Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On a message from the past

This photo was brought to the latest workshop that Patty and I conducted last Saturday for the community memoir/public art project. The person who brought it is the little baby in the photo. She is being held by her father, who is the soldier in the uniform. It was taken some time between 1943 and 1945. Gretchen's father was on leave. He had already been fighting in Europe. He came all the way back by boat and train to this tiny town in rural Illinois, and he would make the return journey all the way back for a further tour of duty. Look at the 1940s hairstyle of Gretchen's mother. Look at the dress, the close hairstyle, and the wire-framed spectacles of her grandmother, who was standing off to the side, mistakenly believing that she was out of frame and could relax now that she thought she wasn't being subjected to the discomforting gaze of the camera lens. She is clearly a woman who was born in the nineteenth century, and whose experience of farming life in America is probably unimaginable even to Gretchen, who is still living on an Illinois Centennial Farm - a farm that has been in the same family for at least 100 years.

Seeing these sharp-focused pictures at the workshops produces bewildering distortions of time for me: they make a moment from 65 years or longer ago seem vivid and present, and then suddenly I am overtaken by how much our societies have changed since then. It's as if you're sitting in a house when someone throws open a door, revealing a room that you didn't know was there. In that room you see a group of people dressed in styles from a previous generation. You look in surprise at them, and they look back equally amazed. Then someone slams the door shut, and you're not sure what it was exactly that you just saw, or whether you saw anything at all.

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Monday, August 30, 2010

Delacroix on growing old

From a journal entry dated February 4, 1847:

“How sad it is that we reach the age of experience just as our strength begins to fail! What a cruel mockery on the part of nature is this gift of talent! It only comes after years of study have exhausted the strength needed to carry out the work.”

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Meditation on Acoma Pueblo pottery

Meditation number 33 talks about my enthusiasm for the ceramics of Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, where I spent five days recently.
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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Van Gogh on the changing times

From a letter dated July, 1885:

“I can’t predict the future, Theo—but I do know the eternal law that all things change. Think back 10 years, and things were different, the circumstances, the mood of the people, in short everything. And 10 years hence much is bound to have changed again. But what one does remains—and one does not easily regret having done it. The more active one is, the better, and I would sooner have a failure than sit idle and do nothing.”
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Saturday, August 28, 2010

On the journals of Eugene Delacroix

As I’ve been re-reading and posting from Van Gogh’s letters, I’ve been struck by how often he mentioned the name of the French painter Eugene Delacroix. Delacroix, born in 1798, died in 1863 when Van Gogh was ten. If we look at Delacroix’s first paintings from the 1820s, it appears that they couldn’t be more different from Van Gogh and his contemporaries:

Yet many of the Impressionists claimed Delacroix as a pioneer in their method of eliminating what painters refer to as ‘half-tones’, and using small strokes of pure unmixed colour. Delacroix also kept a journal, which he wrote in almost daily for the last 16 years of his life. There is a big contrast in personalities between the Delacroix of the journal and the Van Gogh of the letters, so I thought it would be interesting to start posting entries from the older painter’s writings too.

Delacroix was a success from the beginning. You might say he was born to it, being the son of a military man who fought both for the French revolution and then in Napoleon’s army. Delacroix was an aristocrat by temperament, even though he was initially considered to be ultra-modern and revolutionary in his painting. While Van Gogh’s letters are full of a kind of pining for an imminent future, Delacroix hated democratic politics and thought that the common people should know their place. He craved worldly success in the form of commissions for painting frescoes in public buildings, but even as he achieved this, many of his journal entries complain about boredom and ennui, the burden of his social obligations, and the tiresomeness of the conversation at the fashionable dinners he nevertheless always attended. Compare this with the tone of Van Gogh’s letters: at worst, there is a little too much of the ‘O joy!’ enthusiasm of the gauche autodidact, but at best they are the record of a deeply generous and loving spirit. On the other hand, Delacroix had many fascinating things to say about the craft of painting, and given how few of the truly great classical painters left behind any written record of their education and technique, Delacroix’s journal can be seen almost as a manual for the accumulated craft-wisdom of almost 400 years of easel painting.

Here, then, is my first excerpt from the Journal of Eugene Delacroix, dated January 27, 1847:

“But luckily, fragile though it is, painting (and failing this, engraving) does preserve the evidence for the verdict of posterity, and thus allows the reputation of an artist of real superiority to be reassessed, even though he may have been underestimated by the shallow judgement of contemporary public opinion, which is always attracted by flashiness and a veneer of truth.” 
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Friday, August 27, 2010

Postcard from Lincoln Park

Giraffe at the zoo, which I just discovered for the first time in my eight years here is free of charge. Chicago is pretty good, too.

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On the streets of Albuquerque

In contrast to other travel article assignments this year, I didn't get the time to arrange visits to any artists' studios in advance of the trip to Albuquerque. But I did see some great things as we walked around the city. Such as, the bunches of dried chilis suspended from the frames of colonnades:
Beautiful old pottery in the Albuquerque Museum of Art:

Crushed tin cans decorated by children and fixed to the walls of an old downtown cinema, now being used as a religious meeting place:

Navajo Code Talkers sitting at a table in Old Town, publicising a book about their exploits in WWII:

The cool, shaded interior of the Iglesia de San Felipe de Neri on the Plaza in Old Town:

And to cap it all off, on our last evening, there was a terrific thunderstorm, followed by a double rainbow. I shot this photo out of our hotel room, looking towards the Sandia mountains at 8 pm:

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Van Gogh on academic training

From a letter dated June, 1885:

“My contention is simply this, that drawing an academically correct figure, and having a steady, well-judged brushstroke, has little to do, or at least less than is generally supposed, with the needs—the pressing needs—of contemporary painting.”

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On Madrid, New Mexico

About a half hour drive south of Santa Fe, Madrid is an old mining town that still consists of a single winding street lined with old wooden cabins and small houses:

After the mines closed, Madrid became a ghost town for a while, before being revived by artists, gallerists, musicians, and assorted eccentrics. This ceramic totem outside one house gives you a flavour:

We were there to see John McNair, Patty's nephew-who-is-four-months-younger-than-me, play with his band at a place called The Mineshaft. The band is called The Family Coal, and if you click on that name you'll go to their website. That's Johnny, below, with the shades and the white shirt, playing the mandolin and looking every inch the folk-roots god that he is:

The Mine Shaft Tavern used to be, believe it or not, a mine. It's built around all the detritus and left-over paraphernalia of a mining operation, such as boardwalks leading into the hill sides, odd bits of machinery, and a giant steam locomotive in the back yard:
Art, music, good beer, a town with a fascinating past, and a breeze bowing the heads of the bushes cascading down the sides of the hills: it was a good way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Postcard from New Mexico

Old Town, Albuquerque.

On Indian Market 2010, Santa Fe

Last Saturday, I spent some time at Indian Market in Santa Fe, and took lots of photos, of which the following slideshow is a selection:

Hundreds of vendors set up shop in booths that went all round the Plaza in Santa Fe and into the streets around it. There were musicians, fairground booths, a tent hosting an awards ceremony for the most outstanding craftsmen and women, and of course thousands of pieces of pottery, weavings, jewellery, sculpture, and other forms of art. There are more than 19 pueblos in New Mexico, each with its own distinctive artistic traditions and iconography, and they were all represented at the market. My favourite style of art is from Acoma Pueblo. The pueblo itself, which I visited a few years ago, is a collection of adobe buildings dating back more than 1,000 years, sitting high up on a mesa that looks from afar like a gigantic slab of clay laid down on the desert floor. The Acoma style of pottery is known for its thin clay walls, its off-white and black glazes, and its very fine-lined decorations. The following photo shows a table of Acoma ceramics, with the artist attending at the Indian Market:

 Strangely, there was a flamenco group at the Indian Market, too, which I suppose unites the twin Hispanic and native American history of New Mexico:

There were thousands of people at the market, and it was about 92 degrees Fahrenheit when we were there, so we only spent about 90 minutes there. But it was great to see it, and it was more evidence of the uniqueness of New Mexico within the United States, with its blend of Anglo, Hispanic, and Indian cultures, its astoundingly beautiful landscapes, its great food, and the feeling it conveys to you that once you step within its borders, you've stepped temporarily out of the increasingly homogenized and corporatized life of the rest of the USA.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Postcard from New Mexico

12th century Indian pot.

Van Gogh on finishing a painting

From a letter dated c. April 30, 1885:

“I believe that The Potato Eaters will turn out well—as you know, the last few days are always tricky with a painting because before it’s completely dry one can’t use a large brush without running a real risk of spoiling it. And changes must be made very coolly and calmly with a small brush. That’s why I took it to my friend and asked him to make certain I didn’t spoil it, and why I’ll be going to this place to apply those finishing touches.”

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Monday, August 23, 2010

On 'The Flagellation' by Piero della Francesca

Meditation number 32 considers a beautiful painting from 1460 by Piero della Francesca. I've always loved the chilly perfection of Piero's work, without ever quite knowing why I was drawn to it. In this talk, I've attempted to answer that for myself.
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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Van Gogh on the blank canvas

From a letter dated October, 1884:

Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring at you like some imbecile. You don’t know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas, which says to the painter: you can’t do a thing. The canvas has an idiotic stare and mesmerizes some painters so much that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of ‘you can’t’ once and for all.”

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Saturday, August 21, 2010

On Santa Fe, New Mexico

Patty and I flew to New Mexico on Thursday for the wedding of her nephew, John McNair. That makes me technically his uncle, even though I am only four months older than he is. And Patty is only three years older than him, due to the fact that Patty's father sired children over a period of twenty years, which produced the result that Patty has brothers who were having their own families when she was born, and so ... you get the picture. After a family dinner on Thursday night, we all drove up to Santa Fe on Friday for the larger party.

Santa Fe is saturated with arts and crafts. A lot of it, particularly around the Plaza, is very crap indeed. There are scores of galleries on the Plaza and surrounding side streets, and many of them I have been told sell high quality Western-themed art. I can't really judge, as it's not a genre I like. There is a lot of Western-tradition art - pseudo Impressionism and Abstraction - and I am familiar with that, and almost all of what I've seen in that vein is also very bad. But then we took the bus into the centre from our hotel on Friday and passed the warehouses and galleries that are now part of Site Santa Fe, the recently inaugurated biennial, which I think would be worth returning to see. Then this weekend, today in fact, is the start of Indian Market, which is the largest display of native American arts and crafts in existence. We're going to go down and look around today, where we will be joined supposedly by 100,000 other people.

People complain about Santa Fe being spoiled by tourism and fakery, but despite the caveats mentioned above, it's still a great pleasure to walk around the streets between the reddish adobe buildings, along the arcades with their old wooden pillars and ceilings, and past churches and small homes that are among the oldest structures in the entire United States. It is a very Spanish place, and very native American place, and no amount of mass-produced gew-gaws, Starbucks, or Whole Foods stores can quite manage to efface that completely.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Van Gogh on exhibiting

From a letter dated March, 1884:

“ ‘Let your light shine before men,’ is, I believe, the duty of every painter, but in my view it does not mean that letting the light shine before men must be done through exhibitions. Believe me, I just wish there were more and better opportunities than exhibitions to bring art to the people. Far from wanting to hide the light under a bushel, I would sooner let it be seen.”

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On opera singers and acting

My opera-singer reader Faith Puleston replied to my dig at the level of acting in opera as follows:

"There are acting singers and singing actors in opera. Some opera singers can't act at all (and often don't know it), while others, like me, love the dual challenge of being both actor and singer. It was reflected in reviews of my work. I'll look for some and post them to my website. 
These days much more is expected of opera singers than used to be the case, but I know that for me it was always of paramount importance to get under the skin of my character, sometimes at the expense of purity of vocal line etc. The problem is that there are moments in opera when it is impossible to gamble around and sing, when time stands still. Opera arias are more or less the equivalent of monologues in a play."

In my original post on this subject, I was kidding slightly, but I take Faith's point. There are and have been great dramatic actors and actresses in opera. Maria Callas was one great example - in fact her acting ability was admired enough by Pasolini that he cast her in a film as, I think, Medea. In contemporary opera, Nathalie Dessay has gone so far as to say that acting is at least as important as the singing in opera to her. But ultimately, I agree with Faith that a decent level of acting on the operatic stage is desirable, but when it comes down to it, it's about the singing, and you can't fake it when the moment arrives, the conductor cues you  in, you fill your lungs with air, and you have to ride the wave of nerves and adrenalin to make those amazing lines of sound in the air, and, if the composer so wishes, to run from the highest note in your range to the lowest. As an illustration, here is Joan Sutherland singing 'O rendetemi la speme' from 'I Puritani', in possibly one of the greatest ever performances of one of the greatest ever arias:

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Postcard from Lincoln Park

Beautiful Colonial style (?) wooden building and vibrant garden.
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On 'The Messenger' by Bill Viola

Meditation number 31 is on a video piece by Bill Viola. As I say in the talk, I don't really like video art, or rather, it fails to move me much, but Viola's work, while teetering constantly on the edge of pretentiousness, has had some effect on me whenever I've seen it.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Van Gogh on technique (II)

From a letter dated March, 1884:

“Just consider whether it is sensible to talk a great deal about technique nowadays. You will say that I myself am doing just that—as a matter of fact, I regret it. But as far as I am concerned, I am determined, even when I shall be much more master of my brush than I am now—to go on telling people methodically that I cannot paint. Do you understand? Even when I have achieved a solid manner of my own, more complete and concise than the present one. . .

“That thought, I can’t find the right words, is based not on something negative but on something positive. On the positive awareness that art is something greater and higher than our own skill or knowledge or learning. That art is something which, thought produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds of what would be called self-righteousness in religion . . .

”The gist of what I am saying in this letter is this. Let us try to grasp the secrets of technique so well that people will be taken in and swear by all that is holy that we have no technique. Let our work be so savant that it seems na├»ve and does not reek of our cleverness. I do not believe that I have reached this desirable point.”
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On far flung readers (cont.)

Dobar den! Or less formally, Zdravei.

Or, hello to my reader(s) in Bulgaria. Seeing that country come up on the readership statistics for this blog rang a bell in the far reaches of my brain somewhere. So I checked on the internet, and my vague memory turned out to be correct: Christo, one of the most famous, some might say notorious, artists of the late twentieth century was born in Bulgaria.
Christo, 'Wrapped Reichstag', 1995
He left for the west when he was in his twenties and studying in Prague. Before he met Jeanne-Claude in Paris in 1958 and began the lifelong collaboration with her, he painted portraits to make a living. I thought it would be fun to try and track down one of these pictures on the internet, but so far I've had no luck. Maybe I didn't search long enough, but I wonder also if Christo destroyed his early work once he started getting known for wrapping things up. Many well-known artists have these dark pasts, or a line of work which completely contradicts what we think of as their signature style -- compare Mondrian's 'Broadway Boogie Woogie' with the boring pictures of flowers he also painted in private -- and perhaps Christo wanted no trace of his past to be considered as part of his legacy.

Bulgaria seems to have had a strange history during the twentieth century, flirting with authoritarian monarchy and republicanism before coming under the Soviet sphere of influence after World War II. My feeling is that Christo's work was somewhat influenced by his coming to maturity in the early Zhivkov years. Zhivkov seems to have created a milder version of Stalinist autocracy, but nevertheless it is telling that Christo's artistic urges all tended towards muffling, concealing, and hiding symbols of power: man-made power when he wrapped up the Reichstag in Berlin, and the power of nature when he wrapped islands and coastlines. These pieces were at once impressive and somehow futile, as if he and Jeanne-Claude were trying to enlarge the grand gestures of monumental art, making them bigger than anything that had been done before, yet also showing the limits of art that tries to shout loudly in public. I think that's why The Gates in Central Park resonated so much with New Yorkers: it seemed to be built more quietly and on a human scale.

My final thought is that for decades Christo described himself as a 'stateless person' before he became a US citizen. But that he was born in Bulgaria and made his art all around the planet shows that, like people in England becoming great jazz musicians, or people in China becoming superb interpreters of Mozart and Beethoven, there are as few geographical boundaries to art as there are mental boundaries to its creation.
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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On looking through old sketchbooks: 16

Looking out at the Place de la Bastille at night, Paris, 1990
“My attitude towards drawing is not necessarily about drawing. It's about making the best kind of image I can make, it's about talking as clearly as I can.”—Jim Dine.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

On technique (2)

From a letter by Van Gogh, second half of March 1884:

"So the reason why one must work on one's technique is simply to express better, more accurately, more profoundly what one feels, and the less verbiage the better. As for the rest, one need not bother with it."
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