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         Cézanne, Le Bassin du Jas de Bouffan, c. 1876

Last year’s  October 8 issue of the London Review of Books published a long  (just under 9,000 words) article by the art historian T.J. Clark, who has taught at British universities as well as at the University of California, L.A.

I am reproducing one of the seven pages to give you an idea of the tone of this piece. (Click image for readable enlargement)  For those of you who can’t get enough of this kind of hand-waving erudition, here’s the whole article:

https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n19/t.j.-clark/strange-apprentice

I do recommend reading it in its entirety if you are interested in how various scholars have dated some paintings, how Pissaro and Cézanne worked together and how blind Clark is to what’s happening in these paintings. 

He is only interested in that pre-modern obsession with the “quality of light:” Cézanne has pinned down a particular kind of light here—sometimes I feel in the painting even a specific time of day, an early evening transparency answering back to Le Champ  de choux’s thickening and diffusion.

Cézanne is the grand-daddy of modern painting. You’re being absurd and blind if you claim that he and his progeny in modernism—Picasso, Braque, Matisse et al– were interested in “pinning down a particular kind of light.”

So I submitted a letter to the LRB and got a reply saying they were considering printing it.  But they didn’t.  Clark’s long piece did not get the attention of any printed letter at all.

Here, then, is the letter I submitted:

If you want to rhapsodize about light in a painting then you can persuade yourself that the quality of light in Jas de Bouffan is what it’s all about.  But look again and notice how Cézanne fools you.

If he were interested in painting a landscape, he would give us perspective with distant objects hazy and more faded than close up objects. Instead, the green stripes of the field are uniformly green, from close to far up on the hill. Don’t just say, ah landscape, look more critically. Start by admitting that the reflection in the basin is laughable.  The reflection of the house on the hill cannot occur at the edge of the basin.  The reflection of the windows does not relate to the windows on the actual house.  Where’s the chimney in the reflection?  Where’s the sloping shed roof?  The little tree in front of that little shed?  For that matter, those large blocks close to the water’s edge would have to reflect in the basin.

I don’t know what T.J.Clark means by “Modernity is loss of world.”  No world is lost in Cézanne, any more than a world is lost when a magician banters your ears full as he does the rope trick while manipulating your expectations.  Jas de Bouffan is a landscape– what else could it be?– but it’s also a banter of colors in a rectangle that manipulates your expectations.  You accept what’s happening in the basin because you’re sentimental about reflections in water.

He places that slender gray tree exactly in the middle. On the top it’s exactly in the middle, then it curves a little.  The reflection is made with the same gray so that the canvas is divided in half, from top to bottom, by this even gray brush stroke.  This gray brush stroke intersects the horizontal  ruler-straight line of the basin’s edge.  Notice how your eye keeps coming back to this intersection, which functions like cross hairs to focus your attention.  Nice.  Your brain likes this clarity in the context of all this hand waiving.  He situates these cross-hairs in the lower part of the canvas, which is where we expect the foreground to be. Voila! I give you a foreground and therefore the upper section must be farther away and you, dear viewer, are happy that this landscape has depth.

Using the same technique, Cézanne persuades us of a foreground in Maison et arbre. (See below)  The “precipitous road and front lawn to the left,” which looks so awkward, serves the same function as the cross hairs of tree-and-basin-edge in Jas de Bouffan. This crude geometry is also in the lower part of the landscape and is also clearly delineated.  Your attention can’t help but land on and linger in that lower left corner.  Location and delineation tell you, this is the foreground.  The green and orange fields to the right of the house are not fading into the distance—as you’d expect—but still they read as distant because the lower left corner of the road and the lawn shouts “foreground.”  Again, you accept this banter of flat rectangles and triangles. You want to believe that this is a landscape with foreground, middle-ground  and  background.  So that’s what you see.

Picasso and Braque called Cézanne their father not because of any atmospherics of light but because the canvases he filled with brushstrokes captivated attention in this new way.

When Cézanne in his 20’s lived in Paris he submitted paintings to the Salon, knowing full well he would be rejected. He did this over and over.  It’s fair to assume that rejection strengthened his resolve to find some new way of relating to a canvas.

Later in Aix, when he sat on the grass and watched Pissaro painting, let’s imagine him muttering in his curmudgeonly way,  “Merde, time of day and light effects…blabla…there must be more to painting than this.”

Cézanne, Maison et arbre, 1874

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This painting by Oskar Kokoschka leads you to guess that the flowers might be Black Eyed Susan, Delphinium and Hedge Rose. But you’re not likely to insist on botanical precision.  The painting tells you right away, at first glance, that this is not about illustration.  You know that walking up to it, so that you could study the flowers at close range with your nose almost touching, will not reward you with botanical details.

The reason you know that is because you recognize it as a modern painting. The closer you look at a modern painting, the less detail you get.

Now look at an 18th century painting. This portrait must have pleased the uniformed sitter because it documented not only his smooth features but also his elevated social class:  he could afford to pay someone to do mind-numbing meticulous work.

Notice that the close-up gives you details, ermmm, submissively fussed-over details.  This, to the modern sensibility, is lifeless.  When you look at this, do you feel…confined?

 

Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980).  Blumenstillleben, 1959, oil on canvas, 89cm x 70 cm

Jean Baptist Lampi the Younger. “Daniel Mecséy de Tsoor ( 1759-1823),  oil on canvas 112x91cm.

 

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Before we look at #6 in this series of still life studies, let’s first take some time to wallow in the concept of “incompletion.”  We’ve just encountered this concept in all of these five studies and, going back a few months, you recall, we looked at a series of drawings based on Gainsborough, also in the context of incompletion:

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/09/07/markmaking-with-gainsborough/

Now, here’s a drawing by the Austrian artist Egon Schiele (1890-1918), a superb and prolific draftsman.

The shoulder and bodice are left incomplete. We can be sure that he left the drawing “incomplete” on purpose. He was part of the avant-garde, called Sezession, in Vienna at the turn of that century.  This feeling of incompletion is central to the modern sensibility, which comes out of romanticism.

If you’re yawning at this point, I thank you, because it means that you GET modernism. No need to dissect its concepts.

So then, why bring this up?  I bring it up because students inevitably admire incompletion in famous artist’s work, finding the incompletion energetic and engaging, but they dismiss their own work because, well, “it’s not finished.”

Why do you admire a quality in a famous drawing, but reject the same quality in your own drawing.  Are you willing to look at this?  Yes, you are.

Egon Schiele’s,  Mädchenporträt (Hilde Ziegler), about 18” high. Dated 1918, the year he died in the influenza pandemic.  Recently discovered, it sold at auction in Vienna’s im Kinsky, 2012, for $304,000.

 

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/05/12/still-life-with-peaches-pear-and-cup-1/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/05/13/still-life-with-peaches-pear-and-cup-2/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/05/14/still-life-with-peaches-pear-and-cup-3/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/05/15/still-life-with-peaches-pear-and-cup-4/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/05/16/still-life-with-peaches-pear-and-cup-5/

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

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16septdanstilllife

Dan Goffman never likes his work. He can see that his drawings are not realistic.

But I’m fascinated by it. Could that be because I’m a modernist.  I respond to composition.  Realism?  Not so much.

Ten years ago Dan Goffman suffered a stroke which resulted in partial paralysis and aphasia.  He’s a historian and author with a long scholarly bibliography. Drawing was suggested as therapy and now he draws every day.  I have his permission to show and talk about his work.  “If I hadn’t had the stroke, I wouldn’t have discovered that I can draw,” he says with wry humor.

20160922_144150What you see in this drawing is far from a depiction of objects on a table.  You throw away the realism check-list and instead your eye wanders through this pattern of shapes, textures and negative spaces.  Of all the things he could have focused on, he chose these shapes from the still life set up on the table. They sit on the page with an uncanny sense of rightness, balance and economy. Any concern about “realism” or more “detail” would have ruined the drawing. Do we need the three-dimensionality of the oranges and that bowl?  No.  The ellipse in the upper right corner is enough.  Notice how your eye briefly rests there and then keeps moving through the composition.

Drawing by Dan Goffman, graphite on paper, 30” x 22”

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2016/10/08/reading-a-shape/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2016/10/08/how-it-sits-on-the-page/

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icongaragemoma

This garage is directly across the street from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  Not knowing that Icon is the name of a NY garage chain, I thought it was a clever name for a MoMA garage. MoMA houses major “Icons of Modernism” and isn’t that an oxymoron.   I pictured the parking guys in blue Icon uniforms with their first names embroidered over the breast pockets discussing how Picasso, Braque and Matisse et al had been exerting themselves to produce images that negated all that iconic stuff they’d been brought up with and now, here in this MoMA building were their once outrageous paintings, all gaped at with touristy awe because, well, because now they’re Icons. One of the guys in this garage conversation about semiotics and art history likes to say, that deserves to be deconstructed.  Or so I imagined.

The word icon comes from the Greek, meaning image.  The term was first used for depictions of the central characters of Christian mythology that confronted the faithful with severe, staring authority.

iconpantokrator13cent

In the early Christian church there were opposing views on whether these images should even be allowed, since they posed the czestochowskatemptation for the faithful to fall into idolatry.  That idolatry won out is suggested by the fact that some of these old icons draw pilgrims to their site, as for example, the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, one of the national symbols of Poland. Such an image is commonly called “sacred icon.”

If you don’t get it, you’re not one of us.

 

That’s nice to know, you say, a little history never hurts, but we’re in the 21st and icons are about the internet. So you type in “icon” and you get a site, https://icons8.com/web-app/,  that gives you mouse-5033,600 icons including this, which you recognize instantly.

The communication is one-dimensional and unambiguous. Recognizing the icon puts you in the In-group. If you don’t get it, you’re not one of us.

Now back to the MoMA. This is Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907.  It’s called an “icon of modernism.”  The people standing around it have seen it in reproductions, but they’ve come here to be with it in person.

posingpicassoavignon2

Are they pilgrims. Is this a sacred site?

To be instantly recognizable is the same as to be famous. Did the tourists travel here to see something famous? By being with this famous object are they participating in its fame?  Is fame something intrinsic in that canvas and does fame radiate out so that those close by can absorb some of it?

If you don’t get it, you’re not one of us.

Maybe the designation “icon” does apply equally to the Byzantine deity, the mouse and the 1907 Picasso, the common denominator being fame, which separates the in-group from the out.

Funny how that boundary can shift.

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2014/12/23/les-demoiselles-davignon/

uffizitourists

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15SunflowerThey tend to droop and get weighed down by lunching squirrels. I cut down the tallest sunflower in my garden and brought it to drawing class. As a still life subject the tired sunflower offers lots of issues to work on: negative space, dynamic composition and the opportunity to practice energetic markmaking. But the greatest of these, hmm, is the problem of wanting to draw a flower as a flower, meaning pleasing and pretty. It’s a glorious, assertive flower. But, alas, it’s dying.
The glorious and assertive, but dying VanGoghSunflowers2sunflower must have touched a nerve in Van Gogh. He painted it, many times, in all its raggedness and made it famous. You can’t go to the farmers market in early fall and  not sigh ah-look-so-Van Gogh.
Twenty years later, Egon Schiele also fell for its decadent charm, celebrating decay even more than Vincent had done.  EgonSchieleSunflowers1
EgonSchieleSunflowers2The two decades bracketing the year 1900 brought great cultural change. The 19th century was giving way to the inventions of modernism in every field you can think of, in the sciences and the arts. It was an exciting time to be alive and alert.
In Van Gogh’s Sunflowers we see the decaying half of the change.

In Schiele’s Sunflowers we see vitality and strength, in the midst of decay.

One student in the drawing class worked in a technique that held maximum potential to convey the dynamism of the dying sunflower. It’s a difficult subject, technically and emotionally.

LizzySunflower
Drawing by Elizabeth Mendoza, China Marker on gloss paper, 14 x 11
Vincent VanGogh, 1853-1890
Egon Schiele, 1880-1918
StillLifeSunflower2All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.
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In 1910 in an ornate little church in Borja, a village in northeastern Spain,  a local painter named  Elias García Martínez filled a narrow white wall space with a little fresco called “Ecce Homo.”  It shows a scroll on which the suffering thorn-crowned Jesus-head is turning its eyes skyward.  Over the years the fresco deteriorated and Mrs. Cecilia Giménez (below), with the permission of the priest, set out to restore it to its original, of which she had a photo to work from.

The news broke last Friday and over the weekend little Borja was overrun with hundreds of tourists who were eager to see what was universally called a “botched restoration.”   One tourist, interviewed on Spanish TV, said that the original was nice, but this she really likes.

Now what?  What can the church and the town do?

1) Paint over the fresco with white paint and forget about it.

2) Hire a competent painter to duplicate the original and forget about the temporary embarrassment.

3) Leave it as it is now, the “botched restoration,” the “monkey face.”

The first two options seem to be out.  The organizer of the town’s patron festival is already happy about the new fame of Borja.  On the web, 18,000 people have signed a petition stating that the fresco should stay as it is now. A Facebook page, called “Señoras que restauran Cristos de Borja” has 38,874 fans and 58,048 followers (as of this writing), many of whom have created their own versions of the fresco. Here’s one, inspired by Rafael.  For more,  see https://www.facebook.com/SenorasQueRestauranCristosDeBorja

Let’s consider option #3.  The face as it is now is a confrontation with modernism.  The modern mind is rooted in the 17th century, when Leeuwenhoek first saw microbes through his microscope’s lens, Montaigne (a little earlier)  introspected and doubted, Descartes doubted himself to exhaustion and John Mill studied various translations of the Bible and said, whoa, we have 30,000 problems here. To name just a few of the people who showed us that things are not what they appear to be and that the mind makes stuff up.

Mrs. Giménez, in her mid-80’s, is now world famous.  She is notorious.  How could she do such a thing?  She’s apparently surprised at the results of her effort.  Is she crazy? Couldn’t she see what she was doing?  She may be asked to have her head examined and her introspection and free-associations would be interesting, but not as interesting as the FACT that we now have this image she made up.

That’s what’s important:  she made it up.  And another thing: the original fresco from 1910 by whatshisname was also made up.   Let’s see, what else can we name that’s been made up:  Michelangelo’s David, Michelangelo’s Adam, Rafael’s madonnas, Leonaro’s Last Supper;  Klimt’s Kiss, Munch’s Scream;   Egyptians invented Isis and Osiris, the Greeks invented Zeus and Athena, and so on and so forth.

The human imagination makes stuff up. You won’t find that statement anywhere in the 12th century.  The clerics who are ringing their hands over this fresco problem haven’t traveled through the 17th century to the beginning of the 20th, when Picasso and others blew the roof off our skulls.

When Picasso painted Gertrude Stein 1905 and 1906, she sat for him an estimated eighty-plus times.  Towards the end of 1906 he got stuck, dissatisfied with how he had painted the face.  We can only wish we had a documentation of that stage of the work. (We know Picasso owned a camera.)  In the fall of 1906 he went to Spain and when he came back he painted over the face. Giving into his fascination with African, Oceanic and early Iberian art, he now turned Gertrude’s face into a mask.  In other words, he invented.  He made it up.  We look at this painting at the Met and think it looks like Gertrude Stein—after all, that’s the title on the wall label—but at the same time we know IT’S ALL MADE UP.  It’s this awareness that makes us modern.

Picasso would have loved this “botched restoration.”

Sources:http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/24/world/europe/botched-restoration-of-ecce-homo-fresco-shocks-spain.html?hp

https://www.google.com/#q=Borja+Fresco+site:youtube.com&sa=X&ei=Gog_ULqbHI7W9QT_m4GgBg&ved=0CDsQ2wE&hl=en&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_qf.&fp=6c862fd85693d052&biw=1012&bih=589

http://www.spiegel.de/reise/europa/jesus-fresko-in-borja-stuemper-kunstwerk-zieht-hunderte-touristen-an-a-852168.htmlhttps://www.facebook.com/SenorasQueRestauranCristosDeBorja

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Traditionally, flowers are a sentimental subject in art.  The perfume of the cliché hangs over them. The viewer’s mind goes soft.  Oh, how pretty!  Oh, how boring.

Still, there it is, a luscious amaryllis.  It helps, of course, that it’s presented with a twist: just plopped down on this heap of cloth with the plastic stem coiling and creasing, like a cheap garden hose.   This is good for the imagination.

In her drawing,  Maggy S. is working in china marker on gloss paper, about 14 x 11. On gloss paper the china marker can be scraped off with a razor blade, but only to a limited extent, making for a pretty focused drawing process.

The artist puts down the amaryllis in red and then starts to work the background in black, keeping the texture lively. The flower is readable as what it is and the stem coils clearly, though it alerts us right away to the possibility that what we’re facing here is not all plain, up-front and literal.  Now, what to do with the black!  If she fills in the black as background, which is what she actually sees (please go back to the previous post to see the still life set up), then the whole thing will become too literal—red flower on black background, get it!!—and the drawing will fall flat.  But if the black “background” goes beyond being merely background and takes on a life of its own, we may be getting into art.  The artist restrains herself from filling in the left side of the page with black and just leaves that to the imagination, with two results:  1) The white on the left sets up tension in relation to the black on the right. 2) The black now moves through the page in an s-curve of its own.  This black s-curve echoes the s-curve in the flower’s stem.  Just seeing this is thrilling.  Because of that, the drawing may be considered finished.

Given their sentimental association in our history, flowers present a challenge to the modern artist.  But many of our mentors-in-modernism have approached the subject with plenty of irony and grit.  You may want to look up paintings of flowers and still lifes by Cézanne, Redon, Schiele and Van Gogh.

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

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In his biography of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Franz Schulze says that the reason Mies said “Less is more” is that he didn’t speak English very well.  That sounds like a joke.  It’s true, Mies learned English in middle age.  But Schulze may have come up with the quip out of irritation at how the saying is being bandied about. He may have been tired of its extreme pithiness and then its subsequent casual overuse. You can hear “Less-Is-More”  from people who have no idea where it comes from, in what context it was used or who originally said it.

In 1937 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, at the age of fifty-one, was invited to teach architecture at IIT in Chicago, after heading the architecture department at the Bauhaus in Germany. The Bauhaus innovators had grown up with Victorian clutter, sentimentality, devotion to antiquity, deceptive uses of materials, and social stratification. The Bauhaus, founded in 1919, was a school of design dedicated to finding a new visual vocabulary for all artifacts, from teapots to theater costumes to buildings.   The way to achieve these ends was through technology.

It’s easy to see what Mies meant by “less.”  What did he mean by “more?”  More what?  Well, more integrity, more honesty, more awareness, more equality, more thoughtfulness, more compassion.  The Bauhaus people, like all modern artists, thought that by cleaning up the decorative affectations in our visual world, we would become more truthful.  More moral.

Can’t say we’ve arrived at that ideal.

But Mies’s  wonderfully quotable “Less-Is-More” has certainly gotten twisted and satirized.

In 1966 architect Robert Venturi  published “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,”  both of which he said were just fine. Main Street was fine, Las Vegas was fine.  “Less,” he said, “is a bore.”

Since the 70’s the optimism at the heart of Less-Is-More has been replaced by irony and self-referencing.

While we now live with irony and self-conscious despair in our art and artifacts—oh, and tattoos– “Less-Is-More” keeps surfacing to consciousness and slipping off the tongue.  Ignorant of its derivation, people will say “Less-Is-More” when they’ve just moved into a new apartment but can’t afford the Crate-and-Barrel couch yet.  Mies’s monkish mystery is now constantly trivialized.  Unlike Schulze, however,  I don’t mind because when I hear it used, even by the ignorant, I’m reminded of what he meant.

Passing a hair salon not long ago, I read “Mess is More” in the window.  This turns out to be a slogan promoting a hair product that makes your hair look excessive, in a sort of seedy, cluttered, Victorian way.  Precisely the stuff Mies was revolted by.  So I walked on and reviewed his buildings in my mind and thought of his courage and that made my day.

Top: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, design for Berlin Hochhaus, 1919. Iron & steel skeleton and glass curtain wall.  Couldn’t be built in the Germany of the 1920’s for economic and political reasons.  Lake Point Tower (just West of Navy Pier), 1960’s,  was designed by two of his students, George Schipporeit and John Heinrich as an homage to Mies’s 1919 vision.

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