Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Cubism, Caravaggio and Stella

Last year I visited the modern art gallery in Lille on my way back to England. It has a couple of rooms set aside for cubism, presenting the usual story of progression from Cezanne to Picasso and Braque and  then their influence on other artists of the time.

 When I first started making sculpture my  tutor said to me that he thought that cubism was a cul-de-sac and not an advisable one to go down. I didn't quite see it in that way, I felt that Picasso and Braque, realising the ties with representational art were loosening, had set about trying to build a new visual language for the future.  They thought that  art needed a new language, or at least some way of putting together the visual elements  in a painting or sculpture that did not involve the representation of a human figure or landscape. They never got as far as abandoning representation totally and at first their work became a subject for ridicule by the established  art world.

I'm not saying that that's how you see it
I'm not saying that that's how I see it '
I tell you that that's how it is

 You bring me that?
A cube model to serve you, since now you're 'cubist'
Here, I had no idea that it was done like that ...

Their attempts to keep some figurative or representational  element in their painting led to major difficulties, especially when sculptors attempted to follow suit and sculpt the human figure in terms of flat planes, cubes and cylinders. There is a fundamental  difference here between sculpture and painting, as painting deals with illusion, it uses visual tricks to give it three dimensionality; sculpture however is  real, what you see is what you get. Many sculptors and painters of this time took what Picasso and Braque were doing too literally or copied it without understanding what was being attempted. This  resulted in a great deal of painting and sculpture in the cubist style  much of which seems lacking and dated these days. 
Ferdinand Leger.
I don't feel he ever really got what cubism was all about.
'The Mud Bath'   1914   by David Bomberg
An  English artist, one of the few who really did grasp what cubism was about.

A cubist sculpture by Jaques Lipchitz and  a painting by Picasso

 For sculpture  to abandon the human body,  a new way of structuring three dimensional form would also have to be found. Geometry can play a part in this and  there is a sense that all sculpture could loosely be termed cubist, as the cube and the sphere are the basic  geometric forms. All three dimensional  forms can be seen as distortions of a cube or a sphere.

A Kandinsy painting of 1911

At the same time that Picasso and Braque were trying to use Cezanne’s  experiments  as a way of building a new language  Kandinsky and Malevich, using a different route to the same destination, took it  all the way to total abstraction  and were largely ignored for it.

Malevich's Black Square painted in 1915
Dazzled by Picasso's  genius, artists in the following decades took their eye off the ball.  Picasso abandoned the search for a new language deciding instead  to develop his own  idiosyncratic language. It is interesting to speculate what  the story of modern art might have been had Picasso died in the first world war.

Such was his genius and powerful influence that for a long time every painter had to come to terms with what he was doing. It was not until  the 60’s  that  the American Abstract Expressionists  and then Pollock managed to firmly establish that painting could exist as a thing in its own right without reference to anything external to itself.

What I have written so far is a cause and effect linear story, of the sort that an art historian might write and I feel uneasy because I know in reality that things are not so linear and or so simple.  I like to entertain the thought that  maybe there is nothing that is new. Perhaps it has all been done somewhere, sometime in the past in some culture or other. Individual artists  struggle with the visual language that they inherit  and some are great enough to have lasting influence on future artists. Perhaps that's all you can say.

Cover of Frank Stella's book Working Space
Recently I acquired a book by the American painter Frank Stella, called “Working Space” and was quite encouraged to find that he also felt that a main strand of Cubism has been ignored  and that returning to this could be useful  for a modern painter. I have greatly enjoyed reading this book about painting written by a painter, not a critic or historian, his knowlege and insight into painting from all periods is staggering and I have learned a great deal.

Caravaggio's Matyrdom of Saint Peter,  has great sculptural properties
 One of the most surprising things is that he also sees a way forward for abstract painting  of today in the work of Caravaggio.  A 17th century  painter whose ultra realistic modelling  of light and form I would have said  had nothing to offer modern non figurative art . But Stella’s arguments are powerful,  though sometimes difficult to follow as  he suffers from the inexactness of language to describe visual properties, The book has  made me look at Caravaggio’s work in a totally different way.  For Stella the way that Caravaggio's paintings create their own space and seem to come out of the canvas is something very important to him.

Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio
The skill with which this is painted gives the feeling  that the figures are coming out of the picture plane, The space of the painting is 3 dimensional and defined by the figures and not the canvas edges.
 There is a danger that Stella is seeing what he wants to see in Caravaggio as Stella's own work  has centred around creating paintings that are not hampered by the edge of a canvas but create their own space.

No one handles 3 dimensional form with colour as well as Stella does.
I have always avoided using  colour in sculpture as usually it works against the sculptural form by delineating one plane from another and destroys the feeling of solidity. While there have been others attempting this no one comes near to achieving what Stella has achieved.  He doesn't make painted sculpture but sculpted painting.

If you look closely at these two paintings you can easily start to see connections. For example, the cylinder on the right of the Stella does the same job as the the upper arm of the front figure in the Caravaggio in bringing the space out towards the viewer. The disc does the same, the many lines converging on the right hand of the figure with the wound are echoed by the cones on the left of the Stella and so on. 
I realise that these could all be coincidences but the Stella print was done over the exact same period 1982-1984 that he wrote about his love of Caravaggio's painting. It  gives much food for thought and does seem to reinforce Stella's argument that the work of Caravaggio has plenty of relevance for todays painters.. 

Frank Stella

Frank Stella

Frank Stella
On my last two visits to London I have been lucky enough to come across exhibitions of Stella’s work, Work which has excited me far more than almost anything I have seen in years.

Friday, April 11, 2014


The Vigeland sculpture park in Oslo
Whenever you ask someone what there is to see in Oslo they say Edvard Munch and the Gustav Vigeland Sculpture Park. Never having heard of Gustav Vigeland I became keen to visit when I read that he is hailed as Norway’s greatest sculptor and was compared to Michelangelo in his day.

 The large park  houses over 200 pieces of his work and boasts to be the largest sculpture park containing the work of a single artist in the world.  Indeed the whole thing is quite amazing, even more amazing is that he got the town to pay for it all. The bill for the carving of granite and casting of bronze  must have amounted to millions of kroner. His involvement would have been in producing all the models for an army of artisans to make and overseeing the placement of the work. These days a sculptor is doing well if he can get a town to commission just one piece of public sculpture..

One of the bronze statues by Gustav Vigeland.

But to the puzzlement of my Norwegian friend who had taken me there, I couldn’t  get really excited about the work. Had these been new sculptures by  Michelangelo or Giambologna I would have had to camp out in the park for weeks to see them all,  but sadly I soon became a little tired of them, something was missing, not imaginative composition as there were sculptures of people in every possible combination of interesting poses,  he was obviously a very honest and committed sculptor.  My guide asked me what I thought and I couldn’t really explain why I wasn’t excited by the work.

The word that kept coming to mind was “static”,  for me the sculptures seemed not to have any real sculptural movement in them yet they depicted human beings involved in all sorts of activities. It made me think about the element of movement in sculpture. As sculpture is by very nature static, it doesn’t move itself, the depiction of a moving human being has to be done using the sculptural language, it is illusory. When this is done well it gives a sculpture a feeling of energy and vitality.

I had visited the  National Gallery of Norway the day before and looked  again at some small sculptures by Degas and one by Rodin  that always excite me.

These two sculptors had their own different ways own way of creating a sense of movement, for example Rodin’s work which is strong on sculptural movement,  creates tension by depicting the exact moment when movement is about to start and we complete the movement in our imagination. Just to portray someone running by spreading the legs into a running position doesn’t convey the feeling of movement.

The Rodin sculpture (left) looks as if the man is about to either fall or drop
the other person, while in the Vigeland the man is firmly planted on the
ground  and seems quite capable of supporting the other person.
Iris by August Rodin

Degas,  accepts that a sculpture itself is static but he magically  manipulates the profile lines to make it appear to move as the viewer moves around it.
Summing up I feel that Vigeland often leads you to expect this element of movement through his choice subject matter but he doesn’t deliver,  relying instead on the expression of the story of the human predicament to carry everything.

The next day I visited an exhibition of a more recent Norwegian sculptor  Aase Texmon Rygh who was born in 1925.

The exhibition of Aase Texmon Rygh
 Her answer to the problem of movement was to base nearly every sculpture on “The Mobius Strip” a surface with only one side and only one boundary component.

Mobius strip sculpture
 The problem with movement using this form is that it is always the same, you know exactly what is coming as you go around the object, there are no surprises, little tension and ultimately it can be rather boring.  It is a form that has been exhausted by the Swiss designer Max Bill in the 40's and 50's, who does manage to raise it to a higher level.
Its equivalent in music might be the “12 Bar Blues” a predictable and comfortable musical form, you always know where it is going and it gives pleasure when it gets there.

I was in Norway to attend the opening of an exhibition of another Norwegian artist Julia Vance.

Drawing by Julia Vance

She is a calligrapher and sculptor whose approach to movement comes from her training as a calligrapher.  The sense of movement in writing performed with a wide brush comes from the natural widening and narrowing of the marks as the brush turns corners.

Marble sculpture by Julia Vance
Julia sometimes uses this approach in her sculpture, narrowing and widening a form to give a sense of movement. The art comes in the creators sensitivity to the moving line, which I find really strong in her work
Marble sculpture by Julia Vance
I feel there is also a constant searching and development in her work, unlike the other two sculptors who both  found formulas to produce work and were prone to repeat them 'ad infinitum'.  

The exhibition of Julia Vance.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Trieste and the Palazzo Revoltella

Trieste from the Palazzo Revoltella

The great thing about visiting new places is the opportunity it affords to check out the art galleries for artists whose work is unfamiliar to you.

The Palazzo Revoltella

I have just been to Trieste and visited the Palazzo Revoltella. Which was once the home of  local importer, financier and politician  Pasquale Revoltella. He bequeathed his palazzo to the commune of Trieste and with it a huge sum of money  with instructions that they build and house an art collection. 
The modern art gallery in Palazzo Revoltella
Since then it has grown into a substantial gallery of late 19th century and 20th century art.
Pasquale Revoltella

 Pasquale became very much involved in the building of the Suez canal, obviously seeing the commercial benefits of it , but died just a month before it opened. Despite being unspeakably wealthy he never married, which may explain the large numbers of paintings of woman’s cleavages that adorned his walls. 

The early version of Playboy magazine.
Before the days of photography and the internet, wealthy men could afford to employ painters to give them pleasing images of the female form
The dining room in Palazzo Revolterra

One painting that intrigued me was  this one  ironically named The Holy Water
by an Austrian painter who I had never heard of called Albin Egger-Lienz (1868-1926)  . 
The Holy Water by Albin Egger-Lienz

 Its unusual and  powerful composition caught my eye immediately, so later  via the wonders of the internet  I managed to find more images of his work.

He was commissioned as a war artist in 1914
The skilful interweaving of the lines in this painting make for a very tight composition while the paring down of detail and colour towards abstraction heighten the expressive quality. You can feel the horror of these men’s predicament.

Albin Egger-Lienz ( a rather serious looking gentleman)
Resting Shepherds by Albin Egger-Lienz

The Sower  by Jean Francoise Millet

His paintings of  rural life owe a lot to Jean-Fran├žois Millet, but his compositional talents are all his own.
Hardtimes by Albin Egger-Lienz

In the modern sculpture room I found this delightful small sculpture 
Homage, 1963, steel, cm 70x65 by Dino Basaldella
It was so full of lovely lines and  intuitive sculptural ideas I wanted to steal it

Again on the internet I found that he was one of 3 artist brothers, Dino, Mirko and Afro, the later becoming the most  well known of the three. 

by Afro Basaldella
by Mirko Basaldella

All three were working through the 40's, 50's and 60's all exploring the visual language and producing work of high quality.  I have begun to notice that whenever  I am wandering through a gallery and  something catches my eye from a distance as something of quality and  I go over and check it out,  it more often than not turns out to be pre 1970.
Does this mean that my taste is stuck those years or that very little since then is of quality? How would I know?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Wow! Another Large Bronze

Again a single piece of public art placed in the Piazza has started a train of thought about sculpture and public art. The piece is again  a large bronze, this time of a fantasy hunting scene.

Impressive it certainly is, the fantasy and representational  aspects of the work do not interest me much and it is only really strong in design from two viewpoints but the work interested me enough to find out more  about the artist. His name is Dashi Namdakov and he comes from a remote region of Russia called Trans Baikal an area sandwiched between Mongolia and Siberia.

He has recently become a megastar in the international art world, but unlike many over-hyped art megastars with little talent  this artist has graphic talent in bucket loads, not only does he sculpt on large and small scale he also makes jewellery, designs buildings and much more. I would be quite happy if I had one tenth of his natural talent. It is easy to see why he has become so popular, he has wow! factor – you don’t have to search his sculptures – they hit you immediately.

I have been thinking a lot recently about how most art today strives for this sort of appeal. The art audience want to walk around a gallery receiving instant hits from the art; rarely does anyone spend an hour looking at a painting or sculpture and most modern art of today would start to bore you after 5 minutes.

Art critic Robert Hughes
I recently watched a documentary by the art critic Robert Hughes called “The Mona Lisa Curse” which is essential viewing for any artist of today. I quote:

“We have had a gutful of fast art and fast food. What we need is slow art, art that grows out of modes of perception and making, whose skill and doggedness makes you think and feel. Art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in 10 seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic but art that hooks onto something deep running in our natures.”

I am not trying to belittle Namdakov’s huge talent but if I had to choose between one of his fantastic animal sculptures and Picasso’s goat sculpture, the goat would win every time.

Picasso's Goat sculpture

When it comes to line, for me Picasso is the great master of our age, when I see that film of Picasso painting and he starts with a few simple lines down the canvas the hairs on my neck stand up.

Undoubtedly Namdakov has a great graphic sense of line but for me it is often slick and sometimes even sickly and  it is not coming from the same place as it is with Picasso.

Horse by Namdakov

Bronze by Dashi Namdakov