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500 Years of the Reclining Nude, from Titian to Currin

 

Take a look at how the reclining nude has evolved over the past 500 years. From Titian’s revolutionary Venus of Urbino in 1538, to John Currin’s Lemons and Lace in 2015, the reclining nude has been one of the most ubiquitous painting’s in art history. Spanning generations and artistic movements, the reclining nude holds steady in its appeal, beauty, and enigmatic nature.

Titian’s Venus of Urbino has served as a template for the sensuous and symbolic reclining nude since its creation. The soft, elongated Mannerist style figure lays on a bed of rich fabric and she looks directly at you. With her hand over her lap she unabashedly holds your gaze. She is in a wealthy Renaissance era house and she holds flowers. Titian makes brilliant use of the light to draw the viewer’s eye to her skin. Her theatrically-lit flesh is juxtaposed against the dark fabric of the bed. All of the elements of Titian’s reclining nude are sensuous and of the flesh.

Then in 1863 comes Edouard Manet’s Olympia. Clearly looking at Titian, Manet uses some of the same symbols in his reclining nude—flowers, a pet at the foot of the bed, and a hand over the figures lap. However, Manet takes his painting a step further by placing the viewer in the narrative of the scene. Olympia, a common name for a prostitute during the 19th century, looks directly at the viewer while a bouquet of flowers is presented to her by a servant. Perhaps the flowers are from a suitor, and maybe the suitor is the viewer, who she is directly looking at. Also, the way Manet treats the flesh is much different than Titian. Olympia is much more rigid and posed than the Venus of Urbino, and light is washing out her body, making her look weightless and glowing. There are hardly any shadows on her body, save for her face which is realistically highlighted and shadowed, while Venus of Urbino is shaded realistically, giving body depth and weight. Both paintings are oil on canvas but the handling of the paint is much different between artists.

The reclining nude continued to be used frequently between movements, periods, and artists. Pioneer of the Realism movement, Gustave Courbet, is one of the masters of the reclining nude. His nudes are much less sensual than Titian and Manet, and much more dark and enigmatic. For example, his 1866 painting, Woman with a Parrot is dark, ghostly, and mysterious. The figure is in a contorted position and laying completely flat on a white sheet. Her dark hair is wildly resting on the floor above her head, and her flesh is pale and shadowed almost blending into the white sheet she is lying on. The use of color in this painting, and in many Courbet paintings, is sparing. Even the parrot is dull in color and her limbs are limp, except for the one arm which is outstretched towards the parrot. In many ways, this painting is a departure from the traditional reclining nude established by Titian and Manet. Rather than view the figure head-on like in Olympia and Venus of Urbino, we view the figure at a diagonal and we look down her body at an elevated angle. A similar angle would later be used in 1961 by Tom Wesselmann in his Great American Nude No. 2.

After Courbet, artists have continued to reinvent and personalize their reclining nudes. American artist John Currin is one of the most inventive, humorous, and technically brilliant painter of nudes. A great example of Currin’s mastery with the subject is his 2015 painting Lemons and Lace which shows a High Renaissance-esque redhead clad in silky lingerie. The figure is a return to the classicism and naturalism of Titian. Currin similarly makes use of still-life, cropped view, and excellent handling of flesh. However, there is something almost comical about this figure which makes it modern and wholly unique.

The reclining nude endures as one of the most pervasive subjects for all artists whether they be Renaissance aritsts, Pop artists, or Satirists.

 

Titian ‘Venus of Urbino,’ 1538
Boucher ‘L’Odalisque Brune,’ 1745
Ingres ‘La Grande Odalisque,’ 1814
Manet ‘Olympia,’ 1863
Courbet ‘Woman with a Parrot,’ 1866
Modigliani ‘Reclining Nude,’ 1917
Wesselmann ‘Great American Nude No. 2,’ 1961
Tom Wesselmann
John Currin ‘Anniversary Nude,’ 2008
John Currin ‘Lemons and Lace,’ 2015

Dan Flavin at Richmond Hall: Houston’s forgotten art installation

 

Recently I visited the Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall in Houston. I was amazed by the work which is almost buzzing with life as it emanates its fluorescent glow on the white space around it. The installation stands as a brilliant example of the minimalist sculptor’s ability to combine utilitarian sensibilities with fine art, however, the installation is devoid of people much of the time. Even on a Saturday afternoon when I went (prime museum going hours) it was empty.

The installation was commissioned by Dominique De Menil in 1990, and it ended up being one of Flavin’s last works. He died two days after he completed his plans for the installation, and the rest of the work was carried out by his studio. The space, which built in 1930 as a grocery store, is lined with rainbow-fluorescent lights, and there is additional space the back which houses some of Flavin’s earlier “monument” light sculptures.

Along with Donald Judd, Flavin was one of the most important pioneers of minimalist sculpture and it is amazing that we have a permanent space dedicated to his work in Houston. Dominique de Menil did so much for this city’s art and culture. She is responsible for much of the great art we have in Houston, including the Cy Twombly Gallery and the Rothko Chapel. I hope that more people go to this installation because it is a true gem, and a pivotal example of 20th century sculpture, also it’s free!

 

All photos by me.

For more information on the installation follow this link: https://www.menil.org/campus/dan-flavin-installation

Genieve Figgis: 18th Century Art through a Post-Modern Lens

Irish painter Genieve Figgis paints familiar 18th century, Rococo-style scenes, but gives them a dark twist, making them distinctly modern and unique. She reinterprets the stylized and bejeweled figures from Fragonard, Gainsborough and Zoffany paintings, as dead-eyed figures staring blankly at the viewer. It’s not just her incredibly unique rendering of these antique paintings that is so unique and modern, but it’s also the way she has quickly made a name for herself–using social media.

Figgis got her start on Twitter, posting pictures of her paintings, which she completes with great speed–and those soon caught the eye of well-known artist, Richard Prince. She was soon catapulted in to the New York art world. Showing at places such as Half Gallery, and the London Art fair and doing a special collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera, Figgis is the the next big painting talent.

The reason why I love her art so much is because she puts together two unlikely styles, she combines Rococo whimsy with the eerie and strange. The unlikely combination produces a painting that is both thought-provoking, interesting, and even humorous. Examples include bee-hived gentle ladies painted as blank ghosts, a rendition of Jesus with Play-Doh like features, and a woman drinking wine out of a bottle while tucked into a decadent Neo-Classical state bed.

The influence of Boucher, Fragonard, and Zoffany is clear in Figgis’s work, but as much as her work is inspired by 18th century art, it is also influenced by contemporary art as well. Her warped faces are reminiscent of 1970s Francis Bacon portraits; and the ghost-like figures remind me of Eva Hesse and Peter Doig. But unlike the Rococo artists Figgis is influenced by, her works are not pure whimsy–rather they are warped, freaky, and even bizarre, making them more relevant in this post-modern world. Her paintings are more representative of the world we live, it is not existing in a purely whimsical and magical one like the scenes painted by Fragonard.

Figgis’s painting technique also contributes to much of the aesthetic of her works. She works her canvas’s rapidly–in acrylic mostly– giving the hastily drawn faces and figures a skeletal-like contour. The eyes are blank, often-times they are just dots of black, which is offset, sometimes, by a big, red toothy smile. The void stare and the enthusiastic smiles give the figures a hollow, albeit soul-less look that contributes to the overall macabre of the painting. It is through these nuanced techniques that Figgis achieves her signature style, and makes even the most mundane scene, ie- a woman lying in bed, a mixture of funny satire and poignantly real depictions of life.

Figgis’s morbid scenes and grotesque depictions of 18th century high-society are inspiring in an unexpected way. Her talent is wholly unique and unmatched by any other young artist right now, in my opinion, and her work deserves to be more widely known. I hope this post turns you on to Figgis’s work, she is one of my favorite artists!

After Fragonard’s ‘The Swing’

Pictures via Pinterest, all by Genieve Figgis

An Easter visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

After a long Easter brunch, me and my family visited the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It is always delightful to visit the museum and every time I go (which is often!) I like to pay a visit to some of my favorite works-which includes masterpiece sculptures by Alexander Calder and Constantin Brancusi, and paintings by Willem De Kooning and Amadeo Modigliani. A majority of my favorite art at the museum is located in the contemporary art room and the Beck Galleries, which are both in the Audrey Jones Beck building. Keep scrolling to see some of my most admired and adored paintings in the MFAH collection…

A Muse, 1917 by Constantin Brancusi. Featuring Picasso in the back!

 

Back Porch, 1975 by Willem De Kooning
Detail of Back Porch
Portrait of Paul Hugot, 1878 by Gustave Caillebotte
International Mobile, 1949 by Alexander Calder
Léopold Zborowski, 1916 by Amadeo Modigliani
PH-241, 1949 by Clyfford Still

All photographs taken by me.

Ron Mueck, 21st Century Da Vinci

On Feb. 26, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, opened exhibit of sculptures by Australian artist Ron Mueck. The work on display will be hyper-realistic, large scale sculptures, displaying people in everyday situations. So hyper-realistic, in fact—showing everything from eyelashes, to wrinkles, blue veins, and stubble—they are almost unrealistic in its uncomfortable grotesqueness. The scale of the sculptures range from puny renditions of foot-tall adults, to enormous, over 15-foot long newborn babies. This large-scale hyper-realism sets Mueck apart as a trailblazing artist.

Aside from these sculptures being somewhat controversial and extraordinarily unique for modern sculpture, this is the first exhibit of its kind curated by the MFAH, which has generally featured special exhibits of Impressionism and19th and early 20th century paintings. A modern sculpture exhibit, then, is a very different show for the MFAH. They do have a small permanent modern art collection, displaying art mainly from the late 20th century, but nothing along the lines of hyper-realism and 21st century sculpture—nothing this tendentious. Could the MFAH be trying to reach a new audience with this show?

Mueck formerly worked as a model-maker for film and television shows, notably working under puppeteer Jim Henson (of The Muppets fame); he eventually made his foray into fine art in the 1990s. His sculptures, of polarizing subject matter, have garnered mixed reviews. They range from quaint domestic scenes—a young couple holding hands— to the off-putting and disturbing—a realistic depiction of a freshly dead body, or a detailed model of a mother in the final stages of giving birth. Although the extraordinarily lifelike renditions of people may be controversial, the meaning behind them is something every human can relate to. Each figure is cast in an important moment in life, and all viewed together they depict the full circle of life, from hopeful birth to unavoidable death.

Crafted out of silicone, acrylic, and fiberglass, the people are caught in various states–deep in thought on a boat, the moment a mother first sees her child, and even more basic states, such as sleep and death. The figures, although they appear to be living objects, have a calm stillness about them and wear expressions of contentment from the very first breath of life to the very last. The sculptures are a poignant analysis of life and humanity and work to reassure the viewer that even though death and “eventual oblivion” is an inescapable fact of life, there are many moments that make beautiful. The piece-de-resistance, which perhaps sums up the significance of the show, is “Girl”, a 15-foot long newborn baby girl cracking her eyes open for the first time. It is beautiful sculpture: underneath the blood and wrinkly skin of a newborn is the embodiment of fresh hope, newness, and innocence.

Mueck rarely gives interviews, which leaves the meaning of his work open to interpretation. Without the weight of a concrete artist-explained meaning, the viewer is allowed to perceive and understand each object however he or she wants to.

The hyper-realistic and expressionistic rendering of humans in Mueck’s hearkens back to sculptures by Leonardo Da Vinci, who famously treated his marble works like real people, and Franz Messerschmidt, the Austrian sculptor of “character heads,” which display similar realistic expressions as Mueck’s people. Mueck’s Mask II shows a man deep in sleep and is a somewhat modern interpretation of such character heads. It is interesting to look at Mueck’s sculptures not as the starkly modern artworks they appear to be, but as sculptures that draw on past works such as “David” and 18th century busts. It shows that artists have been studying the human condition through sculpture for many centuries, and looking at it through that lens may make the exhibition more understandable to the MFAH’s established visitor base who may not have seen sculpture like this before.

The Ron Mueck exhibit is on view through Aug. 13

Mask II, 2001

 

Still Life, 2009
Mother and Child, 2002

 

Couple Under Umbrella, 2013
Two Women, 2005
Boy Crouching in Mirror, 1999-2000
Young Couple, 2013
Mother with Shopping, 2013

The Anatomy of Melancholy- Cy Twombly at the Menil

On a recent trip to the Menil Collection with mother and younger brother we went to see the new exhibit called “The Beginning of Everything,” a temporary exhibit of drawings that included pieces from Cézanne to Ellsworth Kelly spanning decades of works on paper, and to stop for a light lunch at the delicious Bistro Menil for salad and eggplant fries. But we ended up stumbling upon a hidden gem that was positively amazing–The Cy Twombly Gallery. It was only that day that I heard about the gallery and as a dedicated Cy Twombly fan, I had to incorporate it into our day–but it turned out to be the main event.

When we walked through the glass doors into a large, empty, white room, with grey-tinged air, I was taken aback by the most striking painting I think I have ever seen. Three panels, untitled, with ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ scrawled in the middle, it was so striking that I actually awed out loud.

52 feet long, 13 feet high and completed over 22 years, Untitled (Say Goodbye to Catullus, to the Shoes of Asia Minor), is a stark progression of color, from small, boat-shaped black cuts to pink, red, yellow balls of color, detailing a journey of sadness and sacrifice to love and fulfillment.

Enigmatically, Twombly wrote ‘ORPHEUS’ on the center panel, and above that in red, ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy.’ These words indicate the journey of Orpheus to the underworld to save his love, Eurydice. The journey starts with a sparsely painted canvas, containing charcoal tally marks, then as you view the painting (left to right), there is a steep acclivity of color. Bursts of vibrant yellow, orange, pink and blue explode on the canvas. Finally, on the end panel Twombly faintly scrawled Rilke prose reading, “and yet there on the other shore under the dark gaze/ Sun in your eyes, you were there/ the other side, the other dawn, the other birth/ and yet there you were in the vast time.”All of these elements of the painting–the pale-gray canvas, the color explosions, and the poetry–come together to make a cohesive and full story. The journey (although ultimately unsuccessful) progresses from pale loneliness, to colorful happiness as it follows a Orpheus’s from a life devoid of his love–shown in from grey and sharp black–to brilliant bursts of hope signified by the rainbow of colors.

It is under these brilliant bursts of color that the main key to deciphering this painting is written. In iconic Twombly scribble, the Rilke poem about the other about an elusive person he is longing for on “the other side” is written. The poem connects to the universal story of Orpheus and Eurydice. This other side is the divide separating the lovers. Although the bursts of color give the painting great vibrancy it is underpinned by muted gray backdrop. The color may allude to the eerie shroud of the underworld, where Eurydice will be trapped forever, or to make Orpheus’s colorful love for her stand out even more.

What I love about this painting, and Twombly in general, is that he can paint such an vivid story of a journey of love through the most simple painting techniques.  His mastery lies in his ability to tell such an intricate story and convey the complexities of the emotions of the characters in them with great immediacy and ease.

The fleeting minutes I got to spend with this painting were inspiring and up-lifting. I am so excited to have found this gallery, and I hope more people will find it, because it really is a testament to Twombly’s brilliance as an artist and storyteller.

Poetry detail in Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor)
Detail of left panel of Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor)

Degas at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

My mother and I went to the Degas: A New Vision exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston this past Sunday afternoon. It was packed with people from all walks of life excited to see the largest compilation of Degas works in decades (In fact it took me and my mom two separate visits to complete!)

Curated by the former museum curator at the Louvre, Henri Loyrette, the exhibit is a comprehensive look at Degas work and his evolution from a traditional painter to a modern artist breaking the rules of expression. From ballerinas to brothels, sketches and photographs, the Degas exhibit is a truly fascinating experience. The exhibit goes in order by time period and types of work. The different sections depict different stages in Degas’ life and reflect his interests during those times.

Edgar Degas was born to a well-off family that was able to support and cultivate his interest in art. He was taken to museums with his dad as a young boy and was put through art school in Paris. At school Degas started by learning and mastering figure drawings, many of which he would later impose on his large paintings, such as ‘Scenes of War in the Middle Ages’ and The Bather’s series.

Degas graduated school in Paris and left for Naples to start his career. Here he painted many portraits of people around him, such as friends and family. His most notable work done in Naples was his first masterpiece, “The Bellelli Family”, which depicts his aunt and her family. Much of the work Degas did in Naples was practice. He had yet to find his individual style that is now unmistakably Degas–large strokes, vibrant colors, and feminine figures.

By the 1870s, Degas had developed an Impressionist style of painting. It was then that he produced arguably his most well-known series of works–the ballerinas. Ethereal, pastel, and elegant, the ballerina series is dedicated to the beauty of the young ballet dancers in Paris. It shows the goings-on behind the scenes of the ballet and the unseen, grueling practices. Degas painted and sketched these dancers so realistically and beautifully, however, it is unknown whether he actually even saw them practice in person. He did, however, attend the ballet performances often. A large portion of the exhibit is dedicated to the ballerina paintings, and even includes the sculpture “Little Dancer of Fourteen.”

One of the most striking works in the exhibit is “Scene from the Steeplechase- The Fallen Jockey.” This is a pair of paintings that depicts a jockey that has been thrown from his horse. Degas used his brother as a model. One of the paintings, which was done shortly before his brother’s death, shows a jockey that was thrown from the horse, and is stunned, but will eventually get up. The other painting, which Degas’ painted after the death of his brother, shows a jockey thrown from his horse, looking dead. The scene is striking, life-like, and vivid. The two paintings are done on a large scale and show a shift to the modern technique of painting that Degas is remembered for.

The end of Degas life he was nearly blind, however, he never stopped creating art. He made a foray into photography, a relatively new art form at that time. His photography included mostly candid shots of his friends lounging around. Photography then was mostly used for posed portraits and candid shots were all but unseen. Again, Degas showed his innate ability to create art ages ahead of his time.

The exhibit Closes January 16th, and I highly recommend visiting. It is one of the most beautiful, comprehensive, and educational exhibits I have seen at the MFA.

For more information on Degas and artworks for sale by the artist, please visit his Artsy page–> https://www.artsy.net/artist/edgar-degas

“Scenes of War in the Middle Ages”
“Head of the Fallen Jockey”- sketch for Scene from the Steeplechase

 

“Little Dancer of Fourteen” Sculputre

Information via

MFA Degas: A New Vision at the MFAH

http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.94902.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Degas

http://www.edgar-degas.org/biography.html

 

Pictures taken by me at Degas: A New Vision at the MFAH