Yesterday I got to hold $6000-$9000 (estimate, they’re up for auction soon) worth of art by one of my favorite artists. I was able to pick up a cast bronze bust by Egon Schiele and feel with my own thumbs how he would’ve built up the form in the original clay, gently but decidedly pressed in two lumps of clay to create the eyes with just enough detail for your brain to know exactly what they represent. I was allowed to lift up the protective matting on one of his smaller drawings and closely inspect the linework that I’ve only seen reproduced online or in my art history books.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Van Gogh finally gets his time to shine, a few years too late
In the last few years, I’ve noticed an incredibly large amount of art history thrown onto anything and everything- from Frida Kahlo earrings (I had a pair), Hieronymus Bosch Doc Martens (high on my wishlist), to it’s popularity in meme culture. Art history is everywhere, but there’s one particular movement that sticks out, Post-Impressionism. In particular, Van Gogh.
You can find his paintings anywhere, Doctor Who (this clip made me cry the first time I watched it, fair warning), socks, even my dad had a phone case with Starry Night! He’s also the subject of the first fully hand-painted movie, titled Loving Vincent, which took over 100 individual artists to complete. Needless to say, the world has an intense infatuation with Vincent, and his work deserves it. The man was a genius.
Vincent’s incredible popularity I believe can be attributed to a host of things, first and foremost being his ingenuity in both color and linework. If you were to take a look at any one of his sketches, finished drawings, or most definitely paintings, you would see that every single line he lays is describing the plane of the surface it rests on. Every single line. In addition, his markmaking is ridiculously descriptive of the textures he is attempting to capture, all while retaining it’s impressionistic feel. Not only does he use the line work of the piece to emphasize form, he also is incredibly skilled in color theory. He meticulously chose colors based on their compliments, even writing about his choices in a letter to his brother, Theo. He chose his colors from the specific color wheel created by the chemist Eugène Chevreul after reading about his take on color theory. He places colors directly, or extremely close to their complimentary colors in order to make the color really pop.
In addition to his creative genius and technical skill, I believe that a part of people’s love for his work reflects a slow shift in society’s contemporary artistic values from heavy abstraction to more of an appreciation for technical skill, particularly when it’s used to express emotion.
All in all, dear Vincent truly deserves the posthumous fame he’s garnered, no matter the reason. Anyone- art lover or not, can enjoy Starry Night, and it’s bringing art back to pop culture. Although to be honest, I just really enjoy buying everyday items covered in art.