Category: Art

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A stylized photo of Paul Cezanne

Cézanne, Now

Even for the gods, backlash is an inevitability. At one time considered the cutting edge, Paul Cézanne is often now conflated with artistic conservatism and the ‘rappel à l’ordre’. Bring up his name among any of the various plutocrats and brainless artists-in-residence striving to keep up the pretence of modernistic radicalism and you’ll see what I mean. It’s like brandishing a crucifix in a vampire’s face. Surely, nothing could be more unfashionable or un-hip as to talk about Cézanne in the year 2022.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, various ‘litterateurs’ who claim to admire Cézanne’s work can often be doubly guilty of superficiality; adopting a pose of soi disant aestheticism whilst simultaneously accepting all the ludicrous things produced by broadsheet art critics and authors writing history books on holiday. Sentiment, clerisy and derogation-as-vice continue to exasperate Cézanne’s reputational stability. Appropriated and excommunicated in equal turn, he is again and again subjected to the same rotary of clichés and tabloid mythology. A primitive, a prig, a homely gentleman. All middling attempts to make sense of Cézanne’s work in a self-reflecting art world where consensus has vanished and ignorance reigns supreme. […]

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A shot of Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956) by Vincente Minnelli

Vincente Minnelli Does Vincent: The Many Faces of Van Gogh (1956)

What inspires works about certain artists over others? From films to books to plays, why are some artists more culturally fetishized and others not? Well, the short answer is supply and demand—that as long as a subject is in demand, more of it will be supplied. A good example would be the numerous bios and books about Sylvia Plath. It seems there are three to four released a year, at minimum. Are they necessary? What insights are overturned? Van Gogh is another. He even made it into a Dr. Who episode. So why is this? Again, the short answer is that there is a demand. Also, it is no coincidence that both Plath and Van Gogh lived the short, romantic, ‘tragic life’ of the artist, which gives audiences a reason to wonder what brought about such suffering in the first place.

Van Gogh has had a number of films about him—from Vincente Minnelli’s Lust For Life (1956, based on the Irving Stone novel with the same title), Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo (1990), Loving Vincent (2017), At Eternity’s Gate (2018), and also Martin Scorsese’s depiction of Van Gogh himself in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990). Of these films, I would argue that Vincente Minnelli’s Lust For Life delivers the best rendering, if for nothing else than the vibrant colors within, which much resemble Van Gogh’s painting. (One of the many stamps of Minnelli’s films is his often-energetic use of color.) Also, in terms of storytelling, the fact that the film is based on Irving Stone’s novel indicates that the subject will be rendered well, given Stone’s skill as a novelist.

In Lust For Life, Kirk Douglas plays a vulnerable Vincent, and it is a role one would not expect from the otherwise headstrong actor. Firstly, he is already too old for the part (albeit not as old as the sixty-something Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate. Odd choice, given Van Gogh only lived to 37). In addition, Douglas is not known for his vulnerable roles. It is rare we see him whine. But despite this, he carries the performance well, and we get a sense of Vincent as the empathic individual who longs to help the poor, but who then stumbles into painting as an aside. He is misunderstood and rejected and attracted to outsiders like himself. Living on the fringe of culture, just barely does he manage via the help of his patient brother, Theo. […]

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Paintings by Hilma af Klint, as depicted in Halina Dryschka's "Beyond the Visible" (2019)

Neglected, Rejected: Hilma af Klint in “Beyond the Visible” (2019)

‘Have you ever heard of Hilma af Klint?’ I asked my painter friend. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I have mentioned her many times. A great artist. A Revolutionary.’

Regrettably, at the time I did not recall his mentioning her. I then went on to explain that witnessing a documentary on a subject is an entirely different experience from hearing one’s name. In fact, I even mistyped her name as Klimt, rather than Klint, and I shamefully wondered if she was related to Gustav. Oy!

I begin this essay admitting that I am not a painter and nor am I experienced enough with Abstract Expressionism to be able to render some sort of judgment on it, outside my limited purview. But that doesn’t mean I won’t have opinions.

I stumbled upon Halina Dyrschka’s 2019 documentary Beyond the Visible while surfing the Criterion Channel. Although I felt some initial trepidation due to the film’s labeling af Klint an Abstract Expressionist, (curious she might be another Rothko wannabe) how wrong I was. So, I went ahead with this both enjoyable and illuminating experience. Apparently, my not hearing of Hilma af Klint is nothing extraordinary. Nor have many, according to the documentary. Born in 1862 in Sweden, af Klint lived a quiet life, where she painted in private and withheld much of her work from public eye. […]