28 October 2016

On the Wings of a Bat

This little bat carries a heavy load on its shoulders.  In a 1974 essay titled  "What is it like to be a bat?" Thomas Nagel uses the bird with the double-jointed wings to argue that reductionist  theories of the mind will never be able to explain consciousness.  When neuroscientists scan the brain, the activity they see is not thought or memory, but the movement of neurons.
Enter Mary Midgley,  a British philosopher who has likened philosophy to plumbing, and has accused her colleagues of habitually "biting off less than they can chew."   She makes a similar argument, this time using an ordinary table as an example: to a carpenter a table is a solid object, while to a particle physicist a table is a group of atoms that is mostly empty space. Meanwhile, Nagel looks forward to the emergence of a  post-materialist philosophy.  And the little bat flies through a sky, suffused by the yellow of an unseen sun, oblivious to the shrinking horizons of the neuroscientists.
And you thought this post would be about about Halloween.

A note about the artist: Florence Lundborg was born in San Francisco in 1871 where she studied art with Arthur Mathews.  After the turn of the century she moved to Paris where she studied with Whistler. Her mural, painted for the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915  
received a bronze medalFortified by this success, Lundborg moved to New York City where she illustrated books and became a staff member at a magazine called The Lark,  where her woodblock prints often appeared on its covers.

Read: "What is it like to be a bat?" here.
Read: Are You An Illusion? by Mary Midgley, London, Acumen: 2014.

Florence Lundborg (1871-1949) detail of the cover of The Lark, November 1895, color woodcut, Mettropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

15 October 2016

Jim Dine: The Multi-Colored Bathrobe

"The canvases are the size of me with my arms out." - Jim Dine to Constance Glenn, 1983.

I was standing in the art storage stacks at the museum the other evening along with my classmates as we looked at the largest woodblock print any of us had ever seen.   Jime Dine's Bathrobe may not be larger than life in a technical sense but it was larger than any bathrobe I have ever worn.

"Describe not the object itself, but the effect it produces," wrote the French poet Stephane Mallarme.   Nietzsche was the more direct when he famously declared "God is dead."  But it was Mallarme (1842-1898), in his guise as critic, who developed the idea of art as the replacement for religion.   You can love modern art and sidestep Nietzsche but you can't avoid Mallarme; his ideas are either illustrated or  refuted by countless artists who have come after.
Take the Abstract Expressionists, who denied there were any romantic elements in their works,  ignoring the emotional and spiritual elements viewers admired in their canvases.  Think of the shimmering layers that appear when you gaze for several minutes at a Mark Rothko painting.    Pop artists of the 1960s, whose cool appraisal of ordinary objects, seemed to sacralize them as much as satirize them confound Mallarme's discrete categories.  What of  artists who need to portray the object in order to get to the effect it has on them?

Jim Dine (b.1935)  was a young artist from the Midwest who first attracted attention in New York, the center of the postwar art world, in 1959 when he participated in several Happenings, a type of chaotic performance art that signaled a change of mood from  somber expressionism to something like bacchanalia, Dine has always said that drawing is, for him, the basis of all art, even his sculptures.  Eventually, he was no longer satisfied by what he saw as awkward and inept drawing by the Abstract Expressionists.   In the 1960s Dine fit in with Pop artists with his images of real life objects like hammers and paintbrushes; the difference was that, as Dine put it, the objects gave him "a vocabulary of feelings."

Dine began to use the bathrobe in 1964 as a form of self-portrait, and he has made dozens and dozens of them since.   Stretching a paper or canvas or, in this case, a piece of wood, to human size has underlined the intimacy he finds in this everyday garment.   Alan Solomon, an art historian, understood this when in 1967 he called Dine " a hot artist in a cool time."

This Bathrobe from 1982 is work of mixed media.  It is a fourteen color woodcut (you can count them for yourself,) with black paint used for the outline.  Standing next to Bathrobe I felt those black lines move on that rigid surface, like so many motions of putting on and taking off, the lineaments of a personal relationship. 

Jim Dine - Fourteen-color Bathrobe, 1982, Schaefer Art Galleries, Syracuse University, NY.

08 October 2016

Enchanted Panda Forest

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
 - excerpt from "Inversnaid" by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1881) 

The mountains of southwestern China are certainly wild and wet; in photographs they are lapped by rivers of mist.  Sichuan the name of the province that means the land of the four rivers, is the place where the Himalayas drop down toward the river basin.  Rugged and remote, it has long held tight to its secrets, its variety of plants and animal species unknown to the larger world.    But, every now and then, for two thousand years, those who made the difficult journey to Sichuan returned with stories of marvelous, elusive plant-eating animals. 
Panda is the Nepalese word for "bamboo-eater."   The giant panda is a bear; the red panda is either a cat or a raccoon, a question that has remained since  Frederic Cuvier saw his first red panda in 1825.  Then, in 1868, another Frenchman,  Armand David, arrived at a village in Sichuan  to teach at a Jesuit school there.  What Pere David learned there made him famous, identifying  and classifying hundreds of plants, birds, and animals.  Thanks to him, the gerbil and the giant panda entered our world.  He was  also a pioneer in the study of animal geography, a discipline that has contributed to bringing back the giant panda from the brink of extinction.  For a long time after Pere David brought word of the panda back to France, they called it" Pere David's bear."
We did not mean to endanger pandas, we admired their gentle habits but we encroached on their territory, cutting down the trees where they carved out their birthing dens and turning the land to farms, driving them ever higher into the mountains, where it was colder and less hospitable to bamboo.  What wondrous lines might another Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins, have given us if he had been to the haven of the giant panda?

1. Henri Milne-Edwards - Folio, plate 50, Ursus melanoeucus, female, c.1869-74,  French National Museum of Natural History, Paris.
2.  unknown artist - Butterfly among the flowers, c. 16th-17th century, India, Louvre Museum, Paris.

02 October 2016

Francoise Gilot: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

"A touch of red, how nice, why not a little more of the same, and then it is too much!  All the more reason to go on adding more and more.  It is good to exaggerate, to go beyond, to pursue the extreme limit of what is suggested by the pictorial imagination." - Francoise Gilot, in Francoise Gilot Monograph 1940-2000, Lausanne, Editions Acatos: 2000, p.26.

No equivocation is possible here: I love this painting. 
Francoise Gilot was twenty-two when she painted this self portrait.  She would not meet Henri Matisse for another three years but his importance to her work is already evident.  She had learned  lessons from Matisse's use of color;  the orange dress and blue beads  draw the eye upward to the face, modeled in blue-green and pink-purple.   The white  lines take the place of shading, function   as a bright color.

At its extreme, fear of content led modern artists to disdain portraits and this helps to explain why Gilot's unapologetic ambition looks so fresh today.  There is no amount of aesthetic criticism that nullifies the essence of a portrait: it is a meeting of minds: the artist and the sitter and (if these two are one and the same)  the artist and the viewer.   Women have been taught to be exquisitely sensitive to the moods of others and also long excluded from life drawing classes.  These two things could cancel each other out but women have excelled at portraiture during the last century and critics have begun to reconsider artists as various as Cecelia Beaux< once dismissed as a society painter and Alice Neel, whose portraits as nude men were once labelled as "satires." ?

She was twenty-one and at the beginning of her career and he was, at sixty-one, the most famous - and notorious - living artist in the world.  She was beautiful; he was famous.   He knew how lucky he was; then he forget.  They had much in common; both of them had been precocious artists born to bourgeois families.  The difference was that when he displayed artistic talent, his family supported him in every way.  When she told her father that she intended to be an artist, he beat her and then disowned her. She was still the spirited woman who had attracted the famous man, who laughed at his petulant moods; but he was cruel, abusive, and unfaithful.   She was the only woman who ever left him.  She left because he drained her energy; she could only paint when she was away from him.  He told her that, without him, she would be no more than a footnote to the story of his life.  He was wrong, but he must have regretted bringing up footnotes when she published her biography of Life With Picasso.  He sued to prevent its publication but it became a bestseller, selling more than a million copies and drawing back the curtain on the man and the myth.   

To read more:
1. Francoise Gilot, Life With Picasso, New York, McGraw Hill: 1962.
2. Francoise Gilot & Lisa Alther, About Women: Conversation Between a Writer and a Painter, New York, Doubleday: 2015.
Francoise Gilot - Study for a Self Portrait, 1944, private collection, courtesy Sotheby's.