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The Part and the Whole

In a seminar with the painter John Walker, I heard him say that with a painting, you should be able to see it all in one go and then also be able to lose yourself in the details. When I was at the Milwaukee Art Museum recently, I saw a painting by Pierre Bonnard -- one of his later ones from the 1930s -- and I thought this statement is truer of no artist more than him.


The painting is from a series that Bonnard produced based on his morning walks around his house in the south of France. It shows a view looking down across olive groves and gardens, with a few figures working in the rows, and a line of tress like a curtain across the background. When you step back from the painting, you see the large, loosely indicated shapes of field, a small house, the bent figure of a man, a woman to the right, an explosion of sky behind the trees. The foreground is tilted and flattened out in a way that reads as an abstract and not a naturalistic space.


We accept this, because it's once you mov…
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R.I.P. John Schultz (1932-2017)

Teacher and writer John Schultz has died at the age of 84. He had a long association with Columbia College Chicago, where he helped found a fiction writing program that used a unique pedagogy: the Story Workshop method, which he began using in the classroom starting in the 1960s. John probably taught thousands of students over the course of a long career, and he was mentor and friend to many who went on to become teachers themselves. Most of the people who knew him, including my wife Patricia Ann McNair, spoke about him with reverence and immense gratitude for how he taught them to become writers.

Compared to her, and her colleagues at Columbia College Chicago, and his innumerable former students, I only had a passing acquaintance with John. Yet my first meetings with him came around the time that I first met Patty, during my first visits to Chicago, and for that reason this has claimed a special home in my memory.

I remember a party that Patty held at her apartment at the end of 200…

Trying Something New: Cyanotype

For the past few months, I've been working on a project with a student from Columbia College Chicago, comprising images and text relating to a travel narrative (he's an Englishman visiting the USA for this academic year). After casting around for a suitable visual vehicle for his photos, I settled on cyanotype:


This is one of the oldest of photographic techniques, dating back to the middle of the 1800s. In a nutshell: you brush a photosensitive emulsion onto paper (or fabric, etc), consisting of a mixture of ammonium iron citrate and potassium ferricyanide; place either thin objects or a negative against the paper and expose it to UV light for a while; wash off the emulsion and the image develops before your eyes; dip the print into a solution of water and hydrogen peroxide to turn the print that deep, dark blue cyan colour.

As you can see from the above photo, when you get the balance of light and dark right on the negative, the result is a gorgeously rich print, with a tona…

Truly I Live in Dark Times!

On November 9th, the day after the US presidential election, I had just arrived in England to attend a conference, and I spent the first few hours wandering around in a daze at the unexpected result. "These are dark times, these are the dark times" was a phrase I kept repeating in my head. They are from a poem by Bertholdt Brecht that seemed appropriate for the occasion:
Truly I live in dark times!
An artless word is foolish. A smooth forehead
Points to insensitivity. He who laughs
Has not yet received
The terrible news. The translation is by Scott Horton, from 2008, and his discussion of the meaning and context of the poem is unsurpassable, so I recommend you follow this link and read what he had to say. My personal knowledge of this poem ('To Those Who Follow in Our Wake,' from 1939) goes back to a long phase of devouring Brecht's plays and poems when I was in my twenties. This poem, from his Svendborg poems, was one of the only German poems that I could parti…

Tucson Museum of Art: Part 3

The next print that stood out for me during my visit to the Tucson Museum of Art was this etching by Goya (above). It's from his series Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War), a series of etchings he made between 1810 and 1820 depicting the horrors of the Peninsula War that ravaged Spain during the previous decade. This print shows a tangle of corpses in a house that has been destroyed by cannon fire. I notice how Goya still uses classical drawing techniques even while he draws a violent subject form real life: the legs of the man lying on his back in the foreground could easily have come straight from a Renaissance painting.

Next, this beautiful etching by German artist Kathe Kollwitz, from the 1890s:


The wall text said "etching", but the areas of rich dark tone indicate that she also used aquatint -- and in a brilliantly expert way, too. Look at all that variation in the textures of the shadows between the figures: any printmaker will tell you how much techniqu…

Tucson Museum of Art: Part 2

The second print I noticed during my recent visit to the Tucson Museum of Art was this 1992 etching by artist Luis Alfonso Jimenez (1940-2006). He was born in El Paso, Texas, and lived in New Mexico, and his work is in the Smithsonian Collection of American Art. I liked this print because, although he was mainly a sculptor, this print has the classic skeleton character that one sees in a lot of Mexican printmaking, particularly woodcuts and linocuts.

Very weird fact about his demise: he was moving a piece of sculpture out of his studio so that it could be installed at Denver Airport. The large piece fell on him, pinning his leg, and he died from traumatic injuries the same day. Talk about dying for one's art...

Art in the Desert

I was in the Tucson Museum of Art last week, a compact building with an inner ramp that goes all the way from below ground to two storeys above street level. It's similar in that respect to the Guggenheim museum in New York. The last time I visited, in 2005, I remember seeing lots of paintings of cowboys, and then a Mark Rothko, which was a jarring juxtaposition. This time, there was an engrossing exhibition of art featuring the face and the body, from a private collection. On display were many great prints, all the way from Goya in the early 1800s to 1960s artist James Rosenquist.
The first one that caught my eye was this beautiful, haunting woodcut by printmaker Leonard Baskin, one of my favourites.