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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.

Investing in beauty.

It is said that one of the best investments in a time of economic uncertainty is art. It is, and it requires knowledge, taste, courage and a certain approach.

First, it is strange to think of buying art in order to make money from it. If the work does not appeal to your soul, it has no value; and if it does, you would not want to sell it.

Let us look at a few of the most successful investors of the 20th century, Allan Funt, Luis Ferré, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Flaming June

Frederic Lord Leighton. Flaming June.

In 1963, Luis A. Ferré was buying art for the Museo de Arte in Ponce in Puerto Rico, which he had founded. On a stop in a gallery in Amsterdam, he found Flaming June abandoned in a corner. The owner said no one was interested in the painting because it was considered too old-fashioned for the time. But he added that if Ferré was interested in it, that he could have it for $10,000. A year or two before, on auction, it failed to sell for today’s equivalent of $840. Today it is (literally) priceless.

Andrew Lloyd-Webber has played the piano and sung songs with Mr Ferre’s art dealer, Carlos Conde. The composer  quoted as saying “I write music to buy art”, even offered Pounds 6 million for Flaming June in 1996. His offer wasn’t the only one, but they were all turned down. A story has it that he was offered a blank cheque by one keen buyer, and solemnly tore it up.

The secret is this. When Ferré saw the painting, he fell in love with it. His son relates that he had sleepless nights until his payment went through.

So, sadly, did Andrew Lloyd Webber. That same year of 1963, when he was 15, Webber first saw Flaming June in a Polish framing shop. The price was £50, which the youngster did not have.

Allan Funt’s story is similar. In 1965 the creator of Candid Camera was in London looking for a picture for his New York apartment. An art dealer asked Funt if he wanted to see a “picture by the worst painter who ever lived,” and the curious Funt, who held a B.A. in Fine Arts from Cornell University, was introduced to his first Lawrence Alma-Tadema, which he purchased on the spot.

The way I heard it, the price was £21, and when Funt queried this, the dealer told him that this was the price of the frame. Apparently at the time students at the London art schools enjoyed painting Pop Art images over these big frames (created by Alma Tadema himself). He asked the dealer to send him any works by the artist at an agreed price and by 1973 he owned 35 Alma Tademas. Sadly for this love story, he lost them all when his accountant robbed him in the eighties.

The most recent price for an Alma Tadema was $35,922,500 (2010).

The point is this. Buy only what you love. In fact buy that which you would never sell. That way you are making a brilliant investment for your children and your grand-children.

The gardens of Montmartre, by Vincent van Gogh. 1886

During the 19th Century, when Montmartre resonated to the music of Offenbach and bathed in the colors of the Impressionists, it was not part of Paris. Montmartre was a separate municipality, a small village of vegetable gardens and windmills, some working, and some converted to places of entertainment.

When van Gogh painted this picture of Montmartre, fifteen years had passed since the glory and the tragedy and the infamy the village experienced in 1871.

In March 1871, with the Prussian armies still in France, the citizens of Paris rose up against the invaders. The National Guard defected from the surrendered French army and ran Paris as the Central Committee. The French Government, now based in Versailles, sent troops into Paris to disarm the citizens. This army refused to follow their orders and killed their own generals. The citizens of Paris elected a new municipal council, consisting of workers and intellectuals, and the Central Committee of the National Guard resigned.

From this point Paris was besieged and bombarded by the French Army, shooting captured communards. At the end of May the Versailles army entered Paris by the lightly protected Northern flank (then still held by Prussian forces).

The resistance was fierce and heroic, but futile. In the end the commander ordered a retreat to the hills of Montmartre, including a detachment of twenty-five women. They were soon overwhelmed  and the forces from Versailles spent 8 days massacring as many as 30 000 civilians.

Vegetable Garden by Van Gogh

Vegetable Garden, Montmartre. Van Gogh. 1887

Hardly recognizable today, this was the peaceful village of gardens, windmills, dancers, and Impressionists, but it is a story seldom told. Joy returned, joy flowing from beauty, but we need to recognize the courage and the strength of a generation of dreamers.

Around the time that van Gogh and Renoir were living in Montmartre, the French government began building work the Sacre Coeur at the top of the hill, apparently to atone for the massacre of fifteen years earlier, but from these paintings we are clearly still in a rural setting. The Moulin Rouge, made so famous by Toulouse Lautrec, only opened in 1898, and in the Boulevard de Clichy. All that it has in common with the windmills of Montmartre is its name.

My fantasy is stimulated by the real cancan, the real dancers, and the real windmill-nightclubs. These are the subject of my screenplay, Quadrille.