Category

20th century

Bing Crosby’s “Old West” and Countryside Art

I wrote in my previous post about how I was trying to learn more about Bing Crosby’s taste in art. I finally have figured out a few things about Bing and his personal art collection, namely that he liked works of art with Old West scenes and also scenes of the English countryside.

Bing Crosby also liked works of art by Alfred Munnings. A few years after his death in 1977, his wife auctioned off items from the Crosby estate, and even tried to sell the painting “On the Moor” by Munnings. However, the painting was withdrawn from the sale because it didn’t meet the minimum bid. Bing Crosby even showcased one of his paintings by Alfred Munnings in a 1954 interview with Edward R. Murrow on Person to Person. As the interview was about to conclude, Bing interrupts of the interviewer by asking saying that he wants to show something that “is really my pride and joy.” Bing continues:

Everyone has something in their home that they really like to go into rhapsodies about. This is a canvas by Sir Alfred Munnings, who was the head of the British Royal Academy for years. He’s considered the finest painter of the English country life and country scene. It represents the hunting scene and it recalls a very amusing story to me. Barney Dean, the late Barney Dean, the beloved gag writer who worked for us for so many years. We were having a party here. It was getting late-ish, four-ish or so. Just a few stragglers in the hall, two or three people, you know how they like to dawdle at a party, hate to say good night. Well, Barney was looking up at the picture for of ruminatively and I said, ‘Barney, what’s on your mind?’ Barney was from New York, Brooklyn, never left the pavement, never been off the bricks in his life, and he looked at the picture and said, ‘How come we never do this no more?’ (See 15:14-16:03 in clip below)

I can’t determine whether this painting is the “On the Moor” scene that went up for auction in 1982. The composition, however, is unusual for Munnings; he typically depicted his horses in profile view. This “head on” version is only seen in a few other paintings by Munnings, such as A Huntsman and Hounds (1906, shown below). This isn’t a work of art that was owned by Crosby, but the composition is a little similar (although Bing’s painting has more figures and is larger in scale):

Alfred Munnings, "A Huntsman and Hounds," 1906

Alfred Munnings, “A Huntsman and Hounds,” 1906

Bing’s televised interview with Murrow was filmed from Bing Crosby’s home in Holmby Hills (Los Angeles). Although it is hard to see, at 15:16 Bing walks past another painting of a man riding a horse. I think that this might be a painting by Munnings, but it could also be a painting by Charles Russell (especially since library in Bing’s San Fransisco home was decorated with Charles Russell’s art). Either way, the subject matter isn’t surprising, due to Bing’s famous interest in horses and horse races.

In a rather roundabout and ironic way, Bing Crosby and Alfred Munnings are also connected together through another artist: Richard Hamilton! In the mid-twentieth century, Hamilton was expelled from the Royal Academy by Alfred Munnings, who was an anti-modernist. Hamilton went on to become a successful pop artist, and even made a reverse-image screen print of Bing Crosby. The 1967 print capitalizes on Bing’s status as a pop culture icon through its title: I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas. It’s ironic that the artist who was expelled by Alfred Munnings ends up creating a modern work of art depicting a pop icon, and this pop icon is one who collects conservative paintings by Alfred Munnings! Whatever modernity Crosby may have represented as a pop culture icon, his personal taste in art appears to be much more traditional and conservative.

Richard Hamilton, "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas," 1967. Screen print. Tate Museum

Richard Hamilton, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” 1967. Screen print. Tate Museum

— 2 Comments

Mr. Rockwell Goes to Hollywood

Norman Rockwell, "Portrait of Bing Crosby," 1966

Norman Rockwell, “Portrait of Bing Crosby,” 1966

I’m starting to wrap up the celebrities project that I’ve been working on for the past year – which means that my posts will likely not revolve around Hollywood quite so much! In trying to learn more about Bing Crosby’s interest in art, I stumbled across a portrait of Bing Crosby by Norman Rockwell. This was made in 1966, when Norman Rockwell painted a series of character portraits for the Twentieth Century Fox production of Stagecoach. The Norman Rockwell Museum explains that Bing Crosby’s character in the film, Doc Boone, is a drunken doctor. When sitting for the portrait, Bing Crosby picked up a bottle and caressed it, which gave Rockwell the “hook” needed to create a convincing sense of the character.

My other favorite portrait from this series is of Ann-Margret as the character “Dallas.” The color combination of the green costume with her red hair is very striking.

Norman Rockwell, "Portrait of Ann-Margaret," 1966

Norman Rockwell, “Portrait of Ann-Margaret,” 1966

The portraits were used for the end credits of the film, as well as on promotional material for the film like posters. Rockwell also painted a large, eight-foot mural of the set, which was used for promotional material as well.

Poster for "Stagecoach," 1966

Poster for “Stagecoach,” 1966

Interestingly, though, Norman Rockwell’s participation with Stagecoach didn’t end there. He also ended up participating on the set of the film too! At seventy-two years old, Rockwell was placed in the role of “Busted Flush” Rockwell. The Norman Rockwell Museum website explains that a Look magazine article discussed Rockwell’s character as “a mangy old gambler in cowboy costume, with a bad-guy black hat and high-heeled boots that hurt his feet.” Norman Rockwell is shown in the opening sequence of the show, seated at the gambling table (see 6:11 of this video of the film).

I like some of the photographs of Rockwell that were taken in his costume, including this one and this one (the expression of the latter image reminds me very much of his similarly-raised eyebrows in Triple Self-Portrait, 1959). Below is another photograph of Rockwell as “Busted Flush”:

Norman Rockwell as "Busted Flush" from Stagecoach (1966)

Norman Rockwell as “Busted Flush” from Stagecoach (1966)

Do you know of any other artists that had a role in both creating promotional material for a Hollywood film and also participating within the film too?

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Oskar Kokoschka and Adele Astaire

Fred and Adele Astaire, 1929

Fred and Adele Astaire, 1929

Lately I’ve been reading The Astaires: Fred and Adele by Kathleen Riley. I knew a little about Fred Astaire’s career with Ginger Rogers before starting this book, but I didn’t really know anything about his successful stage career with his older sister, Adele. In many respects, it seems like the critics really considered Adele to be the true star of the duo, not Fred.

Adele attracted many admirers and fans, including the expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka. While visiting London, Kokoschka met Adele backstage and asked if he could paint her portrait. She agreed and twice a week, for two months, Adele went to Kokoschka’s studio for sittings. However, the painter and the dancer did not get along well. Adele “disliked Kokoschka’s lascivious manner and resented his refusal to let her see the work in progress.”1 She disliked the finished portrait (which she finally saw years later!), and frankly, with the disproportion of the figure’s facial features and head, I can see why. The balloony head lacks the intensity and immediacy that is found in some of Kokoschka’s other portraits.

Kokoschka, "Adele Astaire," 1926.

Oskar Kokoschka, “Adele Astaire,” 1926.

Open sheet music and a piano are located on the left side of the painting, next to Adele.She also is flanked by her Aberdeen Scottish terrier on the right and an image of Leda and the Swan on the left. I can’t find out why Kokoschka specifically would have included Leda within this image: perhaps this was a way to suggest Adele as a desirable, or perhaps Kokoschka liked this subject matter (since his does return to it at least one other time in his career).

The painting was discussed in a TIME article which was dedicated to Kokoschka (5 May 1958). Adele was interviewed for the article and expressed her dislike of the painting. And three weeks after the article was published, Fred Astaire wrote a letter to the editor of TIME magazine to express his opinion of the painting:

Sir:

With your permission, I’d like to give my opinion of the Kokoschka picture of my sister (mentioned in the May 5th Art section). I think it’s a hideous mess. As great an artist as this man may be today, he certainly goofed in 1926. My sister is a very pretty girl.

Fred Astaire, BEVERLY HILLS3

I haven’t been able to come across much information about Fred’s thoughts on visual art, so I think that this letter is especially precious. And I can’t agree more: I think Adele’s portrait is “a hideous mess” too. I like to imagine that Adele might have humorously made this type of gesture when she finally was able to see Kokoschka’s portrait:

Adele Astaire Thumbing Nose, n.d.

Adele Astaire Thumbing Nose, n.d.

1 For more description and discussion of this painting, see Kathleen Riley, The Astaires: Fred and Adele, p. 110. Available online HERE.

2 Ibid.

3 Fred Astaire, “She Was Framed,” TIME, 26 May 1958.

— 5 Comments

Grace Kelly’s Pressed Flowers

Grace Kelly measuring one of her flower collages, from "My Book of Flowers" (published 1980)

Grace Kelly measuring one of her flower collages, from “My Book of Flowers” (published 1980)

I’ve been reading My Book of Flowers by Princess Grace of Monaco (Grace Kelly) this past week. I’ve been fascinated to learn about this creative outlet for Grace Kelly, which I imagine gave her much satisfaction since many of her early expressions of creativity (as an actress) were put aside after she married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. This book was published in 1980, just two years before Grace Kelly was in a fatal car accident in September 1982.

I especially love My Book of Flowers because it explains Grace Kelly’s thought process and techniques for creating her pressed flower collages. For her, the physical process of touching the flowers and carefully working with her hands provided satisfaction: “…I prefer to use the tip of my fingernail or a small stem to move the petals into place. It is not only that the eyes find pleasure in finishing the pressed flower picture, but just sliding the flowers into place brings that same kind of tranquility as doing needlework, crocheting, or knitting.”1

Grace Kelly also explained that spacing of flowers is really important, especially when creating geometric collages that need to maintain a sense of “pristine formality.”2

Grace Kelly, pressed flowers in a geometric pattern with protea leaves, periwinkle, viola, daisies, and a yellow daffodil, n.d.

Grace Kelly, pressed flowers in a geometric pattern with protea leaves, periwinkle, viola, daisies, and a yellow daffodil, n.d.

Grace Kelly, flower collage with white phalaenopsis orchids from Ceylon, bougainvillaea and periwinkle, n.d.

Grace Kelly, flower collage with white phalaenopsis orchids from Ceylon, bougainvillaea and periwinkle, n.d.

Grace Kelly, Jasmine, Prunus Leaves

Grace Kelly, pressed collage from a branch of jasmine, prunus leaves, and pale davidii leaves known as “the handkerchief tree,” n.d.

Grace Kelly, Poppies, Buttercups, Wild Grasses

Grace Kelly, pressed collage “to capture the mood of a summer’s day” with poppies, buttercups, and wild grasses, n.d.

Grace Kelly, jigsaw puzzle, n.d.

Grace Kelly, pressed collage like a Provençal print or a Liberty fabric, n.d.

Grace Kelly, pressed collage with a reconstructed red rose and hydrangea flower from California, with pink pelargoniums from Spain, n.d.

Grace Kelly, pressed collage with a reconstructed red rose and hydrangea flower from California, with pink pelargoniums from Spain, n.d.

I particularly like this last collage by Kelly because the dark background reminds me of the paper flower collages that Mary Delany created in the 18th century (such as this one of the passionflower). Delany’s collages (which she called “paper-mosaicks”) were made from hundreds of pieces of tissue paper that were carefully cut and layered (and occasionally were touched-up with watercolor). Mary Delany’s collection of work is located at the British Museum. Grace Kelly discusses Mary Delany’s work at length in My Book of Flowers, so I think it is very likely that Kelly had Delany’s work in mind for this particular collage.3 Perhaps Kelly even thought that her “reconstructed red rose” (made from separately-dried flower petals) was similar to Delany’s process in constructing flowers out of cut pieces of paper.

It makes sense to me that Grace Kelly would be interested in creating pressed flower collages, not only as a creative exercise, but from a historical standpoint. Pressed flower collages historically have been associated with restraint and decorum, which are two things that I associate with Grace Kelly (both as an actress and a princess). For one thing, creating flower collages was popular among women during the Victorian era (the age of decorum and restraint!). And, in a ironic way, this restraint and decorum is also associated with the true origin of pressed-flower making, known as the art of Oshibana in Japan. This form of art began in the 16th century, allegedly was created by Samurai warriors as a way to practice patience, restraint, and concentration, as well as harmony with nature.

Although it seems unlikely that Victorian women or Grace Kelly would even be paired with Samurai warriors in the same sentence, I’m really tickled that the art of creating pressed flowers has found resonance and meaning across different time periods and cultures. Perhaps this international art form is another way that pressed flower collages helps to embody Grace Kelly’s role as a diplomat and representative of a principality. Several of her collages bring together flowers from different countries too, which in a way is akin to the role she needed to perform as a political figure. This type of international harmony fits well with what Grace said about flowers and her immediate environment too:

“Through working with flowers we began to discover things about ourselves that had been dormant. We found agility not only with our fingers but with our inner eyes in searching for line, scale and harmony. In bringing out these talents within ourselves, we gained a dimension that enabled us not only to search for harmony in an arrangement, but also to discover the importance of carrying it into our lives and our homes.”4

Grace Kelly at an exhibition of her flowers at Galerie Drouant in Paris, 1977

Grace Kelly at an exhibition of her flowers at Galerie Drouant in Paris, 1977

1 Princess Grace of Monaco with Gwen Robyns, My Book of Flowers (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980), 47.

2 Ibid., 48.

3 See discussion of Mary Delany on Ibid., p. 144-147.

4 Ibid., 10.

— 4 Comments

Barnett Newman’s Slashed Paintings

Barnett Newman, Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, 1967-68

Barnett Newman, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, 1967-68. Oil on canvas, 8′ x 18′

I’ve been reading this afternoon about three specific instances in which Barnett Newman paintings were slashed. The first instance of damage occurred in 1982, when a veterinary medical student attacked Barnett Newman’s painting Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV (1969-70, oil on canvas; 274 x 603 cm). The painting, which was on display at the Nationalgalerie Museum in Berlin, offended and frightened the student, who claimed that the painting was a “perversion of the German flag.”

The second and third incidents in which a Newman painting was damaged were performed by the same person, at the same museum! In March of 1986, Gerard Jan Van Bladeren walked into the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and used a box cutter to slash eight incisions into Newman’s painting Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III (shown above). Van Bladeren, a mentally-disturbed realist painter who rejected modern art (and wanted to make Newman’s painting serve as an example of his rejection), was arrested and served five months in jail.

However, Van Bladeren should have been watched more carefully: over ten years later, in 1997, he walked into the Stedelijk Museum again. Upset over the restoration of Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, Van Bladeren decided to attack another painting by Newman, Cathedra (shown below). Van Bladeren used a small Stanley-brand knife to slash this painting seven times. Afterward, Van Bladeren calmly leaned against a wall and waited for the police to arrive!

Barnett Newman, Cathedra, 1951

Barnett Newman, Cathedra, 1951. Oil on canvas, 8′ x 18′

Such marks on Newman’s monochromatic surfaces are hard to hide, and pose a problem for conservators. In fact, when Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III was not put public display until 2001, it was met a lot of criticism. The Stedelijk Museum was upset with the restoration of Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, and some said that the painting lost its appeal due to the mishandling and misapplication of paint. When the Stedelijk Museum opened in a new location, the Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III was put on display in the new building in 2014. The museum celebrated (and also justified) the return of this restored painting with this video:

The Stedelijk Museum decided to use their own in-house conservators to restore Cathedra, which arguably would have been an even more difficult project because of the varied layers of paint. This variation contributes to the ethereal nature of the painting, since the painting seems tangible and intangible at the same time. It seems like the museum is happy with their conservation efforts for Cathedra, since the painting is highlighted in the video above (and in fact, seems to get even more praise for its visual properties than Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III).

I think something very bold, powerful, and even ineffable is expressed by paintings by Newman, especially because they often appear on a large scale. The paintings overwhelm and fill the visual field of the viewer, and perhaps these factors contributed to how these vandals felt unsettled (and subsequently reacted to) Newman’s works of art. (It is interesting to me that the two Stedelijk paintings are the same size!) Perhaps Barnett Newman might even have been able to understand these attacks, since he wrote in 1943, “The painter is concerned . . . with the presentation into the world mystery. His imagination is therefore attempting to dig into metaphysical secrets. To that extent, his art is concerned with the sublime. It is a religious art which through symbols will catch the basic truth of life.” Perhaps these sublime “metaphysical secrets” are too unsettling for some people to have revealed, and they react in a violent way?

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.