Saturday, March 13, 2021


In July 1573 the artist Paolo Veronese was summoned to testify before the Inquisition. This was never welcome news.  The Inquisition had a nasty habit of torturing citizens whose thoughts strayed from the true faith.

It turned out that Veronese's crime was his painting of The Last Supper which the Inquisitors deemed unseemly.

The painting showed cats, dogs and even drunken revelers at the last supper.  The Inquisitor demanded: 
Does it... appear fit to you that at our Lord's Supper you should paint buffoons, drunkards, Germans, dwarfs, and the like fooleries ?.... Do you hold that it is right or even decent to have painted your picture in such a manner?
The terrified Paolo escaped the wrath of his Inquisitors by quickly changing the name of his painting from The Last Supper to Feast in the House of Levi.  The painting remained physically identical, but now the Inquisitors no longer cared.  A simple name change transformed it from a life threatening heresy to a non-event. 

In Hamlet Shakespeare wrote, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."  Our minds can perceive a palace to be a prison, or a prison to be a palace.  The same painting can be good or bad depending on the title we project upon it.

Last week, the estate of Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel) announced that it would stop selling six books by Dr. Seuss which are now perceived to contain "hurtful and wrong" stereotypes.  It's good to be sensitive to malevolent intent and unnecessary hurts, but many of the criticisms now being leveled against Dr. Seuss strike me as fundamentally ignorant about the nature of drawing. 

Professor Philip Nel, author of Was The Cat In The Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, explained that "The most egregious ones come in If I Ran the Zoo, from 1950, which includes a page featuring the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant, with helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant."  

But for centuries, Asian artists have been drawing Asians with similar or even more extreme exaggerations. These images remain honored today.  They can be found in traditional, highly respected museums and books.

Exhilarated by the prospect of finding racism, the New York Times jumped to label this next drawing a "crude racial stereotype." 

However, the "slanted" eyes of the Chinese man are virtually indistinguishable from the eyes of half the band playing behind him.

The expressive distortions of the Asian character are no more extreme or derogatory than the expressive distortions of the caucasians or any other character on the same page. 

If the Asian character had been drawn more realistically, he would stand out as the only character in the book drawn that way.  I have yet to see a critic of Dr. Seuss' drawings offer what they consider a "non-racist" way to draw an Asian person in this style.  The same whimsical drawing style is applied uniformly across all characters in the book, none more insulting than the other.  The same quick jots and lines for eyes, the same brightly colored clothes.  Perhaps the drawing of the Chinese man is deemed more insulting because "thinking makes it so"? 

This brings me back to the esteemed Professor Nel, the leading academic responsible for rooting out racist undertones in the work of Dr. Seuss.  I was curious about his methodology so I listened to his lecture, Was The Cat in the Hat Black?  There, he claimed that "The Cat In the Hat is racially complicated, inspired by blackface caricature and by actual people of color." 

How so?  Well, the professor researched different stories behind Seuss' creation of the Cat, and "one story" suggests that Seuss may have gotten the idea for the Cat's white gloves from seeing the gloves on an African-American elevator operator (rather than, for example, seeing the white gloves on Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny.)  

If that's not racist enough, the professor continues, "A source for the Cat's red bow tie is Krazy Kat, the ambiguously gendered creation of bi-racial cartoonist George Herriman."  

For the coup de grace, Professor Nel reveals that 35 years before he wrote The Cat In the Hat, Seuss wore blackface in a high school minstrel show.

This is the type of mental gerrymandering for which the lunatics at QAnon award scholarships. 

In an era of high stakes and serious issues, important liberal causes are undermined when silly people make themselves such an easy target.  "Thinking" can make a picture seem good or bad, but apparently "not thinking" plays a big role too.

Thursday, March 04, 2021


     "Oh the things you can find if you don't stay behind!"  

                          -- Dr. Seuss

When Raymond Sheppard drew animals at the zoo, they'd often turn their faces away.  Most artists would then move for a better view of the face but Sheppard stayed behind.  He found the forms and details from the back to be a worthwhile challenge.  

It's an impossible angle to draw-- no eyes, nose or mouth. No facial expressions, no standard guidelines, formulas or conventions for capturing faces from behind.  What art school teaches how to draw the south end of a northbound horse?

You can't draw pictures like this on automatic pilot; they require pure and honest observation from the very start:

The rear view of a rhinoceros head turns out to be an astonishing landscape of bumps, ridges and knobs.   By "staying behind" Sheppard found a reality more phantasmagorical than anything produced by Dr. Seuss's 's imagination:

The back of a tiny dormouse head was far subtler.  Without conspicuous landmarks and features, its extreme simplicity required the most sensitive line.  


Birds were of course among the most uncooperative subjects, but Sheppard still found details worth recording:

Sheppard's honesty when drawing heads from behind is all the more impressive because, when deprived of facial features, many artists have a great temptation to cheat.  

For example, in the following drawing artist Neal Adams cheated by sliding features over from the front of the face to make them visible.  Frustrated by the lack of details and lines from behind, artists invent marks that don't exist:

Even worse, some art critics, when confronted with the back of a head, cheat by fantasizing about the meaning of the face.  New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl imagines qualities to Gerhard Richter's painting Betty and startlingly concludes that it is "the single most beautiful painting made by anyone in the last half century."

This is not art criticism, this is a Kuleshov experiment run amok.  

At least Schjeldahl has the excuse of being in his job too long.  Having used up all his adjectives describing things that are, he now resorts to describing things that are not.  This excuse is not available to the younger Washington Post art critic Sebastian Smee , who chimed in that “Betty is arguably the most famous painting by the most influential artist alive."  Like Schjeldahl, Smee gives the artist a helping hand by fantasizing all kinds of significance to Betty's missing face:
“Betty,” twisting away, evokes for me an impossible yearning: a desire to turn away from the din, the debacle, of political life and to dissolve instead — to bleed, to blur — into an intimate, apolitical present.
This brand of criticism is not about the painting, it's about the critic.

This kind of mendacity makes me value Sheppard's brand of honesty even more.  In the following quick sketch of a leopard, Sheppard draws just enough of the spots to show how foreshortening individual spots can reveal the structure of the animal.  They help make sense of the rear view.

What wonderful economy (a necessity when your subject might get up and move at any moment).

With all due respect to Dr. Seuss, there are wonderful things to be found behind the ear of a rhinoceros or in back of the jaw line of a sow.  These sketches are not flat recitations of fact, they are tests of our vision, our imagination, and our appreciation for the world in which we live.