Sunday, August 31, 2008

Counterlight's Peculiars Endorses...

Let's face it. I'm a middle aged gay artist in New York. An endorsement from me might as well be the kiss of death from a Martian.

Yes, I got issues with him; his retreat on FISA is the biggest one. I'm not happy about him waffling on offshore drilling. I certainly part company with him over the death penalty.


I've voted in every presidential election since 1976 (I voted for Ford; yes, I'm a recovering Republican). I've never been more impressed with a candidate than Obama. It's not just the soaring rhetoric (which after 8 years of mangled English with a bad Texas accent is refreshing; I especially like being addressed as an adult instead of as a dimwit child by Daddy). It's not even the policy positions, though those are very important (National Health Insurance, Ending the War in Iraq, Restoring Equality and The Rule of Law, etc.). I've never seen a more imaginative, bolder, and better campaign than this one. Remember folks, he started out as a come-from-behind long shot with a lot of disadvantages (being black not the least among them). He prevailed over one of the most formidable political machines in modern times (the Clintons). That acceptance speech in the stadium in Denver was a huge political gamble, and it came off as a masterpiece of political theater. Obama's background in community organizing has proved to be a huge asset in motivating and mobilizing hundreds of little independent startup campaigns on his behalf. The splendid poster above is the creation of one of them; it's not an official poster of the Obama campaign, though Obama personally wrote to the artists to endorse it and to thank them.
How a candidate runs his campaign says a lot about his ability to run his presidency and about where his heart and mind really are. I've never seen this kind of spontaneous bottom-up enthusiasm for a presidential candidate.  His campaign doesn't just preach about enfranchising and including the Vox Populi in all its complex variety, they do it, and have made it central to their strategy to win.  I wonder how they will make it work in a strategy of governing.

Sure, he's not the perfect Progressive. But Eleanor Roosevelt and Eugene V. Debs aren't getting up out of their graves to run this year. I'm tired of throwing away my vote in a principled protest only to discover after Election Day that no one gives a rat's ass. I'm ready to turn the page on the Bush/Cheney years, and at least get started with cleaning up the mess. Barack Obama is better than anything I could have hoped for these days.

The artists group responsible for the poster can be found here.

For All My Progressive Friends, VOTE! Yes, it really does matter!

I'm just praying that the American Left won't stick to historical precedent and snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory once again.
On the one hand, being permanently marginalized means that you never have to be responsible for making policy; you can never fail because you can never try. On the other hand, being permanently marginalized means you can't make policy; your dreams will never be anything but dreams. I'm afraid nasty old Machiavelli was right. Politics is about the possible, not about ideology. It's about getting real things done for real people. Sadly, Democracy is a very dull homely date. It's not about saddling up your white horse and riding to the rescue. It's about committees hammering out compromises between competing interests, each with legitimate claims. No one is ever completely happy, but everyone can live with the results.

I'm not expecting a Progressive Messiah, nor do I want one. I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 and I've regretted it ever since. If boring old establishment Al Gore had managed to keep his election victory in 2000, the Iraq Invasion would never have happened and thousands of people who are now dead might still be alive. Who knows? He might even have noticed that August 2001 memo that said "Osama Bin Laden is right behind you!" and 9/11 might have been nipped in the bud.
Sure, I think the Democrats take Progressives (and lots of other people) for granted. Yes, I think both parties are bought and paid for, but they are clearly NOT the same thing.


Lives are at stake. No, I'm not going to be perfectly satisfied by an Obama victory or a Democratic sweep, but this isn't about me. This is about The United States and the people who live in it and make it work.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

For Grandmere

Grandmere Mimi Has Evacuated

She posted her announcement here.

Goodnight Grandmere where ever you are.  Take care of yourself and Grandpere and come back to us safely!

Thoughts, prayers, and best wishes for everyone affected by Gustav from this lunatic art perfesser.

A Night On The Town With Edouard Manet

Edouard Manet, Bar at the Folies Bergere, 1881-1882

Manet takes us out to one of the swankiest spots in late 19th century Paris, the Folies Bergere, a huge establishment, a combination of dinner theater and circus, and what does he do, he spends all his time at the bar painting the barmaid. It is remarkable that Manet, who was born into money and never had to worry about meeting bills a day in his life, had such genuine feeling for the lives of these working girls. One of them is central focus of his last and greatest painting.
She is the only person who we see directly. All that exciting nightlife in the painting is in fact a reflection in a mirror behind her. We only get a tiny glimpse of the floor show, if you look up in the upper left corner, you can see the legs of a trapeze artist hanging down from the top edge. We are alone with her in her isolation from all the glamorous night life going on around her, and that is summarized in that splendid sparkling still life of bottles of champagne and liqueurs, oranges, and roses for sale. In some ways, she is as much on display and available as those bottles. We see ourselves reflected in the mirror already negotiating a sale with her; perhaps a drink, more likely the price of an assignation.
Like a sacred relic or a monstrance on an altar or a saint in an icon, she occupies the dead center of the picture. But she certainly is not there to be worshiped or adored. She is there to be available and accommodating. The most striking part of the painting is her face. It is expressionless as she looks just past us. We are not privy to her thoughts. That is the one thing here that is not available to us. Even if she offers herself to us for sale, she remains ultimately impenetrable and self-posessed. That is the most dramatic aspect of this picture. What for us is a great time, perhaps even the thrill of a lifetime, is for her a job and only a job.

After Work

Edouard Manet, The Brandied Plum, ca. 1878

We've come a long way from the PreRaphaelite's too-sensitive-to-live to Manet's too-cool-to-care. And yet, beneath all that cool-as-a-cucumber some real humanity shines through in Manet's work, as it does in this enchanting picture. It shows a young girl who looks tired, probably after a long day at work, enjoying a plum brandy and a cigarette. The painting is beautifully composed to suggest that we see her in a casual glance across a cafe. Manet incorporates the new influence of photography and Japanese prints with their fragmentary compositions with broad brushwork that still looks fresh and sparkling after more than 140 years.
Manet appears to have been enchanted with a whole new class of urban working girls who began to appear in major cities throughout Europe and America at this time. These were mostly young girls from the countryside or the small towns who came into the city looking to Hit the Big Time either in the Theater, or in the new popular culture of the cabarets that created the first of what we would recognize as celebrities and celebrity culture. If they were lucky, they got a place in a theater or cabaret chorus. Usually, they worked as waitresses, barmaids, or shop girls. Some of them did a little prostitution on the side. Unlike their sisters who stayed home and were so exhausted with housework that they were too tired to object when their fathers arranged for them to be married to rich elderly bankers, these girls were tough and resourceful. Manet seems to have admired those qualities, and they come through in this painting. Manet appreciates the precariousness of their lives. The expression of this girl is ambiguous. The casual pose and cigarette loosely held in the fingers suggest cool self-posession. Her face, however, betrays not only exhaustion, but a touch of sadness. And beneath that 1870s version of urban hip, she looks very young.

Manet didn't believe in much of anything. For this reason, he speaks to the nihilism that dominates our era, the idea that the world and everthing and everyone in it are ultimately worthless and disposable. While the Marxist art historians may adore him, it's hard to imagine Manet signing up for anything so demandingly doctrinal and apocalyptic as Marxism. Hell, he might as well become a Christian.
What redeems Manet is that he avoids a very bad habit of modern thought that will only get worse in the 20th century, reductivism. He shows this young girl in all her splendid mystery and complexity. He makes no effort to explain her or to show her "essence." He's not interested in reducing her to anything in order to place her in some larger ideological or doctrinal system.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Edouard Manet Paints a Whore

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1865

In 1865, Edouard Manet exhibited this wicked parody of a famous painting by Titian, the Venus of Urbino. Both paintings show women on display in a bed who boldly look right out at us. The painting by Titian is deliberately ambiguous. She could well be one of the high price whores ("courtesan" is the nice word) for which 16th century Venice was famous. She certainly makes herself available and displays the goods. But, she could also be the goddess Venus gracing the marriage bed. In the background is a scene of a young woman with a maid going through what appears to be a trouseau. The scene is set in a palatial Venetian bedchamber in the evening about twilight, the most evocative time of the day.
There is no such ambiguity in Manet's painting. The woman who posed for this painting was not a whore, but Manet's reliable ready-for-anything model Victorine Meurent. In this painting, she unambiguously plays the whore. We are put in the uncomfortable position of being her next customer. We view her from slightly below as her maid presents her with a large expensive bouquet, presumably from us. She looks at us with that coldly down-to-business gaze that reminds us that we are nothing more to her than her next client. Instead of a palatial bedchamber at twilight, we are in a small room in a brothel with the glaring light of mid day lighting her up and creating a series of sharp contrasts between brilliant white and black. The most wickedly clever of those contrasts is between her own white flesh, and the dark skin of her chamber maid.

Manet is the darling of Marxist art historians. They see him as confronting us as ruthlessly as possible with the true material conditions of our existence. And indeed, he does that, and quite brutally.  According to Manet, the modern world is in fact quite simple, it's about money and nothing else.  Money is the measure of all things these days, not Man, not God, not anything else.  And that goes for truly all things.  Even sex, that most intimate and complicated of matters, is ultimately just another business transaction.   The complicated part of modernity is the effect that simple reality has on people.
And yet, Manet probably would not have been much use to either the movement or academic Marxists.  He was in Paris for the uprising of the Paris Commune in 1871.  Where was he during all that revolutionary turmoil, on the barricades, or arguing with the other ideologues of the Commune?  No, he was in hiding.  He was glad and relieved when the soldiers of the Third Republic finally entered Paris and began massacring the Communards.  I'm afraid that Manet was too much of a nihilist to be useful for any revolution.  His outlook on the urban reality of modern life was very clear-eyed and unsentimental, and very detached.  It is an aristocratic view of the world, neither fully in it or of it, but observing it coldly, a role that the historians call the flaneur.  
That was what so shocked viewers in 1865, not that they were looking at a whore (late 19th century art, a golden age of misogyny, was filled with whores), but that they are looking at her so candidly and that she is looking back at us so coldly.  Manet brilliantly and brutally strips the poetic mystery surrounding what boils down to a biological need and a business transaction.

A Manchester Moment

My all time favorite boy band evah:

I just feel like partying this morning for some reason.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Well, I Loved It.

I've voted in every presidential election since I wasted a vote on John Anderson in 1976, and I've never seen anything like that stadium speech in Denver tonight. I loved the speech; a great stem-winder that provoked thought rather than suppressed it. The crowd ate it up. I heard on the radio that Denver police estimated 84,000 people in and around a stadium designed to hold 75,000. The police said that the line of people waiting to get in was 6 miles long.

It was brilliant political theater and a huge gamble. Maybe it will work.

By the way, the first day of class went fine.

45 Years Ago Today

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dell Martin Is Dead

Dell Martin (right) with her lifelong partner Phyllis Lyon 50 years ago. The full story is here.

When she met Phyllis Lyon and formed the Daughters of Bilitis (the first organization for American lesbians), the witch hunts to ferret out gays and lesbians from government and corporate employment were at their height. Lesbians then bore the double burden of sharing the criminal and pathological status of gay men, and the disadvantage assigned to women by law and social convention in 1950s America, the culmination of the roll-back of the first wave of feminism. Dell Martin lived to see lesbian activism before and after Stonewall. She lived to see the second wave of feminism. And she lived to participate in the first glimmer of legality and legitimacy of same-sex relationships, married twice to Phyllis Lyon by Mayor Gavin Newsome of San Francisco.  They lived together for more than 50 years.

This middle aged gay man and his partner have one thing to say to Dell Martin as she departs this life:

Thank You.

Class Starts Tomorrow

Blogging may get a little sporadic.
So, here's some high culture to keep you occupied and out of trouble:

This is definitive proof that Bugs Bunny was gay as opening night at the Met.

We will resume our religious look at the aesthetics of materialism with Edouard Manet who makes atheist Thomas Eakins look like St. Augustine by comparison.

Faculty Meetings

They're like this, only less well choreographed and less interesting.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Literal Truth: Popular Illustrators

John Martin, The Seventh Plague of Egypt

Gustave Dore, Moses Showing the Tablets of the Law, from his engraved illustrations to the Bible, 1865

To this day, these 2 immensely successful and popular illustrators from the 19th century continue to influence most people's visualizations of Biblical stories. John Martin (who spent his youth in Newcastle apprenticed to a carriage painter) was regularly panned by the critics, but a huge hit with the public. He specialized in big spectacular productions like the one illustrated at the top; God's Wrath never looked more colossal and stupendous than it did in Martin's work.
Martin built a whole career painting God's Wrath. Among his titles are The Feast of Belshazzar, The Destruction of Sodom, paintings based on the more spectacular parts of Dante's Inferno like Pandemonium. The Bronte sisters had an engraved copy of Martin's Belshazzar's Feast hanging in their parlor.
Dore illustrated many works of literature, but by far his most successful was his set of illustrations for the Bible. His illustrated Bible was a huge success in Europe, and a sell-out in the United States when it debuted at the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1894.

These artists did not have much impact on the art of their day, or on later art. But, they had a huge impact on the movies. Cecil B. DeMille was an enthusiastic admirer of the work of John Martin, which should be a surprise to no one. Dore's illustrations influenced just about every Hollywood spectacle from DW Griffith's Intolerance to DeMille's The Ten Commandments. Through the movies, these illustrators continue to shape the popular religious imagination.

And let's end this post with a real bang. John Martin made this painting toward the end of his life, and he pulled out all the stops. Tim LaHaye and Hal Lindsey did nothing new.

John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath

The Literal Truth: Henry Ossawa Tanner

The Raising of Lazarus, 1896

The Annunciation, 1898

Henry Ossawa Tanner is best known as the preeminent African American artist of the 19th Century. He was Thomas Eakins' most successful student; so successful that Tanner's career eclipsed that of his teacher during their lifetimes. Tanner was a star in France, where he spent most of his working life (conditions of segregation in the United States made any such career impossible in his native country).
Tanner was also one of the most thoughtful religious painters of the 19th century, a sincere believer (unlike Eakins) who struggled with the issue of literalism. How to make meaningful visual imagery out of the experience of faith in a very positivist and literal minded age? Tanner certainly agreed with the legions of Romantic painters that preceded him that the traditional imagery of the Christian religion was moribund. His solution to this conundrum was similar to Eakins', but toward very different ends.
Tanner takes the path of archaeology, going to great lengths to reconstruct the settings, the costumes, and the people of ancient Roman Judea. The characters in his dramas are very pointedly and specifically Semitic, including the very Jewish Virgin Mary in his striking painting of the Annunciation.
What is remarkable about Tanner is that he paints two very supernatural and transcendent episodes from the Bible that definitely created difficulties for thoughtful people of the 19th century, secular and religious. He shows Lazarus waking up from death, and he shows the moment of the Incarnation. In the Annunciation picture, he concedes the limitations of his archaeological approach. Instead of resorting to a Fra Angelico type angel, he resorts to abstraction, insisting upon the transcendent otherness of something like an angel. He shows Gabriel as a long glowing streak of light, anticipating the transcendental abstraction of such 20th century artists as Kandinsky and Rothko.
What really makes Tanner's pictures is not their scholarship, but his very fine dramatic imagination, and a great sense of emotional calibration. The reactions and feelings of his characters seem just right; the reflection of Tanner's genuinely empathetic imagination.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Literal Truth; Eakins Paints The Crucifixion

The Crucifixion 1880

Thomas Eakins didn't have a religious bone in his body, and this painting is the proof. It shows Christ at His death in the most literal way possible; as a thin bony young man nailed upon a rude wooden cross in the glaring dusty sunlight of ancient Judea. He intended this painting to be every bit as provocative, if not more so, than The Gross Clinic, and the critics obliged by being outraged.
Revolting beyond expression is Thomas Eakins' 'Crucified Christ.' a bold piece of realism, in which there is some good painting and much bad color. Mr. Eakins finds in this picture the worst possible excuse for making a study of the nude figure. His Christ is the subject of the dissecting-room-table -- sickening to the last degree.

So wrote the critic for The Independent, apparently ignoring the fact that Christianity itself was on a dissecting table at this time. Barely 17 years earlier, Ernest Renan published his Life of Jesus, beginning the "search for the historical Jesus," the literal truth about that whole moment in history stripped of all of its accumulated tradition, legend, and its sacral and doctrinal interpretation.
Eakins' crucified Jesus is the Christ of archaeology.
Eakins went to great lengths to get the facts about the subject right, not just by spending time doing research in libraries, but by reconstructing as best he could the actual moment. His former pupil, and the model for Christ in this picture, John Laurie Wallace, recalled in a 1938 interview that Eakins built an actual cross. He took it and Wallace (then only 16 years old) to a secluded spot by boat across the Delaware river. Eakins dug a hole and set up the cross. Wallace took off his clothes and posed upon it while Eakins worked. Eakins even made a crown of thorns for Wallace to wear. How literal minded can you get? Thank God he didn't nail the poor kid to the cross.
Artists have used models for centuries. The difference is in how Eakins used his model. Earlier artists used the model as a reference in order to flesh out a concept. Eakins wanted to get rid of the concept and look at the basic physical facts underneath.
Eakins also had art in mind as well as the Bible and Biblical criticism. He was keenly aware that he was making provocative polemics with a central image of Western art. He almost certainly had in mind the great Spanish artists Velazquez and Zurbaran.

Science and scholarship now began to look into the central mysteries of the Christian faith and many secretly worried if that faith could survive the scrutiny. Earlier artists couldn't have cared less about the literal history of these events. What counted for them, and their audiences, was the story and its meaning. Masaccio had no qualms about locating the events described in Acts in the streets of the Oltrarno district of Florence. Robert Campin thought nothing of setting The Annunciation in a 15th century middle class Flemmish parlor. Ours is an age that is no longer comfortable with imagination and metaphor.  We are a much more literal minded people -- about everything -- than our distant ancestors.

"The Still Sad Music of Humanity"; Two Portraits by Eakins

Morgan Douglass Hall, circa 1889

Susan Hannah MacDowell, Eakins' Wife, 1899

Eakins' primary subject was human beings.  For all the radical transformations of technology and science that made the modern world, Eakins remained keenly aware that they were all the creations of frail mortals, and that they had an impact on the lives of those same mortals.

The painting at the top is of one of Eakin's students at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art.  Eakins made this painting as a demonstration to his class, probably in a couple of 2 to 3 hour sessions.  Hall either was chosen or volunteered to model, a practice that is still common in art schools.  When the painting was finished, Eakins gave it to Hall.  Hall was definitely not one of Eakins' successes.  He died an untimely death in drink and dissolution.  His family inherited the painting, and not liking it, kept it hidden away for decades in a closet where it was rediscovered by accident.
Scholars now widely agree that Eakins had a strong and deeply repressed streak of homosexuality.  I used to be skeptical of that claim, but it was this painting, and not The Swimming Hole or all the photos of his nude students, that finally convinced me.  Eakins was clearly attracted to this young man (though a similar sensuality can be found in some of his portraits of young women, especially Maud Cook).   There is more ardent desire in that top button straining to hold that shirt closed than in most of his nudes.   Eakins managed as well to see something of the pride and frustration of his mediocre student in that vacant art-student-as-model stare.

Susan Hannah MacDowell also was one of Eakins' students, and unlike Hall, one of his more gifted and promising students.  She married her teacher, and remained Eakins wife until his death.  Sadly, she followed the Victorian custom of giving up her career to be a wife to her husband.  As a result, we have a few pictures by her and must wonder what might have been. 
Being married to Thomas Eakins (or any artist) was no Sunday picnic, and Eakins did not make things easy.  He could be selfish, demanding, arrogant, and self-destructively stubborn.  Those faults came with the courage and enterprise that she once found so attractive in him.  What's worse, Eakins was not always a faithful husband, and she knew it.
Eakins made this very unsettling and moving portrait after many years of marriage.  We see in her large unguarded eyes staring at us out of the gloom her sad frustration and his remorse.  Like the portrait of Hall, it is a small seemingly casual portrait made in probably 2 short sessions.  And yet, it is one of the most dramatic portraits of the 19th century.  Susan Hannah MacDowell shared the lonely exile of Eakins' old age.
A past director of the Hirshorn Museum in Washington DC where this painting is housed once said that if the museum caught on fire, this would be the one painting he would brave the flames to save.

The alienation of modern life may be a cliche, but it's also true.  In a world that grows ever more out of scale and changes so completely so fast that generations of the same family are alienated from each other, the individual is thrown back upon herself.  And yet, as Eakins so poetically reminds us, that world is made and inhabited by very frail mortals.  Eakins had the grace and humility to include himself among them. 

Matthew Mitcham or Pat Robertson?

Which one would you hire to babysit your children?

Matthew Mitcham, Gay and Gold

Speaking of The Heroism of Modern Life...

Strength, Courage, Grace, Good Looks, and Good Cheer; a credit to the human race.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Heroism of Sport; Eakins' Portrait of Max Schmidt

Max Schmidt in a Single Scull, or The Champion Single Scull, 1871

This painting and The Gross Clinic get my vote to be placed among the greatest of American paintings and among the greatest of the 19th Century.
Like The Gross Clinic, this painting is an extended portrait, in this case of the champion rower Max Schmidt seen on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia in his scull, the Josie.   Eakins was himself an enthusiastic rower.  He appears in this painting busily rowing a scull with his name on it.  There are other rowers at regular intervals beyond Eakins.   Schmidt has apparently just won the race by a comfortable lead and is gliding back to claim the prize.
What is particularly appealing about this painting is the contrast between the small, but confident, figure of Schmidt and the vast ever extending river beyond.  There is always a poignant contrast in Eakins' work between the largeness of the task and the frailty of the mere mortals who accomplish it.  Even in The Gross Clinic, Dr. Charles Gross looks elderly and exhausted as he performs surgery and teaches class.
Another thing that is so remarkable about this painting is its shimmering luminosity and striking realism.  Eakins clearly has made use of photography, not in a direct literal way of taking photographs to be copied in a painting, but in trying to emulate what the camera does; looking at the world with an unprejudiced and candid eye.  Eakins captures so beautifully and so accurately a perfect afternoon for rowing; in the autumn on a still and glassy river.  Eakins observes closely how the sky reflects in the water, how the boats and their oars disrupt its glassy surface leaving wakes and eddies.  The boats themselves are painted with great care for accuracy.  The ironwork bridges in the background are a reminder of Eakins' first formal drawing instruction; high school mechanical drawing class.  He carefully pays attention to outdoor lighting, to colors, to the whole overall late afternoon autumn effect they create together.  He carefully made his painting out of a large collection of facts about the scene and the event.

It is striking to note that this painting was made at the very same time that Monet and Renoir were inventing Impressionism in France, another movement about painting things factually.
However, Impressionism (especially Monet's work) was about our optical experience of the world more than about the world itself.  Monet and Renoir in the early part of their careers painted from life in the outdoors as much as possible.  Eakins, by contrast, remains a true alumnus of the French Ecole des Beaux Arts.  His painting was made entirely in the studio, and has a narrative subject, Max Schmidt winning a race.  The Impressionists avoided any direct narrative subject matter.  Eakins, for all of his 19th century positivism, was very much a humanist at heart.  People and their stories remain the primary subjects of his attention.  Perhaps this is why Eakins and his work remain sympathetic for us on the other side of the 20th Century in a way that the Impressionists do not.

The Heroism of Modern Life; Thomas Eakins

The Gross Clinic (Dr. Charles Gross), 1875

Eakins' painting displayed in the model post hospital of the Medical Exhibit at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, 1876

The title of this post is taken from a book of essays on Thomas Eakins by Elizabeth Johns that came out 25 years ago. She rightly placed him in the context of the newly industrializing United States immediately after the Civil War. She took her title from Charles Baudelaire who urged artists to find their inspiration, not in history or myth, but in the new world of cities and industry all around them. Eakins did spend time in Paris as a young man studying under Salon stars Jean Leon Gerome and Thomas Couture (who was also Manet's teacher). It is not knowable if Eakins ever read Baudelaire's advice, but he certainly lived it out in his work.

The Gross Clinic, the painting illustrated above, launched Eakins' career, such as it was. If it was not for the inheritance of his boyhood home, and a small estate from his supportive and thoughtful father, he would probably have starved. Philadelphia did not treat Eakins well, and ever since his death, he's been in and out of the critical doghouse. Philadelphia most certainly did not like this painting. It was painted for the art exhibit at the big Centennial Exhibition of 1876, a huge opportunity for a young artist to make a splash before a national audience. The critics were horrified by it, as was the general public. It was banished out of the art exhibit altogether and displayed in the Medical section in a corner behind a curtain as you can see in the old photograph below the painting.
The critics attacked and the public recoiled for the very reasons that we admire this painting today, its candor and realism. It shows an operation in the very last years before the advent of antisepsis. It takes place in the amphitheater of the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia where Dr. Gross taught. The operation is a relatively routine one, the removal of some dead bone from the femur of a young boy. He's a little hard to make out. We see his right thigh and buttock, and we see his stocking clad feet. His head and upper body are concealed behind a large cotton gauze soaked in ether. All of the participants in this picture were actual colleagues and students of Dr. Gross. Most of Eakins' most ambitious paintings are extended portraits, and this is no exception. The assistants are all calm, professional, and compassionate. Dr. Gross looms in the center of the picture lecturing at the same time that he operates. The boy's mother recoils in horror to his right. Above her, a stenographer records the minutes of the procedure.
Eakins allows himself considerable dramatic license in the shadowy gloom of the amphitheater; in fact, it is a bright sunny room (it still exists). This is probably a charity case. Wealthier more important patients probably would not submit to the humiliation of being teaching subjects.
Eakins borrows considerably from the tenebrism of Rembrandt. He wants to show a drama of life and death. Surgery was anything but routine in those days. Even a relatively simple operation like this one was full of risks. Operating was usually a desperate last resort, and Eakins wanted to convey something of the momentousness of the occasion. Light plays across Dr. Gross' face. He bears the double burden of the responsibility for his patient's life, and the education of his students (and by implication, the lives of their future patients).
Eakins spares us nothing in the grisly details of the operation; retractors, probes, instruments, and above all, Dr Gross' brightly lit right hand holding the scalpel and covered in sticky red blood. This is precisely what so offended the critics and the public. Eakins refused to be discreet and to use the usual high heroic rhetoric expected in medical pictures at that time. Eakins believed, rightly, that the heroism was already there in the subject itself. All he had to do was to record it as candidly as possible, and to invest it with a certain drama. Eakins did indeed show the world very forcefully the heroism in something so very modern as medicine and medical science.

Eakins befriended many phyisicians, engineers, scholars, and scientists and painted many of their portraits. He considered himself one of them. Eakins thought of art to be an enterprise like science, to get at the truth of things independent of inherited beliefs and customs. The artist, like the scientist, looked at things for himself and regarded experience as the highest authority.
These professionals that he so admired did not always return the regard. Eakins' life was full of disappointment and accusations of scandal. He died a lonely hermit in the house he grew up in.

I first saw The Gross Clinic about 15 years ago at the Jefferson Medical College where it hung until very recently. For decades, the painting hung on a stair landing in the college, and students sometimes scratched their names into it with pen knives. When I saw it, it hung in its own gallery next to the faculty dining room. As the painting became famous, it became valuable and very expensive to maintain and insure. The College sold the painting to both the Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Pennsylvania Academy of Art (where Eakins once taught). It came very close to being bought by the Walmart heirs and carried off to Arkansas. Mercifully, the painting will remain in Philadelphia where it belongs, just as much as The Liberty Bell.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Williamsburg Bridge

Here is film by Thomas Edison of the the 1903 opening ceremony of the Williamsburg Bridge

The Williamsburg Bridge is the ugly duckling of the East River bridges. And yet, I love it like a parent loves their "special" child. I've walked back and forth over this bridge many times from my home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to my studio just a block from the Manhattan entrance. I'll never get tired of it.

Heroic Materialism; The Brooklyn Bridge

Conviction raised the Brooklyn Bridge.
Just as surely as faith raised the medieval cathedrals, so the modern conviction that the human condition could be changed, that we can make history rather than suffer it, raised the Brooklyn Bridge. Like the cathedrals, the Brooklyn Bridge was a great collective enterprise full of risk with a lot of civic pride at stake. The designers of the bridge, John Augustus Roebling and his son Washington Roebling, added Gothic arches to the stone towers deliberately to make that connection with those great engineering feats of the medieval past.
When it was built, it was the largest suspension bridge in the world, and the first built with steel cable (invented by John Roebling) rather than with iron chains. It was the first to be built on level ground rather than over a gorge or valley. Its towers were the first structures to top the spire of Trinity Church Wall Street, for decades the tallest structure in New York.
The construction of the bridge cost many lives and caused much injury, including the Roeblings themselves. John Roebling died of tetanus when his foot was crushed by an incoming Brooklyn ferry boat, fatally demonstrating the bridge's necessity. Washington Roebling became a bed-ridden invalid when he came up too fast from the deep water-tight chambers, "caissons," under the East River used to dig the foundations of the towers. He came down with what is today known by divers as "the bends," a painful crippling disease caused by nitrogen bubbles forming in the blood. Most of the fatalities on the bridge were caisson workers afflicted with this disease. His wife Emily took over most of the work of direct supervision. She is now credited as the 3rd designer of the bridge.

Ours is usually described as a "materialist" era. But, as can be seen in the Brooklyn Bridge, materialism requires conviction, a belief in the possibilities of this world and in this life. I wonder if our era is up to any kind of conviction. I wonder if we are truly capable of any similar enterprise (space exploration for example, now so nickeled and dimed we can barely manage a permanent orbiting trailer home, let alone go back to the Moon or beyond). No monster profit was made from the Brooklyn Bridge (it broke even), no agenda was advanced (except to get people quickly and safely back and forth between Manhattan and Brooklyn without disrupting ship traffic), and no egos were stroked (most New Yorkers have never heard of the Roeblings, like they've heard the name Trump). I wonder if we really believe in much of anything now.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

How My Mind Works These Days

I've been spending a lot of time in my studio these days working on paintings of classical subject matter. On the one hand, these old things can come off as pretentious, pompous, and academic sounding (through no fault of their own). On the other hand, they're great compelling stories from the very beginnings of Western culture that still tell us a lot about the ideas at the heart of our culture. And indeed, they are doubly interesting viewed from this side of the 20th century when Western civ came catastrophically unraveled. Modern thinkers like Nietzche, and especially Hannah Arendt still play a large role in how I think about the whole Classical legacy. I think my classical fixation these days comes from thinking about what it means to be civilized, especially in an age that is so manifestly not a civilization; a society, a culture, a state, certainly, but a civilization? I'm not so sure. And what is that distinction? What makes societies "civilized?" Is it simply a matter of education, good manners, and generous donations to arts organizations? Or is the business of being civilized something more complex and profound? I don't know, I'm still working these things out. For me, the question is more urgent since we are surrounded by so much that is manifestly not civilized. So much of our public conversations these days are caught between the poles of religious fanaticism and nihilism, neither of which care a damn about anything humane, let alone civilized (I should point out that I include political ideology under religious fanaticism; I think it's very telling about the state of both religion and politics that two of the biggest influences on Al Qaida are Marx and Lenin in addition to the radical theologian Qutb). And there's so much that masquerades as civilized that brings us right back to those 2 poles (for example, the public artwork in the corporate HQ whose main purpose is not to expand meaning, but to tell the world that the corporation is not such a pack of rapacious bastards after all).
I'm currently working on the planning stages of 4 paintings about Theseus: Theseus recovering his father's weapons, Theseus and Procrustes, Theseus and the Minotaur, and Theseus establishing Athens. Plutarch describes Theseus as a foreign born bastard who founds the Athenian democracy.
I'm also planning a picture of the Tyrannicides, a gay male couple who killed the last tyrant of Athens and created the way for the democracy under Pericles. I intend it to be ambivalent; freedom fighters and terrorists. For this project, I'm looking at images such as these:
An ancient relief copy of a lost monument to the Tyrannicides by Kritios.

The assassination of Ineijiro Asanuma, the Japanese Socialist leader in 1960.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Divine Madness of Creation

Vincent Van Gogh, Enclosed Field With The Rising Sun, December, 1889, Saint Remy

Madness and suicide do only one thing for an artist's career; they end it. And that is ultimately what they did to Vincent Van Gogh in 1890 when he took his own life at the age of 37.

On December 23rd, 1888, Gauguin walked out on Van Gogh after a particularly bitter quarrel (they quarreled constantly as soon as Gauguin arrived in Arles and moved in with Vincent in October of that year). Gauguin left abruptly that evening, and noticed that he was being followed. He turned to see a very distraught and panicked Van Gogh behind him. Gauguin always claimed that Van Gogh had a knife. Van Gogh turned and fled as soon as Gauguin saw him. Gauguin spent the night in a guesthouse, and took the first train out of Arles in the morning never to return. Van Gogh, meanwhile returned home and cut off his earlobe. Covered in blood, he went to a nearby brothel to present it, wrapped in a handkerchief to one of the girls.
Van Gogh returned home and passed out from blood loss. A crowd gathered around his apartment in the morning and the police were called. He was treated for his injury and returned to his apartment. By the end of January 1889, his neighbors petitioned the police to have him forcibly committed to a mental institution claiming that he was a dangerous madman. Van Gogh was hospitalized already at the time of the petition suffering from terrible hallucinations and seizures. He was practically imprisoned in the local hospital in Arles, denied paints, reading material, and even his pipe.
He voluntarily entered the hospital of Saint Paul de Mausole, a 12th century Augustinian monastery with an asylum attached at the town of Saint Remy a few miles north of Arles.
He would paint 140 of his finest pictures while confined here (among them, the famous Starry Night, and the picture reproduced above), though he only signed 7 of them.

Much has been written and speculated concerning the effect of Van Gogh's madness upon his art. He most certainly was not painting when he was going through bouts of illness. He hallucinated, had seizures, ate his paint, and cut up his arms when he was ill. He certainly did not entertain any ideas of being an art martyr. He was repelled and felt humiliated by his illness, which caused him much pain and anxiety. He worried (justly it turns out) that his madness would affect the way people see his art, that they would no longer take it seriously and simply treat it as just another symptom. All his lofty (and perhaps impossible) ambitions for his art would forever be seen in the light of his illness. My students write term papers on Van Gogh endlessly speculating on the nature of his illness, and saying very little about what he painted.
Forgive me for sounding callous (I'm not), but Van Gogh's illness was a terrible misfortune and nothing more. Legions of people then, now, and always have suffered far worse and more dramatic mental illness than he did. Why do we remember Vincent Van Gogh in the hospital at Saint Remy and none of his other fellow patients? Because of the paintings he produced there, that is what is truly remarkable, not the fact that he was sick.
Van Gogh painted in those times when he was well and lucid. The hospital allowed him to paint, provided that there was an attendant with him. Eventually, he was allowed supervised short trips outside the asylum walls to paint the walled fields behind the hospital. What is remarkable about the Saint Remy pictures is how confident and masterly they are. Certainly they are driven by strong emotion, not the emotion of madness, but on the contrary, the relief and happiness in those periods when he was well. To my eye, these paintings are the happiness of a drowning man who recovers his breath. These paintings are as ecstatic as they are anxious. We've already seen how a strong sense of spiritual longing together with anxiety over his disintegrating self shaped his painting from the very beginning. Now, at the cost of much personal suffering, he fully understands what is at stake in his ambitions, and now has the formal means at his command to realize that vision of a world so filled with spiritual life that it rocks and writhes upon the canvas.
He energizes the scene of a green field at dawn by tilting the horizon line up to the right, destabilizing the whole picture. The inconclusive perspective of the furrows peters out near the horizon missing its intended target of the large yellow sun rising off to the right. The sun beautifully balances out the rushing orthogonals of the furrows. That always meaningful yellow in Van Gogh's work fills the sky in orderly concentric brushmarks around the sun, and sparkles amid the fresh green of the field. A splendid rhyme and rhythm of the furrows, the contours of the hills, and the brushstrokes that make them all tie the painting together beautifully.
This is not the work of a madman. It is the work of an ecstatic visionary looking at the world through his own desire to expand beyond himself. That frustrated longing to leave his suffering self behind is there in the frustrated perspective construction of the picture. That promise of spiritual fulfillment is there in the distant sun on the horizon, and fills the rest of the picture.
This painting (and others like it from Van Gogh's time in Saint Remy) is a great religious painting created from profound personal experience that cannot be contained in the simple formulas of religious orthodoxy, or answered by the facile arguments of an equally simple secularism.

Vincent Van Gogh was released into the custody of his brother Theo who brought him back to Paris and settled him in the nearby village of Auvers. He was under the care of Dr Gachet who became a close personal friend of Vincent. On July 27, 1890, Vincent returned from an evening walk in the wheatfields bleeding and in pain. He had shot himself in the chest. He died the next day. Theo never recovered from Vincent's death and died himself the following year. They are buried next to each other in the churchyard at Auvers.

The idea of creative madness is as old as Plato. In Van Gogh's case, the divine furor of creation became undone by genuine mental illness.

Next, a religious look at the aesthetics of materialism.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

"A Place Where One Could Ruin One's Self" Van Gogh's Night Cafe

Vincent Van Gogh wanted to found a whole new movement of artists. He wanted to begin a kind of artists' collective in Arles along the lines of the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood or the Nazarenes, only perhaps not quite so specifically religious or sectarian. He wanted to continue that project to reintegrate individual spirituality that began with the Romantic movements of the early 19th century. In the words of the German Romantic poet, Novalis, he wanted to re-enchant a disenchanted world. Van Gogh sent out dozens of letters to various artists that he admired inviting them to join him in this project in Arles. Only one artist answered his letter and agreed to join him in the south of France, Paul Gauguin. He arrived in Arles and moved in with Van Gogh in October of 1888.
Paul Gauguin was already a rising success as an artist. Van Gogh at this time was an unknown nobody who had yet to sell a single picture. Gauguin was as worldly as Van Gogh was ascetic, and the 2 began to clash almost immediately.

As high minded as he was, Vincent Van Gogh was a deeply flawed man. He could be focused on a project to the point of being oblivious to all around him. He could be self-absorbed and cruelly demanding on members of his family, especially upon his devoted brother Theo who went through much hardship to support Vincent and to promote his pictures. Vincent Van Gogh did not handle disappointments well, especially in matters of love. He never quite recovered from a disappointed passion for a cousin of his in his youth. He had obsessed over her, and she spurned him. He drank heavily and frequented prostitutes, probably to self-medicate as much as anything. By the autumn of 1888, he was beginning to show signs of the mental illness that would be his undoing.

The Night Cafe shown above is a painting made from his own self-destructiveness. It was an establishment on the Rue Lamartine in Arles owned by a Madame Ginoux (Gauguin, another regular of the same establishment, painted her portrait in the bar; his vision of the same bar is far more benign than Van Gogh's). It is like any all night establishment of the time, or at any time. It shows the oil lamps burning late at night while drinkers linger around the tables. The clock reads 12:14 AM. It is a painting full of menace and foreboding. Van Gogh described this establishment as "a place where one could ruin one's self, where one could go mad and commit crimes." The painting is dominated by the flat lurid red of the walls, probably based on the actual garish decor of the bar (that same red appears in Gauguin's portrait of Madame Ginoux). The oil lamps glare ominously. The floor glows with the same bright yellow of the lamps. The pool table is painted with so much anxious energy that it looks like it could spring up and leap out of the picture like a wild animal.
What really gives the picture its anxiety is the odd viewpoint, and original use of perspective. We view the bar as though floating about 6 feet off the floor. The man in the white coat by the pool table appears to be looking up at us. The orthogonal lines of the perspective of the room lead to a vanishing point through the parted curtain in the door in the back, apparently into another room as menacing, or worse, than this one. Traditionally, perspective is used to focus our attention and to create a kind of dramatic climax to a picture. Here, it ends inconclusively. The focus is simply the back wall of the bar and the kitchen door. There is also a kind of conflict between the insistent 3 dimensionality of the perspective, and the flat unshaded red of the walls that brings us right back to the surface of the painting.  The feeling we get is one of entrapment and claustrophobia.  
This ordinary late night bar becomes hellish, seen through Van Gogh's anxieties about his disintegrating self. Van Gogh remakes the world in terms of his anxieties, something that later expressionist artists would also do, but arguably less successfully.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Van Gogh, The Sower

The Sower, 1888

The Sower with the Sun, 1888

Both of these paintings are variations on The Sower by Jean-Francois Millet, one of Vincent Van Gogh's heroes. Millet probably based his grand figure striding across the fields on the parable of the Sower in Matthew 13:4-43. Van Gogh certainly had that parable in mind. The Sower in the Gospel of Matthew is about the Last Judgment. God sows the seeds of the spirit in the soil of humanity and returns at the Last Day to reap the harvest. That almost certainly accounts for the terrible grandeur of both of these paintings.
These paintings were made in the south of France near Arles in Provence, a very different place from the village of Nuenen in the Borinage region of Belgium where he began painting. Instead of the cold damp gloom of northern Europe, Van Gogh found himself immersed in the brilliant sunshine of the Mediterranean. At that time, Provence was a backwater, certainly not the playground of stylish international plutocrats that it is today. Like the Borinage in Belgium, it was inhabited largely by marginal farmers. As he did in Belgium, Van Gogh took a keen interest in the life and work of the local farming people. These paintings are the culmination of a long series of pictures of farm work outside of Arles.
What is different now is the large role that nature plays in the drama. Nature begins to overtake the people working the land as the principal actor in Van Gogh's painting. The main drama in the painting at the top is between that huge sun in the center and the ploughed earth that fills the bottom three quarters of the picture. Van Gogh's composition is very deliberate placing the sun in the center like something to be worshipped and revered on an altar or in an icon. The sun dominates even more in the bottom picture, looming over the shoulders of the sower and right on the horizon line, a domineering terrible presence. The pollard willow tree cuts across the center, emulating the fragmentary compositions of Hiroshige that Van Gogh admired, making the painting seem even more expansive by implying a breadth beyond the framing edges.
Gone are the dark earthy colors of Rembrandt. Instead, we now have brilliant colors, unmixed, straight out of the tube, troweled on with a palette knife and a bristle brush. Yes, this does reflect his experience of Impressionism during his stay in Paris with Theo. But, what he is doing is sharply different from the optical painting of the Impressionists. By the standards of Impressionism, those big yellow suns are downright childish. Van Gogh's work has none of that optical luminosity of a work by Monet. Monet thought of color in terms of the spectrum and optical science. He was familiar with the writings of everyone from Newton to Chevreul on the physics of color. For Monet, yellow was a particular wavelength of visible light. For Van Gogh, colors were filled with meaning; he wrote about the "tragedy of malachite green." Yellow almost always played the role of quickening light and power in his paintings. Van Gogh never bothered much with overall light effects because he believed that every color had its own light. Color played a role in his painting almost completely separate from any description of visual experience, despite the fact that he often worked from life.
Monet used the brushstroke to equalize all the elements in the field of vision that he was recording; the sky, water, trees, and people all were painted with the same general size and type of brushstrokes. What counted was the overall color effect, not the particular things in a scene. Compared to the brushwork of Monet or Renoir, Van Gogh's is much more deliberate and orderly. Each particular in the picture gets its own unique mark of the brush. The sky in the top picture is filled with short strokes of yellow and ochre that radiate out from the sun in the center. The ploughed field in the foreground is made with short curving strokes of blue and orange .
In the foreground of the top painting is a path that leads straight out from us, the viewer, into the ploughed field and peters out. This is one of the earliest uses of a kind of inconclusive perspective that will play an ever larger and more meaningful role in Van Gogh's work.

Friday, August 15, 2008

"God is Using the Things of Everyday Life," Van Gogh's The Potato Eaters

And now, when each one of us returns to everyday life. to everyday duties, let us not forget that things are not what they seem to be, that God is using the things of everyday life to instruct us in higher things, that our life is a pilgrimage and we are strangers on this earth, but we also have a God, a Father, who offers shelter and protection to strangers.

Thus concludes Vincent Van Gogh's only recorded sermon, delivered to a congregation in Iselington, England in 1876 when he was only 23 years old. He was born into a large family, the first of 7 children (he had a stillborn older brother also named Vincent), eldest son of Theodorus Van Gogh who was a pastor of the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church, from the more liberal Arminian branch, from the very liberal Groningen party. His father before him was a minister too and so on back many generations. Vincent had 10 aunts and uncles, many of whom were also in the ministry (one was an admiral in the Dutch Navy). The young Vincent felt very torn between going into the ministry and into art, where the family also had a long history. His family dealt pictures for generations. One of his uncles worked for Goupil, a major gallery with branches in most of the large cities of Europe. Young Vincent was sent to London to apprentice with his uncle who ran Goupil's branch there. It was while in London that Vincent decided that his calling was in the Church, so he returned home and was sent to seminary where he did very poorly in the required subjects of Latin and Greek.
After some conversations between his father and church authorities, it was decided to make Vincent a lay preacher and missionary. He was sent to the Borinage region of Belgium, then a very poor area of coal miners and tenant farmers. He was assigned to a congregation in the village of Nuenen.
Vincent threw himself into this work with a zeal and a passion that disturbed everyone around him. One of his favorite books throughout his life was Thomas a Kempis' The Imitation of Christ. Like another who sought to imitate Christ very directly and literally, St. Francis of Assisi, Vincent saw that Christ and the Apostles were the poorest of men, possessing nothing and dependent upon the charity of others. Like the young St, Francis, Vincent began giving away his possessions and his money. He was determined to share as fully as possible in the sufferings of the miners and sharecroppers under his charge. He ended up spending a winter sleeping in a small hut on a stone floor wearing only a thin overcoat.
Vincent Van Gogh was not the miners' idea of a respectable Calvinist parson. They sent complaints about him to church authorities who dismissed Van Gogh from his position. He refused to leave the village even after his brother Theo and his father implored him to return home. Vincent finally decided to leave when he accepted a money order from his brother Theo.
He decided to leave the ministry entirely and to become an artist.

After studying at the Academy in the Hague, where he struggled through figure drawing classes and never became proficient in classical drawing, Vincent Van Gogh returned to Nuenen, not to preach to the miners and farmers, but to paint them. At first, they gave Vincent a chilly reception. They were not happy to see him again. Gradually, they warmed to him since it was easier to accept him as an eccentric artist in their midst than as their pastor. Apparently, they were very patient with him since they sat for scores and scores of studies and paintings culminating in The Potato Eaters, Vincent Van Gogh's first masterpiece.
The Potato Eaters shows a family of miners sitting down to a very spare meal of boiled potatoes and coffee, the diet of the very poor throughout Europe at the time. An oil lamp casts the only light in the dark interior. The painting is done in the dark earthy tones of the most famous of all the Dutch masters, Rembrandt (as filtered through the paintings of Jozef Israels, who Vincent much admired). This painting has all the sacramental mystery of a Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt. There is indeed a palpable sense in this picture of God using the things of everyday life to instruct us in higher things. And yet, there is no figure of Christ anywhere as there is in Von Uhde's picture below. These people are not even praying. They are simply talking and eating. The labored and awkward technique of this painting only enhances its sincerity.
Though there is no overt literal religious content in this picture, it is profoundly religious, one of the great religious pictures of the 19th century. Van Gogh never felt the need to illustrate the Bible, to paint traditional religious subject matter. Raised in a family of Calvinist ministers, Vincent was steeped in the Bible since early childhood. He wanted to use art to discern the meaning of the Bible, to divine the presence of the spirit, in the world around him, in the things of everyday life, and reveal them to others. This remained true even after he abandoned the institutional religious orthodoxies of his boyhood.

It is likely that Vincent Van Gogh sent his father to an early grave. Theodorus Van Gogh died suddenly of a stroke the year The Potato Eaters was painted, 1885. The painting in the post below, The Open Bible was made to mark his father's death.

In 1886, Theo Van Gogh was hired by Goupil's main office in Paris, and he invited Vincent to come join him there.  Vincent arrived in Paris to see the works of the Impressionist painters.  Shortly after, the sun rose on Vincent's palette.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Vincent Van Gogh

Photograph of the 13 year old Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh, The Open Bible, 1885

I'm going to do something a little bit different with Vincent Van Gogh that I hope will be fresh and productive. The textbooks lump him in under the meaningless category of "Post Impressionism." The only point to that term so far as I can tell is to provide a chapter break between the Impressionists and the artists who came after them. The textbooks usually describe Van Gogh's work as coming out of Impressionism, that his work is a very personal refinement of the Impressionist brushstroke and the bright optical colors of the Impressionist palette.
And yet, among the 650 or so of his surviving letters, the artists' names that appear most frequently are not Monet, Renoir, or Degas. Van Gogh repeatedly and enthusiastically praises the works of artists like Lhermitte, Von Uhde, and the now almost forgotten Dutch art star of the day, Jozef Israels. His highest praise is reserved for his great hero among contemporary artists, Millet. Van Gogh will make many variations on paintings by Millet in the course of his life.
Van Gogh comes right out of those artists of the Christian Left who placed the content of the Christian faith among the poor, who shared the belief of so many radicals and reformers that God specially privileges the prayers and witness of the poor and outcast. In many ways, Van Gogh's work is the culmination of all those artists who protested the brutality and degredation brought by industrialism.

The last thing Vincent Van Gogh wanted was to be the Van Gogh of popular legend; the tragic neglected genius, the brilliant lunatic who cut off his ear. Van Gogh wanted to be a great public figure like the great authors who were his heroes, Leo Tolstoy and Victor Hugo. He wanted to do in visual art what they did in literature, and to play a similar public role. He truly believed with all his heart that art had the power to redeem the world broken by modern experience.
The painting above very candidly records Van Gogh's sense of vocation. A huge open Bible dominates the picture, probably his father's (he was a Protestant pastor). Van Gogh, who was 32 when he painted this, felt a strong calling to the ministry. There is another element in this picture complicating that desire to follow in his father's footsteps. Next to the Bible is a tattered paperback copy of Emile Zola's La Joie De Vivre. Vincent Van Gogh pointedly distances himself from the antimodernism expected of ordained clergy of the day. He believed that God dwelt not only in the sacred text of the Bible, but out there in the world, the real world of modern experience that we all share.

I intend to spend some time with Van Gogh and discuss him as a major religious artist, even though conventional religious subject matter rarely appears in his work (when it does, it is always as a copy of another artist's work). I will discuss some works beyond the famous Sunflowers and Starry Night that might not be quite so familiar.

A Chagall Window Vandalized

Some thieves broke a hole in this window in Metz Cathedral in France while stealing souvenir trinkets.  Further proof that ours is not a civilized age.  Here's the full story in The Telegraph, hat tip to Madpriest.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Millet's Angelus

Millet was commissioned in 1857 to make this painting for a wealthy American collector, Thomas Appleton. He originally titled it Prayer for the Potato Harvest. Appleton failed to come through on the commission, and Millet added the church spire in the background changing the title to The Angelus. The painting sold soon after its public debut in 1865 initiating a bidding war between French and American collectors that drove the price up to 800,000 gold francs, a lot of money then and now. Millet got not one centime of that money. His case caused the French government to create the droit de suite, the law ensuring that artists are paid a fee for the resale of their pictures (no such law exists in the USA; Jasper Johns gets not one penny when his paintings resell for millions).

Peasants prayed in fields for centuries, but no one ever bothered to paint a picture about it. The spectacle was so commonplace that it was hardly worth noticing, let alone recording. But, in 1857, it was noticed and recorded in a famous work of art. What changed?
For a long time now, those who discussed and purchased art (the affluent educated bourgeoisie) had been estranged from that kind of direct unselfconscious religious belief that they saw in Millet's praying peasants. This was a picture made for people largely alienated from formal religious practice, but who felt a keen nostalgia for religious belief.
I wonder sometimes if what the audience saw and what Millet intended were really in agreement. The original title, Prayer for the Potato Harvest, suggests to me something that Millet knew first hand from growing up working the fields of Normandy, the anxious uncertainty of farm life. Potatoes were the food of the very poor, usually tenant farmers. As the Irish experienced so famously (not too long before this painting was made), a bad potato harvest could mean starvation. These prayers may not have been made out of simple piety so much as unsimple desperation.

The political right and left both made use of this picture, and of the legions of pious peasant pictures that it inspired. For the right, it was an image of simple piety and patriotism. Those who worked the sacred soil of France give thanks to the God of the French (the Germans had no monopoly on "blood and soil" patriotism). For the left, these peasants were the virtuous proletariat. Their authentic piety stands in accusing contrast to the hypocrisies of the bourgeoisie who exploited them.

This painting and its popular reception bear witness to both the longing for authentic religious experience in the positivist 19th century, and to the inability of traditional religious imagery (and by implication, of religious institutions) to meet that demand. The ultramontane Roman Catholic Church of the 19th century retreated into an ever more fortified defensive position against the tide of modernity. Artistic innovation within the official confines of the church was discouraged, the traditional imagery reasserted, and pious styles from the 17th century, especially from the work of Guido Reni and Carlo Dolci, were actively promoted.