Tuesday, December 06, 2022

WHEN IS A TREE THE SAME AS A DOG?


The Transversal Law of Pictures says: a log can serve the same function as a dog. 

Andrew Wyeth began this painting featuring a dog....

 
... but changed his mind and started over, substituting a log.  Wyeth explained that the log performed the same function: "the dog disappeared, though the animal is in the ragged, chopped, sharp sliver part of the log."  


Whether a dog or a log, Wyeth introduces a contrasting element which opens a dialogue in both form and content.  

The big change in the final version is not that the dog turned into a log.  The big change is that the dog / log has been moved outside.  That really alters the dialogue.

The sharp, gray, contrasting element now sits outside the window, jagged and ominous, with other asperous symbols: barbed wire, a rusty chain, dead grass.  

Compare the world outside with the civilized tableau indoors.  One critic wrote that the final version of Wyeth's painting is "richly symbolic: outside there is violence and death: inside a sacramental order and the light of an austere divinity."  The window glass is invisible yet it transforms the meaning of an object to be painted inside or out. 

Gary Kelley put his own version of the wildness outside the window...



... but this time the window doesn't appear to offer much protection.  The howl of the feral beast seems to have penetrated the window and undermined the civilization inside.

Look at all the ways Tomer Hanuka's window separates winter's wild chill from a steamy interior: cool colors vs. warm, hard geometric building materials vs. tender human flesh, tone vs. line, foreground vs. background:



What role does a window play in these dialogues?  A window offers less protection than a solid wall, but more protection than a blue sky-- a compromise somewhere between nothing and everything.  This range of possibilities makes a window a marvelous artistic device.  For example, an open window leaves a person vulnerable to their "love awakening." 



Sometimes your love awakening arrives wearing a top hat but packing a pistol.  How much wildness can you handle?


Other times a window thrills by merely implying what's outside.  A shadow can be more effective than the dangers we actually see.



Of course, not all the savagery takes place outside the window.  Sometimes it's more savage inside:


Gustave Dore illustrates the age old custom of defenestration
 
As we've all heard, if you leave an open window in your heart, everything you wanted may enter.



However, what you wanted may not be in your best interest. 

Windows can free you from the tyranny of perspective or anatomy:



Windows also thwart our appetite for too much information, forcing us to infer situations.  

Subtle clues

Creativity comes from constrained circumstances.  If you find yourself in a closed space, there are three ways to enlarge your vision. You can look at a picture.  You can look in a mirror.  Or you can look out a window.  The artist's choices about the size of the window, how to crop it, what features from the world to see through it,  determines where the rest of the world ends and the art begins.

Monday, November 21, 2022

NEW DISNEY ANIMATED FILM: STRANGE WORLD


Last week I had the pleasure of watching an advance screening of the newest animated film from Disney, Strange WorldIf Maxfield Parrish or Kay Nielsen were alive today, this is the kind of work they'd be doing.  


Computer animation-- the marriage of digital technology and human creativity-- has lived through rocky periods of adjustment.  

Richard Feynman wrote that “The inside of a computer is as dumb as hell but it goes like mad.”  This power often led to imbalances and mismatches in early computer animation.  For example, it created distracting levels of detail and insanely sharp focus.  

Computer animation in 2015 wrecked the charm of Charles Schulz's Peanuts

Even worse, the intoxicating new tool often became a substitute for imagination.  Computers have been put to use simulating the natural world, often to questionable effect.  They capsized the proportion, balance, harmony that are crucial to good art.  Plots have warped and distorted around the digital contribution.

But animators have become better and better at understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the digital medium, using it to invent new worlds, give new faces to fantasy, stretch the use of color, combine images with movement, all in integrated ways.  

I was dazzled by the way these elements joined together in Strange World.  Imaginative creatures, plants, and other life forms continued to cascade forward throughout the movie, as did geologic formations and meteorological conditions.  There is no shortage of creativity in Strange World.
 





Some things don't change: every Disney movie needs a cute sidekick that can be sold in toy stores.



This is an artistic accomplishment that could never have been achieved with live action or hand drawn animation or any other previously known medium.   It was a joy to see a movie where human creativity was able to keep up with, make excellent use of, and blend seamlessly with, digital technology.

Monday, November 14, 2022

NORMAN ROCKWELL PAINTS THREE KINDS OF GOLD

This painting is on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts:


Look at how lovingly Rockwell paints three different kinds of gold surfaces.  The gilded wooden torch:


The letters on the boy's banner:


The metal wreath on the boy's head:



Rockwell didn't just dip his brush in gold paint three times.  He went back to the beginning and re-learned the nature of gold three times.

Rockwell was one of history's great materialists.  He examined and described material objects, their surfaces, their volumes, their textures and qualities with fanatical devotion.  

Growing up, Norman Rockwell had an uneasy relationship with the physical world.  Scrawny, pale, nearsighted and pigeon toed, Rockwell was embarrassed by his frail physique.  When he was ten, he tried exercising but gave up after a month.  His insecurities continued to haunt his early work.


But like an unrequited lover, he worshiped the physical world from afar.  It's hard to name another 20th century artist with a greater appreciation for physical matter.  

It's not always easy to tell from the way Rockwell's work has been reproduced in cheap magazines.  But compare this printed cover for the Saturday Evening Post:


with the big, glowing original painting hanging on the wall at the Rockwell museum: 

His description of the girl's plastic raincoat is a tour de force:

Notice the attention he paid to the rim on the lid of the paint can, or the bottle of medium, or the scuffed shoe:

Similarly, there is nothing formulaic about Rockwell's treatment of the wooden box.  Those lines are not straight because Rockwell understood and cared about how the box had been treated on its voyage through the material world. Here is intense, honest observation: 

For another example, in the corner of Rockwell's painting of a pharmacist...

... you can see that he didn't neglect the bottles, the test tube, the spoon.  Importantly, these obsessive details are not described with photographic realism, as Rockwell's thousands of clueless imitators would surely have painted them.  They are expressed through the loving eyes of someone with rapturous appreciation for their physical qualities... 




... right down to the nuances of the cork and the character of the string around the bottle.




There have been other great materialists in art before Rockwell.  Vermeer and the golden age Dutch painters delighted in the properties of fine material objects: the textures and patterns of lovely fabrics and tapestries, the sheen of  metals, the soft feel of furs.  


Note Gabriel Metsu's attention to the gold frame and oriental rug

Renaissance art was also a period of great materialists.  Freed from the medieval focus on the supernatural (and spurred on by the invention of soap) Renaissance painters obsessed over the surfaces of the secular world-- the nuances of human flesh and the reflections of armor.

Norman Rockwell was a true materialist in that tradition and, in my view, can walk proudly in that company. 

Friday, October 28, 2022

DANIEL SCHWARTZ EXHIBITION




I'm glad to see that the art of illustrators is increasingly showing up in serious museums and galleries.  At the Yale University Art Gallery, whose collection includes Rothko, Koons and Jasper Johns, you can also see paintings by N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish and Edwin Austin Abbey.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art now displays the work of Norman Rockwell. 

The latest example of this trend is the retrospective exhibition of the work of illustrator Daniel Schwartz at Bowling Green State University.  


I'm a fan of Schwartz and the University was kind enough to invite me to contribute an essay for the catalog, alongside an essay by Charles Kanwischer,  Director of their School of Art.

The exhibition is centered around Schwartz's magnum opus, Portrait of the Artist, Running. While meeting tight deadlines for clients such as Life, Esquire, CBS, Fortune and Playboy, Schwartz spent 15 years working on his epic masterpiece, making dozens of handsome studies and sketches:


Portrait of the Artist, Running, 78" x 100"
Schwartz is the man in the middle, caught up in a pack of aggressive, determined racers, struggling to break free while dogs obstruct his path and nip at his heels.

I always wondered if his painting meant that Schwartz felt trapped in his career as a commercial artist.








The exhibition space is large enough to accommodate other paintings by Schwartz as well.



If you are in the vicinity of Bowling Green I recommend that you stop by.

In recent years, thoughtful museums and galleries have been reconsidering the value of traditional skills and talents that were hastily abandoned during the 20th century scramble for the new.  I suspect one reason for this re-evaluation is because many of the post-modern paths are beginning to show all the signs of dead ends.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

CRIMES AGAINST ART, part 2: MARY RICHARDSON


Mary Richardson, an early 20th century suffragette, believed that for a painting to be beautiful, it also had to reflect justice. "Justice," she said, "is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas."  Richardson felt that this painting of Venus by the great Spanish artist Diego Velazquez lacked justice.  


She didn't like "the way men visitors gaped at it all day long." To make the picture more just, she attacked it with a meat cleaver.


Richardson was upset because her fellow suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst,  who used arson and explosives to win women's rights in England, had been arrested the day before. Richardson published her explanation for slashing the painting:
I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history....  If there is an outcry against my deed, let everyone remember that such an outcry is an hypocrisy so long as they allow the destruction of Mrs Pankhurst and other beautiful living women, and that until the public cease to countenance human destruction the stones cast against me for the destruction of this picture are each an evidence against them of artistic as well as moral and political humbug and hypocrisy."

 Richardson was imprisoned for six months, which was the maximum penalty under British law for destruction of an artwork.

Fed up with sexual inequality under the British government, Richardson turned to fascism as the “only path to a Greater Britain.” She joined the British Union of Fascists and demonstrated such commitment to authoritarian government that she was quickly promoted to a high level management position prior to World War II. 

As we've previously discussed on this blog, the ability to create great art is very rare, yet any moron has the ability to destroy it.  Perhaps that's why accountants never make good artists: art's odds are so terrible, a career in art would make no sense to anyone who understands math. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

CRIMES AGAINST ART, part 1: SCRANTON, PENNSYLVANIA

 The Australian artist Norman Lindsay may have been the most randy illustrator of the 20th century.  







His hundreds of drawings of nymphs and satyrs frolicking in bacchanalian orgies repeatedly got him in trouble with church officials.




During World War II Lindsay traveled from Australia to the United States with his wife (and model) Rose.

Norman and Rose Lindsay

Fearful that they would never return to Australia, Rose brought all of her prized possessions with her, including 20 years worth of Norman's best work.  Her daughter Jane recalled, "Large crates were specially made and into them she packed everything which she cherished as beautiful and valuable-- hundreds of exquisite watercolours, pen drawings, etchings...."    

The couple docked in California and made their way across the country by train.  The crates with art were loaded onto a wooden freight car immediately behind the engine.  When the train reached Pennsylvania the freight car caught fire.  The train pulled off into the small town of Scranton where the good citizens helped put out the fire and saved as much of the art as they could on the train platform.  

However, when they saw the scandalous pictures they had saved, the citizens became so upset that they piled up the artwork and and set it back on fire again "before corruption could set."

Lindsay's artwork survived a world war and a fire, but it couldn't survive the morality of the citizens of Scranton.