Saturday, December 31, 2011


You think you've got career problems? Russian artist Zinaida Serebriakova launched her career just as the world was starting to unravel.

Self-portrait as a young art student

Zinaida turned 21 during the Russian Revolution of 1905 when widespread violence, poverty and political upheaval did little to help the art market.  Even bigger revolutions were just around the corner.  In 1905, a young patent clerk named Albert Einstein published the theories that would overturn centuries of scientific beliefs and transform our understanding of space and time. 

 That same year, Sigmund Freud published his revolutionary book describing how our "logical" behavior was really governed by subliminal compulsions and irrational urges.  As if to confirm that the Age of Reason was truly dead, hostile nations were already spiraling toward World War I.

It was in this unpromising environment that Zinaida set out in search of beauty.

Zinaida brushing her hair in the mirror

During her lifetime search, Zinaida painted a remarkable series of self-portraits.

Newly married at age 22
Age 27, by candle light
Modeling a scarf
Age 30: a mother
In art as in politics, the old rules were coming apart like wet tissue paper.  Zinaida had been trained traditionally by the great Russian illustrator Repin but now artists such as Picasso and Matisse were pursuing what Hilton Kramer called "a netherworld of strange gods and violent emotions."  Soon the futurist painters would add their own fiery polemic:
What is the use of looking behind?... Time and Space died yesterday.... We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman....We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism....
Despite all this, Zinaida steadfastly continued to pursue her own notion of beauty, lovingly painting the human body in a representational style.

During times of disintegration, revolutionaries, priests and utopian ideologues compete to fill the vacuum (usually causing widespread misery for the innocents caught in the crossfire).

Zinaida fell in love with a young engineering student but the church barred their marriage due to questions about the young man's faith. The couple got around the church's objections, married and had children shortly before politics intervened in the form of the February Revolution of 1917. Violence returned again that same year with the October Revolution, when Zinaida's lifelong home on the grounds of the Neskuchnoye estate was burned and its food supply plundered.  The new Bolshevik government rejected democracy in favor of a "dictatorship of the proletariat" and threw many people in jail, including Zinaida's husband.  There he contracted typhus.  He was released shortly before he died in 1919.

In the words of Leon Trotsky,
"You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you."
Zinaida was left with no money, four hungry children and a sick mother.

She managed to feed her family by drawing pencil illustrations for the Kharkov Anthropological Museum.

Then in 1924 she learned of an art job in Paris. Zinaida left Russia temporarily only to find when her project was completed that hostile relations between the countries prevented her from returning to her family.  With the help of the red cross, the distraught mother was able to smuggle her two smallest children out of the country.  However, she remained separated from her two older children for over 30 years.

Zinaida felt relatively safe working in France until the Nazis invaded.  Then her  Russian citizenship was sure to get her arrested, so she became a French citizen.  All the while, she continued to draw and paint.
Age 54
Age 62
Age 71
Looking over this lifetime of self-portraits, I am struck by the persistence of Zinaida's smile, and the tenderness that seems to have outlasted the forces that buffeted her.

She resisted assignments painting Soviet generals and commissars and refused to become caught up in ideological painting of her day.  Instead, she turned again and again to the purity and tenderness of the naked human form.  Her daughter recalled:
The female nude was mother's favourite subject. While she was in Russia young peasant women would pose for her. In Paris her friends would come over to her studio, drink a cup of tea, then they would stay and pose for her. They were not the professional models that you might find in Montparnasse and maybe this is the reason why they are so natural and graceful.

Today on the cusp of 2012, we can already see the next crop of despots eager to impose their solutions.  They've had a century to refine Lenin's special math that justifies sacrificing individual human beings to achieve some glorious future for humankind.  By now, they have become positively glib at it.

But Zinaida's joyous pictures suggest that she viewed the math differently, from the side of the equation where the individual is everything.  Pink cheeks here and now outweighed any blueprint for a distant utopia. Her math seems to have helped her remain indomitable during the years when artists with a more intellectual approach reacted with cynicism and despair. If you ever meet a person with such an attitude, marry them quick.  It will be the best thing you can do for the quality of your day-to-day life.

I wish all of you a happy, healthy 2012.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


It's too early in the season for the star of Bethlehem, so that glow in the sky last week could only have been the neon lights from "the most prestigious art show in the Americas," Art Basel Miami Beach:
photo by Casey Kelbaugh, New York Times

The Miami show, we are told,  brought together 250 "leading galleries" from around the world, "including the world's most respected art dealers offering exceptional pieces by both renowned artists and cutting-edge newcomers."

Photo by Casey Kelbaugh, New York Times

Don't bother looking for any crass illustration art at Art Basel Miami, Jocko.  This was 100% fine art, in all its finery.  The New York Times described it as "a holy gathering on the annual pilgrimage route of the super rich."  The number of private jets arriving at the local airport rivaled those of the Super Bowl, and a "line of quarter million dollar cars [was] idling while their owners waited for a parking valet."

You cannot attract such an audience of billionaires, socialites, celebrities and arrivistes with mere commercial art.  They would recoil at the notion of art commissioned for functional purposes.  Instead, such buyers must be flattered into believing they are purchasing something spiritual which demonstrates their sensitivity and perceptivity.

For example, in the panel convened to discuss The Future of Artistic Practice, the moderator began with a common theme:
Poetry is always what can't be sold....It has no usefulness.  It is merely useful through the ethical and aesthetic awareness that results from it. Poetry.... holds out in a world where people tend to lose all their spiritual values in favor of practical, predatory goals.  
This year more than 50,000 seekers of spiritual values clogged the bars and spas of Miami, buying at lavish prices.

And these weren't just your traditional tired old billionaires and hedge fund managers.  A whole new generation of the artistically sensitive has emerged:  Paris Hilton, of the Hilton hotel dynasty; Dasha Zhukova (daughter of a Russian oil mogul and accused international arms smuggler, wife of a multi-billionaire alleged to have made his first fortune as a ruthless Russian gangster);  Vito Schnabel (son of famous blowhard Julian Schnabel); Diana Picasso (great granddaughter of Pablo); even the tasteful Donald Trump dynasty was represented.  This new generation of talent is what comes of outlawing the guillotine.

Noted performance artist Ryan ("I'm an artist so I'm not, like, an asshole") McNamara took the microphone to speak about the artistic challenge of staging "subversive" performance art at the parties of such wealthy people:  "Halfway through the party I had these revolutionaries come in, run through the crowd screaming and then attack the cake with frosting... all they wanted to do was make the cake more delicious."

Also present was famed British artist Tracey Emin.

Art by Tracey Emin

The Saatchi Gallery describes this work of art as "a transient crowning glory," continuing (for the benefit of those who may have trouble recognizing glory): "Emin's triumphed over all and has money up the whazoo to boot." Emin was at Basel to share her technique: "I like to lie in bed in the morning for an hour just thinking, thinking thoughts.  And that's one of my favorite things to do."

Artwork produced using Tracy Emin's patented technique of "thinking thoughts"

Other great thinkers joined in to advance the path of culture.   For example, Jonas Mekas took the stage to read his poem which sheds light on the nature of beauty:
Their beauty
Was beautiful....
It was so totally somewhere else
And so far from what's on TV....
 If there was ever a time when illustration was more "commercial" than fine art, that time is long gone.  Today's gallery art is far more commercial.  But even worse, the quality and seriousness of fine art has been eroded by the current emetic marketing model.

Monday, December 05, 2011


The great A.B. Frost (1851 - 1928) drew a story about a man who wanted to learn hypnotism.  At one point, the man foolishly decides to practice on his wife:

Frost was a master at using the gaps between his drawings to imply a larger story.  People normally focus on Frost's visible lines, but today let's spend a little time focusing on the valuable real estate between the pictures.

Frost's line primes our imagination to fill in that empty space.  By setting our imagination to work, he can make a humble little line boundless.

This is a good example of how drawing can be superior to movies as an art form.  A movie doesn't leave the same gaps for us to fill.  At a rate of 24 pictures (or frames) per second, movies could effortlessly take up all the vacant space between Frost's first and second drawings, and give our imaginations a rest.

But that space performs an important function. As Debussy pointed out,
Music is the space between the notes.
As another example of the importance of empty space, check out the pacing of Frost's story of some local scamps who torment a homeless man looking for food:

While the dog keeps him pinned down, the boys have fun pelting the man with their slingshots

Frost carefully selects each moment to drop you to another level of the poor man's downfall.  Drawings spaced too far apart or too close together would not be as effective.  A movie could fill in all the details but it would likely reduce the artistry.  As Kathy Sierra wrote,
Comedians say that "timing is everything." But by "timing," they almost always mean "the pause." The pause is not merely a void between Things That Matter.
In the next drawing, note how the promise of a sneeze is more effective than if Frost had explicitly drawn a  sneeze:

Don't think we are talking merely about the gap between Frost's sequential pictures; it's also the gap between his pen strokes, the gap between an object and its representation, the gap between artist and viewer. Lots of important things take place in the apparently vacant parts of art.

Movies hug us close and in the future will hug us closer, invading any remaining gaps.  24 frames per second will soon become 48 frames per second. Scenes in movies are tailored in lengths that electronic brain scans show are optimal for keeping your mind from wandering. Improved IMAX screens thwart your peripheral vision from straying off the movie, and 3D effects pull you into that screen. Surround sound or earphones seal you off from distracting noises.  Even smell-o-vision or scratch and sniff invade your nostrils to make the movie a "complete experience."
People who like their art administered intravenously rarely exert themselves looking for invisible things in empty spaces, but I think they miss out on a lot.

After all, dark energy occupies more than 70% of the universe but scientists haven't been able to locate it yet. We can't touch or taste or see it but we know it's out there because of its impact on our universe. NASA reports:
the nature of dark energy is probably the most important question in astronomy today. It has been called the deepest mystery in physics, and its resolution is likely to greatly advance our understanding of matter, space, and time.
NASA even proposed to form a posse called the Joint Dark Energy Mission to track down the stuff. They want to look for it in all the obvious places-- abandoned warehouses on the far side of Saturn, or hanging out with the juvies around the pillars of creation in the Eagle Nebula, smoking Camels.

But personally, I'm guessing dark energy is hiding in that empty space between us and art. That's the only place big enough.