October 31, 2013 2 Comments
October 30, 2013 1 Comment
Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) was an American portrait painter whose works are often compared to her contemporaries John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, and Mary Cassatt. Beaux’s work was far more realistic in manner than either Chase or Cassatt, although in many works, she shares similar decorative sensibilities as Chase, who seems to have admired her work. This piece is called Sita and Sarita (Jeune Fille au Chat) and is a portrait of the artist’s cousin, Sarah Allibone Leavitt. The work was painted in 1896 and can now be found at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Its white-gowned refinement, clarity, and editorial prowess demonstrate precisely why it is that it is nearly impossible to speak, read, or write about Beaux without mentioning Sargent, Beaux’s twin in knowing how to cleanly edit and execute an image which in less talented hands could become trite, ornamental, sentimental, or cloying. The best of Beaux, like the best of Sargent, has subtext and depth and presents intelligent-seeming humans as seen by equally intelligent and thoughtful eyes. Sita and Sarita qualifies as one of the “best of Beaux.” Beaux must have thought so, too, as she painted a second version of this work in 1922. The second version is much lighter (no black background) and eliminates the china-patterned chair, two alterations which, to me, inexplicably reduce the pensiveness of the original, which in turn, to me, reduces the appeal. In any case, the second version can be found at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C.
The 1896 Sita and Sarita has inevitably prompted some scholars and art historians to write about the figure’s implied sexuality, from the black cat to the way her hand lies in her lap (which some have said mimics Sargent’s controversial Madame X), statements which are often used to reclaim or justify Beaux’s own gender and sexuality and too often used by other women in a facile, brainless brand of feminism. Though, of course, when the painting was first exhibited, it brought some of these comments from male critics, who were, equally brainlessly, titillated by a depiction of a young woman with a black cat.
For my part, I like the image on its own, but never more than in October. For one, I assume Sita is staring into a fire, but I also like to think of the woman (not literally and definitely quite apart from what the image actually is and was intended to be) as a purer form of a New England witch, peering into a scrying glass. And of course, there’s that black cat. It’s like high-brow Halloween décor (a sentence which would undoubtedly horrify Ms. Beaux).
To continue on that theme, I also like to connect Sita and Sarita with lines Algernon Charles Swinburne wrote about Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 2 (The Little White Girl) (1864) in a poem called “Before the Mirror” and dedicated to Whistler. As Beaux was also compared to Whistler (those white dresses!), it’s not totally out of line:
She knows not love that kissed her / She knows not where: / Art thou the ghost, my sister, / White sister there, / Am I the ghost, who knows? // …Deep in the gleaming glass / She sees all past things pass, / There glowing ghosts of flowers / Draw down, draw nigh; / And wings of swift spent hours / Take flight and fly.
Happy October. Happy Halloween.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Cecilia Beaux, Sita and Sarita (Jeune Fille au Chat; portrait of Sarah Allibone Leavitt). Oil on canvas, 1896. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Related: Art-tober: Ghost Clock
October 28, 2013 2 Comments
Tucked into the southeastern corner of Indianapolis sits the Hannah House, built in 1858 by Alexander Hannah. The home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. It is said to be haunted by the shade of Alexander Hannah, by an unnamed spectral old lady, but most of all by the refugee slaves who were buried in the cellar by Alexander Hannah after they tragically perished in a fire caused by an oil lantern as they slept.
The house is currently being haunted, in a way, by the Asylum House company: for $20, you can wend your way through this historic house, screaming in terror at all the fake ghosts, demons, and other sundry spirits. If you dare.
October 21, 2013 2 Comments
Don’t look so sad, little monster, Halloween is coming soon.
This guy appeared on a wall just slightly east of Fountain Square in Indianapolis as part of Subsurface 2013 (a graffiti art expo). I believe he was painted by a member of The Cool Five as a practice piece for their main walls on the same building just off Prospect Street. He’s not the main exhibition. He’s hidden just behind a dumpster. But he is, by far, my favorite. My pet monster. My steampunk jack o’lantern in seafoam green. My teary-eyed, oozy-mouthed acquaintance born of spray paint and fetish and confusing emotional cues.
I keep trying to name him, this mess of a scary-sweet-tender monster-thing on the southeast side of Indianapolis. He must have a name by Halloween. Franken-Ruxpin (green squarish monster head with button teddy bear eyes)? Some nod to Frosty the Snowman (just look at his precious little carrot nose)? Something rakish and calculating to accomodate that slanting, knowing eyebrow? Rafe? Monty? Robert (with the French pronunciation, thank you very much)? Hugh? (No, no, no.)
And so we come back to “my steampunk jack o’lantern in seafoam green.” So his name shall be known as Sea-Green Jack, the Dumpster King. My monster, monster on the wall; the very gloppiest of them all.
See, before today, you didn’t know Jack. But now you do. (You’re welcome.)
October 14, 2013 5 Comments
“The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” William Faulkner
This is not a clock. This is not a grandfather clock, covered with a dust cloth. This is a sculpture, made of wood, towering over 7 feet tall. This is Wendell Castle’s scupture, Ghost Clock. In person, it is breathtaking. It is literally stunning. It has mass. It arrests. When you walk into the room of the Renwick Gallery where it is housed, you think it’s a mistake or a renovation or you think it’s experimental and postmodern: you think it’s a clock, covered with a sheet.
And it just really isn’t that.
It’s magnificent and stately and it is a wooden sculpture that’s so real, so cognitively confusing, you cannot walk away from it. Because it’s a masterpiece. How does wood look like fabric, textural, soft, draped fabric? How can you know there is no clock underneath but not know there is a clock beneath?
And then, while you’re pondering the mystery of hands who pull cotton from mahogany, the actual from the implied, you gasp with the way that time dogs your steps and operates outside of itself, sometimes slow and sometimes stopped and for all its predictable ticking past, it is never all that predictable. Time, like this sculpture, is never what it seems. And even when you think you’ve got a grip on it, there it is, challenging your perceptions and evoking questions you’re not sure you’re fully equipped to ask or answer. Time is a mystery, a ghost. Blink and it’s gone, only to reappear in a place you hadn’t left it, possibly covered with a dust cloth.
And double that for time’s cousins, its cohorts, its accompanying twin terrors: memory and regret. They’re there too, underneath the cloth-which-is-not-cloth, inseparable from the passage of time, inseparable from self. Memories haunt, the past is never past. And there is no way that you, as a human being, subject to all three apparitions of Time, Memory, and Regret, can walk into the Renwick Gallery, look at Ghost Clock, and not say “well, I’ll be damned” and then proceed straight from tickled (it’s all wood!) to existential interrogation and, well, cognitive confusion.
It’s really a brilliant piece and photography just doesn’t do it any favors. I’m cold enough to admit that for almost any given artwork, I am generally more moved by the history of it than the art. But in the case of Wendell Castle’s most provocative and evocative sculpture, it’s exactly the opposite. This piece moves me. If you’re ever in D.C., you should go and check it out. I’m willing to place a fairly hefty bet that it will move you, too.
Image Credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Renwick Gallery. Wendell Castle, Ghost Clock, bleached Honduras mahogany, 1985. (If you’re a big art history geek, click on the link to the “Joan of Art” entry for this piece. In the comments section, some commenter noted the similarity of Ghost Clock’s faux muslin drapings to a Greek kore sculpture. Which is a freaking brilliant comment. Because, oh my god, it totally looks like that.)
October 31, 2010 3 Comments
“For how can one know color in perpetual green, and what good is warmth without cold to give it sweetness?” John Steinbeck
In honor of Autumn, October, and Halloween, I’ve been re-reading John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962). I usually do this because there’s something so perfectly fall-like about the first half of Part Two. “The climate changed quickly to cold and the trees burst into color, the reds and yellows you can’t believe. It isn’t only color but a glowing, as though the leaves gobbled the light of the autumn sun and then released it slowly.” And so I wanted to share this, the Millais painting, and the short list of atmospherically perfect things to dip into on a crisp October day, or better, a brisk All Hallows’ Eve.
With a nod to Indiana, James Whitcomb Riley’s “When the Frost is on the Punkin.”
For poison and pathos and the ability to stick in one’s head, “Where ha’ you been, Lord Randal, my son?” Anonymous child ballad, “Lord Randal (Randall).”
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Birthmark.”
Alfred Noyes, “The Highwayman.” For cadence, but mostly for this: “The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees / The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas…”
Happy Halloween. Happy Autumn.
Image: John Everett Millais. Autumn Leaves. Oil on canvas. 1856. Manchester Art Gallery, U.K.