Monday, April 14, 2008

The Beauty of Brittany

This is a painting by Paul Gauguin

This one is by contemporary French master, Jean Duquoc.
Both of these were made in Brittany, roughly one hundred years

How do you think the place influenced each painter?
How do you think Gauguin influenced Duquoc?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Thoughts about looking at pictures

brainwashing at the museum

My reverie today concerns those art lovers who really want ideas for enriching the museum viewing experience. I have one fairly reliable recipe. I take ownership for the whole experience. I think about what I want to learn and see. I think about how I propose to learn and see. By way of example, the recent Renoir landscape show at PMA.

Once in the gallery, I try to size up the general feel for the space. How is it organized? Chronologically? Stylistically? Not at all? I then glance around to see which works jump out at me. I never attempt to look at every work, instead, limit myself to perhaps ten or twelve for fear of acquiring the dreaded "museum head". This is, of course, the state of confusion and anxiety that overtakes a person when they try to look at too many works. A bit like motion sickness. Selective looking allows me the time and patience to really look carefully- more like enjoying a meal than tearing through a bag of Herr's kettle cooked potato chips. When I look, I am contemplating the composition....the layout. Is it symmetrical? Is it realistic? Not that it ought to be. I am looking at effects of light and shadow. I am looking at colors. Are they mixed? Are they limited and muted or complex and vivid? What relationship does the painting have with others that are nearby? What about the use of the brush? Is it delicate and refined or loosely applied and textured? How do the frame and the painting coexist? If the work evokes emotions, what are they? How does the physical construction of the work evoke those feelings? Is there a convincing sense of depth in space, or does the artist not care about perspective? I just try to ask lots of questions mentally and look slowly, moving my vantage points, and allowing the piece to speak for itself. Here then are my keys then to museum going:

1. Clear your mind of intellectual clutter and enter with a blank screen. 2. Don't look at too many things. Instead, quickly see what things jump at you and then spend some quality time. 3. Ask yourself (or non-audiophone having humans) lots of questions about the work, especially those that address your emotions and how the painter wittingly or not, induced your response. 4)Skip the audio tour. You can always read or listen later. 5.Cultivate your own eye and be confident about what is meaningful in a painting. 6)Always celebrate the discovery of a bad painting by a great artist and have fun shocking people by saying this or that painting by this or that old master was really marginal.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Piranesi Etchings in the Free Library of Philadelphia

It is amazing to witness the rich stores of art that can be found in Philadelphia, sometimes in not so obvious places. There are for example a dozen or so superb etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Italian, d.1778,) on display at the Free Library of Philadelphia. The prints are absolutely gorgeous if a little bit frightening. They depict, in Piranesi's words, "prisons of the imagination." These works show dark interiors of ancient prisons, full of ghastly machinery, pulleys, wheels, chains, wracks and all things macabre. I am struck by a few things as I contemplate these works. They are absolutely monumental in scale. One wonders how many lost souls simply withered away in these dark and cavernous structures. They are richly detailed. You could spend a half hour on one print, come back some other day and find lots of new surprises. Finally, it seems clear that Piranesi was showing off his perfect understanding of linear perspective.

Tell me your thoughts about Piranesi, Etchings or anything else about art.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A Favorite Paintintg

One of the great schools of 19th century English painting was the group of zanies known as The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. One of their founders was John Everett Millais. Most people remember Millais for his stunning "Ophelia" langurously floating? sinking? in a lush brook.

Beyond Millais' extremely refined style, his pictures are laden with symbolism. I think it is fun to see how much you can extract from a close look. Here for example is one of his best works: Christ in the House of his Parents, (oil on canvase, 1850)

It is really unlike most of the Jesus pictures in western art tradition, no? It is a very realistic workshop. Real work is being done by real people, no Madonna's or crucufixions or entombments, or flagellations. But look closely. Do you see the tools in the picture? Surely this refers to the implements of Christ's execution. Nail pullers appear to be on the table. What about the ladder in the background. Many many renaissance pictures show the ladder up against the cross. (See Filippino Lippi's Descent From the Cross, for example in the late 15th c.)

What is happening in the picture? The child has wounded his hand, the palm specifically? Surely a reference to the childs future death. Who is the lad bringing water? I guess it is none other than John the Baptist. What do you think of the table behind the child? Are the symbollically working on a cross? I would love to hear what other references and symbols you see in the picture. Email me with your thoughts at

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Jules Bastien-LepagePas Mèche (Nothing Doing)1882
A young boy looks directly out of the painting clad in raggedy clothes and large unlaced boots. His relaxed air fits the title which is an abbreviation of the French slang: 'Il n'y a pas meche' meaning 'There's nothing doing'. The whip he holds and the horn slung on his back suggest that he was a barge boy who would have controlled the horses pulling the barge and alerted the lockmasters of its imminent arrival. The painting was made for the London art dealers Arthur Tooth and Sons and was included in the artist's memorial exhibition held in Paris in 1885.
Accession no. NG 1133. Medium Oil on canvas
Size 132.10 x 89.50 cm (framed: 170.82 x 127.00 x 14.60 cm)
Courtesy: National Gallery