Thursday, June 24, 2010

Kees: From Anarchism to High Society

Some paintings by Kees van Dongen (1877-1968, Wikipedia entry here) have been selling at auction for prices north of three million dollars in recent years. Not shabby for an artist not particularly well known, a man whose role in the modernist explosion of 1900-10 is generally given secondary mention by art historians.

Van Dongen was born near Rotterdam, moved to Paris as a young man and spent most of the rest of his life either there or on the Riviera. During his early Paris years he mostly did illustrations for anarchist and other publications, but then returned to painting as part of the Fauve movement. It also was at this time that he had a small studio in the same Bateau-Lavoir building as Picasso.

Instead of focusing on still lifes and landscapes (think Cézanne), van Dongen mostly painted people. Some of his earliest Fauve subjects were his wife Guus and Picasso's girlfriend Fernande Olivier. Within a few years he reached the point where his work was colorful and notorious enough (a painting of his wife, nearly nude, containing until-then-seldom-pictured details was ousted from an exhibit by the police) that he began his transition to being a society painter. An early titled subject was the even more outrageous Marchesa Luisa Casati, with whom he probably had an affair.

As his earnings increased, van Dongen moved to progressively larger studios and began hosting large parties for artists and the bohemian-inclined sector of the moneyed set. This effort was aided by his fashion industry mistress Jasmy Jacob who later dumped him to marry a general.

The Great Depression and age eventually took their toll on van Dongen's productivity, though he continued to paint up to within a few years of his death at age 91.

His career was briefly stalled in the mid-1940s thanks to a sponsored 1941 cultural visit to Germany in the company of other artists including André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. After its 1940 defeat, much of France was under German occupation, the Germans were doing well militarily, and the likelihood of liberation was small. Given those circumstances, a decision to let life go on and accommodate oneself to reality is understandable; most French did pretty much something similar at the time.

Here are examples of van Dongen's work:

This photo of his studio shows van Dongen's typical working setup -- the subject on a platform and a not-much-smaller than life-size canvas in place.

Woman in Black Hat - ca. 1908

Portrait of his wife Guus, 1910

Women at the Balustrade - 1911

Mme Claudine - 1913

Le coquelicot - ca. 1919
This is perhaps the most famous and popular van Dongen painting.

Jasmy Jacob

Woman in green dress - 1920s

Venise no. II, le manteau de cygne - ca. late 1920s

La comtesse de Noailles - 1931
Van Dongen painted this portrait about two years before her death. The painting underlines the saying that van Dongen painted women thinner than they actually were with jewelry larger than in reality. Compare this to the photo below of Anna taken a few years earlier.
Noailles was a trim beauty when younger, and van Dongen's portrait evokes that period of her life.

Brigitte Bardot - 1964
Van Dongen always favored beautiful women. A few years before he died he grabbed his paints and brushes to create this tribute a fellow Riviera dweller.

Kees van Dongen was a somewhat cynical cuss, but with a sense of humor. And his paintings of women (unlike his "socially conscious" illustration work) were almost always colorful and not critical of the subject. Even though I'm no fan of a lot of modernist painting, I make an exception for van Dongen's. Yes, they're modernist, but they're fun to view -- not the usual trying-to-prove-a-point modernism we encounter all too often.

Can van Dongen be considered a great artist? I don't think so. He was an enjoyable artist, and I find nothing wrong with that.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Dali on the Geography of Great Painting

Great painters don't pop up just any old place, or so claimed Salvador Dalí.

I came across this while reading his book 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship, a mix of his ink drawings, some bits of thoughtful advice and quite a lot of image-maintaining Dalíblather.

Here are some extracts from pages 62 and 63:

The ideal prison for the delicate eye of the painter is therefore vegitation, and the best of all vegitations is that of the olive tree, and consequently also that of myrtles...

You must understand now that since the light of the olive trees has the equivalent of certain screened lights of the Ile de France or of Flanders it is exceptionally conducive to educating and refining your retina. On the other hand, nothing in the world can be more harmful to the education of your young eye of sixteen -- this is the moment when you must already have decided your vocation as a painter -- than the frequent sight of colors that are too vivid or absolute. ...

[footnote:] The worst enemy, for your eye of a painter who respects himself, is exotic and tropical flora, which besides is absolutely and radically antipictorial. The chromatic hyperchloridity of a Gauguin should suffice to cure the acidity of any young painter for the rest of his life. For that matter, the idea of a good painter coming from the tropics would be as absurd and ludicrous as that of that of a good Swedish painter.

[following footnote:] The Russians, with the whole vast expanse of their territory and their eminently artistic temperament (consider their writers and their musicians) have in spite of this never had a single great painter. They don't have one today and never can have one, and the explanation of this astonishing phenomenon is, besides many other more subtle ones, the snow. No snow country has ever produced good painters, for snow is the greatest and most harmful enemy of the retina.... The white of snow is simply blinding, and it is for this reason that the colors of their painters are violet-hued, congested by anilin acids, and poisonous to the eye as well as to the spirit. This is why the Russian painter is the worst colorist of all.

This is a case where Dalí sounds fairly serious. Can he be right? Well, I can think of some Scandinavians and Russians who painted pictures I liked; Edelfelt, Zorn, Gallen-Kallela, Serov and Levitan are names that quickly come to mind. And as far as I'm concerned, their ability as colorists is no less than Dalí's.

On the other hand, I can't think of many important painters who originated in the tropics. Pissarro might be an example, though he moved to France at age 12. Others might be the Mexican muralist school exemplified by Rivera -- whose work I'm not generally fond of.

I suppose Dalí's little game makes whatever sense it might if one feels that color is the most important factor in good painting, more so than composition or draftsmanship, for instance.

Then there's the larger issue of whether or not some parts of the world produce better artists and art then others. But it's a huge subject where conclusions usually boil down to the biases of whoever is making the analysis. When Dalí wrote what was excerpted above, it was just after the end of World War 2 when the center of gravity of the Western art world was still shifting from Paris (where Dalí had made his reputation) to New York. So Dalí's view is Paris-centric. And I wouldn't be surprised if he made the claim that the best of the Scandinavian, Russian, etc. artists had some part of their training in Paris. Which is largely true, because it seldom hurts to be trained by the best if you want to eventually joint the ranks of the best.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Delibes is Da Best (Sort of)

I almost never go to ballet. Fundamentally, it's pantomime set to music, and I have little use for pantomime (though yes, I played charades a few times when I was young).

But there is something I do like about ballet: the music. One of my favorite ballets music-wise is Coppélia by Léo Delibes. I'm especially fond of the mazurka from the first act.

My wife wanted to see Coppélia, so we went last Sunday even though I was worried about going. Why was I worried? I was afraid that viewing the dancing might interfere with future enjoyment of the music that heretofore had no images associated with it. I worried that the next time I heard Coppélia, I'd conjure up my memory of the dancing and scenery and that would dilute the music's impact.

In any case I was committed. We went, we sat through it. We returned home. The house is disrupted due to painting, so I haven't located and played my Coppélia CD, but my guess is that I'm not likely to get much image pollution thanks in part to the ballet's length.

The production was one created by the Pacific Northwest Ballet featuring the choreography of George Balanchine. So it could be expected to be a good version of Coppélia, and probably was. (I have no background for judging which ballet productions are excellent as opposed to being just average. Same goes for opera.)

My reactions?

I liked the first act which takes place in a town square in Galicia, the part of Poland ruled by Austria-Hungary. It has most of the best music. That compensated for a fair amount of activity that didn't advance the plot (such as it was). The second act, set in the digs of toymaker Coppélius, was just okay. The third act, a town festival, was a dud so far as I was concerned. It was essentially a string of set-piece dances that were probably fine for ballet fans, but lacked any plot advancement to hold my interest.

The fault, if I can call it that, lies in the "book" of the ballet that allowed the third act to be what it was. Delibes' music for the act wasn't all that great either -- nothing like the great stuff in the first act.

Given that I'm way, way out of my league when it comes to ballet, take my comments with as much salt as you can find.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Taurus Style: Alignment and Surfaces

And just what is that dinky side crease doing on that 2010 Ford Taurus pictured below?

2010 Ford Taurus

It's that little horizontal dash along the side above and to the right of the rear wheel well. It's actually a time-honored automobile styling element: the interrupted line. The concept is to have a line continuing across a surface of a car to provide visual continuity and, usually, the optical effects of lengthening and/or lowering the appearance of the vehicle.

What is usually avoided are out-of-alignment lines. These tend to kill any attempt to lengthen or lower the appearance and usually make the design seem somewhat incoherent.

First, Let me add two more views so that we have a better sense of the styling before I deal with what's wrong with the interrupted line along the side of the new Taurus.

Side view

Three-quarter rear view

The side view shows the continuation of the interrupted line more clearly. It begins at a tiny, current-styling-cliche vent to the upper-right of the front wheel well and ends a few inches from the tail light housing. The interruption is caused by a subtle body side flare related to the raised rear wheel well surrounds. Had the flare been steeper and narrower, the line would not have been interrupted.

The problem? The rear continuation is too short to be read as the extension of the main line. Solution? One solution would be to alter that shaping of the wheel well flare so that the leading segment of the line would end two or three inches farther back and the continuation would start a similar distance farther forward. Another would be to leave the flare alone and extend the continuation line to the tail light. But that would not align with the tail light housing which, in turn, would need modification to create the alignment.

What the Taurus now has is this small, seemingly isolated crease that simply clutters the appearance of the car.

Now look at the rear 3/4 view. Here, aside from convex-concave elements along the lower part of the bumper panel that extend around to the sides, there is no continuation with side styling elements. Such continuation is less vital because we are dealing with different body planes, so a certain amount of discontinuity can be tolerated. Nevertheless, I think the Taurus could use a bit more integration here.

Note the positions of the top and bottom edges of the tail light housings along with the horizontal chrome strip on the trunk. None align with the side accent we've been discussing, and I think that at least one of these should do so. Why? Because cars aren't always seen purely from the front, sides or rear. Usually we view them from other than a 90-degree angle from a surface, so a certain amount of visual integration is useful. The Taurus is simply under-integrated at the rear.

The same might be said for the front which, just possibly aside from the lower lip of the opening below the headlamp housing and its relationship to the raised panel below the doors along the side, there is no continuation. Note especially the lack of alignment between the top line of the headlamp housing and the side crease. They are almost aligned, but not quite -- and that adds to the styling confusion. (Actually, the lower line of the housing is closer in alignment to the side crease, but its upward kick at the rear sends the viewer's eye off in a different direction. Sigh.)

The 2011 Tauruses will be coming off the assembly lines in the next month or so, and it will be interesting to learn if Ford was willing to invest some money to tidy up Taurus styling.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The City that Almost Became

It grew like fury along with the automobile industry. Then it stopped in the Crash of 1929 before it had fully gelled.

I'm speaking of Detroit.

Towards the end of the 1920s some of the largest skyscrapers in the country were being built. Not far away was an art museum, a major library and a concert hall. Farther out along Woodward Avenue was a secondary office complex, the home of General Motors. But the Great Depression halted the formation of a central urban structure along Woodward. What there is, 80 years later, are the scattered bits of what might have been a truly great city.

In this post I want to focus on those skyscrapers that are unknown to all but Detroiters and architecture buffs. In particular, I'm featuring the skyscraper style dominant from around 1925 till the very early 1930s, when construction essentially ceased. (An exception was New York's Radio City that, thanks to Rockefeller money, carried that style through the decade.)

Let's take a look:

Downtown Detroit from an autogyro - 1931

First National Building - 1930

Book Tower - 1926

Guardian Building - 1929

David Stott Building - 1929

Fisher Building - 1928

Penobscot Building - 1928

Four of the six buildings shown were completed in 1928 and 1929 so it's possible that there would have been a glut of office space for a few years, absent the Depression. But if 1929 had brought simply an ordinary recession (which was possible, absent anti-trade legislation) the Woodward corridor would have continued its growth during the 30s. Skyscraper architecture probably would have tended toward the Moderne, following in the path of New York's new Daily News and McGraw-Hill buildings.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Lovis Corinth, Before and After

For a case in point about the notion that "timing is everything," consider the German painter Lovis Corinth (1858-1925 -- Wikipedia entry here).

He suffered a stroke 11 December 1911 at age 53. Before the stroke, his paintings tended to be bold and sometimes outrageous in terms of subject matter. Afterward, stylistically they appeared more "modern" and the subjects were more conventional.

Modernism had been making inroads in the painting scene, strongly in the previous decade. So by the time Corinth had recovered enough to resume work, his new style was acceptable -- something that would not have been the case 50 years earlier.

This recent book was created in conjunction with an exhibit in Vienna's Belvedere museum, possessor of ten paintings by Corinth. One chapter deals with Corinth's stroke and its likely effect on his ability to paint. Apparently some observers believe that he would have changed in style to follow the new, modernist trend. But the chapter's author, Hansjörg Bäzner, a medical specialist, presents evidence that Corinth indeed was impaired, especially for the first few years of his recovery.

The name "Lovis" is unusual, and it happens that it was not his given name, but one he assumed later. His actual name is Franz Heinrich Louis Corinth. Where did "Lovis" come from? I haven't been able to find out from sources handy to me, though I understand that he wrote autobiographical works which might offer an explanation. So let me propose an hypothesis. In Latin, the letter "U" was often carved as "V" and "v"s were pronounced as "u" or "w." So it's possible that Corinth simply took his given name "Louis" and substituted a Roman "v" for the "u" for something distinctive. And had he been Swedish, the change in letter wouldn't have altered the pronunciation much.

To illustrate the change in Corinth's style, I present some self-portraits from before and after the stroke. The painting at the top of this article is his Salome for 1900 that helped launch his career in Berlin.

Self-Portrait with skull - 1896
Corinth was a modernist even in pre-stroke times when it came to subjects. Inclusion of the skull might have been Symbolic -- or perhaps simply an attention-getting ploy.

Self-Portrait with Model - 1903
The same might be said for this unusual pose.

Self-Portrait in armor - 1911
Completed the same year as his stroke, this painting shows little sign of modernist style.

Self-Portrait - 1918
This was done six or seven years after the stroke, by which time he had recovered considerably, but not fully. Note the bushy eyebrows and compare to those of the executioner in Salome, above. Was Salome's executioner a sly self-portrait?

Self-Portrait - 1924
One of Corinth's last self-portraits.

[text cross-posted at 2Blowhards]