Monday, January 21, 2013


Peter Schjeldahl, on the writings of Mondrian, Malevich and Kandinsky following MoMA's survey of 20th century abstract art:

"The simpler the art, the more elaborate the rationale."

Friday, January 18, 2013

Self Portraits by Mary Cassatt

One of my husband's family members passed away recently and we inherited some of her belongings. Because she was warm, interesting and fun she had a great collection of art books-- Rembrandt, Degas, a folding copy of 100 Butterflies, Cezanne, and van Gogh.  I'm currently making my way through the Degas, and the author pauses to described Cassatt and sing her praises as an extraordinary artist and dinner companion of acidic wit. She and Degas were great friends. Both were selective in their company and described as difficult to get along with and highly motivated. Cassatt's mom is quoted complaining about Degas procrastinating and ultimately dropping the ball on a magazine the artists had planned on launching to showcase prints of the modern world. "As usual," she grumbles.

Self portrait by Mary Cassatt. More detailed description follows in caption.
Self Portrait by Mary Cassatt. This is so cool because everything about her process of posing is visible-- it's obviously a straight mirror image of her at her easel-- while the painting style is also transparent with visible brush strokes and outlines.
Self portrait by Mary Cassatt. Detailed description follows in caption.
Self portrait by Mary Cassatt. The process for this one is a little less clear to me as she can't have been painting in that getup (all white, with gloves!). Did someone else pose for the body? [Image: Impressionist painting of Cassat, a youngish white woman, leaning with one elbow on a pillow or piece of striped brown and red furniture. She clasps her hands softly in front of her and looks to the right out of frame. She wears a white dress and gloves with a dark burgundy flowered bonnet. The background is solid sea-foam green mixed with cream., probably an interior wall. Her face and body form a thick white diagonal shape from top left to bottom right, somewhat triangular. The head is at the top two-thirds mark, her hands at the bottom third mark. Brush strokes and wrinkles form very subtle concentric circles around her head and shoulders.]
Photo of Mary Cassatt
A photo of Cassatt.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Portraiture is dead, again.

Jeffrey Augustine Songco has a post up at the art:21 blog called "The End of Self Portraiture." The idea-- that self-portraiture is "dunzo" because it wasn't represented at Miami Basel*-- is pretty silly, but the run-down of the contemporary high-art self portrait is pretty good. I noticed the focus was on photographs, but painted self-portraits could also have been mentioned, such as Jenny Saville's.

I would add only one group: the melding of the self portrait with "identity politics," i.e. asking, who am I as a Cuban-African woman? or what gender am I? These sorts of issues are usually explored through self-portraiture, but as sort of an inside-out approach where the viewer is presented with how the artist is seen, rather than simply seeing the artist.

Self portrait as an African Chief by Samuel Fosso. Detailed description follows in caption.
Samuel Fosso, self portrait as an African chief. Photograph. Says Fosso of this self-portrait, "I am all the African chiefs who have sold their continent to the white me." [Image: Fosso, a youngish black man, sits in a chair in front of a backdrop of kente cloth panels, a yellow panel surrounded by black and white panels with large ovals on them. He holds several large sunflowers in one hand, the other draped regally over the arm of the ornate Western-style chair, which is upholstered with leopard print. He wears a leopard-print garment (sarong?) on his bottom half and is topless, but his chest is covered by a mass of gold necklaces. He wears bracelets and rings on his hands and a half-white half-carmel fur hat shaped like a ski hat. His eyes are obscured by thick white-rimmed glasses with narrow slits instead of large lenses. The pose is calm and formal yet relaxed.]

And then there is the vast army of self portraits by women who grapple with being seen, being objectified, and manipulating one's own image. I'm showing the legendary Ana Mendieta's work below which is old, but she was ahead of her time and this sort of stuff is still very current (I'll take any excuse to show her work).

Ana Mendieta, self portrait. Detailed description follows in caption.
Ana Mendieta, "Facial hair transplant," 1972. Photograph. [Image: head-and-shoulders photo of the female artist wearing a brown beard staring into the camera.]

Ana Mendieta, self portrait. Detailed description follows in caption.
Ana Mendieta, "Untitled, Glass on Body Imprints-- Face" 1972. Photograph. [Image: grainy black and white photo of Mendieta's face pressed against glass, her lips huge and distorted]

Those two groups are quite contemporary and relevant, but even without them, considering both the youth and the egos that emerge from art school every year, I just don't see self portraiture going anywhere. Even if Facebook and the like have challenged the fine art establishment to differentiate its portraiture from the common "selfie," particularly photographers, that's really more of a rebirth than a death of the self-portrait.

*Self-portrait artists: before you rend your garments and cast yourself into the sea, please consider that the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery , MoMA, New York City’s National Academy Museum, and The Whitney have all managed to caugh up major exhibits containing self-portraiture in or near 2012, to name just a few.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Rachels, Music for Egon Schiele

[Video: a song by Rachel's from the CD "Music for Egon Schiele." Shows a still image of the CD cover while music plays, a black & white sepia-purple-toned Schiele painting of three small winter trees or saplings on a hill in front of a cloudy sky that is drawn as a series of horizontal lines, framed in dark mustard yellow.]

Drawing of houses by Egon Schiele; detailed description follows in caption.
A piece by Egon Schiele, I couldn't find the title of this one. [Image: a black & white line drawing on white paper of older European village-style town-houses on a hillside. The shapes in the top middle houses are filled in with scratchy yellow and brown paint and small areas of red. The linework begins in the top right and the groups of right angles tumble downward across the horizontal page. The final effect is of an unfinished sketch or possibly an unfinished quilt made of burlap.]

Kleinstadt, by Egon Schiele. Detailed description follows in caption.
Kleinstadt, by Egon Schiele. 1912-1913. [Image: dark square-shaped composition of houses in city blocks. The bottom third is solid black; the middle third is several rows of houses; the top third is another row of houses behind a street or canal which forms a horizontal line then veers off diagonally to the top left and is the same black as the bottom. All the shapes are outlined in black, with many lines appearing hasty or crooked. The shapes of the houses are filled in with blocks of muddy brownish colors-- red, green, ochre, thin white paint--and all roofs are black. The effect is of a quilt or collage.]

Sunflowers, by Egon Schiele. Detailed description follows in caption.
Sunflowers, by Egon Schiele. [Image: color painting done without black outlines showing a column of sunflower plants in front of a bluish-putty-colored sky. The plants, mostly large greenish brown leaves with a few flowers sagging over the top, are so visually packed into a rectangular area which takes up most of the picture plane that they seem to be a figure or monolith rather than a group of plants.]

Suburb, by Egon Schiele. Detailed description follows in caption.
Suburb, by Egon Schiele, 1914. The date of this piece, the beginning of WWI, makes the rows and red posts look like trenches and barbed wire to me. Hard to look past that, but worth it, as it's a beautiful composition. [Image: Squarish horizontal composition of houses and horizontal stripes of pale smoky blue and charcoal grey, possibly roads, bodies of water or rows of plants. The style is similar to the two house pieces above but completely colored in. As with the other two the lack or confusion of a horizon flattens the piece into a quilt-like arrangement. The houses themselves are muddy white, yellow and red, and the fields in front are dotted with thin bright-red posts.]

The Bridge, by Egon Schiele.
Egon Schiele, "The Bridge." [Image: A square composition of a bridge that stretches from the horizon toward and slightly left of the viewer where it exits the frame. To its left are empty spaces, maybe fields or river banks. All the shapes are outlined in black but filled in with monochrome icy wheat colors, making this piece less like a quilt, more like a Japanese woodblock print or old sepia photograph. The bridge is made of repeated gridded pylons and a a repeated grid of guard rails, topped with broad, flat linear rectangular structures that repeat four times into the distance and are echoed by a few telephone poles to the right. The top third and right half of the piece are simple flat shapes that balance out the busy criss-crosses and diagonals of the left.]

Boats on Ruffled Water, by Egon Schiele.
Egon Scheile, "Boats on Ruffled Water." [Image: vertical color painting of boats on water. Though linework is involved it isn't the quilted technique of the house pieces above. It looks much more like a straightforward Impressionist Monet or Whistler painting of boats at dusk, except that the reflections of masts and rigging on rippling water turn the bottom two thirds into an abstract pattern that Schiele emphasizes by keeping the linework sharp and even, creating what looks like texture by dragging a pencil through thick paint, but I can't be sure of that from the 2-D image. The boats are arranged to create a line cutting from the middle left to the horizon at the top right. The water is pale turquoise, the sky is soft sunset-pink,and the boat hulls are pinkish white, jade green and reddish brown.]

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Duchess Kate Middleton Gets Her Portrait Painted

Portrait of Kate Middleton by Paul Emsley; detailed description can be found in caption.
South African artist Paul Emsley's portrait of Kate Middleton. [Image: Squarish painting of the head and shoulders of Kate Middleton perfectly centered and directly facing the viewer, her hair perfectly coiffed and falling over the shoulders of her conservative blouse. She smirks or barely smiles a tight smile. The background is midnight navy; she wears a slightly lighter navy blouse or dress with an ascot and matching stud earrings. The style is photo-realistic and incredibly detailed, yet also has a meticulously hazy "airbrush" "soft lens" or "memorial montage" appearance. The colors are heavily on the cool blue side, creating an almost deathly pallor, though judging by the snapshot from the painting hanging in its environment it may actually be warmer and livelier than it appears in this particular photograph.]

Snapshot of Kate Middleton portrait and crowd.
A snapshot from the portrait's unveiling, showing the large size as compared with people in the crowd, and a brighter, warmer and crisper color palette.
So, in case you don't recognize this woman or her name, congratulations! You probably live a fulfilling life that excludes garbage tabloids. She's the woman who recently married Prince William, Britain's heir to the throne (did I use the correct title there?) and whose clothing, behavior and body have been scrutinized (such that we need to invent a new word with a much stronger meaning than "scrutiny") by the international press and legions of People With Opinions. I sometimes enjoy a bit of tabloid gossip and often enjoy picking apart some person's sartorial choices so long as I'm not that person, but I'll be quite honest: the attention paid to Middleton gives me the heebie-jeebies. When I see photos of her dressed in absurdly stuffy, age-inappropriate clothes and primly yet fearfully clasping a matchy-matchy handbag in front of her groin I want to take a deep breath because it feels suffocating.

Anyway she commissioned this portrait and has gone on record saying she thinks it's "amazing." (Quipped Jeanne Becker, a Canadian TV commentator, “Interesting to hear that Kate thinks her new portrait is ‘amazing’. Shows she’s not vain.”) Middleton studied art history in college and, together with the director of the National Portrait Gallery, chose Emsley as the artist. Judging from his past work one can see why:

Painting of Nelson Mandela by Paul Emsley. Detailed description can be found in caption.
Nelson Mandela, by Paul Emsley. [Image: highly detailed photo-realistic black & white portrait of Mandela's head and shoulders. He's lit softly from the side, and the thin application of paint and the web of wrinkles illuminated on Mandela's face create a delicate lacy effect. Mandela gazes directly at the viewer with a thoughtful, resolved expression.]

Michael Simpson, by Paul Emsley. [Image: color portrait of the artist, and elderly white man, softly lit from above. The application of the paint and the facial expression create a similar effect to the Mandela portrait but the overhead lighting creates a medical or scientific effect, as if the subject is under examination yet fully aware of what he is and what the viewer will find.]
Emsley explained to People, “If you are working with someone [...] whose face is just a lovely face, it’s harder to find something in the portrait that gives it some sort of gravitas. In this case I’ve tried to do that with the smile and the dimples and the shadows around the face.” Art critics and the masses have found rare common ground in generally hating it. I've gotta say, I'm not totally on board with this portrait either. As pretty much everyone else has pointed out, the real Middleton is much prettier and younger, "fresher" looking than in this painting. Were one not a professional artist and blogger with a reputation and Google history to consider, one would perhaps point out that she appears constipated, to boot. She could have her pick of virtually any portrait artist in the world, and this is what turned up?

But as my comment policy proclaims angelically from the sidebar, "[...] any artist who has taken the time and considerable expense to plan, make, fix, remake, market, network, defend, and show their art-- no matter how shocking, expensive, or crude it is in appearance-- is deserving of consideration." So the following is my critique.

The portrait is a large square-shaped realistic painting of a young white woman (Middleton) from shoulders up on a navy background. The style is extremely detailed yet meticulously soft-edged. It brings to mind contemporary traditional Korean and Chinese official paintings which feature perfect tonal gradations and perfectly defined shapes:

Couple poses in front of a mural of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il
An unknown couple stands in front of a huge official painting (mural?) of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Man touches up gigantic Mao portrait
One of legion official Mao portraits.
 The Kims share a soft muted tone with Middleton's portrait, implying dignity and stateliness, perhaps suggesting statuary or an ethereal rather than carnal body. I chose this portrait of Mao because of its size and head-and-shoulders composition. Even the frame is similar to Middleton's portrait. These kinds of political icons-- and at this point they cease to be portraits, exactly-- are the theoretically rich subject-matter for thinkers such as Jean Baudrillard, who argued that the simulacrum of the 20th century was its own truth, i.e. "hyper-real," an idea which Warhol thankfully expressed in a much breezier format:

Mao, by Andy Warhol. [Image: three black-and-white screenprints of Mao's official portrait, each colored with different silly Easter-egg color combinations.]

Returning to Middleton's portrait the (probably accidental) references to both iconic dictatorship and the hyer-reality of the simulacrum (and theoretical issues of mass reproduction) are quite witty. Middleton, though a monarch (I think?), is probably not that powerful, as rulers go: she wasn't uber-royal before marrying William, she is a woman in an antiquated monarchical system based on male heirs, she is objectified as (to put it crudely) a royal breeder, and most of all she is stripped of nearly all privacy and autonomy as the most public of public figures, ever on the verge of the public turning against her. Middleton smirking through these classic signifiers of authority could be read as a postmodern ironic twist on 20th century iconography of power, a "cult of personality" representation in a time when "cult of personality" has mostly vanished. Yet one could call the media frenzy over Middleton (and, by extension, Diana) a modern day cult of personality; in this modern version, rather than push his or her image onto the public, the public extracts images from the (seemingly reluctant) leader.

If one makes the associative leap from dictator-icon to Warhol's famous commentary on reproduction and media, Middleton would be an interesting parallel to Warhol's famous "Marilyn Monroe": she's a female symbol, a persona whose face is reproduced daily in media all over the world.

The painting's style could also refer to studio photography. Yet another postmodern irony: we've entered an age of photography, yet this painter was hired to do the same thing as a camera simply because of tradition and unadulterated posh-ness. We know from media reporting that the painting was composed of thin glazes of oil paint, and though Middleton sat for the artist twice he also used a series of photographs shot for the portrait. I'll leave it to those who are interested in the theoretical implications of photorealism to finish this thought because frankly I'm too lazy to do anything more that spit out the name, "Gerhard Richter."

Blue. There's quite a lot of blue in this portrait, particularly navy. Navy is the color of power, a hue typically recommended for business women who are trying to be taken seriously by their co-workers. It's also, obviously, the color associated with The Navy. Older associations between blue and power include blue and purple as colors reserved for royalty.

Blue is also the color associated with the Virgin Mary in Western iconography. Ties between British and English royal women, virginity, and the cult of Mary are many, the most obvious being Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria (of the respective eponymous eras).

Blue is also the color of abstract thought. I don't know if it is listed as such in any guidebooks to symbolism, but one cannot help but notice that blue is very strongly associated with technology and science, featured in many logos. It's often representative of spirituality (as opposed to Earthly existence), perhaps because the sky is blue. This portrait not only features blue clothing and background, it also seems to have a cool blue tinge to the entire composition. I've also noticed this practice in portraits from the late 1700s and very early 1800s together with a haziness and softness which seems to express the ideals of the humanist Enlightenment and Neoclassical era: that Man is a rational creature with a soul, that humankind is both capable of and destined to rise above our Earthly, carnal bodies, that our real self is our ideal, best self. People still use these conventions to represent loved ones who have died; the haziness and sky or clouds traditionally represent the immortal soul, with blue signifying heaven or angels. With this association in mind Emsley's representation of Middleton could imply an intellectual portrait of the abstract Kate, a personal, insightful endeavor which stands in direct opposition to the constant flow of tabloid commentary on Middleton's body, appearance, clothes and adherence to royal manners. To further bolster this interpretation of the artist's intent, there is the exclusion of anything below Middleton's shoulders and also the dark background which hints at Emsley's Middleton existing in some abstract intellectual void, a darkness which also implies a hushed calm.

However, I believe that if this is the artist's intent he as failed. The emphasis is still too much on Middleton's face. For example the straightforward evenly-lit mugshot position echoes typical magazine shots of models which allow for the visual dissection of facial features, each fully rendered to be consumed and judged by the viewer. This representative convention in fact serves as an invitation to judge, as in an advertisement for mascara or a list of top 10 most beautiful women. As an example of this sort of representation of women, this portrait fails to offer up Middleton's features in their best light.

That would not be a problem if Emsley had somehow prevented the portrait from being read this way, but he didn't. He should have known the enormous emphasis on Middleton's prettiness, but it appears he did not anticipate either that this portrait would fall short of the public's expectations of prettiness, or that it would be read as an exposition of prettiness. Were there movement, it would have counteracted this "map of the ideal female face" aspect, but movement is conspicuously absent from both subject and composition. Even the movement provided by the dynamic directional lighting in the Mandela and Simpson portraits has been discarded in favor of diffuse straight-on studio lighting, a move that confuses me given Emsley's dilemma of Middleton lacking wrinkles and imperfections. I think the real issue might be that because she is the Duchess Emsley was afraid to paint her wrinkles and imperfections; I think he should have gone farther in that direction, incorporating side lighting and highlighting her irregularities but he instead stopped short and stifled his expression thinking the soft-lens approach would be more flattering.

Given the statue-like stillness, the artist could have exploited the authority, stoniness, strength or unassailable nature of the statue, yet the straight-on or very-slightly-above position of the viewer makes Middleton the undeniable subject of the downward or level gaze. Though she smirks and holds her lips closed tightly as though sealing her thoughts inside herself, she is ultimately submitting to scrutiny-- a reality that is already evident in any paparazzi photo of Middleton and which this portrait fails to transcend.

Follow-up: Ha! Of course:
Middlton's portrait on left, Middleton as the Jesus Beast on right
[Image: Middleton's portrait on left, the same portrait on the right but with the face of the famous recent botched or "restored" Jesus fresco, also commonly known as "Beast Jesus"]

Monday, January 14, 2013

Katie Henderson

Fashion illustration by Katie Henderson - detailed description in caption follows
Fashion illustration by Katie Henderson. [Image: a full-body semi-realistic drawing of a Black woman wearing a vanilla-beige dress, strappy heels (possibly espadrilles), gloves, scarf, hat and umbrella, carrying a matching purse (?) and wearing matching sunglasses, sporting a swipe of cherry-red lipstick. She is in mid-stride, a side- or three-quarter view, turning to look at the viewer. Even as her limbs are quite thin her neck, head and torso are widened to produce a flattened image in a general triangular shape. The linework and shapes are the crystallized, woven style I describe in the caption for the picture below. The outfit, drawing and subject altogether create a mature desert-chic look that mixes the "Hollywood star incognito on vacation in the late 40s in Greece" look with the pre-Arab-Spring perpetual-1980s confidence of Muammar Qaddafi, with the timeless art of Black women in the American South who dress for church and don't take it lightly.]
Hayley Phelan has a piece up at Fashionista.com about Katie Henderson, a woman with Downs Syndrome who taught herself fashion illustration and now has a business selling her prints. There's a slide show at the end of the two-page article; you'll definitely want to click through.

This detail from an illustration reminded me of another portrait I'd posted recently:

Detail of fashion illustration by Katie Henderson - more detailed description follows in caption
Detail of a fashion illustration by Katie Henderson. [Image: A drawing in fine-tipped marker or colored pencil of a blonde white woman wearing a brown dress, hat and gloves. The outfit is strikingly similar to the one described in the picture below. The woman faces the viewer with one hand on her hip, looking slightly down at the viewer with lowered eyelids and a pursed mouth. She leans to the right of the frame. She's drawn in a pencil or thin ink outline and the folds or incidental texture of the cloth is made of perpendicular patches of linework which gives the image a flattened, woven effect similar to a Jean Dubuffet piece, but a little more realistic.]

 Portrait painting of Olga Orlova by Valentin Serov - detailed description can be found in caption
Detail, Portrait of Princess Olga Orlova by Valentin Serov. 1911. [Image: head, shoulders and torso of a middle aged white woman wearing an enormous Gilded Age / My Fair Lady black hat with an off-the-shoulder brown fur stole, a strand of pearls and some rings. She is pictured in profile with her face turned three quarters toward the viewer, leaning slightly forward and clasping the fur stole languidly to her chest. The hat and its translucent bits contrast lusciously with the pale pinkish background, the wall of an elegant paneled room. A painting in a big gold frame is in the top right corner. She leans from the bottom left hand corner to the center of the cropped image, her face marking slightly above center. The dark fur stole, tilted hat and dark painting create a diagonal thick dark line from bottom left to upper right. The oil painting is realistic and fluidly applied.]