Review: The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

Review: The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

The Letters of Vincent van GoghThe Letters of Vincent van Gogh by Vincent van Gogh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For great things do not just happen by impulse but are a succession of small things linked together.

The main problem when encountering Van Gogh is that his life has become the quintessential artistic myth of our age. The obscure genius ahead of his time, toiling in solitude, tortured by personal demons, driven by a creativity that sometimes spilled over into madness—and so on. You’ve heard it all before. You have also seen it before. His paintings suffer from the same overexposure as does his life story. Starry Night hangs, in poster form, in dorm rooms and offices; it is used in commercials and as desktop backgrounds. The challenge, then, as with all iconic art, is to unsee it before it can be properly seen.

The best way to pop this swollen bubble of this myth is, I think, to read these letters. Here an entirely different Van Gogh is revealed. Instead of the mad genius we find the cultured gentleman. Van Gogh could read and write English, French, and German fluently, in addition to his native Dutch. He peppers his letters with references to Dickens, Elliot, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Balzac, Zola. His prose is fluent, cogent, and clear—sometimes even lyrical. His knowledge of art history is equally impressive, as he, for example, compares Shakespeare’s and Rembrandt’s understanding of human nature. Not only this, but he was far from insulated from the artistic currents of his day. To the contrary, he was friends with many of the major artists in Paris—Seurat, Signac, Gauguin—and aware of the work of other prominent painters, such as Monet and Cézanne.

But, of course, Van Gogh’s myth, like many, has some basis in truth. During his lifetime he did not receive even a fraction of the recognition his work deserved (though if he had lived a little longer it likely would have). He was often unhappy and he did suffer from a mental illness of some sort, which did indeed lead him to sever a portion of his own ear. What is less clear is the role that his unhappiness and his mental illness played in his work. In our modern world, still full of Romanticism, we are apt to see these factors as integral to his artistic vision, the source of his inspiration and style. Van Gogh himself had, however, quite a different opinion, seeing his suffering and illness as a distraction or an obstacle, something to be endured but not sought.

The letters in this volume span from 1872 to 1890, the year of his death. Most of them are addressed to his brother, Theo, who worked as an art dealer in Paris and who supported Vincent financially. There are also a few letters to his sister, Wil, and to his artist friends. From the beginning we see Van Gogh as an enthusiastic and earnest man, very liable to be swept up into passions. His first passion was the church. Following in his father’s footsteps, Van Gogh went to England to work as a preacher. His letters from this period are full to bursting with pious sentiments; in one letter he even includes a sermon, which he composed in English. He quickly grew disenchanted with conventional religion, however, and soon he is pining after his cousin, Kee, who rejects him and refuses to see him. Not long after that he takes in a woman named Sien, a former prostitute, and his letters are filled with his dreams of family life.

But in all of these letters, even before he decided to take up art—which he did comparatively late, at the age of 27—Van Gogh show a keen visual awareness and appreciation. He includes long, detailed, and sometimes rapturous descriptions of towns and landscapes. He is also, from the start, independent to the point of stubbornness. He persists in trying too woe his cousin even in the face of his whole family (including Kee herself) discouraging him. He insists on taking in Sien despite the disapproval of nearly everybody, including his brother and his mentor, Mauve. When it came to art he was absolutely uncompromising, refusing to paint anything just for money, and getting into passionate disagreements with some of his artist friends (Gauguin, most notoriously).

Van Gogh’s intractability often landed him in trouble. He had a bad relationship with his parents and often quarrelled with his brother, Theo, who was his closest confidant. But it is also, I think, the quality that is ultimately most admirable in him. His personal standards drove him to work hard. He was no sauvant. His letters are filled with exercises and studies. He was tough on his own work and constantly strove to improve it. And though he sometimes got discouraged, there is never any hint of quitting or compromising. This is the classic story, often told. But it is easy to lose sight of how dreary and dispiriting this life could be, day to day. In films the struggling artist is enmeshed in a moving drama, and the audience always knows it will come right in the end. But for Van Gogh this was a plodding daily reality of struggle and failure, with no audience and no guarantee of ultimate success.

That we admire Van Gogh for persisting is, in large part, because his art was truly great. But what would we think if he was mediocre? This, you might say, is the paradox of persistence: We admire those who persist in the face of struggle when they have genuine talent; but when they do not, the spectacle becomes almost pathetic. What would we think of a man financially supported by his brother, constantly quarrelling with and alienating his parents, toiling away in isolation, who produced nothing beautiful? We might be inclined to call such a person naïve, foolish, or even selfish. Whether we admire or scorn stubbornness, in other words, depends on whether it eventually pays off. But in the meantime nobody can know if it will, least of all the stubbornly persistent person. It is, in short, a great risk.

Yet it cannot be said that Van Gogh wagered everything on his talent, since there is not even a hint of calculation or self-interest in his continuing persistence. He is so manifestly, uncompromisingly, absolutely obsessed and absorbed by art that there is no other option for him. Even when institutionalized and hospitalized he thinks of nothing but when, how, where, and what he can paint next. And though he at times expresses regret for the sacrifices this entails—he is especially vexed by the toll it takes on his love-life—he never discusses art with even a touch of bitterness. He is willing to live in a hovel and survive on crumbs if it means he can afford paint. To see such unqualified devotion, not in a novel or on a stage, but in the real, intimate context of his daily life is (to use a hackneyed word) inspiring.

Vincent’s story had a tragic ending. On a summer day in July he walked into a wheat field where he was painting and shot himself in the chest. He survived two more days, finally passing away in his brother’s arms on July 29. The circumstances surrounding this death are rather remarkable, and I don’t wonder that two biographers, Naifeh and Smith, have raised questions about it. The tone of his final letters, while troubled, are far from despairing. He even includes an order of paints in his final dispatch to Theo. And it is also extraordinary to think that a man who had shot himself in the chest could walk a mile back to the inn, or that a man locally known for his mental instability could get a gun. The recent film, Loving Vincent (which I haven’t seen), is focused on this question.

Theo did not long survive his brother: he succumbed to syphilis within just six months. Theo had married his wife, Jo, less than two years earlier, which proved an extremely fortunate circumstance—for art’s sake, at least—since it was Jo who championed Vincent’s legacy and who published his correspondence. Theo and Jo’s only son, named after his uncle Vincent, was responsible for founding the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which I recently visited. To any who get the chance, I highly recommend this paired experience, for the letters and the paintings are mutually enriching. Few people in history seemed to have lived so entirely for the sake of posterity: churning out paintings which few people saw, writing letter after letter few people read, creating a story and an oeuvre that now have the power to tear you in two.

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Review: Miró—Painter of the Stars

Review: Miró—Painter of the Stars

Miró: El pintor de las estrellasMiró: El pintor de las estrellas by Joan Miró

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although Joan Miró’s name is hardly less known than that of Dalí’s or even Picasso’s, his art seems strikingly less popular. I have been told by several people that they cannot appreciate it. And, indeed, I was often left cold by the works I had seen in the Reina Sofia—some of which seems to confirm every negative stereotype about modern art. But I wanted to give Miró another chance; so I visited the Fundació Miró in Barcelona, and read this book.

One of the most difficult tasks before any young artist is to develop her voice. By “voice” I mean many things: style, philosophy, identity, themes, and so on, which taken together make an artists work immediately recognizable as hers. In a word, this requires originality. One might be inclined to think that originality is the easiest thing to achieve—being the natural product of everyone’s differences. But to produce a deeply original work—one that could not have been produced by anybody else—is anything but easy. Artistic voice emerges in a dialectical process with one’s influences, as they are first mastered and then synthesized, until gradually something appears which cannot be traced to any influence.

This process is most easily seen among painters. And it is wonderfully illustrated in Miró, whose work incorporated fauvism, surrealism, and cubism. But it wasn’t only artistic trends that shaped the young painter. He was deeply inspired by natural sights—particularly the countryside near Montroig (near the city of Tarragona, in his ancestral Catalonia). The voice that Miró developed through his formative experiences and influences is unmistakable—displaying a sensibility for forms and color that no other artist could replicate. And consequently one feels, upon entering the Fundació Miró, the same way one feels upon entering the Dalí Museum in Figueres—that one is entering a new visual universe that obeys different laws.

In short, I have come to enjoy Miró’s work far more than I had. I find in it a sense of playfulness, and sometimes a sense of peacefulness, that is deeply appealing; and I enjoy watching his manipulation of forms shift throughout his work, while remaining recognizably Miró, like a theme and variations. But I still must admit that it does not affect me very deeply. My appreciation, in other words, is more intellectual than emotional. And I think that would have suited Miró just fine.

This little book is full of glossy pictures and does an excellent job in covering the different phases of Miró’s career.

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Review: The Dehumanization of Art

Review: The Dehumanization of Art

La deshumanización del arte y otros ensayos de estéticaLa deshumanización del arte y otros ensayos de estética by José Ortega y Gasset

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In my judgment, the characteristic feature of new art “from the sociological point of view” is that it divides the public into two categories: those that understand it, and those that don’t.

The more I read of José Ortega y Gasset, the more I discover that he was one of the most complete intellectuals of the previous century. During his prolific career he made contributions to political theory, to philosophy, to literary criticism, and now I see to art criticism.

In the title essay of this collection, Ortega sets out to explain and defend the “new art.” He was writing at the high point of modernism, when the artists of the Generation of ’27 in Spain—a cadre that included Dalí, Buñuel, and Lorca—were embarking on new stylistic experiments. Somewhat older and rather conservative by temper, Ortega shows a surprising (to me) affinity for the new art. He sees cubism and surrealism as inevitable products of art history, and thinks it imperative to attempt to understand the young artists.

One reason why Ortega is attracted to this art is precisely because of its inaccessibility. An elitist to the bone, he firmly believed that humankind could be neatly divided into two sorts, the masses and the innovatives, and had nothing but scorn for the former. Thus new art’s intentional difficulty is, for Ortega, a way of pushing back against the artistic tyranny of the vulgar crowd. This shift was made, says Ortega, as a reaction against the trend of the preceding century, when art became more and more accessible.

The titular “dehumanization” consists of the new art’s content becoming increasingly remote from human life. The art of the nineteenth century was, on the whole, confessional and sympathetic, relying on its audience’s ability to identify with characters or the artist himself. But the new art is not based on fellow-feeling. It is an art for artists, and appeals only to our pure aesthetic sense.

As usual, Ortega is bursting with intriguing ideas that are not fully developed. He notes the new art’s use of irony, oneiric symbolism, its rejection of transcendence, its insistence on artistic purity, and its heavy use of metaphor. But he does not delve deeply into any of these topics, and he does not carefully investigate any particular work or movement. Ortega’s mind is like a simmering ember that sheds sparks but never properly ignites. He has a seemingly limitless store of pithy observations and intriguing theories, but never builds these into a complete system. He is like a child on a beach, picking up rocks, examining them, and then moving on. He wasn’t one for sand castles.

One reason for this is that he normally wrote in a short format—essays, articles, and speeches—and only later wove these into books. It is a journalistic philosophy, assembled on the fly. Personally I find this manner of philosophizing intriguing and valuable. His books are short, punchy, and rich; and even if I am seldom convinced by his views, I also never put down one of his books without a store of ideas to ponder. He is even worth reading just for his style; like Bertrand Russell in English, Ortega manages to combine clarity, sophistication, and personality. I look forward to the next book.

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Review: The Beautiful Brain

Review: The Beautiful Brain

Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y CajalBeautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal by Larry W. Swanson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like the entomologist in pursuit of brightly colored butterflies, my attention hunted, in the flower garden of the gray matter, cells with delicate and elegant forms, the mysterious butterflies of the soul, the beating of whose wings may someday—who knows?—clarify the secret of mental life.

I love walking around cathedrals because they are sublime examples of vital art. I say “vital” because the art is not just seen, but lived through. Every inch of a cathedral has at least two levels of significance: aesthetic and theological. Beauty, in other words, walks hand in hand with a certain view of the world. Indeed, beauty is an essential part of this view of the world, and thus facts and feelings are blended together into one seamlessly intelligible whole: a philosophy made manifest in stone.

The situation that pertains today is quite different. It is not that our present view of the world is inherently less beautiful; but that the vital link between the visual arts and our view of the world has been severed. Apropos of this, I often think of one of Richard Feynman’s anecdotes. He once gave a tour of a factory to a group of artists, trying to explain modern technology to them. The artists, in turn, were supposed to incorporate what they learned into a piece for an exhibition. But, as Feynman notes, almost none of the pieces really had anything to do with the technology. Art and science had tried to make contact, and failed.

This is why I am so intrigued by the anatomical drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. For here we see a successful unification, revealing the same duality of significance as in a cathedral: his drawings instruct and enchant at once.

Though relatively obscure in the anglophone world, Cajal is certainly one of the most important scientists of history. He is justly considered to be the father of neuroscience. Cajal’s research into the fine structures of the brain laid the foundation for the discipline. At a time when neurons were only a hypothesis, Cajal not only convinced the scientific world of their existence (as against the reticular theory), but documented several different types of neurons, describing their fine structure—nucleus, axon, and dendrites—and the flow of information within and between nerve cells.

As we can see in his Advice to a Young Investigator, Cajal in his adulthood became a passionate advocate for scientific research. But he did not always wish to be a scientist. As a child he was far more interested in painting; it was only the pressure of his father, a doctor, which turned him in the direction of research. And as this book shows, he never really gave up his artistic ambition; he only channelled it into another direction.

Research in Cajal’s day was far simpler. Instead of a team of scientists working with a high-powered MRI, we have the lonely investigator hunched over a microscope. The task was no easier for being simpler, however. Besides patience, ingenuity, and logical mind—the traits of any good scientist—a microanatomist back then needed a prodigious visual acumen. The task was to see properly: to extract a sensible figure from the blurry and chaotic images under the microscope. To meet this challenge Cajal not had to create new methods—staining the neurons to make them more visible—but to train his eye. And in both he proved a master.

He would often spend hours at the microscope, looking and looking without taking any notes. His analytic mind was not only at work during these periods, making guesses about cell functions and deductions about information flow, but also his visual imagination: he had to hold the cell’s form within his mind, see the the cells in context and in isolation, since the fine details of their structure were highly suggestive of their behavior and purpose. His drawings were the final expression of his visual process: “A graphic representation of the object observed guarantees the exactness of the observation itself.” For Cajal, as for Leonardo da Vinci, drawing was a form of thinking.

Though by now long outdated by subsequent research, Cajal’s drawings have maintained their appeal, both as diagrams and as works of art. With the aid of a short caption—ably provided by Eric Newman in this volume—the drawings spring to life as records of scientific research. They summarize complex processes, structures, and relations with brilliant clarity, making the essential point graspable in an instant.

Purely as drawings they are no less brilliant. The twisting and sprawling forms of neurons; the chaotic lattices of interconnected cells; the elegant architecture of our sensory organs—all this possesses an otherworldly beauty. The brain, such an intimate part of ourselves, is revealed to be intensely alien. One is naturally reminded of the surrealists by these dreamlike landscapes; and indeed Lorca and Dalí were both aware of Cajal’s work. Yet Cajal’s drawings are perhaps more fantastic than anything the surrealists ever produced, all the more bizarre for being true.

Even the names of these drawings wouldn’t be out of place in a modern gallery: “Cuneate nucleus of a kitten,” “Neurons in the midbrain of a sixteen-day-old trout,” “Axons in the Purkinje neurons in the cerebellum of a drowned man.” Science can be arrestingly poetic.

One of the functions of art is to help us to understand ourselves. The science of the brain, in a much different way, aims to do the same thing. It seems wholly right, then, that these two enterprises should unite in Cajal, the artistic investigator of our nervous system. And this volume is an ideal place to witness his accomplishment. The large, glossy images are beautiful. The commentary frames and explains, but does not distract. The essays on Cajal’s life and art are concise and incisive, and are supplemented by an essay on modern brain imaging that brings the book up to date. It is a cathedral of a book.

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Review: Picasso (Masterpieces)

Review: Picasso (Masterpieces)

Picasso (Masterpieces)Picasso by Jose Maria Faerna

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We all know that Art is not truth.

In the Mediterranean city of Málaga, situated on Spain’s golden coast, on October 25, 1881, a little boy was born who would transform the course of art history.

The name written on the boy’s baptism certificate was Pablo Diego Jośe Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Crispiniano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. This last name, Picasso, is not Spanish at all. The boy got it from his mother, who inherited it from her Italian grandfather. And it was this name, among a wealth of possibilities, that young Pablo chose as his signature.

To name Picasso as the most influential painter of the previous century is, by now, to merely state the obvious. He may also have been the most versatile. His young training in the academic style culminated in his realist Science and Charity, a painting worthy of a mature master which Picasso finished at the age of 15. After this classicist apotheosis Picasso moved to Paris, fell in with the Bohemian crowd, and then began his stylistic experiments.

His first major phase was the so-called Blue Period, associated with a melancholic period in Picasso’s own life, in which he used different shades of blue to portray poverty, suffering, and death. The influence of El Greco is, I think, particularly marked during this period, as seen in the elongated forms of his figures. This is easily observable in La Vie, an allegorical work that depicts his friend Carlos Casagemas, who had shot himself a few years before because of his unrequited love for Germaine Pichot. (This tragedy, however, did not stop Picasso from going out with her after that.)

Picasso’s mood seems to have lightened the following year, which led to his Rose Period, a similarly monochromatic exploration of pinkish tones. The subject matter changes here, too, as he paints actors in lieu of beggars, acrobats in lieu of dead poets, and harlequins in lieu of prostitutes. Of these, Young Acrobat on a Ball is one of my favorites, a playful scene that also showcases Picasso’s ability to create solidity, as seen in the statuesque seated man.

Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein—an important early supporter and patron—is also classified among the Rose Period, though her angular visage shows clear signs of his African Period. Like many young artists of the time, Picasso was enthralled by the forms of African masks that France’s colonial conquests were bringing into Paris. Picasso’s use of these forms may seem, nowadays, to be yet another example of the colonial gaze, appropriating traditional art for its connotations of primitivism; but it is worth asking whether his use, however uninformed, of these forms was preferable to the high-handed disdain of the traditional art world.

In any case, the abstract and elongated shapes of the masks proved compatible with the jagged, geometrical landscapes of Cézanne, a combination that led down the road to cubism. Picasso pushed formal simplification far past where Cézanne had left it, however, a process which most famously brought him to paint Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

This work—his greatest after Guernica, I think—retains all its raw energy over 100 years after the paint dried. I once had a memorable disagreement with a friend about what it means. She thought that the stony gazes of the women was meant to empower them, depicting their battered humanity. At the time I was inclined to take the opposite view: I interpreted Picasso’s attitude towards the women to be one of fear and suspicion, and the geometrical treatment intentionally dehumanizing. Nowadays I think that both of these views miss the mark. Like all great works of art, >Les Demoiselles d’Avignon resists final analysis. The women are simultaneously dangerous and in danger, wounded and wounding, a victim of society and the victimizers of their clients. (It is speculated that Picasso has a venereal disease when he painted this.)

At first glance the poses of these figures—so stripped of all sensuality, warmth, and appeal—can be interpreted as an ironic comment, a satire of sex; and indeed Matisse thought the painting little more than a lewd joke. But the emotional impact of the work goes far deeper than parody. Picasso has turned the women into weapons, their curves sharpened into knife-edges; their dead stares neither accuse nor invite. The main feeling, for me, is a kind of horrified fear at sex—at what sex does to both men and to women—and at everything sex entails: animal passion, power and subjugation, and the mystery of life and death.

All questions of social commentary and deeper meaning aside, on a purely formal level the painting is remarkable—and proved to be a herald of things to come. The three women on the left, inspired by Iberian sculpture, have the same stony stares as Gertrude Stein; while the two on the left show the clear influence of the African masks. These methods of abstraction, combined with the fractured spacial planes and juxtaposed perspectives, would shortly be transformed into high analytic cubism.

Picasso developed analytic cubism side-by-side with his friend Georges Braque. Indeed, the paintings they produced during this time are virtually indistinguishable; they proceeded like “mountaineers roped together,” as Braque said. These works are typically in a monochromatic brown or gray, and are ruthlessly abstract. In the beginning the painting’s subject was clearly discernible, as in Girl with Mandolin; but eventually the subject is entirely lost in a jumble of broken lines, as in Countryside of Ceret.

I admit that I do not much enjoy these paintings. Their uniformly drab color and lifeless geometricality combine to produce a sensation of overwrought dullness.The formulaic nature of the technique seems to turn painting into a dry intellectual game. This is not always the case, of course. My favorite work of analytic cubism, in fact, is neither Picasso’s nor Braque’s, but Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase—a fascinating depiction of motion through time and space (though this work was, at first, rejected by the cubists as too futurist).

But the value of analytic cubism is arguably not dependent on the aesthetic pleasure to be extracted from its paintings. For this period of intense, systematic exploration created a new pictorial language. Picasso and Braque were busy creating cubism’s lexicon and its grammar, so to speak; but cubism’s expressive power, its poetry, was still to come.

Cubism emerges from its analytic phase, at least in Picasso’s case, with the addition of color and the introduction of other media. Besides cubism, you see, Braque and Picasso were also the co-inventors of papier collé, a type of collage in which they would incorporate quotidian objects—newspapers, advertisements, and even chair seats—into their works. I particularly like the still lifes from this period (1913-16 or thereabouts), since they are like aesthetic time-capsules, capturing the private, intimate elegance of Parisian life.

But cubism’s potential can be seen more fully, I think, in a work like Three Musicians. This painting is from the period known as synthetic cubism, and shows the new language’s ability to reorganize reality along unfamiliar lines without dissolving it completely. Fully apparent is Picasso’s unique ability to reduce objects to their most basic form, and to rearrange that form into something striking and new while still preserving its identity. And though it is painted with oil on canvas, the sharp blocks of color—along with the wrapping-paper of the guitarist’s outfit and the musical notes of the accordionist—show the clear influence of his collage phase on his painting.

Shortly after the conclusion of the First World War, however (in which Picasso, being Spanish, was exempted from service), Picasso made a return to the classic style. This was part of a larger trend in the art world, in a phase known as the “return to order,” which followed Europe’s own return to peace. Stravinsky, too, underwent a similar transition during this time, writing neoclassicist serenades and concertos, while Picasso made paintings like his Harlequin with a Mirror—devoid of all cubes and abstraction. This is not to say that his paintings of this time were perfectly realistic; indeed, Picasso’s use of fantastic elements attracted the interest of the surrealists, who in turn exerted an influence on him.

In 1930 Picasso commenced on a series of etchings for an art dealer, Ambroise Vollard. Though sometimes dismissed as the lecherous scribblings of a narcissistic artist, these etchings have a playful vitality and a virtuosic ease that make them worth studying. Thematically, Picasso turns towards more “perennial” subjects: gods, wine, and the minotaur. Robert Hughes was inclined to view these etchings as the last gasp of that dionysian Mediterranean culture which animated the Greeks and the Romans. Without making any claim so grandiose we can, however, note the importance of this shift to mythological subjects in the years preceding Picasso’s greatest work.

This, of course, is Guernica. Few works of any kind can equal the raw power of this painting. I have seen it in person many times, and I can attest to this. Confronting Guernica is comparable to looking up at the Sistine Chapel. All of Picasso’s past, all his stylistic explorations, are at once summed up and perfected in this image.

The spark that set it off was the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by Germany’s and Italy’s airforces during the Spanish Civil War. This blatant act of terror outraged the entire international community, and led Picasso to create the most searingly memorable anti-war image in history.

Picasso, for all his avant-garde innovation, created a painting with deep historical resonance. The horse, innocent servant and victim of humanity’s violence; the minotaur, symbol of humanity’s animal nature; the fallen warrior, the weeping mother, the candle in the dark—it could almost have been taken from the cave paintings of Altamira. Confronting these eternals symbols is the light bulb, flashing down destruction and death. A more poignant image of the broken promises of modernity could not be conceived.

The slick and sterile language of cubism is finally shown as a complete idiom, with a flexibility and depth equal to any other in Western art. Everything in the style serves a deeper purpose, creating that total unity of form and substance towards which art always aspires. Once seen, it is unseeable; once felt, unshakeable.

This was Picasso’s apotheosis. Though he would live over thirty years after Guernica, he would never achieve anything half so gripping. This is not to say that his later work is uninteresting. I particularly like his variations on Velazquez’s Las meninas, a series of paintings that really reveals Picasso’s mind at work.

Picasso was a virtuoso of the highest order; and drawing any conclusions about somebody who had mastered so many styles is a difficult task. A comparison might help. And though it may seem ludicrous—since two more different painters could hardly be chosen—I find it profitable to compare Picasso with another Spanish painter, Joaquín Sorolla.

Sorolla shows a deep concern for what you might call “prettiness.” His paintings delight and charm the eye, creating an aesthetic pleasure that rolls over the senses. Picasso, on the other hand, rarely produced anything so effortlessly pretty. His paintings challenge, evade, taunt; and at their best they strike the viewer with a solid weight—but they do not wash over the eye. This is connected with another difference. Sorolla was fascinated by color; and his best paintings are vibrantly radiant. Picasso’s interest in color seems to have been relatively limited; indeed he often worked in monochrome. And though Picasso was capable of the finest draughtsmanship, many of his paintings, next to Sorolla’s, seem slapdash in their execution.

This is strange. How can Picasso, the iconic painter, be bested in prettiness, in color, and in draughtsmanship by a relatively minor artist? This is because Picasso’s strength, which served him in all his stylistic acrobatics, is not any of these. It is his absolute mastery of form.

In this he reminds me very much of Michelangelo. These two artists, so different in so many ways, are alike in being primarily interested in form and volume: the shapes of things. And whereas Michelangelo’s eternal theme was the emergence of perfect form from unformed chaos, Picasso’s is the interpenetration of the natural and the personal—of the shapes of the world and the forms of the mind. In this liminal space, where the world meets the eye, Picasso discovered freedom—the freedom to renegotiate the final product. And by producing so many counterintuitive but immensely powerful forms, Picasso’s work opened a window to possibility.

I am quite impressed with this book series. The photos are high-quality, the commentary tact and tasteful, and the coverage surprisingly full. Of course, no book this size could do justice to such a prolific and versatile artist, but it is a good place to start.

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Review: Sorolla (Masterworks)

Review: Sorolla (Masterworks)

Sorolla (Masterpieces)Sorolla by Jose Maria Faerna

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you go to number 37 of the Calle de General Martínez Campos, in Madrid, and walk inside, you will find one of the most enchanting corners of the city. This is the Museo de Sorolla, a museum situated in the former house of painter Joaquín Sorolla, still furnished much as it was during his lifetime and which now contains the lion’s share of his most famous works.

Joaquín Sorolla (1863 – 1923) was Spain’s archetypal gentlemanly bourgeois painter. He achieved fame and fortune during his lifetime. He rubbed elbows with American presidents and businessmen, and finished portraits for philosophers, scientists, and novelists. And yet, for all this, nowadays he is most remembered for his luminescent scenes on the beaches of Valencia.

Sorolla had a miraculous ability to capture the play of light on his canvass. The way that skin gleams in the sun, the way sunlight filters through fabric, the way that rays glisten on the ocean surface. In a time when photography was not much respected in the world of art, Sorolla gave some of his most famous works the seemingly arbitrary boundaries, unstudied poses, and high angles typical of a photograph. He was at his best when his subjects were ordinary people—a young couple, fishermen at work, a group of kids on the sand. The resulting paintings are delightful: intimate and playful swirls of color in which air, water, clothes, and skin melt into one radiant fabric.

One is naturally reminded of the impressionists in Sorolla’s work; but he was not a self-conscious member of the vanguard. He was, rather, firmly rooted in the realist tradition going back to Velazquez. Indeed, during his life he was scorned by many as a commercial artists who adapted his style to conventional taste, and who was merely interested in surfaces. I think this judgment is highly unfair—Sorolla’s style was deeply original and often daring—but it is true that he did not try to self-consciously break with tradition or fashion. And finding unexplored room for growth in a tradition can be a more subtle and difficult task than simply trying to reject it.

Though his beach scenes are his most characteristic and his finest work, Sorolla had an impressive range. He was a capable landscape painter and a gifted portrait artist. I was fortunate enough to see the series of portraits of notable Spaniards that Sorolla undertook at the behest of the Hispanic Society of New York—a series that includes portraits of Unamuno, Pío Baroja, and Ramón y Cajal. What some say is his greatest work remains in the Hispanic Society building (currently closed due to renovations): Visions of Spain—a monumental mural that contains scenes from every region of Spain.

While nobody would mistake Sorolla for a profound artist—his paintings delight but never overwhelm—I find in him an admirable example of the life of the artist. He developed his own highly distinctive style, achieved commercial success without compromising his own vision, practiced his craft obsessively and incessantly—eventually working himself into ill-health—and extended his artistic range to the full. One walk around his house is enough to convince you that he was every inch a painter.

This book is a nice little collection of his work. The pictures are large and high-quality, and the commentary is economical, tasteful, and informative.

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Review: Gaudí—Visionary Architect

Review: Gaudí—Visionary Architect

Gaudí: Arquitecto visionarioGaudí: Arquitecto visionario by Philippe Thiébaut

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Beauty is the mirror of truth, and since art is beauty, without truth there is no art.
—Antoni Gaudí

Gaudí has the distinction of being among the few genuinely famous and popular architects in history. Along with Frank Gehry and Frank Lloyd Wright, he is among the handful of architects that decently educated people can be expected to know of. More tourists flock to the Sagrada Familia every year than to the Alhambra—even if many of these gapers mistakenly believe that it is a cathedral (it is an expiatory temple).

And he wasn’t just some popular hack. Gaudí’s stature in the history of art is equally monumental. This wasn’t always the case, however. Both George Orwell and Gerald Brenan, two cultured men, thought that his work was pretentious rubbish. (Orwell regretted that it wasn’t blown up during the Spanish Civil War, and Brenan evinced his work as evidence that Catalonia was culturally behind Spain.) I admit that I had misgivings upon first seeing some of Gaudí’s work. It struck me as exaggerated and theatrical, too mindlessly showy.

But this impression disappears as soon as one begins to inspect Gaudi’s work with any circumspection: for the man was undeniably a genius of the highest order. And it is especially enthralling to encounter a genius architect. For, unlike a painter or a novelist, you can literally step into a world created by Gaudí. You can immerse yourself in his work—see it, hear it, touch it, even smell it.

And Gaudí’s world is incredibly rich. He was the capstone modernisme, the Catalan version of Art Nouveau, an art movement that was preoccupied with rich decoration. Gaudí’s art developed this preoccupation into an explosion; his works burst with ornament. To achieve his typically overwhelming effect, he combined several crafts: sculpture, landscaping, stained glass, ceramics, mosaics, carpentry, blacksmithing, among others. And underlying this passionate drive to beautify was a keen sense of space—the architect’s fundamental aptitude—making his works remarkable on both the macro and micro scale.

His method of working was famously unconventional. He seemed to operate by instinct rather than calculation, even when dealing with complex problems of structure. Gaudí thought spatially: instead of drawing plans he preferred to build models (many of which were burned during the Civil War). Most famously he hung weights from strings to study the optimal angles for weight-bearing arcs. Thus he was a kind of unconscious geometrician, and underneath the seemingly heavy ornaments are beautifully elegant forms.

One of Gaudí’s central passions was nature. A deeply religious man, he considered the natural world to be the work of God; thus he thought that architects should strive to emulate the original creation. Consequently you will look in vain for any straight lines in his works, since perfectly straight lines are seldom found in the natural world. This also helps to explain his use of color: how often are natural landscapes black and white?

A severe and passionate Catholic (not to mention a fervent Catalan nationalist), at first glance it is perplexing that a man so avant-garde in art could be so conservative in every other sphere of life. This is no paradox, of course, and only seems strange because we have come to associate cutting-edge art with the left—a historical and not a logical connection. In any case, Gaudí is yet another example of the truism that great artists manage to be both traditional and innovative in the same moment.

This little book is a nice companion and introduction to the man’s work. For my taste, the text consists too much of dense descriptions of buildings and not enough of biography or history; but any book of this length is bound to leave a lot out. The photos are excellent to have; and the final section, which includes several different interpretations of Gaudí’s work (including Dalí’s Surrealist-Freudian take on it), was very welcome.

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Review: The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini

Review: The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini

The Autobiography Of Benvenuto CelliniThe Autobiography Of Benvenuto Cellini by Benvenuto Cellini

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All men of whatsoever quality they be, who have done anything of excellence, or which may properly resemble excellence, ought, if they be persons of truth and honesty, to describe their life with their own hand

Why we like or dislike someone, why we admire or despise them, why we are happy or annoyed by their conversation, are questions more difficult than they look. After reading this book, for example, I have grown quite enamored of Benvenuto Cellini, even though he had many ugly sides to his character—besides being criminally immoral. These flaws were unmistakable and impossible to ignore; and yet he had one quality that allowed me, and has allowed many others, to grow fond of him nevertheless: charisma.

Born in Florence in 1500, Benvenuto Cellini was a goldsmith and a sculptor, considered one of the most important artists of Mannerism. During his lifetime he traveled all around Italy and France, making rings, necklaces, salt shakers, statues, fountains, buttons, lapels, and coins for rich and powerful patrons. Perhaps his most famous work is the statue of Perseus standing over the body of Medusa, her bloody head held aloft in his hand, which can be found in Florence. As far as I know, the only work of his I have personally seen is his fine crucifix in the Escorial near Madrid. But despite Cellini being, to quote his book, “the greatest artist ever born in his craft,” he is nowadays mostly remembered for his autobiography, which is without doubt the most important work of its kind from the Renaissance.

Cellini wrote his autobiography in a simple, matter-of-fact style. His main focus was on his development and career as an artist, but he also relates many stories from his personal life along the way. And from this narration emerges a remarkable portrait of the man himself.

The most conspicuous part of Cellini’s character is his arrogance. He says near the beginning “in a work like this there will always be found occasion for natural bragging,” but occasional is hardly a fitting description of his boasting. Every page is stuffed with self-praise. He compliments himself for his robust constitution, his strong body, his keen mind, his kind nature, his skill in combat, and most of all his artistic prowess. The only artist he thinks equal to himself is Michelangelo, and with few exceptions he considers his rivals to be incompetent dunces, or worse.

It does not take shrewd judgment to read between the lines of this autobiography. Cellini only admits to being in the wrong once in his life. (After taking sexual advantage of one of his models, he viciously beat her. He felt guilty because the day before he had forced her at gunpoint to marry her lover. The next day, he beat her up again.) Other than this, Cellini would have you believe he is a decent, honest, respectful man and that all his enemies were motivated by jealousy or pure wickedness. And yet, the speed and consistency with which he finds himself surrounded by enemies, and the frequency with which he gets into disputes and fights, makes it painfully clear that he must have been a bellicose and infuriating fellow.

The degree to which Cellini was blind to his faults is both terrifying and oddly endearing. That someone could be so unconcerned with the morality of his actions or with the justice of his behavior is an instructive lesson in human nature. (And that he is still likable is another lesson.) Cellini narrates the vilest deeds in such a mundane tone that you almost forget what he is talking about. Here is Benvenuto’s forth murder, the killing of Pompeo, a rival goldsmith:

I drew a little dagger with a sharpened edge, and breaking the line of his defenders, laid my hand upon his breast so quickly and coolly, that none of them were able to prevent me. Then I aimed to strike him in the face; but fright made him turn his head round; and I stabbed him just beneath the ear. I only gave two blows, for he fell stone dead by the second. I had not meant to kill him; but as the saying goes, knocks are not dealt by measure.

(Besides the tone of that passage, the most amazing thing for me is that he aimed for Pompeo’s head but professed he didn’t mean to kill him. The guy was seriously nuts.)

When I reread the above excerpt, I think I ought to loathe such a man, who can both commit a murder and then talk about it so coolly. But Cellini’s ego and his personality are so exaggerated that I have trouble thinking of him as a real person. With all his misadventures, crimes, vanities, boasts, and disputes, he seems more like a character invented by Dickens or Cervantes than a man I can identify with. In this, I couldn’t help being reminded of Trump, who is relentlessly egotistical and cruel, but who escapes normal consequences because he seems more like a caricature than a human being.

Because Cellini is focused on his own doings, the world of the Renaissance stays mostly in the background. Sometimes it is easy to forget the setting entirely, since Benvenuto is one of those rare, timeless personalities. But at other times, the great difference between his world and mine was simply alarming.

One night during dinner, for example, his friend brought a prostitute; out of respect for his friend, Benvenuto refused her advances; but after those two went to bed, Benvenuto seduced the prostitute’s 14-year-old serving girl. The next morning he woke up with the bubonic plague. Another time, when he was sick, the best doctors in Rome instructed him that he couldn’t drink any water. His condition got worse and worse—doubtless due to dehydration—until finally, disobeying their orders, he drank a pitcher of water and felt immediately better. The doctors were stunned. The doctors had better luck on another occasion, though. When Benvenuto got a metal splinter in his eye, a doctor successfully flushed it out by slicing open live pigeons and letting their blood rush into his eye.

These are just a taste of some of Benvenuto’s anecdotes. His life was enviously exciting—indeed it’s rather amazing he lived so long, since he had many close calls with death. When he wasn’t being poisoned or fighting off highway bandits, he was suffering illness, injury, and imprisonment. And amidst all this, he managed to attain the highest reputation and skill as an artist, and also to write the most important autobiography of his century. If being a Renaissance Man means living life to the fullest, Cellini is a prime example.

If you are planning on taking a trip to Italy, or just want to learn more about the Renaissance, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I listened to the audiobook version while I was in Rome. Cellini was narrating the time he defended the Castel Sant’Angelo during the 1527 sack of Rome. As Cellini boasted about his heroic deeds—he would have you believe he defended the castle single-handedly—I turned a corner and found myself face to face with that very castle (see above). It was one of the most memorable moments of my reading life.

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Review: Saldavor Dali

Review: Saldavor Dali

Salvador Dalí: las obras de su vidaSalvador Dalí: las obras de su vida by Nicolas Palmisano
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Salvador Dalí is one of the few visual artists of the twentieth century with truly popular appeal. Granted, this probably had as much to do with his moustache and his antics as with his work. But his work is undoubtedly popular. You do not need to be an art history major to appreciate The Great Masturbator, for example; even the title is enough to produce snickers in middle school students. The Dalí Museum in Figueres, Catalonia—which Dalí created himself in an old theater during the last few years of his life—is the second-most visited museum in Spain, after the Prado in Madrid; and this is especially impressive, considering that Figueres is a small town, not very close to Barcelona or any other major city.

This book is one of those omnipresent omnibus collections of artists’ works, cheap enough for tourists to buy on a whim, portable enough for tourists to stuff in their rucksacks. For what it is, it’s done well: full of glossy, high-quality pictures of Dalí’s major works, with some basic biographical information. There’s nothing in this book that you couldn’t find online—the biography on Wikipedia is fuller than the one here—but having a physical copy of an artist’s work, even a cheap one, is undeniably appealing.

As many have noted, the striking thing about Dalí—which is true, although in a different way, of Gaudí—is the combination of radical innovation and extreme conservatism. Dalí was kicked out of his academy; his surrealism was avant-garde; and his lifestyle anything but traditional. Not only that, but he pioneered the role of the zany artist in the 20th century, making media appearances in bizarre getups. And yet, for all this, he was a genuinely religious man, reconciled himself enough with Franco’s reign to move back to Spain, and thought of himself as a Renaissance man in the tradition of Leonardo da Vinci.

It is worth noting that many other great artists and thinkers have exhibited this tension in different ways—Joyce, Stravinsky, even Marx—and, indeed, the desire to place oneself firmly within a tradition, while reserving the artistic right to innovate upon that tradition, strikes me as the defining mark of great geniuses. Only lesser artists see innovation and tradition as antithetical.

Dalí’s tension of traditional and experimental is illustrated in his particular brand of surrealism: the use of careful draughtsmanship to realistically render fantastical scenes. The solidity of Dalí’s paintings, achieved using familiar, traditional technique, is why his work has become so popular, I think. Nobody can accuse Dalí of drawing like a child. Unlike many works in contemporary galleries, his paintings are as visually engaging as any special effects-laden movie. Like the works of Hieronymous Bosch—an obvious precursor—Dalí’s paintings are so full of detail and bizarre images that they always entertain, even if their symbolic meaning escapes the viewer.

One thing this book did allow me to see is the remarkable consistency in Dalí’s work over the years. From his beginnings, before he was even comfortable calling himself a surrealist, to well after he was thrown out of the surrealist group and began interesting himself in Catholicism and quantum physics, the same clear aesthetic sensibility pervades his entire oeuvre. This is the reason for the oft-repeated accusation that he was an artistic one-trick pony. While there is some justice in this, as well as in the accusation that his publicity stunts trivialized his work, I think Dalí is easily one of the greatest painters of the last century. His works seldom have a great emotional impact; indeed, sometimes they produce only slightly amused nods. But he was a visual genius: there is no unseeing a work of Dalí, nor mistaking it for another person’s work. And unforgetability is, I think, the ultimate test of any artist.

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Review: Orwell’s Essays

Review: Orwell’s Essays

A Collection of EssaysA Collection of Essays by George Orwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.

George Orwell is one of the inescapable writers of the last century. Far from becoming irrelevant, his works seem to become more significant with each passing year (as most recently evidenced by the present administration’s strained relationship with the truth). Orwell himself said that the “final test of any work of art is survival,” and his works seem on track to pass this final test. His dystopian novel recently became a surprise best-seller, almost seventy years after its initial publication. That is more than mere survival.

And yet it isn’t for his political insights that I opened this collection of essays. It was rather—and I feel somewhat silly saying this—for his writing style. Orwell’s writing is, for me, a model of modern prose. His style can accommodate both the abstract and the concrete, the homely and the refined, the pretentious and the vulgar; his prose can satisfy both the academic and the artist, the intellectual and the layperson, the Panurge and the parish priest. It is unmistakably modern, even sleek, while obviously informed by the tastes and standards of the past. It is fiery, angry, and political, while remaining intimate, human, and honest.

Something that repeatedly struck me while reading this collection was an inner conflict in Orwell’s worldview. There are two sides of the man, sometimes in harmony, and sometimes at odds: the writer and the activist. Orwell the writer is captivated by the rhythms of words, the sounds of sentences; he loves ruminating on a strange personality or a memorable story; he is enchanted by the details of daily life. Orwell the activist is outraged at injustice and uncompromising in his moral sense; he sees people as a collection of allies and enemies, taking part in a grand struggle to bring about a better society.

Orwell himself discusses this tension in his little essay, “Why I Write.” In a more peaceful age, he thinks, he could have been an entirely aesthetic writer, perhaps a poet, not paying much attention to politics. It was his firsthand experience of imperialism, poverty, and fascism that activated his political conscience. Specifically, it was the Spanish Civil War that “tipped the scale” for him: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.”

Be that as it may, Orwell seems to have repeatedly struggled to reconcile this aim with his more humanistic side. In his brilliant essay on Dickens, for example, he spends page after page trying to analyze Dickens as a kind of social philosopher, examining Dickens’s views on work, on the state, on education, and so on. Since Dickens was anything but a philosopher—as Orwell himself admits—this repeatedly leads to frustrating dead ends, and fails completely to do justice to Dickens’s work. It is only in the last section, where Orwell drops this pretense and treats Dickens as a novelist, that the essay becomes deeply insightful. Indeed, it soon becomes clear—it seems clear to me, at least—that Orwell likes Dickens for his writing, and not his activism, however much he may wish to think otherwise.

Other essays exhibit this same tension. In his essay on vulgar postcard art, for example, he notes how backward is the social worldview expressed in the cards; but he is obviously quite fond of them and even ventures to defend them by likening their humor to Sancho Panza’s. His essay on boy’s magazines follows an identical pattern, exposing their conservative ideology while betraying a keen interest, even a warm fondness, for the stories. In his appreciative essay on Rudyard Kipling’s poems, he even goes so far as to defend Kipling’s political views, at least from accusations of fascism.

It is largely due to Orwell’s influence, I think, that nowadays it is uncontroversial to see the political implications in a movie cast or a Halloween costume. In all of these essays, Orwell worked to undermine the naïve distinction between politics and everyday life, showing how we absorb messages about standards, values, and ideologies from every direction. He did not merely state that “All art is propaganda,” but he tried to show it, both in his analyses and his own works. At least half the time, he is utterly convincing in this. (And indeed, Orwell was such a brilliant man that, even when I think he’s involved in a pointless exercise, he makes so many penetrating observations along the way— incidentally, parenthetically—that his writing fully absorbs me. )

We owe a tremendous debt to Orwell for this insight. Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking that there is something terribly limiting about this perspective. All art may be propaganda, but it is not only propaganda; it is not even primarily so. There needs to be room in criticism, as in life, for the non-political. We need to be able to enjoy a novelist because of his characters and not his views on the state, a poet for his lines rather than his opinions, a dirty joke or a trashy magazine just because we want a laugh and a break. Orwell would agree with me up to a point, I think, but would also say that every decision to be “non-political” implicitly accepts the status quo, and is therefore conservative. This may be true; but it is also true that such “non-political” things are necessary to live a full life.

Where I most disagree with Orwell is his conviction that the media we consume—magazines, post cards, popular novels, television—nefariously and decisively shape our worldview. For my part, I suspect that people absorb their opinions more from their community, face-to-face, and then seek out media that corresponds with their pre-existing views: not the reverse. Media may reinforce these views and give them shape and drive, but I don’t think it generates them.

All this is besides the point. I admire Orwell, for his fierce independence, for his sense of outrage and injustice, for his facility with words, for his attempt to blend art and truth. In sum, I admire both the writer and the activist, and I think his work should be read until judgment day.

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