Art in Quotations

Picasso is the reason why I paint. He is the father figure, who gave me the wish to paint.
- Francis Bacon


Otto Dix, The Dancer Anita Berber (1925)

Otto Dix, The Dancer Anita Berber (1925). Oil and tempera on plywood, 120 x 65 cm. Currently in New York city at the Neue Galerie, on loan from the Landesbank Baden-W├╝rtemberg in the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart.

Otto Dix (1891 – 1969), as mentioned earlier this week, is currently having his first major exhibition in the United States at the Neue Galerie in New York. An artist that before I was not unaware of but rather did not hold great appeal for me is now ranking among one of my current favorites. His show brings together works from his most important periods and allows one to fully understand his development. From his early dreams of being an artist through his military career in WWI and its large effect on his artistic output to his resistance to the Nazis and his subsequent conscription into the Nazi army, the exhibition does a wonderful job of chronologically situating some of his more well-known works among those that speak more clearly about his biggest influences.

Though his most famous works are portraits of some of Wiemar society's more eccentric members, his work spans numerous mediums from painting to prints and collage while also spanning themes of the effects and aftermath of war, political critique, the German underworld and sexual murders. A key member of the New Objectivity movement, he was also part of the Dresden Secession and later the Berlin Secession. One of the many artists declared degenerate by the Nazis, Dix continued to paint critical works though legally obliged to only paint landscape works.

The work above, The Dancer Anita Berber (1925) is one of Dix most well-known paintings. The subject, Anita Berber (1899-1928), was an infamous figure in Berlin Wiemar society. A burlesque dancer with a scandalous sex life (she swung both ways and often appeared in pornographic reels), a nasty drug habit (lots of cocaine), and her constant state of dishabille (she liked to go around dressed only in a mink coat) made her a unique and polarizing figure. She is shown above in the red costume of her "Morphine" dance, one of a few performances named after various substances. A known addict of both cocaine and opiates, and having married three times, Berber was also closely associated with another dancer, Sebastian Droste, and they often performed together.

Berber is shown here near the end of her tragically short life. Dying before she reached the age of 30, the dancer was known for a destructive lifestyle. The violent red of her costume and hair, the color it was often dyed, frame her stark features and rebellious expression. The violence of the color and the contrast between the overwhelming tone and her pale skin allows the viewer to understand some of the key aspects of the subject without even knowing her background. This is not a light-minded woman with few cares. Though her heavy makeup and costume were part of a persona of the stage, the careful application of makeup can not hide the fact that the young woman looks much, much older than her years. The fast living and dangerous edge on which she lived shows in her face and the explicitly sensual pose. Another aspect that particularly intrigues me is that the background is the same tone as her dress. This is very rare in art and especially portraiture and it seems very ill-fitting here.

This subject, a woman known to have stood out like a sore thumb because of her clothing and behaviors, is shown as part of a backdrop. Where she would never conform in real life she is immortalized as part of a larger whole. The unease one feels at the overwhelming red and the drastic contrasts elicits the type of reaction and response that one must believe the woman herself produced. Like people in Berlin during the period, the viewer is drawn in and repulsed at the same time. Who is this prostitute? The woman in the red dress? Is she an actress in character or was this the true girl behind the makeup? My favorite aspect of this painting is that what you take away from it depends wholly on the preconceptions you have before you view it. The red could mean a prostitute, an actress, a woman out on the town, a costume party. That the truth is a scandalous courtesan of the Wiemar Republic is not obvious. Her portrait remains one of the things she is most famous for, and I have to wonder how she felt about it and how she would want to be viewed by history.


Georges de La Tour, The Penitent Magdalen (1638-43)

Georges de La Tour, The Penitent Magdalen (1638-43). Oil on canvas, 52 1/2 x 40 1/4 inches. Metropolitan Museum, New York.

As you may have guessed, I'm on a bit of a New York kick and am going to be posting about some of my favorite works that I was able to see while there. The Penitent Magdalen by Georges de La Tour was one of them, a painting I make sure to always visit when I am in the city. Its emotional resonance for me comes in the contemplative pose of the sitter and the deep shadows that seem to recall any night one has spent sitting alone, awake, lost in your own thoughts. A lifelong insomniac, there is much in this picture that speaks to me and I hope it will have some emotional pull for you as well.

Georges de La Tour, a painter from eastern France (the duchy of Lorraine) who lived from 1593–1652, is not an artist who much is known about. His history is a bit sketchy at times and many aspects, like his early training, remain largely undocumented. Much is known, however, about the level of fame he garnered during his life. He was the main painter in the court of the French King for some time, and also painted numerous works for aristocracy. However, his religious works, and even some of his more secular scenes, were more often purchased or commissioned by the middle classes. His work was very popular, and he rose to prominence among his peers. Though documentation points to the fact that his output was quite large, what survives is sadly a small number of works.

De La Tour's style was very much in the Baroque style of the Italian Michelangelo Merisi, known more famously as Caravaggio. Though whether de La Tour studied in Italy, and was thus exposed to Caravaggio's work, or if promulgation of the the Caravaggisiti of the Utrecht School in the Northern countries exposed the French artist, the influence of Caravaggio is evident in the dramatic lighting, strong contrast of color, and the lack of idealization of the female figure. The Magdalen is not shown as a beautiful woman or in an idealized form, rather she is a portrayal of regular features and common looks. However, de La Tour's most beautiful technique is the simplification of form. There are no grand gestures or intricate details. His work shows a remarkable constraint not often seen in early modern French art. The shape of the woman, her desk and even the skull is pared down to basics and allows the other elements of the work, such as the strong contrast of light, to speak for it. The constraint is powerful in its revelation of emotional sentiment or feeling. The expression of the subject is the defining characteristic rather than a grand gesture or minute aspects.

Below is an excerpt taken from the Met's catalogue, a brief summary of the scene depicted:
"A sinner, perhaps a courtesan, Mary Magdalen was a witness of Christ who renounced the pleasures of the flesh for a life of penance and contemplation. She is shown with a mirror, symbol of vanity; a skull, emblem of mortality; and a candle, that may stand for spiritual enlightenment."

The scene is an emphasis on contemplation. Whether the Magdalen is shown repenting her past sins or if she is simply pondering on aspects of the Christian religion as they may pertain to her, the painting is simply a portrayal of a woman wondering. Her deep concentration and gaze toward the candle give her an air of subdued and controlled contemplation, a thinker deep in thought. However, her attention is absolutely moved inward, her gaze on the candle is unseeing, as if she looks right past it to the mirror behind. Is she contemplating her reflection? The viewer is left to wonder at what she is thinking of and is able to take away from the work whatever they please. If the painting's audience is religious then it would seem that they are viewing the Magdalen repenting her sins, moving from her lascivious past to a pure future. If the audience is secular, the skull seems to bring to mind a woman reflecting on death, morality or the brevity of life. The voyeristic quality this painting has allows the viewer to insert their own thoughts into the Magdalen and gives the audience a freedom to possess a moment of contemplation on their own worries or vanities.


Angelika Kauffmann, Cornelia Presenting Her Children, the Gracchi, as Her Treasures (1785)

Angelica Kauffmann, Cornelia Presenting Her Children, the Gracchi, as Her Treasures (1785). Oil on canvas, 3'4 inches x 4'2 inches. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond.

Known as one of the first female Academicians, Angelica Kauffman is one of only a few female artists of the Royal Academy to attain fame on a similar level to her male counterparts. Born in Switzerland, her father recognized her creative talents early on and she was considered a prodigy in both painting and music by age 11. She ultimately chose painting as her career path but was considered an extremely gifted musician. Her training began when she was quite young, and she traveled all over Europe, including a prolonged stint in Italy, to continue her studies and was widely considered a great talent with nobles commissioning portraits before she had turned 20. Her works began in the style of the French Rococo but quickly gained the classicizing elements of the Grand Manner Portraiture and History paintings that were popular at the time

Kauffman moved to London in 1766, and soon after was introduced to Sir Joshua Reynolds. The two were firm friends for their entire lives and her name is alongside his on the formal petition submitted to the King to create the Royal Academy in London in 1769. Though one of the founding members, she and Mary Moser were the only female members of the Academy, and women were soon excluded entirely. She was one of the most sought out artists at the Academy and exhibited annually for many years. Her strengths lay in her portrait painting and her History paintings, such as Cornelia (above). Her later years were spent on the continent and she married a Venetian painter by the name of Antonio Zucchi.

The work, Cornelia Presenting Her Children, the Gracchi, as Her Treasures, is a large scale painting depicting an exemplum virtutis from Roman history. Cornelia Africana, the daughter of the general Scipio Africanus, was a Roman matron who exemplified the virtues praised in that society: modesty, chastity, and honor. Her family was of consular rank and she was considered one of the preeminent matrons. However, her importance stems mostly from her two sons and their enduring political legacy. Her sons, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, who are often referred to as the Gracchi, were politicians in the 2nd century BC . They are remembered for attempting to pass land reform and other progressive measures to ease the hardship of the lower classes, effectively attempting to reform the Roman Republic. Both were assassinated, during their tenures as tribunes, by their peers of the patrician class for their actions.

In this work Cornelia is shown conversing with another matron. The other woman has come to Cornelia's home on a social call and is showing off her new jewels and fancy adornments. When the visitor asks to see Cornelia's gems, Cornelia calls for her two sons, the Gracchi, to come forward, presenting them as her greatest treasures. Her loyalty to her sons and their political careers is well-documented by Roman histories such as Plutarch. Her enduring loyalty and great humility were both often used in art as devices to show the traits most prized in women, and have often come under discussion in debates on gender roles. Kauffman's beautiful and touching rendering of the work is suffused with maternal feeling and sentiment. Her works, often depicting scenes of motherhood, are beautiful in the clarity and pose with which she portrayed people and the emotions driving them.


Highlights from My Trip to New York!!

Otto Dix, The Dancer Anita Berber (1925)

Hello Everyone!!

I am back in Madison, fresh off my trip to New York. I saw so much, met some great people, saw old friends and attempted to blaze new trails! The week started off with a bang; tons of galleries on Wednesday and a stop by Sotheby's. I was able to see part of the American paintings auction as it was going on, and the energy in the salesroom looked good! After a blockbuster Wednesday, did some more gallery and museum touring on Thursday and then Friday did a whirlwind tour of some of the exhibits that I had been dying to see. Highlights include:

Otto Dix at the Neue Galerie, (see the above portrait of Anita Berber who I will be posting on later this week because I am completely in love after that exhibition). A revelation for me, I always visit the Neue to see my favorites Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka but Dix has never had a huge draw for me. The exhibit reveals his character by theme and the war and dance hall works were completely know and absolutely beautiful. I am so excited to have a new artist to learn about and one that depicts one of my favorite periods in art history, the early years of the Wiemar Republic. I will be posting on him soon so you can have a better idea of why I think he is so fantastic! :)

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present at the MoMA (see post from Tuesday, April 13, 2010) It was a very interesting exhibit but it seemed like so much information, a complete retrospective of her career, was jammed into a small space. The legion of performance artists performing different aspects of her previous work was strange because the artist was not present in those works anymore and they lost some of their power because of that. Also, the videos of her older work were at times starkly beautiful but at others incomprehensible in their new circumstances. The most interesting and riveting part of the experience was the artist herself seated in the atrium. Though I did not have the time, or patience, to wait to sit across from her myself, observing her intense concentration and full commitment to the work was absolutely fantastic.

Manuscript Illumination: The Belle Hueres of the Duc du Berry by the Limborg Brothers at the Met (see post from Wednesday, April 14, 2010) So fabulous! The entire manuscript is displayed in glass cases with magnifying glasses for each (the only way you are able to fully appreciate the minute details of these works). I was so glad that I was able to see this work that I adore so much in its entirety. By no means the most exciting exhibit in New York it was something I truly enjoyed and if you have any fondness for beautiful craftsmanship and intricate detail, it is a must-see.

Picasso at the Met
Great, nothing spectacularly new. The Gertrude Stein portrait was obviously a huge draw but the rest of the exhibit was much more of a general sketch. Important for anyone with little to no knowledge of the artist, it was a fantastic introduction to all the different themes of his career but lacked some of his blockbuster works.

Malevich at the Guggenheim (see post from Wednesday, May 12, 2010)
The Russian does no wrong in my eyes, as is obvious from my worshipful post. A beautiful show, completely overshadowed the Haunting exhibit going on in the lower floors.

I have included some pictures I took. Both beautiful and a bit fun, like my afternoon at the Cafe Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie (below).