Monday, October 12, 2015

Joan Mitchell, Lousy Artist

I noticed that a Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) painting was auctioned for nearly twelve million dollars. Perhaps the buyer was simply speculating that Mitchell's works would appreciate in value in the future. Maybe it was an expensive gesture of solidarity with feminism. Possibly the buyer was dead drunk at the time.

A reasonably detailed Wikipedia biography of Mitchell is here. It notes that she spent two years at Smith, a Seven Sisters college (the Ivy League equivalent for women in times past), then studied at the Art Institute of Chicago where she earned BFA and MFA degrees. It also mentions that her health was poor for about ten years before she died. Not much touched-on was that she was very difficult to get along with, though that's irrelevant regarding her art which was Abstract Expressionist, having no intrinsic meaning or message.

Below are some images of Mitchell's paintings that I grabbed off the Internet. I'll use them to help explain why I think she was a lousy artist.


Mitchell in her studio
She was of the "action painter" variety of Abstract Expressionism, where brushwork is the featured component of the painting. Seen here are several works that are large, have essentially white backgrounds, and use a similar set of other colors. I imagine that she could crank out an average of at least one of these a day.

Untitled - 1951
This was done the year after she got her MFA degree, It shows a bit of compositional structure, unlike most of her later work.

City Landscape - 1955
This too exhibits some structure -- in the form of pseudo-Cloisonnist (or Cubist?) light-colored segments offset by a tangle of other colors

Untitled - 1957
An "action" painting lacking the kind of purposeful or structured action paint strokes of, say,  Franz Kline. Mitchell is doing little more than simply smearing paint.

Sale neige - 1980
She spent much of her career in France, hence the "dirty snow" title.

Buckwheat - 1982
Like the previous painting, Mitchell at least uses colors to roughly establish zones for her consistently agitated brushwork that seems to have featured shorter strokes as her career progressed.

Before, After II - 1985
Painted when her health began to worsen. Like "Buckwheat," she uses essentially opposing colors, here with the little white and black and a touch of red to make the effect less relentless.

So far as I'm concerned, Mitchell's greatest defect is that her paintings are not very interesting. Her color choices are often poor, though Sale neige and Buckwheat show some spark. Her "action" brushwork strikes me as little more than dithering. As for composition, often enough it's a matter of placing a blob of increasingly dense dithering towards the center of the canvas.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Jugendstil in Ålesund

Yes, that's a large photo of Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II in the window of a building in Ålesund, Norway. And nearby is Keiser Wilhelms gate (Emperor William's Lane), a street named after the man. Why would that be?

It seems that Ålesund in the early 20th century was a ramshackle small city comprised of mostly wooden buildings. Then, on 23 January 1904, it was mostly destroyed in a great fire.

Following that disaster, much of Europe pitched in to help rebuild the city. And the most important booster of the project was the Kaiser, whose efforts are still greatly appreciated, as this Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung article notes. Wilhelm had an imperial yacht and loved to take summer cruises, often in the Norwegian fjord country where he had become fond of Ålesund. Besides money and materials, Germany sent in architects to help rebuild the city in a more fire-resistant manner.

In 1904 the fashionable architectural style in Europe was Art Nouveau or Jugendstil, as it was called in Germany. Architectural Art Nouveau is largely a matter of ornamentation that varied in its degree of complexity or elaboration from place to place. At the elaborate extreme is Latvian Art Nouveau as seen in certain neighborhoods in Riga. German Jugendstil, on the other hand, was largely limited to small amounts of decoration, though certain details of building form were also involved. That said, it isn't surprising that Ålesund's Jugendstil architecture by German and Norwegian architects followed the German pattern.

Below are more photos of Ålesund I took on a dreary July morning before stores had opened.


The gray-brown building at the left is a former pharmacy that's now a museum or center devoted to Ålesund Jugendstil.

A mix of classical and Jugendstil.

In this ensemble we see bits of ornamentation, but mostly Jugendstil building form details such as those curved windows.

Back to where I started. Kaiser Wilhelm's photo is at the right-hand side of this image (you can glimpse his head).

Monday, October 5, 2015

Maurice Utrillo, Not-Quite-Forgotten Modernist

Back around 1960, Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955) was still being featured as an example of modernism in an art history class I took in college. But his reputation was probably on the wane by then, and he became more of a historical footnote in the years that followed. His Wikipedia entry is here, and a web site dedicated to him is here.

I haven't followed prices of Utrillo paintings, so can't say when or if they bottomed out. So far as I know, they didn't fall to ha'penny type prices as happened for a while for the likes of William Bouguereau, and recent sales prices of some Utrillos have been at more than 100K in euros, pounds and U.S. dollars.

The most interest in Utrillo seems to be in France, where the Pinacothèque de Paris had a 2009 exhibition devoted to him and his mother, the model/painter Suzanne Valadon.

Utrillo himself was a mess at the personal level. Besides being alcoholic, he was in general a weak man with mental problems. The art training he got was from his mother, who learned her craft in her modeling days from the likes of Edgar Degas. Plus, he spent many years in Paris' Montmartre neighborhood, home to painters of the bohemian sort and absorbed the setting and the art being made there.

His best paintings were made during the first 20 or so years of his career, when he worked on his cityscapes outdoors. Some references refer to this as his "white" period, because the buildings he depicted mostly had nearly-white walls, a Parisian characteristic. Later on, he was reduced to painting indoors, using picture postcard images as references.

Despite all that was working against him, Utrillo gained a strong reputation and his paintings sold well. Some examples are shown below.


Rue Muller à Montmartre - ca. 1908

La Basilique du Sacré-Coeur, Paris
In the 1920s, Utrillo lived only a few blocks from where this was painted.

Cabaret du Lapin Agile
This was down the hill from where he once lived.

Paris street - 1914
Is that the Moulin de la Galette in the distance?

Suburban street
Utrillo also lived outside Paris at times.

Rue de la Jonquiere, Paris

Rue de l'Éperon, et rue de Coutellerie, Pontoise

Théatre de L'Atelier sous la neige - ca. 1918

Notre-Dame, Paris
This might have been from a postcard-based reference.

I find it hard to evaluate Utrillo's paintings. Many have a kind of charm. They have a "primitive" or "untrained" feel to them, but not completely. That's because Utrillo either was taught perspective or had an intuitive sense of it. Not that he practiced it consistently, but part of the ethos of artistic Modernism was the rejection of previous standards, and this inconsistency probably helped to establish his modernist reputation.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Piet van der Hem, Dutch Illustrator and Painter

Pieter van der Hem (1885-1961), called "Piet," came to my attention thanks to this Sept. 21, 2015 post on David Apatoff's Illustration Art blog. Apatoff was contrasting van der Hem's painting and conventional illustration career with his work during the Great War as a political cartoonist in neutral Amsterdam. According to his Dutch Wikipedia entry, he did further editorial cartooning after the war.

I found his wartime cartoons to be of the standard-issue anti-war kind as found in leftist publications such as The Masses. The post-war cartoons I noticed while Googling seemed to be mostly gentle in tone, such as might be found in American general-interest magazines of that time. (Though I easily could have missed harsher ones that failed to pop up during my search.)

Below are examples of van der Hem's painting and illustration. He was versatile, and had a nice touch better suited to illustration than Fine Arts painting.


A Promenade on the Pincio, Rome
This was included in David Apatoff's blog post.

Moulin Rouge - ca. 1908-09

Spanish scene - 1914
Apparently van der Hem spent some time in Spain.


Flamenco Dancer, Madrid - 1914

Woman waiting at a restaurant table

Lezende Echtpaar - Couple reading

Exhibit poster - 1913

In het theater - In the Theatre
This might have been painted after 1930.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Gustav Klimt's Houses at Unterach on the Attersee

The painting shown above is Häuser in Unterach am Attersee (Houses at Unterach on the Attersee) painted around 1916 by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). He often summered in the Austrian lake district even while the Great War was raging  It has been theorized that Klimt used a telescope for this view; the perspective certainly is flattened in the manner of a telephoto lens image. Biographical information on Klimt can be found here.

The approximately meter-square painting was auctioned at Christies in New York City on 8 November 2006. The pre-auction estimate was $18-25 million, but it sold for $31,376,000.

It was one of a group of Klimt paintings owned by the Bloch-Bauer family that were confiscated by the Nazis following the 1938 Anschluss. After the war they were in the hands of the Austrian government and displayed in Vienna's Belvedere where I saw some in the late 1990s. A descendent of the family sued for their return, and eventually succeeded. Thereafter, they were sold, as mentioned here (scroll down).

The last time we were in Vienna, my wife and I stopped by the Österreichische Werkstätten (Austrian Workshops), Kärntner Strasse 6, 1010 Wien, Österreich and spotted serigraphs of the painting. We decided to buy one the next day, but by then the rolled-up version had been sold and what remained was the serigraph attached to a stretcher. The cost of shipping it to Seattle was about the same as that of the serigraph itself, so I later wrapped it and it managed to survive the air trip home. It was properly framed and now hangs over our fireplace.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Mr. Munch and Mrs. Schwarz

In July I was working my way through the Edvard Munch (1863-1944) portion of the Rasmus Meyer collection at the Bergen, Norway Kunstmuseet when I noticed the painting that I then immediately photographed (see above). It is a portrait study of Mrs. (Fru in Norwegian, Frau in German) Helene Schwarz, made in 1906 when Munch was in Berlin.

I am ambivalent regarding Munch, who I wrote about here. I'm not fond of most of his work, but acknowledge that he was capable of drawing and painting in reasonable and interesting ways at times -- mostly early in his career. I consider his Schwarz series among his better efforts.

He made at least three versions of Mrs. Schwarz that survive, all done in 1906; they are shown below. But it wasn't until 2013 that the identity of Mrs. Schwarz was provisionally found. The account is here. It seems that Helene Schwarz was the wife of Georg Schwarz, a consultant to the Cassirer art gallery in Berlin. Before marrying him, she served as a companion to Ernst and Toni Cassirer. It also seems that Georg wanted to buy the final painting, but Munch refused the offer and eventually sold it in Norway.


An image of the above portrait study found at the The Athenaeum website (scroll down).

A drawing or lithographic print of Mrs. Schwarz.

The final portrait painting.

A photograph of Mrs. Schwarz (at right) with her son Andreas and perhaps a nanny.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Coping With the Great Depression: John Newton Howitt

Note: I drafted this on 13 June for later posting. Now it turns out Illustration Magazine's just-released Issue No. 49 has a large article on John Newton Howitt. Below is what I wrote in June regarding Howitt.

* * * * *

John Newton Howitt (1885-1958) is an illustrator not widely known these days. But I'd place him in the "successful" category because he made the American illustration Big Time by doing occasional cover art for the Saturday Evening Post, the leading general-interest magazine in his time.

A reasonably detailed biographical sketch can be found here, a Web site devoted to illustrators working for "pulp" magazines. Printed on cheap, pulp (thick, with rough surfaces) paper, they flourished during the Great Depression of the 1930s specializing in fiction topics such as crime, science-fiction, cowboys, romance, terror, adventure and such.

So what was an illustrator for "slick" (smooth, quality paper) magazines such as the Post doing in the pulp field? He was trying to maintain his livelihood during the Depression, and the pulp market was doing well thanks to escapist subjects and cheap news stand prices. Some better-known illustrators such as Tom Lovell and Walter Baumhofer got their start in pulps, eventually graduating to the slicks. So Howitt was an exception, doing slicks work before and after the Depression and pulps and the occasional slick during those trying years.

Howitt signed his Fine Art and slicks illustrations with his full name. His pulp work either wasn't signed at all or else he simply used the initial "H" to identify it. Apparently many of the originals of his pulp work were destroyed. One source stated the Howitt himself did it, another claims it was his wife.


Buried Treasure - (Cream of Wheat breakfast cereal advertisement) - 1909

The Symphony - ca. 1925
This might be a Fine Arts painting, but could just as well be art for advertising radios.

Probably a Fine Arts painting - 1910s?

Mother and children illustration - late 1920s

Farm family - probably an illustration from the 1930s

Holland's Magazine cover - May, 1929

Horror Stories cover - January 1935

Terror Tales cover - November 1935
Howitt's work was noticeably better than that found on many pulp covers (Baumhofer and a few others excepted).

Saturday Evening Post cover, 20 September 1936

Saturday Evening Post cover, 19 October 1940
The joke here is that the sailor sees a photo of a soldier (!!!) falling out of the purse.