Artwork of the Week April 26, 2010: Russian Tea

Irving R. Wiles

Russian Tea

about 1896, oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.,

In this interior scene, three elegantly-clad women and a young girl await the piping-hot cup of tea being prepared in an imported Russian samovar. Wiles’ painting exhibits exactly what we’d expect from a portrait of Gilded Age America — an opulent decor with equally opulent sitters and leisure activities combined with a new brand of internationally-minded consumerism.

Perhaps more interesting than the extravagant subjects and the imported ritual, is the artist’s study of light. In an age of plein aire and Impressionistic landscapes, canvases depicting domestic interiors always feel unusual — where did all the sunlight go? But Wiles’ painting, though not the expected Impressionist garden scene, is Impressionist indeed, but not just in its painterly style. At the heart of this work is a study of light. Here, Wiles examines how candle light, rather than natural light, illuminates a space. The warm but limited light from the lamps cast a soft glow on the porcelain-like skin of our feminine subjects while the cinched form and pink colouring of the shades seem to mimic the corseted bodies. The candle lamps are intrusive, their shades dominate the composition and obscure the figures so that we can’t ignore their role in setting the scene.


Redrawing Lilith: Canadian Painter Jon Tobin’s New Vision of the First Woman

She was the first that thence was driven; With her was hell with Eve was heaven

– “Eden’s Bower,” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1869

Lilith – Adam’s First wife, a temptress, a demon, the architect of Man’s fall from Eden. As the embodiment of “the perilous principle in the world being female from the first,”* she has captivated writers and artists since the dawn of civilization. Her image has become standardized, traditionally cast as a woman of supreme beauty, an un-aging seductress ominously entangled with the Serpent and the Tree. Yet Canadian painter Jon Tobin has envisioned a new Lilith – a psychological being and a woman of raw, primal emotion, journeying through darkness, as much tormented by her inner demons as humanity is by her deception.

Tobin’s Lilith is introspective. As she ages, she becomes increasingly aware of her true self. The blindfold present in each image in the series represents self-contemplation as well as her blindness to the havoc she wreaks. She is also carnal and raw – a “woman in exile who has returned to her body/ as one would return from a country on the other side of the Sun.”**

“The Lilith Series,” an ongoing study of the character, visualizes the artist’s personal interpretation of the Lilith Myth in the style that is signature Jon Tobin. The artist is known for his ethereal canvases that pulsate with internal energy, and Lilith emerges out of Tobin’s autographic palate of subdued hues, masterfully manipulated to create startling contrasts and tactile depth in darkness. The palate ultimately harmonizes to create a ghostly figure of Lilith that is mysterious, captivating, and haunting.

Tobin studied Fine Art and French-Canadian Literature at University of Waterloo. Besides serving on the Board of Directors of the Waterloo Regional Arts Council, Tobin teaches aspiring artists and lectures on the techniques of “tactile media.” His paintings have been widely exhibited at galleries in Toronto, Montreal, and his hometown of Kitchener and collectors have been quick to recognize the sublime yet subtle beauty of Tobin’s artistic vision.

*Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Correspondence of 21 April, 1870.

** “femme en exil revenant dans son corps/ comme on revient de loin/ de l’autre pays/ du soleil” from Michel Camus’ “Hymne a Lilith: La femme double.”

Artwork of the Week for February 1, 2010

February launches us into a new artwork of the week theme — “Sacred and Profane Love” — a theme inspired in part by the month’s adoration of a divinity with a quiver, and in part by a painting of the same title. And so, let us begin February in Venice and with a discussion of the painting in question, a work that renders “the double motion of the soul, its simultaneous attraction to the earthly and the heavenly.”


Sacred and Profane Love, 1514

oil on canvas, Museo Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy

A viewer stands before Titian’s 1515 painting Sacred and Profane Love and is instantly placed at the crossroads. On his right stands one woman, a statuesque nude with marble-like skin and tendrils of hair brushing her collar bone. On his left is the nude’s voluminously clothed twin. The nature of the choice before our viewer is clear: on one side stands the chaste, the virtuous; on the other stands the corporal, the profane. But which is which? On closer inspection the surrounding details blurs the line between virtue and vice, and the viewer realizes the choice is more difficult than it initially appeared.

The figure we immediately associate with chastity is the woman on the viewer’s left. With her weighty white dress and gloved hands, and with the glaring white citadel in the deep background, she seems the model of feminine modesty. However, a collection of other elements hint at something else. Her exposed décolletage, the flowers she holds near her hip, and a pair of rabbits (nature’s famous reproducers) behind her help our viewer identify her as a bride. As a woman for whom a pending marriage promises love of a physical nature, she comes to embody the figure of “Profane” Love, for as Ingrid D. Rowland writes in From Heaven to Arcadia, “the bride represents love as it occurs in the life of the real world.” The woman on our viewer’s right must then be the personification of “Sacred” Love. Despite her open nudity, a virginal-white drape across her lap maintains her modesty as does her averted gaze. She holds a lamp, a symbol of charity, high above her billowing scarlet robe. Along with the ominous background, a lakeside village over which the sun has already set, her attributes infuse her presence with a divine power.

Titian aligns the two figures through multiple compositional details. Besides rendering the two women as identical in facial features, he paints them seated on the same surface – a Roman marble sarcophagus converted into a fountain. By placing them on the same pictorial plane, he portrays them as equals. Additionally, Titian conflates traditional attributes of personified Virtue and Vice to blur the distinction between the dual figures. The temptation is to see these women as polar opposites, but what Titian reveals through the painting’s structure and selection of detail is that they are, in fact, interrelated, inseparable, figures – the Sacred and the Profane are in fact “born from the same seed.”

Artwork of the Week for January 25, 2010

Erica Lord

Artifact Piece, Revisited

Performed April 3-5, 2008, at the George Gustav Heye Center, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, New York, NY

The original Artifact Piece was performed in 1987 at the San Diego Museum of Man. The work had been called “groundbreaking,” “elegant,” “powerful,” and “harsh,” and its artist, James Luna, had been called “the most dangerous Indian alive.”

Like its model, Erica Lord’s Artifact Piece Revisited attempts to recall a suppressed memory of Native-as-Spectacle in American institutions of display. Yet Revisited is more than a reiteration of Luna’s initial critique of museums as architects of Native identity. In personalizing Luna’s work, Lord calls into question ideal femininity as well as accepted notions of “Nativeness.” Furthermore, with the introduction of text referring to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act she confronts the ethics of museum collecting practices and brings to light a part of institutional history that curators and trustees would prefer to keep in the shadows.

Positioned at either end of her sandy display case bed are two poster-size panels densely packed with typeset text and maps. Near her head stands one panel comprised of text that summarizes and historicizes the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). For decades, Natives waged a war with the US Government demanding the recognition of their right to possess their cultural property. NAGPRA was the result of their dogged persistence. The law did not exist in 1987 when Luna donned his loincloth; it only came into being in 1990 and did not see real implementation for several years. Lord’s inclusion of the law is one of her many innovations that allows Artifact Piece to remain current and relevant. Yet the NAGPRA Panel not only updates Artifact Piece to reflect changes in US Policy towards Native rights and museum collections. It also questions the notion of the museum as steward of Native culture, and even steward of Native remains.

In replacing Luna’s masculine body with Erica Lord’s feminine figure, Revisited ups the anti. The history of women as objects of the male gaze automatically enters the work with this change of body. But there is an additional history of Native American women as fetishized objects of male desire that Lord invokes in her performance. The market for images of Native Americans created a secondary market for “prairie pinups” – photographs of nude Indian women “in the familiar poses of a Playboy centerfold.”

Staged within the walls of an institution that hopes to offer an alternative American history, Artifact Piece Revisited is a work that forcibly shakes its audience out of a socially-induced amnesia while proposing the possibility of an alternative contemporary Native American. It does not allow us to remain satisfied with NAGPRA, a few repatriations, and the creation of the NMAI. It keeps the Native demand for recognition as a sovereign, vital, and active community on the table. It forces us to take note and ask, where should we go from here?


For anyone interested in a lengthier discussion of Luna’s original “artifact piece,” Lord’s re-envisioning, or Lord’s work more broadly, shoot me an email and I’ll shoot you a 20-page paper or 2.

Artwork of the week for January 18, 2010

Robert Henri, American, 1865 – 1929

O in Black with Scarf (Marjorie Organ Henri), 1910
oil on canvas

de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA

At the 1884 Paris Salon, John Singer Sargent showed a portrait of a woman in a black dress. It was supposed to be his greatest achievement, a testament to an American beauty in Paris and a showcase for his talents as a portrait painter. But rather than make him famous, Sargent’s portrait forced him into exile — “Madame x (Madame Pierre Gautreau)” remains one of the most scandalous portraits in the history of western art. Sargent claims he intended to capture M. Gautreau’s renowned (if not infamous) beauty. Instead, the image portrayed Gautreau as a constructed character — it is a painting of an American play-acting a parisienne, consuming culture as if it were a little black dress. Ultimately, “Madam X” is a tableau about spectacle and consumption, pantomime and assumed sophistication.

Surely, when American painter Robert Henri posed his wife in the studio, with her black dress and white skin, “Madame X” and her history loomed before his eyes. The similarities between the two portraits and their sitters are obvious — the size of the canvases, the muted pallets of black, brown, pink and white,  the subjects’ rouged features (lips, cheeks, and ears) contrasted against chalky skin, their left hands clutching their respective accessories. Interestingly, Marjorie Organ Henri and Virginie Gautreau were both ex-pats, a shared characteristic that makes a comparison between the two portraits all the more fascinating. Is Marjorie, the Irish immigrant married to one of the most celebrated painters of the day, performing the part of a socialite? If she is, she’s doing so in a more demure manner than Gautreau.

There are so many comparisons to be made between the two paintings — from the sitter’s gaze or her jeweled embellishments to the artist’s handling of light — so many that I just can’t do it all in the space of a blog. But even without going into further detail, it should be pretty clear “O in Black with Scarf” is Henri’s re-envisioning of “Madame X,” controversial shoulder strap not included.

For you uber-nerds: if you think a comparison like this is super fun, look at Cecilia Beaux’s 1893 “Sita and Sarita” (the Corcoran has attributed the wrong date). Not only is it one of my most favorite paintings, it’s Beaux’s Americanization of Manet’s “Olympia.”

Artwork of the Week for January 11, 2010

Alfred Stevens (Belgian, 1823-1906)

In the Studio, 1888, oil on canvas

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

In keeping with this month’s theme of the Art of Art History (artworks that draw on or deal with the canon of Western Art), a painting about the art of painting.

What is it about the studio that makes it such an appealing subject for artists to depict? By the end of the nineteenth century, the constructed image of the down-trodden bohemian was no longer en vogue among artists. While this romanticized artistic type continued to intrigue writers and poets, artists themselves wished to portray a different sort of persona. Reliant on patrons and sales for their livelihood, artists were just as much businessmen as real-estate agents or steel-barons. “By the 1850s,” explains Neil Harris, “the artistic life was no longer merely a foil to materialism and economic selfishness; it had been captured to exemplify the virtues of industry and material success which dominated the business community.” It was the nineteenth-century reality that art making and selling was just another venture in capital.  Therefore, when it came to images of self-representation, artists were caught between maintaining an artistic persona of a sophisticated outsider and expressing a sense of corporate professionalism. Enter the artist’s studio.

Self-portraits by artists allowed for them to assert a sort of gentlemanly character, but images of their studio were perhaps more emphatic declarations of an artist’s potential value. His cultural sensitivity and material success along with his process and skill could be captured in a single image of the artist’s workspace. Here, Stevens’ uses the subject of the studio to assert his familiarity with both the great paintings of the past and the trendiest artworks of the present.

Stevens’ “In the Studio” is something of a “greatest hits” collage. Velazquez, Whistler, and Monet are all appropriately referenced. The mirror in the background, which shows a hint of the artist at work, along with a miniature portrait to its right are citations of Velazquez’s famous “Las Meninas” (1656), the most famous painting about painting. Also scattered across the wall in the background are references to contemporary trends in visual tastes: Japanese fans, umbrella, and scrolls — it was the age of Japonisme — and an assortment of painted portraits.

Most captivating are the women in the foreground, all of whom are characters from contemporary 19th century paintings. Whistler gets several nods in the foreground, including the fur carpet which is stolen from his“Symphony in White No. 1” of 1861. Often discussions of “In the Studio” call it an image of interrupted portrait-painting session, with the woman standing to the right as the artist at pause. I beg to differ. The standing woman is placed in front of a golden wall adorned with cherry blossoms. Her region not only further emphasizes a consumer taste for Japanese-inspired adornments, it quotes Whistler’s “Symphony in Flesh Color and Pink: Portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland” (1871-74). She is all the more interesting because in one hand she holds an artist’s palette and a brush as she leans gingerly on a partially painted canvas. Ah! But her hands are not the hands of an artist, they are too idle. They are the hands of a muse. The three women are not engaged with each other — their gazes are internal to the painting, but are detached from any particular object or person. Their only relationship is that they are all inspiration for the artist that paints them, and that artist is Stevens.

Stevens quotes himself in his painting. Seated on the lush red sofa is a woman in oriental garb. In her lap is a golden platter and a curved sword. She is Salome exactly as Stevens depicted her in another painting (which was inspired by Henri Regnault’s more famous “Salome”).

Put all these pieces together, and “In the Studio” becomes a play on the relationship between the real world and the painted world, a game all the more intensified by Stevens’ highly realist style.

It is a great painting — the kind of painting that stops you in your tracks, the kind of painting old men love to explain to younger women, and the kind of painting art historians love to gush over to anyone willing to listen.

Artwork of the Week for January 4, 2010

Loyal Readers,

I write bearing good news: Artwork of the Week is back! I’ve decided to reformat the column slightly. That is, I will impose a theme on each month, and each selected work will somehow respond to that theme. I like to think of this as an online exercise in curating? Proposed themes for the next few months:

January — The Art of Art History

February — Profane and Sacred Love

March — In like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb

April — Showers

… suggestions welcome for Feb on.

And so, how shall I kick off January’s “The Art of Art History” (easily my favorite theme)? Perhaps with some Jeff Wall, who is just so darn good at referencing the canon….

Jeff Wall (Canadian, born 1946)

Restoration, 1993
Transparency in lightbox 1190 x 4895 mm
Museum of Modern Art, NYC
Cinematographic photograph

Perhaps there is no modern photographer more engaged with the art historical past, or more aware of its influence on contemporary art, as Jeff Wall. In Thomas Crow’s essay on Wall’s work, the IFA Professor writes “[Wall] situated himself within the processes by which art history as a changing field of knowledge becomes available to artists in the first place.” Wall’s large-scale, back-lit photographs cite and comment on the canon of Western painting, specifically 19th century French painting. His best known citation of the beginning of Modernism is his 1979 “Picture for Women,” a photograph that quotes, modernizes, and dissects Manet’s “Bar at the Folies-Bergere.”

“Restoration” pictures the conservation of a Panorama in Switzerland, one of the few remaining fully-installed works of this once popular medium. The panorama is a format often credited for  “modernizing”  painting and is considered a precursor to cinema (reality effect!). It is not insignificant that Wall used a 360-panorama camera to capture the conservators at work, yet selected to only picture half of the panorama. On the one hand, this is an image about the limitations of sight — he does not show the space behind the camera and the conservator at rest stares out beyond the confines of the photo’s frame. On the other, it acts as a sort of artist’s statement — Wall is, in effect, restoring 19th century works of art, readying them for a contemporary viewer.

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