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contemporary art

Fragonard’s “The Swing” and “Portrait of a Lady”

Fragonard, "The Swing," 1766. Oil on canvas. Wallace Collection

Fragonard, “The Swing,” 1767. Oil on canvas. Wallace Collection

Tonight I am feeling very sheepish. About three or four months ago, a student mentioned to me that Fragonard’s The Swing served as a point of inspiration for “Portrait of a Lady.” I found a copy of Henry James’ novel The Portrait of a Lady a few days later. Now, after reading 660+ pages and finishing the book, I was left rather confused as to what my student meant, so I went online to read some commentary. Only then did I realize that my student was referring to William Carlos Williams’ poem “Portrait of a Lady” and not the Henry James novel! I don’t regret reading lengthy book at all, but I feel less confused and won’t try to dwell on which suitors are courting Isabel Archer (or perhaps Pansy?) in this Fragonard painting anymore!

Instead, the William Carlos Williams poem has very direct references to Rococo art and painters. This is the poem, which was first published in The Dial in 1920:

Your thighs are apple trees

whose blossoms touch the sky.

Which sky? The sky where Watteau hung a lady’s slipper.

Your knees are a southern breeze — or

a gust of snow. Agh! what

sort of a man was Fragonard?

— As if that answered

anything. –Ah, yes. Below

the knees, since the tune drops that way, it is one of those white summer days,

the tall grass of your ankles

flickers upon the shore —

Which shore?

Agh, petals maybe. How

should I know?

Which shore? Which shore?

–the petals from some hidden

apple tree — Which shore?

I said petals from an apple tree.

I’ve been reading commentary, scholarly interpretations, and watching a short lecture segment (though disregard some of the art historical commentary in the video, since it is a bit inaccurate) on this poem, and thinking about how this poem encapsulates the difficulties of poetic words and conventions in terms of expression. The poem seems to show the problems which poets can face, especially since there are two voices which interrupt the flow of the expressive content. There are even other exclamations which disrupt the flow, too: the first “agh!” may have been exclaimed when the speaker realized that he meant to say “Fragonard” instead of “Watteau” when first referencing to the artist of The Swing.1

Given the historical context of his poem and how the disjointed style of the poem is interpreted as a precursor to postmodernism, interesting to me that these two Rococo artists were mentioned. Watteau is the earlier of the two artists, and he really served as a pioneer for the Rococo style. On one hand, Watteau’s art can be interpreted as expressing conflicting emotions and voices (the subject matter of his artistic output is associated with pleasure and sadness, perhaps typified in his comedia dell’art painting Italian Players from 1720), which parallels the disjointed and interrupted conversation of the speakers in the poem.2 Watteau also was a bit of a radical artist for his time, since his “fete galante” paintings of the aristocracy did not fit the conventional requirements for academic history paintings, and this unconventional approach to art mirrors the unconventional form of disjointed expression in Williams’ poem.3

Fragonard, detail of "The Swing," 1767. Oil on canvas. Wallace Collection

Fragonard, detail of “The Swing,” 1767. Oil on canvas. Wallace Collection

Obviously, Williams was considering the themes like love and eroticism when he made a reference to Fragonard’s The Swing, since a woman is accompanied by two suitors and she kicks off her shoe (and reveals what is underneath her dress) at the suitor who is hidden in the bushes. Fragonard is a later Rococo artist who followed in Watteau’s wake, and I think his socially-accepted painting style and traditional career don’t have the same parallels to the radical style of poetry that Williams used. However, from a compositional standpoint, I like how compositional lines meander through the painting (such as the branch which zig-zags in the upper left corner, see above); these visual lines complement the nonlinear, back-and-forth voices presented in the poem.

Yinka Shonibare, The Swing (after Fragonard)', 2001. Tate Modern

Yinka Shonibare, “The Swing (after Fragonard),” 2001. Tate Modern

Really, I think the best work of art today that encompasses Williams’ poem is Yinka Shinobare’s installation “The Swing (after Fragonard)” from the Tate Modern. Since the Fragonard painting has become iconic, Shinobare’s composition is familiar to the viewer but also strange: the tree lacks a trunk and the principal subject lacks a head. This familiar-and-strange reaction is similar to what is conveyed through Williams’ poem, since the poem attempts to reference the traditional language of poetry (like using a metaphor about an apple tree), but the metaphors are intentionally used in an ineffective way. Since Shinobare intentionally omits aspects of Fragonard’s composition, this disjointed appearance mirrors the disjointed flow of Williams’ poem.

Shinobare detail

Yinka Shonibare, detail of “The Swing (after Fragonard),” 2001. Tate Modern

The skin of Shinobare’s model is also dark and she wears a print that references African textiles which have a complex global history regarding colonial production and international consumption. These references to the complexities of globalization and visually acknowledging multiple voices seems to be a fitting parallel with how Williams’ poem is seen in relation to postmodernism – a movement which accepts the multiplicities of meanings and perspectives.

Do you see any other parallels between Williams’ poem and either the Fragonard painting or Shinobare’s installation?

1 See Thomas Dilworth, “On ‘Portrait of a Lady,'” The Explicator 56.2 (Winter 1998). Available online: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/williams/lady.htm

2 For more information on how Watteau’s art is associated with conflicting emotions and interpretations, see Linda Walsh, “Subjects, Society, Style: Changing Evaluations of Watteau and His Art” in The Changing Status of the Artist by Emma Barker, Nick Webb, and Kim Woods (Open University Press, 1999), 220-248.

3 Ibid., 235-238.

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Kehinde Wiley and William Morris

My different art experiences are colliding this week in an unusual way. This past weekend I went and saw the exhibition Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic at the Seattle Art Museum. And then, just today I taught my students about some of the designs that appear in William Morris’s wallpaper. When I got home this afternoon, I began to think about how some of William Morris’s work is referenced in a few of Kehinde Wiley’s paintings that I saw on display.

Kehinde Wiley, "St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness," 2013

Kehinde Wiley, “St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness” from “The World Stage: Jamaica series 2013

For example, the background design in Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness is clearly referencing a William Morris print of birds and irises. As someone who loves William Morris’s designs, I would have liked to have seen this references explored a little more clearly. A review of this same exhibition from last year (when it was at the Brooklyn Museum of Art) also suggested that mentioning the origins of the backgrounds in Wiley’s paintings would strengthen the show.

Kehinde Wiley, "Mrs. Siddons from the series 'An Economy of Grace,'" 2012. Oil on canvas

Kehinde Wiley, Mrs. Siddons from the series ‘An Economy of Grace,'” 2012. Oil on canvas

The reference to William Morris was most clearly pointed out to me in the portrait of Mrs. Siddons; the pattern is clearly inspired by the Blackthorn block-printed wallpaper that Morris designed in 1882.

IMG_1882

Kehinde Wiley, “Mrs. Siddons from the series ‘An Economy of Grace,'” 2012. Oil on canvas

It seems like there are several reasons for why Kehinde Wiley chooses to reference William Morris’s designs in some of his paintings. On one hand, Wiley’s compositions and designs are trying to draw awareness to the realm of history and art history, not only with the decorative motifs but the way the figure is represented (the female figure’s position which looks away from the viewer reminds me of depictions of the penitent Magdalene by George de la Tour).

In past centuries, fine art was typically associated with white Europeans and refinement. Wiley wants to challenge the idea that fine art and statements of cultural refinement are limited to a specific race; he does this by referencing European artistic traditions in his portraits of black people. To help emphasize his point, Wiley draws inspiration from Morris’s wallpaper designs, since they are associated with taste and the high-quality production surrounding the Arts & Crafts movement. In the exhibition catalog for this show, Annie Paul explains that Wiley creates “decorative backgrounds [which are] inspired by the English designer William Morris, who wove images from botany and zoology into intricate patterns signifying taste and discrimination.”It seems like Wiley occasionally uses Morris’s designs to reference English history and colonialism, too. For example, the inclusion of a Morris print in St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness (shown above) references the past colonial presence of the English in Jamaica.

So, Kehinde Wiley’s portraits of black figures, which contain visual references to European history and European art, call for attention and help to create a new vision of contemporary black identity and presence. Holland Cotter, in reviewing a 2005 exhibition of Wiley’s work, asserted as much by saying that Wiley “is a history painter. . . . By this I mean that he creates history as much as tells it.”2

And what would William Morris think about his imagery being utilized in this way? I think that he would be quite pleased: Morris was a socialist who wanted to bring about a change in the art world and society. William Morris felt like the arts, particularly the decorative arts, “were ‘sick’ as a consequence of the split between intellectual and mechanical work that occurred during the Renaissance.”3 Perhaps in a similar vein, Kehinde Wiley seeks to bind together racial divides and “heal” stereotypical assumptions about what constitutes art and portraiture.

So when Wiley’s paintings are considered in terms of social unity, Morris’s designs are very appropriate. Art historian Caroline Arscott has analyzed Morris’s designs in relation to the social climate of his day, finding that the designs “imagine an overcoming of social contradictions in an allegory performed ‘through the twists and turns of plants.’ In this way his aesthetic stands as a powerful equivalent for the recovered wholeness of men and women, of their relations to their fellows and to nature.”4 In many ways, Wiley is also suggesting similar themes of “wholeness” by binding different cultures together within his paintings. It isn’t surprising, then, that Wiley is inspired by designs of plants which repeatedly interconnect, wind, and bind themselves to each other.

1 Holland Cotter, “Art in Review: Kehinde Wiley,” New York Times, December 9, 2005.

2 Eugenie Tsai, ed., Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic (New York: Brooklyn Museum, 2015), 146. 

3 Steve Edwards, “Victorian Britain: From Images of Modernity to the Modernity of Images,” in Art and Visual Culture 1850-2010 by Steve Edwards and Paul Wood, eds. (London: Tate Publishing 2012), p. 81.

4 Ibid., 81.

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Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Inopportune: Stage One”

Cai Guo-Qiang, "Inopportune: Stage One" (2004). Current display at Seattle Art Museum

Cai Guo-Qiang, “Inopportune: Stage One” (2004). Current display at Seattle Art Museum

Last Friday, when I heard about the terrorist attacks in Paris, I couldn’t help but think of Cai Guo-Qiang’s Inopportune: Stage One (2004) which is on display in the Seattle Art Museum. Guo-Qiang first created this installation in 2004 for the Mass MoCA (it also was displayed at the Guggenheim in 2008). Nine Ford Taurus cars are laid out in a sequence, but the overall effect is to give the suggestion of one car that is flipping through the air (although time is standing still, so the viewer sees “freeze frame” shots of the car suspended). The first and the ninth car are placed on the ground, suggesting the beginning and end of motion, as well as the beginning and ending of an event: the exploding of a car bomb.

Cai Guo-Qiang, "Inopportune: Stage One" (2004). View of 2004 installation at MASS MoCA

Cai Guo-Qiang, “Inopportune: Stage One” (2004). View of 2004 installation at Building 5 of MASS MoCA

Lights emanate from most of the cars, but the colors change as the cars flip through the air. The first few cars have lights from all different colors, which have been compared to fireworks.1 (As a Chinese artist, perhaps Guo-Qiang is connecting to his heritage by alluding to Chinese fireworks.) However, the last few cars (numbers seven and eight in the sequence) emanate different colors: blue, indigo, and purple. (I actually prefer the Mass MoCA installation setup for this reason, because you can best see how the colors of the lights change.) These colors suggest that the impact and heat of the bomb are dying out, as the explosion ends.

Guo-Qiang is a New Yorker, and he was deeply impacted by the terrorist attacks September 11, 2001. Inopportune: Stage One is a reference to 9-11 and also a reference to the world as it exists today (as the result of the events of 9-11).2 So, when I heard about the attacks in Paris, I couldn’t help but think of how this installation embodies the turmoil and upset that is still taking place because of terrorism. I also feel like this installation also can embody an element of hope and perspective too, since the cars and lights are suspended and presented in a beautiful and lyrical way:

“We live in a world full of terror, of discussion and fear of terror. However, if you present only that, you are not providing a perspective. What if it is also something that is very beautiful and dreamlike? Does that reflect something? I always come back to this point: that art ought not to just restate what we know and how we live, it must provide a perspective, a distance.”3 – Cai Guo-Qiang

Ironically, I received notification just this afternoon that Inopportune: Stage One is going to be taken down from its permanent installation in the Brotman Forum at the Seattle Art Museum, starting soon after the beginning of the new year (January 2016). I’m torn about this decision, especially since I feel like the sentiment behind this installation, both in referencing terror and spreading beauty, is more poignant and needed than ever.

This evening, though, I wondered if maybe the visuals of this installation need to be altered to fit with today’s situation. I heard a segment on the radio saying that in years to come, we may look back and say that “The War on Terrorism 1″ began in 2001 with an American initiative, and that “The War on Terrorism 2″ began right now, in 2015, with the European response. Sadly, time will tell if this is the case. But this makes me wonder if a new installation of Inopportune would be appropriate, with perhaps Renault or Citroën cars suspended in the air.

1 Seattle Art Museum, “Inopportune: Stage One.” Accessed November 18, 2015. http://www1.seattleartmuseum.org/eMuseum/code/emuseum.asp?style=single&currentrecord=1&page=search&profile=objects&searchdesc=Number%20is%202006.1&searchstring=Number/,/is/,/2006.1/,/0/,/0

2 Ibid.

3 Guggenheim Museum, “Cai Guo-Qiang, I Want to Believe.” Accessed November 18, 2015. http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/education/school-educator-programs/teacher-resources/arts-curriculum-online?view=item&catid=727&id=93

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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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Wayne Thiebaud and Jim Gaffigan

Wayne Thiebaud, "Three Donuts," 1994. Oil on canvas, 11 x 24 in. (27.9 x 35.6 cm.)

Wayne Thiebaud, “Three Donuts,” 1994. Oil on canvas, 11 x 24 in. (27.9 x 35.6 cm.)

I’ve been thinking about Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings today, mostly because I have eaten way too many chocolate doughnuts over the past few days. Thiebaud doesn’t have as many paintings of doughnuts as he does of cakes and other sweets, but he does have a few (such as the one shown above, or this one of doughnuts and cupcakes).

The thing that I love most about Thiebaud’s paintings of desserts is his handling of the paint itself. Thiebaud applies the paint thickly; it almost feels like he’s painting with frosting itself (see detail below). The desserts have a true sense of tactility, which I think makes them seem even more desirable as tasty treats! (I guess it’s a good thing that Cookie Monster didn’t see a Thiebaud painting in when he visited art museums in New York earlier this year, or he would have tried to eat it!)

Wayne Theibaud, detail "Folsom Street Fair Cake," Crocker Art Museum, 2013. Image courtesy torbakhopper via Flickr and Creative Commons License

Wayne Theibaud, detail “Folsom Street Fair Cake,” Crocker Art Museum, 2013. Image courtesy torbakhopper via Flickr and Creative Commons License

Thinking about Wayne Thiebaud has also reminded me of Jim Gaffigan’s standup comedy, which often is about his love of delicious-yet-unhealthy food. Gaffigan must not have been aware of Thiebaud’s art before he made his joke about artists and still life paintings. This is what Gaffigan says in his show Obsessed about fruit (a healthy type of food that he dislikes!):

“…we haven’t wanted [to eat] fruit for hundreds of years. That’s why there’s so many paintings in museums of just bowls of fruit. Because you could start painting a bowl of fruit, you could leave for a couple of days, come back, and no one would have touched the bowl of fruit. But if you’re painting a doughnut? You better finish it up in the first sitting! You can’t even take a bathroom break – ‘Hey, what happened to my doughnut?’ Your friends are [like], ‘Oh, some fat guy came in here! Anyway, I’m going to get some milk and take a nap.’ That’s why there’s no doughnut art. It’s sad, really. When’s the last time you saw a painting of a doughnut?” (Audio clip of Obsessed found HERE, starting at 2:34).

To be fair though, it’s good to acknowledge that Wayne Thiebaud paints his doughnuts and cakes “from his imagination and from long-ago memories of bakeries and diners.”1  So, maybe Thiebaud just likes to eat doughnuts and cakes too, and he doesn’t have the patience to study them! Thiebaud does, however, also paint from life: he paints human figures (such as his wife Betty Jean, who is shown on the left in Two Kneeling Figures), and also sketches California landscapes outdoors and then returns to his studio to paint.

Anyhow, do you know of other images of doughnuts, cakes or other treats in art, besides those by Thiebaud? I thought of a few:

1 Cathleen McGuigan, “Wayne Thiebaud Is Not a Pop Artist!” Smithsonian (Feburary 2011). Available online: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/wayne-thiebaud-is-not-a-pop-artist-57060/?no-ist

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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.