May 26, 2012

Artists Talk

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Since 1963, Michael Peppiatt has been writing about art and meeting artists. A new book compiles 40 of his best interviews 

Frank Auerbach, 'Mornington Cescent Winter', 1967-1969
Frank Auerbach, 'Mornington Cescent Winter', 1967-1969

Since 1963 – the year he met Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and R.B. Kitaj to persuade them to contribute to his student magazine – Michael Peppiatt has been writing about art and interviewing artists. Now, he has selected 40 of his best interviews, some previously unpublished, for a new book, as an exhibition of works by some of his subjects opens in London. Highlights from both are extracted here

R.B. Kitaj on Lucian Freud

Michael Peppiatt After first meeting Kitaj in 1963, what brought us together again more closely, in 1986-87, was a “School of London” exhibition that I curated. Its manifesto proclaimed that, like Paris and New York before it, London could lay claim to a group of artists, however loosely allied, of international significance. Kitaj helped me define my concept, and gave me some valuable leads to finding the works I wanted to include. This interview took place in 1987 in a café near the house in Chelsea where he lived and worked. 

MP Do you still see many of the London School painters these days? 

RK Everyone’s becoming more difficult to see now. It’s only because Frank Auerbach has had this tremendous, marvellous, wonderful success in recent years that he’s allowed himself to appear in public, and he does it with great verve. He leads a quite restricted life, I suppose, and he almost never leaves London. Kossoff is becoming reclusive, and [Michael] Andrews certainly is. But I suppose you could say that Frank is no more of a recluse than Bacon or Freud. 

R.B. Kitaj, 'The Architects', 1981, oil on canvas
R.B. Kitaj, 'The Architects', 1981, oil on canvas

MP I thought Freud was fairly reclusive. Is he painting much? 

RK He puts in more hours than I do because he works all night. A friend of his tells me that he hardly needs any sleep. 

MP I once heard he’d cut down to a couple of hours a night. 

RK I don’t know how you do that, but that’s what he does. And he works at night, in that studio, I imagine, where I saw him recently. I went to look at some big, beautiful new etchings he’d done. I think they are the most extraordinary etchings anyone has made in recent years. They show a power of concentration that is breathtaking. Because it’s hard to continue in this way without making all kinds of mistakes that you can’t correct. So all you can do when you think you haven’t got it right is do another line – thicken the line the way he has in some places. I think Freud really came into this big flowering about 15 years ago or so, and everyone began to notice what was going on, that here we had a master painter in our midst, and I suppose the finest straightforward depictive artist alive. There’s no one to touch him. My idea is that this development wouldn’t have been possible without that early magic realist period. Then you have the basis, you have the vibration, you have the power that underlies his later style, I think. What I’m saying is that this didn’t come out of nowhere, it’s not a middle-aged blossoming. It comes out of that highly logistical method. With that you can do anything.

Frank Auerbach on the School of London

My first interview with Auerbach was in 1963. I did a second in 1987 and a third in 1998. We recorded several more sessions, all in Auerbach’s small, paint-encrusted studio, then edited them vigorously until two new interviews were ready. But Auerbach felt “uneasy” about the idea of publishing all our talks [in book form], suggesting we put the latest interviews “on ice”. These two unpublished documents have been carefully preserved now for well over a decade.

MP I’m curious to know how much fellow feeling there was among the figurative painters showing at the Beaux-Arts Gallery [in Bruton Place, London W1] during the 1950s. I mean, you and Leon Kossoff were close friends, and you saw Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon there quite often ..

FA Yes, all that.

MP [And] you felt closer to those painters? 

FA I did feel closer to them, because I saw them more often … although it wasn’t exclusive. I didn’t particularly think whether my friends were painters or not.

MP But there was a sympathy and an admiration between you? 

FA Maybe. But I think a better way of putting this would be that there was a certain rivalry between us. Not for ignoble reasons. When one’s young, one’s tremendously aware of everything that’s going on and of anybody who is doing something exciting. One is affected by the scale of the effort, by the commitment, by the sharpness of the critical faculty ... 

MP So the rivalry came through admiration?

FA Exactly. But nobody thought there was a group going on. And we didn’t do that thing – except possibly to some extent with Leon and me – that Picasso and Braque were supposed to have done of going to each other’s studios then rushing back to try to take their own pictures further.

MP Did you go to Francis’s studio or to Lucian’s?

FA I did go to Francis’s studio because he lived opposite the framers I used. If I was early, I would ring Francis around half-past seven and have a cup of tea with him and a chat. I sometimes saw things he had done. He once asked me for an opinion, which I gave him; I wouldn’t have done so unasked. And he was pretty touchy. I made, in the most tentative way, a comment about what I felt about the painting, which was a triptych, and I said: “Do you want them to look like three cones?” – because for me there was something uncomfortable about the way all the figures tapered towards the top. And he was pretty miffed. But he did change the painting. And of course Lucian has been a friend for a very long time ... 

MP Is it a completely different experience when you paint landscapes rather than people?

FA It’s become less so, particularly because I now do these daily drawings so that I come in with memories of the real thing. It is different in that I’m totally uninhibited and can carry on in any way that I like. 

MP What does that entail? 

FA Well, firstly that I’m working slightly more at my own pace, and I can go on as long as I like. And of course it just feels different when you’re in a room by yourself. And when sitters are here, I have to be careful not to splash them with paint and that kind of thing. On the other hand, because one can do the landscapes at any time, there’s not quite the urgency as when someone comes once a week. 

MP The landscapes don’t get up and walk away. 

FA That’s right. Though you’d be surprised how much landscapes change. You’d be surprised how often buildings are torn down and scaffolding goes up and so on. If you took a slow-motion film of London, it would seem like a boiling cauldron. I mean, sometimes I have put a steeple into a picture after the steeple had been pulled down, and so on. I’m making it seem that I’m totally a slave to the subject. I am in a sense. Unless I believe the picture to be true, that it feels like the subject, I can’t leave it. But “feeling like the subject” entails all sorts of inventions ... I’m so conscious of the evanescence of experience, so conscious of the fact that everything we do, everybody we know, is carried along on a tide of time and will disappear, that I do have a strong sense of wanting to pin experience down before it disappears. 

MP You must have extraordinary energy to keep up the daily battle with your pictures. 

FA Well, for me it’s very exciting. The reason I work in the way I do, and not the way other artists work, is that it’s the very opposite of boredom. It’s a little bit like being on the stage. When I was 16, I thought how marvellous it would be to spend all one’s life in a room with paint and brushes and move the colours around, and it still seems exciting to me. There’s a real stimulus. I don’t say there’s as much as riding a horse over the jumps, but it’s exciting. 

MP So that when you start, you’re “on”. You don’t think of it as a rehearsal? 

FA I don’t want it to be a rehearsal. I want it to be the real thing. But it usually turns out to be a rehearsal. I always have this ridiculous idea that one day I might be able to pick up the brush and by some miracle paint the picture and then go and spend the afternoon in the Ritz. But it has never in all these years worked that way. There are certain things one learns, certain connections one senses, certain things that were difficult that become second nature. So in this way the performance accrues. And then, if one’s lucky, it transcends itself.

Hans Namuth on Jackson Pollock

Anyone interested in the Abstract Expressionists will know Hans Namuth’s portraits. In a sense he became their official photographer. I first met him in the early 1980s, when I was writing a history of artists and their studios, and he was generous in making his work available when I relaunched [the magazine] Art International in Paris in 1987. Before his untimely death in a car accident [in 1990] we had discussed working on a book devoted to his portraits of artists. 

Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock by Hans Namuth (not in exhibition)

HN I grew up with the German Expressionists. That was in Essen, and from an early age I looked at their paintings in the Folkwang Museum there. I left Germany in 1933, when I was 17, and went to Paris. I had been gaoled for political reasons – I was a communist – and had to get out of Germany. Otherwise I would have been destroyed. After Paris I got caught up in the Spanish Civil War, and later I joined the Foreign Legion. I didn’t realise it when I got there in 1941, but New York was to be my home. 

MP How have you managed to photograph so many different artists? 

HN Mostly on assignment, except right at the beginning. Back in 1949, when I was a student of Alexey Brodovitch at the New School, he brought up Pollock’s name in class, and I felt that I simply had to meet the man. The following year my family and I took a summer house in the Hamptons and the opportunity cropped up. I saw Pollock at an opening at Guild Hall in East Hampton. We talked. It was somewhat comical – one shy man talking to another shy man. He said “yes” to my request to let me come to his house during a painting session, but when I arrived he said, “Sorry, I’ve just finished the painting”, and that was that. He had obviously changed his mind – or perhaps Lee [Krasner], his wife, had decided against it. I was absolutely crestfallen and asked if I could go inside and photograph him with the new work. He agreed reluctantly, and as he was looking at the enormous canvas at his feet he suddenly started the whole thing all over again – and he feverishly covered the original image, replacing it with a new one, while I clicked away.

MP What kind of man was he? 

HN He was at his best at that time, back in 1950, after a period of almost two years on the wagon – very ascetic, lean and good- looking. I instantly liked him. I met Helen Frankenthaler in 1953 at the Pollocks’, and in short order thereafter Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still and others. I took pictures of all of them, just for my own files, so to speak, without an assignment. I still do the same today. As a rule, artists trust me. They know I will never betray their confidence. 

Francis Bacon on the role of chance

I did three interviews with Francis Bacon, spaced as far apart as those I have done with Auerbach. But since I saw a great deal of Bacon, I often felt I should interview him more frequently, yet I sensed a reticence whenever the idea came up and I did not insist. And since he talked to me very freely, in all kinds of moods and situations, I learnt far more than I would have done from any number of more constrained, recorded conversations. 

'Portrait of Francis Bacon' by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1971
Francis Bacon

MP You told me recently that you’d been to the Science Museum and you’d been looking at scientific images. 

FB Yes, but that’s nothing of any interest. You see, one has ideas, but it’s only what you make of them. Theories are no good, it’s only what you actually make.

MP Are there certain images that you go back to a great deal, for example, Egyptian images? You look at the same things a lot, don’t you? 

FB I look at the same things. But for myself I get a great deal from poems, I get a lot from the Greek tragedies, and those I find tremendously suggestive of all kinds of things. It’s true that, not reading Greek, I don’t get them in all their vitality. But there was this man who did remarkable translations called Stanford, and he wrote a very fascinating book called Aeschylus in his Style

MP Do you find the word more suggestive than the actual image? 

FB Not necessarily, but very often it is. 

MP Do the Greek tragedies suggest new images when you reread them, or do they just deepen the images that are already there? 

FB They very often suggest new images. I don’t think one can come down to anything specific, one doesn’t really know. I mean, you could glance at an advertisement or something and it could suggest just as much as reading Aeschylus. Anything can suggest things to you. 

MP You must be quite singular among contemporary artists to be moved in that way by literature. Looking at, for example, Degas, doesn’t affect you? 

FB No. Degas is complete in himself. 

MP But you are a visual person, above all. Is there a whole series of images that you find haunting? There are specific images, aren’t there, that have been very important to you? 

FB Yes, but I don’t think those are the things that I’ve been able to get anything from. You see, the best images just come about. 

MP Did you ever experiment with automatism? 

FB No. I don’t really believe in that. What I do believe is that chance and accident are the most fertile things at any artist’s disposal at the present time. I’m trying to do some portraits now and I’m just hoping that they’ll come about by chance. I just long to capture an appearance without it being an illustrated appearance. 

MP It’s something that you couldn’t have planned consciously? 

FB No. I wouldn’t know it’s what I wanted but it’s what for me at the time makes a reality. Reality, that is, that comes about in the actual way the painting has been put down, which is a reality, but I’m also trying to make that reality into the appearance of the person I’m painting. 

MP It’s a locking together of two things? 

FB It’s a locking together of a great number of things, and it will only come about by chance. It’s prompted chance because you have in the back of your mind the image of the person whose portrait you are trying to paint. I mean, there’s no point in trying to make a portrait that doesn’t look like the person. You see, this is the point at which you absolutely cannot talk about painting. It’s in the making. 

MP But there is the person’s appearance, and then there are all sorts of sensations about that particular person. 

FB I don’t know how much it’s a question of sensation about the other person. It’s the sensations within yourself. It’s to do with the shock of two completely unillustrational things which come together and make an appearance. But again it’s all words, it’s all an approximation. I feel talking about painting is always superficial. We have lost our real directness. We talk in such a dreary, bourgeois kind of way. Nothing is ever directly said. 

MP But is your sensibility still “joltable”? Does one become hardened to visual shock? 

FB I don’t think so, but not much that is produced now jolts one. Everything that is made now is made for public consumption, for money, and it’s all become so anodyne. They might make it just slightly shocking, just enough for people to want to see it, so that it makes a little more money. That’s all it’s about now. It’s rather like this ghastly government we have in this country. The whole thing’s a kind of anodyne way of making money.

Claes Oldenburg on the start of the Sixties

The first time I met Claes Oldenburg and his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, was at their summer home in the Loire valley. Several years later I was lucky to catch a show of his works in Madrid. Claes was there [and] it seemed too good an occasion not to do a more complete, formal interview. After a visit to his studio in New York, we agreed on the final version. 

[Here he explains how his soft sculptures first came about.]

Claes Oldenburg, 'Fagend', 1966, crayon and watercolour on paper
Claes Oldenburg,  'Fagend', 1966, crayon and watercolour on paper

MP New York was already very hip? 

CO Always in one way or another, but this was New York in 1956 and with much underground that would soon be released. 

MP Did you feel Abstract Expressionism weighing very heavily on you? 

CO No, I liked de Kooning, I got a lot from his line and sense of space. I tended to connect Abstract Expressionism with the look of the city’s surroundings, street art, movement ...

MP But there was a feeling something new had to happen. 

CO Yes, everyone was looking for a solution. Were we going back to figure painting in a loose way or were we going back to collage and assemblage, or would junk sculpture take over ... ?

MP Was this an attempt to bring back a personal or everyday reality? I mean Abstract Expressionism was quite far removed from what you might call everyday reality. 

CO I wanted to integrate what I saw in my work. Every morning I would walk to Cooper Union from my place far out on Avenue C and through the neighbourhoods at night. This way I got to know a world I had never seen before and that contributed to not only what I call the context, but to the actual materials I used like plaster, chicken wire and cardboard, which gave form to the expression themselves. 

MP Was your work accepted quite easily? Or was there a reaction against it? 

CO My work had not yet been discovered at all. In those days you could bring it to galleries, but few galleries would take the time to look at it. My first one-man show in New York City was in May 1959. At the last moment I made a radical decision not to show the oil paintings and drawings of the past year, but to concentrate on the metamorphic works which seemed more original. [By the next year] with the performance of “The Street”, I stopped figure painting from life altogether. I had found a style composed of the ingredients of my experience, the first of several. The Sixties had begun. 

MP Were you experimenting a lot technically at the time, using street materials and so on? 

CO “The Street” was entirely made of found cardboard and burlap trash bags, string, materials from the street. It marked the transition from figure to object. It was followed the next year by “The Store” in which reliefs and sculptures based on store objects and ads were made of canvas dipped in plaster and placed on forms of chicken wire, then painted with enamel ... “The Store” is sometimes written about today as if it were a real store, where you went to buy soap or a toothbrush. [But it] was art form, even if it was a disturbing form. Very few people of the neighbourhood dared to come in.

MP They knew you were on acid at that point and completely out of it. 

CO I guess. Those who dared were dealers, collectors or artists. Henry Geldzahler and Andy Warhol each bought a shirt. Prices were very low: $50-$100 and sometimes people paid half and I never got the rest. 

MP What date was that? 

CO December 1961. By [1963], I had relocated to Los Angeles, living with [his first wife] Patty [Mucha] in a bungalow in Venice, California. The first soft sculpture was the “Giant Toothpaste Tube”. Of course being a soft thing, it was more of an example. Then I selected light switches, which – in the example that I chose off the wall in our living room – involved redoing a hard geometric form into a soft sagging one.

MP Was Surrealism at all influential? 

CO Not really. My intentions began as an experiment, to take a subject and do a very simple thing, substitute the surface, change it from a hard to a soft one – so that it still retains the potential of an outline. Just that move within a realistic concept enabled you to see the thing as an unrealistic form. The technique became even more eloquent when vinyl came in about that time. Early vinyl was very beautiful, it was thick and rich and colourful. The vinyl from then still has its colour, it hasn’t cracked or anything. It was even more convincing if you did a metal object out of vinyl, very convincing. 

MP So that it sort of slips into another reality? 

CO Yes, right. 

MP And then in a sense, hell is let loose, isn’t it? Because it changes the rules.

CO That’s the important thing. It changes the rules.

Peter Blake on elephants

I had long admired the poetic irony of Blake’s pictures, and when asked to write a preface for a new exhibition, I felt I would do much better to invite him to talk about his work, particularly if I could combine this with a short description of his studio, which I’d heard was a kind of Aladdin’s Cave filled with discarded treasure and kitschy memorabilia. 

Peter Blake's elephant collection
Peter Blake’s elephant collection (not in exhibition)

MP Your studio has all those rooms full of different objects: found things and bought things and whole collections, whole curiosity cabinets. It’s almost like a reference library for certain types of visual inspiration. 

PB Yes. Some of it has settled into being almost a museum and those things won’t be used in my work. In other areas there are stacks of wood or driftwood or folders of paper or marbles or whatever it might be, that will be fed into the work.

MP And do you continue to add to it? 

PB All the time.

MP You look around. Do you go to flea markets? 

PB I go to the Portobello Road still quite often, and there are certain stalls there. There’s a stall where I buy lead figures for some of the work I’m doing, and there’s a stall that has children’s kind of ephemera.

MP And you’re consciously looking for things to put into your work? 

PB Certainly. I also discovered boot fairs about a year ago. I only go to the one local one, but I’m looking mostly for Elvis Presley stuff. I’m also looking at the moment for – I hate the word “kitsch” but it’s the only word to describe them – I’m looking for a series of small white sculptures that have a kitsch quality, little white sculptures of pretty children, for instance. And I’m making a series of sculptures of those.

MP And you also still buy things simply because they fascinate you and you’d like to own them? 

PB Sometimes. I collect elephants, toy elephants, so if I see a particularly nice one I buy it. I started to collect elephants as a safety valve for my other collecting. If I went to the Portobello Road and I came back with a little elephant, that was a good day because it would have stopped me from maybe buying a complete kitchen or an old bicycle or something that was probably ludicrous. So that’s how it started. But then I bought every elephant I saw, and there’s a lot of elephant material around. I’ve cut down on the elephant-buying now, but if I see a good one I will still buy it. 

MP When you cut back, do you get rid of the surplus elephants? 

PB No, I never get rid of anything. But I stop adding to what’s already there. 



Wrestling with Vermeer

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Fifteenth century Dutch women engaged in chores are seen across many of Susanne Husemann’s paintings. One is fixing another woman’s scarf, another playing a violin while yet another sits on a food-laden table.

Husemann’s inspiration is Jan Vermeer, a 15th century Dutch artist who specialises in scenes of domestic middle class life.

“I have let my creative abilities bring a vibrant and modern-day feel,” she said of her Vermeer inspired pieces.

Allegory of Painting is a 33-piece exhibition which opened at Rohtas 2 on Thursday. Fifteen of the works are oil on cardboard, with stickers and tape, four are on canvas and 14 on wood. The exhibit will run till June 2.

A painting of a young girl playing the violin on a roughly cut out cardboard has a red tape vertically applied and the time of shipment. The piece, also Husemann’s personal favourite, received much admiration from the gallery guests at the opening.

The artist said without the red tape and the date the painting would lack character. “It is like reincarnating a 500-year-old painting. It’s like bringing an antique into the modern world,” she said of her attempt to replicate the work with abstract touches on modern mediums like cardboard and wood.

“Cardboard takes a long time to dry with oil paints. Wood is a tough medium as you need high concentration to produce work on it,” she said. She said she had been working on the pieces exhibited for the past two years.

The paintings are priced between Rs21,000 and Rs162,000.

Vermeer, Husemann said was adept in handling effects and using bright colours in his work. “Despite his genius, he remains an understated artist. I had used Jan’s pictures but have made it look more abstract,” she said. The art inspired by Vermeer is “an amalgamation of the abstract and the concrete,” she added.

Quddus Mirza, an artist and art critic, found the use of cardboard and wood paradoxical.

“As Vermeer has very few paintings to his credit, his work is considered precious. Husemann has used very mundane mediums such as cardboard and wood, making her work more approachable,” he said. He said, “The paintings were particularly refreshing as artists in Pakistan never apply their own touches using another artist’s work.”

“I see it as a creative comment on the European history of art. She has definitely set a very expressive benchmark by maneuvering oil cleverly on mediums as sensitive as cardboard and wood.”

Husemann displayed her work at Islamabad’s Namak Gallery two weeks ago and will display next month in Karachi. The show at Rohtas 2 ends June 2.



Painting must take artist’s soul to the sky: Vaziri-Moqaddam

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A poster for Iranian modernist painter Mohsen Vaziri-Moqaddam’s exhibit at Tehran’s Fravahar Gallery
A poster for Iranian modernist painter Mohsen Vaziri-Moqaddam’s exhibit at Tehran’s Fravahar Gallery

Contemporary Iranian artist Mohsen Vaziri-Moqaddam, famous for his abstract forms and designs,
believes painting must fill an artist’s entire being and take his soul to the sky.
Speaking at the ongoing exhibition of his works arranged in his honor at Tehran’s Fravahar Gallery, Italy-based Vaziri-Moqaddam said that an artist must first move with nature and make changes with nature finally to reach what he wants, and that is the abstract form of art.
Painting is a phenomenon, which emerges from within the mind, blood and heart of an artist; it is true that the main medium is nature, but when an individual stands in front of an easel, nature melts before his knowledge, he said to the participants in the gallery.
In his career, Vaziri-Moqaddam has created most of his abstract forms and designs using the media of sand, metal, plastic and wood.
He later talked bout the process of his works and the forms he uses in his artworks, the Persian service of ISNA reported on Friday.
“When I was in Iran, I used to work on nature, landscapes and portraits, but when I travelled to Europe to continue my studies, I realized that I needed to find myself in art and should not copy works by other artists.
“I reached this point that an artist’s mind must always be ready to receive new inspirations; sometimes we need to sit for hours to feel something new from our surroundings,” he said.
He continued saying that he never took his paintings to the market to sell, “painting always created love and strong determination within me.”
He expressed hope that the youth would become good artists in the future and concluded that he is going to compile a book, which will contain all of his speeches.
Fravahar Gallery is holding a retrospective of Vaziri-Moqaddam, which opened on May 8.
A selection of old and new works by the master has been put on show, while five other artists are also hanging their works in honor of the master, including Babak Etminani, Hadi Jamali, Reza Hosseini, Reza Khodadadi, and Homayun Salimi.

May 25, 2012

Vincent’s nature, not his tragedy: the new Van Gogh show

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Vincent Van Gogh - Self Portrait (oil on canvas, 1887)

A Yellow House

It’s hard to look at a Vincent Van Gogh painting, especially certain great paintings, without thinking about his life.

A café under a night sky is where the crazy genius stopped for a drink. A yellow house is where he lived a bit of his unhappy life. A room with a single bed must be where his troubled dreams arrived.

To try to wrench the art away from the artist’s endlessly mythologized biography would be futile, of course, but the new show, Van Gogh: Up Close, which opens at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa this week for what’s bound to be a popular summer run, offers the best chance yet to take in the paintings without summoning Vincent’s story at every turn.

This is largely because the exhibition is almost entirely devoid of those evocative houses, cafés, rooms and, above all, faces—especially his poignant self portraits. Instead, the curators have gathered together 47 amazing paintings of flowers and grasses, sun-saturated fields and shadowy groves. As the show’s title indicates, the emphasis is on the radical way he zoomed, zeroed and honed in, bringing nature to the extreme foreground.

There is a serious exercise in art scholarship going on here, a demonstration that Van Gogh’s teeming compositions were inspired partly by Japanese prints and influenced by 19th-century photography. For me, though, the show is exhilarating not so much because I learned something new about the painter but because I was able to enjoy the paintings in a less clouded frame of mind.

They are all from Van Gogh’s final few years, from Paris in 1886, south to Arles in 1888 with Gaugin, and finally, seeking psychiatric treatment, to Saint-Remy and Auvers, where he died in 1890. Three early Paris paintings of cut flowers in vases find Vincent brilliantly making Impressionist technique his own. From Arles, a landscape with a high horizon line brings a tumult of blue irises and tall grass thrillingly close. Swaying grain fills a canvass from Auvers to the brim.

He looked directly into the blooms and stems and trunks and leaves. The cropping is tight. What surrounds the growing stuff, the landscape setting, is at best secondary. And the sordid details of any individual’s life are momentarily unimportant.

I mean unimportant to the viewer lost in that moment, but perhaps that was how it was for the painter, too. 

 Vincent once wrote:

“I forget everything in favour of the external beauty of things, which I cannot reproduce, for in my pictures I render it as ugly and coarse, whereas nature seems perfect to me,”

Needless to say, there’s nothing ugly on the walls of Van Gogh: Up Close. Still, taking in the show, it’s possible to see his point: the emphasis throughout is on the rhythm and riot of nature, rather than any settled harmony that might be called perfect. Until the very last painting in the show, that is—the 1890 masterpiece Almond Blossom, delicately balanced close-up of branches in pinkish-white spring flower against a calming blue sky.

Vincent painted it near the end of his life to celebrate the birth of his brother Theo’s son, a baby named for his troubled uncle. Looking at those blossoms, each placed just so, and knowing their inspiration, is enough to bring anyone back from reveling in how Van Gogh captured nature to reflecting, as usual, on the last chapter of his sad story. The respite couldn’t last.

Blossoming Almond Tree by Vincent Van Gogh

(Photos selected by TFD)



Yayoi Kusama: The Polka-Dot-Loving

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Art Legend I Initially Mistook for Crazy

 A documentary in the works looks to capture the incredible career of an 83-year-old Japanese eccentric.


sheller 615 Kusama©Tokyo Lee Productions, Inc.(

Yayoi Kusama, known for her innovative soft-sculpture, immersive, polka-dotted experiences, is among Japan's most revered living artists. With art that strides the abstract, cute, and bizarre, this 83-year-, orange-wigged living doll is the consummate avant gardist. She exists in a self-contained bubble of spacy illusions and ephemeral visions, and for the past 38 years has lived voluntarily in a Tokyo psychiatric hospital across the street from her painting studio. Frequent exhibitions at MoMA and the Whitney, prestigious gallery shows, mountains of published monographs, and scores of fashion products bearing her imprimatur attest to her surprising popularity. Last February, the Tate Modern in London opened a major retrospective, now in its final month, that testifies to her colossal art-world appeal.

"I come now, bring photos," Kusama announced in such fast-clipped, heavily accented English that I almost believed that she was speaking—and I was understanding—Japanese. She'd arrive at the door moments later, as though she had called from just around the corner. Usually, she'd stay for an hour or so, explaining the hidden meaning of every single shot. Listening was torture. 

"During that era she also made 'orgy clothes,' with strategically cut holes."
It was a story on a blog in which I mentioned Kusama that brought me to the attention of Heather Lenz, a filmmaker making the documentary Kusama Princess of Polka Dots, a seven-minute version of which was cut for the Tate exhibit . I was surprised to learn that this strange blip of memory—Kusama—had become such an incredibly renowned artist. If only I saved those photos, I might be rich enough to help Lenz complete her entire film in time for the Tate exhibit. 

Lenz was introduced to Kusama's work in the early '90s, when she was earning duel degrees in Art History and Fine Arts, and her textbooks seldom contained any mention of women artists. "Then one day, a sculpture professor showed me a photo of Kusama's sculptures," she told me in a recent interview. "It was love at first sight."

Some years later, Lenz decided to make a film about Kusama. First it was conceived as a biopic, but she decided a documentary was better because "It would be more interesting to have Ms. Kusama tell her story in her own words while she was still alive, and while that was still an option." Lenz is now an expert on Kusama's life in Japan and during the '60s as a struggling artist in New York.

During that period when I met Kusama, "her work had already taken many forms," Lenz explained. Her early material included small paintings made from ink and watercolor on paper. When she moved to New York in 1958, she started making larger paintings on canvas. Then she began crafting sculpture and, later, installations that included sculpture, paintings, and other elements, such as mirrors and macaroni (which in some cases covered gallery floors and required guests to walk over the crunchy pieces of pasta.) Then, after moving back to Japan in the '70s, she made collages and wrote semi-autobiographical novels and poems. Since then, she has made paintings, sculptures, installations, and a variety of objects including furniture, purses, puzzles, stickers, and limited-edition phones shaped liked dogs.

"Respect for Ms. Kusama's work has increased dramatically in recent years," Lenz added, and she was the first woman to represent Japan at the prestigious Venice Biennale in 1993. "Like many artists who are ahead of their time, she was misunderstood in her hometown for decades, but now there is a museum there with the largest permanent collection of her art." 

Lenz posited that part of what makes Kusama so compelling is that she was willing to go to great lengths to pursue her passion to make art. "I think a lot of the art she created in the '60s was really ahead of its time, and that makes it important. Personally though, I'll always have a soft spot for the collages she produced in Japan after returning there." 

I hoped the Kusama film would be finished by now. Lenz told me that a feature-length cut is still "in the tweaking stage." So now she is applying for grants and raising donations primarily to cover the licensing of archival photos, footage, and music. To complete the film, she also needs to finish the score and color correction. With luck it will be out soon, if for no other reason than because I'm anxious to re-appreciate the artist whom I initially mistook as simply crazy.



10 Artists Who Died Too Young

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In "Finding Francesca Woodman," Jillian Steinhauer writes about the morbid fascination with the young photographer's suicide. This got us thinking about the artists who left us too early, from the Renaissance to the past few years. Their short lives were filled with more creation and adventure than most of us get in a lifetime, and their early deaths left the world to wonder what works went uncreated, and what thoughts left unsaid. 

As Steinhauer writes, 

"For the dead, everything is fixed and frozen; there’s no more work and no more pressure to perform." 

Perhaps these artists were freed from their creative responsibilities, but we'd like to think they left us with enduring, inscrutable works that will keep us guessing for years to come. 

 Young Artists



Surrealist Wifredo Lam fetches record price

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An undated handout photo shows Cuban Wifredo Lam's "Idolo (Oya/Divinite de l'Air et de la mort)"
Lam was heavily influenced by surrealism and santeria

A painting by Cuban surrealist artist Wifredo Lam fetched a record personal price at a Latin American art sale at auctioneers Sotheby's in New York.

An unnamed South American collector paid $4.5m (£2.9m) for Lam's 1944 Idol (Oya/Divinite de l'Air et de la mort), well above the $2m-3m guide price. 

Demand was also high for Venezuelan artists, such as Armando Reveron.

But Diego Rivera's 1939 painting Girl in Blue and White, considered the main attraction, remained unsold. 

The work by the Mexican artist had been expected to sell at a price between $4m and $6m.

In contrast, Lam's piece, which had been in private hands since 1947, sold for more than double the previous top price for his paintings.

An Afro-Cuban, Lam died in 1982 and was heavily influenced both by surrealism and by santeria, an Afro-Caribbean religion based on Yoruba and Roman Catholic beliefs.

Wednesday's auction, with sales totalling $21.8m, was Sotheby's best result for an evening sale of Latin American art to date.



May 24, 2012

Damien Hirst, artistic painter at White Cube

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Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst had a busy spring in the UK capital with no less than three exhibition dedicated to him, including a large retrospective at the Tate Modern and an exhibition in one of the most influential galleries of today: the White Cube. This exhibition, “Two Weeks One Summer” will end on 8 July 2012.

This is the first time that the artist has appeared in the White Cube’s new space at Bermondsey. For the occasion, he has chosen to install 35 paintings created between summer 2010 and today. A sculpture installation entitled The Battle Between Good and Evil, whose major theme is gravity come along with the paintings. The artist explained the link between the installation and his 35 paintings. He wanted to highlight the importance and permanence of the gravity force in real life and its complete absence in painting: “The void of painting is always a difficult thing. It’s infinite really. There’s no gravity in painting, so it’s even more infinite than space.”

With this exhibition, Damien Hirst, known for his sculptures, installations, and Spot series, highlights a return to more classical painting. Born in 1965, Hirst participated in numerous collective exhibitions, including the Venice Biennial in 1993 and a number of solo exhibitions in 2003. Enjoying the residency programme DAAD in Berlin in 1994, he won the Turner Prize a year later. His first “Freeze” exhibition, displayed in a disused warehouse of London, attracted the attention of critics, artists and audiences to his work for the first time. Today, his work is praised by the art market but is also attacked by critics and journalists specialists of art. Be that as it may, Damien Hirst keeps attracting crowds and remains a household name in the United Kingdom.



May 23, 2012

Leonardo Da Vinci: artist, thinker and revolutionary

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The artist’s task is not merely to mirror reality in an unthinking way but to impart a special meaning and feeling to what is being depicted: 

“The painter who draws merely by practice and by eye, without any reason,” wrote Leonardo, “is like a mirror which copies everything placed in front of it without being conscious of their existence.” 

The Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa

Leonardo developed a technique known as sfumato (“smoky) that produces a blurred effect. He understood that in real life there are no fixed lines – the profound idea first expounded philosophically be Heraclitus, that everything is and is not, because everything is in flux. The idea behind this is permanent mutability, where everything is constantly changing, shifting, so that it is and is not. The sfumato effect, which blurs the outline, paradoxically renders the face more realistic, not less, while at the same time introducing an air of mystery. 

Around the cheeks and under the chin we see areas of shade (chiaroscuro) – the dramatic effect is the result of the unity of opposing elements of tenderly glowing light and pitch darkness.

The best example of this is his most celebrated work, The Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa is instantly recognisable that it has acquired the status of an icon. For many people the Mona Lisa is Leonardo da Vinci. And, as we shall see, this popular perception is not altogether wrong. However, the paining we see today is not the same as the original. The bright colours have faded into a murky brown. In the original the sky, lakes and river were painted in a vivid ultramarine blue, made from the precious laps lazuli imported at great cost from as far as Afghanistan.

The dialectical conception of the unity of “is and is not” permeates the whole picture and is especially noticeable in the famous smile. Here the contradiction is explicit. Once again, the sfumato effect means that there are no clear lines around the lips, or any of the contours of the face. The smile is captured, not as something fixed, but as something in motion. The smile is either coming into being, or else it is fading away. What is depicted here is the transition between two states – either from joy to sorrow or from sorrow to joy. And all human life consists of a constant tension between these two opposed poles, fluctuating between them.

This was a painting so special for him that he refused to hand it over to the person who had commissioned it, a painting he kept with him until his death and which is considered by many to be his greatest masterpiece. This painting La Gioconda – more famously known as the Mona Lisa – has fascinated generations of art lovers with its mysterious and indefinable qualities, that are also in the final analysis the result of his masterly use of light and shade.

This painting has been the subject of much speculation and puzzlement. What is the meaning of this enigmatic female and her mysterious smile? In this painting things are not what they seem to be. At first sight, this painting appears to breathe a sense of calm and tranquillity. It depicts a young woman in what appears to be a state of utter repose against a peaceful background of nature. Yet this static impression is entirely deceptive.

Leonardo believed that the “eyes are the windows of the soul.” The gaze of the Mona Lisa is one of the most striking features of the picture. Like everything else about the painting, it has an ambiguous and contradictory character. That mysterious gaze is highly ambivalent. Is she looking at us, or beyond us, to something that we cannot see? Freud thought that this gaze contained some undertones. Maybe so, but it could also contain a different message – one that says: I know things that you do not know, and will never know. It is a knowing look.

At first sight it appears that this painting is a picture of absolute repose. But on closer inspection, it becomes clear that it is anything but tranquil. It is steeped in the spirit of dialectical contradiction at every level. This is an “edge of chaos” painting, and it is this that gives it its extraordinary power. The first contradiction is the smile itself. If we divide the face into two equal haves, it immediately becomes evident that the smile itself contains a contradiction – one half is smiling, but the other is serious.

This contradiction expresses the complexity of human feelings, in which conflicting emotions frequently coexist. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) a lifelong friend of Leonardo, closely observed the calamities of the society in which he lived,. He wrote the following lines, which express the tragedy of his own times, with which Leonardo was only too well acquainted:

"Io rido, e rider non passa dentero;
Io ardo, e l'arsion mia non par di fore."
"I laugh, and my laughter is not within me;
I burn, and the burning is not seen outside."

Human feelings are rarely simple. We can laugh and cry at the same time. This is a profound expression of the human condition in all its complexity. Here we have the bittersweet combination of feelings that gives life its peculiar beauty and which stirs within us a very deep emotional reaction.

In this painting human emotions are intimately connected with tensions and contradictory tendencies in the world outside us. There is an implied parallel between this and the human figure. Within us are light and darkness, laughter and tears, joy and sadness. And these contradictory elements and emotions coexist and struggle within us, as do light and darkness in the world of nature.

The connection between humans and nature, between organic and inorganic life is suggested by her hair, which falls in curls that suggest swirling water. The drapery of her dress is not in a Renaissance but in a timeless classical style. It swirls like water, suggesting an affinity of the central figure with the natural background. This underlines the same idea of constant change. Even the sitter’s pose suggests change and movement. She is sitting on a chair with her body facing one way, and her face towards us. This twist is a well-known trick (used by photographers today) to suggest movement.

The placidity of the face conceals the existence of invisible subterranean forces – passions that lurk between the surface and which are as dangerous and uncontrollable as the forces of untamed nature. The figure in the Mona Lisa painting rises out of an equally strange and ambiguous landscape. Just as the smile is “lop-sided”, so the landscape is lop-sided, and indeed vaguely threatening. The ambiguity in her smile is echoed by nature.

There is a deeply subversive message in all this. In a very perceptive article entitled “the Story Behind the Smile” (Radio Times, 3-9 May, 2003) Nicholas Rossiter writes:

 “Leonardo is illustrating the constant process by which the natural world evolves over millennia, and challenging the biblical theory that it was created by God in just six days.” (Radio Times, 3-9 May, 2003.)

The particular and the universal

The painting also suggests another contradiction – the unity of the particular and the universal. The background is nature – the timeless universal – but the figure in the foreground is intensely personal and belongs to the here and now. We have before us a single, fleeting moment in time, that elusive moment when a smile begins to form on the lips, or else begins to vanish – a moment of becoming that is the very opposite of the timelessness and eternity of nature. The two opposing elements are here seen in their unity.

The background, which seems to occupy a subordinate position, in fact plays a very important part in the painting. In the background we see strange rock formations, resembling those at a place in the Arno Valley known to locals as The Valley of Hell. These alluvial deposits were formed by the erosion of the Appenine mountains. Leonardo was fascinated by geology and filled many pages of his notebooks with his observations on this area.

We also see something resembling the Buriano Bridge, which crosses the river Arno some 40 miles from Florence. Leonardo was well acquainted with this bridge because of its economic and military importance for the city of Arezzo, where he was employed by the notorious Cesare Borgia as a military engineer. In his boyhood, Leonardo had seen the catastrophic effects of the flooding of the Arno. Here the river is depicted flowing down from the mountains, cutting a path through the valley on its way to the sea.

Beneath the surface placidity of nature, terrifying and uncontrollable forces lurk unseen, though their presence can be intuitively sensed. In this vision, nature is never still, but constantly changing – and changing into its opposite. The mountain that towers in the background is too high – it threatens to collapse. The river is too full – it threatens to overflow. The two lakes on either side of the face have been deliberately set at impossible levels, where one seems to tip into the other.

Here we have the unending, restless cycle of birth and death – of the rise and fall of mountains, the birth and death of rivers. This sense of change in nature was an idea that was deeply ingrained with Leonardo.

The figure in the foreground emerges from a background of nature, and is intimately linked with it. The predominant element in the painting is water, both in the two lakes and in the river (presumably the Arno). This has a deep philosophical significance. What element is more changeable and therefore intangible than moving water? Heraclitus said: “We step and do not step into the stream; we are and are not.” This is the philosophical idea that permeates the painting.

Life and death

In this painting, the universal is united with the particular and is indistinguishable from it. Although the Mona Lisa is so highly individualised as to be unforgettable, she is also a generalisation – the eternal female, above all time and space – which emerges out of nature and represents its eternal generative principle.

The subject of the portrait is assumed to have been Lisa del Giocondo (hence the popular title of La Gioconda). This theory seems to be supported by the fact that the Mona Lisa is wearing a black veil. It is known that Lisa del Giocondo’s daughter died in 1499, four years before Leonardo started the painting. So it is about death and also about new life. There is no life without death and vice versa.

In this painting we have a sense of concealed (or repressed) passion – the kind of passion that is generally regarded as dangerous because it threatens to break up the established order, and because it is uncontrollable. 

It reminds us that beneath the surface appearance of calm, terrible forces are accumulating that can destroy us. 

This is true both of inanimate nature (floods, avalanches, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, storms) and of human nature (uncontrollable passions like anger, fear, rage, jealousy). All these lurk beneath the surface all the time.

In his study on Leonardo, Freud speculates that paintings like the Mona Lisa express unconscious strings related to Leonardo’s childhood experiences. He lost his mother, although she had apparently acted as a nurse for his first three years. So he would have some recollections of a mother’s natural love and affection. Later he had a stepmother, who also treated the young child with great tenderness.

Is this maternal tenderness what is reflected in these female faces, Possibly, although it must be said that there is many of Freud’s assumptions in this essay are forced and arbitrary. But in any case the matter does not end there. If all that Leonardo’s painting expressed was a purely personal message referring to the artist’s psychological state it could never have had the universal effect that it has had.

These paintings have a wonderful sense of the passing of time and at the same time a sense of the eternal. There is also the idea of generation, of the element of reproduction as the regenerative principle of nature.

There may, however, be another message in the way Leonardo depicts Gioconda’s hair. In 16th century Italy, it was considered immodest for a woman to wear her hair draped over her shoulders as we see here: loose, flowing hair was synonymous with loose morals. It seems that Lisa del Giocondo and her husband did not accept the painting, and this may be part of the reason for their dissatisfaction.

Here nothing is what it seems at first sight. Even what appears to be the quintessence of womanhood turns out to be something else. The unity of opposites is equally conveyed by the fact that the Mona Lisa – and many of Leonardo’s other women – are really androgenous, that is, they contain elements of male and female. This can be seen in the pronounced jaw line – a male characteristic. The ideal of beauty is half male, half female – a conception well known in classical Geek art.

The face of the Mona Lisa, apparently a unique and unrepeatable portrait of an individual, is, in fact, not unique. The same face and the same mysterious expression can be seen in the wonderful painting of the Virgin with St. Anne. It is not even the face of a woman, though it appears to be. From measuring and comparing the faces, it has been concluded that they all have basically the same face: it is the face of Leonardo himself.

The last years: in France


Self-portrait (1512), Leonardo da Vinci  
Self-portrait (1512), Leonardo da Vinci

It is said that a prophet has no honour in his homeland. Now showing signs of age, and with the threat of Papal anger always hanging over his head, finally he decided to leave priest-ridden Italy altogether. He spent the last years of his life in France, where he was received with full honours at the court of the king. We have a marvellous self portrait of Leonardo as an old man painted at this time. He never saw Italy again.

The failure of Italy to achieve national unite meant that this wonderful potential could not be realised. Italy was reduced to an economic and cultural backwater. The centre of gravity of world history was moving away from Italy towards the new nation states of France and England. Their star was rising, while that of Italy was about to enter into a cruel eclipse that would last centuries, until Italy was finally united by revolutionary means.

We may even see the fact that Leonardo spent his last years in France as an expression of this fact, or at least an anticipation of it. Neglected in his native Italy where his star was eclipsed by the rise of Michelangelo and Rafael, the old man received a hero’s welcome in France, where he was venerated as the greatest artist of his age. The French king was one of those Renaissance monarchs who, when not engaged in wars and hunting, took a lively interest in ideas and art. Francis I aspired to give his court the air of an Italian Renaissance court by importing artists and men of letters, including not only Leonardo but also Cellini.

He had Leonardo installed in a palatial residence near to the royal apartments where he could have easy access to him. It seems that Francis revered the old man and engaged him in long conversations in which Leonardo astonished him by the wide range of subjects he knew in depth. But it is clear that Francis saw Leonardo more as a great philosopher than as a great artist (one must remember that at that time philosophy was synonymous with science).

The painting of Lisa del Gioconda clearly had a profound meaning for Leonardo, so much so that it was never delivered to those who had commissioned it. He carried it with him for the last 16 years of his life, taking it with him into his final French exile. Clearly its significance for him was far greater than its artistic worth. The Mona Lisa therefore ended up in France, where Leonardo sold it to King Francois I, who hung it in a bathroom! This was probably the cause of the myriad little cracks in the painting. Other works by Leonardo also suffered from neglect or ill treatment: the ignorant Milanese monks cut a door through his frieze of The Last Supper.

Like Aristotle and Hegel, Leonardo had a truly encyclopaedic mind. Leonardo – the man of the Renaissance – was a scientist and a philosopher. It seems that at the end of his life he tried to put together his numerous notebooks on different questions. Had he succeeded, he would have produced a philosophical encyclopaedia long before Diderot and D’ Alembert in 18th century France. This was the side of Leonardo that most struck the benefactor of his old age. After his death at 67 years of age the French king said that he was “a very great philosopher”. In the end he saw him more as a philosopher than an artist. In reality, he was both. This most typical of Renaissance men combined in his person the roles of artist, sculptor, scientists, philologer, diplomat and inventor.

Leonardo’s reputation as an artist rests on just a handful of paintings. The quantity of Leonardo’s artistic output was limited because he was a perfectionist. He said: “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn't reach the quality it should have.”That is why he often started a work and never finished it. All the pleadings and threats of his exasperated employers left him indifferent. The only Master he recognized was art his self. It is as if for him the act of creation itself was the point. The end result was relatively unimportant. This is clearly what he meant when he wrote: “art is never finished, only abandoned.”

With Michelangelo the art of the Italian Renaissance reaches new levels of sublime perfection. But Michelangelo was driven by religious inspiration, whereas Leonardo, the true man of the Renaissance, was not religious at all. Ultimately Michelangelo did what his masters in the Church wished, whereas Leonardo was a free and independent spirit – a natural rebel.

With Leonardo, however, we see the perfect marriage of science, technique, philosophy and art. He made a thorough study of optics in order to understand the nature of light and shade and then applied this scientific knowledge to his painting. He did the same with anatomy, and even studied human embryos.

There has probably never been a greater artist than Leonardo in the history of the world. It is not only a question of his technique, which was so advanced that even today the experts do not know how he achieved certain effects, or even how he made his colours. This art is not only aesthetically beautiful, not only technically perfect.It also contains a profound philosophical idea.

All his life Leonardo was driven by an insatiable curiosity about the world. He was curious about all things under the sun, and this curiosity led him in many different directions. It was for that reason that so many of his projects remained unfinished. His restless, inquiring spirit – which was the spirit of his age – did not allow him to remain still for a moment, and several lifetimes would have been insufficient for him to complete all the tasks he set himself.

Above all, Leonardo was a keen observer of the natural world. The dead hand of religion had condemned material reality as the work of the devil and taught men and women to be ashamed and to direct their gaze to Heaven or inwards to the salvation of their eternal soul. This was the antithesis of the new scientific outlook. Leonardo’s world outlook was essentially materialist and scientific. He said: “Only observation is the key to understanding” and “All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.”

He also wrote: “Although nature commences with reason and ends in experience it is necessary for us to do the opposite, that is, to commence with experience and from this to proceed to investigate the reason.” These sentences contain the essence of all modern science. This tireless investigator was not afraid to question the accepted vies of the Church and to tread dangerous paths.

Despite his insistence on observation, Leonardo was no vulgar empiricist. He also wrote: 

“Those who are in love with practice without knowledge are like the sailor who gets into a ship without rudder or compass and who never can be certain whether he is going. Practice must always be founded on sound theory, and to this Perspective is the guide and the gateway; and without this nothing can be done well in the matter of drawing.”

He saw that order arises from chaos and it is this profound and dialectical idea that is at the heart of the Mona Lisa. But the reverse is also true: beneath the apparently calm and settled reality, there are forces that can burst through at any time. This idea perfectly expresses the turbulent times of the Italy into which he had been born and the trials and tribulations of which he shared. The deep lines carved on the face of his self-portrait as an old man tell the whole story. Here is a picture of suffering that has been overcome by the quiet resignation of sublime old age. The contradictions have at last found a resolution.

In the end he said that just as a day well spent leads to contented rest, so a life well brings a contented death. We will leave the final word to Leonardo:

 “I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. 'Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death.”