Archive for the 'Painting' Category

Art in London

A while back, I took a trip to London in order to look at paintings and sculptures. As I did on my trip to Paris, I made notes of my tours of the British Museum, Victoria and Albert, National Gallery, and the Tates and these posts are based on those notes. I’m pretty much uneducated in art matters, so the result is a sort of reconstructed memory of my effort to educate myself. Here’s a list of the posts minus the romances, little scenes which I attached to certain Modernist paintings:

(1) Meeting Old Friends in the British Museum
(2) The Arrogant Spectator
(3) The Elgin Marbles
(4) The Mona Lisa of the British Museum
(5) Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas
(6) Gods Are Dead and I Feel Fine
(7) Sunshine Horrorshow
(8) Shape and Texture
(9) How Good Can You Get?
(10) Whaam!
(11) Just Express Your Feelings
(12) Explosive Decompression
(13) Who Owns Andy Warhol?
(14) A Flange of Venuses
(15) It Was Ever Thus
(16) It Was Ever Tush
(17) Allez, vivants, luttez, pauvres futurs squelettes
(18) The Hapsburg Jaw
(19) J’en ai assez de ces putains de serpents!
(20) Paint Orgasm
(21) Cartoon Saints
(22) Off with His Head Already!
(23) Virgins and Their Children
(24) Past the Wit of Man
(25) And After the World Exploded
(26) Paint / Glass / Rage
(27) Messianic Complexes
(28) A Sight I Didn’t See
(29) Hodge-Podge
(30) Bernini Clinical
(31) Truth and/or Reality

There’s a tendency for these to get more bizarre as the paintings become more abstract and hence have less to say. That could also be taken as an issue with editing and quality control, but this is an internet blog and both of those terms are, after all, the very opposites of quality control. Therefore, don’t expect carefully constructed essays with each post. You might call them “impressions” if you have to call them something.

Truth and/or Reality

There are some artworks I’ve tried to take in which just don’t seem to make sense to me. Many of these are from the Romantic period and John Constable is a good example of one. It’s not clear why they seem so dead to me, but I would think it has something to do with the fact that similar scenes, sometimes called chocolate box art, are toned down and relatively neutral to the eye.

Source: Wikipedia

Dedham Vale 1802
Perhaps it’s the MTV-reared kid in me that wants entertainment instead of refinement, or the thrill-seeking intellectual daredevil I like to picture myself as in my daydreams, or an eye used to photographic detail, but despite their status as masterpieces, they do not do much for me.

Source: Wikipedia

The Hay Wain 1821
The French became huge fans of his work and he provided inspiration for Géricault and Delacroix, two Romantic painters whose stuff I absolutely love. Why, then, is this British master so bland to my tastes? Maybe there is a psychological reason to all this and I’m trying to force myself to like these landscapes like I tried to force myself to like cauliflower, or believe in God, because my parents-cum-superego told me that’s the proper thing to do. Thing is, I never put much weight on Freud either.

Source: Wikipedia

Brighton Beach with Colliers 1824
In short, I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at Constables, trying to figure out what their point is. I’ve done this more than with some paintings I actually like. Compared to other English Romantic landscape painters like Turner, he still seems boring. Turner’s paintings, even his landscapes, are filled with action and strange colors and various weird effects and points of focus which make them exciting. In comparison, Constable is stiff and starched, very much unexciting. Why is he considered one of the greats? I have no idea, but it supposedly has something to do with truth and reality. Maybe that’s what gets in the way.


Victor Pasmore was a pioneer of British abstract art. I didn’t really mark any of his abstract stuff in the Tate, but one of his more traditional paintings caught my eye:

Source: Wikipedia

It’s a scene of the Thames that mixes the styles of Turner and Whistler. Sometimes pastiche works.

Messianic Complexes

Before the Internet existed, geniuses with an unfaltering love of themselves flocked under the The Death of Chatterton, a painting by Henry Wallis.

Source: Wikipedia

That constant interplay of amour-propre and amour de soi, the fine line between self-esteem and pride we all must tread, was roped together with sterner stuff back then. At least the rhetoric that kept pride in check still had the mighty finger of eighteenth-century moralism wagging vigorously, but that changed as the story of Western civilization approached the mechanical destruction of humanity in the two Great Wars. Thomas Chatterton was to miss all that, Henry Wallis would be around for the first couple of years of the First World War, albeit a very old man with failing eyesight. The former did not poison himself to make a dramatic gesture but to escape the ravages of hunger and poverty. It also sounds like he was nuts, but it’s hard to tell of people who do not make it past eighteen. A boy’s pride is his life at that age.

The symbolic significance of Chatterton was forged by Wallis’s picture, but also by Wordsworth, Shelley, Rossetti, Coleridge, Byron, and a whole host of poets who saw in him a great subject for flights of Romantic fancy. In these immortal works of art we can find something that is lacking on the Internet, the culmination of human technological achievement: genuine pathos. If one looks at online discussions on public forums on general topics, the first response to any message will likely be someone trying to act as the valiant straight-talker whose skillful one-liner bursts the bubble of the emotional charge set up by whatever was said to initiate the discussion. One does not usually do this with the masters of English literature, because anyone who has taken time to learn to read them values their craft too much to pee in the proverbial pool. So, if we are to think of Chatterton as a martyr for some cause free for us to choose, let us think of him as our Messiah of pathos and civilized discussion thereof.

Paint / Glass / Rage

When one walks into a gallery filled with masterpieces, it is almost a hallucinatory experience. The physical reminders of the journey there with the usual aches and pains of travel melt away as sore feet carry the viewer through halls where genius materialized hangs on the walls. All the crowds around the paintings are insignificant, all the noises of school parties and their teachers bellowing commands, all that quiets down and one is faced with something that tells of the otherworldly skill and dedication of the artist and restores one’s faith in humanity and its shared existence in the world. The volume of the surrounding world slides down, the self stops its incessant chattering, and after a moment one snaps out of it and moves to the next work.

But sometimes there are problems, little annoyances in the paintings themselves that don’t allow a good viewing. There are numerous entries in my journal from the National Gallery in London where I’ve written down: “Glass.” There’s a sheet of glass between me and the canvas, and sometimes it ruins everything. Not always, mind you, because there were paintings that had one where my notes do not show any protest, but this happened often enough for there to be a good number of “glasses” scribbled in agitated letters. For instance, the great Bronzino‘s Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time is an exquisite example of Mannerist weirdness, but all the distracting gleams and reflections the lights and the movement of the crowds created on its surface made for a sad viewing.

Source: Wikipedia

It was still wonderful to look at, but it could have been better. There’s probably a good reason for the glass, vandals and whatnot, but it’s a sorry sight because it somehow reminds one of the fast food age we live in. I don’t know if that makes sense, because for all I know Renaissance paintings might have been placed behind a glass to begin with, but I doubt it. By the way, Monty Python fans will recognize Cupid’s foot in that Bronzino.

Vermeer is a painter whose stuff I’ve always wanted to see, but sadly I’ve managed to get a glimpse of only a couple of his paintings. I can’t explain it, but I think they are just about the greatest things ever splashed on a canvas. There was one in the National Gallery.

Source: Wikipedia

It’s called Lady Seated at a Virginal and I’ve written in my notebook: “I just want to touch it.” Maybe that’s why there’s a glass disfiguring this one as well. It just didn’t settle because of it, the light went all over the place and created reflections which made it impossible to find a spot in the hall which would have enabled me to see the painting in its entirety.

Source: Wikipedia

It seems like many of the Vermeers have found their way to New York. That seems like a long way to go to see his paintings, but I just might have to cross the ocean to see them properly. Are they behind glass screens in the Met?

And After the World Exploded

It wails like something dying. An operation set by a forgotten algorithm, the whys or hows are not known or existing. It is perfect now, but where are they? Where are they? Everyone has disappeared, having forgotten what it is to be too human. Since when was death acceptable?

Source: Wikipedia

Bomberg – In the Hold (1913-4)
Do they ever (say) sneeze in the trenches and remember? Ever go back to something made alien by a non-entity nobody makes present anymore as they are ground into mincemeat unit after unit? Like Dante’s ascent, their companions become abstractions, generals, universalized souls as they move towards a token God in whose presence others are no more to one.

Source: Wikipedia

Bomberg – Ju-Jitsu (1913)
And after the world exploded the sins of our fathers would not be purged, because there is no-one left. Words do nothing, the brain means nothing; there is something hidden, but it’ll turn out to be empty every time it is discovered. There is little melodrama in it or the realization that it was made up of the banal. You can still enjoy the sight of a butterfly, it just does not mean anything.

Source: Wikipedia

Bomberg – Mud Bath (1914)
Does this change things? Yes. You cannot be a spoke in the wheel anymore because there is little use for yous in its anatomy. It wails like something dying. It is out there, someone made it count, and there is no retrieving it. All the gifts: no hope, no worries. Enforced global enlightenment made the human race disappear.

Past the Wit of Man

When it comes to painting scenes from legend and song, there are few who could match Henry Fuseli‘s ability to pick ones that are scary, twisted, and plain weird. As far as history painting goes, he’s the goth you get when you combine an appetite for literature, an admiration for Italian art, and a Romantic twist of mind. His Polyphemus, for example, surpasses anything Blake ever did, or that’s how it seems to an uncultivated peasant such as myself. But there is something even better in Tate Britain, something that overpowers Blake’s version of a scene from the same play. Namely, this thing:

Source: Wikipedia

There is very little that is sinister in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: it’s a story about a wedding party that gets lost in the woods where the spirits of the forest are playing tricks on one another. Oberon, the king of the fairies, is pissed off at his queen, Titania, and decides to get even by making her fall in love with a man with a head of an ass. Bottom the weaver happens to be nearby, so his unfortunate head receives the magical treatment that turns humans into ass-headed monsters. The main events of the play take place in the hallucinatory region where imagination and reality, myth and fact, day and night, light and dark, etc. meet and Shakespeare blends it all into a wonderful mess of a comedy where everyone gets married in the end and all is well in both the seen and unseen realms of the world.

What Fuseli has done in this scene with Bottom and Titania and her entourage is epic. The monsters are graceful, the fairies scary, the seductive figures repulsive. It is a dark painting, the light is suitable for a summer’s night, and some of the figure stare out from their mythical realm, ready to burst out a any given moment and grab you, it seems. Most of them are not too strange, because seriously grotesque monsters would be too amusing — just look at Bottom in the middle — but they are subtle distortions of the human and human-like figures we would expect to see in any history painting. It’s the little things that count, especially in the art of making the world seem strange.