The Power of Art: Van Gogh & Picasso

The Power of Art: Van Gogh and Picasso
The Power of Art is a new PBS series, based on the book by Simon Schama, and made with his cooperation and participation.

In a series of eight broadcasts, the program will examine eight artists and their impact on the history of art, and on the cultural, political and social currents of their time. In the process, the shows will apparently focus on one painting by each artist that the author considers particularly significant and explore that work in depth.

I learned about this series from Nita Leland’s Exploring Color and Creativity (I reviewed her recent book The New Creative Artist back in February.) While I have not read the book on which the series is based, Leland has. She mentions it here and in her post on the PBS special notes that it is the emphasis on the social, political and business aspects, which are not often brought to light, that she found most intriguing.

The eight artists to be featured in the series are Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Caravaggio, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Rembrandt van Rijn, Jacques-LouisDavid, J.W.M. Turner and Mark Rothko.

Excuse me? Mark Rothko?

To me, throwing someone like Rothko into that group is like doing a special on Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and Brahams and tossing in Axl Rose, but I’ll try to bite my tongue and bear in mind that perhaps the political and social implications are more important here than the accomplishments of the artists. I won’t know until I’ve seen the program.

The first installment of the series starts tonight, Monday, June 18th at 9PM Eastern on most PBS stations, and is devoted to Van Gogh. It will be followed immediately by the second program in the series, which centers on Picasso.

PBS has a web site in support of the series that has a section for each artist along with an “Explore the Painting” feature that shows some interesting points about the work from the commentary in the program.

The Van Gogh program will focus on Wheatfield with Crows (image above, top), often assumed to be Van Gogh’s last painting. Though that is far from certain, much symbolism has been read into the painting as a result. It will be interesting to see the program’s take on its significance. One of the fascinating things about this painting is that it was part of a series of paintings of wheatfields that that Van Gogh painted in a very unusual elongated shape, on canvasses with an almost cinematic aspect ratio (bearing in mind that this was 1890, and the word “cinematic” was essentially meaningless).

The original painting is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The “Show Enlargement” feature on their site, while a poor substitute for a nice big digital image, does let you zoom way in on the image and see it in greater detail than on the PBS site.

For the Picasso segment, the focus will be on his amazing anti-war masterpiece Guernica (image above, bottom); also, interestingly enough, painted on a large canvas with elongated, cinematic proportions. The original painting is now in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Renia Sofia in Madrid, to where it was moved in 1992, stirring up controversy because it defied Picasso’s wish that it be displayed at the Prado. (There is a larger version here, click for enlargement.) There is some history on the painting from a different PBS special here.

It’s interesting to note that a large scale tapestry copy of Guernica, a painting in which Picasso expresses his horror at the cost of war and his “…abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death”, hangs in the United Nations building in New York at the entrance of the Security Council chamber. The tapestry was a gift to the United Nations by Nelson Rockefeller and was meant to be a reminder to all nations of the terrible price of war in human suffering.

On the day in 2003 when Colin Powell and John Negroponte gave their press conference at the UN in a effort to stir up support for the war in Iraq, a large blue curtain was placed over the work. Excuses were made that it was a request of the TV crews to simplify a distracting background, but word got out from the attending diplomats that it was actually representatives of the US government that had pressured UN officials to have it covered during the conference.

The power of art, you say?


Correggio (Antonio di Pellegrino Allegri)

Correggio (Antonio di Pellegrino Allegri), Jupiter and IoOK, so you’re Jupiter, the most powerful of Roman gods (Zeus in the Greek stories), and apparently the randiest as well, and you’d like to add the beautiful but shy river goddess Io to your long list of conquests; most of whom you’ve caged into a liaison by some form of deception or disguise. What to do…?

Let’s see now,… you did the turning into as a swan routine with Leda, appeared in drag as Diana, goddess of chastity, to seduce Callisto, came on to Antiope as a satyr, turned into a golden shower to reach Danae in her tower (OK, stop that snickering in the back row), and did the abduction thing with Europa,… what’s left?

Hey! How about appearing as a cloud and wrapping Io in your airy but irresistible embrace before she realizes that she’s been had. By Jove, that’s a great idea!

Apparently 16th Century painter Antonio di Pellegrino Allegri, who is known by “Correggio”, the name of his native town, thought so too, and made the story of Jupiter and Io the subject of the most striking of a series of paintings of the “Loves of Jupiter” commissioned by Federigo Gonzaga in the early 1500’s. The others included The Abduction of Ganymede, Leda and the Swan and Danae.

The painting of Jupiter seducing Io in the form of a cloud is striking in its depiction of the god’s countenance emerging from the cloud to kiss Io’s sensually upturned face, the beautiful modeling and delicate tones of her figure, luminous against the contrast of the dark cloud and the bizarre cloud/hand that enfolds her. The original is in the Kunsthstoriches Museum in Vienna.

Correggio was a masterful painter of the High Renaissance who was most active in the city of Parma. His influences included Mantegna and Leonardo, whose impact you can see in the delicate rendering of faces, hand positions and sfumato technique in Correggio’s early works. In his later career Correggio’s daring use of perspective, brilliant colors and dramatic compositions heralded the arrival of the Baroque period.

One of the most notable of Correggio’s works is the Assumption of the Virgin, painted on the inside of the cupola of the cathedral of Parma. In this large scale fresco (35′ x 40′, 11m x 12m) he creates an astonishing illusionary space in which your view is lifted into a swirling vault of clouds, ringed with angels and saints and blazing with a core of heavenly light.

I’ve listed some resources for Correggio below, including a posting of quotes from the chapter on him from Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. Correggio also left some masterful drawings, though I haven’t had much luck finding examples of them on the web. Try searcing Amazon and others for books.

And what of Io? Well, in addition to having her story be the subject of numerous other paintings, she had the Ionian Sea is named after her passage, as well having one of the innermost moons of the planet Jupiter named after her by Galileo. And while most of the 63 (count ’em) moons of the largest planet in our neighborhood are named after Jupiter’s female conquests, Io is notable as the most volcanically active body in the Solar System. Hot love, indeed.

Meanwhile, what happens to poor innocently seduced Io in the next exciting episode of The Loves of Jupiter? Well, we have the sitcom-like scene in which Jupiter turns Io into a cow (yes, a cow) before jealous wife Juno arrives on the scene. Juno susses the deal and asks Jupiter for the gift of simple cow, which he can’t refuse, of course, and Juno puts the lock on Io by putting her under the watchful eyes of Argos, who has a hundred of ’em (eyes, that is) and never closes more than a couple at a time. The guardian is later lulled to sleep by Mercury with music and stories, Mercury lops off his head and Io is released; and eventually, in some accounts, becomes the first queen of Egypt. And you thought Desperate Housewives had outrageous plots.


David Bull - David BullIn the days long before the convenience of offset printing and the sophisticated inkjet technology of Giclée prints, artists who wanted to create more than one copy of an artwork had to utilize printmaking techniques that were often elaborate and time consuming, though somewhat less so than creating multiple originals.

These days many of these same processes are still used by artists who make works involving multiple copies, both to set them apart from the more commercial process of having images of the work reproduced by photomechanical printing, and because they have a passion for the printmaking process itself, in spite of the work involved.

I suspect that love of the process accounts for a lot in the case of Tokyo based woodblock printer David Bull, who works in the painstaking methods of traditional Japanese woodblock prints.

In addition to his own work as a printmaker, Bull has created an maintains an extensive website at

The opening page of the site is arranged to allow you to access the multiple facets of the site, involving different projects, as though they were different, independent websites. I found this arrangement a bit confusing, and to me his “front page” makes a better entry point and serves the purpose of a more traditional home page, with introductory material and more thorough navigation.

Those already interested in printmaking, if they aren’t already familiar with the site, will find hours worth of material to get lost in, both about Bull’s own work and technique and more general features, including a “Woodblock RoundTable” (discussions of the process in a blog format), a mini-site devoted to the woodblock prints of John Edgar Platt and a “Handbook of Japanese Printmaking Techniques” to which Bull continues to add material. Though somewhat awkwardly arranged (the intention is to have two windows open, using one for navigation), the Handbook has one of the most thorough descriptions of the process I’ve ever encountered.

Those of us whose appreciation of woodblock printing is more as observers than participants will find some fascinating highlights, notably a slideshow of the process of printing his piece “River in Summer“, which slowly animates through the sequence of impressions, or can be navigated manually with controls the pop from the bottom on mouseover.

Color woodblock printing involves multiple impressions, in which differently carved blocks, each painstakingly cut to leave a certain area in relief to receive ink, are printed over the same sheet of paper in precise alilgnment, each carrying a particular color of ink to areas of the image.

This printmaking process is hundreds of years old and is the fundamental basis of modern printing technology; except that, instead of discreet areas of solid color, images are broken into a series of dots using photographic screens, the arrangement of which, like Seurat’s pointillist paintings, combine in the eye to form larger areas of various colors. Plates are made using (usually) four colors (cyan, magenta, yellow and black), and printed in sequence on the same sheet or roll of paper, creating an image with the illusion of a much wide range of colors. Underlying it all, though, is that same idea of multiple impressions of separate color plates on the same image that is central to color woodblock printing.

It feels like some kind of weirdly poetic circle closing when reading about the continuation of this centuries old method of creating multiple images via the electronic “publishing” system of the net. For some reason, I just love that.

The web site also contains a more detailed step-by-step description the color woodblock process for Bull’s “River in Summer” print (images above left) that goes through the individual impressions (which, to my surprise, begin with a blank impression to prepare the surface of the paper), and shows the print in each of it’s 31 stages (impression #17, above, second image), along with images of the individual impressions printed separately (impression #17 shown alone, above, third image) all the way to the finished piece (image above, bottom).

Bull’s detailed description of the process will give you a deeper appreciation not only of his own work, and color woodblock printing in general, but of the work of some of the wonderful Japanese printmakers I’ve featured in the past on lines and colors, like Katasushika Hokusai, Hiroshi Yoshida, Kawase Hasui and Ito Shinsui.


Scott McKowen

Scott McKowen
Well, my friends, here is yet another tantalizingly different artist about whom I could find very little information without having to dig.

I first encountered Scott McKowen’s work in the form of his wonderful set of covers for the Marvel Comics limited series 1602 (in which Marvel superheroes are envisioned in that time period, and are of course assumed to be witches, among other things). As is common practice in American comics, the cover and interior comics pages for this series were done by different artists, and, as much as I like the work of Andy Kubert, who did the artwork for the series, this is one of those instances where I bought the comics for their covers (image above).

These are unlike any comic book covers I can think of, before or since, and look more like wood engravings than comic book illustration (making them perfect, of course, for the setting of the series). They are in fact drawn in scratchboard, a style of pen and ink rendering in which white lines are scratched with sharp instruments from areas of black ink that have been applied to clayboard. (See my posts on Virgil Finlay, Elizabeth Traynor and Mark Summers.)

The appearance of this traditional looking approach, which McKowen has used in the style of wood engraving book illustrations, works remarkably well when combined with digitally applied color.

He does not seem to have a web presence of his own, but McKowen is represented by the Marlena Agency, who has fortunately supplied an online gallery of his work. There in no bio information, however.

A search on Amazon provided more information than the rep’s site. McKowen has illustrated a number of books in a series of Unabridged Classics, including Frankenstein, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Gulliver’s Travels and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

These editions include some interior illustrations by McKowen, though the reviews indicate they are sparsely illustrated. If you like his work and are frustrated by the limited amount of material on his rep’s site, you may find it worthwhile going through the Amazon listings to look at the enlargements of the covers (or, of course, looking for the books in your local bookstore).

I also found out through an editorial review on Amazon that McKowen and his wife Christina Poddubiuk operate a company that specializes in design and illustration for theater and performing arts called “Punch & Judy, Inc.”, though it apparently has no web presence either. Their projects often involve historical research into period costumes and settings, leading us back to McKowen’s ability to create an wonderfully appropriate look for illustrated classics, or even a superhero period piece.


Art Out Loud 5

Art Out Loud 5 - Klaus Jansen, Paolo Rivera and Michael Avon Oeming
Art Out Loud 5 is the latest in a series of in-person painting and illustration technique demos held at the Society of Illustrators in New York. The sessions have been arranged by Irene Gallo, Art Director at Tor/Forge Books and the author of The Art Department blog, and noted illustrator Daniel Dos Santos.

These are sessions in which two or three artists give demonstrations simultaneously in different parts of the same room and attendees can wander between them at will. Former events have included illustrators like Donato Giancola, Todd Lockwood, James bennett, Gary Kelly and Greg Manchess.

This time around the focus is on comics; and the event will feature three comics artists and illustrators:

Klaus Jansen first came to wide attention as the inker who worked with Frank Miller on Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, has gone on to be one of the prominent inkers and pencillers in the DC stable. He is the author of The DC Comics Guide to Inking Comics and The DC Comics Guide to Pencilling Comics (image above, left).

Paolo Rivera is noted for covers and painted comics interiors on the Mythos series and others (above, center).

Michael Avon Oeming is best known for the Powers series (above, right) and co-creator of the new creator-owned Cross Bronx title. (It’s a sad commentary on the anachronistic state of the American comics industry that “creator owned” is still an exception rather than the rule; but, I digress…)

In addition to the 3 artists’ demonstrations, there will be portfolio reviews by reps from Marvel and DC Comics.

Art Out Loud 5 will be held on on Saturday, June 30th, 2007 from Noon to 4:00pm. Attendance is $25 for Society Members, $35 for non-members. Attendance is limited to 100 and past events have sold out.

There is also a description with more detail on Irene Gallos’s The Art Department.


Ode to Summer

I stumbled across this little gem while browsing through painting tutorials on YouTube.

Ode to Summer is a beautiful little animation in which what appears to be a traditional Chinese ink painting comes to life. A dragonfly flits through lotus flowers, koi swim through graceful reeds below the rippled surface of a clear pond and a young woman sits amid calligraphically drawn rocks and reads us a brief poem extolling the beauty of summer.

At first you think one or two objects are being rendered in front of an actual ink painting, then the “camera” rotates and it becomes obvious that everything in the “painting”, including the calligraphy, is composed of 3-D CGI objects.

This is made even clearer at the end of the film when the authors reveal the wire mesh and textureless rendering stages of their objects briefly, and then let them resolve back into the “painting”, as if we’d gotten a brief glimpse under the skin of the Matrix.

The individual who posted the version I found on YouTube (it may be posted by others as well) didn’t include much info, and the film’s own credits are rather small. I had to do a little digging to find out that the person responsible for the film’s direction, story and look is Ron Hui, about whom I haven’t found much else. He is aided by a team whose names are also hard to read in the small screen.

It looks at though this was created or used to promote some rendering or shading software from RenderAid. Unfortunately the RenderAid site is “closed for rennovations” at the moment so I can’t check that out.

None of which affects the fact that this is a delightful little diversion for a Summer’s morning (even if we haven’t quite reached the solstice yet).