Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Questionable Bits

On the whole, the American Art papers are very agreeable to read: pretty literate and usually showing a good degree of understanding of their topics. But they would not be student papers if there were not occasional lapses in phrasing and thought, would they? For example:
"Lovell tried to show how the American family photo evolved over time across the 18th century." (Photos in the 18th century?!)
And, on an exam, one student identifies Harlem Renaissance painter Palmer Hayden as Arnold Palmer. Well, I suppose Palmer Hayden may have played golf and Arnold Palmer may have painted, but they're not the same person. Another student, while correctly stating that Edmonia Lewis was the first woman of African and Native American descent to make her career in art, got a little carried away and said she was the first woman to go to college, which she was not (although she was one of Oberlin's earlier nonwhite female students). Another rather charming error: Emmanuel Leutze's Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way was identified as Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Toll. I have to admit I much prefer the latter title.
I was delighted to see evidence of considerable study on the Intro to Modern exams. Of course, there were still some errors of fact and interpretation, and most of the students could have written more, but they really made a pretty universal effort to learn the material in the second half of the course. Major progress for some of them, especially those with no prior background in art history (which was really most of the class).
Really, despite the occasional weird bits, I am quite happy with both groups.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Portraits--Brief Thoughts

More thoughts on who to have do one's portrait.
Cathy, whom I have known since junior high, suggests:
"I'd say Dali. Melting clocks, autistic outlook, has a museum in Miami where it's always sunny. My kind of guy."

Salvador Dalí, Mae West

Frank, who once co-chaired NWU Local 3 with me, says:
"I've always thought that the men in Bruegel's paintings looked like me, but I don't think he did portraits. (I'm reading Michael Frayn's novel, Headlong, and I think he mentions that.) But anyway, someone Flemish. Rembrandt?
I wouldn't want to be painted by Francis Bacon just because, jeez, think of what I'd have to be doing ... "

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Peasant Wedding, 1568

We still have some responses in line to post...

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Portraits--More Art Historians Speak Up

Now that I have a moment free (having turned in the paperwork for graduation and graded 20 of the 70 exams), I suppose it is time to return to the Portrait Question, which has been of ongoing interest to both the art historians and the other interested parties.

Saskia says:
"Here's my contribution to your project. I'm basing this totally on aesthetic preferences, and not on some deep psychological sense of self fashioning.

I have to admit that part of me would love to have a portrait done by Tamara Lempicka - I love the style of her women; they are somehow both supremely feminine and coldly angular. In a similar sort of way, I would also love to imagine myself as an Erte, though that's more about the fabulous and ludicrous clothes. (I blame it on having had these paper dolls as a kid. Or what about the Italian futurists? DId they ever do portraits? I'm guessing no, since they were all about modernism and technology and movement, but I would be fascinated to see what someone like Boccione would do with a human subject. Besides, his color sense is so spectacular. I also like that none of these are what people would expect me to pick. I hate being predictable! I bet everyone would assume I'd say Judith Leyster, who would also do a wonderful portrait. Her self portrait painting is so joyful that who could resist?

I completely veto the following: Cranach (helllo, body dismorphia!), Brancusi (too minimalist), and de Kooning (too untidy)."

Tamara de Lempicka, Young Woman in Green, 1927

Judith Leyster, Self Portrait, 1635

Sarah B leaves medieval art out of the question for once and says:
"I would like either Matisse or Diebenkorn to paint my portrait.

Matisse: I love the way he juxtaposes many patterns or intense hues of colors in his interior spaces which surround his figures. (Though I don't love his odalisques)

Diebenkorn: Extraordinary color! And a wonderful simplification of complex forms with carefully placed brushstrokes of thick paint."

Henri Matisse, Madame Matisse: Madras Rouge, 1907

Richard Diebenkorn, Woman in Profile, 1958

And we're not done yet!

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Monday, December 08, 2008

Defense Done

One cannot complete a PhD without the help of one's departmental secretary. (Or, very likely, go in to the defense without some coffee, at least when somehow there hasn't been time for either breakfast or lunch.)

I was asked to start off with a little introductory piece about how the project developed and what possessed me to undertake it or alter it or spend such an abnormal amount of time reading old Czech magazines.

My committee seemed to want me to expound on quite a few things, and looked very grave when not in fits of laughter. Their first question was why I hadn't put the title on the manuscript. As usual, I couldn't remember what on earth I had called it. This prompted various suggestions which were regarded as extremely witty and which went by far too quickly for me to write down.

After the committee admitted that they thought it was a pretty good dissertation, and after they had incited me to blather on for an hour or so about who knows what, we decided it was time for the champagne.

Some people weren't sure whether I was capable of opening a champagne bottle without help. It's true I hadn't opened one in awhile and had forgotten that a corkscrew is not needed.

I managed to spill only a small amount of champagne, none of it on the dissertation itself.

Finally we had the glasses filled and proceeded to clink our fancy departmental plasticware.

Finally, my advisor examined an Archelaus card and wanted to know why I had failed to thank her for "the embroidered codpiece."

Photos by Kristen.

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Almost Done?

Since tomorrow I get to defend my dissertation, today we'll take a break from the intriguing and sometimes startling world of portraiture.
People keep telling me "You're almost done," but since I have no shortage of papers to grade, 70 exams about to follow, job applications to send out, three classes to prepare for next semester, and miscellaneous other things to deal with, my usual reaction to that is "Huh? What's almost done?" It only gradually dawns on me that they must be referring to the PhD process.
I met with my advisor on Friday to see if she had any particular suggestions for the big event. To a large extent her mind was on her new subzero-rated down coat (good) and on recent university budget cuts (bad), but we had a pleasant chat about the defense and my future in general. She did not anticipate anyone saying anything too annoying, or perhaps even anything at all annoying, at the defense, and she suggested I get busy writing my book proposal and picking out my top choices among the various university presses. Well--she did not say I had to do that before 2009, merely "in the next couple of months." I interpret that as meaning "before College Art Association." I guess there is some chance that would be possible. At this point in my life a book proposal is no longer the terrifying project it once was; it's just something you sit down and do when you have time. (Time? what's that?)
So... tomorrow at 12:30 we'll all gather and talk about this large thing I've produced. One of my committee members called me last night, in the midst of reading, to suggest I hasten to read a new article on Karel Teige in the Slavic Review. I'm not so sure what the rush is. I looked up the article. I've gone out for drinks with its author and think his dissertation was excellent. Do I really need to read the article right away? Why not next week or next month? But at least my committee member admitted to enjoying my dissertation and mentioned a press I should consider approaching. I hear that another committee member also finds the dissertation enjoyable, so we'll assume that the remaining member feels the same way.
I'm glad that I'm at a university that still does dissertation defenses, that I'm in a department that doesn't schedule them until the dissertation is passable, and that all in all it's something to look forward to instead of to dread. (Of course, some people hope it could be arranged to involve armed combat, see comments here. There's no accounting for individual perversity.)
I think I will now return to grading the American Art papers, which thus far have been gratifyingly good.


Saturday, December 06, 2008

Portraits and Odd Awards

Dr. Zaius, who discusses his portrait choices further here, has also seen fit to give me the somewhat mysterious Marie Antoinette Award. I have no idea what this award was originally intended to connote, but Dr. Zaius claims it is just another award one gives to blogs one likes. I'm a bit suspicious of this--Marie Antoinette?! This is a woman who was beheaded for her frivolity and general bad PR, after all.
I guess I could pass it on to a select few people who might be able to think up political or other useful rationales, like Geoff, Mildly Annoyed Rabbit, and Bikerbar. I mean, you can't exactly give a Marie Antoinette Award to just any blog you like, can you?
Marie Antoinette did commission some fine portraits of herself, however.

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Antoinette and Her Children, 1787

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Portraits--Cartoon Choices

Shawn, who spends his days contemplating the political lives of the Czech avant-garde, says:
"Interesting idea. Obviously this is not such a simple question, as so few questions are. What am I looking for out of this portrait? Obviously, to have one's portrait from an Italian master would be amazing, and amazingly valuable, but then it would mean either that A) you'd be long since dead or B) some weird x-files shit has been going on. I don't know, if I could just dodge the complexities of the question, and of course dodging complexities are never so easy, I would pick Adolf Hoffmeister to do my portrait. On the one hand, I feel like picking Dali or Picasso would be too stereotypical and easy. After all, I don't want my portrait to be some visual kitsch; it would need some novelty to it. On the other hand, I feel drawn to someone like Kandinsky or maybe even Francis Bacon, but then again, I feel like some visual likeness would be important to me. After all, if it's my "portrait" I would want it to portray a visual likeness.

In fact, that's precisely why I'd pick Hoffmeister. I want the most essential, simple visual likeness possible. Hoffmeister, as you know, had a penchant for reducing his subjects to the most simple traits; depicting individuals with a few, sometimes a single, line. This is what fascinates me most: How could an artist summarize my visual likeness, my caricature, my being, in the most simple, essential matter? What are those one or two visual traits that essentially define me in some recognizable way? I would guess my glasses, maybe my brow, but is that really what defines me? A mere "resemblence" does not necessarily excite me; I have drawn enough
self-portraits to know what I look like in pencil etchings. But I want to see myself with as little baggage as possible, an ur-"I" if you will. That interests me alot."
Adolf Hoffmeister, The Avant-garde, 1930
L-R: Karel Teige, Vítězslav Nezval (Shawn's very favorite avant-gardist because of the beachball-torso effect), Jindřich Honzl, Jan Werich, Jiří Voskovec

Dr. Zaius states:
"I would like to have my portrait done by the wildly imaginative comic book artist Jack Kirby because of his great talent at drawing alien landscapes, outlandish machines and deliciously evil supervillians, especially Dr. Doom."

And still more weird and wonderful choices to come!

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Portraits--Writers and Suchlike

Moving right along with our Who Should Do Your Portrait inquiry, Dirk (who actually reads my fiction as well as this blog) suggests:
"Holbein. You can’t beat him for portraits. His people look so
intensely themselves. Piero Della Francesca would be acceptable too.

Two I don’t want are Watteau and Goya. I like Watteau, but all his people simper, and I love and admire Goya, but most of Goya’s people look crazed."

Hans Holbein the Younger, Boniface Amerbach, 1519

Piero della Francesca, Sigismondo Malatesta, 1451

Dirk's friend Larry (we have not met but I think we have both heard various stories about one another over the years) says:
"Absolutely Holbein. His Thomas More (at the Frick) is the finest portrait I believe I have ever seen, apart from the Rembrandt self-portraits, a class of their own. There also is an extraordinary painting at the Met of a young man by an Italian Renaissance artist, and I can't remember which one. It could be Piero della Francesca. On the other hand, the question is about my own portrait, and in that case I might prefer the painterly depth of the great Rembrandts. Whistler would be acceptable, too."

Hans Holbein the Younger, Sir Thomas More, 1527

James McNeill Whistler, Thomas Carlyle, 1872-3

Larry continues:
"At the other end of the stylistic spectrum is the extraordinarily talented Paul Helleu, a high-fashion artist of the turn of the century and one of Proust's models for the painter Elstir. As a side note, I was one of the actor/models in Eleanor Antin's Angel of Mercy, a performance piece about the life of Florence Nightingale. One aspect of the piece was a sequence of very beautiful photographs, mostly composed after famous paintings of the nineteenth century. I was a friend of the family in these photographs and was seen playing croquet, listening at a window as Florence played the piano, and leaning back to back with a painter named Patricia Patterson (widow of the recently deceased Manny Farber). In that photo, taken in the open, I was wearing a straw hat and painting on a canvas propped against a rowboat. Only much later, when a friend in St. Louis spotted this photograph in an article in Arts magazine, did I learn that the couple in the original painting by John Singer Sargent (at Brooklyn Museum) were Paul Helleu and his wife. When I asked Eleanor why she didn't tell me I was momentarily Paul Helleu, she replied that I would have ruined the shot had I known, and she probably was right. I loved the nineteenth century clothing, though I wouldn't want to wear it every day.

As to painters one would rather avoid, include Goya's idiots and Bosch and Daumier and all the great German Expressionists and Neue Sachlichkeit artists -- Nolde, Kirchner, Marc, Beckmann, Grosz, Dix, etc., etc. Also Ensor, Soutine, Giacometti -- in fact, most of the modern canon."

Paul Helleu, Portrait of Clara Weil

Geoff, who is a friend of both mine and Dirk's, says:

"Francis Bacon, because he'd paint me the way he sees me and not the way I see me. And because the result would very likely be uglier than the original even in other people's eyes. But if Francis isn't available (after all, he died 16 years ago), then maybe Daumier. In fact, I think he already did depict me pretty accurately, early one morning before my first cup of coffee:

But if I have to sit (or stand) for a portrait for hours on end, I think I'd rather subject myself to Artemisia Gentileschi.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Portrait of a Condottiero, 1622

This is me after that first cup of coffee, when I've finally got my hair combed.

Thanks for posing this question. The more I think about it, the surer I am that I'd be happy to have any artists use me as a subject, just to see all the variations possible and as an insight into how each artist treats a common subject differently. The artists I would avoid (or put low down on the list) would include Irving Penn and others likely to create a too-glamorous look. Georg Grosz or Ben Shahn would be good, though -- rough and bristly."

And, of course, more to come!

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Portraits--Is van Gogh High on the List or Ultimately Not?

In today's installment of Who Should Do Your Portrait, our respondents started off with strangely similar lists but ultimately they diverged a fair amount.

Paul K of BibliOdyssey responds:
"This is all rather silly in so far as me myself and I hardly come into the rationale for my response.

Watteau is because of the white chalk (and I have just spent a godawful amount of time not finding the right example) and because I like the 'study' aspect.

The engravers [Dürer, Hopfer, and Cranach] are (kind of) interchangeable and I like them for their ability to capture detail: photographers, one and all, of the 16th c.

Lautrec because we all want the exuberance within to be made manifest.

And van Gogh to capture (?imprison) all of me. And so I can shimmer."

After further thought:

"It's much more about [van Gogh's] ability to render a character, whichever character (although maybe selfportraits are where my ideas derive from) in toto, the communicate not only their likeness and personality but to imbue the picture with that 'shimmering' factor -- it gives the subject a kind of 3rd dimensional life.

And I guess re: engravers, I think of the Landsknechte-types eg. bold, daring, man's man, cavalier. As I said, they are the photographers (with a bit of editorial input no doubt) of the 16th c. They're stylistic character renderings."

Daniel Hopfer, Soldier and Woman

Toulouse-Lautrec, Aristide Bruant, 1893

Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1889

Todd states:

Not wishing to frighten the rabbits, I am inclined to avoid too realistic an approach to this particular subject. My first instinct is therefore to suggest Jackson Pollock or perhaps Kazimir Malevich. [Editor's note: The rabbits have never thought Todd looked at all frightening--George used to hop forward to greet him--but we don't know how they would react to Pollock or Malevich.]
Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm, 1950

Kasimir Malevich, Black Square, 1913

Among artists better known for actual portraiture, however, Rembrandt would surely have done something instructive, for he tended to concentrate on some interesting aspect of character rather than on how good-looking the sitter was.

Rembrandt, Matthew and the Angel

For similar reasons, I could imagine something appealing by Bohumil Kubišta, though preferably from his early, more impressionist phase rather than from his later, cubist one.

Bohumil Kubišta, Self Portrait, 1908

While Van Gogh and Kokoschka are also possibilities, I'm inclined to think there is too much risk they would make me look crazy -- which might be okay if they were obscure artists, but since a work by Van Gogh in particular would inevitably immortalize the sitter, one would prefer not to look even more peculiar than dictated by nature.

Finally, I must admit to being tempted by Hans Holbein the Younger. For some reason I think the garb of an early sixteenth-century northern European merchant might suit me.

Hans Holbein, Georg Gisze, a German merchant in London, 1532

More responses coming shortly!

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Portraits--More Art Historians Weigh In

Shalmit says:
"After our talk the other day, I recalled that Kathy Linduff gave us once in a seminar a similar task: it was a seminar about the 'other', and we were to talk about how we would like to be portrayed. this turned of course into a discussion about identity, and how people choose to show themselves to the world. It would probably be interesting to ask her of her impressions.

I remember that at that time I simply could not see myself being frozen in time for the sake of next generations. For some reason, any suggestion of 'posing' gives me such a strong feeling of crippling artificiality. For this reason, I guess I would have chosen Rembrandt for his strong psychological depth, and perhaps Lucian Freud for not trying to beautify his objects. A naked portrait of me by Freud (I guess that in his case I should not use the word nude), would probably drive away from my living-room all the boring guests..."

Rembrandt, Portrait of his wife Saskia

Lucian Freud, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995

Kristen says:
"Probably Zinaida Serebriakova because she does amazing treatments of the 'fuller' female body. Though Natan Altman's portrait of Anna Akhmatova is pretty amazing."
Zinaida Serebriakova, Self Portrait

Natan Altman, Anna Akhmatova, 1914

I didn't really have any Serebriakova portraits of women with fuller figures handy, but I think the Lucian Freud more than makes up for any excessive slenderness in the Serebriakova.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

Portraits--Two Photographic Responses

Here are two of the early responses to my query about which artist(s) people would like to have do their portrait.

Travis says:

"I would choose to be painted by the Chicago Portrait Company. I think that there is a certain straightforwardness to what they did. Paintings from photos. How modern. And I also like their dishonesty. The company hired a bazillion people across America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to go door to door selling painted 'portraits in colors' made from 'small photographs.' And the results were quite beautiful. (I am writing about one in my dissertation.) The salesmen sent the small photos to Chicago, where a fleet of artists copied them in oil or reverse glass. The salesman returned a few months later to deliver the masterpiece. Some shadiness comes with delivery, as you were not told the prices of frames when you bought the portrait. Surprise! A frame costs just as much as the painting. But you pay anyway. And now you have something to hang over your mantle."

Alex O.
"I always thought I'd want Richard Avedon to do my portrait. His searing portraits of Americans of all walks of life in The American West and, on the other side of the professional photographic spectrum, his work with Gianni Versace in the '90s, inspired me to take up photography and pretty soon I was obsessed.

Photographs who embrace human subjects have to be enormously charismatic, persuasive or trustworthy. 'Collaboration' was a fashionable term, the notion of a symbiotic harmonious relationship between sitter and photographer carried a comfortably romantic connotation. But Avedon took an antagonistic view, claiming that the portrait was a 'contest' between photographer and subject, and that excellence was produced only when the photographer won. He had an amazing ability to reduce people to their barest selves, isolated against that empty white background, and a reputation that apparently prompted Henry Kissinger to ask of the photographer, 'Have mercy on me.' Avedon's images were clear and cruel and so, so compelling.

I always wanted to know what I would look like as an Avedon; I even began to fantasize that I might understand something better about myself if I could see myself through his eyes. And then others, too, could look at that version of me, and see, finally, my depressive, destructive self-loathing. The black truth, brought up from the depth of my soul, a depth much deeper than the size of my body, could come to reside on the visible level of my skin. It would make me ugly, and then people could see how close I was living to death.

Incidentally, one of my favourite portraits is of Avedon himself. It's intense and haunting. He was quite charming and handsome when he was young, working for Harper's Bazaar and revolutionizing fashion photography."

More responses to come!

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