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

Two Chicago Exhibitions

In the last week, I saw two terrific exhibitions of work in and around Chicago.

The first was at a small but beautiful gallery space in Evanston. The work on display consisted of prints by Socorro Mucino and Janet Webber, who took one of my printmaking classes at the Lillstreet Art Center nearly two years ago. The title of the show, Paper Dolls, suggested a pun on the fact that these were works on paper depicting either a child's play-doll, or women as objects of desire (as in "hey, doll!").

Janet Webber's pieces were altered images of mannequins, ball gowns, and beauty queens, presented in rows or in combination with overprinted images and text. Very often the faces were obscured, and the image itself subjected to deterioration in the printmaking process, perhaps as a way of interfering with how these images of banal and old-fashioned female beauty would normally be seen by the male gaze.

Socorro Mucino's images of dolls struck me first as sweet and childlike, …

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…

A List of Every Drink in Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises"

I first read Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel "The Sun Also Rises" when I was a teenager, and immediately fell in love with it. For the last couple of years, I have had the incredible privilege of teaching a class based around Hemingway in Paris -- while living and teaching in Paris itself, close to the Boulevard du Montparnasse, where most of the action of the novel's first half takes place.

Of the many things that one notices about the book, the colossal amount of drinking is something that stands out. These people didn't just drink like fish: they drank like whales, as if the ocean they swam in was alcohol and they had set themselves the task of drinking the seas of the world dry of it. During my read-through of the book before class started last year, I tried to underline every mention of drink in the book. And now, purely in the interests of science, I am listing the entire menu of booze mentioned directly by name. Some preliminary observations:
Most of this is…