Art Thoughts, Week 31 -- Utrillo & Perspective

Sacre Coeur, Montmartre, Maurice Utrillo (1883—1955) unknown date, oil on paperboard, BF 815.

Perspective is everything, right? Any subject, person, landscape or belief might undergo a sea change if only seen from a different perspective. The word itself could be rephrased (roughly) as “particular view”. That is, one person’s view, as is the case with this painting. There are two main ways to change perspective: firstly, by altering our mindset (psychologically); and secondly, by changing our location (spatially). And art can deal with either of these; in fact, one of the most enduringly powerful qualities of important artwork is that it causes us to either see from another’s perspective, or to significantly change our own – and not unusually, these two are connected, and cause each other to occur. Additionally, this process is often unwitting and gradual.

Utrillo’s “particular view” can be picked up on just by looking at any of his sixteen works in the Barnes Foundation collection. He had a certain way that he’d set up his easel (he was a street painter), facing this street at a certain askew angle; turned towards this church in a certain manner: he had tendencies towards certain setups, and repeated them. Mostly, buildings, plazas and streets are faced head-on, with a certain amount of semi-vacuous space in front of them (between the subject and us, the viewers). In this, at least as far as the Barnes Utrillos are concerned, he is unwavering. That is, except for this painting: Sacre Coeur, Montmartre. Montmartre is a section of Paris, popular and thus populated with artists, but Utrillo himself was born there; he most likely knew the area intimately. Many of his scenes are of Montmartre, and as mentioned before, they are generally focused squarely on a building or group of buildings. His figures are rare and cursory; his trees are ephemeral and calligraphic – it is the hard edifices he is most passionate about. In this way, he seems to be continuously reaffirming in his own mind, through his practice of depicting things which are inanimate and generally unmoving, that this place is uniquely his.

But back to the picture at hand: Sacre Coeur, Montmartre. While discussing this painting with a co-worker, it occurred to us that it was somewhat of an aberration in Utrillo’s otherwise rigid styling. Namely, it had a strong, frontal element: a wonderfully graphic and lyrical picket fence, dancing across the relatively shallow foreground, where normally a gaping or triangulated plaza languishes. Instead of allowing the background building alone to animate the space, the vernacular fence has taken over, its folksy mazurka drowning out the Sacre Coeur Basilica’s majestic madrigal. It seems Utrillo has, however briefly, shifted his focus to the more humble and diminutive of buildings in this corner of Montmartre. In fact, the church is all but obscured by trees. But why – was it boredom, or a flash of inspiration? Was it the lure of a particular scene or the urge for a fresh perspective? Whatever it was, his perspective indeed changed.

Not all is completely different, however: the domes of Sacre Coeur, though on the back burner visually have as much presence as they would if Utrillo had made them the focal point. So, Utrillo has shifted his perspective, but he has not remade it. More than likely, he thereafter resorted to his typical pictorial duo of strong background subject or strong, foreshortened frontal shape, and semi-vacuous piazza. Something this time, though, caught his attention, and caused him to focus on a reversal of his practice – almost. He didn’t completely abandon his interest in powerful, central subject matter...but for a time, he seems to have painted in its backyard, rather than its doorstep.


Art Thoughts, Week 30 -- Cranach & Advertising

Portrait of Frederick the Wise, Duke of Saxony, Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, 1472—1553) c. 1525, oil on panel, BF 867.

What is a portrait, anyway? At its most obvious, it’s a picture; a portrayal of something or someone (usually a one) which normally gives a face prominence: a likeness, if you will. Formally, generically; that’s what a portrait is. But perhaps more pointedly, what is a portrait for…or what does it do? For starters, they are painted for posterity; popularity; ego and profit. When Lucas Cranach the Elder (or someone in his reputedly large workshop) painted this portrait of Frederick the Wise, a popular contemporary German ruler, what reasons lay beneath it? A portrayal, it should be said, is vastly more than a simple picture, or a record of a particular slice of time in a person’s face or psyche. It is more often than not an attempt to put the portrayed in a good light. Not until the early modern era in painting did realism, per se, gain a stronghold on how artists portrayed things and people. The art of portraiture would have leaned rather heavily towards idealism. And an artist had to be careful; to put too fine a point on facial aberrations, deformities and the like, would cause the rendering to easily tip over into caricature; a result worse than overt idealism. One doesn’t realize how odd one looks until captured and frozen. There had to be a delicate balance between honest portrayal on one hand, and selective idealism on the other. To rephrase Teddy Roosevelt, artists had to walk softly and carry a large brush.

The greatest benefactor of a portrait highlighting a sitter’s best and most refined qualities would be, of course, the sitter. For someone like Frederick the Wise, it could be tantamount to propaganda. Just look at this portrait for a while: see the three-quarter view, the most flattering of views for most faces regardless of features; the healthily plump face and chest, and fine but understated fur, denoting humility in wealth and temperance in vices; the delicate eyes and well-formed mouth which belie his status, but show his wisdom in both thought and action; see the hopefulness of a clear and boundless sky, suggested by the rich turquoise background. All of this is discreetly and skillfully done by Cranach to show off the best of Frederick the Wise to his peers and constituents.

But is the duke the only one benefitting from this judicious and even beautiful portrayal? Surely not – with a deft stroke such as this painting, the “circle of Cranach,” as emulators en masse of famous artists are sometimes called, gained a heightened reputation as well, from both skill and by association. Artists would glom immediately onto a portrait request from a prominent person, since it meant, in all actuality, that more prominent portraits would follow, and perhaps sales for the artist’s other genre pieces, if the initial contract was fulfilled satisfactorily; with appeal and verve. (An official court painter position might have even been a possibility, as it was for Cranach.) In addition, if the personage was already a popular leader, there could be requests for copies or prints of the original, by other patrons and fanatics of both master and sitter. Another example of this is Chardin, who painted numerous copies of his most popular domestic interiors, in order to increase sales. And in his casual assumption of reproduction equaling art Andy Warhol was groundbreaking, but not necessarily revolutionary. All in all, it meant a profitable and happy return for all parties involved, if the project was successful. Therefore, this portrait is not just propaganda, as mentioned before, but also mid-sixteenth century advertising.


Closing Reception Date Announced!


The show I'm part of, On Loss and Memory at the StrataSphere in Old Kensington, Philadelphia, is having its CLOSING RECEPTION on September the 27th, from 3 pm to 5 pm. I'll be there, probably for the whole time, so stop by and say hello; check out the art and have something to drink. There's also an opportunity for visitors to add their memories to a collection project at the gallery, as part of the show.

For more information, visit


Art Thoughts, Week 29 -- Modigliani & Shape

Boy in Sailor Suit, Amadeo Modigliani (Italian, 1884—1920) 1917, oil on canvas, BF 369.

Modigliani’s portraits seem custom-made, in a way, for the Barnes Foundation collection: they tend to be symmetrical, playing off Barnes’ own erratic symmetry. Additionally, they excel in all ways within Barnes’ four “plastic elements” – light, line, color and space – the components which, being present and in balance were, according to Dr. Barnes, the hallmark of a successful and fine artwork. Here’s the rub though – for the longest time, I was convinced that shape was also one of the plastic elements…somehow it seemed as if it must be. What are the lines in a Matisse without the primacy of shape? Where do the colors go or stop in a Rousseau, Soutine or Rouault without shape? But, shape is not a part of the elements. I will not back down that easily though; artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Mangold, Brice Marden and Elizabeth Murray mean too much to me for shape to capitulate.

And shape is primal in Modigliani’s work. Without strong shapes his paintings would disintegrate into a mass of skillful scumbling. But more than simply using shapes, Modigliani utilized a network of repeated lines to emphasize pattern and the power of opposites. How do I mean this? In Boy with Sailor Suit, there is a dominant shape pattern, and that is the arch, or vault, both closed and open. Over and over the point is reiterated: the boy’s collar and eyebrows; the background shapes; the chair back and posts; the negative shape between his knees, and so on. All of these are curved and vaulted like a church apse, and are the dominant shape-makers in the painting. Opposing these arched elements is the other important group of shape-making lines: the anti-vaults. They create a mirrored arrangement, mimicking the vaults – the rosy facial highlights under the boy’s eyes; the curvature of his nose; the cuffs of his jacket; and the hair by his part. And the most important of the shapes created by the vault/anti-vault relationship are of course, the eyes.

In Modigliani’s portraits, all roads eventually lead to the eyes. They may not even be that striking– in fact, in many of his portraits, the eyes are hollow, or are painted in with a white or colored glaze, rendering them masklike. However, our tendency to be drawn to eyes – the mirrors, after all, of our own viewing – coupled with Modigliani’s setup of them, cause the eyes to be the focal shape in his portraits. And this is certainly the case in Boy with Sailor Suit. Not only are his eyes riveting and clear, they also epitomize the vault/anti-vault relationship so dominant in the piece. In effect, they create the perfect harmony of the two shape-making lines into the almond shape, balancing out the two forces in the painting’s composition. Indeed, the eyes anchor and stabilize the entire piece, like a bridge and its reflection creating a harmonious visual calm over a body of water. And not only do the eyes convey stability and balance, they also emit an energy that flows into the rest of the painting. This is not always the case in Modiglianis, but here it is. The delicate eyebrows, the pink ears and the blush below the eyes radiate from them like a force-field; like a diagram of pulsing magnetic waves. So, in a way, instead of simply being the goal of the painting’s composition, the eyes seem to emanate the energy which animates the rest of the picture, continually recreating the dynamics which originally attracted Modigliani: from the eyes in, and back again, ad infinitum.

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