Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Eyes of Jeanne Hebuterne and Secrets of Paintings Hanging in the MET

Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) was an Italian figurative artist and helped establish the modern style.  He worked in Paris, painting in an elongated style, and died at 35 of tubercular meningitis, brought on by extreme poverty, addiction to alcohol, and drugs.  He was a contemporary of Picasso and quoted Nietzsche, and every time I see his work it’s like meeting him again for the first time.
His greatest subject and lover, Jeanne Hebuterne was a demure, quiet daughter of a cashier, whose brother took her to Montparnasse to introduce her to the starving artists.  There, she met Modigliani and became his model and obsession, though he is stated as saying her eyes were so mesmerizing he often could not paint them.  They had one child together, but in 1920, suffering yet another alcoholic black out, Mogigliani was found in his basement studio, starving, delirious, and clutching a nine month pregnant Hebuterne.  He died hours later.  The day after Mogigliani’s death, Hebuterne was interred in her father’s home where she threw herself and unborn child out a five story window, killing both.
When George Washington first sat for Gilbert Stuart, he was sixty-three years old and near the end of his second term in office.  Stuart held to a philosophical and artistic theory about physiognomy which stated that a study of the outside body could reveal inner qualities of someone’s personality.  Stuart attempted to engage Washington in colloquial conversations so that his face would move, but to no avail. 

He painted three kinds of works on Washington:  the Vaughan (right side of face), the Athenaeum (left side of face), and the Lansdowne (full length).  The paintings were an incredible success.  Tell me, what can be said of Washington’s inner qualities from these paintings?
Washington crossed the icy Delaware River on Christmas night, 1776, in a surprise attack upon the Hessian forces at Trenton, New Jersey in the Battle of Trenton.  There were two original paintings.  One, hanging in the Kunsthalle in Bremen, Germany, was destroyed by British air raids in 1942.  The only other surviving one lives at the MET.  A reproduced copy hangs in the West Wing of the White House.
Talk about “selfies.”  Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) is your guy.  He painted dozens of them.  They hang mostly in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam,  but you can also see them in Musee d’Orsay in Paris.  Surprisingly, there are also portraits in Chicago and Detroit (who knew?).  Check ‘em out!  Most likely painted from looking in a mirror, that makes Van Gogh’s face backwards.   One more reason to think of him as a mystery.
Japonaiserie was the term Vincent used to express the influence of Japanese art.  After the 1850's, when Japan opened to trade with the west, Van Gogh used to collect the color wood-block prints of Japanese flowers called ukiyo-e, amassing hundreds of them.  Vincent wrote to his brother, “We love Japanese painting, we’ve experienced its influence- all the Impressionists have that in common- so why not go to Japan?”

The idea of Van Gogh traveling to Japan is thrilling!
Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859-1891) is noted for his innovative technique called pointillism as seen in his work, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.  It took him over two years to finish, often sitting in the park sketching the figures and perfecting their form.  
Henri Matisse (1869-1954) became, along with Picasso and Duchamp, revolutionary fathers of modern art, but he was originally labeled a fauve (wild beast).  This term was given to a lose group of upstarts who used wild colors and strong impressions over realistic representations.  It’s a hilarious term now as it makes one ponder what will be the movements in art and literature and lifestyle people two hundred years from now will look back upon.  Will Jay-Z be heralded in text books as the father and decisive figure of  the powerful poetic form…gasp!  Gangsta Rap?  Will Michael Bay be celebrated by my great-great-great-great grandchildren as an innovator of the summer movie blockbuster that replaced literature  with apocalyptic city explosions, alien invasions, and quirky one liners?  I suppose, only time will tell.

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