More on Leonardo

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Almost a year ago I wrote this post about Salvator Mundi (above), a painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, which had come up for sale. Now, I am no Leonardo scholar. My opinions on the subject can best be called amateur. I might have expected some pushback, but I knew the tiny size of my regular readership made that unlikely. How many Leonardo scholars read my blog?

I was right. Aside from one comment on Twitter by a well-known art writer and podcaster, which was a subtweet and therefore not definitely connected to me or my writing, there was nothing. The Internet is home to all manner of opinion, informed and otherwise. Where my writing falls in that gamut I leave up to you.

Last weekend I read this story in The Guardian, about the latest questions swirling around Salvator Mundi. Why was its unveiling at the Louvre Abu Dhabi delayed? Is it connected, as it almost certainly is, with the other questions, of condition and authenticity?

What was most interesting to me was that The Guardian included images of Salvator Mundi after restoration, and of the painting as it was before its touch-ups and inpainting. Below is the latter image.

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Salvator Mundi sans restoration. Photograph: Courtesy Dianne Modestini / © 2011 Salvator Mundi LLC

The differences are startling, even if you set aside the damage of many centuries. The softness of the restored face – a blurriness which reminded me at times of Edward Burne-Jones (Leonardo was pre-Raphael, but he was no Pre-Raphaelite) is absent. The eyes, which don’t seem to match in the restoration, are still off. Try holding your hand over one of Jesus’ eyes, then the other. The expression changes markedly in both versions. The problematic glass orb, which does not work optically, is almost invisible, but still doesn’t work. A second thumb is visible, the revealing of a pentimento, or second thought, shows the artists process.

I came to realize, looking again and again at these images over the last few days, that I preferred the damaged version. Of course that ravaged image would not have raked in the millions of dollars the restored one did, and this ultimately was more about money than art. Is that cynicism? I don’t think so.

But is that true? Is it all about money? Whether it is or is not a Leonardo is almost beside the point; it is the process of pondering that issue that draws people in. The question becomes a maypole around which experts and public alike can dance. Douglas Adams once wrote, “Sometimes, when you find the answer, the question is taken away.” (Watch this space for the attribution) The appeal of Salvator Mundi is in large part the uncertainty. We all become Sherlock Holmes, picking up the ash on the carpet, seeing the myriad trivia which might add up to a certainty.

I know that, as a layman, I have nothing to add to Leonardo scholarship in this matter. But the music is playing, and who am I to sit out the dance?

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Rest on the Flight into Egypt

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Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio (1571-1610), Rest on the Flight into Egypt, c. 1597. Collection of the Doria Pamphilij Gallery, Rome.

It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I DON’T feel fine) but blogs must be written one way or another. So I’m taking a moment to look at a favorite painting of mine, and try to figure out just why I like it so much. Shall we?

Rest on the Flight to Egypt is an early work by Caravaggio, and an important one due to its size. We see the young artist not quite in full bloom. The distinctive chiaroscuro of his mature works is absent, but he handles everything with care and attention. It is an extrapolation of the Biblical story – the music Joseph holds is by Franco-Flemish composer Noel Bauldewyn (c. 1480-c.1513) – and has charm and delicacy all its own. The myriad details in the rocks and plants at their feet, the wrapped bottle, and the tree’s foliage are all finely done.

But it is an unusual composition. Despite being a horizontal composition, the main thrust of the painting is the angel at center, rising like some sort of Barnett Newman “zip” through the picture. I use “rising” deliberately: while Mary slumbers with baby Jesus, and Joseph is anchored to the ground by his heavy brown garments, the angel seems on the verge of ascending. Though his feet are on the ground, the spiral motion of his drape implies movement, as does the upward tousle of his hair. His wings are not folded, but ready for action. While the angel’s pose is steady (and perhaps inspired by a figure in a painting by Annibale Carracci) and confident, there is the sense he will rise out of sight at any moment. The right-hand edge of his body just about cuts the painting in half, putting him in the left half with Joseph, while Mary and Jesus sleep on the right.

The greenish sky is likely to be the result of age and old varnish; it does lend a hint of twilight to the scene. I admit I don’t know dendrology well enough to identify the tree behind them. In legend baby Jesus asked the trees to bend down so that his parents could pick fruit from them, but these look like oak leaves to me. They are carefully rendered, as are the greener, oval leaves of a shrub behind them on the right. I’m not quite certain about the angel’s wings: wouldn’t the left-hand wing be casting more of a shadow on the right one than Caravaggio shows?

As much as I love Caravaggio’s mature works, I come back to this one to try and clarify my feelings toward it. It soothes and baffles simultaneously. In this mad world of ours, I need that respite all the more.

Liking, but not loving, Loving Vincent

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Robert Gulaczyk as Vincent van Gogh in Loving Vincent (2017)

Rotoscoping is a technique in animation developed by director Max Fleischer in 1915. Fleischer filmed his brother, Dave, wearing a clown suit, then projected each frame of film onto a sheet of glass. An animator then traced each frame onto paper to create animation that has wholly realistic motion. Though conceived of as a short-cut, it proved to be a laborious process that was only used for special occasions – Snow White in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) is rotoscoped. The expense and time involved put rotoscoping on the back shelf as a special process, though it was put to usually detrimental use in a number of director Ralph Bakshi’s animated features, such as Wizards (1977), The Lord of the Rings (1978), and Fire and Ice (1983). The process is still used today, largely done by computer in visual effects work, where separately filmed elements need to be combined, but it is hardly ever used in cartoon animation anymore. This gradual abandonment of rotoscoping is, I think, a good thing.

First, rotoscoping removes a lot of the artist’s freedom to exaggerate motion in appropriate ways. Motion in cartoons is more dance-like, fluid in ways live actors cannot or should not emulate. It’s a different language of expression. Second, it’s a substitute for the artistic skill of the animator. When Max Fleischer invented the rotoscope, few animators could approximate a human figure with any accuracy – I say few, because I know of only one, the comics and animation genius, Winsor McCay, but there might be other, more obscure examples. As the field of hand-drawn animation grew, demands on the artists grew apace. Figure drawing classes became a requisite part of training; believable human figures became possible without the need for a live-action guide.
Which brings me to Loving Vincent, a hand-painted animated film that is, while lush and a great achievement, rotoscoped throughout. That’s too bad.

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Portrait of Joseph Roulin, 1888. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Consider van Gogh’s Portrait of the Postman, Joseph Roulin (above), painted in the summer of 1888. Roulin sits somewhat awkwardly in a chair, his left forearm resting on a table. Look at his hands. Van Gogh had trouble with hands: it’s as though he was aware of each bone separately, and had a hard time uniting them into a coherent whole. Roulin’s left hand, which is hanging loose off the table, is carefully delineated, but the positioning of each finger is awkward. Roulin’s right hand, resting on the arm of the chair (which appears to have only the one arm) is curiously flat and sketched in. It looks deflated. Time and again van Gogh drew hands that almost over-emphasized their structure. It’s part of his visual vocabulary. He emphasized certain elements (you can almost feel Roulin’s bushy beard) while sketching others in loosely (his postman’s uniform).

Loving Vincent, however, is rotoscoped. Hands are hands, no more or less important than any other element. The hands in Loving Vincent are not van Gogh hands.
As a work of animation, Loving Vincent is extraordinary. Some of the backgrounds are marvelously like van Gogh’s landscapes. The people, real as they are, become approximations. They’re too real. One of van Gogh’s final works, Wheat Field with Crows, is particularly noticeable: the characters fail to meld with it, and look like performers standing in front of a painted backdrop. The artistic logic of van Gogh’s perspective doesn’t match photographic perspective.

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Wheat Field with Crows, 1890. Collection of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Portrayals of Vincent van Gogh on film have run from the Hollywood version of inspired madness (Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life, 1956), the warts-and-all approach (Tim Roth in Vincent & Theo, 1990) to the incongruous (Martin Scorsese in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, 1990). Robert Gulaczyk plays Vincent here, though he cannot rightly be said to star. We see snatches of Vincent, from the recollections of others. Willem Dafoe plays van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, to be released this November; I’m curious to see how that turns out.

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A frame from Loving Vincent: Theo stands by Vincent’s bedside as Vincent lies dying.

The choice of painting in color for present-day scenes and black-and-white for people’s memories is a wise one. The black and white scenes are not drawn, they’re more like wash drawings, and at times are quite powerful. Theo sitting by Vincent’s bedside as the light changes, and a shot of a basin of water with Vincent’s reflection (which opens the trailer) are gorgeous – but they are not van Gogh in the slightest. Neither should they be: these are other people’s memories, and only Vincent van Gogh saw the world the way he did.

Dramatically uneven but visually dazzling, Loving Vincent is well worth a look, if for no other reason than to show how hard it is to capture the essence of originality. All the skill marshaled for the film only gives us echoes of van Gogh – but that is what the film is about: trying to understand the man from the echoes he left behind. Did he commit suicide? Or was he shot, as some recent research suggests? Ultimately, he is dead, and the method of his death does not change the works he left behind. That strange, troubled man helped define the stereotype of the tortured genius, and Loving Vincent does nothing to dispel that, though it does suggest that there might have been some happiness in his later days. Seek out Loving Vincent and watch it a few times, to absorb the beauty of it and see van Gogh and his work in slightly different ways.

Bad times for magazines

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An in-house gag issue of The New Yorker, from 1926, featuring caricatures of founding editor Harold Ross as the magazine’s mascot, Eustace Tilley, and his sometime friend Alexander Woollcott, as a bug.

By now you have heard whispers at least of the kerfuffle at The New Yorker; the New Yorker Festival, which is to occur in October, included an interview between New Yorker editor David Remnick and Steve Bannon, close associate of Donald Trump and suspected white supremacist. This was an astounding idea, in many bad ways, and outcry from readers and others scheduled to appear at the Festival caused the event to be cancelled, or at least held “in a more traditionally journalistic setting” as Remnick wrote later.

I hate to be an old geezer, but I can’t imagine any previous New Yorker editor considering an idea like this for more than a minute. Tina Brown might have thought about it for a moment, as she among her predecessors most valued the power of publicity, but I doubt she would have gone forward with it. The shock for me was that Remnick, or someone higher up, thought this was a good idea and went ahead with it. “[T]o interview Bannon is not to endorse him…” Remnick wrote, but it does place his ideas within a context of ideas worthy of examination. That was what I, and I think many others, found unacceptable. Bannon had a strong effect on the Trump campaign (and might still be in contact with Trump to this day) but his ideology is old and well known. There is no need for examination. Condemnation is what is required, and I doubt a public forum like this could produce any positive effect. Those who believe Bannon would continue to do so; the rest of us would rather not see him at all.

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The very first issue of Interview, from 1969. Hard two imagine them running a cover like this today.

This is only the latest bit of bad news from the world of magazine publishing. Perhaps you have been following the saga of Interview Magazine, founded in 1969, and most recently owned by Peter Brant, who also owns Art in America and Art News magazines. Through legalistic sleight-of-hand, Brant closed Interview, declared it bankrupt, then sold  it to himself (!) thus freeing himself from paying the magazine’s creditors. You can read more about Interview here. Who would work for a boss like that is anyone’s guess. I don’t blame anyone for working for it, though. Bills have to be paid, I suppose, unless you’re the owner.

There’s a lot to say about the parlous state of publishing today, but so much of it is tied up in economics that it would take someone with a better grasp of mathematics than I to properly explain it. I might try at a later date, though.

How to write about Burning Man without having been to Burning Man

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Aerial view of Burning Man, making it look like some sort of work of Land Art.

The easiest answer is, don’t. This has been a challenge for reviewers writing about No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, on exhibit at the Renwick Gallery, part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Seeing artworks out of their original context is nothing new; there are probably more altarpieces in museums than in churches. But when the context exists, albeit in a transitory form, shouldn’t the critic seek out that context first? In short, isn’t step one in understanding the art of Burning to go to Burning Man?

Disclaimer: I have never been to Burning Man. I understand its imperfect nature; the expense to attend, much less make art and bring it there; questions about the racial makeup of attendees, and their presumed wealth (i.e. rich white people); conditions for workers, and so on. But these are issues the art world faces on many fronts: how many museums do you know whose staff/attendees could do with more diversity in terms of ethnicity, or could benefit from fewer economic hurdles for underprivileged would-be attendees? And let’s not start on the privilege and wealth of museum founders/trustees. And the commercial gallery scene…don’t get me started.

Long rant short: I don’t write about Burning Man because I’ve never been, and so consider myself unqualified. Writing about writing about Burning Man is another matter.

I’ve seen a prominent art critic – let’s not be coy, it was Jerry Saltz – dismissing Burning Man, and even referring to its sculptures, etc., as “Fake Art.” To my knowledge he has never attended Burning Man, so if I’m wrong, bang goes a chunk of my argument. But the term “Fake Art,” aside from the phrase’s horrible Trumpishness (Writers: never borrow language from idiots. Even as sarcasm, it doesn’t reflect well on you.) it raises a more interesting question: can there be “fake” art? I don’t mean forgeries, but something else.

The far right politics that lead to the unironic usage of terms like “Fake News” have always been inimical to art. It’s hard to picture such politicians enjoying, or publicly approving, of Burning Man or its art. They might call Burning Man artists “fakes” for other reasons, reasons related to class or wealth.

Saltz’s comments were posted on Twitter, that fountain of wise insight and meticulously thought-out commentary, so they should be taken with a grain, or perhaps a pillar, of salt. Had he written such things for publication my dudgeon would have risen considerably more. But if you (to turn the issue on us all) have made up your mind before you have done the research, of what value is your opinion? I agree with Saltz on some things, and disagree to varying degrees on others. He’s a gleeful iconoclast, eager to bring down every overinflated concept/ego/etc., in sight. To me, at times that iconoclasm leads him to cut down the (comparatively) innocent along with the guilty.

Disclaimer 2: Goodness knows I have been guilty of the same offenses as Jerry Saltz. I blogged my opinion on Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, when I am woefully unqualified to pass such judgements. A blog, like Twitter, is not a stone carving to last through the ages. It’s words “writ in water” to borrow Keats’s phrase.

I go to museums, and I know about the abuses that lie behind the wealth that brought many museums into being. I don’t expect them to be perfect, but to try to improve themselves and better serve their communities. I’d like to go to Burning Man some day, cognizant of its myriad flaws, and urging those in charge to improve the event and better serve their communities. Maybe I should invite Jerry Saltz along…

Note: No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man is on view at the Renwick Gallery until January 21, 2019; Burning Man 2018 runs from August 26 to September 3, 2018 at Black Rock City, Nevada.

Unpacking

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Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996), Untitled, 1992-93, print on paper, unlimited edition. Acquired by SFMoMA in 1994. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation

You know an idea is good when someone else beats you to it. Ah, well.

Unpacking in my new home I was faced with the usual question when unrolling the Felix Gonzalez-Torres poster shown above. What orientation should it be hung in, with the bird ascending or descending? And is the horizontal format correct for the poster? I have usually hung it as shown here, with the bird mounting to the heavens, yet something nagged at me. I know that if I were to look up at the sky, with a bird flying overhead, I might see the opposite, but recognize in my mind that the bird is still going upward. Perhaps the best solution would be to hang it on the ceiling, but that would prove distracting, a cheat around the issue.

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Inverted (?)

I had intended to make this, my first post since the move, to be focussed on these questions, but, in researching the work, curious to see if Gonzalez-Torres had expressed an opinion, I found this post, on SFMoMA’s Open Space blog, written by Adrienne Sky Roberts. She expressed much of what I was going to say, and did it 9 years ago.

Originality is not required – this is the internet, that great recycling center in the sky – but a modicum of new interpretation is expected. My idea, a good one, turned out not to be mine. So I leave you to read her words, while I hang my poster as I have always hung it. I need birds to ascend, and thoughts to go with them.

Kintsugi

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Sometimes we know who broke the bowl, the pot, the cup. Other times a guilty party is not readily identified, or it might be an inhuman force – time, changing political or social culture – that does it. What matters is, the piece is valuable and we wish to save it.

In Japan this is called kintsugi or kinsukuroi, where lacquer is mixed with powdered metal and used to repair broken pottery. The repair is not disguised, but emphasized; it relates to the philosophical idea (also Japanese) of wabi-sabi, which relates to accepting imperfection. It has been argued that sometimes the object becomes more beautiful for having been broken and repaired.

Sitting here today, I realized that that is my wish for the world: that when this is over, and we stand among the broken shards of our political system, government, the very ideas we hold about the world, that we get out our gold and silver, and start gluing the pieces back together. Some needed fixing before all this, and some were deliberately broken. It doesn’t matter. Let us fix them. Let the wounds show. Let them be beautiful and useful again.