Friday, June 28, 2013

Entry - 6.27.13

I came across the following quote while researching my previous entry which concerned Ferdinand Hodler and the Symbolist movement:


“Hodler’s portraits, on the otherhand, are committed to the contingencies of the world.  They refer to the unequivocal and the evident, to the subject portrayed.  All that is left to discuss are historical details and painting technique.”

                                  Tobia Bezzola – “Landscape as Consensus Formula”


What I love about Art Historians is that they make the most ridiculous statements and assert them so definitively.  In the essay “Landscape as Consensus Formula”, Bezzola dismisses most of Hodler’s oeuvre, promoting the premise that only his landscapes and the Godé-Darel cycle remain relevant.  He feels that his portraits, too concerned with capturing the fleeting appearance of his sitters, could only interest us for the circumstances that led to their creation or for their technical execution.  Obviously, Bezzola does not adhere to the premise that technique is concept.

Hodler - Self Portrait - 1912
 In my previous entry, I disclosed how much I admire Hodler’s self portraits.  The self portrait I selected to include above exemplifies most of the traits that I appreciate in Hodler’s work.  There is a certain élan in Hodler’s approach, the confident way paint is applied to canvas in thick, impasto strokes, the way the rapid, loose sketching in paint that initiated the portrait is never obliterated, that corresponds to my assertion that, in spite of the many hardships he suffered, Hodler maintained primarily an optimistic outlook throughout his life.  The brushwork dances over the surface of the painting finding an intuitive rhythm of line and form.  In some areas, the brushstrokes are short, distinct and active, like bees gathered at a hive; in other areas, like the white shirtfront, seemingly discordant tones are slurred together successfully.  Hodler’s unique palette conveys an otherworldly luminescence that bathes form in an overall light.  I get the feeling that, for Hodler, painting was a performance in which every movement was decisive and rapidly executed, a testament to his unparalleled skill.  The artist undoubtedly seeks to restrict detail, finding a shorthand approach to translate visual reality.  For instance, the hair and beard are indicated very summarily, structure being determined by two or three tones.


Hodler presents himself frontally and symmetrically, his head filling the canvas.  The artist is addressing a momentary instant when a specific mood or emotion washes over him.  His face expresses bemused surprise, as if he has just been confronted with some rather harsh criticism of his work from an individual completely uninitiated into the mysteries of Modern Art.  It is not too big a stretch to assert that his expression parallels that of the thrilled girl in Surprised by the Storm.  There is something uniquely Swiss in this self portrait.  In the deft handling of the paint, in the glowing overall coloration, in the image of a well dressed, carefully groomed man expressing shock unconvincingly, I perceive a smug confidence and satisfaction, affluence and wellbeing, and a droll sense of humor.

Freud - Reflection (Self Portrait) - 1985
To further illustrate how technique cannot be extricated from meaning, I will examine one of my favorite paintings, Reflection (Self Portrait) by Lucian Freud, in many ways the polar opposite of the Hodler though quite similar in subject matter and presentation.  Technically, Freud is very tentative.  His paintings are executed in layer upon layer of encrusted paint.  During countless sessions, Freud studies his sitter (in this instance, himself), evaluating and reevaluating form, pose, coloration and light, seeking a deeper penetration of his subject and a fuller understanding of structure.  Freud is very hesitant to commit to a stance, repeatedly reconsidering every stroke he inflicts on the canvas.  Painting, for Freud, is a laborious and unrelenting process of examination and documentation.  Ignoring the subject matter, the piercing gaze of the artist and the unsettling lack of clothing and focusing solely on technique, it is unmistakably evident that the Freud has to be a very different painting from the Hodler.
Portraiture is a long established genre which at its worst can get real tedious and musty.  But innovative masters have regularly proven that the genre continues to be relevant.  Just taking a look at the two following self portraits, one by the photorealist Chuck Close and the other by the expressionist Alice Neel, will give you an idea of how much potential portraiture still offers.

Close - Big Self Portrait - 1967


Neel - Self Portrait - 1980

I must acknowledge that I love self portraits, which may explain why I paint so many myself.  There is the issue of availability.  Who else would pose for hours in a poorly ventilated studio?  And who else would be able to strike the precise pose required and set the desired expression effortlessly session after session?  Most importantly, painting yourself frees you from a dialogue with the model, that intrusion of another voice or perspective which inevitably, no matter how much of a steely renegade you believe yourself, reverberates within the artist’s mind.  So, I have a long history of painting myself and thought it might be interesting to provide a sampling of a handful of my self portraits.

Wickham - Self Portrait - Oil on Canvas - 1980 - 30" X 24"

Under the influence of expressionism, I painted this elemental image of myself, tanned, bearded and long-haired, in thinned washes of earth tones, blue and black.  The quick rendering of my features in dark umber is very apparent in the finished painting; the brushwork is loose and intuitive; detail is minimal.

Wickham - Self Portrait - Oil on Canvas - 1981 - 30" X 24"
I included the two previous self portraits in an early show and a reviewer felt that they were contradictory, that I must be bipolar or emotionally confused since one painting portrayed a disturbed wild man and the other an urbane and cultured gentleman.  Without a doubt, I was in a better place when I painted the second self portrait, but I certainly don’t find the image soothing or reassuring.  I was perplexed by the reviewer’s comments.  Both works are essentially expressionist in vocabulary and depict the artist assuming a confrontational and troubling attitude.

Wickham - Self Portrait with Deer Hoof -Oil on Canvas - 1983 - 48" X 40" 
This painting was intended as one panel of a diptych based on an absurdist reinterpretation of the Annunciation.  The work was never completed, unfortunately, because my intended model for the Angel Gabriel became uncomfortable with the project and I didn’t press for her continued participation.  Strangely enough, the one complete panel stands very well on its own merits.

Wickham - Self Portrait - Oil on Linen - 1988 - 18" X 16" 
For a period of several years, I only painted abstractly, an approach that revitalized my art and produced a satisfying body of work, but eventually painting in this manner became conventionally confining and came to a dead-end.  It was very difficult for me to walk away from abstraction, and for quite a while I created paintings that were neither fish nor fowl, toying with clearly recognizable imagery that was presented in a truncated or mutilated fashion and executed in a painterly expressionist technique.  These paintings, without exception, are failures, but they did reintroduce me to the possibilities of representational imagery.  I certainly had no intention at that time to become a figurative or realist artist, and yet slowly the work evolved in that direction.  This self portrait comes from this strange period when I was a little lost, just putting my toe in to test the representational waters, so to speak, but uncommitted to any specific approach.  Vestiges of my abstract experience are apparent in the patterned and energetic brushwork, the unconventional color combinations, the harsh transitions between lights and darks and the clearly visible, intensely colored underpainting.


Wickham - Self Portrait - Oil on Canvas - 1996 - 14" X 12"


I had just gone through a long period of experimentation during which I painted small frontal portraits in heavily built-up layers of impasto when I started this self portrait which ultimately signaled the end of the series.  Using thin transparent glazes of delicate color, I depicted myself in three quarter perspective, the result being about as close as I’ve ever gotten to embracing a photorealist technique.  This happens with me frequently.  I will tenaciously pursue one avenue of exploration, setting circumscribed restrictions on technique, subject matter and approach, painting one image after another for months or even years, until I have exhausted myself, garnering whatever disclosures the experience offers.  Without premeditation, a painting that violates all of the restrictions I have been conscientiously following will cap off the series, usually resulting in a very successful work that suggests a multitude of possibilities for future progress.

Wickham - Self Portrait - Oil on Canvas - 2000 - 54" X 30"
I’ve never been an artist to flatter a sitter which at times has led to some uncomfortable moments when a final viewing has met with stony silence from my model, usually an unpaid volunteer.  I recall while in Grad School I studied with a professor who believed that art must strive for beauty, that an artist’s role, through skill and knowledge, was to idealize imperfect visual reality.  He and I had several discussions during which he expressed frustration with my work, particularly irking for him because he admired my craftsmanship.  You see, I always thought it was the responsibility of the artist to reveal the imperfections, whether physical or emotional, which the subject seeks to conceal.  I guess there is a different kind of beauty in that.  So, in painting a self portrait, I am particularly free to indulge in this practice, unflinchingly recording my physical deterioration and my mental foibles.  In the nearly full-length portrait presented above, I took singular pleasure in bringing to light my flaws, in this instance at least, satisfying my model completely.


Wickham - Self Portrait - Oil on Canvas - 2002 - 16" X 12"

Painted in my studio under a bare incandescent bulb, with ribbons of black cloth draped in a cocoon around my head, this self portrait achieved a sense of light as a tangible substance.  It was executed in oils, layer upon layer applied over numerous sessions in various thicknesses from impasto to viscous to dilute.  When completed, the surface finish ranged from matte to glossy, making it difficult to view as a whole, in particular, contesting the sense of light I was struggling to capture in the work.  I placed it aside for a number of years before pulling it out one day to discover that in drying it had achieved the desired effect.


Wickham - Self Portrait with Camera - Oil on Canvas - 2011

The lighting in my bathroom, a wall bracket of frosted globes combined with an overhead ceiling fixture, creates a subtle suffused frontal light contrasted with a strong halo effect which has interested me for years, but, as for initiating a painting, compositionally I always drew a blank.  One afternoon I noticed that the two mirrors in the room, one over the vanity and the other set in the medicine cabinet, were facing each other and created an effect I first witnessed as a young boy seated in the raised chair at Pete’s Barbershop: the mirrors contained a repetition of infinite images of me and my surroundings receding into nothingness.  In my bathroom, I particularly liked that the reflections created multiple framing devices that bordered my head, creating a confusing and disjunct space.  So I grabbed my Nikon and took a series of photographs which I used to create the self portrait included above.  I felt a sort of confessional relief showing the camera in the painting, as I regularly use photographs as a resource for my work without the imagery and paint handling reflecting this.  Though the debate over whether it is legitimate to use photographs as a resource for painting or plaster casts for sculpture is long dead, having been trained to paint and draw from life, I still suffer a little guilt.  Technically, as has been the case in recent years, I strove to allow the painting to form organically, utilizing whatever means makes sense for the form or texture or surface or light effect that I endeavor to replicate.  I still utilize an underpainting to heighten color vibration in the finished work, though the hues are much more subdued than those I used in the past.  I definitely apply fewer layers and use less paint than ever before, not for the sake of speed or economy but to assert an authenticity of approach.


I really found it fascinating to select and evaluate this series of my own self portraits, to witness my growing older while observing my stylistic evolution.  To keep the length of this entry reasonable, I had to limit my selections, excluding some satisfying works in the process.  Hopefully, I can revisit the theme in the future, and perhaps, by that time, I will have produced a new self portrait or two.

Thursday, June 13, 2013


I wasn’t familiar with the artwork of Ferdinand Hodler in my youth.  The public library in my hometown didn’t have a Hodler monograph, though it did possess an extensive collection of oversized art books.  He isn’t well represented in American collections, and I can’t recall there ever being a show at a NYC museum devoted solely to his work (the Neue Galerie’s “View to Infinity” exhibition being a recent exception).  In all my years of studying Art History, his name was never mentioned once.  One of my textbooks for a survey course did include one black and white plate of Night, which being a quintessential Symbolist work struck me as both magnificent and absurdly stagey.  Somehow, over the years, I discovered his work, mostly in reproductions, and came to appreciate this underappreciated master.

Hodler Night
Hodler - Night -1890

For those of you unfamiliar with Hodler, I will provide a brief introduction.  He was born in Berne, Switzerland in 1853, the son of a carpenter father and a peasant mother.  Probably not destined for greatness, his life was transformed by tragedy; his parents and siblings died of tuberculosis, eerily reminiscent of the experience of that other great Symbolist, Edvard Munch.  After his father’s death, the young Hodler was trained as a decorative painter by his stepfather, which led to an apprenticeship with a local artist and ultimately to his choice of a career as a painter, a path he pursued in Geneva.

At the time of Hodler’s artistic maturation, artists throughout Europe were rejecting the naturalism of the Realists and the Impressionists, which had defined progressive art in the mid-19th century.  Symbolism wasn’t your typical movement, initiated by a centralized, tight knit group of individuals.  Though established in France, the movement’s most accomplished proponents were scattered throughout Europe, commonly from nations not then recognized as centers of the visual arts: the Norwegian Munch, the Austrian Klimt, the Swiss Hodler and Böcklin, the Belgian Khnopff and the German von Stuck.  Of course, Moreau, Redon and Puvis de Chavannes are significant Symbolists of French origin.  There were common themes addressed in the work of these artists who rejected the detached representation of visual realty.  The Symbolists sought to pierce reality, to find the common threads that define human existence, leading them to explore allegory.  Munch’s nude youth sitting on the edge of her bed is not a portrait of an individual; it is a depiction of Puberty.  For Hodler, a nude woman surrounded by six shrouded men is the visual representation of Truth.  Klimt’s works include Jurisprudence, The Virgins and Medicine.  Hodler painted Night, The Day and Spring, while Munch explored Melancholy, Jealousy, Dance of Life and Ashes. Clearly these artists were seeking the universal in their work, not the specific, not the individual.


Munch Jealousy
Munch - Jealousy -1895

The Symbolists also presented to Victorian Era audiences an unabashed sexuality that challenged contemporary morality.  Addressed in an Impressionist vocabulary, Degas’ nudes were shocking for being unsentimental, unidealized and mammalian; on the other hand, they did not embody an active sexuality.  The Symbolists seemed hell bent on confronting the smug morality of their epoch.  Their nudes were undeniably naked and unquestionably sensual beings.  Again, the Symbolists rejected external reality and portrayed the unseen, the individual beneath the clothing experiencing very private urges.

Klimt Judith
Klimt - Judith I - 1901

Most critically, these artists strove to preserve an air of mystery in their work.  A painting should not be grounded in specifics, nor should it be dissectible.  A true work of art should project a very personal perspective and elicit a strong response based on its unconventional uniqueness.  Often, the Symbolists turned to dream imagery and mythological themes to distance themselves from everyday reality and establish an otherworldly mood.

Bocklin Centaur at the Village Blacksmith's Shop
Bocklin - Centaur at the Village Blacksmith's Shop - 1888

Hodler also embraced his own personal creed which he called “Parallelism”, a method of establishing order within his compositions by presenting repetitions of figures or forms usually organized in parallel planes.  This approach can be clearly recognized in many of his landscapes where horizontal bands of clouds repeat in an endless series in the sky or in figurative works like “Those Tired of Life” in which five elderly men are portrayed sitting frontally and evenly spaced on a bench.  “Parallelism is more than a principle of formal composition, it is a moral and philosophical idea, relying on the premise that nature has an order, based on repetition, and that in the end all men resemble each other.” (Musée d’Orsay website)

Hodler Die Lebensmuden
Hodler - Those Tired of Life -1892

Like Munch, Hodler, stylistically, evolved toward an Expressionist outlook, particularly in his later years, but he never fully transitioned to the new vocabulary as did Munch.  I think his last portraits of Valentine Godé-Darel most fully embrace the Expressionist approach, perhaps impelled by the intensity of emotion sparked by his subject matter.  You see, Hodler was recording over a period of months the physical decline from cancer of his mistress and model, a woman to whom the artist was deeply committed.  After Godé-Darel’s death in 1915, Hodler continued to be productive artistically until his own death three years later.

Hodler The Dying Valentine Gode Darel
Hodler - The Dying Valentine Gode-Darel - 1915

My interest in Hodler, as is the case with most artists I admire, was initiated through an appreciation of his technical skills because, in the end, technique is everything.  As Sam Gelber once told me in Grad School, and I paraphrase, “How you paint is what you paint.”  At the time, I didn’t quite understand this, but later his point became crystal clear.  Hodler was an extremely talented draftsman and a uniquely inventive colorist.  The influence of Art Nouveau is evident in his work, in that line and form achieve a balance, neither one asserting dominance over the other.  In his painting, the brushwork is assured and resolute.  Composition is clearly laid out, not masked at all, and is usually quirkily his own, personally determined but ultimately, upon repeated viewings, satisfying.  The late self portrait I include below, exemplifies most of the technical aspects I enjoy in Hodler’s work.

 Hodler Self Portrait
Hodler - Self Portrait - 1916

In the early 90’s, I was given the opportunity to visit Switzerland where I was fortunate to see numerous Hodlers firsthand. At the Oskar Reinhart Museum in Winterthur, I came across Surprised by the Storm, an early work by Hodler which no reproduction can adequately capture.  I stood before this sizeable painting for twenty minutes before moving on and then came back to take a second look.  Surprisingly, this early work embodies most of the attributes of Hodler’s mature oeuvre: a balance between line and form, assured impasto brushwork, innovative composition and unique coloration.  The painting depicts what I suppose is a party, out in a small skiff for a pleasure trip on a lake, who have been caught unawares by the approach of an unexpected storm which could easily capsize the vessel.  The waves, agitated by the oncoming storm, tilt the vessel toward the viewer exposing its occupants: four young women clustered together in the center of the boat and two men struggling to keep her afloat.  The women form a central ring in the composition, their dresses billow and swirl, creating a sense of movement.  Three of the women cower, terrified by the turn of events, while one lifts her head to experience the moment, her face electrified in excitement.  Perhaps, she stands in for Hodler, who at a young age was buffeted by terrible loss but, at that time, was embarking upon an unknown course in a challenging field in an unfamiliar city.  The thrill of uncertainty, the possibility of crushing failure and the excitement of fully embracing Life must have been intoxicating for him.


Hodler Surprised by the Storm
Hodler - Surprised by the Storm - 1886
I visited many museums and collections during my two weeks stay in Switzerland and saw many Hodlers.  I was most taken with his self portraits and landscapes, which, though small in scale, made a powerful impression on me.  Whatever the subject matter, his images are usually bathed in sunlight, dazzling and persistent.  If Munch is the painter of twilight, then Hodler’s hour is noon.  Considering the trials of his youth, it is not surprising that Munch would be compelled to address moody and gloomy themes, portray individuals, troubled, yearning and brooding, caught in the last glow of evening.  With Hodler, I knew his work before his biography, and the work clearly embodied a reassuring optimism and a personal strength of will.  When I discovered that he had suffered losses similar to those of Munch, I was initially taken aback, finding it hard to reconcile Hodler’s outlook with his personal history.  How could this man have created these glorious, upbeat paintings?  But, upon consideration, I recognized that, unquestionably, different individuals, as a result of countless factors including genetics, respond to adversity in different ways.  One man may crumble under the weight of minor misfortune, while another may bear, unscathed, horrendous suffering.  It’s part of what defines the human condition.  And, isn’t it our acknowledgment of these deviations in human ways and outlook that fuels our fascination with art; we long to understand our own kind, to deepen our awareness of what unites us as humans and to perceive what separates us from each other.

Hodler Lake Thun Landscape
Hodler - Lake Thun Landscape

Hodler Emma Schmidt Muller
Hodler - Portrait of Emma Schmidt-Muller - 1915

Monday, June 3, 2013

Entry - 6.3.13

With my initial entry I included a photograph of a tree stump, which may seem a bit odd or arbitrary.  But, in fact, I selected the image very deliberately.


A couple of years ago, the area where I live was hit with a freak snowstorm in October.  It came so early that the leaves on deciduous trees were still green and supple and hadn’t begun to fall, and the snow adhered to the leaves, accumulating in great piles on every branch.  The abnormally heavy load brought down a great many trees and, with those trees, inevitably, power lines, causing power outages for about a week.  Crews worked diligently to clear away the fallen trees and get electricity back to us.  Once power had been restored to all areas, the crews continued to work, identifying and lopping off weak branches and removing old and diseased trees altogether.  For months, the roar of chain saws resounded through the neighborhood, and, while driving, you would often unexpectedly come across work crews on the roads.


A nearby state park, which I have frequented for years, suffered a lot of damage from the storm and some magnificent trees had to be taken down.  After the initial clean-up was complete, the work continued at the park for months.  I would often watch the crews taking down trees and removing branches and wonder how they were determining what had to go.  I was sort of mystified as seemingly healthy trees were selected for removal or for pruning so extreme it left the tree distorted and unattractive.  I’m not a botanist, so I trusted that the experts had identified trees that were compromised by disease or age.  Then, ever after that first year, the crews have returned annually with the mild weather to begin the chain sawing.  It now appears that their goal is to clear away all trees that abut the roadways, thereby establishing a twenty to thirty foot margin of uninterrupted lawn.  It has saddened me to witness the destruction of some of my favorite trees at the park.  I definitely experience a palpable sense of loss when I walk along the transformed roadways.  I can’t help wondering if the park personnel haven’t gone a bit overboard, removing robust trees that really pose no threat to the public.  I guess a downed tree could block the roadway temporarily, inconveniencing park visitors for a day or two, but does that justify removing so many mature, healthy trees.


A couple of weeks ago I noticed that we had lost a cluster of several trees near the entranceway to one of the park’s pavilions.  I shook my head and grumbled to myself.  Then I walked over and began to examine the stumps left like stepping stones in the grass.  They were really beautiful.  I took out my camera and took a number of shots of them.  I particularly like the image I selected to include with my initial entry in that it is both recognizable and abstract at the same time.  The minor revelation that I experienced was that I had found beauty in a spot where I had least expected to find it, in fact, at a location that I associated with loss and unsightliness.


And here’s my point.  I’ve discovered on the internet the exceptional work of many uncelebrated and unrepresented artists, writers and photographers.  Often, I’ll stumble across the blog or website of a talented unknown while trawling through images to use as my desktop background (which I change every few days) or when I’m researching the art of a specific period, culture or location.  Many of these artists are quietly pursuing their craft without hope of recognition, working solely for personal satisfaction.  I myself count among my friends many extremely talented artists whose dedication to their art form, whatever it may be, is astounding, the results of their efforts being commendable.  Generally, these artists are employed in other areas to earn a living and pursue their art during evenings and on weekends.  And yet, even struggling against this handicap, they manage to produce work of high quality.  So, my thinking is that serious artwork can be found in the most unexpected places if you keep an open mind and are willing to put in the effort to search around a bit.  Hopefully my blog will serve as one of those unexpected places.


With all this talk of parks and trees, I thought I should include one of my landscapes.  This work, View from Tymor (Oil on Canvas, 46" X 52"), was painted about a decade ago.  Though I’m definitely not a landscape painter, I do on rare occasion choose to record a piece of impressive or interesting scenery, usually with the intention of breaking out of a rut and perhaps making some technical progress.  I must admit that I find painting a landscape less demanding than producing my figurative work and approach a landscape as a pleasant change of pace.  I feel freer to take liberties with a landscape; this one I thought of as a symphony which I could organize and restructure into related zones and rhythms of my design.