Masters

The Shock of Recognition by Jeannine Cook

You enter an exhibition, perhaps almost by chance. You see the title of the show, and you are trying to orient yourself as to what it is about.

Then you round the first corner in the exhibit room, and boom, you get a jolt. Straight in front of you, out of the blue, you see a piece of art that you know well, something that has resonated with you before. And there it is again, quietly hanging on the wall. This shock of recognition, a thrill of interest and delight, are what makes me realise how much art means to me in daily life.

This reunion with pieces of art that I admire happened a little while ago when I strayed into the lovely CaixaForum exhibition hall in Palma, in the elegantly restored modernist Gran Hotel. I saw that there was an exhibition of etchings entitled, "From Dürer to Morandi. Engravings from the William Cuendet Foundation and the Atelier Saint-Pret". It was a large Swiss collection of very fine editions of work by innumerable artists from Dürer to Rembrandt, Canneletto, Piranesi, Goya, Degas and many others.

One of my first delights was a Rembrandt work - The Holy Family with a Cat, from 1654 - a work that always enchanted me with the inclusion of the cat. I had not seen it for a while, and so lingered to savour of the composition, the feeling conveyed by the whole harmonious order of the etching.

  The H  oly Family with a Cat , etching, 1654 .Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (image courtesy of the  Jenisch Museum , Vevey, Switzerland).

The Holy Family with a Cat, etching, 1654 .Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (image courtesy of the Jenisch Museum, Vevey, Switzerland).

Another happy reunion amongst the other one hundred and thirty works was this deliciously memorable work by Edgar Degas, At the Louvre, Painting, Mary Cassatt, 1879-1880. I have always loved its daring composition and essentially late 19th century French atmosphere. Both these images are courtesy of the Jenisch Museum, Vevey, Switzerland.

  At the Louvre, Painting, Mary Cassatt,  etching, 1879-1880., Edgar Degas (image  courtesy of the  Jenisch Museum , Vevey, Switzerland).

At the Louvre, Painting, Mary Cassatt, etching, 1879-1880., Edgar Degas (image  courtesy of the Jenisch Museum, Vevey, Switzerland).

My impulsive choice to walk into this exhibition, as I hastened through a list of errands, was such a bonus. The shock of recognition jolted me again and again. I came out exhilarated and grateful for the serendipitious gifts of art.

Curiosity by Jeannine Cook

One of the aspects of the Telfair Museums' exhibition, Modern Masters. American Abstraction at Midcentury, that I found very stimulating was the quotes from each artist on the labels beside their paintings or sculpture. They were not only well-chosen, but in of themselves, they are thought-provoking and insightful.

An example of these quotes is one that accompanies the painting, Sea Image, by TheodorosStamos (1922-1997).

  Sea Image , (Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum) by  TheodorosStamos

Sea Image, (Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum) by TheodorosStamos

This early Abstract Expressionist New Yorker wrote, "Nature is so vast, with so many moods and the ocean is so large and every wave is infinite. And as long as we have the curiosity of children (and sometimes we have to be children), discovery is not only possible, but indispensable".

The need for curiosity is, I am convinced, absolutely central to life for everyone, but especially for an artist. Not only is it rewarding to find out about how something works, or is put together, or what it is made of, how it smells and feels, but also, this knowledge gives depth and distance to everything in life. Such insights help us determine what we want to paint or draw, how we want to portray things (whether realistically, abstractly, in two or three dimensions, in film, paint, video, whatever...) and why we are moved to do so. Every single day - ideally - should bring new knowledge, fresh enrichment and stimulation, more possibilities for fun and fascination.

  Two curious kittens sniff out a tortoise. I(mage courtesy of Life.com )

Two curious kittens sniff out a tortoise. I(mage courtesy of Life.com)

Watching a kitten explore its world is a perfect metaphor for this curiosity. Everything is new and worth investigating, exploring, evaluating. We artists can be as bright-eyed and curious as any feline. It pays off too!

 

Art that remains "Bang up to date" by Jeannine Cook

That perspicacious genius, Pablo Picasso, once said, about his art, "All I have ever made was made for the present, with the hope that it will always remain in the present."

His work has just been tested again from this point of view, with an exhibition, Picasso by Picasso, on show at Zurich's Kunsthaus, until the 30th January, 2011. This is a semi-repeat of an exhibition that Picasso himself selected in 1932; he chose 225 of his works from different periods and styles, and the show was very successful.

This time, one hundred of the original works selected have been reunited, and according to William Cook, writing in The Spectator on October 30th, 2010, the exhibition is again very successful. Since the works are all pre-1932, there is not the political element that appeared in Picasso's work after Guernica, and apparently, the works appear far more optimistic than later paintings. Most importantly, the exhibition passed the acid test of Picasso's work remaining relevant, present and with impact for today's viewers. In William Cook's words, the show still seems "bang up to date".

For art to remain in the present, what does it need? I am sure everyone has a different answer, but for me, it boils down to art that contains a passionate message about human values, aspirations, emotions... The great art that has come down to us from past centuries and from different cultures all touches a cord in us, reminding us of universal bonds. The art can tell us of people, places, plants and trees, animals - in stylised or realistic fashion - but there is always a depth of emotion in the overt or subliminal messages.

Think of a Rembrandt portrait with its psychological impact, such as this masterpiece from the Frick Collection

 Rembrandt Self-Portrait, 1658 (Image courtesy of Frick Collection. New York.)

Rembrandt Self-Portrait, 1658 (Image courtesy of Frick Collection. New York.)

Or a Vermeer with the heart-stopping clarity and elegant stillness that nonetheless manages to encompass complex human moments. His Music Lesson is a wonderful example

  A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman,   1762, Johannes Vermeer,  (Image courtesy of the Royal Collection in 1762

A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman,  1762, Johannes Vermeer,  (Image courtesy of the Royal Collection in 1762

Go back some six to seven thousand years to the  Man from Cernavoda,  the Romanian clay man seated with his elbows on his knees, who conveys just as much deep introspection today as when he was made - we can all relate to his pensive, eloquent melancholy. In this image, he is shown with his companion Woman.

 "Thinker of Cernavoda" and "Woman of Hamangia"; Romania, 5000 BC, (Image courtesy of the National History Museum, Bucharest.)

"Thinker of Cernavoda" and "Woman of Hamangia"; Romania, 5000 BC, (Image courtesy of the National History Museum, Bucharest.)

Remember, too, Rodin's The Kiss, with its utterly memorable evocation of romantic love.

 The Kiss, 1901-04, Auguste Rodin, Pentelican marble, (Image courtesy of the Tate)

The Kiss, 1901-04, Auguste Rodin, Pentelican marble, (Image courtesy of the Tate)

When one thinks of the innumerable works of art that bring joy, compassion, delight, insights and understanding, they all touch those cords that bind one to the present. William Cook, in the review to which I referred to above, also alluded to modern art as having become "introverted, a reflection of our times". This brought me up short, but then I remembered the works so prized today - of  Damien Hirst, Andy Wahol, or even Jeff Koons,  for instance - and I do rather wonder where many modern works will be in fifty years' time... In the basements or still in pride of place on display? Time is not kind to superficial art. Each century proves that out, with scores of now-forgotten artists who were lionised in their time.

For an artist to find a voice that talks of the universal "now" is truly a gift. It is a goal to which every artist aspires, for, in a way, that is the overwhelming "raison d'être" of making art - to remain in the present.

Drawing from Life by Jeannine Cook

In a period that has been over-busy with the other side of art - matting, framing and preparing for exhibitions - life drawing was a welcome break, albeit for only three precious hours.

A fellow artist was talking to me during one of the brief breaks to let the model remember his limbs existed. We were talking about the humbling but ever-necessary discipline of looking, looking and looking, to teach one's hand to trust one's eye in the drawing process. The conversation then moved on to the ever-interesting necessity often faced in life drawing: reconciling the slight changes in pose that even the best model has during the session.

In short poses, it does not matter. For those, the challenge is more to analyse quickly the pose and sort out how to tackle understanding the arms and legs being - often - in somewhat strange positions and how to depict the figure. that can sometimes be very challenging, particularly if there is a lot of foreshortening on limbs relative to where the artist is placed.

During longer poses, models settle into a position but then may tire, slump, move slightly... Depending where one is in the drawing process, these changes can be hard to reconcile. Nonetheless, as my fellow artist remarked, even the evident changes in the drawing make for a much more vibrant and alive work, as compared with the "perfect" work done when someone is drawing from a photograph. In fact, redrawn lines, correcting and modifying the drawing, are frequently a source of strength and interest in a work.

Silverpoint, of course, is one of the least forgiving drawing media for these modifications and corrections, because every alteration shows and nothing can be erased. Yet here again, it can strengthen the image. Two works from some of the greatest silverpoint draughtsmen during the Renaissance illustrate this point. Below is a hauntingly beautiful study Leonardo da Vinci drew. Look at the reiteration of lines on the left side of the neck. They strengthen the impression of solid support for the detailed face and head, adding stability and emphasis.

   Head of a girl  , Loenardo da Vinci, c.1483, Silverpoint On Paper, (Image courtesy of Biblioteca Reale, Turin, Italy)

Head of a girl, Loenardo da Vinci, c.1483, Silverpoint On Paper, (Image courtesy of Biblioteca Reale, Turin, Italy)

Likewise, Standing Youth with his hands behind his back, and seated Youth Reading has many lines which are repeated and altered as he readjusted the contours of both youths' arms, for instance, and even the seated youth's knee is redrawn, with felicitous emphasis.

  Standing Youth with his hands behind his back, and seated Youth Reading,   Metalpoint, highlighted with white gouache, on pink prepared paper (recto),  1457/58–1504,  Filippino Lippi (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum, New York)

Standing Youth with his hands behind his back, and seated Youth Reading, Metalpoint, highlighted with white gouache, on pink prepared paper (recto),  1457/58–1504,  Filippino Lippi (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum, New York)

Such works make me feel much better about corrections I make when I am drawing from life, whether it is from models or from something in nature. Today's emphasis on "perfection" - reaching for the eraser, or copying almost slavishly from a photo, can often vitiate a drawing.

None of us is perfect, so why should we expect works of art to be any different?

Dutch Utopia tour at Telfair Museum by Jeannine Cook

Today's visit to the Telfair Museum's exhibition, Dutch Utopia: American Artists in Holland, 1880-1914, was a fascinating delight for a huge group of art lovers from Savannah and beyond. Curator Holly McCullough led everyone through the genesis, choices, history and social background of an exhibition she had worked on for long years.

Holland became a magnet for many American artists, men and women, who chose to work, sometimes in colonies, in many small towns throughout the country. They created paintings that reflected Holland's silvery light, seascapes and dunes. Other work depicted Dutch society, selectively and with an emphasis on older, traditional mores. People were portrayed as sober, hardworking, church-going, mostly garbed in costumes that were chosen more for their pictorial value than any accuracy of local costume. Gari Melchers, one of the main artists represented in the exhibition, with dramatic paintings large and small, had close ties to the Telfair as he was Fine Arts Advisor to the Museum early in the 20th century. His choice of art to be acquired, during his tenure at the Museum, led to holdings of these American artists working in Holland, such as Walter MacEwen and George Hitchcock. Other artists represented in the exhibition range from Robert Henri, William Merritt Chase, John Twachtman and John Singer Sargent to women like Elizabeth Nourse and Anna Stanley. They all spent time in one or more of the small towns and villages favoured by the artists for their timeless beauties.

 Self Portrait, Elizabeth Nourse , 1892

Self Portrait, Elizabeth Nourse , 1892

 Venice, watercolor over traces of pencil, 1891. Elizabeth Nourse, (Image courtesy of the Cincinnati Art Museum) 

Venice, watercolor over traces of pencil, 1891. Elizabeth Nourse, (Image courtesy of the Cincinnati Art Museum) 

 Girl carrying Sheaves (Harvest - Holland), c. 1895, Anna Henry, Private collection

Girl carrying Sheaves (Harvest - Holland), c. 1895, Anna Henry, Private collection

The 17th century influences show in much of the art, from Franz Hals to Rembrandt or Vermeer, and the silvery light is a hallmark of many of the paintings. I delighted in some of the depictures of the leaded glass windows, always with spindly pot plants reaching for the light but managing to add touches of background colour to interior scenes. Other aspects of the paintings dwell on the essence of Holland - windmills, tulips, orderly streets and fishing boat scenes. It was thus not surprising that a number of these paintings had been in European public and private collections from the time they were produced, although many others had been purchased by the new collecting public in this country. The Telfair had assembled this show from public and private collections and many had not been exhibited in public for long years.

If you miss this exhibition in Savannah, you can catch it at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Grand Rapids Art Museum, and finally at the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands. Thanks to Holly McCullough and her team, this exhibition is an unusual, fascinating and often very lovely exhibition well worth visiting.

Hurray for exhibitions of Master Drawings! by Jeannine Cook

It always delights me when I see that another exhibition of Master Drawings is on display, to celebrate this extraordinarily simple, yet sophisticated, diverse and direct medium.

I see that the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland, is opening a survey of 101 drawings from their huge collection in an exhibit entitled From Dürer to Gober. The earliest is apparently a 1400 silverpoint from the French/Burgundian court, where drawings of stylised, elegantly clad men and women seem almost to step from pattern books. Other silverpoints use the favourite method of the artist drawing on tinted grounds, which allows a wonderful play of highlights done in white gouache - often a perfect way to get rhythms going in the drawing and basically have some fun. On the Kunstmuseum's website's main page, the silverpoint portrait on green-turquoise ground has the most wonderful fur hat mostly done in white gouache. I can really relate to this white gouache highlighting - it is occasionally hugely satisfying to use when drawing in silverpoint!

 The Heads of the Virgin and Child, by Raphael, ca. 1502, silverpoint on warm white prepared paper, 10 x 7. (Image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum, London

The Heads of the Virgin and Child, by Raphael, ca. 1502, silverpoint on warm white prepared paper, 10 x 7. (Image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum, London

 Standing Woman,1460-69, by Fra Filippino Lippi. (Image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum, London)

Standing Woman,1460-69, by Fra Filippino Lippi. (Image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum, London)

Another important Master Drawing exhibition is now also on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. From Renaissance to Revolution: French Drawings from the National Gallery of Art, 1500-1800. 120 drawings done by French artists and foreign artists working in France - what a feast for the eyes! Great, well-known artists, but apparently, also less-known ones, so it means that there is a richness and depth that will reward any lucky visitor to the show. I was fascinated to see that the earliest work is done about 1500 and that it is a landscape done in watercolour, of all media. "The Coronation of Solomon by the Spring of Gihon", it was done by the miniaturist Jean Poyet, who worked for Anne of Brittany, Queen of France.

I remember, not so long ago, when it was very unusual to find an exhibition of drawings, let alone Master Drawings. Now that the Drawing Center and other such institutions exist, and that both the public and artists themselves are appreciating much more the intrinsic interest and beauty of drawings, in all their diversity, there are so many more opportunities to see drawings displayed. It used to be that The Morgan and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Getty, the Louvre, the British Museum and others in European capitals were the bastions of such shows. Now, that has changed. A list in a spring 2009 issue of the Berkshire Review for the Arts is eloquent - lots of drawings on which people could feast their eyes earlier this year.

Vive le dessin!

The energy of art by Jeannine Cook

During a visit to South Carolina to see the recently-opened exhibition from the Davies Collection, National Museum Wales, Turner to Cezanne, at the Columbia Museum of Art, I was struck afresh at the energy and magic created by art.

Not only was the exhibit a delight, with small canvases of great interest and often great beauty, but the whole experience of seeing the show was fascinating. The exhibition galleries were thronged with excited, but well behaved school children being taken around by docents. Their energy and fresh reactions to the art were a delight to be a part of as one looked at the art more slowly than they were able to. In amongst the school groups were numerous adults, clearly enjoying and appreciating the exhibition too. Why did I find this so striking ? Well, apparently this is the the most important show the Columbia Museum of Art and its supporters have brought to the city, and despite the current economy, the response from the public has been massive. In the first week already, the museum has seen huge numbers of visitors, both local and from elsewhere.

To me, the public excitement generated by this exhibition reminds one again how art brings people together and strengthens communities. By the time my husband and I had emerged from the museum, we had talked to countless people and even exchanged addresses with new friends. Each painting in the exhibition, from France mainly, but also from England, Wales, Belgium and Holland, quietly or dramatically "spoke" of different landscapes and places, different people and their mores, diverse optics on life in general - all a wonderfully subtle and beguiling way of learning of other lands, their history and culture. Each artist, whether it was Turner, Monet, Van Gogh, Manet, Pissarro, Whistler, Renoir or Cezanne, passionately told of their experiences and convictions, beauties and visions.

 Jospeh Mallord William Turner Margate Jetty, National Museum of Wales

Jospeh Mallord William Turner Margate Jetty, National Museum of Wales

People were smiling, obviously interested and learning, marvelling at different aspects of the art. In other words, the visit to the exhibition moved visitors, made them feel better and made their day special.

What a perfect prescription - go to see an art exhibition to make one feel energetic, inspired and even joyous!

Defining your identity as an artist by Jeannine Cook

Defining yourself as an artist is a lifelong endeavour. Each of us aspires to have a singular voice, a hallmark style and an artistic identity unlike anyone else. Achieving one's own style as an artist is complex, on-going and both technical and psychological. First of all, I believe, it has to do with defining who you are as a person and what you want to say, overall, through your art. It also has to do with hanging on to your belief in yourself, being willing always to learn and adapt, but nonetheless, being true to your own core identity. Sometimes that can be hard, especially when tough economic times demand lots of compromises.

One tool which I find very useful to help me define my identity is drawing. Whether it is with charcoal, graphite, pen and ink, conte crayon, chalk or silverpoint, it does not matter. It is the act of drawing that helps strip things down to bare bones, to try to get at the core of what I am trying to say. In other words, to define my art and thus to define me as an artist. Drawing is a tool with two rather different uses. The first is to make a finished drawing, a work of art that stands alone. The second is to draw small, quick studies for composition, distribution of lights and darks, etc. in preparation for a painting.

 Lot Drunk, Rembrandt, 1632

Lot Drunk, Rembrandt, 1632

   Rembrandt, Jesus and the Adultress

Rembrandt, Jesus and the Adultress

Drawing, unlike painting, is a direct, spontaneous act, indicative of emotions and thoughts in fresh and unadorned fashion. Many of the great Old Master drawings will leave errors and show corrections - a new line of a cheekbone on top of one that was off in proportion, an arm which has changed position slightly since the first line was put down, a tangle of lines where the artist was thinking of how to depict something or even blobs of ink where the pen "misbehaved". Rembrandt had many a tussle with his pens and ink but very frequently, that drawing could be readily recognised as one done by Rembrandt.

Try using drawing, any drawing, as a pathway to defining more clearly who you are as an artist. It is often a surprising and enlightening exercise - and fun as well.