Saturday, December 27, 2008

THE END OF 2008


George Bellows

2008 was a rough year for the type of assets that are vulnerable to market fluctuations.

40% of the value of the US stock market ($7.3 trillion) has simply evaporated. Major companies collapsed as the global credit system melted down and a wide variety of sophisticated financial instruments became untrustworthy overnight. Unemployment soared.
The world will face some excruciating economic hardships over the next few years.

But there are other assets that don't lose their value regardless of how much markets fluctuate. The strength and insight behind that remarkable Bellows drawing stayed with him, and colored his perception of life, regardless of what was happening in the stock market that day.


In fact, some of the greatest artistic periods in human history arose during periods of great turmoil and strife. The golden age of Greece was forged in a period of bitter feuds between warring city states, when invasion by outside powers threatened to snuff out Greece altogether, and when an impoverished lower class was recovering from subjugation by the wealthy class. Here is Orson Welles' famous cuckoo clock speech from the Third Man:




Laurence Olivier said, "If you are an artist, you have to prove it."

Let's get to work.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

WILLIAM APATOFF

He was born and raised in the slums of Boston, the son of Russian immigrants. When he was still a boy, his father died, leaving Apatoff the sole support for his family. He rode a battered bicycle around town after school seeking odd jobs, and he worked nights as a janitor. His childhood was grim and filled with challenges, but through it all he dreamed of becoming an artist.

He put himself through the Massachusetts College of Art & Design, working nights. Here is his portrait of a cleaning woman he admired.





After graduation, he went to Chicago where he set up an easel in his apartment and taught painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. He married an Iowa farm girl and had children, who he adored. This is his portrait of me when I was three:


Before long, Apatoff found himself with six children to support and a lot of bills to pay. He put aside his fine art aspirations and became an art director in an advertising agency. Politically radical, he ruefully recounted that now his job was to sell "candy to rot teeth, tobacco to rot lungs, televisions to rot minds, and liquor to rot livers."







Every once in a while his fine art yearnings managed to find an outlet in his commercial work, as in this sketch of a bicentennial bottle for the Miller Brewing Company.



When I was young, I loved to accompany him on Sunday trips to the art museum. He would stride into a huge room filled with grand baroque paintings, size up the room in ten seconds and growl, "they should bring a garbage truck around back and throw out every painting in this room except this one and that one." Then he would stride briskly on to the next room as I raced on my little legs to keep up. But driving home, he might stop the car for 10 minutes to revel in the color of paint on an industrial water tower illuminated in the afternoon sun. I never met a man with more anarchistic taste.



Now my father is gone forever. Today would have been his birthday and I miss him terribly. He sacrificed his own potential as an artist so that his kids could have a better life than he did.
He never expected anyone to see these paintings. I post them here to honor what he gave up for me, and to honor all those caught in the tug of war between art and life.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

THE NAKEDNESS OF GOYA

The world has gossiped for 200 years about Goya's twin paintings of the Maja-- one with clothes and one without.





When the secret nude painting was discovered, Spanish society was scandalized: did Goya really have an affair with MarĂ­a del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva Alvarez de Toledo, the 13th Duchess of Alba (and wife of the wealthiest man in Spain)?? And gee, is that what she really looks like under all those fancy clothes????

Today the two paintings hang side by side in the Prado where visitors continue to ponder those same eternal questions.


From the flickr account of lapernas 2.0

The Maja certainly bared her secrets in this painting but Goya had a few secrets of his own, and he stripped himself bare in artwork that was far more revealing than his painting of the Maja.

For 40 years, Goya was a royal court painter who painted flattering portraits of aristocrats and nobles. But underneath he was the opposite; he detested the idle and corrupt aristocracy and painted passionate images sympathetic to the oppressed peasants.



Goya also championed the philosophy of the Enlightenment. He treasured its ideals of rationality and logic. But underneath, he was a superstitious man, obsessed with dreams and mysticism. He made eerie paintings of devils and witches and bats.



As another example, the public Goya created art glorifying generals and military victories while the private Goya was creating devastating etchings condemning The Disasters of War.







Goya was considered a bon vivant who lived for a while on a lavish estate while he consorted with royalty. Yet, underneath it all, he was a deaf, embittered hermit who distanced himself from others and painted his private musings in dark paintings about a world gone mad.



One of his private black paintings, a "half-submerged dog," is a bleak and ghostly image that makes no sense at all (and for that reason, is all the more frightening):



Goya stripped off civilization, stripped off pretense and affect, even stripped off linear thought, to paint himself in a profoundly naked way.

Most people would rather focus on the bared Maja than on Goya's bared soul. Art experts and pedants have lots of fun obsessing over whether the nude Maja shows the first pubic hair in the history of western art. Even the Spanish Inquisition preferred to focus on the nude Maja; they never investigated Goya for his subversive political views, but they demanded that he appear before them to account for his nude painting (perhaps foreshadowing special prosecutor Kenneth Starr).

In one sense the nudity of the Maja seems frivolous and shallow compared to Goya's nakedness. But on the other hand, if you spend enough time pondering the bleakness of Goya's black paintings, you start to yearn for rescue from the onslaught of the night. And it's in such dire circumstances that you begin to appreciate that a naked thigh or a pubic curl have a profundity of their own.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 23

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God, I love comics.



This cover from a 1940 comic book is not so much a drawing as a riot of the themes inside the heart of an adolescent boy.

Anyone who ever learned to draw will recognize their first few faltering steps here: how to hide the feet you don't quite know how to draw; the temptation to squeeze in every cool trick you've learned-- a skull, a punch, a broken wall, an axe-- whether it fits in the drawing or not; and of course, a girl in a slinky dress, perfected during those agonizing years when it was easier to invent your own girl than talk to a real one.

The drawing, just like an adolescent boy, is an awkward jumble of overlapping themes with no perspective or coordination.

There may come a day when these childish impulses are no longer so benign-- the boy grows up, and the sweet patriotism of that Uncle Sam may lead to narrow minded jingoism; the infatuation with a punch may lead to pointless violence; and the tied up girl may lead to who knows what. But for now, it is perfectly innocent.

This is clearly not a well executed drawing, but if you promise not to tell anyone, I think its sweetness and purity still qualify it as a lovely one.