27 January 2021

Serendipity: Honor Titus & Tateishi Harumi

Separated by thousands of miles, almost a century, and different art histories, these two paintings present a  charming commonality. 

Two young people are relaxing together on the grounds of the Brand Library in Glendale, California.  The Brand is no ordinary public library; it is a center devoted to music and the visual arts and the man in the picture is the artist who painted it, Honor Titus.

The young African-American artist Honor Titus (b.1989, Brooklyn, NY) exemplifies what critic Holland Cotter has in mind when he encourages artists to explore several media, to not put boundaries around their imagination but to bring several "spices" to the table.  Titus brings his experience with punk rock music, poetry, and acting, to his painting  So it seems apt that his painting reminds viewers of the Nabis, a group of late 19th century French artists, who embraced a capacious and expansive definition of art that included decorative screens, murals, theatre sets, posters, and book illustrations.  Titus shares their disregard of  straight-laced categories.

Two young girls relax in a flower-dotted field, their poses are informal  - one dressed in a middy blouse rests on her elbows while the other sprawls casually.  Together they present a picture of modern Japanese womanhood, self-possessed and at ease in the world.

Tateishi Harumi (Hariyoshi), was born in Saga Prefecture, Japan in 1927. He first studied Western-style oil painting in Tokyo when he was nineteen;  apparently he disliked the smell of oil paints so he apprenticed at a studio where he practiced Nihonga, a refreshed version of the traditional Japanese style in painting.

Harumi was one of the major figure painters of the Showa period in Japan. His specialty was  bijinga or the painting of beautiful women, long a prominent theme in Japanese art. Unlike his predecessors, Harumi's interest focused on  modern customs, "those things that come from within..." (the Director of the Mejuro Gajoen Museum).  

Harumi died in Kanagawa prefecture on April, 27,1996 at the age of eighty-five.

1, Honor Titus - Grounds of the Brand Library, (Glendale) - 2020, oil on canvas, Timothy Taylot Gallery, NYC.
2, Tateishi Harumi - Clover, 1934, colored ink on paper, Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

20 January 2021

Amedeo Modigliani: Something About This Picture

You can't get much closer to Italy when you're on the French Riviera than Cagnes-sur-Mer. Maybe this was part of the attraction this particular village held for Modigliani. It was here that he painted Cagnes-sur-mer during the last year of his life.

If this painting by the Italian Amedeo Modigliani looks unusual, there are reasons. The artist renowned for his portraits painted just three or four landscapes. Was he not attracted to the genre or was it that, like sculpture which was his first love, he could not make his lining from it? Another reason is the shape of the canvas; this elongated vertical shape is commonly used for portraits although nude figures are often portrayed horizontally to allow them the better to display themselves to the viewer. Landscapes are often depicted horizontally and seascapes are also horizontal, further elongated to encompass the breadth of the sea.  Or we could look at this picture as the portrait of a tree.  There is a Modigliani landscape Cypresses and Houses at Cagnes (also painted in 1919) at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.  Some delicate, atmospheric brushwork cannot disguise the awkwardness of that arrangement whereas in the painting here the tree in the foreground is perched on a knoll overlooking the houses in the little valley. Colors seem bathed in Mediterranean light,  light familiar to what Modigliani experienced during his childhho in Livorno. 

Renoir had moved to Cagnes in 1907 after he developed a painful case of rheumatoid arthritis. Modigliani wanted to meet the older artist and Renoir's neighbor Anders Osterlind, also an artist, arranged at Renoir's far, one evening.  The two should have had a lot to talk about;  both artists painted so many female nudes and yet the evening was a failure.  Renoir, the ageing master was proud of his paintings, going so far as to tell the young artist that after he finished each nude he stroked the buttocks on the canvas for days. With his patrician background Modigliani found the old man vulgar.

Renoir died in December of 1919 at the age of seventy-eight.  Modigliai outlived him by only fifty-three days, dying on January 24, 1920 from tubercular meningitis at thirty-five. 

Image - Amedeo Modigliani - Cagnes-sur-mer, circa 1919, oil on cnvas, private collection.

13 January 2021

Early Renoir: Revolution Is On The Table

Renoir is not one of my favorite painters, no matter how long the list gets he does not make it. The later the works the less I find to admire in them, especially the nudes which seem voyeuristic. But there are exceptions in Renoir's early work, like The Luncheon, painted in 1875. Just the year before the artist had participated in the first Impressionist exhibition, the one that had earned this loose-knit group the  derisive nickname from critics.

As a picture The Luncheon is a combination plate; the wainscoting and the wallpaper in the background of the restaurant where the young couple sit have been drawn in a detailed and realistic manner while a revolution is taking place on the table where they are seated, belying the quiet mood.

With colors but no lines Renoir's bravura verisimilitude recreates solid physical objects out of light.  That silver soup tureen turns out, on close inspection to be composed of the three primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) with white supplying the reflective sheen of silver.  Next to it the baguette is rendered in broad strokes of red an yellow. And that splash of green sits atop the wine bottle like a cork. The diagonal axes formed by the knife and the baguette and the position of the table keep the riotous colors from spinning into space.

Even more evanescent is the appearance of the wine glasses.  Renoir conveys the look and feel of the glasses with tiny strokes of bright white against a sheer silvery veil; we see the tablecloth and the man's blue sleeve refracted through the glass.  Dabs of pinkish red are the remains of the wine itself, colorful yet clear. 
And what of the reflected light that seems to be coming from an unseen window at the right edge of the canvas?  There are shadows cast by  the baguette and the man's hand resting on the table. And there are dabs of light (more white paint) on the bread knife and on the  knife the young woman grasps in her hand.

The Paris of  Renoir's. youth had doubled its population in a mere two decades from 1850 to 1870. With such rapid growth there were bound to be social upheavals and changing mores. Renoir had a nose for the new modern pleasures, a heady combination of boating, bathing, and flirtation that took place on Sundays at cafes along the Seine.  The most famous and definitely the one most-painted was La Grenouille  (The Frog  Pond), what the French call a gangette -  a floating bar.  In 1869 even th Emperor and his wife ventured out to see what made it a hot spot.  The straw boater hat hanging on the empty chair signals that The Luncheon is one of these Sunday outings.

The son of a tailor, Renoir had learned to draw using his father's marking chalk - the feathery, flickering brushstrokes. At thirteen Pierre apprenticed at a porcelain workshop where he soaked up a taste for decorative colors. The brushstrokes made possible by the ferule, a flat metal sleeve constraining the bristles,  revolutionized painting, making those quick, agitated strokes possible. Plus  imagination and daring and bravura technique.

Image: Pierre-Auguste Renoir - The Luncheon, 1875, oil on canvas, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

06 January 2021

The Power of Art: Ben Shahn When We Need Him

Image: Ben Shahn - Breaking Reaction's Grip, offset lithographic print, 1946, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC.

05 January 2021

Winter Rains: Richard Haines

"I don't care how God-damn smart

these guys are: I'm bored.

It's been raining like hell all day long

and there's nothing to do."

 - "At the California Institute of Technology" by Richard Brautigan, January 1967

Richard Brautigan (1935-1984) is remembered today as a novelist, and an experimental one at that, but he began his writing career as a poet in the 1960s.  Brautigan was appointed  Poet in Residence for the spring semester in 1967 at the California Institute of Technology.  As you can tell by reading this poem, he was not favorably by impressed by the weather in Pasadena.  An odd sentiment for someone who came from Tacoma, Washington. But rain in winter seems more depressing somehow than spring rain; the earth stays inert and dull looking. The palette Richard Haines uses for Winter Rain is drab, with only touches of blue and yellow to underline the vertical displacement that figures seen through rain take on.

Rain is one of several subjects  Vincent van Gogh painted over and over, as though the subject was inexhaustible, as it was for him. There are van Gogh rain paintings that I would do without.  His shoes were another favorite subject and I have linked to my earlier post about Vincent's love of books  and the ways he included them in paintings.

The arrangement of the figures in Winter Rain comes from  the years Richard Haines worked on  W.P.A. mural projects during the 1930s.

Richard Haines (1906-1984) was born on a farm in Iowa and began working as an illustrator for  greeting cards and calendars before formally studying art at the Minneapolis School of Art.  While there Haines became interested in painting murals ( a popular medium in early 20th century America), winning a scholarship that took him to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1933.  Moving to Los Angeles in 1941 to work in an aircraft factory, he stayed after the was ended to teach at the Chouinard Institute of Art and later headed the painting department at the Otis Institute.  His work itself as well as influence on his students.is evident all around the city.

Image: Richard Haines - Winter Rain, before 1948, watercolor and charcoal, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

01 January 2021

From An Old House In Belgium: Vincent van Gogh

"Art is the highest form of hope." - Gerhard Richter. This New Year think of Vincent van Gogh's search for hope. 

In 1878 van Gogh came to the Borinage, a coal mining region in southern Belgium, where he had been assigned to minister to the people of  the village of Cuesmes. At twenty-five, Vincent's trajectory in life seemed to be heading determinedly downward. The eighteen year old who had shown such promise as an art dealer at the prestigious firm of Goupil et Cie in Paris erred by  revealing his wealthy clients his candid opinions of the works he was selling. He liked to read so he tried his hand at bookselling in Amsterdam but ignored potential customers.  Then, thinking he could  follow in his father's footsteps by becoming a minister, Vincent only succeeded in putting his parishioners to sleep.  And so he was consigned to the lowest work the church offered, as a missionary to the poor coal miners of Cuesmes.       

Persuading an elderly miner to take him down into the mines, van Gogh entered a living hell, a bee hive of cramped chambers where entire families labored  because women and children were smaller than the men, and could navigate the narrow passages more efficiently.  Emile Zola's masterpiece Germinal, published in 1885,describes their plight in harrowing detail while Misere au Borinage, a famous documentary made in 1933,  showed how little had changed since  van Gogh's time.

While conducting bible studies in the homes of the miners, van Gogh was stricken by their squalid living conditions.  He became obsessed with the desire to share their plight, giving away his clothes and food and even going so far as to give up bathing so that his skin would be permeated by the grime that the miners could never  seem to wash off. Vincent's identification with the  suffering of others lacked boundaries and so it would be, sometimes, with ruthlessness. The same Vincent was capable of killing a  butterfly the better to paint it. 

When a church official named Rochedieu (means Rock of God - a name fit for Pilgrim's Progress!) came from Brussels on an inspection tour, he was horrified by van Gogh's condition and sacked him on the spot. Losing yet another job when he yearned to give of himself to others devastated Vincent. (It was the inability of his French-speaking superiors to spell van Gogh correctly that led the artist to refer to himself as Vincent.

Van Gogh had been living in a little miner's house where he retreated in despair for a year.  It took another year of struggle for him to assemble a group of drawings to take with him to Brussels; his letters to his brother Theo describe how, through his anguish, Vincent found his vocation.

"Now, if you can forgive someone for immersing himself in pictures..."

"So please don't think I am renouncing anything, I am reasonably faithful in my unfaithfulness and although I have changed, I am still the same, and what preys on my mind is simply this one question: what am I good for, could I not be of service in some way, how can I become more knowledgeable and study some subject or other in depth?"
- excerpts from a letter by Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo, July, 1880.

"Well, even in these depths of misery I felt my energy revive & said to myself, I shall get over it somehow, I shall get to work again with my pencil, which I had cast aside in my deep dejection, & I shall draw again, & ever since I have had the feeling that everything has changed for me, & now i am in my stride & my pencil has become slightly more willing & seems to be getting more so by the day.  My over-long & over- intense misery had discouraged me so much hat i was unable to do anything."

"...I cannot tell you how happy I am that I have taken up drawing again.  I had been thinking about it for a long time, but always considered it impossible & beyond my abilities.  But now, though I continue to be conscious of my failings & of my depressing dependence on a great many things, now I have recovered my peace of mind & my energy increases by the day."

"At the same time I must tell you that I cannot remain very much longer in the little room where I live now.  It is very small indeed, and then there are the two beds as well, the children's & my own.  And now that I am working on Bargue's fairly large sheets I cannot tell you how difficult it is.  I don't want to upset these people's domestic arrangements."
- excerpts from a letter by Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo, Cuesmes, September 24, 1880., translated from the Dutch by Arnold Pomerans in The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, New York, Penguin Books: 1996.

Vincent took his drawings to Brussels in 1880 where he showed them to his mentor, Reverend Peterson, who saw something in them that transcended Vincent's lack of formal training and so Vincent persevered.


1. Jean-Paul Grandmont - The house where Vincent van Gogh lived in Cuesmes, photograph, 2005. (Note: the Miason van Gogh is now a museum)

2. Vincent van Gogh - Coal Miners, September, 1880, pencil on paper, Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterloo, Netherlands.