A model for some great Modern artists turned out to have her own natural artistic talent. A current exhibit in Philadelphia displays the works of Suzanne Valadon (September 23, 1865-April 7, 1938).
“You’re one of us!” In 1894, Edgar Degas, an Impressionist master known for being an incorrigible misogynist, couldn’t help but express his admiration before the drawings that a young brunette, recommended by Toulouse-Lautrec, had brought him at his home in Paris, on Rue Victor-Masseì. In fact, he was the first to buy a piece of work from the artist, whom he nicknamed “the terrible Maria” and praised for possessing the “genius for drawing.”
Born Marie-Cleìmentine Valadon in 1865 in the Limousin region, the young woman was already renowned in the art world of the day, but for quite a different reason. She had made a name as “Maria,” the star model of Renoir (see below) and Puvis de Chavannes. Her expressive beauty, her supple body, and her actress’s agility saw her pose for their paintings as a pink-cheeked dancer, a lady wearing long white gloves, or a stunning bather. She also embodied the contortionist mermaid painted by Austrian artist Gustav Wertheimer and inspired the tired reveler in Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Hangover.
But on the other side of the easel sat a gifted observer, not a mere muse. An innate talent, she had used chalk and pencils to sketch out frozen instants and snapshots of life on scraps of paper or the sidewalk since she was a girl. “She spent huge amounts of time in studios, so she was also watching, listening, learning,” says Nancy Ireson, chief curator of the Barnes Foundation. “And I think perhaps modeling also helps you to understand how pictures are made and what makes a good composition. She was self-taught, but she was exposed to many different artists and clearly had a great visual awareness.”
Franz Marc “The Fate of the Animals” 1913 (Right Side Restored by Paul Klee)
Franz Marc was a German artist whose life and promising artistic career were cut short when he was killed in World War I combat. A painter friend paid him a special homage.
Among the paintings he produced in those two ecstatically prolific years just before he was drafted was The Fate of the Animals — an arresting depiction of the interplay of beauty and brutality, terror and tenderness, in the chaos of life. An inscription appeared under the canvas in Marc’s hand: “And all being is flaming agony.”
Destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1916, The Fate of the Animals was restored by Marc’s close friend Paul Klee, who painstakingly recreated the oil canvas from surviving photographs.
In the 1990s, after I graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University, I stayed on in Richmond, Virginia. One of the city’s claims to fame at the time was Gwar-a metal band that mixed muppets, gore, and slapstick into a fake-blood soaked spectacle. I remember one show of theirs I attended where they must have put too much color into the various fluids they sprayed into the audience; even the hairs on my arm were dyed pink for days afterwards.
Gwar in Action
There came a point where Gwar was banned from performing in costume in their own hometown, due to the over-the-top grossness and silly obscenity of it all. They used to do local shows as Rawg, where they would perform the music without the theatrics.
At the time I was the chairman of the exhibition committee of Artspace, an artist-run cooperative gallery. I had a great idea: if Gwar can’t use their props and costumes in Richmond, what not put on an art show with them? I imagined national press attention, MTV coverage, and a spirited debate about free expression.
The Gwar guys didn’t act like rock stars. They were always just hanging around the local scene like anyone else. I was able to get an introduction pretty quickly. One afternoon I met up with singer Dave “Oderus Urungus” Brockie for a tour of Slave Pit Incorporated, the facility where they manufactured their elaborate outfits and gear. There were rubber body parts everywhere; I remember there was a big latex O J Simpson, who was very topical at the time. Brockie was gracious and supportive of the idea of an art show. It all would have made for a great exhibit.
Long story short, Artspace decided they couldn’t get insurance for an event like this. I think many of the gallery members were too intimated by the crassness as well. The idea was dropped, and Gwar continued to grow their international cult following.
Here is a relic of those times: a little rubber souvenir I found one day on the cobblestones of a Richmond alleyway:
Dave Brockie sadly passed away in 2014. However, the band continues to this day, as recently covered in Atlas Obscura:
Slave Pit Incorporated in 2017
This is the studio that creates custom costumes, sets, and stage props for two-time Grammy-nominated thrash metal band GWAR. The group’s costume- and FX-fueled live comedy-horror operas won international attention in the early 1990s and continue to disgust and delight audiences today. Concertgoers can expect things like huge, grotesque monsters raging amid fiery explosions, as band members dressed like satanic space-ogres shred on guitars with headstocks that spew fake blood.
The artists working here are responsible for bringing the show to life. They’re considered band members and work on everything from storylining albums and scripting stage productions to filming music videos and writing branded graphic novels. And sometimes they play monsters onstage. The team consists of two full-time artistic directors and a few dozen contract contributors. Most attended art school at nearby Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).
JanetFish, “Majorska Vodka” Oil on canvas, 60 x 48 in. 1976
From 2009, an interview with still life painter Janet Fish (Born May 18, 1938). She is best known for vibrant paintings depicting luminous glass, plastic, and cellophane.
At that point where had you taken your work?
When I first got to New York, I was simply trying to figure out what I wanted painting to be. There were problems with what I could do. I was trying to paint something three-dimensional on a two-dimensional surface. I threw some apples down on the table and started painting them. The paintings took a long, long time. Slowly I began enlarging the things and then focusing more on the object than on the surroundings. I went from that to painting packages, supermarket things. I liked the way the plastic was going over the solid objects, and I liked how it broke the forms up. I was trying to define my interests and I was eliminating everything that I wasn’t interested in. Trying to get more and more toward something I wanted to paint. So this was a kind of reductive approach.
That was sort of a self-imposed process?
Yeah, I’d do a painting, then another, and I’d compare them. I’d take down the bad painting and leave the better one up and keep pushing along that way. From there I found some jars of pickles, and it was a similar problem, solid object covered by a transparent surface. Once I started doing that, I got really interested in the light coming through the liquid. And that took me into painting bottles and jars, things like that.
Janet Fish “Yellow Glass Bowl with Tangerines” Oil on canvas, 36 x 50 in. 2007
“The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (1991)
The arts are undergoing a crisis of relevance. People have been so alienated by the weird dysfunctions of the establishment art world for so long, there is little awareness of what is being advanced as the visual representations of our culture.
This stuff matters more than people know. Art shows us who we are, and it shows us how to be. Right now the arts are dominated by destructive nihilists. Look at what they do, to understand what the elites are trying to program as our way to live.
There is a longstanding artistic tradition of the momento mori: “remember you must die.”
The reality of our own mortality, and coming to terms with it, is a vital function of traditional art. Making something exquisite out of the way of all flesh is a transcendental act. It has been expressed in many ways. Throughout art history, skulls make appearances in paintings, on jewelry, on clocks and watches. Dutch masters painted beautifully naturalistic oil still lifes referred to asvanitas, which included images of bones, snuffed lamps, and hourglasses. They not only celebrated the refined talents of the painters, they implied pending decay.
Pieter Claesz “Vanitas Still Life” (1630)
The tradition continued over the centuries. In a more recent example, Modernist American painter Georgia O’Keeffe utilized animal skulls and flowers to similar effect. It’s the kind of universal communication that makes art so powerful.
Georgia O’Keeffe “Summer Days” (1936)
As Christians, we understand our true life is not limited to this earth, but is life eternal granted by the grace of the Son of God. Still, awareness of the briefness of our time here on earth is a powerful motivator. “I am writing this book because we’re all going to die,” mused Beat author Jack Kerouac. He was determined to deliver his story as a supplication to the Lord. Kerouac wanted to make something holy out of all his striving, opening himself to God before the darkness came.
Contemporary art has a different message for us: death as something awkward, gross, and shameful. This is typified by the richest living artist in the world: Damien Hirst.
Choke Artist: Damian Hirst
Hirst has been well rewarded for making death seem supreme. It’s said this hack is worth $1 billion. What put British artist Hirst on the fast track in the first place could be seen as a momento mori of a kind, but with some important caveats.
Hirst was trying to make that connection in his title. Called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, the 1991 piece was a fourteen foot long taxidermied tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde. Since its creation it has changed hands several times, for a price suggested to be as high as $12 million.
Now, Hirst did not catch the shark. He did not stuff the shark. He did not build the tank, or suspend the beast in it. He is a “Conceptual artist.” The idea of Conceptual art is all the artist needs is to have the idea. Others execute it, often by just putting some already existing item like a shark into a new context of a gallery or museum. The artist then acts as a well-networked and “controversial” spokesmodel for their commercialized brand. This business model was most visibly pioneered by Pop artist Andy Warhol, who made some vanitas himself.
Andy Warhol “Skull” (1976)
While Warhol usually sold product placements and celebrity portraits, HIrst’s brand is carcasses. It’s claimed nearly 1 million animals have been processed through his industrial scale artistic abattoir, ranging from butterflies to zebras. He’s advanced from having them merely displayed; they are sliced, diced, contorted and flayed, as per his “vision.” As Hirst has callously stated, he wants to “kill things in order to look at them,” and “Cut us in half, we’re all the fucking same.”
Damien Hirst “Piggy”
I don’t claim any special virtue for myself. I’m a happy meat eater, and I understand what that means. But what Hirst promotes is far from the traditional momento mori of art. There’s no acknowledgement of the urgency of human experience, the profound significance of life in the face of its certain end. The hands off approach from its originator removes the spiritual resonance of creation in spite of destruction. Hirst implies we are just meat to be manipulated and exploited. It’s an ugly and empty message.
Hirst doesn’t even provide quality in the work he has done in his name. Despite the hype, I’ve seen descriptions of encounters with the shark which say what was once was a magnificent animal looks about as impactful as an overstuffed sofa, lost in the white void of the museum. The original shark rotted away in its tank, and had to be replaced. The contemporary art market is place of such cognitive dissonance there is a hearty debate on whether swapping the shark out meant the artwork was now worthless.
My take? It was worthless in the first place.
Hirst seems to have gotten into the carrion business because he lacks real artistic talent or discernment. After Hirst became a brand name, when he wanted to come up with a mass production way to cash in, he produced the inane spot paintings. I can’t picture a bigger failure in imagination or interest than these generic Twister rip offs. Still, thousands of these have been cranked out by hired help, selling for tens of thousands of dollars each. It’s a way for tasteless but wealthy patrons to partake in Hirst’s rotten prestige in a sterile way, without worrying about formaldehyde leaks.
Some People Actually Pay For This: A Hirst Spot Painting
Hirst is still flogging dead horses and more to maintain his top tier art market status. His latest gimmick is ironically putting paint onto a canvas himself, though I wouldn’t go so far as to grace the efforts with the status of paintings.
Spotty Accomplishments: Hirst Cherry Blossoms
Ultimately elites celebrate artists like Hirst because they have a death wish: they wish the rest of us would die, or at least be as passive as corpses while the powerful abuse and pillage our society. The establishment contributes to our destruction by replacing art with icons of physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual deterioration.
I feel for these artists. They were trying to depict exotic animals based on fragmentary and often wildly incorrect information. While not very scientific, they are great accomplishments of imagination, and art.
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The art world is preening over “decolonizing” these days. Meaning they want museums to return key objects in their collections to the original places of origin. Makes me wonder if those pieces would ever have survived in their original locations, or would have been lost due to neglect or active destruction.
The UK government has rejected Unesco’s recommendation that it reconsider the ownership status of the fabled Parthenon Marbles held in the collection of the British Museum. Following a meeting of Unesco’s Intergovernmental Commission for the Return of Cultural Property to Countries of Origin (ICPRCP) in Paris last week, the organization had urged the British government to investigate the conditions under which the marbles were brought to England, and to consider returning them to Greece. Unesco’s recommendation was a victory for Greece, which first brought the matter to the organization in 1984.
The British Museum received the contested group of sculptures, dating to the fifth century BC and made by the classical Greek sculptor Phidias and his assistants, in 1801 from Scotsman Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin. Lord Elgin was serving as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire when he allegedly negotiated with the Ottoman Turks who controlled the region surrounding the Parthenon to bring the objects to England. Known as the Elgin Marbles, or the Parthenon Marbles, these stunning works have been widely credited with transforming the European concept of Greek art; they have since served as the touchstone around which museums interpret and display human culture.
As the recent Hunter Biden fiasco demonstrated, the contemporary establishment art market is a barely disguised criminal enterprise. This article lays out the reality.
I am here to tell you the truth. Every single establishment that successfully sells art, regardless of location, size or cultural denomination, has no interest at all in the creative talent or process of an artist.
It isn’t even part of the discussion, they just simply don’t care.
They won’t tell you that! Rather you will get all kinds of excuses like we don’t accept submissions, or our calendar is booked for the next 7 years, or they will tell you to send information and then they won’t get back to you, or they will say they are not looking for new artists.
I have explored every single opportunity for artists all over the world and have spoke with thousands of gallery owners, art consultants, museum curators, art dealers, auction house experts, critics, and journalists. In all that time nearly all of them with very rare exceptions have no interest in creative energy or talent, at all.
We are so grateful to our veterans, who risked all to keep us free.
Ed Bowen served as US Army combat artist in Vietnam. He has recounted his experiences in paintings, drawings, and a memoir.
Ed Bowen and His Art
Ed Bowen recalls teaching art classes at Villa Park High School in Orange in 1967 when rumors began circulating the U.S. would draft citizens to fight in Vietnam. At 26, and ripe for the picking, he wasn’t too concerned.
Since his parents had come to Corona del Mar from Canada when he was a child, he figured his foreign residency precluded him from having to register for the draft. Plus, he was working a plum job; he loved art and the kids loved him.
It wasn’t until he received a letter in the mail, informing him he was to report for duty with the U.S. Army on Nov. 28, that he realized how wrong he’d been.
“I had to say goodbye to the kids — my dream was shattered,” he recalled. “But, as I say now, the Lord had other plans, and he was to take me to the ‘ultimate assignment.’”
What happened next would begin an incredible journey that would take Bowen to some of the most perilous stages of the Vietnam War where, armed with only a sketchpad and pen, an Instamatic camera and a Colt .45 revolver, he would fulfill a mission to capture the conflict in pictures.