March 31, 2021

The Palette is available to all interested with an e-Subscription

In this issue:

Street artist JR rips off the front of Florence's Palazzo Strozzi in new optical illusion work
How a grasshopper got stuck—leaving its mark in Van Gogh's painting—on a summer’s day in Provence
Ancient art returns to public view in Rome
Painting as an Intimate Act




The Scream is one of the most recognizable—and one of the most parodied—artworks in history, and because of its outsized reputation, it’s now considered Edvard Munch’s masterpiece. But Munch himself never considered it his magnus opus. He finished the first version of The Scream in 1893, and his career stretched on for 50 years afterward.

The raw nerves glimpsed in The Scream make it an outlier in Munch’s oeuvre—most of his works accept mortality with a grim resolve. Part of their power lies in the tension between the violent strokes and mournfulness of his subjects. A dread surrounding modern life suffuses Munch’s work—and explains the resilience of its appeal. Our present little resembles his own, but the sense of isolation, regret, and decline in his work is timeless.

“In my art I attempt to explain life and its meaning to myself,” Munch wrote of his creative mission. It’s a useful frame to interpret his artwork: not records of life as it was, but as it felt to live.

The Early Years

“I learned early about the misery and dangers of life, and about the afterlife, about the external punishment which awaited the children of sin in Hell,” he once wrote. By his own accounts, Munch did not have a happy childhood, and he returned to its most traumatic events often in painting. He was born in 1863 in a farmhouse in a village in Norway. His mother died of tuberculosis, which also claimed his favorite sister, Sophie, as a teen.

He and his surviving siblings were raised by his aunt and father in Oslo in a household ruled by his father’s “obsessive” piety. As a young boy, he suffered from asthmatic bronchitis and was often kept home from school, entertaining himself with the ghost stories of Edgar Allen Poe, whose Romantic writings underline Munch’s own macabre preoccupations. The specter of mental illness was always near in Munch’s art, as it was in his own life—his older sister, Laura, was institutionalized for depression.

He enrolled in 1881 at the Royal School of Art and Design of Kristiania (now Oslo). Munch displayed an early aptitude for figure drawing, and in 1883 took part in his first public exhibition. The featured work, a full-length portrait of local bohemian Karl Jensen-Hjell, was decried by critics, who called it “impressionism carried to the extreme” and a “travesty of art.” This marked the beginning of a contentious relationship between Munch and his countrymen, whose approval he both spurred and craved. He found kinship in the company of Hans Jæger, a Norwegian anarchist, whose nihilistic outlook complimented Munch’s own growing pessimism. He instructed the young artist to “write his life,” spurring a period of self-examination.

Among the Impressionists

Munch arrived in Paris in 1885 to study in the studio of Léon Bonnat, who taught Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Gustave Caillebotte, John Singer Sargent, and other major figures of the era. He found Bonnat’s drawing lessons “numbing,” but the experience exposed him to Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, and others. Munch once wrote that he appreciated the latter’s art for its glorious “reaction against realism.” The use of color by Monet, Gauguin, and other Impressionists and Post-Impressionists signified emotion in expressive ways, and for Munch, that was an inspiration, even if their comparatively light-hearted subject matter differed from his own.

At this time, Munch began six paintings and lithographs based on Sophie’s death titled The Sick Child. They depict his sister on her deathbed, her face pallid and haunted as she clutches the hands of grief-stricken woman, likely their aunt Karen, whose eyes are averted in despair. The rough, vertical brushstrokes in the paintings lend a hazy veil, as though they are being seen during a dream. Munch deemed this the first “soul painting” in his oeuvre, and it marked a definitive shift toward a mode that would come to be known as Symbolism, which relied on form, color, and composition to offer an emotionally driven break with reality.

Munch wrote of the experience: “I started as an Impressionist, but during the violent mental and vital convulsions of the Bohême period Impressionism gave me insufficient expression—I had to find an expression for what stirred my mind … The first break with Impressionism was the Sick Child—I was looking for expression.”

The scene would repeat itself in Death in the Sickroom (1893) and the masterful Love and Pain (1895), later retitled Vampire by its viewers. In the latter work, a red-haired woman comforts an anguished man in her embrace. She bends to kiss his neck or lay her head on his shoulder. Compared to The Sick Child, where the people shown are still depicted in a manner that resembles life itself, the figures in Death in the Sickroom and Love and Pain are simplified, and their faces are deformed, crowded by claustrophobic brushstrokes.

The Berlin Years

The Norwegian art establishment, with its affinity for naturalism, reviled Munch’s early work. But in Germany, where he lived from 1892 to 1908, Munch carved out an international career. After his solo show in Berlin in 1892 was shuttered by conservatives, he cannily leveraged the controversy—which became known as the “Munch affair”—into invaluable publicity.

By then, Munch’s style had almost fully matured. The realist backdrops of works like Melancholy (1891) were eschewed for a shallow, purely emotive space. “No longer should interiors be painted, people reading and women knitting,” he wrote, “there would be living people, breathing and feeling, suffering and loving.” Madonna (1894), a portrait of famous muse Dagny Juel-Przybyszewska, illustrates the aesthetic he now preferred. A subversive portrayal of the Virgin Mary, she either rises above or lays beneath the viewer, eyes shut in ecstasy. All around her is a void-like space filled with curving blue and black forms.

While in Berlin, Munch created some of his best-known works, including The Scream, which he first painted in 1893. (The Scream exists in several versions; its two most famous ones reside at the National Gallery in Oslo and the collection of Leon Black, who put his painting on loan to the Museum of Modern Art.) Munch had a devoted following among the liberated German and Austrian painters, who found in the older artist a model for the burdening movement that became Expressionism.

Egon Schiele, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Max Beckmann were among those who embraced Munch’s physic stew of sexual yearning, occult fascination, and self-reproach. Schiele’s self-portraiture, filled as it is with swollen-looking models, is indebted to Munch’s own obsession with intense scrutiny. Some of these artists went one step further, paying direct homage to Munch. In one 1917 woodcut, Heckel, a veteran of the army medical corps, transforms Munch’s screamer into a stunned figure standing amid a battlefield. The piece alludes to Munch’s own passion for woodcutting, which he honed while in Germany. While in the country, he innovated a technique that involved cutting up blocks, coloring the pieces, and fusing them back together with an emphasis on the natural grain of the wood.

The Midnight Sun

Amid all this, Munch suffered from depression. That plus a period of heavy drinking led the artist to have a nervous breakdown in 1908. He was institutionalized in Copenhagen for eight months, a period which considerably stabilized his mood. He returned to Norway the following year and took up landscapes with a preference for warm colors and loose brushwork.

In 1911 he completed one of his greatest achievements, the powerful mural The Sun, one of 11 paintings commissioned for Oslo University’s ceremonial assembly hall. Sunbeams burst from behind rocky Norwegian mountains, radiating toward the panel’s outer edges. The painting was meant to embody the values of vitalism, a school of thought that emphasized the ideal human as one healthy, strong, and one with nature. The writings of the writings of German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche held sway for vitalism’s purveyors, and Munch admired him so much that he even painted a posthumous portrait of him.

Artist as Subject

Despite the newfound levity of his painting, Munch never shook his obsession with his own mortality. Until his death in 1944, he continued to chronicle the ugliness of his aging. The startled, dapper young man in Self Portrait With Cigarette (1895) transforms soon after into the half-human creature of Self-Portrait in Hell (1903), in which Munch shows himself naked amid flames. His face appears mottled beneath a series of brown strokes, but he shows no sign that he is afraid, even despite his hellish setting.

Almost two decades later, Munch depicted himself as a phantom in The Night Wanderer (1924), where he is drawn in shadow with two black pits for eyes. Such a sensibility is also evident in his photographic self-portraits. Munch believed that painting would always be superior to photography, but he relied on the medium anyway to show his nude body on beaches, as though he were a pale creature washed ashore.

A 2017 exhibition at the Met Breuer in New York took its name from one of his final works, Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed (1940–43). Shrunken and stiff as a corpse, Munch presents himself without pretension. In the painting, a grandfather clock is beside him—time is running out. Behind Munch hangs his a group of paintings that stands in for the full of his oeuvre. Before him is a tidy bed. It’s the sort of painting only an artist at the end of his career can make: he’s a tired man, and he’s ready for a rest. Art in America


Street artist JR rips off the front of Florence's Palazzo Strozzi in new optical illusion work
Trompe l’oeil image called La Ferita (The Wound) reflects on the difficulties of accessing culture during Covid-19 and reveals Botticelli’s Primavera and The Birth of Venus

French-born artist JR has unveiled one of his most dramatic works yet on the façade of the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, creating an illusory 28m-tall crack in the building that appears to split the gallery in half. The piece, known as La Ferita (The Wound), reveals other celebrated art and heritage sites in the city such as the library of the Istituto Nazionale di Studi sul Rinascimento. Other works seen in the trompe l’oeil image include Botticelli’s Primavera (around 1477) and The Birth of Venus (around 1485), which are both housed at the Uffizi Galleries.

JR’s new piece marks the launch of the Palazzo Strozzi Future Art Programme, a new contemporary art initiative which includes an annual public art commission for Florence. The new programme is backed by the philanthropist Andy Bianchedi who runs a property company in Milan. Details of future commissions are yet to be announced; meanwhile, an exhibition of works by the US artist Jeff Koons is due to open at the palazzo in October.

“It is apt that we launch the programme with JR's new work La Ferita, a powerful reflection on the difficult conditions surrounding access to culture in the age of Covid-19, but also a symbol of freedom, creative imagination and participation and an opportunity to involve the audience, the public at large, in a totally new way,” says Arturo Galansino, the director general of Palazzo Strozzi, in a statement.

The work is the latest high-profile large-scale public installation by JR. Other notable works by the artist include The Secret of the Great Pyramid (2019), a large-scale illusory collaborative piece created to mark the 30th anniversary of the Louvre Pyramid, and Tehachapi (2019) which documents the artist’s experiences with inmates of a maximum-security prison in California. New dates are yet to be announced for an exhibition of JR’s works scheduled to open at Saatchi Gallery in London. The Art Newspaper


How a grasshopper got stuck—leaving its mark in Van Gogh's painting—on a summer’s day in Provence
The new Nelson-Atkins Museum catalogue tells the full story of the Olive Trees

Vincent van Gogh was painting in an olive grove when a grasshopper blew onto his wet paint. He either didn’t notice—or perhaps didn’t care—and carried on, producing one of the finest landscapes he painted just outside the walls of the asylum where he was living.

The painting, Olive Trees (1889), is at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. It is now among the first French pictures to be featured in the museum’s new online catalogue, in which it is the subject of a 28-page study.

When Vincent agreed to move to the asylum just outside Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in May 1889, after mutilating his ear, he made two conditions. As his brother Theo told the asylum director, Vincent should have “at least 1/2 litre of wine with his meals” and “the freedom to paint outside the institution”.

A month after arriving he was allowed outside the asylum walls, immediately discovering the ancient olive groves which lay beneath the hills of Les Alpilles. Struck by their gnarled and twisty trunks and glimmering leaves, he painted the work that is now in Kansas City.

Conservators at the Nelson-Atkins have been studying Olive Trees, in association with the Van Gogh Museum, to prepare for an exhibition which will be held in Amsterdam and Dallas. This has involved eight years of research on the painting, which now makes it possible to track how the artist worked on it.

Using a powerful microscope, conservators discovered the head and a hind leg of a grasshopper entombed in the paint of the foreground, just to the right of the centre. It is hardly visible to the naked eye. There was no disturbance to the paint, which would have occurred if a live insect had got stuck, so it was presumably dead on arrival.

The Rhône Valley has an extremely strong wind, the mistral, which often made it awkward for Van Gogh to paint outside. But he would persevere in windy conditions and it was probably a mistral that blew the dead grasshopper onto his canvas. That summer Vincent had written about painting in the groves with great numbers of insects “flying in the heat”.

Olive Trees is painted in his typical thick impasto technique, so the dead insect just added a little more bulk to the picture surface. The Nelson-Atkins Museum conservator Mary Schafer and her colleagues also found plant material, which remains unidentified, blown into an area of blue paint.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum catalogue reveals that the painting was completed in two stages. Most of the work was done outside, in early June. Van Gogh then suffered a mental attack the following month and he could only resume work in September. Conservators found that he then added the finishing touches, including some short dabs of fresh yellow paint on the trees.

Vincent described his way of working in a revealing letter to his brother in September: “Out of doors, exposed to the wind, the sun, people’s curiosity, one works as one can, one fills one’s canvas regardless. Yet then one catches the true and the essential.”

Then there was a second stage, when Vincent returned to the canvas, most likely in the cell which served as his studio. One “orders one’s brushstrokes”, making the painting “more harmonious and agreeable to see, and one adds to it whatever one has of serenity and smiles”. This is what he did with the Nelson-Atkins Museum's Olive Trees.

Conservators have determined that the colours we see now have altered, as they have in so many of Van Gogh’s paintings. The geranium lake red pigment beneath the trees has faded nearly to the point of invisibility, turning his violet shadows blue.

Describing a similar olive grove scene done at around the same time, Vincent told his sister Wil how the trees “cast shadows violet on the sun-drenched sand”. The violet was intended to represent a complementary contrast with yellow-orange strokes in the tree trunks.

Vincent sent Olive Trees to Theo in Paris, and his widow Jo Bonger eventually sold it in 1905. Five years afterwards it was bought by Adolf Kohner, one of Hungary’s richest men, whose wealth came from agriculture and banking. He hung the painting above the piano in the music room of his Budapest mansion. It is one of the few Van Goghs to be photographed in situ by 1911. Kohner sold the Van Gogh in 1930 in order to buy three slightly more modern paintings, by Redon, Braque and Derain.

In 1932, Olive Trees was bought for the Nelson-Atkins Museum from New York’s Durand-Ruel gallery, the year before it opened to visitors. It was only the second Van Gogh to enter a US museum.

We can report that Olive Trees has now been promised for two major exhibitions, both of which will will be shown in the US. Van Gogh and the Olive Groves is scheduled for the Dallas Museum of Art (17 October 2021-6 February 2022), with the show hopefully opening before that at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum (18 June-12 September 2021), Covid-19 allowing. The painting will also play a starring role in Van Gogh in America at the Detroit Institute of Arts (2 October 2022-22 January 2023). The Art Newspaper


Ancient art returns to public view in Rome

Antiquities are everywhere in the Italian capital. But incredibly, one of the most important collections was hidden away for decades:

"It's like having 600-plus works of art drop out of the sky," enthused archeologist Darius Arya, who met correspondent Seth Doane at Rome's Capitoline Museum. "This figure right here is just out of the textbooks. I mean, the sort of thing that we've all studied but we've never seen."

It's the first time in about 70 years these pieces are on public display.

Doane asked, "Is there any way to rank this collection?"

"This is at the top," Arya laughed. "This is the greatest private collection of ancient Roman antiquity."

It belongs to one of Rome's most powerful aristocratic families, the Torlonias, who over generations spent their banking fortune accruing art.

The collection is a who's-who of antiquity: Busts of every emperor, sarcophagi, and reliefs. The 94 ancient Greek and Roman marbles on exhibition are just a fraction of the 620 owned by the noble family.

Doane asked, "Why did this sit locked away for so long?"

"It's just very complicated," Arya replied. "You have many different intentions of a family, you have many different intentions of the city, you have many properties, you have great costs."

Let's just say it "took a while" to work out the details.

Over the years, the Italian state tried to persuade the Torlonias to sell or display the works. Plans to create a museum repeatedly fell through. Instead, the statues sat locked away in Rome until February of last year, when "Sunday Morning" was allowed in.

We cannot reveal the exact location, but archeologist Salvatore Settis, the exhibit curator, let Doane get a glimpse before the precious marbles went on display. They were still restoring them, after sitting out-of-sight for decades.

"Did you know that this collection was just somewhere waiting to be seen?" asked Doane.

"Everybody knows this," he replied.

He knew because Prince Alessandro Torlonia published this catalogue in the 1880s, which was very unusual in the late nineteenth century. Each piece was photographed and numbered, but viewable only in two dimensions.

Doane said of the display, "It's incredible to be surrounded by all of this."

"Yeah, because each and every one of those pieces has a different story," Settis said.

And the collection also serves as a history of restoration techniques. While, today, we'd leave fragments, in the past the style was to reconstruct what was missing.

Settis said, "One of the statues was put together, probably in 17th century, out of 112 different pieces of at least three different qualities of marble."

Sometimes the "newer" additions are more significant. The head on an ancient goat was added around 1620 by famed sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. "Spectacularly beautiful," Settis called it.

The Torlonia family acquired pieces though the purchase of villas packed with art, and sometimes carried out their own archeological excavations on their properties.

Settis said, "When I first came in here, I was surprised by the number, though I knew the number."

"So, if you knew the number, why were you surprised?" asked Doane.

"Because seeing things in a book and seeing things in the real world is a totally different thing. It was a really moving, really a great experience."

It's an experience more can have. The marbles are set to travel across Europe, and likely to the U.S., as this remarkable record of our collective history is finally shared. CBS News Sunday Morning


Painting as an Intimate Act

Much of writing about art strikes me as something akin to a technical manual on how one should kiss their lover—a cold analytical treatise on something very dear and personal, as if the way one purses one’s lips sums up the entire experience. Another style of writing about art attempts to psychoanalyze or examine the metaphysics of the experience of creating a painting.

When an artist paints, how they “purse their lips;” that is, what subject matter, materials or techniques they use, is important, but not nearly as important as the intimate union of artist and viewer that should take place. All communication, including painting, is an act of intimacy.

When viewing the paintings that move me the most, I can almost sense the faint warm breath of the artist on the back of my neck, looking over my shoulder and observing their creation springing to life before us. That experience doesn’t come from merely painting to fulfill some deadline, nor does it happen when the artist focuses solely on the practice or virtuosity of their medium. It comes from having something to say, and then having an earnest desire to share that personal “something” with others.

To be sure, if the poet never settles down to the excruciatingly slow and difficult task of learning grammar, then he is very limited in the precision, range and nuance of what he can express. But learning the rules and techniques of writing should always be done with the aim of the writer being liberated to express himself without restraint. Then something wonderful can happen. We come to a meeting of the minds. We get a glimpse into that person, and he or she has the joy of being understood and finding others who see the world as they do. They learn they are not alone. We understand the point they’re trying to convey.

In the illustrious words of Steve Martin in the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles: “When you’re telling these little stories, here’s a good idea. Have a point! It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!” Often I see paintings (sometimes on my own easel) that seem to be dedicated solely to the practice of their visual grammar and yet they never seem to get to a point. Other paintings never really seem to commit to the hard work of learning their ABCs in the first place.

Unfortunately, we too often settle for merely going through the exercise of painting the lifeless shell of things, or creating widgets to fulfill a deadline. Of course, how else are we to ever become masters of our craft, if not by practice? We must practice, but it must be practice with the ultimate aim of a heartfelt sharing and giving of ourselves.

I had a professor who once told me that a painting needs a reason to exist, that it shouldn’t look like a picture torn out of a magazine, or a meaningless snapshot of the back yard. When I evaluate my own work, I often ask myself, “Am I just adding to the heap?” In other words, is my work joining the mountain of lifeless paintings created throughout history and filling countless galleries today, or is it something inward, personal and beautiful?

One phrase that troubles me a little is when I hear artists say of their painting, “Yeah, it’s kinda fun, isn’t it?” It feels as if some cad is flirting with my sister! To me, that sentiment connotes the half-hearted dabbling of a dilettante. Now, I realize that phrase is often spoken as a self-effacing and humble way to deflect praise of an artist’s efforts.

I also don’t wish to minimize the wonderful importance of fun as a theme or motif in art. Peter Pan is a story, on one level, about fun, but J. M. Barrie took his fun very seriously, laboriously developing an intricate landscape full of characters, and lovingly weaving a complex set of narratives throughout. His painstaking creation is intimate, passionate, and earnest fun.

Another important way I try to keep my art vital and living is to constantly push myself. I love art that works out to the edge of the artist’s abilities. I sense who the artist is not only by what they can do, but what they attempt to do and fail. I don’t have much interest in art that “plays it safe.”

In my best paintings I’m pushing myself hard enough that I’m showing you my strengths as well as my weaknesses, thus sharing with you exactly who I am. We artists put ourselves in an incredibly vulnerable position, but that’s what we signed up for.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Ernest Hemingway wrote: [The writer] “does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

“For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.

“How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.”

You may be saying at this point, “Alright Brad, so what are some valid and vital themes one might share through art, if simply sharing a beautiful scene isn’t sufficient?” Well, each artist must answer that question for him or herself, but I think a place to start is by looking at the big themes of humanity: hope and disappointment, peace and conflict, love and loss, joy and despair.

Sharing the beauty of a sunrise can be a great theme for painting. Surely the lifeblood of the resurging realist movement in art is that beauty is, always has been, and always will be relevant. But an artist might delve even deeper into the exploration of why that sunrise is so moving, inspiring, and universally hopeful to humankind. Is it merely the correct shade of the red sky, or are there more profound truths at work?

The world in which I find myself has elements of dark and brooding uncertainty and despair, contrasted with longing, beauty and triumph. I strive to endow my paintings with these elements. I often fall short of creating a personal and giving experience, but my best paintings are filled with an intimate sharing of love, honesty, and an earnest hope for the future. Fine Art Connoisseur

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