Category Archives: Museums

Then and Now: 100 Years of Plein Air Painting

The Irvine Museum has an interesting show up this summer:  Then and Now: 100 Years of Plein Air Painting.  It’s an exhibition of early California Impressionist paintings paired with contemporary plein air paintings.  Many of the paintings are from private collections.  The viewer can compare and contrast the techniques, the subject matter, or the sizes of the paintings.  The museum offers little commentary on the matter, which is refreshing, so the observations are entirely those of the viewer.  Here are mine:

  • The older paintings are often larger than the newer ones. 16 in. x 20 in., 20 in. x 30 in., or even larger, are not uncommon sizes for the California Impressionist paintings. The newer paintings are more frequently 12 in. x 16 in. or smaller.
  • The earlier paintings are often more carefully painted, with more precise strokes and harder edges than the newer ones. Many of the newer ones are very think paint applied very quickly—not slapdash, but also not carefully controlled. The influence of the intervening century of abstract painting, perhaps?
  • The color palettes of all of the painters are similar. Few if any blacks, no strikingly different color ranges such as illustrators might use. The individual pigments might be different now from a century ago, but the range of colors are similar. And in this show, mostly California colors and light.

While this is a nice exhibition, and an interesting conceit, it’s also true that none of these paintings represent the best work of the earlier artists, and probably not the contemporary painters, either. I don’t mean these aren’t good paintings—they are.  A couple of them are very good indeed (take special note of the Ken Auster painting of houses near the beach). But not every show can be full of masterpieces.

In fact, as I think about it, these are plein air paintings.  A plein air painting can only be worked on for a couple of hours during the day, or the light changes too much.  I suspect the larger early pieces were painted over a couple of days, at the same time each day. But they’re not studio pieces, which can be worked on for longer periods.

And maybe that’s part of the point of the show:  that plein air paintings can be nice, even very good—but they are rarely masterpieces.

Then and Now: 100 Years of Plein Air Painting runs through October 2, 2014.

Have you seen the show?  What did you think?  Do you like plein air painting?

Advertisements

Sorolla and America at the San Diego Museum of Art

If you have the opportunity to get to San Diego this summer, by all means do so.  Americans have the very rare opportunity this summer to see an exhibition of paintings by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida at the San Diego Museum of Art.  Though Sorolla was quite well known in his own lifetime (some 50,000 people came to his funeral, according to the exhibition catalog), he was then all but forgotten by the public.

Sorolla's portrait of Christopher Columbus
Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Christopher Columbus Leaving Palos, Spain, 1910, oil on canvas. The Mariners’ Museum. The photo doesn’t do it justice.

Which is a shame.  Because, like his contemporary John Singer Sargent, Sorolla (pronounced So-roy’-ya) was an extraordinarily gifted painter. This exhibition focuses on paintings made in or purchased by Americans (or both), including a portrait of President William Howard Taft.  The exhibition include portraits of patrons and society members; seascapes; a few landscapes; and a number of gouaches painted from his hotel room in New York, and drawings made on the back of hotel restaurant menus.

OMG.  The show is amazing.

People always talk about Sargent’s “bravura” brushstrokes.  I hate to compare Sorolla to Sargent, but that’s the point of reference I think viewers might have.  Sorolla’s brushstrokes remind me of Sargent’s: the sweeping strokes of paint to indicate the folds of cloth in a sitter’s gown; or, in an otherwise shadowy room, the single thick stroke to indicate a sliver of light on a girl’s shoulder.  The painter’s energy is evident in each brushstroke.  Sorolla apparently loved the challenge of painting quickly, which in part accounts for the energy of his outdoor scenes (all painted from life, even the large ones).  The portraits are sensitive and glorious.  The seascapes are filled with life and emotion.  The large paintings of specific scenes—handicapped boys at the beach for an outing; or a woman in shackles, arrested for having murdered her child (today we’d call them political)—are also filled with emotion and sympathy.

Surprisingly, the landscapes are the weakest of the pieces, at least in this show.  They lack exuberance, almost as if the scene was too quiet for him.  (Or maybe it was the lack of pressure to get the likeness right.)

The day I was at the exhibition, many of the visitors were painters.  Snatches of conversations I overheard were all about this shadow or that bit of painting, or his use of color or how he changed the paintings from his sketches.  And for artists, this show has a couple of treats:  sketches made in preparation of paintings.  These sketches range from very small oil studies for large pieces, to drawings made to work out the composition for one of his paintings of children at the beach, to a series of nine rather large oil studies made in preparation of a commissioned portrait of Christopher Columbus.  Sorolla apparently found one of Columbus’ descendants to pose for the portrait.  The nine sketches included here show Columbus in a variety of heroic poses, all eventually rejected for a quieter, more sardonic portrait of the man at the slanting rail of his ship, framed by one of the ship’s sails, with just  a bit of horizon peeking out near the edge of the painting.  It’s a remarkable portrait, even if today Columbus’ legacy is considered to be far more mixed than it was when the painting was commissioned.

One word of caution:  parking at Balboa Park is quite limited, and the place his hugely popular. On the Tuesday I visited, we drove around for about half an hour looking for a place to park.  Look into public transportation, or get there early. Tickets are not timed. And the museum restaurant is currently closed, though there are other restaurants in the park. Sorolla and America runs through August 26, 2014.

Have you seen Sorolla and America?  What did you think?

Anders Zorn at the Legion of Honor

I wanted to write a glowing review of the Anders Zorn show at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco now through February 2, 2014. Anders Zorn is considered by many painters to be one of the Big Three of early 20th Century painting (the other two are John Singer Sargent and Joaquin Sorolla). He is not as well known by the public now, but in his day he was quite successful as a portrait painter and painted the portraits of three U. S. presidents.

 

Anders Zorn Self Portrait
Anders Zorn, Self-Portrait in Red, 1915. Oil on canvas. Zornmuseet, Mora. Photograph by Patric Evinger.

In many ways, the paintings are amazing, and this is a rare opportunity for Americans to see them without traveling to Sweden. The watercolors, especially, are tours de force. The paintings, both watercolors and oils, are worth seeing for the brushwork alone. Big brushes that create satin fabric (or homespun) in a stroke. Portraits that capture the personality of the sitter, for good or ill. So I definitely recommend the show to anyone interested in art history during the Gilded Age or in the paintings of a “painter’s painter.”

Zorn is also known for his limited palette, on display in the self-portrait that opens the exhibit: white, yellow ochre, vermilion, and ivory black. The self-portrait also has a dark ochre that might be burnt umber or some other darker earth color. In that palette, the blacks can look blue when placed next to warmer colors. And for the landscapes, Zorn may have also used viridian, but I don’t think so. The green in his landscapes is so odd, I think it, too, must be made with black, though I’m not sure how.

Which brings me to why I cannot whole-heartedly recommend this show to someone who just loves art, and has no interest in the craft or in art history. For ultimately, though most of the paintings are supremely well executed, I cannot love them.

The paintings are just cold*, by which I mean the temperature of the colors, not the emotion he seeks to portray. The paintings are also, for the most part, somehow calculating. Even the nudes, for all their daring (naked women in the landscape!) are a little voyeuristic and prurient.

I think I was reacting to that famous palette. Without blue, the colors somehow seem cold and off. And yellow ochre is a harsh, dull yellow under the best of circumstances. If anything, I was reminded of early Van Gogh, before he went to Paris: all dark and umber and black. A few of the nudes are warmer, as Zorn got the warmth of the day into them. This is just my own opinion, mind, and you are free to disagree with me. But I’m gonna stick with a fuller palette.

Have you seen the Zorn exhibition? What did you think?

*See especially “Man and Boy in Algiers,” a watercolor from 1887. The rendering is perfect. But the skin tones in sunlight are cold. There is almost no warmth at all in that sunny day painting.

 

Richard Diebenkorn at the de Young

The de Young Museum in San Francisco is on a roll. In the past three years or so, the de Young has hosted some amazing art exhibitions, with still more in the queue. The latest in this string of must-see shows is Diebenkorn: the Berkeley Years 1953–1967. Richard Diebenkorn lived and taught in the Bay Area, where he influenced Wayne Thiebaud and worked with or knew Elmer Bischoff, David Park, Nathan Oliveira and others.

 

Richard Diebenkorn Figure on a Porch
Richard Diebenkorn, Figure on a Porch, 1959. Oil on canvas, 57 x 62 inches. Oakland Museum of California, Gift of Anonymous Donor Program of the American Federation of the Arts © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. My favorite piece in the show.

Now, I’m not much of a fan of Bay Area figurative art, or of mid-century modern art in general. Abstract art isn’t my thing. I tend to come down on the side of the Beautiful in art, not the challenging. Indeed, before we went into the Diebenkorn exhibit, my friend Steven and I meandered through a small collection of modern pieces in one of the museum’s other rooms—and I felt like I was in one of those New Yorker cartoons of a woman standing in front of a piece of modern art grumbling “I don’t understand this.” I’m sorry: casts of tire treads in clay and binder mounted on a wall? Never mind if Robert Rauschenberg did it—why is that art?

And yet… The Diebenkorn show really struck me. Some of his abstracts are clearly landscapes: he admitted as much himself. The figurative pieces from the late 1950s are harsh, gritty, sometimes ugly. There is a palpable sense of alienation in those pieces, as if they were actively pushing the viewer away. But if the alienation is palpable, so is the life force. The energy. The furious scrubbing and layering and scraping of the paint. This is not Bouguereau’s invisible brushstrokes, or Monet’s calm deployment of paint (I’m thinking of the water lilies here). This is more like Van Gogh’s frenetic brushwork, only released to make its own abstract way.

The show is set up more or less chronologically. The alienation passes, the paintings calm down—still abstractions, but less driven, less hemmed in. The works become explorations and contemplations, whether they are just a coffee cup on a table, a pair of pliers, or a woman sitting in a chair. The final pieces on the exhibition show the clear influence of Diebenkorn’s trip to the Soviet Union and of seeing the works of Matisse.

It’s a fascinating show. I learned a lot about art, about painting, about trusting the medium more. And now I want a studio where I can paint much larger works!

Diebenkorn: the Berkeley Years 1953–1967 runs through September 29, 2013. Highly recommended.

Have you seen the Diebenkorn show? Do you prefer abstract art over representational works? Why or why not?

 

Upcoming Museum Exhibitions

For the past few years, there have been a number of quite stellar art exhibitions featuring impressionist or sort of near-Impressionist art in the northern California region. Now the museums seem like they are focusing on more modern art, which appeals less to me. Still, there are lots of shows that sound interesting. Here is a completely subjective sampling.

Japanese Prints: Hokusai at LACMA

April 13–July 28, 2013

LA County Museum of Art

 

J.C. Leyendecker

Ongoing

The Haggin Museum, Stockton, California

Like Norman Rockwell? Check out J. C. Leyendecker.

 

Inspiration Points: Masterpieces of California Landscape

May 31–August 11, 2013

Oakland Museum of California

The Oakland Museum has one of the best collections of early California art around.  IMHO.

 

Impressionists on the Water

Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

June 1 – October 13, 2013

In celebration of the Americas Cup races.

 

Diebenkorn: the Berkeley Years, 1953–1966

De Young Museum, San Francisco

June 22–September 29, 2013

I know, Diebenkorn is more modern than my typical recommendations.  But every artist working today has to contend with Diebenkorn somehow.

 

The Epic and the Intimate: French Drawings from the John D. Reilly Collection

June 30–September 29, 2013

Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento

 

David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition

DeYoung Museum, San Francisco

October 26, 2013–January 20, 2014

 

Matisse from SFMOMA

November 9, 2013–September 7, 2014

Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

Paintings from the SF MOMA collection while that museum undergoes renovation.

 

And of course, the really big not-to-miss show:

Anders Zorn, Sweden’s Master Painter

November 9, 2013–February 2, 2014

Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

Among many artists I admire, Anders Zorn is ranked as one of the Big Three among many painters I respect, though he is less well known to the American public. (This Big Three comprises Sargent, Sorolla, and Zorn.) There was a smaller show at the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston earlier this year. This show promises to be much larger, and a chance for those of us not going to Sweden to see his work in person.

What shows have I missed that you are looking forward to seeing this year?