The Phoenix Art Museum

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The author, posing awkwardly at the entrance. Photos by Heather Hyland except where noted. Despite my severe expression, I had a good time.

I start with a rather generic tourist photo of myself just outside the museum to make a point. The Phoenix Art Museum has some good qualities, but the physical plant isn’t one. Search for a good photo of the exterior, and you won’t find one. The museum sits next to the Phoenix Theater, which dominates the narrow street and hogs the parking spaces. Inside is not much better. The museums sprawls over three floors, with long corridors that are inconvenient for showing art. There is no central focus; it wanders.

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Looking up the wall at the butterflies.

The entrance is greatly enlivened by Carlos Amorales’ Black Cloud, consisting of 25,000 paper butterflies and moths swarming over the walls and ceiling. It brings so much life and energy to the space, but also makes it clear that this area (the Greenbaum Lobby and Morrell promenade – they even sold naming rights to the admissions desk!) could be pretty bleak when empty.

My girlfriend Heather and I were there the Saturday after Thanksgiving, so I can’t speak much to the attendance on an average weekend, but in terms of gallery spaces, the special exhibition Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire was pleasantly busy, more so than any other gallery. Since I’m no scholar on the subject, I can’t comment on the quality of the research, but I found the carved stones, jewelry, and mural fragments fascinating. Not so fascinating was the layer of dust on the top of many of the vitrines, dust thick enough that people had drawn smiley faces in it. If there was dust on the glass, what about the large sculptural works that were shown freestanding?

There were galleries of Old Masters, some on loan from a private collection: the museum is right to mention Gerrit van Honthorst’s Death of Seneca (c. 1625) as a standout. It’s lovely. There were a couple of reminders that Benjamin West could paint very well, but not all the time. Unique in my experience, they have a small gallery devoted to Sikh art, in this case highlighting images of Sikh soldiers in the First World War. A small gallery, barely more than a wide place in a corridor, highlighting the prints of Jose Guadalupe Posada was quite welcome, as was a gallery pairing Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns – though I have to say, having one of Rauschenberg’s rotating disc works (Passport, from Ten for Leo Castelli, 1967) without any way to rotate it annoyed me.

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Ensemble by Rei Kawakubo, incorporating designs by e-Boy Artists Group and Alisa Yoffe, 2018

I’m not usually captivated by fashion exhibits, but I found ultracontemporary, on the second floor, quite fanciful and engaging. The clothes straddle the dividing line between something you could actually wear and art you hang on your body but you can’t really go out on the town in. The Kawakubo outfit above was my favorite; like wearing an up-to-date patchwork quilt. Dunno about those shoes, though…

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Scandinavian Pain, by Ragnar Kjartansson

For me the museum is at its best showing contemporary art, though again its architecture doesn’t always help. A huge hall looked rather empty, swallowing a James Turrell installation, a Sol LeWitt wall drawing, and more in its cavernous space. And, as someone who once worked installing a LeWitt myself, I am steamed when museum labels fail to mention the artisans who executed the work. Shame!

Some of my favorites were represented: a Cornelia Parker work (Mass [Colder Darker Matter], 1997) made of charred wood from a Texas church that was struck by lightning; two Kehinde Wiley paintings, a psychedelic Joseph Stella painting from 1931; I even liked the very small Damien Hirst dot painting. But the highlight of the visit for me was Ragnar Kjartansson’s show, Scandinavian Pain and other Myths.  While the light piece above actually sat well in the huge space, it is Kjartansson’s video The Visitors that drew me. It was the only work I went back to look at a second time.

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A still from The Visitors, showing Ragnar Kjartansson.

The Visitors is not a new work, dating to 2013, but I had not had the opportunity to see it until now. It consists of Kjartansson and a group of musicians performing a song based on a poem by Kjartansson’s ex-wife, artist Ásidís Sif Gunnarsdóttir. Each musician is filmed alone in a slightly worn room in an old mansion in upstate New York (the backing singers congregate on the porch). For about an hour they sing and play, each recorded separately so as you walk around the nine screens the different instruments rise and fall.  Eventually they rise and walk outside and into the distance, still singing the refrain “Once again I fall into my feminine ways.” I found myself moved without quite understanding why; I definitely sang along. I have read numerous reviews and articles on The Visitors over the years, and it did not disappoint.

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A view of a Yayoi Kusama installation. Photographer unknown.

And lastly, they had a Yayoi Kusama installation, You Who Are Getting Obliterated In The Dancing Swarm of Butterflies (2005). Fireflies might have been a more apt word, but I’m not going to argue. How to quantify her installations? If you’re looking for deep philosophical or intellectual content, this isn’t the right artist for you. If you are looking for an artist who changes your sense of space in an entertaining way, by all means. Kusama is, I suspect one of the inspirations behind Meow Wolf, but I’m not going to get into that here. We went into the space, which was second-most popular after Teotihuacan but not remotely crowded, and had a good time being surrounded by colored lights and slightly disoriented by the dark, mirrored space. So you can put my down as a Kusama supporter, though not a devoted one. Coming at the end of the visit, which started with black butterflies in a light-filled space, walking through the dark surrounded by lights that fade on and off, was fitting.

I’ll keep tabs on the museum’s doings in the years ahead; it is the nearest and largest art museum in the area. As such, it’ll suffice, and in some ways more than that.

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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I came across this on Twitter, shared by someone I follow, and saw it later in this Open Culture post. The Waseda University Library in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan, has digitized and posted a book on American history published in Japan in 1861. A scholar of Japanese and East Asian history named Nick Kapur brought it to Twitter, and thus to me. The  Twitter thread is here should you be interested.

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I wished that Lin-Manuel Miranda had used this book as source material for his hit musical Hamilton, even though Alexander Hamilton doesn’t appear in it. It does offer a view of American history unlike any other, a mix of fantasy epic, grand opera, and magic realism, albeit heavier on the magic than the realism. Consider the above, wherein John Adams fights a giant snake. Very Wagnerian, and crying out for musical accompaniment.

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John Adams again, at right, showing the super-strong Benjamin Franklin where to aim the cannon he is carrying.

Dramatic license in American history is nothing new. Parson Mason Locke Weems, the first biographer of George Washington, invented the “young George chopping down the cherry tree” anecdote, which was taught as history for many years. Aggrandizing and outright fictional accounts of leaders has been a part of history for a long time. The Historia Augusta, written in the Roman Empire sometime (perhaps) in the 4th Century, is a fascinating melange of fact and fiction. There are ways in which the histories a people or nation adopts is as important, if not more, than the actual facts of history. Self-image is often distorted.

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George Washington punching a tiger. Washington appears a few times in the book, often accompanied by his wife, “Carol.”

The Founding Fathers remain iconic figures to this day, their words and deeds oft-cited, interpreted, and misinterpreted. Attempts to give the USA a single visual embodiment have only had mixed results. Columbia was often used, as in this 1865 Thomas Nast cartoon below, in which Columbia pleads to allow black soldiers the right to vote:

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Uncle Sam, shown below in his most famous iteration, by James Montgomery Flagg, is immediately recognizable, but not a lot of personality has accrued to the image:

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While these are personifications of the country and the government, respectively, they rarely are connected to the people. The British equivalent, John Bull, is a little closer to an archetype of the classic Englishman: portly, steadfast, yet kindly. It was not always the case, though. This 1798 James Gillray cartoon shows a red-faced, obese Bull complaining at all the French ships he has to eat – poking patriotic fun at repeated victories over Napoleon’s navy.

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Over time, John Bull became more staid, though no less patriotic. Below, in this Second World War-era Leslie Gilbert Illingworth cartoon, Winston Churchill assumes the role of John Bull, for which he was well suited physically and symbolically:

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The history of propaganda in art is much too long and complex for a mere blog post, but as there is a museum of “narrative art” in the works (Hiya, George!) I think it’s appropriate to peek at the stories we tell about ourselves, and the stories others tell about us.

And who is this “Carol” passing herself off as George Washington’s wife? And the mystical Mountain Fairy John Adams appeals to in order to defeat a giant snake? We need a little more magic in our myths.

 

 

Historical Monument of the American Republic

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Erastus Salisbury Field, Historical Monument of the American Republic, 1867-1888, Collection of the Michele & Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA

Looking at Erastus Salisbury Field‘s Historical Monument of the American Republic on the day before this potentially momentous election, I wonder what monuments will rise to commemorate this Republic. Of course, I want its passing to be in the far future – the Roman Republic and Roman Empire each lasted around 500 years – but it’s never too early to start planning. It takes my mind off the election for a while.

Field places Abraham Lincoln, riding in a chariot, atop the front center tower, and clutters his fantastic neo-classical(?) assemblage, which looks more like a palace than anything else, with historical and religious imagery. The whole is inspired in part by the Tower of Babel, an ominous precedent. What might bring such an edifice down? Who are the ever-so-respectable looking people walking in the formal gardens and going in the great front door? Survivors of a broken and rebuilt society, or happy descendants of a saved one?

Monuments usually commemorate something that had passed, but someone had the wherewithal and the workers to erect this gargantuan edifice. Someone walks in the sunlight and savors the green scent of the carefully tended grass. Perhaps it is not the America we know that can be seen from atop the towers; perhaps it is not a Republic. But the nation survived the Civil War and headed, albeit a bit bloodied, toward its first centenary. No one lives inside, for monuments are cold and made for memories, not people. The people visit, picnic on the lawn, and then troop to their carriages for a drive to the polling place. They’re going to vote. Follow their precedent, and the future will build more beautiful monuments to what endures, rather than what is lost.

More for the money?

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“Portrait of Edmond de Belamy.”

I am not a financier, banker, or investor of any kind, so the news that an artwork was created by an AI interested me, but the news of its sale ($432,500, far above the $7,000 to $10,000 Christies estimated) did not interest me. The difference between what a work is worth and what the market will cough up for it is bizarre and sad, but it is no longer news. A maybe-Leonardo sells for hundreds of millions, and there’s only mild surprise. How many Leonardos, real or otherwise, come on the market? But “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy,” made by an AI with programming by the Paris-based art collective Obvious (Hugo Caselles-Dupré, Pierre Fautrel and Gauthier Vernier), made a few eyebrows lift.

First, let’s clarify: this is not a painting, but a print created by a computer using an algorithm and a data set of 15,000 portraits painted between 1300 and 1900 CE. It is one of a set of eleven, portraits of the fictional Belamy family; Belamy from bel ami, or “good friend” in French, inspired by the creator of the GAN AI, Ian Goodfellow. (AI artist Robbie Barrat’s work training a neural network to produce art was also an important inspiration.) The AI’s signature, lower right, is the mathematical formula underlying the process.

The algorithm has built-in distortion, a curious addition considering the art fed into it comes from quite distortion-free periods. I suppose too much slavish imitation would have cheapened the final effect. The work shows a man, in dark clothes and white collar. The face is unreadably blurry; there is no suggestion of setting. The preponderance of black makes me think of Dutch painting, some burgher posing for Frans Hals or something like that. But the composition, or perhaps the framing, is inept. Why is the top of the head cut off by the frame? Was this part of the GAN AI’s intent? Where would it have got that clumsy composition? The rough edges and unfinished background clearly mark this as a sketch, perhaps unfinished. Again, curious. All of the AI art has an unfinished look, a late Cezanne quality that does not always go with the subject matter. The gilded frame looks more expensive than the art.

I looked for an image for this paragraph, but you’ll have to use your imagination. As part of conservation, at times a painting has to be relined, that is, a new piece of canvas adhered to the original to stabilize the aging original canvas.  A common method for this utilizes hot wax as the binding agent, as it is reversible and, when properly done, poses little threat to the paint surface. But when the wax is too hot, the paint can be “burned,” causing a darkening of pigments and blurring of surface details. “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy” looks like it was burned.

The question “Is it art?” is hard to answer. Art requires an artist, and intent. The AI, being non-sentient, has no intent, only programming. This puts it behind chimps, elephants, and other animals who have been given brush and canvas. It is closer to found object art in that the AI wades through whatever is at hand (the art fed into its program) and picks according to the algorithm. The AI has no ambition, no desire. It does what it was made to do.

When an AI is created that can create on its own, choosing subject matter, influences, and techniques, I for one will be fascinated. But this baby step along the way (more fetal cell division than baby step, really) is just an expensive gimcrack, an unlikely to appreciate in value.

 

 

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?

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.