War and rumors of war

The violence and inhumanity of war is apparently a lesson that every generation needs to learn for itself.

The Third of May 1808, 1814, Francisco Goya, courtesy Museo del Prado.

Francisco Goya was the most important Spanish artist of his day. His late painting, The Dog, was an icon for modern and symbolist painters through the 20th century. There’s a good reason: it prefigures modern art.

Goya became a court painter in 1786 and the First Court Painter to the Bourbon monarchy in 1799. This made him, in effect, a courtier of the Crown. As expressive as his painting was, he wrote nothing about current affairs.

In 1808, Napoleon turned on his former allies and occupied Spain. He forced the abdication of the King and installed his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne. Spaniards rejected French rule and fought a long and bloody guerrilla war to oust them.

The Third of May 1808, 1814, Francisco Goya, courtesy Museo del Prado.

The war started with the Dos de Mayo Uprising, the reprisals to which were memorably recorded by Goya in his masterpiece above. This was painted in 1814, after the war ended. Whatever his private thoughts, Goya meant to stay alive and working.

Goya remained in Madrid through the conflict. His ruminations resulted in a series of prints called The Disasters of War. That’s a modern title; Goya’s only written comment was on a proof-set, where he wrote, “Fatal consequences of Spain’s bloody war with Bonaparte, and other emphatic caprices.” In using the word caprichos, which also translates as ‘whims’, Goya said a mouthful.

Plate 10: Tampoco (Nor do these). Spanish women being raped, Francisco Goya from The Disasters of War, courtesy Museo del Prado.

The Disasters of War is a series of 82 prints, finished between 1810 and 1820. They are an expression of revulsion against the violence of the Peninsular War, an outpouring from the gut against the inhumanity of war. There is no polemic about the causes of the conflict, despite the fact that Goya retained his position in the Bourbon court while working on them. They were private works, and not published until 35 years after his death. Their influence has been incalculable.

Fast forward to 2003 and a pair of British art enfants terrible, Jake and Dinos Chapman. They purchased a folio of the Disasters of Warand set about systematically defacing it with cartoon figures drawn over Goya’s art. They called this appropriation work, Insult to Injury and the overall show Rape of Creativity.

One image of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s defacing of Disasters of War, which they retitled, What is this hubbub?

“Drawings of mutant Ronald McDonalds, a bronze sculpture of a painting showing a sad-faced Hitler in clown make-up and a major installation featuring a knackered old caravan and fake dog turds,” is how the BBC described the show at the time.

For this twitting of human suffering, they should have been spanked and sent to their rooms. Instead, they were nominated for the Turner Prize.

The Chapmans were born in the 1960s. They have lived through the longest period of peace in modern British history. The Disasters of Warmight have seemed funny to them, but it would not have amused those who remembered the convulsions of the two great 20th century European wars.

That kind of generational amnesia is an odd function of the human mind. It’s the only possible explanation for why we get into war over and over again.

I hadn’t meant to write on this subject, but the war in Ukraine couldn’t have happened without the slow forgetting of the violence and inhumanity that is war. Apparently, it’s a lesson that every generation needs to learn for itself.

What about Goya?

Who really invented abstraction? Everyone.
A dog engulfed in sand, 1819-1823, Francisco Goya, courtesy of Museo del Prado

A thoughtful reader sent me this essay yesterday, which nominates the Swedish painter Hilma af Klint, rather than Wassily Kandinsky, as the first practitioner of abstract art. Like Kandinsky, she was a follower of Madame Helena Blavatsky, occultist, spirit medium, and founder of Theosophy. Like Kandinsky, she believed her abstract paintings were, in fact, representations of spiritual ideas.

When I studied art back in the last millennium, the first abstract painting was attributed to the great Spanish romantic, Francisco Goya. The painting in question, now called A Dog Engulfed in Sand, or simply El Perro, was one of Goya’s so called ‘black paintings,’ from the end of his life. These are haunted works, reflecting Goya’s bitter disillusionment and fears.  He had lived through the terrible Napoleonic Wars and their political aftermath in Spain. He was elderly, nearly deaf, and had survived two brushes with death.
Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (Rainstorm over the Sea), 1824-28, John Constable, courtesy Royal Academy of Arts
Goya never intended El Perro or any of the other black paintings to be shown. By the 20th century, however, El Perro was famous. Pablo Picasso certainly knew it. Antonio Saura called it “the most beautiful picture in the world”. Rafael Canogar described it as the first symbolist painting of the West. The sculptor Pablo Serrano paid homage to it.
A study in pencil, ink, ink wash, brush and pen, for The Death of the Virgin, 1601-1606, Caravaggio
“The sleep of reason begets monsters,” wrote Goya about Los Caprichos. By the end of his life, the monsters were visiting him during the daytime, too.
Any meaning we ascribe to A Dog Engulfed in Sand comes from its title. That was added later, by art historians. None of the black paintings were titled. They were intensely private, painted as murals on his walls. And what a happy home that must have been.
The Monk by the Sea, c. 1808–1809, Caspar David Friedrich
At first sight, El Perro doesn’t seem to be a figurative painting at all. Two dominant blocks of color intersect. At that point a blob of grey paint, the face of a dog, represents all of Goya’s anguished humanity. We, the viewers, are being squashed between relentless forces.
“Abstraction” is a word Goya would not have understood, let alone used. But it is abstraction that gives El Perro its awful power.
Mountain market, clearing mist, Yu Jian, Song Dynasty, China
Many early artists used raw abstraction to work out ideas, or just to doodle, just as figurative painters still do today. I’ve included a few famous examples here, ranging from Caravaggio to Caspar David Friedrich. And that’s just in the western canon. In eastern art, the idea of the voidmeant that slavish adherence to representation was never a paramount virtue.

How to make art that stands the test of time

Occasionally, someone wonders whether an emerging painter will end up being a superstar. Can we ever tell?
Iowa Cornfield, 1941, Grant Wood, courtesy Wikipedia.
This week I contemplated a piece of contemporary art with a gallerist. “I don’t see thinking,” she said. “I only see beautiful contours. It’s content-free. There is no struggle.”
I can’t imagine anything more stultifying than striving to be in the Pantheon of Great Artists. However, the question of what makes great art is an important one. Great art must satisfy long after the flash of novelty dissipates. How does it do that?

The Ghent Altarpiece, early 15th century, Hubert and Jan van Eyck, courtesy Wikipedia.
It ought to go without saying that mastery of one’s craft is the primary job of the artist. Sadly, that’s not always true in contemporary western art, where ephemeral ideas sometimes mean more than specialized competence. However, if one looks back at art which has staying power, it’s always technically superb. How do you get to Carnegie Hall, sister? Practice, practice, practice.
Art is a process of exploration, a constant revolution. An artist must travel beyond his abilities every time he picks up a brush, or he begins to parody himself. The end of our training is, conversely, the beginning of our real education.
People sometimes tell me that they want to be ‘more consistent’ in their painting. I think that’s a trap, antithetical to the idea of development. A consistent body of work just comes with time.

Saturn Devouring His Son, 1820–23, Francisco Goya, courtesy Wikipedia.

Emotional content
One reason I hate writing artist’s statements is that I believe my real content is inexplicable. You, the outsider, might understand it, but the word-spewing part of my brain never will. Still, I hope my simple trees, boats and rocks convey something greater than their nominal subject.
There’s lots of art that’s didactic, and I’ve produced much of it myself. But didacticism is not necessary. Nor is it the hallmark of real artistic maturity, which somehow moves beyond issues.
The Railway, 1873, Édouard Manet, courtesy Wikipedia.
Within the vision of our times
Johann Sebastian Bach is recognized as one of the greatest composers of history. His period and his style were the Baroque. He was one of its last practitioners. He grew up within its aesthetic and it reached a climax in his writing. He was both within the vision of his time and the full flowering of that vision.
Knowing whether we’re painting within our period is difficult. In my first class with Cornelia Foss, she had me paint an orange on a tray. “If it was 1950, I’d say ‘Brava’,” she said. “But it’s not.” It was the best criticism I’ve ever received—she was telling me my technique was fine, but my style was dated.
We’re not Hudson River painters, we’re not Dutch Golden Age painters. This is the 21st century, and we need to paint what speaks to our peers. That’s often uncomfortable, and frequently a mystery.
You can’t count on your audience for advice with this. They’re as mystified as we are.
Bach was forgotten soon after his death. His works were rediscovered by Felix Mendelssohn. In 1823 Mendelssohn’s grandmother gave him a copy of the score for Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Five years later, Mendelssohn mounted a performance of this long-forgotten masterpiece. His selfless promotion of a dead artist gave Bach his rightful place in music history.

Institutional Thuggery

If we let the United Airlines mugging go unpunished, we can kiss our democracy goodbye.
The Third of May 1808, 1814, Francisco Goya, Prado

For most of human history, citizens have, rightly, feared their governments or their neighbor’s governments. Ever since we ceded the power of defense to men on horseback, we’ve been in a battle for control. Much of the time the knights on horseback were the winners.

The 20th century was the age of the dystopian novel, because it was a century where governments repeatedly killed millions of their own and others’ citizens. My generation was educated on Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451, Alas, Babylon, and A Clockwork Orange. These books warned us about our governments, but didn’t see the American corporation as a possible threat to our liberty and privacy.
Every morning, when I finish writing this blog, I look at Google Analytics. It tells me the age and gender of people who read my blog and website, where you live, what you’re interested in, and how long you tarry. That’s pretty low-level data mining, but it’s as much information as I want.  Others use your browsing and buying habits for more direct marketing. That, for example, is how the ads are populated in your Facebook feed and why you keep getting on more and more email lists.
Sturm (Riot), 1897, Käthe Kollwitz
Since President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about “unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex” in his farewell address, there have been scattered warnings about the potential dangers of collusion between government and business. This week’s news story of a man being dragged off a United flight is an example of why we should worry more about this than about our government alone. A government employee (a Chicago Department of Aviation security officer) was used to drag a passenger from a plane owned by the world’s fourth-largest airline. The citizen has very few tools to resist that combination of power.
I am reminded of an incident from the end of the Roman Republic. Publius Clodius Pulcher was an aristocrat who knew that success was to be had by masquerading as one of the guys. As Tribune, he passed populist legislation that culminated in the disastrous free grain dole. He also deregulated gangs. That meant that thugs could roam Roman streets threatening anyone who opposed our man Clodius. In the end, that violence cost Clodius’ own life, but it was also the end of representational government in Rome.
Students of more modern history will remember the role played by the Sturmabteilung (SA) in destabilizing already-tottering Germany to make room for the Nazis.
St Just Tin Miners, 1935, Harold C. Harvey , Royal Cornwall Museum
Jackbooted thugs can never be allowed to function with impunity, whether they’re acting on behalf of the government or an airline. They must be ruthlessly suppressed through the courts, in the marketplace, and in public discussion. That includes through art.

Do we, as artists, have the chops and courage to paint such scenes?  Or have we been diddling with ‘concept’ for so long that none of us can describe reality with our brushes? It’s easy to spray-paint slogans on a wall and pretend that’s art. It’s much more demanding to reproduce the faces of suffering, as did Käthe Kollwitz, Francisco Goya, and many others who came before us.

Massacre in Aleppo

“Diaspora,” by Hope M. Ricciardi, remembers the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923.

“Diaspora,” by Hope M. Ricciardi, remembers the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923.
The UN believes around 50,000 civilians are still trapped inside rebel-held East Aleppo, Syria. They were to be evacuated this morning but latest reports are that the buses sent to carry them out remain idle and shelling has resumed.
This is certainly the worst holocaust of the new millennium. The trapped include a large number of children, who have been the most vulnerable victims of the bombings all along. At least 82 civilians, including women and children, were shot on Monday, according to a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. One imagines it will get worse.
Now comes the inevitable hand-wringing. As Julie Lenarz writes in a heartbreaking essay in the Telegraph, we’re once again reduced to saying, “never again” when it’s already too late.
“The Third of May 1808,” 1814, Francisco Goya

“The Third of May 1808,” 1814, Francisco Goya
Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Located at one end of the Silk Road, it was a cosmopolitan mix of the world’s people. In the 20th century, after the Suez Canal had bypassed it as a trading center, it became a refuge for Armenian Christians fleeing genocide (some of whose descendants are now trapped).
Modern Aleppo was home to more than 2 million people, some of whom have escaped and many of whom have been killed. We had the opportunity to intervene when the costs were lower; we inexplicably sat on our hands. Today a consortium of Russia, a genocidal dictator (Assad) and the world’s leading state sponsor of Islamic terrorism (Iran) control most of the city. And there’s no hope anymore of moderate rebellion: what’s left are jihadists. It’s a terrible indictment of our role as the world’s superpower, and it also points out that ignoring festering problems never works.

“Die Gefangenen,” (The Prisoners), 1908, Käthe Kollwitz

“Die Gefangenen,” (The Prisoners), 1908, Käthe Kollwitz
Last week I saw a headline that called our Japanese internment camps “concentration camps.” There’s a line of thinking that says our government is as flawed as Nazi Germany’s. It’s a kind of reverse Holocaust denial, promoting the idea that we have no right to intervene in other governments’ dirty business, since we’re just as bad.
There will always be historical revisionists. And that’s where art comes in. Through history, artists have used their skill to create indelible records of the horrors inflicted upon the weak by the strong. Often, it took great courage for them to record their impressions. I pray that none of us are ever called to witness such events. But if we are, may we have the courage to use our pencils to tell the truth.
“The Great Nanjing Massacre,” 1992, Zi Jian Li

“The Great Nanjing Massacre,” 1992, Zi Jian Li
It’s almost Christmas, of course, and my thoughts inevitably turned to practical matters. I stopped at Renys for more wrapping paper. As I checked out, I heard a clerk making a phone call. “Your layaway was paid by a generous customer,” she told the person on the line. “You can come and pick it up now.”
That can’t erase the atrocities in Aleppo, but it does remind me that mankind is also capable of kindness. Evil may seem to have us by the short hairs, but it is countered by quiet virtue. As long as that’s true, there’s hope for us all. Pray for peace, remember war’s victims, and be grateful for the light that shines in your own backyard.

Philistines, everywhere

Graffiti on the Colby Street pedestrian bridge in Rochester. I trudge over it daily, so I can certainly relate to these two flipper men doing endless laps on the bridge.
Being a believer in private property rights, I’m generally not amused by graffiti, but last Friday when I came across two swimmers on the Colby Street pedestrian bridge, I genuinely LOLed. The pedestrian bridge does kind of look like a 50-meter lap lane, and because it’s a regular part of my route, I often feel like I’m swimming mindlessly back and forth across it.
Meh. Not as witty as the first graffiti-artist, but at least he was trying.
Periodically, people commit acts of art on the pedestrian bridge (usually involving arrangements of found objects). They seldom last more than 24 hours before some Philistine knocks them apart. So I wasn’t surprised to walk by on Monday and see the poor swimmers defaced with a second layer of graffiti. It wasn’t nearly as witty, but at least the poor anonymous second writer tried.
But then comes the inevitable and predictable impulse to destruction. Really makes you despair for the human race.
Tuesday, the whole thing was scrubbed out by a third graffiti artist, whose only goal was to deface the message that preceded him.

It’s a great metaphor for the forces of creation and destruction that coexist in the human heart. In my current bleak mood, it makes me wonder why artists even try.
My young friend Serina Mo reminded me of this recently by mentioning the aged enfants terrible of the British art scene, Jake and Dinos Chapman. In their massive work of destruction, Insult to Injury, they defaced a rare folio of Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War.
From Insult to Injury, 2003, by Jake and Dinos Chapman. The Chapman brothers added nothing to Goya’s work. I hope they fade into obscurity, taking their micron pens with them.
In the short run, it made them famous. It tore at notions of preciousness and art. In the long run, it made the tremendous presumption that modern sensibilities and intellectualism are superior to the pain and suffering drawn by Goya. If nothing else, the world should know by now that rich, silly ninnies are transient, but war and death are eternal verities.

Message me if you want information about next year’s classes and workshops.

That’s insane.

Woman with Dead Child, 1903, Kathe Kollwitz. The majority of 20th century artists presented madness and grief as a terrifying spectacle. Kollwitz, uniquely, empathized with those who were suffering.

Last week when I wrote about modern culture’s inexorable squeeze toward a single mode of thinking, I had a vague idea that it might be interesting to look at how madness has been painted. This proved more difficult than I expected.
Insane Woman, 1822, Théodore Géricault, from his Monomania series.
The modern era has just too much to choose from—Edward Munch’s The Scream, Van Gogh’s self-portrait sans ear, the entire oeuvre of German Expressionism.  Théodore Géricault’s Monomania series has a certain appeal, since they were an experiment in using art in the service of science. The trouble is, the subjects look less mad than grumpy, and they’re a singularly uninviting bunch of paintings.
Géricault’s criminally insane subjects seem almost normal in comparison with his Romantic portraits, but he came of age during the French Revolution. In such circumstances, there is a blurred line between sanity and insanity. Géricault himself studied the heads of guillotine victims because he believed that character was most revealed in extremis. Nothing nuts about that, is there?

St. Bartholomew Exorcising, c. 1440-1460, the Master of the St. Bartholomew Altarpiece. Although we don’t know the identity of this painter, about 25 of his works have survived. It is presumed that he was trained in the Netherlands, although he worked in Cologne; he is considered to have been the last Gothic painter active in that city.
For all the stuff that is in there, “demonic possession” is not recognized in any versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). However, psychiatry, as a discipline, is a little more than 150 years old; exorcism has been with us since the dawn of time and spans religious barriers. It has been practiced historically in almost every major religion that believes that man has a soul.

Desperation, 1306. In this fresco, Giotto attributed suicide to the presence of a demon, top left.
Goya painted St. Francis de Borja performing the rite of exorcism at least twice. By the time he was painting, exorcisms were in sharp decline in the western world, ushered out by the Age of Reason. Oddly enough there has been a sharp rise in exorcisms since the middle of the 20thcentury. Perhaps this is a romantic notion spawned by television and movies, or it may represent our disaffection with psychiatry.

San Francisco de Borja attends a dying unrepentant sinner, c. 1788, by Francisco Goya. Fr. Francis was an early leader of the Jesuit order, and was widely regarded during his own lifetime as a saint. Goya depicted this 16th century exorcism from a more modern viewpoint than Fr. Francis’s contemporary would have; the beasts waiting to devour the unrepentant soul are not concrete.

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!