Friday, June 27, 2008


In a different country, in another era, Boris Chaliapin (1904-1979) would have been a "fine" artist and portrait painter, selling his paintings in art galleries. The son of Feodor Chaliapin, the great Russian opera singer, Boris was raised in a highly cultured environment. He received classical art training in Russia and Paris. He painted a series of portraits of his father and other luminaries from the world of classical music.

By the 1920s Chaliapin already had a considerable reputation as a portrait artist in Russia. But the market for classical painting was dwindling, and Chaliapin ended up exhibiting his work in the foyer of the London Covent Garden Theatre.

Like most born painters, Chaliapin learned to adapt to reality so that he could continue to create art. Making his way to the United States, he earned a living in New York City following the path of many 20th century artists with technical skill: he became an illustrator, painting more than 400 cover portraits for Time magazine.

Chaliapin is probably my favorite of all the Time Magazine cover illustrators, a sensitive and talented artist. I hope you enjoy his work.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


In 1985, Rembrandt's "Danae"-- surely one of the most beautiful paintings in the history of the world-- was attacked by a man who slashed the painting with a knife, then doused it with sulfuric acid.

As the New York Times reported, the acid turned Rembrandt's lovely colors into a "dark, bubbling, foul-smelling mass that trickled down to the bottom of the the frame and from there onto the floor."

In 1972, an unemployed geologist attacked Michelangelo's Pieta with a hammer, crying, "I am Jesus Christ — risen from the dead!" He knocked off the Virgin's arm at the elbow, broke off a chunk of her nose, and chipped her face.

Then there was the man who walked into an Amsterdam museum and repeatedly slashed a masterpiece by the painter Barnett Newman. The man spent 5 months in jail for his crime, then returned to the same museum and slashed another painting by the same artist worth about $12 million.

And let's not forget the time in 1975, when a former mental patient claimed that he had been ordered by God to attack Rembrandt's magnificent "Night Watch."

He slashed and hacked the 14-by-11 foot painting more than a dozen times, tearing out a chunk of canvas over a foot long.

It is hard to explain such savage attacks on beautiful objects. If you have trouble putting yourself in the mind of someone who behaves that way, you should be very glad. The people who do such things lead hellish lives untouched by beauty or pity.

But before you get too comfortable on the "sane" side of the dividing line, consider this: in 1715, the town fathers of Amsterdam decided to install that very same painting, Rembrandt's Night Watch, in their Town Hall. They picked the perfect spot between two columns. Unfortunately the painting was too large so they cut off sections of the painting on all four sides, to make it fit. They removed two figures on the left side of the painting as well as the top of the arch, the balustrade, and the edge of the step. This was not the spontaneous outburst of a lunatic, this was a bunch of civil servants acting with the best intentions. There is no record that the town officials were ever confined to a mental institution. But again-- if you have trouble putting yourself in the mind of someone who behaves that way, you should be glad.

The Buddhas of Bamyan were two monumental statues of Buddha carved into the face of a cliff in Afghanistan nearly 2,000 years ago. The statues were immense-- almost 180 feet high.

In 2000, the Afghan government (at that time, led by Supreme Commander of the Taliban Mullah Mohammad Omar) ordered that these ancient treasures be destroyed to avoid idol worship. Again, this was no impetuous act. It was calmly discussed by a number of government officials who, in the end, systematically dynamited these masterpieces. Taliban Minister of Information and Culture Qudratullah Jamal issued bland progress reports to the press: "The work started about five hours ago but I do not know how much of [the Buddhas] has been destroyed." Is there a lunatic out there who can match the work of bureaucrats steadily going about their business?

Finally. we come to the case of the Lascaux cave, probably the single greatest treasure trove of paleolithic art on the face of the earth.

Lascaux contains about 600 paintings and 1,500 drawings that have survived for approximately 17,000 years. Since the cave was discovered in 1940, thousands of people from around the world have been awed by its beauty.

In 1999, the French bureaucrats who administer the cave decided to install a new air conditioning system. By most accounts, it was a disaster. They selected a local contractor with no experience with caves. The workers were left unsupervised and ignored the pleas of the curators, tracking pollen in and out of the cave, leaving the door open, and piling up construction waste on the site. As Archaeology Magazine reported:
It is hardly surprising that by 2000, as soon as the work was completed... biological pollution appeared. Within a month a fungus, fusarium solani, characterized by white filaments, was growing on the cave walls.... Powdered quicklime was scattered on the floor to sterilize the cave, but this raised the temperature, further destabilizing the interior climate.... The new installation involved removing the roof from the chamber at the cave entrance.... exposing the cave to the impact of outside temperature variations. Consequently, water runs down the cave walls (and paintings) at times, followed by periods of extreme dryness.
If the French officials had been willing to admit their mistake, perhaps more could have been done to protect the art. However, as conditions in the cave deteriorated, the squabbling bureaucrats covered up their problems, barring scientific experts and cultural observers from inspecting the problem. Time magazine reported with frustration, "Nobody claims authorship of the decision to install the new machine."

Spores growing on prehistoric painting

The deplorable conditions at Lascaux were brought to the attention of the world by a valiant and determined woman named Laurence Beasley, who founded the International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux. She refused to be intimidated by the bureaucrats, and went all the way to UNESCO for help in rescuing the cave. As Archaeology Magazine reported,

In spite of the authorities' reluctance to admit their responsibility for today's crisis, and the way they have downplayed the seriousness of Lascaux's position, the ICPL has succeeded in exposing the cave's dire condition and alerting the public.... A spokesperson for the ministry of culture has repeatedly denied that there is damage to, or fungi on, the paintings, despite clear photographic and eyewitness evidence. At one point the ministry of culture claimed the fungi have "disappeared naturally," yet restorers were still working in the caves three days a week, manually removing the fungi by their roots-- extractions that have left dark marks and circles on the paintings. Clearly the public has not been told the truth.
I commend to you the important work of Laurence and her nonprofit organization. Visit her web site. Read about Lascaux and sign her petition. Make a contribution if you feel like it. (Full disclosure: as a lawyer, I do pro bono work for the ICPL because I believe in their cause but as always, I am solely responsible for the opinions on this blog.)

Gentle and beautiful objects have many natural enemies in this world. I don't know whether the greater threat to art comes from lunatics with knives and acid, or from cold bureaucrats and civil servants protecting their turf and hiding their incompetence.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


In the earliest days of comic strips, all kinds of strange personalities gravitated to the new field. Perhaps none was stranger than Jimmy Swinnerton (1875-1974).

Swinnerton ran away from home at age 14, traveling with a minstrel show as far as San Francisco. There he found work drawing borders around photographs for a local newspaper. Swinnerton's greatest talent seemed to be entertaining employees with impersonations of the newspaper's owner, William Randolph Hearst. One day, Hearst caught Swinnerton and was so amused that he took Swinnerton under his wing. The two became life long friends.

Swinnerton's supervisor scolded him not to get "too original" with his rectangles, but Hearst recognized that there was a better use for Swinnerton's talents. With Hearst's patient sponsorship, Swinnerton tried one project after another. By age 20, Swinnerton had developed into a successful newspaper staff artist: a lying, womanizing, gambling drunk who dressed in flashy clothes and hung around with prize fighters.

Swinnerton was the perfect petrie dish for the invention of the modern comic strip. He experimented with several, including Sam and his Laugh, Professor Nix, Little Katy and her Uncle, Mount Ararat, Mr. Batch, Mr. Jack, Little Jimmy, Canyon Kiddies, The Daydreams of Danny Dawes, and Rocky Mason, Government Marshall. Many of these experiments quickly died, but some of them caught on.

By age 27, Swinnerton was living a life of dissolution in New York. An alcoholic with tuberculosis, Swinnerton had suffered several hemorrhages and doctors gave him barely a month to live. He returned to California under close medical care. There he purchased his tombstone with the epitaph "blue pencilled." Next he walked into a bar where he found a drunken man weeping loudly. Swinnerton paid the man to follow him around, weeping over Swinnerton's imminent death. Everything was in place for Swinnerton's funeral, but then he switched to a diet of raw eggs and miraculously recovered. He lived another 72 years, and for the rest of his life always tipped his hat when he saw a chicken, out of gratitude.

It is unclear exactly when Swinnerton married the first of his many wives. He was caught in a scandal with a wealthy San Francisco heiress. The couple claimed that they had been secretly married someplace else but skeptical newspapers noted there was "no record of a marriage license." The heiress soon abandoned Swinnerton for Japan, while he quelled his sorrow in three other official marriages, along with semi-marriages and quasi-marriages in different locations. The combined alimony from his disorderly love life kept him on the brink of poverty. For much of his life, Swinnerton shuttled between lavish parties at Hearst's mansion, San Simeon, and dodging bill collectors.

As the comic strip industry grew up around Swinnerton, he found kindred spirits. The young Walt Disney used to come to his birthday parties. Swinnerton took George Herriman (creator of Krazy Kat), Rudolph Dirks (creator of the Katzenjammer Kids), and the painter Maynard Dixon on a safari through the Arizona desert to see the Hopi Tribe of Indians do their annual snake dance. Can you imagine the conversation around that campfire at night? The group traveled by horseback through the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley (which later played a significant role in Krazy Kat.) It was on this trip that Swinnerton gave Dixon a half interest in the Arizona desert.

With the passage of time, the roads of comic land became paved. Syndicates became well oiled machines with standard printed contracts. Colleges taught classes in how to write graphic novels and The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art trained the comic strip artists of the future. But at the formative stages of comic strips, it was oddballs such as Swinnerton-- colorful people who had a hard time fitting into conventional jobs-- who started the medium rolling.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


The poet Dante famously fell in love with Beatrice the first time he saw her, at age ten. He later wrote:
At that very moment, and I speak the truth, the vital spirit, the one that dwells in the most secret chamber of the heart... spoke these words: Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi. ("Behold, a deity stronger than I; who coming, shall rule over me.")
Dante only met Beatrice once more before she died at a young age, yet he devoted most of his life to writing poetry in her honor. She was his inspiration for La Vita Nuova and he gave her a starring role in his epic masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, as the person who guides him to Paradise.

Dante and Beatrice at the gates of Paradise, by Dore

The artist Henry Darger (1892-1973) led an agonized childhood. Born in poverty and orphaned at an early age, he was sent away at age 12 to the Asylum for Feeble Minded Children in Lincoln Illinois, a brutal place where children were abused and mistreated. At age 16, he escaped to Chicago where he found work as a janitor and lived a reclusive life, writing and drawing alone in his shabby apartment at night. In 1911, Darger became transfixed by a photograph in the Chicago Daily News of a young missing girl, Elsie Paroubek.

He kept this picture among his treasured possessions. He painted Elsie's portrait and built a small shrine for her in a nearby barn. After a month long search, police discovered the murdered girl's body in a drainage canal.

Devastated, Darger developed a story based upon Paroubek. He made her the leader of a child rebellion against evil adults who practiced child slavery. In his story, the adults (called "Glandelinians") murdered the young girl, but her martyrdom led to an epic war between the forces of good (children) and evil (adults).

Darger's story grew into a 5,145-page masterpiece which consumed most of the rest of his life. He called his chronicle The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. The Vivian girls were sisters who led the war against the Glandelinians, a struggle which grew to involve armies of naked young girls, typhoons that wiped out nations, a winged monster called "a Handsome Dude," and the massacre of thousands of cities of innocents. I find Darger's illustrations extraordinarily beautiful:

Despite all the horrors detailed in his lengthy war, Darger insisted that the "assassination of [Elsie's character] was the most shocking child murder ever caused by the Glandelinian Government."

He became so obssessed with Elsie's photograph that he risked eternal damnation by confronting God over it. Darger lost his precious photo and became convinced that God had taken it to test him. When Darger could not find it anywhere, he began to threaten God that the Glandelinians would win the war unless the photo was returned. "In case of no return by March 1916, the Glandelinians will not be forced into submission but shall progress better than before..." Darger kept extending God's deadline but after many years, when God failed to comply, a livid Darger made his counterpart in the story, a Captain Henry Darger, defect to the side of the Glandelinians.

How could an artist such as Dante or Darger draw a lifetime of inspiration from such a brief glimpse of a girl? I've always liked this famous scene from Citizen Kane, where an elderly man describes how in his youth he caught a glimpse of a girl in a white dress and thought about her for the rest of his life:

You never know when they will happen, those little moments that can be mined forever. Often they seem to depend upon just the right errant breeze passing through the hair of just the right person. But if a single glimpse can sustain a lifetime of artistic devotion, it tells you something about the untapped potential for all those other moments that fly by unheeded.


Sunday, June 01, 2008

In February, the FBI seized the inventory of a Chicago art gallery accused of selling tens of millions of dollars worth of fake prints by Picasso, Miro, Dali and Chagall.

Photo by Richard Chapman / Chicago Sun Times

The copies looked exactly like the real thing. (Local newspapers reported, "Even the experts are amazed at how good the stuff is.")

Each print was sold with an impressive looking "certificate of authentication." These certificates made no difference to the appearance of the art, but they made a big difference to the customers, who apparently did not buy art for the way it looks.

Perhaps they were seeking the wrong kind of authenticity.

Certificates of authenticity also play a key role in the financial empire of marketing genius Thomas Kinkade, who claims to use "DNA technology" to authenticate his mass produced art.

Again, Kinkade's certificates don't affect the quality of the art (which is hilariously awful) but they do prop up the prices for reproductions. One major distributor of Kinkade's pictures (who larcenously labels them as "limited edition lithographs, otherwise referred to as paintings") offered this advice on the value of Kinkade art:
Having owned five Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries for ten years I can tell you that Ebay is loaded up with fake Kinkade Paintings. It can be confusing for the novice to discern an authentic painting from an imitation. Here are some key points to help guide you in your search....

.... If they do not have an authentic Certificate of Authenticity from Media Arts Group Inc. (for pieces prior to 2004) or Thomas Kinkade Company for pieces produced after 2004, it has no value other than your enjoyment of the piece. Limited Edition Lithographs, otherwise referred to as paintings, must have their matching Certificate of Authenticity to hold their value. The certificate will list the name of the painting, the certificate number and the quantity of lithographs made in that series. The certificate number must match the certificate number listed on the bottom corner of your lithograph.
The conspicuous certifications on the face of these paintings suggest that the owners are displaying the certifications as much as the art.

Unfortunately, it turns out that even Kinkade's DNA is not enough to protect you from fraud. Kinkade has been repeatedly sued for cheating his business associates. A court-appointed panel ordered Kinkade's company to pay $860,000 for breaching its "covenant of good faith" by misleading two galleries. At least six other claims were filed against Kinkade by other plaintiffs. To make matters worse, the FBI decided to investigate him.

In the future, "authenticity" will be even more complicated. Digital art has no physical existence to "authenticate." It is a ghost, made of electricity and light. Limitless copies-- all with an equal claim to being the "original"-- can be made with no decline in quality.

And that's just the start. Famous flash artist Joshua Davis has invented what he calls "generative composition machines" which are software applications written with open source code and Flash to automate the creation of art. Davis feeds in multiple images, colors and other ingredients and his software spits out a variety of images. His machine has now created "art" for many top corporate clients, including BMW, Nike and Nokia.

Certifications of authenticity are helpful when it comes to allocating royalties, but meaningful authenticity cannot be bestowed by a certificate, just as artistic value cannot be bestowed (or removed) by market fluctuations. You should authenticate art with your eyes. Ultimately, the Kinkade distributor got it right: without a certificate of authenticity, art "has no value other than your enjoyment of the piece."