Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mabel Alvarez, Borderline Modernist

The fine portrait shown above is a 1923 self-depiction by Mabel Alvarez (1891-1985), aunt of Luis Walter Alvarez (1911-88), winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1968.

Her Wikipedia entry is here and another biographical sketch here.

She was born Hawaii when it was a kingdom, but moved to the mainland while young, spending most of her life in California. The biographical notes indicate that she was interested in spiritual matters and the color theories of Stanton Macdonald-Wright, the Synchromist painter I discussed here. Apparently she had an affinity with green for a number of years. Alvarez has also been associated with the California Impressionism school, though she did few or no landscape paintings. She is better classed with the Group of Eight, southern California artists who maintained an association from 1921 till 1928.

Alvarez was a modernist of sorts whose paintings made use of the modernist vocabulary to a sometimes greater -- but usually far lesser -- extent. As can be seen below, people portrayed in the paintings seem to be exclusively women.


The Italian Model - 1924

Dream of Youth - c.1925
Here Alvarez channels Symbolism.

The hair style suggests this was painted in the early 1940s.

Girl Seated in the Garden
I'm guessing this dates from around 1930.

Ladies with Parasols - 1958
A comparatively late painting showing Synchromist influence.

In the Garden - 1925
Aside from the self-portrait at the top, I find this to be the most appealing work.

Portrait of a Woman
Another hard to date painting, but probably from the 1940s.

Self-Portrait - 1945
She would have been about 53 and aging gracefully.

Alvarez is hard to pin down, for me anyway. Most of what I've found on the Internet is pleasing, though I prefer it when images have solidity rather than a flattened Impressionistic character.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Frantisek Kupka: Stylistic Gadfly

Just about any artist aspiring to become a professional faces the task of deciding what style or school to follow. This was particularly difficult for painters of the early 1900s who decided to commit to modernism in general, but faced a bewildering flurry of new schools and movements to choose from. So it was for Frantisek Kupka (1871-1957, Wikipedia entry here).

Kupka was born in Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and trained in art in Prague and Vienna before moving to Paris 1894 where his training concluded. He spent the rest of his long life in France. As it happened, his career-defining thirties decade largely coincided with the rise and, in many cases, decline of movements such as Fauvism, Blaue Reiter and Cubism. And in his early forties there was Futurism and the first abstract movements.

What to do?, he might well have asked himself. And his answer was to try as many movements as he could. Below are some examples of his work.


Admiration - c.1899
This might have been an illustration because Kupka worked as an illustrator while establishing himself as a painter.

Self-Portrait - 1905
Not a traditional portrait, yet not modernist either. More of an advanced sketch or study. His left arm seems oddly positioned.

Portrait of the Artist with His Wife - completed 1908
A better version can be found on the Internet, but its size in kilobytes is too great to justify. I tried to adjust the colors from a smaller version, but they aren't right. In any case, this paintings seems stylistically a little older than 1908. Compare to the other 1908 painting below.

Lipstick - 1908
Now Kupka is into a mild form of expressionism. A watercolor from the same year, Profil de gigolette, looks even more like something Kees van Dongen might have painted.

Ruban Bleu - 1910
The colors are Fauvist, but the underlying drawing is still representational.

Mme. Kupka Among Verticals - 1911
Pure abstraction began appearing at this time. So Kupka has now almost caught up with the leaders of the avant-garde pack. Except he puts a representation of his wife in the upper-center.

Disks of Newton - 1912
This is in the Orphist/Synchromist mode of abstraction that burst forth around 1912.

Vertical and Diagonal Panes - c.1913
Another early abstraction, but using a different geometrical basis.

The Machine Drill - 1929
Charles Sheeler was starting to create industry-inspired images at about the same time. This Kupka painting indicates movement, so it also can be interpreted as a dying ember of Futurism.

Blowing Blues II - 1936
Kupka painted a number of paintings showing this sort of swirling, curving abstract design from around 1914 until much later in his career. Detours such as "The Machine Drill" seem to have been rare, so far as a Google searches indicate.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Macdonald-Wright's Takedown of 1930s WPA Art

The New Deal era WPA art project and similar government-sponsored employment schemes for artists long ago became something of a sacred matter for many art historians and art followers in general. A number of artists who had reputations at the time or later gained fame participated in the projects. Examples include Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning, Marsden Hartley and Jackson Pollock (a link to names is here). Many of these projects involved murals on walls of public buildings; an example is shown in the image above (by Jacob Elshin, University Station post office, Seattle - 1939).

Like most other government spending programs of the Great Depression, the arts programs were criticized at the time as wasteful uses of taxpayer money. But that criticism melted away once World War 2 started and the arts programs began to be terminated.

Since I call this blog "Art Contrarian" I thought I might as well present a strongly contrarian view of the art programs that I recently stumbled across. It's a view by an insider who had responsibility for projects in southern California.

That insider was Stanton Macdonald-Wright (1890-1973) who was one of the first painters to paint in a purely abstract manner. I recently posted about him here. Information about and views of one of Macdonald-Wright's own murals can be found here.

Macdonald-Wright has his say in an oral history interview: the link is
here. You might not agree with his point of view, but he has a strong one and it's pretty entertaining, given the usual solemnity when the subject of art is introduced. I need to add that quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Stanton Macdonald-Wright, 1964 Apr. 13-Sept. 16, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. The SM in the transcript is Macdonald-Wright and BH is Betty Lochrie Hogue, the interviewer. Extracts follow, but note the final exchange:

* * * * *

BH: Do you think that this Project did any good for painting in California at the time?

SM: I think it set back art all over the United States a hundred and fifty years.

BH: You do, really?

SM: I do! I think it was absolutely the worst thing that could possibly have happened.

BH: Why?

SM: Because they got five thousand and one hundred useless, untalented people in the place who went in saying they were artists, and nobody cared because what they wanted to do was to give money away. They had over 5,000 people, and when the Project ended in -- what was it, 1940? I guess it was about 1940 more or less, those people kept right on painting. And vast numbers of those people that you see exhibiting in galleries now are the same people. That's what's the matter with art....

There were competent artists, as I say, in this thing. I had some extremely competent artists here. This Feitelson was one of them, for instance. He's one of the finest draftsmen we have in the country. And the man who was the head of the mosaic department, Albert King, is more than competent. We had very competent men as far as that's concerned. And I immediately made them heads of departments so as to give them a little time to do some of their own work, something of that kind. But the general run of those people would have been better off if they'd starved to death as far as art is concerned. Eddie Cahill, who was the National Director at that time, said to me years afterward . . . . I happened to be back in New York, I think it was in 1955 when I was on my to Paris. I was having dinner with him, and he said, "Well, Stanton, now that this is all over, and it's all over for a long time, fifteen years, what is your real opinion of the Project?" Of course, he was a man who was dedicated to it, he was a sociologically-inclined baby, he was an institutional slave by temperament, a very sweet fellow. I said, "Eddie (his name was Holger but we all called him Eddie), I think it set art back a hundred years." He never spoke to me after that. I never came in contact with him again.

BH: Well a lot of people were actually eating who might not have been at the time . . . .

SM: Well I don't know of anybody who was eating that wouldn't have been that should have been eating at all. I think they would have been much better off and so would the world had they not eaten. I haven't much of the sociologist in me and my heart doesn't bleed very easily for those people. If you had been around there you would have realized what I mean by it. They spent most of their time complaining bitterly because we hadn't gone directly in with Russia . . . .

BH: Oh really!

SM: Most of them were what we would call (due to the law which they passed that nobody can call a person by their name) at that time Communists. They spent most of their time trying to get everybody that wasn't a Communist out of the place and to fill it up with Communists. And from what I hear, and this is not an opinion of mine but, from what I've heard from the National Director, most of the New York Project was made up of those babies. And that doesn't only go for New York but practically every other city, except this one out here. And I had my hands full to keep those people from taking over the whole work. Two or three of them even got to the point where they painted murals and sneaked in a picture of a hammer and sickle here and there on them.

BH: For heavens sake!

SM: And I had people watching those things all the time and I had a brigade of whitewashers there that would go right out and wipe that mural off the wall or cover it up with something. I had to do that how many times. Because at that time the public wasn't as thoroughly inured and used to and indifferent to those Communistic pastimes as it is now. They would welcome it now probably.

.... [W]hen I closed the door on that Project, as far as I was concerned I washed my hands not only of the dirt of Government indoctrination but also of the dirt of most of the pictures that were painted in it.

BH: Well, the fact that the Federal Arts Project gave such an impetus to him [Donald Hord] makes me think of something that you said in this little booklet which you loaned us and which I had microfilmed the other day. It is such an expressive statement. I'd like to read this one sentence you wrote. It is from an address that Mr. Wright made over the radio in Santa Barbara in October of 1941, on the occasion of opening a new gallery under Donald Hord's directorship. You said, "Let us also remove our criticism from out the ages of a spurious and grandeloquent jingoism. Let us recognize that our own consciousness of youthful vigor encouraged by the Federal Arts Project, has without the shadow of a doubt, raised the average standard of American painting. But let us not confuse topics with technique, and let us take a slightly longer time-view of our qualities than have been recently found in the writings of our critical tycoons." I thought it was very good that you made that remark. I presume you were referring to our consciousness of regionalism and having to stand on our own feet in painting coming out of the Project?

SM: Mrs. Hoag, I was working for the government at the time. I'm always loyal to the person I work for.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

George Hendrik Breitner: Have Camera, Will Paint

George Hendrik Breitner (1857-1923) was a Dutch naturalistic painter. He was a friend of Vincent van Gogh in the days when they were painting quotidian scenes, but did not like van Gogh's later work.

A lengthy Wikipedia entry on Breitner is here and he also is dealt with in this book published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

Breitner is not a household name outside the Netherlands even though he was skilled at both painting and photography. Examples of his work in both fields are shown below.


Gezicht op de Dam te Amsterdam - c.1894

Gezicht op Keizesgracht hoek Reguliersgracht - c.1895


The Earring - 1896

Red Kimono

Photo reference for Red Kimono

Oudezijds Achterburgwal, Amsterdam

Monday, May 21, 2012

Colin Campbell Cooper: Skyscraper Impressionist

I suppose when the word "Impressionism" comes up, most people think of country scenes painted in bright colors using many small, distinct brushstrokes. In fact, not all the original group of French Impressionists painted that way. And those that used those bright colors and distinct brushstrokes didn't always reserve that approach for rural or village views. One of Claude Monet's famous series of paintings dealt with the Rouen Cathedral. Paris boulevards and even railroad stations also served as subject matter for French Impressionists.

When some American artists caught on to Impressionism, they too were willing to use city scenes as inspiration. Perhaps best known are views of New York City parades commemorating victory in the Great War painted by Childe Hassam.

As less-known Impressionist who built a reputation via urban scenes was Colin Campbell Cooper (1856-1937). Wikipedia has a large, useful entry on him here and here is a link to a book dealing with him and his work.

Cooper's career didn't move into high gear until he was nearing age 50 and began using Philadelphia (his home town), New York City (where he lived for many years before finally relocating to Santa Barbara, California) and even Rochester, New York (his wife's home town) as subjects. Apparently that delay was no serious problem because both Cooper and his wife seem to have had sources of income that allowed them to travel extensively and not be utterly dependent on sales of their paintings.

Below are images of some of Cooper's works. Like many American Impressionists, Cooper's paintings relied on stronger drawing and more structural use of light and shade than did some of the French Impressionists. He was also quite capable of paining in a more traditional style, as the image of his wife indicates.


Emma Lambert Cooper - c.1897
The artist's wife, who also was an artist.

Broad Street Canyon, New York - 1904
One of his earlier cityscapes.

The Financial District - c.1908
Essentially the same view as that of the painting above, but probably painted later.

Taj Mahal, Afternoon - c.1913
Not many European or American artists traveled to India a hundred years ago, so Cooper's painting of the Taj Mahal evoked considerable interest when it was first displayed.

Palace Gate, Udaipur, India - 1914
Another scene from the Coopers' India visit.

Palace of the Fine Arts, San Francisco - c.1915
Cooper traveled to California a number of times before moving there following the death of his wife in 1920. Bernard Maybeck's Palace of the Fine Arts was built for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 and is still standing.

Hudson River Waterfront - c.1921
The height of the Woolworth and Singer buildings strike me as being exaggerated.

A Santa Barbara Courtyard - c.1925
Santa Barbara has no skycrapers, but Cooper was happy to paint what he saw there. His California works of this period permitted him to be grouped with other artists active in the state at the time who are known as California Impressionists.

Two Women - c.1917-18
From time to time Cooper would take a break from buildings and portray pretty women.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Crowing Proclaimed, no Crow Eaten

The tiny image above is the largest I could find showing the American Artist magazine cover for its June 2012 issue.

The image is of a study or uncompleted painting in the Joaquin Sorolla museum in Madrid. I stumbled across it while visiting in October 2010, photographed it, and included photos such as the one below in this post.

I took the photo because it was the only example I knew of showing his way of blocking in his subject material.

That post was linked by Charley Parker's Lines and Colors blog, leading to a significant rise in readership here.

So far as I'm aware [pats self on back], my image was the first of Sorolla's painting to appear on the Internet.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Blogger Visits Art School Open House

Actually, the Open House involved many of the departments at the University of Washington, but I went because (1) I could visit the University's Henry Art Gallery for free, and (2) there were supposed to be some interesting activities at the School of Art where I did my undergraduate work.

Let's look at some photos I took to set the scene, and then I'll do some follow-up commentary.

This is part of a timeline display in the Henry Gallery. I'm probably being delusional, but somehow the selection of events strikes me as having a political bias.

The founding collection of the Henry Gallery contains some noteworthy late 19th century paintings including a Bouguereau. Here, alone in a room, is the only item of traditional art I could find on display.

Two of several examples of Installation Art on view that day. The people at the far right of the lower photo are real, by the way.

These are student drawings for Art 190, the introductory drawing course. I was told that not all those taking 190 are art majors. Nevertheless, these are part of a hallway display that apparently serves to demonstrate what the students are up to. The items shown here are typical of the quality of the entire display. Note that perspective is poorly done and that ellipses are also incorrect. Why didn't the instructor actually teach the students how to do these basic tasks?

Another hall display, this probably from a life drawing class where the students must have been asked to draw with expression but not violate the model's proportions. The results are better.

An event at the School of Art that I wanted to attend was a set of lectures by Art History majors. Unfortunately, I was about to leave for Florida and didn't have the time. Here is a list of the lecture topics taken from a handout:

"Constructing a Colonial Identity: Eighteenth Century Paintings of Indigenous Families in New Spain"

"Magic and the Miracle - Working Image: The Interplay of Art and the Supernatural in Fifteenth Century Italy"

"Enduring Disassociation: Mixed Racial Identities and Historical Interpretations"

"Modernity and Artistic License: Neo-Victorianism as Other"

"Classicizing Proximity: The African in Seventeenth-century Rome"

Okay, let's unpack those lecture titles that with one exception are likely related to Masters theses and PhD dissertations of the presenters. Race/ethnicity? Three of the five seem to deal with that, an obsession of a certain line of politics common to most colleges and univerities.

The title mentioning "the Supernatural" is harder to puzzle out. Could it have to do with religion? That would make sense where Italy in the 1400s is concerned. I can't think of many (any?) paintings featuring ghosts from that era, but I'm no expert and could easily be wrong.

Wikipedia indicates that the term "Neo-Victorianism" has to do with a number of things including people doing dress-up in 1880s clothing and the Steampunk literary genre. The term "Other" has been used to refer to racial/ethnic/subcultural groups that are ignored by the mainstream, yet pose some kind of ominous threat or other to it. Well, that's my superficial impression. So where do Modernity, Artistic License and a possibly sinister Neo-Victorianism intersect? Beats me, so I'm sorry I couldn't get to that lecture.

What strikes me is that none of the titles suggests serious study of the history of art. I'll accept that MA theses aren't expected to be much more than dry runs for further scholarly exercises. But every subject listed above (the last two by PhD students) is trivial and to my mind greatly off-topic if the topic is art history. Where current academicians see scholarship, I find strong evidence of politically induced intellectual rot. If I were running the university I would fire the Art History faculty to ensure that no other students waste precious years of their lives on the study of the irrelevant.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Illustration Features Coby

The illustration above (click to enlarge) is by Coby Whitmore (1913-88) whose career flourished in the years before television began killing off the big general-interest magazines.

Whitmore could be classed as one of the "big head" school of illustration, where backgrounds disappeared and the focus was on a gorgeous women who sometimes had a handsome man in the scene as a supporting cast member. And there might be a few stage setting details such as an end table, doorway or chair sketched in. That "big head" phrase was derision from a slightly earlier generation of illustrators who included detailed backgrounds in their work, the implication being that the new breed was lazy.

Me? I think Whitmore's work is terrific.

And if you are a Whitmore fan or are curious about my enthusiasm, grab a copy of issue number 37 of Illustration Magazine. It contains a long, well-illustrated article on Whitmore that features many quotations from the artist. Such quotes are rare in Illustration because in many cases their subjects died many years earlier and left little trace other than fading pictures in crumbling magazines.

Be warned that Illustration can be hard to find on news stands (try Barnes & Noble bookstores first) and the publisher often sells off his on-line order supply fairly fast. I got to the point where I subscribed to the magazine to ensure that I could get a copy.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Gem of an Automobile Museum

Automobile museums are all different, yet in many ways similar -- especially the Important Museums. By that I mean car museums with large collections here in America seem obliged at have at least one Duesenberg, one Cord, a Ford Model T, an early 1900s antique of some description, a Packard from any era plus at least one car from the 1930s with either a V-12 or V-16 motor.

So it was with surprise and pleasure that I recently visited the Tampa Bay Automobile Museum, a gem filled with cars seldom seen here in the United States. Moreover, the collection is built around a theme: most car museums strike me as being filled with whatever nice-to-have vehicles that pop up on the market, creating a sort of random effect.

The Tampa Bay museum's collection core is built around two poles. One is cars with engines in the rear, the other is cars with front-wheel drive. Oh, and those cars had to be from the era 1920-1950. Because most cars with those characteristics were built in Europe in those days, I saw many cars that I've never encountered in person before. (Sadly, I've never visited European Automobile museums; one does have to make travel compromises with one's spouse, after all.)

Let's take a look at some photos from my visit:


Ruxton - 1929
Ruxton was an American front-wheel-drive car that reached the market when the Great Depression hit; only a few hundred were made. The four-tone paint scheme was designed by Joseph Urban who also created a similar scheme based on blue.

Tracta E - 1930
Another low-production fwd car, this by Jean-Albert Gregoire (1898-1992) of France, father of numerous automobile engineering innovations. I confess not to have heard of the brand before.

Aero - 1937
Another brand previously unknown to me. This fwd car was built in Czechoslovakia.

Tatra T87 - c.1942
The Czech Tatra firm built several series of rear-engined cars from the mid 1930 to the late 1970s. The one shown here is to me the archetypical version.

Tatra T97 - 1938

Tatra Tatraplan - late 1940s

Voisin C7 - 1927
The power train layout is the traditional front-motor-rear-drive. I include it because it's a Voisin and it's body is constructed of wood and doped fabric of the Weymann type.

Panhard Dynamic - 1938
Some (many?) French cars are rather ugly, and this Panhard is near the top of the list. The drive train is conventional. But note the covered wheels and three-piece wraparound windshield. And if you look closely, you'll find that the steering wheel is mounted at the middle of the dashboard -- neither right nor left. In the 1930s, luxury French cars had right-hand steering while mass-market cars mounted the steering wheel on the left. Traffic in France followed the German and American pattern, so expensive French cars were better suited for driving in Britain or Czechoslovakia. Apparently Panhard wanted to split the difference.