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

Gabrielle Vitollo on Hacking the Biological: Post-gender and the Catharsis of Anish Kapoor’s ‘Internal Object’ Paintings

5224_4Anish Kapoor, ‘Today You Will Be in Paradise,’ Installation, Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York, NY

Upon viewing Anish Kapoor’s monumental Internal Object paintings in “Today You Will Be In Paradise” at Barbara Gladstone Gallery, I found myself immersed in what I considered a psychological space, loaded with ideas of carnage, political violence, and the body. These works, made of silicone, resin, and pigment, are probably the most evidentially “crafted” works by Kapoor and his staff, as there are visible brush marks that appear as actual flesh from a distance. The hairs on my arms stood on end while my eyes moved throughout the landscape of pulsing paintings before me, teeming with almost audible energy. The work evoked memories of visits to slaughterhouses in Italy and of the visceral paintings by Francis Bacon, Soutine, and Rembrandt. What differentiates Kapoor’s works from those historical oil paintings embodying corporeality is that Kapoor’s incorporate a strange hybrid mix of organic imagery and inorganic mediums. The materials he utilizes, specifically silicone, are representative of today’s biotechnological era. Silicone has a myriad of functions. It is the material used for breast and butt implants, as well as sex toys, and Evolskin Shoes. Even smartphone cases, which are often made of silicone, are increasingly designed to physically feel like extensions of our bodies. Anish Kapoor’s mix of organic imagery and synthetic media speaks to our era of technological hacking and emulation of the natural.

DSC_0367      DSC_0389
Anish Kapoor, Internal Objects in Three Parts (Details), 2013-15, Three-panel relief in painted silicone and wax
Photos by Gabrielle Vitollo

Because the semi-abstract Internal Object paintings are embedded with suggestions of gender and sex they strike a deeply personal nerve. Kapoor makes gender associations that play with notions of femininity and scale, such as the inclusion of a wavy, primped ponytail emerging from one of the works. I approached these techno-body silicone paintings from the perspective of an individual who spends a lot of time investigating what it means to identify as a woman in an era of biotechnology. Just from watching the plastic surgery reality show Botched, in which silicone is presented as a miracle material, it is clear that people have wildly different definitions of “womanhood” and “manhood”, as well as everything else across the gender spectrum. The increased production of femininity and masculinity via surgical and/or chemical means has illuminated a tension between the rejection and the amplification of essentialism in gender and biological categories. These materials and techniques challenge and stretch the very definitions of “man” and “woman”.

DSC_0378Anish Kapoor, Internal Objects in Three Parts (Detail), 2013-15, Three-panel relief in painted silicone and wax
Photo by Gabrielle Vitollo

In American culture today, where life seems increasingly like science fiction, the body is treated as an experimental guinea pig. For individuals born here or in other developed, progressive countries, inventions such as silicone, uppers, downers, hormonal treatments, and information exchange via the Internet facilitate the hacking of our own biological functions – physically, chemically, and emotionally – in ways that heretofore did not exist. Because of new technologies and social progress, the body’s main function to create and host copies of the species is becoming less defining and new gender identities and roles are being invented. When biological tools are bought and sold, those who can afford them are able to decide when and how to use them. Consequentially, we are part of a generation that is challenging the prescribed identities and societal norms associated with gender. We are living in an era in which one can hack evolutionary technology and rewrite one’s own code in order to mold the body’s functional and aesthetic qualities.

DSC_0333Anish Kapoor, Internal Objects in Three Parts (Detail), 2013-15, Three-panel relief in painted silicone and wax
Photo by Gabrielle Vitollo

Anish Kapoor’s silicone meat paintings evoke a cathartic release in me. The Internal Object hybrid paintings acknowledge the post-reproductive body as ultimately a bizarre swelling, oozing, bleeding, living organism intertwined with technology. Simultaneously weird and beautiful, they symbolize a sublime and carnally unifying force. The abstraction, the visceral impact, and the micro-nuances of Kapoor’s elegantly built/evolved paintings heighten the beauty of the complex machine we call the body. Flesh is one of the commonalities we share with almost every other living entity on the planet. The paintings’ bright reds with dark, luscious purples, and fatty whites trigger immediate primal emotions. For millennia we have associated these colors with sensorial data related to the body, fear, pain, grief, hunger, and gratification. I cannot look away.

DSC_0361Anish Kapoor, Internal Objects in Three Parts (Detail), 2013-15, Three-panel relief in painted silicone and wax
Photo by Gabrielle Vitollo

Kapoor’s colors and textures have the ability to impact one’s own body and bind us to the rest of the planet as a single organism. Perhaps it is cynical to think we are essentially meat machines, but the logical and illogical intricacy of these carcass paintings as well as the anatomical studies of Leonardo da Vinci would convince me otherwise. We are exquisite machines that evolved from a common efficient ancestor and, using technology, we can collaborate with and enrich this biological history. For me, Anish Kapoor’s silicone Internal Object paintings impart a sense of biotechnological poetry.

Vitollo_MotherlodeGabrielle Vitollo, Motherlode, 2014, Acrylic and spray paint on paper, 60 x 85 inches

Gabrielle Vitollo creates graphic acrylic and oil paintings, aquatints, post-human figurative sculptures, GIFs, light boxes, and holograms that engage with the expanding technological world of synthetic realities. She resides in Brooklyn. www.gabriellevitollo.comInstagram

James Esber on George Grosz

PoPGrosz_PainterOfTheHoleIGeorge Grosz, The Painter of the Hole, 1948, Oil on canvas, 30 x 22 inches

In 1947 George Grosz made a watercolor called Painter of the Hole, which was refined into a painting on canvas the following year. In the second version an artist (Grosz himself?) stares blankly at a canvas that is either depicting or literally marred by a large craterlike hole. At his feet is a pile of other such attempts at creation/destruction along with sketches of holes to guide him. In fact holes echo everywhere: in the walls around him, in the tattered white blanket (or flag) hanging over his head, even in the body of the hollowed-out artist himself. The artist inhabits a post-apocalyptic world where people and objects are empty and degraded. Every volume is a void.

At the time, Grosz was 55 years old and had a lifetime of ideas stored in his hands. To me, a painter who loves drawing more than any other art form, the best art is done in a partial state of not knowing, of allowing one’s hand to move undirected, confident that neural patterns engraved over the years will yield something interesting and true.

PoPDSC05083George Grosz, The Painter of the Hole, 1947, Watercolor on paper, 25 5/8 x 19 inches

Seeing the works side by side, one realizes the watercolor must have been done quickly and with great confidence. Most of its elements are transferred in their exact positions into the painting. Only a hand running on autopilot could be so precise on the first shot. This is not the painting of a 25-year-old. (Could a 25-year-old even conceive of this painting?) The mastery of drawing and composition suggests a lifetime of practice.

When I saw the watercolor last year in the inaugural show at the new Whitney, I felt a slight shock run down my spine, usually a sign that I’ve encountered something I thoroughly connect with and happily don’t understand. When I look at a painting I am overjoyed when I can feel one way and equally just the opposite. It could be a sloppy monochromatic painting that’s also about precision and color, or a painting about clown noses that’s also about atomic bombs. In any case the circling moth of ambiguity is the thing I love most.

What motivated an oldish George Grosz to make this odd picture? Is he saying that his life as a painter is a futile waste? Of course these craterlike holes are an extremely rich metaphor for an artist who lived through two world wars and the collapse of German society. But to look at these two works only in the context of Grosz’s own life is to miss the point.

His later paintings are often criticized for being too much like illustration. But he’s not illustrating here, not using his considerable craft to describe something he knows. There’s no hint of recognition in the eyes of the hollow artist as he stares at his canvas. Grosz is giving us something much more universal, more open and generous, and best of all more uncertain.

He may be talking about the daunting futility of human life, and doing so with morbid humor. It’s a heavy load, but the painting itself is beautiful and full of invention. He takes time to articulate with loving care the various surfaces within. His painter is somehow both a stick figure and a hollowed-out shell. Although his legs are as thin as rails, they are crammed with details and textures that make them look bandaged and worn. His head is simultaneously concave and convex, complete with a tiny broken-chain collar around his neck and a bulging eyeball that mirrors the painted hole staring dumbly back at it.

This painting has so many things going for it: rich layering of narrative and symbolism, intricate geometry and a strong presence of the artist’s touch on every depicted surface. It is remarkable that a painting which takes such a dim view of humanity can so affirmatively underscore the hope of painting. When painting is at its best, it moves us as both an object and an illusion. It critiques the paradoxes that exist in its own nature and, by acknowledging the futility of its creation, somehow overcomes it.

PoPBoyWithFiveLegsFinal_edited-2James Esber, Boy With Five Legs, 2016, Acrylic on PVC panel, 52 x 44 inches

James Esber is a painter who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. His current show, Dewey Defeats Truman, can be seen at Pierogi (155 Suffolk Street) in the lower east side of Manhattan through June 19. www.jamesesber.com

Philip Koch: Sailing Lessons from Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper, Sailing, 1911, Oil on canvas, 24 x 29 inches

Last August I did some traveling to see art.

As an artist I was determined to learn everything I could about the watercolorist Charles Burchfield. My destination was Salem, Ohio to visit the home where Burchfield grew up and began his life as an artist.

Burchfield and Edward Hopper both exhibited their paintings in the Frank Rehn Gallery in New York City. Though their styles of painting differed dramatically they became friends and deeply respected each other. Hopper, who rarely had a good word about another artist, even wrote an effusive essay for a show catalogue of Burchfield’s work.

As I drove west from my Baltimore studio, figuring Burchfield would approve, I stopped in Pittsburgh to see the exhibition of Hopper’s work the Carnegie Museum of Art had mounted.

Once there I found myself falling into Hopper’s canvas Sailing from 1911, one of the standouts in the Carnegie. It’s a sloop on the Hudson River where Hopper grew up. It was included in the historic 1913 Amory Show and was the first painting Hopper ever sold. He would have to wait another 10 long years before selling another of his paintings.

I’ve always found the painting remarkable for the way Hopper’s boat surges with such energy. Any moment it will have sailed out of our view altogether. Hopper had some tricks up his sleeve to emphasize that sense of movement.

Here’s the painting where I have removed the small dark flag Hopper put at the top of his mainsail. Compare the two versions of the painting. To me the original boat moves across the canvas with so much more force. That small dark spot at the top seems to propel the light sails towards the left and the whole boat seems to heel more from its visual impact.

Hopper’s painting has an emotional power because he was drawing on a subject he knew well. He had spent much of his childhood on the water. As a teenager he even built a small sailboat himself, but was only able to use it once as it leaked so badly.

I also grew up around small boats. While the other boys in my middle school classes were filling the margins of their notebooks with their sketches of race cars I was obsessed with the challenge of drawing the difficult curves of sails and hulls. I’ve loved this Hopper oil since I first saw it years ago. Clearly it was in the back of my mind when I painted The Reach III below.

This painting was born from two sources:  a vine charcoal drawing of the shoreline I made during one of my fifteen residencies at Edward Hopper’s studio on Cape Cod along with my memories of sailing at night with my father years ago on Lake Ontario.

boatPhilip Koch, The Reach III, Oil on panel, 24 x 36″, 2015

Philip Koch attended Oberlin College where he intended to become a Sociology major but a required art history class diverted him down the artist’s path. After early years painting abstractions he was persuaded by Edward Hopper’s work to become a realist painter. Though Koch is the grandson of the inventor of the first commercially available color film (Kodachrome) he prefers to work only from memory and direct observation. He is a senior professor at MICA. www.philipkoch.org

Melissa Meyer Remembers Jean Dubuffet at the Jeu de Paume, 1991

01 Riante Contree MM on Dubuffet copy
Jean Dubuffet, La Riante Contrée, 1977, Acrylic on 54 pasted papers, 82.5 x 121 inches

In February of 1991 I had my first show at Holly Solomon Gallery on 57th Street. The following June I made an art trip to both Paris and London. In Paris, I saw the opening exhibition of the renovated Jeu de Paume dedicated to the late works of Jean Dubuffet, called Les Dernières Années (The Last Years).

02 MM1991planner copy
Melissa Meyer’s 1991 Day Planner, Open to date of visit.

I remember most vividly the collaged paintings from the series, “Theaters of Memory.” A favorite was the large, mostly green painting ‘La Riante Contrée’ pictured above, which is an impressive 82.5 x 121 inches in size. Here, the artist has layered 54 cutouts from possibly pre-existing drawings and parts of acrylic paintings on paper. The position of the tree-like forms anchors the edges, particularly the one in the bottom center with light green branches. Dubuffet combines both flat and gesturally painted shapes and includes four solitary, possibly male, figures walking through this invented country landscape. This painting immediately struck me as significant, with its exciting and memorable size, color, and mark-making.

Looking at it longer, I noticed other features. There are no public or private  architectural references. The mark-making felt consistent, and yet quite varied. The figures are pasted on top of the collaged surface, which you do not realize at first, and one wonders, what would happen if you took the figures out? Would the painting still have the same impact? Or would it be predictive of the last works that Dubuffet made in the 1980s, which are composed of marks, swirls, and scribbles? In “La Riante Contrée,” the image is his personal vision of nature, both as a landscape and a human condition.

In “Vacances Pâques,” a larger work (98 x 125.5 inches) made a year earlier, his process and the pictorial organization in the series is more clearly revealed through the straight-edged cuts of the 45 collage elements he used, creating a very obvious grid of rectangles of various sizes. One wonders (and we’ll never know) if he made a conscious effort to obscure the grid’s structure in later works. In “La Riante Contrée,” the rounder edges of the pasted images make the structure less obvious and more magical—you don’t really know how he made it work.

1976. Acrílic sobre paper amb 45 peces encolades. 249 x 319 cm. Fundació Dubuffet, París.
Jean Dubuffet, Vacances Pâques, 1976. Mixed media, 98 x 125.5 inches, Fundació Dubuffet, París.

I am interested in “Vacances Pâques” because of what it reveals about Dubuffet’s visual thinking in the beginning state of a larger body of work. Although the marks may appear casual and the painting spontaneous, Dubuffet rigorously planned the composition of each “Theater of Memory.” For all of these works, Dubuffet made a set of notes, as well as a portfolio of schematic sketches, laying out the positions, shapes and colors for all of the elements to be collaged.

04 Dubuffet planningJean Dubuffet, Planning and sketches for Dévidoir enregistreur, 1978, 49 collaged and pasted papers, 79 x 114.5 inches

In these “Theaters of Memory,” collage is the perfect activity for Dubuffet. In reassembling cutout shapes and linear passages from his drawings into finished works, he also assembled his own visual memories. He is collecting and staging his own histories.

05 Dubuffet cutting copyDebuffet, cutting

“Dancing is the last word in life. In dancing, one draws nearer to oneself.”
-Jean Dubuffet

06 Scranton crop 70x80%22Melissa Meyer, Scranton, 2015, oil on canvas, 70 x 80 inches

Melissa Meyer is an artist who lives and works in New York City. www.melissameyerstudio.com

Elizabeth Berdann on Hieronymus Bosch’s* “Christ Carrying the Cross:” Ugliness and the Science of Physiognomy

ChristCarryingtheCrossHieronymus Bosch, Christ Carrying the Cross, 1515, Oil on panel, 29 × 32 inches

Everything is in the face, and the face in turn is dominated by the eyes…the face is the mirror of the soul…for this is the only part of the body capable of as many expressions as there are emotions. – Cicero, 1st century, BC

The difference between the work of Bosch and that of other painters lies in the fact the others depict man as he appears on the outside. Only Bosch dared to paint him the way he is on the inside. – José de Siguenza, 1605

The Science of Physiognomy asserts that the face reflects a person’s behavior, moral qualities and inner character. As early as the First Babylonian Dynasty (1830 BC to 1531 BC) and through modern times, Physiognomy has continued to be a compelling area of study, appearing and reappearing through the centuries. The earliest written treatise on the subject is Aristotle’s (or Pseudo-Aristotle’s) Physiognomics, which carefully explains how to interpret character on the basis of a person’s physical attributes:

I will now state from what types the signs are drawn, and this is the complete number. The physiognomist draws his data from movements, shapes and colours, and from habits as appearing in the face, from the growth of hair, from the smoothness of the skin, from voice, from the condition of the flesh, from parts of the body, and from the general character of the body.

Aristotle’s Physiognomics survived into the Middle Ages via translation into Latin. The science became popularized in the 15th century due to a number of manuals on the subject, notably one written by the physician Michele Savonarola, grandfather of the firebrand Florentine monk Girolamo. Evidence of its popularity can be seen throughout medieval culture; Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is just one example of the use of physiognomic theory in literature.

Painted a year before Bosch’s death, “Christ Carrying the Cross” is practically a manual in itself of physiognomic principles. A flat plane confronts the viewer. The only landscape is that of human faces emerging from the dark. A total of 19 faces populate the panel – from Simon of Cyrene’s foreshortened upturned face to Jesus’ resigned, sorrowful yet serene face, to a diverse crowd of faces twisted in agony or rage — each one is a study in character and emotion.

It was well established in medieval culture that beauty correlated with a pure soul; physical ugliness equated to sinfulness, moral depravity and deviance. Clearly, the ideology of physiognomy in medieval Western Europe is fraught with problems for a 21st century viewer. In many of those tenets we can recognize the negative characteristics assigned to ethnic or racial types. Physical infirmity is also perceived in a negative light. Although this is offensive to our modern sensibility, we owe it to ourselves to see the painting within the context of its time and place. In the Middle Ages in Europe much of the world was distant and unknown, certainly to the average person. Anything foreign (derived from the Latin word foras, meaning outside) was at once exotic and frightening.

Looking deeper into physiognomic rules, a long, hooked nose indicated maliciousness, deceit, and lust. A sharp jaw showed the person to be aggressive and cruel. Swollen facial features were a sign of gluttony. A wide nose was evidence of lechery, and thick lips of “serious intellectual deviancy, harshness, and defective reasoning”. Other physical indications of wickedness included defective eyes, wrinkles and imperfect skin and disorderly hair. Lavish accessories (piercings, jewelry and headgear) contributed to an assessment of a bad character, as did exaggerated gestures and extreme facial expressions. All of these features and character flaws appear in the hideous faces of the roiling crowd that engulfs Jesus as he makes his way to Calvary. The face of Jesus, on the other hand, with its straight nose, balanced features and blemish-free complexion declares him to be the apotheosis of good.

As I try to decipher the painting, the emotional complexity of the faces frustrates my understanding. The entry into the painting occurs in the lower left corner, where the face of Jesus gazes out at the viewer. Interestingly, this is the only face that isn’t actually a face; it is the impression of Jesus’ face on St. Veronica’s veil. In addition, this is the only face in the painting that confronts us directly, gazing out of the picture plane. The confrontational gaze seems an exhortation to make a choice: join the wicked rabble or follow me.

Photo#2Hieronymus Bosch, Christ Carrying the Cross, Detail

A swirling throng of grotesques overwhelms the composition. It is a noisy crowd, and the closeness of the figures creates a nightmarish claustrophobia. Groups of characters interact, such as the men surrounding the bad thief in the foreground, who taunt him as he snarls. Or do they greedily devour the tales of his crimes as he unrepentantly recounts them? The bad thief is the baddest of the bad, and is proud of it. The unkempt hair, sharp facial features and dark complexions of these three sinners emphasize their intense expressions and their evil nature.

Hieronymus Bosch, Christ Carrying the Cross, Detail

A tonsured monk in the top right corner pontificates to his captive audience, the good thief. The monk’s hideousness indicates a strong indictment of the clergy; he looks as wicked as the rest. There seems to be no relief for the repentant thief, whose eyes roll up in his head; with his grey skin and mortified expression he is half-dead already. Their companion, variously described as a physician or a Pharisee, observes this interaction with his ghastly hook-nosed profile (most certainly an anti-Semitic depiction). The sharpness of his profile creates an ugly negative space adjacent to it.

Hieronymus Bosch, Christ Carrying the Cross, Detail

A few of the figures don’t need to interact to show their perversity. The Roman soldier leading the procession is a study in determined aggression. His swollen facial features remind us that he is gluttonous and cruel.

Hieronymus Bosch, Christ Carrying the Cross, Detail

The dark brute of a figure just behind the head of Jesus howls in beastly hatred, to add to the cacophony of the crowd, or just to hear the sound of his own voice. Physiognomic texts from Aristotle forward rely on the comparison of human faces to certain animals, and what the characteristics of the particular animal reveal about its human lookalike. This bullish figure is a prime example of that philosophy.

Hieronymus Bosch, Christ Carrying the Cross, Detail

Although a product of the late middle ages, Bosch lived on the cusp of the Renaissance. I need to remind myself that Bosch and Leonardo da Vinci were almost exact contemporaries (Bosch 1450-1516; da Vinci 1452-1519). As such, this painting not only displays the entrenched thinking of the Quattrocento, but also the modern, individualistic philosophy of the early Renaissance. Leonardo criticized the science of physiognomy, but made use of it anyway; he even intended to create a manual of physical types for the benefit of his students. He made many drawings of facial expressions and facial types, the most widely known being his “Five Grotesque Heads” from 1494, copies of which were disseminated throughout Europe. Da Vinci advocated a more “naturalistic” portraiture, evident in the drawing. I suspect Bosch saw the drawing or at least a copy of it, and that it inspired the variety and specificity of the faces in his painting.

Photo#7Leonardo da Vinci, Study of Five Grotesque Heads, 1494, Ink on paper, 10 x 8 inches

The most enigmatic figure in “Christ Carrying the Cross” is the one lurking behind the bad thief’s group.

Hieronymus Bosch, Christ Carrying the Cross, Detail

At first glance (admitting to my 21st century, post-Harry Potter bias) he looks like a wizard. His eyes are downcast like Jesus’ eyes as he bears the cross, and like St. Veronica’s as she quietly exits the scene. From that perspective he would seem to be a positive symbol. He has the white beard of the sage, barely visible in the shadows, his features are balanced, his mouth is closed, and he wears a conical hat. The hat itself seems to give a glimpse of the glory of the heavens, the cone pointing up and decorated with a gradated sky, its brim decorated with stars. But the cone itself creates an oddly flat triangular shape. As I examine it, it flip-flops: now it is a hat, now it is a slice of light glimmering from behind the panel. Although the wearer of the hat seems relatively serene, I know that the key to this figure is not so easily found. The conical hat has a multifarious history, having been worn in just about every society in the world. Is this the conical hat of public shaming (a precursor to the 19th century “dunce cap”), the conical hat of the sorcerer with forbidden knowledge, or the “Judenhut” that Jews of the Middle Ages were forced to wear to identify themselves as infidels? Or is it a metaphor for the spiritual choice Jesus urges us to make? With this ambiguous figure Bosch seems to suggest that there is a path to redemption: just as the alchemist seeks to transform lead into gold, we can choose to transform our sinful nature through faith.


This year is the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death. In celebration a number of exhibitions and events are taking place. A major exhibition of Bosch’s work has just closed at the Noordbrabants Museum in ‘s-Hertogenbosch (Bosch’s birthplace).

‘s-Hertogenbosch is also the site of many other Bosch-related exhibitions and events this summer. In addition, the Prado Museum opens “Bosch: The 5th Centenary Exhibition” on May 31. It runs through September 11. Too fragile to travel, “Christ Carrying the Cross” resides in the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent.


*There are opposing opinions as to the authorship of “Christ Carrying the Cross”. The subject of a conference in 2015, the painting was technically and stylistically analyzed by the Bosch Conservation and Research Project and the Museum of Fine Arts (Ghent). No consensus was reached. While the BCRP contends that it cannot be the work of Bosch, the Museum continues to consider it an important part of Bosch’s oeuvre, and as such, intends to leave the wall labeling and identification intact. For simplicity’s sake I will assume that it is a Bosch, and that it dates from 1515.

EBPaintersOPLeft to right:
Berdann, 2013, Anita Lobel as a Harpy, Watercolor on ivory, 2-3/8 x 1-15/16 inches
Berdann, Mary E. Birnbaum, Stage Director and Niece of the Artist, as Charybdis, 2012, Watercolor on ivory, 2-1/4 x 1-7/16 inches
Berdann, Chip Abbott, Choreographer, as a Kappa, 2012, Watercolor on ivory, 2-1/4 x 2-1/2 inches

Elizabeth Berdann is a painter and multimedia artist living and working in New York City. Her work was featured in Marcia Tucker’s 1994 “Bad Girls” exhibition at the New Museum, and many other group shows. Her solo shows include the Montclair Art Museum (1995), Shelburne Museum (2012) and a retrospective exhibition at the Contemporary Museum, Hawaii (2010). ElizabethBerdann.com