Monday, January 22, 2018

Happy Birthday Pioneer Cubist/Surrealist


Francis Picabia (1879–1953), Dances at the Spring, 1912. Oil on canvas, 99 1/8" x 98" (251.8 x 248.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-P2196piars)

I always like to celebrate artists who show a wide variety of stylistic exploration. Francis Picabia is certainly one of them.

The child of a French mother and Spanish/Cuban father, Picabia was born on January 22, 1879. As a child, he grew up in a household devoted to the collection of art. He studied at the School of Decorative Arts in Paris in 1895, and later in the studio of painter Fernand Cormon (1845–1924), an academic symbolist/realist. Fellow pupils included future Cubists Georges Braque (1882–1963) and Marie Laurencin (1883–1956). At the time Picabia produced watercolors, but quickly transitioned to oil in an Impressionist style influenced by Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) and Alfred Sisley (1839–1899).

Although the first show of his Impressionist landscapes in 1905 received positive attention, he abandoned what by that time was considered a conventional style, gravitating toward more modernist experimentation, initially Fauvism. By 1912 he had shifted to Cubism, abandoning the representation of nature in favor of expressing memories and personal experiences.

Unlike many of the other artists experimenting with Cubism, Picabia considered the style a good vehicle for conveying personal feelings, rather than sticking to still life and portraiture. Because of the ephemeral nature of memories and experiences, Picabia's Cubism quickly became nonobjective, whereas the other Cubists rarely ventured completely away from recognizable objects.

Dances at the Spring was one of thirteen Cubist paintings Picabia showed at the Salon of the Golden Section, Paris, in 1912. The subject was inspired by the memory of a folk dance Picabia witnessed while on his honeymoon in the Neapolitan countryside in Italy. The artist reduced the figures of two young women dancing to swirling, brilliantly colored planes indicative of their movement and fervor. These colors and disintegration of form go well beyond the Analytical Cubism of Braque and Picasso. Picabia’s reduction of the women's forms to sheet metal-like facets points to another theme that would come to occupy other Cubist painters, that of the machine.

Francis Picabia, M’Amenez-y, 1919–1920. Oil on cardboard, 50 ¾" x 35 7/16" (129 x 90 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-P2017piars)

After World War I (1914–1918), Picabia became fascinated by the idea of industrial and mechanical objects as subject matter. He felt that machines had become part of human life and explored mechanical symbolism. It is believed by art historians (and this is probably purely subjective) that this painting represents acts of human private parts. Personally, I don’t really see it, but Picabia may have taken a page out of Marcel Duchamp’s (1887–1968) playbook in which machines referenced sexuality. It is Picabia’s first experiment with collage.

This painting contains numerous puns that make this work a puzzle to me. There’s “linseed oil” (l’huile de lin), castor oil (‘l’huile de ricin), “the artist’s false teeth” (ratelier d’artiste), and “crocodile painting” (peinture crocodile). His interest in machines and automobile parts is supposedly reflected in the title: Take Me There (M’Amenez-y). Picabia reportedly had an obsession with cars, owning 100 of them. 

Francis Picabia, Fuel Pump, 1922. Ink and gouache on paper, 30" x 22 1/8" (76.2 x 56.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-P0107piars)

Fuel Pump is an obvious reference to a car, although it by no means is an accurate depiction of car parts. 

Francis Picabia, Portrait of a Couple, 1942–1943. Oil on board, 41 5/8" x 30 7/16" (105.7 x 77.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-P1148plars)

Although Picabia renounced Dada in 1921, certain ideas of that movement continued in his work. This included the appropriation of found imagery. In one of his last stylistic phases, he appropriated images from magazines and movie posters. The saccharine imagery—executed during the devastation of World War II (1939–1945)—pointedly questions the meaning of art in a world gone wonky. This is exactly the quandary that Dada explored during the aftermath of World War I.

Correlations: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.34; Discovering Art History 4E: 14.4; Discovering Art History Digital: 14.4

Monday, January 15, 2018

It’s All How You See It


John Pfahl (born 1939, US), Nursery Topsoil Pile (Winter) Lancaster, NY, from the Piles series, 1994. Chromogenic print on paper, 16" x 20" (40.6 x 50.8 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2018 John Pfahl. (AK-2019)

Winter landscapes full of snow are a joy to behold. Of course, snow in the mountains is even more joyous to behold. Imagine a series of photographs that presents piles of various materials as landscapes. This is the brilliant work that artist John Pfahl did with his 1990s series Piles. What better way to elevate a pile of miscellaneous materials than a beautiful and monumental composition? I sometimes think that this series could also be titled Mountains.

The study of the history of photography often includes that of landscapes. One of the types of views of landscapes often discussed, such as in the Davis book Focus on Photography 2E, is the grand landscape. This term was coined to describe the panoramic landscapes of the American West in the late 1800s, when it was a vast, unexplored territory. The photography of John Pfahl turns the idea of the grand landscape on its head in his brilliant series called Piles.

Ansel Adams (1902–1984) and Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904) had their Sierra Nevada Mountains, and Timothy O’Sullivan (1840–1882) his Rocky Mountains. Pfahl is inspired by the grand landscapes of Adams, and tries to create photographs of piles of various materials in imitation of the grandeur of the grand landscape style. He judiciously works with light, atmosphere, and scale to produce images of piles of such things as topsoil or wood scraps to create images that imitate the monumental feeling of mountain photographs.

Pfahl’s Piles works are not meant to look natural, because he is not interested in pure landscape photography. He prefers for the viewer to make a mental connection to real mountains from the images. This creates an intellectual construction tool out of a photograph, as disbelief that this is not a landscape is suspended. Pfahl prefers the ambiguity, although he does admit the finished photographs remind him of his love for the mountains he has seen in his travels.

Pfahl was born in New York and grew up in New Jersey. He received a BFA and MA from Syracuse University. He was interested in cartography (mapmaking) as a young man. Like a cartographer, he uses visual symbols to help the viewer construct a landscape out of the piles of detritus. In documenting such debris as automobile tires or leaves, he creates something monumental from material that has a less-than-monumental back story. In this way, Pfahl is hoping viewers of his Piles series will reevaluate landscape as subject matter, as well as their relationship to it. 

John Pfahl, C & D Pile, Modern Salvage Company, Model City, NY, from the Piles series, 1994. Chromogenic print on paper, 16" x 20" (40.6 x 50.8 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2018 John Pfahl. (AK-2020)

John Pfahl, Toxic Waste Reclamation Site, Niagara Falls, NY, from the series Piles, 1996. Chromogenic print on paper, 16" x 20" (40.6 x 50.8 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2018 John Pfahl. (AK-2021)

Monday, January 8, 2018

What’s in a Number?


It’s 2018 now. Does the number eighteen conjure up anything for you? A lot of people make a big deal about turning age eighteen, but for me that just conjures up nightmares of bullying, a face blooming with pimples, and being 6' 2" and 104 lbs. I was, however, at eighteen, a budding art historian (go figure). I propose that we look at a variety of great art that has the number eighteen in its dating (or presumed dating).

Ancient Persia, Persian Guard, relief from the Hall of 100 Columns, Palace of Darius I, Persepolis, Iran, 518–ca. 460 BCE. Image © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-10204)

I think the reliefs on the walls of the buildings at Persepolis are among the most beautiful of ancient sculpture. They combine aspects of both Near Eastern and Greek art. I’m always especially fascinated by the way hair and beards are meticulously delineated.

Although these reliefs may have been inspired by those decorating Assyrian (1365–609 BCE) palaces, Persian sculpture is more refined. The figures project more from the surface than Assyrian reliefs, and the forms are more rounded. The treatment of the clothing is reminiscent of archaic Greek (776–480 BCE) sculpture, which seems to have been an influence on art of the Achaemenid Persian empire (550–330 BCE).

Around 550 BCE, the Persians—a formerly nomadic, Indo-European speaking culture from Iran—began seizing power from the region of Persis in southwest Iran, present-day Fars. They were the descendants of Achaemenes, a 600s BCE Iranian ruler in southwest Iran under Assyrian domination. By 539 BCE, the Persians—under Cyrus the Great Achaemenes (ca.600/576–530 BCE)—controlled Babylonia and Media, which covered northern Anatolia and some of the Aegean islands to the west. Under the rule of the king Darius (born 550 BCE, ruled ca. 521–486 BCE), the Persian empire was at its greatest extent, and Darius built a new capital at Parsa (the Greek “Persepolis”). An inscription on the south terrace indicates that Darius built the city as his capital. 

Anna Claypoole Peale (1791–1878 US), Portrait Miniature of an Unknown Woman, 1818. Watercolor on ivory, 2 7/8" x 2 ¼" (7.3 x 5.7 cm). © 2018 Art Institute of Chicago. (AIC-337)

I’m fascinated with American portrait miniatures, if not for the historical nature of the genre before photography, then for the technique of watercolor on ivory. I’ve convinced myself that the ivory must have been scored and gessoed to retain watercolor. I know a woman who does miniatures now and she never could explain to me how watercolor stays on ivory. Nonetheless, such delicate portraits like this are a tribute to patience, if nothing else.

Although not as well known as her younger sister Sarah Miriam Peale (1800–1889), Anna Claypoole Peale was a member of the first American artistic dynasty. She was the niece of Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), the “founder” of the dynasty. Trained by her father, James Peale (17491831), Anna sold her first two paintings—copies of French landscapes—at the age of 14. She played an important role in the cultural development of Philadelphia in the early 1800s.

Peale was born and spent most of her life in Philadelphia, although she also made trips to Washington, DC; Boston; Baltimore; and New York to fulfill portrait commissions. Although she relied primarily portrait miniature commissions for income after 1823, she also continued to paint full-scale portraits, landscapes, and still life.

In 1824, Peale and Sarah Miriam were the first two women to be elected members of the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Between 1824 and 1842, Anna’s reputation was such that she had more commissions than she could comfortably handle. She retired from painting in 1841 after her second marriage. 

McKim, Mead, and White (firm operated 1880–1961, New York), Honore Family Tomb, Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, probably 1918. Image © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-13596)

This is one of the more “modest” mausoleums at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. It is the residing place of the Honore family, natives of Kentucky who moved to Chicago in 1855 and became millionaires in real estate speculation. This tomb is across “the street” from the Palmer tomb, a family one of the Honore daughters married into. The Palmers were key in establishing the Art Institute of Chicago, and were also big real estate moguls (see the Palmer House Hilton and Towers between State and Wabash).

If you ever spend any time at all in Chicago, Graceland Cemetery is a must-see destination. It is like a history book of Chicago elite of the 1800s and early 1900s. The cemetery was relocated from Lincoln Park in 1860 when malaria and cholera were threatened because of the Lake Michigan water seeping into tombs (yuck). It soon became surrounded as the city grew, and boasts graves of such famous people as Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, Cyrus McCormick, Marshall Field, and even a Titanic fatality, Arthur Ryerson.

The architecture firm of McKim, Mead, and White made it big in the late 1800s mania for revival style architecture, particularly Beaux-Arts Classicism, which was another vein of Baroque Revival. The founding partners were Charles F. McKim (1847–1909) and William R. Mead (1846–1928). They were joined in 1879 by Stanford White (1853–1906). White, like McKim, had worked for Henry Hobson Richardson, the great architecture god of Romanesque Revival. While specializing in Beaux-Arts Classicism (good for bank façades), they hired scads of other architects for their numerous commissions, many in the also trendy Gothic Revival, like the Honore Tomb.