Nov 26, 2011

Letter: Painting portraits is almost a lost art

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In "A Supreme Portrait Artist" (Door County Now, Nov. 16), Door County artist James Ingwersen quotes esteemed portrait painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) on what defined his art.

The great portrait painters were all pre-modern, but there are good professional artists, such as Ingwersen, who continue specializing in realistic portraiture.

However, one can say as Sargent remarked, the human face is never totally revealed even realistically: Note those historical paintings where the likeness of George Washington is never quite the same.

It is almost a lost art form; not that many artists of recent can paint or draw a realistic face.

We know of the groundbreaking work of a Picasso, who already abandoned realist depiction of human form before he was 30 years old; and, with later abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollack, one can forget recognizing from them much reality.

Human faces are even rarely presented today in impressionistic art.

Ironically, the moderns, who were unwilling or unable to paint or draw realistically, garner millions in sales from collectors.

But knowing that an artist like Ingwersen carries on in the romantic tradition set by the pre-moderns, like Sargent, Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, one realizes the genre has not completely disappeared.
I would think where portraitists today primarily find an outlet for their craft is in painting for posterity's sake — for example, faithfully rendering on canvas true-to-life well-known persons, including an associate justice of the Supreme Court.

As pointed out, other notable personages have had themselves portrayed by Ingwersen. Has he not also painted President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who once sat for him?

Garry Peterson

Sturgeon Bay



Art's quiet man

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WILLIAM TURNBULL will turn 90 in January. His career as an artist has spanned more than 60 years. During the second world war he served as a pilot in the RAF, and saw a world of aerial landscapes. This view informed many of the abstract paintings he produced in the early 1960s—bright block colours with thin lines to represent a river, and textured marks that may be trees or the sea. Painting was his first interest, but during his time at Slade art school in London after the war he found that he preferred sculpture, the medium he is best known for. He was captivated, he has said, by the idea that with a bag of plaster dust he “could make something out of nothing”.   
He began sculpting in plaster before turning to bronze, wood and stone. In the mid-1960s he began to make work in steel. But whatever the material, his sculptures tend to combine the figurative and abstract—representing a body, a head or an animal but moulding the form to the limits of our ability to identify it. “Head”, from 1950, at first appears to be an obscure tangle of metal, but in the carefully created lines we can make out a cheek, an eye, an ear. His work is at once ancient and modern, and Mr Turnbull has spoken of wanting to take his work “out of time”—a theme taken up in a new documentary about his life and work, “William Turnbull: Beyond Time”, now showing at the ICA in London.   

The film is co-directed and produced by his son, Alex Turnbull, who describes it in the opening credits as “a journey into the life and work of my father.” The documentary tells a broadly chronological story about Mr Turnbull’s life through interviews with fellow artists, museum directors, collectors, critics and the man himself, and it seems the family connection has opened several doors. We hear from Richard Hamilton—a fellow member of the Independent Group with Mr Turnbull in the 1950s—and Antony Gormley, who talks of his admiration for Turnbull’s sculpture and the importance of his drawing. Alex also secured Jude Law to narrate (as a favour, apparently). His voice gently smoothes over the cracks between segments. Nicholas Serota, director of Tate, also features heavily, detailing the finer points of Turnbull’s appeal.  


Mr Turnbull is a secretive man. Rather than courting the establishment he has dedicated his career to pursuing his own ideas and creativity. But this quiet commitment did not keep him from making friends in high places. He moved to Paris in the 1940s and befriended Alberto Giacometti and Constantin Brancusi (reportedly wedging his foot in the door of Brancusi’s studio until he let him in). He then migrated to New York, following his enthusiasm for abstract expressionism, and got to know Mark Rothko. There are some splendid anecdotes from the interviewees. Picasso is remembered by Mr Turnbull’s first wife as “a pain in the neck”.  

There’s an informality and intimacy to these interviews, and the portrait comes sugar-coated—a son’s labour of love, seemingly designed to re-ignite interest in his father’s work and enhance his legacy. Mr Turnbull has his critics, but also many admirers. Mr Serota celebrates Mr Turnbull’s single-mindedness, how he “stayed true to his values, spirit and intellectual position”. He also praised his tireless creativity in whatever medium he chose, be it drawing, painting or sculpture—an energy for experimentation with echoes of Picasso. His vision has remained intact, regardless of what his peers were doing or what the market demanded. Some prefer their artists to live lives of drama and romance, their suffering injecting authenticity into their work. But Mr Turnbull is art’s quiet man, getting on with his work and allowing it to speak for itself. As a digestible 65-minute appreciation of his art, and an insight into his character and motivations, this film is a pleasure.   



Poet-painter finds two talents complement each other

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Visual artist and poet Doris Bezio of De Pere enjoys creating her variety of artwork at The ARTgarage in Green Bay.
Visual artist and poet Doris Bezio of De Pere enjoys creating her variety of artwork

Doris Bezio of De Pere creates her art any place and in one place. She writes poetry "anywhere — out in nature, at home."

The place for her spontaneous style of visual art is at The ARTgarage on Green Bay's east side. Artists rent space to create and exhibit their work there, and The ARTgarage offers myriad events and classes.

"I love it," Bezio said of her spot in the corner of a large area adjacent to other artists' work spaces. "I don't have room at home."

A native of Hartford, Bezio was suggested for this series by Nancy Hacker Gneiser of Allouez.

"She is a wonderful artist and poet — published — lovely, intelligent," Gneiser said.

To Bezio, visual art and poetry complement each other.

"Usually when I write any poetry or feel inspired to write poetry, I also start doing art around the same time," said Bezio, whose name is pronounced buzz-EYE-o.

For a special project of Gallery Q in Stevens Point, one of Bezio's poems was interpreted by another visual artist. At the opening in May, Bezio stood next to the painting and read her poem, "Summer Crossing." The poem and painting are in the book, "Verse & Visions."

As a child, Bezio's first interest was visual art — "scribbling in books, getting scolded."

Classmates considered her a good artist. Then came a dry spell.

"When I got to high school, there was no art class whatsoever, and at that point I started writing poetry," she said.

When Bezio moved to Milwaukee after high school, she took evening classes at Layton School of Art for a while.

"I was married for a while and raising children, and art just took a back seat," Bezio said. "Poetry was more transportable. Somewhere in my 40s, I got back to doing art again, and I just started doing my own thing.

"I took classes, and I was always the worst one in class. So then I started not paying attention to anything, just kind of doing my own thing."

When Bezio took some pieces to a framer, her work caught the attention of William Hartman, a local Renaissance man in visual art, writing and acting.

The result was an exhibit at Brown County Central Library in Green Bay. That spurred Bezio on.

Bezio creates in watercolors, acrylics, mix-media collages and mosaics. She gets an idea, and off she goes, improvising forms and colors.

Her process is dictated by "whatever I feel like doing," she said. "To me, it's fun. It's fun and relaxing. It's enjoyable. It's meditative. And it's just more or less where the spirit leads."

Her space at The ARTgarage contains storage for her brushes, paint and mosaic pieces; tools for whatever piece is at hand; finished work and works in progress.

Looking at a piece near completion, she said, "I'm anxious to get through this now because I want to move on to something else" — not quite certain what the "something else" is.

Her pieces may incorporate wax paper, plastic wrap or ferns.

"I just experiment," she said.

Music is a factor for Bezio. She listens to classical orharp music as she works, plays Native American flute for enjoyment and sometimes includes music as a theme in her art.

The first piece in her series, "You are the Music," sold before Bezio wanted it to, so she re-numbered the series.

"The title is from a T.S. Eliot poem — 'Music heard so deeply/That it is not heard at all./but you are the music/While the music lasts.' It's from 'The Salvages.'"

Created in the memory of a musician-friend, the work was in a juried exhibition of the Green Bay Art Colony, of which Bezio is an associate member.



Nov 23, 2011

Paintings of seven signatories of the 1916 proclamation

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The 'Battle of the Bogside' painting of Bernadette Devlin  
The 'Battle of the Bogside' painting of Bernadette Devlin was created by Robert Ballagh in 1999. 
A selection of paintings depicting the seven signatories of the 1916 proclamation are to be auctioned off by a golf club in the Irish Republic. 

The portraits have graced the stairway of the Druids Glen Golf Resort in County Wicklow since it opened in 1995.

But the current owners have decided that the paintings no longer suit the "ambience" of the clubhouse and are planning to sell them. 

Artist Robert Ballagh, who was commissioned to create the pencil drawings by the club's previous owner Hugh 'Hugo' Flinn, told the Irish Independent he was disappointed by the decision.

Robert Ballagh is very well respected and his paintings are very sought after”

Ian Whyte, auctioneer
"Sadly, Hugo is no longer with us and it seems the new management have decided to divest the house of these proudly nationalist emblems," he added.

"The portraits of the 1916 signatories have been there since Druids Glen opened and I believe they should remain there," he added.

Mr Flinn died last year and the Druids Glen Resort is now headed by chief executive Richard Collins.

Mr Ballagh said he was "shocked" at the 8-10,000 euros (£7-8,500) guide price for the set of seven portraits.

Other lots in the sale, also created by Mr Ballagh, include portraits of Eamon de Valera and John Costello with a guide price of between 1,500 euros and 2,000 euros each (£1,200-1,700), and an oil painting of Bernadette Devlin which has an estimate of 8-10,000 euros (£7-8,500).

"I liked Hugo. I did all of this work at very, very cheap rates but if you look at estimates in the catalogue for the exhibition, they are not selling at cheap rates," said Mr Ballagh.
The works will go under the hammer in Whyte's "Important Irish Art" auction which takes place in the RDS in Dublin on 28 November. 

Pencil drawing of James Connolly  
The pencil drawing of James Connolly and six other signatories of the 1916 proclamation are up for grabs
"There has been good interest so far. Robert Ballagh is very well respected and his paintings are very sought after," he said. 

"So they should sell well."

Mr Whyte said the current management of the resort felt it needed to reduce its collection of 30 very similar nationalist portraits. 

"They are retaining some of the art in one of the rooms. In the drawing room they have two very large paintings of Edward Carson and Michael Collins. 

"Those will stay, along with portraits of Wolfe Tone and Charles Stuart Parnell. There are a lot of sculptures on the grounds, and they are staying too. So it is not like they are throwing everything out." 

The money raised will be used to fund a refurbishment of the golf club.

Mr Whyte said the works had been replaced by a temporary exhibition showcasing contemporary Irish artists.



Touring exhibition bringing Cezanne, Picasso

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East German nostalgia and female artists of Prairies also coming up in 2012
Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel, seen at the National Modern Art Museum in Paris, will be part of Icons of Modernism exhibit at the Art Gallery of Alberta.
Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel, seen at the National Modern Art Museum in Paris, will be part of Icons of Modernism exhibit at the Art Gallery of Alberta.
The Art Gallery of Alberta goes modernist in February with the opening of its star attraction for 2012, Icons of Modernism.

The exhibition, announced Tuesday, charts the transformative changes in the art world in the early part of the 20th century and features the work of avant-garde artists who have become household names, among them Cézanne, Dali, Duchamp and Picasso.

"They changed the nature of art, what art could be," AGA chief curator Catherine Crowston says. "They pushed art to its boundaries."

Icons of Modernism, a National Gallery of Canada exhibition show, shows how the avant-garde school, faced by industrialization and mechanization, began to question naturalism and representational art such as landscape painting, moving toward abstract forms.

Among the works is Duchamp's famous Bicycle Wheel, a bicycle fork with wheel mounted upside down on a wooden stool. The French Dadaist founded the notion of the readymade, in which an artist takes an ordinary object and makes it art by recontextualizing it. Instead of limiting art to works made from scratch, such as watercolour paintings and bronze sculptures, "art could be made from the world around you," Crowston explains.

"It's a questioning of that materiality."

Don't expect to see Dali's famous melting clocks. There will be just one small painting by the Spanish surrealist: Gala and the Angelus of Millet Preceding the Imminent Arrival of the Conical Anamorphoses. Crowston says it taps into "the whole idea of the unconscious," evidence of the philosophical shifts also taking place among the avant-garde.

Icons of Modernism runs until May 21.

The new year also brings with it a little Soviet chic at the AGA. If you've watched the 2003 tragicomedy Goodbye Lenin!, you'll know all about "Ostalgie." The German word combining Ost and Nostalgie refers to the sentimental yearning for all things East German, be it Spreewald pickles or the GDR's propaganda telecasts. "Ostalgie" also applies to a broader affection for life behind the Iron Curtain, and you'll get a strong whiff of that in Rearview Mirror, the gallery's first show in 2012.

Opening Jan. 28, the exhibition includes work by 22 artists who represent the diverse backgrounds and histories of the former Eastern Europe. Several of the artists are rising stars in the contemporary art world.

"It will be perhaps not what people expect when they think of art from Eastern Europe, in terms of icon painting and social realist painting," Crowston says of the show featuring video, installation, sculpture and painting. "The artists question themselves what it meant to be Eastern in relation to the rest."

Most of the artists were born in the 1970s and 1980s, as totalitarianism was replaced by democracy, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As a result, this generation of postconceptual artists reflects on the history their parents lived through, often with "a bit of nostalgia," Crowston says. Curated by Christopher Eamon, the show is a co-production with the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto, among Canada's most cutting-edge contemporary art spaces. It runs until April.
Opening alongside Rearview Mirror is The Untimely Transmogrification of the Problem, a fascinating, quirky solo show by Calgary painter Chris Millar. As implied by the unusual noun in the title, Millar's work zooms in on the theme of altering or changing something, often with grotesque or humorous effect. The satirical and very funny essence of Millar's work, coupled with the AGA's ongoing mission to showcase Alberta's contemporary artists, made the show a must for the gallery.

Millar "uses paint in very nontraditional ways," Crowston says. "He builds sculptures out of paint. They're very detailed, based in pop culture, punk culture. It's like if you took a Simpsons episode and made it baroque and added all this ornamentation and decoration and then made it 3-D."

In March, the gallery moves to female artists on the Canadian Prairies who were the avant-garde from the 1930s until the 1970s. Though relatively unknown, these 17 women were leaders of modernism, proof that Alberta was not a visual arts backwater but rather a vibrant, thriving art scene.

Alberta Mistresses of the Modern includes work by Marion Nicoll, a pioneer of modernism who thrived creatively despite the conservative attitudes toward art and women in Alberta at the time. Crowston says established male artists, such as Walter J. Phillips, were still working in the pictorial landscape tradition
while Nicoll and her female contemporaries experimented with edgier forms. "I wonder if women felt because they weren't being watched, there was less at stake - I don't know," Crowston says.



Abstract Painter Brushes Coast

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Betsy Cain's work doesn't sit like a still, serene landscape. It swirls, bubbles, drips and taps.
Savannah's Jepson Center for the Arts is honoring one of the city's most well-known and well-respected visual artists with an exhibit of her work. Abstract painter Betsy Cain marked her third decade in Savannah, this year. Her new show focuses on Cain's strong ties to the coastal city, but her work isn't exactly beaches, marshes and historic homes.

Betsy Cain's work doesn't sit like a still, serene landscape. It swirls, bubbles, drips and taps.

The 61-year-old artist mixes paint at her studio near the historic Bonaventure Cemetery. She has just starting a painting and putting a grey base on a canvass. Where the painting goes from there is up to inspiration.

"I'll essentially walk up to a canvass and a make or a form. And that form will direct me," Cain said.

Cain’s is the kind of non-representational art that makes viewers step back and ask, "What is it?" You might see swooping strokes, scraped colors or streaks of light -- but no recognizable figures.

"For me, that's the intrigue of them. It's almost like a memory or a resonance of something that you've known but you can't quite conjure up the full image of it," she said.

One set of paintings in her studio might look like gorillas. Another might look like butterflies. She often starts a painting by paying attention to the colors and afterimages when she closes her eyes.

"I call them retinal colors or visual cortex colors. And I like to think that they're universal and that we all experience them,” she said.” “I base palettes on those colors."

Cain started out as a more traditional painter in Alabama. She moved to Savannah in 1981 and says her move to abstract art years later was to explore thought and memory in her work. If there's a thought other artists here have about Cain, it's respect. She volunteers in non-profits, champions environmental issues, and has led art collaborations.

"I like the idea of artists participating in community life because I actually think artists have a lot to offer," she said.

That community respect helped lead to her first solo exhibit at the Jepson Center.

The exhibit is about the coast but the topic doesn't leap out at you. You have to know, for instance, that several dripping, indigo-colored works speak to the slave-intensive indigo crop that once grew here.

"It's interesting to think about history with a certain color and indigo certainly left its mark on the people who help process it," she said.

Looking at one of her abstract works, I have a sense that the painting is weeping.

"Of course, the forms are weeping. There's a real pull where the forms are draining down. There's a sense of gravity,” she said. “I see them as a lament."

Cain said, other paintings reference Ossabaw Island, the Gulf oil spill and water. It could be the water flowing through her eyes or flowing through the place she's called home for three-decades.



Artist spends three years painting same tree

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Artist spends three years painting same tree after deaths of parents and friend

Stephen Taylor

An artist traumatised by the deaths of his parents and a close friend has spent three years in a field painting a single oak tree.
Stephen Taylor, 50, went through an emotional crisis following the deaths - one after another in the space of a year - and became obsessed with painting the same tree over and over again.

His parents Lillian, 70, and Jack, 76, died of a brain tumour and heart attack respectively, within a year of each other, while his ex-girlfriend and close friend also died of a brain tumour.
Taylor said: “You lose your sense of identity when you lose friends and family and I suddenly didn’t know who I was.

“I walked into this field one day and just sat down and started to paint. I painted the tree from every angle, in oils and watercolours, I drew it and photographed it.

“At the time I didn’t think about why I was doing it, but looking back now I think I was trying to feel at home. I had lost everything that anchored me.

“It was a mid-life crisis brought about by the repeated deaths of important people in my life that I was coping with. “

Taylor travelled every day to the East Anglian wheat field from his home in Colchester to document all aspects of the tree.

Now, a book from Princeton Architectural Press has been released of 50 of Stephen’s paintings.

Simply titled Oak, the book, published today, includes paintings of the 250-year-old oak resplendent in high summer, frozen and bare in deep winter and at all hours of the day and night.

Taylor, who studied at Leeds, Essex and Yale universities, said the process was cathartic and the tree had reminded him of pictures he grew up with in his family home in Wolverhampton, West Mids.

He said: “My family had been there for 100 years and when that was all finished I was left wondering ‘what am I going to do with my life?’.

“The oak has a feeling of permanence. You find it crops up a lot in the paintings of Constable, in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and also in War and Peace, where it takes on a symbolic meaning.

“I’m alright now, but I think by taking this one little area of England and feeding off it spiritually I found some redemption.

“The paintings themselves are very much like ones in my family, ones my grandfather did. Painting was how we knew who we were.”



Nov 21, 2011

The life of the poster boy for tortured genius

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There are striking similarities (not mentioned by the authors) between Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) and his near-exact contemporary, French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891).

Both experienced – in their nomadic, bohemian and impoverished lives – exhaustion and starvation, filth and debauchery, degradation and disease, violence and self-destruction. Both rebelled against family and bourgeois values, indulged in boorish and barbaric behaviour and made many precipitous flights from country to country. Both were multilingual: Van Gogh knew Dutch, German, French and English. Van Gogh’s disastrous friendship with Paul Gauguin was like Rimbaud’s violent relations with Paul Verlaine. Van Gogh lived with prostitutes, Rimbaud with Ethiopian peasants.

Detail of "Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear" by Vincent van Gogh - Detail of "Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear" by Vincent van Gogh | Van Gogh Museum
Vincent van Gogh
In a burst of genius and between episodes of insanity, van Gogh painted all his greatest works between 1888 and 1890. Rimbaud, after a brilliant spurt of creativity, renounced poetry at 21 and became a trader in Abyssinia. Van Gogh idealized chaste women who ignored or rejected him, and then consorted with prostitutes who gave him syphilis. Neither man had significant recognition in his lifetime. Van Gogh cut off his ear, Rimbaud had his leg cut off. Both were hostile to and emotionally dependent on their severe and hypercritical mothers. Both died at 37. Their moral torment and tragic finales reveal the human spirit breaking itself to escape from humiliating compromise and all-consuming chaos.

The son of a Protestant minister, van Gogh grew up in a dreary Dutch village. After abortive careers as an art dealer, schoolteacher, bookseller, magazine illustrator, clergyman and evangelical preacher among crude coal miners, he became a painter. He was virtually self-taught, which helps to explain his aesthetic idiosyncrasy, and gave no hint, till the very end, that he would ever achieve greatness. There’s a tremendous contrast between the drab grey and black colours of his dreary and impoverished northern subjects and the brilliant light and colour of his paintings in Provence. His fevered art, with its jagged brush strokes and vertiginous swirls of paint, seems charged with electric current and his jaundiced yellows convey a morbid aura.

A shorter work is harder to write but easier to read than a longer one, and this would have been a better book if it were cut in half. This handsome, well illustrated, reasonably priced and exhaustively researched biography is very repetitive. Van Gogh wrote hundreds of heart-wrenching but finally exasperating letters, and borrowed money from and quarrelled with his devoted brother, Theo, scores of times. Few readers would wish to be overwhelmed with such excessive detail. The book also has, for select masochists, 5,000 pages of notes online. But it picks up on Page 665, as van Gogh moves from Paris to Arles in the south of France and meets Gauguin, whose commercial and sexual success, in contrast to his own pandemic failures, intensified their hostility.

This long biography needs more analysis of van Gogh’s major works. In the bold, three-quarter-view Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, for example, the warm gold and brick red of the background are clearly divided by a line that runs emphatically across the painting at eye level and is kept distinct by sharp outlines from the impasto of the fur-trapper’s hat, rough sallow-skinned face with high-bridged nose and green buttoned greatcoat. Van Gogh, puffing smoke from a pipe, boldly confronts the viewer with an expression of defiant despair. Though he’d suffered a serious wound and psychic shock, the painting reveals an astonishing concentration and composure. The authors don’t discuss the influence of his art on intensely emotional, even disturbed Expressionist painters like Edvard Munch, Egon Schiele and Chaim Soutine.

In his final years, van Gogh suffered recurrent mental breakdowns, attacked Gauguin with a razor, returned to his room in a state of terrible excitement and high fever, suffered auditory hallucinations, “went astray in his wits,” cut off the lower part of his left ear and sliced into his jaw. After staunching the abundant flow of blood, he put on a large beret to cover the wound, rinsed his severed ear, took it to the brothel that he and Gauguin patronized, presented it to a prostitute and instructed her to “keep this object carefully.” She unwrapped the macabre gift and fainted.

He was confined to several insane asylums, where he was protected and treated well, and committed suicide by shooting himself in the stomach. The authors offer an alternative scenario in which he was shot by teenagers and inexplicably covered up their crime before dying, but the verdict remains open.

Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith describe van Gogh as “a wayward, battered soul: a stranger in the world, an exile in his own family, and an enemy to himself.” Like Dostoyevsky’s surly, wounded, volatile and dangerously intense characters and Shakespeare’s King Lear, he could exclaim, throughout his adult life: “I fear I am not in my perfect mind.”



Nov 20, 2011

Long before Occupy Wall Street, artist took on social injustice

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diego-rivera-the uprising.JPG
Diego Rivera's "The Uprising," 1931.

Planning for “Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art” was well in hand by the time the Occupy Wall Street crew took over Zuccotti Park in September, but you’ve got to admire MoMA’s sense of timing.
In this show the museum brings back together the eight “portable” frescoed murals Rivera painted for MoMA’s second one-man show (Henri Matisse got the first) in 1931, just as the horrors of the Great Depression were sinking in. And what they represent is the very birth of Socialist Realism — even as they foreshadow one of the most notorious incidents of artistic censorship in American history.

Rivera did not start the fresco his (and the MoMA’s) patrons, the Rockefeller family, destroyed, “Man at the Crossroads,” until two years after the triumphal debut of these eight frescos at MoMA. But you could argue that “Man at the Crossroads” would never have been commissioned for Rockefeller Center except for the mad popularity of the show MoMA is recreating today. Rivera packed them in — far outselling Matisse, by the way. In fact, MoMA founding director Alfred Barr thought Rivera would cause a sensation in the hungry city, and that’s one reason he organized the show. 

In the end, the Rockefellers had “Man at the Crossroads” destroyed in the middle of the night after almost a year of labor because, unbidden, Rivera had included a portrait of Vladimir Lenin among a crowd of workers. What’s so interesting about Rivera and the Rockefellers is the fact that they commissioned him at all — it wasn’t like they didn’t know what they were paying for, any more than Rivera was in the dark about Standard Oil. 

The artist had just returned from an extended visit to the Soviet Union in 1928, where he had taught mural painting in the Soviet academy system; and MoMA knew all about Rivera’s apotheosis in the Kremlin because Barr had been traveling with the fellow himself. Barr even bought a drawing for his as-yet-unnamed museum, “Sawing Rails, Moscow,” now in this show, and clan matron Abby Rockefeller paid $2,500 for Rivera’s watercolor doodle book of his visit to Moscow, 25 pages or so of which are on display here, too.

The core of “Murals for MoMA” is, of course, the eight “portable” frescoes. Barr wanted Rivera to bring some sense of the Mexican mural projects he’d created for the revolutionary government, but there was no way to move the buildings of Mexico City to New York. So they came up with the idea of fashioning a steel frame with a mesh backstop. The mesh was coated with concrete, and the surface then covered with successive layers of finer and finer plaster until the painter and his assistants painted the last, using water and natural mineral pigments as their only media, in a special studio in a nearby high-rise.

Diego Rivera's Frozen Assets, 1931-1932, fresco on reinforced cement in a galvanized-steel framework. 
Rivera had learned the essence of this technique when the revolutionary Mexican ministry of culture asked him to spend more than a year in Italy, studying the decorative schema of the Renaissance, in order to create a similar program back home. The paradoxes of Socialist Realism’s invention overlap like the leaves of a maguey plant: Rivera invented a modern art of the people by studying paintings commissioned by bankers and merchants and priests, while at the same time enjoying the patronage of the most successful merchant bankers of his own time.

Five of the portable frescoes are versions of designs completed in Mexico: “Sugar Cane,” “Liberation of the Peon,” “Agrarian Leader Zapata,” “The Uprising” and “Indian Warrior,” which shows an Aztec in jaguar costume plunging a crystal knife into the neck of a fallen, fully-armored Spaniard. The other three Rivera did during the uproar following the opening, and were added over the six-month run of the show. They all show New York City scenes, and “Pneumatic Drilling” and “Electric Power” have the expressive dynamism that many Depression-era or Socialist Realist paintings display when confronted with modern industry. 

The last and most ambitious, of course, is “Frozen Assets,” which caused a second, even bigger stir when it was included in the popular exhibition. It’s a fresco in four registers (like those levels-of-Hell frescoes in Florence), showing, in descending order: A composite skyline of Manhattan; crowds in a subway tube; homeless workers sleeping on a wharf deck, overseen by a hydrant-shaped policeman; and, at the very bottom, a bank vault, with a few well-dressed citizens waiting to drop off their jewels. 

Rivera was the 99 percent — while living, in many ways, like the 1 percent. But then that’s nothing compared to the irony that the Rockefellers, perhaps the greatest supporters of Modernism in America, marred their reputation as patrons by destroying an artwork conceived for one of their most Keynesian projects.

Because, after all, in 1931, when they started building Rockefeller Center, there was no possible business justification for it — there was a huge overhang of office space everywhere in New York. They were acting like job creators by actually creating jobs. It’s true that the buildings have turned a tidy profit ever since, but that just goes to show how Socialist Realism makes good Capitalism.
Or something.



Artist draws on biology background to create new worlds

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San Antonio artist Margaret Craig is chairwoman of the Southwest School of Art's painting, drawing and printmaking department. Photo:, Steve Bennett / SA
San Antonio artist Margaret Craig is chairwoman of the Southwest School of Art's painting, drawing and printmaking department.

In “Growing Houses,” a mixed-media work by San Antonio artist Margaret Craig, vaguely foreboding plant forms threaten to engulf low-slung ranch-styles and suburban two-stories — cue the creepy music — that sit on the coastline of an ocean of swirling color, mostly blues and yellows and purples.

“My work is all about human manipulation and issues such as where we fit in the natural world,” Craig says. “I do have a biological influence as an artist. I did well in biology in school. I was the kid that drove my mom nuts because I would pick up spiders and caterpillars.”

The chairwoman of the department of painting, drawing and printmaking at the Southwest School of Art — where, it goes without saying, her print shop is practically toxin free — Craig is showing new work in an exhibition called “Malleable Objects” through Jan. 6 at REM Gallery in the Tobin Hill Historic District.

The artist, who grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, studied biology at the University of Wisconsin and earned an education degree. 

“That was Mom and Dad's idea,” she says. “They wouldn't let me study art — too risky — so I ended up doing a lot of substitute-teaching.”

She went on to receive advanced degrees in painting and printmaking, the latter at the University of Texas at San Antonio. 

Craig, who invented a process called tar gel etching, which doesn't require a press, pours a lot of processes into a single work, including drawing, painting, sculpture and printmaking — with a lot of sanding, dribbling and gouging — plus a lot of patience. A single work might takes weeks or months to complete; she admits her way of working is “excessive compulsive.”

“Consequently, I always have several pieces going at once,” she says.

This summer, Craig added another skill to her arsenal: ceramics. She took courses with Southwest School ceramics department head Dennis Smith in basic pot-throwing, and ceramic forms anchor some new sculptural wall works such as “Anemonetwo” and “Flowering Splout.”

“I'd never done ceramics before,” Craig says. “But it suddenly lent itself to my work. There were things I wanted to do with it.”

Many of these works look as if they crawled off the ocean floor, or perhaps, in the case of the “splouts” (“kind of a splash, kind of an explosion — a splout”), virulent viruses swimming on a microscope slide. They combine small clay cores with colorful outgrowths and tendrils made from the array of vinyls and epoxy resins that Craig uses.

“You know, what they use to finish bar tops and basketball floors,” she says, “so it's strong.”

They have a fragile beauty but, like nature, their toughness transcends. 

Two of the most hypnotic works in “Malleable Objects” are landscapes. 

The result of intense labor (all those sanded layers of acrylic paint and resin), materials (including clay balls resting in eight gouged “vortexes”) and processes (such as tar gel prints), “Landed Leaves With Fecund Vortexes” and “Leaves on Land With Pinned Vortexes” offer panoramic views of beautifully barren otherworlds, as if Craig were able to photograph the surface of Jupiter. 

Sometimes, she seems to be looking through a microscope; other times, it's a telescope. Regardless, she enjoys creating “new worlds.”

“I myself am very detail-oriented,” Craig says, “and I like to make things that reward prolonged viewing by people who like details.”

Combining art with a cause can often lead to work that is merely polemic. Craig's message is subtle, yet clear.
“My intent is not to preach,” she says, “but instead to create work that will engender thought about the relationship between humans and their surroundings.

“As a biologist,” Craig adds, “you are taught to look. You're looking at things all the time. And as an artist, you are also taught to look. One lends itself to the other. It's all about seeing.”


Variety marks pastel art show

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Buchanan center also has student-faculty exhibit.

Granger artist James Cooke poses with his piece, "Tidal Creek," in which pastels are layered over oil on a canvas primed with acrylic.
Granger artist James Cooke poses with his piece, "Tidal Creek," in which pastels are layered over oil on a canvas primed with acrylic. (South Bend Tribune/DEBRA HAIGHT / November 15

 For those who like variety, the Buchanan Art Center is the place to be this month and next as visitors can view exhibits by members of the Northern Indiana Pastel Society as well as art center students and teachers.

The two new shows opened last week and will be up through Dec. 29. An opening reception for both shows will be held Dec. 7 from 5 to 7 p.m. A one-hour Choral Showcase will follow, featuring members of Southwestern Michigan College's Select Voices and Buchanan High School's Redbud Chorale.

The title of this show is "Pastel Pathways" and features more than 50 paintings by society members.

Society president Cathy McCormick said in this exhibit "pathways" can mean everything from the path of a river to a person's pathway to becoming an artist.

McCormick also noted that in the art world, pastels refer not to a "pale color" but to the powdered pigment that is ground into a paste and then rolled into sticks. The name "pastels" comes from the French word "pastiche."

She and other society members hope that the show will help people understand more about what pastels are and what can be created using them. "A pastel painting can look like an oil painting or a watercolor, it's really a versatile medium," society member Sue Coultas said.

She thinks people will enjoy this show because it contains a wonderful array of styles. "Some of us can't do portraits and others can't do flowers," she said. "Some of the work is very painterly and some are almost photographic."

One of the show's more unusual pastel paintings in terms of methods used is one done by James Cooke, of Granger. He used a method to create his piece "Tidal Creek" that involves layering pastels over oil paint on a canvas primed with acrylic.

"I was just experimenting and looking for new ways to use pastels," he said. "This method allows you to paint on canvas and not paper and is sealed and doesn't chalk off."

Cooke describes himself as an "industrialist" who owned a foundry in Sodus before he retired a few years ago and took up art. He has been a society member for a few years and has won a best of show award two years ago at a society exhibit at Studio Arts in South Bend.

This is the pastel society's fourth and final show for 2011. Previous shows this year were at the South Bend Civic Theatre, Penn High School and Fernwood Botanical Garden.



'Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan'

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The unprecedented exhibition at the National Gallery in London shows the artist's ability to make art seem so real.

Leonardo London
A detail of Leonardo da Vinci's Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (The Lady with an Ermine), about 1489-90. Oil on walnut. 

In the second room of "Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan," a moving and unprecedented exhibition at the National Gallery, what some regard as the most beautiful portrait in the long history of European art draws a viewer in close. "Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (The Lady With an Ermine)" shows the radiantly lovely, 16-year-old mistress of Ludovico Sforza, despotic ruler of Milan and the artist's boss. She stares into an unseen distance while gently stroking the soft neck of an alert, snow-white ermine cradled in her arms.

Her torso twists in three-quarter view turned to her right, while her head is in three-quarter view turned to her left. It's as if the young lady was passing by, heard something behind her and stopped to look. The static image rustles with implied motion, a flat image visually swollen with spatial volume.

Uncannily, the painting also reflects a viewer's own encounter with it, unable to walk by without stopping to stare. You, art and the world converge.

Whether the gorgeous portrait merits the accolade as most beautiful ever is unprovable, yet the claim signals Leonardo's extraordinary achievement. His artistic goal was a back-breaker — to make you fall in love with paint and wood, as surely as Sforza loved beautiful Cecilia. Rather than merely describe the complexity of human experience, this art physically embodies it. Therein lies Leonardo da Vinci's aesthetic genius, as well as his stature as a watershed for Western art.

It doesn't stop there either. The ermine symbolizes Sforza, whose membership in the aristocratic Order of the Ermine cements him to his plebeian beloved. Yet for all the graceful animal's closely observed naturalism, this painted creature is a fiction — far larger than an ermine found in nature. No, Leonardo didn't err. Art has its own demands, and the beast's size fits his composition's needs. The artist makes you believe in its truth.

Leonardo's greatness lies in his capacity to create belief in the fiction you see. Endless nonsense gets written analyzing his various sitters' psychology — think "Mona Lisa" — as if such a thing were possible. But really it's belief and love that animate his art.

Or, to use different words with the same meanings, faith and charity do. Faith and charity are primary Christian virtues, a profound assertion of spiritual theology. Leonardo's paintings reach for the ineffable, the sum of individual elements far exceeding the parts. The earthly balances on a knife-edge with the unearthly, creating sacred harmony.

Painter, engineer, geologist, musician, philosopher, equestrian, botanist, mathematician, inventor — Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) suffered a vexing problem, not uncommon for an ambitious polymath. Simply put: Distractions, distractions.

So prone to becoming absorbed in new challenges was he, and so determined to follow wherever his fascinated insights might lead, that in nearly half a century Leonardo began work on a total of only about 20 paintings. Picasso made that many in a month. And unlike the Renaissance Italian, the modern Spaniard almost always finished the ones that he started.

Today, only about 14 paintings entirely by Leonardo are known to exist. Four were never finished. Fate and the difficulty of attribution — the artist neither signed nor rigorously inventoried his work — mean the total number is slightly uncertain. They range from a diminutive portrait, barely 14 inches on a side, of the young Florentine Ginevra de' Benci, to the famously ruined mural for a convent in Milan. In "The Last Supper," Jesus has quietly announced that one disciple will betray him — an epic breach of faith and charity.

The rarity and fragility of Leonardo's immensely influential paintings has led to an unusual result. Despite his authorship of the enigmatic "Mona Lisa," arguably the most widely recognized painting in the world, his paintings have never before been the subject of a museum exhibition. Adjectives like "major" barely do justice to this astonishing show.

Luke Syson, curator at London's National Gallery, spent five years assembling nine paintings — almost everything Leonardo produced in Milan — plus 54 related drawings and 13 more paintings and 12 drawings by seven students and associates. The curator's readable catalog essay is a model of scholarship elegantly fused with engaging insight for a layman.

In addition to Cecilia's portrait from Krakow, Poland, there's the Louvre's "La Belle Ferronni√®re" and "The Virgin of the Rocks"; "Portrait of a Musician" from Milan's Biblioteca Ambrosiana; the Vatican's unfinished "Saint Jerome"; "The Madonna Litta" from Russia's Hermitage; and "Christ as Salvator Mundi," a panel only recently — and quite convincingly — attributed to the artist. ("Ginevra de' Benci," painted in Florence, and the "Mona Lisa," painted after he left Milan, are excluded.) The National Gallery's own later version of "The Virgin of the Rocks" stands across the room from the Louvre's altarpiece. A Scottish private collection lent "The Madonna of the Yarnwinder," finished by another hand.

A full-scale copy of "The Last Supper" by his pupil Giampietrino (1500-50) hangs in a room upstairs. Filled with long-lost details from the prototype, it displays little of Leonardo's painterly skill, but compensation comes from 17 drawings for the original.

The absence of prior museum presentations has contributed in turn to the corruption of Leonardo's artistic reputation. The subtitle "Painter at the Court of Milan" is no accident: Syson means to rescue him from what might be called the Dan Brown Effect — the cheesy caricaturing of Leonardo's wide-ranging interests, keen mind and serious ambitions. The show is not a fanciful tale of religious apostasy, fake secret societies or even hypothetical flying machines. Instead it's the urbane — and more riveting — story of a supremely gifted artist coming to maturity.

Leonardo matters most as a painter. The show persuasively argues that his 1482 departure from the rich mercantile city of Florence, cradle of the Italian Renaissance, for the cruder, more bumptious northern city of Milan set the stage for his artistic blossoming. As court painter employed by the city's ruler, he found security and freedom that allowed his talents to blossom.

The arrangement also represented mutual need. Sforza — called Il Moro (the Moor) because of his swarthy complexion — was but the regent for a hereditary duke as yet too young to govern. His grasp on power was tenuous. To boost his standing, Sforza took a cue from Florence's all-powerful Medici family, deciding to re-create Milan as a cultural capital with himself as its leading patron.

Meanwhile, Leonardo, 30, needed work. Artists for hire in Florence functioned in a competitive milieu, unduly ruled by patrons' whims. But in Milan he found a full-time employer for whom a court painter relocated from the shining city of Florence could add luster to the mantle of authority. For more than 16 years, the relationship between artist and patron flourished.

Leonardo was born outside the rural Tuscan hill town of Vinci on April 15, 1452, the illegitimate son of a peasant girl and a prosperous notary. A homosexual, he faced intransigent social hurdles. Apprenticed at 14 to the successful Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio, he had a leg up when he set out for Milan. But the lack of prospects earlier in life may finally have been a help if he was going to paint: Smart, but not born to privilege and schooling, he needed to look and to look hard.

Drawing, as the most direct record of artistic thought, was critical. The show's drawings — studies for neck muscles, drapery folds, feet, various saints, the nervous system, buildings and more — are not merely ancillary. A sheet that records numerous studies for a dog's paw shown frontally, in profile and in different angled views resonates with Cecilia and her ermine: You watch Leonardo slowly turning the paw around in his mind.

Also critical, he believed that the human soul resided in the head. Eyes connected the outside world to the spiritual mind, while bodily motions — properly understood — could reflect the mind's movements.

That's one reason the newly attributed "Christ as Salvator Mundi" looms large. Thought to have been painted for France's King Louis XII after his troops drove Il Moro from Milan, Christ is shown holding a heavy, flawless sphere impossibly cut from rock crystal. An emblem of worldly perfection, the sphere's clear quartz refracts light, delicately altering the hand's perspective. The diffused blue color of the robe behind it repeats in the limpid orbs of his eyes, linking hand to divine vision.

Christ's two eyes, anticipating Mona Lisa's a few years on, are of two subtly different aspects. One looks straight at you, acknowledging your being. The other looks past you, taking in the cosmos.

In turn, you look straight at the painting — and past it too, taking in the "mundi" (the world) that Leonardo both encompassed and created. Material substance merges with immaterial spirit, forming a boundless reservoir of charity and faith.