Friday, May 25, 2018

Mansudae Art Studio

North Korea has been in the news, but most of what we hear is about denuclearization, summit meetings, and sanctions. But we don't hear much about the art and artists there.

Women Looking at the New Salt Harvest.
The dream career for an artist in North Korea is to be a member of Mansudae Art Studio, where about 1000 hand-picked artists paint a range of images: official portraits, history lessons, and pictures for the tourist trade.

Members of the reigning Kim dynasty may only be portrayed by the artists from Mansudae Art Studio, and they must be shown smiling in heroic leadership poses. The style of the art resembles the art from Communist China during the Mao era.

Photo from Color Magazine
Young artists who follow the path of success in art begin at age nine at specialty art schools, painting set subjects. If they pass a series of examinations, they make it into a class of 150 students at the central art academy of Pyongyang, and hopefully qualify to join Mansudae.

Women pilots in North Korea. One holds a model airplane
A typical artist paints 30 paintings per year, working four days a week. The 5th day is reserved for community service.

The artists don't all paint oil canvases of political scenes. They also paint misty mountain landscapes in traditional ink wash. There are also artists who specialize in pottery, other traditional crafts, and sculpture.

Monument de la Renaissance Africaine,
created by sculptors from North Korea
Some of the sculptors from Mansudae have worked for African countries to create gigantic monuments.

Some American museums have been interested in collecting North Korean artwork, but because of the trade embargo, it's very difficult to acquire them.

Read more online:
Wikipedia: Mansudae Art Studio
Met Museum: Diamond Mountains: A Conversation with Curator Soyoung Lee
Colors Magazine: Official Portraiture in North Korea is made by one studio

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Cubist Nightmares in Comics

Newspaper comics came of age during the same time that modern art made its appearance, and the comic artists took notice.

In 1916, just a few years after the Armory Show, Penny Ross portrays "a Cubist Nightmare in the Studio of Monsieur Paul Vincent Cezanne Van Gogen Ganguin."


In Polly and Her Pals (1929) by Cliff Sterrett, Paw accidentally tries on his wife's glasses, with disorienting results. 

Uncle Walt and Skeezix visit an art museum and find out what it's like to walk around in Modernist paintings, as portrayed in Gasoline Alley (1930) by Frank King.

Bill Watterson continued the tradition decades later in Calvin and Hobbes.
You can find these pages and more in The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

American Enthusiasm, 1895

When Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841-1900) came to America, he taught students and he wrote music. He wrote The New World Symphony based on the inspiration he received here.

In 1895 he wrote an essay for Harpers magazine characterizing the music and the people of the young nation. He said: "The two American traits which most impress the foreign observer, I find, are the unbounded patriotism and capacity for enthusiasm of most Americans."

"Nothing better pleases the average American, especially the American youth, than to be able to say that this or that building, this or that new patent appliance, is the finest or grandest in the world."

"This, of course, is due to that other trait - enthusiasm. The enthusiasm of most Americans for all things new is apparently without limit. It is the essence of what is called "push" - American push."

"Every day I meet with this quality in my pupils. They are unwilling to stop at anything. In the matters relating to their art they are inquisitive to a degree that they want to go to the bottom of all things at once."

He wrote this essay during the 1890s, the decade of bicycles. Electricity and the telegraph were newly invented, and comics, animation, jazz, movies, automobiles and airplanes were soon to arrive. The enthusiasm and inquisitiveness he described were at the root of an incredible era of invention and discovery.

But, let's remember, many of those inventions were followed by less desirable outcomes that no one could have predicted, such as suburbia and the world wars. And we can't forget that women didn't have the vote, and racial and ethnic minorities didn't have equal opportunities.

Perhaps Dvořák would have been pleased to see his symphony performed by such a diverse orchestra (this was the first performance that came up on a Google search).

But I wonder what Dvořák would make of the zeitgeist of our arts culture now? Have we lost some of that enthusiasm and confidence? Have we become jaded, cautious, and cynical?

Antonin Dvorak's essay "Music in America"

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

How do we look at architecture?

Where do we put our attention when we look at a building? 

Here's a photograph of a Civil-War-era field hospital with an eye-tracking heat map overlaid. It shows that observers pay the most attention (red and yellow areas) to direct human presence.

There's a figure standing in the doorway, and a group of other figures to the left. The interest in the upper windows appears to be a search strategy for finding other people, or at least for learning about human presence indirectly. No one looks at the ground, the trees, or the chimney.

What if no people appear in the photograph? How do we respond to the purely abstract elements of architecture on their own terms? Here are two photos of a building, one with the side windows removed by Photoshop.

Researchers Ann Sussman and Janice Ward have discovered from such studies that "People ignore blank facades. People don’t tend to look at big blank things, or featureless facades, or architecture with four-sides of repetitive glass."

They also observed that "buildings with punched windows or symmetrical areas of high contrast perennially caught the eye, and those without, did not."
Eye tracking of Civil War photos
Here's What You Can Learn About Architecture from Tracking People's Eye Movements

Monday, May 21, 2018

The FBI recovers lost Wyeths

N.C. Wyeth The Unwrit Dogma
This painting of mysterious conspirators was one of six by N.C. Wyeth that were stolen from a Maine businessman, and later showed up in a pawnshop in Beverly Hills, California.
Read more: FBI Recovers All Six N.C. Wyeth Paintings

Sunday, May 20, 2018

How should I paint the light in shadows?

Blog reader Ewan Lamont says:
"I was interested to read that you 'need to tell myself to paint the shadows darker than they appear, because the tendency (for me at least) is to overstate the fill and reflected light'. John Ruskin noted that the human eye is far more sensitive to light than photographic paper (I am not sure about digital arrays of sensors) and wanted artists to paint what they could see in shadows and which was invisible in the dark shadows of photographs where shaded details did not register. He also deplored the Claude glass for the same reason."

John Sell Cotman, Chirk Aqueduct, 1806-7
Thanks for those interesting thoughts. Ruskin is correct in saying that our eyes can see more light in shadows than cameras can see, especially any cameras that he would have known. 19th century cameras had much less latitude than modern digital cameras are capable of. He's also right that usually we want to avoid indiscriminately copying black shadows in pictures.

But lighting and value organization were never Ruskin's strengths, so I take his opinions about light and shadow with a grain of salt here. I would hesitate to draw any single conclusion about how to treat the light in in the shadows in a picture. There are times you may want to paint shadows black, especially if you want drama. Other times you might want to flood the shadows with variations and bleach the lights. It depends on the nature of the lighting and your goals in a given study or painting.

If my goal in a picture is to capture a sense of light, I'll want to group the shadows and separate them from the lights. I think John Sell Cotman does that beautifully in the painting above. The tones in the shadow are kept together, even though they're not too black. Using a (Claude) Lorrain mirror can help in seeing these tonal relationships. It shows the darks all merged together as a mass -- even though you don't have to paint them as black as you see them.

And look how Cotman unifies the illuminated areas at the base of the aqueduct. It would have been very tempting to put a lot of dark accents and texture into those lights.

Let me leave you with these three suggestions:
1. Paint gives us a very limited scale of values to work with, so management of tone is essential.
2. To achieve a feeling of light, focus on grouping the shadows, simplifying them, and separating them from the lights. 
3. Your reference won't give you the value organization. You have to invent it. It requires a leap of your imagination and a remarkable level of discipline to pull it off.