Friday, December 30, 2011

Todd White: SpongeBob to Party Time

Todd White worked on graphic character development in the early days of the SpongeBob SquarePants animated cartoon television program. Then he went on to an apparently successful career making satirical cartoon-like paintings.

I've been noticing his work in galleries in California's arty, affluent Carmel-by-the-Sea for several years now, and the current issue of Carmel magazine (a locally-focused glossy magazine that appears quarterly or thereabouts) contained this article about him which inspired me to write this post.

A sketchy Wikipedia article on White is here, and the biography on his web site here.

White's images are distinctive and can be witty. But they perhaps are best taken in small doses -- something true for the works of many artists who make numerous paintings of similar subjects in a consistent style. For a large dose of White's paintings, here is a page of examples on his web site. And below is a sampling plucked from various Internet sites:


Set 'Em Up Joe
Writers Block
Drinking Boas
Many of White's paintings are bar scenes which gives him license to depict loostened emotions and behavior.

Heaven Beside You
Ballads and Bruises
These two paintings edge slightly closer to straight-up representational depiction. I wonder what would result if White dropped the cartoonishness once in a while.

While I'm perfectly willing to change my mind as time goes on, at this point I don't consider White to be a fine arts painter, his gallery presence aside. Rather, I think of him as someone who could have made a splendid career as a cartoonist for the likes of the New Yorker and Vanity Fair in the 1925-1940 era. Being born 80 years after his time, he has done a good job of surviving in an era not quite suited for him.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Molti Ritratti: Otto v. Bismarck by Lenbach

The "Molti Ritratti" set of posts usually deals with views of a single person as painted by several artists. But this time, I'm pulling a semi-switcheroo. It's still a case of a single subject, but this time all the paintings are by the same artist.

The subject is Otto von Bismarck who more than anyone else can be said to have created the German Empire from a scattering of lesser states. The artist is Franz Seraph von Lenbach (1836-1904) who was an important and successful Munich School painter. A plaza in the city bears his name and his house is now an important museum. A major collection of Lenbach works in the United States can be found here.

So why did Lenbach paint so many portraits of Bismarck? (I forget when and where and how many, but once I came upon an estimated number, probably somewhat greater than a dozen. Seems to me that source or perhaps another mentioned that Bismarck did pose for Lenbach, but that Lenbach also made extensive use of reference photos to supplement the sittings. This seems to make sense, but keep a grain of salt handy.)

When I was in the army, someplace in each unit's facilities would be a chain-of-command photographic portrait collection starting with the President and working down through the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Army, Army Chief of Staff, commanding general of the army to which the unit was assigned, various unit commanders, perhaps a post commander and so forth. This sort of thing is found in many kinds of government agencies in the USA and probably elsewhere; it's what bureaucrats do.

I don't know that German bureaucrats and officials in the late 19th century did. Yes, photography was available, but it seems likely that someone as important as the Kaiser or his Chancellor should deserve more than just a photo. Which is one possible reason for Lenbach's Bismarck commissions. No doubt some such commissions were from nobles or major political figures. But lacking a catalogue raisonné for Lenbach, it can be troublesome to locate all of his Bismarck portraits and their provenance starting points.


I find it interesting how much variety Lenbach was able to introduce in the form of costuming and even poses. No doubt this was influenced by what sort of commission he was working under. Even so, some near-duplicates are known to exist: the text in this link to the Walters Art Museum notes that the Baltimore painting is like one in Munich's Lenbachhaus.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Paul-Albert Besnard: Adventuresome Careerist

Paul-Albert Besnard (1849-1934) was French turn of the 20th century artist who gained most of the important Establishment honors while being ever-so-slightly adventuresome in his style of painting. For some background on this, his Wikipedia entry is here.

I had never heard of him.

No doubt that was partly because, like most largely traditional painters of his time, he became an unperson once the Modernist Establishment came to the academic and art-critical fore. Still, in the more than six years I've been blogging about art, I've spent a lot of time reading art history and biographies of artists. Plus, I've visited the Musée d'Orsay and other important museums with good 1850-1920 era collections. And still, Besnard's name and art never stuck in my mind.

According to the link above, Besnard paid attention to the various modernist movement of his time, starting with Impressionism, and borrowed a bit here and there while backing somewhat away from his academic training. The same could be said for many other contemporaneous artists whose names are better known today. Where Besnard stands out is that he was able to gain all sorts of official recognition up to and including a seat in the Académie française

Here are examples of his work.


Garnet Joseph, Viscount Wolseley - 1880

La Parisienne - 1885

Madame Roger Jourdain - 1886

The Eclipse - 1888

Madame Georges Rodenbach - 1897

Decoration for a ceiling

Actually, Besnard was pretty good, as nearly as I can tell from viewing digitized images instead of actual paintings. His style varied over time, and his paintings are more intellectually stimulating than purely decorative alternatives would have been. One gripe I have is that he tended to suppress facial detail in places (note some of the figures in the final image above). Most viewers, I believe, want to see a face with recognizable details rather than blurred-over eyes and so forth.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Eliel Saarinen, Uncomfortable Modernist

Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950), father of the more famous Eero (1910-61), was a modernist of sorts -- of the romantic, Art Nouveau departure from historical styles that was modernist in the almost trivial sense in that it was indeed a departure, modest though it was. Otherwise, its adherence to modernist dogma was circumstantial.

As Saarinen approached his fifties he drifted along with the evolution of Art Nouveau into Art Deco while retaining a fondness for traditional northern European and Scandinavian building forms. It was only by the late 1930s when he was around 65 that his designs became simplified and ornamentation almost disappeared. My feeling is that his heart really wasn't into modernism, but that he felt he had to comply with the New Order for professional reasons. I suppose some documentation might be found to refute my conjecture. Nevertheless, his later buildings tell me otherwise.

The Wikipedia link above contains photos of some of his important buildings. Below are views of some of those.


Kansallismuseo (National Museum), Helsinki - 1904
Saarinen was comfortable with Finnish vernacular architecture and doubtless sympathetic to the sense of Finnish nationhood percolating during the final decades of the land's status as a Russian duchy. As befitting a national museum, it looks very Finnish. I walked past it in 2005, but didn't have time to explore it.

Main railway station, Helsinki - 1909
Another impressive structure (which I did enter) is the railway station. It's Art Nouveau, but more severe and stripped down than how the style was practiced across the Baltic in Riga, Latvia.

Pauluse Kirik (Paulus Church), Tartu - 1917
Compare this to Saarinen's 1940s churches below.

Chicago Tribune Tower competition entry - 1922
Although his design failed to win, it greatly impressed the architectural profession and led to his move to America in 1923.

Cranbrook view
In 1925 Saarinen moved to Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a northern suburb of Detroit where he designed and also taught at Cranbrook. The style of the buildings shown in this photo similar to what he used in Finland, though other structures had modernist elements.

First Christian Church, Columbus, Indiana - 1942
Christ Church Lutheran, Minneapolis, Minnesota - 1949
These church designs of the 1940s are modernist in their simplicity of form. But brick is used and repeated window shapes and other details create a smidgen of ornamentation that Saarinen apparently could not bear to completely abandon.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wyndham Lewis' Deco Portraits

When Americans find themselves thinking about Art Deco portraits, I suspect the work of Tamara de Lempicka comes to mind first. But the English just might be more likely to conjure paintings and drawing by Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957).

The above link to Lewis has a good deal of information, as does this book review from 2000 posted on the Guardian's web site. There also is this site devoted to Lewis, but it is patchy.

Many people can be considered multi-talented in that they can do more than one thing passably well (skiing and cooking, dancing and gardening, etc.). There are a few who are multi-talented at levels at or near professional quality, but such folks usually focus on one talent or another as the tool to build a career or notoriety. Lewis is exceptional in that he was successful in both art and writing, as the links attest.

For example,he was a co-founder of Vorticism, a British version of Cubism. After serving as an artillery observer officer in the Great War he returned to painting and then for a few years writing dominated his efforts while he began to focus his art on portraiture.

If he had a problem, it was and is that his political beliefs were, shall we say, unfashionable. That is, he was extremely right-wing in the 1930s sense. This is mentioned in the Wikipedia and Guardians links.

That aside, his abilities as a portraitist were widely recognized in his day. Augustus John and Walter Sickert held his portraiture in high regard.

I consider Lewis' portrait style Art Deco because of (1) when they were done, (2) the simplification of forms towards a geometrical basis, and (3) the crisp, clean style of delineation. Lewis did not go nearly as far as did Lempicka in these respects, but the underlying spirit is consistent.

Below are some examples in drawn and painted form.


Portrait of the Artist As the Painter Raphael - 1921

T.S. Eliot

Froanna, the Artist's Wife - 1937

Rebecca West - 1932

Self-Portrait With Hat - 1932

For more images, here is a link to London's National Portrait Gallery collection of Lewis' works.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Molti Ritratti: Georgette Magritte

Rather than posting a usual Molti Ritratti where views of one sitter by many artists are displayed, I thought I might as well show several views of the same subject painted by a single artist. So today we feature Georgette Magritte, wife of Belgian Surrealist René (1898-1967) who used her as a model for many of his works. Salvador Dalí's wife Gala had the same gig, but Georgette is far less well known, so why not give her a break?

According the the Wikipedia link above, Magritte met Georgette when he was entering his teens and (other sources say) again in 1920, this leading to their 1922 marriage. Magritte had formal art training 1916-18 while the Great War raged and didn't do his army service until later. This was because his part of Belgium was occupied by the Germans in 1914 and remained under their control until the war ended.

Georgette was about two years younger than Magritte. Pretty and photogenic, she apparently didn't mind being her husband's model and muse. After Magritte took up Surrealism in the late 1920s (and perhaps even before), images based on Georgette's modeling were not always intended to be portraits. For example, one has her nude from the waist down and from the waist up is the front half of a fish.

Below are some photos of Georgette along with a few of Magritte's paintings that were either actual portraits or images using her as a model.


Georgette and René at the time of their marriage

Georgette - 1929
The photo is probably reversed; she should be looking to the left.

Georgette - c.1935-38
One source has this as from 1938, but 1935 photos show her in the same dress and hairdo.

Nu allongé - 1923

Drawing of Georgette - 1924

Georgette double portrait - 1935

La magie noir - 1935

Portrait of Georgette - 1937

Portrait of Georgette - early 1940s

Based on post-1930 photos of her, when Magritte's aim was to do an actual portrait of Georgette, he usually took care to accurately depict her.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Las Vegas Interiors, Mod and Trad

Once upon a time, the gambling center of the United States was Las Vegas. Alas for Vegas, there are now plenty of other places to find slot machines, gaming tables and such -- often in the form of casinos owned by Indian tribes. This means that Las Vegas has to offer more than gambling to survive.

Restaurants and live entertainment were in place long before serious competition for the gambling dollar emerged. To these were added fancy retailing (I've lost count of the number of Gucci shops in town) and flashy architecture and interiors in non-casino areas of major casino-hotels. Accepting it for what it is, Las Vegas can be an entertaining place to spend a week even though you don't gamble a cent.

Some properties feature themes such as pirates, desert oases, Italian palaces and more. A few are basically modernist, but jazz things up because that's what Vegas patrons have been trained to expect.

Let's take a peek at a few photos I shot recently:


Entrance to retail passage at the Bellagio
I love the Bellagio and walk this passage a lot because it leads to valet parking and skybridges for crossing streets to Caesars or the Paris. The shops? Lovely to gaze at, but well beyond my price-point.

Atrium at The Palazzo
This space, off the gambling floor, is surrounded by shops.

Shopping mall at Caesars Palace
There's a new atrium here, but this photo shows the older area, curved passages lined with shops and a fake-sky ceiling.

Palio coffee shop at the Bellagio
I grab a cuppa almost every morning that I find myself in the Bellagio. Prices are high, but the Siena atmosphere appeals even though I've never been in town when the horse races are held.

Bar in The Palazzo
As you noticed, The Palazzo is traditional. But this bar tucked at the side of the retail area is modernist, though in a decorated, non-purist way.

H&M store in the Caesars Palace shopping mall
This used to be a F.A.O. Schwarz toy store, but the Swedes selling inexpensive rags took over Schwarz's space in the older, passage-oriented part of the mall shown a few photos back. Up on the side wall is a DJ playing really loud rock music -- so loud I had to wait in the hall while my wife and daughter checked out the wares.

Crystals shopping mall at CityCenter
The huge, new CityCenter project is a collection of buildings designed by a bunch of well-known modernist architects. I consider it a failure in several ways, but will save that discussion for another post. Shown here is part of the interior of Crystals, the ritzy shopping area in the project. Like the Palazzo bar, modernism in its pure form had to be compromised in favor of increased detail to add visual interest to what otherwise would be a pretty dead space (imagine flat, white walls instead of the faceting seen here). Postmodern architecture often follows this same path of jazzing up purist forms without employing traditional decorative detailing.

Restaurant in Crystals
Another example of decorative postmodernism is this Crystals restaurant-bar. The use of wood and the enclosed feeling of the wooden elements make it more "organic" than geometric; I wonder if Mies van der Rohe would approve.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Noel Sickles: A Cartoonist Who Could Draw Really Well

The key words in the title of this post are "really well." All cartoonists by the nature of their game have to draw. Some (I won't mention names) can hardly tell which end of a pencil is pointy. But a few, by the time they hit their stride, were top-notch draftsmen who maintained a high level of quality despite a highly demanding deadline environment. Examples from the classic era of comic strips include Hal Foster ("Tarzan" "Prince Valiant"), Burne Hogarth ("Tarzan") and Alex Kotzky ("Apartment 3-G").

And there is another class of top-notch comic strip artist, cartoonists who were skilled enough to do commercial illustration at the "slick" magazine level. John Cullen Murphy ("Big Ben Bolt" "Prince Valiant"), Frank Godwin ("Connie" "Rusty Riley") and Alex Raymond ("Flash Gordon" "Jungle Jim" "Rip Kirby") did this to a limited extent, but remained in comic strips. Then there was Noel Sickles (1910-82) who switched completely from strips to slicks (and other publications).

The Wikipedia link above is limited, so if you want to pursue Sickles' career in depth, I recommend this book which contains his "Scorchy Smith" panels along with many examples of his post-Scorchy work.

So how well could Sickles draw? Take a look (click to enlarge most images):


Scorchy Smith panel out-take

Servicing AVG (or perhaps 14th Air Force) P-40, China

Colonial scene

Cold War scene

Life magazine cover

Comp sketch

Comp sketch

Oh, did I forget to mention that Sickles was versatile?