The Father of Modern Space Art

View of Saturn Seen from Titan

As I was growing up in Cleveland, I was deeply influenced by what I call space art. And by space, I mean outer space. For instance, the backgrounds in Forbidden Planet (1956) were a major influence on me. I was also influenced by the work of Father of Modern Space Art, Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986), who was born before the flight and Kitty Hawk and lived to see American astronauts walk on the surface of the moon. The paintings shown here are all by Bonestell.

According to the article on him in Wikipedia:

His paintings are prized by collectors and institutions such as the National Air and Space Museum and the National Collection of Fine Arts. One of his classic paintings, an ethereally beautiful image of Saturn seen from its giant moon Titan [see above illustration], has been called “the painting that launched a thousand careers.” Wernher von Braun wrote that he had “learned to respect, nay fear, this wonderful artist’s obsession with perfection. My file cabinet is filled with sketches of rocket ships I had prepared to help in his artwork—only to have them returned to me with…blistering criticism.”

Exploring Mars

In some cases, such as in the above painting, the image is contradicted by actual space photography, in this case from the Mars Rovers. Still, Bonestell’s painting is so gorgeous that maybe there is someplace else in the universe that looks like this.

Image of Chicago With a Dry Lake Michigan

Perhaps the work of Bonestell doesn’t do much for many art critics, but it showed me that there were more things on heaven and earth than were dreamt of in my philosophy. And in most cases, they were starkly beautiful.

 

Outliers: Henry Darger

Henry Darger, “Untitled”

Much of 20th century art, particularly abstract expressionism, has taken painting down a rathole. Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman—that whole crew has eschewed images of reality in favor of splotches of color and assorted shapes referring only to themselves.

Yesterday, I read an article in The New York Review of Books by Sanford Schwartz entitled “In Their Own Worlds” (June 7, 2018) which described two art exhibitions featuring folk art and other “outsider” art:

In recent decades, a tale unfolding within the larger story of contemporary art has been our gradually learning more about, and our trying to place, outsider artists. Problems begin at once, with the label. It is a description that many remain ambivalent about, and often believe should be put in quotation marks, to indicate its tentativeness. The situation somewhat echoes the moment, beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, when folk art was being taken out of attics and looked at anew, and commentators were not sure whether that term—or the labels “self-taught,” “naive,” or “primitive,” among others—was the appropriate one or would merely suffice. “Self-taught,” though imprevcise in its way—it has been said, for example, that most of the significant painters of the nineteenth century were essentially self-trained—has remained interchangeable with “folk art” for many commentators.

I have decided to focus on one of the artists mentioned in the article, Henry Joseph Darger Jr (1892-1973).

He Seems to Like Painting Pictures of Little Girls

Darger’s paintings are frequently of little girls, clothed and unclothed, sometimes with penises. In the picture above, the girls, blonde, beribboned, and, for the most part, wearing identical dresses and red socks, are running from the path of an advancing steam locomotive.

More Little Girls, This Time Including Blondes and Brunettes

Many of the Chicago artists are in horizontal scroll format. I guess what I like about Darger’s paintings is that they are so cryptic and surrealistic. One is repeatedly drawn to the images and finding something new in them. Slightly to the left of center of the above painting, for instance, is a witch riding a broom confronting a little blonde girl riding a tricycle.

I hope to find a few more outlier painters whom I like and present their work to you in future posts.

 

Greene with Envy

Front Entrance to the Gamble House

Yesterday, Martine and I drove to Pasadena to visit the Gamble House. No, it’s not a casino. It was the home of the Gambles of the Procter & Gamble fame. Situated on Orange Grove near where the Tournament of Roses Parade makes the turn onto Colorado, the area is a turn of the century (19th to 20th, that is) millionaires’ row. We had visited the house before, years ago, but it’s a good thing to renew one’s acquaintance with great works of art from time to time.

the house is the work of the architectural firm of Greene & Greene. While their works are usually characterized as “arts and crafts bungalows,” what we have here is a sizeable mansion.

Gamble House Exterior

There is something infinitely pleasing and subtle about the works of Greene & Greene when they are at the top of their game, and the Gamble house was definitely at the top of their game. The architects decided not only the exterior feature of the building, the room layouts, and the grounds—but even the furniture in many cases. In one room, everything is made to resemble a vase on the dresser.

Although the architects had never been to the Orient, they did stop at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago on their way to California, where they saw a number of examples of Japanese architecture. That glimpse was sufficient to get them thinking about how to use wood not only for weight-bearing, but also for decorative purposes.

Gamble House Sample Interior

Note the way all the features in the above room blend in with one another. The pottery, the lighting fixture, the table and chairs seem all of a piece. At one point where the servants would injure their hip by banging into a sharp counter corner, the architects made the counter trapezoidal, eliminating the sharp corner. At another point, the very short Aunt Julia Gamble had a special chair made for her to work with the fastenings on her high-button shoes. (Also note Aunt Julia’s little step stool in the above photo for her comfort.) In the boys’ bedroom, there is a low, wide drawer for storing their shoes. In the kitchen, there is a super-wide drawer for storing tablecloths without wrinkling them along the folds.

Everything is on a human scale. And strikingly beautiful.

 

The Architectural Muse

Visitor at a Homage to Roberto Aizenberg’s Paintings

He started out as a student of architecture and ended up being a surrealist painter whose work has an architectural quality. Roberto Aizenberg (1928-1996) is the subject of this post, part of a desultory series on Argentinian painters. In general, I dislike abstract expressionists and love realists and surrealists. A student of Antonio Berni, about whom I have written before, Aizenberg’s work is reminiscent of Xul Solar, another surrealist from the Rio de la Plata.

“Biography of the Author” by Aizenberg

The above painting ties the artist’s love of architecture to the soil of Argentina, with the buildings appearing to be a range of buttes and mesas built atop red earth riddles with caves. This one particularly reminds me of Xul Solar’s surrealist humor.

“Harlequin” by Aizenberg

Harlequins typically wear costumes broken into a design of alternating black and white diamonds. Here, Aizenberg suggests the costume and brackets it with architectural elements. Instead of a human figure, the painter’s harlequin is topped with a doughnut-shaped ring and supported by three spheres of descending size—almost as if it were a decorative finial for a staff or scepter of sorts.

I have not seen many original canvasses by Argentinian painters, with the exception of Xul Solar, whose dedicated museum I have visited in Buenos Aires. The next time I go to South America—and I hope there is a next time—I will have to visit MALBA, the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires.

 

The Joys of Pre-Columbian Art

Moche Portrait Vessels at Lima’s Museo Larco

Not everyone is an aficionado of primitive art—particularly the Pre-Columbian art of the Americas. Children are not taught in schools about the early civilizations of the Americas. On the contrary, I suspect most kids think that, since the ancient civilizations fell so quickly to the conquistadores,  they didn’t have anything to offer to us.

Even one of my literary heroes, Aldous Huxley, came a cropper in his 1934 travel classic, Beyond the Mexique Bay: “Frankly, try how I may, I cannot very much like primitive people. They make me feel uncomfortable. ‘La bêtise n’est pas mon fort.’”

I strongly suspect that among Europeans of some eighty years ago, that was a common opinion. After all, the Olmecs, Maya, Aztecs, Moche, and Inca do not in any way resemble the ancient Greeks and Romans—except that the Inca, like the Romans, were also great road-builders. They didn’t have much of a literature that has survived the Spanish conquest, except perhaps for the Maya Popol Vuh of the 16th century. As for philosophy, drama, novels, poetry… you can pretty much forget about it.

There was a period of tens of thousands of years during which the peoples of the Americas were isolated from any possible contact with European civilization. In consequence, they developed along different lines. Again and again in his book on Guatemala and Mexico, Huxley shows himself to be unwilling to consider that the Maya are very different. Not inferior, just different.

The Moche figures in the above photograph are all highly individualized. They remind me of the terra-cotta Chinese warriors discovered in Xian: Each of the 8,000 soldiers was different from all the others.

Totonac Figure from Mexico

Take the Totonac figure from the State of Veracruz in Mexico. This is a typical subject for Totonac art. Do we know what it means? The sloping forehead (does it show a deliberately deformed skull such as many Maya subjects?), the humorous expression: It is as if the distant past were laughing at us. And, in a way, it is. Many Pre-Columbian figures of animals from Mexico are downright hilarious. I don’t remember that type of humor from Greece or Rome, and certainly nothing similar from the Christian era.

Look at the Diego Rivera mural below, depicting a scene from El Tajin, the ancient ceremonial center of the Totonacs:

Scene from Diego Rivera Mural of El Tajin, Ancient Totonac Center

Let’s face it. We don’t quite understand what is going on here. We probably never will. I myself have been to El Tajin and saw Totonac youths rotating around elevated poles as voladores. Was there any convincing explanation of what was going on here? No, of course not. What intrigues me about this period is that the subjects are incredibly fascinating, but it is all a great mystery. Like life in general.

 

Tarsila do Amaral

Postcard View with Brazilian Scenery by Tarsila do Amarol (1886-1973)

As you may or may not know, I am fundamentally opposed to non-representational painting. Abstract expressionism leaves me cold and even slightly hostile. I don’t even like Pablo Picasso. When I was in Paris last time, I deliberately decided not to visit the Picasso Museum even though I was in the neighborhood between Les Halles and the Bastille, where it is located.

So when I heard of a Brazilian painter who has been called the Picasso of Brazil, I was less than impressed—until I saw some of her works. I was suddenly reminded of Xul Solar, the Argentinean painter whose work was much loved by Jorge Luis Borges (before he became blind, of course). Tarsila de Amaral calls herself simply Tarsila. There is a n exhibit of her works opening at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City.

“Brazilian Religion” (1927)

If you want to see a representative selection of her paintings, click on WikiArt’s website about her. Included there is her self-portrait (see below). Tarsila becomes one of a select group of Latin American artists of the 20th century whose work I think ranks with the best of American painting during that period, and in many cases surpasses it: Fernando Botero of Colombia; Benito Quinquela Martin and Xul Solar of Argentina; and Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros of Mexico.

“Self Portrait” (n.d.)

 

Valentino’s Voisin et al

1932 Pierce-Arrow V12 Model 52 Sedan

On this cool and cloudy Saturday, Martine and I paid another visit to the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar. We saw many of the same cars as on previous visits, but were newly impressed with the variety and beauty of automobiles manufactured in the 1920s and 1930s. The 1932 Pierce-Arrow practically called me by name as I walked by it. Like all the cars at the Nethercutt, it shone like a jewel. Even the tires look bran new. And yes, that is an old fire engine in the left background.

When I compare today’s cars with what was available a hundred years ago, we have lost individuality. (It looks like all the car bodies today were tested in the same wind tunnel, whether from Mercedes, Range Rover, or BMW.) Do you think the Toyota Prius is a new concept? Not so, there were hybrids a hundred years ago—and they looked better, too.

Rudolph Valentino’s 1923 Voisin

Many of the automobiles on display have fascinating histories. For instance, there were only eighteen Rolls-Royce Silver Phantom IVs manufactured, and they were all sold tom heads of state. The Nethercutt has one of the two that belonged to the Sheikh of Kuwait. At the time he owned them, there were only twenty miles of paved road in the whole country.

And then there is the gray 1923 Voisin that belonged to Rudolph Valentino. He purchased three of them, and brought one of them back with him to Hollywood. The hood ornament is a custom-made cobra head which was given him by fellow actor Douglas Fairbanks Sr.

There is even a Duesenberg Twenty Grand that cost … twenty grand. It was the only one manufactured, a special order made for the 1933-34 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago.

Will I ever get tired of seeing these beauties? Not bloody likely.