Tag Archives: painting

Hokusai at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts

With his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, Katsushika Hokusai, whose prints are currently on exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, seems to reinvent the very idea of point of view over and over again. He must have traveled widely to have actually seen the fabled mountain from so many different vantage points. There’s no formula—each is a fresh take. Often the mountain is seen in terms of some human activity, as though watching over the people who fish, harvest, and make the things they need to live. In other images, Fuji is merely itself, framed by trees, overlooking water. The mountain can be close or very far away.

Most famous of the views is Hokusai’s iconic image Under the Wave Off Kanagawa, also known as The Great Wave. Fuji sits beneath the breaking wave, a massive wall of water turning on itself with white anthropomorphic fingers that seem to clutch at the small boats loaded with humans attempting a passage across a tempestuous ocean.

Most of the world is familiar with The Great Wave. Seen frequently in reproduction, in media, in advertising, and used on personal products from totes to umbrellas, the image has journeyed far from its source. This is a small work, measured in inches not feet. Here we have this massive rogue wave, possibly even a tsunami, spiraling, rising, threatening the small, precarious boats that seem to represent human endeavor in the face of huge natural forces.

Beneath the wave, in a circle framed by its curve, we see the perfect cone of Fuji, a sleeping volcano—implacable, unmovable, and holy—a form that, like the wave itself, suggests the purity of geometry and mathematical certainty. While the wave is ephemeral—we know that its presence is momentary: it will rise, crash, and return to the sea—the mountain hunkers down like a rounded pyramid.

Perhaps Hokusai deliberately planned this contrast, but I think it’s just as likely that, for him, it was simply one more view of the mountain, another inventive way of seeing his subject. The ideas about it probably came later. They are our ideas and not his.

Hokusai was a journeyman printmaker, a commercial artist really, bent on making a living in an era when these printed pictures sold for the equivalent of a bowl of noodles. Yet he lived in a time when the printed image was far less common than it is now. People were not inundated by images. In his massive output of prints, paintings, game boards, and banners, Hokusai manages to capture so much more than we can possibly take in—humans, animals, landscape, work, leisure, theater, story—few modern artists could claim to have so much breadth or humility.

A favorite image of mine from the exhibition is Carp That Climb the Waterfall. It has some of the qualities of The Great Wave—a sense of the force of the falling water and the fish struggling upward, fighting the current. We don’t know if the effort will result in success or failure, just as we can’t say whether the great wave will drown the tiny humans in the boats or allow them to survive. There is in these images a sense of the precariousness of life and also its liveliness and unpredictability. That takes us back to Fuji, the seemingly eternal rock, something dependable, out there in the distance, ineffable but perhaps reachable, if only one could find the right point of view!

Boston Museum of Fine Arts Hokusai Show

Girl in a Red Dress

(Link to Girl in a Red Dress by Paula Mondersohn-Becker in the Harvard Art Museums archive)

Sometimes a work of art finds its own context within us. Some paintings are felt so deeply and so personally that any sort of discussion about them as objects seems almost beside the point. I suspect that this is one way that many people experience paintings. They find something in the work that resonates inside them. It might be a color, a shape, or some aspect of the image itself, maybe even the subject of the work. A relationship is formed. There’s the potential for the painting to become a friend.

Paula Modersohn-Becker’s painting Girl in a Red Dress at the Harvard Art Museums has that kind of feeling for me. This painting of a small girl in a simplified northern landscape recalls something from my own childhood in Wisconsin. There are the birch trees. A solid trunk rises like a rough Greek column next to the seated child, while a wispy, leafless specimen in the background indicates that the season is not summer. The girl in the red dress sits passively with her pawlike hands resting on her lap. Her gray eyes are like two round holes punched into her head. She does not smile but seems very serious, as if the sheer weight of the life she must live is already pushing down on her.

The painting says a lot about that life. The child appears to be more resigned than expectant. In the paintings of Mary Cassatt or John Singer Sargent, little girls from well-off nineteenth-century families are cradled by young and beautiful mothers or dressed in white pinafores to be depicted in richly furnished rooms with Chinese vases and patterned Oriental rugs. They seem cared for, delighted in, loved. There is none of that sense with this painting. This image calls to mind the work of Käthe Kollwitz. It is a homely picture, a homily about a life that may not be lived all that well because of circumstances that are less than propitious.

That’s the incongruity in the painting. In a perfect world, children are not supposed to be hungry, alone, work-weary, or neglected, but that’s the feeling here. The outdoor scene lacks even the potential of a blue sky. Instead, the overcast sky is whitish, dense, opaque, and enclosed. Even the child’s “red” dress is more faded than cheerful. All is earth-toned, immanent, and scorched.

The painting feels purposely crudely done, just as the child’s life is and will be crudely made and perhaps crudely lived. The girl can’t be more than two or three years old. I empathize with the image because somehow I was that child and still am her on the inside—mute, dumb, and waiting. There might be a world beyond the picture frame, but it’s not clear whether she will ever come to know that place. The painting is about despair. It is a painting about growing up without money or advantage or joy in a northern rural landscape. There’s a sense of sheer resignation, isolation, and desolation. It is a very sad work, and yet, somehow, I return to look at it again and again as if I’m finding a truth that I require in order to know and remember something crucial and necessary. I could live with the painting and enjoy it every day for its honesty about a life that is just as it is with nothing put on for show. It is not a beautiful or a romantic picture. And that’s exactly why it moves me so much.

Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum in Bremen, Germany

Russian Icons

Archangel Gabriel from Rostov Region, circa 1600

Archangel Gabriel from Rostov Region, circa 1600

The Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts, is housed in a building so beautifully constructed, largely of wood that I’d like to move into it. I feel I could live very well there. The rooms are spacious but not palatial. The place has a human scale. Even though their subject matter is meant to plumb the sacred and holy reality of Christianity on an almost cosmological scale, the icons also have a human scale and are extremely approachable. In fact, they invite me to come closer for a better look. Some paintings are provided with magnifying glasses so as to better view their exquisitely small details.This museum houses icons—religious images painted on wood—usually executed in egg tempera in which the ground pigments are bound together with the whites of eggs. It’s a delicate medium that yields a smooth glazed surface and has the potential for almost microscopic depiction. The layers of paint are semi-transparent and reflective. Some paintings executed in egg tempera almost seem to emit light.

Icon of Saint Luke painted circa 1530

Saint Luke, circa 1530

For the faithful, these images are sacred objects. Many icons, but not all, depict the Virgin and her precious Son. Some icons reputedly weep or bleed as a response to tragic events. Some have been carried into battle. The icon connects the worshiper with the larger realities of the faith. The painters who created these objects were expected to serve the perfection of God. Many remain anonymous and leave behind only the work, made lovingly, created with respect and perhaps even rapture. This is an alien concept in our art world where making a splash and being different is the norm. We value a kind of individualism that has no meaning in this environment where angels are moving forces and participate actively in human life.

These vignettes happen at a juncture between the visible and the invisible. Many references root them credibly in our concrete world, but the space behind the figures is often defined by gold leaf that urges the viewer toward a dimension that lies on the other side of the mundane. The communication of the spiritual is achieved partly through use of vibrant color. The brilliant cadmium reds and the cobalt blues in some of these works vibrate. I experience the deeply expressed hues in a visceral way. The characters in the paintings possess bodies and facial features idiosyncratic enough to represent real people. But they are also saints inviting me into another order of human experience—one where knowledge, faith, and belief meet up with ideals of supreme effort and sacrifice. Their gazes are always serious, and they look out at me as if in admonishment. It is hard to find contemporary works of art that exude this kind of power or confidence. That may be our loss.

Animal Imagery and Color—The Work of Franz Marc

“Your paintings remind me of the work of Franz Marc.” I received this comment (and, I think, compliment) some months ago from a young visitor to my website. It immediately reminded me of a 1912 painting of Marc’s entitled Deer in a Monastery Garden—a favorite of mine. I think of this work as having strong Cubist influence, but Marc’s is not the Cubism of Picasso and Braque, not the Cubism of fractured faces and figures, and certainly not the Cubism of cafés where people drank coffee and cognac and spread newspapers out on tabletops.

Marc’s Cubist tendencies are applied to nature, in this case to the monastery’s garden where a young deer hides among bits of light cracking through the leaf canopy. The fawn is nearly invisible, absorbed into the texture and colors of the environment. Though influenced by the genre (who wasn’t in the early twentieth century), Marc wasn’t really a Cubist painter. He believed deeply in the spirituality of a natural rather than a human-made world. He was part of a deeply felt movement of German Expressionism, something of a Romantic, and a bold colorist.

Marc had no trouble painting horses blue or conceiving of a bright yellow cow. In fact, the deer in the monastery painting is actually rendered in yellow, ochre, and green, as if the green of the light is being picked up by its dappled coat and somehow that energy is being stored there.

When I went back to explore reproductions of Marc’s paintings in a book I own, I recalled that his images of animals always moved me. I grew up in nature, observing wild animals. I have always felt a deep connection with animals. My earliest childhood drawings were often of birds, fish, and small mammals. People seemed complicated to me. Animals were always deeper and more interesting, certainly more mysterious. My father was a game warden, and we sometimes rehabilitated injured animals. We once cared for a fawn for several months. His back leg had been grazed, pierced by an arrow. He was very small, but I helped suckle him with a baby bottle filled with warm, watered-down cow’s milk. We kept him in our garage inside a fence made from bales of straw. Soon he could leap the fence. He survived and was later released on a game farm.

Those memories of a specific animal yield for me a particularly emotional connection to Deer in a Monastery Garden. I recall the soft liquid eyes of a small deer I passed many hours with. Marc indicates the eye of his fawn with a soft, dark mark, almost smeared but enough to indicate that this was a living being with its own vision.

Marc didn’t merely study animals. He related them to himself and to the human world. For him, they represented a spiritual sense of his world and a way toward what was best within himself. He wrote: “People with their lack of piety, especially men, never touched my true feelings. But animals with their virginal sense of life awakened all that is good in me.”*

Under the influence of formal art training, I almost completely abandoned any iconography that referred to animals. Still, I’ve returned to drawing animals, birds, and fish throughout my life. It might be time to revisit that connection.

*Mark Rosenthal, Franz Marc, New York: Prestel Publishing, 2004,13

Image of  Marc’s Grazing Horses IV (The Red Horses), Harvard Art Museums

Louisa Matthiasdottir

I only became aware of this Icelandic artist a few years ago after seeing a review for a posthumous show of her work in New York City. Shortly afterward, I bought a book about her, and since then, I routinely leaf through it to explore reproductions of her brilliantly colored paintings. I feel deeply connected to her, and I think this is because we both understand and perhaps even love winter. We are both Nordic painters. The colors blue and white are important to us, and we both have a deep sense of incorporating color into our works.

I do have one other connection to Matthiasdottir. In the 1980s, I studied at the Kansas City Art Institute with painter Stanley Lewis for a couple of years. Stanley was a student of the New York painter Leland Bell, and Bell was married to Louisa Matthiasdottir. I knew nothing of this connection at that time, but I like to think now that there was an essence that Stanley brought to me from his deep connection with Bell, who in turn was deeply connected to and influenced by his wife. Getting to the essence is how you learned from Stanley. I would stand next to him making drawings of classical Indian sculptures at the Nelson Atkins Museum. During that period of time, I sensed that my strength as an artist lay somewhere in the involvement with the figure, with human movement, and with the dance of life.

What do I have in common with Matthiasdottir? Why do her works move me so much? On the surface, they are certainly very different from my own attempts. Where she strives for simplification and bold areas of color, I tend toward rich patterns and a singular lack of definition.

I particularly like the painting on the book jacket titled Self-Portrait in Landscape, 1991. Here is color I can relate to—deep, rich color—but almost no detail. I see an almost featureless woman wearing a red and black sweater with white armbands. Her hands are thrust downward into the pockets of her denim blue skirt as she faces directly outward as if to confront me. She is erect, white-haired, and without pretense. The slopes and curves of the landscape lead me into distances of water and then sky. Several simplified sheep graze behind the figure, marking the undulations of the earth with their forms.

The painting seems to me to be particularly Nordic and perhaps appeals to the Scandinavian part of my background. But I think what I like most about it is that it is somehow an in-between place. This landscape is both seen and imagined. Stripped of distracting detail, it is then imbued with the rich coloration of the artist’s mind.

Matthiasdottir applied this same sort of in-between aesthetic to other paintings, still lifes as well as unpretentious domestic scenes—rooms with people living in them—often renderings of those who were familiar and close to her. Without a lot of recognition, and not always in step with the artistic times, Matthiasdottir hammered out her visual remaking of the world over a lifetime of effort. The later paintings achieve the impact and simple joy of the Matisse cutouts and jazz series. I wish more people would look at her work.

Louisa Matthiasdottir, edited by Jed Perl (Reykjavík, Iceland: Nesútgáfan Publishing, 1999; distributed by Hudson Hills Press)

Website for Louisa Matthiasdottir’s estate

 

Gauguin’s “The Spirit of the Dead Watching”

Gauguin’s “Spirit of the Dead Watching” (1892)

The spirit in this painting reminds me of some of Rufino Tamayo’s human creatures. Here’s a large white eye and white lips etched into a dark face. The body is a hooded, cowl shape. We’re not sure exactly what this thing is, but it has an anthropomorphic nature. Yet, it’s not a person. It’s more of an entity, a dead spirit come back to haunt the living or perhaps to warn them. We cannot see all of its parts, can’t tell whether it’s male or female. Underneath the robe, it might even be an insect.

The spirit leans against the bed with a brown hand ominously touching the sheets. The spirit has been reduced to essentials while the beautiful young girl lying on the pale yellow bedding is definitely whole, alive, and naked. Her skin tones portray her as pulsing with life. Her workings are complex while those of the spirit seem somehow simple. We don’t know if the young woman can see the spirit or whether she simply senses its presence and is perhaps frightened by something she cannot actually see.

The story, as related by Gauguin, is that returning one evening he found his 14-year-old Tahitian wife Tehura lying face down on the bed terrified. The room itself, this confined space, becomes a portal. The night offers itself as a place where the boundaries between the physical world and the spirit’s world can be breached. The girl seems about to slip from her bed. The plane of her repose tilts forward as if to dump her out of the picture frame. It seems that, momentarily, she could fall from this frozen, painted moment either onto the floor or into some abyss where death awaits her. The spirit bides its time. In this way, I see this as a painting about inevitability—about that eventuality—presaging the thing that must transpire. Whether the young woman is aware of the threat, I am aware of it as I view the painting. While the young girl represents the known and solid physical world, the death figurine (and it might be seen as a statue) merely symbolizes what is not known.

A red pillow, offered almost centrally in the painting, brings a sense of carnality, the sense of flesh and blood. The young woman is captured sliding into and through time. The death figure lurks in readiness to claim the flesh that is its due. Three yellow shapes above the girl lighten the darkened room. These blurred swatches of energy suggest that there might be something going on here. Are these lights suggestive of some benevolent presence? I want to press on through the canvas to find out, but the surface doesn’t yield. This painting merges the corporeal with the non-corporeal. It does take me somewhere but it doesn’t take me all the way there. It leaves me on this side of the portal. I fall short. The image can’t yield any kind of complete knowledge about either reality or death.

And that’s because my knowledge falls short. Like the painter himself, I can conceive of death as an anthropomorphic figure, but beyond that symbol is a reality I can’t comprehend, a change that will require a completely different set of faculties, a place where my body life will be extinguished or yield to another larger being than myself.

Larry Rivers and the Fluid Nature of Seeing

Larry Rivers, “Self Figure” (1953)

Fractured energy plays across the surface of this work in oil on canvas. Ostensibly, it’s a painting of a single figure moving through space. To my mind, what’s represented here is not a person but an event. The character is insubstantial. The “self” depicted is not fixed in time. The face echoes itself as if yesterday has faded and a new face is now slowly emerging. The man’s moment is mutable. Small squalls everywhere make the canvas a study in transformation.

In “Self Figure” it’s impossible to distinguish between figure and the background. Both are painted in exactly the same manner. I view this painting as though it were the flickering screen of an old movie after the film has deteriorated. A detail emerges here or there—a carefully rendered hand or facial detail. These come forward only to melt back into the ground of the image.

For his paintings, Rivers often chose deeply personal subject matter. He made portraits of his sons, his mother-in-law, and his many friends active in the arts. He also chose historical moments and used his brand of pastiche and collage to comment on them and to suggest something new about our understanding of these events and the ways that they had previously been shown in iconic paintings.

Rivers’ “historical” painting,  “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” certainly contrasts with Thomas Sully’s depiction of this crucial event that marked a turning point in the Revolutionary War (“The Passage of the Delaware”). Sully’s work, painted in 1819, depicts General Washington elegantly and heroically posing on a white horse against the impending night. He is clearly the man of the hour. In Rivers’ work areas of thick paint give way to sketched-in places where we almost seem to lose the image all together. This “solid” piece of history has been made into a single fleeting and fairly insubstantial moment, a thing with frayed edges, a place where people merge with the landscape and then emerge once again.

Rivers visual language masterfully represents uncertainty, the fluid nature of our seeing and beyond this, and at a deeper level, the uncertainty of our knowledge. The historical issues in Rivers’ paintings—the very definitions of cause and effect—are lost in such atmospheric conditions that suggest a multi-dimensional geography of the mind—perhaps of the painter’s mind or maybe a collective mind in which we rewrite history on a moment by moment basis both remembering and forgetting.

Always Rivers’ paintings tell me not to believe too much in what I think I know. Each of them resembles a piece of music. Once heard, it disappears.

Rufino Tamayo—The Creatureness and Spirituality of “Seres Humanos”

In many of his figurative paintings, the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo makes human beings look strange. We have to look at them as if we’ve never seen such creatures before. He portrays human beings—in Spanish, seres humanos—as creatures and as the sum of their anatomical parts. A swath of red paint with four fingers at the end becomes an arm even when it is partially detached from the squared body, which (looked at as a separate detail) can actually appear to be a window.

In “Two Personages,” painted in 1961, the faces are mouthless ovals attached to shapes that might be torsos. We recognize the ovals as faces because of the white circles drawn into them that are obviously meant to suggest eyes. Sticks of red paint suggest arms, and that’s OK with me. These are paint people. They’re always missing some of their parts. And yet . . . I believe in them perhaps because, in some way, I am used to “seeing” some people who are missing some parts. None of us is truly whole.

This sense of play—of one thing morphing into another—or multiple or ambiguous meanings makes me go back to Tamayo again and again. By emphasizing the symbolic nature of anatomical parts and separating them—by making creatures of paint—he gives me a kind of anthropological distance on the human condition. I’m thrown off-center. I feel my own “creatureness” more deeply. I also feel some sense of the spiritual—the sense of a mysterious and great energy surrounding and enveloping these bodies. They become more than they might have been had Tamayo done a literal depiction of the human body.

He paints the purely physical, but pares it down and distorts it so that I might see it more clearly. Tamayo forces me through the canvas to see what is beyond. He makes me look hard for the situation/condition/circumstance that is whole and that is not merely a dismembered sum of parts.

In “Piano Virtuoso,” painted in 1984, the musician at the instrument possesses an oddly shaped skull-like head. It’s so wrong and impossible anatomically that it immediately draws my eye. It might very well belong to some extraterrestrial and not to an earthling sitting at the keyboard. The piano keys are a mere white strip splitting the canvas. They’re like a beam of light thrusting itself into the darkness rather than like anything solid. The blackness of the instrument occupies the whole lower left quarter of the painting.

Obviously, we’re witnessing a musical event. It happens in a room/space without furniture or other occupants. Who hears the tune or is an audience for the sonata? Relief in the dun-colored background is provided by hints of violet that show through as life from another place. The figure, with its strange head, is awkward and badly proportioned. The torso is ungainly; the arms are too long; the hands are insane with fingers splayed above the bar of light as though they’ve been broken or bent into shapes that might be hands but really might be “something else.”

It’s the “something else” that interests me. There is here some loss of control, some necessary skewing that yields more and more information. The action is made to appear odd. I’m forced to think about what is happening here. This creature—prehistoric in visage and almost reptilian—occupies this space and is engaged in this activity. He is pressing on the bar of light to create music. The result of the action is sound, but we can’t hear any sound.

I’m forced to consider something about the nature of reality. This thought process and need to look deeper and to pursue is what gives me pleasure when I look at my favorite Tamayo paintings. I’m knocked off a certain pedestal. I have to remake my world because he has offered to me this “made” thing, and while the scene is recognizable, still it does not look like anything I’ve ever seen before.

Tamayo’s “Flute Player” (1945) has a sort of pink keyhole at the center of an orange circle of “face.” Does this circle represent a small head? Is that mark an oddly shaped nose? Or a keyhole? The arms—again misshapen and too long—might be those of a monkey. And yet, this “animal” is engaged in a creative pursuit. There is, of course, no sound emanating from the picture and yet, I know that music is sound and not only is it sound but it marks time, as we mark time, as we understand ourselves. We “creatures” like Tamayo’s paint people live and measure time.

Find out more about Tamayo’s work:

Del Conde, Teresa, ed. Tamayo. New York: Bulfinch Press, 1999. [See the following:  “Two Personages” (1961), p. 164; “Piano Virtuoso” (1984), pp. 187–188; “Flute Player” (1945), p. 185.]

Some reproductions in Wikispaces

The painting “Children’s Games” from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Cathedral

Painting entitled "Cathedral" by artist Jeri Griffith

“Cathedral,” acrylic on canvas, 30″ x 30″

Cathedral belongs to a series of paintings I’ve been working on for the last year or so. These 20 images on canvases measuring 30″ x 30″ had their genesis in sketches I made at the Asian Civilization Museum in Singapore in 2013. As I’ve worked on them, the original images have either come forward or have been destroyed and transformed.

I always work on many paintings at one time—usually at least 10 or 12—because the solutions to different problems resonate and reverberate among them. Also, my method in acrylic is to achieve depth by layering patterns and transparent layers of color. The earliest renderings and markings recede and are gradually replaced. Sometimes I block out whole areas of a painting with either white or black, retaining only the parts that feel alive to me or somehow right. Then I move on from there.

In the end, each of the works is a synthesis of influences. I might marry one of Matisse’s color schemes with a sketch of an Indonesian shadow puppet and then touch the work with a scattering of New England maple leaves observed on my morning walk. Medieval cathedrals involved a similar synthesis of ideas. The architects’ intention was to create a sacred space that embodied spiritual tenets. On a less grand scale, Cathedral is also about sacred space, color, and light. The birds of the imagination are released to fly freely. The ghostly figure touches light and air with extended fingers. Something happens. There’s a juncture . . . a moment that connects the material world with something ineffable and mysterious that seems worth investigating.