Saturday, October 27, 2012

Oh no! Computer issues!

My laptop is out of commission for a few days. Please accept this Dalí as a consolation.

Salvador Dalí, Freud's Perverse Polymorph (Bulgarian Child Eating a Rat), 1939
© 2012 Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí,  Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

A full post on Salvador Dalí will be up in the next day or four!

(Happy Halloween!)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Merle's Logs

I’m going to a Halloween party tonight, and in honor of the spooky season, I chose a spooky work of art. 

Hugues Merle, Une Folle (The Lunatic of Étretat), 1871, oil on canvas, 152.7 x 99.4 cm.

Actually, it’s several works of art. On the advice of his dealers, the artist Hugues Merle often did smaller versions, or “reductions,” of his paintings to sell commercially. I’m showing you the Chrysler Museum’s version because it has the best photograph and is most likely the original. There’s also a reduction (92.7 x 67.3 cm) at the Arnot Art Museum in Elmira, New York, and two other paintings that have four kids standing around gawking. I don’t like the version with the kids as much. The woman’s hair is too flat, and Merle replaced the forest clearing with an amorphous mass of green and blue. Most of all, I miss the sense of isolation.

Not as good.

I’ve only seen Une Folle in person at the Arnot Art Museum. Although their version is smaller, it’s almost identical to the Chrysler’s in every other way. Except the name. I’m using Une Folle as an overarching title, but all of the paintings were known by several different names in the past and still go by different names now. The Chrysler calls their version The Lunatic of Étretat while Arnot just calls theirs The Lunatic. Other titles include La Folle, Pauvre Folle, Carmella, Pauvre Folle, Lunatique à Étretat, Poor Fool, Carmella, Poor Fool, A Crazy Woman, and A Mad Woman. It’s super confusing.

Anyway, Hugues Merle is an example of what today’s art historians sneeringly refer to as “Academic" artists. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts under Léon Cogniet (whose painting Scène du Massacre des Innocents was a huge influence), and was honored at the official Paris Salon on multiple occasions. He even exhibited Une Folle (most likely the large Chrysler version) at the Salon of 1873. Although Merle often painted sentimental mother/child scenes, he was also known for his depictions of the downtrodden.

Now, Merle’s been almost completely forgotten, overshadowed by his rival William-Adolphe Bouguereau. I feel for Merle. If the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel hadn’t introduced the two artists and suggested Bouguereau paint more like Merle, Bouguereau may not have been remembered at all. I, for one, don’t think any of Bouguereau’s works manage to capture Merle’s level of emotional desolation. I’ll talk about the one that comes closest in a later post.

Back to why I like Une Folle. It’s weird. The woman has a bonnet-wearing log all wrapped up nice and cozy in a blanket! She’s like the log lady from Twin Peaks, but better.

The Log Lady from Twin Peaks

Beyond that though, she looks so powerful. The way she clutches the log to her chest and stares out at the viewer with those big, shadowy eyes makes it look like she’s daring us to challenge her. And the Classic pose reveals dignity amidst delusion. It reminds me of that windy, dark, eerily lit moment just before a storm. It makes me feel giddy and energized. Like I should jump into the air and fly around on a broomstick.

I tried doing some research into the subject matter, but I hit a dead end. I want to know who the woman is and what happened to her to make her the way she is. Since some of the titles refer to her as Carmella, I thought maybe it had something to do with the J. Sheridan Le Fanu novella. But no.  It turns out that's just a vampire story. No logs.

I’m also curious to know who the model is. Either Merle makes all women look the same, or he painted her over and over.

Who is she?!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Van Gogh "Mini" Post

While I was researching my last post on van Gogh’s Crabs, I came across some information on another work I felt like sharing. It’s called Sorrow and was done in 1882. After reading a bit about it, I found it really is quite sorrowful.

There are a number of different versions of Sorrow. My favorite is the chalk drawing in the New Art Gallery Walsall in the UK. Its lines are more angular, and it has an even stronger graphic quality than the lithographs. Plus I love the detailed setting. You can certainly see van Gogh’s interest in Japanese prints.

Chalk, 44.5 x 7 cm.
Lithograph, 46.7 x 37.1 cm.
Pencil and wash, 46.7 x 30.2 cm.

Anyway, I found myself admiring the woman's stomach rolls. They make the piece seem so grounded and down to earth. At the same time though, the title and subject of the piece made me think the woman was more or less destitute, and as stereotype tells us, all poor people back in the day were nothing but skin and bones. So I figured that maybe she was pregnant.

It turns out she was. Her name was Clasina Maria Hoornik and she was 32 years old. When van Gogh came across her wandering the streets of the Hague with her 5-year-old daughter in January 1882, she had been abandoned by her unborn baby’s father, was working as a seamstress and a prostitute, smoked cigars, and drank too much. Van Gogh called her “Sien” and took her into his home. In exchange, she became his model.

In July, Sien gave birth to a son and named him Willem, which, incidentally, is van Gogh's middle name. Van Gogh loved Sien and his new family. In a letter to his brother Theo, he even talked about marriage. But the couple had a hard life. Because of their relationship, van Gogh became estranged from nearly all of his family and friends. On top of that, the little household was extremely poor, Sien was typically sick, and at the time Willem was born, van Gogh was recovering from the clap (which he probably got from Sien). By 1883, Sien had gone back to prostitution and drinking.

In the fall, van Gogh left Sien and the only domestic relationship he would ever have. Sien’s life continued to be unstable. While she married a man in 1901 to to legitimize her children, she had given them up to their grandmother and uncle. In 1904, she drowned herself in the Schelde River.


Saturday, October 13, 2012

Vincent's Crabs

Let’s start out easy, with an artist almost everyone is familiar with:

Vincent van Gogh

While I could have chosen this . . . or this . . .

or this, or this, or this . . .

I chose Two Crabs, a relatively little known work most scholars think was painted in 1889.

Two Crabs, 1889, oil on canvas, 47 x 61cm.

I first saw Two Crabs while in London visiting the National Gallery in 2007. While it was a small piece surrounded by legendary Post-Impressionist paintings, its intense color and careful sense of modeling pulled me in. I spent the rest of my visit lurking behind a group of toddlers who had plopped themselves down in front of the object of my desire.

Since then, I’ve done some research into the history of the painting and have come to have a deeper appreciation of the insights it offers into van Gogh’s life and emotional state. While some scholars, perhaps correctly, believe van Gogh painted Two Crabs between 1887 and 1888, I’m going to stick with the 1889 date because it makes for a better story. Plus, there are letters and possible Japanese influences that suggest 1889 anyway.

But to get to Two Crabs’s significance, we need to back up a little first. Van Gogh had spent the last months of 1888 living and working with fellow Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin. He had hopes of founding a utopian artists’ collective, but his health and relationship with Gauguin quickly deteriorated. In December, he was taken to the Arles hospital after what I will only refer to as “the Ear Incident.” (“The Ear Incident” is a whole ‘nother story, shrouded in legend. I’ll leave you to look it up on your own.)

We think van Gogh painted Two Crabs right after his release from this hospital. He’d gone through a traumatic experience, but, as he explained in a letter to his brother Theo, he was ready to “get back into the habit of painting.”

It’s this transition period that Two Crabs captures so well. Its composition is made up of vibrant hatching brushstrokes that fancy-shmancy art history people call “taches.” The crabs’ crisp edges and van Gogh’s juxtaposition of complementary colors make it seem like the scene could move. The green, sea-like background undulates while the upper crab flails its legs. With the ground tipped almost vertically, the crabs look like they could tumble out of the painting at any second. Whether intentional or not, van Gogh was in effect illustrating his own tumultuous and uncertain situation at the time.

Crab on its Back, 1888, oil on canvas, 38 x 46.5cm.

That a similar painting exists showing only one crab suggests that van Gogh may have painted the crabs in Two Crabs from the same model. With this in mind, the painting's message could be hope for the future. On top, the crab, like van Gogh, struggles to get on its feet again. On the bottom, it has recovered itself, overcoming its recent crisis.

Friday, October 12, 2012


For the past few months, I’ve been reading old art history textbooks, identifying artists that interest me, and exploring the works they produce. I’ve then systematically selected my favorite pieces, eventually witling away at the competition until only one is left to represent each artist.

Until now, these images have languished on my hard drive in a folder named “1perArtist.” But why not share them? I started this project as a way to continue learning after completing my formal education. So let’s learn together.

Each week I'll focus on a different artist and share one work of art that particularly appeals to me. I can’t promise you’ll always agree with my selections, but I hope you’ll enjoy the time we spend together. I encourage you to comment, share your own favorites, or request specific artists.