Winter Gothic

At some point, while looking for something else most likely, I found Erasure’s video of “Gaudete.” I started watching, blinked, and said, “It’s Caspar David Friedrich!” Because everyone borrows imagery from him when they want to do “ancient church in snow at night mildly creepy but maybe not” settings.

Gothic? Check, check. Eerie but not truly scary? Probably check. Winter? Check! Article about CDF:

This one tells a story:


Not all of C.D.F.’s paintings are “moody, brooding, cold,” but some of the most famous are, or at least the most often reproduced and borrowed from.

“Oaks in the Snow with Domlan.” A dolman is a prehistoric marker or burial mound, common (formerly) in parts of the northern German-speaking lands.

So, the video that borrows so heavily from C. D. F and a few others? Note that the video has some creepy and possibly sacrilegious elements, notable the burning candle.

The hard contrasts of dark, bare trees and stones against white snow have been noted by artists and poets for a very long time. Northern Europe tends to be misty and dark this time of year, especially the far northern areas where C. D. F. visited. The sun rises around eight-thirty and sets around three-thirty. That is, if you can see the sun for the heavy clouds. When I was in Vienna over Christmas, heavy skies, snow, and then hard cold reminded everyone that yes, winter had arrived. It was one of the few times that I ate everything in sight and lost weight, because I was converting so much of the snacks and treats into heat. The importance of light, and the turning of the year, was firmly reinforced on that trip. The true cold of winter usually arrives a little later than December, but not always.

One thing I like about so many of C. D. F.’s paintings is that they catch the mystery of things. Christmas and Advent are often too shiny, up-front, and bright for my taste. There’s a Mystery in the familiar story, a hushed and intent waiting for . . . something. Something wonderful, but something also deep and more than a little scary. “He is good, but he’s not safe,” as C. S. Lewis describes Aslan. “Gaudete” calls us to rejoice, but in a minor key, often arranged with slightly discordant harmonies. The turning of the year, the Winter Solstice, brings light but also deeper cold in many places. There’s a mystery, something hidden in the night, in the winter mist and clouds.

The World Outside of One’s Head

There’s nothing quite like reading about the modernists in Vienna in the period of 1870-1914 to remind the reader that some people just needed to get out more often. Granted, a number of the characters had serious mental problems, medical problems, marital problems, or all-of-the-above. That didn’t help their view of the world. But yipes, the circle around Freud, Schiele, Mahler, and Co. was so small. I hadn’t realized that until a very good art history tour through the Leopold Museum, where the docent explained all the interrelations. You really wonder what would have happened if some folks had gotten outside of the world of their own head, and had to deal with real problems (as in Four Horsemen problems. See Vienna, October 1914-November 1919 for examples.)

A few weeks ago, I was reminded that the world inside of my head, and inside my daily round, is very different from the real world. Rehearsal was long, and difficult, and breakfast had worn off about half-way through. So I stopped at a What-a-Burger halfway between the concert site and home. I went in and got a patty melt, fries, and a shake. And sat, happily chewing away, listening to country music, and observing normal people and a very efficient and friendly restaurant staff.

A family with small kids was eating in the corner, and the kids did kid stuff, including an older toddler sending a large water sailing off the end of the table just as they finished eating. The parents apologized, the manager said “no problem, we got this,” and she got the mop as the parents tidied the table and ushered their offspring out. A customer moved a chair or two out of the way. Everyone else just shrugged, and said, “Little kids happen.”

There was a trainee working the cash register, and people on both sides of the counter were patient. She tried hard, got things 95% right, and was cheerful. No one gave her a hard time. After all, we all have to learn sometime, and we’ve all been the new person.

The diners were a cross section of the world. Little kids to “seasoned citizens,” solitary diners (yo) and families, different colors and sizes, all interested in a hot hamburger or chicken sandwich. Lots of smiles, using french fries as pointers, and so on.

I spend a lot of my time in my own head. This is in part because of the demands of Day Job and of writing. It is in part because DadRed insists on doing all the shopping (he’s retired. I’m not. I believe in batch cooking. MomRed is Not A Fan of leftover leftovers.) It is in part because I’m an introvert, and in part because my default mental position is “What will go wrong and how do I plan for it?” That’s not exactly normal. Getting out and about, dealing with other people in stores and at burger joints and all doesn’t happen much. Day Job, concert prep, Easter prep, Day Job, writing, that had been my world for too long. I needed to get out and see the real world.

There’s a danger in a closed system, be it mental, political, or ecological. Here’s to the world outside of our heads.

“On the Eighteenth of April in ‘Seventy-Five”

Paul Revere by John Singleton Copely. Public Domain, found at:

I strongly encourage you to read the article about the painting. It is both an excellent portrait, and a political statement about the times in which the picture was made.

Paul Revere was a silversmith, or to use the older term, a type of whitesmith. Blacksmiths worked with iron. Whitesmiths worked with tin, copper, and eventually silver before silver-smithing and gold-smithing became separate trades.

A silver set made by Paul Revere and his workshop. Items and photo from:

As a silversmith, Revere was not exactly a “gentleman” since he worked with his hands, but he wasn’t a common laborer, either. In the colonies and the later US, this wasn’t really a problem, since skill and finances meant more than the traditional marks of social rank. In the British system, he would have been respected, but he would be “upper working class,” to use today’s terms. He was also a master craftsman, responsible for training apprentices and ensuring the quality of his and other masters’ work. In other words, he was your modern small business owner, one with a lot of skills, and a strong determination to live his life the way he wanted. Which, in April of 1775, meant joining with another man to ride through the night and warn the people of Middlesex County that the British regulars were coming to requisition the powder, shot, and weapons assigned to the militia.

We all know what happened next . . .

Seven Modern Masters: Japanese Prints

I have a soft spot for Japanese art, be it brush painting, metal work, puppets, or prints. So when I saw that a special exhibit of Japanese woodblock prints would be at the Citadelle Museum in Canadian this spring, I made a mental note. Things worked out that my parents and I were able to go up there (90 minute or so drive) this past Friday, and it was worth the drive. Canadian is tucked away in the northeast corner of the Panhandle, and is one of those places that’s off the beaten track for most travel. The art museum is . . . a small gem, and you never know what will be there. Alphonse Mucha, Rembrandt sketches, art photography by Ansel Adams and others, Degas and Friends, hats from around the world . . . Plus the main museum with the permanent collection.

This time, the art was by seven modern masters of shin hanga, or “new style” woodblock prints. Some were derived from older works and reflected the style of masters like Hiroshige, while others tried to catch more impressionistic styles but using the woodblock medium. One, by Ito Shinsui entitled “Before the Thunderstorm” was especially impressive, catching grasses and plants bowing to the wind as a storm came in over faintly visible mountains or a cliff. Very Japanese, but also very Impressionist, and very good.

“Before A Thunderstorm” by Shinsui Ito. Creative Commons Fair Use. Original Here.

A more traditional, but not traditional work by Shinsui:

“Woman After a Bath” by Shinsui Ito. Used under Fair Use Creative Commons, Original found Here.

One difference between the “new style” artists and the more traditional woodblock artists was how they depicted women. Often they are more naturalistic, and show women of the working class, or women with tanned (by Japanese standards) faces and without makeup. There are more traditional depictions as well, because those sold, just like the kabuki actor prints sold. A few prints included embossed details, like one of two ducks in the water. A water lily had been embossed after printing, adding texture to the image. Others had a faint shimmer of mica added as a print layer.

One interesting contrast was a depiction of the Taj Mahal, drawn by a British artist, but done as a woodblock and sold in Japan by the major shin hanga and ukiyo-e printer, Watanabe.

The exhibition began with some background into the “new style” movement of the late 1800s-early 1900s, and a video about how Japanese woodblock prints were and are done. A few items of clothing and a sewing kit from Japan added context. The text with the art was excellent, good if you were familiar with the genre and time, but also good if the viewer is new to this type of visual art.

The exhibition will be in Canadian until April 26. If you are in the area Tuesday through Saturday, 11:00 AM – 4:00 PM, I suggest you stop by. There are other things to do in Canadian, and good restaurants and an excellent coffee shop.

Great Small Museum: The Museum of Western Art, Kerrville, TX

Clan Red was in search of something to do indoors. That was open on Tuesday. So we ended up going 20 or so miles south to Kerrville, and visiting the Museum of Western Art. The museum began as part private collection and part museum for the Cowboy Artists association. Now, while not formally affiliated with the Cowboy Artists association, it features their works along with those of working ranch women artists. Most of the works are related to the American West*, or to American Indians.

The museum is a whisker bit south of the river, up on a hill. Enormous bronze western statues have pride of place outdoors. The museum was originally an open rectangle with a courtyard and fountain, but after some needed repairs arose, the trustees opted to enclose the courtyard and use it for display space. Currently, western saddles from the collection surround the mesquite-floored space. A large case full of all kinds of katsina dolls, a beautiful banker’s desk from the late 1800s, and other artifacts, with more saddles, line the walls, alternating with statues. All the work is by working cowboy or rancher artists, with special displays of Indian beadwork, rugs, and other applied arts.

The cartoonist Ace Reid’s saddle, donated by his wife Madge. Property of the Museum of Western Art.

I wish I could include photos of the artworks, but the museum docents were not certain about obtaining copyright permission from the various artists or their estates. However, the image below is from a gallery that shows the work of Eric Slocombe, the artist. The real statue “Owl Witch” is amazing, and very eerie.

“Owl Witch” (C) Eric Slocombe. Available through Pitzer’s Fine Arts.

The museum does have a wonderful “virtual tour” that allows you to see many of the fine art works remotely. You can access the virtual tour via the main web site, or here:

Red 2.0 is a little young for fine art. However, she spent at least half an hour, closer to 45 minutes, in the Oregon Trail display. It is built for kids, and has a miniature Conestoga wagon they can climb on, interactive activities to try, and tells via “diary entries” the experience of traveling the trail. At the “end of the trail” kids can try on pioneer clothes, hats, sunbonnets, and so on. Adults can also try on the sunbonnets (I might own some of the dresses already, in a larger size.) Red 2.0 is nine years old, and likes to play Oregon Trail on the computer. The display kept her happily fascinated for quite a while, so it is kid approved.

Another small display, across from Ace Reid’s saddle, has derringers. One was a real Derringer, and the rest are “derringers,” meaning small, concealable one or two-shot self-defense weapons.

Did I mention that some came in “odd” calibers?
For formal occasions . . .

I highly recommend the museum for fans of the art of the American West, applied “cowboy” art, and as a place for kids to look at the art and to get a little history lesson. The gift shop has prints of some paintings, jewelry, leather crafts, and books about Western art. Military and fire/police/EMS get an entry discount or are free.** They also have an archive of references and materials by and about Cowboy Artist Association members, as well as other research opportunities.

No, it’s not as large as the museum in Oklahoma City, or the Gilcrease in Tulsa, or in Cody. But it is kid-friendly, small enough to keep you from being overwhelmed, and provides a very good sample of what western art can be.

*Western art in this context is art depicting Western North America, including bison, Indians, cowboys, landscapes, wildlife, pioneers, and western related things. It’s a genre that is often looked down upon by sophisticated consumers of fine art.

**I have not seen so many museums that offer discounts to military and first-responders as I encountered in the Hill Country. The Red family chipped in a little to the kitty to help defray the deferred admissions.

What Purpose Art?

Theodore Dalrymple wrote an essay recently, based on two paintings of a mother and child. One is by a modern artist from 1975, the other a Northern Renaissance painting by Dieric Bouts the Elder.

Original in the Met Museum: “Virgin and Child” Dieric Bouts c. 1455-60. Fair use under Creative Commons:

The other painting Dalrymple talks about is “Ginny and Elizabeth” by Alice Neel. I found it rather disturbing, as does Dalrymple.

I’m not going to argue that art has to have a purpose, or to demand that nothing but what I like be shown in public. Different things make people happy, and sometimes artists (and writers) release a lot of frustration, anxiety, and other things through the work. Then on occasion display or sell the results. Sometimes people just noodle around for themselves and enjoy the process. That’s great!

A lot of art does end up serving a purpose, however. It brings pleasure, praises the patron, praises or encourages contemplation of a deity, it fills space. It can be useful as well as decorative (applied arts), or just nice to look at. Yes, it can also be used for money laundering, which seems to be the purpose of some Modern Art. I’m thinking more about popular art, works that are not confined to the rarefied world of the critic and the connoisseur: works that people buy copies of for their homes, designs that please the eye.

Long-time readers know that I have a special spot for Renaissance art, mostly Northern Renaissance. I also prefer images that I can recognize, or that look realistic. So Western Art, especially Charlie Russel, and Tim Cox, among others fits the bill. Basically, with a few exceptions, my fondness for fine art tapers off after the Impressionists. I know what I like, I like it, and if other folks prefer something else, that’s great. However, one thing about all the find art that appeals to me: it uplifts the spirit somehow. It is beautiful, or poignant, or stirring. It may tell a story, or just show a private moment between a mother and a child. Or it may be chilling.

BAL4106 Madonna of the Burgermeister Meyer by Holbein the Younger, Hans (1497/8-1543); 146×101.6 cm; Schlossmuseum, Darmstadt, Germany; (add. info.: pictured with wives (living and dead), sons who had just died and surviving daughter); German, out of copyright
“The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” Hans Holbein the Younger 1521 (Kunstmuseum Basel)

The painting above is striking. It was meant to form the bottom of an altarpiece, and is life sized. It is disturbing. It is supposed to be. It is to inspire meditation on mortality, and the awe-full idea of G-d dying. But the family portrait is also about death, sort of. Except it has hope as well. I would not hang a reproduction of the lower painting in my house, but having seen the other Holbein? Yes, even knowing the story behind the painting. Perhaps especially because I know the story.

Art should inspire, or make you smile, or intrigue you. It should improve your mental or physical world. It doesn’t have to be an Old Master. Tim Cox paints landscapes with cowboys and horses. He’s not Rembrandt, or Jan Van Eyck. But I like his paintings. They make me happy, because he catches the western sky so well. I needed that, still need that some days. I also need Van Eyck, “St. Luke Painting the Virgin,” and Monet landscapes, and other lovely things. Or exciting and inspiring things, like the little portrait of Prinz Eugen von Savoy on my desk. It is a detail of a much larger battle painting, and shows him smiling a little and pulling back a curtain to reveal one of his victories over the Turks. The dude managed to hold off Louis XIV and the Turks, while operating on a Habsburg budget! If he could do that, I can get my chores done and papers graded on time.

Art should also uplift. Yes, many of the old works are idealized, glossing over things like Phillip II of Spain’s terrible congenital jaw malformation (ditto his father, although Charles didn’t have it quite as badly). There’s a reason Oliver Cromwell was very insistent that his portrait literally show him with warts and all. The battles in the enormous battle paintings were never that neat and tidy, the horses not so sleek and well groomed. That’s part of the point. It’s like saints in Christianity – they are to inspire, to serve as models, in some cases to combine horrible warnings (“don’t do that. No, seriously, just don’t”) with encouragement (“These people fell short, they lost their temper, they got in trouble as teenagers, and yet G-d used them and they improved, or held firm when everything else came crashing down.”) Ditto art.

The painting of Ginny and Elizabeth . . . does not inspire. It does not make my world better. It worries me, for both mother and child. That may have been the painter’s goal, in which case she succeeded admirably. But I’m not sure the world is a better place for having the work in it.

No, my Polish tea-cup doesn’t inspire me to great thoughts. It does fit my hand and pleases my eye with the shape and colors. It does its job, and is attractive. A Titian, or Caravaggio, or Breughel, or Mary Cassat painting, or a lovely statue, please the eye, and ease the spirit, or inspire it. Tim Cox’s work makes me smile, and lets me get away for a few minutes. Which is all I ask of art. Make my world a little better. Please?

Tree of Life

It’s an image found in many cultures – a tree with religious, ahem, roots, a symbol or a character in legend and faith. Trees are impressive wherever one finds them, and it is easy to see why certain individual trees, or trees in odd places, or certain types of tree, inspired veneration. Eventually, trees became elements of imagery in animist and later religions.

OK, maybe not these trees.

Continue reading

What is Beauty?

What is beautiful? How do we determine “This is beautiful” as compared to “This is lovely/stunning/dramatic/very attractive” but not quite beautiful? It is easy to say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” or “aesthetics are purely subjective,” but are they? Or is beauty something that resonates within us in a way we don’t entirely understand, but recognize?

I got to musing on this because of a TV program, and because of reading some Romantic-era poetry, among other things. Continue reading

Hey, I know where that idea came from!

I was skimming through a book yesterday of “Gothic Art.” This was not art of the period called the High Middle Ages, when cathedral building was a professional sport (or so it seems some days.) These are all modern works in an eerie, exotic, or otherwise Gothic style, from illustrations to portraits to landscapes and the like, with tips and tricks for drawing and designing that flavor of art. Some were a little creepy, or modernist for my taste, so I flipped through to landscapes and mysterious places.

And almost dropped the book when I started laughing. I knew which artist and which painting had inspired about half of the works in the back of the book. They were not direct copies, but in two cases were “continuations” or different views of the precise scene. Continue reading