Category

20th century

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 help 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?

— 3 Comments

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.

— 2 Comments

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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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.