Absinthe, So Many Stories!

absinthe
Absinthe (photographer unknown)

Tuesday Night in San Francisco

Went to an absinthe tasting in San Franciso on Tuesday night. I am still not sure if the drink is legal in the United States or if what exists now is liquor or liqueur. No slotted spoon, no sugar cube and no water dripping on the sugar and into the drink a’la Ernest Hemingway. And so, there was no true vision of the green that the drink is supposed to be. My artist’s eyes were looking forward to seeing that.

It is just as well that I had no expectation of taste. I was surprised by absinthe’s strong anise flavor. It tasted like licorice. I hate licorice. Still, I was game and had two of the three servings allotted for the evening. By the third drink, however, when the serving had been elevated to a 74 percent alcohol level, I had had enough. I know my limit and so I stopped after drink number two (which was about a 35 to 45 percent alcohol level). No walking around the Mission District or getting on the BART drunk for me.

absinthe1
Absinthe Drinker, by Viktor Oliva, c1901

The Many Stories of Absinthe

Absinthe is rife with history and includes stories of art, agriculture (a la the Great French Wine Blight), the economics of supply and demand, medicinal elixirs, the French military in North Africa, European imperialism, the Belle Epoque period (the French counterpart of America’s Gilded Age), industrialization and urban sprawl, the beginning of women’s liberation/feminism, French and New Orleans cafe society, Social Darwinism, and the Prohibition/Temperance Movement(s). Artists too, feature prominently in the drink’s history. Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Verlaine, Picasso and Hemingway were all aficionados of the green fairy. Poet Oscar Wilde is said to have been a heavy drinker of absinthe but there is no real proof of this. Perhaps the only statement about absinthe that seems directly attributable and related to him is one he made to author Arthur Machen:

“I could never quite accustom myself to absinthe, but it suits my style so well.”

Far from being a heavy absinthe drinker, it seems that Wilde didn’t quite like this drink. Maybe like me, the infusion of anise which produces a licorice-like flavor wasn’t quite to his liking.

Glass of Absinthe, Pablo Picasso,1914

What is That Thing?

As a teenager I saw this Picasso sculpture in either New York or Philadelphia and thought that the sugar cube was a dice with too many numbers on each side. That was before I started reading the labels on museum walls. (Now I read them sometimes but only after I’ve seen the works, digested them and made of them what I want to make of them). I still say this looks like a dice in a spoon and it’s not a particularly good sculpture either. Maybe the only thing it has going for it is that it was created in 1914, which is the beginning of World War One. So historically, it is significant: This is the end of the Belle Epoch period, Bohemian Paris and the avant garde lifestyle enjoyed by many, including Picasso.

Blame the Drink

Absinthe has a bad reputation and has been blamed for madness, debauchery and even murder. Among the artists who were heavy absinthe drinkers, some veered toward insanity. Van Gough, Hemingway, and Verlaine all came from families with histories of mental illness: Verlaine drank himself to death and the other two committed suicide. Absinthe, with its incredibly high levels of alcohol (74 percent!) plus mental illness, plus alcoholism, all make for a deadly combination. But is the drink to blame for murder, madness and mayhem? I would say not. The trouble with the artists mentioned in this article is that they didn’t know their limit. They were incessant drinkers and probably all alcoholics. To blame the drink for these ills is tantamount to blaming violent video games and movies for the prevalence of gun violence in our society today.

***** ***** *****

The Yellow House

You can watch a free downloadable movie (based on a book by the same name) about Van Gogh’s and Gaugin’s time together in the South of France. There is also a short animated introduction to the movie here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGHwFn5xS5o.

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The Outsiders

Would you label this outsider art? Why or why not?

Why Outsider?

Here’s that troublesome question again: How and why is some art labeled “outsider?”

What is this art and its creators outside of?

If an artist has no formal art training does that automatically make his/her art outsider art?

The phrase, outsider art,  is every bit as troublesome as the term, “the other” that is often bandied about in scholarly works. As one reads Kate Withstandley’s, The Outsider Renaissance (click on the link to access the article), certain questions arise: Who determines these labels? Are these art works outsider, intuitive, not fine art? Why not simply call them art?

There is nothing “outsider” about the last three pieces below nor is there anything “insider” about the two above. The only difference between the two sets of paintings is that the first is by prominent Bay Area artist, Nathan Olivera, while the second is by what the art world labels outsider artists. None is better or worse than the other so why differentiate? I might very well have posted some of Picasso’s paintings, sculptures and potteries and asked the same question with an added twist, “If you didn’t know who the artist was, would/wouldn’t you call this outsider art?”

Outsider Inside, Insider Outside

New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was at one time considered an outsider, that is, until he became a part of  Warhol’s world. Basquiat, genius that he was, knew that he needed exposure and so, he actively tried to get inside Warhol’s world. Would he have become an insider artist if Warhol had excluded him? Would the art establishment, the critics, museums and galleries have taken him as seriously as they did if he had not been a part of Warhol’s crowd? Left on his own, would the art world have realized that Basquiat deserved to be noticed the way an artist like Picasso deserved to be noticed?

Warhol Polaroid of Basquiat making a monkey face

Mekking Monkey Face

What price did Jean-Michel Basquiat pay to move from being an outsider to an insider artist? Was this Warhol monkey face portrait, for example, part of  the price he paid to become famous? In Jamaica, “mekking monkey face” is simply clowning around and making silly faces. It is the pastime of children. The name of the game notwithstanding, I have yet to see a Jamaican child mek monkey face so that (s)he actually looks like a monkey. Their clowning around has more to do with mouth and eye gestures and distortions. What’s more, I haven’t seen any child use props to mek monkey face like Basquiat and Warhol did in this photograph. Add the out-sized ears to the distorted eyes, nose and mouth and you get a transformation from human to animal.

Whose idea was it that Basquiat strike this pose? Was it his? Was it Warhol’s? Were photographer and subject in collusion? Is one being coerced by the other to make/take the photograph? For what reason did sitter and photographer create this image? Certainly this cannot be an attempt by Basquiat to be taken seriously by the art world. Noticed, maybe, but taken seriously? I doubt it. Yet another question to consider is this: Did Warhol photograph anyone else in this particular pose? If not, why? Why Jean-Michel Basquiat and not Mick Jagger, Edie Sedgwick or any of his other sitters?

This photograph is the only one I’ve seen where Warhol’s sitter strikes this pose. Why this sitter and why this pose? Is Basquiat, maybe Warhol as well, making a statement, confronting the status quo? Are they deliberately drawing attention to Basquiat’s status as an outsider times two in the art world? Whatever the case, the portrait does not sit well. (See my previous post, “Mammy and Myths: Oh Andy!” for more on Warhol and Basquiat and the making of myths.)

Note: The large Olivera painting is the property of Stanford University. You can view it in their contemporary art gallery at the Cantor Museum.

Shota Katsube - Untitled, 2011 Image from Wellcome Collection
Shota Katsube – Untitled, 2011
Image from Wellcome Collection
Norimitsu Kokubo – The Economically Booming City of Tianjin
Image from Wellcome Collection
Ryoko Koda – Untitled, 90-00
Image from Wellcome Collection

Degenerate Art Exhibition Revisited

This show runs from October 2012-February 24, 2013

The Nazis’ Entartete Kunst Show Revisited

The title of this current exhibition at The Cantor Museum is rather disconcerting: a war on modern art1

A better title for the show would have been, “A War on Modern Art: The Notorious Hitler/Nazi Purge of 1937,” or quite simply, “The Entartete Kunst Show.”

The infamous Nazi art exhibition of 1937, Entartete Kunst, sought to stamp out certain art forms, including abstraction. It had the opposite effect. By drawing attention to modern art, the Nazis helped to make it unforgettable.

Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian painter and theorist, has been credited with creating the first purely abstract Western artworks. He taught at the Bauhaus until the Nazis closed it in 1933. His use of colors, shapes and lines so offended their sense of beauty that in the Entartete Kunst exhibition, they declared his art to be “crazy at any price.” Included in the current Cantor exhibition are several Kandinsky pieces that are representative of the ones featured in the 1937 show.

Germany 1929-1938

In 1929, The Great Depression hit Germany hard. Over five-million Germans and Austrians were out of work. The “unacceptable” were blamed for infecting the society. Anything and anyone violating the Nazis’ sense of classical German beauty (Aryan) were deemed degenerate and therefore, to be destroyed. In defense of this destruction, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, is heard declaring on archival film, “Der Fuhrer liebt die Kunst, weil er selbst ist ein Kunstler” (The Feurer loves art. He himself is an artist).* Unfortunately, this love extended neither to abstract/modern art nor its creators.

Book Burnings

Book burnings began in Berlin in 1933: German and Austrian books were burned alongside books by “corrupting foreign influences.” This included books by Ernest Hemingway, H.G. Wells and the German playwright, Heinriche Heine. Heine, in his 1821 play, Almansor had written the following line:

“Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.” (“That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.”)

Dubious Distinction

The 1937 Degenerate Art show featured many of Kandinsky’s works, including an edition of the book, Klange (Sounds), and the portfolio of twelve prints entitled, “Kleine Welten” (Small Worlds). None of the works in The Cantor’s exhibition were actually in the Nazi sponsored art exhibition but both shows feature(d) a copy of Klange and several prints from Kleine Welten.

wassily k photo book
Klange (Sounds), 1913 –illustrated book of poems and woodcuts by Wassily Kandinsky
wassily k photo
Kleine Welten, III (Small Worlds, III), 1922 — lithograph from a portfolio of twelve prints, by Wassily Kandinsky

Also on view at The Cantor is a reproduction of the 1937 Nazi exhibition catalog (in both German and English). This too, was disturbing and did what it was meant to: It shocks the visitor by its immediacy and also by its accessibility to the English-speaker.

Over one-hundred artists and six-hundred pieces of art (including illustrated books like Kandinsky’s) encompassed the Nazis’ 1937 art exhibition. When the Degenerate Art Law was passed a year later in 1938, the Nazis had confiscated more than 16,000 objects of art.

Julien Bryan’s Archival Films

Chilling and voyeuristic are apt descriptions of Julien Bryan’s 1937 short films. The documentary of the museum goers viewing the show is numbing, disturbing, evocative and sad. You wonder which attendees will become murderers  and who will be murdered. What are visitors thinking as they view the show? Is each visitor thinking for himself or has he allowed his thinking to be sanctioned by the State? Who, at that show, will help those in need and who will turn on “the other?” You wish you didn’t know how it ultimately ends.

Three links to various Bryan documentaries are embedded below. These are silent, black and white films. Because they are soundless, they are all the more harrowing. They have a certain magnetic pull, drawing the viewer in in a way that modern films do not. In their silence they force you to pay attention, to listen with your eyes.

About Julien

Who was Julien Bryan? He was an American photographer, filmmaker and documentarian who traveled throughout Europe in the 1930s. He tried to warn America of the dangers of Nazism and Fascism based on what he saw in his travels abroad, in Russia, Poland, Germany and Austria. His documentary films of the era are now part of the public domain. Access them here:

  • Munich Exhibition of Degenerate Art — Filmed by Bryan when he visited the 1937 Nazi exhibition.

http://www.ushmm.org/research/collections/highlights/bryan/video/detail.php?content=germany_art

  • Pupils at Goldschmidt Jewish Private School in Nazi Germany — Bryan filmed the Goldschmidt Jewish private school shortly after Jews were no longer allowed to enroll in public schools in Germany. Again, you wish you didn’t know how this all turns out.

http://www.ushmm.org/research/collections/highlights/bryan/video/detail.php?content=germany_pupils

  • Hitler Youth Girls –Here Bryan documents the indoctrination of German/Aryan school children, even during playtime.

http://www.ushmm.org/research/collections/highlights/bryan/video/detail.php?content=germany_youth

———–

*”PBS Film Chronicles Nazi Art Suppression”, The Daily Gazette, (Tuesday, April 6, 1993) <http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1957&dat=19930406&id=XWlGAAAAIBAJ&sjid=LukMAAAAIBAJ&pg=1166,1427669>

Stupid NASA, Earth and Nature

Capture
credit: NASA

A friend sent me NASA’s earth art book and immediately, I started scribbling down place names for no other reasons than these: They are arresting names; and I wonder what goes on there. What do these places look like up close? Who lives there and how do they live in and treat these places and spaces? Are there open spaces for me to go wandering about in and exploring?

Ever since I arrived in the Bay Area, I have a renewed appreciation for open spaces that I have not felt since my childhood and my later adult sojurn in Jamaica. Just as importantly, this appreciation informs and colors my art. When I looked at the NASA pictures I thought once again, how cheeky, trying to create something, anything, when nature has already done it and done it so well. Here I am, getting ready to re-work my “the vees in picasso” sketches that I did last spring. I know not where the inspiration came from nor why it came from those particular sketches. All I know is I have a clear vision and I am going to move it from inside my head and out onto my canvas. But damned if one of the NASA shots isn’t an almost exact replica of what is in my mind’s eye!  Even the coloration and texture (hence the use of modeling clay on the canvas) are the same as what I envisioned.

I just got through experimenting with a light modeling clay and a golden bronze acrylic paint that I have been reluctant to use. The experiment was tedious and it took me a long time to master that paint. I tried working with this bronze before and it hadn’t been tactile. In fact, the wretched thing was and still is, a very heavy paint. It does not rest easily on the canvas. This is the same paint that I worked with in the “David at Yosemite” painting. Turns out this paint is truly a bitch to work with and not simply because the David painting was a difficult subject.

I finally finished this new experiment in bronze painting. It has turned into a painting called, Little Fairy Castles in the Cow Pasture (or Childhood at Belvedere Estate). When I finished it I thought, “That was really difficult but I’m ready to work on my “vee” painting. Now along comes NASA with its “Earth-observing environmental satellites in orbit around the planet”, to show me that it has already been done! They have all conspired to outdo me, NASA, Earth, Nature and those dim-witted satellites that never did anything except spin about in the skies. They never lifted paintbrushes nor tried to coax heavy bronze paint onto canvas! Adding to my chagrin, the NASA picture, shown at the top of this post, is of the desert outside of the United States that I have my eyes on. Yes, it is of the Namib area that I wrote about in an earlier article, the same Namib desert that I invited my Yosemite painting man to visit with me so we could photograph, paint and sand-board there. Sand-boarding and sand-sledding in Swakopmund, Namibia, was another of our Urban Daddy Magazine discoveries. But that is another story.

Here now are some of the place names from NASA’s earth as art book that stirred my imagination:

  • Painted Desert, USA
  • Desolation Canyon, USA
  • Lake Disappointment, Australia (childhood fairy tales and river myths come to mind)
  • Parana River Delta, Argentina (this conjures up images of piranha fish)
  • Anti-Atlas Mountains, Morocco (what does it even mean to be “anti” in a place name?)
  • Carbonate Sand Dunes, Atlantic Ocean (how do you even have dunes in the ocean??)
  • Ribbon Lakes, Russia

The following are not place names but oh, the conjuring up my mind does just thinking of these titles: gravity waves, ice waves, phytoplankton bloom, and Wadi Branches, Jordan (is this a geographical feature or a place-name?).

Oh, stupid NASA Earth as Art book can be accessed here: http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/703154main_earth_art-ebook.pdf and the artworks mentioned in this article are shown below.

Happy New Year and see you in 2013!

At Yosemite (mixed media, 2011)
At Yosemite (mixed media, 2011)
2012-12-29 12.44.20
early version of Belvedere painting
2012-12-30 10.05.33
final Belvedere painting
Remembering the "Vs" i (at the de Young)
Remembering the “Vs”, i (at the de Young)

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