Random Musings On Art

This was a mid-term I did back in school.

1. John Berger: A British art historian, published a book called Ways of Seeing. In the book he discusses how we are affected by what we know or believe. In a moment of seeming ambivalence, Berger bemoans that reproduced art loses its ‘aura’, even while conceding that the reproduced works can be used for many different things. He speaks in a positive way about this fact. Take for example Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. “Since 1980, there has been, on average, one new use found for the Mona Lisa every week: air travel (to Paris), rum, oranges, wigs, blood-testing kits, air-conditioning equipment, a dental prosthesis, the Renault Twingo, the cosmetic face mask Mudd, Marriott’s Renaissance hotels, computer equipment and the intrauterine device Mona Lisa-CU375.” ( http://www.newstatesman.com/200109240032). A reproduced work can “lend itself to them all.”
Berger’s philosophies and assertions are much more detailed and complex than what is presented here. Reading Ways of Seeing, or accessing archives of his old BBC program will reveal more of the mind of John Berger.

2. Ferdinand de Saussure: The Swiss theorist who seemed more like an anthropologist with his study of language and culture. His series of seminars regarding language is generally accepted as to have affected all cultural studies. Saussure encouraged his students to focus on the structure of language, as opposed to historical changes. One of his assertions was that there was no natural connection to the word and the object to which it was linked. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ raised more that a few eyebrows in a society rooted in Judeo-Christian values, but the very word piss is relegated to the slang and vulgar classification of most dictionaries. The only possible connection would be the sound of the act and the sound of the pronunciation. That would be a stretch though.

3. Andy Warhol: In the 1960s, some artists began to produce art based on mass media themes and subjects. Andy Warhol was part of what could be considered an avant-garde movement. His brand of expression was called “pop art”. Warhol was already a successful illustrator in commercial advertising, and from there went on to create his depictions of images of the day, such as the Campbell Soup can series, and the famous silkscreen prints of stars such as Marilyn Monroe.
The quintessence of Andy Warhol art was to remove the difference between fine arts and the commercial arts used for magazine illustrations, comic books, record albums or advertising campaigns. Warhol once expressed his philosophy in one poignant sentence:
“When you think about it, department stores are kind of like museums”. (http://www.artelino.com/articles/andy_warhol.asp).
Was he mocking us? Was he mocking the vapid commercialism of our day? I would say it could be a reasonable postulation.

4. Jacques Louis David, Oath of the Horatii: This painting was created during the “Roman culture fad” in 1784, shortly after two Roman cities, that had been buried under volcanic ash had been discovered. It depicts three brothers being seen off to war apparently by their father. The painting was embraced by Parisians as a call to fight for one’s liberty, or a call to revolution. At least that is how the French saw it. John Berger could probably expound on that analysis.
We see bi-polar opposition at work here. The three boys going off to fight the 250-pound linebacker, while the women wait at home. I suppose the women could have been sent to fight, but my guess is that the other side was sending their most vile, ghastly murderers to do the job. My money would be on the three guys. Of course the traditional roles of men as the mighty warriors and women as the passive supporters has changed over time. Sure, men are still portrayed in society as the violent mess-makers, but women are catching up. Television shows such as Charlie’s Angels, and Xena, The Warrior Princess, and movies such as Kill Bill (with super sexy murderess Uma Thurman) and Barb Wire with Pamela Anderson (remember that one?), are giving men a run for their money. More realistic films, such as Demi Moore portraying a Navy Seal closes the gap even further. The question is though, is that the gap women want to close?

5. Coatlicue: The Aztec earth goddess, was created with a snake theme, which was a source of fertility and abundance in the culture. Coatlicue was one of many Aztec gods, a practice not unlike that of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Aztecs used this particular “god” as justification for imperial expansion, based on their relation to the war god, Coatlicue’s son. Another example of using religion to control the masses. Wow even the Aztecs. Is there no monopoly sacred?
Coatlicue’s son, the war god, was born fully-grown and ready to fight according to Aztec mythology. The Greek goddess Athena was born fully-grown and ready to fight according to Greek mythology. The statue of Coatlicue was placed in a prime spot for viewing in the city. The statue of Athena was placed in a prime spot for viewing in Athens. Probably a coincidence. Chariots of the Gods was just a book.

6. Grotte Chauvet: Estimated to be more than 32,000 years old, the Grotte Chauvet cave paintings are the oldest-and may be the most speculated about ancient art discoveries today. The cave paintings depict animals that were hunted by the Paleolithic peoples at that time. Other symbols, such as dots, lines, and geometric shapes are the source of speculation about the meaning of these works. From mathematical record-keeping theories, to depictions of hunting rituals, even a suggestion of cartoon precursors are theories put forth by the “experts” as to the meaning of these paintings. We may never know the artists’ intention, just as we may never know the full meaning of Sumerian votive figures, since symbolism is a difficult challenge for the conscious mind.

7. Ancient Sumer: the Mesopotamian plain was called the Fertile Crescent. This region is known as the Cradle of Civilization; was the birthplace of the varied civilizations that moved us from prehistory to history (http://arabic-media.com/iraq_history.htm). Sumer was a loose collection of city-states that seemed to be at war often. In between the bloodletting, they managed to invent a form of writing (cuneiform), and developed a form of mass media by rolling carved “cylinder seals” over clay. The central focus of society (as is the case in many civilizations) was religion, evidenced by the massive ziggurat, a symbolic mountain made of mud with a temple at the top. Of course, only the elites were allowed inside. Kind of like the Vatican.
The Sumerians had their share of multiple gods as well. Figures of the local gods were housed in the temples on top of the ziggurats. The most striking feature of these carvings were the large eyes, seen as some as “the window to the soul.” Hmmm. Multiple gods, pyramids, and strategically placed images of the gods. The Aztecs, Sumerians, and even the Egyptians were cultures separated by-Chariots of the Gods was just a book.

8. Athena: Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, war, the arts, industry, justice and skill (http://www.pantheon.org/articles/a/athena.html), was such an important god, that the most important building in ancient Athens, the Parthenon, was dedicated to her (take that David!). Athena sprang fully-grown and armed from her father Zeus’ head. Zeus was having an Excedrin moment and the god Hephaistos (known as Vulcan to the later Romans), split Zeus’ head open with an axe, and out popped Athena. Accounts vary as to how she got into his head in the first place. In any event, Zeus seemed none the worse for wear after that experience. Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war (what did they do before him?), and Athena (what did they do before her?), both sprang from their parents ready to go. Coincidence? Chariots of the Gods was just a book.

9. Apollo: Generally accepted as being the brother of Athena, Apollo was (as most gods were), the god of several things, most notably the sun, and music. He also had the same propensity as our governor, our mayor, and our ex-president: he could not keep it in his pants. Apollo, as with Zeus his father, had many love affairs with goddesses and mortals (http://www.pantheon.org/articles/a/apollo.html). Apparently, this did not disqualify him from being a god. If it was good enough for dad…
Apollo’s importance in Greek culture perhaps is shown by his placement in the Parthenon, the temple dedicated to Athena. He is relegated to the frieze, a horizontal ribbon of relief carvings that circles the cella and treasury at roof level. Still, if you can make the Parthenon…

10. Venus: The Roman goddess of love, Venus was basically identical to the Greek goddess Aphrodite. She is immortalized in the sculpture Venus de Milo, the creator of the work in dispute. Venus is still a symbol of beauty and sexuality today, as evidenced in AC/DC’s 1979 song A Touch Too Much: She was lookin’ so good, lookin’ so right, like the body of Venus with arms…As with other female sculptures of the day, Venus de Milo portrayed the woman (even a goddess) swathed with some kind of clothing, unlike the men at that time who were sculpted as nude most of the time. My how things change.

11. Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446): Brunelleschi’s famed rules of linear perspective were made public in an experiment performed in 1425. He painted a small picture of a cathedral, and allowed people to view the painting from behind, through a pinhole in the painting where the reflection could be viewed in a mirror. This produced a three-dimensional look to the painting, which wowed the crowd in 1425. Surrounding the painting with reflective silver leaf, the sky and moving clouds lent more realism to the image.
Receding parallels that seem to converge at a point on the horizon is called a vanishing point. This was the key to Brunelleschi’s linear perspective. A good example of linear perspective is Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The walls on either side of the scene seem to recede to a “vanishing point” in the middle of the painting.

12. Leonardo da Vinci: Not only was he one of the greatest artists of all time, he was also renowned for his mastery of mathematics, engineering, and physics. Da Vinci is most well known for his masterpieces, The Last Supper, and The Mona Lisa. These two images are still used in advertising (and spoofs) today, lending credibility to the endurance of his greatness. The 2006 film, The Da Vinci code is based on the rumor/myth/theory that da Vinci had “secret codes” imbedded in his paintings that would supposedly rock what we believe to be true as a society today, especially regarding Jesus Christ. Well, we know he drank a lot and hung around with hookers. That means nothing. Don’t get the wrong idea.

13. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Paintings: Commissioned by Pope Julius II, Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel between 1508 and 1512. He used a difficult medium call fresco, a complicated method that required painting on wet plaster. Michelangelo rejected the pope’s idea for the ceiling, and instead chose to depict the creation and the fall of man as depicted in the Bible. The work covered 12,000 feet of ceiling space, and reads like the ultimate bible story. Michelangelo apparently like to do things his way, as evidenced in the 1965 film, The Agony and the Ecstasy. There is a recurring scene where the Pope, or one of his cronies kept asking Michelangelo (Heston), “How much longer?”, referring to his work on the ceiling. Heston always replied with the same answer, “When it’s finished.” A testament to the respect Michelangelo commanded. You didn’t talk to a pope like that!

14. Woodcut: Championed by who is considered to be the greatest printmaker of the Renaissance, Albrecht Durer, woodcut was a carving into a piece of wood that allowed multiple printings of the same picture without any changes. This is essentially the definition of a printed picture. Due to the obvious length of time it took to carve one of these woodcuts, most were limited to pictures of saints and to playing cards. Durer’s woodcut, A Man Drawing a Lute, is a good example of what a woodcut looked like.

15. Albrecht Durer: A German artist, he mastered the technique of perspective, and through his woodcuts, became it chief advocate in Europe. Although Durer did not invent the devices or the concept of perspective that he wrote about, he did become an expert and chief promoter. The woodcut, St. Jerome in his Study could be reprinted and it could also (for a price) be colorized. It appears that what Durer created was the beginning of the “cheap copy” of art. Berger would probably have a word or two for this guy.

16. Camera Obscura: This is a technique where illuminated objects were projected through a hole into a darkened room. The imaged would come out the other side upside down (Didn’t work for me). Leonardo da Vinci claimed this technique mimicked what took place in the pupil of the eye. The earliest mention of this type of device was by the Chinese philosopher Mo-Ti (5th century BC). He formally recorded the creation of an inverted image formed by light rays passing through a pinhole into a darkened room. He called this darkened room a “collecting place” or the “locked treasure room.” (http://brightbytes.com/cosite/what.html). An example of the use of “camera obscura” can be found in the printed version of Arab scholar Alhazan’s Opticae thesaurus, where in the printed 1572 version there is an an example called Reflecting one’s head in the air by using a burning mirror.

17. Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680): An Italian artist, Bernini lived in what is known as the Baroque period. He was the son of a sculptor and studied with his father. Bernini eventually went on to create art for powerful Italian families. He is most well known for his 1644 sculpture Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Like many great artists of the day, he caught the attention of popes and kings, including Louis XIV of France.

18. Jan Vermeer (1632- 1675): A Dutch painter, known for his sensitivity, and the poetic qualities of his paintings. Vermeer was an art dealer as well as an artist. He spent his entire life in his hometown of Delft, but the quality of his work reached across Europe. Vermeer avoided gaudy works such as Rigaud’s rendition of Louis XVI. Even in the bawdy Procuress (1656), shows softness and restraint, even in the face of what is happening in the scene.

19. Diane Arbus: Sounds like a spoiled rich kid who could do whatever she wanted and did just that. Thanks to her father she was around the “beautiful people” all the time, and clearly had connections to the “industry”. She even started her career photographing these people. Her tastes eventually moved the extreme opposite end of the spectrum where she began photographing what society would consider freaks (as the politically correct left continues to attack freedom of speech, maybe “freak” is not the word we should be using). One of her more well known photographs of what we will call “exceptional alternative” individuals is Mexican dwarf in his hotel room. The point of the exercise is subject to speculation. Maybe that was the point. It is not clear what she thinks of the photo.

20. J.A.D. Ingres: This is one of the greatest of what I call “reproductive” artists of all time. His paintings were near photographic quality, and modified to portray the subject as perfect (much like the Greeks did with their sculptures). He was highly sought after, a star student of Jaques Louis David, and painted many portraits of individuals of France’s upper middle-class. One of his more awesome works was La Source (1856). It portrays a fully nude young girl/woman emptying a jar of water. Very young. And hairless. Young and hairless. Artists. What are you gonna’ do.

21. Edgar Degas: This artist was from the impressionist period in the 1800’s. He is most famous for his voyeuristic depictions of women in various stages of bathing and grooming. Degas’ art brings to life the experience that every boy (or man) has probably experienced at some point: walking by an open window and seeing what was not meant be seen. I think most women do not realize that those kinds of “plain” activities are not plain at all to a man (or boy). Degas’ The Tub (1886) shows how the woman bathing, does not see the viewer. I remember being at Mervyn’s and a women opening the changing stall door so her friend could give her something else to try on. It was a Degas moment. Degas’ series does not focus on the face of the woman. You are drawn to what is happening, than to who is happening.

22. Paul Gauguin: An artist in the late 1800’s who so tired of Western culture, and so loved the so-called “primitive” culture, that he forsook all to have it. Goofball art historian (we’ll use the term historian loosely here), Abigail Solomo-Godeau claims Gauguin was just a white dude slumming with the savages. Gauguin’s love for the islands, the people, the culture was reflected in his work. It became his life. He embraced it. Look at Where do we come from? Where are we? Where are we going? (1897). Clearly he loved the culture. Note the native statue on the left side. He included something that was obviously revered in that culture. Godeau should be disbarred, or whatever you do with art historians that have their head up their ass.

23. Thomas Alva Edison: The inventor of the kinetoscope motion picture camera (among many other things), Edison is one of the pioneers of the technical aspects of film making. In order to view through the kinetoscope, people had to look through a peep-hole, one at a time (Degas would have loved this thing). A noted Edison sponsored film in the kinetiscope era was The Kiss, which was simply two Broadway stars sharing a kiss. Outrageous in those days, but Tommy wouldn’t have it any other way. Other than his war with Nicola Tesla (which hurt us all), he was all right in my book.

24. Diego Rivera: The European trained Mexican artist (how’s that for multi-cultural), he had to honor/opportunity to practice cubism with Pablo Picasso. When he returned to Mexico, the country was in the throes of a revolution (again). He soon left cubism behind and became a muralist, just the kind of artist the Mexican government was looking for. Rivera was a man interested in social issues, and he unsuccessfully tried to inflict his communist views on the United States. He was commissioned to do a mural in Rockefeller Center, but the mural included an image of communist theorist Lenin. That did not fly in the U.S. and the mural was destroyed. But in true American fashion, he was given the opportunity to create yet another mural, this one honoring Detroit steel workers. It was called Detroit Industry (1932-33). If you have something to offer in the U.S… Being communist around the United States at that time was not the place you wanted to be. Got to hand it to him for standing up for his convictions. Luckily, he was able to get back to Mexico before McCarthy got his hands on him.

25. Salvador Dali: Dali was a surrealist, who began in that genre in Paris in 1929. He painted his dreams, in stunning detail, using a Freudian twist in the process. His 1929 work, The Accommodations of Desire, was ostensibly a recreation of a dream that exposed his fear to female genitalia. Lions inside eggs. With some of the diseases around today, there may as well be lions inside some of those-eggs.

Sources Cited

Sassoon, Donald. “Smile! You’re on Canvas.” New Statesman. September 24, 2001. New Statesman 1913-2007. March 25, 2009.

“Andy Warhol Biography – 1928-1987.” artelino – Art Auctions. May 3, 2007.

Daniken, Eric. Chariots of the Gods. New York: Berkeley Trade (reprint), 1999.

“The Cradle of Civilization.” Iraq History. Arabic-Media.com. May 4, 2007.

Tuccinardi, Ryan. “Athena.” Athena. Encyclopedia Mythica. May 4, 2007.

Leadbetter, Ron. “Apollo.” Apollo. Encyclopedia Mythica. May 4, 2007.

Wilgus, Jack and Beverly. “The Magic Mirror of Life: an appreciation of the camera obscura.” Brightbytes.com. August, 2004. The Magic Mirror of Life. May 5, 2007.

Abu Ali Al-hasen Ibn Alhasen. Opticae Thesaurus Alhazani. Oxford: MSS at Paris, 1572.

Art Cited

Da Vinci, Leonardo. Mona Lisa. 1503-1507. Louvre, Paris.

Serrano, Andres. Piss Christ. 1987. Walter Otero Gallery, San Juan.

Warhol, Andy. Campbell’s Tomato Soup. 1968. Metropolitan Museum of Art, San Francisco.

David, Jaques-Louis. Oath of the Horatii. 1784. Louvre, Paris.

Charlie’s Angels. Syndication. 1976.

Xena, The Warrior Princess. Syndication. 1995.

Kill Bill. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah, David Carradine, Vivica A. Fox, Julie Dreyfus, Chiaki Kuriyama. Miramax. 2003.

Barb Wire. Dir. David Hogan. Perf. Pamela Anderson, Temuera Morrison, Victoria Rowell, Jack Noseworthy, Xander Berkeley, Udo Kier. 1996.

G.I Jane. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Demi Moore, Viggo Mortensen, Anne Bancroft. Hollywood Pictures. 1997.

Coatlique. National Museum of Anthropology and History, Mexico City.

Alexander of Antioch. Venus de Milo. 130-90 BCE. Louvre, Paris.

AC/DC. “A Touch Too Much.” Highway to Hell. Atlantic, 1979.

Da Vinci, Leonardo. The Last Supper. 1495-1498. Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

The Da Vinci Code. Dir. Ron Howard. Perf. Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen, Jean Reno, Paul Bettany Alfred Molina, Jurgen Prochnow, Jean-Yves Berteloot, Etienne Chicot, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Marie-Francoise Audollent, Rita Davies, Francesco Carnelutti, Seth Gabel, Shane Zaza. Sony, 2006.

The Agony and the Ecstasy. Dir. Carol Reed. Perf. Charlton Heston, Rex Harrison, Diane Cilento, Harry Andrews, Alberto Lupo. 20th Century Fox, 1965.

Durer, Albrecht. Man Drawing A Lute. 1525. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Durer, Albrecht. St. Jerome in His Study. 1514. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.

Bernini, Giovanni Lorenzo. “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.” 1650. Cornaro Chapel, Rome.

Vermeer, Jan. The Procuress. 1656. The Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.

Arbus, Diane. Mexican Dwarf in his Hotel Room. 1970. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

Ingres, Jean-Auguste Dominique. La Source. 1856. Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

Degas, Edgar. The Tub. 1886. Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

Gauguin, Paul. Where do we come from? Where are we? Where are we going? 1898. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Kiss. Dir. William Heise. Perf. Mary Irwin, John C. Rice. Edison Manufacturing Company, 1896.

Rivera, Diego. Detroit Industry. 1932-33. The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit.

Dali, Salvador. The Accommodations of Desire. 1929.

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