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W.T.G.A.: Velázquez vs Van Gogh

Velazquez vs Van Goght

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 Waterseller of Seville 1619

Velázquez   Waterseller of Seville 1619

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.

Van Gogh Shoes 1886

Van Gogh Shoes 1886

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.

velazquez-venus

Velázquez Venus 1651

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.

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Van Gogh Chair 1888

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.

Velázquez The Spinners 1657

Velázquez The Spinners 1657

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.

Van Gogh Starry Night 1889

Van Gogh Starry Night 1889

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.

Velázquez Les Meninas 1756

Velázquez Les Meninas 1756

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

W.T.G.A.: Da Vinci vs Duchamp

Da Vinci vs DuchampBoth Leonardo and Marcel could be considered the elder statesmen of art. They are a thinking person’s artist. Their ideas transcended their products. As it turns out, the world has a scarce amount of products from the both of them to ogle at in our cultural institutions. In the case of Leonardo he only completed 15-16 paintings over the course of his life. I find it funny that not even art historians can agree on the exact number, as well it seems  lost Da Vincis keep resurfacing all the time.  Duchamp’s output  was minimal as well because he divided his time between art production and chess. He famously turned the game into  performance art on a lecture circuit with his friend Man Ray. We are only left with a handful of pieces, but oh what a handful. They both had too much to think about, rather than spending all their time fabricating. When they did make things, their touch was masterful. Both of them changed art forever; not just the process of making art but nothing short of the idea of art all together. But who is the greater artist?

da Vinci  The Virigin of the Rocks (detail) 1486

Leonardo da Vinci  The Virigin of the Rocks (detail) 1486

He was born out of wedlock, as a young man he was arrested for sodomy and as an old man died in the arms of a king: Leonardo da Vinci is probably the most recognized artist in the history of mankind. He is definitely the author of its most famous painting. But why that painting? A more appropriate question might be: why not that painting? Of the 15-16 paintings he completed over the course of his lifetime is it even his best? Does the most famous painting in history have to be the best painting in history? Is there any way to actually quantify that or who the greatest artist of all time is for that matter? (Probably not… but let’s crack on shall we.)

Duchamp Fountain 1917

Duchamp Fountain 1917

If Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is the world’s most famous piece of art than Marcel’s  Fountain would be the world’s most infamous. Almost a hundred years old and it can still offend and infuriate. So called art lovers will throw their hands up in disgust. This is the ultimate ready-made: a urinal tipped on its side signed by the fictitious R. Mutt. Duchamp didn’t even make it, he didn’t have to, but his power as an artist made it art. The role of the artist was irrevocably changed . He had turned lead into gold.

Advantage: Draw

Da Vinci  skull drawing 1489

Da Vinci skull drawing 1489

Leonardo on the other hand had no desire to dabble in the alchemy of the natural world. He believed man could not replicate nature but rather should observe it and possibly create inventions and understandings to better navigate it. His explorations into medical science and aerodynamics among others are centuries ahead of their time. It was his thirst for knowledge and excellence that helped to define the Renaissance. A favourite story I can neither confirm nor deny is:  Leonardo was a workaholic and knew he had too much to do and discover and found sleep just got in the way of this. To prevent himself from sleeping too long he devised a special bed.  The bed was hooked up to large weights on one end that would slowly be filled with water. When the weights were heavy enough they would tip the bed forcing the occupant up and out of it. An ancient alarm clock that delves into the realm of mythology but is aligned with the larger than life persona that is Da Vinci.

Advantage: Leonardo

Duchamp The Large Glass 1923

Duchamp The Large Glass 1923

The illustrations on the The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors Even (The Large Glass) evoke Leonardo’s diagrams for future machines. Duchamp’s machine painted on glass, that runs on love gasoline is planted more in the arena of satire than science. He painted it on glass so it would constantly change depending on what’s on the other side. The glass was broken during transportation in 1927. Instead of discarding the broken piece, Duchamp famously glued it back together claiming the accident had vastly improved it.

Da Vinci The Battle of Anghiari 1505

Da Vinci The Battle of Anghiari 1505

A piece we have lost to time is Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari. The mural may in fact lie behind another fresco by Giorgio Vasari in the hall of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. This is a testimony to Leonardo’s power. Art historians were willing to remove and damage a centuries old masterpiece in the off chance that a Da Vinci lies behind it. The original plan for the hall was to have facing frescoes, one by Leonardo and the other by Michelangelo. That would have been some room, but alas it did not come to pass.

Duchamp L.H.O.O.Q. 1919

Duchamp L.H.O.O.Q. 1919

With no more than a postcard and a pen Duchamp delved into the iconoclastic. By subverting Leonardo he only gave him more power. Dada exclaimed that the artist only need to recognize something as art in order for it to be art. So in this little contest Duchamp himself tips his hat to the victor. Marcel Duchamp’s contribution to art changed the game completely and injected a much needed sense of mirth and play. Marcel elevated art to the heights of what it is capable of being and Leonardo shone a light on what mankind is capable of achieving.

Winner: Leonardo da Vinci

W.T.G.A.: Dali vs Warhol

dali vs warholTwo more theatrical artists you’ll never find. Both achieved international super stardom in their lifetimes. They became that very rare species: artist celebrity. Today your average person would be hard pressed to name a living artist. Not even our so called art celebrities like Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst or Matthew Barney pull that much weight in a world of Justin Biebers and Lady Gagas.  Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol were and are to this day household names. Pretty good for guys who painted melting clocks and Campbell‘s soup cans, but who is the greater artist?

Dali The Basket of Bread 1926

Dali The Basket of Bread 1926

Before the ants, crutches and barren landscapes of the subconscious shifted everyone’s perceptions of reality; there was a young Spanish art student born in 1904 in the North Western corner of Spain named Salvador. Dali exhibited a master’s talent from an early age and as a youth he attended a prestigious art academy in Madrid, but dropped out (or was expelled) before completion; citing he was better than all his instructors. A controversial move but a correct one. From an early age Dali understood his place in the universe and wouldn’t be satisfied unless he was the center of it.

Warhol Shoe 50's

Warhol Shoe 50’s

Andrew Warhola was born in Pittsburgh in 1928. Andy Warhol was born in New York city in  1949. By the fifties, the once shy and frail bed ridden boy had reinvented himself as the most sought after illustrator in New York. His inkblot drawing style was both elegant and whimsical and proved irresistible to magazine editors. Although Andy was at the top of his field he yearned to be considered a real artist.

Dali The Persistence of Memory 1931

Dali The Persistence of Memory 1931

Introduced to Surrealism in the late 1920’s Dali soon became its most visible proponent. Although he would later reject its staunch confides, it is the movement most associated with him. An early work and probably one of the most recognizable artworks on the planet The Persistence of Memory does exactly what its title connotates. The dream world of the subconscious rocks the viewer into a whole new way of seeing. In my opinion this is Dali’s crowing achievement and possibly one of the act of painting’s crowning achievements.

Advantage: Dali

Warhol Campbells Soup Cans 1962

Warhol Campbells Soup Cans 1962

Andy may have never painted anything as seminal as The Persistence of Memory but he had a gift of transforming everything he painted. He elevated the banal to the iconic. The greatest example of this would be his soup cans. 32 hand painted still-lifes arranged in a pattern (originally shown as a long row, now a grid). The power of subtle change and repetition is undeniable. When first exhibited in California only one sold to the actor Dennis Hopper. Later it was returned to maintain all 32 as a single work. The effect they had was stupefying. They questioned what could be considered  art and flew directly in the face of the godfathers of American art the Abstract Expressionists. Materialism and Pop culture were meant to be condemned  not exonerated in the halls of fine art but Andy could see the future, and not only recognized the power of Pop but helped push it over the edge.

Advantage: Warhol

Dali Premonition of War 1936

Dali Premonition of War 1936

As interesting as Surrealism is, it can’t compete with the juggernaut that is Pop, but Pop too has its limitations. Pop’s subject matter will always be itself, it’s like a snake swallowing its tail. Dali could use Surrealism to its full advantage and utilized its storytelling ability to comment on the political unrest of his beloved Spain. The late great art critic Robert Hughes said that Dali’s Premonition of War was one of the greatest comments on war ever depicted, even eclipsing Picasso’s Guernica. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but the anguish and tension is palatable.

Warhol Electric Chair 1963

Warhol Electric Chair 1963

At his best, Warhol transcended Pop and even appropriated his own working methods to delve deeper into the human condition than celebrities or cow wallpaper. By the 60’s Warhol had set up his Factory and adopted silk-screening as his number one working method. It provided him an easy way to repeat an image as  opposed to the tedious and laborious method of hand painting he used for his soup cans. Utilizing a bevy of assistants and quick working methods, Warhol’s production went into high gear. He later expanded his art into the movies, publishing and sculpture. Not all of it was stellar but it demonstrated his endless creativity, proving he didn’t like to stay in the same place for very long.

Advantage; Warhol

Dali Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937

Dali Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937

Dali at his best, transformed the way we see the world and at his worst, his paintings became cheap parlor tricks that turned into optical illusions that are better suited for the walls of a dormitory rather than a museum. Unfortunately near the end of his career Dali became a caricature of his former self. He notoriously signed a stack of blank paper that became countless forgeries. The art market was awash with fake Dalis with real signatures.

Warhol Marilyn 1964

Warhol Marilyn 1964

Warhol himself didn’t even sign half his work, he got his mom to do it for him. His portraits became a formula, starting with a simple Polaroid passed to assistants then silk-screened with Andy doing as little as collecting the fee which was $50 thousand a pop. The commercialization of his art is both his worst failure and his greatest accomplishment. His example has been followed by countless others that came after him. His influence is immense, but it would be dismissive to underestimate his contribution to the canon of art history. Andy Warhol changed the way we perceive process, culture and ultimately art and that is no small accomplishment.

Winner: Warhol

Who’s the Greatest Artist?

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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.

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  Related posts:

W.T.G.A.: Picasso vs Rembrandt

W.T.G.A.: Goya vs Rothko

W.T.G.A.: Dali vs Warhol

W.T.G.A.: Da Vinci vs Duchamp

W.T.G.A.: Bacon vs Basquiat

W.T.G.A.: Cezanne vs Kandinsky

W.T.G.A.: Velazquez vs Van Gogh

W.T.G.A.: Michelangelo vs Matisse