Julie Heffernan on Andrea Mantegna

mantegnaAndrea Mantegna, Parnassus (Mars and Venus), 1497, Tempera and gold on canvas, 63 x 76 inches

Andrea Mantegna offers up a grand celebration in Parnassus (Mars and Venus), brilliant in both its design and its conception of an event. It is a fete champetre par excellence featuring gods and Muses a-swingin’ and a-swayin’ in godly and ungodly ways. The Great Ones show up to cavort and make merry with dancing ladies who represent an allegory of universal harmony and the minor gods show up to support the main event. Presiding atop a convenient rocky archway are Venus and Mars, stand-ins for Isabella d’Este, who commissioned the piece, and her husband Francesco II Gonzaga. They gaze benevolently down on the events below. Gals carouse, Anteros (symbol of heavenly love) aims a blowpipe at angry Vulcan’s genitals, and Mercury looks like he’s giving Pegasus one of those irresistible, come hither looks that horses so enjoy. Quite a carousel of fun and divine hijinks, you might say if you happened to venture onto this scene from the surrounding caves or the tiny town nestled under Mount Helicon in the distance.

But there is more to this scene than just fun. The best artists always find ways to subvert the so-called natural order of things – Caravaggio’s Madonna di Loreto a great case in point – and Mantegna in 1497 was no different. Mantegna weaves all these disparate moments together into a tight composition via his use of distinct geometrical shape orders—large, medium and small. Leonardo da Vinci once theorized, echoing Egyptian theosophy, that the square was male, representing the material world and the circle was female, symbolizing the spiritual domain. In Parnassus, one very large square shape plays the largest compositional role, hugging the left-hand side of the picture plane. It contains within it almost everything of dramatic importance: Venus and Mars, the dancing Muses, Apollo with his lyre, and the rocky outcropping to the left with a cave that houses Vulcan, Venus’ husband. True to the kinkiness of the scene, however, this same bold square kicks out at the bottom right with the feistiness of a can-can girl, as it follows the diagonal line of one of the Muse’s legs.

Negative shapes also contribute rich material to this story, and there is one large and marvelous phallus-shaped area of negative space driving a wedge down into the square from the top left of it, literally penetrating the grand square and just missing the large circular negative shape to its right – the archway or portal opening directly underneath Venus. Other wonderfully phallic, negative shapes of sky and background descend into the scene in several places, like post-coital members still hoping to play.

Breaking down the composition further, we find still more enticing relationships that reveal more sides to the story. In the very top middle of the composition is another square — this one medium-sized — in the form of a bushy tree jutting out in four corners and acting as a foil for the figures of Mars and Venus standing atop the arch. Mantegna’s bushy square is distinctly dominant over the large circle of negative space formed by that rocky archway, and this relationship reinforces the hierarchy of the genders: man dominates woman. Interestingly, the jagged edges of the bushy square are echoed in the jagged rock form to its left, atop (behind) Vulcan’s cave. But the rocks are dead forms while Mars’ bush is alive with fruit, at least on his side. Venus merits only one piece of fruit on hers. Could this be an allusion to the great number of sperm it takes to fertilize one egg? Was Mantegna ahead of his time since Antony Van Leeuwenhoek wouldn’t discover that multitudes of sperm strive together to fertilize one egg until 1677? We can’t know what he was tapping into, but Venus and Mars are clearly united, their bodies forming semi-circular halves of a lovely oval.

However — and here is the capstone of the painting — Venus is not only posed in the middle of the square, she also comprises the central focus of the composition, and she seems to be slightly pushing Mars off the apex of rock that they are occupying. What is Mantegna saying with this positioning? What does it mean that she appears to be displacing the war god? Remember, it was Isabella who commissioned this piece, so perhaps Mantegna is arguing that Venus, not Mars, dominates the masculine realm. She, glowing in all her ivory nudity, is like a flashlight, eclipsing him. All he can do here is give way to her beauty, with staff in hand to keep himself from falling over. In this light his armor even seems compensatory. Thus Mantegna swiftly upends the social and gender hierarchy of his age.

Below them, the Muses dance in front of the large circular void of the rock arch, which provides a misty view of deep space. Nestled in the distance is that small town and, even further, a range of mountains, first two peaks then one furthest away — the uniting of two into one. This is a feminine space, beckoning us to enter it deeply. The women dance in a circle, reinforcing the circular shape of the arch. Other circles echo in the linking of arms by two Muses in front and one in back who create a kind of wedding ring for Mars and Venus out of their entwined arms. This conflation of space — when events in the background collide with those in the foreground to make meaning — is something only two-dimensional work can do so beautifully and uniquely.

Circles are echoed again and again in the spiraling cave structures in the hills. They speak pictorially to us of the marvels of all that femaleness, generously opening distant, yet unexplored, realms of being to the viewer. The scene is one of ecstatic unfolding as boy gives way to girl, husband submits to wife, man to beast, and the dance of life goes on.

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Julie Heffernan, Standing my Ground, 2016, Oil on canvas, 68 x 66 inches

Julie Heffernan is a Brooklyn-based painter who exhibits widely throughout the US and internationally. She will be exhibiting her new work in November at Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco. She is co-founder of Painters on Paintings.  www.julieheffernan.net

Sarah Slappey on James Ensor

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James Ensor, The Tribulations of Saint Anthony, 1887, Oil on canvas, 46 ⅜ x 66 inches

James Ensor, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Hieronymous Bosch have all painted depictions of the torment of Saint Anthony by demons and monsters. In Ensor’s Tribulations of Saint Anthony (1887), he makes undeniable references to both of his predecessors’ works. Many of the ghouls, chimeras, and devils are remarkably similar in all three artists’ versions: fish walk on land and float in the sky, figures and animals have either an overabundance or curious lack of faces or limbs, and various forms of excretion and excrement are sprinkled across the landscape. The figure of Saint Anthony himself is of little importance in all of the paintings. Aside from the nearly 400 years that separate the works, there is something else that makes Ensor’s Tribulations stand apart. The figures in Bosch and Bruegel’s paintings are humorous caricatures, and while there is humor in Ensor’s figures of pooping devils and insect-humans, it is sardonic. It is the kind of laughter born of cruelty instead of fantasy. How can such an emotional difference between paintings depicting imagery that is remarkably similar be accounted for? I think it has to do with touch.

boschHieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony, 1501, Oil on panel, 52 x 90 inches

Bosch and Bruegel’s figures are undeniably present in the space of the landscape. The lines are clear and tight, and each micro-scene is delineated with the same level of precision. By contrast, the figures in Ensor’s painting are constantly forming and then fading–disintegrating, really, into chaos. Most of the painting is created using a scratchy, scumbling mark that sometimes disappears, particularly around the canvas borders. Some parts of the painting are completely untouched, leaving the blank canvas exposed. Many of the demons and monsters are drawn with a line so delicate it is almost not there. Because they are drawn on top of the background landscape, which is a complete abstract painting in itself, they appear as an afterthought. Alternatively, there are beings missing their outlines: they emerge from the blobs of color that make up the structure of the composition. These paint monsters have no discernible ending or beginning. They float around as thick splashes of Venetian red or exist as a scribble of goop with eyeballs. The smooth fat of their paint-bodies is cut into with some sharp object, perhaps the opposite end of a paintbrush, in a hurried frenzy. The upper right corner of the painting completely devolves into rapid fire strokes of paint in colors reminiscent of a combination of mud, blood, bile, and raw meat. It is a color and consistency that Paul McCarthy would likely admire.

ensor3James Ensor, The Tribulations of Saint Anthony, (Detail)

Spatially, the painting is rather flat. Aside from the distinction of the reddish foreground and white-blue background, there are no other planes. Even the objects in the foreground and background have no depth or dimension. Rather, they are a collection of marks sitting atop the surface that occasionally and haphazardly come together to form a sea monster’s face or a lanky skeleton. In this sense, the painting is distinctly modern, positioning the act of painting and the physicality of the paint as equally important as representational imagery. The illusion of believable space would be a disruption to the painting’s emotional tenor. Gravity has no place here. Bruegel and Bosch employ the same kind of displacement of space: the ground in Bosch’s Temptations tilts towards the viewer rather than receding, destroying the illusion of foreground, middleground, and background. In a flattened space, everything happens at once–NOW–creating nonstop simultaneity in space and time.

img_5761James Ensor, The Tribulations of Saint Anthony, (Detail)

Bruegel and Bosch frighten us with clarity of imagination and keen speculation of Hell’s creatures. The terror of Ensor’s Tribulations is that of speed, mania, and resistance to resolution. Ensor replaces the physicality of monsters and devils in the sixteenth century with the horror of the nonphysical, specifically, the horror of the mind. Ensor did not use paint as a means of illustrating this tale, but rather reenacts the frenzy of a madman driven insane by psychological demons. To me, this painting is a century ahead of its time. Ideas of painting as performance and medium as subject are combined effortlessly, brilliantly, with image making and figuration. Tribulations is a delicious peek inside Ensor’s mind and his love of the beautiful-grotesque. It is the realization of a lush dream that slips into a nightmare.

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Sarah Slappey, Picnic, 2016, Oil on canvas, 72 x 60 inches

Sarah Slappey is a Brooklyn-based artist exploring fear, delight, shame, and beauty. She received her MFA from Hunter College in 2016 and has exhibited throughout the US. http://www.sarahslappey.com

Curt Barnes on Morris Louis

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Morris Louis, Tet, 1958, Acrylic (Magma) on raw cotton duck canvas, 94 x 152 inches

Allan Kaprow was so enormously impressed with Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings that he said they constituted the last paintings, that they made any further painting impossible. The Modernist values reflected in that declaration, in which one radical innovation could render obsolete all those that came before, have long been discredited, nor is anyone today so foolhardy as to declare the end of painting. But we may be able to revisit what he meant: the drip paintings seemed to make conventional compositional structures beside the point, antiquated. The very geography of painting, what up and down meant, left and right, was no longer what it had been. And Pollock did something else: in removing his hand from the work, in working on the floor and then bringing the result up onto the wall, he seemed to cut an artist-to-art object umbilical cord. Even as he reduced the paint to physical fact and the record of its application to lines of energy, the work took on a life of its own, became a phenomenon unto itself. One could regard One: Number 31 in almost the same way as one looked at a mountain range, a constellation, or microscopic slide, as an object of wonder. And yet its presence on a wall in a gallery demanded it share the status of art with all that came before it, as a conveyance of cultural import, summoning countless interconnections and resonances.

We don’t know how Kaprow reacted to Helen Frankenthaler a few years later, when, like Pollock, she worked on the floor to create her stain paintings, again using gravity and the physical properties of paint in the equation, as the equation. Her imagery, if we can call it that, changed the paradigm again, even though a sense of more conventional composition remained in the side-by-side configuration of amorphous shapes. As with Pollock, in her strongest work we experience painting as phenomenon: the spectacle of colors flowing and comingling, as absolute and beyond the human hand as cloud formations, oceanic currents.

2Morris Louis, Intrigue, 1958, Acrylic (Magma) on raw cotton duck canvas, 78 x 117 inches

Morris Louis always gave Frankenthaler credit for having inspired his own breakthrough work, his own process, though his technique was, again, markedly different. Referred to as “veils” rather than stain paintings, they were created on the floor and involved tilting the canvas to allow liquefied paint to run downward and spread in ways that he could only half-control by folding and hammocking. Again the result, when mounted and lifted in its impressive dimensions to the wall, took on the aspect of a natural phenomenon. What had been poured downward now seemed to grow upward, sometimes like some multicolored, gargantuan plant form. Art historian Roy McMullen once used the term quiddity, his own equivalent of whatsit, to mean a species of artwork that seemed to defy categorization, often created by artists whose sole purpose was to produce the enigmatic, the mysterious, or to foil art world categorization as a kind of career strategy. Often the aesthetic take-home of these quiddities was negligible. Not so with the above-mentioned painters, whose work was about energy, color, movement, and presence. The enigma was a byproduct of a mystery that unfolded organically.

Morris Louis was the last of these to emerge, the last to mature, and maybe for that reason remains the most vivid for me. The usually monumental size of his work could suggest a towering ego, yet somehow it needs to fill your field of vision, occupy an entire wall to achieve its full meaning. Moreover, the technique he used suggests humility: he seemed to be sharing with us—look what I found!—rather than trying to impress us with the product of his patented ingenuity. And even that “I” is often absent; when I see his work, he’s initially not there at all, even to call forth associations with his other work. I confront sensation for its own sake. As with Pollock and Frankenthaler, the work evokes mysteries, associations with organic growth, massive natural formations, confrontational presences that loom before me. Less-than-ideal compositional characteristics—pinched edges, flattened bottoms—are often beside the point. The almost-symmetry of most of his work reinforces the idea of something programmed by chemistry or DNA that has been slightly compromised by local conditions but is nevertheless vividly present.

3Morris Louis, Point of Tranquility, 1960, Acrylic (Magma) on raw cotton duck canvas, 102 x 136 inches

I myself work with brushes and use much greater precision, albeit on non-traditional surfaces. However, I regard that ultimate sense of mystery, that separateness, as a crowning achievement when it happens. Even with my own work, I want to be outside, looking on. In the greatest work there always seems to be a sense of mystery for me, sometimes achieved through inherent paradox, sometimes through inadvertent contradiction, a transcendence of ostensible meaning. It can’t be chased, I suspect, without becoming a mockery of itself.

Louis’s process often got out of control and led to many second-rate works and failures; he was criticized for exhibiting work that should never have been shown. But when I confront a really powerful Louis that I haven’t seen before, or one I haven’t seen in a while, it is as bracing as the nighttime sky or an orchard in spring. It can seem as old as cave painting and every bit as mysterious. It often proves to be, as the literary critic Harold Bloom once described Hamlet, inexhaustible to contemplation.

3Curt Barnes, Side Pocket, 2015,  From wall, acrylic and micaceous acrylic on shaped hardwood ply, 39 x 59 1/4 x 17 1/2 inches

Curt Barnes is a painter who lives and works in New York City.   www.curtbarnesartist.tumblr.com

 

 

Elena Soterakis on George Bellows

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George Bellows, Excavation at Night, 1908, Oil on canvas, 33 x 44 inches

No other artist captured the chaos created in the name of progress in early 20th century New York City better than George Bellows. His paintings of the Penn Station excavation, violent and gritty, show the negative side of progress; they’re the quintessential example of man at odds with nature. Once the renovations for Penn Station were complete, Bellows did not return to work there. His interests were focused on the intrusiveness of man on nature. As an artist, Bellows was a truth seeker and a Transcendentalist; he had no interest in painting his surroundings in a formalistic way alone. His landscapes reflect a profound respect for nature; he seamlessly portrayed the ever-growing and complex tension between humans and their surroundings.

George Bellows, Blue Morning, American, 1882 - 1925, 1909, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection
George Bellows, Blue Morning, 1909, Oil on canvas, 33 x 44 inches

Bellows was a skilled communicator; his paintings intensely engage my senses. I can feel the bitter cold of winter, the stench of burning coal, the exhaustion of the men who have been shoveling for hours. The social issues he raises in his work, including the plight of the working poor, are just as relevant today. Bellows’ paintings have a prophetic quality; they foreshadow the routine practice of destroying our natural environment without regard for the future. The timeliness is uncanny. Bellows documented America in the wake of the Industrial Revolution during a momentous building boom. But the pace of development continues to increase today, even though the forms have shifted from factories and railroad stations to luxury condominiums.

#3_ImageGeorge Bellows, Pennsylvania Excavation, 1907. Oil on canvas, 33 7/8 x 44 inches

When I look at a Bellows’ piece, I am overcome by a feeling of urgency. I imagine him trying to capture the scenes he paints as quickly as possible, stabbing at the canvas with his brushes, motioning wildly with his arms. Critics often marvel over his Modernist tendencies; I envision him as a proto-action painter–applying the paint with thick, free brush strokes that bring the scenes to life. The surfaces of his paintings are breathtaking, far more evocative when viewed in person.

Whenever I am at the Brooklyn Museum, I make it a point to visit Pennsylvania Station Excavation in the permanent collection so I can admire Bellow’s stunning virtuosity. I can track the many decisions that he made in the layers of his ferocious brushwork, perfectly suited to depict those explosive sites.

#4_ImageGeorge Bellows, Pennsylvania Station Excavation, ca. 1907-1908, Oil on canvas, 31 3/16 x 38 1/4 inches

Bellows’ compositions and vantage points are wildly varied. The times of day, seasons, and color palettes in his work are diverse and well conceived, despite the fact that many of those pieces were painted from the same excavation site. A true master, Bellows’ used painting to address the most pressing issues of this time and his work remains relevant in its brilliance and poignancy.

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Elena Soterakis, Mountain of Garbage, 2015, Oil and collage on paper, 22 x 30 inches

Elena Soterakis is a Brooklyn-based artist whose work explores the conflict between economic progress and environmental preservation. Soterakis received her MFA in painting from the New York Academy of Art and received her BFA in illustration from the School of Visual Arts. www.elenasoterakis.com

Maria Calandra on Joan Miró

Working Title/Artist: The Potato Department: Modern Art Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 11 Working Date: 1928 photography by Malcolm Varon 1988, transparency #2 scanned and retouched by film and media (jn) 7_20_04
Joan Miró, Potato, 1928, Oil on Canvas, 39 3/4 x 32 1/8 inches, The Met

With the potency of red bordering blue, Potato, recently re-installed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, is an invigorating walk through Miro’s fantastical world of invented pictorial language and whimsical figuration. I made a jaunt uptown to see it when I found out the painting was back in action but, after a subway ride full of anticipation, I arrived at Gallery 908, on the first floor, to find it blocked off to visitors. To the chagrin of the guards, I stretched my head over the barrier as far as I could, but still couldn’t catch it in my sight. I left with the disappointment of a child.

Miró is one of my greatest loves and Potato was a painting of his that I hadn’t seen before in person. I immediately called a friend who works at the Met to let me behind the ropes a week later. It was one of the most natural and memorable viewing experiences of my life. There I was in the large gallery, on a heavily trafficked day, with only my museum buddy Ryan and my friend Rachel, who I brought along because of her parallel infatuation with Miró. I saw this painting up close and more intimately than I have ever seen a Miró before. It spoke to me directly, which is uncommon for a painting in a museum setting. It was one of us. There were no tourists to get between me and its blinding spectrum of colors and the realness of its textures. With the quietness of the nearly empty space, the painting and I conversed through vibrations of color, form and line. The main figure whispered surreal quotations out of her pursed lips like free verse poetry. I was able to view Potato at its full capacity, and it was pure magic.

Gallery908 (1)Gallery 908 at the Met

There is no boundary placed on the imagination when it comes to experiencing a Miró. Things are seen and unseen, and ideas take flight only to disappear into the dizzying motion of imagery. Primary colors abound in their brightest and most glorious states, enhancing the trip. A discerning eye can conjure recognizable forms if it understands Miró’s use of symbolism, but this often takes more than a second pass at the canvas. It is your own story to write and rewrite.

As I put down my thoughts on Potato, I am sitting on a porch in the Sierra Foothills. I am convinced that the hummingbirds flying around me are the same ones I saw whispering to the figure at the top right of the canvas. She belts back to them in squiggly red melodies, maybe proclaiming her love for the land. The light brown section of the composition on the bottom right is like a field for the potatoes themselves. Harvesting potatoes takes place in the summer, and it seems that the woman, with her one larger hand, is ready to do the uprooting with the help of her dancing sprites. The pole that sticks up from the field holds a flame to light the way into dusk. Thin black lines, one of my favorite Miró signature elements, connect mobiles of shape that set the scene in motion. And the cerulean sky, with its subtle hints of green, grabs onto the burley texture of the canvas to make the most of its outstanding saturation. The “M” is not hiding in this painting. Miró makes his autograph clear in the palm of the woman’s hand, thrusting it out towards the viewer.

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Maria Calandra, Miro (Peggy Guggenheim Collection Venice), 2016, Pencil on Claybord, 11 x 14 inches

Maria Calandra  lives and works in Brooklyn and is the artist and writer behind the blog Pencil in the Studio which she started in 2011. In this project she spends the day with artists in their studios while drawing their space and talking to them about their life and work. She received an MFA from Cornell University in 2006 and has shown in New York City and across the United States. www.pencilinthestudio.com www.mariacalandra.com

Lourdes Bernard on Pieter Bruegel

Brueghel_The_Wine_Of_Saint_Martins_Day_Private_Collection_MadridPeter Bruegel, Wine of St. Martin’s Feast Day, 1566 – 1567, Tempera on linen, 148 x 270.5 cm. Restored by El Prado

The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day by Pieter Bruegel has preoccupied me since 2009, after coming across it in the fifth Bruegel book I ever purchased. For the most part, the books have the same familiar images—of peasant dances, children at play, allegories, and the winter panoramas—that are the highlights of his painting career in the Netherlands. But the reason I had for collecting them lay in seeing familiar paintings in varying levels of detail. The black and white, or color, images offer slightly differing perspectives on paintings I feel I know well.

“The Elder Peter Bruegel” published in 1938 by the Willey Book Company, contained an essay by Aldous Huxley and a new Bruegel painting that I had never seen before. The new painting was titled Feast of St. Martin and the image in the book appeared to be a detail. A complete image of the painting was absent. The black and white detail showed the figure of St. Martin riding a horse and, to his left, a crowd of people in varying levels of drunkenness climbing over each other as they waved, poured, or reached for a jug of wine. After a frustrating and fruitless on-line search to find the rest of the painting, I gave up and decided to begin a drawing transcription of it, using the detail image.

unnamed-1Detail of Wine of St. Martin’s Day, From “The Elder Peter Bruegel,” Willey Book Company, 1938

Several things struck me about the composition: St. Martin appears to be exiting to the right of the painting leaving the celebration given in his honor. In this detail only two beggars take notice of St. Martin as they reach for him rather than reaching for a jug of wine. To the left are the peasants, climbing over each other, and not appearing particularly happy considering it is a party. Bruegel’s incredible draughtsmanship gives us overlapping forms and movement, setting up a rhythm that moves us from foreground to background to the top of the picture where we see the beginning of a landscape with more folks drinking.

Throughout the year that I worked on the drawing, I periodically searched for an image of the entire painting and in 2010 I got lucky. I came across a NY Times article announcing that a new Bruegel had been (re-)discovered. It was the Feast of St. Martin, now titled the Wine of St. Martin’s Day and, for the first time, I was able to see the rest of the painting. How exciting! It turns out that the detail from the Willey book was only one fourth of the painting, and I decided to finish the drawing by adding the remaining three fourths. Since then, the painting has been purchased and restored by the Prado in Madrid. Below is the initial drawing transcription, one of several transcriptions I created.

unnamed-2Wine of St. Martin’s Feast Day, Transcription by Lourdes Bernard, 2009-2011, Graphite on handmade paper, 24 x 36 inches

The painting’s unique composition is a departure from the other paintings by Bruegel. For example, in the Procession to Calvary, the landscape dominates the painting and acts as a container for the multiple dramas that unfold. In Wine of St. Martin’s Day, the painting space is compressed, pushing the landscape to the edges of a rectangle that barely contains all the activity within it. Most of the figures are stacked vertically and, as they move up and across, they create a mound of humanity clustered around a wine barrel. The overall effect is that of a pinwheel from which some of the peasants have spun off to land at the edges of the painting where various vignettes unfold. In these, Bruegel gives us social commentary on excess. We see two drunken men engaged in hair pulling, a woman giving a baby a sip of wine, and two men already passed out.

As St. Martin prepares to exit the painting there are two additional beggars that approach him from the bottom right corner. In this arrangement of figures Bruegel highlights and gives us the entirety of the miracles attributed to St. Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier born in 316 AD and a convert to Christianity. Here we see the story of St. Martin, as a soldier and a catechumen, riding on his horse and encountering a beggar shivering in the cold. He takes his sword and cuts his cloak in half and gives it to the beggar. That night he dreams that Jesus appears wearing the cloak saying “Here is Martin a Roman soldier, he clothed me.” This highlights his piety. He was also said to have healed the paralytic and both figures approaching him are crippled.

Bruegel is a visual anthropologist and by consigning the story of St. Martin of Tours to the lower right of the painting, he shifts the central focal point to his countrymen as they celebrate the Saint’s feast day, which coincides with harvest time, when new wine is ready to be consumed. This is the subject that dominates the painting. Similar to the Procession to Calvary where the Christian story is buried among the many activities of those gathering and traveling to see the crucifixion, the religious aspect is not central to this painting. As is often the case in Bruegel’s work, his countrymen are the real subject matter. Here the gaiety that is found in Peasant Dance is absent and chaos reigns instead.

The bird’s eye viewpoint in the painting is fascinating and unsettling. It allows us to look down on the scene, while simultaneously drawing us up to the band of light across the top of the painting’s horizon. In the glow of light we see figures stumbling or dancing home in the distance. Rather than giving us a uniform arrangement of shapes, the painting is populated by distinct and expressive characters. They invite our eyes to dart across the surface, discovering each one, laughing at some, and wincing at others. In The Wine of St. Martin’s Day Bruegel hints at piety run amok; it is a veritable tragic comedy.

7-feast-of-stmartinWine of St. Martin’s Feast Day, Transcription by Lourdes Bernard, 2015, Oil on canvas, 28 x 36 inches

Lourdes Bernard is a professional artist living and working in Brooklyn. She attended Syracuse University where she received her 5 year Bachelor of Architecture. She practiced Architecture in Washington DC for several years before relocating to NYC to attend the New York Studio School where she studied painting and drawing. She has exhibited her work in NYC and Washington DC. www.lourdesbernard.com

 

Sophia Narrett on Edgar Degas

b134147Edgar Degas, Scene of War in the Middle Ages, 1865, Oil and petrol on paper glued on canvas, 33.5 x 58 cm

When I first saw Degas’s Portrait of Mlle Fiocre in the Ballet “La Source” I felt like I was experiencing the actual ballet as an audience member might have, accessing the elusive suspension of disbelief that allows viewers to get swept up in the narrative experience. Theatrical bracketing has always interested me. The title tells us that the figures are on stage, and this location alone suggests that any action that might take place could be scripted. Yet the set design for “La Source” actually incorporated a live horse and pools of water, so in some ways the image maintains a realistic spirit, and might be a depiction of a pause in rehearsal, as Eugénie Fiocre’s cast off ballet slippers hint.

Edgar_Degas_-_Portrait_of_Mlle_Fiocre_in_the_Ballet_-La_Source-_(Portrait_de_Mlle...E(ugénie)_F(iocre)-_à_propos_d..._-_Google_Art_ProjectEdgar Degas, Portrait of Mlle Fiocre in the Ballet “La Source,” 1867-68, Oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 57 1/8 inches

I experience a similar suspension of disbelief mixed with a lingering awareness of the script when I think about Scene of War in the Middle Ages, Degas’s last “history” painting, an image that I have always been perplexed and fascinated by. The title puts a neat bow of explanation on something that in actuality is a strange and highly constructed image. It is clear that Degas choreographed the composition from his imagination, positioning the nude models’ bodies to be at the mercy of the riders, in a relatively lurid way that one can only think he found exciting, disturbing, or some confusing combination of the two.

The figure in yellow is is aiming a bow at one of the women clustered to the left of the image. There is a sense of threat in the arrow, but none of the women have visible wounds. I’m drawn to this image partially because it frames a perilous moment. At the same time it hinges on ridiculous. The right edge of the painting crops a woman’s body in a bizarre way, rendering her literally as legs and butt, save one flailing arm we see behind her captor. The women lying in partial dress in the lower left hand corner seem so obviously to be studio models, one cannot help but be reminded that this is a staged fantasy of violence. The composition itself is also incredibly stagelike, the landscape behind the road could almost be a backdrop. The veneer of the unreal or imagined nature of the image makes the painting less frightening, though no less dramatic.

detailEdgar Degas, Scene of War in the Middle Ages, Detail

Jeremy Maas described the way that Victorian fairy painting allowed access to eroticism and other taboo subjects, under the guise that viewers were looking at fairies.[1] This context allowed painters and viewers to enter otherwise forbidden territory. Degas was obviously not a fairy painter, but the same principle feels relevant. Through the premise of the title and several historical garments, perhaps Degas was subconsciously giving himself (and the viewer) permission to explore a story of sexual violence, which on some level he found titillating, or at least fascinating.

To depict something is not necessarily to agree with it, however Degas was clearly portraying sexual power dynamics in a way that we now easily recognize as problematic. On some level, Degas’s images are built on, and have arguably promoted, misogynistic ideas. In her essay, “Queer Feminist Pigs: A Spectator’s Manifesta,” Jane Ward discusses the problem of being turned on by politically incorrect porn. Her approach is that politics and libido do not always line up, and if one is drawn to irresponsible imagery, the important thing is that “we mindfully consume it, noting what it does and does not do for us, how we respond, what stories we tell about its meaning and ours in relation to it.”[2] I doubt Degas was functioning under anything resembling Ward’s philosophy, and I’m aware of how easy and dangerous it could be to twist her thoughtful position into an argument for destructive imagery. But perhaps her logic makes a space within which to begin to unpack my own relationship to some of Degas’s images. I feel a troubling but undeniable pull towards Scene of War in the Middle Ages.

In grad school during an interview exercise I was asked whether I would be friends with Degas. The answer came quickly. “I love his work; we might not be friends.” It is impossible to know what Degas’s personal, ethical, or erotic relationship to these images was. In generous moments I (perhaps recklessly) want to believe it was exploratory, healing, scary and difficult for him, even if he did have misogynistic ideas about women. Maybe even because he had these ideas. At the very least, we see that it was complicated.

In the end all I am sure of is the value of fiction. The protective nature of narrative framing allows one to delve into complicated, even embarrassing or disturbing emotions. In successful moments, I’ve found the creation of fictional images to be a way to rewrite troubling social situations and personal experiences, and, through a mixture of reflection and alteration, to combat repression.

Sophia Narrett, Something Went Wrong, Embroidery Thread and Fabric
Sophia Narrett, Something Went Wrong (detail), 2015, Embroidery Thread and Fabric, 35 x 53 inches

Sophia Narrett makes narrative embroideries driven by love, desire and fear. Her upcoming solo show, titled “Early in the Game,” opens at Freight + Volume Gallery September 2016. www.sophianarrett.com

[1] Maas, Jeremy. “Victorian Fairy Painting.” In Victorian Fairy Painting, edited by Jane Martineau, 11-22. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1997.

[2] Ward, Jane. “Queer Feminist Pigs: A Spectator’s Manifesta.” The Feminist Porn Book. Ed. Tristan Taormino, Constance Penley, Celine Shimizu, Mireille Miller-Young. New York City: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2013. p. 138.

Audrey Flack on de Kooning’s Women

55.35_de-kooning_512Willem de Kooning, Woman and Bicycle, 1952-53, Oil, enamel, and charcoal on linen, 76 1/2 × 49 1/8 inches

I was a young artist in the early 1950’s feeling the weight of a male-dominated art world in places I frequented like the Artist’s Club and the Cedar Bar. An underlying violent attitude toward women prevailed. It became even more apparent when Bill de Kooning showed his “Women” series. I loved his work but was upset by those paintings. The women look ripped apart with eviscerated body parts, one breast here, another there. They stare at you with huge terror-filled eyes, crazy grins, and clenched Chiclet teeth. Some of them have two mouths and they all look insane. When I first saw Woman and Bicycle in 1952 I hated it.

The intense emotions de Kooning displays in these paintings must have originated when he was a young man in Amsterdam. He visited the Red Light District and saw prostitutes standing in windows flashing body parts to attract men passing by: a breast here, a thigh there, buttocks, pubis, hair, high heel shoes, disconnected body parts flashing before his eyes as he walked along. De Kooning attempts to capture that fleeting moment, the glimpse before it disappears and morphs into another body part peeking out of another window or doorway, beckoning him, seducing him.

With Kooning.docxAudrey Flack with Woman and Bicycle

He fought with his mother – she was a difficult and terrible woman who beat his younger brother on a daily basis and loved to fight with Willem. Those feelings of love, hate, and the terror he felt toward his mother emerge in his “Women” series. It is interesting to note that de Kooning’s women smile, often with two mouths. Are they smiling to please or are they smiling as his mother might have smiled, enjoying the terror she inflicted?

What de Kooning was able to do as a great artist was bring to life those profound disparate emotions by painting women with disjointed body parts using moist, thick oil paint and making rapid marks that are intriguing and compelling. Over the years I have come back to these “Women” paintings and studied them. And most recently I stood before Woman and Bicycle at the Whitney Museum and marveled at the beauty and exciting complexity of the paint that de Kooning moved around the surface of the canvas. It kept me riveted. These paintings have continued to vibrate through the years with the hatred and love that de Kooning felt for all women, and that pulsation has given them a powerful afterlife. I am still fascinated.

AudreyAudrey Flack, Analysis of de Kooning’s Terrified Women, 2016, Prismacolor and pastel, 30 x 40 inches

Spanning nearly seven decades, the progression of Audrey Flack’s work has taken her from Abstract Expressionism to New Realism and Photorealism. In the early 1980’s Audrey began creating transformative sculpture for personal and public art commissions. www.audreyflack.com

Clarity Haynes on Domenico Ghirlandaio

1024px-Domenico_ghirlandaio,_ritratto_di_nonno_con_nipoteDomenico Ghirlandaio, An Old Man and his Grandson, ca. 1490, Tempera on panel, 62.7 x 46.3 cm. Louvre, Paris.

Ask me what my favorite painting is — a very hard question since there are so many — and I’ll eventually come up with An Old Man and his Grandson by Domenico Ghirlandaio.

The old man with his weathered face looks down kindly at a little boy, who looks back up at him trustingly. It’s a kind of meditation on the seasons of life: the old sheltering the young, the wisdom of the elder guiding the youth. The contrast between the child’s smooth face and tiny features and the old man’s weathered visage is striking. Outside the window, there is a lush, stylized landscape that gives way to a kind of pale glacier beyond. A metaphor for aging? Generally, the painting is very simple: black and red, architecture and cloth. Window. There is nothing else here to compete with the main event or to complicate the story.

But what’s strange about the painting are the lumps on the tip of the old man’s nose. Barthes describes the punctum as the rupture, the piercing; in this case the unexpected detail that mars the classical, standard and predictable, giving the picture its humanity. The studium is the expected, the archetypal, the idealized — landscape, portrait, figure. The punctum wakes the viewer up, brings her into the moment, the present, the here and now. For me, the punctum in this painting is the sight of the rounded forms on the old man’s nose, which echo the spherical mole on his forehead. His nose, rather than being an expected shape, has the addition of a few more shapes on top of it, almost becoming comical, like a clown wearing a false nose. But it miraculously stops short of ugliness as we know it, or hilarity, or pathos, or shock.

Domenico_ghirlandaio,_ritratto_di_nonno_con_nipoteDomenico Ghirlandaio, An Old Man and his Grandson, Detail

The specificity of this particular nose — the artist’s careful analysis of the forms and how they are arranged, bundled together on top of the larger ball — this is what tells us that this is a portrait: that this nose belonged to this old man and no one else. The bumps, so unexpected, remind me of other forms on the body. They could even call to mind breasts, in all their variations, the way skin can gather and bulge; the unexpected forms when scars are present. Unexpected configurations of flesh on the body always draw attention to themselves as abstractions. They don’t carry the weight of recognition that normally burdens the body. Mixing it up, being surprised, makes us see, instead: a pucker of skin that looks like paisley. A bulge of flesh that looks, next to other bulges, like the petals of a flower. A waterfall of wrinkles. A half-circle mound that is like a mountain. The belly like a loaf of bread.

The child is the embodiment of the viewer, looking upon that other face (his own face fresh, innocent) with love: it could be a one-liner, easily dismissed, saccharine, even. Too sweet. But it gets me every time. The beauty of that nose, at the center of the story. Deviating from the norm. Making us question what the norm is or what we thought it was. We don’t love the studium, though we may admire it. We may zone out in the comfort of the expected, the familiar. We like it. But we love the punctum. We love through specificity.

Haynes_Robin Clarity Haynes, Robin, 58″ x 70″, oil on linen, 2015

Clarity Haynes is an artist living and working in New York City whose paintings explore portraiture and the body. Her work can currently be seen in the National Portrait Gallery’s “Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today”, in Washington, DC, through January 2017.  www.clarityhaynes.com.

Tony Robbin on Bonnard’s Bathers

bonnard 11Pierre Bonnard, Nude in an Interior, 1912-14, Oil on Canvas, 134 x 69 cm

It is often said that Pierre Bonnard’s paintings featuring bathers are intimate works, as the women are caught unawares, glimpsed in unguarded and private moments. But intimacy implies access. Especially after 1925, these women are half hidden behind walls and drapes, seen obliquely in mirrors, blocked by furniture. They merge into walls, fade into the light and into the furniture. Access denied.

The putative model for these paintings is Marthe de Méligny, Bonnard’s mistress and later his wife. In 1893, when he was 26 and she was only 16 (she said), Bonnard formed a domestic partnership with Marthe, a woman with a lot of secrets. Her real name was Maria Boursin, and at the time they met she was 24; she was not of a family that would have had a de in their name. She had occasional, secret meetings with her sister, but otherwise broke with her family. Writing in 1998, Timothy Hyman speculates: “Did she, like many girls who had ‘got into trouble’ in the provinces, come to Paris with a new identity?” There are so many secrets (her true name, age, family, her illusive ill health, her unwillingness to let her face be seen in public) kept for so long – until her death in fact – that one could be forgiven for wondering if she was on the lam from the law. Lithe and childlike, a gamin type in 1893, Marthe could get away with pretending she was eight years younger. Nude photos of her, taken by Pierre seven years later, show Marthe with a beautiful, womanly body. There is no question, as evidenced in the paintings, photos, and later in his letters to Matisse, that Bonnard adored her.

By all reports, Marthe was temperamental, depressed, as well as secretive. Reclusive to the point of paranoia, she kept Bonnard from his family and friends, a circumstance that only got worse over time. In a 1932 letter , Bonnard wrote: “Poor Marthe has become completely misanthropic. She no longer wants to see anyone, not even her old friends, and we are condemned to absolute solitude.” (Quoted by Isabelle Cahn, 2015) Writing in 1998, Sarah Whitfield states that she was, in fact, ill. Marthe had tubercular laryngitis, which at that time was treated with hydrotherapy, that drove her to her bath several times a day. Her diffidence, then, and Bonnard’s longing, account for this sense of remove in his depictions of her. But she is not the only model for the bathers, and there is more to the story.

Twenty plus years into his relationship with Marthe, Bonnard also fell in love with Renée Monchaty, sometimes called Chaty, a painter, model, and younger friend of Marthe. Curators and authors differ on when it started, but all seem to agree that Bonnard was truly in love. Bonnard was in his fifties (Marthe too) when he met Renée, a beauty in her early twenties. They were both on the rebound: Renée from a serious relationship with Harry Lachman, and Bonnard from a light-hearted fling with Lucienne Dupuy de Frenelle.

Lucienne was another irresistible, round-headed, bob-haired beauty whom Bonnard met around 1915. Their affair ended around 1918, but they remained friends. The war years were a giddy, frenetic time: Bonnard was showing at the best galleries and was at the peak of his game when Marthe, Lucienne, and Renée were all part of his life.

It seems that all of that was acceptable to Marthe until Bonnard took a trip to Rome in 1921 with Renée, leaving Marthe behind. Timothy Hyman writes that the purpose of the trip was to meet Renée’s parents, to ask their permission to marry. Marthe, ill, without money of her own or a strong connection to her family, and certainly without the protection of palimony laws in France at that time, dramatically, yet believably, threatened to kill herself if Bonnard abandoned her. As a result he gave up Renée, and to reassure her, married Marthe in August, 1925. A few weeks later, it was Renée who killed herself, perhaps in her bed with a revolver, or as some authors have it, perhaps in her bath. [There is no fully researched biography of Bonnard, and many facts are murky.]

Thereafter, images of the bather stand for both Marthe and Renée, and perhaps also for Lucienne who died of an illness in May, 1927. The images are phantoms, avatars for women who are not there: two because they are dead, and the other because she was increasingly withdrawn into her illness, which took a massive toll on her personally. The restricted, ghostlike, almost transparent appearance of the bathers, blocked from the viewer, results.

bonnard 9
Pierre Bonnard, The Bathroom, 1932, Oil on Canvas, 121 x 118 cm

Pink Nude, Head in Shadow, ca.1919, is the exception that proves the rule: it depicts a much different woman in a much different painting. Young, happy, pink from the bath, her skin radiant, the model is shown full front and center. Everything else in the painting is behind her, pushing her forward. Because of these formal elements, I concur with Marina Ferretti Bocquillon (2015) that this is a painting of Lucienne, though her head in shadow obscures her identity. Historical accounts describe Lucienne as charming and cheerful, and we see her in a state of perfect health and confidence.

bonnard 10Pierre Bonnard, Pink Nude, Head in Shadow, ca. 1919, Oil on Canvas, 91 x 46 cm

An interest in Bonnard’s personal life might seem prurient to some, except that it informs the paintings. Learning a bit of the painter’s history, I now understand why so many of the paintings are filled with as much sadness and remorse as satisfaction and desire. There is an enforced passivity in the paintings. More yin than yang, ultimately the paintings are about yielding to life and accepting its crazy quilt of emotions. The rewards for that passivity are transcendent “moments” (Bonnard’s word) of intense visual awareness. As Bonnard said in his notebook: “One does not always sing out of happiness.”

2015-0-7Tony Robbin, 2015-0-7, 2015, Oil on Canvas, 56 x 70 inches

Tony Robbin splits his time between New York City and Gilboa, New York. He sometimes refers to his paintings as “Pierre Bonnard meets Al Held.” www.tonyrobbin.net