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Rob Dunlavey
Field Trip Part 2: Picasso-Degas, MassMoCA, etc.
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Part 1 of this report is here

I’d been hearing raves about the Picasso-Degas blockbuster at the Clark  (it closes Sept. 12) all summer and I was anxious to see it. Since I was solo on this trip, I was able to indulge my ruminative nature to the fullest as I wandered through the three floors of the exhibit. Overall, it is a very good show with wonderful and rare examples of each artist’s best work. The premise is that Picasso came to Paris eager to consume and was poised to capitalize on any art that interested him. That is the phenomenon of Picasso. Like the Beatles perhaps: right person, right place at the right time. And art and culture have never been the same.
left: Degas "dans la café L'Absinthe" (1875-76) right: Picasso "Portrait of Sebastià Junyer i Vidal, (1903) Which one do you prefer?
I got the feeling that Degas was a brilliant and exacting 19th century artist whose practice was laced with tantalizing threads for future artists to take up. But Picasso, hot on his heels,  was able to meet anything head on and then pirouette and make it his own. Picasso: a relentless ocean wave to Degas' friable sand that is always claimed by the waters. I wouldn’t go so far to characterize Picasso as a “force of Nature”, but he ushered in a new concept of the artist as more than celebrity at a moment in time when it became possible to imagine this evolution of the concept.
Where I think the exhibition’s reasoning waivers is with the many direct comparisons it makes between specific works by each artist. They really never met. Ever. They were however, products of a similar educational process. True, Picasso had a few Degas’ prints and he kept a photograph of Degas in his possession, but it cheapens Picasso to suggest that he had an explicit rivalry  with Degas. I think Picasso’s reasons for doing anything were much more complex than simple rivalry (although he did have rivals and he dealt with them). Rivalry and competition are important motivations but the actual practice of making art allows much more into the process. Unexpected things can happen and that is when one's artistic uniqueness is expressed and they begin to stand out from their mentors and peers.
Left: sketch by Rob Dunlavey
Right: Degas: Combing the Hair (La Coiffure), c. 1896 Oil on canvas, 114.3 x 146.7 cm The National Gallery, London

What might any of this have to do with illustration? First of all, there is the question of influence and the healthy relationship of different generations of artists. Illustration, by its conservative nature, is more aware of this perhaps. In illustration all approaches are valid if there's a place for it in the marketplace (that marketplace is an vigorous and amorphous entity nowadays). So we can stick with Degas and find many workopportunities. Or we can model ourselves after Picasso, consuming many things (think of the internet as a buffet) and in the process making sure to make a brand of ourselves.
These are interesting ideas and this was a fascinating show. It closes in a few days so if you're in the neighborhood, try to see it.
Across town is from the Clark is the Williams College Art Gallery. It has a deep and eclectic collection on display. College museums are wonderful; there is always something unique and unexpected; perhaps, even under-appreciated. I was enchanted by a few things. This large "Portrait of Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia" was made by Franz Pourbus the Younger in 1600. I love how her face is framed (as fruit on a platter!) by the starched lace collar. The rest of her garment is similarly massive, sculpted and impossibly exquisite.
Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia: what's in a name?!

Here's a bicycle rider from Benin. I'm trying to remember the caption that went with it. I think (and may be making all this up) that this figure comes from a tradition of statues that enable communication between kings, Gods, whatnot, and other people. If the sculpture was carved today, we'd see the same guy in a Porto-Novo internet café fixing the president's  facebook account. The reason I was interested in this sculpture is my current interest in bicycles and cars and other things that have wheels.
I was smitten with the work of a conteporary Chinese artist, Nie Ou. She was born in 1948 and had initial art training when her parents moved to Bejing. During the subsequent upheaval of the Cultural Revolution she was sent to a farming collective far away from the capital. She returned in 1978 and resumed studies and began her career as a painter. You can find out more here.
"One Rural Morning" by Nei Ou

"The Pleasures of Farming" by Nei Ou
I love the four donkeys visible on the left of the bottom panel.

Lastly, but really, it would require another blog entry (I'll spare both of us!) I stopped in at MassMOCA in North Adams. It's a huge old mill complex that has been turned into a gigantic venue for gigantic art installations --essentially. On the top few floors is a massive and massively popular installation of wall drawings of Sol Lewitt.
There is a bunch more, most of them more subtle than this one. I love staring at this close-up until the seizures begin ;-p


There was a retrospective of the mixed media sculptures of Petah Coyne. I'd never heard of her before but, on reflection, if you like William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens, Victorian funereal displays and taxidermy shops, you might warm up to it pretty quickly. I did. And on further reflection, I'm reminded a little bit of the work of Sam Weber and Yuko Shimuzu (currently on exhibit at the Society of Illustrators in New York), in it's powerful and theatrical examination of the human figure as a vehicle for for story telling. Although the human body is nowhere evident in Petah Coyne's work, she suggests it by scale, subject matter and her choice of materials. Those materials are quite suggestive!
  • "Eguchi's Ghost" made of wire rendered from an entire Airstream trailer
  • "Untitled # 1240 (Black Cloud)"  [pictured above] velvet, silk flowers, chains, taxidermy specimens (geese, ducks)
Other materials include nails and wire coated in black sand used in iron foundries, candle wax, trees, kitsch madonna statues and silk ribbons, a stuffed bobcat and many other evocative art supplies not available at your local store.
I could go on but I need to get some work done! Let me finish by saying that looking at all kinds of art is an artist's job. It enlarges and refocuses the spirit so we can bring our best, poetic selves to even the most well understood and mundane task.
 
sketchbook page. These were big abstract things made from wire and coated with black sand

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