Monday, May 31, 2010

The Salvador Takes on St. Paul

There are actually times when Salvador Dalí's statements should be taken seriously. More accurately, taken as intended to be serious.

Such, I believe, is his take on Paul Cézanne, a painter taken in great seriousness by art historians as well as modernist painters in his own time and thereafter.

The safe stance for Dalí would have been to go along with the crowd. But then, Dalí thrived on controversy and grandstanding, which is why it can be tricky trying to separate outrageous statements from those that truly reflected his mind.

However, Dalí went after Cézanne on more than one occasion, which is why I'm inclined to think he really had it in for Aix-en-Provence's alternate claim to fame besides the Cours Mirabeau.

For instance, on pages 51 and 53 of the Dover edition of Dalí on Modern Art, he states:

Paul Cézanne -- one of the most marvelously reactionary painters of all time -- was also one of the most "imperialistic," since he wanted to redo Poussin "from nature".... It is unfortunate that his Apollonian impulse was betrayed by his fatal clumsiness. His awkwardness can be compared only to the delirious virtuosity of Velasquez. It should have been Velasquez who, like Bonaparte, poured the anarchy of orgiac painting into the Caesarian empire of forms, adding that notion of discontinuous nature that Poussin lacked.

But, however touching it may be, never did Cézanne succeed in painting a single round apple capable of holding -- monarchically -- the five regular [geometrical] bodies within its absolute volume.

The dithyrambic critics, completely in line with the mediocrity of Cézannian paintings, were only able to set up as categorical imperatives the catastrophic deficiencies, clumsinesses and awkwardnesses of the master. Before this total rout of means of expression it was believed that a step had been taken toward the liberation of pictorial technique.

And on pages 15-16 of his 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship [Dover, again], he says:

"Post -Cézannism" has erected into a system every one of the clumsinesses and deficiencies of Cézanne and painted square mile after square mile of canvasses with these defects. The defects of Cézanne, in his fundamentally honest character, were often consequences of his very virtues; but defects are never virtues! I can imagine the profound melancholy of the master of Aix-en-Provence, Paul Cézanne, when after having struggled so long to build a well-constructed apple on his canvas, possessed like a demon by the problem of relief, he had succeeded on the contrary only in painting it concave! And instead of keeping, as was his ambition, the "intact continuity" of the surface of his canvas, without making any concession to the illusory friviolities of verisimilitude, he finds himself in the end with a canvas frightfully lacking in consistency and filled with holes! With each new apple there is a new hole! Which, as the immortal Michel de Montaigne said in another connection, "chier dans le panier et se le mettre sur la tête."

I never understood Cézanne and so take some comfort that my position is supported, even if by somewhat odd company.

[Cross-posted at 2Blowhards.]

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Death of a Directive

The Weekly Standard is a journal of politics and political opinion, though it does retain space for art and book reviews. The current (31 May 2010) issue veers off-character in that it contains an unusually long (for the magazine) article about the Barnes collection that's on its way from Merion, PA to downtown Philadelphia. It's "No Museum Left Behind" by Lance Esplund, and a link is here.

I'm puzzled why the article even appeared in The Weekly Standard, given that's it's neither a political piece nor a book review. But it got published and it's worthy of comment.

Being long, it manages to touch on several themes. One deals with Albert Barnes and his take on art, especially the progression of traditional painting to modernism via French Impressionism. He tended to consider all of this part of a greater whole rather than distinct aspects, according to the article. This is why he mixed paintings of different vintages on the walls of his museum.

Esplund also discusses Impressionist and modernist artists -- Cézanne, Matisse and Renoir especially -- at some length.

Then he reacts in horror to the moving of the collection from the suburbs to Franklin Parkway -- this in total contradiction to Barnes' wishes and directives. To me, this is a regrettable fate suffered by most charitable foundations -- a conservative or traditionalist sets aside money that eventually funds projects that would totally repel him (think Ford Foundation, Pew, etc.).

Finally, Esplund riffs on what he considers the self-destruction of art museums in their seeming goal of maximizing attendance.

So many themes are touched on, I find it hard to comment. I'll note that I lived in the Philadelphia area for the better part of three years while at Dear Old Penn and knew of the Barnes collection. At the time (late 60s) it was difficult for people to view the collection; limited numbers allowed in, red tape of other sorts perhaps -- I forget. In any case, I had dropped my interest in art to the level that visiting the Merion facility seemed more trouble than worth, and I never went there.

I do think that putting the collection near downtown Philly makes the art far more accessible than it was. On the other hand, I don't like the business of contradicting the intent of the benefactor. So, on balance, I think the move is a mistake though I'm not as upset about it as Esplund seems to be.

The world is filled with ambiguous situations, isn't it?

[Cross-posted at 2 Blowhards]

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Used Art Books

I seldom buy used books. My book-buying sweet-spot is a remaindered book at a nice discount from the original suggested price. Still, from time to time I feel that I really need to possess a book that's been out of print so long that new copies are non-existent and the chance of a new edition seems close to nil.

Examples are the two editions of Frank Wootton's "How to Draw Cars" from the early 1950s. I never bought them when I was young, finally indulging myself last year with used copies shipped from Australia and England.

This was fine because the Wootton books were illustrated in black-and-white. Old books about painting are another matter because paintings are in color and it's important for apprentice-painter me to view another artist's color usage as accurately as possible. The problem here is that color reproductions from 15-20 years ago and before had what I consider iffy quality.

This means that while I can locate on the Internet some pre-1990 books about obscure artists that interest me, I'm not willing to buy them because I'm unsure if the reproductions will be helpful.

Now that we're in the age of digital photography, it's possible to visit museums friendly to non-flash picture-taking and get needed details to store on one's computer -- the main problem being to get to the desired museums.

The Internet is rapidly becoming a useful source for viewing reproductions, but matters of copyright, the fame of the artist and policies of museums and galleries have kept it in mixed-bag status.

Despite the problems and limitation noted above, art students and fans are vastly better off than they would have been 150 years ago when just about the only source of information regarding distant paintings consisted of engravings.

As for old art books, I'll probably buy one from time to time. But only when the text is important or the art was monochrome in the original.

[Cross-posted at 2Blowhards.]

Friday, May 21, 2010

Problem: Turning Stash into Cash

Art heists are in the news again -- this time from a second-tier Paris museum, as this report tells us. Even though the museum is a notch or so down from the d'Orsay and the Pompidou, the valuations total more than $100 million (the Daily Mail article mentions 400 million pounds as the possible total).

Crime-news groupie I'm not. Nor have I read much in the way of detective fiction, so if what follows seems shallow from a maven's perspective, it is.

One of the things about art theft that interests me is what becomes of the loot. As observers usually mention after such thefts, well-known paintings can't be placed in the usual market channels such as galleries.

So if that route is out, then why steal if it's difficult to cash in after all the effort? One reason I've read about is getting ransom money from the victim or its insurance company. Another I've seen is that a robbery might be commissioned by someone who covets the art and plans to keep it for his own viewing pleasure. A corollary is that the thief wants the art for himself.

It's too soon to tell if the Paris robbery was a ransom ploy. But other noteworthy thefts have yet to be resolved. The linked article mentions the heist from the Gardiner in Boston. And there's the San Diego disappearance of a couple of Maxfield Parrishes that remain missing.

I wonder what became of all that art.

[Cross-posted at 2Blowhards.]

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Just Imagining 1980

I'm the first to admit that I'm a sucker for 1920s skyscraper architecture. No wonder I've been fascinated for years by a few photos of a huge city-of-the-future (1980) model constructed as the backdrop for some scenes in the 1930 movie "Just Imagine."

This is what I'm talking about:

The movie itself is a rather odd combination of musical and science fiction featuring once-popular comic El Brendel, the scrumptious Jane of Tarzan fame Maureen O'Sullivan, and her love interest here, John Garrick. For information about the plot and other details, this is a useful source, and so is the Wikipedia entry here.

I, along with many others, had been informed for years that prints of Just Imagine were lost forever. Fortunately, that wasn't so. Googling will reveal several sources of Internet-based viewing sources as well as where one can find DVD copies -- the DVD offering at Amazon is here.

For your viewing enjoyment, below are some Just Imagine items I pulled off the Internet.

This photo includes tiny models of aircraft that lend believability to the movie.

Here's one way the model was used. O'Sullivan and Garrick meet high over the streets thanks to their aircraft being able to hover courtesy of small pop-up wingtip helicopter blades. (Real helicopters here still a gleam in Igor Sikorsky's eye in 1930.)

These are pages about the Just Imagine model found in a magazine called Modern Mechanics.

The movie eventually leaves the metropolis for a zip over to planet Mars where three guys (O'Sullivan stays behind) meet the Martian queen played by dancer Joyzelle Joyner, below.

Above is a closer look at Joyzelle.

Returning to the 1980 metropolis, its clear inspiration for Oscar-nominated art direction guys Stephen Goosson and Ralph Hammeras was the architectural rendering of Hugh Ferriss whose work essentially defines the 1920s skyscraper -- real, proposed or even imagined for imagination's sake. Here's an example of a city imagined by Ferriss:

I'll have more to say about Ferriss and his visionary city in a later post.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Art Auction Trends

The cover story on the Weekend Journal section of the Wall Street Journal for 14 May is about some post-1870 painters who are performing better or worse than previously for the auctioneer's gavel. (At the time this is written, the article can be found here.)

Highlighted "winners" are Alexander Calder, Pierre-August Renoir, Claude Monet, Alberto Giacometti, Jasper Johns and graffiti-spawned Jean-Michel Basquiat. Downsliders mentioned are Pierre Bonnard, Richard Prince, Kees Van Dongen, Damien Hirst and Edvard Munch.

Some highlights from Kelly Crow's article include:

But the playing field has been transformed by recession, and dozens of other top artists have been boosted or derailed by the boom-and-bust cycle. Some of the biggest stars from the art market's peak, such as Richard Prince and Damien Hirst, have been largely absent from auctions recently.

On the rise are Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Salvador Dali, names that a few years ago were unfashionable in some art circles. In recent years, some Western buyers dismissed their work as passé —crowd-pleasing but uninteresting. New art collectors, however, tend to gravitate to the European Impressionists that are pretty and accessible. Newly wealthy Asian buyers have been bidding up Renoirs and Monets. ...

Dealers say Renoir's soft-focus depictions of Victorian women and children are a favorite of Asian collectors, who have begun buying up iconic pieces from the Western canon. They're starting, as many new buyers do, with the broadly appealing Impressionists. Renoir's prices are lower than those of older peers like Monet.

[Regarding Calder...] The Philadelphia sculptor of kinetic abstract sculptures has floated above the recession. He had a banner year in 2009, with a record $41.5 million worth of his art selling at auction, according to Artnet, a firm that monitors sales. Six of his priciest pieces sold during the doldrums, including the 1934 mobile, "Five Pieces of Wood," which Sotheby's in London sold last June for $4.2 million. On Wednesday, another pair of mobiles sold for a combined $5.2 million.

American collectors say part of the reason for the strong sales was that the artist had been undervalued for too long, a fact that became clear as other art prices dropped. ...

Now, Basquiat's asking prices have dropped to between $2 million and $6 million and American Baby Boomers appear to be rushing back in to take advantage of the lower price tags. ...

Last fall, this Dutch master of Fauvism [Van Dongen] seemed poised to enjoy a surge when Sotheby's in New York sold his creamy spare portrait, "Young Arab," for a record $13.8 million. Russian buyers were flocking then to his emerald-and-navy portraits of women. Since then, however, Russian collectors seem to have shifted back to homegrown favorites with a similar palette, like Natalia Goncharova, and U.S. buyers haven't stepped in to fill the void. ...

During the peak years of 2006 and 2008, prices for Mr. Prince's work soared. In 2008, the artist's works sold for a combined $68.3 million at auction, but signs of trouble began to emerge: That year, at least nine pieces sold for less that their low asking prices, indicating that buyers and sellers were no longer in agreement on where his auction prices should be set....

Mr. Prince has one group of influential supporters: museum curators. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis recently mounted major Prince shows.

I'm perpetually astonished at the high prices modernist and PoMo artists command, though I'm not surprised about the French Impressionists. As this book suggests, they have been a "safe" investment for many decades.

And I'm curious about Van Dongen being mentioned. In most histories of post-1900 painting, he's been more a footnote than a highlight, so I hadn't realized that some of his works command very nice prices. I find Van Dongen the man interesting and have an odd ambivalence about his art; I probably shouldn't like it, yet I can't ignore it. One of these days I must write a post about him if for no other reason than to get my thoughts better sorted.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Nothing Doors

Something often downplayed or even missing in modernist architecture is consideration of the psychology of people who look at or use a building. This is in contrast to the Beaux-Arts style architectural training where students created renderings and building designs that evoked moods.

I was reminded of this not long ago strolling through the campus of the University of Washington when I spied this:

Law School building

It's situated near the campus periphery where newer, non-Collegiate Gothic architecture reigns. What struck me was the entrance area. Yes, once inside there is a large, high space with plenty of glass. But the doors themselves look like they came from a parts bin. The Great God Functionality worshiped by modernists would smile at form following the function of ingress and egress. But largely lost are the psychological functions of transition and perceiving the importance of the structure being entered.

What follows is a swing around the Washington campus showing entrances old and recent to illustrate my point.

This is one of the older buildings, named after Vernon Louis Parrington who taught at Washington in the early decades of the last century. The building predates the university's Collegiate Gothic phase and is undistinguished, as the entrance suggests.

Here is the main library building's front; there is no mistaking that this is the entrance area. The doors themselves are hidden at this angle, but are heavy, wooden, and have glass panes. Multiple doors are present to serve times of heavy traffic.

Nearby is the administration building, constructed in the late 1940s. It differs from most campus buildings in that it has no brick surfacing. A much more modest entry, but it is attractively designed aside from the University shield squeezed between the entrance frame and the bay window section above.

This isn't a main entrance. It's a side entrance placed where two wings of a building join. (Actually, the two present wings once were separate buildings that were consolidated several decades after they were built.) Unlike most modernist solutions, it possesses charm.

Here's an entrance to another building on the main quadrangle. It gives one the feeling that you are really entering a dignified place.

This is the entrance ensemble of what once was the womens' Physical Education building, now home of the Drama School. It's clearly an entrance, and clearly has a dignity to it.

So much for buildings mostly from the 1930s and 40s. Now for more recent doors and entrances.

Built around 1960, this Engineering building is one of the ugliest on campus. An effort was made to create a transition zone of sorts, but it doesn't succeed. The doors themselves are nondescript.

Another set of nondescript doors, this time on the Electrical Engineering building. All that glass and metal above the door is intended to create the sensation of ... well, I'm not sure.

The Engineering Library entry, like the rest of the late 1960s building, is a feeble attempt to blend modern with traditional.

Here's another blending attempt, this from the mid-1990s for one of the Business School buildings. Because it edges more towards the traditional, it strikes me as being more successful.

All of which is not to say that modernist and various breeds of post-modernist buildings can't have doors and entrances that have psychological resonance. But it takes some effort on the part of the architect, particularly one invested in classical International Style design.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

First Post

My name is Donald Pittenger. Over at the 2Blowhards blog I was described as "demographer, recovering sociologist." My role was Third Banana or (on a good day) Second Banana to blog founder "Michael Blowhard." Which was perfectly fine by me. Michael is a rare talent, facile with words and ideas; no wonder he once was a byline writer (under his real name) at a major magazine.

Alas, Michael decided to retire from 2Blowards in the fall of 2009 and I carried it on. That meant having to write five to seven posts a week -- a lot more than my comfort zone of two or three. As you might be guessing, I'm creating this blog so that I can do 2Blowhardish things at a more relaxed pace. So stop by once or twice a week to see what's going on.

What will I be writing about? As the title suggests, mostly about art. Specifically, about painting, design and other aspects of aesthetics (besides all that demography-sociology stuff mentioned above, I was an art major in college.) The point-of-view is that modernism in art is an idea that has, after a century or more, been thoroughly tested and found wanting to a large extent. Not to say that it should be abolished -- just put in its proper, diminished place. Featured here will be modernist mistakes and what I think are nicer alternatives. Hence the name of this blog.

Thank for for reading. And please comment when you're in the mood.