365 Days of Art: April 17 – Pope Julius Refuses to Meet with Michelangelo Regarding Tomb Commission, Stiffs Him on Money, and Causes Him to Flee Rome in Despair

April 17, 2014

Moses, from the tomb built for Pope Julius II by Michelangelo, commissioned 1505, completed in 1545.

April 17, 1506

Michelangelo is turned away by Pope Julius II, in his latest attempt to meet and move forward on the commission for Julius’s tomb. Adding insult to injury, the Pope doesn’t cover the freight charges for the marble which Michelangelo has already selected and shipped to Rome. “Overwhelmed with despair”, Michelangelo tells his servants to empty his studio and sell the contents to the Jews. He then flees Rome, saying he will never return.

PS: Of course, he does, or the Sistine Chapel as we know it would never have happened. Julius himself hires Michelangelo to paint the chapel, which Michelangelo accepts because he thinks it will favorably position him to eventually return to the tomb commission. He’s right, and begins work on Julius’s tomb almost immediately after finishing the chapel. The tomb is eventually finished, but not to Michelangelo’s liking because the scope is continuously scaled back after Julius’s death. It remained one of his greatest professional disappointments.

Note: I don’t understand the specific reference to selling his studio contents “to the Jews”. But, given the expulsion of the Jews from Spain just ten years earlier, I’m assuming a similar bigotry exists in Italy at this time. I suspect this reference is intended as a slur, the lowest way for Michelangelo to vent his frustration, disgust and bitter disappointment at the way he’s been dimissed by Pope Julius.

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365 Days of Art: April 16 – Apollinaire Compares the Studio Habits of Picasso and Matisse

April 16, 2014

Matisse and Picasso self-portraits, both 1916

April 16, 1911

Apollinaire, the poet and friend of Picasso, writes in the Le Mercure de France about the differences in studio practice between Picasso and Matisse. These kinds of side-by-side comparisons stoked their professional rivalry:

On the contrary, Picasso, who is a Spaniard, takes delight in cultivating the disarray in his studio, where you see a jumble of Oceanian and African idols, anatomical pieces and a great deal of dust. The painter works there slowly, barefoot, and smoking a clay pipe. At one time he used to paint during the night…

The erudite Henri Matisse paints with gravity and solemnity, as if hundreds of Russians and Berliners were watching him. He works on one canvas for a quarter of an hour and then moves on to another. If anyone is in his studio, he indoctrinates them and quotes Nietzsche and Claudel, mentioning Duccio, Cezanne, and the New Zealanders as well.

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365 Days of Art: April 15 – Brunelleschi Dies, Da Vinci is Born, Nike of Samothrace is Unearthed, Impressionists Exhibit Together, and Thomas Hart Benton Reveals Himself to Be a Fool (Again)

April 15, 2014

April 15, 1446

Filippo Brunelleschi, father of Renaissance architecture and engineer of the Duomo, dies.

Leoonardo da Vinci, 1489

April 15, 1452

Leonardo da Vinci is born.

Nike of Samothrace, c. 190 BC, Parian marble

April 15, 1863

An excavation on the Greek island of Samothrace unearthed a winged female statue carved from white marble, known as the Nike of Samothrace, or Winged Victory of Samothrace. It’s considered one of the greatest masterpieces of antiquity, and many consider the lack of head and arms to add to its beauty. The original is dramatically displayed above the Daru staircase in the Louvre, in Paris.

Samothrace is the eastern-most Greek island, located in the northeastern Aegean Sea. In ancient times, the island was home to a temple complex known as the Sanctuary of the Great Gods. I spent a good chunk of one summer working on this archaeological site.

Claude Monet, Impression: Sunrise, 1873

April 15, 1874

The Impressionists, though they weren’t known by that name yet, hold their first exhibition. A group of about 30 French artists which included Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Berthe Morisot called themselves “The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, Etc.” and displayed 165 works in Paris. Viewers thought the subjects (contemporary life) and execution (seemingly unfinished and untalented) unfit for fine art, even laughable. One art critic entitled his nasty, satirical review Exhibition of Impressionists, after Claude Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise, 1873. The critic, Louis Leroy, meant it as an insult, but it eventually became their identity.

Over the course of the month-long exhibition, 3500 ppl came to see it, many of them to express their outrage at this new art form. People always get shocked by new things; even the Impressionists were once considered too edgy.

Poker Night (from A Streetcar Named Desire), Thomas Hart Benton, 1948

April 15, 1941

The New York World-Telegram runs an interview with the always-thoughtful and eloquent Thomas Hart Benton. Here is his monologue:

Do you want to know what’s the matter with the art business in America?…It’s the third sex [gay people] and the museums. Even in Missouri we’re full of ‘em. We’ve had an immigration out there. And the old ladies who’ve gotten so old that no man will look at ‘em think that these pretty boys will do. Our museums are full of ballet dancers, retired businessmen, and boys from the Fogg Institute at Harvard, where they train museum directors and art artists. [The typical museum is] run by a pretty boy with delicate wrists and a swing in his gait. If it were left to me, I wouldn’t have any museums. I’d have people buy the paintings and hang ‘em in privies or anywhere anybody had time to look at ‘em. Nobody looks at ‘em in museums. Nobody goes to museums. I’d like to sell mine to saloons, bawdyhouses, Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, and Chambers of Commerce–even women’s clubs.

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365 Days of Art: Bonus Birthday Post: April 14 – Georgia O’Keeffe Leaves Hawaii

April 15, 2014

Black Lava Bridge, Hana Coast No. 1, by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1939

I try to feature artists who are female, gay, or of color whenever possible, but the fact is, most of recorded art history involves men. Because today is my birthday, and because there are two events involving female artists, here’s a bonus post.

April 14, 1939

Georgia O’Keeffe leaves Honolulu, a trip paid for by the precursor to Dole Pineapples, on the ship Matsonia, and returns to New York. She wrote to photographer Ansel Adams:

I have always intended to return to Hawaii… I often think of that trip at Yosemite as one of the best things I have done – but Hawaii was another.

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365 Days of Art: April 14 – Mary Cassatt’s Dad Writes About Her Painting

April 14, 2014

Mary Cassatt, Girl Arranging Her Hair, 1886

April 14, 1886

Letter from Mary Cassatt’s father about Mary’s painting, Girl Arranging Her Hair:

Mame [Mary] is feeling pretty well and working like a beaver…on a little red-headed girl in demi-costume, dressing her hair before a glass. The two or three experts and artists who have seen it praise it without stint. As for Degas, he was quite enthusiastic, for him.

Degas always sounds a little like he was a pain in the ass.

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365 Days of Art: April 13 – Ordered on Bed Rest, Frida Attends Her Solo Exhibition in Four Poster Bed

April 13, 2014

Well-wishers greet Frida in her bed at the opening of her first solo show in Mexico.

April 13, 1953

Advised by her doctors that she is too ill to attend the opening reception of her first solo show in Mexico, and that she needs to rest, Frida Kahlo transports her bed to the gallery and attends from there. She greets visitors from her four poster bed, situated in the middle of the Galeria Arte Contemporaneo.

To Time magazine reporters she declares, “I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”

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365 Days of Art: April 12 – Thomas Hart Benton Gives a Pompous, Sexist Interview

April 12, 2014

Poker Night (from A Streetcar Named Desire), Thomas Hart Benton, 1948

April 12, 1935

An interview with Thomas Hart Benton is published in the New York Sun. He sounds delightful.

[I am going to Kansas City] because since the depression [New York City] has lost its dynamic quality. On the upswing, New York is grand–when it is building buildings, tearing down buildings, making and spending money, its life is irresistible; and in its drive, it’s a grand show. But when it is on a downswing, it gets feeble and querulous and touchy. The place has lost its masculinity. Even the burlesque shows, which to my mind are the best barometer of the public state of mind, hae lost all their uproarious vulgarity…Principles…that’s what the town has come to. It don’t act anymore, it talks. The place has gone completely verbal, and people are getting the idea that if they can make a sentence that is logical, they have demonstrated a truth.

Even the pretty young ladies who ought to have their attention concentrated in their legs address you with a “Do you or do you not believe?” — and look at you contemptuously when they discover you don’t believe anything. It’s a hell of a note when women, who can generally be counted upon to hold on to some human sense and not be fooled by language, begin to go the way of Harvard graduates…The Middle West has no inhibiting cultural patterns wrapped up in a lot of verbal logic, or tied to practice habits that stop action.

I’m leaving New York to see what can be done for art in a fairly clean field less ridden with verbal stupidities…Then, I’ve been here twenty-one years, and that’s too long for any American to stay in one place.

Do I think I’m going to escape stupidity in the Middle West? Of course not. Wherever people talk, idiocy thrives.

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365 Days of Art: April 11 – Lee Krasner Gives Interview, Recalls Mondrian

April 11, 2014

Lee Krasner, Untitled, 1948

April 11, 1968

Lee Krasner gives an oral history interview with Dorothy Seckler and remembers a time when Piet Mondrian gave her a mini-critique. An excerpt of the interview:

LEE KRASNER: Now I’ll tell you something Mondrian said to me about my painting which does interest me enormously. This was at the time that I was a member of the American Abstract Artists. And this particular year both Leger and Mondrian partook in the exhibition. And I had the pleasure of walking around the gallery which Mondrian. Each artist had two or three canvases up. And Mondrian would ask, “Who did that?” And I gave the name, and he commented on each one. Well, then, pretty soon we were in front of mine and he said, “Who did that?” and I nervously said, “I did.” And he said, “You have a very strong inner rhythm. You must always hold that.” Now that makes sense to me rather than the male or female bit in relation to the painting.

DOROTHY SECKLER: That was a very, very profound comment.

LEE KRASNER: Oh, it was beautiful, just beautiful.

DOROTHY SECKLER: Just marvelous. Which one of your paintings was that? What stage of your painting was it at, at that point?

LEE KRASNER: Oh, well, this would be the work I showed in the American Abstract Artists, and that would date back to the late thirties. And so I don’t remember which one, but it would have been a group of those. It would have been three of that kind of thing. I’ve remembered that for a long, long time and still indeed remember it. And isn’t it a nice comment to make?

DOROTHY SECKLER: And coming from a man like Mondrian.

LEE KRASNER: From Mondrian. And of course, mine was full of curves. I mean, much as it is now, it was curvilinear. And he said just that. And I remembered it and felt good about it.

DOROTHY SECKLER: It’s interesting, too, that is shows that here’s a man who didn’t allow curves in his own mature work at all, but he was perfectly able to see something in curves and see the strength of it.

LEE KRASNER: Oh, absolutely. He commented on all the paintings in just that brief way.

DOROTHY SECKLER: That’s marvelous.

LEE KRASNER: Oh, it kept me going a long time.

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365 Days of Art: April 10 – Frank Lloyd Wright Secretly Purchases Property Under His Mother’s Name

April 10, 2014

April 10, 1911

Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother Anne signed a deed for property in Wisconsin, on behalf of her son, which was purchased with money he borrowed from a friend. By using his mother’s name, Wright was able to secure the 31.5-acre property without attracting any additional attention to the affair he was having with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, a former neighbor to his family, and the wife of one of his clients. The affair had already caused substantial scandal in their hometown of Oak Park, IL.

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365 Days of Art: April 9 – Peggy Guggenheim Buys Art as Hitler Invades

April 9, 2014

Men in the City, Fernand Leger, 1919

April 9, 1940

In the midst of World War II, on the same day that Nazi Germany invaded Norway, Peggy Guggenheim bought Fernand Léger’s Men in the City; Léger called himself “astonished by her sang froid”.

Since 1939, despite the ongoing war Hitler was waging in Europe (where she was living), Peggy had kept to her schedule to “buy a picture a day”. Her plan was to open a contemporary art museum in London. Although that didn’t work out precisely as she’d planned it, she became one of the most influential art patrons ever and opened a New York gallery that showcased American art. She effectively moved the center of the art world from Paris to New York City, partly from sheer force of will and her willingness to strategically promote and spend money on art, and partly because of the timing: many artists had already fled Europe for NYC during World War II.

Note: More use should be made of the word “sang froid”.

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365 Days of Art: April 8 – Monet’s Father Advises Him to Abandon Pregnant Girlfriend

April 8, 2014

The Stroll-Camille Monet and Her Son Jean, by Claude Monet

April 8, 1867

Monet’s father instructs him to abandon his pregnant girlfriend. At this time, men of his Monet’s class didn’t usually marry their mistresses. Monet did marry her three years later, perhaps–it was suggested– more due to a rebellious streak, than out of love or even obligation to his growing family. Camille modeled for many of his paintings, and he treated her cruelly (as we will see later this year).

Through the course of this project, I’ve come to learn many details about lots of artists. Joseph Cornell is an artist I’ve grown to love even more because of this sustained peek I’ve taken into his daily life. He was a painfully shy man with a tender heart who found it difficult to open up, except around kids, home-baked sweets, or while discussing one of his celebrity crushes. (He was charmed to meet Octavio Paz and his wife, and devastated when Marilyn Monroe died).

Arshile Gorky has my undying sympathy, for all the tragedies he endured, both large and small, including one that happened after his death.

Monet, to my surprise, gets the award for being the biggest a-hole. You don’t usually hear that about him and it seems that many biographers go out of their way to gloss over his character flaws.

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365 Days of Art: April 7 – Mapplethorpe Exhibition Opens, Leading to Obscenity Charges

April 7, 2014

Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter, by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1979

April 7, 1990

An exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, entitled The Perfect Moment, opens at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center; within hours, the Center and its director, Dennis Barrie, are indicted on obscenity charges.

I saw this exhibition when it traveled to the University Art Museum in Berkeley, CA. It was stunning, and at times shocking for a teenager from a small town. The show featured quite a few images of flowers–I remember lilies and orchids in particular–the most exquisite flowers you can imagine, in full, glorious bloom. At the exact moment of culmination and ripeness–the perfect moment, before they would turn and begin to wilt. There were also many nude images of men, likewise in full bloom–gorgeously toned bodies, at an age of full maturity but without any visible signs of wear-and-tear. The images were homoerotic, some showing beautiful men standing very close to each other, not even looking at each other but seeming to breathe the other in or sometimes mirroring each other’s pose; other images portrayed men with chains and leather who were obviously coupled up. Some of these images featured interracial relationships, which I think created an additional (though unspoken) edge to the exhibition in some minds. I remember a few images that startled me in their revelation of private moments–some explicit sexual moments, yes–one of them being a self portrait of the artist dying of AIDS.

At that time and place–San Francisco in 1990–when to walk down the street was to walk by men withering away from AIDS, to know their disease by their skeletal thinness, the hollows in their cheeks, the stoop in their backs, and the purple Kaposi’s sarcoma blemishes on their skin; to not just know their disease, but to know their imminent death–this exhibition took me by the shirt collar and shook me.

It said, to a teenager from a small town: Life is a spectrum, and a continuum. There is beauty to be seen in a myriad of places. There is beauty in flowers reaching for the light, in perfectly toned, timeless-looking bodies, in the way two men in leather and chains proclaim their relationship to the world, in the artist defiantly staring at the viewer while brandishing a death’s head cane. These moments are powerful, and we collect a number of them in our lives (a good deal of them, I hope). These photographs felt like living, even while they hinted at dying. And with so much death around, it felt vital to be reminded of living. They didn’t promise anything beyond the moment, but not in the saccharine or self-destructive way that that message so often takes. They were real. And I think that’s why they so inflamed some who would try to keep that experience from us.

The Perfect Moment is one of my favorite art exhibitions of all time and resonates with me to this day.

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365 Days of Art: April 6 – Raphael Dies; Cracks Appear in Vatican Walls

April 6, 2014

La Fornarina, Raphael, 1518-1520

April 6, 1520

Raphael dies at age 37, after a night in which he “indulged in more than his usual excess” according to the biographer Vasari. The excess in question was not only the usual suspects, but particularly Raphael’s mistress Margherita Luti, known as La Fornarina (the baker’s daughter). Vasari alleges that Raphael didn’t tell his doctors that his problem was too much sex, and so they gave him the wrong cure.

He may have died on his birthday, though there is some question about whether he was born on April 6, or simply on Good Friday; if he were born on Good Friday, his birthday would be March 28.

Regardless, after his death, cracks suddenly appear in the Vatican palace, so worrisome that they cause the Pope to flee. Romans interpret the cracks as a sign of heavenly grief for Raphael, but they are more likely caused by recent structural modifications Raphael had made in the course of his duties as Architect-in-Chief of St. Peter’s Basilica.

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365 Days of Art: April 5 – Lightning Strikes Duomo; Portends Medici Death

April 5, 2014

April 5, 1492

The Duomo of Santa Maria de Fiore is struck by lightning, causing several tons of marble to fall to the street on the north side of cupola, in the direction of Villa Careggi. This is the home of Lorenzo de’ Medici, grandson of Cosimo de’ Medici, whose patronage made the Duomo possible. (Like his grandfather, Lorenzo is also a patron of the arts, securing commissions and even housing Michelangelo for five years). Lorenzo is already in bed with a fever, and when he is told of the lightning and the omen of the falling rubble, declares:

I am a dead man!

Doctors give him potions made from pulverized diamonds and pearls, and advise him to avoid grape seeds, and the air at sunset. Despite the best of modern medicine, and the priciest of bowel movements, Lorenzo dies three days later.

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365 Days of Art: April 4 – Van Gogh Writes a Letter About Ramsgate

April 4, 2014

Vincent Van Gogh, View of Royal Road, Ramsgate, 1876

April 4, 1876

Vincent Van Gogh, temporarily living with his parents in Holland, writes a letter to his brother Theo and discusses his upcoming job as an assistant at a boarding school in Ramsgate, England:

As you know, Ramsgate is a seaside resort. I saw in a book that there are 12,000 inhabitants but I know no more about it.

Two weeks later, after settling there, he sent Theo a piece of seaweed from the shore.

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