Friday, January 29, 2016

Jean-Paul Laurens: Proto-illustrator of the French School

Copyright © Edward Riojas

There’s nothing like an artist with angst.

Jean-Paul Laurens was a master of the French School during the late 1800s, and professor at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He was at the top of his game. He was teaching upstarts to rise as the crème de la crème, and doing it at one of the best art schools in the world. He had talent oozing out of his pores. And Laurens loved, loved, LOVED to paint historical scenes. But he wasn’t exactly a happy camper.
“Saint John Chrysostom Confronting Aelia Eudoxia,
Empress of Constantinople” 1894.
(Muséedes Augustins, Toulouse, France)

Jean-Paul had an ax or two to grind with the Roman Catholic papacy and its fallible history. Perhaps he had his knuckles rapped a few too many times when he was young. Perhaps he was a victim of a plaid skirt. At any rate, Laurens‘ work often focused on ugly, historical stains in the papal tapestry.

Laurens has been described as being strongly anti-clerical. Probably. To accuse him of hating all things Catholic, however, would be wrong. Rather, he had a vehement dislike of misused power and political oppression – especially in the Church. His devotion to the Faith and his respect of revered Church fathers is evident. This is obvious in his “Saint John Chrysostom Confronting Aelia Eudoxia, Empress of Constantinople.” The elderly Saint is rendered with great care and sensitivity. The artist could have easily jumped the fence and shown Chrysostom as a raving lunatic, but Laurens carefully played his cards in showing the Saint as animated; as righteously angry; as fearlessly fighting for the Faith. In contrast, the Empress is shown as immovable and unfeeling. Eudoxia decided to exile Chrysostom – ultimately condemning him to death – for his part in calling attention to her sins. Laurens has depicted the Empress as a piece of stony architecture. In spite of being surrounded by glorious light and opulence, there is little visual interest to redeem her.
“The Excommunication of Robert the Pious”
1875. (Musée d’Orsay

Laurens often used the lack of mercy as a driving force behind his pieces. Like ‘Chrysostom before the Empress,’ “The Excommunication of Robert the Pious” focuses on a damning historical event, but in this case the sacred/secular tables are turned.

Robert II of France is more commonly referred to as Robert the Pious, but Robert‘s piety was plagued by flaws in the marital realm. Robert’s father, Hugh, had arranged a marriage for his son, but as soon as pop died Robert divorced his Queen and set his eyes on another. His cousin. The Church promptly did its duty and excommunicated the King.

Lauren’s painting is decidedly sympathetic toward Robert, even though the artist knew the King would eventually set his eyes on yet a third wife. In the painting, the King slouches on his throne, holding his cousin-wife close to him. Laurens loads the canvas with theatrical devices, leading even the most clueless viewer across the stage. A heavy vertical tapestry points to the royal throne that is weighed down by the crest-fallen couple. The scepter has fallen – the King‘s hand too weak to hold it. A large candle, which sadly looks like an enormous Pall Mall cigarette, has been blown out and thrown down by the retreating, shadowy clergy as a symbol of their unequivocal verdict and condemnation.
“Pope Formosus and Stephen VI”
(”The Cadaver Synod”) 1870.
(Musée des Beaux Arts, Nantes, France)

One aspect of Laurens’ work that sets itself apart from his contemporaries’ is the unique theatrical handling of subject that went beyond the standards of the French School. He contrived pivotal moments to dramatize each event. Laurens then employed careful lighting to enhance those moments. Every nuance of gesture and pose were pushed to theatrical bounds. These ingredients pop up decades later in the work of Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, a host of others during the Golden Age of Illustration, and even much later in the work of illustrators such as Frank Frazetta. To that end, it could be said that Laurens was a proto-illustrator. His intent was to tell a story, and he forced the medium to accomplish that task. Some contemporaries faulted him for trying too hard in the telling, and opinions have since waffled from appreciation to distaste. His work is certainly beautiful and esthetically fulfilling, but it is the story that first confronts the viewer, and the story is paramount to esthetic considerations.

Laurens’ talent as story-teller is evident in one final example that puts nails in the coffin and drops it in the hole. And then digs it out again. “Pope Formosus and Stephen VI,” more famously known as “The Cadaver Synod,” is so bizarre in subject that it appears as if straight out of some cheesy novel. The artist took an unsavory event in the papal annals and depicted it in, um, “living” color.

Pope Formosus was not a very popular pontiff. To his credit, neither was his successor, Pope Stephen VI, who so disliked the former that he disinterred Formosus’ body, put it on trial and condemned it to, uh, I dunno, death or something. Propping up a dead guy must have caused a stink in the Vatican, because Stephen was imprisoned soon after, and condemned to death by garroting. Nice guys.

One cannot look on such paintings and ponder their historical events without concluding that a much greater Power is certainly in control – thanks be to God. Regardless of heinous actions within church bodies, the Word shall yet remain; God‘s purpose in His Church will be brought to fruition.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Winterscapes From The Group Of Seven

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It’s Winter, and today is a snow day.
“Snow in October”
Tom Thomson. c. 1917.

It doesn’t really matter if the ground is covered with grass or mud where you are –  we’re kicking back and enjoying the snow. This is being made possible by The Group of Seven, who, being Canadian, knew a thing or two about snow.

Emerging after WWI, the group aimed at portraying the rugged landscape of Canada in a unique, nationalist style, while shunning European trends. They were essentially a regional movement exuding a distinct flavor that hovered somewhere between Impressionism and the Arts and Crafts movement. The group’s title is a bit of a misnomer in that a few additional artists joined the ranks later in the game, and one of the founding members died before the group’s official emergence. Included here are works by seven members of the group, along with a piece by founder Tom Thomson.
Lawren Stewart Harris. 1914.
“Coast Mountain Form”
Frederick Horsman Varley. c. 1929.
(National Gallery of Canada, Ontario)

As a tribute to the quiet solitude of Canadian winterscapes, I’ve decided to let the pieces speak for themselves. What follows are a few notes about our select members.

Tom Thomson
It’s a bit odd that the powerful engine behind the group’s formation was largely a self-taught artist, didn’t get serious about painting until he was well into his thirties, and died under mysterious circumstances when he was only 40. Tom Thomson’s most creative period lasted less than a decade, yet today he is celebrated as a national treasure in Canada.
“A Clear Winter”
Arthur Lismer. 1916.
(Art Gallery of Ontario)
“Winter Morning, Charlevoix County”
A.Y. Jackson. 1933.

Lawren Stewart
If Thomson provided the impetus in forming the Group of Seven, Lawren Stewart Harris added heavy-duty momentum. His career lasted well into the 1960s, and his portfolio added immense depth to the movement.

Frederick Horsman Varley
Varley was one of the more unlikely members of the group. While he involved himself in the group’s shows and excursions across Canada, Varley’s background as war artist had a staining effect on his life and work. Varley’s images of the Great War are haunting. It is no surprise that the aritst suffered from bouts of depression, brought on, no doubt, from his exposure to the realities of war. It was no easy task to find a painting from his hand that fits our subject, but I finally found a little gem that now hangs in the National Gallery of Canada.
“Blissett Farm”
Franklin Carmichael. 1933.
“The Shadowed Valley”
Francis (Frank or Franz) Hans Johnston.

Arthur Lismer
His early fascination with painting camouflaged ships apparently was sufficient to garner attention and a subsequent wartime commission. Unlike Varley, Lismer was able to keep the war in perspective, and afterward dove headlong into the group’s genre.

A.Y. Jackson
Jackson was yet another veteran war artist, and one of its founding members. An early journey to Europe allowed him to study Impressionism, and that influence shows in some of his war paintings, including his “House of Ypres,” which has strong hints of Van Gogh.
“Snowshoeing by Moonlight”
J.E.H. MacDonald

Franklin Carmichael
The youngest founding member of the Group of Seven was Franklin Carmichael. As such, he is somewhat of a fringe member and sometimes associated with latecomers to the group. However, he was strongly influenced by founder Tom Thomson and briefly shared the elder’s studio space. Carmichael was primarily known for his watercolors, one of which is included here.

Frank Johnston
This prolific painter was employed as a commercial artist early in his career, as were many of the other group’s members. Johnston’s association with the group was brief, and he amiably parted with them to follow his own interests. The artist was one of few Canadian artists who enjoyed a successful career.

J.E.H. MacDonald
MacDonald was the oldest member of the Group of Seven, and a co-founder who helped forge the distinct style. For his pains, he endured perhaps the worst of art critics, and was a frequent target of their unfavorable reviews.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Once A Press Artist

© Edward Riojas

I once told a dear friend that I’m terrible at good-byes. When the time came for us to part ways, I simply wasn’t there. That’s how bad I am at farewells.

One would think, therefore, that I was being done a great favor a few days ago by being escorted to the office’s front door after nearly 31 years, and bypassing my own desk and colleagues. I eventually returned to collect my things and was able to talk a bit with a few former coworkers, but leaving without saying something would be wrong, especially when considering the scope of my employment, so here are a few words:

I am extremely grateful. It’s admirable for a company to stick its neck out, take a chance on a green artist like I was, and to provide for me and my family for 30-plus years – especially in an industry that is fraught with so many challenges, including change.
Measuring Time: This gross paint rag, which
had been languishing in my office desk drawer,
was my daughter’s infant T-shirt. She now has
children of her own. Yes, I burned it.

When I first came to The Press, I was one of very few people without a degree in journalism, and immediately I jumped into a sea of journalists. I had a fine art degree, and arrived with only a few years experience in ad agencies. Frankly, I wasn’t even a subscriber. I was definitely the odd duck.

Most everything is now accomplished by computer. My office drawing board has gotten pretty dusty in recent years. Not so when I first arrived. Those were transitional years. The hot lead of linotype machines was already gone, but computers were not yet a universal thing. There were none in the art department.

The jargon was sometimes unique to the newspaper industry, and outsiders might be confused when confronted with things like grid sheets, waxers, rollers, rubylith, zipatone, flourocolor, feet, wheels, knives, lupes, flexible border tape, and pica poles. If you didn’t crop a photo before dropping it out back, you’d hear about it. If you put in the wrong coding for type from Atex, you might “gum up the rip” – and then you’d REALLY hear about it. Back then, there were still a few spikes around the office, even though stories were getting spiked electronically. And smoking – in locomotive fashion – was the norm in the office.

In the early days, every chart was plotted by hand; drawn by hand. The same with maps, and if you didn’t know where in the world someplace was, you would go to this place called a library. It has books. And maps. Text was added afterward. I still have a map of Manhattan, drawn by hand, for one of our fashion story jaunts. And yes, many of the streets are labeled – the text held in place by scotch tape.
Mac Training: I was the first artist to be sent
from The Grand Rapids Press to train with
other “Boothies” in Ann Arbor on the mighty
Mac SE – scroll, and scroll and scroll.

But a career is not merely measured by the age of things you touch. Rather, it is measured by the lives touched. During my stay, I have crossed paths with an immense crowd of extremely talented folk, whose standards of excellence, integrity, and love of their craft hovers near the stratosphere. After 30 years, many of the names have become like vanishing mist, recognizable now by precious few. It is impossible to name them all, so please don’t feel slighted by your exclusion – you ALL loom large in my memory.

Charlie Moore: The first Press person I met – even before I started working at The Press. I had won one or two cartoon contests in the now-defunct Grand Rapids Press Wonderland Magazine, which led to a few free-lance illustration projects for the same publication. Charlie – being Charlie – cheerfully offered to pick up the drawings at my parents house. I still remember the sunny day when an ancient blue car pulled into the driveway. I would soon find out Charlie’s car was a rolling kitchen pantry and drug store. I also learned to be judicious when deciding on any tableware found in the back seat. His office desk drawers were pretty much the same.

Jim Mencarelli: For the same free-lance assignment, I sat down with Jim as he enthusiastically explained the gist of his first-person story – his near-death experience while spelunking. His East Coast, gum-chewing voice thinly veiled a deeply-caring man. Sadly, his rugged, outdoorsy life would be shortened by – of all things – a cut on his finger.

Jim Starkey: The dear boss who hired me. The man who handed me keys to his Porsche on my first day so I could go to the clinic and have my blood tested. I never could find reverse in that thing, so I sheepishly returned the keys and told him that I preferred to walk. No sense in totaling the boss’s sports car on the first day.

Bob Kubiak: He was an older artist from a different department in the building, and he would often drop by to see what I was doing. He hounded me about the speed at which I could stipple a drawing, when I so chose to use the technique. Time after time he would ask the same question, so I finally timed myself – seven dots per second.

Jef Mallett: The rascally part-time artist who, if you could cut him in half, was composed of nothing but enthusiasm. All this without caffeine or drugs. It was almost annoying. He once came into work with a broken finger, and days later had to be told to have it checked out. The doctor had to re-break it. On a table. With the doctor’s knee on the finger. Now Jef has his own syndicated cartoon strip – Frazz – and presumably still has all his fingers.

Aaron Phipps: From the time he arrived as an intern in the art department, I could tell the quiet redhead was different. A school project of his own design necessitated romping through woods in search of ox-gall and ordering vellum from a British firm that was the exclusive purveyor to Her Majesty the Queen. Aaron and I discovered that the shortcomings of Adobe Illustrator 88 could be put to our advantage, so we proceeded to use the excessively-slow image rebuilding time to create animated tank battles. Yes, on company time. Aaron now runs the entire print facility.

Charlie Albright: I never met the man, although I might have once seen him wandering the halls. I owed my job, in part, to him. He was a victim of Alzheimer's, and I was his replacement. It was a difficult task to clean out his flat file drawers, seeing graphics that lacked all sense and order, and knowing it was because of his illness that the Lord was blessing me.
That was Then: The Editorial Art Department,
from left, Frits Hoendervanger, Ed Riojas,
Nancy JonesFrancis, Yolanda Gonzalez,
Diann Bartnick, Aaron Phipps, and Jim Starkey.

Of course, an exhaustive list of past colleagues still would not give the entire picture. There were the readers. I worked in a bubble, but the apparent impact I had on readers is telling. While recently babysitting my entry during ArtPrize, I had several visitors relate their favorite Press illustrations from years past. One gentleman even remembered one of my cartoon contest entries. At the very least, countless visitors would see my name and exclaim, “OH, you’re the artist from The Press!”

And then there were the assignments. I had to be ready for anything. I might be working on a hilarious illustration, and the next hour I’d be on the site of a fatal house fire, talking briefly with a firefighter in the snow, and quickly working up a graphic to show the position of victims relative to doors and windows.

One last-minute assignment evolved because the Police Department’s artist was vacationing. A man was found dead and without identification. The police wanted the public’s help in identifying the man, and I was given the task with 30 minutes to deadline. Problem: He was killed by a massive blow to the face. I received two photos from which to work and bring the man “to life” – one on the slab, and one after the undertaker had done his best.

I once became a courtroom artist for a month or so, bringing the faces of some rather unsavory folks to readers. I’ve chatted with architects and pored over blueprints before doing cutaways of some of the more impressive facades of Downtown Grand Rapids. I’ve illustrated medical procedures and visually explained things in laymen’s terms so the public could have a better understanding. Through it all, it has been an honor and a privilege to invade the homes of readers for a few moments and help them understand; make them laugh; allow them to weep.

To say my efforts were unappreciated by my colleagues would be very wrong. I have a couple of ignored walls in my home that are covered with dusty awards. I have a shelf with awards stacked three and four deep. When cleaning out my office desk this week, I found two forgotten Associated Press awards with my name on them. However, there is one award that, in spite of its small size, is head and shoulders above the rest. The award was not given willy-nilly, as the following inscription testifies: 

“The Robert S. Day Award”
“Robert S. Day, a reporter and editor at The Press from 1946 until his death in 1979, was a dedicated newspaperman. His efforts contributed to the high standards of reporting and editing for which The Press continuously strives. This annual award is given in his memory to the News Department employee who most clearly personifies those standards. We hope that honoring the qualities of professionalism and commitment for which he stood will become a legacy to his life.”

Time has a way of eroding the words of men – even for such a man, and even for me. I much rather prefer to put my trust in another place. As Jeremiah 29:11 states,

“”For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.””

No, I’m not very good at good-byes. Echoing the words of a dear pastor, let me simply say that, by the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, I WILL see you again. If not here in time, then there – in eternity.

Friday, January 8, 2016

What's Cooking in the Kitsch

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Whether you realize it or not, most everything in your life – outside of the natural world – has somehow been influenced by someone with at least a smattering of art education. The shingles on your roof were given their color by an artist-type. A fashion designer with an art background decided how many holes should be in the buttons on your shirt. The junker car you drive got its original stylish lines from an artist. The paint on your walls – the ones flavored with names like “Oatmeal” and “Cranberry” and “Burnt Pumpkin” – were picked by an artist. Okay, maybe a few cooks infiltrated the ranks, but for the most part the man-made world has been designed by artists.

Not so with kitsch. The junk populating your grandma’s fireplace mantel more likely was designed by an alien. It’s so obvious. Today we take a look at some objects – I hesitate to call them art – that should contain labels warning consumers about the dangerous amounts of kitsch they contain. I’m also warning you now that even LOOKING at these things could cause convulsions and cerebral hemorrhaging, so proceed at your own risk.

Anytime the words “fiber” and “optic” come up in a conversation, pray they have nothing to do with an angel. With moving, pink wings. This piece has “heresy” written all over it. Apparently, the designer of this abomination felt the angel was lonely, because, yes, a bride and groom were added. One can only hope that it has a wind-up key underneath to facilitate “Muskrat Love” while it slowly rotates. The next time you set up a couple of tin cans on the fence for target practice, please, PLEASE take this thing with you.

You said you like cats, so here you go. What’s not to love about a lump of porcelain vaguely shaped like a cat and painted with realistic eyes? Of an alien. And, as if to avert our gaze, this thing is bedecked with some unknown fabric-feather contraption around its neck. Perhaps the cat is being garroted, in hopes of putting us all out of our misery.

You needn’t feel left out, dog lovers. I have just the thing for your dining room table – a set of Dachshund salt and pepper shakers. You will impress guests with this cute dog who can’t quite catch up to his ass. What? Need to spice things up? Just pull Fido apart and shake something out of the hole by his tail. Bon appétit!

Someone – probably a demented clown – thought this was a great idea. Everyone should have a crocheted poodle surrounding a bottle of their favorite vintage – everyone in the loony bin, that is. Apparently, someone with a complete set of Craftsman crochet hooks got tired of ugly hats and ugly sweaters, and decided to crochet an ugly dog. Does it keep the wine warm during winter? Does it keep the wine cool during tailgaters? Is this why Grandpa always walks the dog? Can I get this in a teal color? So many questions.

Logic is not a necessary ingredient in kitsch. Take this foot ashtray. I totally understand that one would want to put cigarette butts and ashes in an amputated foot. And I totally understand why that creepy big toe already has rigor mortis. And I totally understand that combustible wood was used to hold the embers of a carcinogenic stick of tobacco. I get that. But why put that hideous piece of crap on my living room table? Why?

Not all kitschy things are mass produced. Sometimes, people with bad ideas and even worse art abilities intentionally make things, one at a time, like this disposable communion cup light ball. I’m pretty sure there’s a special place in hell reserved for folks who come up with this purgatorial junk. Of course, this particularly fine example begs a disturbing question: Why do disposable communion cups come in colors? Please don’t tell me they are liturgical colors.

Now this is just wrong. Why would anyone want to put candy in a clown’s pants? Why would anyone want to put ANYTHING, including hands, in a clown’s pants. This nightmarish hunk of ceramic is vintage horror. Obviously, the idea is that before a party, the hostess rips Mr. Clown in half, stuffs him with Snickers or Laughy Taffy or something, and then offers it to the guests. This is loaded with more poor thinking than crappy candy. The guest will find themselves in a dilemma of holding candy, and desperately wishing to wash their hands after fumbling around inside a stranger’s trousers.