Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Simon Rodia's Vision

Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.

It was while I was researching Gaudi, the famous Spanish architect, that my mind somehow associated Gaudi's work with Simon Rodia's (1875-1965) Watts Towers.

As with most people who live for 90 years, Rodia had a lengthy story to tell. It would include his birth in Italy , his immigration at age 15 to America, and his journey to settle in the West. He would tell us about how he came to a vision on the small triangular residential lot he bought in Watts - a district of Los Angeles.

The vision was to build something lasting - something for the people to enjoy. This vision would become the Watts Towers. Rodia built his dream from all types of recycled materials - pottery, glass, structural steel, and seashells. He would etch designs in the mortar that he used to enrobe the steel and to embed his found materials.

Rodia worked without scaffolds, welding equipment, or plans. He used a window washer’s belt to climb the towers, and pipe-fitting tools to connect the metal. Much of the work was done after he'd finished a very physical day job.

When he left the project some 34 years later at age 79, he had developed 17 structures including several towers. One is 99.5 feet tall - amazing what a passion to follow a vision can create.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Fall of the Muse

In today's world, we read with interest and curiosity about the escapades of young, gorgeous, high-profile women. We elevate to celebrity those beautiful and talented but flawed women and then cast them down. We cluck and carry on about all the news space devoted to them and we treat all of it as recent phenomenon. Not so. Consider Evelyn Nesbit. (1884-1967)

Nesbit was an artist model and muse. By all accounts, she was an exceptionally beautiful young woman and the sole support of her family. She first came to notice as the model for Charles Dana Gibson's "Gibson Girl."

For 20 years the Gibson girl epitomized beauty and grace. From the late 19th to the early 20th century her image was merchandised on everything from cups and saucers to umbrella stands. Women strove for the "Gibson Girl" look.

Today, Nesbit would be a supermodel. She even commanded modeling fees equivalent to about $200/half day and $400/ full day.

Like today, all that came to an end for Nesbit at a young age. (She was 21) Her husband shot and killed the man who was her ex-lover. The newspapers ran sensationalized and often fictionalized stories
about her even though she had nothing to do with the murder. It would create much curiosity and interest in her - until the next scandal came along. (Think of the movie, "Chicago.)

What is it about our regard for women? We have many ill-behaved, naughty male actors and sports figures. Yet, once they get sober or stop the behavior, we accept them. Why isn't it the same for most women?

Nesbit said that her dead lover was lucky. He died in the middle of his career as a very successful architect while she lived the rest of her life remembered only for the sensational murder. As a biographer wrote of Nesbit, "Her celebrity lasted from ages 14 to 21 and her entire life was defined by that period."

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Desboutin: More than a Model

If Marcellin Desboutin (1823-1902) is remembered at all, it is usually in respect to his role as a model for Manet and Degas. (Below are images of him as painted by Manet and Degas, respectively.)

However, Desboutin was much more than a model. He was a well-known and well-regarded artist in his own right.

In spite of his scruffy appearance (self-portrait, left), he was high born, well educated and an exceptional painter and printmaker. As a painter, he exhibited with the Impressionists in the Salon des Refuses. However, it was mainly as a printmaker that Desboutin was best known in the Impressionist era.

He was 50 years old when he studied etching. By his own account, he had squandered his fortune and lost a mansion in Italy. He came to Paris and settled into the penniless Bohemian life of an artist. Once he learned etching, he was able to support himself to some degree by creating and selling portraits.

Desboutin portraits were usually an edition of 20 and included portraits not only of Manet and Degas but also Renoir, Morisot (see Archives, Jan. 2010), Zola and Duranty. His artist friends considered his work to be wonderfully spontaneous and exceptionally good. Desboutin captured the immediacy that the Impressionists preferred over the stiffly posed portraits of previous times. Here are a few of his prints: (click to enlarge)

Two interesting facts were discovered in my research: In 1890 Desboutin along with Rodin, Carriere and Meissonier, was a founder of Society of Beaux-Arts and at a robust 74 years of age he was honored with the Gran Prix at the Exposition Universelle.

For all of the recognition and honors paid to Desboutin during his life, the lasting recognition of him centers on the paintings by Manet and Degas where he is referred to as "the artist-model." Interesting how time will remember someone, yes?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

At the Stroke of Midnight

February 3rd begins the 15-day celebration of the Chinese Year of the Rabbit. It is the longest and most festive of Chinese holidays. In China, it's known as the Spring Festival and everyone who follows tradition spends weeks before preparing for it.

Everything is swept and cleaned of the old year to let in the new year. (No sweeping is done during the first of the holiday for fear of sweeping out the good luck of the New Year.)Special foods are prepared, gifts are purchased, and sometimes a new coat of red paint is applied to windows and doors. Red being the color of the festival.

You see, there is an ancient legend that a mythical beast named Nien came and devoured everything - even children - on the first day of the New Year. So, every year the people put out food in hopes that the monster would not attack them. One day, a little child was wearing red clothes and the color frightened Nien. Hence the use of red for lanterns, scrolls and firecrackers to mark the Chinese New Year.

Scrolls and images are placed on doors and windows. Two of the oldest traditions of festival art are paper cutouts (on right)and wood-prints.

Wood-prints or nianhua are special to the New Year festival. These prints were actually a combination of wood prints and painting. (Nowadays it is done with offset printing and lithography.)

The prints are usually put on both sides of the door to keep evil away and allow only good luck to enter. These "door-gods" have evolved over a very long time (started circa 200 BCE).

The subjects evolved from deities and spirits to fat, healthy babies, flowers and birds. They represent health, wealth, good fortune, and happiness.

One last note: The Year of the Rabbit is about peace, calm, family and security. May it be so!