Arts Unsolved Mysteries

Whether it be Edgar Allan Poe or Vincent van Gogh, an artists life is often full of mystery. In some cases, their deaths are too.

 

ABOVE: Tom Thomson, The Jack Pine, 1916-17, oil on canvas, 50.4 x 54.7 inches, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Life is inherently mysterious. For the following artists, so too was death:

Edgar Allan Poe

In 1849, at the age of 40, a delirious Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore. Incoherent, and wearing someone else’s clothes, he was unable to tell anyone what happened, and he died 4 days after being found.

Vincent van Gogh

In 1890, at the age of 37, van Gogh stumbled into town with a gunshot wound to the chest. It is believed he shot himself, but no gun was ever found, and there were no witnesses. Despite being in good spirits, he died 29 hours after arriving home.

Tom Thomson

In 1917, at the age of 39, Thomson disappeared on a canoeing trip in Algonquin Park – his body was found 8 days later, floating alone in Canoe Lake. While some theories suggest murder, others suicide, the official cause of death was listed as accidental drowning. No one knows exactly when he died.

Caravaggio

In 1610, at the age of 38, Caravaggio died in Tuscany – his death has been shrouded in mystery ever since. While Syphilis or murder have long been suspected, another recent theory has been lead poisoning. Like Thomson, no one knows exactly how, or when he died.

A World Without Art

To quote a often shared internet meme, “The earth without art is just eh.” Simple but true. Wiser words have yet to be said.

 

ABOVE: Earth’s Western Hemisphere, Photo: © NASA

Philistine: A person who is guided by materialism and is usually disdainful of intellectual or artistic values. Merriam-Webster

Imagine if there were no Michelangelo, Picasso, or van Gogh. Imagine if there were no Mona Lisa, Guernica, or Dogs Playing Poker. No art on museum walls. No art on your walls. No art anywhere.

While I don’t think the above scenario is at all possible – even cavemen made art – I’ve met my fair share of philistines. Heck, my current mayor is one.

Yes, there is a lot of bullshit out there. Yes, there is a lot of elitism. All that aside, WE NEED ART! We need it in our homes. We need it on our walk to work. We need it in our schools.

In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.” It would indeed.

Art and Politics: Part 2

According to Ai Weiwei, “Creativity is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential.” On that note, here is another edition of Art and Politics.

 

ABOVE: Ai Weiwei by Duyanpili, Photo: © Gao Yuan 高远, 2009

No discussion on political art would be complete without mention of the following:

Pablo Picasso, Guernica

On April 26, 1937, German and Italian planes launched an aerial attack on the Spanish town of Guernica. The bombing – done at the request of Francisco Franco – shattered the city’s defenses, and allowed Franco’s Nationalists to overrun it.

While the number of deaths has been widely debated, the raids destroyed the majority of Guernica, and transformed the sleepy Spanish town into an everlasting symbol of civilian suffering.

Picasso – who was living in Paris at the time – was so affected by these raids, that he immediately began work on what would become his greatest political masterpiece, Guernica.

The mural sized painting was first displayed in the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair, but was later sent to the United States to raise funds and support for Spanish refugees. Vowing that Guernica wouldn’t return to Spain so long as Franco was in power, Picasso requested that it be temporarily housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In 1981 – six years after the death of Franco  – it returned to Spain.

In the years since its creation, Guernica has become a powerful cultural icon that speaks to humanity not only against war, but also of hope and peace.

The Guerrilla Girls, Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?

In 1985,  the Museum of Modern Art (in New York City) held an exhibition titled An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture. Of the 169 artists on display, only 13 were female.

In response to the show, a group of anonymous female artists decided to speak out against the sexism of the art world. They called themselves the Guerrilla Girls, and owing to their new name, they wore gorilla masks to hide their identities.

Since its formation, the group has fought for female artists by making curators, dealers, and even critics accountable. They do this, in part, by producing posters that list the number of male and female artists on display in major museums. Ironically, many of these posters have entered the collections of the museums they renounce.

While the world, and by extension the art world, has changed a lot since 1985, inequality still exists, and because of it, the Guerrilla Girls have yet to hang up their masks.

Ai Weiwei, Remembering

On May 12, 2008, an earthquake measuring 8.0 on the richter scale, rocked the Chinese province of Sichuan. Known simply as The Great Sichuan Earthquake, it  killed 69,195 people, and left 18,392 missing.

Amidst the chaos, many schools collapsed, and thousands of children lost their lives. When he visited the area, Ai Weiwei noticed that it was littered with school supplies. Knowing that the buildings collapsed as a result of poor construction, and knowing that the Chinese authorities would attempt to cover it all up, Weiwei decided to create the installation Remembering.

Constructed from nine thousand children’s backpacks, Remembering was installed on the façade of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany in 2009. Among the backpacks was the sentence “She lived happily for seven years in this world.” It was spelled out in Chinese characters, and was a direct quote from one of the children’s mothers.

For his outspoken efforts, Ai Weiwei has been beaten (see above photo) and detained. Throughout it all, he has remained defiant.

Art and Politics: Part 1

History clearly has a wrong side. While many would like to forget the past, the following artists have chosen to confront it – head on, and with a vengeance.

 

ABOVE: J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840, oil on canvas, 35.7 x 48.3 inches, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Great art is often political in nature. These pieces certainly are:

Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808

In 1807, Napoleon took over Spain and made his brother Joseph, the new King.

On May 2, 1808, hundreds of Spaniards rebelled.

In retaliation, the rebels were rounded up, and executed by the French on May 3, 1808.

Completed in 1814, The Third of May 1808 commemorates the Spanish resistance, and is a powerful depiction of man’s inhumanity to man.

Goya’s masterpiece has inspired many political artworks, among them, Picasso’s Guernica.

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People

The July Revolution of 1830 took place in Paris and resulted in the toppling of  King Charles X.  In its wake, Louis Philippe took the throne and ruled under the July Monarchy until 1848.

In Liberty Leading the People, a woman (symbolizing Liberty) leads the people over the bodies of the fallen, while holding a musket and the French flag. Behind her, are fighters from a mix of social classes.

Quite controversial in its time, the work was seen as a staunch anti-monarchist symbol, and it enraged royalists and monarchists alike.

After the June Rebellion of 1832, the painting was returned to the artist where it was hidden in an attic for being too revolutionary. In 1874, it entered the collection of the Louvre.

In the years since, the female figure – commonly known as Marianne – has come to symbolize the French Republic and France itself. She was also the inspiration for the Statue of Liberty.

J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship

In 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered that 133 slaves be thrown overboard so that insurance payments could be collected. It is believed that this event was Turner’s inspiration.

Although the British Empire outlawed slavery in 1833, Turner and many other abolitionists wanted it outlawed around the world. As such, he choose to coincide its exhibition with a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society.

The famous art critic John Ruskin was the paintings first owner, but he grew to find the subject too painful, and decided to find the work a new home.

The Slave Ship changed hands a number of times before it was purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It has been on display there since 1899.

Bad News Art Reviews

So long as there are artists, there will be critics. Sometimes they’re nice. Oftentimes they’re not. The following reviews hit like a Mack Truck.

 

ABOVE: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold – Falling Rock, oil on canvas, circa 1872-77, 23.7 x 18.3 inches, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit,  Photo: © Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit [2014]

Andy Warhol once said, “Don’t read your reviews. Weigh them.” Good advice. Now weigh these:

Ernest Chesneau on the first Impressionist exhibition

“[A young group of painters] has opened an exhibition on the boulevard des Capucines. If they had had the courage of their convictions (or strong enough backs to run and bear the risks) they might perhaps have managed to strike a considerable blow. Their attempt, very deserving of sympathy, is in danger of being stillborn because it is not sufficiently emphatic.” Paris Journal – May 7, 1974

John Ruskin on James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rock’

“I have seen and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas [210 British pounds] for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Flors Clavigera – July, 1877

Louis Vauxcelles on Henri Matisse’s ‘Blue Nude (Souvenir de Biskra)’

“I admit to not understanding. An ugly nude woman is stretched out upon grass of an opaque blue under the palm trees… This is an artistic effect tending towards the abstract that escapes me completely.” Gil Blas – March 20, 1907

Bruno Alfieri on the work of Jackson Pollock

“It is easy to detect the following things in all of his paintings: chaos; absolute lack of harmony; complete lack of structural organization; total absence of technique, however rudimentary; once again, chaos.” Chaos, Damn It! – 1950

Tom Lubbock on Damien Hirst’s exhibition of paintings at the Wallace Collection

“These Hirst paintings… They’re thoroughly derivative. Their handling is weak. They’re extremely boring. I’m not saying that he’s absolutely hopeless. But I’m not saying he’s any good either… To try to be accurate: Hirst, as a painter, is at about the level of a not-very-promising, first-year art student. He is in his mid-forties.” The Independent – October 14, 2009

Meet Me at the McMichael

From Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, to Mary Pratt and the Painters Eleven, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection is a who’s who of Canadian Art.

 

ABOVE: Lawren Harris, Ellesmere Island, 1930, oil on wood panel, 12 x 15 inches

BELOW: The gravestone of Lawren Harris and his wife Bess in the McMichael Cemetary

If you grew up in or around Toronto, chances are you went on a school field trip to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario. I recently (re)visited for the first time since childhood.

Established in 1969, the McMichael has an extensive collection that includes some of Canada’s most renowned artists. Whether you’re a fan of Emily Carr or Norval Morrisseau, all the stars are here, and then some.

As outstanding as the art is, so too is the building it is housed, and the grounds on which it is set. You really couldn’t ask for a better spot – it is distinctly Canadian.

Six members of the Group of Seven are buried at the McMichael, among them, my favorites A.J. Casson and Lawren Harris. Visiting their graves was a unique and humbling experience I will not soon forget.

Although the collections most iconic piece – Casson’s White Pine – was inexplicably absent, there wasn’t much else to complain about. Save for the weather, the whole experience was near perfect.

If you’re a fan of Canadian art, or looking to learn more about it, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection is a must-visit.

 

This coming fall, I will be exhibiting my work in the 24th Annual Autumn Art Sale at the McMichael. The exhibition runs from Friday, October 24 to Sunday, October 26, 2014. 

Blogs for Artists

Whatever your interest, the internet’s got it. From tips and tricks, to news and reviews, if art is your thing, you’ll dig the following blogs.

 

I love art blogs. Here are some of my favorites:

Hyperallergic

Billing itself as a forum for playful, serious, and radical perspectives on art and culture in the world today, Hyperallergic pulls no punches – case in point, this review of Jeff Koons at the Whitney.

Art F City

In addition to blunt criticism, Art F City keeps it casual with a section called STUFF. Basically, STUFF is a look inside the lives of artists through their personal possessions. A unique peak inside the creative mind.

Artyshark

With tons of articles on how to launch and grow a successful art or craft business, Aryshark is a valuable resource for artists at any stage of their career. Art + Business is especially useful.

Artpromotivate

Like Artyshark, Artpromotivate provides lots of free tips on a variety of topics such as art promotion, websites and blogging. You can even get an artist spotlight free of charge.

Edward Winkleman

Gallery owner, curator and author, Ed Winkleman’s blog is a mix of art news, reviews and tips. His Advice for Artists Seeking Gallery Representation is a must read for anyone looking to get signed.

Colossal

Light on the text and heavy on the eye candy, Colossal goes without the heavy discourse of most art blogs and focuses almost entirely on the inventive. Here are some of the sites top articles.

The Art of Selling Out

Is it really that easy to spot a sell out? Some would say yes. I’m not so sure. There are some strong opinions out there, but easy targets aside, what is a sell out anyways?

 

ABOVE: 2007 Presidential $1 Coin image from the United States Mint

According to Wikipedia, selling out is:

“The compromising of integrity, morality, authenticity or principles in exchange for personal gain, such as money. In terms of music or art, selling out is associated with attempts to tailor material to a mainstream or commercial audience.”

While I do think it’s possible for an artist to sell out, far too often, the term is used to deride the successful and boost the ego of the accuser –  who liked them ‘before’ they were successful.

Truth be told, unless you can read the mind of the artist, you’re not really qualified to call them a sell out.

Only they know for sure.

They have to.

Right?