Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Viewing Nicolai Fechin

For those of you who can get to Seattle by 19 May, consider visiting the Frye Museum which has an exhibit of paintings and drawings by Nicolai Fechin (1881-1955).

Fechin's Wikipedia entry is here and I wrote about his Taos, New Mexico house and studio here. But if you have time to go to only one link, go here to Matthew Innis' blog for biographical information plus details concerning Fechin's palette and technique (the latter Innis regards with horror).

Fechin's basic style changed little from the time he completed his training, though individual works fell within a range of "painterlyness" (I made that word up, I think) from kinda finished to pretty sloppy, the more finished examples being commissioned portraits. While I can't say that I love Fechin's paintings, I find them interesting and instructive.

The archetypical Fechin painting featuring a human subject follows a formula. Skin, especially the female face, is depicted smoothly; Innis states that Fechin would wet his fingers with his tongue and finger-paint the smoothness. Subjects' hands were more likely to be done in a sketchy manner, while nude bodies fell somewhere between. Backgrounds are typically highly sketchy and painterly to the point that they often seem like the New York school of Abstract Expressionist art from the 1950s. Sometimes recognizable objects appear, other times not. Being somewhat lazy myself, I wonder if Fechin adopted this kind of background treatment to avoid having to get bogged down painting details.

The exhibit at the Frye was an excellent opportunity to examine a large number of Fechin paintings and draw some conclusions of my own. Below are a few examples of Fechin's work to set the scene; the lower two were on display.


Konstantin Mihailovich Lepilov, artist - 1909

Portrait of My Father - 1912

Eya in Peasant Blouse - 1933

The upper two paintings are of men, so the faces are not smooth, in contrast to the lower portrait of Fechin's daughter. In many of his works, Fechin's application of paint ranges from thin to thick. In the portrait of his father, you can see thinly painted sketch lines and washes supplemented by built-up areas for the background and flesh. The Lepilov portrait is also fairly early and follows the same pattern, Eya's portrait was made more than 20 years after his father's, and is more typical,

Images of Fechin's paintings fail to convey the actual appearance more than in most cases because his work usually contains passages of heavy impasto than can be hard to discern. In the case of Eya, if you click on the image to enlarge, you might be able to notice extremes of thick and thin paint in the lower right quadrant of the painting. In some cases, Fechin painted thickly with a brush, and at other times, use of a palette knife is evident. Innis says that he would apply with a brush first and then swipe with the knife at an angle to the brushstroke.

Innis also asserts that Fechin's techiques resulted in his paintings being in bad shape even before they were finished. Whereas I do not doubt that, nearly all the works I saw at the Frye seemed to be in good condition. Given Fechin's use of both washes and impasto on completed paintings, such works would probably be a nightmare to restore, so I contend that many have aged well.

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Fine Noel Sickles Illustration

Above is a slightly cropped image of a Noel Sickles (1910-1982) illustration intended for a Life magazine article during World War 2. Sickles was a hugely talented, largely self-taught draftsman who worked in the Associated Press bullpen, then drew the Scorchy Smith comic strip for three years before becoming a successful illustrator. His Wikipedia entry is here. Leif Peng discusses his military art here. David Apatoff comments on Sickles' drawing ability here. And here is one of my takes on Sickles.

The illustration at the top of this post was not used. What Life did publish is here:

I prefer the rejected image as an example of extremely well made illustration. The Life illustration might have been selected because it was a better teaching tool for soldiers encountering armor.

I like the unused illustration for several reasons. Perhaps its best attribute beyond Sickle's accuracy in depicting soldiers and the German Pkw IV is the economy of detail. For example, the tank is not so much a collection of lines as it is a study in darks, middle values and (comparative) lights. The American soldiers are also rendered in a sketchy, slightly impressionistic manner. Folds of the uniforms are highly simplified, yet convey the shapes of the individuals. Helmets are accurately shaped by line and shadow. This is important because many illustrators and painters seem unable to depict helmets convincingly (I'm thinking of you, Sir William Orpen!).

The soldier's poses are also convincingly shown. My one gripe is that, probably for reasons of pictorial composition, Sickles grouped the BAR gunner, Tommy gunner and Lieutenant with the carbine on his back too closely together for a real combat situation. A short machine gun burst or a single mortar shell could wipe out all three along with the rifleman to the right.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Bok's Singing Tower

It's a ways from the nearest freeway, but you can get there by mostly four-lane roads. So as far as I'm concerned, you have no excuse to miss it if you're anywhere near Orlando, Florida with its Disney World and other tourist attractions.

The "it" I refer to is the Bok Tower Gardens site just northeast of the town of Lake Wales. It interested me from the time I was in elementary school and saw it depicted in one of those cartoon maps featuring sights to see across the United States. But I never managed to visit it until recently.

The tower and its surrounding gardens were the creation of Edward W. Bok (October 9, 1863 – January 9, 1930) who died about a year after the site was dedicated. A short biographical item is here. Briefly, Bok was born in the Netherlands, but emigrated to the United States as a child. He married into the Curtis publishing family and was editor of the Ladies Home Journal magazine for decades. His grandson, Derek Bok, was president of Harvard University.

As this Wikipedia entry indicates, the tower and gardens project was begun in 1921 and dedicated February 1, 1929. Its site is atop one of the highest hills in nearly-flat peninsular Florida.

Landscaping was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. of the famous family perhaps best known for New York City's Central Park. The tower's architect was Milton B. Medary, who is little known today. Integral sculpting is by Lee Lawrie, a prolific sculptor active in the first half of the twentieth century whose best-known works include the Atlas in New York City's Rockefeller Center. Ironwork and the tower door were by Samuel Yellin.

I think the tower is an excellent example of a high point in American architectural form and detailing, where gothic-inspired skyscraper shaping was combined with a non-traditional ornamentation style that was called Moderne and now called Art Deco.

Below are some photos I took during my visit.


Visitor Center courtyard
Note the exposed undersides of the roof tiles.

Display of construction photos

Looking up

General view

Top details by Lee Lawrie

Wrought iron gate by Samuel Yellin

Note the inscription below. It mentions that President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the tower and gardens.

Lower level sculpting by Lee Lawrie

Arty views of the tower entrance
The white flowers and stone in front of the door mark Bok's grave.

Entry door by Samuel Yellin

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Bland Art of Fairfield Porter

I wrote a post called "The Bland Art of Giorgio Morandi. In that post, I blamed my assessment on the fact that I'm just not much into subtlety.

So along with Morandi, I'll toss in another painter whose work doesn't meet my need for flash and dash: Fairfield Porter (1907-1975). Porter's Wikipedia entry is here, and more information here.

On the other hand, some people I respect are Porter fans. Among them are The Wall Street Journal's theater critic Terry Teachout (see here, for instance) as well as my former 2Blowhards blogging colleagues (here).

Here are examples of Porter's work:


Jane and Elizabeth

Porter painting ... the scene above?

Wheat - 1960

Broadway South of Union Square - 1974-75

Girl in a Landscape - 1965

A Day Indoors - 1962

Nothing wrong with Porter's work, mind you. It's just the eye of this particular beholder.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Virgil Finlay's Scratch and Stipple Illustrations

Let's face it. Despite the rehabilitation of pulp magazine illustration of roughly 1930-1955, much of it wasn't very good. In some cases, the artists were simply mediocre. In other instances, they were good, but still young and trying to get their careers launched; some were able to eventually make the jump to the prestigious and better paying "slick" magazines.

One of the very good ones who never really made the illustration Big Time was Virgil Finlay (1914-1971), who is best known for his science fiction illustration. He also did illustrations for a third-tier magazine and later in life kept his career going by providing illustrations for astrology magazines.

The jist of this can be found here in his Wikipedia entry. But a more useful source about his career and, as important, his unusual technique, is here.

It seems that Finlay was a scratchboard artist who supplemented normal scratchboard techniques with stippling (application of tiny dots of ink). The second link above provides a useful discussion of this.

Below are examples of his work. As you can see, Finlay apparently really liked to draw beautiful women, and he did this very well. Click on the images to enlarge.

Friday, February 15, 2013

James Rosenquist on Art

The painting is "I Love You with My Ford" (1961) by James Rosenquist (b. 1933), who is usually labeled a Pop Artist, even though he insists that the term is misleading and, in any case, does not apply to him.

I confess that my knowledge of the personal lives of modernist artists active after the 1930s is rather thin, because I don't like most of their work. So I was surprised to learn (even though the rest of the world knew it) that Rosenquist gained much of his early experience as a painter doing billboards in New York City. Which is why his paintings are large as well; he knew how to do it.

A biographical sketch on Wikipedia is here and a chronology on Rosenquist's own Web site is here. A few years ago, Rosenquist and a collaborator wrote this rather interesting autobiography. It contains a few observations about art I'd like to pass along.

* * * * *
[About instructors at the Art Students League in the mid-1950s] That kind of teacher isn't around any more, there's nobody even near that caliber. All the people I studied with were true artists of the old school who had mastered composition and fine art. [page 34]

Billboard painting was really like an old master's school of painting. These people were journeyman artists, in a tradition that went back to the painters' guilds of the Middle Ages. The nearest thing to it would be for a kid to be mixing colors in an ink manufacturing plant. You would get to know color pretty well doing that. Of course there are still the scenic artists who work on Broadway shows. That's quite a complicated business because they use water-based paints that dry darker and differently than when you are working with them wet. They have to use water paint so it won't catch on fire so easily. That would be the nearest thing to getting an education painting billboards. [page 49]

[His thinking circa 1960] I wanted to do something totally different from anything being done by everyone around me. All the artists I knew had been taught to use paint expressively, to splash paint on a big canvas, look at the big blob you'd created and to have it suggest something back to you. It seemed to me too simple to put a mark on the canvas and have that be it. Once you've put that mark on the canvas you have the responsibility of cleaning up the mess, of making something unexpected out of it because you started out with a white canvas that was beautiful to begin with.

My question was, what do you do with that mark? There's a difference between trying to achieve a predetermined idea and letting your random action dictate what it may or may not suggest. Now, I like the first first idea better for many, many reasons. If you tackle a huge canvas, unless your idea is planned out, as in mural painting, everything can, may--and usually does--go awry. [page 78]

* * * * *

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Claude Buckle's Railway Posters

Claude Henry Buckle (1905–1973) trained in architecture, spent a number of years creating travel poster art for British railway companies, and in his final years became a skilled water color painter. Biographical information is here.

Thanks to his work as an architectural delineator, Buckle was able to paint convincing scenes of towns, cities and noted structures. Below are examples of posters containing his illustrations. Several scenes are familiar, whetting my desire to head for England and Wales to visit the rest.


Monday, February 11, 2013

Multi Ritratti: Lady Hamilton

Lady Emma Hamilton (1765-1815) came from humble origins but, thanks to her beauty, soon entranced men of status and power including most notably Lord Nelson, England's greatest fighting admiral. Her life is reported in considerable detail here.

Among those struck by her looks was the painter George Romney who produced a large number of portraits of her striking various poses, usually of classical or literary characters. These are the best-known images of her.

She was painted by other artists, the most competent being Élisabeth Vigée-LeBrun. An excerpt from Vigée-LeBrun's memoirs dealing with Lady Hamilton is here.


The paintings above are by Romney.

These last three are by Vigée-LeBrun.