Tag Archives: Inspiration

Nude or Naked? Art or Kitsch?

Pigeonholing female nude and naked in a practical way that may revitilise your next gallery visit. 

The debate about nude and naked has been raging on since Kenneth Clark said 60 years ago that “no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow—and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals.”

Try to feed this line to a feminist today.

Fifteen years after Clark, John Berger summarised the distinction between nude and naked: being naked is just being yourself, but being nude in the artistic context is being without cloths for the purpose of being looked at.

John Berger believed that Western art had been predominantly about female [self] objectification, in the sense that while women had always been presented as goods for male consumption, they were taking an active part in this process themselves. It’s difficult to argue with this: popularity of Instagram selfies like the ones below is a living proof that not much has changed since the Ways of Seeing was first shown on BBC.

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It is perfectly ok. Girls are doing their best to look attractive to boys. Boys appreciate it by following their accounts, writing sleazy comments, and fantasizing in ways I don’t want to talk about. Instagram owners whistle all the way to the bank.

All I am saying is that consumer preferences still centre on the flirtingly erotic presentation of the female body, but a modern-day classic reclining nude painting would be deemed a horrible kitsch fit for the likes of Donald Trump or seedy strip clubs.

So, the question is: what kind of paintings of nude or naked bodies are not kitsch or a mindless repetitions of past masterpieces? Which of them have value?

As a collector and art history enthusiast, I needed a simple classification system for nude paintings that would show me their “ideological” value whenever I come across one. I say “ideological” because my decision to buy something is based first on whether a painting says something new about portraying a nude or naked body and then on whether it is, in my subjective view, a good painting in its own right, in terms of composition, colour, et cetera. If you read this blog, you know I often go so analytical about deconstructing paintings that it raises suspicions if I wanted to be a autopsist as a kid and my parents wouldn’t let me.

My system is simple. It is a matrix made by two questions:

  • Is the model aware of a male observer?
  • Does the model care about the male observer?

NOTE: ALL DIAGRAMS ARE CLICKABLE AND SOME NEED TO BE ENLARGED TO BE READ

Chart1

The definition of “nude” and “naked” becomes pretty much simple:

Chart2

And art history of the female nude can be briefly summarised:

Chart3

To give you a few examples (yes, now you have to click on it):

Chart5

You can see that some paintings like Picasso’s D’Avignon ladies or Rembrandt’s bathing nude can’t be easily pigeonholed to a single box, but represent a transition from one box to the next. These “transitional works”  represent valueable moments  when artists were searching for new ideas in portraying the unclothed human body.

Today, “progressive” thinkers view most of nude art of the past as chauvinistic garbage (with Renoir being one of the most hated artists). the art world gravitates towards the right side of my table. Indeed, the three “naked” boxes represent the contemporary territory.

What’s disturbing is that all the attempts to fill in these boxes with art have produced very few masterpieces, with loads of ideologically “right” but ugly artworks. Of course, when I say “ugly” I mean something disgusting for me personally. There are people who find Carroll Durham or Sara Lucas beautiful, but I find comfort in knowing many smart men and women who side up with me.

Sara Lucas, for instance, is mostly working in the “is aware – doesn’t care” box with her cigarette butts:

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Well, it is definitely more provocative than Matisse’s Dance, but is it more inspiring? Not for me, but the art world seems to have appreciated her effort.

She also tries to work in the bottom box (“model knows she’s not watched and doesn’t care”) by doing toilet selfies, but as her intention to appear uncaring reveals her pathetic desire to be seen and liked, I can’t say the attempt is a success.

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As an art history guy, I love the nude left side of my chart.

The top left box, the most “basic” one, is, in fact, a vast territory in its own right. There are segments of “authentic shyness”, “fake modesty”, “shameful resolve”, “indignant sale”, and a host of others.

Some of the segments are filled to the brim with art and some still stand pretty empty.

And the transitions between boxes remain almost unexplored.

Which is one of the reasons why I bought this nude last weekend:

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If – as I believe – she covers her face in shame, she falls in the traditional top right box with all the Titians, Manet, Ingres, and countless others.

But.

She refuses to collaborate with the artist to model fake modesty of a girl who pretends to be ashamed being caught naked. She is ashamed, but she’s not putting on a show of it. She also doesn’t want to watch back the male observer of the painting. She doesn’t want to meet his eyes, she doesn’t want to be the object of his desire. She surrenders her rather voluminous breasts (take them if you please) but not herself, as a person.

This, in my view, is a very interesting turn in the old debate about women taking an active part in their own objectification.

The Biblical story of Susanna and the Elders in art can be seen as a curious reference here.

Almost all artists would represent Susanna as shyly trying to cover her body while facing up to the two men:

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Susanne and the Elders by Ottavio Mario Leoni

In the vast majority of this type of paintings Susanna is presented in a seductive pose to make the male observer want her. Artists believed that an aroused observer would feel the same kind of feelings like the elders and, knowing the two ended up dead for their attempt to extort sexual consent from the woman, would learn a moral lesson. Maybe artists pretended to believe it, of course, as an excuse to paint a seductive nude woman (sex sells).

Artemisia Gentileschi was the only artist (perhaps because she was a woman, with a relevant personal background) who turned Susanna’s face away from the bastards with her body language signalling that she doesn’t want to listen to their sex extortion proposals, and she doesn’t want to see them, just like my face-covering girl.

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You see, a true depiction of shame is very unique in this genre.

Now, the painterly qualities of my nude.

Look at the shadows and tones, because the work is done with almost the same colour. She is lit, as if by a flash that went off above her. The hand movement is blurred as if she barely had time to raise her arm. The frontal flash of light stands very well as a symbol of the rush of attention of the male observer whose eyes take in the body as a whole, not seeing, skipping the details (like the bellybutton or nipples) at first.

Oh, the artist behind my nude is Victor Dynnikov. Click on his tag at the bottom if you want to see more of his work.

Print out my nude/naked table and take it with you next time you go to a gallery. It can be fun putting paintings into boxes. If you are a couple, talking about art may never be the same again!

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Matisse’s Last Will

“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject-matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, … a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”

This may sound like the first page from a catalogue of wall-paper for posh homes, but it is a quote from Matisse.

Few artists can be trusted when they talk about their art. Instead of saying, “I am better at expressing myself through brush and paints than talking”, they often dismiss any question with, “I was just doodling” or “I see it that way”. Both answers are never true. If they were indeed seeing it “that way”, their attempts at walking across the road would rarely be successful. If they were just “doodling”, they wouldn’t bother to frame and exhibit the result. Fortunately, Matisse was as good with words, as with his colours.

He indeed wanted to create art that could provide a peaceful and harmonious retreat to the observer.

When ill health prevented Matisse from painting (he was around 70 at the time), he invented a new artistic medium: coloured paper. His assistants would paint sheets of paper with gouache, and he would then cut into it with tailor’s scissors, directing his staff to apply his cut-outs onto paper, canvas, or directly onto walls of his studio.

He was suffering from immobility and pain, but an observer who is not aware of the sad circumstances of his life would never suspect anything was wrong looking at his colourful artworks.

Matisse’s cut-outs, especially large ones, are examples of the worlds he created for himself, his clients, and the “mentally-working” public, in general. My sympathies go out to the working class, but Matisse realised a stonemason needed a physical couch to provide relaxation more than a mental one. He also understood that the average stonemason wouldn’t have the money to buy even an unsigned copy of his work.

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These large-scale “worlds” are built almost exclusively from natural shapes and forms: algae, flowers, leaves, fish, and birds.

And then, in his final year he created two very unusual works: Memory of Oceania and The Snail.

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Memory of Oceania was based on Matisse’s memories of a boat trip to Tahiti, and included both rectangular and natural forms, along with sketchy lines that are believed to reflect Matisse’s recollections of the waves in the wake of the boat.

Art historians still argue about the meaning of different shapes here.

If the clash of rectangular forms with natural shapes was unusual, The Snail was beyond anything that could be expected from Matisse.

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Why would Matisse create something like The Snail out of unnatural rectangles piled up on each other within a somewhat jagged frame, with only the work’s title able to hint at a spiral?

He changed the title himself when he completed the work: from The Snail to Chromatic Composition. It shows an obvious intent to steer observers away from the more obvious associations.

Why would Matisse create a large work that would be so different to everything he was doing before?

It is known that he saw The Snail as one of his most important artworks. It is also known he spent a lot of time arranging and rearranging the pieces.

Why?!

Because he didn’t have time to accomplish his mission. He couldn’t create individual “chairs” or “life boats” for everyone. He left The Snail, as a construction set for the observer to build his own perfect retreat, or for other artists to use it as a well for their own inspiration.

Matisse gives the observer the original coloured paper to play with.

The rectangular shapes (that are sometimes just torn by his hand, rough hewn) are offered for you to cut: “sculpt” whatever way you may fancy.

Matisse sets out the rules of colour harmony.

Matisse believed that colours that surrounded him during the last years of his life were the ones that provided the best harmony. The colours of the Mediterranean:

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And indeed, in an average Mediterranean view, you’d get two or three pairs of complimentary colours, which our brain interprets as representative of natural harmony.

Source

Source

Matisse sets out the rules of compositional harmony.

Compositional harmony is about the equilibrium, the movement, and the rhythm in an artwork.

  1. The snail is a synonym of harmony because its shell is based on the Golden Ratio.
  2. The snail carries its home on itself, it is self-sufficient, and does not think twice before crawling away on an adventure. A harmonious retreat should be similarly self-sufficient.

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I’ve introduced a spiral that is a common visualization for the Golden Ratio in the Snail. You can see that the rectangles fit nicely into it, with the top one just sitting comfy there, in its golden-rationed corner.

The Golden Ratio, also called the Divine Proportion, is important here not just because it helps to create a nice balance. Our Universe is constructed according to golden-ratio rules. As you, the observer, are about to begin your own creation process, Matisse provides you with the main principle by which to do it.

If we draw a vertical line in the middle, we’ll see that three rectangles are on the right, three on the left and another three sit on the vertical line, creating a perfect balance.

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It is a balance like that:
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When you feel like this:
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Now you can realize how surprised I was to read that Tate curators saw people dancing in The Snail. The way Matisse organized the composition does not support this claim.

Why did Matisse confine his rectangles in an orange coloured frame?

A good retreat must have boundaries, which prevent good things on the inside from getting out and bad things on the outside from falling in. It must be a closed ecosystem, self-sufficient like a snail.

Why is the boundary orange in colour?

It is solid terracotta material that can hold things together without creating the impression of a prison. We wouldn’t want the wall of our retreat to be totally impregnable (like, dull brown, or sizzlingly hot red, or black iron), we want them warm and friendly to us and to our theoretically possible guests.

Matisse offers the observer to play god (not become one).

Why did Matisse include black and leave white in The Snail?

Because black is the sum of all colours and white is the absence of colour, if you think of colour as a pigment. If you think of colour as a wave-length, black and white switch places.

Matisse wants to guide the observer in his or her creative efforts, but he doesn’t want to confine them to a few predefined colours or shapes. They can extract whatever they want from black or white.

The black square is cut almost in half by the red vertical line. Its right half is slightly bigger, but that is done because there is a deep blue slab at the bottom, so the black is tipped slightly to the right to counter-weight the blue. The area of white colour is also equal on the right and on the left. That anchors the overall balance as well.

Matisse wanted retreats that you’d create to be a moral sanctuary as well.

For Matisse, who rediscovered religion by the end of his life, a harmonious retreat was impossible without it being a moral sanctuary as well.

There are 11 rectangles, each of them very individual, that are in harmony with each other surrounded by a frame that holds them all.

But it doesn’t just hold them, it directs their movement. The turning frame does not push the family of rectangles to get going, it steers them to move in the right direction. Matisse created an illusion of a white rectangle inside that is tilting to the right. It sets the other rectangles into a slow rolling motion. Perhaps, this is why it is possible to see a snail like rhythmical movement in The Snail, if you look long enough:

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Or is it Christ leading his 11 good apostles? We can’t know for sure, but some see religious symbolism here.

In The Snail, Matisse handed down to the observer everything he thought he had learned about colour, composition, harmony, life, the universe and everything.

It is one of the greatest, but at the same time one of the most complicated works by Matisse. It is easy to enjoy his Icarus. It takes a lot of effort to appreciate The Snail. Yet, the rewards of understanding The Snail can be wondrous: your own world of harmony and love. You just have to build it.

PS I am aware my posts are tagged by ads at the bottom. I can’t see the actual ads, just a space informing me that they are there. I guess now is the right time for a Cote d’Azure real estate agency to have something there, and learn the benefits of being relevant. I, personally, after playing with the Snail for a few hours, can’t wait until I get to the world of these colours.

More original research on Matisse:

Matisse’s Icarus
Matisse’s Dance
Matisse’s Serenity

To sample this blog, click on About at the top. It has links to some of my best or typical posts. There’s an Art & Fun shelf if you feel like in need of a laugh.

GOOD ARTISTS END CONFLICTS IN ART

It was the steam and heat that fueled their disagreement on art. He stormed out of the sauna, to cool out in the snow. The ice hole in the lake was emitting the blackness of winter. With a Wicked Witch laugh, she jeered at him, “Jump, Kazimir!”

Suprematism was born.


This is a 50-word story inspired by the Daily Prompt, and, of course, the Black Square, to while away the time left until the Last Judgement post finally hits the press.

Death, sex, surrealism

Theo Mercier.

He’s been called the last dadaist, the new surrealist, a penis-obsessed maniac and the most scary artist whose art may give spectators nightmares for years after seeing his shows.

He is 30, French, extraordinarily talented and – what I find most important about him – he is not morbidly serious about himself.

Even when he creates surreal death (Desperanzo project) he stays playful:

Well, maybe not there. But here the playfulness is obvious:

Yesterday, as I was walking through a surrealist exhibition at the Pompidou Centre, I was NOT surprised to see a lot of his works (and many of the ticket-selling penis-related projects) almost immediately after the first two halls with works by the founding fathers of surrealism.

Here they are, all of them crazy guys, greeting exhibition’s visitors at the entrance. I wonder if you can put names to their faces, or rather their names to these faces. Most people – and a lot of people from the art world – can’t. And this is not about not knowing names. It is about not connecting rational knowledge of names and works under those names to real people. To remember someone’s face (unless it is very unusual) we need to connect emotionally, don’t we?

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Which is further proven by the exceptions: Picasso and Dali. They are resonating with people’s feelings, not just talking to them at the rational level.

The exhibition is packed with surrealist exhibits of sex and violence.

Cindy Sheman (above) is not the worst.

And of course healthy people get crowded around works with lighthearted take on sexuality: the space in front of Theo’s works is always packed. He is not simply attaching penises to everything that comes across his way.

There is a subtle message behind most of his genitalia endowed ceramics. I am not going to spoil the fun now. Just have a smile while looking at it.

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This gallery can help you get a bit closer to some of the items:

Enjoying the cocktail:

The happy couple:

I encourage all my readers to visit his website, and enjoy his talent.

Make sure you remember his face:

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He was not born just to be wild. He may become the new headmaster of surrealism.

Not that I am wishing his head to start off a new row in the exhibit gracing at the entrance. I mean, I wish the guy a long life full of new projects.

Thank you, the Daily post for inspiration!

P.S. Oh, and one thing I believe is important. The manager of Centre Georges Pompidou shall be fired. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a toilet / restroom/ WC in such a horrendous state as in this building. Half of cabins are barricaded by cleaning buckets because they’re out of order. The other half is overflowing with sewage because of clogging. The smell! The hygiene! It should be a national disgrace for France that one of its finest museums has been brought to this state of despair. The theatre begins at the cloackroom.

FIRST TIME, I FELL IN LOVE AT 6. AND THEN AT 6:30.

Love is more or less easy to picture. Embracing couples, cuddling couples, kissing couples, and then… well, then you have to go through an age check.

Showing first love is difficult.

I first fell in love when I was about 6 yo. It was a kindergarten love-affair that most people don’t remember anything about by the age of 18. Her name was Anna. She was slender, had a thick black plait, dark eyes and serious giggle. When she giggled she didn’t look stupidly snickering like other girls. She was – somehow – smartly ironic. I don’t remember her ever saying anything though. She must have said something at some point, but her huge black eyes were muting the sound by numbing my mind, I guess.

When she was sick I was in love with another girl, Elena, who was plump, blond and was managing everything by talking a lot. She knew who should sit where, with whom, and say what. She’d always hold my hand, not letting me out of her sight and reach.

I was seriously contemplating marrying them both.

I don’t know if that kind of feeling can be visualised. There are lots of images online, but they feel staged and false:

First love was about butterflies in the stomach (which is why pathologists hate to have first-time lovers among victims: too much fuss catching’em butterflies).

First love was about feeling morbidly sick, because something was happening to the body and I didn’t know what it is and if it could be cured.

First love was about feeling immortally strong and able to support a family of two very different wives.

How do you SHOW it?

There are plenty of adult versions though.

Rodin did it with the Kiss.

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Male and female feet trembling against each other is a genius artistic expression of butterflies:

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And the hand, that presses ever so slightly into the thigh of the woman is the manifestation of empowerment provided by love:

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Marc Chagall did it in his painting here:

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Gustav Klimt did it in his very own Kiss, with plenty of colourful butterflies and golden immortality:

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Art makes you think people experience first love when they are adults only. I am a witness to the falsehood of this concept!

Thank you, the Daily Prompt for inspiration!

“Hey, lady, can I have your phone?”
“Don’t be so fast, sweetie! Is it love at first sight?”
“Don’t be so *** romantic. It’s a robbery!”

TAKE A MOMENT TO ENVY ME

A man fished out a bottle from the sea and found a letter inside.

“I have been marooned on an uninhabited tropical island. There is no inflation, no taxes, no city noise, no traffic or pollution. Take a moment to reflect and envy me” 

The letter in a bottle is a powerful concept of despair, hope and salvation in an improbable twist of fate. Yet, is rarely used by artists as a theme, apart from the millions of images of old bottles half-buried in sand.

Yet, there’s an artist who decided to document his suburban world existing half-way between a large city and nature, in a series of bottled pictures.

Jim Dingilian makes pictures inside bottles with candle soot as his primary media. This allows him to create dreamlike images encapsulating the life of a small suburb,

It is not great art, but it is something that makes you stop, look inside, and reflect on your personal experiences (if any) with suburban life and/or moments frozen in time. I find it strangely captivating.

Thank you, the Daily Prompt for reminding me of this artist.

Brevity is the soul of wit

110813_1454_Ithasbeenay3.pngOnce, I used this chart to explain three cornerstone requirements for an artwork to be appreciated by the public. It must grab attention, be easy-to-understand, and send across a relevant message that will switch on neural processes in the mind of the viewer leading to the appearance of memories, thoughts and ideas, which are to be followed by an emotional arousal.

Shakespear believed brevity was the soul of wit. Perhaps, in the written language this is so, but in the visual arts brevity is first of all the trigger of grabbing attention. A modern man is getting too much information to want to be distracted by unnecessary detail.

Graphic artists strive to minimise the number of colour areas and to simplify lines, mercilessly wiping out superflous details.

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We don’t need to see everything to construct the required image in our mind. There are only 2 black forms in the drawing below, but they produce a complicated image of a face.

You also may notice the main black form resembles a big-nosed guy paying a large saxophone. It is very likely that was the artist’s intention.

The same principle applies to photography, especially its graphic, black and white category.

Look at this photograph by Billy Brandt dated back to 1952:

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In graphical terms it took him 4 black smears or shapes/forms to define the picture, and, perhaps, he could get away with using just three.

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In 1958, Billy Brandt used just A SINGLE black form to tell a story:

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The main difficulty here is to identify (and exclude) details that are unnecessary to arrive at an image capable of sparkling viewers’ personal associations and keep or magnify details that are important.

A modern viewer doesn’t like too much detail: they are, perhaps, relevant to the artist, but hardly to an average gallery visitor. The complete absence of detail makes a work of art too general, and hence, not able to pick at the viewer’s personal “strings of the soul”, or, to be more precise, networks of neurons in the brain.

It is a very fine balance between creating an image that would be too generalised and hence empty of personal associations (“a woman”, “some woman”) and arriving at a depiction of something so detailed (“this is a man I don’t know, and no one I know wears a watch and tie like this”) that it also becomes a bell that can’t ring.

This Head of a Girl by Victor Dynnikov is a very good example of generalising the concept of a little girl who is over-cared by her mom (or grandma) and is – most likely – not happy about it:

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Original at Expo 88 Gallery

The necessary detail: the striped hat, the puckered lips.

Brevity: our brain builds the striped hat out of stripes. The hat itself if not shown. There are only THREE large colour areas (besides the hat’s stripes). The girl’s hair and the collar of her coat are merged into a single shape.

I have seen a very personal resonance of this image with people in Russia.

Does it talk to you?

Among Dynnikov’s graphics works I have seen recently, I especially liked this brevity-is-the- soul-of-wit piece:

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Original at Expo 88 Gallery

Two women and a man. This drawing is composed simply, but offers a lot of storytelling, with only a few shapes and very limited detail.

Can you gess to which woman the man in the middle is closer related?

I plan to share a few more “brevity is the soul of wit” images – in the meantime, let me know if you especially love any of this kind of images, send me a link, and I will have it referenced next time.

PS There is a strange kind of kinship between the graphics above and this photo:

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