Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Compelling Faces in Art - Francis Bacon, Head VI.

Cue the outrage... Here we have a face that screams with mercy as its flesh is stretched and pulled from its face. It is whitened by the horror of the situation. But doesn’t a little alarm now and then keep life from stagnation; providing us with uncomfortable and unexpected interference in the normally seamless flow of banal and comfortable information that our social environment constantly supplies us with. 

"Head VI" is one of Francis Bacon’s famous "Pope paintings," with the haunting mouth recalling the anguished cry of the bespectacled nanny in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. It is in fact based on the portrayal of pope Innocent IX which was originally painted by Diego Velazquez (1599-1660).

According to Stephanie Taylor, “Francis Bacon was the master of self destruction within modern art. He had an amazing ability to portray violence and create unsettling images. With the use of the human figure, he played around with distortion through human actions and emotion, creating disturbed representations, which often involved political undercurrents.”

Ingmar Bergman said of his films, “I don't want to produce a work of art that the public can sit and suck aesthetically... I want to give them a blow in the small of the back, to scorch their indifference, to startle them out of their complacency.”

But in this work, Bacon also contemplates and deals with our frailty--suggesting that within the realms of horror, beauty must not be forgotten.

Compelling Faces in Art - Jozef Israëls, Portrait of an Old Man.

Jozef Israëls, the Dutch painter (and most respected Dutch artist of the second half of the nineteenth century), was known as the Great “Rabbi” of painting. He was a descendent of Rembrandt and teacher of Van Gogh. His art was traditional, while at the same time pushing the limits. You could say, that although he had a light foot in modernity, he had a heavier foot in tradition. As the son of lower-class Jewish parents, Israëls was able to express with peculiar intensity, the life of the poor and humble. 

In Portrait of an Old Man, we see how he was committed to the simple in art and life. The words of William Blake (from The Auguries of Innocence) would become his guiding principle: “to see the world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wildflower.” 

---Translating softly, compassionately, and with understanding, interest in the smallest actions of human beings.

The subject here is cloaked in broad strokes of light and shade, presenting the old man without any neglect of detail . He is a man of honor and comfort. He balances his curiosities with his sensibilities; an acquired wisdom that only comes with age. He has not lived in vain. He knows the value of the things for which we suffer. 

As Anaïs Nin said, “The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.”

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Compelling Faces in Art - Simon Massey di Vallazza.

Chaos theory tells us that seemingly random events are actually predictable from simple deterministic equations. But, in the scientific context, the word chaos has a slightly different meaning than it does in its general usage as “a state of confusion, lacking any order.” 

Our world is full of chaotic compositions. A few will recognize this and become artists. Their task then is to confront the chaos and bring it back into order. 

Henry Adams said in The Education of Henry Adams, “Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man.” And Carl Jung inferred that in this cosmos of disorder, there is a secret order. 

In this painting by Simon Massey di Vallazza, I see beauty in the confusion, and truth as collision become form; the artist searching disorder for its unifying principle. A form emerges as a face when the whole and the parts are seen at once, mutually producing and explaining each other. It is here, where we find an open channel to the soul.

Chuck Palahniuk wrote in Survivor: “There are only patterns, patterns on top of patterns, patterns that affect other patterns. Patterns hidden by patterns. Patterns within patterns. 
If you watch close, history does nothing but repeat itself. 
What we call chaos is just patterns we haven't recognized. What we call random is just patterns we can't decipher. what we can't understand we call nonsense. What we can't read we call gibberish.
There is no free will. 
There are no variables.”

Compelling Faces in Art - Balthus, Rosabianca Skira-Venturi.

Try to find any information about Rosabianca Skira-Venturi, and you will have great difficulty. Except, that she was the author of a series of books, most notably, A Weekend With Leonardo Da Vinci. But Balthus left us with this portrait (1949) of her. An exceptional beauty, in a reserved pose, presented with the notion of less is more. As Robert Brault said, “You don't torture a painting that has already confessed.” Simplicity, here, is balanced with sophistication. 

As less information often leads to more interpretation, I still want to know: Who is this woman?

Compelling Faces in Art - Paul Delvaux - Pygmalion (partial).

Pygmalion was a Cypriot sculptor who abhorred all women for their lasciviousness, but fell in love with an ivory female statue that he carved. He pleaded to Aphrodite to animate his Galatea, and was not refused his happiness.

Here, Delvaux revisits the legend and broadens the context in which one can think of Pygmalion’s story. It is the woman who creates the statue of a man and falls for it. The context can be broadened further: disregarding any restrictions or conventions implied by gender. 

The reinterpretation of any myth is based on mutability of the past, through a continuous equilibrium between history and contemporaneity. 
So how does this translate to me (or you)?

Voltaire said, “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” And isn’t it fun to look at a subject from various points of view, anyway?

I like what K.J. Bishop said in The Etched City: “I am always a different man; a reinterpretation of the man I was yesterday, and the day before, and all the days I have lived. The past is gone, was always gone; it does not exist, except in memory, and what is memory but thought, a copy of perception, no less but no more replete with truth than any passing whim, fancy, or other agitation of the mind. And if it is actions, words, thoughts that define an individual, those definitions alter like the weather - if continuity and pattern are often discernible, so are chaos and sudden change.”

Friday, March 21, 2014

Compelling Faces in Art - Paul Klee , Young proletarian, 1919.

During the Roman Empire the contribution of a proletarius to the Roman society was seen in his ability to produce children that would colonize new territories. In Marxist theory, the term proletariat signifies the social class that does not have ownership of the means of production and whose only means of subsistence is to sell their labor power for a wage or salary. 

Today, there is perhaps some confusion. Part of the confusion is that capital has sought (successfully) to blur the distinction between capitalist and worker, for example by encouraging workers to become shareholders, and encouraging a confused view of class based on a variety of issues, including the self-image of the “middle class” as perceived capitalists. 

One thing is for sure. Most of the recent economic growth is going to an extraordinarily small share of the population: 95% of the gains from the recovery have gone to the richest 1% of people, whose share of overall income is once again close to its highest level in a century. 

The recent concentration of income gains among the most affluent is both politically dangerous and economically damaging. 

The reason I find this Klee painting so compelling is how it depicts this modern dilemma. The economy is an illusion. We are still nothing more than the procreators of more labor. Certainly a great deal of intelligence must be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep. 

In this face, I can see how the words of Joseph P. Blodgett ring true: “It's all illusion: the illusion of space, the illusion of mass, the illusion of light. The illusions go on and on, there is no limit to the number of illusions you can come up with.”

Compelling Faces in Art - Julio Romero de Torres, Gitana de la naranja.

Symbolism (a late nineteenth-century art movement), basically was a reaction against Realism (which elevated the humble and the ordinary over the ideal, and represented reality in all its grittiness). Symbolism was concerned with the imagination and dreams; the realm of absolute truths that could only be described indirectly.

“...they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals. In a nutshell, 'to depict not the thing but the effect it produces.’” - from Jean Moréas’ Symbolist Manifesto ("Le Symbolisme") in Le Figaro on 18 September 1886.

Gitana de la naranja by Julio Romero de Torres is undated. But we know he also painted Oranges and Lemons in 1927, and The Girl in the Orange in 1928. Both are similar to the one we are looking at here. 

A woman is the protagonist. She is sensual, with an almost tragic and ambiguous expression. She holds an orange, something that finds its way in to many of Torres’s paintings. What could it mean? Is it a symbol of fertility? We do know that Eastern cultures believe that Orange trees are a symbol of love. And, also that Orange represents gluttony in Christianity. 

The thing I find more interesting is the mixture of the idealistic with elements of a realistic portrait. This painting resembles more of a realistic portrait, yet the idealistic air places his figure in a vague halo of timelessness, giving this Andalusian the physical characteristics of a universal archetype, of feminine beauty.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Compelling Faces in Art - Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, Character Heads.

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (German-Austrian, 1736-1783) was one of the most fascinating sculptors of the Enlightenment. His most famous group of works, the studies of heads, are known today as the Character Heads (altogether 69 heads). 

In this sculpture, we have a face contorted into an extreme grimace. It is highly expressive, manifesting emotions that defy interpretation. In this respect, it is very modern. What exactly are we looking at? This sort of confusion pervades today’s art world. Often the sales pitch comes in the form of quasi-religious rhetoric, although the sacred and the profane have rarely been separated in art. 

Now there seems to be as many aesthetics and realities as there are artists, while the artistic elite, ambiguously credited and with access to the media, has established a new criterion for aesthetic appraisal. 

Ernst Gombrich wrote of da Vinci’s Ugly Faces, “...such monstrosities and malformations - the dwarf, the cripple and the bizarre physiognomy - belonged to the category of 'curiosities' to be gaped at ..." 

In comparison, Messerschmidt’s Heads might seem merely irreverent. Perhaps, even satire. The difference is that they are not remote, but too close. They mirror modern art in acknowledging the base and the irrational.

I think Maurice Tuchman addressed this when he wrote, “The universe is a single, living substance; mind and matter also are one; all things evolve in dialectical opposition; thus the universe comprises paired opposites (male-female, light-dark, vertical-horizontal, positive-negative); everything corresponds in a universal analogy, with things above as they are below.”

The beautiful and the ugly.
The sacred and the profane.

Compelling Faces in Art - Frederick Cayley Robinson, The two Sisters.

Frederick Cayley Robinson (British, 1862 - 1927) was a painter of idyllic scenes and domestic interiors, decorator and illustrator. He was experimental in technique, particularly in different forms of tempera. This particular work, The two Sisters, is infused with quietism and a brooding quality; essentially Symbolist in nature, with a striking variety of mood and atmosphere, capable of evoking complex emotional responses. 

Janice (my wife) wrote a novel years ago about two sisters (that is still in manuscript form). I wonder what story she sees in this painting. 

George Eliot, in Middlemarch, said, “The memory has as many moods as the temper, and shifts its scenery like a diorama.” 

When we want meaningful emotional experiences, we look to the storyteller. Oh, there is a story here--

They seem to draw closer together, as if in fear. The silence has the quality of half-heard whispers, whispers that discomfit; more appalling than the loudest yells of anguish.

Compelling Faces in Art - Mummy portraits or Fayum mummy portraits (54-68 AD ).

Mummy portraits or Fayum mummy portraits (54-68 AD ) is the modern term given to a type of naturalistic painted portraits on wooden boards attached to mummies from where Christianity began in the large and fertile Fayoum oasis of Egypt’s Western Desert. 

Christianity came to the region in the third century, so I would assume that these portraits are pre-christian.

Art historians touch on how these portraits influenced the production of Coptic icons, as well as on the medieval wall paintings at Naqlun and in textiles, metal objects, and basketry from the region. 

During the Ptolemaic Period (305 BC to 30 BC.), settlers in the Fayoum were mostly Greeks and Macedonians, but there were also groups of Jews, Persians, Arabs, Syrians, Thracians and Samaritans. Here, an interesting process took place for, unlike the Greeks in Alexandria who remained mostly a homogeneous community for many years, the Greeks of the Fayoum intermarried with native Egyptians, as did the other nationalities. Hence, the Fayoum became a great melting pot in which racial purity did not long survive.

This female portrait on wood panel is from Hawara, a site near the Fayum oasis. An icon is a sign or likeness that stands for an object by signifying or representing it either concretely or by analogy. This painting offers us so much more, and in many ways is very modern in its portrayal of this beautiful woman. We now associate icons with symbols; a name, face, picture, edifice or even a person readily recognized as having some well-known significance or embodying certain qualities.

I see impressionism in the light. There is an engaging middle ground where fundamentals in realism yield to expressive abstraction of the elements. It is fuller and richer than simply an image on a flat surface. As Vincent van Gogh once said, “I want to paint men and women with that something of the external which the halo used to symbolize, and which we now seek to give by the actual radiance and vibrancy of our colorings.” 

When I look at this portrait, it speaks to me, and reminds me of the words of Leon Battista Alberti: “When I investigate and when I discover that the forces of the heavens and the planets are within ourselves, then truly I seem to be living among the gods.”

Compelling Faces in Art - Ambrogio Antonio Alciati, Signora con cappello.

In 1916, Ambrogio Antonio Alciati painted "Signora con cappello." The figure is in silhouette, wearing a black hat and coat. I’m not sure if this is to highlight her beauty or is a reflection of fashion of that period. 

European and European-influenced countries were continuing the long elegant lines of the 1890s; tall, stiff collars, broad hats, and full "Gibson Girl" hairstyles. Although Italian fashion in the early 1900's was considered classy, elegant and sensible; form-fitting gowns with high or in-defined waists, or ankle-length skirts and long tunic-like jackets. 

Regardless, she is effortlessly beautiful. She seems the embodiment of natural beauty, healthy living, beautiful on the inside and out, confident without a scrap of make-up, with great skin and a natural glow to her personality. 

I also see a woman who is actually happy about growing older, because it means more time for herself, more time for her family, and separation from the frenzy of youth.

And, I think of the words that Sam Levenson wrote for his granddaughter:

"For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.
For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.
For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.
For beautiful hair, let a child run his fingers through it once a day.
For poise, walk with the knowledge that you’ll never walk alone.

The beauty of a woman is not in a facial mole,
But true beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul.
It is the caring that she lovingly gives, the passion that she shows,
And the beauty of a woman with passing years only grows."

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Compelling Faces in Art - Gian Giacomo Caprotti, Head of Christ.

Head of Christ is the only painting signed by Gian Giacomo Caprotti, but it is believed by some to be a da Vinci and there is speculation that Caprotti was the model. 

Caprotti (known as Salaì) was born in 1480 as son of Pietro di Giovanni, a tenant of Leonardo’s vineyard near the Porta Vercellina, Milan, and joined Leonardo’s household at the age of ten as an assistant. He has been described as “a graceful and beautiful youth with curly hair, in which Leonardo greatly delighted”. Although Leonardo described him as “a liar, a thief, stubborn and a glutton” and he stole from Leonardo on at least five occasions, he kept him in his household for more than 25 years, in which he trained as an artist. 

A number of drawings among the works of Leonardo and his pupils make reference to Salai’s sexuality. It has been suggested, as early as the 16th century, that there was a sexually intimate relationship between Leonardo and Salai, but this cannot be known for certain. 

A group of Italian researchers has claimed that Salaì was the model for the Mona Lisa, noting the similarity in some of the facial features, particularly the nose and mouth, to those in which Salai is thought to have been the model. These claims have been disputed by the Louvre.

This image is a detail of the painting. I chose it, because it is here where we can get a glimpse of the “Little Devil,” as da Vinci was known to refer to him. I can see how the purpose of his lies are to escape punishment, or work, or responsibility, and are most likely used for profit.

Compelling Faces in Art - Ludwig Michalek, Beethoven.

We all know the emotion Beethoven displayed in his music, the fiery intensity. It was unheard of in his day. 

We also know the comparison between him and Mozart in regards to composition. Mozart was able to get on a train, a few hours later get off with a whole opera composed in his head. For Beethoven every phrase, every note, was like pulling teeth, a mess of erasures and scribbles on a piece of paper that a copyist would later have to decipher. 

He once said, “Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.” The DMZ. No Man’s Land. The geography of dreams; exiled from Creation, yet also exiled from destruction. Yes, I can see it in the face of Ludwig Michalek’s etching. The rich inner life; beauty, drama, melancholy, depression, and a feeling of being unique. 

Haruki Murakami asks in Sputnik Sweetheart, “Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why?” Beethoven might answer: I will fill their souls with an agreeable surprise, gratify their curiosity, and give them ideas of which was not before possessed. My devils will be their angels. 

I can hear the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge when I look at this etching: “Could I revive within me / Her symphony and song, / To such a deep delight 'twould win me, / That with music loud and long, / I would build that dome in air, / That sunny dome! those caves of ice! / And all who heard should see them there, / And all should cry, Beware! Beware! / His flashing eyes, his floating hair!”

Beethoven gives us a chance to experience this beauty and power on a direct feeling level.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Compelling Faces in Art - Prudence Heward, Rollande , 1929.

Prudence Heward was one of a small group of women artists who were active in Montreal between the wars. As a representational painter, Heward uses bold, rich colors to create simplified shapes and strongly modeled form. In this painting, Rollande (1929), we have a portrait of a physically robust but psychologically complex woman. It challenges conventional representations of passivity; set in the landscape, this woman appears independent and brooding, even defiant, yet at the same time, inwardly vulnerable. 

Haruki Murakami said in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, “Emotional hurt is the price a person has to pay in order to be independent.” 

But is this really so? 

I see a person unfolding her own myth; ignoring anyone who would attempt to define her in a limiting way. Yet she broods. 

Carson McCullers picked up on this look in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: “In his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise. But still he wandered through the streets of the town, always silent and alone.”

Compelling Faces in Art - Mike Parr, self-portrait.

Mike Parr is widely regarded as one of the most gifted living Australian artists. His work is imbued with a strongly cathartic presence. 

This work is from one of his many self-portrait series, that have been created in a range of media that includes performance, installation, sculpture, drawing, drypoint etching and photography. In his performance entitled Close the Concentration Camps, 2002, Parr had his lips sewn together in solidarity with refugees in Australia’s detention centers. 

Once you realize that Mike Parr has cut, branded, stitched, burned and nailed his body in the pursuit of his art, these drawings take on a different context: awareness requires living in the here and now, and not in the elsewhere, the past or the future. It is the repetition of affirmations that leads to beliefs. And once these beliefs become deep convictions, you live your life as a revolution and not just a process of evolution. 

As J.Kent Clark said, “It is a profound human waste for people to go through life half-hearing, half-seeing, and only dimly aware of the range of their own perceptions and capabilities.” And, there can be no progress nor achievement without sacrifice.

Compelling Faces in Art - Ilya Repin, Judas, 1885.

Everybody knows the story of the man infamously known for his kiss and betrayal of Jesus in exchange for a payment of thirty silver coins. 

It is the story of betrayal, which is the worst pain in the world, because it goes beyond the physical, further beyond any other emotional pain one can feel. Betrayal never comes from an enemy...but comes from a friend. It injures the heart, and leaves you in the desert, your mouth dry and will broken. The wound lasts a lifetime. Our only defense is to distrust each other. 

The interesting feature of this painting, though, is how Repin gives to us the other side of the story. We are confronted with Judas’ anxiety and torment. Remove the religious implications for a moment and consider the man and his horrors; the fearful, acute suspense, his heart beating violently, the sinking of soul and spirit, and the breath come thick. 

Why is this such a compelling image for us, today? 

W. H. Auden once said, “Now is the age of anxiety.” We, as artists, have learned to live with it and use it to our advantage, even though a high price may be paid in terms of insecurity, sensitivity, and defenselessness for the gift of “divine madness.” Some, like T.S. Eliot, even believe that anxiety is the hand maiden of creativity.

Compelling Faces in Art - Odd Nerdrum, Kjærlighetspar (The Love Couple), 1976.

In the early 1970s, Odd Nerdrum was one of the leading figures to revolt against the dogma of Modernism. Focusing on contemporary social conflicts, with sympathy for the vulnerability of the individual, he created motives that made him one of the most mentioned and disparaged painters of Scandinavia. 

In Kjærlighetspar (The Love Couple), 1976, we see anecdote and narrative, that is allegorical in nature and appears to be done so with a sense of the apocalyptic. 

I imagine the first way to approach this work would be through the subject of love; that unfathomable combination of understanding and misunderstanding. Does love consign these two to hell or to paradise? Does it illuminate and lead the way? 

Often I am helplessly confronted by a picture... filled with suspense. It is a genuine struggle and challenge. And obviously, from a personal point of view, the principal challenge is a personal challenge. And before I know it, all these puzzle pieces add up to something pretty amazing: to fail to love it is not to exist at all.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Compelling Faces in Art - Theodore Robinson, By the river, 1887.

Life is an adventure of passion, risk, laughter, beauty, love--and if lucky enough, a burning curiosity. Here we have a girl at river’s edge, spying on ducks. 

When I see her, I think of how the world and everything in it can be new, giving rise to astonishment; to wonder and stand wrapped in awe. Wonder is the desire for knowledge, for something of the marvelous. 

Her face reminds me that amazement awaits us at every corner. 

I am also reminded of the words of Merlin in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King: “Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

Compelling Faces in Art - Frida Kahlo, Girl With A Death Mask (She Plays Alone), 1938.

The Days of the Dead are a joyous and sacred time, a time to welcome the souls of the dead; it is a celebration in which the living and the dead are joined if even for a short while. It demonstrates a strong sense of love and respect for one’s ancestors, celebrates the continuance of life, family relationships, community solidarity, allows people to talk about, and even finds humor in death. In this way, death loses some of its terror. 

The mask, for humans, has always helped us make sense of the universe, to personify its forces. And the most visible form of personification has always been the face, serving as a tool of transformation and a bridge to the spirit world. The impact of masks increases when contemporary art turns to themes like identity or gender, a subject that Kahlo could possibly be exploring here. 

Pablo Picasso understood the power of masks, and said, “Painting isn't an aesthetic operation; it's a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires.” 

But it is Hans Hofmann who I think of when looking at this Kahlo painting: “Art is magic... But how is it magic? In its metaphysical development? Or does some final transformation culminate in a magic reality? In truth, the latter is impossible without the former. If creation is not magic, the outcome cannot be magic.”

Compelling Faves in Art - Rose Cecil O'Neill, The Kiss.

Rose Cecil O'Neill was an American illustrator, artist, and writer who created the popular comic characters, Kewpies. In 1912 a German porcelain manufacturer started making Kewpie dolls. As an extremely popular illustrator, O’Neill was paid top dollar for her work. 

Thomas Hart Benton said that Rose was the world’s greatest illustrator. In “The Kiss” we get to see how good of an artist she really was. 

Nothing is more articulate than a kiss, yet at the same time incoherent; it can be a sort of tender curiosity, or it can be like playing Russian roulette and you finally got the cylinder with the bullet in it.

Compelling Faces in Art - Basil Blackshaw, Head of Traveller IV, 1984.

We pass people on the street, some we notice, some we do not. The moment can be totally fleeting and meaningless. 

Or, as Gustave Flaubert once considered, “An overwhelming curiosity makes me ask myself what their lives might be like. I want to know what they do, where they're from, their names, what they're thinking about at that moment, what they regret, what they hope for, their past loves, their current dreams ...” 

I ask myself: When our eyes are cast upon another, are we in fact gazing into the depths of a mirror? 

But only from a distance, when the face is still just out of focus. I care about them when they are abstractions. I feel nothing when they are in front of me.

Compelling Faces in Art - Friedrich Wilhelm von Schadow, Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (detail).

A call to live in anticipation of the final day of reckoning and salvation (from Matthew 25:1–13), as parable, is a warning to the church, which consists of both wise and foolish disciples; contrasting five maidens who have prepared for the arrival of their bridegrooms by obtaining oil for their lamps with five others who have squandered their opportunity and therefore miss their marriage feasts. 

If one bears in mind that this is a painting which portrays deliverance from judgment, then it alters the way in which one interprets its different qualities. The symbolism is that of light and dark; the virgins’ lamp being symbolic of prayer, the light symbolizing truth and enlightenment. The alternative, darkness, spiritual blindness, and ignorance. 

But if you view the painting in a different context (the subject turns her head to look back, revealing her beauty, as she heads towards the door almost as if to see who else is coming - drawing, or is it ‘enticing’, the viewer to follow her), it can be a discussion of virginity, sex in marriage, punishment for premarital sex, and a woman’s role in society. 

Will it reveal the moral, religious, and ethical views of the time, as well as the main problems within the church? 

Or even in our time: virginity prized for the wrong reasons; the church regulating marital sex even though the Bible allows it? 

Punishment is to be expected, but often interpreted differently.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Compelling Faces in Art - Jazzmin Windey, “Steam” series.

This photograph by Jazzmin Windey is from her “Steam” series. The subject is revealed through skeins of condensation like translucent silk. We see her body, but it is in the eyes where we come into contact with the faithful interpreter of the soul; expressing to us a secret about a secret. I am drawn to powerful, mysterious places; the source of all true art and all science. As Diane Ackerman said, “It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.”

Compelling Faces in Art - Vincent Van Gogh, Half Figure of an Angel (after Rembrandt), 1889.

This is from an important group of paintings executed while at Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Seeking to be reinvigorated artistically, Van Gogh did more than 30 copies of works by some of his favorite artists. But, instead of simply replicating, he sought to translate spiritual meaning and emotion of the subjects through his perspective, color, and symbolism. 

The inspiration may belong to his heros, but the works belong completely to him. 

The face of this angel, tells us so much about Van Gogh and his mind at the time in the asylum. He is the man before the angel, yet he is also looking down on himself from above. It reminds me of a passage from William Blake: “I was walking among the fires of Hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius; which to Angels look like torment and insanity.”

Compelling Faces in Art - Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Beloved.

The subject of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Beloved,” is the power of woman's beauty, and is inspired by the biblical Song of Solomon. 

The Pre-Raphaelites provided a form of escape for a country soon to be transformed by coal and steel production and its peripheral side effects of poverty and pollution. They envisaged art as a means of saving the human race and fulfilling the most important human aspirations, which they sought to communicate with the forgotten sources of spirituality. 

The central figure (the bride) here, pulls back her veil to reveal her beauty and engages the viewer with her blue eyes and full red lips. The rich colors and exotic fabrics in which she is clothed heighten her sensuality. 

Incidentally, the model for this painting was Elizabeth Siddal, who also posed for Millais' Ophelia. Siddal floated in a bathtub full of water to model the drowning Ophelia, as Millais painted daily into the winter. The water would slowly become icy cold as the artist became lost in his work. Siddal became very sick with a fever, and never fully recovered.

Compelling Faces in Art - Jan Toorop, self-portrait.

The self-portrait has an enduring appeal, for giving us an insight into how the artist perceives him or herself, or how he wishes to be perceived by viewers. Jan Toorop gives us this self-portrait in 1915. A Dutch-Indonesian painter, Toorop worked in various styles, including Art Nouveau, and Pointilism. He also developed his own unique Symbolist style, with dynamic, unpredictable lines based on Javanese motifs, highly stylized willowy figures, and curvilinear designs. 

At first glance, one could conclude that Toorop is depicting himself as a master of his craft, having authority over the viewer; expressed through his wild, staring eyes, and his dominance over the picture space. It is as if he wants to shock us. It is a provocative piece. 

What I find interesting here is that there is little sense of introversion, we are not being presented with an insight into his mind. Rather we are presented with a manifesto. Or is he actually imbuing us with a sense of gravitas and mystery? 

Perhaps the manifesto really is: Exploration of your identity. Your autonomy, unrestricted from outside constraints, comes with the artistic bravura of self-investigation. And only then will a naked quality of self-knowledge emerge.

Compelling Faces in Art - Ludwig Meidner, Portrait eines jungen Mannes [Portrait of a young man], 1915.

Portrait eines jungen Mannes [Portrait of a young man], 1915, is an example of German Expressionism by Ludwig Meidner. Meidner started out painting apocalyptic landscapes, anticipating the First World War, that are considered some of the purest "expressionist" works. After the war he turned to producing religious paintings, including a long and repetitive series of portraits of prophets. He was also an habitual self portraitist, and wrote several books of dense expressionist prose. 

The subject is so interesting here, because he so accurately captures the deep gravity and seriousness of youth; truth examined with impunity, offering the promise of happiness, only to be confronted with the realities of grief; contact with what is perceived to be real, has the potential to leave one bruised and wounded, victim of a conspiracy. The world for this young man is nothing more than the terrible disease of loneliness. It is his duty to scorn the disquietude of time.

Compelling Faces in Art - Simon Vouet, self-portrait.

Simon Vouet is perhaps best remembered for helping to introduce the Italian Baroque style of painting to his native France. He lived in Italy from 1613 to 1627 (on a pension from the King of France and his patrons), where he absorbed the influences of Caravaggio's dramatic lighting, Paolo Veronese's color and “di sotto in su” or foreshortened perspective, as well as the art of Carracci, Guercino, Lanfranco and Guido Reni. 

And in this self-portrait, we find a face that has the capacity to see beauty, the desire and the need to live, a growing sense of himself in the world, and ambition. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tales of the Jazz Age comes to mind, in the words: “Youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness.”

Friday, March 14, 2014

Compelling Faces in Art - Teodor Axentowicz, Under the burden of misery.

The work of Teodor Axentowicz, as well as other Eastern European Symbolist artists, were ignored, presumably because virtually all their paintings were behind the Iron Curtain and thus impossible to see. It appears they had an approach to Symbolism all their own, heavily influenced by folklore. 

"Under the burden of misery" (pastel on paper) stands out for me. Symbolist painters believed that art should reflect an emotion or idea rather than represent the natural world in the objective, quasi-scientific manner embodied by Realism and Impressionism. They felt that the symbolic value or meaning of a work of art stemmed from the recreation of emotional experiences in the viewer through color, line, and composition. 

And the emotional reaction I get from this, brings “Signs and Symbols” by Vladimir Nabokov to mind. In particular the passage: “This, and much more, she accepted - for after all living did mean accepting the loss of one joy after another, not even joys in her case - mere possibilities of improvement. She thought of the endless waves of pain that for some reason or other she and her husband had to endure; of the invisible giants hurting her boy in some unimaginable fashion; of the incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world; of the fate of this tenderness, which is either crushed, or wasted, or transformed into madness; of neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners; of beautiful weeds that cannot hide from the farmer and helplessly have to watch the shadow of his simian stoop leave mangled flowers in its wake, as the monstrous darkness approaches.”

Compelling Faces in Art - Hugues Merle, Mary Magdalene in the Cave, 1868.

If you saw this work and thought “Bougeureau,” you could be forgiven. Hugues Merle (French, 1823-1881) is in many ways a forgotten proto-Bougeureau. Merle and William-Adolphe Bougeureau (1825-1905) knew one another well and, for a time, were represented by the same gallery. 

Their penchant for mythical, allegorical and literary scenes combined with mastery of the monumental human figure, made them competitors for the same pupils, positions, prizes and patrons. Mary Magdaline is known for her remarkable understanding and appropriation of Jesus’ teaching, and is at the center of the controversy reflecting a developing tension between those who claim authority based on the idea of succession and those who claim authority based on spiritual gifts, especially prophetic experience. 

As a result, she is usually remembered as a woman of questionable reputation rather than as the first witness of the resurrection. The face in this painting, to me, depicts a women, chosen by God, to be the first to proclaim the most essential truth of the Christian faith: that He is risen!

Compelling Faces in Art - Petrus Christus, Portrait of a Young Woman, c. 1470

She certainly does not feel the weight of the yoke on her back, yet is locked into privilege. She is a slave to it; completely unable to define and determine alternative standards; to decide on the nature and extent of her identity. The artist may be implying, that those of wealth and privilege have lost the ability and daring to imagine what the future could be.

Compelling Faces in Art - Egon Schiele, Mother and Child (Madonna).

Mother and Child (Madonna) by Egon Schiele. Here we have an emotional and spiritual vision that vividly communicates a profound psychic experience. The mother conveys an ominous, frightening, anti-maternal aura. And oddly enough, her plump illuminated child looks stalwart if not resigned to be trapped in her foreboding grip.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Compelling Faces in Art - Gari Melchers, Sunday Mass.

Gari Melchers was an American artist (1860-1932). His painting, Sunday Mass (c.1886), depicts the interior of a church with parishioners in traditional Dutch clothes. The faces, as well as the poses, demonstrates Melchers’ qualities as a storyteller. I can imagine the preacher teaching these women to pay attention to the good gifts of God that surround them, and developing habits of gratitude. And, I also see in their faces what Norman Maclean describes in A River Runs Through It and Other Stories: “We can love completely what we cannot completely understand.”

Compelling Faces in Art - Vincent van Gogh, Agostina Segatori Sitting in the Café du Tambourin.

Vincent van Gogh’s “Agostina Segatori Sitting in the Café du Tambourin.” This face is almost expressionless, but it is not inactive. It displays a certain resignation, emphasized by the resting pose of the body. She offers her face to be looked at in all its stillness. A stillness that is also full of hidden movement, on the verge of change, whether into sadness or into a smile: sadness in the drooping eyes; a smile beginning to curl itself into view. Is the resignation evolving into realization?