Here’s a little repost to test your knowledge.
The photographer Matthias Schaller has spent the last several years documenting the palettes of some of the most recognizable artists in history. Try to match the artist to the palette.
“To every time its Art. To Art its Freedom.” These are the words that adorn the Secession Building in Vienna Austria. Built in 1898 by Architect Joseph Olbrich, this gallery was to become one of the very first ‘White Cubes’. What we now see as commonplace was a radical idea at the time. Strip the room bare of all other distractions and let the Art take center stage. The building was to act as the main exhibition space for the newly formed Secessionist group led by Gustav Klimt. The Secessionists were rejecting the art establishment of the time and wanted to forge new paths that bridged many of the different arts together to create an artistic synergy. Influenced by the Jungendstil and Art Nouveau movements along with Japanese art that was proliferating Europe at the end of the 19th century, the Secession movement wanted to combine fine and decorative arts and work with architects and practitioners of other disciplines.
A perfect example of this was in 1902 the Secessionists held an exhibition to celebrate the life and work of Beethoven. The show was centered around a sculpture of the composer by Max Klinger and was to act as a unification of the Arts showcasing sculpture, painting, architecture and music. The exhibition was to be ‘a total piece of Art’ or also known as Gesamtkunstwerk.
The totality of it’s intention is no longer intact but the highlight of the exhibition: Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze remains. Moved from it’s original place to the basement it’s a miracle it’s still around. The painting was originally meant to be temporary, only supposedly lasting as long as the original exhibition, along with the building being stripped bare during WWII make it’s presence so special.
I got to tic another box off my art to-do list this summer. It was my second time in Vienna and it was just as wonderful as I remembered. The Belvedere Museum may have the Kiss (another must see) but The Secession Building and its splendid basement also deserves your attention and affection.
Growing up with an Italian Grandmother; the idea of portion control is a completely foreign concept to me. So when the tastefully arranged modest fillet of perch on a bed of zucchini was placed in front of me I had to remind myself I wasn’t in my Nan’s kitchen anymore. We were in fact dining @ Frank: the fine dining experience located at The Art Gallery of Ontario as part of Summerlicious. But the main reason we were at the AGO, was to see The Idea of North: the Paintings of Lawren Harris .
The work of the Group of Seven and Lawren Harris is as ingrained into the Canadian fabric as road hockey or the first snow fall. It’s part of who we are, and the idea that no one outside of our little hamlet (9.985 million km2 – little) has any clue to their power and brilliance seems unfathomable. But what is so familiar to us is all shock of the new to our neighbours to the south and destinations further abroad. This is a very appealing prospect: what’s old is new again and what’s oversight is getting its due. This is at the core of this exhibition and one of the main motivators for its curator Steve Martin to get involved. He believed our national artist should be recognized internationally.
Martin is no stranger to the art world; he has been an avid collector for decades and has amassed an impressive personal collection. It was this collection that was the impetus for this exhibition. The story goes- the curator for the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles ‘discovered’ a small landscape at one of Martin’s dinner parties. She inquired who the artist was and when he proclaimed Lawren Harris, she replied “who”? A few trips to Canada later and she was hooked and the only one she wanted to helm a Harris exhibition was ‘one wild and crazy guy’. His initial response was he would have to be crazy to take on something like this, but the need to give Lawren his due quickly erased any fears.
The Idea of North is a two part exhibition that focuses on two aspects of Harris’s career: his early Ward paintings of Toronto’s immigrant housing projects from the early 20th century and his momentous northern landscapes from the twenties and thirties. (There is also a small abstract near the end that ties Harris’ work to the city of Toronto but I’m going to focus on the other two aspects.) The Ward paintings do a nice job of highlighting Harris’ mastery of paint and colour but fall short of illustrating the pathos in which I believe they were intended. The effects feel too much like an observer looking in rather than an authentic documentation of immigrant life, but as far as images go they illustrate Harris’ life long pursuit of tapping into the unseen forces of the sublime that are at work behind the paintings. It is this aspect that makes his northern landscapes so powerful. He has focused the landscape to amplify its impact and presence.
Whether you are long time admirer or first time observer The Idea of the North does a wonderful job of showcasing one of our national treasures. There are old friends to revisit and new surprises to discover. I did have to keep reminding myself that this not a retrospective (I love his mountains but his tree paintings are my favourites- saved for another time I guess) but rather a focused introduction, and just like my little perch – less is definitely more.
The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris
July 1- September 18
When the young Michelangelo approached his father with the news that he was planning on becoming an artist he was greeted with fists; his father was going to beat this preposterous notion out of him. Michelangelo took some time to reflect and then returned with the news that not only was he going to be an artist, but a sculptor no less. This time his uncle had the job of knocking some sense into the wayward youth. Michelangelo picked himself up, licked his wounds and went on to become one of the greatest artists of all time. Paul Cézanne didn’t fare much better than Michelangelo when it came to the patriarch of the family. Cézanne‘s father controlled the purse strings and his son with them. When Paul was implored to come to Paris by his childhood friend Émile Zola to experience the cultural revolution that was taking place, he was rebuffed three times by his father who refused to fund such frivolous endeavors. Cézanne eventually made it to the city of lights and found a surrogate father-figure in one of the founding members of Impressionism: Camille Pissaro. Cézanne would later go on and dismiss Impressionism as “silly” but Pissaro was instrumental in lifting Cézanne’s painting out the dark muck of his early work and setting him on the course to becoming the ‘father of modern art’. Both Michelangelo and Cézanne were strongly discouraged in pursuing a life in art, but both persevered and went on to make art history. Cézanne flattened space and changed painting forever and Michelangelo brought stone to life with a skill that hasn’t really been challenged in half a millennium, but who is the greater artist?
Michelangelo’s genius was evident from very early on. At the mere age of 16 he completed Madonna of the Stairs and never looked back. Many of the hallmarks of his later work are already present: dynamic figuration, the uncanny ability of transforming stone into flesh, the pursuit of ‘ the beautiful’ and his knack for creating a narrative that infuses spirituality with an underlining sense of humanity. Michelangelo’s figures seemingly interact with one another revealing histories and relationships that are easily relate-able. We’re initially drawn in by his skill but remain for his insight.
Cézanne‘s genius on the other hand took a while to develop. His early works were slathered with paint done in a very heavy handed manner with an extremely dark palette. Early in his career, he applied to have his work shown at the Paris Salon but was rejected. He was later publicly ridiculed by a Parisian newspaper of the time for what they perceived to be his lack of skill. This wouldn’t be the last time the public mocked and misunderstood his work. With some advise and guidance from Pissaro he slowly introduced brighter colours and the landscape into his paintings. He eventually showed with the Impressionists but even there he didn’t feel like he fit in. Over the course of his life Cézanne withdrew more and more from society preferring solitariness to interacting with other people: including his family. Near the end of his life a retrospective of his work was staged in Paris and hailed as a triumph. Cézanne viewed this event as too little too late, and didn’t bother showing up for the exhibition. Cézanne was a difficult man who valued art over all else.
Michelangelo was also a notoriously difficult individual. His artistic vision had him dueling with Popes and head’s of states alike. He had one way of doing things – his way. Sometimes his ambition outweighed what was physically possible. His original plan for the Medici chapel was to include 6 tombs. Only two were completed and he personally didn’t see to their installation. Michelangelo‘s skills were in constant demand so his time was never his own. His patrons were always asking him to perform feats that were beyond his experience. They assumed that because he was such a gifted sculptor he could naturally paint or design architecture. Michelangelo would rage and refuse but eventually concede to their wishes and then go on to create something extraordinary.
Extraordinary would also be the word to describe Cézanne‘s still-lifes. As great as his Card Players, landscapes and to a lesser degree his bathers and portraits are; it’s his still-lifes that steal the show. What at first appear to be loose spontaneous flourishes are actually meticulous set pieces that in some cases took months to execute. Fruit would notoriously rot in place while Cézanne slowly brought them back to life with exquisite colour and confident brushstrokes. Long gone are the thick swabs of paint, sometimes he would even leave areas untouched allowing the bare canvas to show through. He played with perspective tilting objects towards the viewer so they could get a better look. Those innovations opened up the flood gates of experimentation and artistic freedom for every artist that came after him. Without Cézanne we wouldn’t have Picasso.
But how can bowls of fruit compete with the Sistine Chapel? Both demonstrate artist as innovator. Both redefined working methods and creative solutions. Cézanne had come so far from his early paintings and his growth as an artist is astonishing. To stand in front of a Cézanne still-life is not unlike a religious experience, but Michelangelo‘s genius presented itself early and never faltered. I believe Cézanne himself would concede to the Renaissance man. Early in his career, during his first trip to Paris; Cézanne would visit the Louvre on a daily basis where he would sketch from the collection. He was enamored with Delacroix Courbet and unsurprisingly Michelangelo.
Related: Michelangelo vs Matisse
So we finally made it to Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty at the Art Gallery of Ontario the other day. I’m a fan of both artists and was curious to see how they would play with one another. In my mind I hadn’t really associated the two of them together and after seeing them side by side, I still don’t. It was an engaging proposition, but ultimately the ties that bind were stretched a little too thin and the two competed rather than complimented; with Bacon eclipsing his fellow Brit.
This may seem like a harsh statement, and some people reading this may totally disagree, but let me explain. Having grown up in and around Toronto my whole life, I’ve been visiting the Art Gallery of Ontario since I was a little kid. My first memory of the museum is the Henry Moore Room. I’ve looked at those sculptures for decades. My relationship with them is like many romantic relationships people experience. When I first encountered them as a child I was curious and confused by them. I was also impressed by their scale; I was literally dwarfed by their size. Then as I grew older I began to truly appreciate how remarkable they were. I began to see how Moore played with the human figure and how sculpture could become drawing. I was smitten. Then more years past, and I started to take my muse for granted. I thought I had become too familiar and had discovered all their mysteries and surprises. My trips to the Henry Moore Room became brief and sometimes infrequent. On some visits to the gallery, I would miss it all together. I had new lovers to visit in the gallery and Moore was put aside. But then more years passed, and I was drawn back to his wonderful plaster people and rediscovered him all over again and fell in love once more. The curators have had people come and play with Henry from time to time over the years including the brilliant pairings of Janet Cardiff’s Motet or Brian Jungen’s Tomorrow Repeated or the not so brilliant blind date of Julian Opie’s This is Shahnoza. Henry seems like a bit of a sounding board for other artists to bounce off of and that’s why Bacon may seem too at odds with Moore.
This exhibition was first staged at Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford England. It’s original title was Flesh and Bone. To me, this title makes so much more sense, it address the visceral element of both these artists. Many of Moore’s forms come straight from his study of bones and Bacon was obsessed with flesh in all its connotations . This ties the two together in a more naturalistic sense. I see Bacon’s work as a painter painting and Moore’s as a sculptor sculpting. They are both trying to understand the human form by taking it apart and putting it back together again. The ingredients they are using are flesh and bone. Terror and Beauty has a much more sensationalist ring to it. It draws associations that are more forced and leading. The juxtapositions between the two artists immediately fall apart when you see them through this lens. Bacon and Moore are much more than Terror and Beauty.
Having said that, there is some tremendous work in the show from both artists. I love Moore’s maquettes, drawing and textures, but Bacon stole the show. This is the first time any significant amount of his work has made it to Canada and that is where my attention was focused. I have seen many of his works live over the years in the collections of many of the major museums I have visited, but it was nice to see a good number of them all together. Like all artists there are good Bacons and bad. The majority of the work was solid, with a nice range from throughout his career. The screaming popes were represented along with a couple of triptychs, but my hands down favourite was the portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne. This demonstrates his supreme handling of paint and the closer you get to it the more compelling it becomes.
I left the exhibit satisfied and fortunate that I live in a city that stages shows like this one. Henry will always be there for us in Toronto, but Francis will be moving along on the 20th of July; so make your way to The Art Gallery of Ontario to pay your respects, just ignore all that Terror and Beauty nonsense.
Only a scant number of photographs of Vincent Van Gogh exist. Early in his adult life, he made a conscious decision to avoid the gaze of the camera, choosing rather to render his own likeness in paint. He believed photography was totally inadequate in truly capturing its sitter. Only the expressive qualities of paint, colour and the artist’s hand had a chance of revealing a person’s true self. Over his short life, he sat for himself a total of 38 times, all in an attempt to reveal a glimpse of who he really was. Francis Bacon also shared this revealing approach to portraiture. Bacon splayed his subjects open, spilling them all over the canvas in an attempt to scratch behind the surface. Photography doesn’t stand a chance in this regard at the feet of these two titans of painting. Both men handled paint in new and exciting ways that pushed technique to the forefront only to profoundly step aside to allow their subject’s voices be heard loud and clear. They both dealt with darkness and light in equal measures, translating their personal struggles into masterpieces but behind all the Sunflowers and Triptychs who is the greater artist?
Vincent Van Gogh taught himself how to paint through trial and error. During the roughly ten years he devoted to becoming an artist he produced an astounding number of works. Along the way his style evolved and blossomed. For an artist renown for his use of colour he started in the mud. In his early works, his palette consisted of umbers and blacks. Following in the tradition of Millet; an artist Van Gogh greatly admired he wanted to capture the dignity and culture of the humble working class. The paintings of this time are somber yet compelling but it’s in his drawings of this same era where the seeds of his true genius can be found. The expressive line that was still missing at the time in his paintings can be found in charcoal.
Bacon’s early work before his mature style was also dark and shadowy. Works like Study for a Running Dog and even his Popes function more as ghost like drawings on black and blue backgrounds than paintings. He uses a conservation of brushstrokes to knock in the details and accentuate the highlights. The blueprint for further explorations are evident but there is definitely a learning curve present. He has radically stripped away the colour and detail of the earlier successes of Painting and Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. Many elements are slowly being worked out to arrive at something genuinely new.
A short time after his journey began to become an artist Van Gogh discovered the Impressionists. It proved to be the perfect storm; his drawing could come to the forefront, as well he now had a licence to explore light and colour. At the end of the 19th century Paris was the center of the Art World and Vincent knew he wanted to be part of it. Van Gogh wanted Paris but Paris didn’t want Van Gogh. In the end, Vincent wanted to follow the sun anyway, and left for the south of France where his genius would grow along with his madness.
Bacon replaced his black voids with bright pinks and mauves, warm orange and yellow spaces that tricked the viewer into a false sense of safety and security. The palette had changed but the subject matter remained the same. The vivisections were now being performed in a children’s playroom. Two parts beauty plus two parts horror; Francis Bacon had come home. He had created genuine visual friction. He would explore this marriage for the rest of his career.
Van Gogh discovered colour with a vengeance. Yellow was transformed into pure light. The heat of the noonday sun still radiates from his canvases. Impressionism let him loose but Expressionism transformed him. The sky became a living thing, landscapes breathed and people spoke their minds. Van Gogh captured his own personal artistic awakenings and discoveries right onto the canvas. We get to share in these breakthroughs in what feels like real time. His paintings seem to be alive with expressive force.
Expressionism was a tag Bacon had no taste for. He didn’t like being labelled and delegated to specific corners of Art history. His style is truly his own and everyone who attempts what he accomplished will always be compared to him. Aside from fellow Brit Lucian Freud and a handful of others; Bacon had very little respect for the art of his own time. Even the art of the past held no special appeal for him with the exceptions of Velazquez and Van Gogh.
Bacon completed a series of paintings depicting the Dutch artist in 1957 based on Van Gogh’s work Painter on the Road to Tarascon 1888. He shows Van Gogh on his way to work melding with the landscape cast in shadow. The series was completed in a hurry to meet a gallery deadline. In this way Bacon is channeling Van Gogh’s working process in both subject and technique. Vincent liked to work fast, out in the open; instilling his paintings with both energy and emotion. Bacon struggles with this and is obviously more comfortable with the confines of the studio and utilizing photographic source material. In the end this reveals more about Van Gogh’s genius than Bacon’s.
Francis Bacon produced some of the most arresting images of the 20th century. He had a knack for making the ugly beautiful, but Van Gogh had that special gift of transcending beauty all together and capturing the sublime.
Winner: Van Gogh
One was a master of stone, the other a master of colour. Both lived well into their eighties and both were considered to be the greatest living artist in their lifetimes. Their chief rivals were Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso respectively. Michelangelo Buonarroti was asked by the pope to put down his chisel and pick up a paint brush (against his will) and Henri Matisse was forced (by illness) to put down his paint brush and pick up a pair of scissors. They both rose to the new challenge and left behind some of the greatest artwork the world has ever known. Their masterpieces are nothing short of iconic, but who is the greater artist?
For me, Matisse’s Red Studio is one of the greatest paintings painted by anybody ever. It hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art beside another one of his great works The Piano Lesson. It simultaneously shows space and negates it at the same time. It is mischievously simple and all together complex. The drawing is sumptuous and the use of colour totally avant garde. The abstract expressionist Mark Rothko was completely put under its spell, influencing countless of his own works. It draws you in with its joyous objects, sculptures and paintings scattered around the room, but it also keeps you out by its flat use of red reminding us that this is a place of serious work. Matisse rewrote the book on painting.
It is hard to believe after looking at a picture like Doni Tondo or The Holy Family by Michelangelo, that he didn’t consider himself a painter. His handling of value and composition are nothing short of masterful. His figures feel as though they could take a breath, (although somehow the female form completely alluded him). He is a grand storyteller conveying deep emotions with a simple tilt of the head or the direction of the gaze. We follow those eyes because we believe those eyes. These figures seem real but at the same time other worldly. Michelangelo tests our faith and asks to believe.
Matisse also asks us to believe. We can see the reflection of a goldfish on the surface of water with a single orange brushstroke. He has condensed our senses to a dash of pure colour and nudged our perception to a flawless execution. We are rendered children in their presence.
Matisse is renown for his use of colour. He liked to use large swatches of pure colour. He believed in the axiom ‘a kilogram of green is greener than half kilogram of green’. He also offsets his colours with both black and white, which creates great contrast as well as balances the palette. In Goldfish Matisse applies the paint loose and transparent with no real consideration for actual space preferring rhythm and pattern.
Michelangelo believed every piece of stone contained a sculpture waiting to be freed. You can see this process in his series of unfinished slaves. 5 centuries later we are fortunate that timing and dwindling funds forced Michelangelo to abandon his plans and work for the tomb of Pope Julius. The original plan called for 30 slaves in total with only two ever being completed and another 4 partially started. They illustrate the act of creation and serve as a masterclass for sculptors everywhere.
Throughout his career Matisse slowly reduced his figures to shape and flat colour. He eliminated the detail and emphasized the gesture. His cut-outs were the perfect culmination of this and for me some of his strongest work. Many artists peak young and spend the rest of their lives imitating themselves, never again being able to recapture that younger vitality. Matisse is one of those rare individuals who was prolific throughout his career. Made near the end of his life with scissors and sheets of painted paper, the cut-outs are simply exquisite.
As the story goes: after Michelangelo completed Moses, he slapped him on the knee and commanded him to speak. It is true that stone was transformed by his chisel into something more. We are so humbled by their presence, that it is almost unfathomable that a person could actually create them. We are in such awe of his talent, we have trouble taking in the work. Embarrassing as this is; it was years before I noticed the horns on top of Moses‘s head. I was too busy marveling at his hands, his feet, his expression, the drapery and so on.
As much as I love Matisse and I love Matisse, he’s no match for the Italian. The work of Michelangelo is so impressive, you can’t do anything but stop and take notice of it. I didn’t even mention David or The Sistine Chapel, but don’t worry their time will come.
We have now come to the end of the first 8 match-ups and the winners are poised to face off in the next round. So far, the bracket looks like this:
The Toronto International Film Festival is wrapping up this weekend. Two weeks of long lines, premieres and celebrity filled red carpet cotillions will soon be over. Our cult-like worship of celebrity will be satisfied for yet another year. Many big names graced our northern clime this season, but I would have to say the brightest star in Toronto right now, would be Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Unfortunately, the artist couldn’t personally make it to Toronto for the opening of his show: According to What? at the Art Gallery of Ontario but his presence is definitely being felt.
See, the thing with Ai Weiwei is; he is kind of an independent spirit living in an oppressive environment. These two elements tend to butt heads when directly confronting one another; and Ai Weiwei literally has the scares to prove it. Targeted by the Chinese government for his political activism, Weiwei has had his freedoms dramatically reduced, including not being able to leave China. You might think that a person who has suffered physical assault and wrongful incarceration (80 days) at the hands of his government would have nothing but negative things to say about China, but Ai Weiwei (in his art) can separate country from state and history from politics. The genius of Ai Weiwei’s work is that he can both celebrate and condemn his homeland in equal measures.
China has a spellbinding history with countless contributions to the pantheon of art. Dynasties have come and gone, each leaving evidence behind of their innovations and legacy. Weiwei assimilates their historical artifacts into his assemblages. He recycles the materials and working methods of the past to both pay homage and re-contextualize our relationship with objects. In both China Log and Kippe the sculptures are made up of salvaged pieces from Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) temples. The map of China has been hollowed out of the core of China Log. The log itself has been assembled using traditional Chinese joining techniques utilizing eight separate temple pillars. The core of Kippe consists of playground parallel bars commenting on the artist’s memories of childhood.
Ai Weiwei uses traditional materials in new and unexpected ways, whether it is his supreme unfolding stool of Grapes or his Teahouse. The Tea Houses are exactly as they are named; houses made using a ton of tea each. The delightful thing about experiencing these structures in the gallery is the aroma. Every piece in According to What? has a dual role. They first arrest you with their aesthetic and then subtly play on your emotions.
The other side of Ai Weiwei’s art is to raise a critical finger at the injustices of the world. Weiwei also mines China’s recent past and his filter of nostalgia has been replaced with tragedy and injustice. On May 12th, 2008 a massive earthquake rocked Sichuan province in China killing approximately 90 000 people. A horrific event that went virtually unnoticed by the entire planet. The tragedy was made worse by substandard building practices, especially hard hit were the schools where countless children lost their lives. The government minimized the event in the press and wouldn’t release the names of the dead. For a free spirit like Ai Weiwei, this was unacceptable. He and his team started looking for the lost names and posting them to his blog, which was eventually shut down by the government. In the exhibition, one wall of the gallery is devoted to the names of these lost children. Along with the names sits a massive pile of rebar that forms waves on the floor (Straight 2008-2012). Each metal bar was salvaged from the earthquake wreckage and then manually straightened.
The beauty of Weiwei’s work is the balance he strikes between the old and the new and the sublime and the tragic. At his worse he can delve into the sculptural equivalent to a visual parlor trick like: Forever or Moon Chest. They’re fun to look at but ultimately don’t resonate as much as the other work which can be beautiful, complicated and haunting. He helped shed light on a tragic event, bringing dignity to the departed and was ultimately persecuted for his convictions. The role of the artist is to interpret the world we live in for good and bad. Weiwei shows us at our best and our worst and we should thank him for it.
Ai Weiwei ‘s According to What? is definitely a must see.