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.
Who knew these three paintings were originally meant to be a triptych? I certainly didn’t; but now that they’ve been arranged together for the first time (for the exhibition Mystic Landscapes at the Art Gallery of Ontario) since Paul Gauguin painted them , it sure makes sense. The primary colour scheme alone should have been my first clue. The otherworldly theme of the story of Christ’s life as envisioned in French Brittany runs through all three as well as the artist himself appears in all three with him taking the starring role of Christ in 2 out of three. I always found this to be very revealing about Gauguin, it takes some kind of hubris to paint yourself as a martyr. Maybe this is the reason they never made it to a church to serve as inspiration for the pious. Piety was kind of on the back-burner of Paul Gauguin’s life but I guess he did like to dip his toe in the mystic. He was definitely a seeker.
My hat’s off to the curators for pulling off this feat (along with another, I’ll get to in a minute). I was most excited to see Vision After the Sermon when it was announced it was coming to Toronto, but had no idea the other two were along for the ride. Now that I’ve seen them as a triptych it’s hard to see them any other way. This is exactly what good curation should do, shed new light on the familiar and re-contextualize art into new and exciting combinations and narratives. Having said that: my biggest criticism with the AGO is some of their exhibition themes can get really stretched and unnecessary. Please let the art speak for itself and don’t put words in its mouth.
The art not only speaks for itself in Mystic Landscapes but sings. Besides Gauguin you get heavy-hitters like Munch, Whistler and O’Keeffe and lesser known artists like Jansson and Dulac. There is a wonderful room devoted to the work of Claude Monet with fine representations of the various series he embraced over the years. His Waterlilies, Cathedrals, Poplars and Haystacks are all present. Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone is given a place of prominence near the end of the show. A personal highlight for me was this Egon Schiele,
but the biggest surprise of the show is the inclusion of our own nation’s artists. When it comes to landscapes, mystic or otherwise you have to admit Canada can hold its own. Lawren Harris, Emily Carr and Tom Thomson get to share the walls with Monet and O’Keeffe and rightly so. The curators have positioned our artists at the table with some of Art history’s biggest names and this is an exciting and revelatory prospect. It is one thing to propose this in our own backyard but another to shout to the hills, which will happen when this show ends its run in Toronto and moves to the Cathedral of Impressionism itself The Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Make your way to the Art Gallery of Ontario to see Mystic Landscapes. Come for the Van Gogh, stay for the Gauguin and revel in our National treasures before the secret gets out and standing in line becomes a way of life.
These were the 3 most viewed posts on holditnow in 2015.
Birdman: “a thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) slowly unravels like a sweater caught on a nail. Birdman unspools relentlessly through a continuous maze of backstage corridors and claustrophobic dressing rooms of a Broadway theatre that could easily stand in for the mythological labyrinth of Minos. Michael Keaton is Riggan Thomas, who is Birdman; who may have or may not have been Icarus. Birdman reads like a Fable. Birdman felt more like a performance than a movie. While watching Birdman, I didn’t want it to end, right up until it did.
It’s the classic boy meets girl story. Married by a curator/collector in 1927 resulting in a relationship cemented by sentimentalism; Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy 1770 and Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Pinkie 1794 have been eternally entwined in the collective consciousness of the wigs and keys crowd since the early twentieth century. They are the subjects of endless reproductions, porcelain figurines, commemorative plates and all manner of kitsch. Two youths betrothed to one another by the place they shared on a museum wall. The girl in pink and the boy in blue; how perfect is that?
Van Gogh and Picasso are two of the most recognizable names on the planet. Countless books and millions of words have been devoted to their lives and work. Their art changed the way people see the world around them. This fact is no small feet and these men were 2 in 107,602,707,791. There weren’t billions of people waiting in line for Picasso Masterpieces from the Musee National Picasso, Paris in Toronto or for Van Gogh: Up Close in Ottawa but at times it felt like there was. The big names bring the big crowds. For me this is a mixed blessing. I love the fact that people are going en masse to experience art and taking the time to truly look at things but it can make viewing the art troublesome. This summer has been a spoils of riches for the art going public, with two blockbuster shows just four hours away from one another. So, this past week I made my pilgrimage to spend time with two of the icons of western art.
Happy New Year and see you in 2016.
Blogging can be a tricky business at best, coming up with engaging content is not always easy. Sometimes you have to set yourself a challenge to get the juices flowing. Any regular readers of this blog will have noticed an irregular set of posts entitled Who’s the Greatest Artist? What I thought would be a quick summer series has now stretched out over two years. I hadn’t really appreciated the scope of the project when I started down this road, but I would have to say it being one of the most enjoyable to research and write. Close to 14 000 words later and here we are. As I approach writing the final four face-offs: Picasso vs Van Gogh and Da Vinci vs Michelangelo, I thought I would compile the story so far.
Here’s the one that started it all and explains the premise – Who’s the Greatest Artist?
I didn’t want to make it easy on myself so I intentionally tried to create difficult match-ups – Picasso vs Rembrandt
I liked the idea of using the artist’s likenesses in the banner for each piece – Goya vs Rothko
In my mind the outcome of some match-ups were more obvious than others – Dali vs Warhol
I liked this one because it pits two very intellectual artists against one another – Da Vinci vs Duchamp
As I went along, it was increasingly enjoyable to find the parallels between the two – Bacon vs Basquiat
This may have been one of the more difficult one’s to decide – Cezanne vs Kandinsky
Sometimes the two artists couldn’t be more unalike if you tried –Velazquez vs Van Gogh
This was a tough one because whoever got eliminated could easily have gone on to the top of the bracket –
That was the first round, now I had the daunting task of writing about some of the same artists all over again but try to keep it fresh. In my mind I knew I had to pace myself and if I knew a particular artist might advance I had to keep some interesting information for later. Some pairings really helped to inform the direction the piece would take. Now on to the quarter-finals.
I made sure I found pictures where they are both wearing their ‘trademark’ striped shirts – Warhol vs Picasso
This one was probably the most lopsided of the bunch – Bacon vs Van Gogh
I had to eliminate one of my all time favourites, which is always a bit difficult – Da Vinci vs Goya
David and the Giant Peach – Michelangelo vs Cezanne
This brings us up to date and soon the semi-finals. At this point, I’m still not sure who is going to take this thing and that’s part of the enjoyment. I hope you have had a fraction of the amount of pleasure reading these things as I have had writing them.
Detroit has definitely seen some better days. The once great city is currently suffering under a paralyzing debt of somewhere in the ballpark of $20 billion dollars. Drastic measures are being considered to stave off their financial hemorrhaging: one of them being; selling off their great collection of artworks. As an art lover and lover of museums, this news was very dismaying for me. If this collection were to go under the gavel, most of it would end up in the hands of private collectors scattered to the wind. Public institutions don’t have the resources to compete with the Eli Broads of the world. Great artworks are one thing, but great collections are another, and Detroit has a great collection. Fearing the worse and before it was too late; we called some friends, packed up the car and headed for the border.
The signs of Detroit’s financial situation were immediately apparent once we crossed the river, but among the abandoned and boarded up buildings sits a white marble jewel. The Detroit Institute of the Arts was never on my museum radar until this potential crisis, but that was a huge oversight on my part. The first thing you are struck by is the building itself, with its size and scope. The collection within it houses roughly 66 000 precious objects. What we found around every corner were breathtaking surprises and bonafide masterpieces. Our first big surprise was Henry Fuseli’s Nightmare. Fuseli is a minor player in the history of art but has managed to create one of its most arresting images. It is tragically a fitting allegory for Detroit’s current woes. Debt sits on her chest like a malevolent spirit producing unrest.
The rumour of the potential sale of the Institute’s collection has furthered been fueled by an appraisal (commissioned by the D.I.A.) of its holdings by Artvest: an art investment firm. Artvest values the total collection at roughly 4.6 billion dollars, but warns that if an actual sale were to take place it may garner only a quarter of its projected worth. Values are based on current art market trends and comparable auction prices. The whole report can be found here. The high prices achieved by the sale of art is a hot button issue for many individuals. I personally believe some things on this earth should be valuable. We need to acknowledge the accomplishments and historical contributions of the makers and innovators among us. Genius is precious and should be rewarded. Overall, Art is worth way more than money, but for the time being the market is one way( a flawed way) to help gauge its worth. Bruegel’s Wedding Dance topped the list of Detroit’s top earners with a potential fetching price of $200 million. Van Gogh was next followed by Picasso.
The pleasure of a truly splendid collection can be found in its range and its depth. Detroit is a spoil of riches for any museum goer, starting with the Diego Rivera murals, along with the Rembrandts, Caravaggios, Fra Angelicos and the list just goes on. Here is a small smattering of what Detroit has to offer:
The idea of selling off this wonderful collection is heart breaking. Hopefully the governor of Michigan will follow through with his pledge and keep supporting the museum. The Detroit Institute of the Arts is worth far more than the 4.6 billion price tag it has been allotted. Do yourself a favour and experience one of the great cultural institutions in North America; it’s worth the trip.
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
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez is often sited as the greatest European painter to have ever picked up a brush. His technical skill is nothing less than superb (putting it mildly), but technique alone does not an artist make. What separates Velázquez from the rest, is that he is one of those special painters who doesn’t just deal in light and flesh, but in truth. Vincent Van Gogh sought truth in every brushstroke he ever laid to canvas. Art for him became the only truth in a world that constantly fed him terrible lies. The greatest lie of all was that his truth was worthless and misdirected. When the avalanche of lies turned into doubt; it became too much for him to bear and he ended his brief and tenuous life. Both Van Gogh and Velázquez are painters of the highest order and unrivaled merchants of truth, but who is the greater artist?
Velázquez announced his arrival with a single painting Waterseller of Seville. He was barely in his twenties, and the most powerful family in Europe at the time, gave him an opportunity to prove himself. Velázquez rose to the occasion and entered the court of the king and then never left. His first real job was to be the official painter for King Philip IV of Spain. Not bad for someone who was discouraged by his family from pursuing the lowly profession of artist. Velázquez was the educated son of a lawyer and art was viewed as a pedestrian pursuit unworthy of his station. Velázquez’s talent couldn’t be suppressed and in no time flat he found himself not only working in the palace of the king, but living there as well.
It is probably safe to say, Van Gogh never set foot in anything remotely close to a palace. The closet Van Gogh got was a little four room house in Arles in the south of France. He lived in poverty his entire adult life, having to be supported by his art dealer brother Theo. After being rejected by the church he turned his focus towards painting and spent a frantic ten years seeking the truth in paint. He completed 1000 paintings in that time and near the end of his life completed 70 works in 70 days. He worked like a man possessed. It was in his ‘Studio of the South’ where he totally abandoned his dark somber palette and embraced the vibrant colours of the sun.
Velázquez’s talent for colour is that he can do so much with so little. Reds and blacks sing with minimal brushstrokes and expert handling. His Venus is an excellent example of this, certain areas are built up into subtle variations of tone where others are barely knocked in at all. Velázquez directs our gaze and always keeps the viewer in mind. He peaks our interest by not revealing all and situating us in relation to the subject as she stares directly out at us. We become part of the painting. The Rokeby Venus (as it is now called) was originally solely meant for the male gaze, intended to be displayed in the 17th century version of a man-cave. It eventually made its way to England where another King (can be bookmarked in the story of Velázquez) helped to purchase it for the National Gallery at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1914, a suffragette named Mary Richardson attacked the painting in a protest that women couldn’t have the vote. She ended up slashing the painting five times with a small axe. The media of the day portrayed the incident like it was an attempted murder.
Over the years, many sensational stories have been told of Vincent’s breakdown, self mutilation and manic behaviour. This is part of the legend that is Van Gogh. No matter how little interest people may have in art, they’ve heard that story, and no matter how many times you hear it, it is still disquieting. This was an extreme act that defies reason, the act of a mad man, but Van Gogh was not mad. A mad man couldn’t control paint like that. An unhealthy combination of drink, depression, passion and rejection can produce huge lapses in judgement but a delusional mind can’t produce a painting like the Chair. The absolute harmony of colour is nothing short of breathtaking. It literally blazes from the gallery wall. Van Gogh suffered horribly from his inner demons but it’s impossible to look at one of his paintings and not feel a sense of joy. There’s a pleasure in challenging the gods, even if you know you can never win.
Arachne was turned into a spider for her crime of challenging the gods to a weaving contest. This is the theme of Velázquez’s The Spinners; painted near the end of his life. By this time, Velázquez had enjoyed a long and illustrious career; having been promoted to run the King’s household and not only produce artwork for the palace, but to go on buying trips to acquire it as well. He filled rooms with Titans and Tintorettos alongside his own works. Velázquez placed himself in the canon of art history long before the rest of the world caught up.
It took some time for the rest of the world to realize the mistake it had made with Vincent. The world rejected Van Gogh’s work when he was alive and only embraced it after his death. It took a while for the rest of us to catch up to him and understand his genius. The story of Van Gogh resounds so deeply because it is the story of vindication. He was right and the world was wrong. Everyone needs to believe that truth, to know that the world isn’t always right in its treatment of you and that anyone can prevail against insurmountable odds. Unfortunately for Vincent it came far too late and the tragedy of his life helped fuel the pathos of his genius. It is almost impossible to divorce the man from the work but the work speaks for itself and we are left with masterpiece after masterpiece.
A masterpiece to rival all others would have to be Les Meninas by Velázquez. It is the crown jewel in the painter’s oeuvre. It is the ultimate court painting, again bringing the viewer into the action. We are standing in essence where the King and Queen are standing indicated by their reflection at the back of the room. We are frozen in time as the morning sun illuminates the maids of honour. Velázquez himself stares out at us from this palatial room. It is both intimate and distancing at the same time. Royalty is the domain for the few and the elite and tends to keep its distance. Velázquez spent a lifetime preserving that distance by depicting the cultural divide of the more fortunate. He was tremendously gifted at flattering an extremely awkward looking man but they are not among his best works. Where Velázquez truly shows his genius are in his portraits of the attendants and commoners that peppered the King’s court. This is where his truth shines brightest.
Everything Vincent attempted sings true; he distilled painting to its purest form. Van Gogh’s truth is that of colour and movement and the nobility of a worn out pair of shoes or simple chair in the corner. Life was hard for him but his pictures don’t get bogged down by his hardships. Van Gogh’s paintings are the essence of art and lucky for us, a gift to the world.
Winner: Van Gogh
An impossible question to answer, a very controversial proposal, a polarizing proposition, a can of worms wrapped in a barrel of monkeys, but why not throw it against the wall to see if it sticks.
Here ladies and gentlemen for your contemplation is the bracket and its combatants. (If you are offended by the premise of pitting our artistic maestros against one another, let me remind you that when it comes to competition; the arena of art is essentially the Colosseum.) Just like the ancient Romans who would throw any two things together to see who would win: bears vs lions, giraffes vs tigers etc, I have assembled a who’s who of radically different styles.
Choosing the artists was a very daunting task. There are some no-brainers along with a few perhaps surprises. I can already hear the criticisms: “How can you include Basquiat and not include Ruebens?” When mining the entirety of art history: the artists I did not include breaks my heart. People that almost made the cut: Titian, Giotto, Vermeer, Mondrian, Joseph Beuys, Caravaggio Artemisia Gentileschi, Bridget Riley, Miro and on and on. You’ll notice that the bracket rests heavily on the dead white man western side of things. This aspect I do regret, but I feel history has conspired against us in this regard. We are slowly making amends for this in the twenty first century by broadening our millennial-long narrow mindedness and finally becoming more inclusionary. You will also notice that no living or contemporary artists made the show. I believe time is the greatest critic of art and we haven’t gotten back far enough to see their whole picture yet.
The artists I did choose I believe most people would concede their place here among some of the greatest of all time. (I realize there is noway to satisfy everyone.) I did try to put together some unlikely and highly contested match-ups. It’s really hard to find sparing partners for Da Vinci and Michelangelo; Renoir’s cute flower girls would be no match.
But how to ascertain who is the superior artist, there must be parameters. The artists will be judged on: historical significance, masterpieces, innovation and influence, technique and overall impact. Over the course of the summer I’ll be weighing the titans of art against one another in a series of posts to eventually crown a winner. Any and all suggestions are welcome in the comments.
This idea was formulated by looking at the search terms on my WordPress dashboard. Last year about this time, I wrote a review comparing the Picasso show at the AGO with the National Gallery’s Van Gogh exhibit. I entitled the piece Van Gogh Vs Picasso, and it was meant to compare the two shows, not the two artists. Over the past year I have noticed quite a few search queries that read Who’s better Van Gogh or Picasso? It is like people out there are asking the great genie that is the internet to tell them who is the greatest artist of them all…..I’m no genie but I know a fun challenge when I see one.