Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Origin of Oil Painting in Italy

St. Jerome In His Study, Antonello da Messina
Just who was it that developed the secret of oil painting? How did they invent the medium that produces such vibrant colors and fine detail, and can survive the ravages of centuries?

The 'Secrets of the Masters' is a debate that has raged for centuries. Scholars arguing over the methods and materials of the Masters can be a tedious affair fraught with contradictions. But, as the Creationists say: Never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn.

Like medieval monks spending a decade debating how many angels could fit on the head of a pin, it can end up sounding like meaningless bone-picking to the average layman. But there are some great stories around it.

A bit of background

Equally, the story of the spread of this new medium from the Netherlands to Italy is just as full of doubt and hearsay. No lesser than Vasari claims that there was a friendship between Van Eyck and Antonello da Messina which explains the introduction of oil painting to Italy, but as Eastlake later pointed out, this is improbable as Van Eyck died in 1441 and "the earliest genuine date seen on pictures by Antonello is 1465.

That reminded me of the Monty Python sketch where Michael Palin claims he wrote all Shakespeare's plays, but John Cleese points out that Shakespeare died 300 years before Palin was born. "Ah well," replies Palin, "this is where my claim falls to the ground."

That Antonello visited the Netherlands and was entranced by what he saw is not in doubt. Vasari says that when he first saw a painting by Van Eyck in Naples, he was “so strongly impressed by the liveliness of the colors and by the beauty and harmony of that painting” that he dropped his tools, picked up his shirt-tails and ran off to Flanders.

However, the painter from Messina was struck with a deep homesickness that drove him back to Italy. He is known to have fled the Netherlands and settled in Venice around 1475, where, Kugler tells us, "the sight of his new method produced a revolution."

An example of Antonello's new formula in action. The detail is superb.
The story of the Origin of Oil Painting in Italy

Imagine for a second what it must have been like to be Giovanni Bellini: You're desperate to prove yourself and get out from the shadow of your father Jacopo and your brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna. Two colossal names in Art, and little old you in the background. Then along comes Antonello back from swanning around Europe with Van Eyck, bragging about some secret he learned. Now if only you could only get your hands on that formula.

Alexandre Dumas picks up the story from here:

"In 1452 Venice was in a great furor over the arrival of Antonello da Messina, who had already been preceded by his tremendous reputation. Never before had such painting been seen - so brilliant and with tones so harmoniously blended.

"One day a nobleman of great elegance, and purporting to have arrived from Padua but three days before, presented himself to the painter to have his portrait painted. The price was fixed at twenty ducats and the appointment made for the next day.

"The young man followed the work of the master with great curiosity, although as he said, he had never been interested in art. The following day the stranger presented himself as on the day before. The sitting had already begun when a young girl, who posed as a model for the leading Viennese painters, came and knocked at Antonello's door. He sent word to remind her that the appointment had been for the evening and not for the morning. The model however replied that he must examine her then or not at all.

"Antonello went grumbling into the next room, begging the young nobleman to excuse him, which the latter did with the most gracious air imaginable.

"But he had hardly closed the door behind him, when the stranger made one bound from his chair to the bottle, which contained the precious elixir, and filled from its contents, a small flagon, doubtless prepared for that purpose; then replacing the bottle on its table, he resumed his place and his accustomed pose so naturally that Antonello, on returning five minutes later, found him as he had left him."

The young man was, of course, no other than Giovanni Bellini. Was the story true? Who cares.

Portrait of the Doge Leonardo Loredan, by Giovanni Bellini

St. Francis in Ecstacy, by Giovanni Bellini
This is one of my favorite paintings of all time (and is a real treat to visit at the Frick in New York). St. Francis' moment of clarity is practically hallucinogenic in the hands of Bellini. It's as if the Universe froze for an instant. Round one to Bellini.

Still, history weighed in and picked the winner: Vasari referred to Bellini's "arid, crude and labored style." "Giovanni Bellini's reputation recovered only slowly from Giorgio Vasari's verdict," whereas "Antonello da Messina became an artist of legendary proportions during the Nineteenth Century" [Bätschmann], and became exalted on a level with the best painters from Northern Europe. "Antonello's (St. Jerome) possesses a harmony and geometric clarity of structure that even Jan van Eyck could not match." High praise indeed from Keith Christiansen.

 "Antonello's art sets up a powerful dynamic with the viewer,
who is encouraged by illusionistic devices ...
to experience painting as an extension of reality."

Okay, but what exactly was this secret medium of Antonello's? You think I'm just going to give it away for free? Look for an upcoming post where I lay it out in detail, for free.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

John Vanderlyn: Panorama of Versailles

John Vanderlyn spent his later years whipping out his wares for anyone who'd take a look at them. I love the idea of him as a sort of Nineteenth Century Tall Grass artist pimping for cash like some itinerant rough tradesman. I'm not sure why that appeals to me. Maybe because the back-story injects a bit of life into work that's a bit stale and dry otherwise.

Things weren't always rough for him, though. Upon seeing Vanderlyn's copy of Gilbert Stuart's portrait, Aaron Burr pledged to pay any expenses necessary for the young artist "to cultivate his genius to [the] highest point of Perfection." Well that's quite a difference of opinion from his write-up in Appleton's Cyclopedia, which called his work "hardly more than respectable." Ouch.

[On a side note: Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography was the original Wikipedia. Museum Of Hoaxes claims that, out of the thousands of biographies at least 200 have been found to be false. The entries were not checked for content. Sounds familiar, ahem].

Vanderlyn's panorama at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Time Magazine, upon the installation of the mural into it's current location at the Met, called it "one of the biggest, most elaborate and most thoroughly forgotten paintings in American history." 

At 165 feet in length and some 3,000 square feet of canvas, you might expect it to have more of a presence. It's cold neo-Classical style is partly to blame. It's more of a mathematical exercise in visual perspective than painting, and it's telling that the most flattering adjective Time came up with to describe it was "big".

His portrait paintings had fallen flat commercially, so he turned to painting grand panoramas (including Paris, Athens and Mexico), the only surviving example of which is this panorama of Versailles in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This project was no different to his others and never made money, embroiling Vanderlyn in money problems with Burr (among others) for many years.

“The whole history of Vanderlyn’s life from that period to 1836 is a record of straits and struggles, repeated efforts and disappointments, and cruel injustice withal,” wrote a sympathetic (historian) Benjamin Myer Brink. “It is enough to say that the entanglements of the rotunda and kindred panorama projects were fatal to his peace and paralyzed his pencil.” [source]

The artist depicted himself pointing out Czar Alexander I and King Frederick William II of Prussia to the right of the Basin de Latone (above).

"The painting was originally intended for display in the Rotunda built by Vanderlyn in 1818 at the northeast corner of City Hall Park in New York. Its showing there was not as successful as Vanderlyn had wished. In search of some profit, Vanderlyn toured intermittently with the panorama until his death." [Met]

He died in 1952, a block-and-a-half from where he was born, a broken and embittered man. His grave at Wiltwyck Cemetary lay neglected for years. He did receive something of a eulogy from Brink some years later, who called him “a man of genius, an artist of renown, an honor to his country, (who) achieved broad and enduring fame.” Kind of a lie really, but nice of him to say.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Future of Arts Education

Did you know?

"Students receiving arts-based instruction for at least 3 hours on 3 days of each week are 3 times more likely to be elected to class leadership positions." Dr. Shirley Brice Heath, Stanford University, 1998.

"Arts participants are less likely to drop out of school." Dr. James S. Catterall, UCLA, 1997.

"Employers (56%) and superintendents (79%) agree that a college degree in the arts is the most significant indicator of creativity in prospective job candidates." Ready to Innovate, 2008.

For some technical reason, email subscribers to this blog seem to see nothing but a big black space whenever I embed videos. This TED speech by Ken Robinson is well worth watching (if you're not already one of it's 3,000,000 + viewers). If you can't see the video on this post, you can watch it here.

The nitty-gritty...

How do you feel about your education in the arts? If you're anything like me, you were told to stop wasting your time with all that painting, and go learn something that will earn you a living.

A scathing report on the present state of arts education was released last year by the NORC detailing the decline, and outlining recommendations for sweeping reform, of our current approach to education and the arts.

"After a century of steady growth both in schools and out, there has been a significant decline in the proportion of American children who have taken classes or lessons in the arts. In 1930, less than a quarter of 18-year olds had taken any classes or lessons in any art form during their childhood. By 1982, that figure had risen to sixty-five percent. But by 2008, and throughout a period of heightened concern and effort to improve schools, particularly those serving low-income children, it had dropped below half again, and the decline shows no sign of abating."

"Arts education among white children is down only slightly since 1982. The decline has been precipitous, though, among African American and Hispanic children. They have absorbed nearly the entire decline." (Rabkin & Hedberg, 2011) Some analysts of their research tells a re-assuring story of adult arts participation, but it's children and the arts that are seen to be in rapid decline.

Rabkin et al tell us that "among the art forms, the decline has been most serious in music and visual art, the two disciplines most commonly taught in schools. Simple deduction leads to the inescapable conclusion that the decline in childhood arts education has been most dramatic and concentrated in schools that serve African American and Hispanic children. There is a virtual arts desert in many of the schools they attend."

Indeed, not only has there been a significant drop-off in Arts education, there is also a concurrent drop-off in audience numbers for Arts events and activities. According to the NEA, "American audiences for the arts are getting older, and their numbers are declining". Some of that may be accounted for by the recent recession, but the numbers are still pretty stark.

Other data I found fascinating were the figures relating to gender participation in arts-related activities. According to NEA Director of Research and Analysis Sunil Iyengar, "The NEA’s own Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) and related studies have long chronicled the gender imbalance favoring female versus male attendance at many types of live arts events.  Monitoring the Future suggests that the difference becomes apparent even before adulthood. From 1990 to 2005, roughly 30 percent of female 12th-graders did music or other performing arts activities after school, compared to only 17 percent of males." Furthermore, according to NCES, "female students also outperformed male students in creating visual art", where "the average responding scores for female students were 10 points higher than for male students in music and 11 points higher in visual arts." 

"93% of Americans agree the arts are vital to providing a well-rounded education for children."
Harris Poll, 2005.

"There’s not a straight line between the crochet club and the Ivy League", says June Kronholz, "but a growing body of research says there is a link between after-school activities and graduating from high school, going to college, and becoming a responsible citizen".

Despite Kronholz' assertions, and faced as we are with sweeping budget cuts, I find little reassurance that NELS is working on a soon-to-be-released study exploring possible links between extracurricular arts engagement and positive academic and social outcomes. I worry that Washington sees things differently to the American people (and the statistical evidence) on this issue.

Ever since A Nation At Risk, the infamous Reagan-era 1983 education reform study that claimed a "rising tide of mediocrity" in our Nation's schools is posing a national security threat, arts education has taken a real pounding. The report, when it bothered to mention the arts at all, suggested that they are nothing but a distraction from the real business of schools. That opinion has been shaping policy in arts education ever since.

And yet, over and over, research has strongly and consistently associated arts education with higher student achievement. "Careful evaluation of program after program has shown that learning in the arts is strongly correlated with improved student behavior, attendance, engagement in school, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, social development, and, yes, even test scores." [Rabkin, 2011]

I don't get it. The system is failing, and everyone knows investment in the arts will help. Even Arne Duncan himself recently wrote that “education in the arts is more important than ever. In the global economy, creativity is essential. The best way to foster that creativity is through arts education.

This is certainly a very challenging time for education, but the pendulum that swung away from the arts during these last three decades of school reform may swing back if values like creativity and innovation are more broadly embraced as essential purposes of education. Thank you, and good night America.

You still reading this? More of the NEA findings...

There are persistent patterns of decline in participation for most art forms. Nearly 35 percent of U.S. adults – or an estimated 78 million – attended an art museum or an arts performance in the 2008 survey period, compared with about 40 percent in 1982, 1992, and 2002.
  • Attendance at the most popular types of arts events – such as art museums and craft/visual arts festivals – saw notable declines. The U.S. rate of attendance for art museums fell from a high of 26 percent in 1992-2002 to 23 percent in 2008, comparable to the 1982 level.
  • Between 1982 and 2008, attendance at performing arts such as classical music, jazz, opera, ballet, musical theater, and dramatic plays has seen double-digit rates of decline.
  • Fewer adults are creating and performing art. For example, the percentage of adults performing dance has lost six points since 1992. Weaving and sewing remain popular as crafts, but the percentage of adults who do those activities has declined by 12 points. Only the share of adults doing photography has increased – from 12 percent in 1992 to 15 percent in 2008.
Aging audiences are a long-term trend. Performing arts attendees are increasingly older than the average U.S. adult (45). The aging of the baby boom generation does not appear to account for the overall increase in age.
  • Audiences for jazz and classical music are substantially older than before. In 1982, jazz concerts drew the youngest adult audience (median age 29). In the 2008 survey, the median age of jazz concert-goers was 46 – a 17-year increase. Since 1982, young adult (18-24) attendance rates for jazz and classical music have declined the most, compared with other art forms.
  • Forty-five to 54-year-olds – historically dependable arts participants – showed the steepest declines in attendance for most art events, compared with other age groups.
Educated Americans are participating less than before, and educated audiences are the most likely to attend or participate in the arts.
  • College-educated audiences (including those with advanced degrees and certifications), have curbed their attendance in nearly all art forms.
  • Ballet attendance for this group has declined at the sharpest rate – down 43 percent since 1982.
  • Less-educated adults have significantly reduced their already low levels of attendance.
The Internet and mass media are reaching substantial audiences for the arts.
  • About 70 percent of U.S. adults went online for any purpose in 2008 survey, and of those adults, nearly 40 percent used the Internet to view, listen to, download, or post artworks or performances.
  • Thirty percent of adults who use the Internet, download, watch, or listen to music, theater, or dance performances online at least once a week. More than 20 percent of Internet-using adults view paintings, sculpture, or photography at least once a week.
  • More Americans view or listen to broadcasts and recordings of arts events than attend them live (live theater being the sole exception). Classical and Latin or salsa music were the most popular music categories (with 40 and 33.5 million viewers/listeners, respectively), and 33.7 million adults reported listening to, or viewing programs or recordings about books/writers. The same number (33.7 million) enjoyed broadcasts or recordings about the visual arts.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Speed painting: Lessons from Tintoretto

 "It is related that one day, in Venice, the Council of Ten decided to submit the decoration of the wall at the end of their council chamber to a competition. The subject proposed was "Paradise" and the painters were given a week in which to prepare their sketches.

Tintoretto took this week to profit, not merely to submit a sketch to the judgment of their Excellencies, but the completed painting itself, measuring more than thirty feet."

J. Maroger, The Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

3D Goldfish Paintings, by Ryusuke Fukahori

Holy carp! [photo source]

How do you say "goldfish" in Japanese? My first thought was an expletive when I saw these truly incredible 3D paintings by Japanese artist Ryusuke Fukahori.

Fukahori uses a technique whereby layers of resin are successively poured and painted on to produce an hallucinogenic trompe l'oeil effect that is truly jaw-dropping. His London debut came at the prestigious ICN gallery, and gallery visitors were entranced by his artwork.

I almost wish I hadn't seen the 'how-to' video below. It's a little like peeking being the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. Nevertheless, the resulting pieces are so full of artistry, movement and grace that they go far beyond mere technical wizardry.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Chinese Sweatshops (Re)producing Fine Art Painting

Note the Mona Lisa smoking a joint in the corner. Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

 "Imitation is the sincerest form of Plagiarism" - Oscar Levant

Who of us hasn't at one time or another seriously considered a career in forgery? How many times have you thought "My kid can paint better than that"? We all know that those abstract paintings could be knocked off in no time, and the people who buy them couldn't tell a Vermeer from an anal wart [There's the typical arrogance of a forger for you].

But if I can't sell my copies as high-priced forgeries and am instead forced to make endless cut-rate copies in a down Economy then hey, I'll take what I can get for the most part.

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

A suburb of Shenzhen in China, Dafen is an entire village of reproduction painters. Established by businessman Huang Jiang, it sprang up in the '90s and grew from about 300 to 8,000 artists producing massive quantities of paintings for the Chinese Domestic and Global Art markets. The villagers sidestep questions of copyright by (mostly) copying paintings that are older than 50 years, and by not masquerading them as authentic works.

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]
Of course, the term 'sweatshop' is heavily loaded. Images of foreign slave labor, children toiling on industrial looms and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire spring instantly to mind. Does it apply in the case of the Dafen painting studios? Painters do "work long hours for very low pay", but the focus of the World Media regarding Dafen has been the public's insatiable appetite for cheap knock-offs, not the working conditions of the painters themselves.

According to Der Spiegel, 29 year old Dafen artist Wu Han Wu "receives the equivalent of €0.30 per copied painting. That means he earns between €100 ($128) and €300 ($385) a month -- barely enough to cover his living expenses and send a little money home. But he doesn't complain: "It's much better in a workshop like this one, without a schedule."

Indeed, the article goes on to say that "the life Wu and his roommates live is not so different from that of the artists whose works they're copying, at least as far as their average day is concerned: They start painting around lunchtime and work until late at night."

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

We'd like to think of Art as being above Commerce, but everyone from the high-end galleries of Chelsea to the backrooms of Dafen is a slave to money. Dafen Artist Zao Xiaoyong alone estimates he's painted and sold more then 70,000 copies of Van Gogh, and the general estimate suggests that Dafen produces 60% of the World's oil paintings. That's a fascinating statistic, and signifies not only the Walmart-ization of Art production, but the deeply inherent desire of people to possess an 'original' oil painting. 'Painting is dead'? I don't think so.

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

John Berger drew on ideas from Walter Benjamin's 1936 The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction for his Ways of Seeing. Berger's point, which he made far more explicitly than Benjamin, is that the modern means of production have destroyed the authority of art: "For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free."

He argues that an Old Master's original physical context is essential for it's understanding, and that without it (as with the ubiquity of printed and painted copies) 'meaning' is destroyed. If you have a print of the Ghent Altarpiece hanging over your toilet, then you've removed that painting from it's context and thus killed it's power [I have a friend who hangs a black velvet painting of Karl Rove over her toilet, which somehow seems more appropriate]. Berger is trying to suggest that mass-produced copies are killing painting.

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

It's a market analysis that Mark Zuckerberg would disagree with: What's wrong with just spreading content globally? Van Loon would concur. In The Arts, he argued that "two or three really good reproductions of really good masters hanging in their own sitting rooms... would be much better for the artistic salvation of their souls than a dozen original Corregios tucked away in a corner of the local art museum (that nobody saw)." It's not a bad point, but he acknowledged that it corners him as "a busybody who probably imported his ideas from Moscow". [By the way: there is (no surprise) a Facebook page dedicated to boycotting these Chinese painting studios.]

The other question is whether these painters are actually any good. The answer is, you guessed it: Who cares?! If our bovine public wants a painting of a unicorn on a beach at sunset then I say give it to them. Komar and Melamid proved for once and for all that our Global public wants shlocky art. You can keep all yer high-falutin' big-city 'Concept' art for those East-Coast snobs.

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

But besides all that nonsense, Art studios have a long and well established history of serfdom and drudgery. There were Siennese sweatshops banging out repros way back in the 19th Century for all those Grand Tourists eager for a souvenir of the Old World. This is nothing new. Tourists in Ancient Rome could get copies of 'authentic relics' outside their fave ruins. I just made that up, but it could be true. I remember a notice advertising Shakespeare's skull for sale: Buy two and we'll throw in Shakespeare's skull as a child.

I bust my ass for billionaires and I still drive a 10 year old car. Am I bitter? Hell yeah!

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

As Meg Greene points out, "It commonly took years for apprentices to learn their craft. For the first year, they might do nothing more than observe others at work and clean up the studio at the end of the day. It might be another year or longer before an artist's apprentice would be entrusted with the responsibilities of mixing colors or helping to fashion a wax mold for the master. In time, the master would give the apprentice additional responsibilities and perhaps even assign him small commissions of his own to see how well he performed the work."

There's also an attitude these days among people (particularly among painters who are called Alan, and who are me), that hard work is to be avoided at all costs and should in fact be made illegal. We're shocked when we hear of people who actually have to work for a living.

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

Although Dafen artists can produce anything up to a mind-boggling 1,000 paintings per month, the output of any painting studio back in the day would rival that of Dafen. According to Pacheco, during the nine months that Rubens was in Madrid, without neglecting his important diplomatic affairs and in spite of suffering from gout, he painted a staggering amount of work. Get this:
"In the first place, he painted the king, queen and the infantas, half length, to take these canvases to Flanders; he made five portraits of his Majesty, one on horseback among the other grandiose figures )at Valencia). He then made a portrait of the Infanta de los Descalzos a little bigger than half length, and made of it several replicas.
"He executed five or six portraits of private individuals.
"He copied all the Titians in the possession of the King, to whit: The two baths of Diana and Europa, Venus and Adonis, Venus and Cupid, Adam and Eve, etc., and the portraits of the Landgrave, The Duke of Saxony, the Duke of Alba, of Cobas, a Doge of Venice, and many other paintings besides which the King possessed. He made a copy of the portrait of King Phillip in armor on foot. He made several changes in his painting the Adoration of the Magi, which was at the palace.
He also was commissioned to paint several paintings for private clients, up to two meters tall, and life-size portraits."
Here's the cursory wrap-up paragraph (I do actually have to get back to work): For better or worse, there's little point decrying Globalization, because for every one of us storming the barricades with 100% recycled placards there are 100,000 very industrious poor people eye-ing that Hope poster and thinking of ways to sell us a cheap knock-off.

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Guy Laramée: Progress at all Costs!

"Only those who know and respect stasis in progress, who have once and more than once given up, who have sat on an empty snail shell and experienced the dark side of utopia, can evaluate progress." Gunter Grass, From the Diary of a Snail.

Laramée's Great Wall project made me smile. Besides creating stunningly beautiful works of Art, I love the way he plays with possible 'future histories' as a way of pointing out the endlessly mutable march of change (I hesitate to say 'progress'). The notion that History has an endpoint, a pinnacle that stops with us here and now, is a teenage fiction that exposes our cultural myopia and human ego. His work reminds me of the scene in Planet of the Apes where we see Liberty's torch sticking out of the sand. There's a melancholy inevitability to his crumbled civilizations, to knowledge cast aside or squandered.

Closet used-book sniffers and hopeless Romantics should check out his gorgeous website for a step back - or forward - in time.

 “I think the true cause of distress over commercialization and so-called development lies in the sense of losing the ancient. Loss of the ancient means loss of the realization of the timeless in the present. It is with the old that we touch the timeless, the dimension that is neither old nor new.” Robert Aitken

 "When I was younger, I was very upset with the ideologies of progress. I wanted to destroy them by showing that we are still primitives. I had the profound intuition that as a species, we had not evolved that much.

"So I carve landscapes out of books and I paint Romantic landscapes. Mountains of disused knowledge return to what they really are: mountains. They erode a bit more and they become hills. Then they flatten and become fields where apparently nothing is happening. Piles of obsolete encyclopedias return to that which does not need to say anything, that which simply IS." Guy Laramée

Did I mention that he's an awesome painter too?

"Human beings will be happier when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That’s my utopia." Kurt Vonnegut, Playboy interview, 1973