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Alien in Disguise?

January 8th, 2015

Alien in Disguise?

A recent History Channel program titled Ancient Aliens suggested the Roman Catholic Church was hiding evidence in the Vatican archives that proves the visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Fatima was not heaven-sent but a visitation of aliens from another planet. Curiously missing from the program was the miraculous visitation at Guadalupe, Mexico in which Our Lady left an image of herself on a cloak. Or was this image an alien in disguise? Art can be variously interpreted but when examined closely in real life rather than secondhand, the truth is revealed.

Smile in Portrait Painting

August 26th, 2013

Smile in Portrait Painting

John Sanden claims that “a broad smile is almost always wrong in a portrait.” He gives three reasons. First, practicality. Painting from life rather than a photograph is the preferred method of professional portraiture, and it is too cumbersome for the model or subject to hold a smile for hours at a time. Second, “high art.” The standards for traditional portraiture are more “dignified” than photography and can only be represented by “gravitas,” a solemn or serious expression. Third, monetary value. If any of the great paintings by Leonardo, Rembrandt, or Sargent “featured a broad, toothy smile, the gavel price at Sotheby’s… would go down by many millions of dollars.”

Of course, the customer has the final word on how the artist is to represent the subject of a portrait. Centuries ago, it was mandatory that the artist portray the person as someone to be respected or feared, like a knight, king, or queen. Today, the artist must represent the person as likeable, a team player, or someone you would vote for. Sanden admonishes portrait artists who disregard the importance of tradition in their profession; they should not “void the timeless standards of the centuries” by bowing to the standards of photography. For Sanden, candid photographs have their place, but only on a table at the foot of the portrait painting on the wall.

First, painting solely from life is not necessary, and Sanden even recommends the use of photography in portrait painting. At a Portrait Institute convention many years ago, he demonstrated a homemade device that projected a slide of a model onto a translucent screen. The live portrait, he said, needed to sit only for getting skin tones and values correct, not the expression.

Second, “high art” is phony. The most likely reason why Sargent’s female subjects never smiled was because they were British and had bad teeth. There may have been a few with beautiful teeth, but, if the queen didn’t, the precedent was set. In America, the standard was set when George Washington didn’t smile for his portrait for fear of showing his wooden dentures. So much for historical tradition.

Third, monetary value is not necessarily the most important value. Sanden says the Mona Lisa’s smile is “enigmatic…and very hard to read.” Mysterious might be a better word, but current analysis of Lisa Gioconda’s skeletal remains might indicate otherwise, perhaps an ailment or just plain horsy teeth, a genetic characteristic which her descendants to this day retain.

A personal bond exits between artist and portrait. This bond is broken when the portrait is sold and displayed in a foreign setting. Strangers look at the portrait and react to it, some favorably and others unfavorably. If the portrait smiles, it does so for everyone. It is unchangeable, constant, and unable to react to the face of the other, a face which might even be violent. A smile is a risk that few artists are willing to take.

A smile is an expression of emotion, which is not only manifest in the mouth but all areas of the face. It is the face of joy and friendliness that is instantly understood. Research done by famed psychologist Paul Ekman defined a taxonomy of facial expressions that applies universally to all cultures and peoples. A smiling face is an indicator of a certain emotion. However, discrete smiles, like that shown on Leonardo’s famous portrait, are not readily understood. The viewer is at a loss as to what might have provoked the smile or what emotion the person might have.

We all have seen emoticons that convey emotion in electronic messages or the refrigerator magnet that lets you put a frame around the caricature you feel today. Thirty faces that display thirty human emotions. How do you feel today? Frustrated? Happy? Ashamed? Ecstatic? Bored? Impossible to say, since emotions are so transient. Thus, the portrait artist settles for a stoic face, one that is patient and enduring. However, to many viewers, such a face might easily be taken for a mug shot, which is also emotionless.

So, is a broad smile “always wrong in a portrait?” Had I painted Taipei Twins with a stoic face, she wouldn’t have conveyed the innocence and trust that I wanted to express. It’s a face that shows unqualified trust in the artist. It’s a smile that expresses the joy I felt in painting a beautiful face.

Despite what traditionalists might think, a broad smile in a portrait can be beautiful and, therefore, not always wrong.

FAA Contests

May 28th, 2013

FAA Contests

Recently, an FAA artist from Italy won the "Mysterious Venice" contest with a painting that was nothing more than a copy of a photograph widely available on the Internet. The artist's only saving grace was that the photo was in the public domain. The painting showed little originality in composition or style, and other than some added flowers and brighter colors, it was exactly like the photo. The message it sent to other artists was simple. Copy exciting photos, because real art is not judged properly on FAA.

In light of this, I recommend that FAA adopt guidelines for judging artworks in its contests. Here are criteria used by the Central Brevard Art Association of which I am a member.

Art is subjective. Each individual will view a piece of art differently based on his or her own tastes and sensibilities. CBAA therefore suggests the following aspects be taken into consideration when selecting the pieces of art that will receive awards.

1. Originality: Is this artwork the same old scene or subject you’ve seen many times, or has the artist presented something unique?

2. Creativity: Has the artist taken a new approach, or used a new technique to present a familiar scene or subject?

3. Mastery: Does the artist appear to have mastered their medium? Have they stretched and used their medium to its greatest potential?

4. Emotional Content: Does the artwork make you “feel” something? Does it “talk” to you? Do you feel anger, calm, happiness, nostalgia, pride, curiosity, sadness, etc.? Some or all of these feelings may be evoked by viewing art. Has the artist conveyed a message to the viewer?

5. Substance: Are you drawn to the piece? Do you want to linger longer in front it?


Portrait of Queen Elizabeth Two by Lucian Freud

May 23rd, 2013

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth Two by Lucian Freud

At first this portrait looks ugly and amateurish. When you realize its size, however, you get the distinct impression that it is a very intentional work of art. One naturally asks, where is the rest of it? Only 6" x 9"? Where is her throne, her diamond necklace, her elegant dress? What you see here is all there is, a mini portrait, a pochade in terms of portraiture, not a majestic masterpiece. Having painted several portraits, I often get the urge to let the paint and brush take control. It’s a matter of freedom. Freud is showing that the Queen is no longer in charge, and he complements her by not being in charge of his brush and paint. He has said that he knows when a painting is done when it looks like it has been painted by someone else. The Queen has no real power, just as the artist defers his power to create a traditional painting. In a way it is a self-portrait, the unconscious mind of the painter taking control, the id being sublimated by the grotesque. Freud is really the court jester and, as such, can pull off such a stunt without losing his head. A perfect match between subject and artist, this is ironically a great portrait by a not-so-great artist. After all, the Queen said she liked it.
Freud: an infamous name that could not be denied, a name that lurked about the British art world with paintings bold and existential, a traitorous name seething with contempt for the unconscious and surreal, yet a name that refused to be knighted.

Life of Pi

May 23rd, 2013

Life of Pi

Hooray for its visual imagery, not its storyline. It’s typical of movie makers these days. If the plot stinks, wow them with visuals.

I detected a certain cynicism toward Indians in this movie. I haven’t read the book, but if the movie follows its plot closely, then it too is cynical. One minute the family is eating lamb curry with gusto at home, next they are vegetarians on board a Japanese freighter making enemies with the carnivorous crew.

An Indian family taking their zoo animals to Canada for sale? If they were so destitute for cash, why not sell them in India before they moved? End of plot for sure.

The ending makes one think that the genie escaped the movie sight unseen, like Ang Lee could only add a conspiracy at the end, because he hadn’t the creativity to work it into the storyline, there being too many hungry, vicious, and seasick animals in the way.

Artistically, and this is the main reason for this blog, is the sinister nature of the cinematography. It’s one thing to photograph animals and make animations of them; that’s straightforward and honest. The audience knows it’s animation. It’s another to make them look and behave in realistic ways, like the camera is doing all the work, when in fact they are not looking or behaving that way except with the aid of a computer. This is more cruelty to humans than to animals.

This is not a story that makes me believe in God, as Pi suggests. The audience is given two stories to choose from, one visual, the other verbal. We are supposed to pick the visual fantasy, for therein lies faith over the more reasonable verbal story. To be sure, faith transcends reason, but it is something that transcends stories as well. You see, Pi had many faiths at the beginning and even at the ending of the story—Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, all based on stories. But he forgot one big story—Buddhism—which originated in India but couldn’t survive there. This is the story that walked into the jungle without saying goodbye, because it didn’t acknowledge Allah. Had this story been told, Lee might have made a great movie. But who is he to step on Buddha’s toes?

Splash Fishing

February 14th, 2013

Splash Fishing

AnnaJo Vahle’s painting, Splash Fishing, is a “cool capture,” even though it is not a photograph. The capturing is left to the heron, which does with its head what humans do with fancy fishing tackle. It dives headfirst into the water and goes beneath the flat surface. We see only brilliant colors, not water but paint. The artist cannot go beneath the surface and discover what the heron discovers. All she can do is live off the surface colors, which are fleeting and contradictory, colors which are either signs to the heron or obstructions to the artist.

We cannot see what the heron sees before it dives beneath the surface, because we are not in the picture; we are on the surface and detached from it, like the artist. We can only wonder how the heron can see underneath with so many swirling colors vibrating on the surface. Was the sign a swirl going in a different way, or did the heron actually see a shadow of a fish beneath the surface, the thing in-itself? And, we can only speculate whether it was successful in catching a life-sustaining fish. All we see is the moment of decision, the attack, which splashes away the colors and sends water into the air. We are left without food, without the satisfaction of knowing whether the heron was successful in its quest. This is the essence of painting and of life.

To be sure, this painting won first place at the 16th Annual Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival 2013, Titusville, Florida.

Portrait of Kate Middleton by Paul Einsley

January 11th, 2013

Portrait of Kate Middleton by Paul Einsley

This portrait is not as subtle as the Mona Lisa, but is better than most people think. It contrasts the eyes (mental) and mouth (physical) realistically and seductively, but this makes it look overstated and not British. Great art is not as explicit and closed-minded. The blow-up seems to be a parody of Freud's mini portrait of the Queen. "Proper" portraits are always a tad smaller than life size. After all, this is the Duchess of Cambridge no less.

Vote for Me

November 3rd, 2012

Vote for Me

Art is a product of a world view. The same can be said of art appreciation. As the world changes, so does our view of the world. Art contests are a good example of this. Vote For Me was a recent FAA art contest that contained portraits which provoked emotion in the viewer. The overwhelming winner was a portrait of Abraham Lincoln titled “Lincoln’s Tear” by Cindy Anderson. If this contest were held 150 years ago, this portrait might have been laughed at. During the Civil War, Lincoln was not unanimously favored, especially by southerners and those who did business with the South. We need not be remembered that he was assassinated. Today, only the uneducated would question Lincoln’s resolve to save the Union. If there wasn’t a Civil War, there surely would have been a war between the United and Confederate States of America that might have ended differently, if the South had a few decades to fortify its independence.

Once You Vote Black, You Never Go Back

September 10th, 2012

Once You Vote Black, You Never Go Back

"Once you vote black, you never go back." So says a 2012 Democrat campaign button. But does this mean you won't go back to white, or back to black? Whichever it may be, the slogan suggests that one should vote for the candidate who will provide the most pleasure. Reminds me of a passage from Mark Twain, "You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I'll tell you what his 'pinions is."

The Sophist by Richard T. Scott

August 20th, 2012

The Sophist by Richard T. Scott

In a film titled “Richard T. Scott—Painted Philosophy,” (YouTube) Scott refers to Socrates’ Allegory of the Cave as the inspiration for this artwork. Actually, the allegory was written by Plato in Book VII of The Republic and Socrates was the imaginary narrator of the dialogue. Plato thought that art was illusory and based solely upon appearances, like the shadows on the cave wall. He wrote, “Painting works far away from truth…and makes bosom friends with that part in us which is far away from wisdom for no healthy and true end.” So why does Scott hold him in such high esteem?

Scott titles his painting “The Sophist.” If I understand him correctly, the title refers to the man standing in the middle of the canvas, a man who, because he ignores the background—the rocket launching into the sky, the impending storm on the horizon—is a sophist, a person whose ego, as expressed in rhetoric and not logic, overpowers his reason.

For the sophist, logic is true only in itself, in the mind and not in the world in which we live. It leads to metaphysical and ethical conclusions that are contradictory and not convincing. At most, we can be persuaded that something is true, not convinced that it is so. Thus, he is able to look away from the contradictory event, a rocket taking off into a tornado. Maybe he’s a reporter covering the strange event or a weatherman braving the storm. Certainly, he’s not an artist, philosopher, or scientist recording all the phenomena with which to create or theorize.

The scene is highly imaginary, for a real sophist would not be pointing toward himself to persuade his audience. He would be pointing toward the horizon and be saying, "Look, people, the rocket will be destroyed," or, "Look, people, the rocket is going to make it." He takes his chances, which are 50/50 that he will become famous. It is contradictory, though, that the sophist has an audience, which would not be paying attention to him at all in such a case.

Sophistry has a derogatory implication and maybe Scott sees a lot of it in our society. But could this painting itself be an act of sophistry? The sophist looks curiously like Scott. Is he not convinced himself?

The painting is not convincing and tries to persuade us with its dark, foreboding tones, as if to say, “Look, Rembrandt painted it. It’s got to be great.” But we as viewers see all this, which makes it an interesting work of art, unlike most.

 

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