Sunday, July 6, 2008

Art School Confidential: Beautiful Pictures and their Assumed Secrets

Photo by Jesse Thomas

They say that the job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery. I'm a firm believer that art can do that and so much more. There are so many artists out there, so many magical pieces, and all of them have their own sweetly-tuned soul. They all shout out these messages and stories in their own unique rhythm, lulling the viewer into their work, their history, their love. Yet we can never be exactly sure what they are saying - for we all hear something different. That's the trick of it all - we as the audience get to choose what to take out of it. Sure, we could rack our brains for hours, trying desperately to pick together what the artist was really thinking, but why not believe what you want to believe? In desperation, truly great art will always speak for itself.

Yet I am still a believer in looking at art with one eye closed. You will always see something that you hadn't noticed before. So take a good look, ponder away, and hopefully fall in love with what you see. All in all, everyone loves a good mystery.

(For the facts portion of this article, I've called in a little help from my darling loverboy, Remy. As an art history major from Brooklyn/gorgeous artist himself, he really does know far more of the technical details than I do! While everything under "The Magic" was written by me, "The Facts" were written entirely by him.)

"The Frame" - Frida Kahlo (1938)
The Facts: Frida Kahlo is known for two things: Being a major female artist and having that unibrow.  It's sad to see an artist with such an epic life story diminished to a couple talking points, but unfortunately that seems to be the case here. Frida was hit by a car when she was only fifteen and sustained massive internal injuries, leaving her in a hospital for much of her life. While in a full body cast she began to paint her own experiences with love, sexuality, and pain. The vast majority of her works are self portraits, as in "The Frame", and gained her attention from Europe. It was actually this very piece that ended up in the Louvre's collection after Breton's Surrealism show in Paris. Sadly, she died in 1954 before seeing her coronation as the queen of the Neomexicanismo era.
The Magic: She was a world of electric pastels and everlasting sunsets - a place where wild parrots with feathers the color of seashores perch themselves on statues of the Virgin Mary, cawing out sonnets in broken Spanish. With poinsettias and hummingbirds in her hair, she inhaled all the beauty around her like a favorite scent brushing past in the wind and exhaled her emotions, her pain and her sorrows, onto the canvas. Life became art and art became life as she tip-toed into a world of impeccable, rosewater beauty where people became animals and animals became saints and saints became people in one tangled motion. Life/art was never simple - it was never bland. It was glorious and glowing, filled with paper skeletons and symbolic dreams, driven by heart-thumping passion and blinding love and enduring sexuality. Art beat upon her chest like a drum and played her rib-cage like a xylophone, stirring the music inside of her, pulling it out from it's bandaged body and twirling it onto the dance floor. Art threw itself upon her, and she embraced it madly. Even today, the music has never left her.

"Expectation" - Gustav Klimt (1909)
The Facts: Have you ever sold a painting for $1000? $10,000? Gustav Klimt is guaranteed to have you beat. One of his pieces sold at auction for $135 million two years ago. Klimt fought his way up from being a poor immigrant in the mid-1800's to superstar status. Paintings such as "Expectation" personify the classic mosaics and techniques of the Gold Phase. Dressed in a simple robe and sandals, Klimt would work for hours in his studio painstakingly striving to catch the beauty and eroticism he saw in the female body. But unlike many artists of his day, Klimt avoided wrapping himself up in scandals and wanted people to instead judge him from his paintings.
The Magic: The women he met, those sleepy goddesses and tangled muses in their cascading golden gowns, they were never purposefully the women he found himself dusting onto the canvas. Those modern-day Cleopatras seemed to lean over him while he sweated into his paints, tapping their gold lacquered fingers gently on his shoulders and whispering their secrets into his ear. They would tell him their entire life story while he painted, about how they were raised in Milan on tiny lavender-scented vineyards, sleeping head-to-toe in a seashell colored shack. Or how they would spend late nights staring deep into their bedroom ceiling in Vienna, seeing every little speck as a distant star filled with bright-lights and people who lived just like us, talked just like us, looked just like us. They would whisper these secrets, these baby truths, while he painted what he heard, and when they were finally done, when those femme fatale ghosts of Christmas past finally disappeared back to Italy or Austria or that faraway star, only then would he look to see what he had done.

Center Panel of "Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation Triptych" - Hans Memling (1485)
The Facts: Hans Memling is very old school. You'd be surprised how many people think that Leonardo da Vinci was the first artist and Picasso picked up the brush and continued the legacy. Lots of other artists like Memling get lost somewhere in translation. Over five hundred years ago he was creating paintings with more symbolism than even Dan Brown could come up with. Back then, the Church was the one paying most artist's rent, so they painted whatever Bishop Smith told them to. Pieces such as Memling's "Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation" were commissioned to teach the illiterate populace the dangers of letting vanity and overindulgence leading you to the bowels to Hell. No dogs for you.
The Magic: She found that they as a race were curiously fascinated with being good. Even while being bad they wanted to be good. They called out her name, howling for her in the night in highs and lows, yet when she tip-toed quietly into their lives she always seemed to find them on their knees, calling her a witch and a sinner - a scheming slip into broken glass. She would stand in their backyards and wash her hair in the moonlight or do cartwheels and front flips while their dogs yapped at her heels, forever waiting for them to make up their minds, but the madness spun wildly on - women spending coin on silk candy dresses, men spending hours gazing lazily into mirrors, both dashing wildly to that wooden steeple, shouting madly about how she was invasive, she was wicked, she was a cruel and ugly beast. Yet she never seemed to mind, amidst all the name-calling and flagellation, the confusion and the chaos.  Never once did she take it sourly, because at least she could figure out that loving oneself is never a crime.
"Self-Portrait" - Philipp Otto Runge (1802)
The Facts: You know you're an Art History major when you look up Runge and say "Oh! That's the guy that was hanging out with Friedrich!" Honestly, you'd be hard pressed to find a Romanticist with more beautiful paintings. In his short 20 years of work, Runge wanted to express the peace and harmony of nature through a fusion of painting, music, and poetry. His portraits are smooth as butter; his brushwork is a combination of feather-like edges and solid pigment. Try exploring something new today, Google him.  
The Magic: People always told him that his eyes spoke the secrets of the world. He had these indescribable eyes, the kind that made people hold their breath when they saw him, as if they were waiting for him to prove (or disprove) that he was, in fact, staring straight through them. He unwrapped people like a birthday present or a Thanksgiving turkey, pulling away the bitter dressings and peering plainly into their raw innards. Because of this, he made many strangely uncomfortable, desperately covering themselves up in any way possible. Others unwrapped themselves for him. Regardless of what they thought of his ice soaked eyes, everyone seemed to simultaneously let out that heavy breath they had been holding in for so long when he resigned himself to his studio. They chattered nervously, tittering about what he could possibly be doing in that tiny room, but no one dared a guess for unknown reasons. On that quiet rainy day when he finally did emerge, a parchment-wrapped mystery clutched under his arm, the intimidated and enthralled alike gathered in his foyer. No words were spoken. No one dared so much as a heavy breath. They simply watched, his skeleton eyes brushing the ground, as he unwrapped the freshly finished painting, brushed it off, and hung it on the wall. He trotted back to his studio, closing the doors behind him with a wistful afterthought, leaving a hushed crowd staring with such great intensity at the work before them. Though no one said it, no one felt as though his eyes could be captured any better.

"Amoureuse" - Erté (1977)
The Facts: Erté was born as Romain de Tirtoff in St. Petersburg, 1892. Rejecting a position in Russian Navy and going against his father's wishes, Romain sought to become an artist in Paris instead. He took the name Erté to avoid disgracing his family honor, never expecting to build such an illustrious career in less than five years - he signed a magazine contract by 1915 and became the king of the Art Deco period. His illustrations are easily recognized for their sharp, elegant, sophisticated nature, and "Amoureuse" is no exception. Maybe you've seen some of his designs in Ben-Hur or La Bohème?
The Magic: Although she couldn't remember when he first appeared, she could never forget him. He was right there on the tip of her tongue, giving her butterfly kisses, batting his charcoal colored lashes, or humming lullabies and love songs to her quietly in the middle of the night. He was always there, kissing away her lipstick or brushing off her rouge, telling her in poetry and prose how she didn't need the bubblegum dresses or cherry pink lips to be beautiful. He traced out constellations on her belly and spoke of Roman gods and Persian princes. They were Cupid and Psyche, counting each other's fingers and toes and speaking never as strangers. They were inseparable, indescribable, they were engorged animals howling into the night, filling their bellies with each other until she rolled off into a hazy sleep. He was never there when she awoke, disappearing like a lover's ghost or the moon into the morning sky, but she could never bring herself to mind. Because every evening, after rinsing off her rouge and unrolling her curls, looking into the mirror she always found him there.

Penelope ♥


Rie said...

This post is magical in so many ways. I would buy a book like this in a heartbeat.

Remy said...

We make a good team