Friday, March 27, 2015

Well, That's Awkward

 Copyright © Edward Riojas

I take art seriously – most of the time. There are occasions, however, when I refrain from jealously guarding my craft, put down all the pointed art tools, and allow silliness to reign for a while. It’s healthier that way.

I’ve gathered for consideration ten paintings that, for one reason or another, are bound to make the viewer a tad uncomfortable. I could have added more examples. I mean, how many blobby Rubens gals does one need to view before blushing? How many objects does Hieronymous Bosch need to pull out from where the sun doesn’t shine before we start feeling embarrassed over his reckless imagination. You get the picture.

Because there isn’t always a lot of background on some of these works, I thought I would fill in the historical blanks and simply make it up.
"American Gothic," Grant Wood. 1930.
Let’s start with everyone’s favorite uncomfortable double-portrait, “American Gothic,” by Grant Wood. 1930. It’s like we just walked into someone’s heated argument, iced over with a flatulence problem. “That was NOT me this time.”

"Brawl," Georges de La Tour. c. 1630
“Brawl,” by Georges de La Tour. c. 1630. Ugh! Who ARE these creepy people, and who invited them to this painting?! And what’s up with the lady?! Too many questions.

"Peasant Wedding Dance," Pieter Brueghel the Younger. 1607.
“Peasant Wedding Dance,” by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. 1607. Really Pete?  Go get the garden hose already.

"The Ill-Matched Couple," Lucas Cranach the Elder. c. 1522.
“The Ill-Matched Couple,” by Lucas Cranach the Elder. c. 1522.   Ewww! Pleasedon’tFrenchpleasedon’tFrenchplease...!

"The Surgeon," Jan Sanders van Hemessen. 1555.
“The Surgeon,” by Jan Sanders van Hemessen. 1555. Like we really want to stumble into a quack’s O.R. and see the beginnings of a malpractice suit. “You DID remember to wash your hands, didn’t you?”

"The Peaceable Kingdom," Edward Hicks. 1826.
“The Peaceable Kingdom,” by Edward Hicks. 1826. Sure, the kid is born with one brown leg and you make him sit next to the worst taxidermy fail ever.

"Woman III," Willem De Kooning. c. 1952.
“Woman III,” by Willem De Kooning. c. 1952. This is where most folks bring up the subject of anything else.

"Judith Beheading Holofernes," Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. c. 1599.
“Judith Beheading Holofernes,” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. c. 1599. It’s all fun and games until someone gets a close shave.

"Melun Diptych," Jean Fouquet. c. 1450.
“Melun Diptych: Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels,” by Jean Fouquet. c. 1450. Wardrobe fail. No wonder the angels are blushing.

"The Ugly Duchess," Quentin Matsys. c. 1513.
“The Ugly Duchess,” by Quentin Matsys. c. 1513. This is so wrong on so many levels. ... Uh, where can I get a print of this?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Modigliani for a Change

“Marie Daughter of the People,”
by Amedeo Modigliani. 1918.
(Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland)
Copyright © Edward Riojas

It’s good to occasionally get out of the neighborhood and see what the rest of the world is like. Everyone has their likes, including me, but likes often turn into ruts. I’m a fan of Northern Renaissance art, early Christian art, the Pre-Raphaelites and a lot of other periods and movements that, if you jam them hard enough,  will fit into the same visual mold. Today I’m taking a look at a painting that’s a bit different – Amedeo Modigliani’s “Marie Daughter of the People” – and I’m getting out of the neighborhood.

What’s not to like about Modigliani? Besides having a name that nicely slides off the tongue, his work has always held my interest to some degree. He was a prolific artist who cranked out painted portraits, his more-famous reclining nudes and even sculptures. Modigliani is sometimes given the general title of Modernist, but he was influenced by classical painters, crossed paths with contemporaries like Pablo Picasso and Constantin Brancusi, and had a general disdain of “bourgeois” art. Whatever. The point is: He painted like no one else.

Although separated by so great an artistic chasm, Modigliani’s color palette is not very far removed from that of Cranach or Brueghel. He leaned toward deep, warm colors and blacks, with an occasional vibrant blue. While the artist reduced the complexity of forms and often translated them into simpler, elongated shapes, the richness of his color and deliberate approach was not diminished. If anything, Modigliani enhanced the canvas with intense richness.

His “Marie Daughter of the People,” is a small piece – barely 19 by 24 inches. The oil was painted in 1918, when the artist was 28 years old. I could here enter a discourse on the background of the painting and Modigliani’s deep foray into a life of alcohol, hashish and extra-marital affairs that might have influenced the piece, but let’s be nice to the guy for once and keep focused on the image he’s left us.

At first glance, “Marie Daughter of the People” is a rather simple image. It is a half-portrait. The sitter, Marie, faces the viewer with shoulders turned toward our right. A bow of ribbon adorns pulled-back hair. An earring is visible. Once you get past these features, things get a bit vague and “impressionistic.” I’ve put that in quotes, because Modigliani was not an impressionist. In fact, he is sometimes maligned for not belonging to much of any group. Perhaps it was the hashish.

Part of the beauty of this piece, along with many of the artist’s other pieces, is in what is not shown. The ambiguous black shape of Marie’s dress, for instance, leaves us wondering. So does his typical vague treatment of eyes. Yet there is a very precise handling of facial features that is delicate and intentional. Marie’s head is tilted ever-so-slightly. Without that gentle angle, the painting would have suffered, and the charm of the sitter would be lost. So, too, her bangs and a wayward wisp of hair show how observant the artist was of details that did matter.

The few general shapes in the painting were not brushed on in simple, solid color. On the contrary, when the viewer picks out one of those shapes for study, a whole world of color becomes apparent. Layer upon layer of color fill the simple forms, softening edges and hinting at vaporous shadows. Touches of red mingle with sienna and deeper umber, while traces of green peek through. That is the richness of color for which Modigliani should be applauded.

Inspiration is a funny thing. My own work doesn’t even come close to the nebulous style of Modigliani, but his handling of color lingers in the back of my mind. Perhaps that inspiration will come out in a future work of mine – maybe in a corner of sky or the texture of a building. Or maybe I’ll simply admire his work from a far. At any rate, it’s time to gather up my thoughts of Modigliani’s color and his handling of form, be thankful for the little breath of fresh air, and head back home.

Friday, March 13, 2015


“Study of Mme Gautreau,” above left, by John Singer Sargent. 1884.
(Tate Britain, London) This preparatory study shows evidence of Sargent’s initial
dilemma – a shoulder without any strap at all. At right, “Portrait of Madame X,”
by John Singer Sargent. 1884. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y.)
The finished, then revised portrait sported a new name and an adjusted strap.
Copyright © Edward Riojas

John Singer Sargent should have seen it coming. “Portrait of Mme ***” had the markings of something titillating, salacious and naughty. Sargent had pulled out his artistic license and boldly used it on a small detail of the strangely-titled salon entry. Attendees of the 1884 Paris Salon scrutinized everything, noticed the detail and devoured Sargent’s faux pas.

Sargent painted a stunning portrait of American expatriate Virgine Amelie Avegno Gautreau in noble profile and wearing black satin. It was not a commissioned piece – the artist sought out Ms. Gautreau as a sitter. She was a rare beauty among Parisians and was, in essence, a precursor to the “bombshell” persona. The viewer needn’t make a second guess whether she was a “looker” – she was.

Sargent’s talent as portrait painter was well known among the well-heeled of his day. As an expatriate himself, the artist schmoozed with the movers and shakers of European society, as well as upper crust folks in The States, and he chose as his salon entry a feminine subject who was favored in the highest circles.

But Sargent did the unthinkable: He painted one strap off Gautreau’s shoulder. [Gasp!] With that small detail, the artist pushed artistic boundaries too far. A strap off the shoulder in those days meant more than a simple wardrobe malfunction – it was saucy, suggestive and seductive. It was enough to raise eyebrows and drop jaws, and it did just that. One can almost hear the timeless echo of pince nez and monocles clattering on parquet floors.

Sargent deliberately used “Mme***” in the piece’s title to retain anonymity for the subject, but Sargent was spot-on with his likenesses and the little secret all but evaporated in the controversy. So did his chances for future commissions in Paris. He repainted the strap in a more acceptable position, renamed the piece “Portrait of Madame X” and left France. Permanently.

It may seem strange that a small detail would cause such a fuss, but that is looking at history with modern eyes. We hardly notice the masterpiece, much less the strap, when we are daily faced with far greater suggestive images. We have become immune to the provocative and profane to the point that both have become mundane.

Perhaps the art world took cues from the ‘Madame X’ incident. Avant-garde art slowly pushed decency boundaries into the hinterlands and today outpaces what is acceptable through increasingly shocking images. Shock value is an important ingredient with those who strive not for excellence, but simple notice. An artistic niche is no longer viewed as something small and intimate – it is large, loud and unavoidable. Throw in “irritating” for good measure.

Perhaps we can add perspective by comparing “Portrait of Madame X” with something a bit more modern. Let’s have ‘Madame X’ and her strap get cozy with a strapping young man in the visage of “Colossus (Self-Portrait on a Cold Day)” by Benjamin Entner. This piece was last seen attempting to fill the cavernous environs of The Grand Rapids Art Museum during ArtPrize 2014. Both titles are bound to elicit a snicker or two, but the latter is just plain juvenile – almost as juvenile as the piece itself. We laugh at the title, but the poorly-rendered drawing and in-your-face schlock are no laughing matter. The shock value is obvious. Flaunting of artistic license is deliberate. However, responses to both pieces by their respective audiences in no way put “Portrait of Madame X” and “Colossus” in the same class.

Sargent may have obtained an ego by hobnobbing with the socialites of his day, but there is more than substance enough to back him up. An abundance of masterful works, such as his portraits of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, Beatrice Townsend, and the Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,  provocative and moody compositions, such as “El Jaleo” and “A Parisian Beggar Girl” and head studies of Rosina Ferrara and “Ana Capri Girl” only scratch the surface of an exceedingly deep portfolio. Sargent’s work underscored his being the epitome of a painter and portraitist par excellence. It still does. Mr. Entner has only his inflated, um, ego.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Veiled Stone

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Everyone likes to be wowed by technical skill – even a curmudgeon. When I was learning to carve during my formative years, a test of skill in wood was to carve an interlocking chain. The project sounded easy-schmeasy. Never mind the fact that I skipped nearly 2 million lessons leading up to that challenge. I was determined to show myself that I had skills.

I carved that chain, complete with nasty nicks, gouges, and splinters. Obviously, I was aiming for a distressed, aged look. Yeah, right. What I really created was an interlocking pile of kindling. Sometimes wood doesn’t burn fast enough.

From that little project I learned that, like any other artistic discipline, sculpting takes years of experience to master – LOTS of years. It doesn’t matter if your material of choice is basswood or basalt – you can’t cut corners on the path to excellence.

The chain project also taught me to admire those whose skill level is light years beyond my own limitations. One such example of technical skill is obvious in “The Veiled Virgin” by the Italian sculptor Giovanni Strazza (1818-1875). While the date of the piece’s completion is unknown, what is known is that the Carrara marble bust was shipped from Rome during 1856 to St. John’s Cathedral in Newfoundland, where it remains.

This piece is a jaw-dropper. What it lacks in scale is countered by mastery over material. The artist made full use of a characteristic of marble – its partial translucency – that has been implemented, since ancient days, in the mimicry of human skin. But the sculptor didn’t stop at recreating the appearance of youthful skin. Strazza compounded the illusion by adding a translucent veil over the face. The viewer’s brain puts together what the sculptor chose to leave to the imagination – parts of the face hidden by deeper folds of gauzy fabric. Of course, there is no filmy gauze. Neither is there a face – only a chunk of stone. [Cue the mind-blowing explosions.]

Strazza was well-known in his day and created a respectable portfolio of memorials and busts. The 20 inch-tall bust of the Virgin remains his most famous piece. However, it was neither unique nor groundbreaking.

“The Veiled Virgin” belongs to a small genre of veiled figures that date back to ancient Greece and that reappears throughout history. Ancient Greek artists often sculpted drapery in “wet” form so that it clung to every anatomical feature – legs, arms, and, um, you get the point. Draping the face, however, was not common. A battered stone head of a woman with her face partially veiled is among the very few surviving exceptions. To revisit the theme, one has to skip ahead a few centuries.

“Veiled truth,” by Venetian sculptor Antonio Corradini (1688-1752), was commissioned as an allegorical piece for the Chapel of Santa Maria della Pieta in Naples. While technically superb, the figure’s wetter-than-wet drapery is decidedly indulgent and it’s hard to get past the gal’s outward appearance to understand any intended allegorical meaning. Another piece commissioned for the same chapel is the “Veiled Christ,” sculpted by Giuseepe Sanmartino. It is a rare draped male figure that over-shoots the sacred sensitivity of an entombed Christ and ends up at a rather disturbing conclusion.

A contemporary of Strazza was Raffaelle Monti (1818-1881). He sculpted a bevy of veiled beauties, including “La Donna Velata,” “Veiled Vestal” and “The Sleep of Sorrow and the Dream of Joy.” Some of his works eased the “Virgin” idea from any religious connection into the stream of a youthful nationalistic symbol of Italy.

Modern artist Livio Scarpella’s series, “Ghost Underground,” picks up where others have left off. Unfortunately, adding crystals turns his veiled pieces, sporting some rather pained expressions,  into art that is more appropriate for the dashboard of a 1980 Subaru than a religious or national shrine.

Even with all my nit-picking, all of these pieces are inspiring in their own way. They just might cause me to revisit the wooden chain idea, but probably not. I know my limits. When it comes to excellence in art in general and sculpture in particular, there aren’t may veils behind which I can hide.

“The Veiled Virgin,” Giovanni Strazza. c. 1855 (Presentation Convent, St. John’s Cathedral, Newfoundland)