Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What mad pursuit?

I stumbled upon this ancient marble relief while poking around in the online collection of the Museum of Fine Art (Boston). They've catalogued the
entire collection, near as I can tell. The only problem is that it's difficult to find and not easy to navigate. You can take your chances on it here.

I have yet to get the background on this Greco-Roman carving. It made me think immediately of Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats. I loved the poem as a teenager (he had me at "still unravished bride of quietness") mainly because I believed its message of the universal value of art that outlives our smallness and mortality to be "a friend to man."

I didn't realize that, as the poem moves around its subject (the carvings on the "Attic shape" of the Grecian urn), Keats is describing a fairly common subject of Greek vase relief-carving. The images that inspired Keats's musings about art come from a pagan celebration scene very much like this one, a haunting "leaf-fringed legend ... of deities or mortals, or of both" that leaves us asking, "What men or gods are these? What maidens loath? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?"

Maybe we can never know the final "truth" about a work of art - or anything else, for that matter - but compelling creative works console us with their timeless presence, for we know they too arise from unknowing - and yet they're their own "answer," and at times may even persuade us of the beauty of our predicament.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty"---that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats
from Ode on a Grecian Urn, 1820

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Chauncy Ryder: "the poetic aspect of nature"

The Long Trail, Chauncy Foster Ryder, 1934

A largely forgotten master landscape painter created this large oil on display at the Currier Museum in Manchester, NH in 1934.

You won't find Chauncy Foster Ryder in any of the standard art history books. But thanks to the Web's incredible ability to share information, you can acquaint yourself completely with him here.

Bear Creek, Chauncy Foster Ryder, undated

Ryder's style corresponds to that of other pre-WWII, post-Impressionist landscape painters of New England who are better known, but still relatively obscure, such as John Enneking, Charles Hawthorne, and John F. Carlson. As one writer saw it in 1978, Ryder painted with intuitive feeling in pursuit of "the poetic aspect of nature."

A close look at the brushwork on The Long Trail reveals the semi-abstract, exaggerated impressionism of this style. Their paint handling brought a renewing approach to the landscape tradition t a time when modernist abstraction dominated painting, and representations of nature seemed predictable and passe.

Detail, The Long Trail

As the curator of one of his current fans, Child's Gallery points out, Chauncy drew favor for "the way his landscapes engaged the aesthetic of the abstract without presenting abstract subject matter, in a time when the general public was unsure about how to approach truly abstract art."

I'd call the paint handling gestural rather than impressionistic.

Chauncy himself seems to have lived a life devoted to his art, encouraged by a supportive wife who was willing to sell everything they owned and move to Europe so he could train in France. Below is his academy painting. Depicting wary onlookers eyeing the detritus of a shipwreck, it shows that he had no problem adapting his style and subject matter to the prevailing tastes of the day.

Chauncy F. Ryder, What the Sea Gives Up, Paris Salon of 1907

And here is a visual analysis of the composition of the Currier painting that reveals some of why it works so well. In addition to the careful design, which creates a vigorous rhythm of criss-crossing vertical and horizontal lines, the center of the painting draws attention as the warmest region (in terms of warm and cool color) within an interesting alteration of warm and cool colors.
Compositional geometry of The Long Trail

The status and interpretations of Ryder's work raises a couple questions for me. What does it mean that Ryder's work was forgotten (or almost) in favor of the more experimental, perhaps more adventurous and "progressive" of the modernists and abstract expressionists of his time? Is characterizing his approach as "poetic" an apology for his lack of innovation? Was he just not "going far enough" when he put one foot in the abstract expressionist camp but stuck to "safe" familiar and appealing subjects when the general public was "unsure about how to approach truly abstract art?" Can the "poetic" quality be separated from the quasi-abstraction to legitimate his paintings in their own right? Any thoughts?

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Shimmering Still Lifes of LaFarge

Flowers in A Persian Porcelain Water Bowl, 1861

John LaFarge had the kind of restless innovator's talent that drives someone from obsession to obsession.

LaFarge (1835-1910) broke ground in color theory, stained glass (he invented opalescent glass), illustration, printing (he pioneered the huge influence of Japanese silk screens on American artists), criticism, landscape painting (some of his near-abstract sky-scapes look downright postmodern to me - how radical they must have seemed in 1874)...

I don't think anyone has done the scholarship needed to catalogue and make available the extent of the work of this multi-talented and very influential figure. But it's clear that he surrendered to his own individualistic muse, seizing upon things he loved in various media and synthesizing them into new forms.

LaFarge's Flowers in Flowers in A Persian Porcelain Water Bowl is unusual for its delicate overall tonal color effect - it's like we're viewing the whole scene through an opalescent, diaphanous gauze.

Boston's Gardner Museum has a landscape (a snowy New England barn roof jutting up under a high, cerulean sky) by LaFarge but they don't allow photographs, and sadly the work isn't included in their "masterpieces of the collection" catalogue. So we'll have to content ourselves for now with this gorgeous still life and this part-random spray of petals, leaves, and blossoms that goes by the name Apple Blossoms.

Apple Blossoms, oil on wood, 1878

Apple Blossoms shows the synthesis of Japanese printmaking and North American subject matter. It lives by virtue of its shallow yet lively semi-abstraction.

This painting's flattened patterning of background petals, leaves, lights, and shadows, forms a variegated skein of color and texture over which LaFarge floats the pink and white flowers presumably still on the branch. Rather like Matisse (b. 1869) would later, LaFarge here successfully poises the painting halfway between naturalistic representation and decorative abstraction.

Hats off to an American innovator who rightly followed his muse across the boundary lines and who I'm sure one day will be far better known than he is now.

Monday, November 8, 2010

What To Do When There's Nothing To Do

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Brook at Medfield, 1889

I once owned a children's book that turned any ordinary kitchen into a playground.

The unspoken premise was that boredom is learned; we get used to being involved in this or that pre-existing activity, so that, thrown back on our own resources, we miss the inborn creative ability to turn cooking utensils into airplanes, robot parts, and percussive musical instruments.

Approached with a liberated imagination, a fully "engaged" painting of the simplest and blandest stretch of ho-hum scenery can reinvent and renew the world.

I saw this painting by Dennis Miller Bunker at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston this weekend. In person, it's stunning; its sheer sense of energy recalls something by Vincent van Gogh. And yet, who else out scouting for something to paint, would have seen exactly that potential in a boggy field of weeds and wildflowers?

Bunker's painting has none of the traditional hallmarks of "great" landscape art. Its lines lead the eye into the painting, where the hills create interesting interlocking shapes, but it ignores so many of the other guidelines (think high contrast, rhythmic line, the "rule of threes"). It has no hidden symbolic messages to impart. It makes no grandiose claims for the relationship between God, humanity, and the universe. It's not a painting "of" anything in particular (a noble stand of old-growth trees, say, or a still lake radiant with reflections).

I pass dozens of little parcels like the one in The Brook at Medfield on my way to and from the colleges and studios where I teach. Such "backlot" scenes don't present themselves as ideal subjects; they lack a dialectic of dominant and sub-dominant forms and a strong single point of interest.

Works like this one remind me that the purpose of painting isn't to create imitations of beautiful Nature, but rather to make beautiful things - to reinvent the world by reinventing the subject, whatever it is, no matter how unglamorous (and in some cases the more unglamorous and "ordinary" the better).

After being blown away by this painting of "nothing," I think I'm going to find it harder to come up with valid reasons not to go out and just paint whatever's there to meet the eye. It's another reminder to me that art really isn't about what you paint but how you see.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Coreggio: Head in the Clouds?

Antonio de Coreggio was by all accounts an introverted character prone to fits of melancholy. A post-High Renaissance artist, he was born into a large, poor family in rural Italy, and while he married a local girl, she died ten years after their union.

Specific origins for his enormous skills are hard to trace, and he's considered something of an enigma because there's not much of a thread to connect his productions.

In mid-career, he takes time off from Christian Madonnas and Adorations of the Magi's to paint a series of deeply sensual and daringly erotic paintings, including Jupiter and Io (left), 1531-32.

Originally intended for a wealthy patron's "private Ovid room" (just what I've always ... wanted?), these paintings illustrate the loves of Zeus/Jupiter.

As tallied by Ovid in Metamorphoses, the Olympian tries to stay under his wife Hera's radar by appearing to his paramours in various disguises including a swan, a stream of gold, and a cloud. Coreggio's interpretation of the latter manifestation, in which Jupiter nebulously envelopes a young woman named Io, is striking.

Look carefully at the area of cloud near Io's face. That's Jupiter peering out as he makes love to the maiden. the god's "arm" - really a giant thundercloud paw - rests on her hip.

In Leda and the Swan, painted the same year, it appears there's something of a cygnerian orgy going on - three young women in various stages of seduction by swans! Understanding what's going on with the woman who's being dressed by an attendant suggests a different interpretation - the idea that Leda is, as one encyclopedia puts it, "shy but satisfied,"suggests that we're meant to read the scene as a sequence.

To the far right then, Zeus approaches Leda via the stream to tempt her with his swanly wiles - she resists but she's clearly charmed. In the center of the painting, the main attraction: Coreggio paints Leda openly yielding to Zeus's lust. And in the final scene, the one with the attendant dressed in red (red=passion) about to cover Leda's body, we perceive the flushed gratitude of the "satisfied" maiden, and the god-in-the-form-of-a-swan flies off.

Coreggio, Leda and the Swan, 1532

Heady stuff for deeply Christian 16th century Italy! But interesting to look at, no?