Saturday, August 5, 2017

Entry - 8.5.17

I really don’t like award shows.  And there are so many of them: the Oscars, the Grammys, the People’s Choice Awards, the Golden Globes, the Tonys, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Black Entertainment Television Awards, The Country Music Association Awards, MTV Movie and TV Awards, MTV Video and Music Awards, the Emmys, the Daytime Emmys and the Independent Spirit Awards.  (And I’m sure I missed a few.)  These shows are very long and not very entertaining at all.  I’m lucky if I’m vaguely familiar with one or two of the nominees in any category.  Whatever the genre being honored, I can pretty much guarantee that I haven’t seen the movie, heard the song or watched the show.  At one time, the Emmys held some interest for me because I was actually familiar with some of the actors, actresses and shows nominated, but, of course, inevitably that changed with time; now the nominations are dominated by HBO and Showtime, two cable channels I would have to take out a second mortgage on my house to subscribe to – not gonna happen.

These shows might still hold some interest for me, regardless of my lack of familiarity with most of the participants, if the winners were capable of making some sort of cohesive and engaging acceptance speech.  But, almost without exception, each awardee occupies the podium, looks out to the audience like a deer in the headlights, blurts out some gibberish which makes me doubt that word of the nomination ever reached this poor soul and then proceeds to recite a long litany of individuals who must be thanked – names even less familiar to me than the very obscure list of nominees up for the award: agents, family members, acting coaches, collaborators, investors, key grips, hair dressers and dog walkers.  (Really they may as well be reading an arbitrary list of names from the phonebook. {Are there phonebooks anymore?})

And, let’s face it, designating anything as “best” is inherently absurd.  Is there a best fruit or a best job or a best city?  No, of course not.  We recognize that selections of this sort come down to personal preference.  And yet we will watch an awards show and actually give some credence to the selections – rush out to see the Best Picture or purchase the CD of a Grammy winner.  Deep down inside I think we all recognize that the selections are pretty arbitrary.  For instance, Richard Burton, Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow, Catherine Deneuve, Peter O’Toole and Cary Grant never won an Oscar, while  Hilary Swank has won the award for best actress twice.  Good god, Forrest Gump garnered the Academy Award for best picture in 1994; Argo won it in 2012!  Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin and The Who never won a Grammy.  In 1997, the Grammy for Album of the year went to Celine Dion’s Falling Into You, which was chosen over Beck’s Odelay and Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness.  Really?  Obviously, separating the wheat from the chaff is not an easy process.  It’s certainly impossible in a diverse society to reach any kind of consensus on what is best – though in truth I think we can all agree that bananas are pretty awesome (hey, they come in their own wrappers).

You might ask me why if I find these shows so lame do I put them on?  Well, actually, I don’t.  My wife does.  And I’m certain that she does this solely out of a sense of social responsibility – you know, it’s a “we’re all swimming in the same pond, sharing the common experience, ingesting the identical pollutants” kinda thing.  I know this because, after sitting through an hour or so of any of these programs (admittedly out of pure inertia), I’ll rouse myself from my lethargy and proclaim that I cannot watch any more of this nonsense and am going to bed; my wife will immediately pop up off the sofa, mercifully extinguish the TV, respond, “You’re right.  This is horrible.” and hurry off to bed, where hopefully a decently crafted book awaits.

After enduring this cathartic rant about awards, you will be justifiably surprised to learn that I intend to perform my own granting of honors right here in this blog, knowing before getting started that the exercise will be arbitrary and pointless.  But I play a little game in my own mind from time to time that provides a modicum of entertainment for me at those moments when life doesn’t attain quite the luster we expect of it – for instance, sitting in traffic, standing on line at the bank or waiting forty five minutes to see the same doctor who will penalize me $50 for canceling an appointment without sufficient notice.  The mental game I play is this: I’ll pick a nation and after some serious consideration and internal bickering will determine who is the greatest painter that nation ever produced.  It’s not a great game and doesn’t provide the same adrenaline rush that watching a Jason Bourne flick does.  But it does keep me occupied.  Though I do this just for fun, I am sure there must be some value in this activity.  We usually evaluate artists as part of a milieu set within a range of time and relating to a specific movement.  Using nationality as my key determinant forces me to perform a kind of mental reshuffling of information – placing artists of different periods and sensibilities metaphorically side-by-side for consideration.  Consequentially one can learn about one’s personal preferences and aesthetics from such an exercise – a benefit especially important to an artist.

I’ve limited myself to the consideration of North American and European artists solely because my educational background and independent studies provide me with sufficient information to make some kind of tolerable determination.  If no artist from a specific nation stood out as exemplary or if I felt that my knowledge of a nation’s art history was wanting, I had to exclude that nation from contention for this prestigious honor.  (Is anyone out there up-to-speed on the Albanian art scene?)

In evaluating an artist (and let’s be clear I’m referring solely to painters since they share with me the same area of expertise), I took a number of criteria into account.  Foremost, I consider craft or technique to be important.  Stated simply: if the paint doesn’t interest me, then the artist doesn’t either.  Additionally I will recognize innovation or the influence a particular artist had on the development of the intellectual zeitgeist of his or her age.  Innovation can also refer to a willingness to tap into personal idiosyncrasies or unique propensities in one’s work – for in the exposure of one artist’s unfiltered individuality insight into the mechanism that drives a larger society will often result.  I also think it’s important that a painter has produced a considerable body of work; there will be no “one hit wonders” among my awardees.  Finally, it is absolutely crucial that an artist’s output moves me, that I can connect with it, that it resonates and has a profound emotional impact on me.

So now that I’ve established the rules, let’s begin.

Austria – Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt are contenders for the title here (sorry, Oskar), but Klimt edges ahead in consideration of the size of his body of work and how he transformed the Austrian art scene, nearly single-handedly converting a conservative, peripheral art community into an influential hub of avant garde innovation.  A century after his death, Klimt’s very personal imagery grounded in Art Nouveau/Symbolist principles continues to have a powerful influence on contemporary popular culture.

Gustav Klimt - Der Kuss - 1908

Gustav Klimt - Bildnis Friederike Maria Beer - 1915

Belgium – No matter what he painted, James Ensor imbued his subject with the unique sea light of his native Ostend.  His strange mix of pastel pinks, blues and purples, rusty browns and pure blacks lend his paintings an aura of beauty tainted with decay.  His still lifes of fish and shellfish are inviting and repulsive at the same time – the sea creatures, though dead, continuing to impose a living presence on the viewer.  Ensor was fascinated with masks and make-up, the purpose of which is to cover up or disguise the outer physical shell of a being, but, paradoxically, in his work these implements of camouflage actually end up revealing the inner self that the individual most desperately desires to hide.  Often his paintings serve to expose social hypocrisy, systemic injustice and political malfeasance.  Art permitted this very unique painter to retreat to his private world of puppets, masks and costumes only to peer out with a mixture of humor and disgust at the larger outside world.

James Ensor - Skeletons  Fighting for the Body of a Hanged Man - 1891

James Ensor - Still Life with Blue Pitcher - 1890/91

Canada – Emily Carr is a complete anomaly.  She was born on the west coast of Canada in 1871 within a conservative Anglophile household, yet she became a true pioneer, introducing European modernism to her country.  Despite working in relative isolation and suffering the indifference of the society in which she lived, Carr developed a personal style which combined elements of modernism and indigenous art and documented the natural landscape of her homeland.  Her fortitude and independent spirit sustained her during many years of desperate struggle which ultimately concluded with significant artistic achievement and acceptance within a community of like-minded artists.

Emily Carr - Big Raven - 1931

Emily Carr - Sea Drift at the Edge of the Forest - 1931
Denmark – There really is no one else to consider.  Vilhelm Hammershoi is an artist who really did not embrace the modernist revolution.  His execution is fairly conservative, and his technique, I would say, is competent.  It is his vision which makes his work stand out and lends it a very modern aura.  To a receptive viewer, his paintings assert a quiet yet stirring influence.

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Ida Reading a Letter - 1899

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior with Four Etchings - 1905

France – In recent centuries, the French have recognized the importance of the visual image as a vital component of intellectual and emotional communication.  Starting, let’s say, with the French Revolution, Art became the subject of serious criticism, incendiary newspaper articles and popular discussion.  Openings at the Salon were thronged with visitors, and independent showings by avant-garde artists were greeted with derision and scandal.  Art inspired nationalism, initiated social change and influence politics.  Through the 1950’s, any artist, wishing to learn his or her craft, become enlightened as to the latest trends in visual representation and secure artistic credibility, would have to visit Paris for an extended stay of several years.  In such a fertile environment, it is not surprising that France nurtured an endless array of exceptional artists, an array so vast that I will not even attempt to generate here a list of contenders.  Instead I will simply tell you who the best is: Pierre Bonnard.  Bonnard’s compositions seem quirky and intuitive, but upon closer inspection reveal themselves to be carefully and intelligently planned.  For most other artists, light and dark contrasts are used to establish structure and movement within a painting; Bonnard uses zones of heightened color.  The surfaces of his paintings are exquisite, varying from thin delicate veils of color to thick encrustations of impasto.  Bonnard’s work documents the serene, private life he shared with family and friends; it celebrates quiet moments filled with simple pleasures and pastimes.

Pierre Bonnard - The Bath - 1935

Pierre Bonnard - The Dining Room in the Country - 1913
Germany – This selection was difficult for me.  Lucas Cranach, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckmann and Anselm Kiefer were in the running, but Kirchner edged out his competitors based on innovation – his work bringing German art abruptly into the modern era.  Kirchner constructed a personal language, derived from the art of the Middle Ages, primitive cultures and modernist developments, with which he expressed both criticism of contemporary society and an optimism that a utopian paradise was attainable within an individual’s microcosm if he could discard the shackles of convention.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Seated Girl - 1910

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Self Portrait with Model - 1910
Great Britain – It’s interesting how some nations excel in certain arts and not others.  The written word, whether within poetry or prose, has been an essential component of British life since the Middle Ages.  Their greatest composers and artists tended to be imported from other nations.  All the same, Britain did produce John Constable, William Turner and Thomas Gainsborough, artists fostered by the fairly conservative Royal Academy.  In the twentieth century, independent artists like Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach were able to establish successful careers outside of the academy.  By far, the most important painter to mature in Britain is Lucian Freud, an artist who developed a style which featured an almost manic attention to detail and nuance while exploring psychological states as exposed through gesture and expression.

Lucian Freud - Reflection (Self Portrait)  - 1985

Lucian Freud - Rose - 1978/79
 Greece – Though most closely associated with Spain, El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) lived and studied for the first 26 years of his life in Crete where he attained recognition as a master and most likely operated his own workshop.  Later he worked three years in Venice and seven in Rome before moving on to Toledo, Spain, where he lived the remainder of his days.  El Greco was influenced by Byzantine, Renaissance and Mannerist art but was a true original, seeking a language which could articulate a spiritual realm only accessed in the imagination of believers.  The use of distortion, free brushwork, unusual colors, elongated figures and fantastic landscapes characterized his work which perplexed his contemporaries and delighted the modernists of the twentieth century.

El Greco - Laocoon - 1610/14

El Greco - The Vision of St John - 1608/14
Holland – It’s hard not to be an admirer of Rembrandt van Rijn.  After all he was a master of every genre: landscapes, portraits, large scale multi-figure paintings and historic/religious paintings.  But it wasn’t until I saw his Christ Resurrected in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek that I truly appreciated his genius.  A deceptively simple work, this painting which depicts the head and upper torso of Jesus still draped in his burial shroud might at first glance be considered the result of a rather uninspired effort.  But upon closer inspection the magic of the loose and varied brushwork, the rich tonalities contained within even the flat planes of the torso and the delicately delineated folds of the shroud amazed me.  Jesus’ face, almost expressionless, examines us dispassionately with the faintest suggestion of pathos in his eyes.  (Don’t even try to look this painting up on the Internet.  I’ve never seen a reproduction that even comes close to doing it justice.)  In an earlier entry, I’ve already addressed Rembrandt’s self-portraits, which are simply incredible.  I honestly believe if we were left with only his self-portraits, Rembrandt would still be considered one of the greatest painters of all time.

Rembrandt - The Syndics of the Clothmaker's Guild - 1662

Rembrandt - Self Portrait with Beret and Turned Up Collar - 1659
Italy – I’ve always been a fan of Umberto Boccioni, and Michelangelo is without doubt the greatest all-around artist that Italy has ever produced – but best painter has to go to Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.  Caravaggio was an incredible craftsman, his brushwork assured and precise.  He loved harsh lighting and sought subject matter that permitted him to exploit the dramatic effects of strong lights and darks.  An early adherent to the Mannerist style, Caravaggio preferred compositions which were quirky, unbalanced and capitalized on the emotional impact of unusual and exaggerated perspective.  Like his own personality, Caravaggio’s paintings are intense, dramatic, unconventional and tempestuous, and his innovative imagery influenced artists throughout Europe for many years after his early demise.

Caravaggio - The Conversion on the Way to Damascus - 1601

Caravaggio - The Incredulity of Saint Thomas - 1601/02

Mexico – I’m going to bend the rules here and give this one to a couple: Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.  Rivera essentially invented the Mexican mural – utilizing warm earth tones, generalizing form and introducing didactic themes which promoted a communist morality and championed the accomplishments and mourned the sorrows of an impoverished working class.  A naturally introspective nature compelled Kahlo to paint a series of self-portraits which explore her troubled existence while embracing a surrealist mode of representation.  Even though she worked far from the center of the movement, Kahlo managed to fully absorb and personalize the surrealist dialect.

Diego Rivera - La Vendedora de Alcatraces - 1942

Diego Rivera - Mural Depicting Mexican History - 1929/45

Frida Kahlo - The Two Fridas - 1939

Frida Kahlo - Self Portrait with Hummingbird - 1940
Norway – Seems to me that Norway, though late to become an independent nation, has a tendency to foster artists, composers and writers with unconventional spirits like Knut Hamsun, Odd Nerdrum and Karl Ove Knausgaard.  Edvard Munch, an artist who first explored a Symbolist mode of representation and later ushered in Expressionism, is Norway’s greatest contribution to European intellectual theory and one of the giants of Western art history.

Edvard Munch - Melancholy - 1892

Edvard Munch - The Storm - 1893
Portugal – Though her work sometimes dips into the pedantic, Paula Rego deserves recognition as an exceptional contemporary artist who has created a unique visual language while addressing themes from a feminist perspective.  Her imagery is often unsettling (at times, quite disturbing) as she examines issues relating to role play and body image.  Also technically her painting process is transparent, a quality I greatly admire in artwork.

Paula Rego - The Family - 1988

Paula Rego - The Policeman's Daughter - 1987
Russia – While I’ve always been extremely receptive to Ilya Repin’s paintings which document so effectively the era which produced Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Turgenev, I had to select Wassily Kandinsky for this honor.  Kandinsky’s oeuvre is technically brilliant, extremely innovative and packs a powerful emotional wallop.

Wassily Kandinsky - Composition II - 1910

Wassily Kandinsky - Composition IV - 1911

Wassily Kandinsky - Composition V - 1911
Spain – This is a no-brainer.  It’s got to go to Pablo Picasso, the Meryl Streep of art.  Picasso could do it all.  He reinvented the way we see reality and influenced generations of painters through the present.  His name is synonymous with modernism.

Pablo Picasso - Guernica - 1937

Pablo Picasso - Still life with a Bottle of Rum - 1911

Pablo Picasso - Self Portrait - 1907
Sweden – It seems to me that Swedish artists consistently maintained a conservative stance toward artistic innovation throughout recent history, often assimilating the ideas of new artistic movements decades after their development.  This conservatism could be due to geographic isolation or the result of centuries of stable monarchical rule and religious uniformity.  Though his work may not stand out as trend setting, Anders Zorn achieved a technical perfection and visual honesty which I can’t help but admire.

Anders Zorn - Martha Dana - 1899

Anders Zorn - Self Portrait - 1915
Switzerland – Ferdinand Hodler wouldn’t be considered one of the giants of modernism, but I’ve always connected with his work.  Technically his oeuvre is brilliant.  While embracing a Symbolist creed, Hodler utilized a bright, clean palette and applied paint in thick, confident strokes.  He was equally adept at painting the figure and landscape, and regardless of subject matter, his imagery projects a powerful emotive presence.  Hodler was a true independent.

Ferdinand Hodler - Eiger, Munch und Jungfrau in der Morgensonne - 1908

Ferdinand Hodler - Self Portrait - 1916
 United States – It was very difficult for me to choose between Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Richard Diebenkorn.  De Kooning definitely achieved a technical mastery in his work, a lushness of surface combined with brilliant brushwork, that is truly remarkable.  Diebenkorn, after absorbing the language of abstraction, went on to successfully apply that idiom to representational imagery, developing a totally new perspective on figure and landscape painting.  But it was Pollock who made the greatest leap from easel and mural painting to drip painting.  He changed so much about art.  He worked on unstretched canvas laid out on the floor, used materials not normally associated with fine art and no longer applied paint to the canvas with a brush.  His gestural drips were guided by subconscious drives and memories.  His work redefined how art functions and determined for decades the parameters of what was permissible for American artists to address in their work.

Jackson Pollock - Alchemy - 1947

Jackson Pollock - Lucifer - 1947
Having made public my obviously astute selections, I anticipate a barrage (in truth, hopefully, a trickle) of comments questioning my judgement.  “Picasso over Velazquez?  Absurd!”  “Hey, Bud, ever hear of a dude named Rubens?”  “You do realize, Fathead, that de Kooning wasn’t even American?”  Not only will I weather any criticism that comes my way but honestly do encourage it.  As I said earlier, the value in selecting the “best” of any discipline is that it forces us to consider the merits and flaws of a vast quantity of work, often to evaluate the products of disparate genres and milieus alongside one another and to decipher in the process what are our own preferences and predilections within a given field of art.  Another benefit I failed to mention earlier is that hopefully the process inspires a productive dialogue with others about their own views.

So rather than feeling that my little exercise in selecting best painters by nation was a complete waste of time, I believe that the process had several real merits.  It really makes me want to reconsider my attitude towards awards and awards shows entirely.  They’re really not so bad.  I mean, hey!, if there were an awards show for blogs, I would be thrilled to stumble up to the podium, bask a moment in the harsh lights, wait patiently for the applause to subside and then make one helluva dumbass speech.

And the Bloggy goes to…

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