Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ipods and Ipads

I recently downloaded onto my Ipod the only app I have ever paid for (and a whopping $5.99 it was too!)  The app is "Inspire", an advanced drawing/painting app that has become, since downloading it, my best friend and favorite hobby.  It's painting without the mess.  And just so you can visualize what I'm talking about, here's an example of one of my recent "paintings":

Alexis Hamann-Nazaroff, Turtle, painting on Ipod, 2012

Using Ipod apps for art is apparently more than just my hobby; museums have started to take an interest.

I was visiting the Oakland Museum the other day, and was intrigued by a wall they had covered in "Faces of California".  The set-up on the wall mimicked a old-fashioned method of displaying art, in which a museum would squeeze as many paintings on a wall as could fit.  Today this style of display has mostly been replaced in museums by hanging paintings surrounded by a lot of empty space, a method more conducive to intense viewing of each individual work.  But although each individual portrait on this wall in the Oakland Museum was not positioned for the best detailed study, all together, they made quite a vibrant texture.  The set-up made me feel that California was a whole tapestry of personalities, historic and contemporary, famous and unknown, the feeling I'm guessing that was exactly the curators were going for.

Oakland Museum of California Faces of California, exhibit space, 2012

Notice the two portraits a row up from the bottom, in thick black square frames with rather simple stick-figure faces?  Those "canvases" are actually Ipads.  And the portraits on them are contributions from museum visitors.  A table had been set up next to the "Faces of California" Wall with Ipads and mirrors for visitors to sketch their self-portraits.  Then the fresh and amateur self-portraits were displayed in a rotating manor in the exhibit.

Here am I, sketching my soon-to-be-displayed self-portrait:

This technology allowed the Oakland Museum curators to take their message of a tapestry of Californians one step further, and to very visually have California history instantly include the regular art museum visitor.

The "Faces of California" at the Oakland Museum is not the only exhibit I have seen making use of the Ipad for art.  One of today's most prolific and well respected artists, David Hockney, took up Ipad drawing a couple of years ago, and his exhibit Me Draw On Ipad, has travelled through an number of world class museums.  I saw it last July in the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark.  Hockney's taken his significant drawing skills and applied them to an art app on his Ipad, reveling in the fact that, with this medium, the drawings automatically glow.  And that to a two-dimensional art form, one can add the fourth dimension, time.  At the exhibit, it was possible to see the drawings in action, watch as the marks appeared and changed on the screen, becoming a lyrical meditative performance.  Here are some of Hockney's works, and one of the videos from the exhibit, which show you what I mean by the fourth dimension:

David Hockney, Various iPad drawings, Me Draw on Ipad, Louisiana Museum, 2011 (image source)

David Hockney, i-Pad drawing, 2011, video source:

Monday, March 12, 2012

Gardens and God

I find it remarkable, that in so many ancient and medieval cultures around the world, gardens and garden design are closely associated with understandings of paradise, heaven and human's relationship to God.  In Islamic and Christian cultures, this is perhaps explained in part because of the story of the Garden of Eden, an original place for humans free of sin and close to God, but this association between gardens and god is more widespread than that.

The Paradise Garden, or Chahar bagh was a classic garden form in ancient Persia with a central water source, and four water channels flowing out of it, north, south, east and west, representing the four rivers of paradise (water, wine, honey, and milk).

Plan of a Chahar bagh Image Source

The form of the Chahar bagh was the inspiration for the gardens at the Taj Mahal, in 1632 in India. In the photo, you can see the central water source and four out-flowing channels.

Taj Mahal, 1632 Image Source

In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, walled cloister gardens became closely associated with the culturally important virtues of purity and chastity in women, and thus with the most holy of chase women, the Virgin Mary.  She was often painted in a walled garden.

Leonardo da Vinci Annunciation, oil on panel, 1472 

And in Ming Dynasty China (1368-1644) the important Temple of Heaven Garden was built, full of the motifs of circle, representing heaven, and square, representing earth, as if to say a garden is where heaven and earth mingle.

Temple of Heaven Garden, 1420 image source

What feelings are evoked in you by gardens?  Think about formal gardens, personal gardens, botanical gardens... how is their structure symbolic or evocative?

Friday, March 9, 2012


Do you have a dream job?  Maybe you would say that you're already working at your dream job, but if you're like me, you have the kind of dream job (or more than one) that can only ever remain in the realm of fiction and fantasy.  I like dreaming, among other things, that I have a job as a international front-line journalist, but it's not the kind of dream that I would ever want to come true; I don't want to wake up and find myself in the crossfire of battling partisans, fearing for my safety as I try to understand the situation.

Yesterday, I heard of the most wonderful dream job, and I've spent the past 24 hours imagining it.

Picture this: It's a job that requires a lot of creativity.  Every day new and interesting challenges come up.  The job requires one to work very closely with art, to critically study art history, as well as be good at painting.  One works closely with one's family and friends.

It sounds like heaven.  But (for me at least), this job I'm thinking of can never be more than a fantasy, because it has the rather glaring problem of being illegal.  It is art forgery.

In October 2011, Wolfgang Beltracchi was found guilty of some major cases of art forgery and sentenced to six years in prison.  (His guilty plea kept the sentence from being longer).  His wife, sister and best friend were sentenced to similar terms for working with him.

Beltracchi and his gang pretended to own paintings by famous German Expressionist artists.  In order to sell them for hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said that the works were hitherto unknown, and had belonged to his wife's grandfather until she inherited them on his death.  The Beltracchi gang took great pains to make fake documents, signatures and old-looking photographs to prove the authenticity of the paintings, when Beltracchi had in fact painted them himself, in the style of the German Expressionists.  It is interesting that he did not copy specific works as much as create his own new works in the style of famous artists, and pass them off as the work of these artists.  It is also interesting that the group's fakes were for decades passing through the (apparently not so) scrupulous evaluation of professionals trained to sniff out forgeries.

Wolfgang Beltracchi, Forgery meant to look like a Painting by Max Ernst

The German newspaper Spiegel's coverage of the trial pointed out that this whole process has some major implications for the future of the art market.  "[Beltracchi] has helped expose the absurdity of the art market, in which paintings ostensibly by famous artists are traded almost always as speculative investments. It is not the aesthetic value of a painting which decides whether it is worth millions, but the question of whether it was produced by a known and fashionable artist.  Beltracchi also demonstrated how experts and art dealers driven by greed and vanity could declare forged paintings genuine without hesitation. That in itself provoked some sympathetic coverage from journalists following the case -- the victims who were duped were not poor pensioners, but greedy art dealers and super-rich collectors." Here's the link to the rest of the article.

If you're interested in this story, I found a really well-done article about the topic on this blog.  I think that especially in the blogger's responses in the comments section she makes some insightful points. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Challenges: part 4

This post part of a series: (part 1, part 2, part 3)

70 years of artists had been trying to challenge the definition of art by going more abstract.  By the mid-1950s, going abstract had become accepted and mainstream, so artist-challengers took a new tact.   

Challenge #10: It can even be art when it is so straightforwardly representational it is almost boring.
Jasper Johns, Flag, encaustic oil and fabric collage on plywood, 1954-55, New York MOMA

Challenge #11: Until this point, it seems art had always been about the object within the frame.  Well, art can also be about the frame.

The title of this artwork, Hang Up, is a clever play on words: an art work hangs up on the wall of a museum, and we have a hang up about seeing and recognizing as art any type of work which doesn't fit into this mold.  And here's a question -is this work of art a sculpture since it's more 3-D than 2-D, or a (albeit unusual) painting, since it hangs on the wall in a rectangular shape?

Eva Hesse, Hang Up, Acrylic paint on cloth over wood, 1966, Art Institute of Chicago

Challenge #12: The Art-ness of an artwork doesn't even have to rest in an object, but can be in the concept.  This is a challenge to the very powerful economic structure of buying and selling art, because how can you sell a concept?

In the example I give here, artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres was searching for a way to represent the sad, slow, wasting away loss of his lover due to AIDS, who was sick at the time and died the following year.  He wanted an artwork that was as frail as a human was against this disease, an artwork that slowly disappeared.  And so, he lay a stack of paper on the floor in a museum; visitors were encouraged to take a page, until the stack was gone.  He said of this work: "This refusal to make a static form, a monolithic sculpture, in favor of a disappearing, changing, unstable and fragile form was an attempt on my part to rehearse my fears of having Ross disappear day by day right in front of my eyes."

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Loverboy), 1990

This story of a long line of continued challenges, expanding what is accepted in the definition of "Art" has many more examples than the few I highlighted over these past few posts.  It is a process that is certainly not over, although many artists today would argue that radical challenges to the definition of "Art" have themselves become passé, and now art should focus on trying to challenge other areas of society.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Challenges: part 3

This post is the 3rd part in a series: (part 1, part 2)

Challenge #7: Art can not only be abstract, it doesn't even have to have a referent in the real world at all.  It can just be geometric rhythms.
Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow Blue and Red, oil on canvas, 1939-1942, Tate Modern London

Challenge #8: And abstract art doesn't even have to be quiet so... geometric.  It can be wildly dynamic too.

The painter of this painting, Lee Krasner, was one of the most innovative artists of the Abstract Expressionist movement.  She tends to be overshadowed in art historical discourse by her husband, Jackson Pollock.
Lee Krasner, The Seasons, oil on canvas, 1957, Whitney Museum New York

Challenge #9: You know what, paint doesn't even have to be applied with a paintbrush for it to be art; it can be poured on.
Morris Lewis, Where, magna on canvas, 1960, Hirshhorn Museum Washington DC

to be continued...

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Challenges: part 2

This post is a continuation of yesterday's theme, that Art since the 1850s has, on some level, been about challenging the definition of Art.

Challenge #4: Colors and perspectives don't even have to pretend to be realistic; they can be about inner psychology.
Henri Matisse, Woman with the Hat, oil on canvas, 1905, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Challenge #5: Things in the real world might be 3-dimensional, but a painting doesn't have to pretend to be; it can embrace its 2-dimensionality.
Georges Braque, Violin and Candlestick, oil on canvas, 1910, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Challenge #6: Art doesn't have to always be oil on canvas, for goodness sake; it can even be glued paper collage. (This art was part of the dada movement, famously also calling a urinal "art")
Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, Photomontage, 1919-1920, Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin

to be continued...

Monday, March 5, 2012

Challenges to the Definition of Art: Part 1

Earlier on this blog I suggested this definition for art: Art is an object, or an action framed in such a way as to make us reflect on and/or question our understanding of the world.  

I still like that definition, but I have an interesting thought to add, which leads to some useful Art Historical insights.  The thought is this: since the beginning of Modernism, in the mid-nineteenth century, Art of the Western Tradition has, on some level, been about challenging the definition of Art.

This doesn't mean that every single artwork made in Europe and America since 1850 has tried to challenge the definition of art, just almost all the ones that have become famous.

An artist can challenge what is "acceptable" as subject matter, as medium, as source material.

Challenge #1: Art doesn't just have to be about important people, but can be about the everyday, humdrum workers of today's world.
Gustav Courbet, The Stone Breakers, 1849, oil on canvas, (original destroyed 1945)

Challenge #2: A painting doesn't require many meticulous layers, but can be made outdoors, in one layer, in a single sitting, and still be art.
Claude Monet, La Grenouillère, oil on canvas, 1869, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Challenge #3: Paint can be applied to a canvas not just to try to create illusionistic space but also to emphasize the flatness of the canvas and the reality of brushstrokes.
Paul Cezanne, Mont Saint-Victoire, oil on canvas, 1902-1904, Philadelphia Museum of Art

to be continued...

Friday, March 2, 2012

Florence, 1400

The city of Florence around the year 1400 was on a real role.  The horrors of the Black Plague which had devastated the 14th century were over, and the city was making a lot of money based most importantly on its wool industry.  Florence imported raw wool, cleaned and dyed it, and sold the finished product for a hefty profit.  And what do you do with extra wealth?  Well, for one thing you work on finishing the cathedral you have been building since 1296.  Everything except the dome was finished by 1418, and that final feat of beauty and engineering by 1436.

The Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, 1296-1439, Florence Italy

Another building the Florentines were spending their extra money beautifying was the Florence baptistry, a beautiful hexagonal building from the 11th century.  In 1401 the guild of wool importers i.e. the wealthy business tycoons of Florence, sponsored an art competition.  The artist who won would receive the commission to make the brand new set of bronze doors with sculptural relief for the baptistry entrance.  For the competition, artists were supposed to create a single quatrefoil, or bronze 4-lobed panel depicting the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac.

Here are the two top contenders:  Which do you think should have won?

Lorenzo Ghiberti, The Sacrifice of Isaac (competition panel), 1401

Filippo Brunelleschi, The Sacrifice of Isaac (competition panel), 1401

I personally like the second panel, by Brunelleschi, a bit better.  Notice how he chooses to illustrate the most dramatic moment of the story, as the angel grabs his arm to stop Abraham from cutting his son's neck not a moment too soon.  Isaac looks like a skinny, frightened boy, and Abraham strong and determined, notice how Abraham's cloak is swinging behind him as if he is moving resolutely forward.

Compare the Ghiberti.  Instead of a scared little boy, Isaac is depicted, rather oddly in my view, as a male nude of classical beauty with a serious set of muscles.  Abraham's body language is more graceful; it's almost as if he is performing a dance step.  And the moment Ghiberti has chosen to portray, a few seconds before the knife touches Isaac's throat and the angel puts out his hand, isn't as dramatic as Brunelleschi's moment.  Ghiberti does have a much more interestingly shaped rocky landscape, I will admit, veering up as it does, on the left of the scene.

Fascinatingly, Ghiberti won the contest!  What were the judges thinking?  This is a wonderful chance for art historians to see what aesthetics early Renaissance Florentines valued, and it turns out they wanted figures like classical Greek sculptures, figures with grace and elegance.  Dramatic realism, at this time and place in history, just wasn't as important.  In a different century, perhaps Brunelleschi would have won, but not in 1401 Florence.

Don't feel too sorry for Brunelleschi though.  He later won another competition to design the great dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore (the same one in the first picture on this post).  And he was one of the most prolific artists and architects of the era.