A Merry Artistic Christmas!

Last year at this time I presented to you the 2008 Christmas art revisions created by my friend Tom Gale.  Last year was the sixth year he had taken great paintings from art history and modified them, in his own unique and humorous way, to reflect the holidays as he sees them.


Welcome to Year Seven.  Tom has sent out six of this year’s Christmas visions, and I present them to you accordingly, with all of Tom’s notes and observations.

If you didn’t meet him here last year, ladies and gentlemen, please meet Tom.   (And click on the art for a larger look.)

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#1

I can hardly believe that we have reached year number 7 in the “grand” tradition of these annual holiday hellos.  And what better way of spreading the holiday cheer than by ripping apart as many famous artists as possible in the days leading up to December 25.  Of course, everyone should know by now that it is the artists I admire the most that are held up to the greatest amount of satire, and that’s as it should be.  But because the art world is so chock full of nuts as well as wonderful talent, it is difficult if not impossible to stay within any sort of artificial boundary as, “only the painters I like”, or “my favorite things”, or “the most famous of all artists”.  So this yearly tribute to both art and the holidays becomes a yearly research project, a labor of some love whereby I usually discover at least another dozen artists that I had not known the year before and whom I find I can admire for skill, talent, vision, or daring.  And inevitably I say, in discovery, “Boy I sure wish I could paint like THAT!”

So here we are for another year and hopefully at least another dozen artists, time permitting.  I have no idea up front which artists might be represented or what any one picture may say or not say; most of that happens after much thought and planning is totally thrown out and I rely finally on the spur of the moment.  If it makes me laugh or think or   perhaps both in the making, it usually finds its way into this collection.

And so we begin with Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic”.  I like Eakins because he is a super realistic painter from a time when realism was not particularly valued in art.  I like Eakins because he was one of the first artists to make use of the camera as a compositional tool and even to advocate its use in public.  I like Eakins because as an art teacher, he advocated the life study for young artists, insisting that they practice their drawing using live nude models rather than statues or other paintings.  His realistic approach and demand for life-like detail shocked both the art world and society in general at the time, but Eakins was unrelenting.  He flattered no one, not even the wealthy who commissioned him to paint their portraits.  Because of his brutal honesty, his commission work was a fraction of other, more compromising artists, but today his  portraits are seen as in depth character studies, unparalleled in their touch upon the human soul beneath the painted exterior.  Like many masters, Eakins took up the study of anatomy in order to closely study the human form in a scientific manner.  Way ahead of his time, Eakins received little positive support in his life, but was to be hailed as a pioneer of his art after his death.

Thomas Eakins was born in Philadelphia in 1844 and he died in that city in 1916.  Yet one more of Philadelphia’s many contributions to American’s rich culture.

#2

 This is a classic example of why I like creating these greetings every year.  I was scrolling through the works of some of my favorite artists, looking for ideas and possibilities, even though I already have a dozen or more possible painting to Photoshop.  I don’t know why.  Putting these together brings out the student in me and I just seem to start wandering around in my favorite art sites, mostly Mark Harden’s Artchive, among others.  Suddenly, there was this beautiful Matisse painting with which I was wholly unfamiliar but immediately attracted to. I love Matisse.  I designed a set for Lion, Witch and Wardrobe based on Matisse’s cut out panels some years ago.  But this painting was a new discovery for me and that felt really good.

Discovery is part of what this is all about.  To Photoshop and satirize, I first have to wade through hours of art viewing, searching for paintings that can be somehow warped into something marginally funny and obliquely connected to the holiday season.  Most paintings, even ones I like a lot and admire, just don’t fit the bill, so the wandering and collecting of possibilities goes on until I feel strongly enough about a piece that I actually begin work on it.  This Matisse, The Aquarium, engaged me immediately through both artist and content, and by the fact that it was a discovery.  How cool is that?  Almost as cool as my favorite word, serendipity, the act of discovering one thing while looking for something else, or better, while not looking at all.  But one is always looking, really.  Sometimes we search with clear goals in mind, hence the need for and popularity of “search” engines like Yahoo and Google.  Sometimes, with no goals, we simply “surf” or “browse”.  If technology has an obvious upside it is in its ability to allow us to search and browse world wide and at our total convenience.  The world literally at our fingertips.  No where is this more satisfying than in discovering the wonders of the art world.  I do morn the passing of the more old fashioned search engines that also offered chances at serendipity, like the library card catalog.  But I have in certain aspects resigned myself to modernity come to an uneasy but functional truce with “on line research”.

Enough of this.  If you like Matisse as I do, you’ll find a good collection of his works all around the web, particularly in the Artchive listed above.  Matisse was the consummate artist who worked practically well into his later years, altering his style and technique to account for his physical ailments while still producing the works he “saw in his always active mind.  Perhaps it is significant that Matisse died in 1954, the year I was born.  He touched on the periphery of my own world in timeline alone.  in his art, he drew me into his unique and always beautiful universe.

The review of Matisse, the artist, found on Artchive begins with a deft statement about his impact and philosophy that I have scarcely seen better expressed.  I share a part of it below.  For the rest, go to Artchive; the entirety is well worth reading.

“Henri Matisse was born in 1869, the year the /Cutty Sark/ was launched. The year he died, 1954, the first hydrogen bomb exploded at Bikini Atoll. Not only did he live on, literally, from one world into another; he lived through some of the most traumatic political events in recorded history, the worst wars, the greatest slaughters, the most demented rivalries of ideology, without, it seems, turning a hair. Matisse never made a didactic painting or signed a manifesto, and there is scarcely one reference to a political event – let alone an expression of political opinion – to be found anywhere in his writings. Perhaps Matisse did suffer from fear and loathing like the rest of us, but there is no trace of them in his work. His studio was a world within the world: a place of equilibrium that, for sixty continuous years, produced images of comfort, refuge, and balanced satisfaction. Nowhere in Matisse’s work does one feel a trace of the alienation and conflict which modernism, the mirror of our century, has so often reflected. His paintings are the equivalent to that ideal place, scaled away from the assaults and erosions of history, that Baudelaire imagined in his poem /L’Invitation al Voyage/:

Furniture gleaming with the sheen of years would grace our bedroom; the rarest flowers, mingling their odours with vague whiffs of amber, the painted ceilings, the fathomless mirrors, the splendour of the East … all of that would speak, in secret, to our souls, in its gentle language. There, everything is order and beauty, luxury, calm and pleasure.”

Robert Hughes

#3

This year’s entry marks the fourth time Edward Hopper has been represented since this series began in 2003. Hopper has long been a favorite of mine, and there sit at least four additional paintings of his in my file folders of possible greetings. But often, while I work actively on other paintings, Hopper’s oils languish in potential, waiting for me to find something in them that is humorous, affirming, relevant, or just plain off the wall. Still, Hopper’s paintings, like the artist himself, seem to defy definition, which makes them difficult to turn to my own purposes. His empty landscapes, darkly shadowed sun-soaked buildings, lonely and brooding men and women, issue a strong and unwavering voice, but scarcely above a whisper so it is hard to tell just what the voice is saying, if indeed it’s saying anything at all. Hopper shows us buildings that are empty, but not lifeless. What are we to make of that? His men and women are contemplative and posed, but not inactive. It is as if Hopper set out not to capture the active essence of a subject, but rather its potential. He suggests that what is important is not what is painted on the canvas, but what lies just below the surface, as if we could strip the color off the cloth and reveal the true subject lurking just beneath. But, of course, that is not possible and so we are left uneasily wondering what the subject might be or might have been rather than what it is. Hopper keeps us at a point in between with no reference to what might be on either side. That, I think, is his brilliance.

Hopper wanted to be a painter from an early age, but his practical parents pushed him into illustration as a hedge against the vagaries of the fine art world. Hopper became an accomplished advertising illustrator and poster designer. He also produced over 70 etchings, mostly of New York urban scenes. In 1923, Hopper married Josephine Nivison, an artist in her own right, who gave up her career to manage that of her husband’s. It was primarily due to her efforts that Hopper’s paintings began to get the notice they deserved. By the time of the Great Depression, Hopper was selling better than many of his contemporaries and the strength of his marketability continued well into the 40’s and 50’s. These decades were productive times for the artist who produced some of his most recognizable works then, including /Nighthawks, New York Movie/, and later /Morning Sun/. While Jo (as she was known) worked tirelessly to promote Hopper’s career, he was much less giving toward her. She complained often that her own career had stagnated, even as she continued to be Hopper’s principal model. The tensions often brought the couple to angry outbursts, and often, physical abuse. Despite this they were nearly inseparable. Jo died a mere 10 months after her husband.

Looking from the outside, we are often left to wonder what we are to make of the vast gulfs between the creative work of so many artists, and their apparently troubled personal lives. But perhaps there is little to understand. hopper himself wrote that all there was to his paintings was right there on the canvas, and to read anything deeper into his art would be dangerous. He even cautioned Jo about reading too much into his work. Artists are certainly products of their era, environment, upbringing, and personal relationships. They reflect the hands that life deals to them. But equally, they give substance to the life that pushes back at the hand and yearns to make something better of it; or if not better, then at least different. One need not be an artist to understand that.

#4

For those of you who have had the misfortune of receiving these greetings over the years (and who probably mark them immediately as spam) you know that many of the “Famous Artists” showcased here are somehow connected to the curious movement in the mid-1800’s of the Brotherhood of the Pre-Raphaelites, considered by some to be the first “avant-garde” art revolution.  Rebelling against the staid and proper art produced by Academy painters and  the classical poses and mechanical approach attributed to the Mannerists, this group of seven painters began to work with heavily saturated colors in a stylized but naturalistic approach that was both beautiful and passionate.  These paintings were the romance novels of the art world; they told lush stories using scenes of high drama often featuring beautiful women illustrating well known stories from traditional sources.  Their emotional content and lush rendering make them perfect raw material for this series.  And, after all, they are so lovely to look at.

Interestingly, although Ford Madox Brown has often been considered one of this group, and even taught one of its founding members for a time (Gabriel Rossetti), he was never formally connected to the group and did not show with them.  Brown was too idiosyncratic to be tied to a movement and much of his developmental work pre-dates the Brotherhood.  Rossetti and Brown remained friends for life and so the latter continued to be peripherally connected to the Brotherhood simply by association.

Brown was an exasperatingly slow painter due to his ingrained perfectionism.  He reputedly continued to retouch and rework paintings even after they had been sold, and was never completely happy with his products, even though he was greatly admired (Verdi, the great Italian opera composer was the same way, never really trusting  others’ opinions that he was good at what he did).  Because of his perfectionism, Brown’s output was small as compared to his contemporaries, but many of his paintings were highly original and uniquely beautiful.  Two other masterworks by Brown, /Work/, and /The Last of England/, are highly recommended viewing.

Although personally, Brown was characterized as a prickly, ill-tempered man, he was also reputed to be exceedingly generous, helping families and friends in need and supporting fellow artists without a lot of fanfare.  He did not show often because he did not “play the game” as so many artists did in order to exhibit their work in prominent places.  His public notices became fewer and fewer.  Because of this, he turned away from studio painting in later years and worked for William Morris designing stained glass, and produced several large murals commissioned by the city of Manchester.

If you are interested in either Brown’s work or the work of the Brotherhood artists, besides waiting for them to show up here, you can find nice collections of their paintings both at Mark Harden’s Artchive (look up Pre-Raphaelites in the artist list on the left side of the page) and at The Art Renewal Center where the artists are sorted strictly by name.  Enjoy the browse!

#5

Although interest in the Near East and Far East had existed for years in the art world, it was Napoleon’s military occupation of Egypt in 1789 that brought all things Oriental to the forefront of popular European culture.  Even though the French held Egypt for a scant year, the clash of the exotic eastern cultures captured the imaginations of both French and British artists and writers, sending the scurrying around the world looking for new adventures in lush, alien environments.

An entire genre of artists, beginning in the late 1700’s and lasting solidly into the 1900’s, focused on capturing the essence of these new cultural worlds, always seen through a more formal and romanticized European eye.  These works were meant to be thrilling, passionate, vibrant, lush, and utterly captivating to a European audience that had never traveled beyond the comfortable knowledge of its own homelands.  Oriental settings began to appear in books, and travelogues of far away places were serialized in popular magazines.  Operas such as Verdi’s /Aida/ and Mozart’s /Abduction from the Seraglio /appeared at the end of the 1700’s, early examples of the growing interest in the Near East.  The Far East languished until the late 1800’s before becoming a commonplace subject in the arts with Gilbert and Sullivan’s /The Mikado, /Sydney Jones’ /The Geisha/, and on into the early 1900’s with Puccini’s /Madame Butterfly/ and /Turandot/.

In studio art, the Orientalists, as they were known, traveled to these far off places with sketch pads and art supplies in hand, recording the vibrant colors and exotic energy of the various “new” cultures: Arab, Turkish, Moorish, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese.  Always the scenes were rendered in bright and saturated colors, pulsing with energy, and sensual in composition.  Beautiful nudes in harems and slave markets were popular subjects.  Desert tribesmen on camels, cities built in vast wastelands of sand, sumptuous palaces ornamented with tile and intricately carved woodwork,  diaphanous garments of silk and flowing embroidered robes all found their way into the sophisticated drawing rooms of the West on the canvases of these adventurous artists.  And the influence of this popular art movement did not stop at the production of romantic paintings.  You can see the impact of the oriental culture in the works of Tissot, Cassatt, Leighton, Holman Hunt, Dulac, and on to Matisse, Monet, and Degas.

Gerome was an academic painter who began primarily painting religious scenes.  But travels to the East in the mid-1800’s opened his eyes to worlds of new subjects.  He traveled to Constantinople (the seed of Europe’s Renaissance some 400 years earlier).  He visited Turkey and Russia which inspired a number of paintings, but it was his trip to Egypt that seemed to have the most impact on his work thereafter.  He still painted commissions of religious scenes, attempted more formal classical paintings,  and decorated  the houses of the elite, but his Arabian scenes are among his most memorable.  Gerome, as he grew older, turned more and more to sculpture and decorative arts, but his serious canvases remain a solid compendium of the growing cultural awareness of his time, rendered by a sure and steady hand.  We can thank him also for having taught the likes of Mary Cassatt, Thomas Eakins, and Henry Siddons Mowbray among many others.

The painting used here is entitled, /Michelangelo/ and is also known as /In His Studio/.  Funny how much the great Renaissance master looked like Santa.  More than a coincidence?  I’ll leave that to you to decide.

#6

John Singleton Copley is, with the likes of Gilbert Stuart who was several years younger, one of the foremost painters of the early American art scene.  He is well known for his stunning and realistic portraits of American legends such as Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and John Adams among others.  This is particularly interesting in that Copley was a Loyalist to the end, left the Colonies in 1774, and actually painted a number of his famous American portraits while in London when the portrait subjects came to visit London after the war.

Copley was not, by nature, a political man.  He tried to avoid such entanglements even as the revolutionary conflicts escalated.  His father-in-law was the merchant whose consignment of tea was thrown into Boston Harbor, and his Loyalist leanings made him and his family and in-laws the focus of much revolutionary furor.  Still, his departure from America was more because of his art than his politics.  While he was a skilled portraitist, he was more interested in painting historical work and religious subjects.  Portraiture at that time in America was seen more as a craft than an art, and Copley was far more interested in being a true artist than a craftsman.  In fact, a number of his contemporaries likened him to van Dyck and Rubens.  When Copley left America, it was to tour and study in Italy and elsewhere before settling in London, focused as always on his art.  Copley’s talent was nurtured early by his step father, Peter Pelham, who was himself a fine artist and engraver.  Still in teenage years, Copley was proficient in engraving and basic art techniques even though he was taught primarily by his step-father and by his own initiative.  By his early twenties, his figure drawing showed signs of great attention to lifelike detail and precision.  His earliest portrait was made when he was only 14.

Part of Copley’s gift as a portraitist was his attention to background characterizing detail.  He would not only paint his human subject, but also spend much time and canvas to document the personal environment of his subject, a craftsman’s tools; a reader’s books, a child’s pet, a society woman’s home decor.  Because of this Copley has left to us a rich record of his life and times.  The painting chosen for this greeting is a portrait of Paul Revere who was well known before his famous ride as a skilled and dedicated silversmith.  In the original, Revere holds a silver tea pot in his hand.

Anyone who has been vacationing in the wilderness for the past few weeks and who doesn’t know who Mr. Squiggles is, just do a quick Google search and all your questions shall be answered.  Thank goodness that the United States government itself has declared that Mr. Squiggles is safe for even our innocent children.  Although no mention has been made of the issue at the Copenhagen Climate Summit; one suspects that leading scientists may be hiding something from us.

Have a Merry Christmas anyway.  Just don’t put Mr. Squiggles in your mouth!

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