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Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Ups and Downs of Alma-Tadema

Spring, 1894, depicts the servants of the Temple of Flora
celebrating the Roman festival of Cerealia.  This
painting took four years to complete, and features
 members of his family, friends, and fellow artists.
Image courtesy of the Getty.

Contrary to most artists, the story of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema is not an angst-filled drama of unappreciative hard work, poverty, and obscurity.  During his lifetime he was arguably the most successful artist of the Victorian era.  His paintings of elegant people - "Victorians in togas", as one critic suggested - languidly posed in gorgeous classical settings appealed to the zeitgeist of Victorian times.  He was a Dutch ex-pat in Britain painting ancient Greece and Rome.

Detail from Spring.

Lourens Alma Tadema was born in the Netherlands.  His family intended for him to be a lawyer, but at age fifteen he suffered a physical and mental breakdown.  He was given a short time to live, and so was allowed to spend this time at leisure, drawing and painting.  He weaned himself back to health and decided to become an artist.  (Note:  he later anglicized his first name to Lawrence, and hyphenated his middle and last names so he would appear early in any alphabetized lists.  His last name rhymed with "had'em a", which was part of a verse tribute to him.)  In 1852 he entered the Royal Academy of Antwerp in Belgium and studied early Dutch and Flemish art.  In his four years there as a student he won several awards. He later became a studio assistant to one of his instructors who encouraged him to display historical accuracy in his paintings, for which he became famous.  He shared lodging in the home of an archaeologist, which fostered his interest in that subject, and was friends with an Egyptologist which furthered his interest.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 19th Century, photographer and date unknown.
Image courtesy of PreteristArchive.com.

He then started working with another highly regarded artist in Belgium, and painted his first major work in 1861.  The Education of the Children of Clovis started his fame and reputation as it was a hit with artists and critics alike.  In fact, it was so highly regarded that it was bought and given to King Leopold of Belgium.  His main interest was in the Merovingians (rulers of Gaul from the 6th to 8th centuries).  But after a trip to London he was inspired by the so-called "Elgin Marbles" (forgive me but I am half-Greek and wish to see them returned - they never belonged to Elgin) and the Egyptian artifacts in the British Museum.

The Education of the Children of Clovis, 1861.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

He married in 1863 and honeymooned in Italy.  This piqued his interest in ancient Greece and Rome,  especially after visiting Pompeii.  He returned in 1876 and rented a studio in Rome, and returned again in 1883.  From all his trips he amassed a huge collection of photos and archival material for use in future paintings.  He even went to the quarry where Cararra marble is from (one of his early teachers told him his marble looked like cheese) to learn to convey its distinctive look and texture.  He studied classical architecture, studied and painted marble to depict it perfectly (he was called in Punch magazine  "the marbelous painter").  Later he even designed furniture, mostly Pompeiian or Egyptian in style, which he used in his paintings.  He even designed women's clothing.

The Triumph of Titus, 1885.  Image courtesy of PreteristArchive.com.

In 1864 he met Ernest Gambart who was the most influential art dealer and print publisher of the time.  Alma-Tadema moved to London, where he spent the rest of his life.  He met and friended many of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, and they influenced his work.  He was an excellent businessman, and one of the wealthiest artists of the 19th century.  He received many awards in his lifetime, and was knighted in 1899.  He was the eighth artist from "the continent" to be knighted.

Silver Favourites, 1903.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

There is little action in his paintings, although one can see the fine execution of the old Dutch masters in his work.  He was a perfectionist, and repeatedly reworked his paintings until he was satisfied (hence the four years it took to paint Spring.) The rose petals and flowers are from live ones - he would hurry to paint them before they withered.  His archaeological research paid off.  If one studies the architecture of the buildings in his paintings, one can see the meticulous design - any one of them could be built by ancient Romans using Roman tools, methods, and materials.  As a matter of fact, his paintings were (and are) used as source material for Hollywood productions, such as Ben Hur, Cleopatra, and the Ten Commandments.  They are still used by set designers - as recently as 2005 they were used for the Chronicles of Narnia:  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Egyptian Chess Players, 1879.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

He is distinctive for portraying "everyday" life from classical times, and not mythology, legends, and seldom famous figures.  Every detail in his paintings is exact and correct, from marble to metals, however his people lack "soul".  They are not differentiated in his paintings, and function as if they were objects.  While his contemporaries produced genre paintings with historical dress and allegorical themes, Alma-Tadema held that art should elevate and not teach, so he never intended any social or moral lessons.

The Roses of Heliogabalus, 1888.  Image courtesy of PreteristArchive.com.

Although in his heyday he was financially successful, in the early 1920s Victorian art in general saw a huge collapse in prices.  This devaluation lasted some forty years.  Alma-Tadema's paintings were denounced, he was declared "the worst painter of the 19th century" by John Ruskin, the curmudgeon, who never liked Alma-Tadema's work (early on, Ruskin commented on one painting, "the general effect was exactly like a microscopic view of a small detachment of black-beetles, in search of a dead rat").

A Favourite Custom, 1909.  Image courtesy of the Tate Gallery, London.

After being relegated to virtual obscurity, his paintings caught the eye of one man. Allan Funt, famous for his Candid Camera television show, had a B.A. from Cornell in fine arts from 1934.  He starting buying Alma-Tadema when the artist's reputation was at its lowest.  Within a few years, he had bought some 35 works. However, he was forced to sell them due to financial difficulties.  He sold them just before the prices shot up, and shoot up they did.  The painting called The Finding of Moses in 1960 was put on sale by the Newman Gallery, and didn't even meet the reserve when it sold for £252.  The initial purchase had been £5,250 after completion.  It sold for £861 in 1935, and £265 in 1942.  After Funt sold his collection at Sotheby's in London in 1973, interest in Alma-Tadema renewed.  That same painting was auctioned at Christies in New York for £1.75 million in 1995. Last November it sold for $35,922,500 to an anonymous bidder at Sotheby's in New York.  This is the highest price paid for Alma-Tadema and for a Victorian painting.

The Finding of Moses, 1904.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although he had intended to be buried with his second wife who pre-deceased him, he is buried in a crypt in St. Paul's cathedral in London, as befits a highly-honored individual.  The recipient of numerous awards and honors, he enjoyed a life of wealth, popularity, and the pursuit of his interests.  A life like that is uncommon, especially for an artist.  I salute the successful life of art, history, archaeology, and wealth!

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Tree Cathedral

Giuliano Mauri was a unique artist.  An advocate of natural architecture, he constructed large-scale outdoor works of environmental art.  Because he used organic materials, these structures were temporary.  He loved outdoor spaces, where he came up with the concept of living cathedrals, using trees for the walls and roofs.

Although he planned and developed many sites, the Tree Cathedral near the northern Italian city of Bergamo is a posthumus memorial to him.  The work was completed by a skilled team led by Mauri's son, Robert, under the artistic direction of Paola Tognon.  It was built in a quiet glade surrounded by tall trees.  

It consists of 42 columns that form a basilica with five aisles.  Poles of fir and 600 branches from chestnut trees and 66,000 meters of hazel branches were woven together with string and nails, forming a support structure for 42 beech trees that were planted.  As the beech trees grow, they will form natural columns.  As the support structure deteriorates, the trees will have grown to replace it.

The Cathedral covers 650 square meters, and is more than 90 feet long, 80 feet wide, and ranges in height from 16 to 70 feet.  Once the beeches overtake the structure, it will be open and passable in many directions.  The Cathedral was inaugurated on September 6, 2010.  It is a tribute to Bergamo's observance to the International Year of Biodiversity, as well as a tribute to Mauri.

Mauri was born in 1938 in Lodi Vecchio.  By the end of the 60s he became involved with avant garde art movements in Italy.  By the 70s he was doing performance art, showing his video and photographic performances in various galleries.  In 1976 he participated in the Venice Biennale, in 1992 the Milan Triennale, and in 1994 the Biennale di Penne.  He died in 2009 at the age of 71.

There are plans to use the Cathedral as a natural backdrop for various events, as well as a resting place for local educational and training sessions.  Now this is my idea of a cathedral!

Images courtesy of Arte Sella. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mary and Mary, Quite Contrary

Mary Wollstonecraft, circa 1797 by John Opie.
Oil on canvas, image courtesy the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) is one of those women whose personal life vastly overshadowed, in fact practically buried, her work, although her personal life would have been ignored had she been male.  This British woman was a writer, philosopher, and early advocate for women's rights.  Her writings included novels, treatises, a travel book, a history of the French revolution, a conduct book, and a children's book.  When she died she left behind several unfinished manuscripts.

She grew up in a household with an abusive father who squandered money; she always attempted to protect her mother and sisters.  She tended to fixate on other people, and in her youth that was a friend whose family she found solace in, with an intellectual environment she thrived in.  She left her home to be a lady's companion to a widow in Bath, but it did not work out well.  When she was called home to tend to her dying mother, she did not return to that position.  In order to earn a living, she set up a school with her sisters and a friend in Newington Green, which was a dissenting community (where Christians who advocated separating from the Church of England lived).  Her friend married and moved to Europe because of her poor health.  Mary followed to tend her, but her friend died.  Mary's abandonment of the school caused it to fail, as well.

Frontispiece to the 1791 edition of
Original Stores From Real Life, engraved
by William Blake, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Her friends helped arrange a position as a governess to the daughters of a family in Ireland, and though she did not get along well with the mother, she did with the girls.  From these experiences came her first book and only children's one, Original Stories from Real Life (1788).  Frustrated by the limited career choices for women, she decided to write, telling her sister that she wanted to be "the first of a new genus" of women who supported themselves through their writing.  She learned French and German and translated texts.  She also wrote reviews of novels for the Analytical Review.  She met many famous people, Thomas Paine for one, including William Godwin.  Godwin was a British journalist, novelist and political philosopher, and one of the forefathers of anarchism.

Wollstonecraft fell in love with a married artist, and even suggested that she live with him and his wife platonically, but his wife was appalled.  Humiliated, she went to France where she found the intellectual atmosphere of the French revolution stimulating.  She had become well-known for having written A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).  In France she met and fell in love with Gilbert Imlay, an American who was diplomatic representative of the U.S. government in France. She became pregnant and delivered a daughter, Fanny.  When Britain declared war on France, Imlay registered her as his wife to protect her, even though they never married.  Upon leaving France she continued to use the name "Mrs. Imlay" for her daughter's sake.  Imlay left her, and she attempted to commit suicide with laudanum, but he saved her.  She tried suicide once more by jumping into the Thames but was saved again, this time by a passerby.

Title page from the 2nd American edition, 1792.
Image courtesy of the LOC.

Eventually she returned to her prior circle of friends, including William Godwin. This time they fell madly in love, and she became pregnant again.  They decided to marry so their daughter would be legitimate, but in doing so it was revealed she was never married to Imlay, and both suffered for this breach of social mores. Godwin suffered further criticism because he'd written favorably toward the abolition of marriage.  In 1797, after the birth of a second daughter, Mary died of septicemia. Godwin was devastated, and in an attempt to honor the woman he loved, he wrote Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.  Although his intentions were sincere, his honest portrayal of the intimacies of her life - love affairs, suicide attempts, illegitimate children - shocked their friends and his readers.

William Godwin, 1802, oil on canvas by James Northcote.
Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

The Memoirs had a devastating effect on Wollstonecraft's reputation, and the consensus was that no dignified woman would stoop so low as to read her work. Women writers turned her into a cautionary tale, and while people read about her, they did not read her.  Among the few who did read her work were Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lucretia Mott, George Elliot, and Margaret Fuller.  She was reincarnated when women's voting rights became an issue, and adopted by the Suffragists.  But most of her work was still ignored, due to her "scandalous" lifestyle.  It wasn't until the feminist criticism of the 1960s and 1970s that her work was widely read.  She is now considered a pioneering feminist thinker.

1798 second revised edition of the Memoirs.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

While her work was being suppressed, her second daughter, also named Mary (1797-1851), was being raised by Godwin to admire her mother's work and to think liberally. One of her father's friends was a married poet and philosopher, Percy Bysshe Shelley.  When she was 17 she became involved with him romantically.  She went to Europe with him and when they came back she was pregnant.  They were ostracized.  They also were in debt, and grieving over the death of their premature daughter.  Shelley's wife committed suicide, and they married shortly after.  Mary was pregnant again, and they were trying to get custody of Shelley's children from his first marriage.

Mary Shelley, nee Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, by Richard Rothwell,
1840.  Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

In 1816, after their marriage, they spent the summer with Lord Byron, Mary's half-sister, and some friends at a lake in Switzerland.  They were confined indoors because of the rain, and spent time discussing the experiments of Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), who was said to have reanimated dead matter.  This lead to conversations about returning body parts or a corpse back to life.  They also read each other German ghost stories.  Byron came up with the idea that they each write a supernatural tale.  Mary wrote what she intended to be a short story, but Shelley encouraged her to develop it into a novel.  Frankenstein was published in 1818. She claimed that summer was the moment "when I first stepped out from childhood into life."

Draft of Frankenstein, 1816.
Image courtesy of Oxford.

To escape creditors and in fear of legally losing their children, they moved to Italy that year.  Their second and third children also died, but a fourth was born.  In 1822, Shelley died when his sailboat sank in a storm.  A year later Mary returned to Britain to raise their son and write.  She died of a brain tumor at the age of 53.

Frontispiece to the 1831 Frankenstein illustrated by Theodor von Holst.
Image courtesy of the Tate, London.

Although she had a prolific career as a writer she is mostly thought of as a one-novel writer.  Like her mother, her works were ignored and out of print until the 1970s.  Studies show that she remained a political radical all her life, arguing that cooperation and sympathy, especially the sympathy of women within their families, were the ways to reform society.  Her education may not have been what her mother would have wanted for her, but it was unusual and advanced for a woman of that time.  Literary scholars now consider her to be a major Romantic figure, both for her writings and her liberal politics.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819, by Alfred Clint.
Image courtesy the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Both women were remarkable thinkers and writers.  They were ahead of their time. Instead of being judged for their intellect and capabilities, they were known for their personal lifestyle choices, which, frankly, was no one's business then or now. We know of the work of male writers and philosophers, and if we know of their personal lives and sexual habits it is titillating at worst.  But women?  Women have been constantly assessed through their sexual activities, rather than their mental ones.  And so it goes.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Fritz the Cat

"People have no idea of the sources for my work.  I didn't invent anything; 
it's all there in the culture; it's not a big mystery.  I just combine my personal
experience with classic cartoon stereotypes."           ~            Robert Crumb

Image courtesy of Lambiek.net

Someone once said if you remember the sixties you didn't live them right.  Even if you did live them right, you probably still remember underground comix, Robert Crumb, and his arguably most popular character, Fritz the Cat.  (My favorite was always Mr. Natural.)

The Crumb boys as kids entertained themselves by drawing.  Robert and his older brother Charles drew their own comic strips.  In 1959 Robert created a homemade comic book called "Cat Life", based on the family cat, named Fred.  In Crumb's 1960 "Robin Hood", Fred morphed into Fritz and became anthropomorphic.  Fritz became a regular character in "Animal Town" strips drawn by Robert and Charles, sometimes with Fuzzy the Bunny, who was Charles' creation.

An early homemade comic strip featuring a cat from 1961.

R. Crumb has claimed that most of the comic books he enjoyed as a boy were funny and based on animals.  He liked working with animals because they were easy to draw and one could get pretty silly with them.  When he was older he was influenced by Walt Kelly's Pogo strip.  He has also stated that TV shows like Howdy Doody and the Lone Ranger deeply imprinted on him.  (Crumb's sexual fetishes are well-known, as is the fact that as a boy he was sexually attracted to Bugs Bunny.)

In the mid-60s Crumb drew strips with Fritz the Cat for his own amusement. Later they began to be published in magazines and underground comix.  Fritz became almost an icon for underground comix, and one of the most familiar characters in that whole underground scene.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fritz is self-centered, amoral, unethical, and hedonistic.  Art critic Thomas Albright described him as "a kind of updated Felix with overtones of Charlie Chaplin, Candide, and Don Quixote."  He was a cool and hip character, cocky and smooth-talking.  Although he has been called Crumb's alter-ego, Crumb himself denies any personal connection, saying Fritz was just fun to draw.

Fritz's brief stint as a no-good terrorist and revolutionary.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The strip was set in a "modern 'supercity' of millions of animals".  At first the stories were simple, but they became more and more complex as the characters reacted to contemporary situations.  Fritz had some pretty crazy adventures, and lots and lots of sex.  He was in different strips a beatnik, a pop music star, a hippie poet, college dropout, a CIA agent, and a terrorist and revolutionary.
In this episode, Fritz the guitar-playing pop idol takes one of his groupies
to his hotel room, then devours her - literally.

As Fritz gained popularity, he came to the attention of animator Ralph Bakshi and producer Steve Krantz.  They wanted to make an animated film, but Crumb was not enthusiastic about the project.  Unable to reach an agreement with Crumb, Krantz went to Crumb's ex-wife, Dana, who had power of attorney.  Crumb received $50,000 and ten percent of Krantz's proceeds.

This cartoon refers to the famous quote art critic Robert Hughes
made calling Crumb the Bruegel of the 20th Century. 

Fritz the Cat was the first animated feature film to receive an "X" rating from the Motion Picture Association of America.  The distributors cashed in on this - "X-rated and animated" angle, and it became a worldwide hit. The 1972 film became the most successful independent animated feature film of all time.  It is listed #51 on the most recent list of top 100 animated films by the Online Film Critics Society, and has appeared on Britain's Channel 4 list of greatest cartoons.  (A sequel was made, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, by Krantz without Bakshi or Crumb.  It is, however, considered inferior to the first film.)

Cell from film courtesy of Wikipedia.

Crumb disliked the film so much, he attempted to have his name taken off the film's credits.  The bad feelings poisoned any potential relationship between Crumb and Bakshi.  Crumb disliked the voice used for Fritz, what was (he felt) condemnation for the left, and that the dialogue was not consistent with the character, but instead "red-neck and fascist".

In fact, Crumb was so incensed by the film, that he later drew a strip where Fritz was killed off:

Fritz did effectively die with that strip, and from what Crumb has said in interviews since, he will remain so.  Art critics and historians still ponder the popularity of that strip, and in fact the popularity of Crumb, himself, who has outlasted most of his fellow comix creators.  The original comix books and other paraphernalia bring big bucks, and collectors still avidly strive to find them.  If people find Crumb weird and sick for creating it all, what does that say about the people who made him popular and keep his work alive?

Unless otherwise stated, images from R. Crumb's website.
For one of the best videos on an artist, check out Terry Zwigoff's documentary Crumb (1994).

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Orioles That Fly and Sing

An adult male Baltimore oriole.  Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Mornings usually find me in the hot tub, unkinking and preparing to carry on with life.  The other day I was soaking and heard an oriole sing.  It was a trill of many notes, a slight pause, and then one last, rather long, note.  I imitated it, as I am wont to do when I hear birds, but since I'm not accustomed to whistling, I omitted the final note.  The oriole repeated his song, and I did, too.  A third time.
The fourth time he hopped out on a branch of the 65' pine he was in so he could see me and I could see him.  This time, looking straight at me, he sang it again with a long pause and a very loud, sustained final note.  This cracked me up - he was teaching me the song.  I repeated it again and omitted the last note.  He hopped out closer, and sang it again with a long pause and loud final note.  I did it right.  He tried it again without the emphasis on the final note.  I whistled it with the final note.  Satisfied, he took off and two of his brothers followed him.

An adult female Baltimore oriole.  Image courtesy Wikipedia.

People think critters are not that smart, and many people would think I am anthropomorphizing, but I think if they paid attention, and did so with respect and an open mind, they would be surprised.  As to anthropomorphizing, I've often wondered whether it was alternately true that we claim certain behaviors to be human, when in fact they may be universal.  I'll never forget the field mouse that was caught between our front door and the screen door.  When I swung open the door, looked down and saw him, he looked up at me.  He then sat on his haunches and covered both his eyes with his front paws and started shaking.  When I cracked the screen door so he could get out, he looked up at me first, then hied home.  Pretty typical behavior when a defenseless creature is approached by a possible predator, especially a human child.

An adult male Bullock's Oriole, courtesy of Wikipedia.

I love birds and notice them wherever I go.  The supermarket we often shop at has a diner around the corner where a huge gang of grackles hang out, and they constantly discuss things in a language I can't hear enough of.  It's a sure sign of a healthy environment if there are birds in the area.  Some friends have a gorgeous backyard - the lawn is very lush and green and there is always something in prolific bloom.  But there is not an insect or bird anywhere, and their yard has a ghostly silence.  Of course, they use chemicals to keep it insect-free and lovely, but it's not healthy.  When their dog started getting mysterious burns on his paws which the vet couldn't figure out, I knew it was the chemicals.

An adult female Bullock's oriole, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Back to orioles...we've had them come to our high desert property every year, but the last two either they didn't come or I totally missed seeing them, which is not likely.  This year they are back.  I keep seeing the rather drab females a lot, but don't see the boys too often.  Oddly enough, when the orioles come round, grosbeaks usually do, too, but so far no sign of them.

Yellow Grosbeak (also Mexican Yellow Grosbeak), courtesy of Wikipedia
Black-head Grosbeak, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Although they are often confused with orioles, grosbeaks are a loosely-grouped
category of songbirds with large beaks belonging to different families, such as
finches, cardinals, tanagers, and weavers.

They feed off the hummingbird feeders, which does not make the hummers very happy.  One hummer in particular.  I call him Godzilla, not only because he is large for his species, but he is very aggressive and tries to keep every other hummer away from the feeders, expending more energy in defense than in feeding.  I was in a local pet store chain when I noticed oriole feeders and bought two.  This seems to keep the hummers, Godzilla in particular, happy, although they've been known to steal a sip or two.

Oriole feeder by Perky Pet.

Orioles are a part of the blackbird family, formally known as Icterus.  They are perching birds, and are great mimics.  They love oranges, but also apples, cherries, berries, figs and nuts - just like me!  They also eat insects (unlike me) which makes them nice to have around.  They like tall trees and lots of underbrush.  They also like jams and jellies, and you can even buy specialized feeders that hold jars for them.

Baltimore orioles were named for Lord Baltimore, whose coat-of-arms bears the colors of the males.  They are also the namesake of the baseball team in Baltimore, Maryland, where they are also the state bird.  They live in the eastern U.S., and winter in the south of Mexico, Central America, and northern South America.

Map of Baltimore oriole habitats courtesy of here.

Bullock's orioles were named for William Bullock, who was a British traveller, antiquarian and amateur naturalist.  They live in the western U.S., and migrate to Mexico and northern Central America.  At one time Baltimore and Bullock's orioles were considered to be one species, the Northern oriole.

Map of Bullock's oriole habitats courtesy of here.

There is a third common species of oriole in the U.S., the Orchard oriole.  It is the smallest, and lives in the eastern to middle U.S., wintering in southern Mexico, Central America and northern South America.  They prefer the edges of wooded areas, or open areas with groups of trees.  They are called "nectar robbers", as they obtain nectar from flowers without pollinating it, by piercing their bases.

An adult male Orchard oriole, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Map of Orchard oriole habitats courtesy of here.

There are many members of the Icterus family besides the three mentioned, at least thirty-two.  You can't have enough of a good thing!  I hear my teacher singing his heart out, so perhaps it's time for another lesson...