Sunday, June 28, 2009

Pieter Paul Rubens (June 28, 1577 – May 30, 1640)

Yesterday, I observed the death of a genius - Michael Jackson, today I want to honor the birth of another - Pieter Paul Rubens (June 28, 1577 – May 30, 1640), whose name was employed by some art historians to describe the epoch he belonged to - the Age of Rubens.

Rubens was introduced to me early on, along with other old masters, such as da Vinci, Titian and Rembrandt, primarily through well-produced large format calendars. Those were the only chances I had to behold decent reproductions of seminal western artworks.

Many years later, not only have I accumulated many prints and books featuring those artworks, but I also had many opportunities to view these miracles with my naked eyes.

His staggering series - The Marie de' Medici Cycle, a series of twenty-four paintings commissioned by Marie de' Medici, wife of Henry IV of France, with twenty-one of the paintings depict Marie's own struggles and triumphs in life and the remaining three are portraits of herself and her parents, occupied a gigantic hall in the Louvre. They were such Herculean works that it took monumental concentration and Stamina to view the entire cycle in one go. Every time I went back to the Louvre, I would seek them out to admired and contemplate. This series is particularly fascinating since the life and achievement of the heroine was rather pallid.

In a large cathedral in Antwerp, I had seen his great Passion altar pieces, which somehow survived the Iconoclasm. Even a non-religious person as I, was deeply moved by his stunning composition and execution. Yet, since most of his work were only sketched by him, and subsequently executed by many assistants and apprentices, his cartoons for such paintings and tapestries were even more valued by many, including me, who appreciate the lucidity of these supposedly rough and unfinished works.

He was a successful diplomat and shrewd businessman and his villa - Rubenshuis in Antwerpen was a happy testament that financial success could be avail to a true great artist, however rarely.

On his birthday, 28 June, I remember the titan of the past.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Lost in Translation

The memory of telling our English teacher in Ohio that that the only American musicians we, mostly-Chinese students, could easily call to mind were Michael Jackson and Madonna [Last blog entry: Remembering a Pop Icon], brought other memories to me.

In the early nineties, I was a university undergraduate in Northeastern China. When the Student Union announced a screening of video Gone With The Wind, the university administration got nervous and eventually ordered or persuaded the Student Union to switch to The Blue Lagoon for the disappointed students.

Pressed to explain why that happened, my guess is that Gone With The Wind, when introduced to Chinese audiences in the 30s or 40s, the Chinese title, 乱世佳人, could mean either The Beauty in Troubled Time, or The Beauty Who Made the World Upside Down. Rather risqué, wasn't it? It was further stigmatized during Cultural Revolution in the 60s, by being branded as "poisonous weed." Perhaps it was never officially banned, naturally, the "ban" was never officially lifted. Therefore, the students were treated with the lesser known, never banned for sure and apparently less dangerous The Blue Lagoon, in all its soft-pornographic glory. The occasion of that screening was International Women's Day, no less!

More on these ironic memories: I had the honor of viewing the video of The Killing Field (a movie about the cruelty of Khmer Rouge) in the same university (for English study), and read a Chinese translation of George Orwell's 1984, borrowed from the library in the same university. Apparently, the Chinese authorities were either too ignorant or too oblivious to see any connection between the Khmer Rouge or Big Brother and themselves.

Because of those experiences, I cheer for the occasional losses in translation.

Remembering a Pop Icon

The sudden death of pop icon Michael Jackson was both a shock and expected. He is a controversial figure for sure, even his importance in pop music development was not without debate. Yet for a time, he was the face of America.

In the early nineties, when I was taking English classes for teaching assistants (TA) at the University of Toledo (Ohio), my mostly-Chinese fellow TAs shocked and dismayed my American teacher, by telling her that the only American musicians we could easily call to mind were Michael Jackson and Madonna. Of course, we also knew Lionel Richie (due to his hugely popular Say You, Say Me) and Paul Simon (courtesy of the movie The Graduate). We knew nothing about Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, or Bruce Springsteen.

We knew America through Madonna's bust and Michael Jackson's crotch. To the outside world, those crass yet truly iconic postures were what American "culture" was about, like it or not. Michael Jackson was a deeply flawed tragic figure. We knew nothing about his being a child star, his dark skin and Afro. We knew him as a freakish sexy animal, which was an act of rebellion in itself.

Of course, over the years, we, the new immigrants, learned more about America, and started to appreciate its complexity. Yet, who can replace the faces of Michael or Madonna? Ansel Adams, Richard Serra, Susan Sontag, John Updike, Renée Fleming, or Deborah Voigt? I think not.

For better or worse, Michael Jackson is America, and, for many, America is Michael Jackson.

One song I am sure that I knew then, and still does not sound dated is Billie Jean (YouTube Video).

Saturday, June 13, 2009

My Painting - Museum Interior in Warren Building

I just agreed to loan my Museum Interior to the Warren Building on UC Berkeley campus.

It's a fitting picture to be on Campus since the Museum in the painting is that of UC Berkeley Museum.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Gustave Courbet and John Constable's Anniversaries

Today is the birthday of French painter Gustave Courbet (10 June 1819) and tomorrow that of British painter John Constable (11 June 1776). They achieved the very height of representational landscape painting, and being revolutionary, ushered in a new era, which culminated in the Impressionism movement some decades later.

I saw a few canvases of of Constable in Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and National Gallery, London. I really admired his country scenes - they provided mood and set the scene and they told stories.

But I admired Courbet even higher. Constable pacifies me while Courbet excites me. Of course there will be exceptions. Some Turner-like paintings by Constable give me shiver as well.

For Constable, figures were more decorative though with their stories to tell but Courbet saw them as objects of interests. Could anyone forget Bonjour, Monsieur after just a glimpse? Would one not be crushed by his massive waves?


Wivenhoe Park, Essex (1816)

The Hay Wain (1821)

Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (c. 1824)


Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet (1854)

Plage de Normandie (c. 1872/1875)


Sunday, June 7, 2009

Another Painting Finished - Awakening

I just finished another painting - Awakening:

Boy, am I working hard? Actually, it is only half true. Indeed, I just finished quite a few paintings lately, but they had been sitting in my studio for a long period, just waiting for the final touches, which in a rush, I was able to provide.

Now, I have only three or four, maybe five unfinished paintings to worry over.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

In Good Company

Yesterday (5 June 2009), at the opening reception of the June show at City Art Gallery (San Francisco), someone mentioned that he'd seen my painting in the newspaper. I was much surprised by this pleasant news. It turned out that San Francisco Chronicle's Thursday 96Hours edition's art listing featured my painting Melancholy, on the page next to the advertisement for San Francisco Modern Art Museum's Ansel Adams and Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit.

What a great company I was in!

City Art Gallery June Show Opening Reception

The opening reception of the June show at City Art Gallery (San Francisco) was a really fun event. Delicious drink and snacks and beautiful people:

Cave Painting Is Finally Finished

On March 9, 2009, I posted six works-in-progress My Work In Progress.

Two of those six paintings were completed and posted on March 28th Two Newly Finished Paintings and one more on June 1st Two New Paintings.

Now, a fourth one is finished as well:


and then:

Monday, June 1, 2009

Two New Paintings

Recently I finished two paintings - though they started at various times, the finished works are in a very similar style and feelings. The influence of abstraction and Chinese water and ink paintings are very visible.