DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt

2010/02/18

Womb of Art: Paleolithic Masterpieces

Detail of the Lion Panel of Chauvet Cave, France, fig. 84 from "Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave" by Chauvet, Deschamps & Hillaire

These lions look so full of life they might at any moment pounce on their prey.  This is a small detail from the “Lion Panel”, an expansive composition featuring dozens of animals, discovered in 1994 in a cave in southeastern France.  Across a huge cave wall with a niche in the center, the lions appear to be stalking herds of rhinos, mammoths and bulls.  The realism is classical, the scale and energy modern, yet radiocarbon dating has proven this magnificent work is approximately thirty thousand years old!  The mastery displayed here makes a mockery of the concept of “primitive” art.

It has been barely a hundred years since scientists have agreed that the paintings in certain caves are the work of artists of the paleolithic or old stone age, the end of the last glacial period, when homo sapiens coexisted with Neanderthal people and the kind of herds we associate with the African veldt roamed Europe.  In 1879 the nine year old daughter of amateur Spanish archaeologist Sautuola discovered the magnificent murals of Altamira cave, but it took over twenty years before the scholarly establishment accepted the prehistoric origin of the paintings.

Since then, academics have disputed about the meaning and motivation of these works.  In The Mind in the Cave:  Consciousness and the Origins of Art, David Lewis-Williams, a scholar specializing in ancient rock art, argues that the paintings in the paleolithic caves are the product of shamanic vision quests.  These are not the kind of caves some people lived in, but deep caverns requiring significant effort to penetrate.  Inside these spaces there is no external light or sound.  The paintings may record visions arising from ordeal and sensory deprivation.  Ancient footprints found in the caves show that children accompanied adults into the caves, so the exhibition of the artwork by dim and flickering lamplight may have been a kind of initiation.

Most visual art associated with present-day hunting and gathering cultures is highly stylized, relying on abstract conventions that represent things conceptually rather than accurately following their appearance.  In contrast, the paleolithic art is remarkable for its realism.  Obviously those animals were not posing for the artists inside the caves, but the confident rendering of lifelike animal contours convinces me that these artists were well practiced in observational drawing.  The caves may be significant not as the place of origin of art, but as the place of its preservation, as there must have been an abundance of art outside the caves that did not survive.

I’ll refrain from engaging the scholarly arguments here, and just share a few samples of visual art of the European Paleolithic that speak to me across the millennia, revealing the timeless qualities of great work.  These images come from books in my personal library, and I hope the copyright holders will not mind my sharing them with you.  Altamira, mentioned above, is the source of this exuberant galloping horse:

Galloping Horse, original painting in red, copied by Abbé Henri Breuil, fig. 130 from "Art in the Ice Age" by Maringer and Bandi

This painting has the lightness and simplicity of the loose brushwork of Asian painters grounded in calligraphy and taoism or zen.

This back-biting bison carving, from Trois-Frères Cave in France could be mistaken for a Picasso:

Bison sculpture in reindeer antler, from La Madeleine, France, fig. 44 from "Art in the Ice Age" by Maringer and Bandi

The Cave of Trois-Frères in France is famous for a human-animal hybrid image known as “The Sorcerer“.  It also has a magnificent complex herd scene with at least forty-five animals, densely overlapping, all of them individually expressed in different lifelike positions.  Is the figure on the right in the detail shown below a hunter disguised in a bison’s skin, a shamanic summoner of animal spirits, or a bison god?

Detail from a mural engraving at the Cave of Trois-Frères, France, copied by Abbé Henri Breuil, p. 135 from "La Peinture Prehistorique: Lascaux ou la Naissance de l'Art" by Georges Bataille

Here’s another detail from the same cave:

Bison, engraving at the Cave of Trois-Frères, France, copied by Abbé Henri Breuil, fig. 121a from "The Roots of Civilization" by Alexander Marshack

These vigorous drawings burst with vitality, conveying the power of the looming beasts and the fury of the hunt.

You may notice that I’ve chosen to show many of these works in copies made by the Abbé Breuil, one of the early 20th century’s foremost specialists in European cave art.  His beautifully rendered copies clarify images that are often hard to read in photographs, painted or engraved on rough and mottled stone surfaces.  It’s difficult for photographs to capture the qualities of cave art, which is not flat and not intended to be seen in harsh bright light.  Many of the original paintings incorporate the bulges of the stone walls as the bulges of the animal bodies.  In other places, paintings continue from walls up to vaulted ceilings, as in this image from the most famous painted cave of all, Lascaux:

Ceiling of the Axial Gallery, Lascaux Cave, p. 111 from "The Cave of Lascaux: The Final Photographs" by Mario Ruspoli

Depictions of animals are far more numerous, and usually more detailed, than depictions of the human form in paleolithic art, but the human figures can be strikingly sensual:

Reclining female figures from Cave of La Madeleine, France, relief carvings above with copy drawings below, fig. 111 from "The Way of the Animal Powers" by Joseph Campbell

Those remind me of Matisse.  The carved “Venus” figurines, a selection of which are shown below, prefigure the styles of Brancusi and Gaudier-Brzeska:

Small paleolithic figurines, from left to right, vitreous rock from the Riviera, hematite from Moravia, mammoth ivory from Ukraine, and mammoth bone from Russia, figs. 121 thru 124 from "The Way of the Animal Powers" by Joseph Campbell

From a slightly later period, after the invention of the bow and arrow, we have silhouetted figures like this one, similar in style to South African rock art, but this is from Spain:

Archer with compound bow, rock painting in black from the Spanish Levant, fig. 177 from "Art in the Ice Age" by Maringer and Bandi

This is just a small sampling from an incredible wealth of prehistoric masterpieces.

New note added April 21, 2010:  Get a great feeling for the art in context with the navigable CGI reproduction of the art in context in the cave of Lascaux.

2009/09/25

Body Electric: Walt Whitman

Filed under: Homage: Writers,Poetry — Tags: , , , , , , — fred @ 14:49
Walt Whitman, 1854, photo attributed to Gabriel Harrison

Walt Whitman, 1854, photo attributed to Gabriel Harrison

Walt Whitman was born into the working class, and had to toil and struggle throughout his life.  During the dark and bloody years of the American Civil War he served as a nurse to wounded soldiers.  His poetry and his political activities got him fired from jobs on several occasions.  In spite of it all, the primary tone of his poetic voice is ecstatic.  His vision was so clear that he persisted throughout his life expanding and revising what he saw as his single work, his great epic of embodied spirit, Leaves of Grass.

For Walt, all people and all things are equal because all are expressions of the divine, and the direct experience of the divine is the experience of embracing the wild and messy physical world.  His “Song of Myself” is not far from the Buddhist idea of “no self”, because by “myself” he means the experience of his senses, which is a universe complete, its grandeur expressed in its commonest parts:

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more
than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green
stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see
and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the
vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I
receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

(From “Song of Myself”)

Here is the last section of “I Sing the Body Electric”, a fragment of  Leaves of Grass.  It’s a Whitman’s sampler of body parts and vital functions ecstatically regarded.  I’ve interspersed a few of my sketches, not as illustrations of these words, but as love-offerings to Walt.  If they distract you from the endless skipping-stone of the poet’s cadence, or if you want to savor the full poem, click here.

O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and
women, nor the likes of the parts of you,
I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of
the soul, (and that they are the soul,)
I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my poems, and
that they are my poems,
Man’s, woman’s, child, youth’s, wife’s, husband’s, mother’s,
father’s, young man’s, young woman’s poems,

Poleman, 2009, by Fred Hatt

Poleman, 2009, by Fred Hatt

Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears,
Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eyebrows, and the waking or
sleeping of the lids,
Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws, and the jaw-hinges,
Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition,
Cheeks, temples, forehead, chin, throat, back of the neck, neck-slue,
Strong shoulders, manly beard, scapula, hind-shoulders, and the
ample side-round of the chest,
Upper-arm, armpit, elbow-socket, lower-arm, arm-sinews, arm-bones,
Wrist and wrist-joints, hand, palm, knuckles, thumb, forefinger,
finger-joints, finger-nails,
Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast-bone, breast-side,
Ribs, belly, backbone, joints of the backbone,
Hips, hip-sockets, hip-strength, inward and outward round,
man-balls, man-root,
Strong set of thighs, well carrying the trunk above,
Leg-fibres, knee, knee-pan, upper-leg, under-leg,
Ankles, instep, foot-ball, toes, toe-joints, the heel;

Push, 2009, by Fred Hatt

Push, 2009, by Fred Hatt

All attitudes, all the shapeliness, all the belongings of my or your
body or of any one’s body, male or female,
The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean,
The brain in its folds inside the skull-frame,
Sympathies, heart-valves, palate-valves, sexuality, maternity,
Womanhood, and all that is a woman, and the man that comes from woman,
The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter, weeping,
love-looks, love-perturbations and risings,
The voice, articulation, language, whispering, shouting aloud,
Food, drink, pulse, digestion, sweat, sleep, walking, swimming,
Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening,
The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes,
The skin, the sunburnt shade, freckles, hair,
The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand the naked
meat of the body,
The circling rivers the breath, and breathing it in and out,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward
toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the
marrow in the bones,
The exquisite realization of health;

Look Ahead, 2009, by Fred Hatt

Look Ahead, 2009, by Fred Hatt

O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!


Walt Whitman’s full-bodied embrace of life, of Nature, of humanity, has become rare in the arts of our era.  Our culture fears this raw openness, and chooses to sheild it behind layers of cynicism or sentimentality.  But Walt’s light still shines.

I’ll close with a set of artist’s reference photographs taken by the great American painter and teacher Thomas Eakins.  Scholars believe the model for these pictures may be Walt Whitman.

Old man, seven photographs, c. 1885, photo by Thomas Eakins

Old man, seven photographs, c. 1885, photo by Thomas Eakins

The drawings in this post are 70 cm x 50 cm, aquarelle crayon on paper.  Photographs are from the Walt Whitman Archive.

2009/06/29

Moonwalk & Sequined Glove

Filed under: Homage: Performers — Tags: , , — fred @ 23:10
Moonwalk & Sequined Glove, 2009, b&w version, photo by Fred Hatt

Moonwalk & Sequined Glove, 2009, b&w version, photo by Fred Hatt

I’m working on a big drawing post but it’s not ready yet, so perhaps I should join the throng and post my tribute to Michael Jackson, my generation’s incandescent performer and tragic lonely man.  Ever since New York City put up these new LED pedestrian signals, I’ve been reminded of Michael’s iconic glove and dance move.  Farewell, blazing one.  Let no one say our civilization has renounced human sacrifice!

Below, a color version of the same shot.

Moonwalk & Sequined Glove, 2009, color version, photo by Fred Hatt

Moonwalk & Sequined Glove, 2009, color version, photo by Fred Hatt

2009/05/16

Raw Urgency: Picasso at Gagosian

Filed under: Reviews: Art Exhibitions — Tags: , , , — fred @ 23:38
PABLO PICASSO Portait de l'homme à l'épée et à la fleur, 1969, Oil on canvas, 146 x 115 cm)

PABLO PICASSO, Portait de l'homme à l'épée et à la fleur, 1969, Oil on canvas, 146 x 115 cm

On Friday (my birthday) I went to see Mosqueteros, the exhibit of paintings and prints from Picasso’s last decade, at Gagosian’s spacious Chelsea gallery on West 21st Street in New York, curated by Picasso’s biographer, John Richardson.  When he was in his eighties, Picasso accelerated his already prodigious productiveness, creating hundreds of large oils, as well as drawings, etchings and aquatints.  The subject matter engages the traditions of 17th century masters like Velazquez and Rembrandt and Rubens (as in the above canvas, reminiscent of a famous Velazquez), but the energy with which Picasso attacks the work is quite modern.  The paintings are physically raw and unpolished, and the emotional content is equally raw, often expressing the painful conjunction of sexual frenzy with the anguish of the aging body.

The exhibit has about fifty large-scale paintings and about fifty prints.  The etchings and aquatints, many on a theme of female exhibitionism and male voyeurism, clarify the energy and restless experimentation of Picasso’s gestural mark-making, revealing a similar aspect in the oils.  The paintings hold to a fairly narrow range of figurative elements, mostly portraits and nudes, but the formal apsects of color combinations, composition and expressive brushstrokes are bold and dazzling.  There are images of faces and bodies squeezed together in contortions of lust, aching to merge two into one, and haunted faces already shadowed by the mark of death, dreading another kind of merging.

Picasso is considered a painter first and foremost, but his approach to painting, especially in these later works (1962-72), avoids the illusionism and polished sheen many painters strive for, instead giving us gestural directness and sheer energy.

My last post was about light painting, so I’ll close with a link to images of Picasso painting with light.  These images show clearly the special quality of Picasso’s movement.

Mosqueteros is on view through June 6 at the Gagosian Gallery at 522 West 21st Street in New York.

2009/03/25

Meredith Monk: Inner Voice

Filed under: Reviews: Other Events — Tags: , , , , — fred @ 22:59

I’ll be trying my first video post tomorrow.  Today, just a quick note about a film I saw today at a special screening at the Guggenheim Museum.  Inner Voice is Babeth VanLoo’s documentary about composer/vocalist/choreographer/director Meredith Monk.  Monk has long been an inspiration to me.  As an artist she has done her own thing in defiance of traditional discipline categories and cultural fashions over four decades, and it just keeps getting deeper and stronger.  She has managed to do all this while seemingly remaining a kind and humble person.  The film beautifully reveals the integration of Monk’s art, her life, and her spiritual practice.  Information about the film is here, and a link to view the entire film, though in very small format, is here.

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