Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Path to Cubism

Nicolas Poussin  1594 - 1665

A few years after Nicolas Poussin painted Landscape with Saint John in 1640 the French Royal Academy adopted the artist’s opinions as its ultimate authority on painting.  As a classicist painter Poussin believed his highest aim was to appeal to the rational mind, depicting the Platonic ideal, a view of what the world would be if only nature were perfect.  As such, his landscapes are as carefully arranged as stage props in a theater presentation.  People are captured in noble gesture, static as though modeled from ancient Greek or Roman statues.  They are as adverse to true emotion as is the corsage fixed to a chiffon swathed breast at the prom dance.

Landscape with St. John at Patmos  1640

Paul Cezanne  1839 - 1906

Paul Cezanne exiled himself from the Impressionist art scene of Paris, preferring an isolated existence in a village near Mont Sainte-Victoire, a mountain view he would obsessively paint time and again, an image that was often represented in his later work.  He wasn't interested in the charms of everyday life as depicted by Renoir or the play of light captured by Monet.  Cezanne was quite familiar with the works of art inhabiting the Louvre, including the paintings of Poussin, and he admired their solid, controlled approach.  But Cezanne wasn't interested in capturing the surface reality that fascinated both Impressionists and traditional painters alike.  He sought the inspiration given him by the natural world and portray it with a new reality of paint on canvas.  These works would not be expressions of rapture but, rather, a studied, deliberate analysis of form defined by color.  Cezanne would famously say that all objects of nature are based on cone, sphere and cylinder.  His exploration for qualities beneath the accident of appearance lead him to simplicities found in abstraction and a surface image mostly ignorant of perspective.  The paintings of Cezanne increasingly developed an identity independent of the objects they defined.

Sainte Victoire  1895

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon  1907

Georges Braque  1882 - 1963

1907 was a momentous year in the development of Georges Braque the artist.  This was the year he viewed a large retrospective of Cezanne’s work and was also exposed to Picasso’s challenging painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, with its aggressive flattened figures and provocative mask-like images reflecting the influence of African sculpture.  Contained in the works of these two artists were the sensibilities that would influence much that was new to art in the 20th century.  Braque soon began his own investigation into painting a personal reality that quickly evolved into what became known as Cubism.  His Seaport, painted the following year, exhibited characteristics adopted by this new movement – pictorial details were eliminated to emphasize geometrical form, space was restricted to a flat picture plane and the palette was severely limited so that color would not distract from the exploration of forms.  His efforts attracted the attention of the young, ambitious Pablo Picasso.  Together, their search would lead them to the verge of total, non-objective art; art without visual reference to the natural world.  But neither were willing to take that final step of art that was purely art for art’s sake. 

Seaport  1908

Pablo Picasso  1881 - 1973

Picasso’s 1910 Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler is as close as the artist would come to eliminating objects of the visual world from his canvas.  Details of the subject’s face are clearly present as are his clasped hands but the painting is mostly abstraction with little concern for depicting illusion.  Picasso’s interest in Cubism had, by now, peaked and he would soon leave any further exploration  of its potential to Braque.   Picasso was too much the story teller, too engaged with his imaginative, unique emotional expression of humanity to discard it all in favor of works meditating on the color blue or a simple black line crossing a field of white.  That would be a talent wasted – much like the loquacious writings of Walt Whitman or Allen Ginsberg being abandoned in favor of adopting the limited, austere poetry of Japanese haiku.  The artist must first know his own mind in order to choose his correct path.

Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler  1910

Monday, February 25, 2013

Portraits of the Inner Life

artist:  Edouard Manet

Engrossed with the mind’s inner life, images form from memory and are colored by the richness of emotion.  Here visual perception serves no purpose, contributing only distraction from one’s true, compelling thoughts.  The eyes become locked, absent of duty, and parked in unfocused gaze into idle space.  Ears, equally inattentive, fall deaf to intelligible sound.  A remembered moment is played, reset and played again.  The woman is fixed, lost in a wistful presence, oblivious to a hundred boisterous voices mixed with the occasional laughter raised to the level of an animal call sweeping through a jungle gloom.

A Bar at the Folies - Bergeres  1882

artist:  Rembrandt van Rijn

What can we make of the introspection displayed in Rembrandt’s portrait of this older man dressed in his finery?  Once again the gaze into indeterminate space is evidence that the image viewed is one that lies behind the eyes, playing out in some illuminated recess of the mind.  What is revealed by the arch of the left brow and slight upturn to the corner of the mouth?  Upon further conjecture does he feel he is now witness to a discovery of some satisfaction?  Does the grip of the right hand give proof of new resolve?  Has he cinched a tactical victory in business, politics or love by seeing the future three moves ahead?  The artist says it doesn’t matter the specific nature of his subject’s thoughts so long as you understand this man approaches life as he would were he playing a game of chess.  He’s confident, used to having the upper hand.

Portrait of Jan Six  1654

artist:  Edgar Degas

Slumped, round shouldered in her proud, new attire, she contemplates loss.  Her drink as forgotten as is she herself.  Downcast eyes fixed possibly on dust gathered along the edges of a scuffed floor.  It little matters.  The mind savors the irony of an earlier hour, light with joyous expectation.  Now she waits out her sentence.  Her suitor has flown.

L'absinthe  1876

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Good Morning Jacob...

Letter to My Son
Sunday, 24 February

Run Jacob Run

Good Morning Jacob…

It’s wet and cold here, puddles everywhere.  The rain’s been passing through for two days now.  Temperatures don’t get much above freezing.  Everything’s just about the way I like it.  There’s a real edge in the air, like a jazz ensemble with a mean streak – sulking piano, a sax that barks and agitated drums about ready to go postal.  I’m all fingernails on blackboard, using black India ink to scratch white off paper.  You want somewhere?  This is how it is when you find it.  All you really need finally makes sense.

This too shall pass.  You can’t keep throwing strikes.  Winning streaks have to be shared with others.  That’s the rumor.  So far, it’s held to be true.  No one life was ever big enough to always be sitting on top of the world.  Anyone thinking otherwise winds up like the Roman Emperor Caligula – hopelessly insane with delusions of grandeur.  On the humble human scale, there’s a rock waiting to stub your toe and coffee tables were designed to bruise your shin.  You get an A on a paper, knock in a home run and your girlfriend breaks up with you, all in the same week.  Life always finds ways to even out.  It’s called building character. 

Anyone ever admired in life earned the respect of others because they weathered tough times, accepted setbacks without excuses, made difficult personal changes to themselves, became more selfless and wound up a better person for it.  If there’s reasons why we’re here in the first place, finding understanding and self knowledge has to be a big part of it.  Each day contributes many ways for us to demonstrate who we are and what we’ve learned.  Most of the time it concerns seemingly small matters that often tests our patience and our degree of respect for others.  The truth is I’ve always found these issues challenging.  The more self absorbed I become the more likely it is I’ll step in front of you and grab that final sale item.  I’m really lost if I applaud myself for it, ka-ching! 

We never stop learning to grow up.  So much of what we discover seems to be about perspective and how much of it is centered on ourselves.  Always thinking what’s in it for me is a problem because its always – we’re never satisfied.  What kind of path to happiness is that?  Fortunately this doesn’t describe human nature.  It’s an exception, a neurosis.  I’m not one who believes people are born in sin.  We are born well equipped to live decent lives given the opportunity.  Being brought into a world of brutal situations and surrounded by damaged people would warp the mind of any individual just starting out.  It’s a very costly cycle that human society has been slow to recognize for the harm it perpetuates.  Each life wronged early on indeed becomes like a problem apple in a barrel and affects all that surround them. 

It’s been a good day, all and all.  Sometimes I feel as though I’m chipping away at rock, without certainty as to what it is I’m trying to achieve.  After today’s effort I’m no closer to puzzling out my final outcome but I sure like the way the chips fell.


Friday, February 22, 2013

Good Morning Jeremy...

Letter to My Son
Friday, 22 February

Ingmar Bergman

Good Morning Jeremy…

I haven’t been saving anything to date.  I’ve spent freely on my interests.  Lately I’ve been engrossed with the films of Ingmar Bergman.  He died maybe five years ago and, for all I know, he may be lost to history.  His movies have nothing of the Hollywood treatment, meaning that he violates rules – Persona has many extreme close-ups with long monologues to the camera – and personal interaction is seldom softened by wit and humor.  People aren’t heroic in an inflated way.  Sentiment is often missing but not wholly absent. 

Artists are bastards and Bergman is no exception.  He recognizes this and presents the artist as ineffectual and weak.  The attraction they have for women on a personal level is depicted as the need of the fearful for the protection of the womb.  I don’t find this depiction appealing but I recognize elements of truth.  I am generally interested in Bergman because he has an obsessive interest in human nature and, in particular, the nature of women. 

I love Bergman but I think you have to either watch him alone or with someone of like mind.  I watch all my movies alone.  These include movies with directors other than Bergman.  Today I’ll again watch Peter Watkins drama on the artist Edvard Munch, which happens to be the movie’s title.  Last night I watched Midnight Cowboy.  I had forgotten Joe Buck actually killed a man.  It was the timing and the nature of the murder that makes it particularly compelling.  It changes the complexion of the film’s ending.  I’m still mulling on it in this light.

I still love Fellini.  8 1/2 remains my standout favorite.  La Dolce Vita and La Strada are very strong.  I have to take another look at Satyricon.  It’s been years since I last saw it.  It’s sitting here but it just keeps getting pushed down the list of priorities. 

I think you might be interested in seeing Beasts of the Southern Wild.  It was released this year and it’s directed by a young man still in his twenties – Benh Zeitlin.  I absolutely hate the depiction of kids in most films and I don’t care for their acting either.  Here’s an exception to this rule – Quvenzhane Wallis, 6 years old.  Her strong performance carried this film.  Remarkable.   

Movies have always been about entertainment – filling the seats and selling popcorn – so I’m not stressed about the films currently in the theatres.  I just don’t go all that often.  Recently I saw Zero Dark Thirty and I liked it.  I know there’s been quite a stink about the depiction of water boarding leading to a key clue in revealing the location of Bin Laden.  The screen writers acknowledge themselves that this wasn’t true but they felt they had to include dramatization of water boarding and this was their rationale.  I’m not disturbed by it.  In fact, the only thing that disturbed my viewing of the movie was the guy sitting behind me.  There’s not much music sound bed with the film so I could hear him crunching his way through a family sized barrel of popcorn.  Here was real inhumane torture.  Finally, he was done.  Thank God!  Then I heard the unwrapping of cellophane and the smack chopping of a candy bar.  Christ!  It was no sooner finished when a second cellophane wrapped candy bar began to uncoil before my ears.  That was all I could take.  I had to immediately move two rows away.  I’m sure he was emitting butter drenched popcorn gas just in time for the film’s exciting conclusion.

Some movies require the big screen experience but, on the whole, I prefer to avoid the Indiana Jones Saturday Matinee crowd.  I prefer to watch my depressing fare with a strong cup of coffee in an isolated room, tenderly nursing my silent, thoroughly satisfying personal sense of despair.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Good Morning Jack...

Letter to My Son
Sunday, February 17

Good Morning Jack…

A soft snow fell today, like sprung feathers from a burst pillow, covering with white the yellow flowered daffodils that dare push Spring into the cold wind of early February.  Jake, the dog, wore his bright red sweater to dinner, the one with the emblem of a bone stitched about his shoulders.  I’ve been taunting Mother Nature to provide us a layer of Winter and it has now, finally, come to pass.  Overnight the frozen air fixes our frosting blanket into a snap, crackling icy brittle.  It’s guaranteed to give Sunday morning church-goers pause.

I always wonder how you and the family are doing.  You turn sixteen this year.  That is so beyond the age I last knew you.  I doubt I would recognize you if our paths were now to cross.  I would more likely know you from words you might write me on the page.  You were already developing an enthusiasm for expressing yourself in words at a very young age.  The four of you kids all have lively minds, yours probably the most serious.  What hope I have is meant for good fortune to be shared by you all.  Yes, of course, I include your mother.  She shamelessly spoils all of you, I’m sure. 

Lately, I’ve taken to drawing with ink again.  It’s all very tight, jagged and busy.  I haven’t a clue if there’s any meaning to be found here.  I really prefer to work empty headed.  Rarely have I carried through to completion any image of a preconceived notion.  The line starts on the paper with one thing in mind only to veer into something else at the first suggestion of another tangent.  There’s no point in fighting it.  These persistent, insatiable really, quirks provide us our identity.  They put our fingerprints all over the page.  Take this method from me and I fall out of love.  For me art is the expression of our own particular version of humanity.

You don’t arrive at sixteen without experiencing the life fulfilling emotion that is love.  Can we agree that it is a powerful mystery and, for simple human beings such as ourselves, it should always remain so.  That’s not really a question.  I don’t care to know the chemical structure of its potion.  It wouldn’t matter to me.  Is there an artist afraid of love?  Yes.  It does tend to tip the apple cart.  We’re sometimes left stranded on deserted shores.  But we return mesmerized by its flame.  You just don’t fight what is responsible for human life.  If turned away by a door slammed shut we soon find the courage to search elsewhere.  This is as it should be.  There’s probably a Biblical verse somewhere that says that very thing, only expressed in the manner of King James.

Imagine a portrait of the one you love done only in the most brilliant of primary colors – true blue, spring green, scarlet red and sunburst yellow.  It goes without saying midnight black and snow white are also invited.  Give the assignment to fifty artists.  The result would surprise you with the ingenious breadth of the human imagination.  This is the core of what people are about when we feel unconstrained by circumstance of fear and, instead, filled with energy for exploration when being guided by the most positive of light.  This sense of overwhelming empowerment works equally well with mechanics, engineers and chefs only they use tools familiar to their trade – like wrenches, calculators and ladles.  

Next time let’s think about something entirely different in approach.  Maybe we’ll consider the role of diplomacy in a world no longer provided the buffers of space and time.  We might decide to crack the lid and peer into speculation on how the human mind formulates existence.  That sounds stimulating but also very ambitious.  Maybe we’ll settle for talking about appreciating the taste of fruit.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Good Morning Jessicca...

Letter to My Daughter
Sunday, February 10

Rodger Dodger Jessicca

Good Morning Jessicca…

Going back many years when I was young I had a minor job at the Palo Alto Cultural Center in Northern California.  I helped set up and take down exhibits and generally make myself available for small tasks to do.  One afternoon I set up the chairs in the Center’s large auditorium for the evening’s one man performance by a noteworthy actor.  The paid audience grew to standing room only.  The evening was an enormous success and when the actor concluded his performance everyone gave him a rousing ovation to show their appreciation. 

The performer’s paycheck was in an envelope handed me the following day to deliver to him personally.  His address was in a pleasant neighborhood.  It was that of a shaded room with its own separate entry onto a brick patio, behind a large, imposing home.  He met me outside, a man in company with a cat harboring about his legs, both appearing in need of a kick start morning coffee.  Like many an actor, musician, artist and writer, he probably chose his calling early, when ideals meant youthful adventure.  Now, middle-aged, he undoubtedly had been given reason enough, long ago, to abandon his plans. 

Society is built with the labor of people, like my uncle, who chose a career because it offered the kind of steady wages needed to raise a healthy family.  One’s own dreams are often subordinated for the sake of a marriage, one’s children, and a safe home near good schools.  My uncle chose engineering even though mathematics gave him no joy.  Still, the Thanksgiving table was guaranteed abundant with good food, there were always presents under the Christmas tree, the driveway had a reliable car available and there was a set of Encyclopedia Britannica in the living room.  Sure, he sometimes had to move to follow the work – often buying homes at inflated prices and eventually selling them when there was no market.  It was Indiana to Texas to California to Florida to Oklahoma and then, back to Texas.  On this basis he raised four children, saw each of them married and have children of their own.  His own marriage lasted over fifty years. 

When making our choices it is important to keep in mind that we can’t have it all.  Life requires commitment from us if our values are to have meaning.  We are not born with our character fully formed.  It is built from the actions we take.  Every major decision made by us involves both satisfying gain and a degree of personal loss.  The loss we experience has value, as well.  Knowing what we’ve sacrificed is knowing something of who we are – the degree of our passion, the determination behind our commitment… and maybe the folly of our choice. 

The actor sits reading in his room shared with a cat, waiting for that rare call to appear live upon the stage.  If only I had listened to my Dad and become an engineer.  How good would life have been?


Sunday, February 3, 2013

Good Morning Justin...

Letter to My Son
Sunday, February 3
Good Morning Justin…

It’s Super Bowl Sunday.  I think I will root for the Ravens this year.  I figure any team that can beat Tom Brady and the Patriots in their home stadium during the play offs, deserves to win it all and probably will.  That’s my guess, anyway. 

I was a high school student working as a dishwasher in a cafeteria on the day of the first NFL-AFL championship game between Kansas City and Green Bay.  It wasn’t yet the national spectacle it is today.  In fact the Los Angeles Coliseum was half empty that Sunday as the Packers handily beat the old American Football League Chiefs.  It took flamboyant quarterback Broadway Joe Namath and his New York Jets to upset heavily favored Baltimore to make the game a celebrated event.  It was no longer just a championship game in sports.  It had truly become the Super Bowl. 

If I watch the game today it will be the first Super Bowl I’ve seen since Ely Manning and the New York Giants first beat New England a few years back.  I’ve lost track of football and sports, in general.  Narrowing my time to interests most important to me is probably a natural part of aging.  I never decided to turn off sports.  My vitality as a fan merely slipped away.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t see myself old and decrepit.  I’m just changed.

Life has stages.  Yours is Starting Out and with great vigor.  We could just as easily call it the Hurrah! stage as that would truly fit you.  One of my great memories of you was your first game in Little League – T-Ball to be exact.  You were placed at Short Stop but when the ball rolled past the First Baseman into Right Field you could be seen running full speed after it.  Somehow the concept of just watching something didn’t make sense to you.  After the play the coach came out to remind you your position would be Short Stop.  In your heart, though, you knew he must be kidding and you continued scrambling after the ball no matter where it was hit.  You had two strong legs, stout heart and great desire to always be in the center of the action.  You’ve since learned to play your position but you remain for me that kid, always chasing action like the wind.