Art history

A Taste of New York in the Eighties

In June, I was in New York speaking with a friend of mine who is also a writer, and she happened to mention that she had gone to art school (SVA) with Keith Haring.  My wife almost lost it; Haring is one of her all-time favorite artists.

She’s been a fan since forever, but the depth of her reaction might have been helped along because by a book I’d bought her a couple of years earlier.

Keith Haring

Entitled simply Keith Haring, by Jeffrey Deitch, Suzanne Geiss and Julia Gruen, this one is what I’d call an “art biography”. You don’t get much about the subject’s childhood, you don’t get too much about who was sleeping with whom, but you get a comprehensive explanation of the milestones in his artistic career, from elements of his style to people he met along the way and even specific trips and events that proved particularly notable in his career.

It’s a book tinged with sadness, of course–Haring died of AIDS in the early 1990s at far too young an age–but it doesn’t dwell on the sadness.  This book represents that overused phrase: “a celebration of life”.

And it was a life to be celebrated.  Few artists mix innocent style and good-natured self promotion with controversial (and sexual) themes as seamlessly as Haring did.  He preferred to change the world that affected him, even though he wasn’t averse to taking on the bigger-picture issues if he was called to do so.  To me, his Crack is Wack mural is much more indicative of the way he thought–it was inspired by one of his best friends’ addiction–than his action in anti-nuclear protests.

Crack is Wack Mural

I will admit that his art isn’t exactly my cup of tea.  It’s interesting, especially as I see the eighties as a morally straight-laced decade wildly at odds with his more pornographic imagery, but it’s not the kind of thing I would go out of my way to view.  Give me a good Constable any day.

However, this is a man who defined a city in a decade.  The book gives us a glimpse of New York’s art scene and a city lost to gentrification.  Also, a night scene lost to AIDS which utterly destroyed the libertine air that Haring lived and breathed.  From that perspective, this volume is fascinating even if Haring isn’t your favorite artist.  You want to read this book as a cultural icon of a lost world that still influences us today.

And most people who love art think of Haring in terms more similar to the way my wife does than the way I do.  I bought this book in L.A. alongside one of the Complete Peanuts volumes.  The guy at the cash register looked up at me approvingly.  “Haring and Peanuts,” he said.  “Two of my favorites.”  And then he offered me a Barnes & Noble points card.

Anyway.  This is interesting for both arts lovers and people who want to know what the eighties were really like.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He sometimes creates literature as opposed to entertainment.  If you like that kind of thing, you might enjoy his collection Love and Death.  You can check it out here.

A Key Link to Modern Art

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

In 2012, a major traveling exhibition of Caravaggio’s work was shown at Buenos Aires’ Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.  It was entitled Caravaggio y Sus Seguidores (Caravaggio and His Followers).

I didn’t go.

But a few years later, my wife was given the catalogue of that exhibition, a beautiful heavyweight, glossy volume, as a gift and I tossed it onto my to-be-read pile, thinking it would probably be interesting.

Now, most of you will likely be wondering of what possible interest the catalogue of an exhibition I didn’t see could possibly be.  It’s a valid question, but the truth is that here at CE a) we like art and b) we like books, so it was a no-brainer.  Even if I hated it, I would at least have learned what it was like to read an auction catalogue.

Caravaggio y Sus Seguidores - Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

I didn’t hate it, though.  Quite the contrary.  The book was a fascinating collection of essays on several topics.  The first was a biography of the painter himself, the second a discussion about the works, both by the man himself and by some of the painters who followed his innovative footsteps.  Finally, the volume closed with a history of pre-8th-century art in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.

In a nutshell, Caravaggio was a fascinating figure both as an artist and a person.  He was involved in duels, murder and dissipation, and he spent his later years on the run from the law (an interesting situation considering his high profile).

Of course, it was as an artist, not an amateur murderer, where he made his mark.  His combination of chiaroscuro technique (of which he was a pioneer) with psychological realism (which wasn’t to be imitated until centuries later) was utterly new at the time, and broke all kinds of ground.  This is why the collection of his imitators / followers–even though he never had his own school–is so impressive.

So that’s what the book was about, and yes, it was mostly new information.  But what really jumped out at me from the text was the awful difficulties presented in attempting to assign attribution to unsigned paintings four hundred years old with gaps in their history.

A good chunk of the text is devoted to explaining why a certain painting is presented to us as being by a particular painter, often despite centuries of attribution to another.  Apparently imaging techniques that came into use in the past 30 years or so have rendered many of the expert opinions of the past obsolete.

Now the text was pretty dry, but reading between the lines, I imagine that the arguments back and forth are pretty heated.  Will they turn murderous, the way Caravaggio’s often did?  I hope not… but with so many of the people involved being Italian, I imagine passions will run hot and tempers will flare.

Another body or two could only add to his legacy.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is a thriller entitled Timeless.  You can check it out here.

Art History for Traditionalists

Mona Lisa - LeonArdo Da Vinci

I have no formal education in art, and my knowledge of Art History boils down to what I’ve gleaned over years of visiting museums, watching documentaries and taking free online Art History courses.

One of the interesting things I’ve noticed about the online courses is that they focus a huge percentage of their resources to teaching us about art that, to put it delicately, is not the kind of art people queue up to see.  So we get to learn about modern Caribbean art, feminist political art or the art of under-appreciated Latin American communists.

Meanwhile, in the real world, anyone who’s wandered the Louvre knows that it consists of huge, empty halls where you can spend hours admiring some of the lesser-known pieces (the last time I was there, a marvelous exhibition of traditional African art was on display…  I spent forty minutes there, and saw only four other people… on a Saturday) while a chainsaw is required to cut through the crowds to view old Leo’s Gioconda – which is reached from a corridor full of Italian renaissance masters which is almost as crowded as the Mona Lisa room.

Clearly, modern academia, as usual, seems to have lost touch with what’s important and is focusing on its political preoccupations.  Nothing new there, nothing particularly objectionable, either–we all know that academics are not tastemakers, they just record what they think is important during their own little slice of time while wearing blinders–but it does put us in a quandary: what to do if one desires an overview of Art History without wasting time on nonessentials?

An easy answer appears to be to pick up any Art History book from before the dawn of political correctness.  Those will focus on Western art and ignore everything else except for those traditions that fed directly into the canon.

But those books have a problem.  They can be stuffy as hell.  What is the layman who wishes to become an educated layman to do?

The Arts by Hendrik Willem Van Loon

Four words: Hendrick Willem Van Loon.  As the name implies (can we call it an implication if it’s such a dead giveaway?  Let’s) he is a Dutchman, who, for professional purposes was based in the US.  He led an interesting life (banned from entering Germany by the Nazis, for example), but most importantly for our purposes, he wrote a book entitled, quite simply, The Arts.

My own copy, of course, does not have the dust jacket and is the 1946 edition (the book is from 1937), which I bought at the jamboree at my local anglican church (a veritable cornucopia of unexpected books) for a small price.

It was worth every penny.  Van Loon is what, today, we’d call a popular historian, and he makes the history of art both accessible and interesting.  He doesn’t just tell us about the works, but goes into the society around the artist and into the artist’s foibles deeply enough to give us an idea of why things were produced.

Better still, the book is heavily illustrated, by Van Loon himself, mostly.  So, despite there being zero photographs of paintings, the book never becomes a dull read.  I found myself intrigued by his descriptions and googling artwork continuously as I read, a luxury the original readers didn’t have, which makes this book even better for today than it was for its own age.

The volume doesn’t limit itself to the more traditional study of painting, sculpture and architecture, but also includes quite a number of chapters on music, which was both a surprise and a treat.  Van Loon clearly felt very strongly that music, in addition to those other forms of expression was central to cultural life.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, this book hasn’t been reprinted since 1974.  That’s not surprising.  Entire art movements have sprung up in hope and died in obscurity (with a few exceptions) since it was written.  Newer thinking has superseded it.  But that newer thinking was precisely what brought us to this book in the first place, by a commodius vicus of recirculation, as it were.  We don’t want the newer thinking.

What we want is to see the art that has given countless generations past and present pleasure with more education.  If you truly want to catch up on significant posterior trends, you could always complement the Van Loon with this volume.  We wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, but you could.

But the Van Loon will do more to teach you about art people actually care about than any Art History course I know of for the same price.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  The title story of his collection Virtuoso is about an artist, which means that he has to read up sometimes.  You can buy the collection here.

When Culture Catches us by Surprise

Florence Fuomo

We’ve all seen them: the books about the touristy city we’re visiting (on the Grand Tour, perhaps?).  They are generally in a wire rack, sitting beside the plaster statues of the tower of Pisa, the brass replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the I ❤ New York t-shirts or whatever serves as a knickknack souvenir for the city you’re visiting.  The place to find these things is usually a hole in the wall store about twenty feet deep and just wide enough for one person to slip between the colorful rows of merchandise.

The books are usually, and for some reason known only to the creators of tourist books, given a dust cover of thick transparent plastic, the literary equivalent of coke-bottle glasses and visible from a mile off.

As far as I can tell, the main purpose of these books in the stores is to gather dust, remind people what city they’re in and also to ensure that the rights owners of sepia-toned photographs of the city as it was will continue to receive royalties.

My parents stocked up quite a number of these in the early eighties.  They were placed in the library… and continued to gather dust (the books, not my parents).

One day, I was in an Italian mood.  An idea for a novel set in Italy just before the First World War had been buzzing about in my head for ages, so I was grabbing anything Italian I could get my hands on.  I’ve already spoken about one of the books I read, and another came off the pile of souvenir books.

Florence the City and It's Art by Luciano Berti

The one I picked up happened to be Florence, the City and its Art by Luciano Berti.  As I read, the book surprised me.  It seemed a bit too erudite to belong to this subcategory.  It truly was a history of the city, but no less of its leading families, so long intertwined with the world of renaissance art.  There were no recommendations for popular places of entertainment, no pandering to the least common denominator.

It’s not surprising when one thinks about it.  Berti, after all, is a reasonably eminent art historian, so his work was always going to be a bit challenging for the average Hawaiian-Shirt-clad tourist, but more of a mystery is why the publisher decided such a book might be a good idea.

I have two theories regarding that last point.  The first is that they truly wanted to show the value of Florence as a cultural gem of the world.  The second is the Berti was the lowest bidder and they cynically speculated that no one would open the thing.

I’ll leave the decision regarding which is true up to you, but I’m delighted they chose the path they did.  There are many worse ways to spend a couple of lunchtimes than to become immersed in the wonderful world of renaissance art.

I’m sure there are many of those books in your home.  One never actually buys them, of course, but they seem to accumulate anyway.  Do yourself a favor and read one.  Maybe you’ll get as lucky as I did.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose novel The Malakiad deals with a very different kind of tourism.  In the Greek heroic era it was usually advisable to do one’s touring well-armed and with a bunch of military-minded friends…