Skip to main content

At the Detroit Institute of Art, Part I

Two weeks ago, I made my first visit to the Detroit Institute of Art to see a collection that has to be described as 'fabled.' My first art history class was in my teens, and some of the very first pictures my teacher made me look at and consider are housed in the DIA, and here I was, many decades later, finally getting to see them for the first time. The collection is also great enough to catch the rapacious eyes of the city's bankruptcy manager, so perhaps this might be the last opportunity I get to see the collection in one place.

The first painting that caught my eye is this one:


Clearly the Renaissance (perspective, depth of planes, rounded modelling of figures, close attention to the detailed surfaces of things), probably from the Low Countries, good enough to be by Van Eyck or an earlier master. But the painter is virtually anonymous, known only by the name "Master of the Embroidered Foliage." So what is decoration, and is it more than just patterning on a flat surface designed to produce a pleasant sense of order?

The question becomes louder with Bronzino:


Painted about 1540, half a century or so later than that Netherlandish painting. It seems to be nothing but decoration, especially comparing the figures to the clothes. Figures: smooth like marble, airless, almost, unbreathing, so still that they could be statues, cold, withholding. Clothes: compelling, astonishingly rendered, so that when you look up close you can see the individual textures of braid painted with unerring and repeated perfection dozens of times over. Decoration as portrait, a portrait of wealth and power and privilege, a statue of a painting that suggest the permanence of temples.

Is Bronzino cold, unemotional? I respond positively to his work. As I was standing in front of it, I thought of contemporary painted Kehinde Wiley, and how heavily he draws on Bronzino for his effects. Sure enough, I found this painting by Wiley in one of the contemporary art galleries:


It's a big canvas, maybe eight feet square. Self-consciously baroque, from the heroic 'general-on-a-rearing-horse' pose to the superimposed floral pattern, and the gold-gilt frame. Highly skilled, but essentially flat and lacking in tension compared to the Bronzino. We approve of the idea -- appropriating the heroic styles of painting from the past to raise to consciousness a people under-represented in the western art canon -- but everything in the painting arrives very quickly at just that, an illustration of The Idea. I'm not trying to fault Wiley's project, merely trying to suggest the difference in effect between Bronzino-decoration and Post-Modern-Irony-decoration. 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How to etch a linoleum block

Linoleum as a material for printmaking has been used for nearly a hundred years now. Normally, you cut an image out using special gouges similar to woodcut tools, cutting away the lino around the image you want to print. This is called relief printmaking, because if you look at the block from the side, the material that remains stands up in relief from the backing material. You then roll ink with a brayer over the surface of the block, place paper over it, and either print by hand or run it through a press. You can do complex things this way (for example, reduction linocuts), but the beauty of the process is that it is quick, simple, and direct.


A few years ago, I saw some prints that were classified as coming from etched linoleum blocks, and I loved the textures I saw in them. In the last few months, I've been trying to use this technique in my own studio, learning about it as one does these days from websites and YouTube videos. I've also had email exchanges with several pr…

Brancusi in Plastic

Artist Mary Ellen Croteau is showing these columns made from recycled plastic cartons and lids in the window of the Columbia College bookstore on Michigan Avenue. They are a playful homage to Brancusi's "Endless Columns", with a serious environmental message for our times:

Mary Ellen also runs a wonderful experimental art gallery in a window space in west Chicago, called Art on Armitage. I will be exhibiting a mixed media piece there during August 2012.

Artist-Writer-Artist: Gerard Woodward

I am extremely pleased that poet and author Gerard Woodward agreed to be interviewed for this series. Gerard and my wife, Patty, were colleagues for a short while at the end of 2008, when Patty taught for one semester at Bath Spa University, where Gerard is a faculty member in the Creative Writing program. Gerard spent the spring semester of 2011 in Chicago on a reciprocal visit. Gerard has published poetry, short-stories, and novels. "Householder", his 1991 collection of poetry, won the Somerset Maugham Award in the UK, and his novel "I'll Go to bed at Noon" was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction. Of his most recent novel, "Nourishment", The Daily Telegraph reviewer wrote: "It is a novel to be savoured, and Woodward is a novelist to be treasured." It turns out that in addition to his success as a writer, Gerard started his adult life in art college, and still draws and paints when he can. So here, from a writer's point of view…