Listen, my children, and you shall hear – the confessions of an art guerrilla: I am the
Ernesto “Che” Guevara of the art set, a nasty rebel amongst aesthetes of the wine and cheese brigade. I’ve banished the drab opinions of ” experts” and now accept only art that I personally prefer. And like my alter ego, Che, I intend to make ceaseless war on the fat sacred cows of painting.
This urge to topple fat-headedness is so heretical that I don’t even like Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” that hymn to Renaissance mediocrity which has been hyped for centuries as a world masterpiece beyond price. Oh, it is okay, a nice piece of drawing, but that’s all. I might hang it on the wall if someone gave me Leonardo’s artwork for free. But in no alternate universe fantasy would I waste millions of dollars buying it. A great place to display it would be the bathroom, where visitors are in a hurry and in no mood to linger over the painting’s deficiencies.
First off, “Mona Lisa” is insipid as a painting. It is monochromatic, a study in black and shades of brown, with a faint touches of green in the background. Folks who prefer color in their paintings should definitely find it lacking. Its composition is satisfactory but nothing to bark at the moon about. As for the subject, one observes simply a slightly over-weight Italian matron calmly sitting with her hands crossed, staring at the artist. Any group of professional photographers has wrought better arrangements (and models).
And she is smiling … or maybe not. Aye, there’s the rub: generations of art critics have wasted cubic volumes of hot air dissecting that smile. But is she smiling or smirking? Is she getting ready to break into a belly laugh? A snortle or a chortle? Who cares? Maybe Leonardo dribbled paint down his smock to inspire that suppressed giggle.
Franz Hals and other masters have produced the likenesses of women with far more evocatively humorous facial expressions. Some are literally howling with glee. But Mona Lisa gets all the notoriety for a limp grin.
Part of the problem is that Leonardo created such a tremendous reputation as a universal Renaissance genius (artist, engineer, scientist, architect, etc.) that anything he produced had to be superb. Truth is, in 1496 he painted a portrait far superior to “Mona Lisa” which has gone relatively unnoticed. It is popularly called “Lady with an Ermine.” His subject was a really good-looking babe, Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Duke Ludovico “Il Moro” Sforza of Milan, who entered the duke’s aristocratic harem at age 16 and bore him a son. Leonardo was Sforza’s employee at the time and was given the job of creating her likeness.
The resulting portrait has every thing “Mona Lisa” lacks. The strong reds and greens of Cecilia’s dress complement perfectly the russet freckles of her complexion and the deep auburn of her hair. With exquisitely shaped fingers she is caressing a small white ermine or ferret which serves as a symbol for the duke. Sforza’s personal emblem was “L’Ermellino.”
Cecilias’s facial expression is thoughtful, with just a touch of sadness. Perhaps she is reviewing her future. When Sforza finally settled down he married an aristocrat like himself, Isabella D’Este, and commoner Cecilia was banished. But the duke was no ingrate tightwad. She got a dowry and a castle which she parlayed into marriage with a lesser aristocrat, Count Pergamino.
Let’s be frank: I think “Mona Lisa” got so many props because she has been hanging many years in the famous Paris Louvre. “Lady with an Ermine” has been languishing in a relatively obscure Polish museum. It is all art politics.
While we are on the subject of Great Art Scams Through the Ages, let us pause a moment over one Pablo Picasso, the Bernie Madoff of slash and splash modern art. Pablo didn’t descend to the ridiculous depths of so many drip and drizzle modernists. But he produced a far greater quantity of scam art than any painter living or dead.
To understand Picasso and his cohorts and copyists, one must go back in time to the 1840s and 1850s when photography was being invented. Prior to the arrival of cameras and film, a rich man went to great trouble and expense to get his portrait painted. For big bucks he hired a painter, then he sat for days and weeks while the artist transferred his likeness to canvas. Enter photography. Suddenly any average citizen could pose in front of a camera for a few minutes and receive a portrait far more accurate than any painter could hope to deliver. Photography also began making inroads into traditional artistic venues such as landscapes.
Artists, feeling the hot breath of unbeatable competition, created “modern art,” a mélange of cabalistic schools each with its own style and vocabulary: impressionism, cubism, minimalism, non-objectivism, surrealism, pop. Like Egyptian priests of old, each school laid claim to ultimate truth and spoke in unknown tongues to the bewildered public. A flood of modern art – a real inundation of grotesquerie – filled museums throughout the land. Each painting eerily resembled its neighbors hanging nearby. And few of them seemed to have the slightest connection to reality.
The success of this strategy should be measured by the insane amounts of money art purchasers pay for the least scribble by Pablo Picasso. The numbers of modern artists elevated to fame by the various schools should be labeled another sign of achievement.
I don’t begrudge old Pablo and his cohorts their success with the modern art scam. If
auction houses can continue to fleece millions from buyers in Picasso’s name, I say go to it. Just don’t include me among the gulled.
One of my favorite Picasso creations (because it is so funny) is “Rape of the Sabine Women” in which the painter attempts to cope with an old Roman legend, ending up with a politically correct froth of propaganda.
Trouble is, although Picasso produced a stirring social rant, he got his facts all wrong. I consulted Roman historians Livy and Plutarch, our main sources for the Sabine legend, and they told a somewhat different tale. There were no horses nor cavalry involved. And no women got trampled in the event — no flashing swords either.
The story begins after the founding of Rome, home to a bunch of randy males comprising an influx of adventurers and fortune-seekers. It occurred to city fathers — as it did to the rabbits of Watership Down — that without females the young town would not long endure. So they decided to steal some skirts from a band of hillbillies, the Sabines, who lived nearby. They invited a crowd of these outlanders to a festival, and at the height of the hoopla certain young Romans each grabbed an unmarried woman and made off with her.
The Sabines were either very good guests or profoundly slow-witted, because they did not kick up much of a fuss at first. They tried negotiating, but got no farther than the U.S. gets with Iran. It took them about two years to get a really good mad on and organize an army. Back in Rome, all the young bucks who had captured a female were sternly cautioned by city fathers to treat their captives gently and to woo or seduce them. This apparently was a successful tactic because it produced a fine crop of babies.
When tempers finally reached a boiling point, the Sabine men roared into town and began belaboring the Romans with rustic gusto. There were plenty of flashing swords
then, and probably horses and spears, too. The battered Romans retreated to their citadel to make a last stand. At that moment the Sabine Women poured out of their houses and ran between the two armies holding their infants high, yelling for both sides to cool it. They dressed down their fathers and brothers royally for a tardy squabble which was upsetting the women’s domestic tranquility. When all the fuss and feathers subsided everyone agreed the Roman solution was probably a good arrangement after all, and the Sabines were incorporated into the new Rome.
I don’t mean to imply all modern art is a work of the devil. Impressionists, for example, turned out some top-flight pieces the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Those artists creating flat pattern designs have contributed much to the beautification of floor tiles, draperies, wallpaper and clothing. Controversy ensues when their works tend to leave the realm of decoration and pretend to be much more than they are. Here I have in mind toilers such as Henri Matisse whose fuzzy impressionistic designs have been elevated to an undeserved level.
Modern art became a therapeutic agent during my enrollment at the Memphis Academy of Arts in 1948. We had a former faculty member, Dorothy Sturm, who left the academy for several years to work as an illustrator of medical textbooks. Upon return to her old job, Dorothy found herself so uptight and inhibited that she was unable to paint or teach with any degree of freedom or comfort. Several faculty members suggested she take a fling at non-objective art, which included slopping paint on canvas with a knife, then crushing ashes and feathers into the goo. The resulting work was hideous, but the cure was effective. She went right back to oil painting as well as in the good, old days.
There you have it: even the worst of modern art can serve as first aid for the mind.