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Toulouse Lautrec fell apart quickly and spectacularly, as did his art.

This great and tragic figure was beset with problems that would destroy lesser men but which shaped and tempered him. Such great love and passion meeting with such hardship.

Much of his work is doomed to destruction and decay. Many of his later pieces were painted on raw cardboard where the very oil paints that he used are destroying the surface they are painted on. Can they be saved? No. Should they be saved? No.

Lautrec nude

Toulouse Lautrec – Nude on a divan

Decay, like autumn, has its own aesthetic. The rotting leaves and low grey mists are perfect in their decay, their fertile beauty often heart-rending. Our air-conditioned malls and cities, our networks of highways choke the animal and plantlife and choke our own experience of the cycles of beauty. Toulouse Lautrec is the artist of autumn. Like a little forest animal he forages among the browns and golds and tans and the rich smells of dirt and foliage and he delights in the beauty of decay.

I imagine that this early and technically perfect picture may have been done in a Paris art school. Certainly the pose suggest a studio setup. A model in a simple pose that can be retaken for several sessions (by contrast his later works are spontaneous sketches from life, observed and recreated from memory).

There is a strange and modest perfection about the girl in the picture. Look at the introspective pose, and the delicate colour of her skin. Note the difference between the tan of her face and hands and the milkiness of her body. This is no dancer from the clubs of Paris. This is a young woman who spends her days in the sun. An innocent from  the countryside; a farmgirl stepping into the life of the big city, in her way as courageous as the young man behind the easel.

But is there a second story here? The artist was young when he painted this picture, young enough to spend time with his family on their farm at Toulouse.  Certainly the paintings done at the same time include the portrait of his mother, a farm labourer and friend, and studies of farm animals.

Was this a young love, a moment of perfection in the countryside? Was he painting this young woman in her bedroom on the farm? And then, what became of her?

Modern society is scared of decay and feels itself safe in concrete and glass. What is scary is life. It takes courage, love and passion to embrace it.

Art demands your life.

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Historically, Tiepolo lived in Venice, the same Venice we love.

Tiepolo's Madonna from Venice.

He walked the same alleyways, crossed the same bridges, and took the same boats we do. But he was not of this world. Tiepolo lived among the clouds.

Where we see buildings and structures, Tiepolo saw clouds and rainbows and sunbursts and angels. His mind was linked to heaven. His gaze was turned upward, and to see his work, we need to look up as well. The greater part of his work are on the ceilings of the many churches and pallazzi of Venice and of many other great cities.

His paintings are weightless, angels and saints and pagan gods and goddesses mingle with cupids and putti, all living in a world without gravity. As with all artists, this is where he lived.

We do not live in this world, except in the most superficial way. Our lives are the manifestation of our thoughts, of our fears and our dreams, and as we can shape our dreams, so can we shape our lives. All it takes is loving something enough to dwell upon it.

Our lives have been blessed by the works and lives of clear, luminous minds such as Tiepolo. It is not enough to want to be an artist, we must love art, the art of the great minds.

Choose a picture that inspires you and hang it where you will see it daily.

John Ruskin, that great prophet of truth in art, had a broad view of truth, but a strict one:

“If some people see angels where others only see empty space, let them paint angels; only let not anybody else think they can paint an angel too.”

Klimt. Athena

Gustav Klimt. Pallas Athena.

When Gustav Klimt painted Athena, he was aware of the philosophy behind the Greek personification of the idea of wisdom.

He painted the goddess in toga and armour, in her left hand a spear, and in her right hand she holds a small standing figure of a woman, vulnerable, nude.

This small nude figure is not any woman, this is Athena.

Athena is both the Goddess and the woman. Wisdom is the ability to be aware of ourselves and in control of ourselves,  something like a rider and a horse, another subject widely used in art. God within, we are both rider and horse.

An artist, and a true lover of art, Renoir believed, has to be a sensualist.

I have friend, he wrote.

Image

A Venus by Bouguereau (detail)

This friend, he says, was one of the wealthiest men in Paris, and he became the proud owner of a remarkable painting, which he showed off at various parties and soirees. In my mind this became a picture by Bouguereau, for no reason other than that at the time Bouguereau was the most admired artist in France, and that if you were going to parade your status, this was the perfect artist.

Bouguereau was in love with women and with the human form. His treament of skin was like living silk and his brushwork like caresses. His paintings were brought to the enamel finish of the old masters, glowing like porcelain.

Proud as he was, and as often as he boasted to Renoir about it, this wealthy man never really got much joy from his painting. It was a possession, no more.

And then one day, Renoir recounts, as he was working in his studio, his friend burst in, tears in his eyes.

“What is wrong? What has happened?” Renoir asked.

“I have just seen, for the first time, my precious painting.”

My friend, Renoir says, had just become a sensualist.

It is not the female form, nor the texture of skin, but the quality of the paint itself, the “matiére”, that makes our skin tingle.

 

 

Corot. A meadow with two large trees

Next time you go to the Louvre, look out for the Corots. There is a series of rooms, all dedicated to this great artist. During his lifetime, however, he struggled to get accepted into the Paris Salon.

Corot was a firm friend and willing teacher of the young artists, not only from Paris, but from all over the world who flocked to the Barbizon forest to immerse themselves in the love of nature and the art of the landscape. The story is told of how he would put his signature on the landscape of his young friends so that they could sell it to the galleries that represented his work.

“If I couldn’t paint anymore,” he said, “Do my little branches in the sky, with enough space to let the sparrows go through, it seems to me that, very quickly, I would drop dead.”

An amateur requested that Corot put trees with light foliage in a painting for him; he was crazy about that, and Corot promised to please him:

“Don’t worry, I work for little birds.”

Beauty and danger

Pick a rose with your bare hands. I challenge you.

Beauty is dangerous.

If you should meet a tiger, you will be terrified. The ocean, the Alps, thunderstorms, are fearsome and majestic. This is beauty.

Klimt. Judith

This kind of dangerous beauty has always inspired great art. The great masters of figurative painting understand and celebrate the danger of the female sex. They will eat you alive (and some species do). And the greater the beauty, the greater the danger. That Sharapova girl, she is nothing short of a tigress, pure killer instinct, and any man who approaches her needs genuine courage.

This is the courage of Gustav Klimt, of Ferdnand Rops, of Toulouse Lautrec.

By turning its back on truth and and on beauty, art has destroyed itself.

Academics espouse an aesthetic of ugliness. Modern society is swayed only by scandal, guided by publicity and notoriety. And artists? Artists have become shallow panderers to financial success.

Too many artists are derivative. Those who are not copying photographs, are copying other artists, ploughing with the other man’s heifer. Stealing somebody else’s approach, technique and subject matter is the shortcut to avoid the struggle and the dangers of exploring life and finding fresh beauty.

You want to live the life of art? Grasp the rose.

John Singer Sargent developed his massive masterpiece “El Jaleo” (over 8 ft high), in numerous pencil sketches and studies, watercolours and even oil paintings. Sargent. Spanish Dancer.

His largest and most finished oil study and and independent work in itself was “The Spanish Dancer” (over 6 ft high). This painting only came to light in 1988, more than a hundred years after it was painted.

When Sargent moved house in Paris, legend has it that he gave this masterpiece to his chambermaid (unfortunately we know nothing about her, but she must have been a very special chambermaid!) Not long after, it is told, some wealthy family persuaded her that they could look after it better.

In one book alone I was able to count 20 drawings, 1 watercolour and 3 oil versions. This is what it takes to do a work of mastery, this is what it took the most talented and this is what it takes me and you. I am continually amazed that artists of our time presume to do in two or three days what took the world’s greatest masters 3 or 4 years.

Art appears to have become a commodity, and considered work is a rarity. Titian claims to have taken up to 4 year to do one painting and Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa went through two years of intense research and studies.