Dorothea Tanning at Tate Modern

Dorothea Tanning said, ‘Art has always been the raft onto which we climb to save our sanity.’
I watched a video of her, in late middle age. She wore a skirt and heels, had an apron tied about her waist, and could have been preparing dinner for friends. But she was not, she was putting bold strokes of black paint onto a canvas twice as tall as herself and as wide as her studio wall. She was a comfortable shape, and had a comfortable, smiling face. You can tell she’s enjoying herself. Later, she’s sewing some pink material to make one of her crazy soft sculptures. Her hands are freckled, she pushes the stuffing about. Then she shoves a bunch of the sculptures down the stairs, her little Lhasa Apso dogs running around, yapping.

 

 

Dorothea Tanning’s husband was the surrealist artist Max Ernst. She met him as a young woman in Paris, when he was still married to Peggy Guggenheim and was selecting work for the ‘Exhibition by 31 Women’. She had left her native Galesburg, Illinois, where ‘nothing happens but the wallpaper,’ to study art briefly in Chicago, then work as an illustrator in New York. Here, the exhibition ‘Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism’ at the Museum of Modern Art inspired to travel to France to meet the surrealists.

Below is her self-portrait entitled ‘Birthday’, which is the work that put her on the art scene.

 

 

Tanning wanted to depict ‘unknown but knowable states’: to suggest there was more to life than meets the eye. Her paintings combine the familiar with the strange, exploring desire and sexuality. They are bursting with incongruous, amusing detail, such as little dogs based on the Lhasa Apso belonging to her husband, with his moustache, bulging eyes and sometimes human face. The painting below is entitled ‘Motherhood.’

 

 

One of my favorite  works is the one entitled ‘Portrait de famille.’ The ghostly, looming presence of the father, the spoilt, entitled daughter, the maid who is at the same level as the dog. It unsettles the viewer while making him smile.

 

 

Tanning and Max Ernst married in 1946 and moved to Sedona, Arizona, where he built a house with his own hands. Surrounded by lizards, scorpions and snakes, Tanning described Arizona as a ‘landscape of wild fantasy’. They were visited by many artists including Marcel Duchamp, poet Dylan Thomas and photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. In 1957, Tanning and Ernst moved permanently to the south of France.

 

 

 

 

Around 1955 Tanning’s style changed from meticulously rendered figurative dreamscapes, to more abstract shapes where, however, the human figure could still be discerned, within a confident gestural flow and movement. And in the late 1960s, in yet another shift of direction, she started making her weird soft sculptures, using fabrics sourced in junk shops and her old Singer sewing machine.

 

 

In 1976 Ernst died and Tanning was bereft. She gradually moved back to New York and turned to writing, publishing two memoirs, two books of poetry, and a novel. She died at the age of 101, the year her last collection of poems, Coming to That, was published.

 

“Living is so amusing” Dorothea Tanning

 

 

 

Tate Modern has put on the first large-scale exhibition of Dorothea Tanning’s work for 25 years: ‘It brings together 100 works from her seven-decade career – from enigmatic paintings to uncanny sculptures.’ The exhibition is on until June 9, don’t miss it if you’re anywhere near.

Bouboulina, a Greek heroine

Each year on March 25th, Greeks celebrate the Greek War Of Independence of 1821, against the Ottoman Empire (I have posted about this, here). Slightly belatedly, both for that date as well as for International Women’s Day, I thought I’d write about the fascinating life of one of the heroes of this struggle, Lascarina Pinotsis, known as Bouboulina (11 May 1771 – 22 May 1825), a Greek naval commander.

Bouboulina was born in a prison in Constantinople, since her father, Stavrianos Pinotsis, a Captain from Hydra, had been imprisoned by the Ottomans for his part in the failed Orlof Revolution of 1769–1770 against Ottoman rule. Her father died soon after her birth and the mother and child returned to Hydra. They moved to the island of Spetses four years later when her mother married Dimitrios Lazarou-Orlof.

Laskarina had eight half-siblings and when she grew up, she married in a second marriage the wealthy shipowner and captain Dimitrios Bouboulis, taking his surname. When she was 40 years old,  Bouboulis was killed in battle against Algerian pirates, and Bouboulina, as she came to be known, took over his fortune and his trading business and had ships built at her own expense, including the large warship Agamemnon.

When, in 1816, the Ottomans tried to confiscate Bouboulina’s property because her husband had fought for the Russians against them, she sailed to Constantinople to seek Russian protection. Ambassador Stroganov, in recognition of her husband’s service to the Russians, sent her to safety in the Crimea, but, after three months, she returned to Spetses. Construction of the ship Agamemnon was finished in 1820. Bouboulina bribed Turkish officials to ignore the ship’s size and it became one of the largest warships in the hands of Greek rebels. She also organized her own armed troops, composed of men from Spetses.

Allegedly Bouboulina joined the Filiki Etaireia, an underground organization that was preparing Greece for revolution against Ottoman rule, although she is not named in historical member’s lists. She bought arms and ammunition at her own expense, to fight “for the sake of my nation.” She used most of her fortune to provide food and ammunition for the sailors and soldiers under her command.

 

 

On 13 March 1821 Bouboulina raised on the mast of Agamemnon her own Greek flag, and sailed with eight ships to Nafplion where she began a naval blockade. Later she took part in the naval blockade and capture of Monemvasia and Pylos.

She arrived at Tripolis in time to witness its fall on 11 September 1821 and to meet general Theodoros Kolokotronis. Her daughter Eleni Boubouli later married Panos Kolokotronis, the son of Theodoros. During the ensuing defeat of the Ottoman garrison, Bouboulina saved most of the female members of the sultan’s household. When the opposing factions erupted into civil war in 1824, the Greek government arrested Bouboulina for her family connection with Kolokotronis; her son-in-law was killed during the events. Eventually she was exiled back to Spetses, having spent most of her fortune for the war of independence.

After all the danger and the adventures, Laskarina Bouboulina was killed in 1825 as the result of a family feud in Spetses, when somebody shot at her during an argument. After her death, Emperor Alexander I of Russia granted Bouboulina the honorary rank of Admiral of the Imperial Russian Navy, making her the first woman in world naval history to hold this title. Her descendants sold the ship Agamemnon to the Greek state, which renamed it Spetsai, but sadly it was burned during the next Greek civil war in 1831.

On the island of Spetses the “Bouboulina Museum” is housed in the 300-year-old mansion of Bouboulina’s second husband Bouboulis, where her descendants still live. Her statue stands in the harbor in Spetses. Various streets all over Greece and Cyprus are named in her honor, and she was depicted on the reverse of both the Greek 50 drachmae banknote of 1978 and the Greek 1 drachma coin of 1988-2001.

Continue reading

All the colors in the world

Like most artists, I’m addicted to art supplies. Let me loose in an art shop, and I can spend hours amongst the multitude of paints on offer, trying hard not to bankrupt myself.
Nowadays paint is mostly made in labs, using different chemical substances, but artists in the past made their own supplies, using whatever materials they could find—including ‘the impossibly esoteric, the dangerously toxic, the prohibitively expensive, and the perilously fugitive,’ according to writer Simon Schama (article in the New Yorker, September 3, 2018). It’s a process I find extremely interesting, although I’m quite happy to squeeze ready-made paint out of a tube myself.

 

 

Imagine then my delight when I came upon an article on the Forbes Pigment Collection, a technicolor array of more than 2,500 samples, housed at the Harvard Arts Museums. The collection was started by Edward Waldo Forbes in the early 1920s, after he purchased a damaged Renaissance painting of the Virgin and child. Hoping to restore the painting to its original brilliance, Forbes realized that he needed to understand the materials he was working with. Forbes was the director of Harvard’s Fogg Museum from 1909 to 1944, and he firmly believed in the interdependence of art and science.

 

 

Arranged according to the exploded color wheel, the thousands of shades on display in the Collection — some poisonous, others impossibly rare — are a library of more than just color. Scientists and art historians tap into the collection in order to verify the origins of questionable paintings up for auction, or work to identify the key compounds of ancient colors in order to better preserve cultural masterpieces for generations to come.

The stories behind the pigments are endless, but some particularly stand out. Here are some of the best:

Dragon Blood: The legendary pigment was purportedly gathered from dragon wounds in the Middle Ages; more accurately, its color comes from tree resin. Conservation scientists at the Collection are working to unlock the mystery of this centuries-old pigment.

Mummy Brown: Made from the ground up remains of actual Egyptian mummies, mixed with white pitch and myrrh, it was used from the sixteenth century until late in the nineteenth when supplies ran out. At the time the mummies were imported into Europe in large numbers to be used for medicinal purposes (Ugh…)

 

 

Tyrian Purple: An ancient Phoenician dye that requires 10,000 mollusks to produce a single gram of pigment, is said to have been discovered by Hercules’s dog as he snuffled along the beach. It is a secretion produced by several species of predatory sea snails in the family Muricidae, rock snails originally known by the name Murex. Being extremely expensive to produce, it became very popular during the Byzantine Empire (Ancient Greek: πορφύρα, porphúra,) where its production was tightly controlled and its use restricted to the dyeing of imperial silks. Thus a child born to a reigning emperor was said to be porphyrogenitos, “born in the purple”.

 

 

In the reds range, Crimson is produced from the dried bodies of the kermes insect, which were gathered commercially in Mediterranean countries, where they live on the kermes oak, and sold throughout Europe; while Carmine is made from the dried bodies of the female cochineal, and was probably brought to Europe during the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniard Hernán Cortés.

Indian Yellow: It was noted for its intense luminance, was widely used in cloth dyeing and was especially well known from its use in Rajput-Mughal miniature paintings from the 16th to the 19th century. Indian yellow pigment was originally manufactured in rural India from the urine of cattle fed only on mango leaves and water. The urine would be collected and dried, producing foul-smelling hard dirty yellow balls of the raw pigment, called “purree”. The process was allegedly declared inhumane and outlawed in 1908, as the cows were extremely undernourished, partly because the leaves contain the toxin urushiol which is also found in poison ivy.

 

 

Lapis Lazuli is a deep blue metamorphic rock used as a semi-precious stone that has been prized since antiquity for its intense color. As early as the 7th millennium BCE, lapis lazuli was mined in northeast Afghanistan. At the end of the Middle Ages, it began to be exported to Europe, where it was ground into powder and made into ultramarine, the finest and most expensive of all blue pigments. Its rarity and brilliant hue, as well as the difficulty and expense of the extraction process made it more expensive than gold. It was used by some of the most important artists of the Renaissance and Baroque, including Masaccio, Perugino, Titian and Vermeer, and was often reserved for the clothing of the central figures of their paintings, especially the Virgin Mary.

Artists often took risks to create their works, using poisonous pigments like Emerald Green (a toxic copper-acetoarsenite) to get the color just right; or White Lead, a pure white pigment obtained by corroding metallic lead with acetic acid in the presence of carbon dioxide. This was done in pots with a little vinegar added, which were stacked up and covered with a mixture of decaying dung and spent tanner’s bark.

 

 

The Forbes Collection is constantly updated as many artists donate new samples. It could be described as a conservator’s crystal ball: offering glimpses into the aging process for various pigments, binders, and any other materials that might make their way into a work of art. Experts also might use the collection to evaluate the legitimacy of a painting’s attribution to an artist. By analyzing the chemical makeup of the pigments used in a painting and comparing them to the known standards of the Forbes collection, analysts can determine whether the colors used would have been available to a specific artist during their lifetime, or if a pigment would be available in the region from which the painting is believed to have originated.
One example is the verification of a painting by Jackson Pollock that went on the market a few years ago. Curators were ready to assert the painting was genuine, until this lab ran tests of the pigments that were used, using pigments in the collection as a standard, and discovered that the red that was used was not available in art-making materials until 20 years after Jackson Pollock had died.

 

 

Among the collection’s newest acquisitions are samples of Vantablack, a material developed by Surrey NanoSystems in the United Kingdom which is one of the darkest substances known, absorbing up to 99.96% of visible light. It was intended for military purposes and astronomy equipment, but there is an amusing story attached to it, because the company exclusively licensed it to artist Anish Kapoor’s studio for artistic use. This caused outrage among some other artists, including Stuart Semple. In retaliation, Semple banned Kapoor from buying Pinkest Pink, a strongest shade of pink that he had developed. However, in 2016 Kapoor got his hands on some Pinkest Pink and posted an Instagram post of his middle finger dipped in it. Semple then created another shade of paint made from crushed glass as a retort to Kapoor, and later barred Kapoor from buying other products of his, including his extremely strong shades of green and yellow paint as well as a paint sold as Black 2.0, which is nearly indistinguishable to Vantablack VBx, despite being acrylic. If one wanted to buy any of these paints, they would have to sign a contract stating that they were not Anish Kapoor and didn’t intend to give the paint to Kapoor. Vanity? Performance art? You choose.

All photos Google

Equine art series

I like to do as much sketching from life as possible because, although often imperfect, it helps capture movement and spontaneity. And I do find nature is a great inspiration.

 

 

Plants, trees and flowers are easiest, because they don’t tend to move around much, and humans can be persuaded to pose. Animals are a lot trickier. Dogs are best when they’re asleep, but mine sadly is so small and dark that from above she just looks like a black blob; I would need to get down on floor level, but, when I do, she wakes up and starts jumping around like a flea.

A nice field of cows having a siesta in the sun is not too bad, but horses are a nightmare. No sooner are you set up that they decide to come over and see what you’re doing, eat the paper, chew your clothes, etc. Even if you’re on the other side of the fence, you get a load of snorting nostrils, bug eyes and, if there’s a few of them, shoving. And then they gallop away…

 

 

The famous 18th century painter George Stubbs used to hang cadavers of horses in his barn to be able to study their anatomy. The smell must have been unbearable—and the flies! Ugh…
Nowadays we have manuals and photographs to study from, and videos that can be put in slow motion to break down movement.

 

 

Horses are fascinating, expressive creatures, so I’ve been making a whole series of paintings, incorporating my previous work with layers and collage. Under some of the paintings I used pages from an old book, primed with gesso—amusingly, the book is an old French manual of equitation (you can see it most clearly in the first painting.) I also used tissue paper, silver foil and eco-print paper for the collage, and charcoal, pencil, graphite powder, watercolor, and oil pastel for the images.

I did not aim towards photorealism, but made the horse the center of a dreamlike, abstract landscape. The background could be water, or snow, or an indistinct field, or clouds of dust.

 

 

Horses are prey—that makes them nervous and fleet, because of the flight response. However, when not threatened they are serene, and enjoy being in their natural environment.

 

 

I’m also drawn to horses of myth, who play a big part in many legends, and are especially prominent in Greek mythology. Immortal horses drew the chariots of Zeus, the sun god Helios, and Achilles in the Trojan war. They were gold-bridled, sometimes fish-tailed when they belonged to Poseidon, and often winged, like Pegasus.
So I had to have winged horses in my series.

 

 

And finally I added the human form, since men and horses have been linked since the beginnings of civilization. The painting below is entitled The Red Trousers. A girl on her horse, bareback and bare footed, standing in water.

 

The horse in art and literature

When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it; the basest horn of his hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes. ~William Shakespeare, Henry V

Man and horse have been linked since time immemorial. Horses appear in cave paintings, such as this one from Lascaux, in France.

 

We find them on Ancient Greek pottery,

 

and in the wonderful Parthenon marbles.

 

The horse has been depicted by a multitude of great artists, and  lauded in poetry and prose:

How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I gallop’d, Dirck gallop’d, we gallop’d all three;
‘Good speed!’ cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
‘Speed!’ echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we gallop’d abreast.

Robert Browning

Whistlejacket by George Stubbs

 

Let us nudge the steam radiator with our wool slippers and write poems of Launcelot, the hero, and Roland, the hero, and all the olden golden men who rode horses in the rain.

Horses and Men in Rain by Carl Sandburg

 

Drawing by Leonardo da Vinci

 

The Mourners
When all the light and life are sped
Of flowing tails and manes,
And flashing stars, and forelocks spread,
And foam-flecks on the reins;

I like to think from every land
And far beyond the wave
A crowd of ghosts will come and stand
In grief around that grave –

Will H. Ogilvie

 

Boy leading horse, by Pablo Picasso

 

There is nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse. ~John Lubbock, “Recreation,” The Use of Life, 1894

Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people. ~W.C. Fields

 

At the start, painting by Degas

 

The wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears. ~Arabian Proverb

 

The Darley Arabian, one of the foundation sires of the modern thoroughbred, by painter John Wooton

Horses have been part and parcel of our civilization.

Where in this wide world can man find nobility without pride,
Friendship without envy,
Or beauty without vanity?
Here, where grace is served with muscle
And strength by gentleness confined
He serves without servility; he has fought without enmity.
There is nothing so powerful, nothing less violent.
There is nothing so quick, nothing more patient.

~Ronald Duncan, “The Horse,” 1954

This short miscellany which does not pretend to cover even a tiny part of the subject, has been an inspiration for a series of mixed media paintings of horses that I’ve been making.

 

Photos: Google

Twitter Art Exhibit

 

Last year I chanced upon the Twitter Art Exhibit ,  an organization  which has devised an original and fun way to help various charities. Artists of all kinds are invited to donate a postcard-sized piece of original art, to be sold at an exhibition and, for the pieces that are not sold, online.

 

 

 

There is no entry fee, no theme, there is nothing to win, and everyone is included. It is a way to give back, and, for amateur artists who might not otherwise get this opportunity, to see their work featured in an international exhibition. It’s also fun to follow TAE on Twitter or Instagram and see the huge variety of work submitted. See below a wall from a previous exhibition.

 

As I said, I only stumbled upon this last year, but TAE was set up 10 years ago by artist David Sandrum to help buy books for the children’s department of a library in Norway.
The social media-powered exhibition has since then gone from strength to strength, and the sales have raised around $64.000 for various charities around the world!
Each year, over 1000 artists of all levels sign up to donate a piece of their art. See below my own contribution for 2019.

 

This year, Twitter Art Exhibit is curated by artist Sam Banister, and takes place in Scotland’s historical capital city of Edinburgh, in support of the local charity, Art in Healthcare ( click here to find out more).

Their mission is ‘to use visual art to improve health and wellbeing’, a concept I cannot but endorse, since I really believe in the power of art as therapy.

 

 

The opening day of the exhibition is Saturday 11th May 2019, the show will run until the 13th, and thereafter sales will continue online.

 

 

 

I encourage any one of you out there who has the slightest interest in making things, to have a go. It doesn’t need to be fancy, it could just be a simple collage or a crazy doodle! What have you got to lose, nobody will judge you, and it’s all in a good cause. The deadline is April 29, 2019, but if you want your card to be included in their lovely catalogue, make sure your entry is in by April 12.

 

A Greek director at the BAFTAS

I must confess I have seen none of Yorgos Lanthimos’s films so far,
because they are dark and bleak and I never seem to be in the right mood for them. However, he has been going from strength to strength, and I am now rather tempted by his latest offering, which was a huge success at the BAFTAS.

Lanthimos was born in Athens in 1973, and went to film school in Greece, hoping to make commercials—the prospect of making films in Greece in the 80s and 90s was dim, to say the least.

 

 

Through the 1990s he directed a series of videos for Greek dance-theater companies, moving on to TV commercials, music videos, short films and experimental theater plays. He was also a member of the creative team which designed the opening and closingceremonies of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.

Lanthimos, realizing his youthful ambitions, then went on to make feature films—and, just under a decade ago, released Dogtooth, a grim tale of a father keeping his family in total isolation.  It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, but was booed and hissed by voters during a committee screening, and lost to Susanne Bier’s In a Better World. After that, Lanthimos became notorious for his wild imagination and bleak inscrutability.

However, his first English-language film, The Lobster (2015), proved a significant art-house hit, being set in a world where single people must find partners or be transformed into animals. Its follow-up, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), is a bloody revenge drama infused with classical mythology—while his characters keep having absurdly mundane conversations.

He became a leading member of the ‘weird wave’, Greek film makers who were anti-commercial and aimed to provoke, if not to shock. Nevertheless, over the course of his six films, he managed to escape his image as a European oddity, acquire global recognition and achieve significant box-office success, attracting top actors such as Nicole Kidman.

 

 

His latest film, The Favourite, is an opulent period drama set in the court of Queen Anne and featuring stellar performances by Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz.

Based on fact, it is the story of two women vying for the attention of Queen Anne, who, plagued by gout and haunted by the 17 children she’s lost over the years, has basically given up governing her country.

 

 

According to reviews, it is supposed to be less disturbing than his other films, although still dark, and features a witty script spiked with anachronisms, and lavish costumes and scenery.

The film won seven awards at the BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Arts), including outstanding British film, original screenplay, leading actress for Olivia Colman and best supporting actress for Rachel Weisz.

 

 

Next stop, the Oscars? Not bad for a Greek boy who wanted to make commercials.

Perhaps it’s time to reconsider and give The Favourite a chance.

 

All photos from Google