Monday, February 15, 2016


In the words of Adele...


I have been making a lot of art, but not a lot of blog, so I am just going to plunge in with what has been on my mind.

Well, Texas passed open carry and the law went into effect on the first of January.  I was unnerved by the prospect of seeing a lot of hotheaded shitkickers brandishing weapons in the grocery store and movie theater, or across from the sauce when we were gettin' our Q, but what could I do?  The Texas legislature had made up their minds that my state was returning to the days of the wild west.   

Loaded weapons juxtaposed with the usual sort of impulsive idiot Texas is famous for left me feeling pretty nervous... but as of today (mid February) I still haven't seen one gun.
I think this is due (in part) to the many businesses who have elected to opt out of allowing open carry carriers onto their premises.  Despite the efforts of the second amendment proponents, the law (at least in practice, so far..) has only served to encourage business owners to draw the line, and most of the establishments I frequent have indicated that guns are simply not welcome.

But all of this talk about guns in Texas got me to thinking... Does having a gun make you safer?

Anecdotal evidence was inconclusive.

I was acquainted with a Texas State legislator who shared the awful story of her parent's murder at a mass shooting in Killeen, Texas.  She ran for office specifically to strengthen laws allowing people to carry guns, because she believed that their deaths could have been prevented, if only they had been permitted to carry the guns hidden in their glove compartment into the Luby's on that fateful day.  

I have also spoken with others whose relatives or friends were killed when the gun they had purchased to protect themselves had been turned on them by a partner or spouse, or, less frequently, an intruder.  Others gave accounts of the senseless outcome when a suicidal person took advantage of an easy to get at gun.  News reports of toddlers shooting surprised parents or naive siblings were also bubbling up on my news feed.

So I did what any curious artist would do.  I started googling statistics.

I focused my efforts on how women were affected, because I believe that a lot of women, like me, are very confused about the issue.  All we want is to know the right thing to do to keep ourselves and our families safe, but when it comes to guns, one wrong move could actually be... well...fatal.  

Because open carry is so new, there is not any information on "saves" of women, men or children by gun toting bystanders - I'm sure that story will unfold as time (and crazies) march on. 

But the escalating stats (The Texas Department of Public Safety Crime Statistics) on women killed by guns (and fists) had a profound effect on my thinking and analysis of the gun issue as it relates to common, everyday women in the Lone Star State.  

I spent several months pouring over reports, and when my typically non analytical head was nearing explosive overload it hit me:  This story should not be told in a blur of numerals.  

This story needed to be told one week, one year, one woman at a time.  

And art could help me do that.

Without really planning what I wanted to do, I just began playing with fabric to try and document the women I had been reading about. I awoke one morning with an idea to make something like the paper dolls I used to color and then cut out when I was a little girl.

Using wire, fabric, thread and a meditative buttonhole stitch, I began making silhouettes of dresses, which I thought could serve to represent the women I had been reading about.  

This play evolved into a prospectus for a solo show, which I am calling "BLOWN AWAY..."


What follows is some of the writing  about the project that I submitted to several Texas venues, along with some pictures of work samples created for my applications:

According to the DPS, 309 Texas women were murdered in 2014, representing an 11.5% increase over the previous year. 2013 saw 277 female victims, which was already an increase of 5.32% from the 263 murdered in 2012. The overall (both men and women) murder rates since 2012 had increased only marginally (0.5% [2013] to 3.1% [2014]), making it apparent that the homicide of females was on the rise in the Lone Star State.

But why aren't we talking about that? Why is our focus on mass shootings and the pros and cons of open carry? Because statistics are dry, dull and difficult to fathom, and the majority of those victims weren't killed by strangers. Most importantly, unlike an AK47 pointed at somebody's head in a movie theater, statistics just aren't immediate.

BLOWN AWAY aims to give those victims, those statistics, a voice. In ....a....Gallery Space, this installation will honor all 277 women killed during 2013 through an immersive experience in which each woman can be seen as more than just a number buried in an unread report.

My show will feature a single row of 52 - 9” (tall) white linen covered panels, which will be hung contiguously throughout the darkened gallery. Each panel represents a week during 2013, and the panels will wrap the perimeter of the gallery (skipping openings), viscerally representing a visual year of victims.


Each panel will feature several raised (about 1/2”) and sculpted transparent dresses (manipulable wired dress shapes embroidered to layers of sheer fabrics then cut free) suspended (unobtrusively) in a horizontal row. Like a lineup of chalk “victim” outlines, each dress tells the story of women - often victimized by crime and simultaneously blamed for crimes against them.


The wired and embroidered dresses are both a fantasy of who these women (perhaps) were or wanted to be, as well as the sad reality of their deaths, either by gunshot or stabbing or “strong arm” weapons (described by DPS as the use of hands, feet and fists).



The only special equipment I would request is that of spotlight lighting to illuminate the full row of panels.


Strong, clear lighting directed on and through the dresses (suspended above the panels) activates the colors and textures of the transparent fabrics, creating beautifully colored “shadows” on the white linen beneath.  





Multiple shadows emerge as the light changes, reminding the viewer of all of the lives each woman's life can touch.


As the viewer moves past them, these shadows “come alive,” moving with the viewer's eye like ghostly apparitions on the pure white support. The viewer simultaneously sees both the heavenly and corporeal, the victim as alive and at the very moment of her demise; her hope and promise, and the sheer and unalterable waste of her death.



I am hoping my installation sparks conversation about this slow yet somehow acceptable form of mass execution and gives women in unsafe situations the courage to recognize themselves and take action. I am hoping survivors (children, parents, friends) will find peace through the work.


This work is made of fabric, cotton embroidery floss, wire and light.

Please feel free to share, or leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Statement, of Sorts...

The Conversation of Art - 

I had my first conscious museum experience (at the MFA in Houston) relatively late in life, at about age 23.  As I walked through, delighting in the color, images and shifting time, I saw everything but heard nothing; it was a purely visual experience.  I can’t explain why, but something inside compelled me to repeat this exercise; to tramp through dozens of other museums during the years that followed.  In the silence, my eyes took it all in.

Gradually, I could recognize a few of the artists by just the look of their paintings.  “Oh, hello, I know you,” I would think to myself as I crossed the room, beaming as if recognizing an old friend.  “So this is what you were up to since we last met - I see what you were thinking about!”  

I was starting to hear some whispers. 

Visits to libraries and bookstores turned up the volume.  Combing through reference books, I found the stories.  I was shocked by Frida’s terrible accident, and understood Vincent’s lonely wandering.  I wept when I read about Henri’s defiance of his deformity, and was impressed by Andy’s calculated preemptive strike.

When my children arrived, I took them along, and engaged them with what I had learned.  “See that painting, with all of the blue in it?  Pablo was sad because his friend had just died when he made it,” I would say.

And the paintings began talking back.

“You’re damn right I was sad then,” I could have sworn I heard the work reply.  “But look, there - at that hint of rose - and the eyes, which look like masks; can you tell that I am starting to think differently, Catherine?” My chin would bob with understanding.

And while this conversation was going on, tiny drips of art started leaking out of me.  Painting a flat for a school play, doodling in the margins of my life, or making ridiculously complex Halloween costumes, my own creative juices began to flow.

Squeezing out some time, I took drawing, painting and design classes, and thought a lot about art, searching for a way, for permission really, to join in the conversation.  

Then, at 51, with only rudimentary art or computer skills, I made the decision to publicly commit myself to learn to paint, by making 52 paintings in a year and posting them on a blog.  Vincent van Gogh and I spent a year together, and he taught me to see and think like an artist.  He told me his story, and I told him mine (  He told me to make art, even if no one believed in it or me.

Although I would have described myself as a very private “shame-driven” type of person, I dove in without any clue about how to do even simple tasks, like taking a screen shot.  (And, so you know, I have not changed or cleaned up a word of the Vincent Project blog since I initially published it.) I suffered the humiliation of my (now adult) tech-savvy kids rolling their eyes (in their own embarrassment) at how little I knew about using a computer.

Without much culling or careful curation of my images, I taught myself to blog, and published paintings in every stage of development, including ones that were truly awful.  I got almost no feedback (except halting “Oh, that’s interesting…” conversational dismissals) until I was well more than halfway through the project.  

Unexpectedly, I sold my house, had a major estate sale, remodeled a loft apartment and moved in the middle of that year; during that upheaval, I painted and (admittedly, later than I wanted to) published.  I continued to announce every new posting on social media and provided links, and I pursued every glimmer of interest with friends, strangers, stalkers and some who I believe must be in the Russian mob.  

I completed 52 paintings within 52 weeks, and wrote about them all.  Then I did the bravest thing of all.  I kept on painting, even though it would have been so easy to embrace the hobby and just paint on Sundays.  

There were more courses, this time in Art History. 

I was finding that he more I understood the language, the more cacophonous the museums became.  As I passed from gallery to gallery, I could hear the artists hailing one another, teasing one another, paying tribute to those who had come before. I started to catch on to the amusing inside jokes (that I felt) they had inserted for my enjoyment.  I saw images repeated and reinterpreted over and over - Millet to van Gogh, Goya to Manet, Kahlo to Morimura; I was beginning to understand a lot of what they were saying, and even some of what had been left unsaid.

In the studio space I had carved out for myself, I started hearing the soft cadence of my own voice tentatively joining the chorus.  Jackson guided my drips, until Lee told him to shut the hell up and let me do it.  Henri’s hands folded over my own in the scissors, until the confidence of my cuts allowed him to let me go. Through my own practice, I found myself simultaneously looking backward, forward and standing in place; I was leaving behind the mark of my  own life through the objects I had made.

I think about and make art each and every day simply because I am seeking greater fluency in the subject.  I want to practice speaking until I can conjugate the verbs, perfect the tenses, and converse like a native.

The art which has leaked out of me all of my life is now a steady flow, and I will never allow that faucet to be turned off, by anyone or anything.  I want to grow as an artist, both technically, and with a more refined communication of my thoughts, ideas and responses.  I want to expand the dialogue I am engaged in via actual, interactive conversation and collaboration with other artists.  I hope that my art will continue to be recognized and collected.

Ultimately, I want to continue in the ongoing and timeless conversation.  I want my art to whisper or shout as it tells my own story.  I want someone in the next century to joyfully cross a gallery just to say - “Oh, hello, I know you.”

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Art cannot be appreciated on an empty stomach...

- The secret to getting a man through a 
museum is to (occasionally)
 let him get off of his feet -

Last week’s Museum waltz across Texas provided two opportunities for fine art lunches - at the Café Modern in Fort Worth, and at the newly opened Bistro Menil in the sticky, humid heart of Houston.  

Elegant yet expensively and purposefully austere, the Café Modern invites diners into a large, open room featuring a spectacular view of the museum’s Conjoined (Roxy Paine, 2007), two stainless steel trees locked in a permanent windblown dance.  A sinuous wall of floor to ceiling windows frames a cool, restful grotto which overlooks a shallow man made lake, enveloping the building in a shimmery embrace.  This reflective water beautifully cordons off the mainly monetary area of the museum, but still allows for tantalizing glimpses across the pond into the similarly windowed exhibit space beyond.  

Motifs of modernity are repeated uniformly throughout the space: gray clad Saarinen chairs gather around slick tables. Polished chrome gleams.  Featured on each tableau were all of the things that make some Texas diners more than a little nervous:  bread plates and un-patted butter, cryptic, featureless condiment shakers, and small clear vessels  which make precious strange, weed-like flowers.  Of course, the  silverware too impossibly modern to use with grace, so conversation in the room was often punctuated by the clatter of dropped cutlery, followed in turn by a softly muttered “dang!”

I am an omnivoric member of clean plate club, but my dining companions included an economic vegetarian and a gluten intolerant pescetarian.  After a full morning of travel, and with a planned afternoon at the Kimbell ahead of us, no one in our party was in the mood for a large heavy lunch.  The vegetarian went with the Kung Pao Cauliflower ($13.50), the fish lover selected a bowl of the Carrot, Coconut and Cardamom Soup ($7.50 - made without gluten), and I chose the Super Foods Salad ($13.75).  Our irritated server (we had been seated close to the end of the lunch shift) took our order with an annoyed sigh, and then abandoned us to empty our iced tea glasses without supervision.

Finally making a reappearance with our lunch, Ms. Café Modern veritably rolled her eyes in irritation with us that we dared to have only ice cubes left in our glasses.  Wiping her hand on a slightly crusty apron, she got the plates (with only a few more slightly controlled sighs) on the table.  Everything (salad, entree, soup) was presented at a completely uniform temperature - I guess I can say that the kitchen was consistent.  

The over cardomomed soup had the mouth feel of pureed baby food, but at least it wasn’t so hot that you had to be careful with each spoonful.  The always voracious economic vegetarian fared better with the Kung Pao Cauliflower - a minimal serving of tofu, cauliflower and sticky rice, his meal was swiftly devoured and pronounced “good enough.”  My Super Foods Salad, featuring Quinoa, Greens, Broccoli, Peas, Avocado and greek yogurt, started well, but then became weirdly too much of a melange of too many different flavors.  I received demerits from the clean plate club until my gluten free (and still starving after his baby food meal) companion finished the dish, sans the toasted pita bread garnish.  I am certain he liked it better than I did.  Not wanting to keep our server from whatever important thing it was that she was doing any longer, we declined dessert.

Because we were left alone (by our server) for so much of the time while we were at the Café Modern, we had plenty of chances to look around and observe the room.  Happily, this provided the opportunity to steal glances at another, far less ignored patron - an exquisitely dressed urban gentleman cowboy dining on his own.  Outfitted with his well conformed jeans tucked unironically into high shaft custom cowboy boots, and sporting a snappy vest with jacket and perfect, brassy wire rimmed glasses, our own Sam Shepard appeared to be using his smartphone, laptop and Texas charm to broker the sale of a herd of cattle, or perhaps, with oil now boring him, he was arranging to have more wind turbines installed on his ranch plateau near Marfa.

The Modern is a great place to go, just don’t show up late during a shift or very hungry.  The food is less Café than cafeteria, but all is forgiven (as is always the case in a great museum) when you see the views - both inside and out.

Just a week later, with the vegetarian back in Boston, the pescetarian and I stepped out of the Menil Collection (looking for another end of shift lunch) and walked across the street to the charming new Bistro Menil.  The exterior has been styled to blend with the other little grey houses lining the streets around the museum, and this newly built space featured large windows and a welcoming wooden porch, all nestled into a thoughtfully preserved and shaded lot.   

A telephone tied woman locked vision with us as soon as we walked through the door; she then silently mesmerized a passing waiter, demanding with flashes of her deep brown eyes that he drop what he was doing and show us to a table.   Although we never heard a whispered “I hear, and I obey…” it was very apparent who signed his weekly checks.  Our compliant waiter showed us quickly to his own section and a table with a lively view of the space in between the restaurant and the adjacent museum bookstore.  My partner enjoyed a plush bench seat from where he was perfectly positioned to observe the interior of the restaurant in all of its tasteful, well curated modern (but with warm wood, so it’s not so cold!) glory.

Unlike our recent shunning by server in Fort Worth, this fellow quickly waited as fast as he could, signaling busboys for drinks and reeling off specials with a shocking amount of…engagement.  He gave us a few moments to discuss, then swiftly returned to take our order for a Pizza with fresh Mozzarella and Tomato ($12.00) and a Menil Salad ($8.00) with salmon ($6.00) and vinaigrette.  A bread plate then appeared and we were left with a few moments to discuss our mutual confusion over our encounter with Cy Twombly.  

Before our lunch arrived, a lull in our own conversation led to an overheard snippet from the two men seated next to us - they were apparently both classical musicians and old chums meeting for a quick bite while in town for separate gigs.  We knew we were definitely in a museum restaurant when we heard words like “harpsichord,” “clavicle,” and “Stravinsky,” as they reveled in the pleasure (with no thought of calories or grams of anything) of lustily enjoying large and separate desserts.  The pescatarian, who is also a musician, was happy to indulge (albeit vicariously) in his own favorite fine art.  

Things only got better when the food arrived.  A light, yet crispy crust complimented a salty mozzarella on my partner’s pizza.  Although it was of a size that could have been shared, I barely got a whiff of the delicious steam off of his plate before only the crumbs remained.  My salad, like all of the salads eaten by ladies who lunch, was perfectly fine; tasty (enough) and good for me.  The cooked to order salmon was perfectly sized  and grilled to perfection.  The rustic table bread rounded the meal to a satisfactory conclusion.

Until our server brought the dessert menu to our attention.  

The Chocolate Pot de Creme and Warm Chocolate Mousse Cake our neighbors had enjoyed earlier typically offer no temptation to me, but I was easily snared and hung by my thumbs and begging for mercy when I read the words “Lemon Curd Tart ($10.00).”  The brief preview we had gotten (of our neighbors very nearly licked clean plates) allowed me to trust, and I was glad that I did.  

Almost as quickly as we were able to order, our still enthusiastic waiter delivered a small and very tart tart, with a flaky, croissant like crust.  Relaxing in the enjoyment of our lemony afterglow, finishing our perfectly foamy cappuccinos and seated comfortably in the cool drift of the air conditioning, we were able to forget, for at least another moment, about the shimmering heat beyond the window.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Happy (Almost) New Year!

Well, it is almost time to put 2014 to bed, and what a fun year it has been!  I've been so lucky to get to see a lot of great art, including Matisse, Goya, Magritte, more Matisse, Cezanne, Manet, more Magritte, Picasso and Braque, Bates, Soto, van Gogh, Rembrandt, Pollock, and so many others.

I've also had the opportunity to (finally!) take art history (1&2!) this past summer.  How that experience has added to my enjoyment of museums (in particular) and art (in general).

I have also been making some art of my own.  You saw "The Girl with a Pearl" in my last post, and since, I have completed two more pictures.

The first is based on Magritte's Surrealist masterpiece, "The Treachery of Images."

I was so excited to see this in person at the Menil Collection in Houston this summer.  For those of you who do not know about the Menil, it is a FREE museum that always has very interesting exhibits, located right in the heart of one of the most charming old neighborhoods in the city.  While you are there, pop over to the Rothko Chapel, as well; it is close enough to walk, and you will be rewarded with a completely immersive modern art experience that is like no other.

The Menil Collection was one of the stops on a national tour of some of Magritte's most famous works, and it was such an enjoyable exhibit, that I ended up going twice.  Each time, I was most handsomely rewarded - Magritte could really paint quite well, and the humor and cheekiness of his work still brings a smile to my face, even these months later.

Rene Magritte was a Belgian surrealist, and if you don't know his name, you must certainly know his work.   Famous for his paintings of falling apples and steam trains coming through fireplaces, this 20th century artist made his mark by creating work that was purposely designed to blow your mind...

An example:

Magritte called this work The Human Condition, and if it doesn't make you do a double take, I don't know what will.

I was thinking a lot about Magritte and his unique vision of the world when I set out on my trip to New York City (to see the Matisse Cut Outs - outstanding!).  I was particularly pondering the pipe that was and was not a pipe, and the many layers and levels of thinking that this particular painting required of those observing it.

We did a lot of subway riding to get around the city on the cold, rainy weekend we were there, and as I looked around, observing the other riders, I noticed that most everybody, during every moment of their trip, had their heads bent in prayerful obedience to their cell phones.  Even when we went above ground, a lot of people couldn't put their phones down, even in restaurants, and even during what were clearly dates.  I found that very strange, and a little bit sad.

Even in the museums that we visited, the patrons seemed to spend very little time looking at the art, and a lot of time with their heads hunched over, staring at either their cell phones or the museum's self guided tour devices.   I saw a lot of the tops of people's heads.

As a person who did not grow up with a cell phone in her hand, I wanted to shout at them: "Hey!  Look up!  Big world out here, and your'e missing it!"  I wanted all of these hunch necks to realize that their cell phone was not their life - their life was the thing they were missing, because their eyes were glued to their screens.

So, I thought to myself: "What would Magritte do?"  He would make a little barbed joke, and hope they got it.  Here is what I did:

The Treachery of Jobs

I initially intended to either paint or embroider a cell phone as part of my picture, but when I got out an old cell phone to use as a reference, I decided it would be better to just add a real object to the picture.

For those who do not speak French, (I think) the translation says: "This is not a life."

I like that it plays on many different levels - Magritte had an image of a real object that was not real because it was an image; I present a real object that is virtual in it's nature - playing with the idea of a real vs. a virtual existence.

The cell phone is firmly attached to the picture plane; I figured out how to sew the phone case where I needed the phone to be, and that phone isn't going anywhere.  Another surprising aspect of the painting was the reflected view in the glass.  When I looked into the painting, I saw my own virtual image reflected back to me, which did blow my mind a little bit.  Mission Accomplished.

When I was finishing the back of the painting, I decided (on a whim) to give it a better than standard picture wire...

The Treachery of Jobs (reverse)

I called it The Treachery of Jobs because I both love and hate Steve Jobs.

While I was on my surrealist kick, I decided to also make a crewel work portrait of Frida Khalo.  Frida (whom I wrote about in The Vincent Project Blog) was such a beautiful and iconic figure in the history of art - I just wanted to get to know her a bit better by painting her portrait in silk.

Here is what I did:

Diego's Chica (portrait of Frida)
Because of Frida's timeless sense of fashion, I chose a purposely old fashioned oval frame, which I stretched with black velvet.  I began the painting with a stitched green "underpainting" to give her olive skin life and substance.  Once the underpainting was complete, I slowly built the layers of vibrant color, stitch by stitch, mixing the individual fibers just as I would have mixed paint.

Here are some photos of the details:

Frida's face and the flowers in her hair

And an extreme close up of the face - you can see the green peeking through

For the flowers in her hair, I did a stump embroidery technique, making individual petals, which I embroidered separately, then added piece by piece to form the flowers.  That was a lot of fun to do!

Stump Embroidery Flowers

Well, that gets me pretty caught up.  If you want to see more, be sure to check out my website.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

My latest work -

Hi!  I wanted to let you know that I now have a website, which you can link to by clicking on

Now here's what's been going on in the studio -

Girl with a Pearl - Crewel Embroidery on black velvet.

I am on a big crewel kick since I took a life drawing II class this summer.  It is fun to use wool and silk as my medium, and I am getting images that I think are pretty interesting.

Please feel free to let me know what you think!
My painting is roughly the same size as Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl earring upon which it is based.

There are about 8 layers of Wool and Silk on the painting, which was done with a traditional glazed painting technique.  I began with an underpainting of various shades of thin green wool under the flesh, and purple and orange wool underneath the sweater and beret, respectively.
Details, details!

Rimfire - Charcoal on Paper - completed during my Life Drawing II class - before Kim Kardashian even thought about breaking the internet.

Pastel Selfie - from my class

Boyo - Pastel from my class
Cruel, Crewel Summer (left and below) and Crewel Self Portrait, were both completed for my class.

I had been struggling in working with pastels because they kept on smearing.  I was trying to demonstrate that I understood the color theory discussed in class, but the pastels were just too difficult to work with (without overworking) and transport.  So, I decided to go sideways.

For the two final self portraits required, I decided to "paint" them with crewel embroidery.  The one on the lower left was the first one I did, and then one on the left and below was what I turned in for my final.

Happily, I got an A!

Below are two more "fabrications" which I made since my last studio posting but before starting my classes.  At left is Silent Spring, made of woven strung sequins, and Invidia, made up of green silk and everything  black in my studio.

I am currently working on a silk crewel portrait of Frida Khalo.  Just because I love her.

More soon.  I am sort of promising.

Let's Learn about: Picasso!

What follows is the Art History Paper I wrote about the great Modernist painter Pablo Picasso and his painting, "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon."  For more information about Picasso, please link to

Picasso and his sister.  Personality!

In 1907, a brash, young Spanish painter living in Paris began assembling a large canvas, stretching fabric across a frame measuring almost 8' X 8'.   It was unwieldy, big, and, by the time he got it gessoed, a lot of blank whiteness.  The height of the picture plane dwarfed the painter as he began outlining his ideas in charcoal, but he confidently pressed on, referring back to the many studies he had already made for the painting.  What he had in mind for the picture was unlike anything he had done before; although, at the age of only 26, he had already painted in what would come to be defined as just three of his earliest distinct styles of work.  

This new picture would be miles removed from the boring, old fashioned yawn of precise drawing and glazed oils he had mastered (to please his artist father) by the age of 16.  It would take almost nothing from the representational, yet depressively evocative  azure work he had shed like tears after the public suicide of his best friend.  It would have little in common with the next group of commercially successful, rosy paintings of harlequins and misfits that had helped him to finally begin to heal.

No, this would be an entirely new kind of painting.  This was a painting about whores.  Not courtesans or companions; not mistresses and certainly not Madonnas.  This would be five naked prostitutes, lined up for inspection by their customers, each on full display, and each simultaneously wanting and dreading selection.

Les Demoiselles

Pablo Picasso had already studied and made plenty of paintings about women before, so a composition featuring females was nothing new.  At the La Llotja Academy, and, under his father's tutelage, he had been taught all about the proper way to paint the fairer sex. Smoothly, slowly, and with near photographic realism, women in all of western art were to be depicted as either Madonnas or Queens (if they were "good"), or Nymphs, Ciphers, Mistresses or Courtesans (if they were "bad").  But nobody was ever really bad.  They were just kind of sexy bad.

In the Rococo, Francois Boucher gave us a Reclining Girl (1752), glorying in her pinchable, pattable, disrobed derriere, but she was not a whore, just the coy mistress of the King.   Jean-Honore Fragonard answered back with The Swing (1767), allowing us to draw our own conclusions about the lingerie wearing habits of French women and the visual delight of the gentlemen who liked to sit at their feet.  Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres continued the tradition with La Grande Odalisque (1814), a neoclassical fantasy of an exotic foreign dish that was very hot and only partially covered.  Realist painter Edouard Manet shocked the Paris Salon by turning his Olympia (1863) to face us, and even though she progressively met our gaze, her pampered surroundings and porcelain skin let us know that even if she were a call girl (she was), she was the highest class of call girl you could get.  In other words, if you had to ask the price, you couldn't afford her.

We all knew who these women were, and exactly what it was that they did, to keep a roof over their heads and fine china silks on their back.  But all of those women were veiled in a common gossamer cloak of beauty and winking naughtiness, of "companionship" rewarded by a discrete deposit, or the accidental leaving behind of a pawnable jewel.  What never happened in these artistic and utterly masculine fantasies was the reality of payment being pressed into a dirty, rough nailed hand, to be immediately skimmed by a pimp, madame, or husband.  We heard the women sigh, but never heard the exhausted, worn out sigh of a working girl.

Until Pablo faced that big, rectangular canvas, and began to stab at it with an angry brush of truth.

Picasso came of age just as the still, and then the motion picture camera began widely capturing the world he lived in.  The painters of this era that we don't remember stubbornly stuck to the idea of painted canvas as only an historic document, but the ones who broke through realized that the cameras didn't ruin paintings, they liberated them.  

First, photojournalists masterfully took over the function of art to document a political cause, or disseminate a particular view of history.  Portrait photographers brought personal images to the masses, who in turn, began to understand the difference between a good composition and a poor one.  And with "movies" (like the ones by the Lumiere brothers [first shown in 1895]) at the Grand Cafe in Paris, the world Picasso lived in suddenly became one that  moved.  Of course it had always moved, but now it could be moved and captured simultaneously, then viewed together in a shared cultural experience.  No painter had ever dreamed a dream this big, and no painter seemed to understand that this was a seismic cultural shift.  And although he did not see it yet, Picasso's eyes, in the quiet of a darkened room illuminated by flickering images, were beginning to open.

Picasso's talent had been recognized by a prescient and very important Parisian art dealer, Ambroise Vollard.  With a taste that could almost foretell the future, Vollard began to promote the young, unknown Spaniard, along with the other unappreciated artists he represented, including Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cezanne.   

Picasso had been fascinated by Cezanne's work, particularly the multi-angled paintings the Frenchman had done of Mount Sainte-Victoire.  He had also met and begun what would become an intense rivalry with Henri Matisse, (Les bonheur de vivre [1905-06]), whose own use of color, flattening of forms, and abstraction of reality must have spurred him on, as well.

From these masters, Picasso had begun thinking about an even greater loosening of his style.  He had already been elongating the figures of his blue and rose periods, stretching and distorting the subjects of his paintings, and infusing an ever increasing emotionality in his work.  

Pablo had also joined the social circle of Gertrude and Leo Stein, American Expats who, for their famous and lively salons, had plucked and savored the Avant-Garde of Paris like hors d'oeuvores at a cocktail party.  Picasso had offered to paint a portrait of Gertrude, knowing that her money and influence would help his career, but he struggled with the picture.  

After many bad starts, Picasso broke through when he thought about her image in conjunction with archaic Iberian sculptures, which he had begun "collecting" (with the help of a light fingered secretary who took advantage of the opportunity presented by a sleeping security guard at the Louvre).  The statues, with their flattened, simple, almond shaped eyes, allowed Picasso to capture Stein's essence, if not her exact image.  The process of making that painting also got him thinking about just how valuable simplified and "primitive" techniques could be in serving a new, modern art for a new, modern age.

During the same period, with the opening of an Ethnography museum in Paris, Picasso had begun looking at and collecting African art, particularly tribal masks.  Pablo admired the unconstricted freedom of all of these "primitives," and, with the completion of the Stein painting, he was ready for everything he had been thinking about to coalesce.

The gifted young Spaniard began turning in his mind a world where still pictures moved, perspectives in paintings shifted, and simplified primitivism was starting to look very, very modern.  Pablo Picasso was getting ready to reinvent  art.

As Picasso began to lay down the contour lines of the painting he thought of as Mon Bordel (My Brothel), he was probably also thinking about the work of earlier artists, including Post Impressionist Paul Gauguin's small statue, Oviri (1894), Mannerist El Greco's Opening of the Fifth Seal (1608-14), and particularly, Cezanne's Les Grandes Baigneuses (first, 1874 - 75).  But he was not interested in making a reproduction of even a reinterpretation of another painting or sculpture.  Picasso was interested in working out an itch, an annoyance; he had a problem that was clearly vexing him.  Pablo was a guy who was just trying to get a little relief.

As a young man, Picasso had often indulged in the pleasures of the bordello, sneaking away from his Mother's Catholic embrace to the arms of his favorite whore.  And, like those nighttime visits to learn a new way of loving and being loved, Pablo began to secretly, furtively paint each night.  Under the sneaky cover of darkness, Pablo found that relief that he needed.   

With his canvas in a portrait position, Pablo, working purely from imagination and his studies, lined up three of the girls from the far left to the center of the canvas.  He painted them in flat, meaty tones, with angular features that cut the plane of the picture like so many shards of glass.  Two are vaguely draped (covering little), and the third, at the far left, is shown with her body like the others, but her head, which is seen in profile, is rendered in dark, woody shades.  Her two companions look directly, accusingly, at us, with large misshapen eyes, noses drawn with a profile contour, and wordless slits for mouths.  All three are depicted with breasts flung forward, though this belies the flatness of the picture plane.  Next to the woman in the center is a frosty blue drape, which is held back, along with a second panel of fabric, by a woman either wearing, or having, in the place of her head, an African mask.  Her eyes are blinded, and it is the blind (the drape) that she holds back.  Her body is almost flat, and is painted with a harlequin like pattern of tones representing the planes of her form.  Within the almost flat picture, she seems to stand behind the others.  Her body is obscured by the only completely seated figure, a woman with legs spread wide and her back to our point of view.  Her right elbow is cocked toward the right side of the canvas edge, as her left rests casually on a gynecologically opportune leg, which is next to a broken basket of fruit.  Her face is the most disturbing of all: an angry red and blue mask peers out at us from the back of her head.  She is both completely hidden and uncomfortably naked.  None of the women are unconsciously nude; each seems acutely aware of the power of their naked forms.  At the far left, there may be another reddish drape, which is held by by the woman with the wooden face.  There are just a few shadows and highlights suggesting depth. 

Well that was, and is, quite the picture.  In it, you will find no modeling, no fixed perspective, no horizon line or focal point.  There is no fixed source of light and there are absolutely no other hints of traditional painting to be found within this arresting and completely bizarre image. 

But what is there, besides five incredibly ugly women in an unspeakably ugly situation?

There are five figures that appear to completely still, as frozen as greek statues, but they somehow look like they are breathing. There is a picture plane that is utterly flattened, yet is still completely readable as having depth.   There is an aspect of selection, as if Picasso is asking in which direction should art go?  There are faces abstracted as if by a shaman in the caves at Lascaux, and there is ugliness which melts, like a twisted funhouse mirror, into a reflection of women who are both objectified and finally real.  In Les Demoiselles, the art is the fantasy; the women are real.

Les Demoiselles D'Avignon (completed 1907) was a big, gigantic, fully rendered oil study, which I would argue that Picasso produced to tell himself where he needed to go.  He never really intended to show the painting, and was probably not surprised by the initial reaction when it finally was shown it to other artists (fellow inventor of cubism Georges Braque was heard to mutter "it's like…drinking… paraffin…").

Of the painting, Picasso said, "I detest people who talk about 'beauty.'  What is beautiful?  In painting you have to talk about problems!  Paintings are nothing but exploration and experiment.  I never paint a picture as a work of art.  They are all exploration.  I am always exploring, and all this searching and searching follows a logical development."

Just as when Picasso visited the prostitutes to teach him how to make love, this visit with these prostitutes taught him how to make art modern.  He never intended for it to be a public record; we are so lucky that he saved it.

Les Demoiselles was  the way that Picasso found the road to cubism.  He painted it because his itchy brain told him that he had to; it nagged at him like a physical urge, until, through the process of fusing girls, masks, movement, and a wholly new kind of perspective, he had painted for himself something that would take him another step toward where he wanted to go.  Because he painted the five whores of Avignon, Picasso could shatter the next woman he painted into shards, which he hung in the atmosphere of his picture, like a spray of cubed droplets of perfume.  

The five prostitutes are not beloved because they were famous, or because their images are beautiful, or because Picasso particularly wanted to capture even the shadow of any real woman that he knew.  These ladies, the beautifully ugly las chicas of the bordello of Picasso's youth are his bridge to modernism, and that is why they will live forever.

The revolutionary act of Pablo Picasso making this painting is what kept two dimensional art as relevant any photograph, digital image or motion picture.  Les Demoiselles D'Avignon was the day when, championed by a brilliant Spaniard, painting fought back.


Picasso, Master of the New Idea - by Marie-Laure Bernadac and Paule du Bouchet, Discoveries, Abrams, New York

Pablo Picasso - by Hajo Duchting, Prestel, living_art books

Picasso - by Carsten-Peter Warncke, Taschen Books

Picasso, Challenging the Past - at the National Gallery, London: 25 February to 7 June, 2009, Curated by Christopher Riopelle and Anne Robbins, The National Gallery

ART, Everything you need to know about the greatest artists and their works, by Susie Hodge, Quercus books

Gardner's Art Through the Ages, 14th Edition, by Fred S. Kleiner, Wadsworth, Cengage Learning


Let's Learn about: Manet!

What follows is the Art History Paper I wrote about the great Pre-Impressionist Edouard Manet and his painting, "The Bar at the Folies Bergere."

If you would like to see his work, please link to:

Édouard Manet-crop.jpg

It is a beautiful scene which, at first glance, seems to celebrate everything marvelous about the Belle Epoch, embracing the rich abundance of modern Paris in a beautiful, newly designed city of glittering electric light.  It is a scene which could have been contemporarily captured by a photograph, or printed in a newspaper, or posted as an advertisement on one of the modern buildings lining the wide, tree-shaded boulevards of the newly self crowned cultural capital of the world.

The Bar at the Folies Bergere

In the glare of a room filled with those modern, electrified lamps, a young woman stands behind a counter laden with the ingredients of a night of merry frolic.  Her outstretched arms, leaning lightly on the marble surface, form a triangle, which directs us to examine what she has on offer.  By her left hand, a crystal compote is filled with fresh citrus, which begs to be squeezed, zested and curled into cocktails.  A mysterious vessel of green liqueur tempts us with the flavor of something mysterious and possibly dangereux.  At her right hand, a bottle of garnet colored wine is perfectly aged.   Adjacent beer and champagne bottles are tastefully aligned, daring her to pop their corks in a fizzy release.  In between the two groups of aperitifs stands a small crystal vase holding delicate, softly petaled roses; like the girl, they are in full bloom.

The flowers are silhouetted against a dark velvet jacket, accenting the barmaid's corseted waist.  The revealing sweetheart neckline of the jacket is trimmed with a frill of lace, and a small spray of flowers is placed just above the contrasting center buttons, both hiding and highlighting her decolletage.  The practical three quarter length sleeves of her jacket, also accented with upturned lace, reveal strong, sturdy arms, and hands ready to serve our needs and desires.  A brassy golden bracelet and velvet choker with locket complete the outfit, complimented by delicate pearl earrings.  The girl's forehead is hidden by a thick fringe of almost too long bangs, which reflect back the glassiness of the overhead lights.

Behind the bar is a large mirror, which silently reveals to us a room that must certainly be cacophonous.  The silvery image depicts a large hall, crowded with lively, fashionable patrons.  Some are conversing, others are walking between the tables, and, among the cigar smoke, there is wave after wave of shining silk top hats.  To our left, one woman is seen peering through opera glasses at what is revealed at the upper corner to be a pair of tiny green booted feet, delicately balanced atop a swinging trapeze bar.

On the right, the mirror reflects the velvety peplumed back of the barmaid's jacket, the casualness of her ponytailed coiffure, and the face of her well heeled, mustachioed patron as he leans in to place his order. 

But even in the beauty and vibrancy of the scene, something seems slightly amiss.  

First, the girl:  anyone who has ever been a server will instantly recognize Suzon's expression of disengaged detachment.  Her eyes seem to both meet and evade our own.  In her expression, she vacillates between being ready to engage and serve, and being lost in her own thoughts.  

The space behind the bar is also excessively narrow, with barely enough room for Suzon's sideways passage.  She does not appear to have enough area to even turn around.

The final oddity in the painting is the mirror, which puzzles the viewer in several different ways.  First, the bottom of the mirror is not linear, and seems to stair step down an inch or so in the space behind Suzon's body.  The reflection of the bottles on the bar are also off, with the "real" bottles aligned in a row, and the reflected bottles presented in a zig zag.   

But most disturbing of all is the reflection of Suzon and her patron.  If the mirror were real, then Suzon's back would be reflected directly behind her, in which case the reflection of her back would be obscured by her own presence.  The patron she engages (who should be seen in the position of us, the viewers) is instead seen on the far right of the picture, and this juxtaposition further compounds the visual confusion.

But we don't care….

The Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1882) succeeds because in it, Manet makes several significant creative leaps:  

First, Suzon's large grey-blue eyes are not vacant, as some have argued, but belong instead to her own interior thinking.  She may be considering a proposal by her boyfriend, or an unfortunate unplanned pregnancy, or that she stupidly wore the wrong, uncomfortable shoes to work that night.  It does not matter.  Manet tenderly lets her keep her own thoughts to herself, which gives her a dignity as great as that of any queen.   Manet does not tell us her story, but instead allows us to draw our own conclusions.  This makes Suzon all of us, and all of us Suzon.  This makes The Bar a painting not only about a scene, but, significantly, allows us to feel something about that scene.

Like the space behind the bar, our modern world may at first appear expansive, and, thanks to  careful urban planning, look like there is plenty of room, but that very modernity comes with a price - a tension that is caused by the narrowing in of an increasingly complex and faster paced society.  The smoke and mirrors that we see in the scene is just that: smoke and mirrors covering what can be a complicated and increasingly stressful world within a city of rapidly increasing population, density, and urban crowding.

And finally to the mirror itself: Manet uses it to show us that we no longer need to make perfect "photographic" paintings in order to make art.  The art can, of it's own accord, convey a mood, an emotion, or a feeling about the subject, without having to conform to antiquated rules codified only to keep artists and the production of art in a perpetual looping cycle of documentation.  

The weirdness of Manet's composition, particularly with regard to the mirror, is why the painting works.  Suzon isn't just one girl - Manet paints her twice, and he is not doing so (as was traditionally done with multiple depictions) to imply the narrative of two separate events in her life.  Like all of us, she is both the inner being of her self conscious mind, and the outer face she shows to the world, and both of those things are going on in her one body, her one mind, simultaneously.   Clearly Manet understood that the rise of the camera freed artists to make art about how they felt, instead of just what they saw.

That is what makes this humble depiction of a seemingly insignificant figure one of the most important paintings of the 19th Century, and why it eclipses even Manet's previous (yet still very important) work.  

Edouard Manet, who is rightfully called the Father of Modern Painting, made The Bar at the Folies-Bergere as the final, capstone painting of a pivotal career.  It is the painting which bridges the Realist and Impressionist movements, and through it, Manet still communicates his understanding of classical painting, masterfully combined with the modernity of elevating contemporary bohemians and their interior lives as the subjects of high art.

Manet was a dandy, a man about town, a flaneur -  who was well acquainted with the bourgeoise pleasures a nightclub like the Folies-Bergere had to offer.  Well dressed, dapper, socially and (more than most other artists) financially secure, Manet was the first major male artist with the clarity to portray his female subjects as something other than a Queen, Madonna, or vacuous nymph.  Manet painted ordinary, everyday, actual contemporary women with eyes that dared to look back at their viewers.  In Les Dejeunner sur l'Herbe (1862-3), Olympia (1863) and Gare Saint-Lazare (1873), Manet convincingly painted women who who each purposely meet our gaze.  Armored either by the power of their own self conscious nakedness or in the fashion of the day, Manet's women were not simply objects of socially acceptable prurience or piety; they were not objects at all.  In the first truly modern paintings, Manet captured both his subject's bodies and their interior self awareness.

Manet's career was defined by both scandal and success.  After a six year apprenticeship in the studio of Couture, Manet began to reject the formal, codified style of painting that was the cultural standard.  Although he is classified as predominantly a realist, Manet went beyond the truth tellers like Courbet, Millet, and Daumier with a yet more vivid palette and considered abandon of their careful brushwork.  With a loose hand, experimentation with perspective and light, and manipulation of color to flatten his forms, Manet began earnestly to lay the foundation for the Impressionists, and then, a century later, his "patches of paint" would open the door to Abstraction.

Instead of concentrating on neo classical historic, religious, fantastic or royal subjects, Manet (like the other Realists) chose to paint what he was seeing, but, more importantly, he also elected to convey for his audience the feelings that scene provoked.  The frank honesty of his vision was often seen by the establishment as a deliberate shock. However, despite stinging criticism, Manet continued to make the kind of art that satisfied him, which later became a bridge from the Realists to the Impressionists.

Of course, he wanted acceptance, but was never willing (or even had to) pay the price of conformity.  Although he chose never to exhibit with them, Manet was the de facto leader of the Impressionist group, meeting with them regularly to discuss the changes of a rapidly urbanizing and modernizing Paris, and the ideas about art, science, philosophy and culture that informed all of their work.  At the end of his life, before the last, final grand effort of The Bar, Manet painted an exquisite collection of floral studies, which were probably influenced, at least in part, by the loose, painterly floral images created by his Impressionist friends.

With his genteel breeding and discrete personal life, Edouard Manet was a private, unknowable figure who publicly expressed his interior life and feelings through his brush.  In the early 1880's, his carefully curated world began to crumble, as he began to deal with the incurable, degenerative effects of Syphilis.  A common disease in that time before penicillin, Manet's first symptoms were leg pains, which he hid by adopting a fashionable cane.  Unfortunately, his father had also died of the disease, so Manet knew what was coming.  As the symptoms progressed, the artist lost the use of his legs, then became confined entirely before gangrene set in, and one leg was amputated in an unsuccessful attempt to save his life.

During that terrible time, Manet conceived and painted The Bar at the Folies-Bergere, much of it while seated and in great pain in his studio.  He knew he was dying, and he poured into his canvas not only everything that he understood about art, but also everything he understood about what it meant to him to be alive.  Manet did not live to see the influence that his work would have on all of the art that followed, nor did he know that the purposely self conscious paintings he rendered in the late 19th Century would cause a seismic shift that today is the cornerstone of contemporary art and culture.


THE STORY OF PAINTING, by Sister Wendy Beckett, Contributing consultant Patricia Wright, Published by Dorling Kindersley Books in Association with the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

SECRET LIVES OF GREAT ARTISTS by Elizabeth Lunday, Published by Quirk Books

Gardner's ART THROUGH THE AGES (Western Perspective), 14th Edition, by Fred S. Kleiner, Published by Wadsworth Cengage Learning

Gardner's ART THROUGH THE AGES, 6th Edition, by Horst de la Croix and Richard G. Tansey, Published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.