Jackson Pollock’s “Sea Change”

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), Gift of Signora Peggy Guggenheim to the 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), Gift of Signora Peggy Guggenheim to the Seattle Art Museum

Lately I’ve had some opportunities to study and think about Jackson Pollock’s painting Sea Change (1947, above) at the Seattle Art Museum. This painting is fascinating to me for several reasons, including its interesting history regarding how it was gifted to the Seattle Art Museum by Peggy Guggenheim. I also like the painting from a visual perspective: I like to try and trace which layers of paint were placed first, although it is difficult to tell (which isn’t surprising in some ways, since Pollock would work for uninterrupted sessions of 20-30 minutes or more, but later would revisit paintings that he didn’t feel like were finished).

Detail of Jackson Pollock's  "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), Gift of Signora Peggy Guggenheim to the Seattle Art Museum

Detail of Jackson Pollock’s “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), Gift of Signora Peggy Guggenheim to the Seattle Art Museum

Some of the layers in Sea Change painting are also especially unusual, because Sea Change was completed (as a drip painting) on top of an earlier Pollock painting. Pollock’s earlier style involved more gestural strokes of paint that were directly applied with the paintbrush touching the canvas (as seen, for example, in his Mural from 1943). The Seattle Art Museum recently conserved Sea Change, and a video points out some of the areas which reveal Pollock’s original painting underneath the dripped paint. In the detail image above, you can see some bits of blue and reddish-orange paint (now serving as an underlayer to the dripped paint) that were smoothly applied with a brush.

The multiple layers of the painting are compelling to me visually, because they play with perceptions of illusionism and space. On one hand, the multiple layers appear complex, but the thickness and viscous nature of the paint simultaneously also reminds me that the layers rest (almost hover) on the flat surface of the canvas. As a result, the painting “suggests a visual space that appears infinitely deep yet shallow at the same time.”2

The thing that I also like about Sea Change is that is isn’t comprised merely of paint, but also of gravel that Jackson Pollock found at a gravel pit near his home in Long  Beach (see detail image above). Pollock often would add other materials to his paintings, “such as sand, small pieces of hardware, pebbles and string, to emphasize the ‘thingness’ of the work and to point out that the work was no mystical icon removed from the world; rather, the painting was of the world.” In other words, the gravel helps to assert that this painting, despite its lack of representational subject matter, is grounded in reality.

Namuth_jackson_Pollock_1956_1957

Hans Namuth, photograph of Jackson Pollock working in his studio, 1950

Pollock’s gestural movements also help to ground the painting in reality too, because the viewer can get a sense of Pollock’s physical exertion and real experience in creating the work of art. When creating his drip paintings, Pollock would place his canvases on the floor while he worked. This placement was intentional for Pollock, not only so that gravity could aid the paint to drip downward, but also so Pollock could sense his own physical relationship with the painting. He said, “My painting is direct. I usually paint on the floor. . . Having the canvas on the floor, I feel nearer, a part of the painting . . . similar to the Indian {Navaho] sand painters of the West.”3

Jackson Pollock, Untitled, c. 1950 Museum of Modern Art

Jackson Pollock, Untitled, c. 1950 Museum of Modern Art

Lee Krasner, an Abstract Expressionist painter who was married to Pollock, explained that Pollock painted with different tools, “using sticks and hardened or work-out brushes (which were in effect like sticks) and basting syringes . . . His control was amazing. Using a stick was difficult enough, but the basting syringe was like a giant fountain pen. With it he had to control the flow of paint as well as his gesture.” Sea Change is a very early example of a drip painting by Pollock, so it seems most likely that he was using a sticks or hardened brushes. In contrast, the basting syringes were used later by Pollock, as seen in his Untitled painting c. 1950 at the Museum of Modern Art (shown above).

What are your favorite paintings by Jackson Pollock? Do you prefer his earlier style with the smooth gestural strokes, the classic drip paintings like Sea Change, or the later “fountain pen” drip paintings that were made with the basting syringe? I like how different types of energy are conveyed through Pollock’s diverse experimentations with painting. It is unsurprising to me that he once said, “My concern is with the rhythms of nature.” After all, various forms of energy and rhythm are manifest in the world; some of them are subtle and lyrical, and others are quite explosive.

1 Michael Corris, “From Abstract Expressionism to Conceptual Art: A Survey of New York Art c. 1940-1970″ in Art and Visual Culture 1850-2010: Modernity to Globalization by Steve Edwards and Paul Woods, eds. (London: Tate Publishing, 2011), 233.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

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The Mosocophoros, Kriophoros and Early Christian Art

Moscophoros (Calf-Bearer), c. 570 BCE. Marble, height 165 cm (65 inches). Image courtesy Wikipedia via user Marsyas.

Moscophoros (Calf-Bearer), c. 550 BCE. Marble, height 165 cm (65 inches). Acropolis Museum, Althens. Image courtesy Wikipedia via user Marsyas.

When I was an undergraduate, I remember my professor casually mentioned that Early Christian imagery of Christ as the Good Shepherd was adopted syncretically from previous Greco-Roman images of a human figure who carries a sacrificial animal on its shoulders. She mentioned this point in passing when we were learning about the Moscophoros (or “Calf-Bearer,” shown above), but didn’t elaborate further. Had I asked for more details, I’m sure that she would have then explained that the Moscophoros from the Acropolis Museum couldn’t directly have influenced this Early Christian tradition (since this Moscophoros was buried under the Athenian acropolis from the 5th century BCE until the 19th century, thereby “missing out” on the Early Christian period). Instead, she must have been thinking of similar imagery found in depictions of Kriophoroi (“Ram-Bearer”) images from ancient Greece and Rome.

The Kriophoros depicts a shepherd or Hermes (specifically Hermes Kriophoros, due to an ancient tradition that Hermes carried a sacrificial lamb in order to prevent a plague in Tanagra). The Kriophoros imagery appears in a votive or commemorative context, specifically one which involves the solemn animal sacrifice a ram. Therefore, the kriophoros often can be seen as one who presents a sacrificial ram to a god or goddess. In other contexts, the kriophoros appears within pastoral imagery, and sometimes is seen as part of the imagery for the months or seasons, such as March or April (such as the Byzantine mosaic from Thebes Chalkis, which shows the Kriophoros as a personification of April).1

Not all Kriophoroi depict a figure carrying a ram over the shoulders, for the ram can also be held in figure’s the arms). However, many of them do follow the same composition with the ram being held on the shoulders, behind the neck of the male figure.

Late Roman marble copy of the Kriophoros of Kalamis. Rome, Museo Barracco

Late Roman marble copy of the Kriophoros of Kalamis, first half of the fifth century CE. Rome, Museo Barracco

Here are a few other examples of ram-over-the-shoulder Greco-Roman kriophoroi:

  • Kriophoros Statuette, Archaic Period, Crete. The Cleveland Museum of Art believes that this is an unusual example which shows the kriophoros also as a warrior.
  • Limestone Ram-Bearer, 2nd quarter of the 6th century BCE, from Kourion, sanctuary of Apollo Hylates
  • Limestone Hermes, ram-bearer Cypriot Archaic 6th century BC
  • Hermes Kriophoros – circa 5th century BC, at the Archeological Nusem, Palermo
  • Hermes Terracotta statuette, known as “Hermes Criophore,” from ancient Thebes in Attica. C 500-450 BCE, at the Louvre Museum
Christ as the Good Shepherd, first half of the 4th century, Vatican

Christ as the Good Shepherd, first half of the 4th century, at Vatican Museums

In the 3rd and 4th centuries, Early Christians adopted this imagery. However, it seems that the imagery was syncretic, meaning that the Early Christians gave the kriophoros imagery new meaning. Instead of functioning as a representation of a votive figure or an ordinary shepherd, Christians used the Kriophoros to depict Christ as a protective figure who will care for his followers (his “flock”).

Apart from the parable of the Good Shepherd that appears in the Gospel of Matthew and Gospel of Luke (New Testament), it is likely that Christians also were inspired to draw on shepherd imagery due to the Christian text, The Shepherd of Hermas written sometime around the early-to-mid 2nd century. In this text, a freed slave named Hermas is the recipient of heavenly messages, and he is guided and taught by a heavenly messenger who is dressed as a shepherd.

Christ the Good Shepherd, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, 3-4th century CE

Christ the Good Shepherd, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, 3-4th century CE

Such a protective figure was no doubt appealing to the Early Christians, who were persecuted heavily before the Edict of Milan in 313 CE. With such syncretic imagery too, the reference to Christ could easily be overlooked by a Roman who was accustomed to seeing the Kriophoros in art.

Here are a few other examples of Good Shepherd imagery influenced by kriophoroi:

Do you know of other good examples of Kriophoroi, either Greco-Roman or Early Christian?

1 David W. Jorgensen, Treasure Hidden in a Field: Early Christian Reception of the Gospel of Matthew (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter Inc), 2016, p. 124. Available online: https://books.google.com/books?id=8ucsDQAAQBAJ&lpg=PT124&ots=I7nta1T9eL&dq=kriophoros%20pastoral&pg=PT124#v=onepage&q&f=false

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Alberti’s “Istoria” and Modesty

Longtime readers of my blog may remember when I wrote a post about istoria painting and the game of hide-and-seek to find the “figure in communication” (who is looking out at or communicating with the viewer of the painting). Lately I’ve been thinking more about istorie. Out of all of Alberti’s recommendations for this special category of painting, I feel like his recommendation regarding the depiction of modesty is the most difficult for art history students to pinpoint immediately. This confusion makes sense, since the word “modesty” has many definitions:

1) The avoidance or impropriety or indecency, through one’s appearance, manner, or behavior

2) A person’s unassuming state about their abilities or appearance

3) The quality of something being relatively moderate, limited, or small in amount

In the case for Alberti, I think he was thinking of all three definitions of the word “modesty.” The first definition of modesty about impropriety may seem confusing given the popularity of the nude form in Renaissance art, but Alberti wrote:

“If it is allowed here [in the painting], there ought to be some nude and others part nude and part clothed in the painting; but always make use of shame and modesty. The parts of the body ugly to see and in the same way others which give little pleasure should be covered up with draperies, with a few fronds or the hand.”1

Vasari, "Allegory of the Immaculate Conception," 1541. Tempera on wood, 58 x 39 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Vasari, “Allegory of the Immaculate Conception,” 1541. Tempera on wood, 58 x 39 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

So, one could immediately connect this statement with censorship and modesty in relation to indecency, and perhaps Alberti does have that in mind to a degree – it seems like there is some tension in the Renaissance to resolve the desire to depict biblical figures within a classicizing, nude style. So far I haven’t found a Renaissance painting that literally applied Alberti’s recommendation to use a frond-as-a-coverup, although the figure of Truth in Botticelli’s The Calumny of Apelles (see below) covers her genitalia with a long tress of blonde hair.

Similarly, I think that Vasari’s painting, Allegory of the Immaculate Conception (shown above) could serve as an example of this consideration of modesty, since the nude figures in the foreground are twisted in a way so that there isn’t an excessive focus on their sexual organs. At the same time, though, Vasari recognizes the beauty of the nude form in this painting with the various nude, idealized angels that surround the Virgin. Similarly, Vasari’s painting Incredulity of Saint Thomas depicts Christ with an prominently-displayed idealized torso, but drapery covers the lower half of his body.

However, Alberti also seems to be thinking about “modesty” in other ways. He also continues in his text to explain:

“The ancients painted the portrait of Antigonos only from the part of the face where the eye was not lacking. It is said that Perecles’ head was long and ugly, for this reason he – unlike others – was portrayed by painters and sculptors wearing a helmet. Plutarch says that when the ancient painters depicted the kings, if there were some flaw in them which they did not wish to leave unnoticed, they ‘corrected’ it as much as they could while still keeping a likeness. Thus I desire, as I have said, that modesty and truth should be used in every istoria.”2

This explanation leads me to think that Alberti is also considering the second definition of modesty: the state of not being too proud or confident about oneself or one’s abilities. In this case, I think that Alberti is thinking about the modesty of the figures within the painting, and the self-effacing tendency of the figures to not visually showcase any feature which is exaggerated or unsightly. This self-effacing context made me think of the personification of Remorse shown in Botticelli’s istoria painting,The Calumny of Apelles (detail shown below). Remorse is depicted as an old woman, but she doesn’t showcase her old wrinkles too much for the viewer and covers much her face with a hood. Instead, Botticelli opted to cover up most of her unsightly, aged features, which perhaps visually suggests – without reading too much into the subject matter – a self-effacing characteristic that figure.

Botticelli,  detail of Truth and Remorse from "Calumny of Apelles," 1494-95. Tempera on panel, 62 x 91 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Botticelli, detail of Truth (left) and Remorse (right) from “Calumny of Apelles,” 1494-95. Tempera on panel, 62 x 91 cm.
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Finally, the context of Alberti’s writing also suggests that modesty can relate to the third definition about something that is small or limited in number. Before his discussion on modesty, Alberti writes about dignity and restraint. Although he recommends a complex composition in istoria painting (which involves a variety of figures in various poses), but at the same time also warns against excess. He explains,

“In my judgement no picture will be filled with so great a variety of things that nine or ten men are not able to act with dignity.”3

I think Botticelli’s The Calumny of Apelles also serves as a good example of limitation in number. Although Botticelli includes ten figures (not to mention all of the figures depicted as sculptures) within his painting, his composition is not overly crowded. Instead, Botticelli is able to exercise modest restraint with his composition, and showcase a variety of poses and figures while still utilizing ample areas of open space to emphasize this restrained modesty.

Botticelli, "Calumny of Apelles," 1494-95. Tempera on panel, 62 x 91 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Botticelli, “Calumny of Apelles,” 1494-95. Tempera on panel, 62 x 91 cm.
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Do you know of good examples of istorie that fit with any of these definitions and connotations of modesty? Please share!

1 Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting, 76. Available online here: https://books.google.com/books?id=sVGZtXjRXPAC&lpg=PA77&dq=alberti%20modesty%20istoria&pg=PA76#v=onepage&q&f=false

2 Ibid., 76-77.

3 Ibid., 76.

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“Oath of the Horatii” and the Nazi Salute

Jacques-Louis David, "Oath of the Horatii," 1784. Oil on canvas, 330 x 425 cm. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Jacques-Louis David, “Oath of the Horatii,” 1784. Oil on canvas, 330 x 425 cm. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Today was one of those days in which a student points out something so obvious, that I’m shocked that I’ve never considered it before. I think sometimes my eye is so trained to look for certain visual details, that I need a new pair of eyes to help me look at familiar paintings in a more objective way. That was the case today: when discussing the Oath of the Horatii in class, a student raised her hand and simply asked why the brothers have their hands raised in a gesture that looks like the Nazi salute. And now after looking at the painting, I’m embarrassed as to why I never really entertained that thought before.

Luckily, other historians have already made this connection. In 1987 Albert Boime wrote about how “the brothers stretch out their arms in a salute that has since become associated with tyranny. The “hail Caesar” of antiquity [although at the time of the Horatii a Caesar had yet to be born] was transformed into the “Heil Hitler” of the modern period. The fraternal intimacy brought about by the Horatii’s dedication to absolute principles of victory or death [and the resultant] emphasis on the destruction of all intermediate loyalties between citizen and state, and on the absolute sovereignty of state power, is closely related to the establishment of the fraternal order.”1

Furthermore, in 2009, Martin M. Winkler published a book called The Roman Salute: Cinema, History, Ideology (.pdf available online). Winkler finds that David’s painting served as the foundation point for what early 20th-century fascist governments called the “Roman salute” – even though there is no evidence that the Romans actually existed.2 (For more information, see this article on the history of the Nazi salute.)

It’s interesting to me that David’s painting would have these changing political meanings over the centuries, long after David had died. In some ways, this change in political associations is in line with David’s own career: he often would cater to whatever political group or leader was in power. As a result, David was associated with French Revolutionaries (including Robespierre during the Reign of Terror) earlier in his career, and then about a decade later, became the First Painter to Napoleon. In an unexpected way, the fluctuating political associations with the “Oath of the Horatii” gesture, especially in modern times, appropriately parallel the flexible political persona that David crafted for himself during his lifetime.

1 Albert Boime, Art in the Age of Revolution: 1750–1800 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 400-401.

2 Martin M. Winkler, The Roman Salute: Cinema, History, Ideology (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2009), 54.

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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

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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.