Friday, December 31, 2010

Arts and Crafts Disneyland

Most folks expect noontime at Disneyland to be bright and sunny, I suppose. Alas for them, Southern California does have a rainy season during the winter months. The weekend before Christmas and early Christmas week this year, Los Angeles experienced days of rainfall that at times was very heavy. And we were there.

Given that I get to Disneyland about once per decade and further given that things in the park change slowly, I was able to skip most of the rides and focus on something really important: staying as dry as possible.

It turned out that a nice place to avoid the rain is the ten year-old Grand Californian Hotel in the Downtown Disney area just west of the Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park entrances.

There are other Disney hotels nearby that are basically near-generic, nondescript modernist style with Disney touches and shops to brighten things up. Not so the Grand Californian. It's based on those fine Arts & Crafts style National Park lodges at Yosemite in California and here and there elsewhere in the West. Here are some photos I took while drying off.

These views are of the registration desk area and the main lobby.

This was taken from a seat in one of the hotel's restaurants, one with a story-telling theme.

One corner of the lobby has a children's diversion area: note the scaled-down Adirondack-like chairs and rockers.

Grownups are not forgotten. This is a lounge where one can get coffee and beverages of increasing hardness. Those little white spots near the rim of the ceiling light fixture are three-circle Mickey Mouse symbols (head and two round ears): there's no escaping the mouse on Disney property, even in a lounge mostly for adults. Also note the painting on the left-hand wall. This room has several paintings with a circa-1900 feeling, including:

The latter image is slightly cropped.

These are slightly cropped images of some of the California Impressionist style painting located along corridors in the hotel.

All those paintings shown above bear no artist signature. My guess is that they were done by Disney art staffers, many of whom are no slouches and fully capable of creating works with a 1900 cast.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Coastal Calm: Jerry Van Megert

A contemporary artist whose work impresses me is Jerry Van Megert. Last year I posted about him here on the 2Blowhards blog, and two of the photos below are from that article.

As I mentioned on 2Blowhards, I could find little about Van Megert himself, and that remains the case. He was born in Oregon in 1938 and educated there. His main work is portraiture, but I haven't yet found any example of this on the Web.

If you want to view actual Van Megert paintings, a good place is the lounge at The Lodge at Pebble Beach. That's a Van Megert painting on the far wall.

Here is a slightly cropped view of that painting.

Further detail: click to enlarge and examine Van Megert's technique.

A view of the coast between Big Sur and Carmel. This is also in the lounge and on the same wall as the previous painting.

The Lone Cypress
This image of the Pebble Beach landmark is from the web site of Coast Galleries, which offers Van Megert's paintings and prints.

Van Megert's color scheme -- can I call it "clay-like"? -- isn't exactly locked into what an artist or even an ordinary viewer is likely to see when visiting the stretch of the California coast running for 60 or so miles south of Carmel. This frees Van Megert from the iron grip of the powerful California scenery that usually forces California landscape paintings to look somewhat alike no matter who does the painting. So what we see above is definitely California and equally definitely Jerry Van Megert.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Lot of Picasso Goes a Short Way

Man with a Straw Hat and an Ice Cream Cone - 1938

The Seattle Art Museum has been running an exhibit of Pablo Picasso works from the Musée National Picasso in Paris. It's a larger-than-average show for the museum and they've promoted it heavily.

My wife has been gently hounding me to take her to see it for some time now, but we've been traveling a lot and only got around to doing the deed yesterday.

Crowds were large. I'd assumed that we'd simply waltz in, wave our museum membership cards at the ticket desk and then troop through the exhibit. Instead, we had a two and a half hour wait before our appointed entry-time slot. A chat with a museum staffer revealed that it was the holiday season (and perhaps the impending January 17th show closing) that was bringing in the masses.

When our turn finally came, all I could manage was a fast walk-though, pausing only in the section featuring photographs of Picasso, his women and other friends. The paintings and sculptures ranged from at least his Blue Period through the rest of his career, including the painting at the head of this post. I didn't notice very early works (which I'll be writing about soon).

Contrarian that I am, I can tolerate Picasso only in extremely small doses. Even the small-ish Picasso museum in Antibes, France was an overdose so far as I'm concerned. What I saw in Seattle was room after room, wall after wall of what I consider truly awful, pointless doodling. Doodles that, thanks to the public relations genius of Picasso and perhaps his art dealers, were often quickly painted with the potential for easy sales at good prices -- a situation beyond dreams for most artists.

Finally came the moment of climax and revelation. The Picasso exhibit's exit happened to empty into the museum's small collection of 15th - 18th century art. From crude, distorted Picasso, viewers confronted images that they could relate to as human beings -- setting aside any matters of artistic quality.

So why was there such a large crowd? Did most or all the attendees genuinely like Picasso's works? Did they come simply because Picasso is famous? Might they have come because -- formally or informally -- they acquired the notion that Picasso was A Great Master Who Must Be Loved -- Or Else! (I kid about the "Or Else." Sort of.)

It's possible that there have been studies dealing with art appreciation and how people with different degrees of art knowledge come to their current tastes. Perhaps I'll make time to do a Web search on this or maybe a reader already knows and might post a comment. In my case, Picasso was an artist that "everyone" (who counted, based on my reading when I was high school and college age) asserted had significance and greatness. So I bought into that perspective even though I found only a tiny number of his works likable.

I finally came to trust my instincts, which is why I hardly paused during my stroll through the rooms of the Seattle Picasso show.

Monday, December 27, 2010

In the Beginning: Henri Matisse

Just because you study under a famous painter doesn't mean any of it will rub off on you.

Consider Henri Matisse (1869-1954) who received some of his training from William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Gustave Moreau. By his late twenties Matisse was leaving strongly representational art behind on his march to Fauvism and colorful points beyond.

Since the point of this "In the Beginning" series is speculation as to how modernist artists' style might have evolved absent modernism, we need to take a look at Matisse's more representational works that have survived. (I could locate only one work on the Web dated before his 25th birthday; might others have been destroyed or otherwise lost?)

Still Life With Books - 1890
Matisse claimed that this was his "first" painting. I couldn't find a larger image.

Woman Reading - 1894
Shown is Caroline Jobau, his mistress at the time and possibly pregnant.

Village in Brittany - 1895
Again, this is the largest image I could locate: apologies.

The Maid - 1896
Still representational, but more simplified than earlier works. Click on the image to get better quality.

The Dinner Table - 1896-97
Just about Matisse's last gasp at representational painting.

Carmelina - 1903
Colors are now becoming flatter, but not yet Fauve-wild. Again, click for a better image.

The White Plumes - 1919
For a few years before 1920 some modernist painters including Picasso and Matisse briefly backed away from the spasm of "isms" of preceding years. The result was some paintings in a noticeably simplified sort of representationalism.

Absent modernism, how would Matisse have fared? Given his training, the time spent copying masters (images not shown) and the very limited evidence shown above, I think that he had the potential to become a good representational painter. Impossible to say whether he might have become great.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Weimar Cities

The Autumn 2010 issue of City Journal contains this article titled "Weimar Istanbul" by Claire Berlinski. Her thesis is that certain cities experienced strong busts of artistic creativity not long before all gets swept away by one disaster or another: these she terms Weimar Cities.

She states:

There is a spookiness to living in a city at the epicenter of an impending political catastrophe, a mood of dread but also of astonishing vitality—economic, creative, artistic. It is a distinctive mood and, to anyone acquainted with history, a familiar mood.

There is, it seems, such a phenomenon as a Weimar City.

What is a Weimar City? It is a city rich in history and culture, animated by political precariousness and by a recent rupture with the past, vivified by a shocking conflict with mass urbanization and industrialization; a city where sudden liberalization has unleashed the social and political imagination—but where the threat of authoritarian reaction is always in the air.
Her archetype is Berlin during the Weimar Republic era (1919-33), and she believes that Istanbul, where she has lived in recent years, is another example as Turkey drifts away from Mustafa Kemal's reforms and towards Islamic fundamentalism.

Other examples she cites are antebellum Charleston, Moscow and Petrograd in 1917, circa-1900 Vienna, 2002 Buenos Aires and Summer of Love San Francisco.

I find this concept intriguing and highly romantic. But I am not persuaded.

In the first place, the spur of knowing that doom is almost certainly in the offing doesn't happen all that often. Moreover, the future is always uncertain. This uncertainty might affect some sensitive, artistic minds even in comparatively calm times. And it can affect minds of average folks when events turn more sour than usual, but not necessarily disastrously; the United States since the economic crisis of 2008 is a case in point. Even in the best of times, the future is uncertain and the thought of it potentially stress-provoking; consider unease of living in one's times as chronic.

I agree that residents of Vienna and the Austro-Hungarian Empire around 1900 likely sensed the empire's decline and wondered how matters would play out once the elderly emperor Franz-Josef finally died. But did folks in Weimer Berlin in, say 1927, see doom in the future? Economic conditions were better than in the early 1920s. True, the Republic was a mess, but there was no strong reason to believe that anything would change much -- that Germany might well continue stumbling along as it had since the end of the Great War, risking disaster yet not quite encountering it. And, if there was to be fundamental change, it wasn't clear what sort of change might occur.

A second factor is that vibrant cultural and artistic periods lasted for decades in many places without much threat or actual occurrence of disaster. For example, England had a strong literary culture going back to the 18th century and continuing well into the 20th. Italy was strong in painting and sculpture from the 14th century through the 18th. Paris ruled the world of painting from the 18th century till nearly the middle of the 20th. The United States became an artistic powerhouse during the 20th century while its political and economic states were far more tranquil than those of other major countries.

Berlinski's citations of Charleston and San Francisco do not strikes me as compelling. Even though the South Carolina city held the spark that set off the Civil War, the conditions that set off that spark brewed up in conjunction with the 1860 presidential election and its result. That is, it's not like a strong sense of doom had been festering for years. And there was no general doom at in the San Francisco case (though I do think the place was approaching the tipping point from being a fun place to live to the weirdness and harshness I feel whenever I now visit it). At best, the peril in the air had to do with the Vietnam war and the threat young men had of being drafted into the army. Even that was a strong factor for those comparatively few young men of a certain age and draft number, and not young people in general.

All this is not to deny that something such as a Weimar City situation can't exist. I can see parallels between Weimar Berlin, 1900 Vienna and the two Russians cities. (Regarding the latter, I'd set the stress situation as longer term than just 1917. There was plenty artistic ferment starting the late 19th century and failure in the Russo-Japanese war resulted in a murky outlook for the czarist regime thereafter, contributing to a "Weimar" condition.)

In sum, what we are dealing with is subjectivity. How to define artistic, cultural, economic, etc. ferment along with the somewhat amorphous conditions that supposedly spark things. And where is a set of counter-examples of ferment without stress and stress without ferment, assuming such definitions can be made? Weimar Cities, therefore, might make for interesting speculation but are not likely to be a useful analytical or predictive tool of thought.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Cars With Broad Shoulders

Longer, lower, wider and, therefore larger and heavier, was the general trend for American automobiles during the 1950s and 60s. Yes, "compact" cars were introduced around 1960, but these too tended to grow over time. (This isn't a strictly American thing. Consider the Honda Civic, a very small car in its first version and now just a notch smaller than its "standard size" sibling, the Honda Accord.)

The present post deals with the "wider" aspect of that growth. Some designs simply had fenders bulge out. But for a while there was a fashion of having "catwalks" on either side of the passenger compartment -- flat extensions between the side windows and the drop-off zone of the fender/side of the car. This will be made clear in the illustrations below.

I recall reading someplace back in that era that such catwalks, if they had an outer ridge, would serve to nest or cradle the passenger compartment "tumblehome" (that's a styling term for the part of the passenger compartment with the roof and windows).

The visual result was often pleasant. Moreover, the wide sides in theory could have contained substantial steel beams for side-collision protection. But fuel crises starting in 1973 and later fuel mileage regulations forced automobile designers to reduce the size and weight of vehicles. An easy way to reduce weight is to narrow a car, and that practice pretty well ended the fashion of wide catwalks.

Here are examples of broad-shouldered cars from that era.


These first two photos offer a before-and-after perspective on standard size cars and their side treatments. At the top in a 1949 Ford, the car I consider the End of Evolution -- all styling since then being essentially relatively minor advances and variations. The lower photo is a of 2010 Chevrolet Malibu. Note that the sides on both cars don't project far from the windows.

1961 Pontiac Tempest
1962 Buick Skylark
The Tempest and Skylark shared the same basic body, so styling details were superficial elements General Motors used to visually distinguish brands.

1964 Ford Thunderbird
This Thunderbird's shoulders are more rounded than catwalk-like, but the ridge near the top of the fender stiffens the appearance of that section of the car.

1963 Mercury Monterey
Here is a particularly strong example. We see both a catwalk and ridge setting off the tumblehome.

1965 Chrysler New Yorker
The same might be said of this Chrysler, though the catwalks seem a bit narrower than the Mercury's.

1968 Lincoln Continental Mark III
This Continental appeared towards the end of the catwalk era; again they are narrow.

Monday, December 20, 2010

In the Beginning: Piet Mondrian

This is the second in a series of posts about the roots of modernist painters. The first, about Salvador Dalí, is here

I'll start this post by confessing that I've always liked the 1930s work of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). That is, those irregular grids formed by straight, black lines on a white background with some of the grid areas filled with a primary color (red, blue or yellow). These paintings served as reference points for exercises in a design class my Freshman year in the University of Washington's School of Art.

Unlike many other modernists of his time, Mondrian wasn't trying to "say" anything during this phase of his career; these paintings were essentially design experiments where the elements of line and color were reduced to fundamentals about as far as it was possible to do so.

But Mondrian didn't begin his career painting such works. His father was an artist, so he received some training at home before he began formal art studies. Moreover, his formative years were in an era before the surge of modernist "isms" hit the art scene with full-force. Here are examples of pre-abstract Mondrian paintings:

View of Winterswijk - 1898-99 - (watercolor)

Self-Portrait - ca. 1900

Mill at Edge of Water - 1900-04

Red Tree - ca. 1908

Devotie - 1908

Self-Portrait - 1918

Based on the examples above and others seen on the Internet, I think Mondrian made an exceedingly smart career-move when he hit upon his geometric-abstraction style. The 1918 self-portrait, for example, was painted when he was 45 or 46 years old and had had plenty of time to hone skills in realism. True, the style takes a bow to modernist thinking, but it and the other paintings shown suggest that Mondrian would never have been top-notch had he stuck to representational works.

If you disagree with this assessment, please Comment.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Cell Phones Costing Thousands

Cell phone prices can be a little hard to figure out because they're often part of a service usage package. For instance, a basic phone might be priced as "free" if a buyer commits to a certain service period, two years, say. That said, a cell phone without lots of features might well cost someplace in the range $100-$200.

In contrast, there's the Vertu cell phone line where prices are in the thousands -- many, many thousands of dollars in some cases.

As the Wikipedia link above reports, Frank Nuovo, Nokia's head designer (at the time) was instrumental in creation of the Nokia-bankrolled company; now he serves as head designer at Vertu. The Vertu web site's history page stresses technical innovation related to the "package" -- not the electronic guts -- and the use of precious, luxury materials in some models.

Vertu cell phone with Ferrari motifs

I had never heard of Vertu until a few years ago while strolling through the shop arcade at the Wynn hotel-casino complex in Las Vegas. Right there amongst shops for Chanel, Manolo Blahnik and the like was a Vertu store. The phones on display were attractive and their prices astonishing. I assumed Vertu wouldn't last, yet the store remains: I saw it last month while in town.

Here's my problem with Vertu. Cell phones are still part of a rapidly-evolving corner of technology and marketing. The technology goes from Gen-This to Gen-That every few years. Not to mention the evolution towards multifunctionality: consider inclusion of cameras, the tiny-keypad Blackberry and Apple's multi-app iPhone. Vertu thus far remains a pretty basic cell phone if all the fancy construction and luxury touches are set aside. So a buyer forks out thousands of dollars for one and a year or two later yet another Gen-jump occurs. So what does he do? Keep his luxury item while lagging capability-wise? Or does he spend more thousands for a newer version? I suppose folks who are utterly rich would do the latter without much thought. They might even upgrade so as to have a Vertu with a different décor than that tiresome one purchased last spring. After all, a Vertu phone is all those luxury touches I set aside earlier in this paragraph.

An interesting thing about luxury items is the price multiple over a similar item offering the same core functionality. For automobiles, the ratio can be ten or 20 to one -- a Maseratti Quattroporte goes for about ten times as much as a really cheap, small Korean-made car and some Rolls-Royces for double that.

Ratios are much higher for wristwatches. A cheap watch with a digital face can be had for only a few dollars whereas a middle-line Rolex sells in the thousands. But watch technology and functionality are pretty stable, so a wristwatch purchase can be considered akin to buying jewelery. I suppose the same can be said regarding Vertu, though the functional foundation is far softer.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Yes, There Really Are Real Microsoft Stores

As of this writing there are seven honest-to-goodness, tangible, non-virtual places you actually can walk into: Microsoft Stores -- not to be confused with a part of the corporation's web site.

Dense me, I had no idea Bill Gates' little start-up had graduated from bits and pixels to bricks and mortar until last month, when a store opened not far from its Redmond headquarters in Bellevue's classy Bellevue Square shopping mall. It's the latest one: in 2009 stores opened in Scottsdale and Mission Viejo. This year others opened in: Lone Tree, Colorado; San Diego; Oak Brook, Illinois; and Bloomington, Minnesota -- the last two just before the one in Bellevue.

The likely reason why I wasn't aware of Microsoft's retail push is that I've been drifting away from Windows-based computers to Macs and only knew about Apple Stores, a very handy resource.

Since a Microsoft Store might be coming to your neck of the woods, I thought I'd show you what you might find on that happy day. Here are some photos I took at Bellevue Square:

Looks a lot like an Apple Store, doesn't it?

The layout is similar -- tables with computers and gadgets that use Microsoft software (they are for sale, too), wall racks of software packages and peripheral equipment such are cables and mice, and there's even a counter near the rear where one can get technical advice.

Moveover, the place was jumping when I gave it a walk-through; even busier than the smaller, usually jammed Apple Store a few doors down the mall. Could this have been because the whole mall was hopping thanks to Christmas shoppers? Was it the store's novelty? Might it have been due to the fact that the Seattle area is Microsoft's home turf?

Beats me.

Monday, December 13, 2010

In the Beginning: Salvador Dali

This is the introductory item of a series of occasional posts dealing with modernist painters who began their careers as representational artists.

My concept is that this will form the basis for speculation as to how a given artist might have developed had he not "gone modern." Obviously, there is no way of telling for sure what might have happened absent a system of parallel universes and wormholes for traversing them. Still, speculation is usually a fun, harmless activity as evidenced by the popularity of pre-game sports programs on television.

To begin, let's consider Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). Unlike the artists to be featured in later posts, he almost never drifted very far from representationalism and, in post-Surrealist years, largely returned to representation. This gives an example of beginnings and representational potential attained. The main defect with my choice of Dalí is that examples of his early painting that I could find are not particularly representational. Oh, well.

Maybe I'd better explain what I mean by his degrees of representationalism. Surrealism, as Dalí practiced it, meant painting images representing unreal things in a manner so detailed that they might be seen as being real. That's why I claim his drift was small; small compared to changes in style exhibited by the likes of Picasso, Kandinsky and Mondrian, for example. By the 1950s, as we shall see below, the Surrealist content of his paintings became much less extreme. The result was that some paintings, particularly those with religious content, were close to representational with a touch of symbolism analogous to details in religious art of the mid-second millennium.

Let's take a look:

The Artist's Father at Llana Beach - 1920
Dalí was about 16 when this was painted. It's hard to tell if he was already experimenting with modernist ideas (see below for examples) or, like many at that age, hadn't developed much skill.

View of Port Dogue - 1920
This was painted the same year as the one above, and the same critique could be applied.

Self-Portrait (Detail) - 1923
I snapped this at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid where it and the two following paintings (not my photos) can be found. Dalí is now about 19 and experimenting with Cubism.

Retrato de su hermana (Ana María) - 1925
Two years later, he is returning to representational art. This portrait of his sister is hard-edged and slightly simplified -- a style often found in paintings of the 1920s and 30s.

Figura en una finestra - 1925
Another painting of his sister from the same year. This takes on the solidity and featuring of form that characterize much of Dalí's future painting.

The Persistence of Memory - 1931
At 27, Dalí created this, his most famous work. Most of his purely Surrealist paintings were done between the late 1920s and mid 1940s. Art critics tend to dismiss work done after this period.

Leda Atomica - 1949 (click for larger, clearer view)
This was painted when Dalí was about 45. It contains echoes of his earlier Surrealism, but actually was as carefully planned as any classical or academic painting.

Leda Atomica study
This is one of several studies for Leda Atomica. Others dealt with the perspective of the platform his wife Gala is (almost) seated on.

Christ of St. John of the Cross - 1951 (click for larger, clearer view)
Aside from the landscape at the bottom, this painting might be considered an example of hyper-realism.

Dalí did receive formal art training, even though surviving examples of his early work do not suggest this. Nevertheless, once his venture into Surrealism sealed his permanent fame, he focused his efforts on becoming a highly skilled representational painter of interesting works. I reject the idea that his work worsened after World War 2 and his focus on Surrealism.