A little Dada goes a long way

No wonder people don’t take art seriously as a profession.

Vilanova’s raincoat, hanging next to an exhibit about Picasso. Hanging it next to a large monochrome picture was great design… by the curator.

An art heist in Paris has the art world laughing at old people once again. A 72-year-old, ‘elderly’ woman mistook an art piece hanging on the wall for an abandoned jacket. Frugal, she took it home and then to a tailor to have the sleeves shortened.

A few days later, she returned to Musée Picasso, only to be immediately arrested.

The artist, Oriol Vilanova, expressed mild surprise that the museum’s security was that lax. They countered that they’d already spoken to him about the risks of hanging a jacket on a nail, and he’d refused to tighten it down. The idea, he pointed out, was that visitors should be free to rifle through the pockets and leaf through the postcards within.

The perp has widely been described as ‘elderly’. That is too often a synonym for ‘clueless’ in these stories. In fact, I suspect she was on Vilanova’s secret payroll, since she catapulted his work into a one-day wonder.

The piece has traveled to other venues since 2017. If the coat is hung next to a Picasso, for example, the pockets are stuffed with postcards of other Picasso paintings. On its own, it’s a fairly thin idea.

La Parisien, which originally reported it, said that this woman had converted the work to a mise en abyme.

mise en abyme is an image within an image, often repeating indefinitely. With the advent of computer science, we’ve started to call that recursion, as it resembles something that happens in software and mathematics.

Las Meninas, 1656-57, Diego Velázquez, courtesy of the Prado

But a mise en abyme doesn’t have to be a straight-up copy; it can be a reference, as in Diego VelázquezLas Meninas, where the artist frames his subjects in the context of having a portrait painted.

This 17th century painting looks for all the world like a snapshot. It’s a portrait of the five-year-old old Infanta Margaret Theresa, who is, in turn, surrounded by her personal coterie of attendants, dogs and dwarves. Velázquez himself is in the picture, as are the hazy images of the king and queen in the mirror in the background.

It is daring, inventive, complex, weird and mysterious. It’s fascinated viewers for almost four hundred years. In comparison, I wouldn’t be fascinated by Vilanova’s recursion for fifteen minutes.

Raincoat hanging over forsythia, 2022, Bruce McMillan, courtesy of the artist. I like it better than the original piece, since it subtly references the issue of our day, the war in Ukraine.

Bruce McMillan, who first pointed out this story to me, asked:

Art installation
on a rainy day
of an artist’s raincoat

hanging over the
flowers the artist
paints where art was to be,

or with unseen eyes
not to be, that was
the silent art question.

I’m afraid I have to come down firmly on the ‘blind’ side. The question Vilanova raises about art reproduction is sophomoric.

A mise en abyme from 20th century commercial art.

There is much in contemporary art that I like, but equally much that I resent. We’re enduring a time of relentless tearing down of western values. That includes the values we have traditionally revered in art: intellect, craftsmanship, beauty.

Western civilization has made us the fattest, happiest, most-literate society in the history of mankind. Even our poorest citizens are wealthier than most of the world. We haven’t endured warfare in our own country since 1865. Our kids have never known true economic privation.

These times are, historically speaking, an anomoly. They’re also an incredible blessing, but as Joni Mitchell once sang, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

Bananas taped to walls? Raincoats stuffed with postcards? They make a mockery of the importance of art, with little serious thought behind them. A little Dada goes a long way, and we’ve endured a century of it so far. No wonder people don’t take art seriously as a profession. 

Monday Morning Art School: the human face

The best portrait painters drag us into the emotional space of their sitters.

Henry VIII at 49, 1540, Hans Holbein the Younger, courtesy Gallerie Nazionali d’arte antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome 

My students will be painting self-portraits this week. One of them asked me for a masterpiece to copy. Without hesitation, I recommended the Tennessee painter Tom Root.

My pal Eric Jacobsen calls Tom Root “a national treasure.” His Holiday (Rest on the Flight to Egypt) is one of the few paintings that carries the western tradition of religious painting successfully into the modern era. He’s technically superlative and keyed into the contemporary zeitgeist. Since I want my students to paint in the modern idiom, it’s best that she studies a modern painter.

La Monomane de l’envie (Insane Woman), 1822, Theodore Gericault, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon

The best portrait painters drag us into the emotional space of their sitters. That is why we can look at a Renaissance painting and feel that sudden start of connection. This is an absurdly truncated list that misses many masterpieces, but it’s a start for any student who wants to study portraiture.

Albrecht Dürer’s Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight could be subtitled, “Look at me and my glorious hair.” Dürer chose to present himself with the iconography usually reserved for Christ, but he’s not saying he’s a god. Rather, he’s telling us that all followers of Jesus are imitators of Christ, and that his own talents are God-given.

How very different is the lesson in Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Book. Bronzino was a Medici court painter, and his portraits are all assured, stylish and reserved. This haughtiness reflects the rarified atmosphere in which he worked, but he still reveals the underlying vanity of youth in this young scholar whose name is lost to time.

The Jester Don Diego de Acedo, c. 1644, Diego Velázquez, courtesy Museo del Prado

Jan van Eyck is known to most of us for the Arnolfini Portrait, truly one of the most beautiful and enigmatic paintings ever made. Its complex iconography, perspective and rare attention to detail are absolutely clear, and yet we have no idea what the painting actually means.

In his day, he was best known for history painting, but the French romantic Theodore Gericault was a sensitive portraitist. He painted a series of ten portraits of the insane, on the encouragement of Dr. Étienne-Jean Georget, a pioneer in psychiatry. His best portraits are the inverse of Bronzino’s—humble, sensitive and honest.

Hans Holbein‘s art is superlatively realistic, and he was able to capture likenesses with rare facility. He had a penetrating understanding of character, and combined technical skill with allusion and symbolism. He must have been a skilled courtier himself, to have survived the intrigues of the English court as well as he did.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, John Singer Sargent, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Sir Anthony van Dyck was a Flemish Baroque artist who became the next great English court painter. He was a favorite of Charles I, and for good reasons: his keen observation, the liveliness of his depictions, and his ability to portray that most elusive of characteristics, majesty.

No list of portrait painters would be complete without Diego Velázquez. Hired to paint popes and princes, his affinity was to the court dwarves and jesters who were kept as enslaved human pets. That doesn’t mean he didn’t understand his regal subjects; his portrait of Pope Innocent X is the penetrating gaze of an ambitious and self-satisfied man.

Rembrandt is considered the greatest painter of the Dutch Golden Age. He was prolific in many genres, but particularly as a student of the human face—especially his own, which he used as a map of the human condition. His Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar is a masterly disquisition on the subject of aging. With age comes wisdom—and sagging jowls.

And then there’s John Singer Sargent, whose motto had to be “Give the people what they want.” He captured the incredible wealth of the Gilded Age, but it’s never clear that he likes his models. In many cases, he reduces them to mannikins, but in The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, he makes a poignant statement about the role of women and girls in society. The girls recede into space in order of age, with the eldest (Florence, age 14) almost enveloped in the darkness of the drawing room.

Embracing imperfection

Seneb with his wife Senites and their children, c. 2520 BC
A photographyesterday of Pope Francis blessing a disfigured man has gone viral on social media. The photo shows the man with his head on the Pope’s chest, his many facial tumors from neurofibromatosis clearly visible.
We live in a world where disfiguring genetic disorders or disease are not common, but that has not always been the case. One of the many miracles of modern medicine is that it masks imperfection, so most of us go through our days never being forcibly reminded of the pain others suffer.
The Leper, Rembrandt, 1631
If the record left to us through art is any indication, our ancestors were better able than we to look on imperfection without flinching.
Seneb was a high-ranking court official in Ancient Egypt. Despite his dwarfism, he was a person of great wealth, who married a high-ranking priestess with whom he had children.
Dwarves played a significant social role in the Spanish Royal Court, escorting the queen on her convent visits, riding with the king, and playing with the kiddies. Some received educations, many married, but there were also dwarves in the court who were mentally retarded, whose lives were limited to playing the buffoon. Diego Velázquez painted a number of invalids and dwarves in the Spanish royal court; they are highly sympathetic portraits, even when the subject is clearly handicapped.
Las Meninas, 1656, by Diego Velázquez
Missionary Lori Delle Nij from Guatemala yesterday related a story about a little boy who was severely burned: “I am so ugly that no one has hugged me since my accident, not even my mommy.”

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

What is the nature of compassion?

Triste Herencia (Sad Inheritance) by Joaquin Sorolla (1899)

In counterpoint to Joaquin Sorolla’smany light and luminous canvases of naked children playing on the beach, Triste Herencia (Sad Inheritance) is a dark painting of children in a dark sea. Examined carefully, the painting is a detailed catalogue of woes—blindness, club foot, leprosy, and above all, polio, which was just starting its reign of terror at the time this was painted.*
Sorolla’s Chicos en la Playa (1910) is more typical of his beach children.
 The monk at the center of it has been on my mind this week. In contrast to my mental image of a compassionate shepherd, this fellow, of the Orden Hospitalaria de San Juan de Dios, appears rather grim—almost intimidating, in fact. He has the stern face and bearing of a saint painted by Zurbarán, or the confessor or inquisitor of our imagination.  Yet he is with great delicacy doing a job few of us would volunteer for.
Dwarves have a long history as palace accessories to the European nobility, so it’s no surprise that they’ve been painted by many masters. Perhaps the most famous of these paintings is Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, which includes both an achondroplasticdwarf (Maria Barbola) imported from Germany and an Italian proportionate dwarf(Nicolas Pertusato), kicking the dog.
The Jester Calabacillas, Bobo de Coria or Juan de Calabazas (1637-1639) by Diego Velázquez
Velázquez painted an entire lexicon of dwarfism, and his portraits are notable both for the respect he shows his subjects and for the honesty with which he portrays their condition. His portrait of Don Juan Calabazas is a highly sympathetic portrait of mental retardation. Calabazas was nicknamed “Calabacillas” or “Pumpkinhead,” a nickname we would find utterly objectionable today. Velázquez does not shrink from Don Juan’s disabilities, carefully documenting his subject’s symptoms, including his vacant smile, the frantic gesturing of his hands, his crouching posture. But in spite of that, Velázquez painted him with as much respect and affection as he ever did Philip IV or his family.
Compare this to the most well-known American painting of disability, Christina’s World, by Andrew Wyeth(1948). One would never crawl across a Maine hayfield naked, so Anna Christine Olson’s disability is masked to some degree by her clothing. But beyond that, the painting tells us nothing about her. It is a carefully constructed, beautiful composition focusing on the surface of the field and the elegant shapes of the buildings. (Both the buildings and the figure are substantially altered from their reality.) 
Christina’s withered limbs are an addendum to a completely separate idea. They draw us into what otherwise would be “Triangular Composition: Girl in Pink Dress on a Grass Field.” Seen in its most cynical light, they’re there to sell the painting.
Christina’s World, by Andrew Wyeth (1948) is a very American view of disability.
That’s not an indictment, of course; Wyeth is just treating disability the way the rest of America does. As the parent of four children, I know that schools offer the disability label as a ticket to purchase compassion from an otherwise inflexible system, and the pressure to buy into this system is overwhelming.  All of this is a diminution to the truly disabled, many of whose withered limbs are hidden from us.
This being the season of the Compassionate Shepherd, I am reminded of his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, told in John 4:4-26.
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
To our modern ears, that’s a pretty harsh exchange, but it was absolutely necessary that she acknowledge her reality before she could begin any process of renewal.
We moderns cannot be honest about the human condition because we are relativists; the only truth we understand as absolute is “don’t be judgmental.” But resolution requires honest assessment. Perhaps it is no surprise after all that Sorolla’s monk starts with the naked, brutal truth to help his poor charges. Perhaps it is no surprise that he is grim.


*I was shocked to read that polio epidemics were a 20th century scourge, although the disease itself has been known since antiquity. Before the 20th century, poor sanitation resulted in a constant exposure to the polio virus, which provided natural immunity from infancy. As sanitation improved in Europe, childhood exposure declined. The first localized epidemics occurred in Europe and the United States around 1900, the time Sorolla painted Triste Herencia.