Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Year in Review

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I fooled you.

When I first started this blog, I had a few words to say. Curmudgeons usually do. While I had a handful of ideas rattling around in my noggin, I wasn’t sure if there were enough to warrant regular posts, so I first wrote a couple of months-worth to be sure. It turns out this quiet guy can vomit words with the best of ‘em.

But a blog takes more than one person speaking his piece – it takes an audience. Blogger gives me limited feedback to protect readers. What it does allow me to see about the audience is fairly interesting. I can say with confidence that sometimes it’s a packed house out there. Other times, not so much. During those lulls, I can only assume you were vacationing near the Louvre or were lost in the Prado or were busy creating a masterpiece. Otherwise, you have no excuse.

I can also say that you’re a very diverse group. I’ve set up the blog preferences so that it only appears in English, but I consistently have readers from around the world. Pretty cool, I guess. The largest global audiences, ranked in order, are in the U.S., Canada, Russia, Germany, Ukraine, Australia, France, Sri Lanka, the U.K. and Poland, but don’t forget the odd hits from Hong Kong, Vietnam, Belgium, Brazil, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Turkey, Ecuador, and a lot of other places I don't feel like spelling.

I can also see how many hits each post has received. I could here itemize them for you, and I could say that I will tailor future posts accordingly, but I won’t. There’s nothing fun or genuine in giving an audience what it always wants, especially when there’s a curmudgeon involved. Suffice it to say that my “edge” is appreciated. I guess.

My general impression is that some of you come here for the inspiration or insight or questionable taste. Some of you come for the laughs. Whether for laughs or tears, I fooled you. What I REALLY did was make you look at art. Maybe you’ve never been to an art museum. Maybe you’ve never taken an art course. If, however, you’ve poked your nose in here as a weekly regimen, then you’ve looked at 144 pieces of art over the past year. Pretty impressive – even for an art survey class.

Part of the fun in writing for this blog is that I must do some research on my own, especially when the well is looking a little dry. I found a few surprises while hacking through the dense forest of art history, and stumbled over many things I didn’t know.  In some circles that’s called learning, but let’s not spoil things. This has been a good place to get things off my chest, to take a look at art through a different lens, and to occasionally pour out my heart. Above all, it’s been fun. Let’s see if I can keep things that way.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Comfort for Christmas

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Half of the family I was born into has died, and it’s Christmas.

Pardon my reality check, but a lot of folks are hurting this time of year, and it's not because they aren’t getting the latest Star Wars action figure. Death and separation are unwelcome guests during the holidays. Having them show up on the doorstep and linger in an empty chair profoundly hurts.

All of us were born into a family. Love them or hate them, this time of year makes us want to be with family, but often that is not possible. In my own family, Dad died of a massive heart attack, my sister died of brain cancer, and one of my brothers committed suicide. It’s been years since the last death, but that doesn’t matter. The passing of time doesn’t always help. For those of you who have experienced some of the same, you already know this. For those of you who don’t, mend those fences and gird your loins, because it will happen.

I thank the Lord we don’t use the thoroughly British holiday greeting of “Happy Christmas!” because, if you’re separated from someone,  the “happy” part might not be there. Joy, however, is an entirely different matter. That is why today I’m focusing on a detail of the Nativity that sometimes gets glossed over – the company of heaven.
“Assumption of the Virgin”
Francesco Botticini. 1475-76.
(National Gallery, London)

For the most part, the rank and file of heaven does not resemble anything we know this side of paradise. Types of angels are named in Scripture, but outside of the seraphim, little description is given. We can only guess as to the function and appearance of ranks known as cherubim, seraphim, thrones, virtues, choirs, angels and archangels. Because of this, conjecture is always a main ingredient in artistic depictions. To complicate things, artists often foolishly borrow from the imagery of classical antiquity, ending up with winged infants and women that are straight out of Greek and Roman mythology. And, sorry folks, but little Suzy won’t be getting a pair of wings this Christmas when a little bell rings – that’s just a crock of horse manure. She probably wasn’t an angel in this life, so what makes you think she will be one in the next?
“Empyrean” illustration for the “Divine Comedy.”
Gustave Doré. 1861-68.

Anyway, tradition places the ranks of heaven in concentric circles around the throne of God, so artistic depictions have followed suit. Francesco Botticini’s tempera painting, “Assumption of the Virgin,” used this formula, placing heaven on ascending planes parallel with the earth. While Botticini’s vision of heavenly beings seems rather limited, he used an old, but simple device of the circle to represent eternity.

Gustave Doré put a more modern twist on a much older interpretation. Orthodox imagery always shows heaven as a sphere, and Doré did his best to reflect this in his engraving of the Empyrean in Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” The angelic figures swirl in an endless orbit around the shining presence of God. There is a kind of atomic feeling in his work, where angelic neutrons orbit a divine nucleus.
“Angel Appearing to the Shepherds”
Thomas Cole. 1833-34.
(Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Va.)

Thomas Cole, side-stepping the genre of his Hudson River School, gave a different perspective in his “Angel Appearing to the Shepherds.” The artist ripped into a dark composition, as if heaven was being torn open for us to see. A single angel is visible, back-lit by the glory of heaven. A few additional angelic figures hint at an innumerable host beyond our view. Meanwhile, the right of the painting is cut by the vertical light of a star pointing to the stable.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”” – Luke 2:13-14

Luke’s record of the event gives us a glimpse of the heavenly host – the winged armies of heaven. But Scripture doesn't stop there. Hebrews 12 declares:

"But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven..." – Hebrews 12:22-23a

That "assembly of the firstborn" is a group beyond the angels. They are familiar to us, but are veiled from our view. And if the angels were jubilant at the birth of our Lord, consider the din and the company recorded in Revelation:

"Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps,  and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth." – Revelation14:1-3

Herein lies Joy. While we praise our Lord here in time, we know they praise Him there in eternity. In our minds; in blessed memory, we hear it. I hear the voice of my father, Agapito, and perhaps you hear your father's voice, too. Can you pick them out of the roar? Robert, Diane, Bud, Vi, Martin, Heinrich, Katie and Stephen. Names and numbers beyond the telling, yet each individually precious to our loving God who descended from His royal throne.

Heaven ripped at its seams to announce our Savior's birth to man, and we join in parallel praise of God with us. In fact, we join with the whole Christian Church on earth. Therein lies even more Joy.

Chancel of Töllsjö Church,
showing semi-circular communion rail,
or “altarring.”
1858, with 2014 renovations.
(Töllsjö, Sweden)
The mashup of earthly and heavenly praise sung for our earth-born King is sometimes taken a step further. A feature among some old Scandinavian sanctuaries are semi-circular communion rails. Perhaps that doesn’t seem so odd, given rail variations running the gamut from straight lines to U-shapes. What is odd – and significant – is that those semi-circular communion rails are symbolically part of a full circle. The other half of the imaginary circle continues outside the church building and into the churchyard – the cemetery. The liturgical phrase, “...together with all the company of heaven...” suddenly takes on a much deeper meaning when realizing we are shoulder-to-shoulder with the saints – all of them. There is no separation, neither of time nor space. There are no borders. There are no walls. There is no distance that can be measured.

We may not be able to see or touch those whom we dearly miss, but the reality of the spiritual realm has little to do with what is visible or tactile. It is probably for our own good that the visible glory of heaven is withheld from us, or we would complain, as did those who saw heaven’s reflection in the face of Moses – a man yet this side of paradise.

Of course, there is much more to Christmas Joy than wrapping your head around an empty chair. There is no point in singing at all unless you understand the significance of God wrapped in swaddling cloths, and of His love wrapped around us. The truth of God among us; the truth of the Lord stooping down from His heavenly throne to save us from our sin; the truth of The Christ coming in time to be the ultimate sacrifice for sinful man is what gives Christians real joy. It is the peace that surpasses all understanding.

Those who hold steadfastly to the Hope of the Resurrection know that painful separations are only temporary. The flighty happiness of this world is supplanted by a profound Joy in anticipation of the next, made possible through the manifestation of our God-made-flesh; our Savior, on that first Christmas morning. Somewhere deep within the walls of our broken and lonely hearts, the prophetic words of Isaiah echo, ““Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God.”

Friday, December 18, 2015

A Painting Gives a Reply

“Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks” by Ilya Repin. 1880-91. (State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Once in a great while, an old story begs repeating – like today.

While recently researching a Russian art movement, I ran across an artist and one of his more famous works – both unknown to me. I have a strong hunch you aren’t familiar with the two, either. Given untold numbers of pieces created by artists, and given the limited examples studied during an art history education, there are bound to be massive gaps in knowledge. It’s okay. My own mind is rather like Swiss cheese, too, when it comes to art history.

I could have ignored the painting, but recent events stained by Islamic knuckleheads have given ample reason to dust off the painting and re-tell its story. I am talking about Ilya Repin’s “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks,” painted during 1880-91.

The canvas is rather large at 6 feet, 8 inches tall by 11 feet, 9 inches wide, but the scale is not so unusual for a composition packed with figures in a historical drama. The word “drama” isn't quite right, because the painting is definitely a comedy. In fact, a quick glance at some of the figures in the painting may hearken to conventions more commonly used in Mad Magazine. But before we closely look at what is being depicted, let’s stay serious for a bit and examine its artistic qualities.

Regarding composition, the piece is quite stable – perhaps even static. The artist placed the horizon near the upper third of the painting, following a comfortable design norm. The sky is punctuated by vertical and near vertical lines of weapons held aloft, which adds interest, along with a scuffling of diagonals in the center. The foreground figures are arranged in a circle, which translates to an ellipse when foreshortened. The focus of the painting is within the center of this ellipse. All this is held together with muted color that leans toward an earthen palette.

But enough of the composition; enough of the color – you want the story. Fine.

The painting depicts the completion and reading of a written reply to the Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire, who had offered terms of obeisance and submission after being troubled with a defeat at the hands of the surly Cossacks. It is a scene that was certainly contrived, as is common with monumental, historical events lacking luster and devoid of theatrical sunshine.

During the time when Repin worked on the painting, Zaporozhian Cossacks were held in high regard by Russian society. They were glorified as underestimated heroes. Visions of the Battling Bastards of Bastogne should come to mind. There is something very endearing about underdogs who get ornery, say what’s on their minds, and manage the unfathomable.

The Sultan’s request of the Cossacks used some rather highfalutin language – especially when written for a bunch of rustics:

“Sultan Mehmed IV to the Zaporozhian Cossacks:
As the Sultan; son of Muhammad; brother of the sun and moon; grandson and viceroy of God; ruler of the kingdoms of Macedonia, Babylon, Jerusalem, Upper and Lower Egypt; emperor of emperors; sovereign of sovereigns; extraordinary knight, never defeated; steadfast guardian of the tomb of Jesus Christ; trustee chosen by God Himself; the hope and comfort of Muslims; confounder and great defender of Christians - I command you, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, to submit to me voluntarily and without any resistance, and to desist from troubling me with your attacks.
     – Turkish Sultan Mehmed IV”

You should be able to guess the gist of the Cossacks’ reply if only by studying the painting. Mind you, these were the same folks who had recently defeated the Sultan in battle. Their words were worthy of the saltiest sailor; their candor, laughable; their jesting, hysterical. Unfortunately, most of the foul translation is not very appropriate for even this curmudgeonly blog. You’ll have to hunt for that version on your own, but you can get the flavor of their reply in this gentler translation of the message:

“The Cossacks of the Dnieper to the Sultan of Turkey:
Thou Turkish Satan, brother and companion to the accursed Devil, and companion to Lucifer himself, Greetings! What the hell kind of noble knight art thou? The Devil voids, and thy army devours. Never wilt thou be fit to have the sons of Christ under thee: thy army we fear not, and by land and on sea we will do battle against thee. Thou scullion of Babylon, thou wheelwright of Macedonia, thou beer-brewer of Jerusalem, thou goat-flayer of Alexandria, thou swineherd of Egypt, both the Greater and the Lesser, thou sow of Armenia, thou goat of Tartary, thou hangman of Kamenetz, thou evildoer of Podoliansk, thou grandson of the Devil himself, thou great silly oaf of all the world and of the netherworld and, before our God, a blockhead, a swine's snout, a mare's arse, a butcher's cur, an unbaptized brow, May the Devil take thee! That is what the Kozaks have to say to thee, thou basest-born of runts! Unfit art thou to lord it over true Christians!
The date we write not for no calendar have we got; the moon is in the sky, the year is in a book, and the day is the same with us here as with thee over there, and thou canst kiss us thou knowest where!
     – Koshovyi Otaman Ivan Sirko, with the whole Zaporozhian Host.”

I don’t think I need to draw the parallels for you to see the resolve of a different culture in time dealing with a mutual enemy. Repin, in masterful manner, has captured the essence of the historical moment in the guise of fine art. And amid the seriousness of it all, we smile.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Artistic Pairings: Verse Two

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It’s not surprising that music and art make a nice couple. Gallery openings often have soothing background music, adding ambience to a understated, yet festive atmosphere. Films also make heavy use of music, and chances are you will quickly notice if a movie has a sound track lacking a musical score.  If you’re like me, music is often playing while I work on art, and sometimes that music is “epic.”
“Spanish Dancer”
John Singer Sargent. 1880-81.
(Private collection)

I’ve tried subtle, but it just doesn’t work for me. By my own admission, the color in my work sometimes seems garish, even though I aim for “rich.” The same can probably be said of my taste in music. When it comes to organ music, the swell shades had better be open and all the stops pulled. And I honestly cannot understand why anyone would intentionally take a regal trumpet and, with the aid of a mute, create the sound of nasal congestion. So if you’re here for elevator music or violins that limp on, ad infinitum, I suggest you leave.

Pairing artwork and music will take a bit of online juggling here, so set up two or three windows – one for the visuals, one for the sound and one to keep track of the blog post. Oh, and I suppose you may also keep that extra window open to see if bids go higher on that hideous clown doll.

Let’s start out with something extremely flavorful. I’ve paired John Singer Sargent’s “Spanish Dancer,” with a piece performed by my favorite couple known as “Lute Duo.” Sargent’s piece was a preparatory painting for a larger composition, “El Jaleo,” and captures the richness of Spanish culture through flamboyant pose and movement. Frankly, I think the study is much better than the final piece. Placing the figure’s face in shadow adds mystery to the scene, and, in typical Sargent style, brush strokes are allowed to define flourishing movement.

Anna Kowalska and Anton Birula are the Polish Lute Duo, and they may change the way you think of period music. Kowalska typically plays a deceivingly-diminutive Baroque guitar, while Birula rounds out the bottom notes on a lute monstrosity known as a theorbo. For Sargent’s “Spanish Dancer,” I’ve picked a rather spirited variation of “Canarios,” by Gaspar Sanz (1640-1710). Unfortunately, you’ll have to go to minute 33:20 of the video to enjoy the short piece. Put your thoughts of ruffled collars aside and instead envision the two pickin’ and grinnin’ in the Baroque pumpkin patch. It’s amazing that Kowalska can coax as much sound from an instrument not much larger than a ukulele. Meanwhile, Birula shows how bass strings and percussion can be played on a single instrument.
"Petr of Chelcicky at Vodnany"
Alphonse Mucha. 1918
(Mucha Foundation, Prague)

The painting I’ve chosen for the next pair is "Petr of Chelcicky at Vodnany," the twelfth painting in Alphonse Mucha’s “Slav Epic.” Stellamara performs her haunting “Kyrie Eleison” as a compliment. The musical piece is beautifully flavored with sliding, Middle-Eastern notes that speak of mourning and utter misery. But before you go out an buy 20 copies of the score for your Sunday School choir, I advise you that the translated lyrics are not meant for any sanctuary. They are woeful, indeed. Still, ‘Kyrie’ intensifies the undeniable melancholy in Mucha’s masterpiece, and give us a reality check that life isn’t always a happy-clappy experience.

Now let’s mellow things out a bit with woodwinds and a wood. This is a duo of very lovely pieces that are probably off the beaten path for most listeners and viewers. “Novembre,” by American Tonalist, Lowell Birge Harrison, and “Diligam Te Domine,” by Ascanio Trombetti, play very nicely together in a rather earthy pairing.
“Novembre” Lowell Birge Harrison.
1881. (Musée des Beaux-arts de Rennes)

Harrison was a member of the Tonalist movement, which focused on muted color and shadow, emphasizing mood. His “Novembre” makes heavy use of earth colors and patterning of a leafy forest floor to even out the composition, resulting in a calm image. This sort of gentle minimalism enhances an otherwise-unnoticed detail of the woman’s hem as it drags over a delicate branch.

It might be a stretch to fit Trombetti’s sacred theme into a natural sanctuary, but it underscores the mood of Harrison’s painting. Played on recorders the size of totem poles, the piece is thick with woodsy resonance.
“Crucifixion of Saint Peter”
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. 1601.
(Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome)

I’ve used two sacred pieces for the next pairing. “The Crucifixion of Saint Peter,” by Caravaggio, is matched with “Heyr himna smiður,” set to music by Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson and performed by the Trondhjems Student Choral Society. Yeah, I know: This is all sounding foreign to you. Me, too.

Caravaggio’s masterpiece uses his trademark chiaroscuro in depicting St. Peter’s martyrdom. According to tradition, Peter requested that he be crucified upside down, so as not to confuse his manner of death with that of Christ’s. The artist avoided the accepted convention of idealized portraiture in favor of real faces. He also left the composition uncluttered, allowing the saint’s straining body to fully confront the viewer. The whole is not intended to be pretty. Still, it is beautiful.

“Heyr himna smiður,” or “Hear, Smith of Heavens,” is an ancient piece written by Kolbeinn Tumason, supposedly on his deathbed. The lyrics are essentially a prayer for help as the writer neared death, with phrases such as “Drive out, O King of suns, generous and great, every human sorrow from the city of the heart.” The musical setting conveys earnestness of the prayer and deep devotion of one soon to die.
“Yes,” by John Everett Millais.
1877. (Private collection)

Next up is an odd pairing – Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais’s “Yes,” and John William’s “Cadillac of the Skies,” from the musical score of “Empire of the Sun.” If you can forget you ever saw the movie and ignore the fact that the musical piece is an ode to military aircraft, then you might possibly understand my logic in that it has a strong romantic theme. The crescendoing, deep brass practically oozes all over the sentimental “Yes.” Hopefully, the subject of his painting needs no explanation, other than the artist, a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelites, has miraculously avoided the movement’s penchant for errant knights and dreamy-eyed damsels. And, yes, I rather enjoy the genre.

While we’re on the subject, we might as well pull out the big guns with a compatriot of Millais – John William Waterhouse. Let’s put “The Dreame,” by Patrick Doyle in the same parfumed chaise with Waterhouse’s “Ophelia” and see what happens. Doyle’s lyrics nick a major artery and out pour lines like, “And sleepe so guiltie and afraid, As since he dares not come within my sight.” The piece certainly ramped up the romance in the musical score for “Sense and Sensibility.” Waterhouse, meanwhile, pumps out sentimentality via a nearly comatose femme fatale, who’s overdosed on hormones in a field of flowers. The Pre-Raphaelites were heavy consumers of romantic tales, both in myth and legend, sometimes fighting over rarefied models who personified the movement’s ideology.
“Ophelia.” Jhohn William Waterhouse.
1889. (Private collection)

By now, I imagine you have had quite enough of my music and are earnestly thinking about the nearest anechoic chamber for a little sensory deprivation. Fine. But if you begin to remember some of these paintings, and a familiar strain gently passes by, take note.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Taking Art By Storm

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The sky looks foul, but there are no birds to be seen. A heaviness points to clouds pregnant with rain. Thunder rumbles far away.
“Storm in the Rocky Mountains”
Albert Bierstadt. 1886.
(The Brooklyn Museum, NY)

This time of year is apt to give us forecasts that aren’t quite as sunny and cheerful as midsummer, so the collection I’ve chosen focuses on unfavorable weather in paintings – more precisely, rain storms. I’ve decided, however, to give a wide berth to nautical storms and tornadic depictions. No sense in being miserable on a heaving deck or scampering into the cellar. Instead, we’ll take in a few storms from the imaginary comfort of an expansive, rustic porch – the kind with an overhang wide enough to keep even the worst elements at bay. If you let your mind’s eye wander across the porch’s well-worn planks, it’s the sort of place to immerse oneself in a good book or idly pass the time with a cup of coffee. Back against the wall are a few massive rocking chairs of odd vintage. Make yourself at home, and we’ll let artistic visions command the view.
“Silence Has Settled”
Nicolai Dubovski. 1890.
(State Russian Museum, St. Petersbur, Russia)

The first downpour is courtesy of Albert Bierstadt’s “Storm in the Rocky Mountains.” Bierstadt was a member of the Hudson River School – a thoroughly American product made up of artists who glorified the vanishing wilderness with its grand scale, and minimized the significance of man. The example I’ve chosen has enough rugged ingredients to satisfy the genre, offering the viewer a composition filled with clouds curling into mountainous shadows. Dramatic darks and lights push each other in an atmospheric fight that ignores a miniature tableau of figures racing after riderless horses. Even though deer frolic in the painting and a waterfall gurgles to one side of the composition, this particular piece is rather understated for the Hudson River School. If all the stops had been pulled out, there would have been lightning, a rainbow, and an erupting volcano. Maybe even a total eclipse. Of Jupiter.
“La Tempete”
Pierre Auguste Cot. 1880.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)

Russian landscape artist, Nicolai Dubovski, took a far different approach with his brooding sky in “Silence Has Settled.” Well-modeled clouds have a solidity of form as they muscle their way across the sky. The viewer must look beneath the warm shapes to see a veiled deluge that has passed. Dubovski has dared to take something normally ethereal, rendered it with more definition than stone, and has gotten away with it. The artist was a member of the Peredvizhniki – “The Wanderers,” or “The Itinerants” – who protested the idyllic standards of romantic beauty at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, and often focused instead on ethnic history and the simple folk life. This particular example may not fit their mold very well, considering Dubovski’s treatment of a regal sky.

I suppose we should take a look at Pierre Auguste Cot’s indulgent painting, “La Tempete,” or “The Storm.” This piece is a prime example of what the Ecol d’ Beau Arts was churning out in its heyday. “The Storm” was a huge hit in the Salon of 1873, but if we spied these two knuckleheads – who obviously have been up to no good – running past our porch, I think grandpa would storm out the door with his shotgun. What is interesting is this piece shows very little of the storm, save a lightning bolt, but we know the wind is going to howl and rain will come in torrents. As if little Miss Deeds even needs to get her wispy frock wet.
“The Hailstorm” Thomas Hart Benton. 1940.
(Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Neb.)

Okay, the two have fled and are now tangled in briers and poison ivy, and I'm itching to focus on Thomas Hart Benton’s “The Hailstorm.” His vision is of yet another brand of painting. While shapes in his work are well-defined and solid, he had a strong tendency to ignore strait lines and employ curvaceous forms to convey movement. His color is harsh. Benton’s images are as straightforward as the Midwest, trading visual subtlety for the occasional delicate metaphor.

Next on the horizon is a must-have in the storm genre – J.M.W. Turner. His portfolio is loaded with nautical storms, so the example I’ve chosen is a bit unusual for the artist. “Buttermere Lake, with Part of Cromackwater, Cumberland, a Shower,” is longer on atmosphere than the title itself. This otherwise moody painting somehow conveys a kind of serenity in which the viewer can almost hear the calming silence of  a storm’s passing. Perhaps it’s the rainbow, although Turner has atypically ignored the chance to heighten the composition’s color with such a weather phenomenon.
“Buttermere Lake, with Part of Cromackwater,
Cumberland, a Shower”
J.M.W. Turner. 1798.
(The Tate Museum, London)

Our final storm jumps into a different medium, courtesy of Swedish artist Anders Zorn. A masterful portraitist in the mold of John Singer Sargent, Zorn enjoyed international acclaim among movers and shakers of his day. One of his presidential portraits hangs in the White House. Another is housed in the National Portrait Gallery down the street. This, from a Swede. But we’re putting his paintings and portraiture aside to look at his etching, “Storm.” Like Cot’s “La Tempete,” this piece avoids showing too much of the oncoming deluge. Unlike ‘Tempete,’ Zorn’s work captures the essence of the storm with much less fuss over detail and without color. The ambiguous quality of etching leans more on mood and movement, and we can feel the anxiety in the rider as he bowls toward the viewer.
Anders Zorn. 1891.

The cloud burst of paintings has passed, and it’s time to get off the porch and get to work while the sun shines. Of course, rain is the least of worries for those of us living in northern climes. But we’ll leave snow – and other four-letter words – for another day.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Getting Back on the Horse

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Writer’s block is common. Perhaps it isn’t as common as you’d sometimes like, given this blog, but I digress. Among artists, the equivalent of writer’s block is often an ugly spectre. There are all sorts of reasons to leave the brushes untouched; to avoid an empty canvas.

It recently happened to me. Through a messy cocktail of disjointed ingredients, my paint and pencils and drawing board and easel were left unattended for months. First, it was the completion of a painting for ArtPrize that necessitated building a frame in my wood shop. Then there were scads of cruciform shapes to construct and painting surfaces to prepare. Then came ArtPrize. Then went ArtPrize. Then came a cold – thanks to ArtPrize. Then sleep – too much sleep.

I knew it was time to get back into the 3 a.m. groove, but the summer days had lapsed into darkening autumn days, which in turn produced lengthening shadows of excuses.

It took a monstrous effort, but I finally got up early one morning and began unscrewing caps off hardened tubes of paint. Pliers were needed on every tube. And I began to paint.

The simple act of laying on paint became the point. I didn’t need to do something exquisitely beautiful – I just needed to do something. It’s called discipline.
“St. Mark” (Work in progress,
from a Gospel Processional

In art school, I had to do 100 pages of sketches for each drawing class credit. Courses were worth four credits, and I once had to double up on the drawing credits. 800 pages of sketches in one semester, on top of everything else. The painful exercises were training for future days when inspiration was lacking. Don’t feel like doing much? Too bad.

On that early morning, a couple of hours after I began painting, I was looking at a diminutive face of a saint whose intelligent eyes seemed to ask, “Why didn’t you paint me sooner?” I didn’t answer. I just went on to paint the next face.

For writers, two words elegantly strung together are sometimes sufficient to get one’s feet back into the stirrups. For artists, perhaps it’s a couple of marks. But there is no way anyone will make two marks – unless they first make one.

Friday, November 20, 2015

For Thanksgiving

“Jesus Healing a Leper”
[Detail from the “Walters Manuscript”]
Coptic. 1684.
Copyright © Edward Riojas

If you’re like me, chances are you’ll head to church either this coming Wednesday night or the following morning to celebrate the National Day of Thanksgiving. And if your church is like mine and follows the prescribed Scripture readings of the Historic Lectionary, then you will probably hear the Gospel account of Christ healing the ten lepers.

At first blush, the Gospel reading is a bit weird for Thanksgiving, but when we settle our minds into a state of attentiveness and connect the dots, we once again remember how that one leper – the foreigner – came back to give thanks, while the rest of the thankless ingrates headed off in their new skins.

After church, we will go home and begin relishing a day off from work or perhaps a four-day weekend, and we will again be thankful. Before dinner, we will give thanks. Then everyone will eat too much. Afterwards, the guys will plop on the couch with more refreshments and watch their favorite football team lose again. A few will be thankful. Meanwhile, the gals will make plans to go purchase more crap that no one really needs. [“Thank you. It’s what I always wanted.”] If you haven’t yet gotten a hint that something is just a little ugly, start thinking about Black Friday. Yeah, I know, “Thanks a lot.”
“Sermon on the Mount” Cosimo Rosselli.
1481. (Sistine Chapel, The Vatican)

I was a little surprised when I went looking for artistic renditions of Jesus and the ten lepers. There is a glut of really tame images out there. Most of them show healed, healthy folk, sometimes with the token guy at Jesus’ feet. Everyone is squeaky clean, and the lepers have somehow gotten rid of their rags. Everyone is just a tad too happy.

Images that do show the ten lepers seem to follow a pattern set by Orthodox iconography. The afflicted are covered by red spots. Other than the spots, the figures look perfectly healthy. Chicken pox comes to mind.

I finally resorted to my own portfolio for leper images that were a bit more realistic. Executed in black and white, these pen and ink drawings hint at the disfigurement and helplessness that comes with being leprosy‘s victim.
[Two variations from the “Ecclesiastical Art”
Lectionary series] Edward Riojas.
(Collection of the artist)

I wondered why there is not more realistic depictions of the afflicted. Perhaps we are more taken by the power of Christ to heal than we are taken by His mercy. We like to see results. [“Give us a sign, Lord!”] We want to see the heavy-duty cure instead of a malady that causes disgust among men and necessitates the Mercy of our Lord.

But even what I tastefully executed does not do leprosy justice. Here’s some helpful advice: Don’t go surfing online for photos of the real deal this Thanksgiving when family members are passing around the mashed potatoes – someone will end up wearing the mashed potatoes. Leprosy is a hideous disease that runs a vicious attack at the body. Nerve impulses become short-wired so that victims don’t feel pain. At all. Vision and respiration become affected. Body tissues run amok in directions creation never intended. After a while, the victim’s body becomes ugly – with a capital “U.”

It’s no wonder Levitical Law prohibited lepers from worshiping and intermingling with the rest of society. If the priest said, “Get out,” then you left. It didn’t matter where, as long as it was out in the boonies. And you didn’t forget to ring a bell and yell at the top of your pained lungs so everyone knew where you were and where they shouldn’t be. Lepers gravitated toward each other because, even then, misery loved company. So it was that ten of them met Jesus.

They had been kicked out of the kingdom because they were infected. They were ugly. They didn’t realize they should feel the pain of their malady. They were nearly blind. Their condition only worsened as they hobbled through life, and they tried to cover up their own hideousness with filthy rags. They lived a life as outsiders in a hostile world. They announced their presence with bells, and cried, “Lord, have mercy!” from afar.

Some of this should start to sound uncomfortably familiar. Maybe, like me, you are starting to itch.

Our spiritual plight, apart from Christ, is far more leprous than its physical counterpart could ever get. Christ didn’t overturn the lives of ten guys with a bad cough or ten guys who could get better if they simply took more vitamins or exercised regularly or used more caution in life. The lepers were the walking dead. Without Christ, so are we.

It’s interesting that the account of the ten lepers is not a parable, but a reality in the life of Christ. Christ didn’t just spin a good yarn or paint a fine picture to make an important point. The ugly reality of the occurrence points to the uglier realities in our lives. It points to the inestimable Mercy of our Lord and our only Hope for the cure of our disease of sin. Knowing this is good reason to take pause in the respite of a day off or a long weekend, turn around, fall at the feet of Christ, and give thanks to the Provider of every good and perfect gift, including the unmerited gift of salvation.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Bad Art: Some Pretty Ugly Stuff

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“Madonna With Smile” was the first thing that caught my eye. And yes, it is ugly.
“Madonna With Smile”
Unknown artist.
(MOBA, Boston)

Sometimes artists get too caught up in the serious pursuit of perfection to notice the other side of life – not being serious at all. The other day I was surfing for art, and stumbled across the Museum of Bad Art. Located in Boston, MOBA celebrates some of the uglier pieces of art that missed getting carried out to the curb. The folks at MOBA make acquisitions at yard sales and resale shops, scraping the bottom of the creative barrel in a nearly cruel manner. ‘Madonna,’ with its Sharpie smile, is part of the museum’s permanent collection, and it’s guaranteed to make the viewer go, “What the?”

I was so inspired by the piece that I went surfing for some real gems. It’s easy – and mean – to poke fun at stuff  produced by folks who don’t have a lick of art education under their belts, which is what MOBA does. I decided to take a few jabs at the masters, who should have known better. Besides, most of them are dead and won’t give a rip about what I say, anyway.

Colonial art of the Americas is usually a good place to find bad art. Take the “Portrait of a Gentleman,” by an unknown artist. It can be seen in Colonial Williamsburg, but that doesn’t make it any prettier. There’s nothing handsome about a guy on a bad hair day who’s just come in from a hurricane. And, honestly, if you can’t center his eyes, Mr. Artist, then please do a profile.

“Portrait of a Gentleman”
Unknown artist.
(Abby Aldrich Rockefeller
Folk Art Collection, Colonial Williamsburg, Va.)

Of course, when colonial sacred art gets thrown into a blender with finger-puppets, you know things will not turn out well. That much is obvious in this unknown piece by an unknown artist from an unknown South American country. I’d be embarrassed, too.
Untitled. Unknown artist.
Date unknown. (Nowhere)
Next up is a piece by Bortolomé Bermejo de Cardenas. The artist apparently missed one or two anatomy classes before painting the Christ Child in his “Retable of the Virgin of Montserrat.” Of course, we can’t rule out a fixation with the movie “The Exorcist.” I know our Lord can do all things, but unhinging His scull for the artist’s amusement is highly, HIGHLY doubtful.
“Retable of the Virgin of Montserrat” [Detail.]
Bortolomé Bermejo de Cardenas. 1485.
(Acqui Cathedral, Acqui Terme, Italy)
Fra Filippo Lippi was a painter of all things sacred, and a big name in early Christian art. The monk didn’t get out much, so we can’t blame him for inviting the wrong crowd to this painting. Even the Virgin Mary is baffled. Jesus, who looks like He’s already had too many Kit Kats, will probably never have a Halloween party again, thanks to Saint What’s-His-Face, who showed up sporting a cranial butcher knife.
“Madonna of Humility”
Fra Filippo Lippi. c. 1430.
(Castello Sforzesco, Milan
Albrect Dürer used the ugly trump card when dealing his painting, “Christ Among The Doctors.” It almost isn’t fair that the artist used cartoonish contrast in showing the Divine intelligence of Christ. The profiled doctor makes Homer Simpson look like a genius.
“Christ Among The Doctors”
Albrecht Dürer. 1506.
(Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)
Some traditions of the Church just get out of hand.  According to some, li’l St. Nick was so pious that he refused his mother‘s milk during a Friday fast. Whatever. Looking at this piece by an unknown artist, I think he simply got pissed off after being turned into a loaf of French bread by his ugly witch-mom. Then again, maybe it’s her creepy earrings. Or those ceramic vases on her chest.
“St. Nicholas Refusing His Mother’s Milk”
Unknown artist. Unknown date.
Now lets pull out all the stops with Max Beckmann. I looked and looked. I finally found a work of his that wasn’t sadistic or malicious or controversial – I think. The work of this German Expressionist unmasks a less-than-pristine world, but enough already with trying to offend everyone on the planet. The only thing good about Max Beckmann’s work is: It isn’t done by his contemporary, Otto Dix.
“Before The Masked Ball”
Max Beckmann. 1922.
(Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich)

NOW we’re talking ugly. Sheeesh. Before you all go hunting down prints of his no-man’s-land “Near Langemar, February 1918,” I should probably tell you that it will only get worse the farther you go skipping down Otto Dixville Lane. Don’t expect unicorns and marshmallow fluff. I’ve got the perfect place over my living room couch for Dix’s “Skull.” Maybe you should consider a similar piece. One never knows when a good conversation stopper is in order.
“Skull” Otto Dix. 1924.
(Museum of Modern Art. NY)
If you STILL haven’t gotten enough of the ugly, feel free to jump on the “Ugly babies of the Renaissance” bandwagon that’s running out of control in every corner of the web. I personally doubt that any Renaissance artist ever saw a child outside of the local freak show. The genre is top-heavy with ugliness, and it’s only a matter of time before the load spills over into every self-respecting gallery in town.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Of Permanence And Other Pursuits

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Some things don’t change at all – even after a year. Others are defined by an exquisite, fleeting moment.

Permanence is a goal among artists who want to leave a mark in the world. We usually don’t want those marks to be altered or smudged or rubbed out. Time in a broken world, however, tends to change everything. Deterioration happens. Things decay. Objets d’art can face the garbage heap after exposure to a harsh world. Thus, artists use the best materials and best practices to give pieces a fighting chance at longevity. Creating things just to have them fall apart and then get trashed usually is not an artist’s aim. Usually.
“The Crevasse” Edgar Müller.
2008 (Dun Laoghaire, Ireland)

Leave it to artists to tinker with ideas. That includes concepts like impermanence.

Sidewalk art is [pardon the pun] the most pedestrian form of impermanent art. Work like that of Edgar Müller is meant to wow the public with trompe l’oeil imagery and immediate access, the typical media – chalk and soft pastel – is susceptible to natural elements and, of course, the unnatural idiot. The first steady rain is enough to render sidewalk art a memory. Foot prints, bicycle tires and long board wheels give similar results.

If a sidewalk seems a questionable place to produce lasting art, then a beach is less so. Andres Amador goes with the ebb and flow of the tides when creating his “sand paintings.” Filling entire beaches with patterns defined only by disturbed and undisturbed sand, his work is hard to ignore. But incoming tides are blind to everything in their path, including an artistic vision of a solitary man.
“Beach Painting,” by Andres Amador.

There are, however, artists who take the impermanence-thing to rather unpleasant extremes. Forget sidewalks. Forget beaches. One need only mention words like excrement and putrid to realize there are fakes and charlatans, even within the highest art circles. But we aren’t talking about them – we are talking about the exquisite and thoughtful pieces of established artists who don’t need a bio-hazard to make an artistic statement.

Some of the most cutting-edge contemporary pieces totally ignore the longevity of materials in preference to immediacy of action and feeling. Archival quality? No. This is art at its most visceral state. This is art now. It may be hard for the casual viewer to seriously understand, much less enjoy, this kind of thing, but it is simultaneously a question and a statement: Is art enduring? The answer lies in the passing experience of art and its remembrance. Like a fading sunset, art is not always a thing of permanence. It’s inherent beauty is precisely because it is impermanent, and it begs to be fully enjoyed in the now.
“Salt & Earth: Garden for Patricia”
Young Kim. 2010.

The impermanence of art is not always subject to mindlessness or natural elements. Sometimes there is a great deal of thought behind extremely fragile art – and this is often inside environmentally-controlled spaces.

Young Kim’s “Salt & Earth: Garden for Patricia” was an installation that was an entry in ArtPrize 2010. It featured photographs of a woman with a debilitating illness and the garden she loved, each a calotype on granular salt and powdered earth and lit by individual light bulbs. The images faded over the course of the event’s three weeks. The fragile photographs, some carefully mounded but not roped off, were destined to be eroded by hundreds of thousands of visitors. And the intentional happened – fingerprints and hand prints. Some visitors gasped at a footprint.

Deliberate or not, the footprint and growing dishevelment was expected – and intended – by the artist. The piece pointed to the fragility of man and his tenuous existence. As humans, we are not permanent fixtures on this world. Kim’s installation capitalized on equally-fragile materials, and the point was well-made.
Hannah Bertram working on
“The Silence of Becoming and Disappearing”
(Courtesy of the artist)

Hannah Bertram pursues impermanence with some of her installations, using materials that are, in themselves, products of time. Using layered imagery and patterning with dust and ash, Bertram creates work that will, in time, revert to the original randomness of inert components. Using extreme patience and artistic skill, Bertram employs Baroque arabesques layered with equally elegant forms to create images precisely where foot traffic is heaviest. It takes great fortitude to put so much effort into a piece that is destined to be stepped on, kicked aside and finally swept up in a dust pan.

Some of Tina Tahir’s work follows a parallel path as Bertram’s fragile floor pieces, but Tahir’s work branches out in several directions. Some of her work uses powdered spices and equally-fragile materials in patterned floor installations reminiscent of ethnic carpet motifs. Other images allow organic forms to “infest” spaces. Yet other pieces make use of light-sensitive material that changes with the presence of viewers.
“Forty Increments” by Tina Tahir.
After 20 hours, at left, and after 110 hours. 2012.

“Forty Increments,” was an installation of decomposing, virtual wallpaper projected on a 12 by 40 foot wall, and making use of sensors to change the image. Drawing on an exquisite definition of fragility, the patron didn’t even have to touch the piece – only be present in the same environment – to affect change.

Many of these impermanent works defy classification. They aren’t necessarily 2-dimensional, because they invite space and environment. Neither are they sculptural, for they simultaneously deny space and eventually have little presence at all, much less volume. If anything, they are kinetic, but their movement is on a near-molecular level. They are the sort of thing that invites and demands revisiting, again and again, to fully appreciate this ethereality of art.

Friday, October 30, 2015

For All The Saints

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I am quite sure I first saw the painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme when I was perhaps four or five years old. The artist’s piece, “The Christian Martyr’s Last Prayer,” was reproduced in black and white on the pages of an early edition of Grolier’s Book of Knowledge.
“The Christian Martyr’s Last Prayer”
Jean-Léon Gérôme. 1883.
(Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)

I still remember the black binding of that set of encyclopedia for children. That was when parents intentionally kept things like encyclopedias and dictionaries for rambunctious kids to find. Back then, there were no cell phones or home computers. Neither were there video games. Television sets offered black and white programming, most of which was dull for children. In my house, the volumes populating a modest bookcase became fair game when the weather prohibited outdoor play. Hence, my first exposure to fine art, along with articles on the finer points of kite construction and splint assembly for broken bones.

From the world’s point of view, I was innocent back then. A lot of us seemed to be. Of course, we weren’t really innocent – we were simply ignorant. We were insulated against the realities of life; of the world, and, unless we broke a toy or stuck a fork in the wall outlet, we were happy. And then we grew up.

It should come as no shock that I now see Gérôme’s painting with different eyes. It’s not that I have greater respect for the artist. Rather, what the artist painted now strikes me more deeply.

Now I understand the contrast between my childhood and the contents of Gérôme’s painting. While I haven’t yet been set ablaze in an arena as a kind of human Tiki torch, and even though I haven’t been offered as the main course for animals of prey, my thoughts now lean decidedly closer to the once and future martyrs, what they gained, and what all the saints left behind.

For the martyr’s in the painting, their life of persecution and annoyance is about to get a lot worse before it gets infinitely better. The artist has created high drama in a setting of ancient Rome. One can easily forgive the erroneous location of the hippodrome, as our minds swell with a cacophany of muffled prayers, painful cries and the crowd’s roar. A male lion, given prominence in the composition, lifts a proud head, and that awful, guttural growl cuts to the quick of our imagination.

I could here dive into a litany of complaints and confessions surrounding my life and yours in a vain attempt to compare the earth-bound living with those who now live eternally in heaven. We all know, however, the misery we endure and the crap with which we frost it is a product of the Fall and our own sinful shortcomings, and those in heaven have been finally rid of the same. Some day, those of us who feebly struggle will be in the same boat as those who now shine in glory. Some day.

That the martyrs in Gérôme’s piece counted their lives as of no value in order to finish the race sheds Divine Light on our own course. We look forward to that day when we, too, will shine and when perfection will be fully ours. Then the struggle will be over. Then we shall see Him as He is. Then we shall have days-long conversations, without blinking. And complete joy will be ours.

For now, we give thanks for the saints – both martyrs and otherwise – who have gone before us. We give thanks for their admonitions; for their instruction; for their example. We give thanks to Our Lord and Savior, The Christ Jesus, for putting them in our lives, and for allowing them, through His Grace, to show us how it’s done.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Cranach Confessions

Copyright © Edward Riojas

In a little more than a week the Church will be celebrating All Saints Day. It is festival in which we thank God for His blessings showered on those who have gone before us with the sign of Faith, and for the blessings bestowed on us through their confession of the Gospel. It is both joyful and sobering to recognize this intersection of time and eternity. The reality of saints departed brings both sorrow and the knowledge of its eventual remedy. Today we won’t address ALL the saints – just one.

We can now call him simply Saint Lucas, though before he left this world he was like you and I – a sinner/saint. He came into the world naked and filled with sin as you and I did. He put on his pants – as my Father used to say – one leg at a time, just like you and I. Okay, maybe they weren’t technically pants; maybe they were Renaissance hose, but you get the gist.

Lucas Cranach the Elder was a talented artist, successful businessman, wealthy landowner, schmoozer of royalty, and a friend of Martin Luther. He was a mover and shaker in Germanic society of the Northern Renaissance. But Cranach realized he was something much less: A sinful human very much in need of a Savior.

The artist left us a monstrous trove of art. Some of it shows his deep devotion, reflected in confessional images. Other portions show an amazing portrait portfolio of those close to him, without which we would be bereft of the face of the Reformation. His studio also produced the more mundane images of classical antiquity that the Renaissance appetite demanded. But there is one image which, perhaps more than any other, defines this master of Northern Renaissance art as a confessor of Divine Truth, and it is one of my favorite images.
“Crucifixion” [Detail of “The Weimar Altarpiece”]
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Lucas Cranach the Younger.
1555. (Stadtkirche Sankt Peter und Paul, Weimar, Germany)

The Weimar Altarpiece, located in the church of Saints Peter and Paul, was not entirely done by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The artist was commissioned to create an altarpiece that would act as an epitaph for John Frederick of Saxony and his family, but Cranach died in 1553 – two years before the altarpiece was finished. It was completed by the artist’s son and artistic progeny, Lucas Cranach the Younger. So much of it was worked by Cranach’s son that the Altarpiece is often attributed to him alone. We must assume, however, that the basic composition and imagery reflect the thoughts, if not the hand, of Lucas Cranach the Elder.

The central panel of the altarpiece is packed with heavy theological imagery. Beginning with the left background, a demon and death push a man away from the tablets of the Law, which condemns man, toward the flames of hell. The right background prefigures the Divine plan of salvation – the bronze serpent is lifted up, offering salvation for the children of Israel wandering aimlessly in the desert. Behind this is a vignette of angels heralding the Gospel to shepherds watching their flocks.

As is common for visual narratives of the period, some figures are repeated. Christ is shown in victory on the left. Death and Satan, which once dogged man, are defeated under the wounded feet of a resurrected Christ. A second figure of the Christ crucified dominates the composition, and His corpus is underscored by John the Forerunner who, in a twist of time, points his living finger at the dying Lamb of God. A weighty figure of Martin Luther points to a weightier edition of Scripture, emphasizing that all of the inspired writings point to Jesus Christ. And between John the Baptist and Martin Luther stands a likeness of the artist – Lucas Cranach the Elder.

The artist’s presence would normally be missed in similar altarpieces, where patrons and their families typically show up on the fringes of such sacred settings. But the Weimar Altarpiece contains a singular device that stares the viewer in the face – the flow of Christ’s blood directly onto the head of the artist.

Cranach has painted the profound, for the issue of blood is, in this case, exclusive – it neither touches Luther, nor the Baptizer nor anyone else. It is personal. It is deeply confessional, nearly ignoring Christ’s sacrifice for sinful mankind, showing lack of any action or merit on a man’s account, and pointedly highlighting The Savior’s sacrifice for sinful Lucas. The altarpiece was intended as a epitaph for nobility, but, in reality, it is a noble epitaph for Lucas Cranach the Elder, and an even greater witness to The Christ and His redeeming love for the individual. Seeing the artist in a simple, inactive pose, helplessly receiving the blood of our Savior, we mentally step into that painting and beg of The Savior the same redeeming flood.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Painting Under the Radar

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Believe it or not, history can be fun.
“Head of a Lady in Medieval Costume”
Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola.
1900. (Private collection)

Around the time when modern art was going through growing pains and gaining momentum, the world in general was running on a track to become unglued and divided. Not that this sorry rock has ever done well in the why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along department, but global powers were once again jostling into position against one another, just as the art world was beginning to splinter into various cells.

On the art front, artists were attempting to find a place in the wake of the Impressionist movement. Some stuck with older ideals. Others were experimental. Yet others straddled lines, while being influenced by change. Like-minded artists gravitated toward each other, seeking visual and ideological comfort zones.

Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola was a product of the late 19th century French Symbolism movement. This particular movement was an evolutionary product of the old way of doing things, and kept elevated standards handed down from the grand salons in Europe. Their work, however, focused on metaphorical meaning behind images. Figures were usually larger-than-life heroes from times past. Working primarily in pastels, de Scévola had one foot in the strongly-modeled realism of the École des beaux-arts de Paris, where he received his education, and another foot in the loose techniques of Impressionism. His female portraiture is also reminiscent of Rosetti’s indulgent opulence, and at other times shows influence of Art Nouveau – another post-Impressionist movement to come out of France.
Abbott Handerson Thayer. 1887.
(Smithsonian, Washington D.C.)

de Scévola’s “Head of a Lady in Medieval Costume” is a handsome piece that is also a good indicator of art style in flux. While using an symbolist’s device of placing the sitter in an obscure historical context, it shows influence from several artistic movements, but doesn’t really fit well in any of them. If anything, it strangely foreshadows trends that will later show up in illustration.

Across the pond in the U.S., American artist Abbott Handerson Thayer was also trying to find his niche. His art education began at the Brooklyn Art School and the National Academy of Design, but he later wound up in the same Beaux-Arts academy that de Scévola attended. Thayer studied there under Jean-Léon Gérome, a leading figure of yet another splinter group, the Academicists. Thayer’s work runs deeply in the group’s vein of artistic classicism. It clings to the old school and its high academic standards. His portraiture of idealized women appeals to a classical revival of Greek and Roman mythology. There is neither a hint of Impressionism nor of other modern trends.

In his attempt to elevate the feminine ideal, Thayer finally resorted to giving his figures wings and [erroneously] named them ‘angels.’ His “Angel,” painted in 1887, is typical of this feminine ideal, and he would crank out several variations on this theme.
“An Aztec Sculptor”
George de Forest Brush.
1887. (Private collection)

When studying at the École de beaux-arts de Paris, Thayer met fellow artist George de Forest Brush. They were to become close friends, occasional antagonists, and neighbors. Brush had a strong interest in native Americans, and translated the same ideology and approach of the Academicists to images of the dwindling indigenous people. However, instead of following in the train of George Catlin’s near-scientific approach in recording the native Americans, Brush stripped his figures of most cultural minutiae and placed them in classical settings – sometimes with ridiculous props such as leopard skins and marble bas-reliefs. His portraiture leans heavily on the “noble” profile to a fault, and elevates a people to places they would neither recognize nor desire to visit.

This odd lot of post-Impressionistic artists serves as a sort of sampling of what was happening in an art world going through modern growing pains. These relatively unknown artists flew under the radar that otherwise highlighted artistic movers and shakers with names such as Klimt, Gauguin, Munch and Matisse. Their work, however, was indeed influenced by the splintering visions of the artistic ideal. They, like all artists, were also influenced by growing global tension, the threat of war, and its ugly manifestation.

This artistic trio became immersed in the threat of war as perhaps few others.  While truly capable artists in their own right, de Scévola, Thayer and Brush garnered fame in a much different arena – they all were major players in the design and development of military camouflage. I bet no one saw THAT coming.