From the Plains II, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1954

March 2, 2010

The painting:

Oil on canvas, 1954, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.

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New York with Moon, Georgia O’Keefe, 1925

March 2, 2010

The artist: Although I’ve seen her skulls and dusty New Mexico landscapes, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) still makes me think of enormous flowers, with their strange mix of fit-for-Grandma banality and possibly erotic significance (O’Keeffe always denied it, and since she was perfectly willing to have nude photos of her shown in the 20s, I think it might be the truth and not fear of scandal).  Of course, they’re beautiful pictures, and she’s technically gifted, but it’s nice to see something a little more surprising.  In fact, O’Keeffe’s life was anything but Grandmother-friendly.

Born to Wisconsin dairy farmers, O’Keeffe soon headed to Chicago to study art under William Merritt Chase.  Her works found their way into Alfred Stiglitz’s 291 gallery in New York, and before long he had left his wife for her.  His art-promotion expertise served her well, and by the end of the 20s she was famous and they were married.   During this period, her work focused on the blown-up natural objects she’s famous for.

In the 30s, O’Keeffe discovered New Mexico.  From then on, her work took on the Southwest inspiration that continued for the rest of her career.  When Stiglitz died in 1949, she moved permanently to the region.  While failing eyesight hampered her efforts toward the end of her life, O’Keeffe continued painting until she died at 98.

The painting:

Oil on canvas, 1925, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.

This is a woman-power story.  O’Keeffe’s husband discouraged her from showing the painting at his studio when it was first made, saying that “even men found it difficult to paint New York” and she was better sticking to flowers.  The next year, she displayed it at her own show…and it sold the first day for a fat sum of money.  It was to be the first in a short series of similar night cityscapes, all inspired by the Precisionists who formed her circle of friends.



Seascape. L’Estaque, Georges Braque, 1906

March 2, 2010

The artist:

Best known as Picasso’s friend and co-pioneer in cubism, Braque (1882-1963) went through all the artistic phases you’d imagine for the time.  Except the one for which he was trained : house painting!  Starting out with an impressionist bent, the French painter-sculptor switched to a mild form of Fauvism after seeing the 1905 exhibit.  Then, after seeing a Cézanne exhibit in 1907, he headed in a different direction with his famous friend.

Together, they developed (I’m simplifying) Analytic Cubism, with its monochromatic palette (think brownish-gray) and a broken, virtually unrecognizable depiction of the subject matter.  Moreover, their works were virtually indistinguishable from one another!  Though Picasso gets more of the spotlight, it was actually Braque’s  work that inspired art critic Louis Vauxcelles to describe their style as cubism.

That changed when Georges Braque enlisted in WWI.  He came back  in 1917 wounded and with a new style, one that seems a little surprising in a war veteran.  His approach, though still inspired by cubist technique (he became close with Juan Gris), featured a softer touch, color, and in contrast to his work with Picasso, the appearance of recognizable human beings.

The painting:

1906, Oil on canvas, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

In the background, you can see a few houses in the fishing village L’Estaque, near Marseille.  This work employs clearly Fauvist techniques (bold color with no concern for realism).


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

March 2, 2010

A French Post-Impressionist, Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) hung out with the Montmartre crowd.  The son of a count, he benifitted from the best, and when his family realized that his primary talent lay in painting (he failed his university exams), they shipped him off to learn.  Unfortunately, though they may have been encouraging on that front, his parents also caused him difficulties.  They were first cousins, and this inbreeding most likely explains TL’s health problems.  (Fragile bones, and a normal length torso with stumpy little legs.)

He did a little bit of everything, from landscapes to posters for the Moulin Rouge to bicycle ads.  Art critics scoffed, but as the son of an aristocrat, TL didn’t really need to care.  He’s also supposed to have invented ‘the Earthquake,’ a cocktail of absinthe and cognac on the rocks, which nicely symbolises his rather sad personal life.  A lifetime alcoholic (perhaps a coping mechanism, as his disfigured body made it hard for him to fit in), he spent his last days in a sanatorium suffering from alcohol-related illness and syphilis, before dying at his family home at the ripe old age of 36.

On a brighter note, the artist managed, in just under 20 years of activity, to create a legacy of several thousand drawings, paintings, and prints.  His cabaret posters have become the unforgettable emblem of Paris’ Moulin Rouge, and now that the art critics are dead, his painting find their way quite easily into museums and private collections.  In fact, his La blanchisseuse set a price record at Christie’s in 2005, selling at a substantial $22.4 million.


Materials for a Leisure Hour, William M. Harnett, 1892

March 2, 2010

The artist:

William Harnett emigrated from Ireland to the US during the potato famine.  Working as an engraver during the day, he took night classes at art schools in Philadelphia and New York…evidently to great effect!  His still lifes fall under the heading of American Realism.  While he did paint the obligatory musical instruments, tankards, and hanging game, it was his interest in the unusual (horseshoes, books, bills), and the trompe l’oeil precision of his renderings, that made him special.  Ironically, his most famous paintings, a series called After the Hunt, feature a bunch of dead furry animals hanging from a door knob.  I prefer this one.  However, curators at the time didn’t appreciate his quotidian subject material, and his work found its way into more taverns than museums.

The painting:

1892, Oil on canvas

Great (zoomable) image available: http://www.museothyssen.org/thyssen/zoom_obra/403


Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid

March 2, 2010

Located in the Villahermosa Palace, the museum holds the enormous collection donated by Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza (that’s not even his full name!) and his wife Carmen.  In two generations, the family managed to establish a body of art that ranges from 13th century triptychs to 20th pop art.   The original holdings, bought by the Spanish government for the museum just after its opening in ’92, all belong to the Baron, while a wing added in 2004 displays his wife’s acquisitions.  Not too bad for a former Miss Spain.  However, there is a noticeable difference in their collecting styles: the husband seems to have made a greater effort to purchase ‘important’ works, while Carmen’s choices seem to be influenced mostly by a particular aesthetic preference.

As you’ll see from the following posts, I loved the 20th century works, and was basically unmoved by the rest.  I’ve never really been able to relate to the theme of misshapen-Madonna-and-child that seem to pervade medieval painting, and I think I just don’t know enough about the Dutch masters to get enthusiastic.  Anyway, what follows is not representative of the balance of the collection, but rather of what interested me enough to want to remember or learn more about it.