Monday, September 21, 2015



Piet van der Hem (1885-1961) started out as a gallery painter and ended up as a society portrait painter.  But in between, the maelstrom of World War I transformed him into a savage editorial cartoonist.


Van der Hem began his formal art training in Amsterdam and Paris.  Early in his career, he participated in a Stedelijk Museum fine art exhibition, working with Piet Mondrian, Leo Gestelother and other young painters in the Amsterdam luminism school, the Dutch modern art movement. 

He seemed launched on a career as a modernist.  However, as World War I approached, he gradually dropped out of the avant garde and instead began drawing political cartoons with biting social commentary.   

As the war ramped up, van der Hem caught his stride.  This cartoon appeared shortly after German U boats sank the Lusitania:  

 Van der Hem was fond of portraying military men as monkeys.  


His work appeared in The New Amsterdammer from 1914-1920 and the Haagsche Post from 1920-1935.


However, as the Nazis ascended to power, they gradually crushed the Dutch free press.  Van der Hem lost his forum and his artwork lost its bite.  He went back to being a respectable artist.  He spent the rest of his career doing society portraits which, while competent, in my view were undistinguished and not nearly as fun.

Monday, September 14, 2015


It takes no talent to destroy great art.  Any halfwit can wield the knife or light the dynamite.  The gift to create art, on the other hand, is rare and fleeting.  There's only one John Lennon but anyone can pull a trigger.  This imbalance makes lousy odds for those rooting for beauty over destruction.

ISIS thug destroying art with a sledge hammer
In our era, militant Islam has spawned a generation of monsters.  Determined to make bad odds even worse, they've kept busy this summer pointlessly destroying beautiful ancient objects.
Earlier this year, militants bulldozed Nimrud, the former capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire, in order to destroy its 3,000 year old  archaeological treasures.
Last month when ISIS destroyed the monuments and temples in the city of Palmyra, uneducated  trainees required only a few hours to undo loveliness that had been honed over a thousand years by gifted craftsmen and artists.  No talent or experience required.

Yet, brutes with bulldozers are not the main reason the deck is stacked against art.  Nor are government censors, misguided Art Directors, or even collapsing buildings.

When you think about it, lousy odds have always been at the heart of art-making.  2,500 years ago Zhuang Zhou said:
Your life has a limit but knowledge has none.  If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, your effort is doomed.
Art is the use of what is limited to pursue what has no limit.  As a result, our efforts are always doomed to some measure of imperfection and inadequacy.

I spoke with the illustrator Robert Heindel shortly before his death.  Despite a long and successful career,  he was haunted by the questions that many artists ask themselves as they run out of time:
You realize when you get to be my age that you aren't really as good as you wanted to be.  You have to confront the question, "How good am I really?  Why can't I be better?"
Art's strengths are rare, but its vulnerabilities are widespread and permanent.  Perhaps that's why accountants never make good artists: art's odds are so bad, they make no sense to anyone who understands math.  A person who can read actuarial tables wouldn't even take the first step down this path.

So given these lousy odds, is art worth it?  Does it really contribute enough to our lives to make it worth the fight?  For proof, look no further than Khaled al-As'ad.

Khaled al-Asaad in front of a rare sarcophagus dating from the first century.

Khaled al-As'ad was a university professor and for decades the Director of Antiquities in Palmyra. He loved the city's art treasures and devoted his life to unearthing, studying and preserving them.  When ISIS invaded Palmyra, he hid the antiquities and sacred relics to protect them from being destroyed or sold on the black market.  ISIS arrested the 81 year old scholar and tortured him, demanding that he reveal where he'd hidden the treasures.  When he refused to tell, he was publicly beheaded.  Reports said that he never wavered.  They also said that after crucifying him, the militants hung his body from the same ancient columns he had once restored.

There are very few genuine heroes in the field of art.  You won't find them at Sotheby's or teaching graduate classes or managing big museums.  But every once in a great while, someone who has been truly touched by art demonstrates the strength and resolve and yes, the grace that beauty can inspire.  Al-As'ad must have looked around that awful barren desert on the last day of his life and recognized that civilization was not going to rescue him.  Yet, he'd found something worth protecting with his life.  That's enough to change the math on even the worst odds.

Dr. al-As'ad, I stand up at my desk in recognition of your heroism and in honor of your memory.

Saturday, September 05, 2015


I am a big fan of the artist Jorge Gonzalez.   I think his graphic novels are beautifully drawn, in a rich and inventive style.



Gonzalez lives in Spain and works in traditional black pencil.  He colors and enhances his drawings digitally to give them those sepia tones.  His works include FueyeDear Patagonia and The Great SurubĂ­.

I particularly like his strong compositions:



I admire his linework and his imaginative forms.  For example, look at his variety of treatments of an obese character in his graphic novel, Fueye:


Here, playing the accordion:

As I have repeatedly (and loudly) said on this forum, I think many of today's most prestigious graphic novels are poorly drawn.  They may win a Pulitzer prize or a National Book Critics Circle finalist award; they may be Time Magazine's #1 book of the year or win a MacArthur foundation "genius" award, but these honors are bestowed by literary types and cultural gatekeepers who apparently have very little understanding of visual art.  In my view, the drawings in these books often fail to hold up their half of the bargain.

To be clear, when I say that many graphic novels today are "poorly drawn" I'm not talking about technical facility or realism or mastery of traditional media.  I'm  more concerned with a lack of profundity, spirit, ability, sensitivity and visual imagination. 

Gonzalez' work reminds me that for the right artist, there is still a big role for creativity on the visual side of graphic novels.