Month: August 2016

Rothko Plot Twist

How could he just smear some blocks of color on a canvas and call it good? Who did this guy think he was? I was enraged when I first learned about Mark Rothko.

There I was, frowning at the little splotches of red and yellow paint in my textbook while the lecture droned on. The bell rang, I closed my textbook, and I didn’t think of Rothko again- until this week.

Rothko untitled-1968

Mark Rothko, Untitled (1968)

As I walked peacefully through the galleries of the MoMA in New York, I scanned the rooms – Kandinsky’s clean cuts of shapes, Klimt’s shimmering goddesses, Katz’s flat planes of pigment… and then a massive canvas of molten orange and yellow. A Rothko. This was different, I liked it. It looked nothing like the harsh blotches of color that I had seen in my textbook.

The tints faded into one another, they were soft, sensual. After timidly approaching the next painting, I saw that, under the layer of brown, a deep blue lay discreetly underneath and shone through. It was as radiant and luminescent as Klimt’s The Kiss.

The gallery security guard shifted nervously on his feet as I became enveloped in the painting, I hadn’t noticed I was so close to the work. Sorry, sir. Backing up, I plopped down on the bench and faced the massive, harmonious canvas.

Peace at last.

The feathery rectangles looked like soft pillows and blankets, I wanted to enter the painting and sink into a deep sleep. It was visual numbing for the mind, a buzzing sensation, a deep tissue massage to my brain. John Elderfield says, “As your eyes settle to it, things start to happen.”

Beginning to adjust, my eyes began to flick from one hue to the next, stimulating a mix of colors made entirely by my brain that was not physically on the canvas. For example, after I stared at the blue for a long time, I shifted to the yellow and saw a tint of green. It seemed almost as if I were creating my own painting, from this already existing painting! Whhhaaattt? “You are the companion to the picture,” says Elderfield. And I couldn’t agree more. Never before had I felt like such an active participant in the process of viewing a painting. I felt so special; it seemed that the colors were competing for my attention.

I left the room feeling airy and weightless, a converted Rothko fan (I even caved for some Rothko greeting cards from the MoMA gift shop).

The days following my New York visit were riddled with stress and anxiety as I made my move away from home. What am I going to cook? A shoe?! Who knows. Every day is a surprise. Luckily, I had a trick to cope with my scattered thoughts. I close my eyes; I think about that Rothko. The colors hover in thin air, a few deep breaths, I open my eyes, and voila. I have pulled myself back down to earth.


rothko portraitAfter researching more about Rothko and his work, I have cycled back to where I started- dismayed. He did not at all intend for his paintings to be a source of comfort or familiarity. In fact, he even said that if viewers of his work were “doing it right,” they were supposed to cry. Frantically I scrolled to the next article hoping maybe this was just a false claim. Again, I was wrong. Rothko once said to a friend, “Often, towards nightfall, there’s a feeling in the air of mystery, threat, frustration- all of these at once. I would like my paintings to have the quality of such moments.”

No, no it can’t be!

Everything I thought that Rothko stood for in this paintings, shattered. Instantly I was flooded with self doubt. Did I look at the painting wrong? Is that even possible? Why was I incapable of feeling what he worked so hard to communicate? What did I miss? Where I had felt familiarity, he had meant mystery. Where I had felt comfort, he had meant threat. Where I had felt peace, he had meant frustration.

Red on Maroon 1959 by Mark Rothko 1903-1970

Rothko, Red on Maroon (1959)

I’m still struggling to grapple onto the new meaning of Rothko’s work. But, which is the real meaning- my personal opinion, or his intended message?

This brings me to my new philosophical question about art: Can the “meaning” of a work of art deviate from (or, in my case, be the total opposite of) the artist’s intent? I think yes. I feel that my emotional reactions to Rothko’s paintings are still valid.

Have you ever felt dismayed by an art piece? If so, which art piece? What did you discover about the piece or artist that contradicted your opinions? I am curious to hear about your thoughts in the comments.

Header Image: Mark Rothko, Untitled (1952)


Picasso’s coeur d’artichaut

Holey moley heavens to Betsy, Picasso sure was popular with the ladies. But before I dive into this, perhaps I should channel my inner Sound of Music Julie Andrews and take a step back to, “start at the very beginning, A very good place to start.” 

This summer I’ve had the privilege of visiting the Pierre Gianadda Foundation art museum in Martigny, Switzerland. The foundation is world renowned for its exceptional temporary exhibitions, which center around select artists and a single theme each year. In the past it has featured Degas to Picasso, Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo, Paul Gaugin, van Gogh, Kandinsky and Russia, Paul Signac, Portraits from the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and more.

Last year I viewed Matisse en son temps/ Matisse in his time, which focused on Henri Matisse (okay duh) and his contemporaries, but more specifically the love-hate relationship between Matisse and Picasso. When you think Matisse and Picasso, think hardcore frenemies.

Pic:Mat pic

Matisee and Picasso paint

Left: Henri Matisse, Odalisque with Tamborine (1926) Right: Pablo Picasso, Large Nude in a red armchair (1929)

Picasso considered Matisse his “master” or guide in painting, yet nonetheless interjected critiques on his work. He once compared Matisse’s designs for a chapel to those fit for a bathroom. So sassy. Françoise Gilot, Picasso’s girlfriend at the time, acknowledges the artists’ oddly loving rivalry: “In their meetings, the active side was Pablo; the passive, Matisse. Pablo always sought to charm Matisse, like a dancer, but in the end it was Matisse who conquered Pablo.

When Matisse died, Picasso sunk into deep depression declaring that he had to paint for the both of them now.  Their works were displayed side by side, allowing us to visualize the strong link between styles and subject matters. Walking along their works was moving, because I’d been let into a very personal, very sentimental relationship between the artists that I never knew existed.

This year I insisted on returning to see Hommage à Jacqueline/ A Tribute to Jacqueline, an exhibition dedicated to displaying Picasso’s works in the final years of his life while he was in the company of his last wife and muse, Jacqueline. She is in many of his later works, manifested in all shapes, colors, and poses. Jacqueline reclining on a sofa, listening to the guitar. Jacqueline sitting on a rocking chair, knees drawn up to her chin. Jacqueline looking out at her balcony view absent-mindedly. Then, Jacqueline sitting squarely, gazing directly out of the frame and at the viewer. (You can click on the images below for more detail and full captions).

Apart from her, the exhibition displayed three main themes that Picasso focused on, producing multiple pieces of the same subject: Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe/Luncheon on the Grass, Les Femmes d’Alger/ Women of Algieres, and Le Peintre et son modèle/ Painter and Model.

Paying tribute to Édouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe/ Luncheon on the Grass, Picasso produced multitudes of paintings that mimicked the original’s subject matter, yet in his own style.

He did this also with his series Les Femmes d’Alger, inspired by Eugène Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement/ The Women of Algiers in their Apartment.

Picasso often painted the theme depicting a painter working and his model.

But enough about that. Remember when I said Picasso was popular with the ladies? I meant it! The exhibition shows a film comprised of interviews by his close friends, children, and lovers who provide accounts of the detailed intimacies of his life.

From what I learned in the video, Picasso was a rather confident man, especially when it came to love life. He had no issue waltzing over to two lady strangers’ table and inviting them to his studio (while he was still in a relationship). One of these strangers would later turn out to be his new girlfriend, Françoise Gilot.

francoisesketchOf all the women he was with, I admire Françoise the most; she was one of the few to leave Picasso, and not be left. When she discovered that he was having an affair with 17 year old Genevieve Laporte, she warned that she would leave him if he continued. Picasso responded with, “You cannot. A woman does not leave a man like me” and continued. So she left him! You go girl.

Picasso had eight -often overlapping- serious lovers throughout his life. He definitely had a coeur d’artichaut. The French idiom translates to artichoke heart, and is used to describe someone who falls in love easily and frequently, possibly with several people at the same time. His lovers were also his muses and models, thanks to whom he was able to be inspired and paint hundreds of portraits. Photographs of Picasso’s lovers next to their portraits show some glimmers of resemblance, if you can overlook the sausage fingers and boob-in-the-armpit look.

Geez, what would the world come to without us women.

My past two visits to the Pierre Gianadda Foundation have taught me a lot about Picasso: juicy details, the lowdown, the inside scoop. I will definitely be coming back next year for a new exhibition with high expectations.

Header image: Pablo Picasso, Reclining Nude (1932)


Grande Discussion

Recently I visited the Kunsthaus Zürich Museum to view its newest joint exhibition with the MoMA of New York on Francis Picabia. There, I encountered his amusing quote, “Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction.” I found these words witty and perfectly relatable to spark the following discussion.

I can gush for hours about art’s powerful transcendence of the reality buried within our innermost souls, pouring over with a refreshing effervescence which prods all subjects to enter into deep contemplation about fate, destiny, and sexuality (whatever that means).

Now that’s all fine and dandy- but what is art anyway?

picabia spanish night

Francis Picabia, Spanish Night (1922)

To be completely honest, I’m not sure. I have tried and failed time again to capture a single definition. The best possible answer I have found so far, is to respond with Picabia’s ingenious words. Like his quote delineates, our thoughts –both personal and universal- on what art truly entails change constantly. Heck, I change my definition daily!

But it’s not totally our faults either, right? Correct. Artists seem to be constantly rebelling against the boundaries and definitions of art. Meanwhile, us plebeians are desperately trying to grapple for some scraps of understanding. It’s like riding a rollercoaster with no seatbelt-what is this madness?

We try to capture art’s essence in a box, because that puts us at ease; unfortunately, we can’t Pokémon Go our way through this one. Humans are comfortable when things we cannot fully understand are able to be contained, where we can control them (Side thought: consider why racial or gender based stereotypes exist. Hmmmm). Constantly evolving and morphing with our world, art is practically impossible to pin down. So how are we supposed to define art, if the definition is in constant revision?

To that, I still have no answer (yet), but I’m on it!

Contemporary art is often met with some degree of rejection, disgust, and confusion. Despite how new and uncontrollable this contemporary art movement seems to be, our reaction as a public is nothing new.

Did you know that impressionism was considered unfinished and messy? That’s right! Our treasured Monet Water Lilies were monstrous contemporary splotches of the 1920s. Critics found impressionists’ coverage of average, everyday scenes distasteful. If we wanted to see a garden, well, we could walk right outside and see it for ourselves, couldn’t we? And, sacre bleu, what is this blatant show of brushstrokes, this absurd color palette? Impressionist artists were rejected from exhibiting their works at the famous Salon de Paris. In retaliation, they exhibited at the Salon des Refuses/the Salon of Rejects and even adopted the derogatory term art critic Louis Leroy used to review Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise. He sarcastically wrote in the 1874 April edition of the Le Charivari, “I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it — and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape.”

Fauvism received a similar “welcome.” The art movement’s name also derives from an insult delivered by influential art critic Louis Vauxcelles. Upon viewing the vivid canvases displayed in the same room as a statue by the Renaissance sculptor Donatello at the 1905 Salon D’Automne, he remarked, “Donatello parmi les fauves/ Donatello among the wild beasts.” Later, the artists would proudly espouse the term to define their art movement which explored such “offensive” clashes of color. For goodness sakes Matisse, a woman’s hair is not blue and her skin is not green. Blasphemy!

Although now greatly admired, realism, post-impressionism, cubism, and minimalism all underwent similar receptions at the time. In the words of the almighty Drake, the artists “Started from the bottom now we here.”

With this in mind, I just can’t help feeling that we are in for another cycle of condemning today’s art to the dark abyss of frustration.

Here is a vague solution to finding a definition for art: rather than fight to confine what cannot be controlled, begin with a base definition that you feel fairly entails art. As you encounter pieces not included in your definition- perhaps like this one- gradually reform your definition to become more expansive.

Simple as pie. Well, not really. But pie certainly does sound good right now.

I’ve ended up right where I started, and in the process I’ve asked more questions than I answered. But after all, it is this constant challenge of  searching for an answer that keeps me lively!

I’m curious to know, and encourage you to comment: What is your definition of art, so far?

Header image: Francis Picabia, La Source (1912)