Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"Art belongs to Humanity": The Nazi Looting of Western Art

"Art belongs to humanity. Without this we are animals. 
We just fight, we live, we die. Art is what makes us human".
- Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director, Hermitage Museum 

Piotrovsky's quote from The Rape of Europa really struck a chord with me. Haldane McFall once said that "that man who is without the Arts is little above the beasts of the field." It seemed to me at the time like glib hyperbole. That is until one considers how so many people gave everything of themselves to protect Art from the hands of those who would destroy it.

"All of this accumulated Beauty had been stolen by the most
murderous thieves that ever existed on the face of the Earth.
How they could retain the nicety of appreciation of great Art
and be exterminating millions of people nearby in concentration camps,
I couldn't understand then and I can't understand today."
Dr. Leonard Malamut, 11th Armored Division

Though it's true that both Art and War are as old as mankind, and that the victors have always taken the spoils, the plundering of great Art during World War II was on a scale never before seen.

For the period from 1941-45, Poland (alone) estimates 600,000 lost or un-recovered works of art. Indeed, "so great were the number of precious paintings, sketches, sculptures, and objets d’art looted and confiscated by the Nazis from all over Europe - Göering alone amassed more than 1,000 works of art - that whatever Hitler, Göering, and buyers at auction did not want was destroyed."

"(The Nazis) committed an outrage on the memory, on the ashes, on all that is holy in our country. 
Sacred sites like Leo Tolstoy's country estate, Pushkin's estate
- sacred not just for us, but to the whole world - all were violated."
Nikolai Gubenko, Soviet Minister of Culture, 1989-1991

In the desperate struggle to win, fighting troops were destroying town after town. Though each advance was a small victory for the Allies, the price was often the destruction of historic monuments.

It might initially seem reckless to a generation raised beyond the blight of world-wide war that the Allies would even consider crushing Europe's greatest treasures under tank tracks, yet they had a war to win: The Nazis were doing it; why can't we? Each side cared little about how it was done, they just wanted it done. It might even have struck some of the artists themselves as bizarre that such a huge effort was soon to be made on their behalf. I can certainly picture Carravaggio scratching his head.

Yet, six months into the Allied invasion of Italy, and in deference to reports of razed Italian towns, Eisenhower put into effect a doctrine that would prove fateful: as far as was possible in War, Allied troops were to "endeavor to protect all Italian monuments." Eisenhower's order was soon to be sorely tried, however, when Allied troops surrounded Germans holed up in the Italian medieval hilltop monastery of Monte Cassino. The battle over control of the monastery became a bloody stalemate, with Allied commanders arguing over the order not to fire upon the ancient monument. In America and Britain, parents protested that they did not want their children dying to protect a town.

Since 529AD, the monastery had been home to the order of Benedictine monks. It was a national treasure. 2,000 Italians hid in it's stone vaults, convinced that the Allies would never bomb it.

Allied commanders, tired of the stalemate, finally sent a massive firestorm against the monastery. It was the most bombers they had ever sent against a single building. Survivors spoke of the sky filled with planes, and the very air being sucked from their lungs. The building was devastated, but in a massive miscalculation, not one enemy soldier was killed: they had been dug-in around the monastery, not in it. In the end, over 50,000 soldiers and civilians died before the Allies broke through the line. It was a crushing blow to Eisenhower's attempts to protect the native heritage of lands in which they were mired in war.

Of course, and despite sacking and plundering all of Europe, the Germans wasted no time decrying the Allies as "desecrators of European culture". Ignoring incredibly accurate bombing campaigns in Florence and Rome, Propaganda Pamphlets describing the Allied "War Against Art" were widely distributed by Mussolini's War Department.

In response to events like the Monte Cassino devastation, and out of growing concern for the protection of Western culture, a group called The Monuments Men was put together. A division of only around four hundred men, they were charged with no less than the preservation of Art and Culture in the operational theater of World War II.

Captain Deane Keller, a portrait and landscape painter, was one of the first experts sent to oversee the advancing Fifth Army. Battle-hardened troops initially tended to resist Keller's efforts, and he struggled to gain the cooperation of soldiers as well as townspeople. Alone with scarce resources, and aware of the massive burden upon his shoulders, Keller begged, borrowed and stole what he needed to get his job done. He followed GIs through booby-trapped ruins to determine damage to important artworks and structures.

The Camposanto in Pisa had been reduced to a fire-blackened shell. Firestorms had caused the lead roof to drip down onto some of the most important objects of western culture. Gathering thousands of fresco fragments from the floor, he had a temporary roof built to protect his work. To this day, restoration work begun by Deane Keller continues the effort to rebuild the incredible frescoes. Given the destruction during and in the wake of the war, it is incredible that anything survived at all.

High in the Italian Alps, Deane Keller found the treasures of Florence hidden in a small town jail. Keller escorted the trains that brought the Michelangelos, Botticellis, and Raphaels back to Florence. The waybill listed the value of the shipment at $500 million. Monuments officer Deane Keller did not live to see his work completed in the Camposanto, but after his death in 1992, he was honored with a floor plaque commemorating his efforts.

The artworks of Florence were triumphantly returned. People young and old lined the streets to celebrate the return of their cultural heritage, calling it a "victory of beauty over horror."

Reading the words of the Monuments Men, now in their nineties, and listening to their testimony, one is struck by the passion still in their voices. They understood that there was no way to undo what had been done by the Nazis. Yet, sixty-odd years after the fact, the understanding that their sacrifice meant something still resonates within them; that the responsibility for the restoration of the darkened heart of Europe somehow rested with them. There is nothing good about any war, we can just hope that some brave people care enough to let something survive.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Amazing Bird Photos from Taiwan

Audubon and Edward Lear just don't quite cut it when you're researching birds for that Chinoiserie mural you've been asked to paint. Yeah, those guys could paint, but they're just not exotic enough. Here are hundreds of amazing photographs of native Taiwanese birds that are perfect reference material for that De Gournay hand-painted wallpaper you're working on, or just for some trippy blown-out Photoshop fun.

Painting with Pixels

Khang Le
Hollywood has been snapping up the best and brightest talent as Concept Artists for years. Their work is some of the most creative, thought-provoking and imaginative work out there. Long having adapted to the 21st Century tool-kit of a Wacom tablet and painting software, the best Concept Artists display a deft lightness of hand, a fearless use of color and a true artist's eye, seamlessly moving from traditional to digital media and back again.

Michael Kutsche

Michael Kutsche
At the advent of digital painting, there was perhaps the temptation to try and mimic the look of the brushwork of traditional artists such as Frank Frazetta, but digital artists quickly swept aside criticism of the "digital look" of their art and embraced the technology, being perfectly at home in the new world of pixels and light. The quick-fire pace of creating commercial artwork for Gaming and Hollywood was perhaps a key factor in the development of the new style of digital painting, lending itself as it does to on-a-dime changes and rapid turnaround.

Paul Lasaine
Paul Lasaine, Art Director for Lord of the Rings, writes a fantastic blog, with lots of artwork and Photoshop tutorials, as does Feng Zhu. I love that each of these incredible artists is so willing to share their knowledge.

Perfectly suited for adaptation as Children's murals, book illustrations, or just worthy due to their jaw-dropping beauty and technical artistry, I love to stare at these and marvel at the staggering talent of these artists.

Feng Zhu
Feng Zhu
Feng Zhu
Feng Zhu
 I love the NC Wyeth coloring of this scene by artist Dermot Power 

Dermot Power

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Bas-Relief Art in the 21st Century

Dutch artist Ron van der Ende creates low relief wall-mounted sculptures from salvaged wood. His bas-relief works are incredible constructions that are equal parts optical illusion and trompe l'oeil foolery, intricate experiments in form and artistic textural works of visceral impact.

 "I collect old doors and stuff. Old painted wood that I find in the street. I take it apart and skin it to obtain a 3mm thick veneer with the old paint layers still intact. I construct bas-reliefs that I cover with these veneers much like a constructed mosaic. I do not paint them!"

On the rare occasion he can't find the right color, he visits a warehouse near Rotterdam that stores more than 7,000 old doors. "An afternoon in there with a good flashlight will usually get me exactly what I need," says Van Der Ende.

From a Huffington Post article on Top 10 Artists to Watch: "These are complex and intriguing works that need to be viewed in person. The raw nature of the work is difficult, if not impossible, to fully appreciate from photographs, as the three-dimensional illusion created becomes weakened and the exquisite craftsmanship of on-site construction goes undetected. One of the most fascinating aspects of these wall sculptures is the manner in which they are put together. The technique celebrates the grand tradition of a complex theater backstage rigging of supports and frames, or a movie set of false fronts on Main Street reminiscent of a recreated ghost town."

Where do his ideas come from? "Anything to feed a stream of ideas; scrapbooks, vintage catalogs, image banks. The internet is great for me but so are flea markets."
Cuban artist Elsa Mora creates her own variety of bas-relief out of cut paper.
Calvin Nichols also uses cut paper to create low relief art.
Michael Zelehoski
Michael Zelehoski

Michael Zelehoski incorporates wooden crates, pallets, and chairs into his art, flattening them in an innovative process and rendering what was a three-dimensional object onto a flat plane.

"I deconstruct the objects, cutting them into sometimes hundreds of abstract fragments before reassembling the pieces two-dimensionally. The negative space is filled with carefully fitted pieces of wood, creating a solid plane in which the object is trapped in a parody of its former perspective. The object’s concreteness is in direct contrast to the spatial illusionism of its composition not to mention the perceived autonomy of the picture plane."

Anne Vallayer Coster, and Bas-Relief Imité

Bouquet of Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, with Peaches and Grapes, by Anne Vallayer-Coster

Despite the fatuous and dreamy description by Jules de Goncourt of the eighteenth century as being "the century of woman and her caressing domination over manners and custom," there is evidently some truth to the notion that women wielded influence over politics, culture, government and art at that time. Elizabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun spoke of her glory days in her memoirs, saying that "Woman reigned then: the Revolution dethroned them."

Detail from Bouquet of Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, with Peaches and Grapes

In the court of Marie-Antoinette, there were three reigning women artists. Along with Vigée L Brun and Adélaide Labille-Guiard, Anne Vallayer-Coster was one of the most prominent still-life painters of the day.

Bouquet of Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, with Peaches and Grapes (above) displays her mastery of different genres. In it we can see her combining elements of flower painting, still life and bas-relief imités. While her flowers are rendered in layers of delicate glazes, her terracotta vase is treated alla prima, with opaque paint and low impasto.

Perhaps no other eighteenth-century French artist rivaled Vallayer-Coster's facility in painting in a range of styles, particularly in the decorative genres of still life and flower painting.  Although I find her portraits to be weak, she elevated the traditional genre of flower painting to create works of exceptional refinement. I also believe her work as a trompe l'oeil painter has perhaps not fully been appreciated, so I'm concentrating here on some of those paintings.

Amazingly, she produced some of her most beautiful and masterly paintings before she applied to the Académie, at a time when she had neither frequented an academician's atelier nor even studied at the Académie.

When painting her bas-relief imités, she first roughly sketched the forms with a liquid brown paint that served to delineate features and shadows. She then used impasto for highlights to create the illusion of three-dimensionality. I also love her trompe l'oeil frames, and the way her fauness rests her hooves on it in the painting above.

Her painted bas-reliefs were based on actual works by artists such as Clodion
Given that Vallayer-Coster produced many versions of these scenes, there must have been a high demand for this type of work at the time. A second version of the same scene is shown in the painting is below.

Although she was clearly influenced by Chardin in her still life work, I hope you can see that with joyful paintings such as these, she never fell into slavish imitation. Her technique reflects that of an artist finding her own way, while epitomizing the highest expression of Rococo elegance.

Bas-relief imité was common in Still Life painting, as in this excellent work by Gerard van Spaendonck

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Art of Color Reproduction

Most of us these days use Google as our main source when researching new projects. It's an invaluable resource for sure, but consider the issue of fidelity: How can we be sure that we are seeing color the way it is in the original?

Anthony Van Dyck's portrait of Cornelius Van Der Geest is a classic. Like many artists, I've attempted to copy it myself. I immediately noticed a huge variation in color chroma and value between the many images available online. It's a bit of a head-scratcher.

My 'copy' of Cornelius Van Der Geest, by Anthony Van Dyck
I put copy in quotes above because all we can really hope for is a kind of composite melting-pot of a painting. A tiny few of us have the opportunity to sit next to an original when attempting a copy. The rest have to make do with the largest reproduction we can find in the archives, either in print or - more frequently these days - through a Google Image search.

Visual Hint took this concept much further, researching the many variations of classic paintings and re-arranging them into collages to demonstrate the huge variety of color and even shape available online. The uneven edges demonstrate the available crops of the original.

Danae, by Gustav Klimt [Image: Visual Hint]

Though photographic color reproduction of artwork has advanced tremendously in recent years, anyone out there who collects Art books will know that there was a Dark Age in print quality roughly from the 1920s through the 1970s. Unless I see that a book contains line drawings or lithographs, I hardly pay any attention to Art books of that period: What's the point of printing poor black & white or washed-out color photographs of art? We want color, and lots of it!

Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Johannes Vermeer [Image: Visual Hint]
Writing about the limitations inherent in historic source material, Roger W. Moss tells us that "books such as Exterior Decoration, Century of Color, and Victorian Exterior Decoration, based primarily on historic photographs...have certain inherent problems." Researchers of 17th and 18th Century paint colors had little to rely on in terms of printed reproductions of color, they simply had to go straight to the source. However, "the student of nineteenth century paints has first a trickle, then a flood of rich visual documents." That's good news for the researcher, or is it?

Some issues worth considering when researching 'Historic colors':

• Early books had plates that were hand-colored, which of course could never be precise. Even if the colors themselves were not subject to fugitive changes and fading, the paper underneath turned brown and changed the overall effect.

• The advent of color lithographs in the 19th century advanced the process, but the color separations were done by eye and there was a fair degree of room for variations and differences between copies and editions.

• Readers in the 19th century were cautioned by publishers to work from paint chips rather than plates when selecting colors. There is no such disclaimer on Google!

• The actual paint chips contained in some books were subject to the same discoloration found in samples removed from historic structures. Verdigris sometimes turned a very dark brown, for example. I doubt if Mount Vernon would look have the same impact if we relied on paint chips alone.

• The problems were compounded when modern printers reproduced those reproductions on an inked drum.

• 19th century photographic film was less sensitive to reds and yellows. A print rendered from one of these negatives would yield much darker yellows than modern film, and reds would appear virtually black.

Not to mention that color 'correction' software is misleading: You're still looking at pixels and light, not paint, after all. Combine that with endlessly variable differences in Monitors and desktop printers, and the photo editor's preference for hitting the 'Auto Levels' and 'Auto Color' button in Photoshop, and we have a disaster in the making.

Truth, as we know, is relative, and the photographic record is as manufactured as memory. It seems that History is a matter of what we settle on as being the generally accepted view. The victor turns out to be the one who simply turns up at the top of Page One in a Google Image search.