Thursday, March 28, 2019

Perspective in Pompeii Paintings

Our cruise ship docked at Naples and, I suspect, most of the passengers going ashore had signed up for tours of Pompeii and other sites on the far side of the Bay of Naples.

Not me. Been there done that a couple of times. But I'd previously spent only two or so hours in Naples and really wanted to visit the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (National Archaeological Museum, Naples). That's because it has a collection of the better-preserved wall paintings from places covered by Vesuvius' ash. (What's left on-site is mostly low-quality in terms of preservation.)

In this post I deal with how Roman artists dealt with situations calling for one-point perspective. That is, where buildings or parts of them are portrayed.

Geometrically-derived linear perspective wasn't discovered until about the time of the Renaissance, though some Classical artists were aware of its general effect and attempted to include that in their work. Sadly, aside from the buried art in and around Pompeii, little has survived due to its perishable condition (as compared to robust sculptural art).

Here is an interesting article dealing with Pompeiian perspective. Precise single vanishing points are not found, though clusters of convergences in small areas are. The article makes the further claim that in the real world we don't really observe one-point perspective aside from limited circumstances, this due to eyeball movement as we view things.

Here are some snapshots I took of items in the museum depicting structures. Click on images to enlarge.


The face at the top is of a mask.  Assuming a high viewing point, the receding lines of the tall yellow building roughly approximate linear perspective. Other structural objects do not.

Two related paintings. Linear perspective is essentially absent here.

Perspective here seems mostly isometric.

Only the buildings at the left have a sense of perspective.

The central (framed) structure with multiple columns relates to the upper part of the projecting structure to the left, which otherwise is isometric. The tiled roof is completely at odds with perspective.

The main structures depicted here exhibit a cluster of vanishing points not far from where Renaissance painters would place a single point. Only the structure with columns at the left deviates seriously.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Aleksandr Bubnov's Historical Pantings

Aleksandr Pavlovich Bubnov (1908–1964) was, in my judgment, one of the most skilled of Soviet-era painters. And that's saying a lot, because while Western art had degenerated into Modernism where skill was largely irrelevant, Russian artists were "encouraged" by the State to retain circa-1890 standards. There is little about Bubnov in English on the Internet, though some information can be found here and here.

Although he painted obligatory paintings featuring Joseph Stalin, Bubnov's true interest seems to have been the semi-mythic Russian past. The Great Patriotic War (the Soviet label for World War 2) interrupted the Socialist Realism of the 1930s that featured idealized views of life under Communism. In its place, again encouraged by the State, Soviet artists often created paintings harking to historical triumphs of Russian arms. Bubnov's great example of this is shown below along with some of his other works.


At the Congress of Collective Farmers
Probably painted in the late 1930s, this is typical of much Soviet art from those times.

Young Oleg on Campaign
One of a series of paintings featuring Oleg, who I'm guessing was not a historical figure.

Boris Godunov
A successor to Ivan the Terrible who became the subject of a play by Pushkin and an opera by Mussorgsky.

Tale illustration - 1946
This painting and the two previous ones feature strong, wide brushwork.

Taras Bulba
A character in a Gogol novel set in an earlier century.

Morning on the Kulikovskoye Field - 1943-1947
Bubnov's greatest work, in my opinion. It deals with the Battle of Kulikovo 8 September 1380 where early Russians defeated the Tatars who ruled large parts of the country. Started during the war and completed two years after, this painting won the Stalin Prize for painting in 1948. Click on it to enlarge and get a better view of how Bubnov composed the figures and handled the atmospherics.

Grain - 1948
A postwar scene.

In the Field - 1958-1960 (detail)
My photo of part of a painting showing farm workers. Click to enlarge and view Bubnov's brushwork.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Fashions and Automobiles by Leslie Saalburg

Leslie Saalburg (1897-1974) was highly successful for most of his long illustration career. This despite the fact that his style changed little -- often the cause of a career foundering when illustration style fashions changed. Some of this had to do with timing. His use of India Ink pen outlining and watercolor or perhaps colored ink washes to fill areas was in line with 1920s fashion illustration styles and also the general illustration shift from heavy oil paints to washes during the 1930s. By the 1950s Saalburg thickened his washes for some of his work as a slight concession to later style trends, but the results remained easily identifiable as his work.

Although many Saalburg illustrations can be found on the Internet, biographical information is sparse. One site with a good deal of information regarding his work and working practices is here, though it has little about his personal life. For what it's worth, I can add that, although he was American, he was born in London and died in Paris -- fitting places given the scenes he usually portrayed.

An illustrator a decade older than Saalburg who had a similar career with regard to style and subject matter was Lawrence Fellows (1885-1964) who I wrote about here.

Below are some examples of Saalburg's work.


Women's fashion illustration from 1929.

Men's fashion illustration.

British country clothes.

Illustration for Nettleton shoes advertisement.

Page from Esquire magazine.

French Line advertisement from 1933.

Saalburg also made many illustrations for series dealing with classic automobiles. Shown here is a 1933 Packard Dual-Cowl Phaeton.

1933 Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow, Brooklyn Bridge in the background.

1937 Cord 812 Convertible Coupe.

1954 Buick Skylark pictured at West Point.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Gordon Grant, Illustrator and Marine Painter

Gordon Hope Grant (1875-1962) began his career as an illustrator but gradually shifted to producing marine paintings and lithographs. A short Wikipedia entry is here. It does not mention that Grant, born in San Francisco, was sent to Scotland for schooling. That involved months at sea on a sailing vessel rounding the Horn. He studied art in London before returning to America, where he then lived in New York City.

Many of his works seem to be undated, and for this post, I make little attempt to guess when they were made. However, I did my best to arrange them in approximate chronological order.

From images found on the Internet, Grant's marine art was much better than his early illustrations, though he had the skills to have made better illustrations. Perhaps expectations of art directors in the early 1900s was a factor. His 1930s Saturday Evening Post covers (not shown here) were done fairly well.


Puck cover - 1909

Puck Cover - February 1912
Many early illustrations featured pretty women.

Army recruiting poster - c. 1919
Pretty static. I would have been inclined to give the background Rhine castle more emphasis to appeal to a sense of adventure with more to it than holding a rile.

Arching Elms - lithograph
Nice use of shade.

Old Windjammer - lithograph
Strong composition.

Photo of Grant working on painting of USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) for the White House - 1926

Watercolor paintings similar to White House USS Constitution painting
I could find no image of the oil version.

Pulling in the Fish Net
Nice atmospherics here.

Fishwharves, Gloucester

Clear for Action, USS Chester - lithograph
Judging by the biplane aircraft, this was probably made before 1941.

Photo of cruiser USS Chester CA 27
Although the pose is similar, this photo was World War 2 vintage because the tripod foremast has been changed to accommodate radar.

Task Group 21-6 Patrols the Atlantic (America Rises to the Challenge)
A World War 2 painting.  The positioning of the carrier, destroyer and cruiser is wrong. So is the perspective. If this were reality, a three-way collision was in the offing. Chalk it up to artistic license with the goal of dramatization.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Transitioning to Socialist Realism

During the early years of the Soviet Union many younger painters embraced Modernism. This was a continuation of a process that had been going on during Czarist days: the appeal of the avant-garde. Modernism's appeal was further fed by the idealistic notion among Bolshevik-leaning artists that the Revolution created a great opportunity to cast aside the past and build a future both better than and distinct from the bourgeois past.

Vladimir Lenin died in January, 1924 while modernist painting was still prevalent, and there is no way of knowing what would have happened to Soviet art had he lived to, say, age 70 in 1940. However, it is known that he did not favor extreme Modernism. Because his health began to fail in 1921 and following his 1922 stroke his active influence regarding Soviet artistic practices was probably limited. Which is why it took his successor Josef Stalin to complete the job of eliminating Modernism as state-supported art.

The emergence of what became known as Socialist Realism began with the 1932 decree calling for a universal artists union. More details are here. Considerable background regarding this is in the second chapter of this book. Regarding Socialist Realist painting style, Matthew Cullerne Brown writes on page 92:

"Stalin laid upon these artists the task of establishing their brand of realism, based on the methods of the Itenerants [a 19th century group of Russian painters] and Russian academics, as the dominant one. This approach reflected both Stalin's personal tastes (cf. his fondness for [Ilya] Repin) and his understanding that the resulting art would be the most easily understood by the masses; it would be both popular and, as a story-telling art, the best vehicle for propaganda."

In the logic of totalitarian statecraft, Stalin's position was entirely rational.

It took until the later 1930s for Socialist Realism to become established. Most artists complied for reasons ranging from ideological commitment to matters of personal well-being. Some artists remained true to earlier ideals and had to eke out a living. A few such as Lev Vyazmenski and Yakov Tsirelson were purged and liquidated in 1938.

When I was in Málaga, Spain in November I visited a branch of St. Petersburg's excellent Russian Museum. It was holding a year-long (ending February 2019) exhibit titled "The Radiant Future: Socialist Realism in Art." A fine exhibit. Plenty of examples, some of which I even knew about before I visited. Of course I took lots of snapshots. Some were of a few paintings made before and during the early years of the implementation of Socialist Realism. They are hardly representative of the Soviet artistic scene of 1930-1934, but provide a sense of modernist-influenced politically-themed art still considered acceptable. Click on the images to enlarge.


Kuprin, Aleksandr - Steelmaking - 1930
The steelmaking equipment is given better detail than the workers in the foreground.

Adlivankin, Samuel - We Will Close the Gap - 1930
This seems to be an industrial setting where production targets are in danger of not being attained. The workers are about to heroically reach or even surpass those goals via collective action.

Adlivankin, Samuel - At Collective Farm Headquarters Before the Assault on the Gap - 1931
The same situation, but in a rural setting. In these two paintings the style is modernist-influenced, but basically representational bordering on being cartoon-like.

Dymschyz-Tolstaya, Sofia - Agitator Worker - 1931
A rather sickly-looking subject, hardly the strong sort of personality one might expect for a man in that role. The style here carries a whiff of Expressionism.

Lizak, Israil - Portrait of the Blacksmith S. Petran (Study) - 1934
Here we find faint Cubist overtones.

Lizak, Israil - Portrait of the Steel Founder Andrei Krylov (Study) - 1934
A softer portrayal by the same artist.  Getting closer to actual Socialist Realism, but still a ways from its classic forms. That this is a study and not a completed work might account for some of its style.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Up Close: Walter Gotschke

I wrote about automobile illustrator Walter Gotschke (1912-2000) here and here.

As I mentioned in the first link, "It seems that Gotschke was self-taught, but had little trouble understanding how to portray machines and settings accurately with strong doses of atmosphere and emotion. When necessary, he could change his style to tight rendering. Sadly, he started losing eyesight around 1985 and was blind by 1990, some ten years before his death."

Although I've viewed his work in publications for many years, I don't recall ever seeing one of his illustrations in person. Until recently. In February I visited the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, California. It has a fabulous collection of French cars mostly from the 1920s and 1930s. There also was a small section devoted to automotive art that included one of Gotschke's "impressionist" style illustrations that I photographed and present below in a detail.


To set the scene, here is a typical Gotschke car race illustration I found on the Internet. It depicts ace German driver Rudi Caracciola in a Mercedes-Benz SSK at Semmering-Bergrenne in 1928.

And this is my reference photo of the illustration at the Mullin museum. It shows French driving ace René Dreyfus in 1930 at Monaco driving a Bugatti.

Then I took a close-up photo of the lower-left part.  The inscription is to Dreyfus, adding interest to the illustration.  Although Gotschke included a good deal of mostly thinly-painted overstrikes to create a sense of both movement and instantaneous capture, beneath all this is solid drawing.  That is, the general impression is of sketchiness, but the basis is solid, carefully done depiction.  Besides accurately portraying the cars, Gotschke also captures the men.  Note Dreyfus's right arm.  Also the pose, facial expression, clothing, and light and shade on the photographer at the right. (Click on this image to enlarge.)

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Pompeii People Portrayals

In November I visited the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (National Archaeological Museum, Naples) to view the better-quality paintings unearthed in Pompeii and nearby areas covered with the ash of Mt. Vesuvius. What remains on-site is generally badly faded or otherwise of poor quality.

This post deals with depictions of people because I've long been curious as to how good Classical era artists were at this. The problem is, paintings on wood, walls and other material are pretty perishable over two or more millennnia. So aside from Pompeii and some Roman-era Egyptian paintings, few portraits exist from those times.

I find it interesting that in most times and places sculptors did a much better job of depiction than painters. This seems to be true for Roman art if the Pompeii findings are any clue. Were the artists working in Pompeii as skilled as those in Rome itself? Probably not. Pompeii was a resort area before its destruction, so I suppose the painters working there were not much less able than those in the capital.

Another consideration is that the Pompeii paintings were found on walls. Painting on walls is less handy than on boards and canvasses that can be tilted or otherwise manipulated to suit a painter's needs at any given time. That is, wall painting can be awkward and the results might show it.

Many of the paintings displayed in the museum dealt with legendary subjects, so artists often didn't have the constraint of depicting real people. A result is that a number of faces are rather stilted versions of idealized faces seen on Greek and Roman statues. Others display more personality. And of course there is variation in the skill of the painters working in the decades before the AD 79 eruption.

Below are some snapshots I took using my iPhone. Click on them to enlarge.


This probably shows a mask, but it has a lot of character.

A pair of images showing suspicion. The strong shading is unusual.

Women almost always were given whiter skin than men.

This reminds me of Roman-Egyptian portraits I've seen.

A bit of comedy or commentary here.

Interesting documentation of Roman helmets.

Note the shiny bells on the column. Here and in many of the other images artists exaggerated the size of eyes.

Good work on the man's expression, but he seems slightly off-balance.

This and some other paintings show that Pompeii artists were able to deal reasonably well with skin tones.

I find the disheveled hair at the left interesting and unique.