Thursday, November 8, 2012

How to love Lucas Van Leyden

Whoever expressed interest in engraving inevitably would admire divine works of Albrecht Dürer. His ability to draw and  originality of his images are without equal. Whatever achievements were accomplished in the course of 500 years of copper engraving had to take place in Dürer’s great shadow.
To my mind, the greatest engraver after Dürer was Lucas van Leyden.

One of the ways to marvel at Van Leyden’s small engravings is to examine the amount of information that lovingly is given within the tight confines of a little rectangle. When a viewer scans the artwork it is as if he arrived at an island and it could be as complicated, packed with fascinations and discoveries as Santorini or as sparse as Dry Tortuga, where you can count number of separate objects very quickly. Van Leyden wanted to understand the small window of his artwork as a porthole to a very complex view that approximates reality.

Metal resists free-hand pirouettes of cut lines. Engraver pushes hard against the surface and the resulting groove would normally not look at all like what he has intended. It would look like a plowman’s furrow with no relation to subtle convolutions describing the contour of some form. It would be a technical disaster without a good way to erase it. The plate would be ruined and it would have to be discarded. Seems that figure-skating on ice has similar intolerance for any mis-step, imbalance and a resulting fall.
The body has to tense, the hands at the ready –both to cut and at the same time to halt the cut.The attention has to focus entirely at the very point of the diamond-shaped tip of the graver. All extraneous concerns have to fade in mind. One sensation that will arise is a feeling expressing the emotion of the intended line. And- cut!

There is many refine offerings in a print of Van Leyden’s quality. Look at the breadth of his tonal scale he was able to achieve across faint grays and mid-tones all the way to deepest darks for which engravings are famous. There are certain contrasting blacks so assertive that the viewer can savor “the joy of black”.
Illusion of three-dimensionality is made in engravings by hatching and cross-hatching lines. That method has sometimes appearance of being too mechanical, especially when it is a result of an engraving workshop. Multiple liners cut rather mechanical-looking parallels. In Van Leyden’s art there is almost an infinite variety of lines, ways of hatchings, stippling,cross-hatchings to describe forms as a web of tiny, precise actions building scaffoldings or fabrics the forms are tightly wearing.

Unlike in painting an engraving has to rely entirely on beauty of its forms to win viewers heart. When the eyes examine Lucas’ print we are instantly aware of extreme purposefulness of every element brought to the image. Each form is presented as if hewing, chiseling and polishing made those forms into sculptural perfection. Nothing is tentative, nothing is intimating even a hint of provisionality of “more or less” there. Every action of the graver is aiming at certain absolutism, an overwhelming sense of necessity pervading even the smallest margin. Reading closely Shakespearean sonnet one gets the same sense of absolutism of each word.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Hyperbolic language of a “hype”

There is a certain “style” of thinking about art that gives broad license to exaggerated statements, then building on them wholly unwarranted abstract constructs. Temptation too strong to be curbed of whipping abstract foam of ideas and making ever more delicious connections, finding nonexistent symmetries, crocheting abstract laceworks of supposed content .All such hyperbole is written with innocent,not-so-innocent intent to help the viewer,the reader to “understand” the magnificence and rarified intellectual framework of  the art-piece. In fact, I suspect it leaves the art-piece behind and runs its own theater of ideas with transparent wish to impress, to dazzle and get glory of its own.
To illustrate it one can hardly choose among the vastness of examples, some more comic than others. Here is a painting, greatly revered as a jewel of surpassing brilliance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, entitled rather surprisingly “Garden in Sochi” by Archile Gorky. Surprising because the view does not really show a garden and the author never visited Sochi.

Once you glance at the painting you can just as easily accept any other title,say “Breakfast with Tabasco”. So, the viewer is to understand that the author does not really mean  “garden” or “town of Sochi” and yet the title is very specific! Edward Lucie-Smith elucidates: “these are not the only coded elements to be found in the painting. Its swelling forms are also breasts and buttocks, metaphors for the female body…” There are some crudely oblong shapes there but don’t expect to be rewarded by finding any breasts or good old buttocks there. Lucie-Smith found them and declared that they are “metaphors of feminine body”. I suspect he meant emblematic icons of feminine body since metaphors are something quite else. And now we enter a crazy-room of opposite intentions. The artist made a successful effort at producing haphazard squiggles avoiding perils of figurative art but the commentator still insists on seeing in them a tree, foliage, buttocks and ,lets not forget breasts, town of Sochi and a garden. He writes “The link between the tree and its leaves and the female body is the idea of natural fecundity”.Hocus-pocus,abracadabra and what strongly appeared to be idiotic scribbles gets elevated to significant  expression of “natural fecundity”, unassailable phenomenon and surely preferable to aridity.
If we accept that some clumsy squiggles could contain so much serious content than shouldn’t we also wonder if there is a time, a case when imbecilic squiggles are not imbued with rich meaning but resolutely, firmly remain mindless nonsense? Is the answer here that a knowing eye of an art writer can recognize the greatness and distinguish it from trash done by some uncoordinated moron? I wonder how?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Three Naked Peaches

                                                                   Adriaan Coorte

Looking closely at objects, examining their exact shape, numerous details that distinguish them is what starts long, meandering process of painting a still-life. Most people have very few memories of times taken across their whole lives of paying that amount of focused attention on any tangible object. Mostly their contact is momentary, fleeting, and cursory. Usually on such occasions we look for something we already know about those objects and seek confirmation of preexistent knowledge. But at times we do intent to learn something yet obscure to us and for a satisfying moment a frightful extend of our unfamiliarity with the world is revealed to us. This is a wild, foreign territory stretching away from us in all directions. It is as if we were standing at the bottom floor of an immense library with aisles of books climbing endlessly beyond any conceivable horizons. Surely we will never get to know the cogent content of even the nearest corner. We shall try, but while trying, the provisional scaffolding of a few hasty certainties will sway underneath our feet with the alarming sense that we should go back to the beginning to make certain that what we know is actually true.

Painters of still-lifes and portraitists should be grouped in the same guild, while landscape painters urban and sea-scape as well as  figure painters have a different approach, different optics. Painting a still-life as if it was a landscape or painting a landscape or a figure as if it was a still-life has been done in the rich past of art.
These two opposite tendencies are both in use by all painters-distancing and proximating  elements in view, but harmonizing them tends to favor either generalization or specificity.

                                                        Adriaan Coorte
Over some two centuries still-life genre enjoyed and suffered voluminous commentaries regarding the “hidden meanings”, a secret language woven into the very purposeful choices of objects in still-lifes.Very often such texts are bristling with overwhelming erudition; indeed the wish to display the authors erudition  seems so overpowering that nothing ,even the most unassuming crumb cannot escape lavish exegesis that quotes Apocalypses, bawdy couplets, local proverbs and secret books of alchemy. From some skeptical angle it seems often as if Panurg had dictated these explanations to make fun of ponderous scholastics. Nearly all of those books and articles are in stated or silently obvious polemic with other texts on the still-life subject and are about texts – not about actual effects of contemplating still-life in question. The idea that a painter depicted lovingly three peaches on a marble ledge is somehow insufficient, raw and unacceptable. In the first sentence we are told they are “mysterious”. I know well that painter chooses peaches to paint because they are beautiful, triumphant looking, alluring, shining examples of fruition, a joy to behold. To a painter, a passionate lover of beauty it constitutes perfect reason to paint them, to render an extremely faithful portrait of them.
The task is undertaken with the high ambition of showing the shocking beauty of fresh peaches so true, so present and immediate that they would become permanent part of firmament of art.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Noble Materials

Someone wrote to me in defense of a “sculpture” made of glued together eggshells. Instead of giving a snappy answer I want to elaborate.
Across millennia art has been executed in particularly permanent materials. Artist would make a statue in marble or bronze rather than papier mache or cabbage leaves. It simply makes sense to match seriousness of commitment with permanence of the material. But when gravity of professional commitment is absent and replaced with light-hearted,spirited impishness than pretty much anything goes. It should be noted that this boldness is bolstered by vague recollection that at least equally surprising materials were already featured in “Art in America” or “Art Forum”and therefore made legitimate. Of course ever since the toilet was accepted as art-piece the gates were wide open to allow some decades later a sliced cow in formaldehyde as great breakthrough in art materials. Against that the eggshells seem shy, pallid,almost innocently bashful. The runny  egg content would be much bolder to use,but the young gluer betrayed himself as a classicist opting for less amorphous shapes.
Where this conviction came from that one can make a sculpture just by walking into mom's kitchen and glue some eggshells?Or that “sculptures” or parts of them are already everywhere and “creation” is in simply harvesting them.What is the origin of such astonishing license? 

                                           The "Peplos Kore" of Athenian Acropolis
                                                            marble and bronze

I think it is a small part of ever-growing,pulsating malignancy which afflicted Western Culture about a century ago and has been burgeoning globally in all directions. One had to be hiding deep in the remote parts of Eastern Kalamantan to be spared the affliction. People more exposed to the radiant influences of contemporary civilization get infected by public education disseminating the lamentable malignancy. Within it reality no longer is authoritative. What is true is not what is but rather what should be -and what should be is decided by some unseen committee of Liberal Thought. Almost osmotically everybody realizes that what was common sense and everyday experience is not true at all and indeed cannot be even uttered in whispers.
The root of it,of this world-view is the belief in “Equality”.Equality among people,man-made objects,equality of value,of outcomes,of endowments. Everyone deserves equally and therefore existing distinctions,differences should be corrected to bring us closer to the ideal of Equality. When those abominable differences stay true to their nature at least we all should pretend that they don't exist and plaster over the reality of the obvious. I used to think that communism was the most solid block of un-truth ever propagated : lamentably -no! The American Fog Machine is as in everything else much better. One of differences is that under communism nobody believed in their lies,whilst here liberal un-truth is pronounced with sincerity and earnest expectation that any “normal” person would chime in with agreement. It means that if some desperado would propose ,say that opposite is evident,namely that nothing is equal to anything else,that marigolds are not equal to old roses ,Kandinsky's painting is not equal to Giorgione's, people stare in embarrassed silence. They seem confounded because they misjudged your level of intelligence and now are forced to peg you down ,momentarily forgetting that we are all equal - especially in intellectual gifts.

Most damaging is the liberal myth that all cultures are somehow equal. Not that facts are proving such wild assertion but because it feels good to grant that equality on human attainments. It does take extreme refusal of the obvious to bestow such unwarranted equality on all cultures,but the reward is instantaneous. The frisson of righteous goodness,tickle of its moral superiority tinged with patronizing largess,because the lesser cultures never claim such equality. They know better and dislike both their own inferiority and patronizing phoneyness. The important element of motivation is actually a feminine one- strong wish to avoid offending anyone's feelings. It has to be avoided even at the cost of flushing truth down. Harmony , good feelings of caring for sensitive self-worth of others are valued much higher than blunt , however irrefutable truth. That is how everybody goes each morning to a well padded rooms of kindergarten for grown-ups.4 plus 4 can be 5 as long as feelings are not bruised. The vast territories of inquiries cannot be pursued,or even mentioned because they are known,guessed to be off-limits for public discourse. Just like in communism.

In that atmosphere modern art is thriving. What could be more democratic,more open to all,talented or not at all ; everybody is creative. Lack of any remembered criteria ,rampant relativism and cult of “experimentation” made the conditions in which few eggshells could be and are considered a successful piece of art. Eggshells are equal to marble or play-dough,”found objects” are equal to wood sculptures and paintings to digital assemblages.
There is two roads available to everyone interested in art. One , where black smear by Franz Kline is considered “a powerful statement” and garbage that might be Art .Or, another road,one on which five hundred and fifty years ago, as if yesterday, Jan van Eyck went .To continue our glorious heritage of Occidental Culture you have to follow him.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Oh,no! Don't avert your eyes. Examine what is here to see. It shows rather recent show of art -collection at the Museum of Art in Chicago. Relying on your own experience and on mine it is presenting very good representation of what should be expected to see in any Modern Art Wing in any of Art Museums across the whole western world.
Where is art? Have some bib-overall clad workers carefully removed art-objects and left this desolate emptiness? Or perhaps the paintings are turned to face the wall and what we see are reverses with nothing that was ever intended to be seen? It certainly looks that way,but of course the truth is that these are the very carefully selected,culled out of numberless lesser art-works,”curated” and who knows- may be “re-curated” pinnacles of artistic achievements of our present art.
I wrote “our”art hastily and carelessly. There is indeed nothing ours in it at all. We have hunger for beauty and discerning eye for what is good and true. These offerings are alien to our ethos as much or more than worm castings.
The sources from which they sprung are not of our world-experience,spiritual life or wanderings of our imaginings. As far as I know viewing public hates them,turns away as soon as it is polite to do so.
Across the firmament of our lives several sooty clouds passed or linger obscuring the light. The bloody cloud of International Communism dissipated. There was pseudo-science of psychoanalysis,now finally rolled silently away. Modern Art is still above raining down its absurdities.

Couple of weeks ago I received an invitation to attend Gala Celebration and Show of new BFA graduates at Guilford College in Greensboro,NC. What astonishing level of work, what rich reasons for Celebration!The stellar art faculty there produced unprecedented miracles of guidance and art instruction. However expensive the education of these graduates has been the parents should certainly feel that their offsprings go out into the world with superb skills and a most solid foundation to enrich our culture. Personally I was struck by the memorable sculpture entitled poetically “Eggshells” and indeed made of eggshells and a short string.

One may wonder if the achievements at the Art Department are indicative of the quality of education at other departments of that institution?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Pleasure of the Line

                                     Fragment of the  grisaille painting by Master of St. Bartholemew Altar

One of the never exhaustible pleasures we can constantly return to is the caressing with gaze a beautiful line. It could be a contour of a Grecian vase or a contour of a bird’s wing, or a silhouette of a tree against the evening sky- we search for it to feast on beauty.

                                                  Stairwell by the Great Antonio Gaudi
Geometric form can never have the beauty of natural form. Geometric line presents its sparseness, lean absolutism of its construction and these are admirable qualities but they are somehow foreign, alienating, distancing our wish to connect. Viewing geometric lines generates emotions of orderliness, authority, regimentation, objectivity, sensation of coldness.
Look at the triangle’s vertices- how unpleasantly piercing they are. They puncture the space and our eyes detect repellant coldness of it with a little flinch and we avert the gaze to dwell on less disagreeable part.

Now look at the rectangle and see how successful it is at showing its orderliness. I do not know when in history of men first rectangle appeared but it could have been around the time when first urban habitations came to be. What extraordinary career the rectangle had!. From rectangular base of the gigantic statuary on Easter Islands in the most remote human habitation in the Pacific Ocean to the formal pattern of the earliest Babylonian pyramids. And yet- there is something inescapingly lacking in that form: the contour of every rectangle has no energy and is clearly dead. Rectangularity of a screen followed the shape of the painting and now everybody participates in that astonishing ritual: “..staring blankly at luminescent rectangles is an increasingly central part of modern life”. Of all possible geometric forms that are available rectangle is in as much of universal use, or more than concept of zero.
In representational art line is always an edge of form. It could be attempting to describe the form in a “more-or-less” ,tentative way, like in drawings by Degas or on the opposite end of intentions, like in engraving by Lucas van Leyden.

If observation of nature has been elected as the biggest, most essential source of inspiration of forms in art than one of inescapable conclusions would have to be that nature is never tentative, hesitant, less than perfect. Each form is executed to its perfection. When one looks at tiny seeds under magnification what strikes with amazement, among other astonishments,  how each seed is absolute: no neglect ever!
The Form Creator makes each seed perfect no matter how tedious, innumerably large the task. Coming back to art after such observation the viewer evaluates art-works with a more discerning, more demanding eye. A lot of art suddenly is less appealing, less satisfying because we see how neglectful, hasty, impatient it is.
All too often I read or hear someone bestowing adjective “creative” on himself or others and I flinch knowing how undeserving it mostly is. Before using that praise one should take a good look at the Greatest Armourer who makes 400 000 different vestments for Coleoptera. That is what being “creative” means.

                                         wonderful photograph by Igor Siwanowicz

Line is always emotional, evoking great variety of feelings.

                                                         fragment of Mathias Gruenewald's altar

                                         Limoges curvilinear tracery inspired by shapes of flames

                                                                 Aubrey Beardsley

When you hold a graver, your body is clenched,your arm ready to stop the graver and you start to cut
into the copperplate a groove of  what will become a line.Your concentration is total. Nothing else seem to exist.There is only the diamond shape of the tip of your graver and your eyes.But the 'line segment" or "line" or "dot" are concepts left momentarily outside.What remains in the mind is pure emotion.You cut "it was so sad..." or "it curled upon itself as if hurt..." or "it mingled with the air freely" or endless array of any other possible emotions.Those are the unspoken joys of the lines, wholly outside of spoken language ready and clear to the viewers eyes to be understood by emotional reading,the same reading that reads human faces.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Centenary of Infantilism

Time for a celebration! But wait; we are not going to pop champagne and pry-open  iced oysters.We are going to smear spoonfuls of greenish gerber-food across the booster-seat and the wall, cooing and hiccupping all the while because we were exposed for a hundred years to infantile smearing and stick-forms  presented as art as we nodded, congratulated, marveled  at these achievements.

                           The great,incomparable Pablo Picasso

“What simplicity! How direct, unencumbered and free! “ are the common reactions to such works by real and potential Mothers everywhere. These voices of the heart want to encourage the toddler in us and wish for a world described in baby-talk with valentine hearts and rainbows.
Instead of teaching attentive observation of perfection of forms of the world countless battalions of art-teachers introduce children to art as fun. Indeed everything has to be fun.

                              Another colossus of art: Henri Matisse

It seems that two powerful forces combined their enthusiasms to bring the triumph of infantilism to the arts. One is the modern art itself consisting of primitivism, dedication to basic geometry, hate of content and of serious observation of reality. Second is feminization of the world-view where according to women all children are talented, each scribble is “great” and everybody gets a gold star in pink kindergarten of life.
Modern art invites to lowering the standards of expectations. If one is looking for fun, ease and gratification without applying attentiveness or skill, modern art is just that kind of activity. Finger-painting taught to children promises fun without effort, a happy game without failures. The tedium connected with any achievement is blissfully removed. Modern art is a finger-painting for grown-ups.

Elements of art that are absolutely irremovable from its definition, like study, skill, refinement and thoughtfulness - all requiring decades of schooling and self-improvement- they are all removed at the broadly open, democratic gates of modern art. The Peoples Art. Anybody can do it! No aptitude? No problem: none required. No drawing skills? No worry; just manipulate somebody else’s images- it’s a collage, art of the skill-less. No original ideas? Plagiarize and we shall call it “acquisitions”. No sense of color? We need to be more open-minded and include the crude, the ugly, the toxic and the haphazard color to free our aesthetic sensibility from the tyranny of conservative expectations.... As the Russians like to say: the worse, the better.