Category Archives: Art

artistic optimism

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CREACI~1  icarus

Comparison Essay (20 points).
Compare Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel (1508-12) ceiling to Matisse’s Icarus (1943-47).  Both of these images are products of talented artists who were using art to portray strong beliefs that evoke the feelings of their respective times.  Briefly explain how the style of each work reflects the ideas of the artist and the time in which they lived.  In other words, discuss characteristics of what they LOOK like, and how the way they are depicted helps us understand the attitude of the Renaissance or Modern eras.

Although many of my students thought I was crazy to pair these two images, thinking they had NOTHING in common, I saw something intriguing, and the more I looked, the more I saw….

My first instinct in comparing these images was for the students to pick up on the optimistic outlooks both images represent.  Michelangelo shows us a glorious and hopeful creation–God reaches out in his power and magnificence to impart the spark of life to the first man, his ultimate creation, Adam. This image is a clear representation of Renaissance humanism, a philosophy focusing on man’s potential, an updating of the classical intellectual “ideal” to a more perfect religious one.  Matisse’s image is not that different in theme: it represents an optimistic expression of man’s potential in a modern age.  In the 20th century, technology, science and the arts have combined in an outburst of hopeful expectation: man has learned and grown through the ages so that he has almost achieved that long sought-after perfection.  In evidence–we can fly!  The contrast comes in differentiating the motivation of a faith based, organized religion versus a knowledge based, individual spirituality.

Of course each of these images look completely different due to the contrasting artistic styles of their times.  Michelangelo expresses the idealistic realism typical of art at the height of the Renaissance: finely sculpted bodies, revealing both a scientific understanding of anatomy and an artistic eye for composition.  There is a balance in shape, position and symbolism.  Matisse, on the other hand, simplifies his image into abstraction, intensifying the emotion through pure color, and invigorating the composition through the uneven edges of his cut-out forms.

See, it really is a nice, solid comparison.

And then, I saw something exciting….
If you turn Icarus on his side….

Picture1 CREACI~1 (2)

Isn’t that cool?

The more I thought about this comparison, the richer it became.

Let’s consider the source stories.

The biblical story of God creating Adam stresses the connection between creator and created, Father and son, but then it goes on to tell of man’s fall from grace, his separation from God, and the need for a Savior (is that Eve peeking out through God’s arm, awaiting her part in the unfolding of this tale; or is it Mary with her infant son Jesus, He who will become that Redeemer?).

Greek mythology tells of Icarus and his father, Daedalus, imprisoned on the island of Crete.  In an effort to escape, Daedalus creates wings from feathers and wax.  As father and son glory in the freedom of flight, Icarus ignores his father’s warning, flies too close to the sun which melts his wax, and he falls to his death in the sea.

In both stories, creation is glorious, but in both stories there is also a fall.  Is it significant that Matisse assigns God’s pose to Icarus, the son?  Is it his over-ambition to become “as the gods,” in his soaring through the heavens, that becomes his downfall?  Is Matisse hinting that the 20th century’s technological ambitions may be its forbidden fruit?  Is there a hint that the same scientific breakthroughs that helped us understand life and the universe also led to greater destruction in the world wars?

Hard to say.  Matisse’s Icarus appears to be still in his soaring phase, his red heart pulsing to the rhythm of the stars, small suns of joy and wonder.  But, in another interpretation, could they be explosions, and Icarus’ pose read as a free-fall?

I prefer the optimistic reading.  Matisse’s work in general is filled with joy: color and light and joy.  Michelangelo also believed in man’s potential, equating himself as artist in many ways with God in his role as creator.  And isn’t it in this act of creation, of wings or art or airplanes, that we most reach that human potential in each of us?

art and icarus

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Pieter Bruegel, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” c.1558. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Belgium.

In the college art appreciation course that I teach at the local community college, we recently discussed different elements and principles of art, including line, shape and color as well as balance, contrast and pattern, among other concepts.  For the image above, we were discussing emphasis and subordination.  The subject of the painting is a landscape, but it also includes the story of the fall of Icarus from Greek mythology.

We had already talked about the Icarus story previously in a print by Matisse, so it was interesting for the kids to see a different interpretation of it.  In Matisse’s image, Icarus is floating among the stars, free and full of exuberant abandon, unaware that the red beat of his heart will soon be extinguished because he flies too close to the sun.  Icarus is the focus in Matisse’s bright modern work, filling up the picture space with his bold energy.  Matisse adds text to his image: “At this moment we are so free, shouldn’t we make young people who have finished their studies take a grand trip by plane.”  This is about Icarus in his moment of joy and wonder as he flies on his manufactured wings, and Matisse wants his image to encourage young people to likewise go out and experience the world firsthand.  This is not a cautionary tale in any fashion.

In contrast, Icarus is all but hidden in Bruegel’s painting.  He is completely subordinated to the the landscape.  Our focus is on the man plowing in the foreground and the lovely seascape in the background.  Color, line, and shape all focus our attention away from the sorry legs of Icarus disappearing into the water in the bottom right of the canvas.  This image is often interpreted as an illustration of a Flemish proverb: “No plough stands still because a man dies.”  Life goes on.  Or perhaps, in a more negative interpretation, there is the fear that our life may pass unnoticed.  Icarus’s fall and death is completely marginalized and ignored here.  The focus is on life, work and economy.

My students enjoyed looking at and discussing this painting, and as we wrapped up our observations, one student rose his hand to comment: “What does it mean that the sun is setting?”  I got his point.  If Icarus falls because he flies too close to the sun, why isn’t the sun high in the sky melting the wax of his wings?  Why is the sun low on the horizon, almost disappearing from view?  I’ve been thinking about it since, and I’m not sure I have a good answer.  Certainly the lovely glow cast by the setting sun reinforces our attention on the landscape and not on the mythology.  And there is an interesting parallel of the sun slippling quietly into the water at the back of the scene just as Icarus sinks below the surface at the front.

Any thoughts?

edges of our expectation

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In my alumni magazine for the BYU College of Humanities, there is an article by J. Scott Miller (Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages) called “Out of the Blue: Serendipity, Translation, and Literature.”  Of the various issues he discusses, one quote really caught my attention.  He says that

art is found just beyond the edges of our expectation, where we are challenged to interrogate strangeness

He means art in all forms.  In fact, in just the next paragraph he restates this same idea, using the word truth in place of the word art(“I invite you to think about the times when you have stumbled upon beauty in ugly places or have found truth just beyond the edges of your expectations.”)

I find this an intriguing definition of art.  I am currently in the process of developing a syllabus for an art appreciation course I will be teaching this fall, and I am using a new textbook.  In the past, I have taught more of a history-based course, starting with the art of prehistory (cave paintings, pottery, Stonehenge, etc.) and continuing through modern times.  But this new text has less of a linear or chronological flow, and I am trying to rethink my process of teaching to make this class a little broader in its discussion of art.

So I am extremely open right now to new ways of thinking about art.  My recent excursion to LACMA with the kids has also contributed to this.  I found myself fascinated with the oversized contemporary sculptures and watching how my children responded to these works of art.  They had very little patience for the representational two-dimensional paintings that hung on the walls of the museum.  They wanted to touch and walk around (or through) the art and experience in it in a very physical, emotional and personal way.  They liked what was new and different.  They liked being presented to familiar things (like a rock) in an exaggerated and specific way.  They never once stopped to ask, is this art?  They immersed themselves in the experience and enjoyed the sensation of the “strangeness” of presentation.

Another thing that has altered my perception of art was being invited to be on a jury panel for an international art competition hosted by the Museum of Church History and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  I love the art of the past, but I have always had a harder time with current trends in art.  Looking at, and judging, works of art created in the last couple of years, was inspirational.  The competition was for religious art, but the theme, Make Known His Wonderful Works, was broad enough to elicit an amazingly wide range of submissions.  I had never had to make the kinds of judgments before that would rank an artist’s work worthy to hang in the show or even win an award.  It was enriching to need not only to choose works that I liked, but to be able to discuss them, defend them, and try to understand them.  Within a religious culture where much of Church art is didactic and for teaching scriptural stories, it was refreshing to look at works that went beyond that: that went “beyond the edges of our expectations” and to challenge us to see the things of God (truth) in new or unusual ways.

I am grateful for these experiences in art.  I enjoy using the things I have studied and taught, and pushing beyond the boundaries of my comfort zone.

more lacma pics

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My friend Jayni posted her pics from our trip, and they were so fun that I wanted to spend another post highlighting her pictures from our trip to LACMA.  You will notice that the spaghetti curtain was a favorite!

It cracked me up how many pictures Jayni took of ME TAKING PICTURES of my kids.  Here’s just one:

She also took pictures of when I handed the camera over to my kids.  Here’s a classic moment:

This is the picture my daughter took at the same time (say cheese, Jayni!):

My son has mild CP, so he has a hard time holding the camera steady and pressing the button with his one good hand, but he still likes to try:

This is what his picture looks like:

Not too bad.  At least my head isn’t cut off, even if the whole sculpture behind me is missing.  Here’s a more typical shot (he posed me in the bamboo):

My kids always have fun when we give them a turn behind the camera.  And it’s fun to see what they capture!

Here’s some more scenes that Jayni took of me and my kids enjoying the art:

These were the coolest looking elevators, so of course we had to ride them to see where they would take us.  Turns out, they just go down to the parking garage (where we did not park), but they were just as interesting going back up!

Rose insisted she saw a silverfish run under the white ball, but I wouldn’t let her get any closer to the art to smash it.  I’m sure we entertained the guards!

The big rock was easily my youngest son’s favorite thing of the day!

He could touch it by himself on one side, but I had to help him on the other side:

I also really enjoyed these close-ups by Jayni of “Levitated Mass” because they give a whole new perspective on the work:

 I am so glad I took the time to visit LACMA again after all these years, and I’m glad the kids had fun too.  Watching the kids gave me a new way of looking at art and got me thinking about how we react and interact with it.  I hope to incorporate some of my thoughts and ideas into my new art history course that I will be teaching in the Fall.

lacma with kids

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All this past week, LACMA offered free admission for residents in zip codes along the transport route of the big rock.  That was us!  It has probably been 10 years since I have last been to LACMA, so I used the “free” excuse to load up the kids (my two youngest are ages 5 and 8), along with a good friend, and drive to LA too see the museum.  Earlier in the week, another friend asked if LACMA was kid friendly, and I said yes!  But now I have a first-hand account.  Here’s what appealed to my kids:

The first thing my kids saw was this outdoor sculpture.  It’s called Penetrabile by Jesus Rafael Soto, and it has long plastic tubing hanging down that you can walk through.  My kids called it the spaghetti scultpure.  It was a fun sensory experience.  We passed this way several times, and my kids were always excited to give it another try.

LACMA has lots of funky outdoor sculpture and installations.  These were by far the things my kids enjoyed the most.  They had fun chasing each other through Chris Burden’s “Urban Light” installation:

We all were fascinated by the way the wind and water moved Alexander Calder’s stabile grouping, “Hello Girls“:

We also loved talking about, interacting with, and making up stories about other sculpture:

Another fun, but kind of stinky, thing to do was to walk over to the La Brea Tar Pits.  My daughter couldn’t believe the way the pits bubbled and popped (she was sure an alligator was going to jump out and scare us).  My son was fascinted by the recreations of mammoths in the pit (he wanted to go to the Page Museum next door instead!).

And, then, of course, was the installation we came for: “Levitated Mass” by Michael Heizer.  This was easily our favorite.  My youngest son was absolutely fascinated.  We had to walk under it both ways.  He was brave enough to stand underneath for some time.  Then we had to walk around on either side of it so he could touch it.  He enjoyed the rock, and he loved the channel.  In fact, we all really enjoyed the experience of the rock.

 The kids grew more impatient each time we went into the painting galleries, so we kept those forrays short and interspersed between the outdoor installations.  I did get to spend a few good moments with LACMA’s Cezanne’s (my favorite artist), but as the selections here are far from his best work, a few moments were enough (this time).  We breezed through the European galleries, and glanced at some wonderful Indian art, and poked our heads in the different buildings just to get some flavor of the other cultural art, but, as I said, the kids tired of this much quicker.  Still, we got some exposure and discussion, and I’ll just have to keep working on it.

I had looked online ahead of time for what options they had available for kids, and the website mentions that you can check out a family guide with art cards.

 But when I asked about it at the ticket booth, the employee didn’t seem to know what I was talking about.  He directed me to the kids room instead.  I figured I would ask another person about it later, but we were kept so busy that I never felt the need.  Still, I think something like these cards would have helped the kids enjoy the inside galleries a little more.  As for the kids room, I’m glad we didn’t start with it, as it made a perfect break in the middle of our day.

In this room, the kids were offered paper and brushes, and they could sit and create their own watercolor paintings.   My children made three or four paintings and we sat and relaxed for about half an hour.  This room was definitely a highlight of our day.

After three hours at the museum, we were all pretty tired, but there was one more thing I wanted my kids to see (having read about it on the website beforehand): Chris Burden’s “Metropolis II.”  We were just in time to see it turned on again, and it was spellbinding:

The website calls it “an intense kinetic sculpture, modeled after a fast paced, frenetic modern city.”  Indeed, I had to look away for periods of time because it made me feel dizzy.  But the kids really, really LOVED this.  And then, to end the day, we explored one more installation in the room next to Metropolis.  This was called “Band,” by Richard Serra, but my youngest child called it the volcano rooms (because of the shape and color).

“Band” was a massive installation of undulating walls that curved in on themselves making different caves and rooms.  The kids ran in and out and danced around (the echoes were nearly deafening in the interior spaces–adding to the appeal, of course).  And after nearly four hours in and around the museum, we called it quits for the day.  We barely scratched the surface of all the exhibits (especially the indoor ones), but we were catering to the kids, and I know that they had a positive and memorable experience.