Tag Archives: painting

Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty

Much of the culture world today is talking about this year’s winner of the Turner Prize for contemporary art.  Having read about and seen the work of the winner of this ever-dubious distinction, the less that I say about her the better.  So instead, let’s look at someone who produced interesting art, instead of assemblages of detritus, and see what we can learn from him.

The work of American painter Carl Schmitt (1889-1989) is a bit difficult to categorize, as his son Carl B. Schmitt, Jr. explained to us last night in a presentation at the Catholic Information Center here in Washington.  The talk was timed to the launch of a new book on his father’s work entitled “Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty”.  Mr. Schmitt is the President of the Carl Schmitt Foundation, which is dedicated to the study and appreciation of his late father’s work.

Over the course of his very long career, Schmitt worked in a number of different styles, to the point where one  cannot characterize his having a single style at all.  He made a concerted effort to insert the view of the modern artist into the study of traditional art, as his son explained.  While Schmitt was significantly influenced by some of the ideas of Cézanne and other Post-Impressionist painters, particularly with regard to the mixing of the solidity of traditional Western academic painting with the understanding of color and light developed by the Impressionists, the slides we were shown of his work represented a broad output one could not easily categorize.

In Schmitt’s work the viewer can perceive a range of artistic echoes from the past, such as the Tenebrism and  “bodegones” popular in 17th century Spain, or the work of Franco-Flemish Medieval manuscript illuminators and Elizabethan miniaturists.  Yet the resulting paintings are Schmitt’s alone, from his own day and time.  He was not a 15th century artist, but a 20th century one.  And he saw his world though the lens of his own experiences as an artist, a husband, a father, and a Catholic in the previous century.

The artist’s son noted that a very perceptible problem in contemporary art could be characterized as one of a failure to study.  “There are no Old Master painters today,” he observed, “because there are no young disciples.”  When anything can be art, as the Turner Prize repeatedly informs us, what we get more often than not is art lacking in actual art: there is no craft, or study, or mastery of technique, just an insistence that the viewer pay attention.

The quiet, often intense family portraits and still life paintings by Schmitt are the antithesis of this kind of tantrum-as-spectacle.  They do not shout at you, but invite you to linger, and to reflect.  While Schmitt is perhaps best known in Catholic circles for his religious works, I was particularly drawn to the very personal images of his wife, his children, and himself, as well as to the often deceptively simple still lives of bottles combined with objects such as eggs, garlic bulbs, and oranges, which allowed the artist to look more closely into problems of representing light and hue.  These last in particular form a body of work all the more remarkable, given how often Schmitt limited himself to a palette of only the three primary colors.

A self-confident artist who appreciates the need to treat his subject with strength and respect is someone whose work is always going to appeal to the viewer.  This type of work can be appreciated on many levels, whether for its beauty, or in the demonstration of technical skill on the part of its creator.  One can even go further and choose to try to read something more into it, yet in some cases, to paraphrase Freud, a painting is just a painting.  Schmitt’s son remarked that once, when he tried to get into a discussion with his father about one of his still life paintings, his father observed: “Don’t make up stupid theories. Just look at it.”  That was good advice then, and it is still good advice today.

To view images of Carl Schmitt’s work, or to order a copy of “Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty”, please visit the Schmitt Foundation’s website by following this link.

Cover

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Bringing Home the Bacon: Is This Worth $142 Million?

The most important season for the buying and selling of paintings has always been in the fall, and the greatest interest in those exchanges is centered primarily around the numbers coming out of the big New York auction rooms.  Not only does the art world follow the results, but financial institutions take an interest as well, since it gives them some sense of where the very wealthy are putting their funds.  These days the products of the Modern and Contemporary art world in particular are often viewed more as investments or tax write-offs, rather than as the playthings of those who have money to burn.  Thus, while sixty years ago the market was dominated by sales of Old Master paintings, and thirty years ago by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, today Modern and Contemporary Art sales act as a bellwether not only of the economy, but also of the culture.

Last week Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucien Freud” sold for $142,405,000.00 at Christie’s in New York, not only setting a new world record for the artist, but also entering the books as the single most expensive piece of art ever sold at auction.  The piece, or rather the set of three paintings, consists of three large images of a figure seated on a wooden chair, portrayed from three different angles.  Bacon (1909-1992) and Freud (1922-2011) were hugely important 20th century British artists, working in very different styles.  The fact that the former painted this colossal triptych of the latter attracted a great deal of interest, particularly given the inherent rivalries of the art world which make these types of works rare.

In comparing the work of these two men I must confess that I am (comparatively) more attracted to Freud’s work than that of Bacon.  Freud is not easy to like, exactly: the subjects of his portraits typically appear to be suffering from a particularly lumpy form of leprosy, and the skin tones in his nudes tend to remind one of a suckling pig being prepared for the oven.  However Bacon is without question the more difficult of the two to appreciate, in that his paintings are often quite terrifying and macabre, featuring zombie-like figures and creatures which stem from a nightmarish imagination.  I may have come to appreciate him more as I have grown older, but I still find much of his work decidedly off-putting.

While this series of paintings of his contemporary are not the sort of horror-film work one associates with Bacon’s repeated, hideous revisiting of Velázquez sublime “Portrait of Pope Innocent X”, or the almost H.R. Gigeresque “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion”, they are nevertheless not particularly pleasing things to look at.  As he transitioned into the 1960′s Bacon’s work became, frankly, somewhat dull, losing some of its earlier, angry quality.  The studies of Freud date from this period, and so it is hard to understand why someone thought that they were worth such a large sum.

What this auction result speaks to, beyond the general decline in taste among elites, is the all-important cult of celebrity.  Here we have a piece by one very famous artist, portraying another very famous artist.  The single most-often used word to describe this work across the news reports and press releases covering this story is “iconic”.  CNN described it as “one of Bacon’s most iconic works”, while Christie’s defined it as “an icon of 20th century art”.  If we simply take the word “icon” at its basic meaning, “image”, then of course just about anything representational can be considered “iconic”.  Obviously, this is not what was intended in the marketing attached to this picture.

When an auction house refers to a piece as “iconic”, what they are trying to tell you is that this work is so important that somehow you, too will be considered important by association, should you end up buying it.  It is rather like a keen bit of ironic observation made to me once by a Swedish architect friend, when I accompanied him and a group of glamorous – natch – Swedes to a very exclusive, members-only club in London.  “Do you know why I am important?” he asked. “I am important because I am in this club.  And you’re important too, because you are in this club. And all of these people in here? They must be important because they got into this club also. And so here we are, all being important together.”

The auction houses know that it only takes two well-funded, competitive bidders each intent on beating the other to drive the price of an auction lot beyond the estimated value of the piece.  If two billionaires want to compete, this is one of the ways that they can do so without coming to physical blows.  And the vanity attached to owning important pieces of art has been there from the beginning of collecting in general, since both the well-to-do and the average person like to have the admiration and envy of others when it comes to their possessions, whether those possessions are multi-million dollar works of art, or vintage Star Wars action figures.

The difference lies not only in the price, but in the degree to which one values possessions over what one is supposed to be doing with one’s disposable income.  Those with more money than sense will be more than happy to have those who supposedly are better-informed than they tell them that they really ought to purchase something which, with a more detached and critical eye, they would never really want to own.  Yet increasingly the idea that some things are just not worth the price, and that there is virtue in modesty and frugality even among the rich, seems to have gone out the window: the luxury has become the must-have, in order for one to be completely fulfilled as a human being.  And this notion of course, is utter rubbish.

Naturally no one wants to be the little boy pointing out that the emperor has no clothes on in this situation, for fear of ridicule and derision by one’s peers.  The risk is that one will be told that one’s taste or education or brain power is somehow faulty.  It is practically social suicide among the intelligentsia to dare to challenge the established view that such an unattractive, poorly-executed mess such as this triptych is worth an inordinate amount of money.  However the contrast between vanity and values becomes all the clearer when one considers that just six months earlier, an absolutely magnificently painted, deeply introspective portrait of a man looking into a mirror by the great 17th century Baroque painter Jusepe de Ribera sold at Christie’s London salerooms for only $1.1 million, quite a bargain compared to the Bacon which cost over 100 times as much.  Personally, I know which of the two I would rather have hanging on my wall.

Freud

A visitor examines “Three Studies of Lucien Freud” (1969) by Francis Bacon

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Artist Alex Kiessling: Vienna’s Own Mr. Roboto

As the reader may well be aware, in addition to my general interest in cultural matters I am also something of a nerd.  Okay, quite a large nerd.  So it should therefore come as no surprise that when I read about Austrian artist Alex Kiessling’s latest project, which involves creating art in tandem with using robots, I may have become more than a little excited.

Recently, while Hr. Kiessling was at work drawing large-scale works in Vienna, robotic arms were rigged up in London and Berlin.  You can watch a short ITN news report showing how it worked, by following this link; apparently it took six months to perfect the operation, using a combination of computers, infra-red technology, satellites, and human ingenuity.  In the end, it allowed people in other parts of the world to be able to see how the artist went about creating the drawings, as he himself was drawing them.

Obviously there are certain foreseeable limitations to this process. It would be difficult to imagine how this could be done using pastels, watercolors, or acrylics/oils, where brushstrokes are often combined with the use of fingers by the artist to smudge and blend colors, for example.  In theory however, I imagine it would be possible to use this method to paint works using more matte effects by employing a device such as an airbrush gun, for example.  After all, that is the method employed for many years now by automobile manufacturers to paint and finish their products.

One of the pleasures of drawing your attention to this project is the fact that Hr. Kiessling can actually…well, draw.  Good drawing is the basis for good painting, and as you can see in the photograph below, this is not someone who got through art school on the basis of artistic manifesto hyperbole alone.  Now, I understand that perhaps for some of my readers his art may not be to your liking, but I rather like the fact that I can perceive his interests in neo-realism, surrealism, pop art, photography, graphic design, and so on, coming through in his work.  Judge for yourself by visiting his site.

In addition, the example which Hr. Kiessling provides through this project is one which, in principle, hearkens back to the tradition of the atelier.  The great Old Master painters such as Raphael, Rubens,  Velázquez, and so on, were so popular and successful in their own lifetimes that they were overwhelmed with commissions.  They often employed large teams of assistants to not only help them complete the work they had contracted, but also to make copies of their existing works for other collectors.

A perfect example of this can be seen in a story I shared with you last year, about the copy of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” which is in the collection of the Prado Museum in Madrid.  A recent cleaning revealed that the work was not a later copy, but was in fact created alongside the original, at the same time that Da Vinci himself was working on it, by one of Da Vinci’s assistants carefully observing and copying his master’s work.  If Da Vinci or his contemporaries had the technology available to them which Hr. Kiessling is working on, they would have been able to take on even more commissions, knowing that they would be able to easily produce contemporary, simultaneous copies of their work themselves.

This brings us to larger questions of course, which Hr. Kiessling is perhaps asking us to consider. What makes a work of art “original”, for example: is it the human touch, or is it something else? For example, is a Picasso ceramic not a Picasso because he himself did not fabricate it? Does that mean that a Rodin bronze is not a Rodin because he himself did not cast it? Is playing a Mozart symphony not really Mozart, but the performance of some sort of pastiche?  These are questions which you need to answer for yourself, as you consider the nature of the art that you see around you.

In the meantime, kudos to Hr. Kiessling for producing such a fun and interesting example of art using technology in a  truly creative way; I shall look forward to reading about what he comes up with next.

AtWork

Artist Alex Kiessling (and robot assistant) at work

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The State Is Not Your Mommy

Oftentimes conservatives talk about the dangers of a “nanny state”, where citizens come to expect their government to care for them rather than caring for themselves.  However while we often debate this concept on a philosophical and public policy level, we do not often consider this line of thinking on a cultural level.  And we should think about the impact of making the state at least as worthy of our filial devotion as our mother, for it is a notion replete with problems of its own, particularly in the area of culture.

An interesting story from the art world, out of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, caught my eye this morning.  Reports are that an artist who painted what is referred to as an “interpretation” of the Biblical Last Judgment is upset, because the director of the art museum which was to display his piece is said to have “covered” the work in black paint, thereby destroying it.  It was to be part of an exhibition entitled “Great and Grand”, on the 1025th anniversary of the conversion of the former state of Kiev to Christianity, exploring the effect which that conversion has had on Ukrainian arts and culture.

The piece depicts elements from Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, intermixed with images making various political and social statements.  It resembles something that weird Goth kid in your 10th grade geometry class would have drawn with a black and a red pen on the back of his copybook.  Impressive, perhaps, in an adolescent, but ultimately highly derivative. The painting was an immature piece of protest art, not worth paying much attention to.

The motivation of the (admittedly rather fetching) Mystetskyi Arsenal director, Natalia Zabolotna, according to a statement which she subsequently released, was not one of attacking blasphemy or poor execution, both of which this piece had in abundance, but rather something more reminiscent of the concept of the imagined fecundity of the nanny state, combined with the jingoism of early 20th century politics.  “You cannot criticize the homeland,” she stated, “just as you cannot criticize your mother. I feel that anything said against the homeland is immoral.”

This brings us to an interesting question about what, exactly, is immoral about criticizing the state, particularly in the arts.  For the state, after all, is simply an artificial construct.  It only exists, insofar as it does, because people choose to believe it exists, and agree to be bound by it. Moreover, one can reasonably argue that in order for a state to exist, at least some other states need to also recognize that it exists, or the whole enterprise collapses.  Thus, while everyone in the world has a mother, not everyone in the world has a state.

Zabolotna’s reasoning that it is immoral to criticize one’s mother is not borne out either in human experience or in the arts.  No doubt we can all think of people in our own lives whose relationships with their mothers were not characterized by the loving, supportive, and nurturing care which motherhood usually provides to children.  We see examples of this going all the way back to the roots of Western civilization, such as the Greek tragedies about the scheming Clytemnestra and her vengeful children Orestes and Elektra; to the Renaissance and Shakespeare’s dramatic treatment of the bitter relationship between Prince Hamlet and his mother Queen Gertrude; to the modern camp classic film, “Mommie Dearest”, about the vicious, lifelong competition between actress Joan Crawford and her daughter Christina.

All of the mothers in these tales betrayed their children in some fashion, and were deserving of criticism.  While we may deplore the actions taken in some cases against those mothers, reasonable people should be able to agree that in some cases, there comes a point where honoring thy mother is a duty they ought best perform at a safe distance.  Fortunately such circumstances are rare, but those of us who have always had a close and loving relationship with our mothers ought to embrace them more tightly the next time we see them, and thank Heaven that we have such love in our lives.

Given that there are, regrettably, times when a bad mother must be criticized for mistreating her children, is it so unreasonable to point out that there are also times when, regrettably, a bad state must be criticized by her citizens?  There is nothing intrinsically immoral about speaking out against the state, and indeed, as the Founding Fathers showed us, one may in fact have a moral duty to criticize the state. Destroying a piece of art because of a false, secular morality which defines the state as mother, smacks of the kind of secular state-worship which brought about the great bloodbaths of the 20th century.

The mural defaced by Miss Zabolotna was, frankly, a rather poor piece of art at best, the rather pitiable work of a marginal talent.  It did not belong in any museum, let alone in an exhibition dedicated to the glories of centuries of Christian culture in Kiev.  Yet her disagreement with the painting’s criticism of the state did not give her license to destroy it.  She could have refused to display it, had it removed and sent back to the artist, or taken other, legal measures to keep it out of the show. Instead, she took the law into her own hands, claiming that it was her job to protect the state from what she perceived to be a quasi-immorality, when so far as I am aware no one elected or appointed her to perform that duty.

The real immorality, here, was in escalating what was essentially a matter of bad taste on the part of an artist, and possibly a contractual dispute, into an international scandal in the name of a state held to be above criticism. That escalation was based on fundamentally flawed, and frankly rather frightening, bit of secularist logic.  One cannot conflate the honor due to one’s state, with the honor due to one’s mother.  For when that happens, not only do we see atrophy in the arts, but a decline in the culture of society as a whole.

Orestes

Detail of “Orestes Pursued by the Furies” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1862)
Chrysler Collection, Norfolk, Virginia

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Trapped in A Box: Michelangelo Doodles in Florence

One of the joys of keeping up with the fields of art history and architectural preservation is that there are always amazing new discoveries cropping up to continue to educate and enlighten.  As my regular readers know, although I did study at Sotheby’s in London following undergrad and law school, I do not at present work either in the art world or the building trades.  Nevertheless, I have had a lifelong fascination with both areas of study, and I share that fascination with my readers, in the hope that it will encourage you to become more interested in our shared Western cultural history.

The other night while watching the culture program on France24 – with the lovely and always-stylish Eve Jackson – there was a report on a rather fascinating bit of technology aiding art restoration in Florence which caught my attention.  To be fair, there is always some such effort going on in Florence, since the city is absolutely crammed full of important buildings and works of art.  Yet this particular effort struck me not only for its significance, but also because of its admitted Indiana Jones aspect, which I suspect would appeal to my readers.

Throughout much of his working career, Michelangelo was quite in demand as what we might call a gravestone carver to the One Percent.  Even if you are not familiar with art history, you may have seen the classic 1965 Charlton Heston/Rex Harrison film, “The Agony and the Ecstasy”, which recounts the story of the painting of the Sistine Chapel, and the often-stormy relationship between Michelangelo and Pope Julius II.  The pope had hired Michelangelo to carve a rather grandiose tomb, but pulled him off the project to decorate the ceiling of the chapel, much to the artist’s dismay.

However this was not the only prominent memorial which Michelangelo was commissioned to work on and left unfinished.  In the “New Sacristy” in the Medici Chapels of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, Michelangelo began work on monumental tombs for two members of the ruling Medici family, but only completed six of the sculptural elements, including the magnificent statues of the Duke of Urbino and the Duke of Nemours.  Their portraits are admittedly idealized, but they display a kind of languid, muscular elegance that is very different from the often rather overly bulky male and female figures Michelangelo tended to produce in both paint and marble.

Despite the fact that the Medici had nurtured him as a young artist and were some of his most important patrons, Michelangelo held republican political sympathies.  In 1527 he joined in an uprising against the Medici which temporarily drove the family out of Florence and restored the Florentine Republic; subsequently he himself was put in charge of designing greater fortifications for the city to try to keep the Medici out.  When the family returned to power in 1530, the artist quite naturally found himself on their most-wanted list, with a bounty was placed on his head.

Needing a place to hide, Michelangelo concealed himself for about six weeks in, of all places, a crypt space located underneath the very Medici Chapel he had been working on.  “I hid in a tiny cell,” he later recalled, “entombed like the dead Medici above, though hiding from a live one. To forget my fears, I filled the walls with drawings.”  Miraculously, during restoration work on the Medici Chapels in 1975, that very cell, a little windowless room beneath the New Sacristy, was rediscovered.

Exactly as described by the artist himself, the walls of the room are covered in drawings which clearly came from the master’s hand.  Among the fifty or so identifiable sketches, one can see elements from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, some working ideas for sculptures he was preparing for the tombs above, a possible self-portrait, and many other doodles.  No doubt frightened, ill, and recognizing he might be captured and executed at any time, Michelangelo simply continued working as best he could.  Thus this remarkable space gives us something of a glimpse into the mind of an artist suffering under great anxiety, yet still wanting to express his inner creative impulse.  They hold great psychological insight in much the same way that the great Francisco de Goya’s haunting “Black Paintings”, executed on the walls of his home in Madrid as he descended into madness, would also do three centuries later.

After their discovery in the 1970′s, people were allowed to descend from the New Sacristy in the Medici Chapels to see these unique drawings, but because of their location in a subterranean room with no ventilation, they soon began to deteriorate from all the moisture and other effluvia carried in by visitors.  It was also realized that there were bodies buried under the floor of the room itself, which were releasing decomposition gases and thus had to be exhumed and re-buried elsewhere.  Because of the poor state of preservation, the authorities of the Basilica eventually decided to seal the room at the end of last year, until a restoration plan could be approved.

Now, thanks to modern technology and new media, more visitors than ever will be able to see these unique examples of Michelangelo’s work.  Although the room containing the original sketches will remain closed to the general public, visitors to San Lorenzo will be able to have a virtual “visit” to Michelangelo’s old spiderhole, and examine high-definition images of his graffiti for themselves, on kiosk stations set up for this purpose both at San Lorenzo and at the nearby Bargello Museum.   This will ensure that scholars and restoration experts will continue to have access to the work as needed, while visitors will be able to examine this art for themselves, without actually destroying these priceless treasures in the process.

The juxtaposition of history, art, and mystery in this story is precisely what makes the study of great art and great buildings so exciting.  And once again we are presented with an example of how new technology is making these fascinating elements of our Western cultural history even more accessible to people than ever before.  While Michelangelo himself might not have wanted thee whole world to stare at his graffiti, we are very fortunate indeed to be able to have, in this one, small room, a piece of architectural, artistic, and indeed political history preserved for future generations.

Untitled

One of the walls in Michelangelo’s hiding place beneath the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence

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