DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt



Self-Portrait, Skull, 1958, drawing by Alice Neel

In time for Halloween and the Day of the Dead, I give you a collection of skulls and other personifications of death and horror from the art of the past several centuries.  If you’re sensitive to violent, creepy, disturbing imagery, don’t scroll down.

Totentanz (Dance of Death), illustration by Michael Wolgemut from Liber Chronicarum, also known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493, by Hartmann Schedel

In the wake of the famines, plagues and wars of the late medieval period in Europe, there arose a genre of popular allegorical murals, prints, and plays called Totentanz or Danse Macabre, the Dance of Death.  Often there’s a series of images showing corpses or skeletons dancing with commoners and kings, popes and peasants.

Death and the Heathen Woman, from the medieval Preacher Totentanz mural of Basel, copy by Emanuel Büchel, c. 1770

These images say life is fleeting and precarious, death is ever-near.  High-born or low, Death will get you in the end.

Totentanz mural in the Anthony Chapel, St. Nicholas Church, Talinn, c. 1490, by Bernt Notke

Surely the Totentanz was an expression of something deeply felt by the people living in this time, who saw death everywhere around them.  The priest could point to it to urge repentance, since the end could come without warning.  The hedonist could see it as a spur to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh while they last.

Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women, c. 1505, print by Daniel Hopfer

Mortality is not simply an abstract fact for mortals, it is personal.  It comes to take you away from your life and your loved ones.  So it must be personified, and it is often shown as a skeleton or a decaying corpse that is animated, to show the horror we feel at the decay of the flesh.

Dead Lovers, c. 1470, by an anonymous artist

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a master of deep natural perspective and complex figurative compositions, transformed the simple Totentanz scenes into a panorama of war and executions, famine, torture, and madness.  Click on the image to follow a link to a much larger version of this landscape of hell on earth, big enough to scroll around and see all the horrific details.

The Triumph of Death, 1562, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The sense of death as a corruption that devours life from within has been expressed by artists closer to our own time.  For a 1945 movie, directed by Albert Lewin, based on Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Henrique Medina made a straight portrait of actor Hurd Hatfield that was gradually, over the course of filming, transformed by painter Ivan Albright into this image of walking decay.  Click here to see before and after versions.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1943, by Ivan Albright

Similarly, Francis Bacon transformed Velasquez’ strikingly realistic portrait of Pope Innocent X into a scream of modern existential dread.

Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953, by Francis Bacon

A century or two after the era of the Totentanz, the omnipresence of death was perhaps felt with a little more distance, and the prevailing genre of painting meditating on death was the Vanitas, usually a still-life composition incorporating a skull or skulls.  “Vanitas” refers to the line from Ecclesiastes that declares “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity,” so it has some of the same meaning as the Totentanz, but considerably less of the visceral feeling of horror.

Vanitas Still Life, 1672, by Aelbert Jansz. van der Schoor

The Totentanz and the Vanitas are both considered versions of a more inclusive artistic motif called “Memento Mori” – Latin for “Remember you will die.”

Still Life with a Skull, c. 1650, by Philippe de Champagne

Of course artists also study skulls and skeletons as part of learning anatomy, the better to depict the human form full of life, and many artists become fascinated with bones as elegant forms.  Paul Cézanne, the post-impressionist “painter’s painter” made several Vanitas still-life pictures at the turn of the 20th century, as he faced his own mortality.

Pyramid of Skulls, 1901, by Paul Cézanne

During a brief stint in a classical art academy in Antwerp, where skeletons were studied as part of the curriculum, Vincent van Gogh painted this mischievous smoking skeleton.

Skull with a Burning Cigarette, 1886, by Vincent van Gogh

James Ensor, Belgian satirist and proto-surrealist, depicted pointless struggle in the form of skulls with mismatched jaws, wearing military garb and fighting over a bit of fish.

Skeletons Disputing a Smoked Herring, 1891, by James Ensor

Contemporary sculptor Kris Kulski makes ornate monochromatic constructions, many of them incorporating skeletons.  Here a giant skeleton appears to be building a city along its own spine.

The Decision, 2007, sculpture by Kris Kuksi

Yet another often-revisited motif in the Memento Mori tradition is Death and the Maiden.  This gives the artist the chance to contrast youth and beauty with repulsion and decay, combining sex and death in what artists found to be a potent thematic brew, pushing two primal buttons at once for a creepy frisson.  Hans Baldung was an early master of the erotic horror genre.

Death and the Maiden, c. 1519, by Hans Baldung

Throw in morality and religion with the sex and death, and you can really have your cake and eat it too.

Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation, c. 1485, by Hans Memling

The Death and the Maiden theme has also survived into modern art.  How could the famously death- and sex-obsessed Edvard Munch resist it?

Death and the Maiden, 1894, print by Edvard Munch

Käthe Kollwitz sees the theme from a female perspective, and transforms the maiden into a mother holding a child in this image of death as predator.

Death Seizing a Woman, 1934, print by Käthe Kollwitz

For Hans Bellmer, mortality and sexuality are fundamentally linked in the depths of the psyche, and both are arousing and terrifying: Eros and Thanatos.

Instructions to Sexuality II, 1974, print by Hans Bellmer

The medieval view of death and horror was of something intensely real and palpable.  By the age of enlightenment, artists tend to express a romanticized fear of madness, of the unknown, of the supernatural – something we still feel in some part of our psyches where reason’s light fails to penetrate.

The Nightmare, 1791, by Henry Fuseli

Goya obsessively depicted horror and madness and evil, both in the absurdities of human behavior and the very real devastation of war.

Disparate de miedo (Absurdity of Fear), from Los Disparates, 1815-1823, print series by Francisco Goya

Japanese artists of the same period also display a wonderfully vivid imagination for visualizing the stories of ghosts and horror that abound in Japanese folklore and literature.  Here are works from two masters: Hokusai and Kuniyoshi.

Ghost of Kohada Koheiji, c. 1830, print by Katsuhika Hokusai

Detail from Princess Takiyasha summons a skeletal spectre to frighten Mitsukuni, c. 1845, a triptych of prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

In the later nineteenth century, death is seen more in a mournful light than one of terror.  No longer the dancing zombie of the middle ages, Death calmly ferries you to the set of a tragic grand opera.

Isle of the Dead, 1883 version, by Arnold Böcklin

Death is a symbol – the Grim Reaper, horseman of the apocalypse.

Death on a Pale Horse, 1865, by Gustave Doré

In our time, pop culture is full of images of avengers, terminators, furious warriors and inhuman killers, but it’s mostly fantasy, not our everyday reality.

The Death Dealer, 1973, by Frank Frazetta

I can’t think of a painting that gives a more realistic image of the act of killing than Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes.  It’s far more brutal and horrifying than Caravaggio’s great version of the same scene, and Caravaggio reputedly had real experience with killing.  But Artemisia was an ambitious female painter in a time when ambitious women got no respect, and she must have put the real murderous fury she felt towards men into this chilling work.

Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1612, by Artemisia Gentileschi

The ancient Mesoamerican religions were based around human sacrifice, and figures of death and blood and the underworld abound.

Mayan God of Death, date unknown, stucco sculpture at Palenque, photo by Sherry Hardage

The skull or calavera image survives in today’s Mexican culture in the jaunty decorative skulls and skeletons of the Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos,  November 1st, a time to honor ancestors and perhaps to be cheerful in the face of death.

Las Calveras, Cancun, Mexico, contemporary photo by Tiffany Shu

Elaborately decorated calaveras are a tradition with endless variations, such as this visionary Huichol psychedelica.

Huichol Beaded Skull, contemporary creation by Our Exquisite Corpse design team

Posada, a popular Mexican illustrator of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, used the calavera as a basic motif for social satire and political cartoons.  This tarantula-skull is a caricature of General José Victoriano Huerta Márquez, Mexico’s brutal dictator at the time.

Calavera Huertista, 1914, print by José Guadalupe Posada

Through the twentieth century, much of the art of horror and death is about war.  The Great War of 1914-18 harvested vast swathes of Europe’s youth and left many more maimed and traumatized.

The Field of the Slain, 1916, by Evelyn De Morgan

The Victorian image of a dark angel, aesthetically romanticized, survived for a while as the predominant artistic depiction of Death.

Prospect Park War Memorial, 1921, sculpture by Augustus Lukeman, 2003 photo by Fred Hatt

At the same time, through this period, European artists like Picasso with his Demoiselles d’Avignon, composer Stravinsky with Sacre du Printemps, and writer Alfred Jarry with the play Ubu Roi, had been discovering the power of a rawer, more primal approach to expression, and many found it the only way to truly depict the horror of war.

Skull, 1924, by Otto Dix

Of the work below, full of chaotic energy, the artist said, “This is a painting I painted after the defeat of the Republicans in Spain.  This is obviously an ironic title [“Angel of the Hearth”] to denote a kind of animal that kills and destroys everything in its path.  That was the impression I had at the time, of what was possible to happen in the world, and in that I was right.”

I think the title “Angel of the Hearth” may refer to the fact that the violent ideologies of Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism begin from a claim to stand as protectors of the homeland, and of the purity of their cultures and races.

L’Ange du Foyer (Angel of the Hearth), 1937, by Max Ernst

Mexican painter Siqueiros went to spain to fight against the Fascists.  His painted response to the war, from the same year as Ernst’s, expresses a more emotional experience of devastation and loss.

Echo of a Scream, 1937, by David Alfaro Siqueiros

Death taking his victims in his pitiless embrace is a timeless image.  Here’s a version painted by Vietnam veteran William Myles.

Death Taking a Soldier, 1997, by William Myles

Henry Moore’s sculpture “Nuclear Energy” is on the campus of the University of Chicago where the world’s first nuclear reactor was built.  It is an abstract image of power, but it evokes both the skull and the mushroom cloud of the nuclear bomb, perhaps to remind the scientists working on that campus that Death is ever near, just as he was six hundred years ago in the time of the Totentanz.

Nuclear Energy, 1967, by Henry Moore, photographer unknown

All images in this post, except for one that is a photograph taken by me, were found on the web.  Clicking on the photos links to the sites where the pictures were found, and in many cases, to larger versions of these images.


What Will Last?

Filed under: Art and Society,Art History — Tags: , , — fred @ 23:24

Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet, c. 3000 BCE

A friend used to like to say I have a mind like a steel sieve.  My semantic memory (for general knowledge, concepts and facts) is pretty good, but my episodic memory (for my own life experiences) is weak.  My sense of my own history is vague, a collection of hazy dream images.  Perhaps this keeps me feeling young, as I don’t carry around the weight of the past, but it also gives me the sensation everything is always slipping away.  I think this sense, early on, made me interested in documenting and archiving things, collecting images, books, and recordings.  As a kid my favorite toys were the cassette recorder and the 8mm movie camera, tools for capturing fleeting moments.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the impulse to save things, and the factors that make cultural products survive or disappear.  In this post I share some of these thoughts for your consideration.  Don’t expect me to offer any good solutions!

I have a room filled with my own drawings and photographs.  I keep boxes of papers, shelves of books and discs and tapes, and several terabytes of digital files.  A few years ago I had to move twice within two years.  Those moves prompted me to get rid of a lot of stuff – I let go of two thirds of my books and most of my music and dumped tons of paper, but the archive remains vast.  If I didn’t live in the city, where space is expensive, I’m sure I’d have kept even more.

Self portrait with my books, 2011, photo by Fred Hatt

I grew up in a house filled with books and records, in a family of intellectual collectors verging on hoarders.  My mother has particularly recognized the necessity of organizing and distilling things into a useable form, and has, over the last several years, assembled a series of beautiful scrapbooks documenting the family history.  Still, I know she feels overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.

Page from Hatt family history scrapbook, assembled by Martha Hatt

We save things to carry what we value of the past into the future.  We still find inspiration in the work of creators and thinkers long dead.  As artists, we hope that something we create may not only speak to our contemporaries, but survive to inspire future generations.  I’d like to see my work preserved after I am gone, but I’m afraid my lack of marketing efforts or serious art-world status may doom it to the dumpster.

In the art supply store, paper is labeled as acid-free and archival, and paint pigments are ranked for permanence.  But stable and durable materials won’t preserve your work after you’re gone unless those who receive it think it’s worth saving.  Cultural change, war and disaster, chance misplacements and discoveries, can doom or save artworks.  Here are a few examples:

Child-Headed Whiplash-Tail Blengins, date unknown, by Henry Darger

The reclusive artist Henry Darger’s obsessional writings and paintings on paper, work he never shared with anyone while he was alive, were preserved only because his landlord, Nathan Lerner, an established photographer/artist, recognized the creative merit of the work found in Darger’s apartment after his death.  Now Darger is much more famous than Lerner.

Pennsylvania Station, Concourse from South, 1962, photo by Cervin Robinson

New York’s Pennsylvania Station was one of the great buildings of the early 20thcentury, a magnificent temple of trains the same size as St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, but in the early 60’s the interstates and the airlines were supplanting the railroads in American travel, and the vast building was razed to build Madison Square Garden.  Neither its massiveness nor its grandeur could save it.

Portrait of Antonio Vivaldi, artist unknown

Antonio Vivaldi was a well-known composer in his own lifetime, but after his death his work was forgotten and was not part of the classical music canon for nearly 200 years until a boarding school, eager to sell off its dusty archives, asked music historian Alberto Gentili to assess the value of its music manuscripts.  This was in 1926.  Today, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” is one of the most frequently recorded and performed baroque music compositions of all, and it’s hard to imagine that it was unknown in the time of Mozart and Beethoven, but that is the case.

Francois 1, King of France, c. 1530, by Jean Clouet

An art historian once told me a story about François 1, King of France, who was an important patron of the arts in the Renaissance era, supporting Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea del Sarto, and other great artists of the time.  Apparently the king was a bit of a libertine, and constructed Roman style steam baths in his palace at Fontainebleau, where he hosted parties.  He hung many of his favorite paintings in these steam baths, where they were destroyed by the moisture.  (I tried to verify this story by doing a little online research.  I did find references to the King’s having displayed paintings in his baths – nothing about any specific works having been ruined, but surely constant moisture can’t have been good for them!)

Statue of Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, shown in 1997, left, and after destroyed by the Taliban, 2001, right, photographer(s) unknown

There are so many stories like this.  The painters considered the greatest in the nineteenth century are mostly forgotten today.  Herman Melville died a failure, his work appreciated by almost no one until decades after his death.  The great manuscripts of antiquity were gathered in the Library of Alexandria, which was burned down in an accident of war.  Statues have been melted down to recover the bronze, or destroyed by religious fanatics as forbidden idols.  Films thought to be forever lost have been found in garden sheds and attics.  Works of the creative spirit are always being destroyed or lost or forgotten, sometimes rediscovered or reconsidered.  It all seems incredibly random.  An artist can try to make something that has the potential to last for a long time, and can hope it will be something people will value enough to protect, but nothing is certain.  The future is a crapshoot.

Hall of Bulls, Cave of Lascaux, photo by Sisse Brimberg

The artworks that survive from the Paleolithic era, 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, are carvings in stone or bone and paintings in deep, difficult-to-access caves.  Surely there were carvings or constructions in wood, paintings on bark or animal skins or fabrics, body art, and many other things, but all of that is gone now.  I doubt that the artists thought of the caves as time capsules for their art, though that’s what they became.  The caves may have been secret ritual places, known to only a few in their time, but the art our paleolithic forebears showed in public is gone, while their deep hidden art still inspires many of us today.

I grew up in an era of analog media – vinyl records, chemical photography, movies on film, books on paper.  When I was in college, we studied Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, which argued that mass media had changed the function of art from something rare and precious and ritualistic into something ubiquitous and ephemeral, public and political.  The digital revolution has accelerated this alteration to the point that it’s now hard even to imagine the magical power that images once had.  Even in my youth, finding a rare book or record in a dusty old shop was still exciting, but now almost anything is available by Google search.  We need a new essayist to write a follow-up to Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Media Avalanche”.

Essayist Walter Benjamin, photographer unknown

In the analog media era, mastering a musical instrument or photographic equipment were intensive crafts, and producing and distributing books or movies or records was an expensive industrial undertaking overseen by gatekeepers.  These factors tended to draw clear lines between amateur and professional artists, and to keep the appearance of new material in any artistic field to a manageable flow that an audience could follow.  Digital tools have made the production and sharing of material so easy that we’re all swamped by mediocrities from artists who haven’t paid their dues or done serious time in the woodshed.  Even before the digital revolution, the arts had a bit of a supply/demand problem.  Suddenly there’s this eruption of material, and the gems must be somewhere in that cataract, but finding them, even recognizing them, isn’t easy.

In our digital world, most images, music, and writings increasingly exist only in digital form on hard drives or memory cards, or on servers in “the cloud”.  You sometimes hear the idea that all of this material is protected from loss by the fact that it’s widely distributed and shared.  How can the ubiquitous cease to be?  But I think digital media have striking vulnerabilities.

Fred Hatt projecting 35mm film in the Airstream trailer projection booth at the HBO/Bryant Park Film Festival, 2011

Some of you may know that besides my art and photography and filmmaking, I work as a freelance motion picture projectionist.  It’s a good trade that offers me a certain level of financial stability I’ve never found from my more creative endeavors.  I project old and new films at places like the Museum of Modern Art, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and the French Institute/Alliance Française.  In the film business, sound recording, film editing, and special effects have been mostly digital for decades now, but until fairly recently most movies were still shot on film and projected on film.  That’s all changing.  Now, when you see a new film at the multiplex, it is almost certainly a digital file played on a server by a high-resolution digital projector, and probably shot with digital cameras as well.  The major film distributors have announced plans to cease production of film prints in the next year or two.

Projectionist with Super Simplex 35mm projector, Capitol Theater, New London, CT, date and photographer unknown

A good 35mm theatrical movie projector will keep working for 50 years if you take good care of it.  Cinema-quality digital projectors cost several times as much and can only be expected to last five to ten years, even if they aren’t rendered obsolete by technological developments before they reach such an advanced age.  Film projectors are 19th century technology, simple mechanical devices, and most things that can go wrong with them can be fixed or at least jerry-rigged by the operator.  The film print is a strip of pictures, 24 projected for every second of running time.  You can look at the film directly and see the pictures on it, and they can be scanned or copied by any potential future technology.  Film prints suffer from some wear and tear, but it’s a gradual deterioration.  A film that has some scratches and dust, or a little color fading, is still watchable.  Technologists use the term “robust” to describe a technology that is reliable and flexible to changing conditions – it bends but does not break, or it deteriorates slowly but still does the job, or it is simple to maintain and fix even while it is running.  35mm is the ultimate example of a robust technology.

Two frames of 35mm motion picture film. The picture is optically “squeezed” to be projected on a wide screen using an anamorphic lens. To the left of the picture area is the analog, optical sound track. A digital sound track is recorded with dots in between the perforations on the left, and another format digital sound track in blue on the edges of the film.  Twenty-four of these frames are projected every second, and the average feature film is about 2 miles or 3 kilometers in length.

The new digital cinema systems, on the other hand, are highly complex and also encumbered by copy-prevention measures that put serious limitations on testing and troubleshooting.  If something goes wrong during projection, the screening usually has to be cancelled, because there is no quick fix.  At this year’s New York Film Festival, a screening of Brian De Palma’s new movie, with the director in attendance, had to be aborted midway due to technical difficulties.  Already most of the projectionists I know have experienced these occasional devastating problems with digital screenings, problems that never happened with film.  Unlike the film print, with its visible image frames, the digital film is nothing but about 150-200 gigabytes of ones and zeroes, highly encrypted.  A small error, a little bit of corruption in such a file can render it completely unplayable, or at least unbearable to watch.

Dolby Cinema Server

All digital files are analog information encoded into binary numbers and recorded microscopically on optical or magnetic media.  Reconstructing the texts, images, or sounds they represent into a form we can use requires both the correct hardware and the correct software – if either one is unavailable, you have a problem.  These technologies are constantly changing.  Already if you have obsolete media like floppy discs, or files recorded in a ten-year-old program, you may have difficulty recovering them today.  These files have become essentially unreadable in a matter of years.  How much more will be lost this way over the course of decades or centuries?

Corrupted jpg camera image file, photo by Sokwhan Huh

Professional archivists suggest that all digital materials should be recopied every few years onto the best available current formats and media.  As long as the speed and efficiency of the technology continues to increase exponentially (as does the quantity of digital material we expect to conserve) this has been possible, but does it really seem completely unlikely that a slowing of the technology, a financial crisis cutting budgets for media archiving, or some other occurrence may erase or render unusable vast quantities of words, images and sounds?  A serious collapse of our technological civilization, even a gradual collapse, due to wars or peak oil or environmental disaster or whatever, would probably completely doom all digital files to extinction.

I envision a time in the twenty-second century when cultural historians will still have great collections of 20th century analog photographs, recordings, films, and printed matter, while much of the 21st century stuff has vanished into a technological memory hole – a digital dark age.

Jpg Corruption, photo by Codell. This is a digital camera file damaged by a loss of power while saving the file.

Perhaps the most permanent material ever discovered for information recording is the clay tablet.  Thousands of such tablets, inscribed in soft clay with a stylus over five thousand years ago, still survive in completely readable form.  Ceramics can be broken, but generally in a way that can be reassembled.  A bull in a china shop can never be as destructive as a corrupt code in a digital system.  Perhaps our creative efforts have a better shot at lasting if they stay closer to earth.

Akkadian Cuneiform Tablet, c. 3000 BCE, photographer unknown

Most of the images in this post were found on the web.  Clicking on a photo links to the site where I found it.


Different Strokes

Porcupine, 1951, woodcut by Leonard Baskin


The magic of drawing or printmaking is in the strokes.  By strokes I mean the particular and idiosyncratic quality of the lines or other marks the artist makes.  Some lines jab while others meander.  Some markings are cloudy while others are crisp.  The strokes convey in a tactile way the essence of how the artist comes to grips with the challenge of capturing a thing seen or actualizing an inner vision.  Making a drawing is a journey of exploration, and these markings are the spoor of the trek.  When we look at a drawing, we can feel the energy that went into it in the particular flavor of its lineaments.

In this post I present a goodly selection of mostly monochrome sketches and prints by a wide diversity of masterly mark-makers.  I’ll let the works speak for themselves and leave it to you to contemplate the contrasts among them.  I have generally chosen pieces with a direct, spontaneous quality, avoiding highly finished styles where the quality of line may be more a matter of design than of the energy of the mind and the hand.  I often tried to find unfamiliar examples of the work of well-known artists, and sometimes individual works that are not representative of the artists’ familiar styles.  I think you’ll be particularly surprised by the early De Kooning sketch!

Man Walking in a Field, 1883, conte crayon drawing by Georges Seurat


Portrait, title, date and medium unknown, by Paul Cadmus


Composition, 1916, medium unknown, by Wassily Kandinsky


Edward Scissorhands, 1990, pen and pencil drawing by Tim Burton


Autumn, 1970, engraving by Salvador Dalí


Self Portrait, 1946, by David Alfaro Siqueiros


Musician portrait, date, title, and medium unknown, by Edgar Degas


Drawings, 1939, title and medium unknown, by Jackson Pollock


Saturn, 1516, engraving(?) by Hans Baldung Grien


Resting Woman Wearing Tiara, 1936, pen and ink drawing by Henri Matisse


Sketchbook pages, date unknown, drawings by R. Crumb


Reproduction Drawing III (after the Leonardo cartoon), 2010, media unknown, by Jenny Saville


Self Portrait at the Age of Eighty-Three, 1843, ink brush drawing by Hokusai


Untitled, 1981, drawing by Jean-Michel Basquiat


Study for the Head of Leda, 1506, ink and chalk drawing by Leonardo da Vinci


Gregory Hines, date and medium unknown, sketch by Jules Feiffer


Study of the Head of Elizabeth Siddal for “Ophelia”, 1852, medium unknown, by John Everett Millais


Femme nue couchée, 1932, charcoal drawing by Pablo Picasso


Old Man on a Swing, 1826, medium unknown, by Francisco Goya


Untitled, 1950, ink drawing on parchment by Philip Guston


Europa, 1953, lithograph by Hans Erni


Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1514, by Albrecht Dürer


Love Forever (TAOW), 2004, marker drawing on canvas by Yayoi Kusama


Bird Personage, date and medium unknown, by Remedios Varo


Court Room Scene, date and medium unknown, by Honoré Daumier


Beekeepers, 1568, etching(?) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder


Drawings, dates, titles and media unknown, by Alberto Giacometti


Self Portrait, date and medium unknown, by Henry Fuseli


Tree with Trunk, 1998, etching by Louise Bourgeois


Drawing, 1944, title and medium unknown, by Pavel Tchelitchew


Nude Study, 1908, etching by Georges Braque


The Sower, 1888, pencil and pen and ink drawing by Vincent van Gogh


Portrait of Elaine De Kooning, 1940, pencil drawing by Willem De Kooning


Some Can Fly and Some Can’t, 1939, medium unknown, by Rico Lebrun


Le Chapeau-Main, 1947, lithograph by Hans Bellmer


Sketch for “Apollo Slays Python”, 1850, medium unknown, drawing by Eugène Delacroix


Madame Louis-Francois Godinot, 1829, medium unknown, drawing by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, with detail


Corps de Dame, 1950, medium unknown, by Jean Dubuffet


Cape Lion, 1650, medium unknown, drawing by Rembrandt van Rijn


The Man who Taught Blake Painting in his Dreams, 1820, print(?) by William Blake


Five Swearing, 1912, oil sketch by Ferdinand Hodler


Madame Sohn, 1918, charcoal sketch by Egon Schiele


Seated Bodhidharma, 18th century, ink brush drawing by Suio Genro


All the images used in this post were found on the web, and clicking on an image will take you to the page where I found it.  Any information about the artwork that is listed as “unknown” is information I was not able to find at the time of making the post.  If you can provide additional or corrected information I will incorporate it.

Readers are invited to nominate some of their favorite drawings for an eventual sequel to this post!


Painters of Light

Bambi’s First Year, 2009(?), by Thomas Kinkade

Thomas Kinkade, “Painter of Light (TM)” passed away earlier this month.  His psychedelically colorful fantasy landscapes are too sugary for my taste, but he’s a fascinating cultural figure of our time.  It strikes me that his technically accomplished, rather surrealistic style would have been embraced by the contemporary art world if he had presented it as ironic rather than earnest, and if he had sold exclusively to elite collectors instead of marketing to the masses.  Can’t you just imagine the painting above in a Chelsea gallery or in the pages of Juxtapoz magazine?  But he made the statement he wanted to make, and made a ton of money doing so.

Don’t worry – I’m not going to go on about Kinkade,  nor about the ironies of the Art World.  This post is inspired by Kinkade’s trademarked epithet, “Painter of Light”.  The post is a selection of great Western paintings of the last four centuries that beautifully capture effects of light.  They’re presented here in chronological order.   Any art history fan reading this will surely think of great painters and works I’ve left out, and I invite you to share your favorites in the comments section.

The term of art for drawing or painting emphasizing contrasts of light and shadow is the beautiful Italian word “chiaroscuro“, and there is no better example of the technique than Caravaggio.  He achieved an almost photographic feeling of realism and presence using dramatic, high-contrast light.  Where most artists of his time portrayed Biblical figures as idealized types in standardized poses, Caravaggio shows them as individuals, with distinctive features, physical flaws, and very human gestures and attitudes.  The chiaroscuro technique is so vivid you feel like you could touch the people in his paintings.

The Supper at Emmaus, 1606, by Caravaggio

Around the same time, El Greco was moving away from realism, with figures distorted in ways that suggest movement or emotion.  Was El Greco consciously experimenting with modes of expression hundreds of years ahead of their time, or was he a bit crazy?  Either way, the composition below is charged with energy.  The light is not realistic as in the Caravaggio – it strikes different figures from different directions, and sometimes seems to be a glow from within.  But the sense of light is powerful here anyway, as the turbulent sky, the satiny fabrics, and the serpentine bodies and limbs of the figures all seem to crackle with the electricity of a storm about to burst.

The Vision of St. John (Opening of the Fifth Seal), 1614, by El Greco

El Greco worked in Spain but came from Crete, and may have been influenced by the highly stylized traditions of Eastern Orthodox art.  He was certainly an outlier in his era, as a main movement in the 17th century was towards more realism.  Many artists of the time specialized in illusionistic rendering of subtle light effects, as in this candlelit scene by van Honthorst.  I love the way the warm candlelight glows on the face and breast of the female figure, while the male in the foreground is just a black silhouette with a rim of light suggesting his features.

The Matchmaker, 1625, by Gerrit van Honthorst

Georges de La Tour did many paintings with very convincing candlelight or lamplight effects.  His style is serene, his compositions spare and elegant. The flame below is so beautifully rendered that it actually seems to be emitting light.

Magdalen with the Smoking Flame, 1640, by Georges de La Tour

Many of Vermeer’s paintings show interior scenes lit by daylight coming laterally through windows.  The light effects are observed with great accuracy, including subtleties like the warm-toned light reflected from the table top onto the wall beneath the window, and the way the window light reveals the texture of the wall and map behind the young woman.

Officer and Laughing Girl, 1655, by Johannes Vermeer

Goya’s paintings of terror and madness often use harsh, dramatic lighting.  This scene of abduction by flying witches looks like a night scene illuminated by a spotlight or a bolt of lightning from above.  The contrasty lighting leaves many details in darkness – the deep shadows where horrors lurk.

Flying Witches (Vuelo de Brujas), 1797, by Francisco Goya

In Blake’s depiction of necromancy, the conjured spirit of the prophet Samuel shines as a column of light in the darkness, casting his fearsome glow on the crouching figures of King Saul and the Witch of Endor.

The Witch of Endor Raising the Spirit of Samuel, 1800, by William Blake

The painting below may be a self-portrait by Marie-Denise Villers.  I’ve found very few images of other works by this painter, but this piece is a wonderful depiction of the penetrating gaze of an artist.  The window-light coming from behind the artist makes her golden ringlets and white gown glow, and the light reflects from the drawing paper to softly bathe her face from below – a very unusual choice for a portrait, but here the effect highlights both her youthful beauty and her eyes looking into your depths.  (This painting has always been one of my favorites at the Metropolitan Museum.)

Young Woman Drawing, 1801, by Marie-Denise Villers

Ingres’ painting shows a Scottish bard dreaming of the characters of Celtic myth, bathed in  a mysterious beam of light that seems to glow from inside the circle of figures.

The Dream of Ossian, 1813, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

Friedrich specialized in romantic landscapes where human figures are dwarfed by mysterious environments that seem filled with spirits.  All of his paintings have wonderfully rendered effects of light and air.

Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, c. 1830, by Caspar David Friedrich

In this masterful depiction of a glowing golden sunset, also by Friedrich, the figures are bathed in a diffuse backlight and the skylight both reflects off the surface of the water (especially in the foreground) and shines through its translucency (especially in the distance).

The Stages of Life, 1835, by Caspar David Friedrich

Turner took the study of light and its interaction with air and water, smoke and rain, in a radically abstract direction.  This swirling composition can be appreciated as pure paint and gesture like abstract expressionism, but the image of the boat, barely visible in the tempest, gives it even more depth and motion.

Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbor’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and Going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel Left Harwick, 1842, by J. M. W. Turner

Bierstadt’s grand landscapes often feature special lighting effects.  In this one I like the interaction of the red firelight and the greenish glow of the full moon.

Oregon Trail, 1863, by Albert Bierstadt

Monet’s entire long career is a study of natural light in all its variations.  The details don’t matter in the example below, but the differences between the shaded foreground and the sunlit background, and how the colors and tones of all these areas are fragmented in reflections on the water surface are both vivid and subtle.

La Grenouillere, 1869, by Claude Monet 

Caillebotte was also a great observer of light.  Look at how the light gives form to the foreshortened bare backs of the workers, and how the light reflects differently off the glossy and non-glossy parts of the floor.

The Floor Strippers, 1875, by Gustave Caillebotte

Degas often depicted subtle effects of lighting through variations in color rather than just variations in value.  Some of the shadows on the bather’s body have a greenish tone, while others have a reddish tinge.  Even though the detail and chiaroscuro are fairly minimal here, the body has a great feeling of three-dimensional presence.

The Tub, 1886, by Edgar Degas

Sargent’s watercolors are even looser with the detail, but wonderfully capture the qualities of light, as in this scene of a mother and baby, their faces obscured in the shade of a tent while their bodies are in sunlight.

Bedouin Mother, 1905, by John Singer Sargent

Monet’s later work uses much more vivid colors than his early work.  They blend in the eye, in a way that looks realistic from a distance.

The Grand Canal, 1908, by Claude Monet

Bonnard was always interested in color effects.  Some of his later works dispense with light-dark contrasts so much that they’re almost unreadable in black-and-white reproductions.  This one, though, still has chiaroscuro.  The figure is deeply shadowed, but she’s surrounded by light and color.

Model in Backlight, 1908, by Pierre Bonnard

Here’s another Sargent.  With minimal detail, he gives us the effects of sunlight dappled through leaves and skipping off the surface of water.

The Bathers, 1917, by John Singer Sargent

This is the only purely nonobjective piece in this post.  Paul Klee brought a deep study of color and light to his playful abstractions, which often suggest an inner glow, or the effects of light passing through translucent colored glass.

Eros, 1923, by Paul Klee

Ivan Albright used chiaroscuro not to show the form of his figures, but to show the texture.  The effect is grotesque and cruel, like a contrasty photograph that reveals every wrinkle and pore, but it also has a powerful luminous effect.

Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida, 1930, by Ivan Albright

Hopper was famous for his studies of light and shadow, both sunlight and nighttime artificial light effects.  His treatment of light always seems to create an impression of empty space around his subjects.

Summer Evening, 1947, by Edward Hopper

Here George Tooker places some of his figures in deep shade under the Coney Island boardwalk, and other figures in full sun.  Notice the central reclining male figure in the dark foreground, with one leg in the sun.  The shadowy figures also help make the blue sky look luminous.

Coney Island, 1948, by George Tooker

In “The Waiting Room:, Tooker depicts a very different light atmosphere, the sickly fluorescent overhead glow permeating a dehumanizing institutional space.  These two pictures embody polar extremes of the modern urban experience, and the quality of the light in each piece defines its spirit.

The Waiting Room, 1957, by George Tooker

I’ll conclude with a magnificent chiaroscuro nude by Andrew Wyeth.  The light and shadow make the figure tangible.  The woman’s face turns into the darkness, which is mysterious space.  A photograph of this scene, exposed to keep detail in the sunlit areas, might look like this, with deep black shadows all around, but the human eye would naturally see detail in the darker areas.  The artist has chosen to surround his subject in pitch black, all the brighter to make the light.

Lovers, 1981, by Andrew Wyeth

All of the illustrations in this post were found on the web.  Clicking on the images will take you to the sites where I found them, and in many cases to larger versions of the pictures.


The Artist’s Beard

Filed under: Art History,Collections of Images — Tags: , — fred @ 00:19

Fred Hatt, b. 1958, artist and blogger, self-portrait photo 2011 by Fred Hatt

This is a first for Drawing Life – a men’s style post.  Artists, writers, and musicians create not only a body of work but also a persona.  The possibilities are broad, but the options are naturally constrained by the face and body Nature has given.  As I have found myself becoming a bearish middle-aged man, my own style has gravitated towards a classic type.  The trimmed beard I had ten years ago has expanded to what is now known on the interwebs as an “epic beard”.  It covers my double chin and also serves as a tribute to my many artistic forebears, artists whose fulfillment manifested in silverback gravitas rather than studly cutness or prettyboy romance.  So here is a fairly arbitrary selection of bearded males (and one female) of the creative bent, presented in completely random order.  What a great opportunity to put myself in the context of the greats!

Hermeto Pascoal, b. 1936, composer and musician, photographer unknown

Daniel Day-Lewis, b. 1957, actor, photo by John Spellman/Retna Ltd.

Ernest Hemingway, 1899-1961, writer, photo by Yousuf Karsh

Luciano Pavarotti, 1935-2007, singer, photographer unknown

Jim Henson, 1936-1990, puppeteer, photographer unknown

Thelonious Monk, 1917-1982, composer and musician, photographer unknown

George Carlin, 1937-2008, comedian and writer, photographer unknown

George Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950, playwright, photographer unknown

Albrecht Dürer, 1471-1528, painter and artist, self-portrait

Auguste Rodin, 1840-1917, sculptor and artist, photo by Nadar

George Clinton, b. 1941, musician and bandleader, photo by Marcy Guiragossian/Marcy G. Photography

Constantin Brancusi, 1876-1957, sculptor, photo by Edward Steichen

Toshiro Mifune, 1920-1997, actor, still from Red Beard, directed by Akira Kurosawa

Erik Satie, 1866-1925, composer and musician,photographer unknown

Charles Dickens, 1812-1870, writer, photo by Jeremiah Gurney

Allen Ginsberg, 1926-1997, poet, photographer unknown

Devendra Banhart, b. 1981, singer-songwriter, photographer unknown

Ai Weiwei, b. 1957, artist and activist, photographer unknown

Sergei Parajanov, 1924-1990, film director and artist, photographer unknown

Walt Whitman, 1819-1892, poet, photo by Matthew Brady

Isaac Hayes, 1942-2008, songwriter and musician, photographer unknown

Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890, painter, self-portrait

Alan Moore, b. 1953, writer, photographer unknown

Hans Holbein the Younger, 1497-1543, painter, self-portrait

Oliver Sacks, b. 1933, neurologist and writer, photographer unknown

John Lennon, 1940-1980, songwriter and musician, photographer unknown

Jennifer Miller, b. 1961, performer and writer, photographer unknown

Claude Monet, 1840-1926, painter, photo by Nadar

Terry Riley, b. 1935, composer, photo by Lenny Gonzalez

Salman Rushdie, b. 1947, writer, 1992 photo by Andy Ross

Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895, writer and statesman, photographer unknown

Johannes Brahms, 1833-1897, composer, photograph by C. Brasch

Jerzy Grotowski, 1933-1999, theater director, photographer unknown

Stanley Kubrick, 1928-1999, film director, photographer unknown

Leo Tolstoy, 1828-1910, writer, photographer unknown

Gustav Klimt, 1862-1918, painter, photographer unknown

The beard is naturally an expression of masculinity and maturity.  It also seems to denote sensitivity in a man of rough or plain features.  Imagine many of the men in these photos clean shaven, and see how their power, like that of the shorn Samson, is diminished.

All photos, besides the one of me, were found on the web.  Clicking on the photo links to its source.

Of course this collection is arbitrary and incomplete.  Feel free to use comments to nominate worthy bearded artists I’ve omitted.


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