Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Ashile Gorky - holding on to the past (part 1)

The current Tate exhibition Ashile Gorky: a restropective is the first major exhibition of its kind since 1981. This is a comprehensive display of the works of one of American's best painters, Gorky, a seminal figure in the movement towards abstraction that transformed American art. The exhibition examines Gorky's 178 bodies of work throughout his entire career from 1920s until his death in 1948.

This was the first time I encountered Gorky. I wanted to write a post on his work a while ago but somehow I couldn't find the words. I made a recent discovery that I like to test myself with time on what I truly think of with anything art related. That is what so great about it, it's like a good book. You read it again and again. And everytime there is something new. You can't really make up your mind besides that you really like it. That is also why it took me so long to write about Van Gogh, on which I haven't really finished.

The reason I find it difficult to write with Gorky is that he was another great artist with a tragic past and a tragic exit. His life story, like his works, is haunting. Then I can't help but wonder if knowing the life stories' of the artists really influence the way you look at their work? Does that information help you appreciate and understand their of art more? Or the work should stand on its own.

Ashile gorky was born Vostanik Manoog Adoyan in 1904 in the village of Khorgom, Armenia. He grew up when the Armenia genocide was happening. His father had fled to the United States earlier on, where he started a new life. This was when the photograph of Ashile and his mother was taken and sent to America, as a remind to his father not to forget them. Ashile's mother eventually died from starvation before the family was reunited. A year after her death his sister and him went to America where he realized that his father had restarted his life long ago. Ashile's heart was broken. He then changed his name to Gorky, after the famous Russian writer Maxim Gorky. And became a painter.

Little is said of Gorky's formal art training apart from that he enrolled at the New School of Design in Boston. Though it was quite évident that Gorky was also a self-taught artists and spent a good amount of time at the Museum of Art studying the masters. He very much admired the work of Cezanne, Kadinsky, Picasso.. And adopted their style in his early days as a painter. One of the most fascinating aspect of this exhibition was the trace of Gorky's style development, starting with copying work of previous masters to finding his own footprints. In many ways I felt his life stories are also embedded in his own personal styles.

Gorky was first known for his heavy application of paints. He would work on a painting for years, redrawing and applying paint to the point where you could judge the painting by its weight. Mouchou (his wife) said that sometimes a painting would change since the last time she saw it. Asked why he kept changing his work, he said that he would never finish a painting. Because once finished, it is as if it has died.

Does this explain Gorky's 10 year period working on the portraits of him and his mother? The portraits (1926-1936) was re-drawn from the photo that they had sent to his father to remind him of their existence. There is something so humble, so beautiful, so haunting about these paintings (he made two). I find myself unable to tear away from his mother's gaze. Did Gorky take so long to finish them because he simply couldn't let go of his mother, of his past? This was a theme that clearly dominated the first part of the exhibition.

The artist and his mother (1926-1936)
the Painting on the left is currently at the National Gallery of Art Washington DC (photo @NGA)
that on the right is at the Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC (photo @wikipedia)

Both are on display at the Tate exhibition.

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Monday, 5 April 2010

Van Gogh: Painted by Words

"Drawing is the root of everything."
My plan is not to spare myself. Not to avoid a lot of difficulties and emotions. It is of relative indifference to me whether I live a long or a short time. I'm concerned with the world only in that I have a certain obligation or duty, if you like, having walked the world for 30 years... to leave a souvenir of gratitude in the form of paintings or drawings.

For those of you who are interested, and who live in the UK... this is a well worth drama-documentary to watch about Van Gogh. Only available for the next 30 days on BBC iplayer.

Van Gogh: Painted by Words

Sunday, 4 April 2010

The Real Van Gogh

To WH and TC, both of whom I wish I had brought to see this exhibition before they went to Amsterdam.

When you look at a Van Gogh painting, what do you see? Do you see the brilliant and beautiful contrasting colours, or the "madness" of the paint brush? Do you remember the vibrant colours but such sad and somewhat troublesome mood? Do you know of Van Gogh as a crazy artist who cut of his ear? Whose self portraits seem to penetrate the soul of his sitter like a Dorian Gray?

If you answer "yes" to any of the questions above, you should visit the currently running exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London - The Real Van Gogh: the artist and his letters. One of the most intriguing exhibitions I have seen this year.

What we are told about someone before we really know them usually influence the way we think about them -- and with artists, the way we look at their work. Sometimes we need to go that extra mile to really discover them for who they are, and not what they were told to be. This is exactly what the exhibition did -- offering you the chance to know the "real" Van Gogh.

By investigating an abundant resource of the artist's letters, most of which were written to his brother, Theo, the RA has brought to London a major Van Gogh exhibition for the first time in 40 years. And by looking at his works from a perspective that I learned has never before been so fully investigated in one exhibition - his letters.

There are 40 letters exhibited that traces the Van Gogh's artistic development from the moment he decided to become an artist at the age of 27. During his short artistic career, Van Gogh is probably the artist that wrote the most about his works. Many of the paintings and sketches on show were accompanied by the letters in which Van Gogh used words beautifully to pre-paint his vision of work he planned to do. Despite the lack in presence of a few key pieces such as "The potato eaters" the body of works presented there were extraordinary.

Van Gogh was not only a remarkable painter but he was also an educated and a beautiful writer. He read extensively, literature pre- and of his time including many English writers such as Shakespeare, Elliot and Dickens. Van Gogh spoke and wrote fluently Dutch, French and English -- though most of his letters were written in the two prior languages. And although his artistic career only spread for a decade or so, Van Gogh has produced a phenomenal amount of work (over 800 bodies of work) and is one of the most hard-working self taught artists I have ever known.

Van Gogh worked relentlessly. Firstly with sketching and perspective drawing; then to figure painting which he found "most difficult". Lastly he tackled portraits, which he thought "(were) the highest goal an artist can achieve". He progressed from water colour to oil painting while self-teaching Delacroix's colour theory. His works were influenced by inspirations he found along the way, either it be literature or in Japanese prints, which also became a huge influence in his landscape paintings and portraiture.

Van Gogh's art wasn't accepted then... He never sold a piece in his lifetime. His techniques were regarded as clumsy (figures) and although he later lightened his palette to match those of the impressionists, Van Gogh's style was always on a course of its own. Sometimes having your own style means unpopularity.

What I love most about this exhibition was two things
1. I was truly blown away by getting to see some of his work in person like The Two Empty Chairs (1888), his self portrait, the dried sunflower, Hospital at Saint-Remy (1889) and many of the landscape paintings ... I have always been fascinated with his use of colours and the way he really painted what he felt. But I was so moved by his commitment and dedication, by his intellect and "genius".
2. Another wonderful thing that surface this exhibition was the brotherly love, support and respect between Van Gogh and Theo. I am sure there were times of difficulties and conflict between them. But no matter what course life takes, what is more precious than having someone who believes in you?

I will share in the next few posts details of some of the work I love.
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