Dream Pictures

There is something dreamlike in the paintings of Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), mistakenly nicknamed Douanier Rousseau (he never worked for customs). Perhaps his most famous painting is that of the Sleeping Gypsy, shown above, in the presence of a lion, a stringed instrument, and a piece of pottery. Many of Rousseau’s paintings are set in the jungle or the desert, though he himself never visited either.

Below is one of his jungle scenes:

This painting is title Dreams of Henri Rousseau. The two jungle cats in the foreground have the same expression of the eyes as the lion in Sleeping Gypsy. As the art historian Daniel Catton Rich wrote:

His approach was far from literal. Inspired by his vision he arbitrarily rewove the appearance of nature to suit his purpose. The long series of imaginative paintings show Rousseau obsessed by one repeated scheme of composition. He imagines a strongly lighted distance against which he silhouettes darker forms of trees or foliage. Plane upon plane is piled up in intricate design, and usually two small figures focus the eye on the foreground. This same ‘dream picture’ haunted him from the days of “Carnival Evening” to the last jungle picture he painted.

Hitherto tied to the more realistic classics, Henri Rousseau represented an abrupt journey in the direction of modern art. His reality was what he dreamed it to be. Fortunately, it was close enough to actual reality in its intent if not its execution to remain mainstream long after many masterpieces of abstract expressionism fall by the wayside.

Rembrandt Laughs

Rembrandt Laughing—Self Portrait ca. 1628

One thing about the later paintings of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s later paintings: They were pretty somber. Not only somber, but Old Testament somber. Therefore, it was nice to see something he painted in a lighter vein when he was in his early twenties.

What made Rembrandt laugh? He must have seen me accidentally dump a bowl of clam chowder in my lap at the Getty Center. The original is a small painting, only 22.2 cm × 17.1 cm (8¾ in × 6¾ in).

I think that, as we get older, we sometimes forget to laugh.We look at the news and are dismayed. We examine the younger generation’s report cards and strange subculture and are nonplussed. We visit the doctor and realize we are not immortal. But we can still laugh. If we can laugh, I think we will live longer and better. The young Rembrandt knew that. The older Rembrandt? Not so much.

For Rembrandt to yuck so heartily while wearing an uncomfortable-looking steel collar is all the more remarkable. I like this Rembrandt. He is fun without being quite so Harmenszoon, and that is a good thing.

This is the first of a series of posts I refer to as gallery talks, based on my visits to various art museums. This particular painting is at the Getty Center.

How Not to Serve Clam Chowder

Today, for the first time since quarantine began, I went to visit the Getty Center. There was an interesting exhibit of paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger, plus the usual permanent collection.

After seeing the Holbeins, I walked down to the café and ordered a cup of clam chowder. It was good and hot and tasty. I got up to get some black pepper, but when I returned to the table, I managed to dump most of the chowder into my lap, with some going on my shirt and other bits on my work boots.

There is no way to look cool when you are wearing a serving of clam chowder. I did the best I could to wipe the chunky bits off my clothes. Then I looked for a bench in an isolated part of the grounds and sat there to let the soup dry off my clothing.

On the plus side, I did see some interesting paintings. The idea came to me to write follow-up postings on individual art works that particularly impressed me—which I will start in a day or two.

I regret to say that I am off clam chowder for the time being.

A World Class Art Museum

The Cleveland Museum of Art

One would think that I would praise the Los Angeles Museum of Art to the skies. I don’t. (Too much non-representational modern garbage.) Instead, I think back to the Cleveland Museum of Art as reflected in the lovely lagoon which leads to the main entrance. It was surrounded by two universities which have since joined into one: Case Western Reserve University used to be the Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University.

As a high school student, I used to take the bus down to University Circle and take an art appreciation class taught by the museum staff. After each class, I would stroll around the galleries, especially the one dedicated to the French Impressionists. There was a particularly beautiful Van Gogh there. And, as a kid, I loved the medieval armor gallery, the like of which I have never seen in any other art museum.

The Armor Court at the Cleveland Museum of Art

There wasn’t a whole lot of abstract expressionism around, though I suspect there is more now. The closest I came to liking modern art was a moody painting by the American Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917). It was called “Death on a Pale Horse.” I am happy to hear the painting is still there.

“Death on a Pale Horse” by Albert Pinkham Ryder

Each time I went to the museum, I would have lunch at a soda fountain by East 105th Street, always ordering a lime rickey, which was pretty much like a lemonade except it was made with lime. Back then, I thought of lime as an exotic fruit instead of an accompaniment to my tequila.

Places like the Museum meant a great deal to me. It was a way I could get away from home on a Saturday and enjoy myself and learn something at the same time.

Opus Tesellatum

Well-To-Do Young Couple from Pompeii

Many years ago there was an exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) of various objects found at Pompeii that had been covered by the ash from Mount Vesuvius. I remember seeing the original of the above mosaic in the exhibit, which looked much better than the illustration above.

According to an article by Mark Cartwright published in 2013:

Mosaics, otherwise known as opus tesellatum, were made with small black, white and coloured squares typically measuring between 0.5 and 1.5 cm but fine details were often rendered using even smaller pieces as little as 1mm in size. These squares (tesserae or tessellae) were cut from materials such as marble, tile, glass, smalto (glass paste), pottery, stone and even shells. A base was first prepared with fresh mortar and the tesserae positioned as close together as possible with any gaps then filled with liquid mortar in a process known as grouting. The whole was then cleaned and polished.

In addition, there were wall paintings from Pompeii, but these dis not impress me greatly. It was as if painting was a kind of poor man’s version of mosaics. What surprised me was that, in so many instances, there were paintings of statues.

Mosaic of Fish and Ducks

There were even some historical mosaics, such as this badly damaged view of Alexander the Great and his army:

Mosaic of Alexander the Great with His Army

In almost every case I have seen, the Roman mosaics were superior to the paintings of the period that I have seen. When one sees the original of one of these mosaics, one is impressed by the vividness of the image and the superiority of the medium. When I see a Pompeii exhibit or attend the Getty Villa, I always end up feeling that, with the end of the Roman Empire, we have lost a great art form.

Outliers: Rick Bartow, Mad River Wiyot

Deer Spirit by Rick Bartow (1946-2016)

Today, Martine and I visited the Autry National Center, which was putting on a show of the late American Indian painter and sculptor, Rick Bartow, entitled “Things You Know But Cannot Explain.” I was enthralled by Bartow’s vision of people and the wild animals whose spirits have invaded them. A member of the Mad River Band of Wiyot Indians, Bartow  lived much of his life around Newport, Oregon.

The deer spirit illustrated above is typical of Bartow’s depiction of human verging on totemic animal. Another is the drawing that gave its name to the show:

“Things You Know But Cannot Explain”

Note the face seeming to emerge from the upper right behind the foreground figure, who appears to be paralyzed with fright. Much more traditional is the drawing of three hawks below.

“Three Hawks”

I may not have a drop of Native American blood in me, but I am always delighted to see creative depictions of animals I consider to be my own personal totems, among whom I include the coyote, the raven, and the bear. Because I live at the edge of the desert and Bartow lived in the wet forests of the north, he did not depict my other totems, the frog and the turtle, both of whom I associate with life-giving rain.

Some of Bartow’s most impressive works are his sculptures. Perhaps I will do another posting on those later on. They are usually formed of wood, nails, and various found objects.

At a time when much of the art work is ruled by abstract expressionist garbage, I find Rick Bartow to be rooted in an ancient tradition that manages to speak to me today.


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.


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 New Realism

Carmen Miranda

Carmen Miranda

This is a continuation of my occasional series on Argentinian painters. Today, I am presenting three paintings by Delesio Antonio Berni (1905-1981), who is known for his Nuevo Realismo, or new realism. This is usually taken to mean a Latin American form of social realism.

Below are two paintings dealing with poverty and the effects of industrialization in Argentina. Juan Perón came into power in the 1940s largely because of his appeal to workers. He was greatly aided in this by his then wife Evita Perón.

Public Demonstration

Manifestacion (Public Demonstration) (1934)

Note the sign at the upper right of this haunting image that reads “Pan y Trabajo,” which translates as “Bread and Work.” The faces in the foreground are particularly interesting.

There was a time when Argentina and Uruguay were two of the richest countries in the world. Much of this had to do with the invention of canned meat, followed soon after by the First World War, when there was a huge demand for meat to provision the troops of both sides. Sadly, boom times do not always last.


Desocupados (The Unemployed) (1934)

The above painting shows unemployed workers either asleep or staring into the middle distance.

When I go to Buenos Aires next month, I hope to find some of his original paintings, perhaps at MALBA (Museo d’Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires).

Looking East

Károly Ferenczy’s “The Gardeners”

Károly Ferenczy’s “The Gardeners”

I know next to nothing about academic Hungarian art, but I would like to know more. Today I searched the website of the Hungarian National Gallery looking for paintings that caught my eye. The one above looks like a typical folk subject, a gardener and his son. The gardener works at potting what looks like a yellow rose while his son holds an empty pot and a watering can while blankly staring into the distance.

From my childhood, I know a bit about popular art, which consists of all sorts of peasant scenes, with picturesque cottages, rustic wells, and galloping Magyar cowboys (we called them csikosok). We had one such reproduction in our living room which actually scared me. If one stared at the shadows of branches and leaves against the wall of the cottage, it looked like a sinister face with a hand raised threateningly.

Here is another work that caught my eye:

Jenö Gyárfás’s “Youth and Age”

Jenö Gyárfás’s “Youth and Age”

From time to time I will return to this subject, hopefully becoming a little more learned in the process.