Monday, April 12, 2010

The Moon and Sixpence

The Moon and Sixpence
by W. Somerset Maugham

Moon and Sixpence is a story of one man’s relentless pursuit of ideal beauty and how it impacted those around him. Based on the life of the French painter Paul Gauguin, Maugham resurrects Gauguin as the English stockbroker Charles Strickland, and in episodic style takes us from London to Paris and eventually Tahiti, through the eyes of a first person narrator. Through the narrator, an aspiring writer, (who we are only obliquely introduced to), we witness a mundane middle class stockbroker in fin de sicle London abruptly quit his job and leave his family for no apparent reason. Aquainted to the Stricklands as an attendee of soirees hosted by Stricklands’ wife, the narrator is tasked by Mrs. Strickland to persuade her husband to abandon his capricious decision and return to the family. Following Strickland to Paris and then later, after the death of Strickland, as a visitor to Tahiti, the narrator attempts to reconstruct his life through the recollections of others
The dominant theme throughout the story is Strickland's all-out pursuit of beauty, and for him that is the only moral rule.("He did not seem quite sane. It seemed to me that he would not show his pictures because he was really not interested in them. I had the idea that he seldom brought anything to completion, but the passion that fired him, he lost all care for it.")
It filled him with an emotion which he could not understand or analyze. he felt the awe and the delight which a man might feel who watched the beginning of a world. It was tremendous, sensual, passionate; and yet there was something horrible there too, something which made him afraid. It was the work of a man who had delved into the hidden depths of nature and had discovered secrets which were beautiful and fearful too. It was the work of a man who knew things which it is unholy for men to know. There was something primeval there and terrible. It was not human. It brought to his mind vague recollections of black magic. It was beautiful and obscene.
Sometimes people carry to such perfection the mask they have assumed that in due course they actually become the person they seem.
Charles Strickland had a profound and obsessive single mindedness toward his work which was reflected in his seemingly bizarre behavior around those in his life. Living the life of a stockbroker in London with all the trappings of a “normal” life, he suddenly quit his job and left his family to assume the life of a painter in Paris. The narrator follows him to his Parisian garrett , on a mission from Strickland's wife to persuade him to return to London and his family only to discover what true dedication was to this man.What is at issue here and which remains for the most part a mystery for the reader is the motivation which drives Strickland with reckless abandon to pursue his art. The passion is so intense that Strickland would abandon his entire belief system in one stroke to realize the dream of painting To generate this kind of intensity means that one must have suffered great pain and or loss to conjure up so drastic a change.Without considering the ramifications of his decision or whom it might impact, or how others may regard him, Strickland cuts himself free from his moorings to drift almost without any forseeable means of realizing his goal other than to embark on the journey.

To examine Strickland's artistic sensibility , it’s apparent that this man’s passion for the realization of his vision, allows him to jettison the life he has created for him and his family up to this point in his life. Disregarding what his family or others might say about his decision was a hurdle he jumps simply by almost brute indifference. It’s as though he realizes this is the only chance he has to save himself and he must do whatever it takes,even if it means becoming an outcast. His absolute indifference to the betrayal of the devoted Dirck Strove and the dastardly provocation of the suicide of Stroeve’s wife creates in the readers mind the complete self- centeredness of Strickland's impassioned response to life. It’s as though once free from the other self which he had been, he has embraced the recklessness and animalistic primitive which had been lurking inside of him all this time. Clearly a parallel with Gauguin “au Savage” who had rejected his own false self to indulge the passion of his soul, it mattered little what anyone said or thought about his actions. In some regard , Strickland actually relished the shocked reponses of those he hurt . It was as though this was an affirmation of the primitive self which he longed to become.Although the narrative is told through the eyes of the narrator?- once we are located on the island of Tahiti, and Strickland “goes native” he is free to assume the persona which has driven him along up this point. Free to be himself , aas the narrative goes, the intensity seems to diminish, only to be charged up once again when he contracts Leprosy.It is as though as the Leprosy transforms trhe actual body of Strickland, morphing him into the dark beast of pure passion, a Dorian Grey like transference evolves. The Savage is transmutated into pure paint and color onto the walls of the little hut in the jungle-“ It was the work of a man who knew things which it is unholy for men to know.”
Strickland was driven by some kind of creative desire or even pathological obsession which could only be satisfied through the exercise of participating in the attainment of that freedom of lifestyle which could only be afforded to him through painting. The act of painting was perhaps more important than the actual painting themselves-
("He did not seem quite sane. It seemed to me that he would not show his pictures because he was really not interested in them. I had the idea that he seldom brought anything to completion, but the passion that fired him, he lost all care for it.")

Whereapon he as able to rid himself of all the trappings of his previous lifestyle he also jettisoned the social constraints which in his mind prevented himself from the realization of his goal. In a kind of transmutation he sacrificed himself , including his own body, to this inner desire. In this regard the creative impulse was driven by a deep- seated desire for completeness, which paradoxically, was never intended to be acknowledged by any other than him.

Seek My Face

Seek my face
by John Updike

John Updike’s Seek my face is set as a fictitious 2001 interview between Hope Chafetz, the venerated doyen of the New York post war Art scene, and Kathryn D'Angelo, a stylish and ambitious, young journalist - ostensibly sent by some Manhattan publisher to collect firsthand the memoirs of this witness of a vanishing movement in art. The setting is the Vermont farmhouse where Hope lives in self imposed seclusion. Hope Chafetz is is 78 years old, a painter, three times married, twice widowed, once divorced. What makes Hope such an interesting subject for interview is that despite being a painter of some reknown, she happens to have been married to and friends with most all the significant characters of the American post war Art scene. Updike loosely bases her character on the real life personality of Lee Krasner, with bits of Helen Frankenthaler and Grace Hartigan thrown in for good measure. Hope’s first husband was Zach McCoy- the fictitious counterpart to Jackson Pollock, the brilliant and self- destructive icon of abstract expressionist action painting and their relationship was complex and for Hope, abusive. Like the real life Pollock, Zach McCoys star burn swiftly and brightly , only to end in a alcoholic stupor on a stretch of Long Island highway during the 1950’s. Husband number two, Guy Holloway, was the penultimate Pop artist of the era- a combination of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, with bits of James Rosenquist, Robert Rauschenburg and Claus Oldenburg mixed in. His Midas touch was for her a curse, their relationship being torn apart by his success and their marriage ended in shambles during the 1970s, after 17 years, and three children. Her third husband was Jerry Chafetz, a businessman and collector of art, and with whom she enjoyed a decade of marriage before his death in the late 1980’s.
In real life, Krasner was a much different personality than the one portrayed by Updike in the character of Hope, and despite this fanciful rendering, Updike brilliantly captures the art scene of post war Manhattan and the personalities that inhabited it. The timeline of Hopes’ recollections follow the supporting characters in Krasner’s life and are expertly woven into the novel, as Updike subtly changes the names of the personalities with such cleverness and humor as to allow the reader to match their identities with the real historical person. Updike creates a living personality in Hope Chafetz, through which the artistic mileau of New York during the post war period is recreated. In fact, to a great extent, these personalities are amalgams of these real life artists. Although most definitely acquainted with the real artists, except for Pollock Krasner was never married to any of these artists. Updike uses the historical Krasner as a template onto which he projects the character of Hope Chafetz. Hope functions as the embodiment of the New York post war art scene , and it is her life story that becomes the theme of the novel. Updike’s research into this period is not only profound but also sympathetic, and his portrayal of this time is rich in texture and color. His expert craftsmanship and profound understanding of language, allows the reader to believe this work is historically factual, which lends great authenticity to his characters. The inner dialogue of Hope Chafetz, is the voice through which most of the novel is told, and is replete with all the mannerisms and idiosyncratic obsessiveness of a real person. This stylistic rendition adds vulnerability to Hope’s personality, which only enhances the reader’s identification with her. The strong development of the Hope’s character minimizes the almost preposterous storyline of her occupying almost by accident, the central nexus around which all of modern American art is constructed.
Updike's title comes from Psalm 27 "You speak in my heart, and say 'Seek my face'. Your face, Lord, will I seek.” Seeking the face of God implies that through the act of creating Art, one is engaged in the most sacred of actions. Paradoxically, the artistic characters that inhabit the novel, create their Art in what would appear to be more of a selfish cathartic response- all about the self and not about God. Even Hope herself declares, "God's non-existence is something I can't get used to, it seems unnatural." Perhaps the notion that God as an external force separate from the Self is no longer valid. Seeking the Self now becomes the creed of the abstract artist. "That was the thing, back then," Hope says, "that everybody talked about - getting the self out, getting it on canvas. That was why abstraction was so glamorous, it was all self."
In all great Art, the artist disappears and the viewer ceases to be. They in effect merge and what remains is the universal, the vibrating energy that lingers. It is not so much the skill of Rembrandt’s modeling that we are captivated by, it is the light which reveals the human condition and strikes a chord of universal emotive power. To Hope and to Updike as well, the abstractionists were seeking to dissolve themselves away with process unimpeaded, and to distill the universal power of the action of the painting. Not all of them succeeded, for as their personas grew and they became famous in their own time, it became impossible to see the genius in their work anymore. Their own celebrity and their own consciousness of their fame, occluded the sacred process.
The prevailing theories of modern Art are a reaction to our modern era has left no place for an external all controlling deity as had been the case up until now, and the vacuum was quickly filled by the Self or super thou. Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and Post- Modern art movements evolved from themes that originated in the nineteenth century. The industrial revolution, photography, existentialism, the utter destruction of European cities and cultural icons, all influenced the philosophies behind post war art theory. These themes all contribute to the crescendo of modern artistic response as evaluated in Updike’s, Seek my Face. Perhaps the most important of these themes is the transmutation of God into Self and the dissolution thereof, for truth in Art to be attained. It reveals how modern abstract Art strove to explore ways of sublimating the self to reveal what it considered to be true expression. Further, it demonstrated how a true expression as so demonstrated could become subverted by its own popularity, thereby changing the very nature of how the artist views and expresses the Self.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Girl in Hyacinth Blue

Girl in Hyacinth Blue
by Susan Vreeland

A series of short vignettes, spanning across centuries with a framed oil painting the only constant, is the theme of Susan Vreelands’ Girl in Hyancinth Blue. The painting is by the hand of Jan Vermeer, the poet painter from Delft, the players in these stories all participants in the random flow of life, all bound to each other by their love for the painting. It is an image of a quiet 17th century Dutch interior, for which Vermeer is so well known- the cool northern light of Holland filtering in through a window illuminating a girl standing next to a table. In a chronology of stories that work backward in time, the painting is seen through the eyes of a guilt ridden modern mathematician, a little girl of an Amsterdam Jewish family during the Nazi oppression, a frivolous Dutch aristocrat, a Dutch farmers wife, a young Dutch man living during the Enlightenment, his doomed serving girl mistress, and finally Vermeer, the painter himself and his daughter. The painting remains the thread that spans across the years, symbolizing the unrealized search for truth and self- realization that all the characters yearn for. Vreelands’ talent for expressing the poetry and quiet dignity of the human spirit is never more profoundly demonstrated than in the last of these vignettes where Vermeer himself describes the process of how an artist is moved to distill the essence of the world around him in his work. In a final twist, the girl standing at the window in the painting, his own daughter Magdalena, muses on the notion that she herself can live a life vicariously through the painting. A life, of which, she herself can only imagine. Through a succession of lives, the stories unfold to reveal a commonality- how a great work of Art can inspire the viewer, and capture one’s hopes and desires, creating for the viewer, the painter, and the painting itself, a kind of immortality.
The notion that a painting can be a way for the viewer to escape the confines of the circumstances they live in, and achieve a kind of immortality has existed for perhaps as long as man has been creating pictoral representations of the world around him. Even the paintings that adorn the cave walls of Altimira and Lascaux give credence to the idea that those creatures and events that flowed from the hand of some prehistoric artists’ hand could in fact magically come to life and be manifest into reality. To intelligently formulate ones desire for the things that will give you a larger life and to arrange those desires into a coherent whole, and then to impress these desires upon the formless substance, manifests the power and the will to bring to one what one wants.
. Ultimately, each of us comes to the realization that we must in some way participate in the life around us in a meaningful way and when faced with the inevitable conclusion that we are only given so much time in which to do this, look for some continuity that will give meaning to the time we have left. There exists in any work of Art a combination of colors and shapes- an image, that provokes in the viewer a feeling of something greater than the object itself. How successful the work is at captivating the viewer is the extent of that Arts’ beauty. It reflects the sense of a grand continuity, of possibility and hope. This we detect in the works of those artists who have reverently searched for the truth and imbued their work with these timeless symbols. From the books last episode, the meeting of Pieter Claez van Ruiven and Jan Vermeer, Vermeer declares; “For a painting to say something he held to be true, it took rumination, sometimes months of apparent inactivity. He could not will himself to discover truths. But he could give himself over to a painting or subject with devotion and ardor, committing body and soul to the endeavor. A man has time for only a certain number of paintings in his lifetime- He’d better chose them prudently.”

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Peter Max is a American artist best known for his iconic art style in the 1960s. At first, his “Cosmic 60s” art, as it came to be known, appeared on posters and were seen on the walls of college dorms all across America. Max's art work was a part of the psychedelic movement in graphic design which was the engine that drove the American Pop movement. During this time, Max became fascinated with new printing techniques that allowed for four-color reproduction on product merchandise His work was much imitated in commercial illustration in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “Madison Avenue” quickly recognized the marketing potential of this popular imagery and Max’s art was subsequently licensed by 72 corporations and he has become a household name to this day. In 1962 Max started a small Manhattan arts studio with friend Tom Daly, The Daly & Max Studio. Daly and Max were joined by friend and mentor Don Rubbo who it was said was the ampersand in the Daly & Max Studio name., and as such the three worked as a group on books and advertising. This advertising placard obviously originates during this period.

This placard displays the iconic Toulouse- Lautrec portrait image with the artists name in Max’s signature cosmic letter font, crowded within the derby style hat. This printed image is glued down to a 31 high" x 21 1/2" wide, 3.4” thick section of plywood cut in silhouette conforming to the profile of the image. This image is identical to the rare “Toulouse-Lautrec serigraph of 1974 of which there was printed an edition of only 125. Interestingly, the image of the Daly & Max Studio predates the Max serigraph by nearly 12 years.

An interesting bit of Pop Art trivia.

This object is currently being auctioned on Ebay-Check out Artsentinel item #230458165750