Yard With Lunatics. This painting by Francisco Goya from the late 1700s leaves me cold. It depicts a mental institution in all its wanton ghoulishness; painted when the painter himself feared (correctly) that he was going mad.
Perhaps this work of art was born out of the same impulse that drove Stephen King to write The Shining: “Still tormented by a desire to hurt his children, he turned to the technique he had learned as a child himself—believing that if he wrote about something bad, then it would never happen. This resulted in The Shining, the story of a little boy whose alcoholic father tries to kill him.” An attempted exorcism of fate through art.
I have a stack of Economist magazines from last year that I never got around to reading. Today I went through a couple finally trying to catch up. It was interesting to read the world news of the moment a year removed; to see what they got wrong and what’s still important.
An article about an exhibit on the work of Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) caught my eye with a graphic of his work, “The Great Wave.” This painting is familiar to me for some reason, but only peripherally. Perhaps it decorates the interior of a restaurant I like. I had NO IDEA that it was painted in the 1830s, and that Hokusai’s work inspired the likes of Van Gogh (1853-1890).
“The Great Wave” is a woodblock print, meaning the work was easily reproducible and available to Hokusai’s patrons for about “the price of a big bowl of noodle soup.” This was humble art made for the people. Of the nearly 5,000 copies made in Hokusai’s lifetime very few remain, the ones around today being the survivors of natural disasters, world wars, and almost 200 years time.
The Scream by Edward Munch is one of the most famous paintings ever, but my interest in it was aroused today by this passage from the book I’m reading, The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel:
“The ant in Aesop’s fable instinctively knows what it has to do to prepare for the future, and when summer comes it drags off the foods it will need for the winter. But we don’t have the ant’s instincts, and evolution has not yet adapted our brain for dealing concretely with the distant future. We easily become anxious about frightening events that are imminent but rarely visualize the future in vivid, hot terms. Those rose-colored glasses and the feel-good psychological immune system protect us from dwelling on such anxieties. They allow us to avoid focusing on terrifying prospects like cancer, impoverishment, lonely old age, and ill health, and it these anxieties do become vivid, most of us soon self-distract.
In this way, we avoid the anxiety that Freud found in his patients, and that the painter Edvard Munch depicted in The Scream. An icon of anxiety in the modern world, the painting shows a terrified person trembling on a bridge in ominous surroundings, hands cupped against the ears, eyes wide open staring at us from a horror-struck face. Our defenses protect us from lingering too long on such an image, but they also make it unlikely that we’ll behave like provident ants rather than self-indulgent grasshoppers. Consequently, people continue taking all sorts of risks, like eating too much and smoking and drinking too heavily, ignoring the long-term consequences that are far off, uncertain, and easily discounted. The vast majority of Americans arrive at retirement age with funds completely insufficient to maintain anything remotely like the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. The problem begins with how we naturally think about the future self and how that future self is represented in the brain.
He is overwhelmed, and so he screams.
“Art is anything you can get away with.” – Marshall McLuhan
Last night, I watched “For No Good Reason” which is a documentary about visual artist Ralph Steadman. I’d never heard his name but I recognized his work. To be sure, his grotesque artwork is impossible to ignore. Watching him paint, you see a sort of interaction with his subconscious. The angriest, most frustrated depths of his Id come splattering out on the page: The rage, the social injustice, the malaise of modern life. It’s all there in sickening detail.
Steadman is best known as Hunter S. Thompson’s illustrator. Theor work embodies the ethos of the 60’s and 70’s when, according to Steven Pinker, “sanity was denigrated, and psychosis romanticized” in pop culture. In other words, a period of decivilizing in the mainstream that’s antithetical to today’s social media.
It’s fascinating to hear fellow Baby Boomers discuss Ralph’s art. The era of organized protest being taken seriously by young people is so fargone as to be completely foreign. From director Terry Gilliam: “The problem with protesters is that we got old and we got tired. We screamed and shouted and we did change the world to a degree, but not as much as we’d like. And that leads to a depression and a sense of semi-impotence, which I think after a while just begins to wear you down. You realize you did make these changes, and you see a new generation of people coming up, who are beneficiaries of a lot of the noise we made, and they don’t give a damn. They’re interested in shopping.” And therein lies the rub.
I stayed up late last night watching Tim’s Vermeer, Penn and Teller’s recent film about their friend Tim Jenison’s obsessive quest to paint like Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Is Tim a painter? Not hardly. But he is a successful entrepreneur, computer graphics whiz, and inventor with an eccentric, restless, and brilliant mind. After reading in the book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters that perhaps Vermeer’s talent was perhaps augmented by the technology available at the time, Tim had to figure out what his secret was.
Vermeer’s art is acclaimed to this day for it’s photo-realistic reproduction of light. Strangely enough, x-ray scans of his originals show that they weren’t sketched beforehand, further deepening the mystery of how he was able to paint such life-like scenes.
Tim puts a ton of research, money, travel, and effort into figuring out Vermeer’s secret. Whether or not the method he finally settled on to paint was indeed Vermeer’s technique will never definitively be known, but Tim’s reproduction, the product of his grueling 6 year odyssey, is quite convincing:
Not bad for a guy with no previous artistic training!
Do yourself a favor and check out Penn and Teller’s brilliant documentary:
Paul Cézanne, The Large Bathers, 1906
This painting by Paul Cézanne was brought to my attention by the book I’m currently reading, the delightful Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience:
“Occasionally people stop to ‘feast their eyes’ when a particularly gorgeous sight happens to appear in front of them, but they do not cultivate systematically the potential of their vision. Visual skills, however, can provide constant access to enjoyable experiences. Meander, the classical poet well expressed the pleasure we can derive from just watching nature: “The sun that lights us all, the stars, the sea, the train of clouds, the spark of fire—if you live a hundred years or only a few, you can never see anything higher than them.” The visual arts are some of the best training grounds for developing these skills. Here are some descriptions by people versed in the arts about the sensation of really being able to see. The first recalls an almost Zen-like encounter with a favorite painting, and empathizes the sudden epiphany of order that seems to arise from seeing a work that embodies visual harmony: ‘There is that wonderful Cézanne ‘Bathers’ in the Philadelphia Museum…which…gives you in one glance that great sense of a scheme, not necessarily rational, but that things come together…[That] is the way in which the work of art allows you to have a sudden appreciation of, an understanding of the world. That may mean your place in it, that may mean what bathers on the side of a river on a summer day are all about…that may mean the ability to suddenly let go of ourselves and understand our connection to the world…'”
And here is commentary from Kahn Academy:
“‘What comes to you after looking at it calmly, after you’ve really digested every nuance and every little thread, is the total impact. When you encounter a very great work of art, you just know it and it thrills you in all your senses, not just visually, but sensually and intellectually.'”
It’s unfortunate that no matter how high quality the resolution, no digital representation could match standing in front of the real thing. We’re very lucky that just about every major metropolitan area has an art museum open to the public. For instance, Dallas has a free one that is very nice. Take some time out to go to an art museum near you.
Google keeps an archive of their daily homepage doodles. Enjoy!
Salvador Dalí, Tête Raphaëlesque éclatée [Exploding Raphaelesque Head], 1951
Salvador Dalí is one of the most famous painters ever. I’m not sure why his Tête Raphaëlesque éclatée
[Exploding Raphaelesque Head
] isn’t better known. Its surreal like the rest of his work but less modern and more gorgeous (in this humble critic’s estimation) than better known works like The Persistence of Memory.
Take the e-tour at the National Gallery of Scotland’s website where the work resides and listen to Scottish people talk about the finer details:
James Ensor (1860–1949)
I find his work surreal and morbid without being gloomy.
But really, what is there to say about art except whether you like it or not? I can’t say why I like his paintings, I just do–check them out at the James Ensor Online Museum.
James Ensor, The Intrigue, 1890
Check ignition and may God’s love be with you
“The David Bowie song “Space Oddity” probably shouldn’t have been made into a children’s book: The haunting 1969 track about an astronaut who loses contact with Earth to float around the universe would probably give most kids nightmares.
That didn’t stop illustrator Andrew Kolb from turning the space-rock song into an illustrated book. As seen in the gallery above, the artist lays down Bowie’s hit about a spaceman in a ‘tin can’ line by line.”
Andrew Kolb’s impressive portfolio can be seen HERE.