Tag: painting

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Three side-by-side self-portraits by Jean Siméon Chardin

On Chardin: Greatness in Mediocrity

There’s hardly enough love and understanding for Chardin. It’s not a look that screams ‘genius’ or ‘radicality’. Such might be held against him—his lack of glamour. His ill-preparedness for survival.

Yet Chardin hasn’t been without his share of admirers. The encyclopaedist, Denis Diderot, wrote prolifically on his work. Manet, Braque and Matisse all cite Chardin as a major influence. And Cezanne, in his own typical way, praised him in a letter as an ‘artful devil’.

In life, Chardin was a time-tenured salon academician and businessman, with a permanent residence at the Louvre and a state pension. But he was also, for all his sophistication and studio-training, a functional illiterate who rarely left the city of Paris. There’s little evidence to suggest that he was any kind of intellectual or possessed a coherent aesthetic programme. It would simply appear that he painted what he thought would sell, and what could best showcase his talents. […]

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A stylized set of portraits of R.B. Kitaj, who is being re-appraised by English painter Ethan Pinch.

Critical Mass: The Case Against R.B. Kitaj

To revisit the work of American artist R.B. Kitaj is to revisit the scene of a ritual murder. He is, after all, a painter noteworthy for being ‘assassinated’ by his critics—a grievous mantle which, though Kitaj has been dead for over fifteen years, has thankfully found no indisputable successor. What stands today as a classic fable of yellow press journalism is the account of a London Tate retrospective so viciously panned that it is now held to be the catalyst for Kitaj’s eventual suicide along with the tragically premature death of his wife, Sandra, from a stroke.

Kitaj had been, for most of his career, a sort of enfant terrible—so it follows that he should have been accustomed to some negative criticism, or at least journalistic vulgarity. Yet the ’94 Tate retrospective, an event intended to finally confirm his critical legacy, instead gave rise to one of the most vicious pile-ons in the history of broadsheet criticism. A ‘cyclone of abuse ‘. A ‘lynch mob‘.

But what’s the real substance behind all this tabloid melodrama? Could it just be another case of critical caprice? Of obstinance and snobbery? Or was it, as Kitaj loudly alleged, a case of antisemitic blood libel: of gentiles bashing and scapegoating an expatriate Jewish artist for the crime of merely existing? […]

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Stylized photos of Georges Braque back-to-back in grayscale, bluescale, and a darker version of the same image.

Through A Studio, Darkly: On Late Braque

Georges Braque’s late ‘studio’ work was perhaps the greatest of his career—his grande finale. Painting’s essential exploratory function is brought to bear on these eight or so pictures of the master’s workshop, wherein pictorial tradition and pure creative daring achieve a natural and seemingly spontaneous co-existence.

It would seem that Braque began his studio paintings more or less simultaneously, moving from one painting to another and then back again, perhaps within the space of a few moments. As such, the paintings have a very similar character. The compositions are derived from complexly interlocking outlines, or profiles, sometimes transparent, sometimes opaque. There are vestiges of the early cubist work in the overlapping planes but the outline drawing, which marks contours, separate and subdivide the forms in connection with colour. The lines are often white, brown or black. Each object consists solely of one of these outlines filled in with a single plane of colour—or not filled in, leaving the object transparent. There’s very little evidence of natural modelling. Everything consists of interwoven silhouettes. […]

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A few stylized paintings by Giorgio de Chirico.

Giorgio de Chirico’s Nostalgia for the Strange

It’s the minor greats who tend to reward more casual spectators of art. Attempting to dip a toe into a topic as overwhelmingly protean as Matisse or Picasso could be an open invitation to critical piranhas. But Giorgio de Chirico’s work, on the other hand, is all charm and free fancy. His early paintings from the 1910s were a catalyst for the Paris surrealists. He was a favourite of Sylvia Plath. The list goes on. Simply throw a dart and you’re bound to hit one of his disciples – whether it’s Feuillade or Cocteau or Hitchcock, Bunūel, Dali, Robbe-Grillet, Edward Hopper, John Ashbery or Rene Magritte. Could we really imagine any of them without de Chirico’s empty cities and enigmatic objects?

A Greco-Italian, Giorgio de Chirico worked in a style termed pittura metafisica – technically an offshoot of Italian Cubo-Futurism. Romantic-symbolist in their subject matter, his paintings often have an allegorical, dream-like atmosphere. Images recur of a ghost-town, comprised of looming towers and classical boulevards reminiscent of the sinister mezzanines in David Lynch horror films or the ‘backrooms’ of Tiktokism.

There’s an early work called ‘The Poet Returns’, which is admittedly a personal favourite of mine. For almost five years it’s been the very first thing I can see upon waking and the last as I fall asleep; a disintegrating colour reproduction torn from a primer on Dada to decorate bedroom walls. But this personal affection confirms its (modest) power. No, it’s not the best nor the most iconic de Chirico painting, but it’s a perfectly serviceable example of his style, nonetheless. Hopefully, in describing it, I can say something useful or succinct about Giorgio de Chirico’s aesthetic – a manner that continues to perplex and beguile even today. […]