Sacred Mountain

Frank LaPeña’s Painting Sacred Mountain

Yesterday, Martine and I visited the Autry Museum of the American West in Griffith Park. Many of the galleries were still closed due to the Covid-19 outbreak, but what there was, was choice. I am specifically referring to the exhibit of California Indian art entitled “When I Remember I See Red: American Indian Art and Activism in California.” What impressed me the most was work from a Nontipom Wintu artist from Northern California named Frank LaPeña (1937-2019).

Artist Frank LaPeña

What draws me to American Indian art is its spirituality and brilliant imagery—both qualities notably lacking in so many academic artists. These are not works to decorate a corporate boardroom: Instead, they are works to make you feel grounded in a separate reality, one that is part of the world from which the artist comes.

Frank LaPeña’s Dream Song

In a strange coincidence, there is an accused murderer with the same name who is totally unrelated to the artist. This other Frank LaPeña was recently released from prison in Nevada where he was wrongfully incarcerated for hiring a hit man to kill the wife of a Caesars Palace in 1974.

I will try in the week ahead to highlight some more California Indian artists from the Autry show.

Automotive Heraldry

There Is Something Classy About the Logos of British Sports Cars

As Martine and I attended a British car show at the Automobile Driving Museum in El Segundo, I became acutely conscious of the snazzy sports car logos—far more sophisticated than most American and Japanese equivalents. Here are just a few of the hood ornaments I snapped at the show. They reminded me of the medieval art of heraldry.

You Can See My Reflection on the Hood

I Had Never Even Heard of This Make

I Don’t Quite Understand the Letters Above the Name “Lotus”

I feel almost Chestertonian in my seeing this heraldic connection, but I really think it is not all that far fetched.

The Eyes of the Inca

The Peru of a Hundred Years Ago Through Peruvian Eyes

Martín Chambi Jiménez (1891-1973) was a Peruvian photographer who was active until a 1950 earthquake destroyed much of his beloved Cuzco. In his studio, he took pictures like the above musical group with their traditional instruments. But he also traveled around, photographing the altiplano of Peru, the city of Cuzco, and such sites as the ruins of Machu Picchu.

Cuzco Street Scene

In 1979, the Museum of Modern Art in New York displayed an exhibition of Chambi’s photographs, which traveled to other cities and inspired other shows displaying his work. Chambi was a native-born speaker of Quechua, the language of the Incas, and he saw the people and the landscape as only a native could see them.

Quechuan Woman Chewing Coca Leaves

Below is one of the many images he shot at the ruins of Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu As It Was 100 Years Ago

Photographers like Chambi are a rare link to the past in faraway places that were not in the mainstream of Western European Civilization.

Wrong Direction: U-Turn Required

Two Paintings by Mark Rothko (1903-1970)

I feel that with abstract expressionism, American art took the wrong direction. Instead of the painting becoming something for the viewing public, it became something produced because the painter had to work out something not quite communicable in his or her own mind.

It was during my college years during the mid-1960s that I first developed my dislike of what had become the dominant movement in American painting. (Fortunately, it no longer is.) In fact, it was Mark Rothko who first came to my attention—and I didn’t like him from the first.

It was Anais Nin who wrote in Volume 1 of her Diary: “I am essentially human, not intellectual. I do not understand abstract art. Only art born of love, passion, pain.”

Jackson Pollock’s “Convergence”(1952)

There are many abstract expressionist painters I do not like, so I am highlighting the three who particularly came to my attention: Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning. If I somehow came into possession of one of their works, I would not under any circumstances put it on display. Instead, I would find some fool to pay hard cash for it. It would be ideal for a corporate head office, and not at all for the residence or office of a person who has chosen not be be schooled to appreciate such work.

Willem de Kooning’s “Untitled” (19 Something or Other)

I have come under fire from some of my friends over my attitude on modern art. I don’t dislike all modern art, just art that is divorced from reality as I know and understand it. I do not care a fig for whatever reality is in the mind of the artist if it does not in some way intersect with my reality.

Very interesting rectangles, Mark. I’ll let you know if I’m in the market for any. Oh, Jackson, I hope you’re not doing any graffiti in my neighborhood. And Willem, you built yourself quite a career with your multicolor daubs of an indiscriminate nature.

There really is not anything else I have to say. I’m not the artist, and certainly not the artist’s psychoanalyst.

Christian Archeology

Interior of the Palace of the Archbishop, Lima, Peru

What shocked me more than anything during my 2014 visit to Peru was that the archeology of Spanish Catholicism in Peru was fully as interesting as the archeology of the Incas and other pre-Columbian peoples. The pictures here all come from my visit to the Palace of the Archbishop next to the Cathedral in Lima on November 9, 2014. I was guided through the Palace by a very cute young Peruvian nun who kept addressing me as “Gentleman.”

As I visited the Palace and the various churches and convents, I thought to myself that the Christian religion in Peru had passed its peak. What remained was partially syncretic, but in any case visually stunning.

Chalice Flanked by Two Monstrances

I have often thought that it was not the King of Spain who benefited from the wealth of gold and silver transshipped from South America, as much as Holy Mother the Church. The churches and monasteries in the historic center of Lima are glistening with gold, silver, and precious stones. At the Monastery of Santo Domingo are the remains of three 17th century Limeño saints: Rose of Lima, Martín de Porres, and Juan Macías—all of whom were affiliated with the Dominican Order.

Brought up as a Roman Catholic, I found myself spending a lot more time in the churches than at the Inca ruins. They were usually beautiful and peaceful, even if I wound up attending Mass a number of times. In fact, I felt myself more a Catholic in Peru than I do in Los Angeles.

Statue of the Blessed Virgin

Whatever their original colors, it seems as if the paintings and statues of Christ, the Virgin, and the saints are predominantly reddish brown. This is particularly true of the Cusco School of Painting which predominated at the time. At some point soon, I will repeat a past post on the iconography of archangels shown in Peruvian paintings of the Cusco School.

Prophet and Visionary

Blake’s Swirling Lovers from Dante’s Inferno

I have always loved the poetry of William Blake (1757-1827), particularly “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” But now I am increasingly becoming interested in his art, which exhibit the seemingly contradictory qualities of naiveté and authoritativeness. The scene above is from Canto V of the Inferno, in Robert Pinsky’s translation:

And cursing the power of Heaven. I learned
     They suffer here who sinned in carnal things—
     Their reason mastered by desire, suborned.
 As winter starlings riding on their wings
     Form crowded flocks, so spirits dip and veer
     Foundering in the wind’s rough buffetings

The Complaint of Job

In the above drawing, we see Job at the left, with his taunting friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar on the right. Like much of Blake’s art, the image is almost deceptively simple. Note the positioning of the fingers on his right hand indicating Job’s increasing agitation. The “friends” appear smug and serious, assuming identical positions.

“The Ancient of Days”

Only Blake had the chutzpah to show God the Father intent in the act of creation. This is my favorite of the images shown here. You can see the force emanating from the Deity’s fingertips as dark clouds encircle him.

According to London’s Tate Gallery:

A committed Christian who was hostile to the Church of England (indeed, to almost all forms of organised religion), Blake was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American revolutions. Though later he rejected many of these political beliefs, he maintained an amiable relationship with the political activist Thomas Paine; he was also influenced by thinkers such as Emanuel Swedenborg. Despite these known influences, the singularity of Blake’s work makes him difficult to classify. The 19th-century scholar William Michael Rossetti characterised him as a “glorious luminary”, and “a man not forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors”.

Posted in art

Andrei Rublev

Holy Trinity Icon (ca AD 1400)

I have always been fascinated by Eastern Orthodox icons, beginning around the time Martine and I began visiting Greek festivals in the Los Angeles area. Perhaps the greatest master of the icon was the Russian Andrei Rublev (Андрей Рублёв), born sometime between 1360 and 1370 and died sometime between 1427 and 1430. Not much is known about his life, but his work continues to inspire. In fact, I have seen a number of copies of his icons at different Greek Orthodox churches.

To the untutored eye, there is something rigid about the typical icon, with its gold-leaf background and its lack of attention to perspective and even realism. Most subjects are of God, the Blessed Virgin, and various saints. We are not privy to the mind of God and must therefore be respectful of any representation of Him or the saints. These icons are objects of worship which are venerated by the faithful as they enter the narthex of an Orthodox church.

Rublev’s Icon of Our Lady of Vladimir (ca 1406)

However rigid the style may be, the facial expressions of the Blessed Virgin and the Infant Christ are incredible: On one hand, Mary seems to see the condemnation and crucifixion to come, while Christ seems to be staring at her with a look of purpose and strength.

Icon of Christ Pantocrator (Detail)

According to a famed dealer in Russian icons:

The iconographic type of Pantocrator (Almighty or Omnipotent in Greek) shows Christ as the Lord of the Universe, co-equal and co-eternal to the Father. The iconography originates in Byzantine art and is known since the sixth century. The earliest known surviving example is the icon of Pantocrator from Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Later on, gigantic images of the Pantocrator, represented half-length with a book of Gospels in his hand, can be seen on the mosaics and frescoes of Byzantine cupolas. In Russia, this iconography usually appeared in the Deisis Tier, the main part of the iconostasis, but could also be used for independent devotional images.

In Greek Orthodox churches, the image of Christ Pantocrator usually appears in the cupola above the nave.

Over the years I feel I have come to appreciate the artistry of these icons. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend you see Andrei Tarkovsky’s great film Andrei Rublev (1966), which is available in DVD from the Criterion Collection. It is a hagiography of sorts, and rightly so as the Russian Orthodox church has declared Rublev to be a saint in 1988.

A Splash of Art

A Front Yard in Pasadena

It was eight years ago. My friend Bill Korn told me about a house he had discovered during one of his long walks. The front yard of this Pasadena property was a triumphant statement of a home-grown artist. I made the mistake of not noting the address, and I wonder if what we saw then is still there.

The art reminds me of the Watts Towers created by Simon Rodia out of various found objects. In this case, most of the objects were multicolored ceramics, toys, and other small items which were carefully cemented together by the owner of the house.

Broken Ceramics Cemented Together

I guess the front yard structures can be classified as a kind of gonzo art. Yet the effect is curiously pleasing. I’m sure that hundreds of hours went into creating these effects.

Some of the Trees and Succulents in the Yard

When we are able to travel once again and get together with friends and dine inside at a restaurant, I will have to find this place. It really struck a nerve with me.

A One-Man Renaissance

Francisco Toledo (1940-2019)

In his book On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey, Paul Theroux met with Francisco Toledo in Oaxaca shortly before the artist died. I was curious to see images of some of his works because his meeting with Theroux raised my interest.

A Zapotec Indian from Juchitán in the southeast corner of the State of Oaxaca (near the Isthmus of Tehuantepec), Francisco Benjamin López Toledo was a noted painter, sculptor, illustrator, and protestor. When McDonald’s wanted to plant the Golden Arches in the zócalo of Oaxaca, Toledo set up a table offering free tamalitos to passers-by explaining to them the damage that would be done to their culture.

Animal-Headed Woman

When Theroux asked him what he thought of Frida Kahlo, Toledo replied:

I started out hating her. Then later I began to see that she represented something. And outsiders were interested in her. Her life was so complex and painful. So she is something. But there are so many others.

Kahlo is well known to art critics outside of Mexico, along with a handful of other artists such as Orozco, Rivera, Tamayo, and Siqueiro; but Toledo is right that Mexico is fairly crawling with great art. This was brought home to me during my recent trip to Yucatán, when I made a point of visiting art and folk museums.

Illustration: Mythical Creature

To another American visitor, Toledo describes his work:

What I do is a mixture of things, but the pre-Hispanic world has been a source of inspiration. There are certain solutions that are decorative that come from pre-Hispanic art and at the same time there is much primitive art that is refined or simple but also very modern.

They described his work as employing innovative materials, such as sand and amate paper, which was used by pre-Columbian Indians, made with the crushed bark of the amate tree (Ficus insipida, a species of fig).

A Ceramic Sculpture Honoring the Disappeared of Mexico

I hope to present the work of other Mexican artists in posts to come.

América Tropical

The Reconstruction of América Tropical in Downtown LA

In the 20th century, Mexico produced three great muralists: José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. On other occasions, I have written about the influence on me of the Orozco frescoes at Dartmouth College. Sometimes, I think that my interest in Latin America began in the Reserve Room of Baker Library, where the frescoes were located.

Los Angeles has only a reconstruction of David Alfaro Siqueiros’s América Tropical, which was created in 1932 at its present location on Olvera Street. Unfortunately, Siqueiros’s revolutionary message angered LA business leaders, who had the mural painted over.

Reconstruction of Detail

Today, the fresco is restored—but, alas, only in black and white. Below is what the original looked like:

The Fresco As It Originally Appeared

It took a quarter century for the Getty Conservation Institute to restore the image which was obliterated by layers of white paint. You can read about it here. When the Covid-19 outbreak comes to an end, you can view the restoration in person.