Archive for the ‘painting’ Category
Reviewing Georgia O’Keeffe’s life’s work at the extensive exhibition currently showing at Tate Modern, it is clearly a journey of abstracting Nature to capture and communicate its essence.
The journey as portrayed in this retrospective has the following landmarks along the way: early experiments with pure abstraction, exploring synaesthesia and detached from figurative representation; taking the figurative edge off of cityscapes of New York; immersion in Nature in New York State; flower paintings; discovering New Mexico; bone paintings and New Mexican landscapes; last works including aerial landscapes. I pick out Pelvis 1 as the culmination of the journey.
It is the brilliant realisation that you can create a ready-made abstract of Nature through the simple device of a dried bone from the arid landscape of New Mexico. O’Keeffe used the hole in a pelvis bone to frame the brilliant blue of the Southern sky. In so doing we have both the figurative representation of a piece of sun-bleached bone and patches of sun-drenched sky; and a two-colour abstract centred on a big blue ball. There’s just enough shadow on the bone and shading in the sky to retain the literal representation of the scene and yet the execution is simple enough to read as a Modernist work of Abstract Expressionism.
The tightly cropped presentation owes something to the art of photography – O’Keeffe was married for over two decades to the photographer and modern art promoter Alfred Stieglitz.
The degree of abstraction is amplified when we consider the date: 1944. There was some heavy shit going on for the USA in ’44 and even more so for humanity and the world and yet we have here purity and tranquility. Having said that, over half of the picture area is made up of Dead Stuff (bone). Pelvis can be read as a momento mori, a meditation on the finite life of Man and Nature’s creatures in contrast to the infinity of the heavens.
O’Keeffe was consciously in search of what she termed “The Great American Thing”, a form of art as native and characteristic as, say, Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was in terms of the novel. That other Great American and lover of Nature, Henry David Thoreau, swore by Simplicity:
Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.
And our own apple-lover Isaac Newton captured it well:
Nature is pleased with simplicity.
So is Art.
Another great American Modernist, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, (much influenced by Thoreau) summed it up as well as anyone:
Simplicity and repose are the qualities that measure the true value of any work of art.
By those measures Pelvis 1 is a masterpiece. I love it for having boiled down the essence of the Human Condition (mortality in the face of eternity) like the desert strips the rotting body down to pure white bone. O’Keeffe collected bones from 1929, initially due to Nature holding back its bounty: “That first summer I spent in New Mexico I was a little surprised that there were so few flowers. There was no rain so the flowers didn’t come. Bones were easy to find so I began collecting bones.” She began painting them from around 1931, initially mainly skulls. She painted them as still lifes; superimposed on landscapes in the Surrealist manner; integrated into the landscape sitting in the foreground. That this painting features the pelvis rather than the skull I also love because this is not about brains and thinking, this is about cohones and feeling, about instinct and the deepest-down understanding.
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A previous Latino Picture of the Month: Autorretrato con Chango y Loro (Self-portrait with Monkey and Parrot) – Frida Kahlo (1942)
As we approach the new year it feels like a good moment to reflect on changing perspectives. ‘Rosewall’ is the first of Peter Lanyon’s gliding paintings. Born in St Ives at the end of the Great War and central to the St Ives Group during the 50s, he took up gliding in 1959, inspired in part by observing the flight of seabirds over his native Cornish landscape, the subject at the heart of his painting. This painting was completed in January 1960, four months after Lanyon started his glider training. Before taking up the glider, he was keen on dramatic high perspectives like cliff edges and hilltops. Rosewall is a hill in Cornwall.
So ‘Rosewall’ was his first work to benefit directly by this new aerial perspective. We are used to the sky sitting blue at the top of the landscape but here it is what frames the whole experience. And the experience is a vortex of air, light and wind. Swirls of white air between us and the green grass and brown earth.
I’m not big on totally abstract painting – I prefer the kind with vestiges of the figurative – grass, earth, sky, clouds, the components of landscape, but combined with the feelings it provokes – vertiginous spectacle, thrill and fear, soaring freedom. Abstract expressionism of a rooted kind. While its head is in the clouds its feet are on the ground. At once airy and earthy.
Lanyon explained his motivation for gliding: “…I do gliding myself to get actually into the air itself; and get a further sense of depth and space into yourself, as it were into your own body, and then carry it through into a painting.” He linked his practice at this time to Turner and saw himself as part of a core English tradition of landscape painting. I love the notion of making possible for yourself a physical expereince so you can subsequently capture it in paint.
For the first time ever a comprehensive collection of Lanyon’s gliding paintings is now on show – in an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House, London (running until 17th January 2016). Filling just two rooms, it’s a small but perfectly formed show, well worth catching to experience the ambitious scale of the artworks. This 6′ x 5′ painting normally resides in Belfast in the Ulster Museum.
Lanyon was taught by Victor Pasmore at the Euston Road School and Ben Nicholson in Cornwall. Nicholson was a contemporary at the Slade of Paul Nash whose aerial paintings like Battle of Britain (1941) would seem to be not-so-distant cousins of the Gliding Paintings. I love the landscapes of Nash for their combination of modernity and deep-rooted tradition, as much in the spirit of European Surrealism as in the heritage of English Romanticism. Lanyon is a worthy successor and deserves to be better known.
Previous Pictures of the Month.
Started the day by putting in an application for tickets for the Rugby World Cup in England & Wales next year. Have seen occasional signs of Argentine rugby during my stay – a pitch here, a newspaper report there.
Made a bright and early tourist start across the sleepy Sunday morning city in the direction of the gallery of 20th Century Latin-American art, Malba. The BA at the end stands for Buenos Aires (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires).
It was a 45 minute walk, back to the area where TV Publica lives. As I went past the law courts, motorcyclists of all shapes and sizes were gathering. About an hour later I saw them parading down Avenue Presidente Figueroa Alcorta making as much noise as possible, even the little Vespa at the back.
I checked out the embassy quarter as the gallery didn’t open til noon, too enthusiastic for my own good, need to get myself on Latino time. The embassy area could easily have been in Paris, tranquil streets with 19th Century European style residencies. Some lovely trees, some interesting architecture (including a modernist building with metal oval door and oval windows), no-one around in the light drizzle.
Once I got into Malba I made a bee-line for the permanent collection of 20th Century art, the collecting of Argentine businessman Eduardo Constantini, offered to the city as a permanent and public home for his significant collection. The city’s artist community backed him to the hilt, persuading the municipal authorities to grant him land on which to construct a purpose-built home for the artworks.
My visit centred on the stand-out exhibit, Frida Kahlo’s Autorretrato con Chango y Loro (Self-portrait with Monkey and Parrot) (1942) of which more here. Worth the price of admission and the 6,900 mile trip alone. Other highlights included Antonio Berni’s Manifestacion (1934), a great example of politically committed painting from Argentina and The Dressmaker (1935) by Amelia Pelaez of Cuba, really original drawing.
I walked back to Plaza San Martin a different way, enjoying the Sunday afternoon calm. The streets were mainly populated by young people and young couples.
After a bit of writing and feet resting in the comfortable, old-school hotel room, I taxied across to Palermo Soho, a bar and shop district on the other side of town, for the day’s meal. Highlight of that: tortilla. I wonder whether this Soho is named after New York’s SoHo, London’s or neither? A coffee and read to round off, then back to base ready for an early start on the journey to Uruguay. It’s not every day you get to visit a country beginning with U. Right up there with the day we walked across the bridge from Zimbabwe to Zambia, a double Z bonanza.
Picture of the Month: Autorretrato con Chango y Loro (Self-portrait with Monkey and Parrot) – Frida Kahlo (1942)
I’ve never written a Picture of the Month in situ before but it’s a rainy Spring afternoon in Buenos Aires and I feel so inspired by this painting in the Malba gallery that I feel compelled to get a bit of energy out of the system. I’m dedicating this one to Una who would love this painting.
What’s unusual is that in many ways it’s a very simple painting, not much to work with – the artist, a monkey, a parrot and a background of wheat. Usually I pick images with more complexity to focus on in Picture of the Month.
I’m about 20 inches away from it now, phone in hand to jot this on.
The eyes make an equilateral triangle which is the heart of the composition. Frida’s look slightly left like she doesn’t give a monkey’s about the viewer. Her lips are tight. Her cheeks red. There’s a bit of anger or disdain or probably defiance there.
The parrot looks straight out with both of its side-mounted eyes looking directly at the viewer – the only one of the three doing so. I saw a green parrot like this yesterday up in the trees at the bird sanctuary across town by the port, the Costanera Sur ecological reserve at Puerto Madero. Incongruously some distant relatives, also bright green, hang out occasionally in the allotments beside my house.
The monkey is looking out of the frame to the artist’s left – only one black eye visible like a Jack of spades.
Frida’s hairband is green and yellow like the parrot. Her hair is black like the monkey. She is integrated with them. Are they two aspects of her? Talking and thinking or feeling? Her parents? Her children? Two people she knows? Two aspects of Mexico? No clues really – maybe they are just two animals or familiars.
The parrot sits on her shoulder. Not much sense of its weight. The yellow and maroon dress she is wearing is flat and unruffled, making the parrot not quite of this world.
The monkey is embracing her, an arm behind her back and one on her shoulder. They look close whoever he/she is. It’s got a little quiff. Its face is at once baby-like and old, more the latter.
His (why do I keep thinking it’s a male?) fur links to her amazing gull-shaped monobrow through the shared colour and her unflinchingly portrayed moustache. She has black eye-liner echoing those eyebrows. The lip hair reflects them. So some strong X-shaped geometry is the focus of her face.
The background of wheat reminds me of Van Gogh. The yellow is related to his sunflowers. The tendrils at the top suggest growth and something of the jungle. The shapes also remind me of Rousseau’s vegetation.
…on reflection, I don’t think it’s wheat. I think it’s some kind of exotic jungle plant. So we’re in a Latin-American jungle world albeit of a light and limited kind, no sense of enclosure by trees.
After 20 minutes standing here what do I take away about this beautiful picture? It’s more for Frida than for us – or at least she’s giving us only so much. The rest is hers.
Here’s the last Picture of the Month – as you can see the series title has a touch of irony about it.
Went with the flow. Original plan was to get a change of scene for my writing day by heading off to the RAF Museum just a couple of miles away and write among old planes. But I had to drop the Other Half off in Holloway (near the library where Joe Orton carefully defaced covers and blurbs and got sentenced to 6 months for his trouble). On the way back heard on Radio London about Kenwood House re-opening today after two years of closure for renovation so went with it and ended up having a good, flowing writing session at the end of the Robert Adam library you never used to be able to get to (there was a rope barrier before the restoration). The gilding has been stripped away, which was a later accretion, and the beautifully lit domed room looks just right in its 18C pale pinks and blues with fine detail in pure white.
Sitting on the new leather sofa on its first morning of active duty I wrote five pages of the Tony Wilson chapter, picking up from the emblematic opening scene and intro I wrote earlier in the week. It flowed easily between related moments so that it got well away from any simple chronological account and feels like something cutting the cake in a more individual way.
Lunch break in the cafe in the stable block with a newspaper – revelling in the not-at-work feeling. Then another burst of writing outdoors overlooking the lake and grounds. Plus a bit of reading about Sylvia Beach who could make a good shorter chapter for variety. So a very productive day lifted by an inspirational environment.
After the library session had a look around the restored rooms and the rest of the house. Found a full length Sargent portrait in the old rooms upstairs that hadn’t registered before. Plus a collection of Elizabethan painting which wasn’t familiar – some amazingly modern fashion such as dresses decorated with little rips. Was reminded what an amazing collection is in the house (a vague memory that it was once curated by Cambridge spy Anthony Blunt, he certainly wrote the intro to older versions of the guidebook) – Vermeer, Rembrandt, Turner, Boucher, Reynolds, Gainsborough, and all first-class examples, nothing second-rate. It’s a special pleasure to grow up with your own local set of paintings (as Vanessa Feltz eloquently captured on the show which brought me here) and it’s striking to see how a building/place can weave itself into the fabric of so many lives over such a long time.
Starting the day with a meeting about multi-generational space missions in closed loop systems (i.e. intergalactic travel taking many generations to complete, not even hundreds but thousands of years and more) does tend to shift your perspective so left CPH:DOX with headshifted and an ambition to squeeze the most out of my last few hours in Copenhagen. Headed to the Glyptotek which houses the art collection of Carlsberg of brewing fame, on the recommendation of both Toni Arden (who hails from the city although has been living in England since she met Paul on a Scandinavian ferry as a teenager) and Ove Jensen of European Documentary Network.
Glyptotek means a house for sculptures. You know that weird thing where you come across a word for the first time and then it crops up again the same day? Well it happened with Glyptotek – a bit Twilight Zone given how obscure a word it is. I was reading a novel by Philip Kerr, The One from the Other, a detective story set in Nazi Germany, both in the terrace café in the charming Winter Garden of the Glyptotek and again on the plane home, when the hero, Bernie Gunther, a Berlin cop moved to Bavaria after the War, meets a client, a rich blonde in a Porsche, at the Glyptothek (with an H) in Munich.
Any way I set up office in the Glyptotek (without an H), moving from the running water and palm frond tranquility of the glass-domed Winter Garden to the quiet of the antique sculpture lined galleries. More Ginsberg needless to say.
I had a sneak preview of the French painting galleries which open in their renovated form tomorrow (bad timing on my part) – the highlights of the few rooms already open were a couple of Courbets and a large scale painting of a beggar at a bourgeois door by a 19C French artist whose name didn’t ring a bell.
Had a final writing session on a bench beside the idiosyncratic building with its sculptural details of hippo and teeth-bearing ape heads as the sun lowered in a wash of red, then headed for home. Complemented the Chandleresque adventures in post-war Germany with some more research on Peter Cook who I feel is moving out towards the edge of the radar as the Comedy candidate, proving beggars can be choosers.
I’m in the office, it’s mid-afternoon and a gap’s appeared. I’ll nab it to dash across the park to Sotheby’s to take a look at The Scream. It’s a version in pastels, not oil, on board, not canvas, in private hands for years, Fred Olsen the shipping magnate, unseeable til now. I ring up to see what time they close. Half an hour ago and today was the last day of the viewing in London – it’s off to New York now. I let out a little Skrik. Bugger, bugger, bugger, I’ve been meaning to take a look for weeks. As Nietzsche would have said, you’ve got to be philosophical about it. I’m trying – but struggling. Soooo disappointed. I’ve seen most of the other versions, three in paint, my first time was in Oslo around 1987.
And then I got a second chance I never expected. I pictured this pastels version of Munch’s The Scream disappearing back into some mansion. But the new owner is evidently an enlightened person, s/he put it on public display at MoMA in New York (with which I heard s/he has a close connection). I was in NYC a few weeks ago talking at the Impact Media conference. The day after I went on a pathetically shallow quest in search of a particular watch made in New York. One of the few places you’re supposed to be able to get one is in the MoMA design shop – drew a blank there (out-of-date websites are so annoying, Nooka) – but the upside was I spotted the poster for The Scream exhibition.
Made a bee-line for it. It sat in the centre of a semi-darkened room. Surrounded by various works which shed some light on it, relatively minor, thoughtfully displayed. And here’s the thing…
He may well not actually be screaming. It’s called The Scream/Skrik. It’s got a man in the middle of it. Somehow an assumption had fixed itself in my mind that the man’s screaming. But first and foremost he’s covering his ears to block out a scream. A scream Munch heard in Nature that evening he went out walking along the edge of Oslo fjord and the sunset turned the sky blood red. His two friends were a bit ahead and he found himself alone in the face of Nature’s infinity.
I’ve experienced that myself but in a more benign way. I used to have an album by ABC called ‘Beauty Stab’ (used to because it was on cassette, a format well capable of prompting shrieks). It was a phrase that really resonnated for me. Those moments when you’re somewhere in Nature and it’s so beautiful it hurts. Occasionally I’ve had it though where it tips into an anxiety in the face of Nature’s depths – I had that once alone in a natural pool in Jamaica. For Munch it’s angst all the way on an overwhelming scale.
Skrik was one of six paintings making up what the artist dubbed the ‘Frieze of Life’. He was responding to (German dramatist) Lessing’s assertion in Laocoon that literature could tell a story over time where painting had to rely on a single moment. Munch wanted to create what the German’s called a ‘gesamptwerk’, a total work of art. The six paintings were displayed together and offered a coherent overview of life as a human being. Wanting to keep them together explains Munch’s willingness to reproduce his own paintings, avoiding breaking up the set.
On a tangent my limited Norwegian vocabulary is dominated by words like Skrik, Kvinne and the like, picked up from Munch’s titles. I was actually one of only two people in my year at Cambridge doing Norwegian (for me it was a third, subsidiary language which I was studying for all the wrong reasons and without seriousness, unlike the other student who quickly left me behind like Munch’s friends on that fateful walk).
So I battled my way through the crowd to get a close look at this 4th version of the iconic image, displayed like an icon in a fancy frame (Munch wasn’t keen on frames, or even on canvas, often painting on board or cheap materials) in a reverent penumbra, and drank it in, left above all with the impression of the mad swirls. Pencilled on to one oil version in the Oslo Museum is the sentence (in Norsk of course) “only a madman could have painted this”. To what extent this reflected his fear of madness in his family or was a bit of a pose cashing in on the Nordic rep for depressive nuttiness is difficult to say for sure.
Any way, I made my way literally round the corner to bump into another display of mad swirls. Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. (MoMA is like that, a too-rich mix of masterpiece after masterpiece, difficult to consume much of in a sitting.) What an illuminating face-off that was – Skrik vs Starry Night. Munch drew inspiration for his expressiveness from Vincent’s quickly growing impact in the wake of his death in 1890. But Vincent’s nightswirls are expressions not of madness and the chaotic expanse of Nature but of the raw energy of its infinity. Van Gogh’s image is the culmination of the 19th century in wonder and dynamism. Munch’s is the quintessence of the 20th century in its anxious horror.
The face at its focus is simplified, universalised in the way Klee stripped back his imagery to a powerful child-like lingua franca. In this way it is the head of Everyman, almost back to the skull beneath the skin, and that is the secret of its power – it is a kind of blank canvas, like Room 101, where we each impose our own meanings onto it. A scream at the horror of the holocaust. Despair (its original title) at the godless world post-Nietzsche. A cry for sanity as we pollute the waters, the countryside, the sky – tearing the earth to bloody pieces. A shriek at the advent of the A-bomb. A man screaming …who isn’t.
One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord – the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The colour shrieked. This became The Scream.
Munch’s diary – 22nd January 1892