Deconstructing Constructivism

April 24, 2022

Christie’s online magazine has a useful guide to the movement that began in revolutionary Russia and swept across the world with far greater success than the politics of the same origin.

“As supporters of the political ideologies propagated by Russian revolutionaries, Constructivists imagined art as an active agent in the Socialist cause. Art should reflect the modern industrial world, and, above all, be accessible to the masses. Members of the group strived to make art that was relevant in a rapidly changing world, that was free from academic tradition, and devoid of any emotive or subjective properties.”

“Constructivists considered their art a product of an industrial order, rather than a unique commodity, and a precursor to the factory-produced mass-made object. They often explored collective ways of working, and regarded the object-maker as a builder or engineer rather than as an individual artist … Many of their works, both two-dimensional and three-dimensional in form, are characterised by their austere, angular geometric shapes.”

Their influence in early Soviet life was profound.

Textile designs by Varvara Stepanova

However, after Stalin suppressed the Constructivists, the movement moved abroad influencing the Bauhaus, De Stijil, Zero, and Geometric schools through the 1980s.  The precepts of the movement has inspired artists such as Paul Klee, Piet Mondran, Vasily Kandinsky.

Peter Struyken, “Structuur II” (1969)

Does Constructivism survive today?

“Absolutely. Constructivism has influenced many contemporary artists making art with computer programmes, with a lot of today’s abstract art having roots in the Constructivist movement of the 1970s.”

A useful article.


A Record for Chardin

March 24, 2022

.

When I was a boy, one of the first artists who’s work I fell in love with was Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, master of still life and portraiture. I saw his work in the National Gallery in London and the Louvre and was enchanted by his style.

However, to be honest, I haven’t thought of him in years. So a flood of great memories overtook me when reading today that his wonderful 1761 painting of a basket of strawberries …

…. had sold this month for €24 million: a record price for a Chardin or, indeed, for any 18th century French artist, and way above the €15 million pre-sale estimate.

It is good to know that such splendid workmanship never goes out of style.


World Nature Photography Awards 2021

March 9, 2022

.

The 2021 World Nature Photography Award winners have been announced and, no surprise, there are dozens of wonderful images to see. I particularly liked these:

Facing Reality: Photographer Amos Nachoum
Nature Art: Photographer Federico Testi
Abandoned House: Photographer Gautam Kanat Bambolkar

Happy 89th Yoko!

February 18, 2022

Happy birthday to one of the most creative and innovative multimedia artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. Long may she continue!


Emily Carr’s 150th Birthday

December 13, 2021

.

Western Forest, 1931

When I first came to Vancouver and visited the Art Gallery, I was astounded to see a room full of paintings by Emily Carr. They were a shock to me, vibrant in their blues and greens and browns, different from any works I had seen before: I didn’t understand them, and I didn’t care for them at all. Now, some forty-odd years later, while I still perhaps don’t understand them completely, I have grown to appreciate them — indeed, love them — both as local and global treasures.

Untitled, 1938

Today we celebrate what would have been her 150th birthday and we celebrate her ever-growing reputation.


BioArt Competition

December 4, 2021

.

FASEB’s BioArt competition shares the beauty and wonder of biological research. I really like these:

Supramolecular Confetti: image by Jack Kolberg-Edelbrock
MicroCT Scan of 96 million-year-old Fossil Turtle Shell Surface Texture: image by Heather F. Smith


Frieda Smashes Records

November 16, 2021

.

The last time Frieda Kahlo’s self portrait Diego y yo was auctioned in 1990, it sold for $1.4 million, making her the first South American artist to break one million dollars. This week at Sotheby’s it sold again, this time for $34.9 million — the highest price by far ever achieved by a South American artist.


Environmental Photography of the Year 2021

November 9, 2021

.

The 2021 Environmental Photography Awards have been announced, and there are some extraordinary works among the winners. I am especially drawn to these three:

Green Barrier: photographer Sandipandi Chattopadhyay
Survive for Alive: photographer Ashraful Islam
Drying Incense: photographer Azim Khan Ronnie


The Oldest Art

November 7, 2021

.

Each September I celebrate the anniversary of the discovery of the Lascaux Caves and the revelation of the glorious 17,000-year-old images to be found there. The historical value of Lascaux lies in the fact that they were the first such art gallery to be found. However, they are far from the oldest art that we now know about.

As the discovered art got older, it also shifted eastwards. The ancient art in Europe, at Lascaux and Altamira is dated to the period immediately following the last global maximum of the Ice Ages, 15,000 – 20,000 years ago. The caves at Chauvet are from about 30,000 years ago, but Indonesia has images firmly dated to 40,000 years, and the Sulawesi pigs can now be dated to 45,500 years ago. Images in India and China may even be older.

“The discoveries in Sulawesi could imply that representational art began in Asia, but more likely, [archaeologist Adam] Brumm says, it’s just part of a trail of representational art through human history. He expects the oldest rock art will eventually turn up from before Homo sapiens’ diaspora out of Africa.”

But, as this fascinating article from PNAS illustrates, the issue of what is the oldest art is inextricably linked to an answer to the question: “What is art?”

“The most common criterion for what’s considered art is behavior without any apparent practical use … Still other archaeologists would like to see stronger evidence that the art was actually intended to convey some kind of aesthetic principle or meaning … Beads, for instance, are decorative but can also signal group identity… Evidence of abstract images dates as far back as 500,000 years ago, when Homo erectus etched zig zag lines into a seashell in Java (5). And just this year, archaeologist Dirk Leder discovered 51,000-year-old abstract triple L-shaped patterns carved in deer bone 

Is this art? Or do we only want to think about representational images, such as the Sulawesi pigs? Perhaps, as the article concludes, they may be two strands — one symbolic, one practical — of independent derivation that will not be forced into a linear history.

I just hope we find lots of more of both.


Emerging Photography Awards 2021

November 6, 2021

.

The Emerging Photography Awards for 2021 have been announced. I really like these:

Kansas: photographer Rob Darby
Chinese New Year Reimagined: Photographer Horace Li
Woman: Photographer Daniela Constantini

Siena Awards

November 2, 2021

.

The Sienna International Photo Awards for 2021 have been announced. The various galleries contain a wealth of extraordinary photographs. Of the many fine works, I particularly liked the following:

Childhood, photographer: Lopamudra Talukdar
Out for Prayers, photographer: France Leclerc
Return To The Village, photographer: Ahmed Fatih Sonmez

There are literally another twenty or thirty I could have chosen. Have fun looking through the galleries!


Altering Vermeer

October 27, 2021

.

One of my favourite paintings, Vermeer’s Girl Reading A Letter at an Open Window, has been revealed to be something other than what we have all grown to know.

Recent restoration has shown that the blank white wall in the background originally contained a large picture of Cupid, probably indicating that the letter in question was a love missive.

“Behind [the girl] there was an empty white wall. But in 2017, we started with a big restoration and research project to do the restoration of the painting,” Uta Neidhardt, senior curator at Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery) in Dresden, Germany.

Laboratory tests indicate the overpainting was done about 70 years after the painting was completed, and after Vermeer’s death in 1675. One theory is that the picture had been attributed to Rembrandt and the cupid was removed as it was not a detail usually associated with Rembrandt; the alteration thus added to the valuable — but wrong — attribution when the painting was presented to a Saxon prince in the 1740s.


Weather Photos of the Year 2021

October 19, 2021

.

The Royal Meteorological Society have announced the 2021 winners of their Weather Photograph of the Year award. Top prize went to Giulio Montini:

.

The public favourite was:

.

Winner in the Mobile Phone category was:


World Illustration Awards

October 14, 2021

The Association of Illustrators has announced the winners of the 2021 World Illustration Awards. There are some truly extraordinary creations among these selections. I particularly liked the following:

.

.

Part of New World poster series, by Zama Peza

.

Cabinet of Curiosities, by Dani Choi

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

October 10, 2021

The National History Museum of the UK has revealed some finalists in their 57th annual wildlife photography contest. I really liked these:

Toxic Design: Photographer Gheorghe Popa
Storm Fox: Photographer Jonny Armstrong
Linx on the Threshold: Photographer Sergio Marijuan

Lascaux

September 12, 2021

On this day in 1940, the Lascaux caves in central France were discovered by four teenagers. As they entered the long shaft down into the cavern, the boys saw vivid pictures of animals on the walls.

 

When the site was made available in the later 1940s, this cave art was wildly popular with the public. More importantly, it allowed everyone, both public and scientists, to understand more clearly that the so-called “cave men” were far more than the mindless brutes of previous imagination.

At about 17,000 years old, the Lascaux images are far from being the earliest known cave art today — several caves in Europe and Indonesia have art from about 40,000 years ago, and a recent “sketch” on a rock in South Africa may be much older.  However, the enormous trove of images (more than 900 animals identified) at Lascaux combined with the encouragement of tourist traffic to the location has allowed this cave complex to become the best known of all cave art.

The discovery at Lascaux marked an important anniversary in our understanding of who we are and where we came from.


I Love Colour

August 29, 2021

I love colour. I try to show this is in my art work and photographs with varying degree of success. The always valuable Creative Report brings me news of a new book called “The Atlas of Rare and Familiar Colour” that really intrigues me.

The shelves of the Forbes Pigment Collection, based in Harvard University’s Art Museum buildings, are organised mostly by hue. The effect of this “curious chromatic ordering” ensures that the archive resembles “an installation exploring the very nature of painting”, as colour historian Victoria Finlay writes in the foreword to An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour, a new book that catalogues highlights from the collection. Published by Atelier Éditions, the Atlas features images by photographer Pascale Georgiev of a handful of the collection’s 2,500 rare pigments and examines their material composition, providence and application …

Violet de Cobalt

Many of the colours are rare and some are unlikely to be made ever again. Finlay writes that Indian Yellow, for example, originally came from the urine of cows that had been fed mango leaves, while Mummy Brown – as the name suggests – really was collected from the mummified bodies of ancient Egyptians (and was still available in London in the 1920s, courtesy of Roberson).

Wonderful stuff!

 

 


Modern Cave Art

August 21, 2021

Due to our acquaintance with cave art from the Mesolithic period (see Lascaux, etc), we have a tendency to associate cave paintings with Europe forty thousand years ago. But recent discoveries in South Africa show that a cave wall could remain a handy artistic surface until much more recently.

An illuminating article in the Conversation called “South Africa’s bandit slaves and the rock art of resistance” introduced me to the runaway slaves of early colonial South Africa and the art they created to process their experiences.

“Khoe-San people were forced into servitude as colonists took both land and livestock. Together with immigrant slaves they were the labor force for the colonial project. Desertion was their most common form of rebellion. Runaway slaves escaped into the borderlands and mounted a stiff resistance to the colonial advance from the 1700s until the mid-1800s. In most cases the fugitives joined forces with groups of skelmbasters (mixed outlaws), who themselves were descended from San-, Khoe- and isiNtu-speaking Africans (hunter-gatherers, herders and farmers).

Thus, we find recorded examples of mixed bandit groups hiding out in mountain rock shelters, within striking distance of colonial farms. Using guerrilla-style warfare they raided livestock and guns. In their refuge, they made rock art, images within their own belief systems that relate to escape and retaliation.”

The images can be reliably dated from their content, which includes guns.

“The paintings themselves are also mixed—some brush-painted, some finger-painted—but are united by subject matter pertaining to spiritual beliefs concerning escape and protective power. Certain motifs, including baboons and ostriches, continued to be used, but now appearing alongside motifs such as horses and guns. This suggests some continuity in the recognition of these animals, mystical or otherwise, as subject matter pertinent to people’s changed circumstances.”

The article provides a good overview of the overlay of colonial exploitation on traditional belief systems. It concludes:

“The rock art of bandit groups is bound up with beliefs in the ability to call upon the protection of the supernatural. Baboons and ostriches, painted with images of livestock and people on horseback with firearms, were heralded for their associated powers pertaining to escape and protection while raiding. For these runaway slaves, rock art was one of several crucial ritual observances performed to prevent the likelihood of ever returning to a life of oppression.”


Mood and Emotion: The History of Blue

August 17, 2021

French historian Michel Pastoureau has written Blue: The History of a Color. The Claremont Review of Books published a review that describes the work as:

“an exhilarating and richly informing book on how the European peoples from the Iron Age until today have decorated themselves and their cultural artefacts with the color blue.”

Early Mediterranean civilizations had little use for blue:

Homer’s sea was “wine dark”; blue would not be used as water’s color until the seventeenth century .. [T]he Romans associated blue with the savage Celtae and Germani, who used the woad herb’s rich leaves for their blue pigments.

And this remained the state of affairs going into the Middle Ages.  However:

“Artisans employed by the mysterious twelfth century Abbot Suger of St. Dennis Abbey developed what would become known as “St. Denis Blue.” Its beauty inspired Christians to adopt it as fitting for heaven, nobility, and the Virgin Mary, who had traditionally been shown in dark clothes highlighting her suffering.”

Pastoureau’s book carries the history of blue (and often green and red and black, too) through the medieval period, the introduction  of indigo in the 1640s, of Prussian blue in the 1700s, the adoption of blue by the Romantics, the French Revolutionary militias, the Napoleonic army, Levi Strauss, and on into today.

“For Pastoureau, color schemes are the essential building blocks of our conceptualization of the world … The introduction of blue, yellow, and other colors in the Western palate reflected not simply a broadening of the easel, but a broadening of consciousness, which entertained increasingly new ideas.”

The effect of colour on culture and society is a fascinating subject and I can thoroughly recommend the review.

For related material, I wrote about the strange history of Prussian Blue some time ago, and about a new blue.


In Search of Hammershoi

July 30, 2021

About thirteen years ago, I wrote an excited post about an artist I had just come across — Vilhelm Hammershoi.

Vilhelm-Hammershøi-Interior-Stragegade-30-1901

Since then, I have only come across a couple of his images. It was a stunning pleasure, therefore, to find a documentary made by Michael Palin, at about the same time as my previous post, that delves deeply into the artist and his motivations.

The documentary lasts about an hour and is well worthwhile!