at the assumptions you have in your head about its characteristics, like the color yellow.

Becoming aware of your assumptions and expectations is actually easier in a museum than in your kitchen. That’s because in the museum the objects are already taken out of their normal, habitual context.  A banana taped to a museum wall is a mind game if you stare down your assumptions about what’s supposed to be on museum walls and what art is supposed to be.

If you think museums should show this…

and this…

and this…

…you’re also being asked to play mind games.  You may think that ancient images are more real and therefore not mind games.  But that’s because we tend to be in awe of very old objects, whether coins, pottery, murals, inscriptions, monuments or paintings.  Even in their own day, they already were mind games.

Actually, you don’t have to think about anything.  But what’s the fun in that?

 

I recommend this article:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/18/arts/design/banana-art-guggenheim.html

 

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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Nighthawks1942

Film noir is defined as “a style or genre of cinematographic film marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace.”

The central characters in film noir are often gangsters, detectives and a femme fatale.

Hopper’s paintings are also characterized by “a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace.”

Nighthawks, 1942, is his most famous painting.  (The Art Institute of Chicago snatched it up as soon as its paint was dry and it is, along with Grant Wood’s American Gothic, one of the reasons people go to the AI.)

It’s not a Norman Rockwell family scene, is it?  Two guys in fedoras and a skinny redhead in a red dress, smokin’ and drinkin’ coffee way past midnight.  What kind of characters are these?  A gangster, a gum shoe and a dame?  Sounds about right to me.

Film noir drew them in from the late 20’ to the 50’s.  The look of the genre became stylized and predictable. When any art is worked out according to a formula, it can only crank out material for so long before it invites satire and parody.

As does Hopper:

phillies-painting-27

03fbc247247b76de3b6a646fe4816fe4

af5fc1753f3fbc93455b99282aa6bbbf--edward-hopper-funny-art

2810074_orig

Ten years after Nighthawk, Edward Hopper was still working with his wooden, predictable formula.  Here’s Morning Sun from 1952 and a parody I gleaned from the internet.

MorningSun195285732094539607.5e81bc9d26d57

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film_noir

 

https://www.google.com/search?sa=X&sxsrf=ALeKk00bTzmOgQZ5Yx88JNsnDKd–FkCjQ:1598208829948&q=Nighthawks+(painting)&stick=H4sIAAAAAAAAAONgFuLQz9U3yEg2LlHiBLHMDHPNM7SUspOt9Msyi0sTc-ITi0qQmJnFJVbl-UXZxY8YY7kFXv64JywVMmnNyWuMflxEaBJS4WJzzSvJLKkUkuLikYLbrcEgxcUF51kxaTDxLGIV9ctMzyjJSCzPLlbQKEjMBOrLS9cEABz2VzCzAAAA&npsic=0&tbs=kac:1,kac_so:0&ved=2ahUKEwj_xNfs_7HrAhWWLs0KHcusC0AQ-BYwJHoECB8QLg

 

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  HopperDrawing2

The Indianapolis Museum of Art (“Newfields’) reopened on July 17th with an exhibit about Edward Hopper.

I am glad the curators included some of his drawings because they present the most lively work in this show.

The above drawing is dated in the 1950’s.  It may have been a study for the painting “People in the Sun,” 1960.

What fascinates me is that the drawing is lively and energetic, while the painting is, well, dead.

Hopper’s mind as he contemplated a man in a lawn chair looking over a desolate landscape was nevertheless agitated. We don’t know by what–memories or necessary imminent decisions or shocking insights.  It’s an agitated drawing scribbled out in a frenzy of concentration, took maybe all of five minutes.

But the painting looks like sheer drudgery, as if he just wanted to get it done and be finished with it.

Sunning

If the artist intended to satirize the alienation of modern life,  he failed.  I think, the image fails as satire because it lacks wit.

We instantly recognize it as a Hopper because human forms are part of the geometry of the composition.

Let that be my introduction to Edward Hopper at the IMA.  You can tell that I have issues with this show and with the interpretation of this artist.

So far we have some key concepts: agitation, alienation, drudgery, modern life, geometry, human form,  satire and wit.

Stay tuned.

 

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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