One of the requisites for the modernist artist was to break from tradition and search for artistic truth without being encumbered by the past. More and more, modernist artists cast the gaze of their eyes forward into the unknown rather than lingering in the past as had been the case for so long. The result of such decisions by the multitude of artists was to create a new cultural fabric that was far more in tune with the times. Herbert Read, the famed British art critic of the 20th century, wrote the following in his 1968 book A Concise History of Modern Painting: “The rich treasure of icons they (the great leaders of the modern movement)have created is the basis upon which any possible civilization of the future will be built.” Do you agree with Reed in his assessment of modernism? Your thoughts?
Photo of Herbert Read
David Leeds, an American filmmaker, poet and sculptor, made the following remark upon seeing Michelangelo’s Awakening Giant in the Florence Academy: “This piece is one of the most powerful and expressive works of art I’ve ever seen. The figure feels like it is writhing and straining, and going to imminently explode out of the marble block that holds it. The latent power one feels is extraordinary. Is this a Herculean effort to be born physically from the imprisoning stone, or a titanic struggle to escape the bounds of physical reality and move onto some other plane? I certainly don’t know for sure, but it feels like the business at hand here is cosmic. Michelangelo is famous for saying that he worked to liberate the forms imprisoned in the marble. He saw his job as simply removing what was extraneous. The endless struggle of man to free himself from his physical constraints and liberate the more enlightened spirit within, was part of the Neo-Platonic philosophy that was in vogue in Florence at this time. The burden of the flesh constrains the soul. This is by far the most dynamic and expressive battleground of these forces I’ver ever encountered. The metaphor is inescapable.” Do you agree with Leeds’ vision of Michelangelo’s Awakening Giant? What are your thoughts on this “unfinished” sculpture by the great Florentine master genius?
Michelangelo, The Awakening Giant
Bernhard Berenson, a famed American Art Historian whose study of Renaissance art helped define and sustain interest in the aesthetic contributions of the Italian artists and thinkers of the 14th to 16th centuries. Berenson felt the creative genius of the Renaissance was driven by youth, by exceptionally talented and gifted geniuses who also happened to be young when their aesthetic powers catapulted them into the rarified air we call the Renaissance. Berenson wrote the following statement in his book The Venetian Painters (1894) about the presence of a powerful energy and vigor emanating from such young prodigies as Michelangelo and Raphael: “The Renaissance…stands for youth, and youth alone…for intellectual curiosity and energy grasping at the whole of life as material which it hopes to mould to any shape.” Do you see or feel “youth” in the Italian Renaissance?
One of the many books written by Bernhard Berenson which helped define and sustain interest in the Italian Renaissance
Moving forward in time as our gaze continues to place art in its historical context, we now confront one of the truly great moments or eras of creative activity. Greek artists, over the passage of several centuries of time, codified a vision of beauty which still resonates with us today. How the Greeks evolved such a vision in their finished works of art, especially in the Classical and Hellenistic periods, remains a tantalizing mystery. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, in his Italian Journey (1786-88), wrote the following quip regarding the mysterious Greek understanding of beauty : “What was the process by which these incomparable artists, the Greeks, evolved from the human body the circle of their god-like shapes, a perfect circle from which not one essential, incidental or transitional feature was lacking? My instinct tells me that they followed the same laws as Nature…But there is something else involved as well which I would not know how to express.” What do you think is the missing piece of expression which Goethe could sense but was not able to put into words?
Nike of Samothrace or Winged Victory
Nike of Samothrace being removed from the Louve in September 3, 1939 to ensure its safety should war break out.
As we begin to assess Art in its cultural and historic context, we find ourselves turning our gaze back into our collective distant past and marvel at the work painted and scratched onto cave walls. Our earliest ancestors, responding to a community driven by hopes, fears, and ignorance, saw fit to leave their perceptions of the world which we, unfortunately, refer to as “primitive art”. The famed British sculptor, Henry Moore, once remarked: “Primitive art…is something made by people with a direct and immediate response to life.” Although no written documents have been found to record the “thoughts” of our earliest ancestors, nevertheless, their painted images on cave walls such as Chauvet Cave speak volumes about their perceptions of the visible world they inhabited so many years ago. It is believed that the cave painters constructed images on the cave walls in a representational way so that, in some magical way, the spirit of the animal depicted would inhabit the replicated form. In other words, their painted animals became those animals in the wilds. What are your thoughts of our ancient ancestors and their attempts to “record” or “document” their time by replicating animals on the walls of sacred caves?
Animals found in Chauvet Cave
For centuries artists have been lured to sculpture because it occupies three dimensional space. As such, sculpture may be viewed as a more dynamic medium that is capable of closing the distance between the artist as communicator and the museum or gallery visitor as viewer. Regardless of the materials used by the artist, sculpture is able to effectively touch the spectator in ways that painting, printmaking, drawing, photography and other forms of 2D design are prevented from accomplishing. One of America’s most prominent contemporary artist/sculptor was Donald Judd (1928-1994). Judd had a strong affinity for sculpture because: “Three dimensions are real space. That gets rid of the problem of illusionism and of literal space, space in and around marks and colors—which is riddance of one of the most salient and most objectionable relics of European art. The several limits of painting are no longer present. A work can be as powerful as it can be thought to be. Actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface.” What are your thoughts on sculpture as a medium of artistic communication and do you agree/disagree with Donald Judd’s assertion quoted above?
Donald Judd, Untitled (installation at Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas)
Christo Javacheff, a Bulgarian born artist, has developed a magnificent career as an artist who creates short-lived spectacles in the public arena. For New York City, an urban environment Christo has called home for a number of years, the artist created the Gates Project. Such public art projects take considerable time to be realized. So much time and effort is spent getting the necessary “permits” and “approvals” most artists don’t have the patience or fortitude to realize their dream within the tortuous bureaucracy of cities. Christo possesses extraordinary patience and a doggedness that is almost beyond belief. The Gates Project for New York City, installed/experienced/de-installed in February 2005, is one such example. It took the artist nearly 30 years to get the necessary permits for this project! Christo looks back on his very creative life and states: “The freedom of every artist is essential. Our work is a scream of freedom. The work of art is a scream of freedom. To keep that absolute freedom we cannot be obliged to anyone. We wish to work in total freedom. And for every project, because it takes years, you can see the early drawings and collages as just a simple, vague idea, and through the years and through the negotiations of getting the permit, you see that every detail is now clarified. We tell them that we believe it will be beautiful because that is our speciality, we only create joy and beauty. We have never done a sad work. Through the drawings, we hope a majority will be able to visualize it.” What are your thoughts on Art in Public Places like the Gates Project, why do city administrative officials make the artist continually jump through so many bureaucratic hoops, and does the Gates Project appear to you to be joy and beauty fixed into temporary form?
Christo Javacheff, Drawing for the Gates Project, 1979