Joy or Pain?

The painting below is The Artist at His Easel by Rembrandt. The first time I saw it was in a program narrated by Simon Schama. Art historians and commentators and critics say a lot of stuff about paintings, but what Schama said about this stayed with me. All the energy in the world is coming from that canvas. Of course logically and in the world of physics, there is a window in front of the canvas and it is reflecting the day, but even that is pretty beautiful.

I have two paintings going now — both cranes. One is the big painting and the other is on a piece of exterior plywood; a garden sign. The person who ordered it ordered a sunflower sign in August and now wants a sign for winter.

Last evening, I watched the second installment of Waldemar Januzsczak’s three programs on American art. It ended with Mark Rothko whose work I don’t get and will probably never get. Januzsczak centered the episode on the twentieth century phenomenon of New York City — which I don’t get and will probably never get. It’s strange that Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, San Francisco, LA, Chicago, Milan, Zürich and Venice were welcoming and wonderful places, but New York City? I’ve been there three times and every time I could’t wait to get out. I’ve even driven in that city, but, no. It’s not for me. Still, it is an amazing place.

Some of what I saw and heard was familiar — I, like many people, went through an Edward Hopper phase and pondered, in my twenties, the problem of alienation in the midst of people Hopper depicts so well. Now I recognize that alienation is the human condition, but at 24? I’d hoped for something beyond a terrible marriage and crowds of people I didn’t know, to whom I had nothing to say.

Edward Hopper Night Windows

Januzsczak’s favorite New York artist is a man who painted New York in the 1930s, a guy named Reginald Marsh. His work is very alive, filled with people, and the kind of crowded, purpose-driven I have felt when I’ve been in New York City. I liked Marsh’ pictures, too. (Featured photo: Twenty Cent Movies)

I saw many beautiful paintings in this episode, but the biggest thing I got was the source of much abstract art was the religion of Theosophy. The essence (according to Waldy) is that under everything there is an order, a structure, a divine reason. This philosophy/religion had a tremendous influence, apparently, on modern art and was the motive behind abstract painting. Since, honestly, abstract painting never seemed to have a “reason” behind it (for me) though I often like it, it was interesting to learn this. For a long time, this has been the most important words about art I’ve read:

“The artist must have something to say, for mastery over form is not his goal but rather the adapting of form to its inner meaning.” Wassily Kandinsky

When a person looks at one religious painting after another in a museum that person might think, “Good God!” (no pun) Goethe was sorry all these artists had been “forced” to paint only one story. I shrugged reading Goethe’s words. How could he know how they felt or what else they may have wanted to paint? Painters paint for money and the church was where the money was and, what’s more, that was not just the “same painting” for a lot of those artists. Painting virgins, babies, etc. was more than that, possibly a spiritual thing.

For me, there’s something more to painting than slapping paint on a surface. Way more. I’m not going to put words on it, not any more than that.

Sadly, Mark Rothko and another Theosophist abstract artist of the era both hung themselves. The other’s life had turned into a sad country song. He’d gotten bowel cancer and was tied to a colostomy bag forever and his wife left him. It took him three tries before he found the old barn with a beam that held the rope and suspended his weight. As for Mark Rothko? Perhaps there is no why. I took all this focus in Januzsczak’s discussion as more of the same: artist’s are tortured souls who are difficult for us normal people to understand, a thread that has run through many of Januzsczak’s discussions of art.

Maybe it just isn’t that interesting to people to think that an artist might be, as the little painting by Rembrandt, above, seems to say, happy, humbled and filled with wonder at the prospect of painting. Still, I think Frank Stella was wonder-filled and happy when he painted these.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/11/05/rdp-thursday-paint/

“What did you do on election night, Martha?”

I can’t WAIT to hear and read the florabundance of BS that is about to bloom in America, rehashing the infinite election.

Last evening, on Twitter, I learned that my favorite TV art historian, Waldemar Januzsczak, has done a series for the BBC on American art. It’s called, “Big Skies, Big Dreams, Big Art.” I immediately attempted to log on to the BBC to stream it but guess what? If you’re not in Britain, you can’t stream the BBC. I guess it’s the immensity of the Atlantic Ocean that prevents that.

Wait, no, that’s not it. It’s $$. 🙂

I tweeted at Waldemar and said, “Yeah but I can’t watch it and I’m out here under the big skies, with big dreams and big paintings — my own! I was hoping to get through this strange evening watching your series!”

He hooked me up with a link to his website from which I could buy or rent the series. I bought it. I often watch his shows more than once. I tweeted back, “Thanks, you’re the best, here’s a painting.” I attached the tree painting. He (as I choose to believe) — or one of his minions (impossible; it was him) tweeted back.

I was happy.

He starts out in the American West — which fascinates Europeans, I know from having taught ESL to a variety of Europeans back in the day. I felt his connections between things were a little tenuous, but I wasn’t watching him to learn American history. I was watching to get his take on Art from my world.

He started with Thomas Moran whose huge visionary romanticized views of American scenes have been part of my life since I was a kid. My favorite Teton is named after that artist. I don’t think Waldemar has been in the American west long enough at a time to see that Moran’s fabulous skies didn’t ONLY come from J. M. W. Turner, but from, well, our skies. Here’s an example of a post-thunderstorm sky in June out at Homelake here in Monte Vista.

But, Moran’s paintings of Venice are almost copies of Turner’s so what do I know?

Waldemar’s goal in the show was to get to Jackson Pollack. His route was a little convoluted — going past Frederick Remington and Theosophy — but he got there. I often learn things from Waldemar about painters, especially painters I don’t like and don’t get, Pollack being one of them. But it was cool to learn that Pollack came from Cody, Wyoming and not in the way Kanye West comes from Wyoming. Featured image: Mural by Jackson Pollack. There are horses in it.

As for the election? The one thing I’ve taken away from all this is I have to get myself together and let the future take care of itself. Fuck it. If that’s what the people want, who am I?

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/11/04/rdp-wednesday-flora/

Rococo

This is one of the wisest things I’ve ever read. It puts things squarely where they belong, and it is sometimes difficult to remember:

“…whatever we nourish in ourselves grows; that is an eternal law of nature. There is an organ of displeasure, of dissatisfaction in us, as there is one of opposition and doubt. The more food we provide for it and the more we practice it, the mightier it becomes until it turns from an organ into a malignant ulcer and banefully eats up its environment, drains and strangles all the good humors of the body. Then repentance, self-reproach and other absurdities are added to it, we become unjust toward others and ourselves. The joy at ones own success and action as well as that of others is lost. In our desperation we finally look for the reason of all evil outside ourselves instead of finding it in our mental perversion. We should see every person and every event in its real light, one should step beyond oneself to be able to return to oneself all the more free.” Goethe quoted by his friend, Friedrich von Muller.”

I’ve been watching the British art historian’s –Waldemar Januszczak — series’ off and on for a couple of years. The most recent one I’ve looked at is Rococo Before Bedtime. I don’t always agree with him when he starts inflicting his taste in art on the viewing public, but as MY taste in art conflicts with the Rococo, I never learned to appreciate it. I never even put it in its place in time. I’ve seen some of it. I got to spend a day at the Nymphenburg Castle in Munich trying to fathom it and what my new acquaintance was telling me. He was a docent from the Haus du Kunst the formerly Hitlerian government art museum building. He didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak any German, and we relied on something loosely resembling French. The architecture was beautiful, the interior ornamentation? I didn’t get it.

And this grossed me out:

 

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Carriage, Nymphenburg Castle

 

It’s pretty impossible to escape personal taste. The baroque and rococo (the baroque becomes the rococo) churches I’ve visited in Europe are still over-the-top to me. The first one I visted was Einsiedeln Abbey in Switzerland. Entering that sanctuary for the first time was scary. I’d NEVER been in a place like that — or even in a Catholic church. EVERYTHING was there in a vast 3D illusion — and some actual 3D legs and arms made of stucco (plaster). I felt the full and intended effect, I guess, of what I have now learned the Catholic church wanted me to feel. My friend and I retreated from that place and took a walk in the woods.

 

Ausschnitt Weihnachtskuppel Einsiedeln

Ceiling, Einsiedeln Abbey

 

It was interesting to learn, however, that the baroque (which led to the Rococo)  was (in Januszczak’s opinion? Or really?) a church sanctioned art movement that was part of the Counter-Reformation. The Council of Trent had sent out the order? Edict? that Catholic churches should VIVIDLY depict Bible stories on their walls in reaction to the burning of the idols. Einsiedeln is one of the pilgrimage churches and, according to Januszczak, pilgrimages were big during the baroque and rococo. This also made the pilgrimage churches even richer BUT they had to give the pilgrims some bang for their bucks which contributed to their ornateness. I believe that. Churches I’ve visited that were NOT pilgrim churches but were decorated around the same time are still ornate, but not over-the-top, every square inch peopled with saints, angels, madonnas, and various random people in the “audience,” the faces of donors.

I wasn’t even clear on the YEARS that comprise the baroque and rococo, but watching the program I got it. It was much of Goethe’s lifetime. When I realized that I thought of Goethe’s incredible mind that was, literally, everywhere — science, poetry, drama, erotica, government, mining, botany, geology on and on — and realized that the zeitgeist was such that the fecundity and fluidity in the visual arts and music was everywhere, as elaborate and wildly creative as a rococo ceiling.

 

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Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

Last evening, looking for distraction from the election, I found myself watching a British art history documentary about Hans Holbein. The “guide” was Waldemar Januszczak, not my favorite art historian (he’s ugly, I’m superficial) and I ended up having one of those strange experiences of seeing a painting on television that I saw in real life in a city I visited but barely remember. The show is “Holbein; the Eye of the Tudors” and this is the painting:

550px-the_body_of_the_dead_christ_in_the_tomb_and_a_detail_by_hans_holbein_the_younger

Christ in the Tomb, Hans Holbein, Basel Art Museum

I was on a search that day for anything medieval and related to St. Gall. One of the doorways of the Basel cathedral is called the “Gallus Portal” because it is medieval and the carvings all around it tell the life of St. Gall, Switzerland’s patron saint who also happens to have been an Irishman.

basel_-_basler_mu%cc%88nster_-_galluspforte

Gallus Portal, Basel Cathedral

I was barely tuned into the fact that Nietzsche had lived in that city for quite a while and a person I had studied at some point in my education, Erasmus of Rotterdam, had also lived there. I didn’t know then that I would come to admire Erasmus very much; I didn’t know then his connection to Thomas More who is, allegedly, someone in the dim recesses of my family tree.

So there I was last night watching this strange chubby loud Waldemar Januszczak make (to me) gratuitous pop culture allusions to tie his viewers to the not-so-arcane history of the Reformation. As the show unfolded, I discovered that Waldemar Januszczak and I had some biases in common. Waldemar hated the Reformers for one of the same reasons I do; they sacked the churches, destroyed the art, and left them barren. What Waldemar had failed to research is that it was not Luther who reformed Basel; it became part of the Swiss Reformed Church — a reform movement begun in Zürich by Huldrych Zwingli and instituted in Basel by Zwingli’s friend, Johannes Oecolampadius These guys were not sympathetic with Martin Luther at all… They were distinct reformations with distinct doctrinal differences. Luther and Zwingli passionately disliked each other.

I wondered if it were so hard to do that research and get that right? The most common reader review of The Brothers Path is that the readers know nothing about this part of the Reformation. Some are interested by it; most are bORed. Many reviewers admit to skipping over the “God” bits. This would be most of the book since it’s about a religious revolution and one of the main characters is a priest turned reformed pastor, another is a religious fanatic and another a simple man of faith. For that matter, we have the Zürich reformation to thank for John Calvin, from whose religious philosophy many of the Protestant religions were born — Presbyterians, for one. I pretty much hate that stuff, but I’ve written about it, sympathetically, I hope. It seemed — seems — important to know where it came from, what world and why. ANY-hoo…

Waldemar made some important points, such as for a guy like Hans Holbein whose bread-and-butter was religious art, the Reformation wasn’t the best historical moment.

And swirling all around the beginning of “Hans Holbein; the Eye of the Tudors” was Basel. The cathedral. The day I visited it in 1997 it was January, a snowy day, and we entered the front doors and a silent man with sparkly eyes swept the snow from our clothing and handed us felt slippers to put over our shoes. We walked around the dim, red stone church. I felt its ancient solemnity; I did not notice (and wish I had) the defaced sculptures on the walls. Thanks to Waldemar Januszczak, I saw them last night. That wintry day I also noticed the tomb of Erasmus. A tiny bell far in the distance of my mind rang softly and when I got home, I checked out In Praise of Folly and read it, this time really, not just for a test in some obscure class. The book was in Latin and English.

Hans Holbein loved In Praise of Folly and drew whimsical illustrations in the margin. I got a bit annoyed with Waldemar  when he didn’t seem to realize that was pretty conventional behavior; perhaps Waldemar had never seen a medieval illustrated manuscript? That was — to my eyes — what Holbein had done, simply finished the book. After all, printing was new in the early 16th century.

So what’s the point?

At the end of the show, Waldemar spent time on one important and amazing painting, The Ambassadors.

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Holbein died of the plague when he was in his mid-forties bringing home, again, the point that “art is long, life is fleeting.” The things which concern us today, frighten us today, will soon be forgotten completely and someday, a few hundred years from now, someone will comment on the events that have concerned Americans so much this past year. It will be a passing footnote in a longer story.

And he will get the facts wrong and most people will not even notice.

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