Art

Pop Art, Back Then

Today, we’re delighted to pretend to know about art again.  Here’s our last art riff in case you’re interested in our top 5 New York Art Museums.

Our subject is Pop Art.

If you happen to mention Pop Art to anyone who isn’t an art expert, there is one name, and one name only, that will come up:  Andy Warhol.  He’s become synonimous with the movement in a way that few other artists have come to dominate their milieu.  While I expect that readers of this blog would likely be able to name another (Roy Lichtenstein, most likely), the same can’t be said of the general population.  Today, Pop Art begins and ends with Andy.

Funnily enough, however, it wasn’t always so.  Those familiar with the way art movements evolve will be unornsurprised to learn that the movement began with a series of manifestos and mind-numbingly dull critical assessments, but people who think that Warhol got up one day and began painting soup cans and silk sceening Marilyn might be a bit surprised.

Another surprise is that the movement, far from being an American creation was borin in dreary 1950s Britain.  The very term “Pop Art” was coined by English art critic Lawrence Alloway and the first brushstrokes took place not in New York but across the Atlantic.

That situation was soon corrected and the movement did find its spiritual home in New York, but The Factory and its eccentric ringmaster, though influential, were not considered central by the critics of the time.  In fact, he was more likely to be mentioned as one more among the notable New York practitioners of the style.

Pop Art - Lucy R. Lippard

A good primer to see this attitude in action is in Lucy R. Lippard’s Pop Art.  This tome was originally published in 1966 and gives a wonderful look at the movement as it happened.  Is it perfect?  No.  It’s a bit dry and eminently academical (back then people who wrote art essays apparently didn’t feel the need to make them attractive to a general audience), but it does the job as a first approach, and is especially useful to those who see an image of Soup Cans whenever the term “Pop Art” is mentioned.

What I particularly like about this book is that, after taking a longish chunk of text to tell us about the British roots and American precursors to the movement, it only stops in New York for a couple of chapters before jumping to California and back to Europe and other places.  It really puts things in perspective.

After reading thism, it’s amazing how Warhol’s name and work have transcended the pasage of years while his peers – many more critically respected than he was – are now invisible outside of certain museums.  I personally like Lichtenstein more than Warhol, albeit for all the wrong reasons (nostalgia for a time I never knew, mainly) but even he has been overshadowed by the man synonimous with their movement.

Yeah. It’s safe to say that Andy’s the last man standing and that he is having the last laugh.  In fact, looking at his work, one suspects that, under that serious demeanor, he was laughing the whole while.

And I still love the way he was depicted in Men in Black 3.

 

Gustavo Bondoni, apart from blogging about art also writes funny novels about Greek heroes and giant sea serpents.  The Malakiad can be purchased here (paperback) and here (kindle ebook).

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Reflections Upon Big Eyes

Tim Burton Big Eyes movie poster

María Evangelina Vázquez, who wrote this wonderful piece on Blake’s Poetry a few months ago, is back.  As is becoming a habit, she brings something completely new to the Classically Educated table: a thoughtful review of a modern film.  In keeping with our tradition, however, she deals with the subject from a different angles, which tie many isolated incidents together – and provoke thoughtful reflection.  If you enjoy this piece, and can read Spanish there is a repository of her articles here

Big eyes stare back at us. It’s like in Las Meninas by Velázquez; we ask ourselves: are we looking at the characters on the painting or are they looking at us? It is true that very often those things we cannot see directly, those that are hidden, are the most important ones. We have the iceberg theory by Hemingway which supports this idea. And now we have Big Eyes, the film by Tim Burton, based on a true story. In this movie we get to know the life of Margaret Keane: the real artist behind the paintings that were attributed to her husband, Walter, for around ten years.

It is not the first time that a woman is shadowed by a man who takes credit for her work; that is what happened to French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who began writing as ghost writer for her husband. Other women such as the well known Brontë sisters used male pen names when signing their first texts; and even in our times, J.K. Rowling signed her books with her initials so that the audience would think the author was a man.

Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell Poems

While some may still have to conceal their identity, others are often tempted to show themselves off more than they should. Social networks encourage us to share images of our private lives with others. What’s the limit, where do we draw the line? Our eyes are often overstimulated and we see so many things that a great part of these images go unnoticed and we cannot always decide what is relevant and what is accessory. It’s like in “The Purloined Letter” by E.A. Poe: the most obvious place for the letter is overlooked. We have an appetite to see more and more. And although we cannot possibly process all the information available, we look for images everywhere and try to make sense of what we see. We often don’t pay attention to images that we should see or that could interest us if we only gave them the chance to show themselves. On the other hand, we usually end up paying more attention to those images that are easy to digest, or that the media offer us with just one click.

The movie Big Eyes focuses precisely on what we see, what we want or are allowed to see, what we decide to show to others, how we mask ourselves because we don’t have the strength to assume who we truly are, or because society just makes it complicated for us to do so. Margaret is a talented artist who paints enormous, expressive eyes. These eyes are way out of proportion but they are what make her characters so special, and they become her trademark, like Modigliani’s long necks (in Argentina we have paintings by Lino Enea Spilimbergo, which also emphasize the eyes).

Margaret Keane Painting

Is it not a remarkable paradox that the artist who painted those huge eyes couldn’t be seen? Keane’s eyes remind me of John Steinbeck’s gigantic pearl, one that was so big that it could not be sold; a promising rarity that, however, could not find its place in the market. That’s what happened to Margaret’s paintings until the art market found a place for her. It has long been proven throughout human history that commercial success does not imply quality in art (and I should say in any other area), and that the lack of it does not imply poor quality of work either. The most significant example for what I’m saying is Vincent Van Gogh. He has bestowed great gifts on our eyes; nevertheless during his life he was quite invisible to those in charge of selecting masterpieces.

It is true that Margaret struggled and suffered psychological abuse for many years until she could stand up to her husband, to society, but she finally got the recognition she was looking for. We should ask ourselves: how many more Margarets are out there? Invisible all their lives… Sometimes just one look is enough to save them.

Empire State of Artistic Mind

New York City Skyline

So, our Editor-In-Chief has just returned from a trip to New York… it was pretty obvious that he was going to write stuff for the page.  His first delivery is a slightly elitist take not only on art museums, but specifically on which art museums.  A phrase about leopards and spots comes to mind.

When I got back from my recent New York vacation, a friend who’s never been to the Big Apple asked me: “Other than just walking around the city, what is there to do in New York?”

Talk about a loaded question.

In the first place, “just walking around the city” should be more than enough for essentially anyone.  This is a city that, if you avoid the tourist traps such as Times Square, or the Statue of Liberty cruise, is extremely rewarding.  Culture, be it art, literature, history or any other expression is there to be found, often even if you are a brain-dead tourist who tries to avoid it.  Any house on Museum Mile is likely to be an art gallery – even if it doesn’t really advertise the fact.  The Strand is an amazing experience, and if you happen to land in Times Square by mistake, the theater overflows onto the street.

But my first instinct when answering was: the art museums.  There’s MoMA and the Met, of course, but also countless others.  The Whitney, The Frick and the Neue Galirie spring to mind immediately… but there are still others.

But what if we had to pick just one?  And what if, hypothetically, you had to pick it according to Classically Educated’s Manifesto, so you could write an article about it?

Even more loaded than the last one!

But we’ll give it a shot.  And we’ll make it a top five list, just because people on the internet like top five lists.

Gustav Klimt Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer

5. Despite the fact that Gustav Klimt is well represented – by the famous, stolen-and-recovered-and-sued-for-and-recovered-again portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer, and that the gallery is located almost perfectly, the Neue Galerie is still a bit limited in scope.  Cool, but very small, only good enough for fifth place on our list, just edging out the Morgan Library museum, and the unexpected collection at Kykuit and well ahead of the Brooklyn Museum.

Whitney Museum New Building

4.  The Whitney.  4th place might be a bit unfair to this icon of American art, as, had I waited until 2015, I could have spoken about the museum in its new building at the southern tip of High Line Park.  But as it wasn’t yet done at the time of writing, we’ll acknowledge the quirkiness of the special exhibits here (Kusama being a particular favorite) with 4th place.

Edgar Degas Ballerina at the Met

3. The Met.  Wow, I can hear the cultured from all over the world complaining already.  How can the Met be third?  Well, it is.  It’s an amazing museum, built on the scale and philosophy of the Louvre in Paris, with the added benefit of an impressive Impressionist collection, which the Louvre doesn’t really have. But… apart from not having that inexplicable Pyramid entry, the Met has a bit too much mass appeal to get any further than third on our list.  Which just goes to show how good the art museums in New York truly are.

Frick Collection Interior

2.  The Frick Collection.  While the collection itself is small, and not particularly impactful compared to the others on this list, the Frick deserves its place among our favorites for various reasons.  The first is that the house it is located in is perfect gilded-age elegance, uncompromising in the sense that money exists to be enjoyed, without guilt and to the fullest extent.  It is a beautiful place.  The art is good, too, with Whistler, Goya and Velázquez on the walls.  It can’t be first, but it is the one that makes us point and say: that is how it should be done.

The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

1. MoMA.  OK, so once the Met was out, this one was always going to win, but still requires some explanation.  Classically Educated is supposed to be all about the classics, after all – and the collection here is late 19th century at its oldest point.  But the thing is, if you go off to look for a polymath with gently elitist tendencies, it’s more likely that you’ll find him hanging around in this museum than any of the others on the list.  So, something about this museum makes it a haven for our target audience.  What?  Well, for one thing, it’s eclectic – you need to be able to appreciate painting and photography and graphic design and industrial design to truly enjoy this one.  For another, you need to be grounded sufficiently in art theory to have an appreciation of the conversation that is constantly going on regarding the definition and limits of art.  These two characteristics make it our kind of art museum – but what truly seals its position is the fact that there it is: Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, hanging on its own wall.  When you have the best impressionist painting, you have an insurmountable advantage.

Disagree?  Of course you do.  That’s what the comments section is for…  Also, liking us on Facebook means you won’t miss any posts!

“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

election-crowd-wellington-new-zealand-1931-photographed-by-william-hall-raine

As most people concerned about the cultural decline of Western civilization continue to moan in despair* , I would like to take a moment to abandon my own complaining and look at one group, at least, that seems to be bucking the trend.  But before I get to the point, I need to digress again which, I suspect, is why many of you are reading this in the first place.

It used to be, there were places where you could meet the right people, even if you were far from home.

When railroads and a general lack of Europeans from different nations slaughtering each other on sight made travel a lot more pleasant, certain places came to be generally accepted as the ones one went to to meet acquaintances.  Perhaps for the Anglophones among us, the archetypal example is the Pump Room at Bath (below).  Anyone familiar with English novels of manners from the pre-Victorian period will have run into this (even casual readers are likely to have encountered it in Austen).

Pump Room Bath

Essentially, it got everyone who was anyone together in one place, without having to go to the trouble and expense of getting invited to the Royal Gala or whatever.

There are other places (notably certain hotels where one would meet for lunch), which took the anglophone through the Victorians and into the 20th century, but by then, the world had once again become a much smaller place, and culturally relevant people – even insular Englishmen – were no longer meeting exclusively in their own cities, or with people from their own countries.

By now, they were meeting in Paris.  More precisely, they were meeting in the Paris Cafés.  1871 is usually pointed to as the beginning of the Belle Époque.  From then until the first world war, Paris was the place to be seen at, and to meet your acquaintances, French, Dutch, Austrian or British.  There is a myth, an image flying around that this era was overrun with impecunious artists.  It is relatively true, but only tells a small part of the story.

Small, but what a story.  It must have been amazing to witness the birth of a new and major current in art every few weeks, driven not by the established masters but by a previously unknown artist from the countryside, or from Spain or somewhere equally unexpected.  The heady times among the currents and countercurrents in the avant-garde were balanced by almost equally exciting events in what was then considered high culture, from the World’s Fair, to Stravinksy.  Even the now reviled Paris Salon gave us iconic images.  Not all the great works were famously rejected, you know.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le Moulin de la Galette

But WWI brought it to a screeching halt.  Europe was not really in the mood for it all, and any mingling of nationalities would be best done on neutral ground, so the circus moved to Broadway.

Broadway in the twenties

Eventually, the in-crowds moved to Hollywood,  and then spent some time in Monte Carlo (always at least peripherally on this list), but it also lost some of its melting-pot feel.  The problem is that, as the world became smaller and smaller, the enclaves started catering to the super rich… and no one else.  I’m certain you’ll run into the right people if you snag paddock passes for the Monaco GP, but there aren’t many of them, and you might have to sell a yacht to afford them.  Any Dubai pool party classifies in the same category, too.

The day you sell a yacht is supposed to be the second best day of ownership after the day you buy it, but what about those who either prefer to keep their yachts or simply aren’t in that financial class?  What about the slightly less well-to-do global citizen, who wants to be surrounded by like-minded people, but has accidentally travelled thousands of miles from their usual base of operations?

The answer to that, after decades of traveling in a variety of budget levels is surprisingly heartwarming, and I first got an inkling of it when I bought a pass that saved me money on a variety of New York attractions.  The way it was set up was the clue: each ticket let you enter one of two attractions.  One of the options was something typically touristy, while the other option was generally a museum.  Strangely, the typical things you see on TV were usually mirrored by things that I really wanted to do.

I probably missed out on a lot of people very different from myself by choosing the museums.  But I did enjoy them.  And most of the people I generally have things in common with have spent a disproportionate amount of their time in major cities at the Met, MoMA, the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Prado or the National gallery, and considerably less at the photogenic large buildings / famous actor’s former homes / scenic countryside than others who visited the same places.  Art museums seem to be the one place where you’re likely to run into the polymath and global citizen today.  Even the ones who prefer hiking and hitchhiking aren’t going to miss the city’s big museum(s).  The fact that the great cultural artifacts of humanity also attract much smaller crowds than Graceland is only a secondary consideration to the kind of people this blog is aimed at.

Most of them can tell me which wall this…

757px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project

is hanging on.

Which, when you stop to think about it, is kind of nice.

*and yes, I know, we urgently need a nice knock-down, drag-out fight about the relative merits of high culture as opposed to popular culture on this blog – the very nature of this space cries out for that particular battle.