Honami Kōetsu and Tawaraya Sōtatsu

I thought I’d post a little on some of the art I have been looking at. Since the standardization of letter forms under Charlemagne (who couldn’t read) and the introduction of the movable type printing press by Gutenberg, calligraphy has lost its place as one of the central art-forms. Certainly there have been book artists for whom the layout and the look of letters on the page has been imminently important; I think especially of designers such as Aldus Manutius, founder of the Aldine Press, and William Morris, especially famed for the Kelmscott Chaucer. But none of these equal the expressive quality of the written word… of calligraphy… as a visual for of communication as one might regularly find in Islamic…

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or in Asian…

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or even in earlier European books:

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Perhaps the only major artist/author to come close to such a merger of the written word as both a visual and literary art was William Blake:

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It probably shouldn’t be so surprising that Blake is such a central figure to me.

Exploring Asian art and literature recently… and especially that of Japan… I have been greatly enamored of what must surely be one of the greatest creative partnerships in the history of art. The artists of whom I am speaking are the Japanese masters, Hon’ami Kōetsu (本阿弥光悦)-1558-1637 and Tawaraya Sōtatsu (俵屋宗達)-early 1600s. Kōetsu was born into a family of swordsmiths and mastered the craft himself. Like many aristocratic Japanese artists of the era (and not unlike the Renaissance artists) he was accomplished in a broad array of artistic forms, including ceramics, enamels, lacquer, and calligraphy. As a calligrapher, he was deeply inspired by the great poets of the Heian period (794 to 1185)… the so-called “classical era” or “golden age”. Sōtatsu was primarily a painter and creator of beautiful papers for use in calligraphy. He is credited with having developed a “wet into wet” style of painting in which one color is dropped into another still wet color so that the two “bleed” together forming a marvelous atmospheric effect that is difficult to control and deeply admired by the Japanese, who had a great respect for the spontaneous in art. Kōetsu and Sōtatsu worked together for some 15 years producing marvelous works of art in which the text, calligraphy, paper, and painting all merged to create a marvelous visual and literary work of art. There are suggestions that the close relationship of the two artists may have been long-lasting due to their being related by marriage.

Kōetsu and Sōtatsu developed a form of visual art in which calligraphy was equal to painting… a concept not uncommon in Japanese, Chinese, and Islamic cultures. Both painting and the calligraphic forms served to illuminate the classical Heian poems. In this work…

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… the artists illustrate a poem describing thunder in the pines. Bolder calligraphic characters… closer to Chinese in manner… suggest the explosion of sound that thunder makes, while other… more elegant and more characteristically Japanese-style symbols suggest the rain falling onto the pines below.

In other examples the calligraphy and painting merge into one. Of course the artists had the advantage of building upon a poetic tradition that was very image-based. Most of the classical Japanese poetry is very short and simply paints an exquisite and intensely imagined visual image:

In a gust of wind the white dew
On the autumn grass
Scatters like a broken necklace

-Bunya No Asayasu

In the spring garden
Where the peach blossoms
Light the path beneath,
A girl is walking.

-Yakamochi
(both tr. Kenneth Rexroth)

Kōetsu and Sōtatsu often created works in which the calligraphic form is almost an inseparable part of the visual image. Here, for example, illuminating a poem upon willow trees, the characters are lost within the foliage of the tree:

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In another example, the calligraphy illustrates the water and water-lilies as much as the painted image:

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The same can be said of this illumination of a poem upon bamboo:

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Or that portraying a beach with pines and billowing clouds:

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One of the most marvelous creations of the partnership of Kōetsu and Sōtatsu must be the so-called “Deer Scroll” in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum:

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The Deer Scroll illuminates 28 poems of autumn from the Shin Kokin Wakashū (新古今和歌集) or New Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems, an anthology compiled beginning in 905 and concluding c. 1439.
The Seattle Art Museum owns but half of the entire scroll, or about 30 feet. The scroll was divided by a Japanese collector in the 1930s and the remaining portions of the work are owned by 5 Japanese museums and several private collectors. There are also a few missing pieces. The interactive Deer Scroll website at SAM…

http://www.seattleartmuseum.org/exhi…roll/enter.asp

…offers a pdf. file going into greater detail exploring the scroll and the artists involved. More importantly, it offers an interactive view of the entire scroll as it originally existed… using computer enhancements of black and white photographs of the missing portions. One may scroll through the work and zoom in close upon the imagery… or click upon links to translations of all of the poetry. The site offers a fabulous view of a fabulous work of art. Enjoy!

What are the 20 Works of Art You Want to See before You Die?

The only way for me to answer this would be to chose 20 artistic masterpieces which I have yet to have seen in person (In no particular order):

1. Michelangelo- The Sistine Ceiling:

What can one even begin to say about this masterpiece? Such a collection of some of the most memorable figures and visual narratives. I am always stunned by the scene of God swooping through the heavens:

… and the super-human Jonah who at one bursts forth from his too-restraining architectural setting and falls back stunned by the scenes of creation before him… both those of God… and of Michelangelo himself:

…but especially by the glorious and stunningly beautiful Libyan Sybil whose body appears no natural and elegant (perhaps even moreso considering she was based on a male model)… and yet is posed in what is obviously an impossible pose… yet one that conveys such a sense of motion:

2. Botticelli’s Primavera:

This painting has always struck me like an elegant Renaissance poetic musing… perhaps something akin to Spencer’s Faerie Queene or the Sonnets and Epithalimion… or rather Shakespeare’s Mid-Summer Night’s Dream.

3. Heironymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights:

This painting… and Breughel’s “Blue Cloak (Netherlandish proverbs)” has always struck me as a masterpiece of tiny details in which one could get lost for hours. And my God! the dirty and evil little things that are going on in some of those details!

4. Rembrandt’s “Jewish Bride“:

I have long thought of Rembrandt as the Shakespeare of painting… especially in the manner in which he can convey such well-defined character in his portrayals of people. This painting is such an exquisite expression of love… I have had several artist friends who are incurable cynics… who nevertheless admitted to having cried before this painting.

5. Rembrandt’s Hendrijke Wading in a Stream

Again… another exquisite expression of love. Indeed, I find this painting of the artist’s lover/later wife to be fabulously erotic… but in such a delicate, gentle, loving way that never allows for something more lecherous.

6. San Vitale in Ravenna:

My God! What a stunning little building! Looking at the rather plain, blocky and bunker-like exterior who would expect the unearthly interior where glittering mosaics cause everything to disintergrate into a thousand points of light and color (to quote [loosely] Thomas Wolf and NOT George Bush Sr.)

7. Bonnard- Nude in Light (Bottle of Cologne) 1907

This stunning painting by Bonnard which (unlike the others here) I have seen in person twice) has ever struck me as something of an equivalent in paint of the magic of the mosaics in Ravenna. The artist’s young lover/wife is devoured by a light as splendid and spectacular as any imagined by Turner… and yet Bonnard’s achievement may be even more magnificent… or at least improbable… Rather than further dramatizing an already stunning landscape scene, Bonnard metamorphoses the most mundane scene of intimate life into a glorious feast for the eyes equal to any scene of mythological eros.

8. Peter Paul Rubens: The Judgment of Paris:

Rubens was an absolute master (perhaps THE master) of grand narrative painting as well as being as absolute genius of the brush. He exquisitely merged the strong, structural drawing epitomized by Michelangelo with a warmth, sensuality, and painterly bravura born of the Venetians, and the fluid, translucent and glowing colors of the Flemish and created something completely new. I can’t think of an artist who more consistently conveys the joy of eros, and this painting is one of the grandest examples. I cannot but smile further upon recognition of the fact that in this grand erotic mythological narrative Rubens has elected to portray his new young wife as the winner of the very beauty contest that will spur the Trojan War.

9. Peter Paul Rubens: Portrait of Susanna Fourment:

I was tempted equally by Rubens’ wonderful portrait of his first wife, Isabella Brandt, as well as by the marvelous portrait of his second wife dressed (almost) in nothing more than a fur wrap… but I have always had a soft spot for this painting. Sir Joshua Reynolds exclaimed that it was almost inconcievable that she had not fed upon roses (indeed!), and many others have speculated that such a sensuous and loving portrayal of the elder sister
of his future wife, Helena most certainly signified a deeper relationship with the sitter than that of a mere in-law. Whatever the truth, its a gorgeous painting.

By the way, I just noticed that not only are both of these paintings in the National Gallery of London, but so are the Rembrandt painting of Hendrijke and the Rockeby Venus (to say nothing of all those Turners there and in the Tate). As such, I’m starting to think that Britain may just be my number-one tourist destination.

10. Velazquez: Venus and Cupid with Mirror (the “Rockeby Venus”):

This painting is undoubtedly the most fabulous Spanish nude… and one of the greatest ever. Velazquez certainly learned well from Rubens and Titian (the advantages of that great Prado collection). The painting has long been touted as “the greatest ass in art”, and while that alone is certainly worthy of a trip to London, one cannot ignore the marvelously subtle coloring and Velazquez’ insurpassable mastery of paint.

11. Titian: The Rape of Europa

I was torn between the Venus D’Urbino, the glorious Danae and this painting. Titian is an absolute master of oil, weaving together creamy impastos, dry scumbling, and the slightest whispers of transparent glazes into a magical tapestry of paint. The result is an imagery that exudes such warmth and atmosphere that it literally breathes… and that doesn’t even begin to touch upon his color!

12. Saint Lazare, Autun (Giselbertus):

Like the church of San Vitale, in Ravenna, Saint Lazare’s exterior barely hints on what lies within. The work of the great Romanesque sculptor, Giselbertus, is among the greatest treasures of the Romanesque… besides which… I can’t help but appreciate the audacity of this medieval sculptor who first thought to lay claim to his position as the creator, signing his work “I, Giselbertus, made this.” The great portal, a Last Judgment, is certainly one of the masterpieces of medieval art:

Giselbertus figures are simple… unadorned… but lovingly convey the narratives in a direct and clear manner. In many ways he reminds me of the best works of Giotto… some works of folk art… or the great paintings of Max Beckmann. I’m especially enamored of the wonderful portrayal of Eve:

… the touching scene of the Angel gently awakening one of the three Magi to draw his attention to the star of Bethlehem:

… the “Flight to Egypt”:

… and the “Suicide of Judas”:

13. Celtic-The Lindisfarne Gospels:

As a self-avowed medievalist and a lover of the book arts the selections of medieval illuminated manuscripts was quite daunting: the “Book of Kells”, the “Echternact Gospels”, the “Paris Psalter”, the “Book of Durrow”… all these and more were potential selections. I ended selecting the “Lindisfarne Gospels” over the much more famous “Book of Kells” because I wanted a great example of the Celtic book arts… but I personally find “Kells” to be too dark (in spite of my love of the brilliant “Chi Ro” page)… having less “breathing room” than the “Lindisfarne Gospels”:

The book includes a fabulous collection of “carpet pages”:

… marvelous representations of the 4 evangelists:

… and marvelous two page spreads and gloriously decorated title pages:

housed in the British Library, it offers yet one more excuse for a visit to Britain.

14. The Commentaries on the Apocalypse of the Beatus of Liebana

This one is a bit tricky because there are any number of beautifully illuminated versions of this text (how the Spanish loved the themes of death and the Apocalypse). The collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library houses one lovely example:

The work I would most like to see, however, is the Beatus of Saint Severe. This book, like the Pierpont Morgan, shows obvious influences of Islamic/Moorish/North-African art. The famous scene of the birds plucking the eyes from “captains and kings” is a frightening predecessor to Picasso’s Guernica… and probably a direct influence on the work of the Spanish master who was quite cognizant of early Iberian art:

The simple graphic shapes and the bold reds and greens lend this book a look unlike anything else in the world of illuminated manuscripts:

In some ways the book reminds me of nothing so much as the books of William Blake.

15. Persian- The “Shah Nameh” of Tabriz

In one way the “Shah Nameh” is one of the sad stories in art of greed and stupidity. Not too long ago the work was owned by the collector Arthur A. Houghton who undertook the despicable act of spitting the book into separate pages and selling them off bit by bit (such peice-meal sales leading to a greater price than what might be achieved for the work as a whole). This action was condemned by many as equivalent to cutting up the Sistine into parts, but as the work was of an Arabic/Persian source, the outcry was largely limited. After a good many of the choicest pages were purchased by museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Iranians finally offered to purchase… or rather swap for the remains of the text. A DeKooning “Woman” estimated at $20 Million was traded for the “Sha Nameh“. Much as I appreciate DeKooning, I must say that the Iranians got the better
end of the deal by far.

The world of the “Shah Nameh” is marvelous: glittering scenes of Persian Knights in Armor (perhaps echoes from the Arabian Knights?), delicate scenes of amorous dalliances, shimmering patterns, tapestries, carpets, and textiles…

… the book reminds me endlessly of Botticelli’s Primavera, the famous “Unicorn” tapestries, and even the marvelous lithographs of Marc Chagall:

16. French Gothic-Rheims Cathedral:

As the avowed medievalist there is no way I could go without ever seeing one of the great Gothic cathedrals. Notre Dame de Paris has always struck me as too “classically” perfect. Chartres is great… but I have always loved the extreme ornate quality of Rheims where stone has been turned into traceries so linear in style that it has an insubstantiality… as if disintergrating or melting into light and motion:

It should be noted that not only is Rheims a lovely bit of architecture, but it also retains a goodly amount of the original Gothic sculpture (which is not true of many other Gothic cathedrals thanks to the iconoclastic frenzy spurned by the French Revolution):

Most famously there is the lovely Annunciation with the smiling Angel:

Rheims must also be noted for its marvelous soaring interior… :

… and its glorious stained glass:

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17. Italy- The Cathedral of Orvieto (Arnolfo di Cambio-architect, Lorenzo

Maitani-sculptor, Luca Signorelli-painter, etc…)

While there are surely churches and cathedrals that far surpass the Cathedral of Orvieto in terms of fame (Notre Dame de Paris, Chartres, the “Duomo” of Florence, St. Mark’s, etc…) none exceeds Orvieto in terms of sheer beauty. The facade of Orvieto looks more like a giant icon or reliquary painting than a work of architecture. I find it absolutely stunning to discover such brilliant paintings and mosaic on the exterior of the building (and wonder, sadly, how long such would last in America before being defaced by graffiti):

The design of the stone traceries of Orvieto must surely be one of the most ornately gorgeous of all the old cathedrals:

While even the simple patterned stone design of the sides is quite beautiful:

Astoundingly… at this point our exploration of the exterior “decoration” has only begun. The great sculptor, Lorenzo Maitani provided the cathedral with some gorgeous bronze figures:

… Even more stunning are his carved walls of Biblical narratives…:

…culminating in his frightening visions of the hellish tortures of the Last Judgment:

The interior of Orvieto is no less stunning…

…whether we speak merely of the minor decorative details…

… the rafters…

… the marvelous 14th century frescoes framing the altar…

… or the great frescos by Luca Signorelli…

18. Italy- St. Peter’s (Bramante, Michelangelo, Bernini, etc…):

In spite of the fact that I am in no way Catholic, I cannot ignore amount of history and grandeur associated with this building. I don’t think anyone standing beneath this dome could fail to be awed by the overwhelming scale and beauty:

Michelangelo’s dome was of course so brilliant that it would become the source of inspiration for St. Paul’s in London… and the Capital in Washington D.C….

If the awe-inspiring architecture, the surrounding grounds, and the insurpassable history were not enough…

… there is also the presence of such brilliant sculptural works as Bernini’s
“baldachino” and Raphael’s frescoes in the ceiling medallions:

… and Michelangelo’s Pieta

While I undoubtedly would treasure the chance to explore any number of ancient (and not-so-ancient) non-Western architectural sites… Angkhor Wat, certain Indian ruins, the step pyramids of Mexico and Central America, the forbidden city, and especially the buried army of terracotta figures in Xi’an, China… I must go with my own culture… the culture that has exerted the greatest impact upon my own art… when choosing the remaining two masterpieces. Even then… wanting to explore something of the ancient world leaves one with quite a selection from which to choose: the Parthenon, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, the Temple of Zeus from Pergamon, the Ishtar gate. In the end, I went with Egypt in both instances:

19. Egypt- The Pyramids of Giza

Even if I were to ignore the great and enigmatic Sphynx not far away…

I could not help but be stunned by these monumental masterpieces. They are perhaps unique in being at once archetypes… and the form taken to the height of perfection. It is as if Shakespeare, Dante, or Petrarch has at once invented the sonnet AND taken it to such heights of perfection… as if Bach had invented the fugue AND taken it further than anyone else might ever attempt. Yes… there were step pyramids prior to these true pyramids of Giza… but one is stunned at the way in which the true pyramid (an architectural archetype as basic (perhaps) as the post and lintel, the arch, and the dome) was at once born and taken to such heights of brilliance. Perhaps only the dome of the Pantheon comes near to such a perfection of innovation.

20. Egypt- The Temple Complex of Karnak:

If the Pyramids of Giza simply overwhelm with their monumentality and their perfection of a most simple archetype… the Complex at Karnak overwhelms with its excess of splendors…

The sheer wealth of these centuries-old ruins… temples, obelisks, paintings, wall reliefs, giant bulging columns, monumental sculpted figures… is stunning today. One can only imagine how overwhelming it all must have been at the time of its creation

What is your Favorite Painting?

How often have I been asked this question? As an artist selecting just a single favorite artist or single favorite painting is as much of an impossibility as selecting a single favorite book as a bibliophile (although I would almost certainly need to go with Shakespeare as the writer). As such I’ve decided to post something along the lines of my top ten (or a few more) with the full knowledge that this list would probably change if I were asked again on another day.

1. Michelangelo- The Sistine Ceiling – This work would almost certainly remain at the top of my list at any time. To my mind Michelangelo is the greatest artist ever… bar none. If I were to search for a literary equivalent to his achievements I would almost need to think of something along the lines of a combination of Homer, Dante, and Milton. he is the greatest grand epic poet of art:

I have have always found that any time I return to studying Michelangelo’s work I find even something further to make me wonder and leave me in a state of awe and admiration.

2. Heironymus Bosch- The Garden of Earthly Delights- A good many of those works that I would think of as “favorites” are paintings that have such a degree of complexity that I find I can return to them again and again and never tire of them… never fail to discover something new. Bosh certainly lives up to this standard:

3. Botticelli- Primavera- Botticelli’s great allegory of the arrival of spring certainly does not lack a complexity worthy of Bosch… in spite of it being far simpler upon first glance. The tapestry-like field of flowers, for example, illustrate some 100s of different species of flowers. The artist spent an entire year in rendering the obsessive detail of this painting. In spite of its laborious creation the work conveys a complete feeling of joy and lightness. The figures dance and float across this tapestry/frieze-like surface in an unabashed song to spring… rebirth… and love. I’ve never been able to look at the painting without thinking of Vivaldi and Petrarch and Spencer’s Amoretti and Epithalimion.

4. Pieter Breughel- The Blue Cloak (Netherlandish Proverbs)- Brueghel is certainly a must among my favorite painters. With him the choice of the single representative work becomes difficult. I have always loved the painting of August (Autumn), and Hunters in the Snow from his series on the months. I’m also greatly enamored of The Fall of the Rebel Angels, the horrific Triumph of Death and Dulle Griet (Mad Meg)… however I’d probably need to go with the fabulous Netherlandish Proverbs. This great painting appears at first to be but a highly detailed painting by a master of observation of a Flemish village of the era:

Upon closer inspection, however, we discover that almost every figure in the image is actually a visual representation of a traditional Netherlandish proverb or folk saying:

“One has to crawl to make one’s way through the world” and “He holds the whole world at the tip of his thumb”

“He runs his head against a brick wall”

“She holds fire in one hand and water in the other” (She runs hot and cold)

5. Rembrandt- Lucretia, Hendrickje Bathing, Self-Portrait 1669- I have always imagined Rembrandt as the Shakespeare of art. While Michelangelo is the giant of epic heroic art, no artist has captured human emotions with such depth as Rembrandt. Where most artists paint figures, Rembrandt paints human beings… characters whom become as real as those created by Shakespeare or Dickens at his best. The painting, Lucretia, in the National Gallery of Art in washington is probably the single painting to have left the most profound emotional impact upon me… at least of those I have seen in person.

The artist’s great Self Portrait or 1669 from the same museum is no less moving. One cannot help but feel the profound sorrows etched upon the face of this artist (the loss of his wife, his wealth and reputation, his only son…). All this says nothing of the brilliance of his handling of paint itself:

Of course Rembrandt was not all tragedy. His painting of his young lover/soon to be wife, Hendrickje wading in a stream is certainly one of the most loving of erotic images… erotic with absolutely nothing salacious about it.

6. Pieter Paul Rubens- Portrait of Susanna Fourment, The Judgment of Paris, Little Fur, The Garden of Love– Rubens is another master from who I could not choose a single painting. He is most well known as the master of epic-scaled heroic narrative paintings… images of the Crucifixion and Deposition… battle and hunting scenes… and narratives from classical mythology. His finest works, however, are almost invariably the more personal. Perhaps his greatest portrait is this depiction of his lovely sister-in-law, Helena Fourment. The painting is so sensual and full of life that commentators throughout history could not help but imagine an illicit affair existing between the sitter and the artist.

Of course the artist didn’t need to run to a sister-in-law to find his erotic pleasures… in his late 50s he would marry the 16-year old Helena Fourment, called by many the most beautiful woman in the Netherlands. Several years after the death of his first wife, Isabella Brandt, whom he had deeply loved, Rubens showed himself to be absolutely enthralled and enchanted by the young Helena. He would paint her again and again and again. His life-sized portrait of her dressed in only a fur wrap (inspired by his artistic idol, Titian) is perhaps the most erotically charged of these paintings:

Helena showed up not only in portraits, but she also became an actress of sorts… posing for various mythological paintings. In The Judgment of Paris, Helena has become the triumphant goddess of love, Venus, in the beauty competition set to spur on the Trojan War.

She also arrives with her consort… the artist himself… in the Garden of Love, a masterpiece of young lovers dressed in satins and lace engaged in flirtations in a courtly garden. This painting would become the very foundation of the entire Rococo… especially of the paintings of Watteau.

7. Pierre Bonnard- Perfume, The Toilette, Terrace, Landscape at Vernon– From Rubens I end in jumping to the 20th century. In spite of the fact that I have no doubt as to the absolute dominating presense of Picasso… his innovation… his amazing scale and breadth of output… still, for whatever reason, I have ever been absolutely enchanted by the work of Pierre Bonnard. Matisse himself upon seeing the great collection of Bonnard’s work in the Phillip’s collection in Washington admitted that Bonnard might just have been the greatest of them all. In spite of this, many critics have dismissed him as nothing more than a late Impressionist. I must admit that he is something of a “painter’s painter”… he slowly grows upon you with exposure to his real paintings in person. Whether we are looking at one of his intimate scenes of his wife at her toilette (Perfume, The Toilette), a marvelous still-life, a scene of a family gathering, or one of his brilliant landscapes (The Terrace, Landscape at Vernon) the effect is always of the mundane transformed into the magical. Forms are fragmented or devoured by shimmering glittering light in a manner the reminds me always of one of those great Byzantine mosaics.:

8. Vermeer- Pearl Necklace, Woman with Water Jug, Woman with Scales– If anyone is truly a painter’s painter it is Vermeer. In spite of his small output (less than 40 small paintings) his stature is that of one of the giants. This is owed, unquestionably, to the fact that his paintings, seen in the flesh, are absolutely magical. His subject matter was nothing new for the time: intimate scenes of everyday life by the women whom he lived with. How they are painted, however, is breathtaking. Vermeer used only the finest of materials and built up his paintings in layers until they have an absolutely jewell-like appearance. The paint in many places appears to still be wet, so limpid does it appear. His color absolutely glows… as does his mastery of light (Thomas Kinkade, “master of light”?! Give me a break!!!) Vermeer shows us that the creation of the few small perfect works of art can be an important and as moving as the grand oeuvre or the epic scaled narrative masterpieces:

8. Max Beckmann- Bird’s Hell, Death, The Begining, Woman with Mandolin, Falling Man Beckmann is another among the Modernists whom may not have been one of the first picks of many others… but I have always found him to be incredibly powerful. With the passage of time his reputation has begun to grow greatly. Beckmann always struck me as something of a medieval or primitive artist among the moderns. In contrast to the elegance of many artists his work conveys something brutal. In spite of the brilliance of his color and the sensuality of his paint handling the works always convey something dark and menacing. The colors actually glow against the bituminous black of his outlines like the reds and blues of a medieval work of stained glass glows against the black leading. Bird’s Hell is a brilliant image of the growing horrors of Nazi Germany seen as an almost Bosch-like fantasy. Death is an even more surreal fantasy with a monstrous choir and musicians turned topsy-turvey. The Falling Man… an image of man falling into a void… through the clouds… against the backdrop of burning buildings… has taken on an even more profound “meaning” post-9-11.

9. Titian- The Rape of Europa, Danae, Venus D’Urbino, Venus with Mirror- To my mind the greatest school of art ever was that of the Venetian “colorists”. Wanting to paint large but unable to paint frescos in a city prone to flooding and extreme humidity… and equally wishing to paint slowly and with the brilliance of color possible in the new Flemish techniques of oil painting, the Venetians hit upon painting in oil on canvas. Artists such as the Bellini’s, Giorgione, Tintoretto, Veronese, and Titian essentially pushed the abilities of oil painting to new levels establishing the techniques that are almost second-nature to the painter today. Starting rapidly with only a simple underdrawing they were able to slowly build up paintings over time with a combination of direct painting, scumbling, and transparent glazes until they had wove something with a magical surface and absolute brilliance of light and color. Titian was the greatest master of this school and realized the female nude as the perfect subject best suited to the sensuality and warmth possible in the new techniques. While the Florentine and Roman nudes seemed carved of stone, Titian’s women were warm… made of flesh and blood… and bathed in the shimmering light of Italy:

10. Degas- Bathers– In some ways Edgar Degas (along with Edouard Manet) was the last of the “old masters”. Degas was trained in the “old master” atelier manner stressing drawing of the human body, sculptural form, composition, and narrative painting. He imagined himself as being the latest “history painter” in the footsteps of his great artistic predecessors, especially Raphael. Like his living hero, Ingres, however, he soon found himself unable… or unwilling to realize this goal. The history painting as he knew it was “dead”… an absurdity best left to such salon painters as Bougeureau. Instead, Degas sought out contemporary subjects where he might best discover the same movements of the human body which were the essential core of the history paintings. He thus turned to the race track, the ballet, the bars, and late in his career… to the female bather. Rather than staging his figures, Degas studied his subjects obsessively, capturing poses that conveyed tension, exhaustion, thought, etc… His images have an intimacy unseen yet in art… and yet for all the naturalism there is an absolute brilliance of composition and color. Often building upon rapidly executed drawings made from life, Degas turned more and more toward the use of pastel:

William Blake: Artist and Poet

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William Blake (November 28, 1757 – August 12, 1827) may just be my single favorite British poet so I will need to offer fair warning as to the possibility of some bias. Blake has long been accepted as one of the “great six” of British Romanticism (Blake, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge) and one of the greatest poets ever to have written in the English language. His achievements in the visual arts have gained him near equal acclaim. Nevertheless, Blake has also been one of the most misunderstood and maligned of any major poet. He is often portrayed as a half-mad genius, a wacked-out visionary who spoke to spirits, a political naif, a curmudgeon and “outsider”, a self-taught artist and poet who had little knowledge or experience of the art of his predecessors or of his own time. Most of these stereotypes have little reality to them.

Blake may not have had the advantage of a formal education in literature at the university level… nevertheless, he was most certainly not unlearned. The reality is that Blake was very well-read and often of literature which was not part of the accepted canon of his time. Of course Blake was well-versed in the works of Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Spencer, and the Bible… but other sources of inspiration include Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, with whom he was friends and a political ally, Emanuel Swedenborg, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Plato, Plotinus, the Hermetica and the Bhagavad Gita, mythologies of the world from Egypt to Iceland to India to ancient Britain and even the Kabbalah. Not only was Blake well-read, but he was also an insightful reader who developed interpretations that freely challenged the accepted ones.

Blake developed an early love of drawing by copying engravings of masters such as Raphael, Michelangelo, and Albrecht Dürer. In this he was was fully supported by his father. Unable to afford apprenticeship to a painting master, Blake was initially apprenticed to the fashionable William Ryland, engraver to King George. Blake however would request that his father find a more suitable match for his talents, declaring that Ryland had “the hanging look about him”. (In fact Ryland would end on the scaffold some years later, convicted for forging currency.) Blake spent his apprentice years under James Basire. Basire’s manner of working was rather out-dated stressing the linear contours and avoiding the more painterly affects that would allow for replication of paintings or the creation of more atmospheric elements. His manner, however, was perfectly suited to Blake’s own personal preferences for the linear sculptural form. Basire’s chief source of income was the result of commissioned engravings to be made of architectural and sculptural details of English churches and cathedrals. Through his apprenticeship to Basire Blake was exposed to the stylistic abstractions of Romanesque and Gothic art which would have been largely dismissed by most artists of the time.

In 1778 Blake enrolled in the Royal Academy. He quickly rebelled against the preference of the academy for such painterly masters as Rubens, Rembrandt, and Titian… as well as against the president of the academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds. He detested Reynold’s pursuit of “abstractions” and “generalizations” and he would write in the margins of his personal copy of Reynold’s Discourses, “To Generalize is to be an Idiot; To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit”.

In 1782 Blake met John Flaxman (sculptor) and George Cumberland (one of the founders of the National Gallery) who would both become patrons of his work. He also met Catherine Boucher, who would become his wife. Illiterate at the time of his marriage, Blake would not only teach her to read and write, but also educate her in the art of watercolors and engraving. She would become an invaluable aid to him in the creation of his printed books and a great moral support.

In 1784 Blake and his brother, Robert opened a print shop, and began working with the radical publisher, Joseph Johnson. Through Johnson, Blake met with some of the leading intellectual dissidents of the time, including Joseph Priestly, John Henry Fuseli (whose art work clearly influenced Blake’s own), Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, William Wordsworth, and William Godwin. Inspired by Wollstonecraft’s views on marriage and sexuality Blake composed his Visions of the Daughters of Albion in 1793. It is quite possible that Percy Shelley may have come across Blake’s writings in the possession of Mary Godwin (Shelley), Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter.

In 1788 Blake developed his method of “relief etching” (reportedly revealed to him by his deceased brother Robert in a dream) by which he produced most of his printed and illustrated books. Blake often referred to his illustrated books as “illuminated books”… a term used to describe the medieval books such as the Book of Kells, the Lindesfarne Gospels

…or the Tres Riches Heures of the Limbourg Brothers, in which the text and imagery were woven into a single unified artistic entity. These books were engraved or etched in a single color and then each volume was handpainted in watercolors by himself or Catherine.

Blake also produced a large number of watercolor paintings illustrating scenes from the Bible, Milton, Dante, Shakespeare, and Chaucer. Some of these were bound with folios, while others were imagined as the basis for more ambitious printed books that he would never realize.


Pieta


Cain and Abel


The Lustful Caught in the Whirlwind- from the Inferno

Blake’s two thin volumes The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience are perhaps his most famous poetic and artistic productions… and also the first instances in which he fully integrated his visual and poetic talents.

The Songs of Innocence consist mostly of poems describing the innocence and joy of the natural world… or the world seen from an innocent viewpoint, advocating free love and a personal relationship with God unmediated by religion. The poems and the accompanying imagery are deceptively child-like. They strike one initially as simple… even naive… but reveal a deeper meaning with with repeated reading:

The Lamb

Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing whooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice.
Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee;
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a lamb.
He is meek and he is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child and thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.

Infant Joy

“I have no name;
I am but two days old.”
What shall I call thee?
“I happy am,
Joy is my name.”
Sweet joy befall thee!
Pretty joy!
Sweet joy, but two days old.
Sweet Joy I call thee:
Thou dost smile,
I sing the while;
Sweet joy befall thee!

In contrast, The Songs of Experience suggest a loss of innocence after exposure to the materialistic world, “unnatural” concepts such as good and evil, sin, and religion. Most of the poems of the latter volume offer a direct counterpart to the Songs of Innocence. Perhaps the best example is The Tyger, counterpart to The Lamb, and probably Blake’s most famous (deservedly) poem:

The Tyger

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

I have long held this lyric in my memory, like many nursery rhymes and poems learned in my youth. Like a nursery rhyme, it’s hypnotic and chant-like… seeming oh so simple at first… but soon revealing far greater depths of thought… questions about the very nature of good and evil and creation. I’m always struck with chills as the poet finally confronts us with the ultimate question, “Did he who made the Lamb, make thee?”, before returning once again to the beginning, “Tyger Tyger…” and leaving that question unanswered… but perhaps provoking a little spark in our minds.

Another favorite of the The Songs of Experience is The Garden of Love:

The Garden of Love

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

This poem… again deceptively simple and childlike… confronts us with what were certainly rather revolutionary ideas at the time. The poem clearly suggests the naturalness of sexuality and rages against the manner in which organized religion attempts to repress our natural desires and label them as “sinful”.

Blake was largely unknown outside of a small circle of admirers during his lifetime. His reputation began to be revived toward the end of the 19th century thanks to the admiration of poets such as W.B. Yeats and D.G Rossetti. Rossetti, an artist and poet, was greatly enamored of Blake’s attempt to merge both the visual and literary arts. In 1847, Dante Gabriel Rossetti purchased a journal of Blake’s from the brother of the artist Samuel Palmer in which one could see early compositional studies for many of Blake’s more famous art works. The text of the manuscript included copies of many of Blake’s poems from the Songs of Innocence and Experience. These exhibit numerous revisions. Perhaps more importantly, the so-called “Rossetti Manuscript” along with another original document known as the “Pickering Manuscript” contain several unpublished poems… including a number that contain some of Blake’s most well-known passages:

Auguries of Innocence

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage

A Dove house fill’d with Doves and Pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions

A Dog starved at his Master’s Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State…

Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the world we safely go.

Joy & Woe are woven fine,
A Clothing for the Soul divine;
Under every grief and pine
Runs a Joy with silken twine…

Every Night & every Morn
Some to Misery are Born
Every Morn and every Night,
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are Born to Endless Night.

Beyond Blake’s lyrical poetry we find some of his greatest, yet most misunderstood and underrated work. His prose piece, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

…may just be Blake’s masterpiece. This brief book is composed of a series of meditations or “fancies” as Blake titles them, in which he puts forth many of his ideas about good and evil, free will, creation and even of literature:

Note: The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.

Perhaps the most known passages of this work come from the series of aphorisms entitled, Proverbs of Hell:

A fool sees not the same tree a wise man sees.

A dead body revenges not injuries.

The nakedness of woman is the work of God.

What is now proved was once only imagin’d.

The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.

Expect poison from standing water.

You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.

Listen to the fool’s reproach! It is a kingly title!


Job, his Wife and his Accusers

Perhaps the most unique… and challenging work by Blake is his Job. This work is built of a title page and 21 engraved illustrations. At first glimpse one might assume that Blake has merely illustrated the Biblical text of Job… but as is usual with Blake, nothing is as simple as it first appears. The usual orthodox interpretation of Job is that he represents an admirable figure of faith and patience… a good man who is tested by God by having all of his worldly belongings stripped from him, his family killed, and his own body stricken with painful disease… and yet he does not lose his faith in God. Blake’s Job is something of a critique of this interpretation. Utilizing images as well as inscribed quotes from the Book of Job and other Biblical texts, Blake presents the idea that Job does not begin as a man deeply faithful to God… but rather as a figure who is faithful only in appearance. He may do the right things… but for the wrong reasons. Blake suggests that the various trials that Job undergoes amount to a spiritual journey… from a false believer to a truly spiritual man. In what in perhaps the most powerful image, Illustration XI:

Blake presents a Job condemned to the fires of Hell. Devils reach out from the hell fires below in an attempt to drag him down. Still his hands are clutched in prayer as he looks up to the Hebrew God, Jehovah, hovering over him. Jehovah points to the tablets of the law which condemn Job while the lightning bolt of damnation leap around him. And yet… as Job glances down at Jehovah’s cloven foot and at the serpent of materialism with which he is intertwined… he realizes that this immovable God of the law is one and the same with Satan. The inscription “I know that my redeemer liveth” suggests that Job has begun to imagine that there is a better God.

Blake’s epic poems, especially Milton and Jerusalem are undoubtedly his most challenging works. The staggering achievement of these works is that Blake has essentially created his own cosmology and mythology… an achievement not unlike that of Muhammad, Dante, or Homer. He essentially attempts to live up to his own declaration:

“I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s
I will not Reason & Compare; my business is to Create!

In Milton, Blake presents a fantastic narrative in which Milton is driven out of Heaven for his false representation of God as an external authoritarian being. To Blake there was no God outside of the God that resides within the human breast. Milton enters into Blake himself and begins a spiritual journey of remaking himself. Milton contains some of Blake’s most fabulous and memorable poetry:

And did those feet in ancient time
walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
on England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant Land.

(The oft-quoted phrase from this introduction to Milton, “dark and Satanic Mills” is among the first criticisms directed at the dehumanizing and polluting elements of industrialization and clearly made Blake a hero with the socially like-minded Pre-Raphaelites.)

If you account it Wisdom when you are angry to be silent, and
Not to shew it: I do not account that Wisdom but Folly.
Every Mans Wisdom is peculiar to his own Individuality
O Satan my youngest born, art thou not Prince of the Starry Hosts
And of the Wheels of Heaven, to turn the Mills day & night?…

And this is the manner of the Daughters of Albion in their beauty
Every one is threefold in Head & Heart & Reins, & every one
Has three Gates into the Three Heavens of Beulah which shine
Translucent in their Foreheads & their Bosoms & their Loins
Surrounded with fires unapproachable: but whom they please
They take up into their Heavens in intoxicating delight…

Ah weak & wide astray! Ah shut in narrow doleful form
Creeping in reptile flesh upon the bosom of the ground
The Eye of Man a little narrow orb closed up & dark
Scarcely beholding the great light conversing with the Void
The Ear, a little shell in small volutions shutting out
All melodies & comprehending only Discord and Harmony
The Tongue a little moisture fills, a little food it cloys
A little sound it utters & its cries are faintly heard
Then brings forth Moral Virtue the cruel Virgin Babylon

Can such an Eye judge of the stars? & looking thro’ its tubes
Measure the sunny rays that point their spears on Udanadan
Can such an Ear fill’d with the vapours of the yawning pit.
Judge of the pure melodious harp struck by a hand divine?
Can such closed Nostrils feel a joy? or tell of autumn fruits
When grapes & figs burst their covering to the joyful air
Can such a Tongue boast of the living waters? or take in
Ought but the Vegetable Ratio & loathe the faint delight
Can such gross Lips perceive? alas! folded within themselves
They touch not ought but pallid turn & tremble at every wind…

But in the wine presses the human grapes sing not nor dance:
They howl & writhe in shoals of torment, in fierce flames consuming,
In chains of iron & in dungeons circled with ceaseless fires,
In pits & dens & shades of death, in shapes of torment & woe –
The plates & screws & racks & saws & cords & fires & cisterns,
The cruel joys of Luvah’s daughters, lacerating with knives
And whips their victims, & the deadly sport of Luvah’s sons…

The epic poem, Jerusalem is Blake’s longest and most ambitious work. The narrative, which is confusing and does not seem to follow a linear manner, centers upon the fall of Albion, a personification of Man… Britain… or Western Culture. The work is cloaked in a dense symbolism where characters are all inventions of Blake’s own personal mythology and where any single character can represent multiple persons, concepts, or even cities. In spite of this hermetic aspect the poem, like Milton, contains many brilliant passages:

Awake! awake O sleeper of the land of shadows, wake! expand!
I am in you and you in me, mutual in love divine:
Fibres of love from man to man thro’ Albion’s pleasant land.
In all the dark Atlantic vale down from the hills of Surrey
A black water accumulates, return Albion! return!
Thy brethren call thee, and thy fathers, and thy sons,
Thy nurses and thy mothers, thy sisters and thy daughters
Weep at thy souls disease, and the Divine Vision is darken’d:
Thy Emanation that was wont to play before thy face,
Beaming forth with her daughters into the Divine bosom
Where hast thou hidden thy Emanation lovely Jerusalem
From the vision and fruition of the Holy-one?
I am not a God afar off, I am a brother and friend;
Within your bosoms I reside, and you reside in me:
Lo! we are One; forgiving all Evil; Not seeking recompense!
Ye are my members O ye sleepers of Beulah, land of shades!…

Trembling I sit day and night, my friends are astonish’d at me.
Yet they forgive my wanderings, I rest not from my great task!
To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought: into Eternity
Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination
O Saviour pour upon me thy Spirit of meekness & love:
Annihilate the Selfhood in me, be thou all my life!
Guide thou my hand which trembles exceedingly upon the rock of ages…

Los answer’d: Altho’ I know not this, I know far worse than this:
I know that Albion hath divided me, and that thou, O my Spectre,
Hast just cause to be irritated; but look steadfastly upon me;
Comfort thyself in my strength; the time will arrive
When all Albion’s injuries shall cease, and when we shall
Embrace him, tenfold bright, rising from his tomb in immortality.
They have divided themselves by Wrath, they must be united by
Pity; let us therefore take example & warning, O my Spectre.
O that I could abstain from wrath! O that the Lamb
Of God would look upon me and pity me in my fury!
In anguish of regeneration, in terrors of self annihilation,
Pity must join together those whom wrath has torn asunder…

Inspiration deny’d; Genius forbidden by laws of punishment:
I saw terrified; I took the sighs & tears, & bitter groans:
I lifted them into my Furnaces; to form the spiritual sword.
That lays open the hidden heart: I drew forth the pang
Of sorrow red hot: I work’d it on my resolute anvil:
I heated it in the flames of Hand, & Hyle, & Coban
Nine times; Gwendolen & Cambel & Gwineverra
Are melted into the gold, the silver, the liquid ruby,
The crysolite, the topaz, the jacinth, & every precious stone.
Loud roar my Furnaces and loud my hammer is heard:
I labour day and night, I behold the soft affections
Condense beneath my hammer into forms of cruelty
But still I labour in hope, tho’ still my tears flow down.
That he who will not defend Truth, may be compell’d to defend
A Lie:…

We are told to abstain from fleshly desires that we may lose no
time from the Work of the Lord. Every moment lost, is a moment
that cannot be redeemed every pleasure that intermingles with the
duty of our station is a folly unredeemable & is planted like the
seed of a wild flower among our wheat. All the tortures of
repentance. are tortures of self-reproach on account of our
leaving the Divine Harvest to the Enemy, the struggles of
intanglement with incoherent roots. I know of no other
Christianity and of no other Gospel than the liberty both of body
& mind to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination.
Imagination the real & eternal World of which this Vegetable
Universe is but a faint shadow & in which we shall live in our
Eternal or Imaginative Bodies, when these Vegetable Mortal Bodies
are no more…

England! awake! awake! awake!
Jerusalem thy Sister calls!
Why wilt thou sleep the sleep of death?
And close her from thy ancient walls.

Thy hills & valleys felt her feet,
Gently upon their bosoms move:
Thy gates beheld sweet Zions ways;
Then was a time of joy and love.

And now the time returns again:
Our souls exult & London’s towers,
Receive the Lamb of God to dwell
In England’s green & pleasant bowers.

Blake never attained the recognition he deserved during his lifetime and he forever lived in near poverty. A prophet by calling and an engraver by trade he struggled to eek out a living in a highly competitive field working in what appeared to many to be a hopelessly outmoded manner… yet in many ways Blake was as innovative as a visual artist as he was as a poet. At a time when oil painting dominated the visual arts (and had dominated for centuries) Blake had the audacity to reject such in favor of print, watercolor and his ideal of the “illuminated books”. While Western art reveled in the abilities of the artist to mimic the appearance of physical reality, Blake rejected such a goal as worthy of the artist, declaring “One power alone makes a poet, Imagination. The Divine Vision.” As such it should come as little surprise that few took Blake’s art seriously until the advent of Modernism when invention and imagination would triumph over the imitation of nature.

Beyond the books that Blake completed in an engraved manner he also produced numerous watercolor “illustrations” for other texts: the Bible:


The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins


The Last Judgment

Milton’s Paradise Lost:


The Temptation and Fall

Dante’s Divine Comedy:


The Blasphemer


Antaeus Setting Down Dante and Virgil

…chief among them. These may have been intended as studies for color engraved versions of these books. One might even suggest that Blake may have intended something along the line of what he had achieved with his Job: a merger of text and image that is a completely new invention. Blake’s art would have a direct influence upon the work of a group of followers known as “the ancients” that included Samuel Palmer…


Samuel Palmer-Early Morning-engraving

and Edward Calvert…


Edward Calvert-The Bride-engraving

His work would be a model for the design of children’s books by the end of the 19th century as well as a major source of inspiration for the development of the so-called “book arts” as found in the works of Eric Gill…


Eric Gill-The Bible

and most importantly William Morris:


William Morris/Edward Burns Jones-“Kelmscott Chaucer”

In spite of this, Blake’s art did not attain a level of recognition equal to that afforded to his poetry until after mid-century with the increased access to color reproduction allowing for his work to be experienced as close as possible to the manner in which he had intended. Since that time Blake’s work has grown greatly in popularity with artists and art lovers (as with lovers of literature)… and especially with those who follow the “book arts”. A recent collection of 19 watercolors were broken up by the owners and 12 sold for more than $7 million US. In spite of the incredibly high price for works on paper, the sale was actually far below what was expected. (A good many buyers opted out of the auction due to anger over the fact that the collection had been quickly broken up by speculators out to make a quick dollar rather than allowing the Tate or another museum time to raise the funds needed to purchase the work as a whole) The recent exhibition of Blake’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art drew crowds in numbers usually reserved for the finest painters in oils… not for an artist working in print and watercolor and often regulated to the category of “outsider artist”. It is clear that Blake’s achievements as a visual artist have attained a status that equals his achievements as a poet.

Collage

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Recently a question was put forth by a fellow artist challenging the continued relevancy of collage. “Was not collage,” it was asked, “with its collected bits and pieces and bric-a-brac, an inherently sentimental medium?” Originally educated/trained as a painter, I often had similar doubts about the relevancy of such a dated, slow medium as painting in this age of computers and PhotoShop. Still, I don’t believe that either painting, nor collage can be quite so easily pigeon-holed as to being no more than media of the past.
The very nature of collage/assemblage… constructed , as it were , from fragments of diverse imagery and materials , is open to a plethora of interpretations: It might stand as a metaphor for the speed of our modern world and the impossibility of a single linear narrative. It might stand for the fragmentation and collapse of our society… our culture… of art itself. It might exist as a metaphor of mortality… or of rebirth… physical or spiritual (through recycling?). It might be used anachronistically: the absurd combination of the new and the old. It might represent the urge to preserve the past… as a diary or reliquary of memory. It might reveal through its very form the cacophony of our world. It might speak of other art forms: of toys, books, furniture, the theater, architecture, and more…
All of this I am aware of and intrigued by. At the same time, it must be admitted that there’s a cultural history with assemblage and collage. Collage and assemblage seem to have been perfectly tailored to the United States. America, after all, is a country of melded and recycled cultures, constructed of fragments of older beliefs, systems, and values. What could be a better metaphor of this than an art equally composed of merged fragments? Beyond this , there’s an argument to be made for creating art from one’s native resources. Thus, the Italians frequently use the marble quarried in Carrara , while the Germans prefer wood cut from the Black Forest. The United States is a country overflowing with refuse… remains of our consumer culture… the idyllic(?) resource for the American artist. Can we imagine the art of Robert Rauschenberg as having been born from any other culture than that of urban America? It also must be admitted that the methods of the collage/assemblage artist have much more to do with American culture (the work of artisans and craftsmen: woodworkers , carpenters , builders ,limners , engineers , and architects) than the virtuoso “fine art” of painting or sculpted marble. I think here of the still-life paintings of William Harnett and John Peto who fetishized the mundane in a manner that stands as the spiritual precursors to Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenberg.
Undoubtedly, it must be admitted that certain approaches to collage… those which consciously utilize the aged, weathered materials, flirt with sentimentality… yet is not collage by its very nature, in the manner in which fragments of refuse… of abandoned, discarded, and cast off images, materials and objects are miraculously transformed into new works of great beauty and poetic resonance, a “romantic” endeavor? Yes, there’s a danger of “sentimentality” in collage, but there’s always a “danger” in art. For the big painter, there’s a danger of pretentiousness. For the artists utilizing the latest technologies and images, there’s the danger that years later such works will be no more than embarrassing “period pieces.”
Personally, I find that collage and assemblage allow me to explore a vast range of interests. Yes, I have to admit that there is something of an attempt to capture memory… the past… history in my work. There is also something of a meditation upon the transitory nature of life… of mortality. But there is a lot more, as well. I must declare that my own work in the genre draws inspiration from numerous other sources. The structure of my assemblage works often owe quite a bit to architecture and furniture. I have long studied buildings (especially the ecclesiastical) from various eras: Gothic , Romanesque , Renaissance and Victorian. My works also owe something to medieval reliquaries and icons. I also draw inspiration from the structures and the mood or atmosphere of music… I am always imagining Bach’s “geometry” given concrete form. In theme and concept my assemblage and collage owes as much (if not more) to books and literature as it does to anything else. Like the surrealist poets ,T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Marinetti, I often draw together fragments of language and text. In fact I am profoundly fascinated by the possibilities of an art form which combines the visual arts with text or paint. If there is a predecessor to collage in my mind, it is clearly the Gothic cathedral in which so many arts were wed in the service of a single (spiritual) goal.
Just recently I was at a conference given to public art school teachers which dealt with the issue of collage. I was surprised that a good number of art teachers started to ask questions about the legality and even the ethics of using someone else’s images. Hadn’t they ever seen Kurt Schwitter’s or Joseph Cornell’s work, I wondered. More shocking, was the response. The lecturer stated that such appropriation of imagery (if the original was not one’s own) was open to use by educators, for educational uses… but if it was to be sold or published proper permission should be acquired. Collage, it seems to me, is not a medium trapped in the past, but rather it is at the edge of current technologies (Photoshop editing, music “sampling”) as well as current controversies (for better or worse).
There’s a truly intriguing and beautifully written (and very slim) book by the contemporary poet, Charles Simic, entitled, “Dimestore Alchemy.” The book is a beautiful series of meditations upon the work of Joseph Cornell, whom Simic sites as inspiring his own approach to poetry. In one meditation, Simic suggests that the use of collage/assemblage/ montage… fragments of pre-existing imagery… might just be THE most important innovation of modern art. In a similar literary manner, Hermann Hesse’s “Glass Bead Game” or “Magister Ludi“, prophesied a future in which new art, as once created, would cease to exist. Instead, what we would have was a “game” of reassembling fragments from the past. Of course, this “game,” I would argue, has led to some of the most beautiful “original” art of the last century.
I loved maudlin pictures, the painted panes over doors, stage sets, the backdrops of mountebanks, old inn signs, popular prints, antiquated literature, church Latin, erotic books innocent of all spelling, the novels of our grandfathers, fairy tales, children’s storybooks, old operas, inane refrains,and artless rhythms.”-Rimbaud