Sunday, September 30, 2012

My Favorite Paintings at Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, Netherlands

The Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem naturally had quite a few paintings by this Dutch master.  However, his paintings collected there were of sombre kind, unlike those more typical earthy figures of his such as The Laughing Cavalier in the Wallace Collection in London.  His paintings here were often group portraits of gloom looking men, sitting in rigid rows, in great contrast to Rembrandt's ground-breaking group painting, The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, aka The Night Watch.  I yearned for something different and the painting below emerged as my favorite.

The Regentesses of the Old Men's Home in Haarlem, 1664
canvas, 170.5 x 249.5 cm
Frans Hals (Antwerpen ca 1582 - Haarlem 1666)

First, these people were women, though severe and somber, their delicate broad white lace collars softened their images and the sloping lines of their heads and hands giving us a sense of a close community and strong bond of sisterhood.  These were not ordinary women, rather, they were four four regentesses with the housemother standing behind.  They were somewhat severe and wise in their business like directness, and not without kindness, in their modesty and motherly nodding way.  The arrowhead shaped composition added a sense of movement and power to these serious though not without some motherly benevolence women.

According to Haarlem Museum, "the four regentesses of trustees of the Old Men's Alms House in 1664 were Adriaentje Schouten, Marijtje Willems, Anna van Damme and Adriana Bredenhoff. They are portrayed, with the housemother, in this group portrait by Frans Hals. The painting in the background may be of the Good Samaritan, a subject that illustrates the charity of the regentesses. The portraits of the regentesses and the regents have been both admired and reviled over the centuries - admired for the manner of their painting, which had a particularly marked impact on the Impressionists and Realists of the 19th century, and reviled because people thought that the portraits of the regentesses were not very flattering. For a long time it was believed that Frans Hals had lived in the Old Men's Alms House. It was said that this portrait of the regentesses and that of the regents were his way of taking his revenge on the strict trustees. But Frans Hals never lived in the Old Men's Alms House. We do, however, know that in the 1630s Frans Hals and his large family lived in Groot Heiligland, the street where the Old Men' s Alms House stood."

I did not feel this group portrait unflattering at all.  Rather, it elevated the status of women.  Applaud the painter and the regentesses as well.

My second choice from Frans Hals Museum contrasted markedly from the one above - a portrait of Mercury by Hendrick Goltzius (Mühlbracht 1558 - Haarlem 1617).

Mercury, 1611, canvas, 214 x 120 cm 
Hendrick Goltzius (Mühlbracht 1558 - Haarlem 1617) 

First, the subject of this painting was one of my favorite gods - Mercury, youthful, lithe, swift and elegant.  Second, he was the patron of the arts and god of rhetoric - the fields I valued highly.  The only reservation I had about this version of Mercury lay in the fact that he was more a man than a youth, even more so than Michelangelo's David, massive, yet not ungraceful.

The museum's website described the god as "recognizable by his winged helmet, the snake-entwined caduceus and a cockerel. In this version, his caduceus looks very much like a maulstick. At Mercury's feet He drawing attributes, a set square, compasses, a drawing and an album of drawing patterns. Behind him stands a girl sticking her tongue out and holding a rattle and a magpie. In this painting. too, wisdom and stupidity are united: the girl symbolizes foolish prattle."

What I liked most of the painting was the forward leaning pose of the god and his purposeful and determined look, and the wonderful rendering of his marvelous masculine body, if I could momentarily disassociate this powerful figure from the Mercury of my own concept.  I also found the cockerel at his feet very intriguing and its symbolism though escaped me.  Perhaps a reference to the dominating and warrior like nature of Greek gods?  Perhaps a reflection of Mercury, in its equally forward leaning pose?

My Favorite Museum Collection Series

>> My Favorite Museum Collection Series 53: My Favorite Paintings at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Rotterdam 
<< My Favorite Museum Collection Series 51: My Favorite Paintings at Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

List of My Favorite Artworks in the Museums I've Visited

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

My Favorite Paintings at Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam hosted numerous paintings by the great modern Dutch master, Vincent Van Gogh, from iconic ones to the somewhat lesser known though not minor ones.  After some difficult dideliberation, I chose below two paintings as my favorites.

The first one, Wheatfield with Crow, was a well known one, if not universally loves as his Irises or Starry Night. This painting, painted near the end of Van Gogh's life, was a pictorial cry of unmitigatable despair and looming doom, albeit an astonishingly beautiful one.  This visionary work reflected a tortured mind at the brink of collapse, and cracked open a door toward a dark world most of us could only project but not able to imagine and endure.  It was startling and one could practically hear the wailing of the crows filling up the dense blue sky.

Van Gogh, despite or because of his misery, weaved a magic spell with intense and strongly contrasted, thickly applied paints, in wavy and parallel brushstrokes, and it was really the trembling of his own sense and soul we discern.

Korenveld met kraaien, Vincent van Gogh (1890)
Korenveld met kraaien, Wheatfield with Crow, Vincent van Gogh (1890) 
Oil on Canvas, 50.5 x 103 cm, 
Photo courtesy by Pachango on Flickr

The second work I cite below was a very tranquil one, comparing to the one above, with a serene and translucent beauty.

Vissersboten op het strand van Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Vincent van Gogh (1888)
Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, 1888 Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) 
Oil on Canvas, 65 x 81.5 cm, 
Photo courtesy by Pachango on Flickr

This painting was painted during his stay in Arles, France, not far from the Mediterranean, after his visiting of the fishing village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in June 1888.  He captured something fragile which was deeply personal.  The color scheme was less brilliant than usual, and the brush strokes more continuous and less nervous.  The pale blue sea and beige sand gave this oil painting a look of more delicate pastel painting.  Yet, it was not a weak one.  There were bold strokes, manifested by the strongly outlined boats and their saturate colors, small patches but intense.  More over, the sky was painted with little strokes which invoked some uncertainty, some fearful anticipation, perhaps, an approaching storm.

My Favorite Museum Collection Series

>> My Favorite Museum Collection Series 52: My Favorite Paintings at Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, Netherlands  
<< My Favorite Museum Collection Series 50:  My Favorite Paintings at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

List of My Favorite Artworks in the Museums I've Visited

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Funny Theater, Not Textbook - David Henry Hwang's Chinglish at Berkeley Repertory Theatre

David Henry Hwang's Chinglish at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (BRT) is generating great buzz and has attracted many new audience from Asian American community.

Last Friday, I attended the performance at BRT with anticipation and a little trepidation, particularly after viewing an introduction trailer on BRT's website (below).  I was resolved to approach it as a play, other than a cultural reference to the home country I left twenty years before.

Chinglish! at Berkeley Rep from Berkeley Repertory Theatre on Vimeo.

BRT informed us on its website that David Henry Hwang "is back with a canny comedy of cross-cultural errors. In Chinglish, an American businessman heads to Asia to score a lucrative contract for his family's firm—but the deal isn't the only thing getting lost in translation when he collides with a Communist minister, a bumbling consultant and a suspiciously sexy bureaucrat. Two-time Obie-winner Leigh Silverman returns to Berkeley Rep to stage the twists in a terrific play she took to Broadway. Love is on the line, and laughter fills the ledger in Chinglish."

After the two-hour long performance, both my expectations were met.  There were some observations I'd like to share.

First, it was a wonderful night at theater, particularly the crisp and funny first act.  The second act was somewhat bogged down by turgid romanticism, lethargic pace and sentimentality.  The marvelous scenery and crisp direction was the highlight of the night.  All the lithe actors all gave their considerably best.  That said, it needed a bold editor and it would have been a much better play if the second half had been at least halved. 

Second, people like me, a native Chinese speaker having broad life experiences in both China and America, were not the targeted audience.  I was actually bogged down by my Chinese knowledge to enjoy the play as well as people who didn't speak Chinese.  For example, when the protagonist tried to learn some Chinese phrases, his rapid-fire mispronunciations were simply meaningless gibberish to me, yet the projected English translation made them amazingly funny and elicited much laughter, which signified to me that those "funny" moments were not genuine but manufactured.

Third, it could be called a farce, a comedy, a romantic drama, a sitcom, etc., but not a cultural reference.  It did not successfully open the window to China.  Rather, it opened the shutter, and revealed a trompe-l'œil, albeit a marvelously funny one.

Fourth, characterization versus caricaturization.  I wholeheartedly agreed that dealing with Chinese people, particularly those opaque, pompous and often corrupt petty officials was an ordeal, tortuous and painful.  However, such difficulties were not as presented by the play.  The play did a good job in creating a sense of helplessness, just not true, if that was important to you.  This, together with the stilted Chinese dialogue, anachronistic clothes and accessories, misrepresentation of political and judicial working order, the styles of the interaction amongst Chinese people themselves confined to different hierarchical orders, demonstrated that the playwright didn't have a firm grasp of current Chinese culture.  I learned that this play would go to Hong Kong, though not mainland China.  I had to wonder if audience in mainland China would feel insulted or not.  I tried not to be bothered by this.  However, watching the play did give me a sense of what it must be like watching The Beverly Hillbillies in West Virginia.

Finally, I would recommend this play, though hardly a must see, with a caveat - see it as an artistic creation, not as reality show.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Cats in Shenyang, China

When I grew up in China, pets were extremely rare, if it was not fish or birds.  When I was in high school, I visited a friend's home and I declared that he was weird because his home had a cat.

That was how I grew up, absolutely without contact with dogs and cats.

After I've lived in the US for many years, I discovered my great love for cats.

In May, when I visited my parents in Manchurian city Shenyang, I was delighted to see cats.  At the beginning a lone cat from the window, then more near an artificial creek in the huge gated compound and then numerous feral cats in the evening during the daily feeding time.  It was a visual feast for me.

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 9103
A lone cat hunting, seen from 6th floor window

Below are the pictures I took when I had my morning stroll one day near the creek:

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 9933

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 9936

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 9941

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 9935

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 9940

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 9945

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 9946

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 0259

And finally, the night before I returned, I took another walk with my mother and we saw the amazing feeding frenzy - according to the women who fed the cats, there were near hundred feral cats they fed together.  Some of them were shy and some more assertive.  All quite healthy looking and beautiful.  Very sweet.

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 9931

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 9925

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 0135

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 0165

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 0124

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 0155

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 0157

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 0168

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 0143

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 0145

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 0151

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 0147

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 0136

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 0183

Cats in Shenyang, China _ 0167

Label: Shenyang, Shenyang Trip 2012

Saturday, September 15, 2012

My Favorite Paintings at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Six years ago, when I visited the great city Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum was under renovation - it is set to re-open on 13 April 2013 after almost ten years's effort.  Mercifully, the museum put the cream of its collections to a wing and I was able to see some of the amazing works, amongst them, my Favorite Paintings are one Vermeer and one Rembrandt.  No surprise here.

To me, The Milkmaid or The Kitchen Maid by Johannes Vermeer, a tranquil domestic scene, was one of the most beautiful and enchanting paintings ever produced in the human history.  It was bold and delicate - look at the intense blue and yellow hues, so strongly contrasted and yet so harmoniously co-existed, furthermore, all the colors were luminous and glowing, without competing one another for dominance.  The details of the daily objects were meticulously done, not to show off the painter's skill, but to create a reality in suspended in time, and to depict the crystal clear northern light.

The Milkmaid, ca. 1660, Johannes Vermeer, Oil on CanvasHeight: 45.5 cm, Width: 41 cm

I could not say better than the description on the Museum's website: "One of Vermeer's most admired paintings is The Milkmaid. She stands in front of a window pouring milk into a bowl, deep in concentration, her head slightly tilted to one side. The daylight streaming in draws the viewer's attention automatically to the pouring milk. This is depicted so perfectly that you can practically see and hear the milk pouring. It is the only action taking place in the room."

The Vermeer painting was small scaled and intimate and the The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, known as The Night Watch, by the master Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn was grand and public. 

The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, 1642, Oil on Canvas
Height: 379.5 cm, Width: 453.5 cm

For this commissioned work by the militia company, Rembrandt didn't follow the convention of painting the gentlemen sitting or standing in rows facing the viewers like mannequins, rather, he positioned the figures in a lively scene - the captain issued command, flag raised, drum beat, horned blew, children running amongst the throng.  Nothing but static and boring.  Again, we are enchanted by the marvelous play of light and dark.  However, the painting was not so dark to begin with and it became a "night scene" only after the changing of the paints the master employed.

Night or day, it was one of the most memorable group portraits ever created. If some of the figures felt cheated because their full faces were not shown, we, the viewers, however, must be grateful for Rembrandt's confidence and courage.

I am very partial to this painting because I had the opportunity to see its full scale replica in San Francisco, in a private home turned museum.

Since I only sampled the highlights of the Rijksmuseum collection, a return to Amsterdam is a must once Rijks reopened.

My Favorite Museum Collection Series

>> My Favorite Museum Collection Series 51: My Favorite Paintings at Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
<< My Favorite Museum Collection Series 49: My Favorite Paintings in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK

List of My Favorite Artworks in the Museums I've Visited

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A New Painting "Icon" Completed

Last Saturday, I completed a new painting - Icon.

Growing up with the doctrine that "religion is poison" [Mao], my view on religion was not a cozy one but it has changed slowly.  Though I am still somewhat leery of organized religion, I do appreciate the power of solace religions can provide.

This year I have a rather difficult beginning and seeking such comfort perhaps was what compelled me to work on this painting, dominated by a compassionate weeping face. The sadness and compassionate eyes comforted me during the time of difficulty and suffering.

Icon / Ikon / 聖像
Oil on Canvas, 16" x 20"

When I started this painting several weeks ago, I didn't have another painting in mind at all.  Once it was completed and archived last Saturday, I was surprised to see that it made a perfect companion piece to another painting with a very similar compassionate woman face, completed in January this year:

Heavenwards / 向天 / Zum Himmel
Oil on Canvas, 20" x 16"

Sunday, September 9, 2012

My Favorite Paintings in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge was the last major museum I visited in the United Kingdom in 2006.  It was founded in 1816 and is the art and antiquities museum of the University of Cambridge. Naturally, an institution as ancient as this would have amazing collections and my expectation was fully met.

Yet, amongst its endless arrays of antiquities from all corners of the world, and paintings by many great masters, I was most affected by a very small monochromatic painting, titled Agnes (below), painted by an artist named I didn't know - Catherine Blake.

Agnes, tempera on canvas, circa 1800, height: 14 cm, width: 15.3 cm
Catherine Blake, British, 1762-1831 

Online search yielded that Catherine Blake was indeed related to the more famous Blake, William.  Wikipedia informed us that "Catherine Blake (née Catherine Boucher) (1762–1831) was the wife of the poet, painter and engraver William Blake (1757–1827), and a vital presence and assistant throughout his life as an artist.

What moved me most by that painting was that it was incredibly sincere, touching, a bit scary and immensely beautiful, despite its obvious gloom.  It was done with tempera but looked more like an etching or a drawing; I have no argument with this fact, because my paintings are often monochromatic and I truly appreciate its dark psyche and the draftsmanship undisguised by display of colors.

To cure the melancholy this painting plunged me into, I turned to the colorist Venetian master Titian for a cure.  Well, it was a painting about a tragic affair, but it was so stylized and so beautiful to behold, that one ought to be forgiven to feel joyous in front of this enchanting painting, a painting with graceful figures, lovely nude, ravishing colors and wonderful composition. 

Tarquin and Lucretia, oil on canvas,  circa 1571, height: (canvas): 188.9 cm, width: (canvas): 145.1 cm
Tiziano Vecellio (Titian) (1488/1490-1576

The horror Lucretia suffered, actually, got heightened once viewers looked pass the surface beauty and dived deep into the situation the master depicted, and that made this painting, beyond its beauty, profound.

My Favorite Museum Collection Series

>> My Favorite Museum Collection Series 50: My Favorite Paintings at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
<< My Favorite Museum Collection Series 48: My Favorite Paintings at Tate Britain, London

List of My Favorite Artworks in the Museums I've Visited

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

What Makes A Good Artist

I've been thinking about the fundamental question - what makes a good artist.  The more I think about it, the less I confine myself in the domain of visual art world.  Rather, I cast my eyes far afield. 

I believe that the best instrumentalists make their instruments sing, while the best vocalists sound like instruments.

Similarly, great writers present their stories with the vividness of detailed paintings and the best artists gave us pictures with the depth and complexity of narrative or philosophical novels.

A simply pretty painting or drawing is pleasing but would lose its charm rapidly.  Only rich feelings and deep thoughts it contains, implies, reveals or hides could sustain enduring interest.

Even abstract works ought to tell stories and the best do.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

My Favorite Paintings at Tate Britain, London

In my previous reporting in this series, I cited two paintings I liked most in Tate Modern, London.  Tate Modern is part of the Tate gallery network in Britain, with Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives.  Tate Britain was the oldest gallery in the network, opening in 1897 and houses a substantial collection of the works of J. M. W. Turner.

Turner is one of my favorite artists and amongst many of his masterpieces collected there, I loved this one below most:

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbor's Mouth, 1842
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775‑1851)
Oil on canvas
Support: 914 x 1219 mm frame: 1233 x 1535 x 145 mm

The most striking aspect of this painting is its dynamism - the vortex formed by the the fast moving waves echoing the crushing dark clouds - it was simultaneously exhilarating and disorientating. Dramatic, bold, sketchy yet subtle.  Luminous and threatening. 

The other work I like most there was by the very same Alan Davie, whose work I had cited as one of the two my favorites at Tate Modern.

Black Mirror, 1952 Alan Davie (born 1920)
Oil on board
Support: 1219 x 1219 mm frame: 1245 x 1270 x 65 mm  

Once again, his painting was draped in dark mystery, with the dominant black color bellowing like a cello.  The overwhelming blackness was made acceptable by the almost reflective white "panel" and yellow light or streaks breaking through the dark curtain.  The objects on the board were both tangible and indecipherable.  An enigma and a lovely one.

My Favorite Museum Collection Series

>> My Favorite Museum Collection Series 49: My Favorite Paintings in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK
<< My Favorite Museum Collection Series 47: My Favorite Paintings at Tate Modern Gallery in London

List of My Favorite Artworks in the Museums I've Visited