Monday, January 31, 2011

In the Beginning: Picasso

When it comes to fame, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) strikes me as being right up there with Rembrandt in the minds of the general public. No other modernist artist comes close except, perhaps (in the USA, anyway), that other master of self-advertisement, Andy Warhol.

From what I've read, the young Picasso impressed other artists with his existing and potential talent even before he helped invent Cubism. I make no secret of my dislike for nearly all of Picasso's work, but I'm willing to explore the work he did when young as grist for speculation regarding his ability and whether or not he could have carved out a career as a representational painter.

For background and information about his early paintings, I consulted the first volume of John Richardson's uncompleted multi-volume biography of the artist.

Picasso's father was an artist and art teacher whose work Richardson considered inferior. Still, one can assume that Picasso could not have failed to absorb many nuts and bolts of the craft of oil painting by the time he entered his teens and began attempting serious work. While in his teens he received some formal training but did not go through the complete rigorous academic regimen still in place in the 1890s. He was done with schooling before he turned 19.

Now let's look at a sample of his paintings that basically can be considered representational in style; I've ordered them by year. Keep in mind that Picasso was born in late October of 1881 and do some subtracting from the painting dates to get an idea as to his age at the time.


The Old Fisherman (Salmerón) - 1895

First Communion - 1896
Click on image for a larger, clearer view.

Altar Boy - 1896
Click on image for a larger, slightly clearer view. I saw this at the museum at Montserrat, a few miles west of Barcelona. It struck me as being smoothly painted, an attribute this reproduction fails to show.

Ciencia y Caridad (Science and Charity) - 1897
This was painted as a salon entry.

Moulin de la Galette - 1900
Painted the year Picasso first visited Paris.

Mujer en azul - 1901
Richardson suggests this painting reflects the influence of Goya.

Self-portrait (Yo Picasso) - 1901
The drawing is representational, the technique is "painterly" and the colors seem early Fauvist, even though Picasso wasn't identified with that movement. Richardson also notes (Page 417) that Picasso was never strongly interested in color -- a Spanish thing, it seems.

Woman in Mantilla (La Salchichona) - 1917
Here Picasso experiments: a smoothly-painted face contrasted with pointillist technique.

Portrait of Olga - 1917
Click on image for a larger, clearer view.

Olga Picasso - 1923
Here he was as representational as he ever got in the years following Cubism. Even so, this portrait and the one above simplify to the point where a bit too much crispness (from a reality standpoint) creeps in. This tack was taken by many artists in the 1920s and 30s wanting to introduce a whiff of modernism to their paintings. Click on image for a larger, clearer view.

Did Picasso have the Right Stuff to succeed in representational art?

I think he did, though I have trouble evaluating the ability displayed in the earliest, most representational, works. Richardson does not consider Picasso's mid-teens efforts outstanding, though he fails to offer a yardstick for this opinion.

My problem here is that I don't hang out around art schools of any kind, let alone those inhabited by 15-year-olds; I have no idea how good a painter that age might be.

The yardstick I do have is myself. At ages 15-20 I did not paint nearly as well as did Picasso, nor do I recall any fellow student who did. On the other hand, our training was close to non-existent. As best I remember, high school art classes basically were sessions where we fiddled around drawing or maybe using water-based media and the teacher's role was that of a gentle critic. College was more of the same, except that we got less than a bare minimum of instruction and also began working in oils.

It's too bad we can't invoke a parallel universe where Picasso studies at the Académie Julian under, say, William-Adolphe Bouguereau or perhaps elsewhere under Jean-Léon Gerôme or Carolus-Durand. If so, the kid coulda had a future.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Lacking Skills? - Here are Some Arts for You

I suppose it's nice to be one of those souls who don't mind making fools of themselves. Me? -- I try my best to avoid doing anything where my abilities are below average unless the outcome is so important that I'm willing to grit my teeth and suffer the learning curve.

Fortunately for we the talentless, American culture has degenerated to the point where one doesn't have to be skilled in order to participate or even succeed in fields of endeavor that are called "arts" -- the expansion of the definition of that term might be yet another symptom of our decline, but I'll leave that matter for another time.

Consider the following items.

Some hold teaching to be a kind of applied art. I'd call it a craft, but let's go along with the notion that there can be an art to it. Primary and secondary school teachers for the most part cannot get their jobs unless they have had a certain amount of training and practice in teaching. Presumably, therefore, they have acquired a set of teaching-related skills before becoming professional teachers.

On the other hand, most people who teach in universities lack any training in pedagogy: all they need is a Ph.D. in a field of specialization. Or perhaps not even that. As a graduate student, I had to lead "quiz sections" for an introductory Sociology course. I knew zilch about how to teach: whatever knowledge I had of teaching was from the perspective of having been a student for many, many years. I'm convinced I seriously short-changed all those super-sharp Ivy League students, including one who was the daughter of a sitting Supreme Court justice.

Literature is considered an art, though it can be difficult to pin down where it leaves off and ordinary writing begins. And writing itself doesn't require training beyond the set of skills required to make one considered "literate." Sure, there are college courses dealing with writing not to mention writers' workshops and the like. Yet none of these purportedly advanced forms of training are essential to becoming a writer of some sort. After all, just about anyone can start his own blog: I did.

Then there is dancing. The highfalutin' form is The Dance, but up until the mid-1950s even ordinary social dancing required the ability to execute dance steps. These included the waltz three-beat step, the four-beat foxtrot step and others. And there were "fad" dances that popped up every few years. Somebody would concoct a set of dance steps and perhaps other actions, come up with a catchy song extolling the dance and then hope both the song and the dance would become popular.

Nowadays, unless you are into Serious Tango or something similar, going dancing usually means dealing with some kind of rock-based music -- and no set dance steps. What one does is stand away from his partner and gesticulate as best he can to the tempo of the music. The skill level in this is minimal.

Time was, there was singing. To be a decent singer required a sense of pitch, a pleasing voice and perhaps formal training incorporating skills in phrasing, breathing and voice projection. Today, we have rap. Rap strikes me as closer akin to crude chant than singing. I suppose rap makes use of some skills, but you don't need to be able to sing at all to become a rapper, record your performances and become filthy rich.

A subject dear to this blog is painting, so let's consider the genre of Abstract Expressionism which is still practiced by many artists more than half a century after its heyday. Becoming a good abstract painter requires some skills in the areas of composition and color handling, among others. But there is one traditional graphic arts skill totally unnecessary: draftsmanship.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Segovia's Textured Buildings

Segovia is worth a visit if you like picturesque cities and architecture. It lies about an hour's drive to the north-northwest of Madrid, so doesn't present a large detour when trip planning. However, it deserves a minimum of half a day's time on-site, and I'd set aside an entire day to do the project justice.

Like most places in Europe, there's a new city and an old city. The old city lies atop a mesa that has been described as boat-shaped and the modern city occupies low-lying ground and nearby rounded hills. Connecting the nearest hill and the old city is an aqueduct built by the Romans that was still in service in the 19th century.

The old city has lots of narrow, winding streets, a few plazas, a fine semi-gothic cathedral and, at the sharp end of the mesa (dare I call it the "prow"?) is a Viollet-le-Duc style (though he wasn't involved here) restored Alcazar, or fortress-castle.

Aside from a few glimpses of the latter, the photos below deal with less imposing buildings found around the old city. The pictures were taken last October and are not adjusted in any way. They are concerned with various kinds of texturing found on those structures. This detailing fascinated me, and I hope you too will be interested.

This is a tower on the Alcazar, the pointed top probably a feature concocted during the 19th century restoration. Regardless of its provenance, it has a romantic flair. Note the variation in the top's cladding.

This shows part of the Alcazar's wall. See how the stonework varies near the wall's intersection with the structures at the left.

A room in the Alcazar.

Now we switch to old city street views. The projecting window can be found here and there in Spain. The one shown here is actually an enclosed balcony. I speculate that it has to do with the comparatively harsh winters experienced in the high country of central Spain; it makes a balcony useful year-round. Note the textured wall on the left. This is characteristic of Segovia. The following photos show some of the variety in textures I saw.

The picture immediately above shows a texture pattern unusual for Segovia. It's too much of a not-so-good idea, but fortunately is contrasted by the large expanse of plain stonework on the arch over the door.

What's interesting here is something I noticed in Segovia, though it might be elsewhere in Spain. It's how the roof tiles are laid. Such tiles are conventionally laid with the rounded part facing upwards on the topmost layer of tile: call it convex. But here it's the reverse. Aside from some decorative bands, the tiles are laid in a concave position.

This photo doesn't have much to do with texture. I include it because I find it charming.

This was the ultimate in texture-mix in the collection of photos I took. Half-timbering, detailing on metal gates, two kinds of brickwork, cut stone, rubbled stone -- a feast! Click on the image for a slightly larger view.

Monday, January 24, 2011

In the Beginning: Francis Picabia

Francis Picabia (1879-1953) was something of a modernist gadfly, taking on this movement and that before reverting to representational work for a considerable stretch of his career. This is summarized here in his Wikipedia entry.

Picabia is yet another member of the circa-1880 generation of painters (Pablo Picasso was another) who was aware of modernism yet received at least some traditional training before cutting loose on the exiting adventure of rejecting the past in favor of an innovative future.

In case you are not familiar with his modernist paintings, here are two examples.

Dances at the Spring - 1912

Balance - c.1919

And here are two landscapes that predated his move to modernism.

Riverbank - 1905

Sunlight on the Bank of the Loing River, Moret - 1905

As mentioned above, Picabia largely set aside modernism for a while. At first, he painted a number of works that were figurative, yet included modernist-seeming embellishments. By the early 1940s he did a large number of paintings of female nudes where poses were taken from a French magazine of the 1930s that featured girlie photos. Even a self-portrait was photo-based, as is shown below.

Mi - c.1929


Photo source for self-portrait

Viareggio - 1938

L'Espagnole - 1938

Deux nus - c.1940

This series is based on the question of how good a representational artist the modernist might have become had he never "gone modern." In Picabia's case, I see little evidence to indicate that he would have been more than a journeyman realist.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Molti Ritratti: Suzy Solidor

Some people have lots of portraits painted of themselves. Occasionaly, these portraits might be done mostly by one artist. For instance, Velázquez painted a number of portraits of Spain's king and family thanks to his court duties.

Then there's the usual case, where many artists paint the same sitter. To me, that's also interesting because it offers insight regarding artists as well as subjects.

I already posted about multiple views of Ottoline Morrell and Empress Josephine. Now I'd like to carry this into an occasional series that I'm calling Molti Ritratti -- that's my amateur Italian for "Many Portraits."

First off is Suzy Solidor (1900-83) a Lesbian chanteuse who ran a Paris night club and publicized it by asking many artists to do her portrait. Suzy was popular in her day, appearing in movies and cutting records. However, she did get into some post-war trouble because her club was frequented by German officers during the Occupation.

Below are some photos of Solidor to set the scene. My take is that she had a plain face and a fantastically good shape. To appreciate the latter, I suggest you Google on something like "suzy solidor man ray" to bring up images by Man Ray, the famous photographer of both Surrealism and high fashion. (Warning: some of those photos are not safe for work, which is why I won't display them here. I do post images of paintings showing nudity because those are more justifiable as "art.")

Here is Suzy with aesthete Jean Cocteau in 1938. Cocteau also wasn't bothered by dealing with Germans during the Occupation.

This is a studio portrait of Solidor.

Now for non-photographic images of Suzy. Although she was painted by artists as diverse as Foujita, Dufy and Vlaminck, I couldn't find as many good images on the Web as I had hoped. Nevertheless, the ones below should indicate the variety of ways Solidor was depicted.

Solidor is shown in her cabaret with some of those portraits. This was probably taken in the 1960s or later. The painting to the left of her face is by Foujita.

Solidor lived the later part of her life in Cagnes-sur-Mer and left some of the paintings to the city. Shown is part of a display of them. The painting on the left with a blue background is by Picabia; another Picabia painting is below. Click on the image above to enlarge.

Not a formal portrait, but this poster for Pathé records seems worth including.

Not all those who Painted Suzy were famous. This is by someone called Pierre Sigel.

Slightly less obscure is Roger Toulouse, who painted this when Solidor was past 60.

This 1946 portrait is by Suzanne van Damme, a Belgian contemporary of Solidor who also painted Surrealistic works.

Better known yet (but still far from famous) was Austrian Willy Eisenschitz who portrayed Solidor in 1938.

This Francis Picabia portrait of Suzy is from 1933.

Kees van Dongen, one-time Fauve and later society painter captured a matelot-clad Suzy in 1927.

Probably the most famous portrait of Solidor is this 1933 painting by Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How (Not?) to Honor a Classic

The cars shown above are two surviving examples of the Bugatti 57SC Atlantique. Four were built and two or perhaps three survive. I consider this one of the most outstanding car designs ever -- an opinion held by many. The black car is owned by fashion magnate Ralph Lauren. The blue car was auctioned last year for an estimated $30-$40 million (an account is here). The Wikipedia article on the Type 57 line in general is here.

Automobile Magazine's February 2011 issue has a Page 63 sidebar by its car design writer Robert Cumberford concerning a project to create a "retro" version of the un-produced Type 64, what might have been the successor to the 57. I could find no on-line version of the article to link to, so here is an excerpt featuring Cumberford's case.

[I]n an alcove [of Peter Mullin's private automobile museum] stood one of only two extant prototype cast-aluminum chassis for the Bugatti Type 64, the model intended to follow the successful Type 57, introduced in 1934 and made in some 700 examples. That's not the problem; the chassis is fascinating. But it's surrounded by sketches and models of some absolutely horrifying bodies proposed by students at the Art Center College of Design, one of which may actually be erected at great cost on that unique, irreplaceable platform. The idea of creating a new body is fine, but I am distressed that unformed and uninformed youngsters have been entrusted with a task for which -- on the evidence presented -- they are incapable of executing.

They've done a series of Kalifornia Kustom adaptations of Jean Bugatti's 1935 riveted-magnesium Aérolithe ("meteor" in Greek) design that led to the Atlantics, as though Jean had had to rummage through discarded sketches to come up with a slight variation on older designs. ...

To properly honor Jean Bugatti's heritage with a new Type 64 body, designers need strong historical awareness, and they must know what precursors in form existed in 1940 [the year after Jean Bugatti was killed in a driving accident] along with the techniques and materials in use at the time. Using that knowledge -- and absolutely nothing that arose in the subsequent 70 years -- those students might have created a reasonable proposition. ...

What the students have done is anathema to me. Wouldn't it be better just to leave the bare chassis on exhibition?

Not quoted are references to the fact that Bugatti had built "tank" style racing cars with streamlined (for the time) bodies that eliminated separate fenders. This implies that Ettore and his son Jean (had he lived) might well have created a car in tune with styling zeitgeist of 1940: teardrop-shaped bodies pushed to beyond the outer edges of, and perhaps covering, the wheels. Such designs could seem sleek on paper, but usually turned out looking bloated on the few occasions that they were actualized, so it's possible the Bugattis might have attempted something leaner. But unless archival evidence appears, this is something unknowable.

As for me, I'm of two minds regarding Cumberford's harsh (for him) judgment. A modernized Atlantique is probably what Mullin and those Art Center students had in mind all along, and not a scholarly might-have-been design such as Cumberford advocates. For a show car, this doesn't bother me. On the other hand, if the goal was to suggest what a Type 64 might really have looked like, then Cumberford has a strong point.

Monday, January 17, 2011

In the Beginning: Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch (1863-1944) is surely the most famous Norwegian painter. For details regarding his troubled life, you can consult his Wikipedia entry here.

Munch received formal art training, but fell in with artists and others excited by the emerging prospect of modernism. By the time he was 30, he was experimenting with ideas propounded by modernists in France and Germany. Here are examples:

Evening on Karl Johan Street - 1892

Rose and Amalie - 1893

The Storm - 1893

The Dance - 1900

Friedrich Nietsche - 1903

The Scream - 1893
This expressionist jolt is Munch's most famous painting by far.

He also did work that was more representational, particularly while in his 20s and still influenced by formal training.

From Maridalen - 1881

Morning - 1884

Summer Night (Inger on the Shore) - 1889

Even though he was experimenting, Munch did not lose touch with representationalism. The paintings below reveal a respect for human anatomy that shines through the various styles he was using.

Self-Portrait with Cigarette - 1895

Madonna - 1894-95

Nude by Wicker Chair - 1929

Munch, like many other modernists in this "In the Beginning" series, clearly seems to have had the potential to have been a good representational artist. Indeed, he was off to a good start in this direction. Such a start is not surprising when one considers his generation: he was a near-contemporary of Gustav Klimt who began his own professional career painting academic-style works.