Category

20th century

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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James Dean and Art

James Dean, "Road to Happiness," c. 1954. Oil on canvas

James Dean, “Road to Happiness,” c. 1954. Oil on canvas

Over the past few weeks I have been doing some research on James Dean’s interest in visual art. Although Dean is known as an actor and didn’t professionally dabble in the visual arts, he liked to sketch and occasionally paint. One site claims that there are only three James Dean paintings that are known to exist, including Road to Happiness (shown above). Other works of art are on display at the James Dean Gallery in Indiana. Some select sketches are also found online here. While I don’t think that any of these sketches are revealing of a great artistic talent, it is interesting to think about James Dean’s thought process and how his creative mind is manifest in other outlets beyond acting.

James Dean also had an appreciation for Western art. One of his favorite haunting places at this time was the Museum of Modern Art, and Dean continued to frequent the museum even after he rose to fame.1 A group of photographs from 1954 show Dean visiting with friends at the top of the museum. One of the friends in the group is Roy Schatt (see below); Schatt was a photographer who is famous for a series of portraits of James Dean.

James Dean and Roy Schlatt, roof of Museum of Modern Art, 1954

James Dean and Roy Schatt, roof of Museum of Modern Art, 1954

It is apparent that James liked to reference art and clown around when he was with Roy, and I have two examples to share. One such “artsy” moment was captured below on the set of The Thief.” Here, James Dean pushed his glasses over to the side of his face, so as to give the impression that he had more than two eyes. He turned to Roy and exclaimed, “Hey, I’m a Picasso!”

James Dean rehearsing "The Thief" with Diana Lynn, 1955

Roy Schatt, James Dean rehearsing “The Thief” with Diana Lynn, 1955

Another time, James Dean decided to reference Renaissance sculpture. During the so-called “Torn Sweater” photoshoot with Schatt, James Dean suddenly decided to try a new pose by turning his head slightly to the left and looking down. Schatt recalled, “I asked him what…he was doing, it was such a strange pose. He said, ‘Don’t you see it? I’m Michelangelo’s ‘David.'”3 I’m fairly certain that the photograph below is the one from the photoshoot which refers to this anecdote, especially since James Dean is holding his arm up toward his shoulder, similar to how Michelangelo’s “David” has a lifted arm in order to carry a sling.

Roy Schatt, James Dean from 'Torn Sweater" series, December 29, 1954

Roy Schatt, James Dean from “Torn Sweater” series, December 29, 1954

According to one biographer, Manet was James Dean’s favorite painter, and Manet’s Dead Toreador (1864) inspired the pose that Dean used during the opening of Rebel Without a Cause (shown below).2 Although Dean is turned onto his side in the film still below, There does seem to be some similarities with black clothing of the figures, as well as the ways that the heads are tilted at a slight angle.

James Dean, still shot from "Rebel Without a Cause," and Manet's "Dead Toreador," 1864.

James Dean, still shot from “Rebel Without a Cause,” and Manet’s “Dead Toreador,” 1864.

I imagine that James Dean may personally have seen Manet’s Dead Toreador on display in the National Gallery, if he ever traveled to Washington, DC. Dean was an avid fan of bullfighting; I also imagine that he would have been familiar with the other half of this same canvas, titled The Bullfight, which is part of the Frick Collection in New York.

I read another interesting anecdote which may also reveal Dean’s familiarity with and appreciation of Western art. Screenwriter Stewart Stern revealed that just before the shooting of Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean disappeared a few days. Then, Stern explained that about ten days later “he just showed up at my office and looked at this perfectly blank wall, [and] stood back pretending to admire an imaginary painting. I think he was looking at Picasso’s Guernica. he asked me if it was real or a reproduction, and I said, “Oh…it’s real of course!”‘Dean didn’t even mention his disappearance or why he had come back to work, but simply clowned around about a painting and eventually resumed work on Rebel.

James Dean found inspiration and humor through art, and after his death, James Dean’s image and persona served as a source of inspiration for subsequent artists. Probably the artist who has been most inspired by James Dean’s image and likeness is Kenneth Kendall. Kenneth Kendall actually met James Dean in January 1955, and Dean had asked if Kendall would be interested in sculpting him. This project never came to fruition at that moment; Kendall was focusing on other projects and then James Dean died in a car crash on September 30, 1955. However, Kendall was able to acquire a life mask from Dean’s apartment after his death to use as a model. Kendall has created many depictions of James Dean, including the a nude sculpture and a portrait bust that serves as a monument to James Dean (see below) at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles (which is the location of a few iconic scenes in Rebel Without a Cause).

Kenneth Kendall, James Dean Portrait, Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles

Kenneth Kendall, “James Dean,” 1955-56. Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles

It’s neat to consider how James Dean was interested in different forms of creative expression, not only through acting but also visual artistic mediums. It isn’t surprising to me that his creative persona and talent served as further creative inspiration for visual artists like Kenneth Kendall. Do you particularly like any other works of art that James Dean either created or inspired? Please share!

1 David Dalton, James Dean: The Mutant King: A Biography (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2001, p. 125. Available online HERE.

2 Ibid., p. 236. Available online HERE

3 Ibid., p. 119.

4 Ibid., p. 235. Available online HERE.

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Bernini’s Elephant, Another Myth, and Dali

Bernini, elephant obelisk outside of Maria Sopra Minerva, 1667, Rome. Image via Wikipedia, courtesy of Petar Milošević

Bernini, elephant obelisk outside of Maria Sopra Minerva, 1667, Rome. Image via Wikipedia, courtesy of Petar Milošević

Of all of the sculptures created by Bernini, I think that the elephant carrying an obelisk is the most unexpected and bizarre. This monument has its own unusual history surrounding its creation and subsequent discussion in the 17th century, and then this monument ended up being incorporated into bizarre Surrealist imagery in the 20th century.

Originally, this monument was commissioned by Pope Alexander VII; its creation was really instigated by the 1665 discovery of the Egyptian obelisk within a garden of a Dominican monastery, and it was decided that the obelisk would be placed just outside the monastery itself. These facts are clearly documented. However, much of the following popular history surrounding the monument doesn’t have a historical foundation at all and seems more like another Bernini myth. According to this popular, although historically unsubstantiated, anecdote, the proposed designs for the monument allegedly included one by the monastery’s Dominican friars, Father Domenico Paglia; however, Alexander VII supposedly rejected this design and ultimately selected Bernini’s design of an elephant.1 According to the contemporary inscriptions written on the pedestal of the monument, the elephant was selected as a symbol of strength, and the obelisk was surmounted on top was to serve as a symbol of holy knowledge or divine wisdom.2 (The symbolism of the obelisk as Divine Wisdom is a little ironic, considering that this obelisk originally held a political – and non-Christian – context, since it was created by the Pharaoh Apries, who reigned 588-569 BCE).3

Bernini, elephant obelisk detail, 1667. Outside Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome.

Bernini, elephant obelisk detail, 1667. Outside Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome.

This anecdote continues by mentioning alleged controversy surrounding the construction of the monument. Father Paglia apparently didn’t like Bernini’s design, and thought that the obelisk would be unstable without more supporting weight underneath the elephant. Bernini refused to change his design (as seen in his bozzetto model), but later allegedly was forced to do so (although he tried to add a saddlecloth to hide the supporting weight placed underneath the elephant). According to this story, Bernini may have made a final retaliating remark to Paglia with the way that he positioned the elephant: the rear of the animal is pointed toward the direction of the Dominican father’s office. Furthermore, the tail of the animal is slightly raised, suggesting that Bernini’s elephant is defecating (since the muscles look more tense) and/or saluting Paglia in an obscene way.4 (Although this story is unsubstantiated, one can note that that Bernini’s design, especially with the raised tail, is a unique departure from Bernini’s visual inspiration for this project: an image from a fifteenth-century novel Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which shows the elephant with a lowered, not raised, tail).

It is interesting to me that this anecdote has held such popularity over the years (with origins going back to the 17th century), even though there isn’t a historical document to support this story about Paglia and Bernini.5 (I really appreciate that someone on Wikipedia is trying to set the story straight through a lengthy footnote.) In some ways, the story reminds me a bit of the myth that I mentioned in a previous post, in which Bernini’s sculpted figure of Rio de la Plata is shielding its gaze from Borromini’s church Sant’Agnese.

Regardless of the historical circumstances surrounding the creation of the elephant, it has captured the attention and admiration of many people over time. (Today, the elephant is affectionately known by the nickname “Minerva’s Chick” (“Pulcino della Minerva”) which is due to a mispronunciation of an earlier nickname “Minerva’s Piggy” (“Porcino della Minerva”), that alluded to the stout body of the elephant.) The Surrealist Salvador Dali was apparently inspired by the imagery of an elephant carrying an obelisk on its back, and utilized that motif in Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening (1944) and The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1946).

Salvador Dali, "Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening," 1944.

Salvador Dali, “Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening,” 1944.

Salvador Dali, "The Temptation of Saint Anthony," 1946.

Salvador Dali, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” 1946.

I haven’t found any written information about Dali mentioning his interest in Bernini’s monument or in Bernini in general (if you know of anything, please share). But, given the context of Dali’s interest in dream-like imagery and the might-as-well-be-a-dream anecdote surrounding Bernini’s own monument, I think the elephants in these paintings are pretty appropriate.

1 Guiseppe Paglia was the historically-documented director for this project outside Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Pergola’s alleged designs for the monument are mentioned in great detail in this popular anecdote, explaining that his monument would have included the six Chigi mountains (part of Alexander VII’s family crest). However, no historical sources describe this design. It is important to note that Alexander VII makes no mention of Paglia’s design in his journal. See Katie Blake, p. 8.

2 On the side of the monument facing east includes an inscription (translated into English): “Let every beholder of the images, engraven by the wise Egyptian and carried by the elephant – the strongest of beasts – reflect this lesson: Be of strong mind, uphold solid Wisdom.” The side of the monument facing west includes this inscription (translated into English): “In the year of Salvation 1667, Alexander VII dedicated to Divine Wisdom this ancient Egyptian obelisk, a monument of Egyptian Pallas, torn from the earth and erected in what was formerly the forum of Minerva, and is now that of the Virgin who gave birth to God.” See Katie Blake, The Elephant and the Obelisk essay, p. 7.

3 For a detailed discussion of the obelisk as a symbol of Holy Wisdom, see Blake, p. 8-9.

4 For more information regarding this anecdote, see Blake, p. 8-9.

5 It seems this anecdote originated at the end of the 17th century, when Cardinal Lodovico Sergardi, a satirist, circulated a two-line epigram. Therein, he elephant tells the Dominicans that the position of his rear end conveys “where I hold you in my esteem.” See  Ingrid Rowland, ‘The Friendship of Alexander VII and Athanasius Kircher, 1637-1667′ in Early Modern Rome: Proceedings of a Conference Held on May 13–15, 2010 in Rome, ed. Portia Prebys [Ferrara: Edisai, 2011], pp. 669-78.

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Chuck Close and Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock, "Sea Change," 1947. Artist and commercial oil paint, with gravel, on canvas, 57 7/8 x 44 1/8 in. (147 x 112.1 cm). Seattle Art Museum

Jackson Pollock, “Sea Change,” 1947. Artist and commercial oil paint, with gravel, on canvas, 57 7/8 x 44 1/8 in. (147 x 112.1 cm). Seattle Art Museum

Tonight I learned an interesting connection between Chuck Close, Jackson Pollock, and the Seattle Art Museum. In a 2008 interview, Close explained that at an early age, he was influenced by Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Close said, “I went to the Seattle Art Museum with my mother for the first time when I was eleven. I saw this Jackson Pollock drip painting with aluminum paint, tar, gravel and all that stuff. I was absolutely outraged, disturbed. It was so far removed from what I thought art was. However, within two or three days, I was dripping paint all over my old paintings. In a way I’ve been chasing that experience ever since.”1

I can’t find an indication of which Jackson Pollock painting Chuck Close saw, but I think that there is a chance that it might have been Sea Change by Jackson Pollock (1947, shown above). This painting was acquired by the Seattle Art Museum in 1958, but previously it was exhibited in 1955 at the SAM in a show called “Contemporary Trends in International Art” (April 7 – May 1, 1955). Since there is some uncertainty as to Chuck Close’s exact age when he saw a Pollock painting in the Seattle Art Museum (see first footnote), I want to propose that Sea Change is a viable possibility for the painting that influenced Close so much, even though Close would have been almost fifteen years old at the time (not eleven).

When Chuck Close was eighteen, Sea Change (1947, shown above) entered the Seattle Art Museum’s permanent collection as a gift from Peggy Guggenheim. A fascinating side note: I found an fascinating transcript of the oral history of Edward B. Thomas, who used to work as a curator for the Seattle Art Museum. Thomas recounts his involvement in the museum’s acquisition of the painting Sea Changby Jackson Pollock. The painting was given to the museum as a gift from the art collector Peggy Guggenheim, under some very unusual circumstances. In essence, Edward Thomas was invited to dinner at Peggy Guggenheim’s palazzo in Venice, along with another dinner guest who appears to have been overbearing and rude. As a result, Peggy took a shine to the curator from Seattle, and at the end of the evening offered to let him select one of the Jackson Pollock paintings from her collection as a gift! Perhaps the Edward Thomas was drawn to selecting this Pollock, since it had just exhibited in Seattle a few years before? It seems likely to me.

Even if Sea Change wasn’t the painting that influenced Close as an adolescent, it is certain that Chuck Close would have seen this Pollock when it entered the museum collection. Close went to college in the Seattle area and even exhibited at a show for Northwest artists at the SAM in 1959.2

I feel like Jackson Pollock’s influence perhaps wasn’t keenly present in the middle of Close’s career, when he focused on creating hyperrealistic portraits like Mark (1978-79). However, I think in more recent decades the painterly quality of his portraits, which include swaths and swirls of color, could perhaps tap into Close’s early interest in Pollock:

Chuck Close, "Emma," 2000. Oil on canvas

Chuck Close, “Emma,” 2000. Oil on canvas

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about Close’s change in style during his later years, which in some ways can relate to the fact that he is now bound to a wheelchair and suffers from a partially-mobile painting hand. And now, while considering Close’s interest in Jackson Pollock, I like to think that Close is somehow indirectly inspired by his predecessor’s “action painting” more than ever, despite his own recent limitations in physical mobility. Go Chuck!

1 Phong Bui, “Chuck Close with Phong Bui,” The Brooklyn Rail, July 7, 2008. Available online: http://brooklynrail.org/2008/06/art/chuck-close-with-phong-bui. Elsewhere, another online source indicates that Close was fourteen (not eleven) when he saw the Pollock paintings, whereas another biography indicates Close probably saw the Jackson Pollock in 1953 (when he was thirteen).

2 Robert Storr, Chuck Close, Kirk Varnedoe, Deborah Wye, Chuck Close (New York: The Museum of Museum of Modern Art, 1998), p. 203. Available online HERE.

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Unkempt Artists

Photograph of Antoni Guardi, March 15, 1878. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Lately I’ve been listening to episodes of the podcast Stuff You Missed in History ClassEarlier this week I listened to an episode on the architect Antoni Gaudi (shown in his younger years above), who is best known for buildings like Casa Milà, and the yet-unfinished church La Sagrada Familia. In the latter part of the podcast, I was surprised to hear about the circumstances surrounding Gaudi’s death. As Gaudi became older in age, he began to care less about his personal appearance and looked rather disheveled, albeit that he devoted care and attention to his work project at La Sagrada Familia. (Gaudi also appears to have been camera-shy during his later years, because I couldn’t find any photographs of him in such a disheveled state!).

After leaving the La Sagrada Familia work site on June 7, 1926, Gaudi was struck by a tram. Due to his disheveled appearance, people at the scene did not recognize the famous architect and the taxi drivers refused to drive a vagabond to the hospital. (The taxi drivers were subsequently fined.) Since Gaudi was not immediately helped (and also was ultimately taken to a pauper’s hospital), by the time he was found by his friends he was in very poor condition. He died three days after the accident, on June 10, 1926. His funeral was a very large affair in the city of Barcelona, and he was buried in the crypt of La Sagrada Familia.

If Gaudi had not been mistaken for a vagabond, perhaps he could have received better medical attention and his life would have been spared! What a tragedy!

This story made me think about other instances in which artists have been described as unkempt or disheveled in their appearance, including those Renaissance artists written about by Vasari. I realize that by writing this post I am fostering the “artist-genius” construct in a way (in the sense that these artists are creative nonconformists who care more about the appearance of their art than their own appearance), but it still is interesting to consider. Here are a few particular examples that I wanted to highlight:

  • Parmigianino: Vasari writes that Parmigianino’s obsession with alchemy affected the artist’s personal appearance, “changing [him] from a dainty and gentle person into an almost savage man with long and unkempt beard and locks, a creature quite different from his other self.”
  • Vasari writes that Gherardi was very unconcerned about his personal appearance, who would wear his cloak inside out or two different types of shoes. When Duke Cosimo de Medici questioned Gherardi on his inside-out cloak, Gherardi, responded, “…but let your Excellency look at what I paint and not my manner of dressing.”2 The Duke responded by sending Gherardi a reversible cloak, so the cloak could never be inside-out!
  • Perhaps given Van Gogh’s emotional health issues, it is unsurprising that this artist is described as unkempt. However, I was interested to learn that Van Gogh seemed to deliberately dress in an unkempt fashion. I was about to write that is seems contradictory for one to consciously try to appear unkempt, but upon second thought, it seems like a lot of fashion trends strive for just that effect!
Moritz Nahr, Gustav Klimt in front of the entrance to his studio at Josefstädter Strasse 21, 1912.

Moritz Nahr, Gustav Klimt in front of the entrance to his studio at Josefstädter Strasse 21, 1912.

  • Gustave Klimt is described as having a long, disheveled beard. It seems fairly groomed in the photograph above, but I wanted to draw attention to the floor-length smock that Klimt would typically wear when he was painting in his studio (see above). Perhaps Klimt was not as disheveled and unkempt as some of other artists mentioned here, but his mode of dress was a little bizarre, to say the least (especially since he typically did not wear anything else underneath the smock!). Oddly, he posed for many photographs dressed in this smock, including one of him in a boat!.

What other artists do you know of that are described as unkempt or disheveled in their appearance?

1 See Paul Barolsky, Why Mona Lisa Smiles and Other Tales by Vasari (Penn State Press, 2010), p. 28. Available online HERE.

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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.