Opportunity costs

How do you juggle a family, work and other responsibilities with painting?

Working Woman (with Earring), 1910, etching, Käthe Kollwitz, courtesy Brooklyn Museum

“I’m struggling with demands of a family and trying to carve out time for my work. Home schooling, constant interruptions, managing household stuff. I’m struggling to find a place in it all for myself,” wrote a poster on Facebook this week.

When I had my twins in 1989, there was a pernicious canard that women could ‘have it all.’ I was juggling infant twins and a job in an arts organization. A reporter called to do the requisite story on this new mode of working motherhood. She asked me how I was doing. “Not very well!” I snapped. That wasn’t the answer her editor wanted, so she didn’t write the story.

Kandinsky with the Art Dealer Goltz at Aimillerstrasse 36, Munich, 1912, by Gabriele Münter. She let her relationship with Kandinsky dominate her life. That hampered her career.

Three decades later, it’s even more difficult. Today’s young mothers are also hybrid-schooling their kids. This combines the rigidity of the classroom with the demands of the child’s actual presence. My daughter and son-in-law balance their obligations by getting up in the small hours of the morning to do their salaried work. Shades of my mother in the 70s, who went back to college after having six kids. She studied in the wee hours.

I don’t advocate that as a long-term strategy. Chronic sleep deprivation is terrible for your health.

There have been successful women artists through history. They tended to be childless or post-menopausal, as in the case of Anna Mary Robertson Moses. She was from a large family and hired out as a farm hand at age 12. She married and delivered ten children, five of whom lived to adulthood. She really didn’t have time to paint in earnest until she retired and moved in with a daughter. She was 78.

The Young Couple, 1904, etching, Käthe Kollwitz, courtesy Brooklyn Museum

The great exception to this was the German expressionist, Käthe Kollwitz. On her marriage in 1891, she insisted on household help so she could pursue her vocation. The result is some of the most stark and meaningful art of the 20thcentury.

Kollwitz realized that she had to treat her artwork as a real job or it would be swamped by household demands. That meant hiring out the cleaning and childcare. Too many women artists think they can sneak the artwork in around their domestic duties. That doesn’t respect the importance and demands of either homemaking or art.

But don’t think this is a dilemma limited to women. I have a friend who’s a well-known painter. He has four kids, so he works nights at a big-box store to cover expenses.

Sugaring Off, 1955, Grandma Moses. None of her earlier experiences were a ‘waste of time’ in terms of her art. They informed everything she painted.

The successful professional artist has much in common with the successful entrepreneur. He or she must be risk-tolerant, willing to work long hours, and able to strip the chaff away from daily life, creating periods of focus and isolation. As with all self-employed people, the artist’s job is a balance of creative work, business management, and—yes—interruptions.

That focus can be tough on the other members of your household. I have a friend whose boyfriend continually complained about her traveling to plein air events. As painting was essential and he wasn’t, he had to go.

COVID has, ironically, freed us from some of our great time wasters—travel, shopping, and entertainment. But we all still have habits, tasks or hobbies that use time. If you want to succeed as a professional artist, you must weigh their importance. There are some, like family, that are priceless, so choose wisely. Be patient with yourself and realize we’re all juggling the same things.

One messed-up dude

But Egon Schiele certainly could paint a lovely boat.

Segelschiffe im wellenbewegtem Wasser (Der Hafen von Triest), 1907, Egon Schiele, private collection
I have a hard time loving the work of Egon Schiele. Erotic paintings, emaciated figures, and anguished self-portraits leave me cold. I far prefer the Expressionism of Käthe Kollwitz and Gabriele Münter. They weren’t happy, either, but at least they had something real to complain about.
Then my friend Bruce McMillan introduced me to Schiele’s boat paintings. They don’t quite make up for all those tortured people, but they’re beautifully drawn and kinetic. Interestingly, the highest auction prices for Schiele’s work are not for his erotica, but for his landscapes, including the record-setting Häuser mit bunter Wäsche ‘Vorstadt’ II, which sold for $40.1 million in 2011.
Boote im Hafen von Triest, 1908, Egon Schiele, courtesy Landesmuseum Niederösterreich
There’s no question that Schiele was a prodigy. At 16, he was the youngest student ever to enroll at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. After three years, he quit without graduating. In school and after, he was mentored by Gustav Klimt, who did much to advance his career.
“Klimt was an established star and Schiele a cocksure student when the two first met in 1908,” wroteLaura Cumming. “But it is immediately obvious… that their obsessions were already mutual.”
Klimt had innumerable affairs and fathered 14 children out of wedlock. But he was staid compared to his protégée, who was completely amoral in matters of sexuality. Schiele was incestuously attracted to his sister Gerti, to the great consternation of their father (who went on to die of syphilis himself). At age 16, Schiele took Gerti, then 12, by train to Trieste and spent the night with her. 
At 21, he met Walburga (Wally) Neuzil, age 17, one of Klimt’s models. Aspiring to leave ‘repressive’ Vienna behind, the couple moved to a small Bohemian village. Driven out due to their lifestyle, they moved to slightly-larger Neulengbach. There, Schiele was accused of seducing a young girl and making pornographic images available to children. Although the rape charge was eventually dropped, he spent a month in jail for the pictures.
Dampfer und Segelboote im Hafen von Triest, watercolor, pencil and gouache on Japan paper, 1912, Egon Schiele
Back in Vienna, he wrote a friend, “I intend to get married, advantageously. Not to Wally.” Instead, he’d picked out Edith Harms, from a good middle-class family. As a former prostitute and artist’s model, Wally was a professional liability. Schiele proposed that he and Wally continue their relationship, vacationing together every summer without Edith. Wally indignantly refused.
Four days after the wedding, Egon Schiele was drafted into the army. He was given a job as a clerk in a POW camp. There, he drew and painted imprisoned Russian officers, nicking extra rations for himself and Edith on the side.
Die Brücke, 1913, Egon Schiele, private collection
By 1917, Schiele was back in Vienna. He was invited to participate in the Vienna Secession’s 49th exhibition in 1918, with a prodigious 50 works in the show. His success was spectacular. Demand—and prices—for Schiele’s work rose rapidly.
It was, alas, a short-lived triumph. In autumn of that year, Spanish flu pandemicreached Vienna. Edith and their unborn child died on October 28. Schiele lived just three days more. He was just 28.
It’s tempting to wonder what marriage, parenthood, and maturity would have done to temper the wild excesses of his youth, or how it would have changed his style. But, had he lived to ripe old age, Schiele would have also experienced the annexation of Austria by the Nazis twenty years later. It’s hard to imagine he would have prospered.

Monday Morning Art School: all color is relative

“Color is the most relative medium in art.” (Josef Albers)

Breakfast of the Birds, 1934, Gabriele Münter 

Periodically, we’re going to dip into color theory as taught by Josef Albers. Today’s lesson is from Chapter 4 of his Interaction of Color. If you don’t own this book and are serious about painting, I suggest you buy it.

Each November, we Northerners go outside in our down jackets on the first 40°F day and we’re shivering with cold. Come spring, the mercury rises to 40°F again and we’re scampering around in shorts. This is an example of a tactile illusioncalled a contingent aftereffect.
There are visual equivalents, most notably the McCullough effect. These cause us to perceive colors differently depending on what surrounds them. Why this happens is still not completely understood, but they have something to do with edge-sensors in the brain.
Josef Albers understood how important these edge relationships are in painting. He devised an exercise to explore them. It was meant to be done with Color-Aid, which is a delicious but very expensive system of colored papers. You can just as easily go to the paint store and get similar paint chips for free. Or you can draw the design, mix paint, and apply it with a brush.
The important thing is that you must not have raised edges. If you do this with paint chips or Color-Aid, use a sharp blade to cut out the shapes and fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Plate IV-1 from Interaction of Color by Josef Albers. Your assignment is to replicate this in different color schemes, with the two squares always the same color. (Courtesy Yale University Press)
In plate IV-1, the two small squares are the same color. This is the influenced color. The horizontal teal, dark blue, yellow and orange stripes are the influencing colors. In this example, it’s almost unbelievable that the influenced color is the same in both squares.
Your assignment is to repeat Plate IV-1 with other color combinations. You’ll find that some combinations are more pleasing than others. Some color combinations have more influence on the influenced color. Some colors are more easily influenced than others. The more you experiment, the more you’ll learn, and the more you share your homework with others on our Facebook homework site, the more others will learn.
Plate IV-2 from Interaction of Color by Josef Albers. Why do we perceive these grids so differently when they are exactly the same size? (Courtesy Yale University Press)
Plate IV-2 shows a grid of a secondary color on two different backgrounds made of its constituent primary colors. Our perception of the grid is very different when it’s set on cool blue or warm yellow. What is happening in our brains to create that difference?
Plate IV-4 from Interaction of Color by Josef Albers again shows the relationship between influenced color and influencing color. (Courtesy Yale University Press)
In plate IV-4, the two interior violet shapes are the same color, but we see the top violet insert as the same as the bottom violet surround. The bottom surround is a tint (the color mixed with white) of the violet.
Albers designed these exercises to be completely abstract, so that your perception is not altered by symbolic or verbal thinking. Now, let’s toss in some meaning.
Gabriele Münter’s Breakfast of the Birds with the drapery color changed.
At the very top of this post is Gabriele Münter’s Breakfast of the Birds, 1934. Münter had a difficult life, and this painting is thought to be autobiographical. The draperies have been described alternatively as cozy or claustrophobic, the model as reflective or isolated.

Immediately above, I have recolored the draperies to a cool blue. How does that change our perception of the other colors in the piece? How does it change the mood of the piece?

A man’s world, and it needs fixing

"Christmas Still Life," 1916, by Gabriele Münter. If art prices were tied to achievement, Munter would be among the top-selling 20th century artists, instead of being remembered for being Kandinsky's mistress.

“Christmas Still Life,” 1916, by Gabriele Münter. If art prices were tied to competence, Münter would be among the top-selling 20th century artists, instead of being remembered as Kandinsky’s mistress.
There have always been women painters, but they never had the opportunity to enter either apprenticeships or academies—whichever were the great training systems of the time. The ones who rose above the lack of opportunity had advantages of birth (Sofonisba Anguissola and her sister Lucia) or fathers who were painters (Artemisia Gentileschi)
It has not been until the modern era that we have seen women artists rise in their own right. Even in the 20th century, many of them hitched their stars to men (Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz), sometimes with disastrous personal results (Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky).
"Breakfast of the birds," 1934, by Gabriele Münter.

“Breakfast of the birds,” 1934, by Gabriele Münter.
ARTNews does an annual survey of inequality in the art markets and it’s very depressing. For the past two years, 92% of paintings that went through the big New York auction houses were by men; 8% were by women. If you think that’s terrible, that’s about the same ratio as is represented in MoMA.
There are idiots who still say that this is because men are better artists. What does that even mean? That women don’t paint like men? If that were true (and it isn’t) would it be a question of worth or of difference? It’s galling to see the Art Establishment, which sneers at traditional values, gleefully going on in their merry misogynistic way. But until women get wall space in galleries and museums, they’re not going to achieve the prices they deserve.
Cabin in the Snow at Kochel, 1909, by Gabriele Münter.

Cabin in the Snow at Kochel, 1909, by Gabriele Münter.
Last night, a reader sent me this short essay about power plays for women. I wish every woman artist would read it. The art market isn’t a meritocracy any more than the workplace is—probably less so, in fact, because art is so subjective.
Women are naïve about power and influence, usually ascribing their failures to their own personal shortcomings rather than the culture. We project deference instead of confidence. We petition instead of negotiating.
As was true in medicine, engineering and law, we can’t wait around for the culture to change. Men are either players or benefitting from the status quo. Some women are fellow-travelers, just as they were in those other professions. I’m open to suggestions about ways to equalize the art field, readers. We need to use every tool in the arsenal to claim our rightful place in the marketplace.