Friday, March 30, 2012

Asymmetrical Airplane: Blohm & Voss Bv 141

As Faithful Readers of this blog know, I deal with designs of objects as well as my usual focus on painting and illustration. Today's subject is well enough known to aviation buffs, but might come as a surprise to the uninitiated. It's the Blohm und Voss Bv 141 reconnaissance aircraft of World War 2 vintage that was built in test quantities, but never reached mass production. Go the the link for more information.

The Bv 141's designer was Richard Vogt who thrived on coming up with strange looking airplane proposals; I should really write a post dealing with more of them.

Reconnaissance aircraft in those days ideally should have plenty of visibility from the cabin so as to observe and photograph conditions in a combat zone or enemy rear area. The twist that helped shape the Bv 141 was that it was required to be a single-engine design. A conventional front-mounted engine placement would result in severe constriction of view, something antithetical to the reconnaissance ideal. A pusher-engine placement normally meant a twin-boom feature for supporting the tail. The defects here are decreased visibility (but not so serious as that from an engine in the plane's nose) and the elimination of effective defensive armament (a rear-facing machine gun would have to fire through the propeller arc).

Given those constraints, that clever Vogt came up with this:


Three-view drawing
Vogt created an asymmetrical design where the main visual obstruction was to the left; visibility ahead, below and to the rear was good.

Probably the prototype aircraft
Note that it has prewar German civilian aircraft markings; it first flew 25 February 1938.

Seen from the rear, above

Seen from 3/4 above

An in-flight view
According to sources on the Internet, the plane flew well despite its odd appearance. It failed to enter production because it was under-powered and better motors were reserved for combat planes. Note changes to the epennage.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Frederick Varley: Group of Seven Misfit

Frederick Varley (1881-1969), although born and raised in England, was a member of the Group of Seven, long considered archetypical painters of Canada and the subject of a recent book by Ross King.

Varley's brief Wikipedia entry is here and a slightly longer biographical sketch is here.

Group of Seven artists focused on landscapes along with some city- and townscapes. Varley, however, is known mostly as a portrait painter. His personal life was chaotic. He usually quickly spent whatever money he received from painting sales on himself rather than on his wife and children. Plus, he had a number of extramarital affairs and became an alcoholic.

Despite all this, he was a strong painter who produced interesting work. Here are some examples paintings completed by around the time he was 50.


The Sunken Road - c.1919
Varley was one of a group of Canadian painters who were commissioned as war artists. He spent a little time at the front just before the Great War ended and did his paintings based on on-the-spot sketches in a London area studio.

Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay - 1921
This is one of his outdoor paintings. It is similar in character to what the rest of the Seven were doing at the time.

Sir George Parkin - 1921
A formal portrait that has a tinge of modernism to it. The previous year he painted a career-enhancing portrait of Vincent Massey, later the Governor-General. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a copy on the Web.

Alice Massey - 1924-25
This is a portrait of Massey's wife.

Girl in Red
Probably done in the late 1920s. Varley painted many portraits of young women, often using unusual color schemes. This one features a warm background with the face painted using cool colors.

Norma - 1929
I haven't discovered who Norma was, but she might have been one of Varley's Vancouver students. I sometimes mention that I'll accept exaggerated or even unnatural colors on a painting if the drawing is good. Norma's neck seems too long in the lower image, but otherwise the basics are done well enough.

Vera - c.1928
Vera - 1931
The Studio Door
The three paintings above are of Vera Weatherbie of Vancouver, subject of Varley's paintbrush and intentions, though she later married someone else. The image in the middle is particularly striking and has been used as illustration for book covers.

Monday, March 26, 2012

In the Beginning: Walter Sickert

Guess what: it's Old Switcheroo time again at In the Beginning. Normally I contrast an artist's early style with the mature style he's generally known by. In the case of Walter Sickert (1860-1942), it's hard to pin down what his mature, best-known style actually was. That's because he ran through a number of styles that, to my mind, never really amounted to a progression or evolution. Moreover, I can't think of a style that gives me an "Aha! Sickert!!" reaction aside from perhaps those blotchy nudes he painted partway into his career.

Worse yet from my standpoint is that I can't seem to get enthused about any of his paintings: some seem simply okay while the rest are forgettable. Why don't I like his work? That's hard to express. For now I'll just say that they usually strike me as being too messy looking.

But don't let poor, ignorant me influence your judgment. Read the Wikipedia entry linked above for some background and take a look at the selection of images below while deciding for yourself.


Rehearsal, the End of the Act: Helen Carte - 1885

Figures on a Lawn, Poston - 1886

Minnie Cunningham at the Old Bedford - c.1890

Interior, St. Mark's, Venice - 1896

La rue Cousin, Dieppe - c.1896

La Hollandaise - c.1906

Tipperary - 1914

Victor Lecour - 1922-24

Lazarus Breaks His Fast - 1927

Friday, March 23, 2012

Lewis Mumford, Art Critic

To my mind, Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) was a good example of a "public intellectual" -- an admittedly slippery term -- of the 1925-1965 variety. You can do a Google search on the label, but for my present purposes I'll define the concept as a person not always equipped with college degrees and not employed by a college or university who thinks about matters important to society and writes influential articles regarding his take on such matters.

Mumford's Wikipedia entry is here and that of the Dictionary of Art Historians here. Although his interests were wide-ranging, he is probably best known for his commentaries on architecture and urban planning. He wrote books on those subjects that were considered important in his day and he served as architecture critic for The New Yorker magazine for three decades.

What I hadn't known until recently was that for six years (1932-37) he also wrote an occasional New Yorker column dealing with what he found in art museums and galleries. These pieces have been gathered into this book. Reading those old columns was like being transported to another world -- a world whose residues I encountered growing up and whose art I'm currently trying to make sense of with respect to a self-imposed writing project.

Besides spouting off opinions as a critic must, Mumford was obliged to write in a casual, digressive mode that New Yorker editor Harold Ross felt epitomized New York City's sophistication in those days. And New York City was indeed the center of intellectual and creative ferment in the United States. So Mumford tried to visit as many important museum exhibits and gallery shows as he could, mentioning what he liked and disliked as well as sometimes commenting on what (and who) he felt was missing.

What did Mumford like? Just about anything associated with John Marin, Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. He was also favorably disposed to the idea of an American Art, something in the air for many years that became a big 1930s topic. For instance, he liked several of the Ashcan School artists of the early 1900s. But he didn't care for art that contained a whiff of patriotism and therefore wasn't entirely fond of American Regionalism in the form of Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, etc. He liked the paintings of communist-sympathizing William Gropper and Joe Jones and favored modernism over conservative, traditional, bourgeois-oriented art even though recognizing that not all of it measured up.

He had a reasonably good knowledge of 19th century art and thought Albert Pinkham Ryder was really good, Winslow Homer pretty good and Jules Bastien-Lepage and his ilk hardly worthy of mentioning in passing. At least he mentioned Batien-Lepage who at the time was well on his way to becoming a non-person so far as art history was concerned.

Mumford was not receptive to Surrealism at first, but wrote a column basically supportive of it not long before dropping his art criticism job. As for other Europeans, he liked Renoir (aside from his middle, non-impressionist period), Maurice Utrillo (whose reputation was high in those days) and Picasso's early modernist work (though not so much his post Great War exploration of heavy, classically-derived forms).

My general take on Mumford's art criticism is that he was a little too smugly a proponent of the "advanced" artistic theories and fashions of his day -- more a cheerleader than someone with a deeper, more strongly based critical sense. But if he had taken the latter tack (assuming he was capable), I wonder if he ever would have gotten his New Yorker gig.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Molti Ritratti: Kiki de Montparnasse

Alice Prin (1901-53), better known as Kiki de Montparnasse, was the archetypical artist's model / bohemian bon vivante of 1920s Paris. Never-married, her best-known companion was Man Ray, who painted in Dada-Surrealist modes but is best known as a photographer ranging from experimental work to high fashion. He took many pictures of Kiki, some of which are indeed iconic.

I found biographical information about her on the Internet to be rather skimpy. Here is her Wikipedia entry in English and the French entry is here. Neither is truly informative, though the general path of her life is sketched. A source I like is this book which contains a decent amount of text along with scads of fascinating photos of Kiki and many of the rest of the arty crowd that inhabited the Left Bank; the coverage is roughly 1900 to 1930.

The Internet offers many photos of Kiki, but not a lot of paintings. And many of those painting are of her "in the nude" as it was once politely phrased -- she was an artist's model, after all. Nevertheless, below are a few photographs to set the scene, followed by interpretations of her face by various painters.


By Man Ray

When proclaimed "Queen of Montparnasse"

By André Kertész - 1927

With Alexander Calder

By Foujita

By Man Ray - 1923

By Luigi Corbellini

By Gustaw Gwozdecki

By Moise Kisling

By Kees van Dongen

By Per Krogh - 1928

Note that even the photographs show that Kiki's appearance was elusive. In part this had to do with camera angle, lighting and whatever makeup she was wearing. Otherwise, her shape changed over the 1920s as she got older and added weight: note how she looks in the Kert├ęsz photo (and how Krogh slimmed her down).

Monday, March 19, 2012

Arthur Carles Could Pretty Much Do It All

Arthur Beecher Carles (1882-1952) is not well-known today and, as best I can tell, didn't attain first-rank artistic notoriety in his day. Here and there on the Internet I've found observers who assert that he was a great colorist and perhaps was a practitioner of Abstract Expressionism before it emerged as a movement.

Carles is obscure enough that I had never heard of him until recently when I was searching the Hirshhorn Museum online listing of works in its collection and found some stunning images by the man. Let me quickly add that what looks great in a small area of a computer screen doesn't necessarily translate into an equally fine image when viewed in person, so I can't fully vouch for Carles' ability.

One thing I noticed was how versatile Carles was. And how he would paint in different idioms at about the same time (both naturalistic and abstract in the 1920s, for instance) rather than doggedly pursue a stylistic theme as many artists do.

I can't offer much biographical information. His Wikipedia entry is here and a Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts snippet is here (scroll down or else click on his name). It seems that Carles never sold many paintings, drank too much and suffered a stroke in 1941 that ended his career, such as it was.

One of his finest works was his daughter Jeanne, who assumed her mother's first name and became known to the art world as Mercedes Matter, having married photographer and graphic designer Herbert Matter.

Here are images of some of Carles' paintings in roughly chronological order along with a few comments by me.


Frances Metzger West - pastel - 1907
A satisfying mix of a finely drawn head with modernist-inspired sketchiness, both done in the spirit of pastel.

Silence - c.1908
Almost poster-like in its compositional simplicity and flat painting. Can we call the early 1900s Carles' "blue period?"

Portrait of Katherine Rhoades - c.1912
Here Carles is about as minimalist as one can get while still making a convincing depiction.

The Actress as Cleopatra (Mercedes de Cordoba, artist's wife) - 1914
Mercedes de Cordoba - by Edward Steichen - 1904
Carles' wife as painted by him and photographed ten years earlier by Steichen, who liked to use her as a model.

The Lake, Annecy - 1911-12
This disappoints me because Lake Annecy is framed by a string of visually interesting mountains to its east, and here Carles turns them into a series of ordinary-looking lumps.

The Harpist Edna Phillips Rosenbaum - n.d.
Woman in White - 1920
These two paintings show that Carles could do quite well at representational images, though adjusted using a whiff of modernist simplifying.

Landscape - 1921
This paining is part of the Hirshhorn holdings, so I have to assume they got the date right. Very much in the later Abstract Expressionist spirit.

Nude Reclining - 1921
Representational, but using a color set close to that of the abstraction shown immediately above it. Plus, they seem to have been done at about the same time.

Woman with Red Hair - 1922
The drawing here is still pretty representational, but the colors are exaggerated, if not quite Fauvist distortions.

Seated Woman with Upraised Arm - c.1927
Now we find one in the Fauve color spirit. Yet I happen to like it; it's the image that caught my eye and led me to explore Carles' work in more detail. Why do I like it? It's because, under all the color pyrotechnics, the visible drawing is pretty solid in the sense that the features of the face are proportionally reasonable, allowing for effects of perspective. I usually object strongly where an artist gives us sloppy drawing along with false colors. Ditto where the drawing is off and the colors are roughly natural (think Picasso's famous Les demoiselles d'Avignon).

Reclining Nude - c.1931-35
Composition (Seated Nude) c.1931-35
In these early 1930s paintings Carles is back in proto-Abstract Expressionist mode using those strong colors he seemed to favor in those days.

Abstraction - 1936-41
According to the Hirshhorn, this was Carles' last painting.