Carstens’ Rejection of Academia

In late 18th century Europe, there weren’t many options available for artists looking to exhibit their work. You either painted in the style approved by the Salons and submitted to their juried shows, or you didn’t exhibit.

One artist, Asmus Jakob Carstens, decided that was too limiting, and that the popular artwork of that time had gone down the drain. He was appalled by the lack of reverence to the former masters and the recent shift from focusing on technical skill and draftsmanship to color without solid foundation.

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Asmus Carstens, Birth of Light

Referring to himself as a “draftsman with no interest in color”, he was a defiant, self-assured artist. He thought himself to be taking art in a new direction, and shortly after he mastered watercolor and tempera paints, he left his studio in Italy and rented the studio of the classicist Pompeo Battoni- chosen specifically to showcase the stark difference in the two ideologies.

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Battoni, Allegory of Peace and War

He put together his own show, and slowly started to build a following of sympathetic artists. Many, particularly German artists, admired his fierce independence and rejection of what was commonly accepted in the art world at that time, especially the new focus of the artist’s experience being reflected in the work. Although his work may have been mostly forgotten and his rebellion in no way near as dramatic as the impressionists, he was definitely one of the first to openly defy the Salon’s exhibitions.

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Carstens, Night and her Daughters Sleep and Death

 

Bosch

Hieronymus Bosch is a fascinating character, something I’m sure you can agree with if you’ve seen any of his work- or even his given name. El Bosco, as he was known after relocating to Spain, had an incredibly rich imagination fitted with fantastical creatures, hellish landscapes, and bizarre inventions that defy description.

His work stands out from other artists from the same time period, given the creatures in his paintings’ almost unbelievable creativity. In the same triptych you can find three fish eating each other- the outermost possessing legs of a cricket, a large clothed bird with dog ears and human legs holding a letter in its beak on ice skates, and a water jug with legs of a deer standing in a pond- just to name a few.

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Bosch’s Temptation of St. Anthony, which contains all of the characters I just described and more

Undeniably biblical, the triptych titled The Garden of Earthly Delights was actually commissioned for a town home in Brussels, despite appearing as an altarpiece. The Last Judgement is the core theme of the incredibly detailed painting, with Bosch clearly using his work to critique the state of sinfulness in the world.

Beginning in the Garden of Eden when God introduced Eve to Adam, things quickly devolved into the mass of sex and debauchery as seen in the middle panel. Finally, God casts his judgement and the lustful people are cast into a hellscape full of freakish creatures, fire, and despair.

 

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The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch

Both of these works showcase quite well the phenomenal imagination of Bosch which set him apart from the other Dutch Renaissance painters. His control over color and technical mastery give life to the most remarkable creatures born through sin and hellfire. Bosch’s unique style of painting is easily comparable to both medieval art and surreal painting.

As for the comparison to medieval work, his human and humanoid figures have the same idealized proportions as many painters of that time. They are elongated with little to no muscle definition, and often have rounded features. In addition, some of his bizarre creatures likely drew inspiration from the monastic illustrations found in many books produced in that time period. A prime example would be the The Mouth of Hell from the Winchester Psalter, in which hordes of demons are being locked into Hell by a singular angel.

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The Mouth of Hell from the Winchester Psalter,  1150

It’s very easy to name Bosch an inspiration to surrealist artists- particularly Dali. The unimaginable creatures and comparatively simple backgrounds evoke the same feeling of curiosity. Although Bosch’s preference for religious imagery directly contradicts the “Manifesto of Surrealism”, which clearly states that art should be free from ‘moral purpose’, the figures are still too similar to ignore.

All in all, Bosch’s work has undeniably stood the test of time, and remains a part of pop culture centuries later.

The Mark of Mucha

I was enthusing over art with one of my managers during work this evening (which of course the first artist I had mentioned had to be my dear Bernini) and I was excited to learn he has an affinity for antique posters- Alphonse Mucha in particular.

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An advertisement for White Star Champagne by Mucha, 1899

 

Of course not everyone knows the name, but every art kid I know has gone through a Mucha phase, so my face must have lit up at the name. Now, the reason I use the word phase is not because they eventually grow to dislike his work, let alone think less of him as an artist. In fact it’s quite the opposite, after a few attempts to take elements of his style and make them your own, one comes to the (often frustrating) realization that it is nearly impossible to emulate him without your work looking like a cheap copy.

Therein lies his genius, our flowery Czech artist who has practically become the face of Art Nouveau, created a style so uniquely his own that spoke so perfectly to the time period. His figures are heavily outlined, something he adopted from the Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, but instead of flattening the image like one would expect from such a line, it enhances the dynamics when combined with such strong, yet delicate arabesques.

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The Four Precious Stones series- Topaz, Ruby, Amethyst, and Emerald.

The artists in the movement, much like Mucha himself, found themselves abandoning the conventions of fine art and placing much more value in Les Arts Décoratifs, like the advertisements Mucha created. In addition to the new feeling of creativity, there were also major psychological advancements by Sigmund Freud that enhanced many artists’ exploration of the ‘dream world’. Art Nouveau celebrates femininity and nature- a reaction to the masculinity of the Industrial Revolution. However, the celebration and use of women wasn’t always necessarily positive. Women were finally beginning to gain equal rights and the ability to become increasingly independent, and quite frankly, that scared many men. Thus, the women they created were alluring, but often quietly menacing- the rise of the femme fatale.

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Primrose and Feather by Alphonse Mucha, 1899

 

Influential Jewish Artists

In celebration of Chanukah, I wanted to take a moment to talk about a few artists of Jewish descent that have somehow shaped the discipline they ascribed themselves to.

 

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Nu Feminin by Amadeo Modigliani, oil painting, 1918

Starting off with one of the larger names in art history, Amadeo Modigliani was an Italian Jew. He grew up hearing about the master paintings held in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence and when he fell sick with typhoid fever at the tender age of 14, his mother promised to take him to visit when he recovered. Clearly, he did, and she didn’t merely plan a visit to the museum, she signed him up for lessons with the painter Guglielmo Micheli. Modigliani showed great skill in painting, but reacted against the conventions of the time. He preferred painting indoors as opposed to en plein air, and rather than paint landscapes (to my knowledge, three exist) he chose portraiture and the human figure. Moving to Paris, he contracted tuberculosis- which he treated with alcohol and drugs, creating a whirlpool of physical pain, addiction, and depression that fed into his art style. In his work, the figures are elongated, and his work fits into no specific discipline.

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No.61 by Mark Rothko, oil painting, 1953

Onto one of my favorite artists, Mark Rothko. Rothko was born in Russia, moving to the United States- to Portland, Oregon before moving to NYC to attend Yale. After dropping out, he fell in with the avant-garde crowd and began to paint as well. His early paintings were dark urban interiors, but it wasn’t until Milton Avery encouraged him that he felt he could pursue a career as a fine artist. At his core, he was a radical activist who connected strongly with his Jewish heritage, and was deeply passionate about worker’s and women’s rights. He was raised by a staunchly Marxist father who abhorred religion. As he matured, so did his work, slowly evolving into fields of color.

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Pasadena Lifesavers #5 by Judy Chicago, Acrylic airsprayed onto acrylic, 1970

Judy Chicago was born into a family with a long lineage of rabbis, and grew up knowing she wanted to be an artist. Born Judy Cohen, she adopted the last name ‘Chicago’ to embrace her greater understanding of not just the world she lives in, but also herself. Following that, she fully dedicated herself to women’s rights and empowerment, whether it be through her own teaching, work, or supporting other women artists. She’s shared her view on many things from ‘the male gaze’ in Powerplay, to narrating childbirth through The Birth Project. Following those projects, she became more interested in her heritage in The Holocaust Project: From Darkness to Light, most of which is currently on display in Pittsburgh.

Happy holidays to all, be safe and best of luck for the coming year!

Museums’ Importance in the Growing World of Tech

Museums have had a place in society for centuries as a place to house information. The word museum has been applied to many concepts varying from places dedicated to philosophical discussion in ancient Rome, to curio collections, and finally to collections of art and literature that were of value to scholars. In modern years, the word has come to represent an institution with an aim to provide an education for the public.

Recently however with the incredible wealth of information available through the internet, museums have to find a way to evolve with the people that walk through the door. There needs to be more of a reason for tourists to stop by than to simply check something off a list of things to do.

Now, art museums will always be important for art students and scholars, but it’s getting harder for them to reach the vast majority of those who don’t fit into either category. There’s often a level of stuffiness surrounding the viewing of art in a museum setting, the viewer feels pressured to understand and like it for the sole reason that it’s hanging before them, and there’s very little room for creating a dialogue about the art. After all, it’s not like the curators are hanging out in the galleries to talk to everyone about why they believe that each individual work is important enough to be on the wall, and audio guides and catalogues can only help so much.

Out of the museums that I have visited recently, I have to say my visit to the MoMA was the most immersive and educating, despite the Met being my absolute favorite place on Earth. The MoMA had a gallery talkback session that I happened to stumble into, and the attendants I spoke to were excited to be there, whereas at others I’ve found them much more cold and uninviting. In addition, the exhibitions had a variety to them that made each piece new and interesting. The stuffiness was more of a scent in the air rather than the fog it usually is, and I think they’re really onto something there.

I don’t have all the answers and I’ll be the first to admit it, especially when it comes to what I love. However, I do believe much more can be done to change the environments of these long-esteemed institutions to help keep it that way. What if we took notes from the Ancient Romans, and used these institutions where conversation is fostered, where people come to question, and ultimately learn from what they see in front of them? What if we took a look at what drew people to those curios collections and replicate that same feeling? It’s absolutely possible, and at this point bordering on necessary.

 

Bernini’s Passion

This topic is actually one of the main reasons I started this blog. I’ve made so many of my friends and coworkers listen to me as I ramble on about Gian Lorenzo Bernini for way longer than they really wanted to. Over time, I stopped when I realized that ultimately they weren’t interested at all, which eventually turned into me rambling on the internet.

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Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the indisputable love of my life, was a fiery, passionate man in everything he set his mind to. Known for his charisma and sweet-talk, as well as his fairly short temper; he fell in love with a woman with a similar disposition. However, Costanza Piccolomini was currently married to Matteo Bonarelli- Gian Lorenzo’s assistant. Of course, that didn’t stop him, and they carried on an affair anyway. That is, until he discovered his younger brother was also sleeping with the woman he loved, and as I mentioned before, he had a quick temper which was then magnified by betrayal and intense passion. Upon discovering that the rumors were indeed true, he chased his brother and attempted to murder him by beating him with an iron rod and breaking two ribs (He was pardoned thanks to his political connections). As for his beloved Costanza, he ordered an assistant to slash her face.

Of course, all of this makes it’s way into his artwork as well. You can feel the excitement and sexual energy just looking at the way the marble ripples in all his sculptures. In The Rape of Proserpina, you can feel the desire in the man, and the desperation and despair as the Sabine woman tries with all her might to break away from him.

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And then, there’s The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa– a much more pleasant depiction of sexuality. St. Teresa was a nun well known in her time for having an incredible vision from God. However, in depictions of her, she is very clearly orgasmic- a look I’m sure Bernini knew well. It’s a very interesting idea to me, conflating the religious with the sexual, since the two are generally at odds with each other, although with the passion Bernini so obviously poured into his work, it’s not surprising that he would portray Teresa with the same passion.

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Where you can argue whether or not Saint Teresa is just in the throes of heavenly contact, there is no denying the sexual nature of the memorial sculpture Bernini created for Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. The, once again, nun, is lying on her back caressing her breasts and torso, with the sheets surrounding her bunched in a suggestive manner, and of course a euphoric look on her face.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini was a man of such intense ardor and energy that you can tangibly feel it when looking at his sculptures, you get the feeling he left a piece of his soul in each one. It’s as if they’re formed out of flesh and emotion, not cold marble. They become a moment frozen in time, no longer a monument to whomever they may be dedicated. Utterly incredible.

African Art is So Underrated

For some reason, it’s often overlooked in favor of Western art.

I happened to stumble across a jazz festival in my city, and sat (and danced) through a wonderful performance by Awa Sangho of Mali, whose timbre and energy  is similar to that of another favorite of mine, Angelique Kidjo. The vibrancy of the song and dance reminded me how much I love African art. However, I will preface this saying that I really only have a background in Ewe and Yoruba art, so that’s what I’ll focus on.

It’s rather unfortunate that African art is so commonly overlooked in favor of European and American art. The people of West Africa have such a rich, vibrant culture that reflects throughout everything they create, be it song, dance, textiles, or even sculptures and masks. They pour their souls into the craft, and it’s truly incredible to see.

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The Ewe of Ghana and Togo produced (and continue to do so) wonderfully diverse and vibrant tapestries called Kente, described by the annual Kente Festival as “the web of human emotions, cultural values, social identity, ideas, and even dreams that have been woven inextricably into one unit.” A lofty claim for sure, but there’s no doubt that they’re made with extreme care.

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Ere Ibeji (twin figure), by the Yoruba of Nigeria

Art has flourished with the Yoruba people for centuries, clearly evidenced by their intricate ceremonial masks and fertility statues. For example, the statuette above was carved to protect a deceased twin from abiku, or spirits of the children born to die. The careful engraving of the hair and carving of the figure’s face, however  the features are exaggerated, show how skilled the artisans are. The masks are also incredibly detailed and really represent the heart of the group of people who make them.

The art of these people is so unlike what westerners are accustomed to, since it’s not “art” in the same sense. It’s less about creating a work of art, and more about creating something not just useful, but deeply meaningful. Everything- masks, statuettes, clothing- is crafted with such remarkable care. One thing I find interesting is there are generally no artists names’ attached since the objects  weren’t just created for the veneration of the artist, and served a function in daily life, whereas European and American art has no purpose besides being art. Yes, it can inspire thought and extricate specific emotions from the mess of human life, but if you don’t look at it, what does it do? I hope that more students and artists decide to give African art a chance, there’s so much more to learn from it than you’d initially think.