Season’s greetings

Since I’m unlikely to get a post done during Christmas week, here are a selection of Christmas drawings I like. Enjoy the holidays, and I’ll see you in 2018!

Edward Gorey Merry Christmas Card

Edward Gorey Christmas card, c. 1950s

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Cliff Sterrett, Polly and her Pals Christmas page, n.d.

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Christmas card, UPA studios, 1950s.

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Christmas card from Fleischer Brothers, c. early 1930s.

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Knausgaard and me

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I have come rather late to the work of Karl Ove Knausgaard, though I have read about him for years. I started on a whim by picking up his new book of essays, Autumn, the first of a planned series based on the four seasons. It’s a very mixed book, consisting of brief – a couple of pages on average – essays on plebeian matters, and letters to his unborn daughter. Some of his observations are evocative, others trite. Still, it’s worth a read, keeping in mind it isn’t as carefully thought through as his novels.

A few of his essays – and I’m not quite halfway through the book, so there could be more blog posts forthcoming – triggered thoughts about art. Not surprisingly, the essays that tie into art had the most effect on me. Specifically, I thought about his essays “Frames” (pp. 45-6) and “Dauguerrotype” (pp. 77-79)

Knausgaard notes that the picture frame resembles the window frame, but he doesn’t go far enough. The semblance works on the art, implying the continuation of the painting, photo or whatever, outside the frame. There is the temptation to lean in close and look around the frame, as though the picture continued behind and around it. Like sticking your head out a window. We want see what lies beyond, how the hills extend to the horizon just out of sight – or downward to see what kind of shoes the Mona Lisa was wearing. (A silly question: she is, without a doubt in my mind, barefoot.)

The frame is always present, even when no physical frame exists: unframed paintings are their own frame; murals are framed by the limits of the wall; any limit is suggestive of a frame, and human beings, being incapable of infinite expanses, have frames forced upon them. Knausgaard captures this well: “…for to be human is to categorize, subdivide, identify and define, to limit and to frame.” (p.46) He recognizes the need for frames, and the inescapability of them.

In “Daguerrotype” Knausgaard discusses other types of frames: the limitations of early photography. Not all frames are external. The long exposures required for the earliest photographs creates a frame which human beings cannot stay in. They disappear, unless they stay still a very long time – and that would require a knowledge that a photo was being taken. Who imagined such a thing in a world which did not know of photography? When one man does remain still long enough to be captured, in a Daguerrotype taken in 1838, Knausgaard believes him to be the Devil. Who else could break that frame? Not some mortal.

Art is a succession of limits: those imposed on the artwork by materials and other laws of the universe, those existing within the culture the artist lives in, and those which are the artist’s choice. Art history is half forensic science, half philosophy. How we see the past depends in part on how we are living now, and how we believe we are living now. Capturing an idea is the process of moving a succession of frames into place, accepting that some do not move, and hoping that something will stay still long enough to be captured. How anyone succeeds is a near-miracle. That so many have succeeded is a testament to the deep hold art has upon us.

 

It’s all in the details

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Ebenezer Scrooge by Charles Dana Gibson, 1899

I admit it: I’m a nitpicker. Do you need your choice of punctuation questioned? Are there quibbles left unquibbled? They’re as tasty as chocolates eaten before the Christmas tree for me. A lot depends on looking closely, picking apart how things come together.

For example, the question(s) surrounding Salvator Mundi, the painting currently attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. (I blogged about it here.) Experts question whether it is Leonardo’s work because of the Jesus’ frontal pose. No other painting by Leonardo has such an old-fashioned, icon-esque pose. That doesn’t prevent Leonardo from making one such, hitherto unknown, composition. It just lowers the probability. And the folds in Jesus’ sleeve resemble a drawing of Leonardo’s – a point in favor of the master’s touch – except that this drawing is thought to be intended for his students. One point to either side.

Another example: the Berkshire Museum’s current morass comes about from a lack of transparency about its financial situation and expansion plans. (blog here.) Now that the museum is finally making documents available, they only cast the museum’s leadership in an even worse light. (Felix Salmon is doing an excellent job of keeping up on this. Go here.) This is why honesty is so important: if the details don’t support the plan, then the plan is deservedly in doubt.

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Social media is full of little details that amuse: corners of manuscript illuminations in which people or animals are engaged in unusual activities, such as the violent rabbits shown above. “Don’t sweat the details” people say – nonsense!

As you might have guessed from the illustration at top, all of this is going to get around to Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite books of all time; I read it or watch/listen to some dramatization every year. One thing stuck in my mind last time I read it. As you recall, at the start of Stave Two, Scrooge awakes in his bed after the visit from the ghost of Jacob Marley. Much to Scrooge’s surprise, he hears a church clock strike twelve:

Twelve! It was past two when he went to bed. An icicle must have got in the works. Twelve!

My nitpicking instincts came charging forward. Was Scrooge in the habit of staying up so late? In his day and age late nights meant sitting before the fire, or candles or oil lamps to provide light. He had been up conversing with Marley’s spirit, but that could not have lasted more than half an hour at most. And, despite Scrooge grudgingly giving his clerk, Bob Cratchit, the day off, there was no indication Scrooge himself was going to be absent from work. A miser such as Scrooge would save candlelight, I thought, and sleep through most of the dark hours, and rise with the dawn. So what was he doing awake until two a.m.?

I have no conclusive theory. Insomnia is a possibility, though it’s never even intimated. We know that Scrooge’s hard exterior is thin, and breaks easily under the influence of the spirits who are about to arrive. Could it be that Scrooge keeps Christmas in his own way by sleeping in? When he awakes he is rested and a changed man, but it is morning, and people are on their way to church in the cold.

Is this important? Probably not. But noting the details is the first step toward sorting them out. It’s surprising what you can learn when you look deeply. It can move you to believe in the touch of a great painter, disbelieve in the statements of a museum Board, or wonder at the doings of a man who never existed.

Fire Hazard

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The Getty Center posted this on their social media today. I might quibble about their abbreviating “Weds,” but it seems unfair; their attention is doubtless elsewhere.

The J. Paul Getty Museum, part of the Getty Center  is closed for the second straight day today, due to the wildfires raging in the area east and northeast of Los Angeles. While the museum is not in imminent danger of burning (yet the flames are getting closer) the museum is closed due to the smoke. Museum officials are concerned about the heavy smoke getting into the buildings and compromising the climate controls. It’s one of those problems museums hope they never have to face.

The Getty museum has a vast collection ranging from antiquities to European paintings and drawings up to the early 20th Century, and photography up to the present. Currently they have shows open on Bellini and Caravaggio, two shows relating to Argentina (one on photography, one on painting/sculpture), as well as a long-term exhibit of Greek and Roman sculptures borrowed from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art while that museum is being renovated. It’s an amazing place, and the art world is holding its collective breath while the fires burn on.

Wildfires have been increasing (but climate change is a myth, says our President), and this year has been particularly bad. Here’s hoping the firefighters will turn the tide before any art is damaged.

Note: The Hammer Museum at UCLA has also closed its galleries today, though its shop and theater are still functioning.

UPDATE: The Getty Museum remains closed on Thursday.

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Morning commute through the Skirball fire, December 6. I got the photo off social media; I’ll credit the photographer when I find out who took it.

In the stars?

I had a birthday this week, and was amused/intrigued by the more famous people who share that day with me. Astrology suggests we ought to share some traits, but I listen to astrology’s suggestions almost as rarely as I listen to my least favorite politicians. As the holidays are messing with my schedule, here’s a little stopgap post looking at classic works by two of those artists:

William Blake is considerably older than I am, and also dead. His unique blend of mysticism and skill make him one of the most distinctive talents of his time. (Can I list a random selection of others who might qualify for that description? Albert Pinkham Ryder, Edvard Munch, Hilma af Klint, Pipilotti Rist – for a start.) Blake’s Ancient of Days (below) is a prime example of the physicality of his compositions and his fine draughtsmanship.

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William Blake, Ancient of Days, 1794, Collection of the British Museum (Copy D)

Morris Louis (1912-1962) is one of the pioneers of Color Field painting, and an iconic painter of the late twentieth century. His working method – thinning acrylic paint and letting it run down the canvas – is worlds away from Blake, but riveting in its own right.

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Morris Louis, Alpha-Pi, 1960. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

What do these two have in common? Both work on flat surfaces with pigments. That’s a pretty basic commonality, and says nothing about either of them. Sorry, astrology, but these two Sagittarius’s seem different to me.

My two cents about a hundred million dollars (Updated)

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Today Salvator Mundi (above) attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, goes up for auction at Christies, as part of their Post-War & Contemporary Sale (they have their reasons for selling it there, but I won’t go into them). It could sell for $100 million or more. But what everyone wants to know is, who really painted this?

Christies produced a catalog devoted to the painting, so their case is clear. Between Christie’s catalog and the Wikipedia page (linked above) you can see a lot of copies, some dating back to Leonardo’s time, for comparison. One dominant naysayer in the attribution discussion is Jerry Saltz, who made his case in this article on Vulture. I’m not the biggest Saltz fan, but his arguments are very close to my own.

Let me add my two cents: I think there is too much awkwardness in the position of the arms for Leonardo at his height, which is when Christies claims Salvator Mundi was painted. Jesus’ arms do not fit comfortably into the space of the painting. The orb, as has been noted elsewhere (example: this article on art net) doesn’t distort space properly. The “flatness” Saltz complains of is more likely, to my mind, to be a result of the degradation of the surface from years of bad cleanings and overpainting. The hand raised in benediction is pretty darn Leonardo-esque, and the spirals in the hair are at least by someone who was paying attention to Leonardo.

On the plus side, of all the versions of Salvator Mundi around (at least those accessible online) this has the most Leonardo flavor of any. Could I, as Jerry Saltz suggests, be generous and attribute it to a student with (possibly) some corrections/additions by Leonardo himself? Yes, I think we could.

I’m not really interested in how much money it makes. I’d rather see it sell for a lot less and end up in a museum, where people can look at it and think about it for centuries to come. It’s likely, at that price, that it will end up in the hand of some billionaire somewhere, out of sight. That’d be a shame.

While you wait for the hammer to fall, watch this video Christie’s made to hype the sale, of people looking at the painting. Besides the celebrity cameos (Patti Smith and Leonardo di Caprio are there) it’s a great collection of human faces that would have fascinated Leonardo himself. And, after all, this is the last Leonardo da Vinci painting in private hands…unless another one turns up.

UPDATE: Four hundred and fifty million dollars. Holy cow.

It never works [updated]

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Alexander Woollcott, in the 1920s

Let’s go back to 1915. Theatrical impresarios (I so want to Latin-ize the plural into impresarii) Lee and Jake Shubert opened a new show in New York, entitled Taking Chances, adapted from a French farce. The Shuberts seemed to anticipate a poor response from critics; before he show opened they prepared an ad that began “Do not believe everything you see in the notices today…” The ad was prophetic. Reviews in the New York newspapers ran from mildly neutral to negative.

You didn’t get to be a theatrical impresario in that day and age by being all sweetness and light. But how to best express their displeasure with the press? They picked a rising star in the theater critic field, who was making a name for himself at the foremost of New York’s many papers, The New York Times, named Alexander Woollcott. Woollcott would go on to be a curious sort of celebrity, known better for his bon mots than his writing, and as being the inspiration for the character Sheridan Whiteside in the hit play and movie The Man Who Came To Dinner, by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. At this point he was, at least in the Shubert’s eyes, vulnerable.

The Shuberts let it be known that any other Times critic would be welcome at their shows, but not Woollcott. New York Time editor Carr Van Anda wasn’t about to send a second-string critic to review major Broadway productions. Woollcott went to review the next Shubert show, and was turned away at the door.

Van Anda and the paper’s publisher, Adolph Ochs, conferred on what to do. They decided on seeking an injunction against the Shuberts in court, and stopped running Shubert advertising until further notice. This was a big deal for the press and the theatrical world. The Times had given up a lucrative source of revenue in the Shubert’s ads, and the Shuberts were losing publicity from the “paper of record,” as the Times was known. The injunction was granted, just to stack the deck a little in the Times’ favor, and was then reversed in an appellate court. Suddenly theater criticism was a much more important job, and Woollcott was more important in that role. For the first time, Woollcott got a by-line on his reviews. He told a friend, “Yes, they threw me out, and I’m basking in the fierce white light that beats upon the thrown.*”

The Shuberts realized they were fighting a lost cause. They reached out to the Times, and agreed that any critic the paper sent would be admitted. The next Shubert show to open was reviewed (favorably) by Woollcott. The Shuberts had lost, and had made Woollcott a star in his field in the process.

Why am I writing this, aside from the chance to write about Woollcott, whose life and writings I studied a number of years ago?

In September, the Los Angeles Times published this story about the Walt Disney Company’s business dealings with the city of Anaheim, California. The story relates how Disney benefits from deals with the city, and the amount of revenue the city loses through these deals. In response, Disney has announced that L.A. Times writers and editors are banned from advance screenings of Disney films. Striking at film critics about a business article is a strange sort of quid pro quo, but Disney moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform.

This action is vindictive and immature, and unworthy of Disney. Let’s be clear: Disney is like any other corporation. It’s job has nothing to do with entertainment, and everything to do with making money to enrich shareholders. The product is secondary. Disney has objected to the L.A. Times report, but they have as yet not demanded retraction or clarification. Like the Shuberts, they are fighting a losing battle they should not have started in the first place. Countless corporations benefit from incentives and other business deals, at times to the detriment of the communities they are connected with. But there must be no blot on the escutcheon of the House of Mouse.

Because of the strange nature of Disney’s retaliation, it seems unlikely that any of the L.A. Times’ critics will rise to fame through it. If I were a bigwig at the Times, or at the Times’ parent company, Tronc, I would consider following the lead of Messrs. Van Anda and Ochs. Advertising dollars have dwindled so much in recent decades that it probably wouldn’t work out for the papers, but it would send a message, and have precedent behind it. In any event, Disney is wrong and should act to rectify this childish slap-fight at once.

*Quoted in Samuel Hopkins Adams’ biography of Woollcott, entitled “A. Woollcott; His Life and His World.”

UPDATE: A mere six hours after I posted this, Disney lifted its ban on L.A. Times film critics. It took the Shuberts longer, but Disney was receiving backlash in multiple fronts, including The New York Times, which planned to boycott advance screenings of Disney films in solidarity with the L.A. Times. Multiple critics associations threatened to disqualify Disney films from consideration for awards. I could go on.

Disney cast it in the most positive light they could, saying that they expressed their concerns to L.A. Times management and are now moving forward – but who believes Disney was in control from the moment the ban became public?