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Posts Tagged ‘Picasso’

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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MondrianTree6

Oh, trees!

If you’re a Mondrian-lover you stand in front of one of his paintings, like the one above, and exclaim, “I just love the way he painted trees!”  Right?

You have a friend who doesn’t understand Mondrian, so you volunteer to give her a tour of the moderns at the Art Institute of Chicago or the MoMa.  You position yourselves in front of the Mondrians, and you learnedly explain that here we have the essence of tree-ness.  Right?

Mondrian was painting simplified trees.  Right?

Mondrian drew diagrams of trees. Right?

Abstract trees. Right?

Oh, please!

No one has ever looked at a Mondrian and seen trees. Right?

Right!!!!!

Then why do we constantly get the evolution of his paintings—The Mondrians—from trees.

http://emptyeasel.com/2007/04/17/piet-mondrian-the-evolution-of-pure-abstract-paintings/

MondrianTree1

[The] process of simplification and reduction would continue until he wasn’t even painting from nature at all.

The rise of Cubism also gave Mondrian a means to segment and reduce objects to their most basic forms.

MondrianTree2

Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) lived in Paris when he was in his early 40’s.  There he met Braque and other Cubists.

To interpret Cubism as “reducing objects to their most basic forms”  is as blatantly ridiculous as the other cliché about cubism, namely that a cubist painting shows us an object from all four sides.  I’ll post just one example here, Picasso’s “Portrait of D.H. Kahnweiler,” 1910. Have a good look. You are seeing Mr. Kahnweiler’s “basic forms” and you’re seeing him from all “four sides.” Correct?

kahnweil

Really?

LOOK!

Cubism is so scary to think about that people, even otherwise intelligent people, repeat these absurdities about “basic forms” and “four sides.”  You’ll find this sort of thing not only on internet pages but, with more academic circumlocutions, in serious publications. The Cubists—Picasso and Braque–are scary to think about because they made a clean break with the past.  Naughty, naughty. Thou shalt honor thy father and mother…  The only father the Cubists honored was Cézanne and he, in Robert Hughes’ words, painted DOUBT.

Let’s see now, we don’t have any commandments honoring doubt.

In 1910, art that threw out all previous assumptions was difficult to take.  Still is.  But doubt is so much more invigorating than having answers without first having questions.  Medieval certainties and Renaissance illustrations of mythological characters are not invigorating, are they?!

The Cubists—and they didn’t call themselves that—came up with something new.  The painting is now not an illustration but a work in its own right.

You must be kidding?  In its own right?  The audacity!

That’s right.  Audacity.

So, are Mondrian’s paintings abstractions or essences or diagrams of trees?  No.  They are something completely new.  They stand in their own right as objects.  Something to contemplate.

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RedStudio

Charles Jencks’ book on Post-Modernism was at 700 JE on the library shelf. What a relief, I had to refresh my memory on what he says about Pruitt-Igoe.  But at 700 HO, right next to Jencks, was “Art for Dummies.”  I pulled it off the shelf, hoping to find something to chuckle over after a week of overworking myself.  Hoving!  They got Thomas Hoving to contribute to the For Dummies series?!  I opened the book at random and there on p. 173 under the heading “Is Modern Art Something of a Joke?” I found this wonderful paragraph:

“Modern art is, admittedly, rash, confusing, prone to making one suspect that it’s all a joke, annoying at times, and forever puzzling as to meaning and significance.  Yet, much of it possesses a power and an elegance equal to the greatest earlier movements and styles in Western art.  The real gift of Modern art is that it allowed artists, if they wanted, to go far beyond the rather restricted practice of copying a subject faithfully.  Pure energy could be expressed.  So could mysterious emotion.  It takes dedication and lots of work to come to grips with Modern art, but when you have saturated yourself in it, you will, in time, appreciate the explosive genius of Picasso and the infinite calm and serenity of its most illustrious master, who is, in my opinion Henri Matisse.  He once observed that he wanted to create an art that might be so comforting that tired businessmen would readily turn to it for solace.  Once you gaze at his triumphant Red Studio or Luxe, Calme et Volupté, in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, you’ll see that he succeeded.”

I took it to the circulation desk and checked it out along with the architecture books.  In his Art for Dummies book Hoving inserts some cartoons by Rich Tennant—something to chuckle over, after all.

LuxeCalmVolupte

Henri Matiss,  Red Studio, 1911

Henru Matisse, Luxe, Calme et Volupté, 1904

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15JaneWhatFour
You’re not inclined to interpret this painting. You’re probably not asking “what is the significance of the number four, what does it symbolize or refer to, what is the sum of all the fours here and what would be the meaning of that large number, ditto for multiplication,” etc. This kind of interpreting is what we used to do. For example, when you look at this painting by Nicolaes Maes, you can’t help but try to figure out what the NicolaesMaesIdleServantartist is illustrating. Why did the artist put in the cat, the sleeping maid, the guests in the background? What is the hostess saying to us by gesturing that way? What was the social status of servants in mid-17th-century Holland?
We stopped digging for meaning about a hundred years ago. I recently found this 1923 Picasso quote in an announcement of the current MoMA show: “Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the songs of a bird?”
If this sounds perverse, it’s because prior to about 1900 images were used for didactic purposes and that’s what we got used to. They illustrated a story, a myth, a compositional ideal, an ideal ratio, an ideal body, an ideal color relation, etc. Ideals are culturally defined and over time get enshrined as absolute and immovable. By the early 20th century, these ossified standards were crumbling in Western culture: in the place of capital-t Truth we got evolution, relativity, psychoanalysis and the leveling of social classes. This is not to say that Cézanne, Manet, VanGogh, Matisse and Picasso were now illustrating these new theories. Not at all. They painted in a new way because to be alive at that time felt new.
The major societal shift involved the relationship between artist and client. Whereas before, the artist was a servant, he is now of the same middle class as his client. Whereas before, the client (pope, emperor, czar, king, archbishop, et al) was interested in the finished product and how it promoted his power status, now the client becomes more and more interested in how the work is put together and what philosophical dynamics those artistic processes embody. Whereas before, the work of art “appeared” in a mythical sense, like Athena from the head of Zeus, now the painting or sculpture shows the traces –the brush strokes, the chisel marks, the scratches, the nuts and bolts—of how it was made.
This is why the reviewers of art exhibits and the critics in art magazines like Art in America and Artforum will write at great length about the process that went into the making of the work of art. Most of the writing does not attempt interpretation of the pre-19th century kind at all. It’s assumed that you, as a contemporary, love process. You love to stand in front of a painting or sculpture and try to figure out how the artist made this thing. Reconstructing the process will trigger empathy with the artist, will vicariously pump you up with energy and, generally, make your day. Later you’ll meet a friend for lunch and, gesturing energetically,try to convey your aesthetic experience.
Well then, what was the process behind “What Four?” You can see that the painting, 30” x 40”, started as a color study: blue/purple and greens. What followed was only one layer of paint, but a layer produced through complex procedure. The artist, Jane Donaldson, decided to mix media. The first layer is painting. This second layer is printmaking. She carved the letter four on a linoleum plate. She painted it white and pressed it onto the canvas, one four after the other, until the white paint was worn from the plate. She now inked the plate again and started another set of “four,” and so on.
I find this very exciting. It has something child-like about it, but at the same time it hearkens back to that incision in Western civilization when in 1439 Johannes Gutenberg invented printing in Mainz, Germany, and literature was able to take off. Without printing, no Renaissance, without the Renaissance, well, you know, on and on.
That’s one of the chain reactions set off in the mind. There are others, because the process of decline/degeneration/fading and rejuvenation/fresh start is so true to the experience of life. The process tempts you to interpret metaphorically, but remains unspecific. It reverberates deeply in the imagination because it is visually rich. That richness comes from its process.
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The lifelong and fruitful rivalry between Picasso and Matisse is already evident in 1907, when Picasso is working on Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. Matisse had exhibited Le Bonheur de vivre in 1906. It is widely bonheurdeVivreridiculed by Parisians, but Picasso sees in it a daring move forward in the game of overriding the past. The “game” is to invent a new art, an art that’s against what has gone before. And here is Matisse quoting from the Renaissance and thumbing his nose at it at the same time. For Picasso this presents a challenge: could he come up with something more shocking. He starts working on Les Demoiselles at the end of 1906 BlueNudealready. Then in the spring of 1907 Matisse comes out with another shocker: Blue Nude, Memory of Biskra. The fact that a leading art critic at the time, Bernard Berenson, calls the painting “a toad,” is encouraging, it means that bourgeois taste is being offended. That’s the program: “épater le bourgeois” (to shock the conventionally-minded middle class).
LesDemoiselleDAvignonIn the fall of 1907 Picasso finishes Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and has some friends and collectors over. “Those invited to a viewing found it as baffling as the stuff Matisse was currently producing. Picasso’s three closest friends—the writers Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob and André Salmon—were noncommittal. Kahnweiler considered the painting a failure, and Leo Stein burst out laughing when he saw it.” (Hilary Spurling, The Unknown Matisse, p379)
Picasso kept it in his studio until it was exhibited for the first time in 1916 at the Salon d’Antin, Paris, when André Salmon gave it the title by which it is known. The title comes from Picasso’s private joking with friends about a notorious brothel on Avignon Street in Barcelona. Picasso later said he disliked the title.
Jacques Doucet (1853–1929), a wealthy Parisian fashion designer purchased the painting in transactions lasting from 1924-1929.
Jacques Seligmann & Co., New York, purchased it from Madame Doucet in September 1937.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York purchased it from Seligmann, 1937- 1939, where it has been drawing crowds ever since.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is considered to be an icon of modernism. “Icon” is a strange word to be used in talking about modernism. More on that later.
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PicassoNudeDrapery
Drapery? Where? You mean those whitish-bluish triangles and trapezoids?
Picasso was twenty-six when he painted this. By the time he was fourteen, he had mastered the skill to create the illusion of drapery or any other illusion he might have felt like creating. There was big money in illusions in the 1890’s. But not for Picasso. With Picasso the illusion-achievements of the Renaissance come to an end. And that means, for one thing, drapery is dead. Finished.
The question is, do you have to master the Renaissance skills of drapery, anatomy and perspective to be an artist? The answer is “no,” but it’s an uncomfortable no. I’m uncomfortable about dismissing the value of drapery drawing/painting for two reasons. One is in the looking: drapery in an image draws the viewer in and focuses the mind like a labyrinth; more on this in the next post. The second reason is in the doing and for similar reasons: drawing drapery develops visual concentration since you are always drawing from the image in your mind; and it focuses the mind, resulting in the kind of high that comes from a)intense concentration on a limited problem and b) repetition of minutiae. This is drawing for the sheer pleasure of drawing, meaning the “high” you get from moving that pencil.

Drapery
This is my pencil drawing of some drapery I set up for a demo in drawing class last week. Students watched over DraperyGreenDemomy shoulders and asked questions. As I was drawing I explained the procedure. This 17”x11” page took about an hour. Without my talking, I estimate it would have taken less than a half hour. It looks so easy and the principles of light-shadow-reflected light are a piece o’cake.
But the doing takes practice. But, hey, it’s not like there’s ever nothing to draw. Look around you. Throw your coat over a chair, leave the dish towel on the kitchen counter, don’t make your bed—drapery drapery everywhere….
In “Outliers” Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the need and result of practice. He has made the 10,000 hour rule famous: to get good at anything takes 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice. That comes to 3 hours a day.

130207DilbertHoursPractice
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Kandinski3
This extensive exhibit of Kandinsky’s work is well worth the hour-and-a-half drive to Milwaukee’s Calatrava by the Lake. Word has gotten out that the show closes Sept 1st and if you’ll go in the next three days, you’ll have to share the gallery with a large, rather elegant crowd.

I was there two days ago and heard a women say, “he was arrogant.” Well, consider this: you’re meeting a 19th century Russian aristocrat who gave up law to study art in Paris, convinced that the avant-garde’s mission was to elevate human consciousness from lowly realism to a lofty, spiritual, transforming art.
About “spiritual.” Kandinsky’s short, pity book Über das Geistige in der Kunst , 1911, appeared in English in 1914 as The Art of Spiritual Harmony. The title was later changed to Concerning the Spiritual in Art, a more literal translation of the original German, but still, there’s that troublesome word “spiritual.” In New Age parlance “spiritual” is used to mean “good, feeling, non-thinking, non-analytical … inclusive, us.” Geistig in German doesn’t mean any of that, however.
In German Geist means ghost + spirit + intellect. So, at universities you can study a Naturwissenschaft or a Geisteswissenschaft. Wissen = to know, Wissenschaft = science, knowledge. So, Naturwissenschaft = natural science, that’s easy to see. Geisteswissenschaft means “Humanities.” Here you’re studying the mind: philosophy, art, history, literature, et al. It’s definitely intellectual. You can see that this doesn’t at all remind you of crystals, pyramids, and holding hands around a bonfire at the winter solstice.
Around 1900, when Kandinskiystudied art in Paris and Munich, his mind was spinning in the explosions of all the arts, the Geisteswissenschaften. The achievements of the Renaissance had exhausted themselves—there’s just so far you can go with anatomy, perspective and mixing oil paint to create the illusion of flesh tones. The revolt against Renaissance principles that we see in Cézanne, Braque and Picasso (just naming a few) went hand in hand with an anti-hierarchical social & political consciousness. Renaissance art was seen to glorify wealth, power, status—what Kandinsky calls “the nightmare of materialism.” To negate all that, where did artists turn for inspiration? They were inspired by and identified with the uncivilized, with African and Oceanic art. Kandinsky felt a spiritual (geistig) relationship to “primitives,” who, he writes “sought to express in their work only internal truths.”
You can see that “internal” is a synonym of geistig. And you can see that this verbal analysis is getting tedious and self-referential. In his book, Kandinsky tries to get at his feeling for art—and it is about feeling, despite the categorizations and definitions—but it’s only when we see the analogy between painting and music, where words fail, that we get what he’s getting at. (We’ll do that in the next post.)
Here’s Kandinsky, from Concerning the Spiritual in Art:
“The nightmare of materialism, which has turned the life of the universe into an evil, useless game, is not yet past; it holds the awakening soul still in its grip. Only a feeble light glimmers like a tiny star in a vast gulf of darkness. This feeble light is but a presentiment, and the soul, when it sees it, trembles in doubt whether the light is not a dream, and the gulf of darkness reality. This doubt, and the still harsh tyranny of the materialistic philosophy, divide our soul sharply from that of the Primitives. Our soul rings cracked when we seek to play upon it, as does a costly vase, long buried in the earth, which is found to have a flaw when it is dug up once more. For this reason, the Primitive phase, through which we are now passing, with its temporary similarity of form, can only be of short duration.
These two possible resemblances between the art forms of today and those of the past will be at once recognized as diametrically opposed to one another. The first, being purely external, has no future. The second, being internal, contains the seed of the future within itself. After the period of materialistic effort, which held the soul in check until it was shaken off as evil, the soil is emerging, purged by trials and sufferings. Shapeless emotions such as fear, joy, grief, etc., which belonged to this time of effort, will no longer greatly attract the artist. He will endeavor to awake subtler emotions, as yet unnamed. Living himself a complicated and comparatively subtle life, his work will give to those observers capable of feeling them lofty emotions beyond the reach of words.”
Arrogant? Try courageous.
He was not alone in his energy and courage. Think of the courage it took to be Woolfe, Joyce, Ravel, Stravinsky, Mahler, Strauss, Rilke, Kafka, Braque, Picasso, Matisse, Kokoschka, et al. Think of all the censors, ridicules, accusations of insanity and immorality, and all those vegetables and rotten eggs thrown at the stage. Nobody knew if modernism would survive.

Wassily Kandinsky, 1866-1944

“Impression III (Concert),” 1911, oil on canvas

Quote from “Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” translated by M.T.H. Sadler, 1914

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