Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Humble Virtues of a Cup of Tea

Here in New Hampshire, it's supposedly spring, but that doesn't mean it isn't the season for many warm cups of sweet, milky tea curled up in an overstuffed chair with a book, by a glowing fire if possible.

"Tea is wealth itself, because there is nothing that cannot be lost, no problem that will not disappear, no burden that will not float away, between the first sip and the last."

The cups in this post were all painted by British artist Diarmuid Kelley

I used to think that quote issued from no less an authority than Thoreau. But Henry David, on the contrary, frowned on tea, along with coffee, dismissing both as foreign and pernicious extravagances, artificial stimulants inimical to living simply and deliberately.

But in this I believe the anarchist of Puritan New England was mistaken.

"You can never get a cup of  tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me." 
- C.S. Lewis 

“I shouldn't think even millionaires could eat anything nicer than new bread and real butter and honey for tea.” 

“Rainy days should be spent at home with a cup of tea and a good book.” 

- Bill Waterson

“As far as her mom was concerned, tea fixed everything. Have a cold? Have some tea. Broken bones? There's a tea for that too. Somewhere in her mother's pantry, Laurel suspected, was a box of tea that said, 'In case of Armageddon, steep three to five minutes'.”

- Aprillyne Pike

“If you are cold, tea will warm you;
if you are too heated, it will cool you;
If you are depressed, it will cheer you;
If you are excited, it will calm you.” 

- William Gladstone

“Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea! How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.” 

- Sydney Smith

(All cups by Diarmuid Kelley)

Send me your favorite tea quotes and paintings and I'll happily add them here.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Spring and All (A Painting and a Poem)

Spring and All, oil on canvas, 8" x 8"

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue 
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines-

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches-

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind-

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcdarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined-
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance-Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken

- William Carlos Williams, opening poem from his 1923 book, Spring and All

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Vermeer, a poem by Tomas Transtromer

Note: In this poem, the late Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer imagines Vermeer’s studio sharing a wall with an alehouse … the chaos on the alehouse side, the quiet light and life on the art-studio side … and the transposition in the final stanza of mother-to-be and the speaker, suggesting the dissolution of inner walls and the openness to whatever may come through the wall or from the airy sky.

Vermeer, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, c. 1662


It’s not a sheltered world. The noise begins over there, on the other side of the wall
where the alehouse is
with its laughter and quarrels, its rows of teeth, its tears, its chiming of clocks,
and the psychotic brother-in-law, the murderer, in whose presence
everyone feels fear.
The huge explosion and the emergency crew arriving late,
boats showing off on the canals, money slipping down into pockets
— the wrong man’s —
ultimatum piled on the ultimatum,
widemouthed red flowers who sweat reminds us of approaching war.
And then straight through the wall — from there — straight into the airy studio
in the seconds that have got permission to live for centuries.
Paintings that choose the name: “The Music Lesson”
or  "A Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.”
She is eight months pregnant, two hearts beating inside her.
The wall behind her holds a crinkly map of Terra Incognita.
Just breathe. An unidentifiable blue fabric has been tacked to the chairs.
Gold-headed tacks flew in with astronomical speed
and stopped smack there
as if there had always been stillness and nothing else.
The ears experience a buzz, perhaps it’s depth or perhaps height.
It’s the pressure from the other side of the wall,
the pressure that makes each fact float
and makes the brushstroke firm.
Passing through walls hurts human beings, they get sick from it,
but we have no choice.
It’s all one world. Now to the walls.
The walls are a part of you.
One either knows that, or one doesn’t; but it’s the same for everyone
except for small children. There aren’t any walls for them.
The airy sky has taken its place leaning against the wall.
It is like a prayer to what is empty.
And what is empty turns its face to us
and whispers:
“I am not empty, I am open.”

Tomas Tranströmer
trans. by Robert Bly
in The Winged Energy of Desire (2004)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Art, Defined!

Art is a journey into the most unknown thing of all - oneself. Nobody knows his own frontiers.... I don't think I'd ever want to take a road if I knew where it led.

-Louis Kahan

Louis Kahan, Three Female Figures

Louis Kahan, Paris, from a Kitchen Window, Evening

Louis Kahan, Two Female Figures

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Albert Pinkham Ryder and the "ceaseless melody of the northern line"

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Moonlit Cove, 1890

Albert Pinkham Ryder is one of several great 19th century American artists yet to become familiar to the general public at large.

There are many reasons for Ryder's low profile, not the least of which is that his work has imploded over time; his already scant number of paintings have seriously deteriorated because of his heedlessness to sound oil painting technique. Living like a hermit in a tiny, squalid New York apartment through the late 1800s, Ryder would evolve his paintings over decades, heaping layer upon wet layer on his canvases and liberally using bitumen (a distant cousin of road tar, apparently), which, apparently, puckers, warps, and discolors over time.

Rock star American art historian Barbara Novak devotes a chapter to Ryder in her very readable American Painting of the Nineteenth Century. She identifies Ryder as a visionary "in search of the impossible and the unattainable," who used painting as a visual language to express ideas and internal states of consciousness rather than "empathy with nature" like the Impressionists and many previous American landscapists did so well. "Art does not render the visible, but makes visible," Ryder said.

What does it make visible? In Ryder's art, Novak identifies two types of religious experience. On the one hand (in agitated canvases depicting storms, churning waters, Biblical mayhem, gothic episodes from imagination, and operatic and literary works like Macbeth), it becomes a visual metaphor for the self caught up in "a dizzying religious experience" signified by the intense animation of nature (as in van Gogh). In "Lord Ullin's Daughter," the opposing diagonals (of clouds, cliffs, and crashing waves) create a tension that Ryder further ratchets up with sharp edged triangles and counter movements from all directions, though the eye keeps coming back to the storm-tossed figure, a stand-in for the viewer.

Ryder, Lord Ullin's Daughter, 1905
Very much on the other hand (most clearly, in depictions of isolated boats silhouetted in an "abstract void" of Ryder's own invention), his art makes visible "a serene, almost Oriental absorption of the self into cosmos, an annihilation of the self." This Buddhistic dissolution of the self had a strong American precedent in New England Transcendentalism (and think of Melville for the chaos) and in "those painters who erased their own artistic presence in the attempt to realize the life of things," as Novak writes.

Here the forms flow into around each other in gentler, rhythmic patterns, the flatness of the picture plane serving to augment the design's quieter, primarily horizontal movements. Here Ryder subdues anecdotal detail in favor of mood.  

Surely for Ryder, these two forms of self-transcendence, the self's absorption in primal chaos and its dissolution into a oneness with the cosmos, are two sides of the same coin. But here's what's really interesting. These two strains in Ryder and American art and thought, we might call them the Sublime and the Transcendental, reemerged unabated in the 20th century, though rarely in one single artist. The chaos is there in the Abstract Expressionists who channeled untamed forces of nature, such as de Kooning,

Willem de Kooning, Untitled, 1948
Joan Mitchell,

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, c. 1950

and Jackson Pollock (who named both Melville and Ryder as influences),

Jackson Pollock, Silver over Black, White, Yellow, and Red, 1948
Jackson Pollock, Moby Dick, 1943

and on the other hand, painters who quieted the self into Buddhistic non-existence, such as Rothko, 

Mark Rothko, Black in Deep Red, 1948

and subsequent colorists and abstractionists such as Frankenthaler,

Hellen Frankenthaler, Madame Matisse, 1983
Morris Lewis

Morris Lewis, Blue Veil, 1958
and Agnes Martin.
Agnes Martin, Untitled, 2004

I see this as an America artistic and spiritual heritage, albeit one that, judging from what I've seen of late, contemporary and especially conceptual art since Pop and Duchamp mostly ignores.

Ryder would have loved abstract expressionism. "The artist should fear to become the slave of detail," Ryder cautioned. "He should strive to express his thought and not the surface of it. What avails a storm cloud accurate in form and color if the storm is not therein?" Pollock echoed those words when he explained, "I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them."

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens, 1888-91

Ryder worked on his painting Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens from 1888 to 1891. It's based on a scene from Wagner's operatic "Ring" cycle, but the back story's not important. Just look at the thing! As Ryder said, "the storm is within." In terms of line, these fluid, twilit forms of light and dark spin everything into motion. From the towering, undulating tree branches to the mythical hero stunned by the appearance of the wily water-spirits, it's a vision of man and nature in archetypal, everlasting turmoil. Okay, its hard to see on a jpeg smaller than a credit card, but who else had painted the fragility and resistance, the archetypal uncertainty of the human condition with such directness? Only the towering greats, El Greco, Goya, Turner, and Michelangelo (especially of the Last Judgment) come to mind. Of Ryder's Siegfried Novak enthuses, "The insistent rhythms... are fixed into the 'good Gestalt' of the perfect design. Siegfried belongs, like El Greco's View of Toledo, to that small group of masterpieces that stamp themselves on our minds with instantaneous - indeed, almost violent - authority." (p. 218)

Novak traces the painterly lineage of the Gothic sensibility in evidence here to what German art historian Worringer, whose ideas supported early 20th century abstraction, called the "ceaseless melody of the northern line," the "whorling, convoluted rhythms that worked their way into Baroque religious art 

Bernini, The Rape of Proserpina, 1622
and ultimately through the expansive forms of Rubens," 

Rubens, Allegory on the Blessings of Peace, 1630
into the romantic color and florid mis-en-scenes of Delacroix, 

Delacroix, Sardanoupolus, 1827
and the sublime, off-kilter light of Turner and beyond. 

J.M.W. Turner, Snowstorm, Steamboat off a Harbor, 1842
"It was this sensibility," novak writes, intensified emotionally, that informed the Expressionism of Munich and the German artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In his Gothic visionary aspect, 'Ryder shared this sensibility.'"

Who knows what God knows?
His hand He never shows,
Yet miracles with less are wrought,
Even with a thought.

-A. P. Ryder

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Just a Couple Good Paintings


Georges Rouault, Landscape with Red Sail, 1939. Oil on paper laid down on gauze, 19 3/4 x 33

Eric Aho, Sylvan, 50" x 60" 2014

Monday, September 14, 2015

Cezanne & Pissarro in Pontoise

This morning I spent a fascinating hour or two contemplating images of paintings by Cezanne and Pissarro side by side, as they were when the two artists created them together in a Paris suburb beginning in the early 1860s.

Such different approaches to the same scene ... Cezanne left, Pissarro right.

Perhaps by necessity, they were rebels, bohemians, outsiders both, intent on shattering prevailing ideas about painting and about beauty. Newly arrived in Paris at the age of 22, Cezanne played the provocateur, flaunting his outsider, country-bumpkin status like a hipster in flannel and a lumberjack beard (or, as an astute New York Times reviewer of the show lovingly described him, "a furious misfit with the face of a hobbit, the mind of a scholar, and the mouth of a (dockworker).". He'd been packed off to Paris to study law, but instead he enrolled in painting classes at a walk-in art school.

Cezanne, left, Pissarro right, same delft vase.

Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro was a Dutch citizen, a Jew born in the West Indies, who grew up learning French in an all-black school; he was shunned by the local rabbi because his father'd come to the island to deal with the estate of a deceased uncle and ended up staying and marrying the man's creole widow (his niece by marriage). Pissarro was one of the few artists or students in Paris who didn't either avoid, disparage, or make fun of Cezanne, so friends and allies they became.

Cezanne (l.), Pissarro (r.)

Pissarro was nine years older than Cezanne, a restless innovator with a single-minded drive to redefine painting that would eventually allow scholars to recognize him as the "pivotal" figure in avant-garde painting of the time. He sought out radical teachers like Courbet, settling eventually on Corot, but soon outgrew the soft focus approach with work that had the plein-air plainness of Daubigney - and "the future geometry of Mondrian" (Cotter).

Cezanne (l.), Pissarro (r.)

Pissarro afterward anchored and unified the young Impressionists, including Monet, Manet, Renoir, and Degas, and then pushed into the new territory of Post Impressionism, a father figure to Seurat, Cezanne, van Gogh, and Gaugin. Cezanne's work fits into the Modernist narrative as a turning away from Impressionism, but Cezanne was working it out with Pissarro as early as 1866 (the first Impressionist exhibition wasn't until 1874).

Again, same houses.

In Pontoise, the Paris suburb where Pissarro lived, the two painters often painting the same motif, sometimes in fundamentally different ways, a bit like Picasso and Braque, who together invented Cubism, picking up where the earlier odd couple left off ("My one and only master," Picasso called him, "Cezanne was like the father of us all").

Although the exhibition of 2006 has come been and gone, the Museum of Modern Art keeps a wonderful interactive catalogue parked on their website that's well worth poking around in. It's even got details of the brushwork of each painting. The article I cited above by Holland Cotter's great too.