Listening to the vitriol of the American Presidential campaign from overseas, it sounded pretty extraordinary. Now that I am back in the United States, I am saddened to hear the tones of stress and angst in many peoples' voices as they talk during these last days of the campaign. My reaction is to wonder how and if people can take refuge in the beauties of nature, of art, of music, dance and other forms of art. Some form of balance is always necessary, even when the stakes are so high for the future of this country and, indeed, the world.Read More
It was a chance remark made as I was leaving to revisit Vézelay, the amazing Basilica which dates from the mid-ninth century: "You'll be going to the Zervos Museum too, won't you?" I stopped in my tracks. I had never heard of this museum. So it was explained to me that this was a small gem of a museum, not to be missed. Easy to find as you climb the hill to the imposing Basilica dominating the hills of green central Burgundy.
So after I had lingered and marvelled at the Romanesque architecture, the extraordinary stone carvings on portals and pillars (now a little over-restored to my eyes, but perhaps I should not cavil) and listened to monks and nuns chanting their midday services, I found my way to the discreet entrance to the Zervos Museum.
After a charming welcome, I wandered into the house, once the home of Romain Rolland, the French writer, who spent time there during the Second World War until his death in 1944. Christian Zervos, born in Greece but a naturalised Frenchman, was noted for his Cahiers d'Art which he edited from his rue du Dragon office in Paris' 6th arrondissement, above the gallery he also ran. His connections to Vézelay began when he and his wife bought a small farm there in 1937; there they entertained Picasso, Léger, Le Corbusier, Paul Eluard and many other artists over the years. In 1970, Zervos left his collection of Cahiers d'Art and art to Vézelay. He and his wife, Yvonne, are buried in the cemetery near the Basilica.
I was indeed fascinated and astonished at the museum art collection, which ranges from Kandinsky, Giocometti and Miro to Calder mobiles and a small painting, Picassos, a huge Léger mural, Raoul Dufy, Dogon sculptures from Mali, small but exquisite Cycladic and Middle Eastern pieces. A personal collection, acquired with friendship and a keen, discerning eye - the result is a delight to see.
The small museum is beautifully arranged, with a clever adaption of the house and its still-personal Roland touches. The views out over Burgundy are timeless and beautiful, even on a grey afternoon. The bonus is the wonderful post and beam attic, where the Cahiers d'Art, the Cycladic and other objects are displayed. It is just beautiful in its strength and harmony.
I was so entranced that I forgot to take photographs, but I have found these images on the web. They give a flavour of a museum well worth a visit when you have the luck to travel to Vézelay, France.
In an article in the Wall Street Journal in May 2012, painter Kenhinde Wiley was discussing his portraits and the realities of being a portrait artist. He ended by saying that, "You'll never be able to exist in the market place without recognising that paintings are perhaps the most expensive objects in the art world. (The work) is not going to change anyone's life. But what it does (is) function as a catalyst for a different way of thinking – symbols matter". (My emphasis.)
Wiley has been most skilled at suggesting other versions of past masters' portraits of the great and powerful. His version of portraits by Rubens, Titian, Tiepoloand others are hugely symbolic as they remind us that the previous white-male-dominated world could indeed have been different.
It is not just by offering different versions of history that artists can offer insights into our world. As artists, whether we realise it or not, we are offering interpretations and meanings about our surroundings and history. As the late Kirk Varnadoe reminded us in Pictures of Nothing - Abstract Art since Pollock, "We are meaning-makers, not just image-makers. It is not just that we recognise images - it is that we are constructed to make meaning out of things, that we learn from others how to do it."
Take one of the most famous symbolic paintings of the last hundred years, Guernica by Pablo Picasso.
It is one of the clearest demonstrations of the power of symbolism in art. It is a reminder that we can all use art in many powerful ways.
Picasso - amongst all the other interesting things he said - remarked that, "Painting is just another way of keeping a diary." He was so right.
I have kept many drawing books, usually small so that they can be slipped into a bag as I travel, and I was going through some of them recently. As I leafed through the pages, memories came flooding back. No matter how quickly I did a drawing or painting, it still has the power to evoke. The place, of course, but the sounds, the scents, the other events surrounding my doing the art - all are connected to the art-making. I am not sure that had I only kept a written diary, I would have such vivid memories of all those trips I have made. Yes, I do keep a written journal, but I tend to record other types of things, such as names, people, events.
I think that art-making is always a record of where the artist is in terms of life and experience. Viewers may not always understand the art from the "diary" point of view, but the artist can always remember. Historically, there have been some wonderful diaries left by artists.
Two very famous ones are from Renaissance times. Albrecht Durer's 1521 diary of his trip to the Netherlands was a series of astonishing silverpoint drawings of places, people, sights that he experienced. He had kept other diaries before this one, but executing the drawings in unforgiving silverpoint is stellar work. Paper was still a precious commodity so Dürer used the pages on both sides and crammed things into them.
The image reproduced was apparently done when Dürer visited Brussels and went to the Coudenberg Place zoological gardens. He also drew lions there and was generally fascinated by the animals. He went to this zoo in 1520 on his way to the Netherlands, and then did these drawings when he returned in 1521, on his way home.
Another very famous diary-keeper was Leonardo da Vinci. He kept notebooks in which he drew out ideas, made notes and calculations, basically evolving as an artist. This image is courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of Leonardo's small, intense diaries, full of genius calculations, thoughts and observations.
This is a page from the Codice Atlantico, a wonderful collection of pages of Leonardo's thoughts and observations, with 1750 drawings on 1119 pages, dating from 1478 to 1518. The Codice belongs to the Ambrosiana Library in Milan and constitutes one of the most amazing diaries an artist has ever kept.
Another artist, much nearer our times, who famously kept a diary was Frida Kahlo. In effect, most of the art she produced was about herself, a form of journaling. Nonetheless she formally kept a dairy too about her Mexican world.
These are pages from her journals. They are eloquent testimony to her spirit and creativity.
Today's artists don't just confiine themselves to diary-keeping on paper - video and photography are other means to record life. Nonetheless, a small spiral or moleskin journal slips easily into a pocket and goes everywhere with you as you navigate life as an artist. Try following Picasso's advice!
Circuses and high-flying trapeze artists are part of every child's education, I suspect. Those moments of delighted amazement that accompany feats of grace and daring on slender ropes and bars high above the ground are the stuff of circus legend. Circuses have long been the subject of artists too - think of Toulouse-Lautrec's penetrating and ultimately sad and solitary depictions of circus performers, Chagall's vibrant versions of circus life and of course, Pablo Picasso's Rose Period paintings of circus harlequins.
Perhaps one of the most wonderful images of circus grace and skill is Edgar Degas' Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, a mastery of draftsmanship. This oil painting, in the National Gallery, London, was painted in 1879 from four preparatory drawings Degas did at the Circus.
Other artists have painted dramatic pictures of the circus. It is astonishing to find how many artists have been attracted by the subjects of clowns and circuses!
The same sense of wonder at seemingly effortless soaring and beauty, high above one, was what I experienced last night at a performance of Canopy Studio at the Ashantilly Center in Darien, GA. As the sun set and the swallows called high above the wide lawn in the evening sky, the lights came up slowly beneath an ancient, graceful live oak. Rigged carefully from its limbs were different harnesses, scarlet "ropes" and other lines.
These were for a performance of the "Royal Sequined Aerial Circus", with solo and duo aerial ballets that were diverse and beautiful. A wide selection of music allowed the young, beautifully trained women (and one delicious small girl) to move in ways that were true ballet, yet ballet that almost defied gravity. Against the backdrop of the mighty oak tree, it was magical.
I kept feeling that I should be trying to draw all the flowing, elegant movements, but the other half of me just wanted to sit there and savour of the pure beauty.
It did make me all the more aware of those 19th century artists who, long before cell phone cameras or other means of capturing images instantly, caught the essence of the aerial ballets they watched under circus tops.
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
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
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.
Remember, too, Rodin's The Kiss, with its utterly memorable evocation of romantic love.
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.
Pablo Picasso was of the opinion that "a painter should create that which he experiences".
As one goes along in life, there are plenty of experiences that mark one, positively and negatively. As an artist, there are times when you can "digest" an experience fairly quickly and it will show up in your art in a relatively straightforward fashion. Perhaps the most direct way to depict experiences pictorially is plein air painting or drawing. You are filtering through onto paper or canvas your sensory experiences of an area, urban or rural, coastal or upland, whatever.
When an artist's life goes through major ups or downs, those experiences are more complex, but sooner or later, they do seem to show up in a serious artist's work. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of art arising from life experiences is The Scream which Edvard Munch painted when he was 30 years old.
He had had a very difficult life from childhood. He wrote about his father, "My father was temperamentally nervous and religiously obsessive - to the point of psychoneurosis. From him, I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow and death stood by my side since the day I was born." By the time he had moved to Berlin and then to Paris, experimenting with different artistic styles, he was coping with deep anguish and angst. He later said about this painting that, "for several years, I was almost mad. I was stretched to the limit - nature was screaming in my blood. After that, I gave up hope ever of being able to love again."
Picasso spoke very accurately of his art being derived from his experiences. His Blue Period paintings were influenced by the suicide of his friend, Carlos Casagemas. His love affairs with his various mistresses were the source of the amazing work that continued to flow from him during his long and productive life. Borrowed experiences are also sometimes the source of great art. Again, Picasso is a prime example, with Guernica, which was created after the Germans bombed the small town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.
Other artists believe in placing "the visible at the service of the invisible", as 19th century Symbolist Odilon Redon said. His inner experiences were channeled into strange pastels and paintings which often had an initial appearance of real subjects, but then then veer into the grotesque and ambiguous.
The Cactus Man (1881) is one of Redon's strange drawings. But there is a consistency that runs through his work, for in 1914, he paints The Cyclops . One can only conjecture at the personal experiences that drive these works of art.
Another type of experience that led to wonderful art is when Henri Matisse was increasingly unwell, towards the end of his life, and was confined to a wheel chair after 1941. So he turned to "painting with scissors" and produced his wonderfully joyous cut outs, his Blue Nudes from 1952 and his limited edition book, Jazz, with its series of colourful cut paper collages, amongst others.
Today's artists have such a wide array of examples of how artists drew on their personal experiences to inspire their art. It makes a very strong case for each of us to believe in ourselves as artists, to listen to our inner voices and follow their inspiration into creating strongly individual art.
Autumn seems finally to be here, with a crisp sunny day that implored one to go out and enjoy it. I managed to get the chores of daily life either done or postponed and went out to draw, feeling a fraction harassed and short of time.
Then - bliss! I settled down to draw a wonderful old oak tree which had split in two. One portion had simply fallen over into the marsh mud, and has now died. But since it is a live oak, the graceful skeleton will remain as a frame for the marshes and salt water creek for many years. It was a peaceful afternoon with just soft bird songs and a gentle Labrador friend who came to greet me with a wagging tail.
I was working in silverpoint, so it was slow and meditative work. The world fell away from me, and by the time I had finished the small drawing, I was feeling much better, albeit a bit weary. I then remembered a wise statement (of the many!) that Pablo Picasso purportedly made. He remarked, "Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life". He was exactly right.
The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humblebaek, Denmark, has just opened an exhibit entitled Colour in Art. They combined works from their own collections with others lent by major collectors, Werner and Gabrille Merzbacher, to explore the role of colour in art and thus in daily life.
Colour underpins most artists' concepts in some form or another. The most obvious domain of colour in art is in paintings, done in many media. The perception of colour has changed considerably over the last 150 years or so, as societies and cultures have evolved. There has also been a huge evolution in the actual production of pigments and types of paint, which have increasingly allowed more brilliance and a more flexible approach to the creation of art.
Colour choices can be very personal, as we all know from the famous example of art to match the sofa demonstrates. Every choice we make in decorating our home is involved with colour in some way or another. So it is is no surprise that for an artist, the absence of colour (in a monochromatic work) or its presence - and in what fashion - both dictate a great deal about the creation of that particular work of art. Once created, artwork will then appeal to people through the colours used, to a great extent, whether the collectors and viewers realise it or not. Moods are created through a certain spectrum of colour, and people respond to those harmonies, even if only subliminally.
The Fauves - Andre Dérain, Henri Matisse, Raoul Dufy, Albert Marquet and others - used a bright, almost strident palette of broken colour to evoke the brilliant light and intensity of colour in the landscapes of the French Mediterranean coast. Nothing downbeat at all. By contrast, Picasso's Blue Period paintings are almost monochromatic and convey deeply gloomy and sombre sentiments. Picasso's close friend, Carlos Casagemas, had committed suicide in Paris in 1901. This affected Picasso deeply, and the resultant paintings of that period use colour to convey the melancholy and resignation he experienced.
The exploration of colour intensified as the artists of the mid-19th century began to move outdoors from their studios (mostly set up with northern constant light). They then got all excited about conveying the brilliance of light and its ever-changing qualities, when they worked plein air. After the Impressionists had pushed out the boundaries of colour use and perception, the field was wide open for everyone to experiment. Thus the Fauves and everyone else who followed, up to our time.
Meantime the development of new artificial pigments, types of paint binder and their presentation in the marketplace were following a parallel explosion. This is explored in the Louisiana Museum show, Colour in Art. There is also the interesting dimension evoked of the commercial use of colour, for logos, advertisements, etc., and the same colours used in art. As is cited in the article on this exhibit on ArtDaily.org, the blue which Yves Klein developed for his famous brilliantly intense canvases would be unlikely to be confused with the blue used in the logos and names of the United Nations, the European Union or even Nivea cream. In other words, context of culture influences our perception of colour. I am sure that in our digital (and globalised) age, where colour is intensified even more than previously, even cultural perceptions are constantly evolving.
Nonetheless, there is another dimension to colour, particularly in art. I found it an interesting juxtaposition to read about the Colour in Art exhibition and very soon afterwards, to find the following quote by Marc Chagall on Renée Phillips' Manhattan Arts International website: "In our life there is a single colour, as on an artist's palette, which produces the meaning of life and art. It is the colour of love (my emphasis)".
Something for us to think about.