Le syncrétisme n’est pas un croque-madame!

With the vernal equinox upon us, the winter of our discontent can now be made summer by this son of baroque.

While I prepare the rhetorical onslaught, pause for a moment to consider what may come of a culture that can successfully promote a remix of Botticelli's Birth of Venus made entirely of toast:

Botticelli, Birth of Venus in Toast, Ripley Museum, San Antonio
Botticelli, Birth of Venus in Toast, Ripley Museum, San Antonio

Truly, we Unitedstatesians know which side the bread is buttered on.

This culinario-decorative achievement, on display in the kitschen cabinet of one Robert Ripley (deceased) of San Antonio, comes to my attention by way of Dubious Quality, the aptly named blog of mi amigo, Bill Harris.

Bereave it or not.

But will it sell?

Vincent van Gogh, early portrait

From Vincent van Gogh we have over 900 paintings as well as over 1000 drawings.

He made nearly all of them during the final five years of his life. 365 times 5 would be just over 1800 days for those 900 paintings. Let's call it a painting every other day for half a decade.

How many did the aspiring artist with connections to the art market sell? None.

Comes now the news that beneath a quickly executed "Patch of Grass" reminiscent only in the most generic way of Dürer's Great Piece of Turf, some helpful particle-accelerated synchrotronic X-rays have revealed what was known to be there (thanks to infrared reflectography), but had previously not been seen: an early portrait, from Vincent's days as an evangelist among the coal miners.

This won't change our conception of the artist much, unless it be with regard to his second thoughts, but it's nice to see further confirmation of his early stylistic tropes.

Partial Recall: Phil Leider

Phil Leider wasn’t the best teacher I ever had. He wasn’t the most intelligent, nor the most articulate, nor the most insightful, nor the most attentive. However, he was one of the most consequential to me. He was the first in my life to point out one of the trails I ended up following, and to show me it was well worth walking.

The search engine at my fingertips tells me that the poet Christopher Buckley studied under Phil and found him similarly influential. He writes

I took many classes from Phil Leider, who is probably the best teacher of any subject I ever had. Classes I had from Leider were not focused on contemporary work, but he taught us how to look at painting. Neither Art Historian nor Art Critic, (he had been editor of ArtForum for a number of years in New York and in San Francisco), Leider gave us both lines of thinking on a particular painting or artist and then supplied a view that often discarded both theories and considered, in a very immediate, specific, and practical fashion, the artist and the aspects of the work itself. He taught us to always “trust the artist first.” The main thing was that after studying with him, consciously or unconsciously, I had some idea about how to look at painting.

On a whim, to fill out my academic schedule for the first quarter of freshman year, I took a course selected nearly at random: Phil’s survey of Spanish painting (from Velázquez to Picasso, more or less). At the time, I was unaware of art history as an academic discipline. I had visited only a couple of museums prior to college (most memorably the Telfair Academy in Savannah). I had no expectations and no goals beyond discovery.

Leider, in contrast to nearly every other teacher I had ever had, was utterly informal. He would begin each lecture by scribbling a list of names or key terms on a chalkboard, but working from the board was not his forte and he seldom made reference to those notes. Rather, he would riff with seeming improvisation on one image after another in order to flesh out the conceptual and psychological space of each artist, patron, or subject. In doing so, as Chris Buckley points out, Phil would massage into high relief the conflicts and tensions that defined not only the art in its context but also the art historical discussions unfolding in the metacontext. We were learning not only to read the artifacts, and to identify the cues and clues that facilitate such reading, but also to see the subsequent criticism as similar in kind and as susceptible to the same analytic curiosity.

That’s all good, but what was special about Phil was his style. He was a blue collar art historian, an ordinary Joe of an art critic, with a blue jean vocabulary and a take-no-crap style. He was utterly unpretentious, and deeply concerned to step aside, out of the spotlight, and to draw the students closer to the artworks and to the words of their creators. I found him completely engaging.

A couple of years later, a friend well versed in Renaissance art history was visiting from Germany. I took her to hear one of Phil’s lectures. While I found his insights into competition and identity in Florence captivating, she found his persistent mispronunciation of ‘Ghiberti’ grating. (He’d say “juh-BERT-ee”, by no means his only verbal anomaly). What did I value in Phil that was either invisible to, or unwanted by, my dear Westphalian friend? Maybe it was the fact that Phil seemed emphatically American. He was informed but unpolished. He came across like some guy on a street corner, respectable but common, who was just bristling with that Unitedstatesian mix of pragmatism and idealism, and who wasn’t going to quit until he had gotten to the bottom of the vexing cultural conundrum that was making his brain itch. He was Brooklyn and California, intense and feisty but laid back and expansive.

Years later, working with Vincent Scully made me recall another key facet of Phil: he could be intensely dramatic, playing the timing of a pedagogic moment like the string of a plaintive viola. He was sometimes cocky, sometimes chatty, sometimes astonished. He worked the audience. In short, he was entertaining. The house was always packed, and we came in numbers because everyone knew, or had heard tell, that at the end of too quick an hour, we’d walk away having learned something worth knowing or having practiced a skill worth honing.

I ended up taking enough art history courses for a minor, and later turned to that discipline for graduate study. It seems to me that this probably wouldn’t have happened if Leider hadn’t hooked me from the outset and given me a reason to keep coming back for more. Others taught me about rigor, precision, methodological awareness, and balanced weighting of evidence. In course after course, Phil taught me about soul, passion, and humanity in the explained and the explaining. The more I teach, the more I come to see how much wisdom there was in his distinctive way of taking it to the streets.

Thanks, Phil.

Hillary in Analog

Hillary ClintonAbout a week before Christmas, on a particularly slow news day, Drudge posted a photo of Hillary Clinton that had the blogosphere all abuzz. Ann Althouse gathered and summarized the relevant lines of commentary. It seems that some were shocked by Hillary’s weathered appearance, but some were shocked that others were shocked. Some, like Volokh, liked her look, but others didn’t and poked around in search of a double standard. Still others maintained that attention to unflattering photos is nothing new and not aimed only at candidates who are women. By way of contrast and context, Althouse also reproduces a photo provided by one of her readers.

Hillary Clinton

Those lines of inquiry and speculation are interesting, but seeing this photo reminded me of an article by the art historian Sheldon Nodelman. In “How to Read a Roman Portrait”, Art in America 63 (Jan/Feb 1975), pp. 26-33, Nodelman turns to the heyday of Roman portrait sculptures and asks why some of them seem strikingly naturalistic and unflattering while others seem notably idealized. What he has in mind is the contrast between the portraits such as this anonymous bust from ca. 80BC, now in the Palazzo Torlonia in Rome, Roman Republican portrait bust and this bust of Caesar Augustus from 50 to 70 years later, now in the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University.

Roman Portrait Busts, Republican and Imperial

Nodelman argues that the unforgiving portrait style was strongly tied to Roman Republican values, while the idealizing mode was a mark of Julian, Imperial values. He writes

Through emphasis on the marks of age, these men call attention to their long service to the state and their faithfulness to constitutional procedures, in intended contrast to the meteoric careers and dubious methods of the individualistic faction-leaders– men like Marius and Sulla, Pompey and Caesar, later Antony and Octavian– whose ambitions and rivalries in the quest for personal power were rending the fabric of the republic.

The notion here is that the naturalism of the Roman Republican portrait suggests the battle-scarred character and immanent service of the person thus portrayed, while the idealism of the Roman Imperial portrait hints at the superhuman character and transcendent origin of the person shown. Age well earned stands in contrast to perpetual, effortless youth.

We’re a far cry from ancient Rome, of course. Neither the cultural conventions nor the political circumstances make a ready match with the United States of the early 21st century. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder whether some such ideological mapping makes sense in the current political season’s wash of portrait imagery.

Among the currently viable candidates for the presidency, only McCain directly thematizes his worn and weathered condition. His self-description as more scarred than Frankenstein[’s monster] suggests a connection to values such as those the pre-imperial Roman elite chose to emphasize. In contrast, much has been made of Romney’s corporate polish, and the candidate himself has emphasized jokingly the importance of not mussing his carefully sprayed hair. On the Republican side, then, the McCain/Romney competition might be understood to break out on lines analogous to those that Nodelman defines.

If, on the Democratic side, Obama seems to fit the role of young, polished, and glowing, perhaps an emphasis on the somewhat wizened Hillary rather than the airbrushed, pore-free Hillary would serve well her goal of drawing a rich contrast.

Evidence in Art: Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893
Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson, oil on canvas, 1893, may be seen at the Hampton University Museum in Hampton, Virginia.

Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson presents a memorable and moving scene: light from an unseen fireplace spreads leftward across a ramshackle interior where an old man transmits to his young pupil a bit of musical lore, a rudiment of learning, a measure of possibility. Materially, the painting consists of some oil-based pigments smeared purposively onto a rectangle of canvas. When it comes to interpretation, we grasp the artist’s pictorial illusion without difficulty and quickly begin to ponder themes that the illusion seems to address: paternal affection, the ages of man, the passing of knowledge from one generation to the next, the appreciation of values not rooted in material wealth, the bittersweet blessing of joy in the midst of deprivation, and perhaps others.

What is the relationship between the set of material facts about the painting– how it actually looks as a paint-smeared stretch of fabric– and the set of claims we might reasonably make about its meaning? How does Tanner’s painting work as a meaning-making machine?

The painting is nearly monochromatic. Earth tones define the planks of the floor, the chair on the left, the coat draped over that chair, the rear wall and cabinet, the old man’s shirt, trousers, and shoes, the boy’s shirt and shorts, and of course the ash-black complexion of the old man and the golden brown hues of his pupil. The only colors breaking this homogeneity are the yellow rags and blue shadows in the background.

Continue reading Evidence in Art: Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson