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Las Meninas

Las Meninas

Las Meninas, by Diego Velasquez. 1656

Perhaps the first post-modernist painting, well before the period assigned to that name. Pespective. Multiple perspectives. Meta. About painting. About the act of painting. Velasquez paints Velasquez. This is not a pipe. This is not Velasquez. Are we, the audience, looking at the painter painting us? Or, does our vanity blind us and prevent us from seeing that it is the king and queen of Spain in that mirror, not you? Or eye. Too easy, that one.

Mirrors. Pictures within pictures, plays within plays within plays. Rubens on the wall. Hamlet stages Shakespeare. Velasquez stages Nietzsche. Velasquez stages Barth and Coover and Barthelme and McElroy.

All is vanity as the Infanta Margarita tires of being painted. So tired, they have to bring in her court dwarves to keep her in the picture. Is Velasquez mocking the royal family, mocking their pride? The dawn of the Enlightenment and the precursor of the postmodern.

I think he wanted us to talk about this mystery for centuries, just like Joyce wanted us to talk about Ulysses. Finding something new each time we gaze at it. The structure. The composition. The light. Dig up all of the gossip on the royal family. Entertainment Tonight.

Vermeer tries similar things, as far as structure and meta painting, though he has no connection with royal families.

The Art of Painting, by Jan Vermeer. 1666

Simpler. More intimate. Modest, perhaps. Calm. One could almost say there is a national difference between the two. One could see this as obvious. Stereotypes. Quick generalities that may or may not fit. And because they may or may not fit, by definition they are not accurate. The 17th century. The age of Spinoza, Leibnitz, Galileo and two extraordinary painters, Vermeer and Velasquez. But the Infanta Margarita’s maids of honor provoke the postmodern, launch it before anyone knew. Meta painting. Introspection. Vanity. And mirrors. Who knew that Freud lurked in the wings even then?

— by Douglas Pinson


Copyright ©2009, by Douglas Pinson. All Rights Reserved.


Rothko’s Paradox

Rothko’s Paradox

Mark Rothko, Untitled, c. 1950/ 1952, Oil on canvas. The Tate Modern Museum, London

 All art is paradox. But Rothko, perhaps more than any other modern painter, embraced the paradox and threw it profoundly in our faces.

The canvas is flat. You can’t enter it. You can’t go through it, if it’s hanging on the wall. At least without injury and perhaps a heavy bill from the gallery. But Rothko continuously tells the audience to do just that. Embrace the painting, enter it, walk into it, let it engulf you and torture you and shake you. Shake the core of you. He wants the painting to be a plane and an entrance way in the same bright moment. Flat and omnipresent. Pressed against the wall as it surrounds you. And he wants you to accept the paradox and reject it long enough to succumb.

“We favor the simple expression of complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”

Mark Rothko was born in Dvinsk, Russia (now Latvia) in 1903. Rather, Marcus Rothkowitz was born in that place and time. He became Mark Rothko later in life. At the age of 10, he left Russia with part of his family to join the other part in America, arriving at Ellis Island and eventually Portland, Oregon. The culture shock must have been tremendous. From a life filled with the constant threat from Cossacks and the Czar, to one with much more mundane worries. He did, however, have to grow up in a hurry, as his father, Jacob, died not long after their arrival in America. His life from that point on became more and more complex . . .

. . . If one looks only at his most famous paintings, the floating blocks of luminous color, the large canvasses he wants us to enter and celebrate, that person might mistake the surface for stasis, for the lack of evolution and emotion, for a ground that never changed for Rothko. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only did his intellectual rationale for his art evolve greatly over time, taking him from an intense study of myths, archetypes, Jung and Freud to Nietzsche and beyond . . . his artistic methods and subject matter evolved as well. Few artists, in fact, changed as dramatically as Rothko, if we look at his career from the 30s until his suicide in 1970. Another paradox. The flat, solid blocks of color, forever floating, and a whirlwind of change before and after.

“I am not an abstractionist. … I am not interested in the relationship of colour or form or anything else. … I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on — and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show that I communicate those basic human emotions. … The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!”

I have sat for many an endless moment in front of his paintings, most recently in Washington D.C. Rather than make me weep, they generally bring me tremendous waves of calm and peace. Even though I’m guessing he wasn’t shooting for that reaction, he never did want to limit them or define them or jail them. Enter the painting was all. Only connect was all.

“Art to me is an anecdote of the spirit, and the only means of making concrete the purpose of its varied quickness and stillness.”

Of course, it’s impossible to sum up a great artist. And rather ridiculous to try. But I think, in a nutshell, Rothko sought something similar to other great modernists like Nietzsche, Van Gogh, Pound, Eliot and Joyce. To reinvent myths, reinvigorate them, and introduce them back into the cultural stream. Most of the great modernists seemed to want this, saw this as vital, essential for our health and survival. Some thought this could be done only through collecting ruins, fragments, the remnant of civilization. They sensed a scattering and a loss of cultural potency that could never be reversed. Others thought the disorder and fragmentation could be overcome. I think Rothko falls into the latter category, and his floating blocks of luminous color contain the detritus of civilizations long gone. Paradoxically, they surround us with the future.


Artemisia Gentileschi: Controversial Realities

Artemisia Gentileschi: Controversial Realities

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes.1625. The Detroit Institute of the Arts

Artemisia Gentileschi lived a stormy life, to say the least. A lightning rod of sorts in her day (1593-1653) and at present, her tragically violent existence creates alternate realities for some. Years ago, I watched the movie, Artemisia, which I thought good, though inaccurate historically. Some of the inaccuracies can be forgiven, for they added beauty to the story, to the look and flow of the film. But one change is unforgivable, possibly unconscionable: the movie depicts a passionate love affair between student and teacher, between Artemisia and the artist Tassi, who actually raped her. Artemisia suffered additional violence during the subsequent trial, as she was tortured by the authorities to gain true confession. Her heroism in the face of this is apparent in her perseverence as painter, in her eventual success in that field, and in building a family of her own. The movie gives us a sense of this heroism as well.

Impacted by Caravaggio, as many artists were in her day, the painting above shows his influence at its best: the dramatic contrast, the Baroque diagonals and gestures, the strong chiaroscuro, and the high drama of violent events, often taken from the Bible. Some critics have suggested that Artemisia’s repeated use of Judith and Holofernes in her paintings is an obvious sign of personal trauma. A form of catharsis for her, perhaps. Others see it more as her desire to portray strong women in extreme situations, and bristle at the idea that she was permanently disfigured, psychologically, by Tassi’s violent attack. I think we can never really know what drove her to paint, and to paint what she chose to paint, and it’s a mistake to set up boxes for her. A violation of her freedom, yet again.

The mystery of why. Why do we express ourselves in the way we do? Why does the passage of time bring about a loosening of the desire for accuracy, a greater sense that we have the right to distort and alter and wash out events of our choosing? For some. For others, that passage brings a sense of duty to adhere to historical realities, even to strip away falsehoods in order to go back to the truth . . . . the way Michelangelo talked about sculpting . . . that the truth was already there in the stone . . . that it was his duty to get to it, chip away the lies, chip away the trivial and the literally superfluous.

Artemisia’s life and works have stood the proverbial test of time. Her heroism moves me whenever I think about it. Perhaps the diversity of reaction to Artemisia, when all is said and done, is merely a summa, a testament to that life of overcoming adversity, creating art, becoming immortal.


The Judgment of Paris

The Judgment of Paris

Le Déjeuner sur L’herbe, by Edouard Manet. Musee d’Orsay.

 Reading a very interesting book by Ross King, The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism.

About 70 pages in, the book concentrates primarily (so far) on Edouard Manet and Ernest Meissonier, the future and the recent past for art in France, cerca 1863. The pivot point being that year’s Salon and its Salon des Refuses, which Napoleon III helps insure. It’s detailed, without getting bogged down, and general enough to cover the ground necessary to carry us toward the first Impressionist showing in 1874.

King puts things in context by discussing the Second Empire, the bureaucracy that led to shutting out so many great artists from the main salon, and why. A clash of cultures, a clash between the old guard and the new, between those who believe artists should portray heroic scenes from a classical past, and those who want to democratize the process, paint the present, paint the now, warts and all. There is discussion of technique as well, showing the difference between the old and young, those who smooth away their brush strokes and those who revel in them, proudly displaying the movement of their hand across the canvas.

Enjoying the book thoroughly.


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