Vincent Van Gogh

Why I Believe in God by Chris Hall

Paul Gauguin,  The Yellow Christ , 1889.

Paul Gauguin, The Yellow Christ, 1889.

“Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense.  It is like the religious search for God.” - Gerhard Richter.

“Art is not a substitute religion: it is a religion (in the true sense of the word: 'binding back', 'binding' to the unknowable, transcending reason, transcendent being).  But the church is no longer adequate as a means of affording experience of the transcendental, and of making religion real – and so art has been transformed from a means into the sole provider of religion: which means religion itself.” - Gerhard Richter.

For most of my life I can honestly say that I have experienced more bad than good.  My life has been marked by suffering in such a way that if I am ever fortunate to finally meet with some success, I fear I may never be able to enjoy it.  Often times it seems to me that my life ledger is grossly out of balance.  In such circumstances, how does one carry on?  Who do we hold accountable for disastrous fate?  Even Van Gogh threw in the towel eventually and clocked out of this mortal coil.  I think I carry on out of some kind of animalistic urge, akin to what Schopenhauer describes as “The Will.”  It is a stubborn kind of thing, and it has prevented me from doing harm to myself in my weaker moments.  At times like this, when I am at my worst, when it feels as if all my inner being is on fire and stuck in a perpetual, howling scream, I suddenly I remember why I believe in God.  Only someone with total omnipotence and omnipresence would have the dedicated time and strength to commit to making my entire life one living Hell.  This is why I say, believe in God, but do not trust.

“...Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition.” - Graham Greene.  

“Art is the highest form of hope.” - Gerhard Richter.

But there is another reason why I believe in God.  I trace it back to my youth and the old romantic in me.  It is buried deep, and sometimes I have to dig for it, but I know that a more benevolent God can be found in Nature and in Art.  Perhaps the blame for my sufferings can be placed, as Saint Augustine suggests, squarely in the hands of mankind.  Perhaps the blame for my sufferings can be placed on the electric chemistry of my brain.  John Milton tells us in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..”  This is true, to an extent, but this does not account for the undeniable amount of bad fortune that has has been my lot, only my reception of it.  I have many questions about life, suffering, and the fate of mankind.  Reading, writing, making art are my attempts at trying to find answers to these questions, though I confess I have, for the most part, come up empty handed.  Many of my questions remain unanswered.  At least the process is cathartic, and has, at times, given me peace.  Perhaps the process of making art is God's mercy.  Perhaps God is trying to redeem us through Art.

Paul Gauguin,  Self-Portrait With The Yellow Christ , 1890.

Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait With The Yellow Christ, 1890.

“Now there are no priests or philosophers left, artists are the most important people in the world.”   Gerhard Richter.

Considering some of Richter's other comments on the connection between religion and art, namely that art is a religion, I think it might be safe to say that in the quote above, Richter is suggesting that artists could, and perhaps should, take on the role of both priest and philosopher.  In the West at least, I feel that there has been a growing doubt in the power of organized religion to solve our modern woes, and a growing doubt that an omnipotent, omnipresent, and benevolent God may exist at all.  If these people are like myself, they may have questions that they would like answered, or at least would like the solace that can only be found in beauty.  Artists, then, can take up the role left behind by priests and philosophers.  I think this might be a noble calling, maybe even more noble than using art as a political prop, but certainly more noble than using art as an entertainment tool, or an advertisement for a product.

Loneliness by Chris Hall

Vincent van Gogh,  Old Man Sorrowing - At Eternity's Gate , 1890.

Vincent van Gogh, Old Man Sorrowing - At Eternity's Gate, 1890.

“A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke”  Vincent van Gogh 

Sometimes being an artist can be quite lonely.  There are the hours spent alone in the studio working.  Working, because you love it and because you feel compelled to do it, true, but this work also comes with the sacrifice of not spending time with family and friends.  A true friend will stick by you, but fair weather friends will forget about you after a while.  There is also the whole being misunderstood thing (cliché as it might sound, it is still a hard fact that can lead to feelings of isolation from society).  If the conditions are right, inevitably loneliness will set in, and if you are particularly susceptible to darker moods, such as Van Gogh, or myself even, depression might take hold.

Being misunderstood and marginalized by society is the worse of the two.  It can lead to ugliness and bitter feelings.  Consider Van Gogh's words, though:

What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low.  All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.  That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion.  Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.  I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners.  And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.

How did he do it?  How did he not fall into bitterness and avoid misanthropy?  Many people, including myself, would be tempted to boycott beauty, to purposefully make a bad art, but not Van Gogh.  Instead, Van Gogh redoubled his efforts into producing beautiful art.  How unimaginable that is to me.  Van Gogh had the remarkable patience of a Saint!

I've read Melville's Moby Dick more times than any other book in my life.  It has had a huge impact on my art, and on other artist's work as well.  Robert Motherwell championed it, as did Jackson Pollock.  Laurie Anderson called it “the Expressionist's Bible.”  In Moby Dick, Melville, who was himself no stranger to darker moods, writes the following:  

There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.  And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces.  And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar. 

Wise words.

The Gender of Paintings by Chris Hall

Christopher Hall,  General Douglas MacArthur:  We Pray For Your Erection , c 2009

Christopher Hall, General Douglas MacArthur:  We Pray For Your Erection, c 2009

In his book The Invisible Dragon, Dave Hickey writes an essay on the perceived gender shift of art (most especially paintings), from Renaissance to Modern times, and then again in our contemporary times.  To do this, Hickey sets up two aesthetics, “masculine” and “feminine,” and assigns them attributes appropriately (though perhaps using “aggressive” and “passive” in place of “masculine” or “feminine” may have been more appropriate).  Critical language is important when setting up gender aesthetics in art.  Hickey writes that “The demotic of Vasari's time invested work with attributes traditionally characterized as “feminine”:  beauty, harmony, generosity.  Modern critical language validates works on the basis of their “masculine” characteristics:  strength, singularity, autonomy.”  Hickey explains later that the illusionistic painting of Renaissance times is more receptive to the viewer's gaze.  When looking into a painting with illusionistic space, the viewer's eyes penetrates the picture plane, which is generously offered, shared, and ceded by the artist.  In this regard, paintings with illusionistic space do have “feminine” qualities.  According to Hickey, beginning in Baroque times, paining began a march toward a more “masculine” aesthetic, gradually encroaching on the viewer's space.  With the rise of Modern Art, the “masculine” aesthetic of flatness began to dominate, with paintings seeking to reclaim the illusionistic space, at times even seeking to penetrate outside the picture plane, and overwhelm the viewer.  Modern painting, then, can be said to have an aggressive aesthetic.  

About 50 years ago, beginning with the so called “Death of Paining,” masculinity and Modern Art aesthetics have come under fire.  Postmodern critics have disparaged painting, instead favoring conceptual, photographic, three-dimensional, installation, and time based practices.  This criticism of patriarchal tendencies in the Art-World was, perhaps, made with the best of intentions.  Yes, there were a few assholes among the Modern artists and Modern Art supporters, and yes, it was a bit of a patriarchy – but it doesn't follow that the Modernist, “masculine” aesthetic is sexist and patriarchal.  If we follow Hickey's logic of assigning gender attributes to illusionistic depth - or the lack of it as the aesthetic goes in Modern Art - couldn't we also assign gender attributes to color theory?  Red (and warm colors) are aggressive and advance in space, while blue (and other cool colors) are passive and recede into space.  Surely it would be madness to suggest that a painting dominated by the color red is an affront to sensitive eyes and thus an example of patriarchal tendencies in the Art-World, but sadly that is where this logic carries us.

So I have to ask, what is exactly is wrong with the “masculine” aesthetic, with celebrating masculinity?  What harm does it do?  Why is it so damned?  Sometimes it seems to me that art with so called “masculine” attributes is too quickly dismissed and damned by critics, dispatched without much investigation.  If a work of art has “masculine” attributes, it is sometimes assumed that author is an insensitive pig and on the wrong side of history.  Even Hickey, a man who is himself sometimes accused of being a chauvinist, compares Modern Art aesthetics to a “dysfunctional male parent in the tradition of the biblical patriarch.”  But just because a work has a “masculine” aesthetic, it shouldn't follow that the artist is a neanderthal male chauvinist pig.  Sadly, though, that is the impression I sometimes get from critics, as if a Modern Art painting is capable eye raping their grandmother and leaving her corpse in a ditch.  The last time I check, neither Van Gogh nor his Starry Night, has ever raped anyone.  Someone should take the time to remind Sherrie Levine of this.

Surely we can each have our own tastes and opinions concerning what we may find beautiful or useful, whether it be “masculine” or “feminine” aesthetics, and Hickey sets up his argument in this way, sharing with us his preference for painting with a “feminine” aesthetic, that is paintings with illusionistic space.  While there are many gender politic issues that still need to be addressed, (pay inequality, for example), Modern Art aesthetics is not one of them.  I fear, though, that by assigning gender roles to art and aesthetics, we are only giving more ammunition to the deconstructionists who already look for any excuse to dismiss Modern At aesthetics based on gender politics.

I have been thinking about the subject of masculinity in art quite a bit recently, as I submitted a short statement along with images of my work for a future show entitled #Masculinity at the Low Museum in Atlanta.  I was excited about the prospect of participating, as I think the time is now ripe to re-examine our positions, and re-open an honest dialogue on what exactly it means to be masculine in our contemporary culture.  I think we will find that it may be safe to once again celebrate and reclaim some aspects of masculinity while at the same time also being careful and critical of some of its more ridiculous and, perhaps, more harmful aspects.  My proposal was turned down, which was kind of hurtful, considering how important the subject is to me and my work (I offered them 60 drawings directly related to the subject -  it is hard to believe they couldn't find at least one drawing that would have worked).  But you can't always win.  It would make for a pissed off Chris, though, if all the art in the show ends up being dismissive and critical of masculinity and masculine aesthetics in art, which considering today's critical climate, is a distinct possibility.  

Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler by Chris Hall

Joan Mitchell, Edrita Fried, 1981

Joan Mitchell

Joan Mitchell.jpg

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) was a “Second Generation” Abstract Expressionist painter and printmaker, born in Chicago, Illinois, the daughter of a dermatologist and a poet.  She studied at Smith College in Massachusetts and The Art Institute of Chicago, where she earned her BFA (1947) and her MFA (1950), respectively.  After moving to Manhattan in 1947, she had wanted to study at Han Hofmann's school, but after attending only one class she left, declaring, "I couldn't understand a word he said so I left, terrified."  With a $2,000 travel fellowship, she also studied in Paris and Provence, France, where she would spend much of her later life.

In 1949, Mitchell married the American publisher Barney Rosset, in Paris.  Rosset is, perhaps, best known as the man who published the controversial and sexually charged novel Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller.  Mitchell and Rosset soon divorced in 1952.  Mitchell would remain active in the burgeoning art scene of 1950's New York, despite the increasing amount of time she would spend traveling and working in France.  In 1955, Mitchell severed her ties to America, and moved to France to join the Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, with whom she would have a long, tumultuous relationship (1955 to 1979).  They would maintain separate homes and studios, but would meet everyday for dinner and drinks.

Joan Mitchell,  No Birds , 1987 - 1988

Joan Mitchell, No Birds, 1987 - 1988

In her early years as a painter, she was influenced by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, and Wassily Kandinsky, and later by the works of Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.  Mitchell's work, like that of her Abstact Expressionist peers, are expansive, and usually made up of two panels.  The landscape was a primary influence on her subject matter.  Like fellow painter, Helen Frankenthaler, Mitchell would sometimes paint on unprimed canvas, but with gestural and sometimes violent brushwork.  She has described painting as, “an organism that turns in space.”

Beginning in the early 1980's, Mitchell's health began to fail, and it impacted her work significantly.  In 1984, She was diagnosed with advanced oral cancer and was she was advised to have jaw completely removed.  After a second opinion, radiation therapy was pursued, and her jaw was saved (although it would leave her jawbone dead).  Her health continued to fail, however, and she fell into a crippling depression complicated with anxiety.  While Mitchell had quit smoking, but she would remain a heavy drinker for the rest of her life.  With the help of a psychoanalyst, Mitchell returned to painting.  Long an admirer of Vincent van Gogh's work, Mitchell began to look at what is perhaps his final painting, his Wheatfield with Crows (1890) as a kind of suicide note, filled with hopelessness, despair, and death.  Mitchell made a painting entitled No Birds (1988) as a response and homage.  Like Van Gogh, Mitchell also began to investigate the subject of sunflowers, saying she wanted her paintings “to convey the feeling of the dying sunflower.”

Mitchell was also a great admirer of Henri Matisse, favoring his vivid use of color and the vivacity of his line.  She once claimed that, “If I could paint like Matisse, I'd be in heaven.”  In October of 1992, Mitchell flew to New York to visit a Matisse exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.  Upon her arrival, she was taken to a doctor and diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.  Mitchell returned to France on October 22, and entered the American Hospital of Paris.  Mitchell died on the morning of October 30, 1992.

Helen Frankenthaler 

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) was a “Second Generation” American Abstract Expressionist painter.  She began exhibiting her large-scale paintings in galleries and museums in the early 1950's and is also labeled as being a Color Field Post-Painterly Abstraction artist.  Frankenthaler was included in the 1964 Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibition curated by Clement Greenberg.  Post-Painterly artists generally set themselves apart from the “First Generation” of Abstract Expressionists by eliminating the emotional, mythic, and religious content from their work and for eliminating the highly personal, gestural, and painterly application of paint.

Growing up in Manhattan's Upper East Side, in a progressive Jewish family under privileged circumstances (her father Alfred Frankenthaler was a respected New York State Supreme Court judge), the Frankenthaler family encouraged Helen in her pursuit of art.  Frankenthaler found herself influenced by Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock's paintings, and by the critic Clement Greenberg.

Frankenthaler studied art at the Dalton School under muralist Rufino Tamayo, and also at Bennington College in Vermont.  Upon graduation, she continued taking private studies with Hans Hofmann, in 1950, who she met through Clement Greenberg (with whom she would have a five year relationship).  Also in 1950, Frankenthaler saw Pollock's paintings for the first time (Autumn Rhythm, Number 30, 1950 and Number One - Lavender Mist, 1950) at Betty Parsons Gallery.  Of the works, Frankenthaler said, “It was all there.  I waned to live in this land.  I had to live there, and master the language.”  In 1958, Frankenthaler married “First Generation” Abstract Expressionist, Robert Motherwell, though they would divorce in 1971.  Because both Frankenthaler and Motherwell were both born to wealthy parents, and were known to host lavish parties, the pair became known as “the golden couple.”  Frankenthaler never considered herself a feminist, saying “For me, being a 'lady painter' was never an issue.  I don't resent being a female painter.  I don't exploit it.  I paint.”

Frankenthaler, like her Abstract Expressionist peers, is known for her large scale paintings with simplified abstract compositions emphasizing spontaneity, which she would make by laying her canvas out on the floor, a technique inspired by Jackson Pollock.  She once stated that, “A really good picture looks as if it's happened at once.”  Although she painted in many different abstract styles and used a variety of techniques over her 60 year career, she is best known for her color field painting using a “soak stain” technique, where she would heavily dilute her oil paint in turpentine which she would us to soak and stain her unprimed canvas.   While the technique produces a beautiful result, resembling the translucent application of watercolor, the major disadvantage of this method, however, is that the oil in the paints will eventually cause the canvas to discolor and rot away.

During the course of her life, Frankenthaler would be a faculty member of Hunter College and, in 1989, would be one of the few women artists to have a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

A common criticism of Frankenthaler's work, along with that her “Second Generation” Abstract Expressionist peers, was that it was “merely beautiful,” and without much substance, aping the style pioneered by “First Generation.”  But we do need beautiful things in the world, to give us pause in our lives.  Beauty is good medicine, good for the soul.  It heals.  Asclepius had five daughters who helped him in his practice of medicine:  Hygieia (Hygiene),  Iaso (Recuperation), Aceso (Healing), Panacea (Universal Remedy), and Aglaea (Beauty).  “Art,” Picasso reminds us, “washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Grace Glueck's obituary in The New York Times summed up Frankenthaler's career thus:
“Critics have not unanimously praised Ms. Frankenthaler’s art. Some have seen it as thin in substance, uncontrolled in method, too sweet in color and too “poetic.” But it has been far more apt to garner admirers like the critic Barbara Rose, who wrote in 1972 of Ms. Frankenthaler’s gift for “the freedom, spontaneity, openness and complexity of an image, not exclusively of the studio or the mind, but explicitly and intimately tied to nature and human emotions."

Some Notes on the History of Paint by Chris Hall

Paint is composed of two elements, a pigment and a binder.  The pigment, a ground up granular like powder, gives the paint its color, while the binder acts as a glue to bind the pigment to a surface, whether that be a cave wall, a canvas, or a piece of paper.  

In 2011, the earliest example of paint was found in South Africa.  It dates back 100,000 years.  The first paints were composed of pigments derived from the earth, such as clays and sand, and animal derivatives, such as charred animal bones.  The first artists used spit and animal fat as a binder.  Later, as our ancestors developed a taste for honey, eggs, and milk, egg white, egg yolk, bee’s wax, and milk was used as a binder.  

In search of a more permanent and harder solution, binders derived from plants developed, such as linseed oil (used in oil painting) and gum Arabic (used in watercolor).  When linseed oil became a scarce commodity during the Second World War, synthetic binders made from artificial resins emerged and Acrylic paint was born.

The history of pigment development is one of a search for new colors, permanence (fade resistance), affordability, and less toxicity.  In this regard, the general trend has been to move away from organic and earth derived pigments, and toward synthetic pigments.  

Some interesting examples of obsolete pigments include:

Indian Yellow

Indian Yellow 2.jpg

Indian Yellow was made from the urine collected from cows that were force feed a diet of mango leaves.  The urine was collected and dried, producing small foul-smelling balls of raw pigment called “purree.”  Cows do not digest mango leaves very efficiently as the leaves contain a toxin similar to poison ivy.  Consequently, the cows were often thin and malnourished.  Apparently, even though the cow was/is considered sacred by many in India, they did not think anything about profiting from the starvation of cows.  The practice of producing Indian Yellow was declared inhumane and outlawed in 1908.

Mummy Brown

The use of Mummy Brown as a pigment dates from the 16th century to the early 20th century.  Like the name implies, it was derived from the ground-up remains of Egyptian mummies.  The pigment, falling between burnt umber and raw umber in color, was good for producing transparent effects in glazing, shadows, and flesh tones, and was a favorite color in the palette of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.  The pigment quickly lost its popularity once the secret to its composition became generally known to artists.  The Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones was reported to have ceremonially buried his tube of Mummy Brown in his garden when he discovered its true origins.  By this time, however, the supply of available mummies had become exhausted, and with the birth of modern Egyptology, new mummies were no longer forthcoming.  Sometimes this pigment was alternatively named Caput Mortuum (latin for “Dead Head” or “Worthless Remains”).  Caput Mortuum is also an Alchemical term for the useless residue left over from processes such as Sublimation and is symbolic of decay and decline.  Alchemists represented Caput Mortuum in their art and texts by using a stylized Death's Head  symbol.


Ultramarine Blue

Ultramarine 4.jpg

The name Ultramarine is from Latin meaning “beyond the sea,” referring to the distance one had to travel in order to obtain it.  Ultramarine Blue is an expensive pigment sourced from Lapis Lazuli, a semi-precious stone mined in Afghanistan.  Lapis Lazuli was also extremely difficult to grind-down, filter, and refine into a high quality pigment.  In Renaissance times, wealthy patrons would commission works using Ultramarine Blue as a status symbol (stipulating its use in their contracts), as the pigment was worth its weight in gold.  Its brilliance was also desired by painters.  The 15th century artist Cennino Cennini wrote in his handbook for painters: "Ultramarine blue is a color illustrious, beautiful, the most perfect, beyond all other colors; one could not say anything about it, or do anything with it, that its quality would not still surpass."  Synthesized in 1826, Ultramarine went from being one of the most expensive pigments produce to now being one of the most cheapest.  Real Ultramarine is still manufactured (it is both non-toxic and permanent), but remains extremely cost prohibitive.  During the darkest days in the recent wars in Afghanistan, a tiny tube of paint could cost $500.

Tyrian Purple  

Tyrian Purple is technically a dye (smaller colored particles diluted in liquid rather than suspended) and not a pigment, but it's history is also worth discussing.  Tyrian Purple (also known as Imperial Purple) had a reddish purple tint and was extremely light-fast (rare among the early colors).  It was also expensive to produce, as it was derived from the collected mucus of the Muricidae family of predatory sea snails.  Discovered by the Phoenicians as early as 1570 BCE, the pigment was used almost exclusively by royalty because of its cost, which was reported to be worth its weight in silver.  In fact, in some places, sumptuary laws were put into place restricting its use those of “noble birth.”  In Byzantium, where such sumptuary laws were practiced, a child born of a reigning Emperor was said to be “born into the purple.”  Byzantine production of Tyrian Purple came to abrupt stop after the fall of Constantinople in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade.  Soon the color fell out of favor (replaced by Vermillion and Crimson) as no one in the West could gather the financial resources to restart production.  Incidently, Tyrian Purple was also produced in Pre-Columbian Mexico, from the same sea snails, where it was valued more than gold and also used denote those of “noble birth.”  For all its Royal implications, cloth dyed in Tyrian Purple tended to retain its fishy odor.  So pervasive was this stench that the Talmud actually granted women the right to divorce their husband if they became a dyer after marrying.

Sepia

The word Sepia comes from the Greek, meaning “cuttlefish,” and that is exactly from where the red-brown pigment comes from, more specifically, the cuttlefish ink sac.  Sepia ink was first commonly used in the Greco-Roman world, as a writing ink.  Artists used it as a drawing medium starting in the Renaissance, with the practice continuing up through the 19th century.  In the late 18th century, Jacob Seydelmann found a way to concentrate Sepia so that it could be used as a watercolor and oil paint.  Because Sepia is not very light-fast, it is difficult today to find real Sepia pigment.  Fortunately, however, Sepia has now been successfully synthesized and a hue is available.

Carmine

A New World pigment derived from crushed shells of the female Cochineal insect.  Replaced Crimson in Europe, which was derived from the Kermes insect.  Although comparable in color quality and intensity, it required 12 times as much Kermes insects to produce the same amount of color from the Cochineal insect.  Consequently, Carmine pigment became one of the first export goods from the New World after Hernando Cortez's conquest of Mexico, the second most valuable, after silver.  Such was its value as a raw product, that its price was regularly quoted in the London and Amsterdam Commodities Exchanges.  The Mexican monopoly on Carmine came to an end during the Mexican War of Independence (1810- 1821), with production centers starting in Guatemala, the Canary Islands, North Africa, and Spain, though as an artist pigment, Carmine was soon replaced by its synthesized version, Alizarin Crimson.  Carmine survives today as a pigment used to color food products and cosmetics.

Dragon's Blood

From the time of the Romans up through the Medieval times, Dragon's Blood pigment was literally thought to have derived from the congealed blood of Dragons and Elephants, mixed together as they fought in mortal combat.  The truth to its production was kept secret for over a thousand years.  Dragon's Blood pigment was produced from the sapped gum of a South East Asian tree and the story was most likely invented as a marketing device.  Dragon's Blood was used in the famous Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii.  The pigment is known to be extremely fugitive (it fades rapidly).  Inhis handbook for painters, the 15th century artist Cennino Cennini writes concerning Dragon's Blood, “leave it alone and do not have much respect for it..."


Indigo

Indigo is a dye extracted from plants of the genus Indigofera, native to the tropic regions of the world.  Indigo is dark blue in color.  Indigo dye is one of the world's oldest and best known colors, being produced in the ancient times in India, China, Japan, and South East Asia, as well as in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Britain, Mesoamerica, Peru, Iran, and Africa.  Because blue pigment is rare in nature and is difficult to produce, trade in Indigo dye became very lucrative.  In some circles, Indigo dye was referred to as “Blue Gold.”  Indigo was a major export crop supported by plantation slavery in colonial South Carolina in the 18th century, second only to rice production (cotton was not profitable until after the invention of the Cotton Gin in 1793).  Later, peasants in Bengal revolted against unfair treatment by the East India Company traders/planters in what became known as the Indigo Revolt in 1859, during the British Raj  government of India.  

Maya Blue

The secret to Maya Blue production has long been lost to history, but scientists in recent years are finally putting an end to the mystery.  Unlike Indigo, Maya Blue is extremely permanent and light-fast.  Scientists have now discovered that Maya Blue is a combination of Indigo dyes and palygorskite, a clay found in the state of Georgia, in the Southeastern United States.  Besides being used in their art (murals, sculpture, textiles, and illuminated codices) Mayan Blue also held a particular religious significance in Mesoamerican culture, as Human sacrificial victims were frequently daubed with the blue pigmentation.  

Prussian Blue

In 1704, Johann Conrad Dippel discovered the world's first modern synthetic pigment, by accident.  He was trying to produce a red pigment, but instead invented Prussian Blue (also known as Berlin Blue), known for its deep, blue-black color.  Dippel was a controversial figure, a mad scientist type who dabbled in alchemy and illegal anatomy studies in his laboratory in Castle Frankenstein.  In the course of one of his experiments, Dippel is said to have accidentally blown up one of the castle's towers.  It is also said that he tried to re-animate the dead, worked at transferring the soul of one cadaver to another, and boiled and distilled human body parts while seeking to create the Elixir of Life.  It should come as no surprise that Dippel was the inspiration behind Mary Shelley’s character Dr. Victor Frankenstein in her novel Frankenstein.  Prussian Blue is highly toxic, being derived from Cyanide.  Despite being toxic, Prussian Blue pigment was also used as an orally administered medicine, an antidote to heavy metal poisoning.  Dippel himself was reported to have regularly taken doses of the pigment, which, ironically, may have slowly poisoned him.  The skin of his body was said to have been the color of Prussian Blue when he died.  Prussian Blue would go on to have an even more grisly history.  The poisonous gas Zyklon B, used by the Nazis during the Holocaust, was also derived from Cyanide.  Consequently, the walls of the Gas Chambers are stained Prussian Blue.  It is still possible to obtain Prussian Blue today, but for the most part, the color has been replaced on artist's palettes by the less toxic Phthalo Blue.

In case you thought the history of Prussian Blue pigment is all grissly, allow me a chance to redeem it.  A good many beautiful works of art were created with Prussian Blue pigment, including Hokusai's The Great Wave (1832) and Van Gogh's The Starry Night (1889).  There is a potentially interesting connection between the two works.  Prussian Blue did not became popular in the European pallet until sometime in the mid to late 1800's.  Meanwhile, when the color was first imported in 1829 to Japan, works created with Prussian Blue were in great demand.  When Japanese prints made with Prussian Blue pigment found their way back to Europe, they named the exotic color “Hiroshige Blue,” after the Japanese printmaker who used the color extensively.  It seems the people in the West had forgotten that the source of the pigment was actually Germany!  Van Gogh, who collected Japanese prints and who was inspired by their beauty, color, and other formal qualities, perhaps began using Prussian Blue as a result.  

Flake White

Developed in Ancient Greek times, Flake White pigment is derived from White Lead Carbonate.  For centuries, Flake White was considered the perfect pigment, being permanent, fast to  dry, and producing flexible oil films.  There was only one problem:  Flake White is extremely poisonous.  It is thought that it may have contributed to bad physical and mental health, and even death of many artists over the years, including Michelangelo Buonarroti, Michelangelo Caravaggio, Francisco Goya, Candido Portinari, and possibly Vincent Van Gogh.  Nevertheless, Flake White was still used by many artists up until after World War II, when it started to lose ground to Titanium White.  By the 1990's only a few manufacturers were offering the color, and it is still possible to buy the pigment today.

Emerald Green

Green pigment (along with blue) has always been the rarest and hardest to produce of the pigment colors, a bit ironic when you consider we live on planet dominated by the colors green and blue.  One of the most beautiful green pigments to have ever been produced is Emerald Green (also known as Scheele's Green), but it is also the most poisonous. It is so poisonous it was sold under the trade name Paris Green as an insecticide and was used to kill the rats in the Parisian sewer system.  Emerald Green was also popular as a wallpaper pigment and would degrade, with moisture and molds, to arsine, a poisonous gas related to arsenic.  The pigment was also used in wax candles, textiles, and children's toys.  Aside from being toxic and exuding toxic gas, Emerald Green was also highly carcinogenic.  It is impossible to figure how many people may have died as a result of the use of the Emerald Green pigment, but we know it may have contributed to the death of Napoleon, who surrounded himself with the color (his favorite) in the damp climate of his exile home on St. Helena.  Analysis of hair samples taken after his death reveal there was a significant amount of arsenic in his body.  Emerald Green was an extremely fugitive color, as it could both fade in sunlight and darken as it tended to chemically react with other colors.  Today there is a safer, synthetic version of the color available.

Woad

The use of Woad as a dye dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who used it to color the cloth wrappings of mummies.  It is blue in color dye derived from a flowering plant of the same name.  Woad is most popularly known, thanks to the movie Braveheart, as the dark blue face paint used by the Scots when preparing for battle.  The tradition of using Woad as a body paint dates back to ancient Britain, to the northern Picts (from the Latin Picti, meaning “Painted Ones”), who were recorded by Julius Caesar as having extensively tattooed bodies and covered in designs applied with blue Woad paint.  Woad was in direct competition with Indigo and Logwood, a dye derived from a South American tree, exported by Spain to Europe.  In England, laws were passed preventing the importation of both Indigo and Logwood in order to protect the local Woad industry, and sea battles were fought with Spain over the trade.  As it became clear that Indigo and Logwood were superior pigments, producing stronger dyes with more permanence, the ban was lifted in 1661.  The Woad industry slowly died out, with the last large scale commercial harvest happening in 1932.

The Case for the Artist as Pharmakos by Chris Hall

Colors available to the Ancient Greeks.

Colors available to the Ancient Greeks.

Pharmakon:  Ancient Greek word meaning drug (both poison and cure), remedy, medicine, charm, spell, artificial color, and paint.  

It is interesting to me that painted color can be equated with drugs and losing control, with spells, charms, and magic.  It is an extended analogy, but one I can definitely get into, and one I think the Greeks might have have recognized as well.  The Greeks loved color.  Their temples and statues were painted in all sorts of garish colors, but all of it has washed away and faded with time, and we are only left with the white marble work underneath.  Today, when we look at a good painting, we can be intoxicated by its color and become lost in it, mesmerized, as if in a spell.  Despite our attempts at color theory and chemical analysis (we can codify color relationships and understand pigment composition), the effects of color remains something of a mystery, an irrational science.  Like a drug, colors can stimulate and they can arouse.  Colors can also be a healing tool and good medicine. Color can even be poisonous and used as a weapon.  I've heard of a library in Seattle that purposefully painted their restrooms a nasty pharmaceutical green to discourage vagrants from loitering.  

Derived from the same etymological root, the Ancient Greek word Pharmakos (later Pharmakeus) translates as druggist, poisoner, wizard, magician, and sorcerer.  The Ancient Greeks had no proper word for “artist” and some have suggested that the closest word to approximate the concept of “art” might be the word “techne,” meaning “mastery of any art or craft.”  (By the way, it is from the Latin word “tecnicus” that we derive English words like technique, technology, and technical).  I do not think this does the concept of “art” and “artist” justice, as it strips it of its shamanistic, sorcerer roots, leaving in its place the idea that an artist is merely an accomplished craftsman, and not someone who seeks out deeper truths.  This is why I nominate the word Pharmakos (druggist, poisoner, wizard, magician, and sorcerer) as a proper substitute, and considering Pharmakos already has etymological connections with Pharmakon (drug, medicine, poison, remedy, charm, spell, painted color), you can see how I might think the connection to be appropriate.  

Interestingly enough, Phamakos also refers to a sacrificial ritual, where a city-state would purge evil by exiling (after being beaten and stoned), or by killing (either thrown from a cliff or burned) a Pharmakos, which in this case would be a human scapegoat and community outsider (usually a slave, a cripple, or a criminal).  The ritual was done during times of great stress, such as a famine, invasion, or plague, in hopes that the fortunes of the city would make a turn for the better, or during times of calendrical crisis, where the object was to restore a sense of balance.  But in times of great stress today, is it not the art and artists who are first on the chopping block?  Are not artists today generally thought of as outsiders in the community, at best barely tolerated by society?  Sure, a select few artists might become famous and afforded celebrity status, but for the vast majority of us, we are indeed outsiders, outcasts, and social pariahs.  I suspect quite a few creative types back in the days of Ancient Greece might have become a Pharmakos in the dual sense of the word, being both an artist and human scapegoat/sacrifice.  And the analogy goes further still.  The Pharmakos ritual wasn't just a community catharsis, it was also viewed as a sacrifice.  After the Pharmakos was killed, they would cremate the body and the ashes would be scattered to the ocean.  Vincent Van Gogh, the man who Antonin Artuad writes was “suicided by society,” was a Phamakos of sorts, in that he was shunned by the community during his life, but almost immediately following his death, his work began to be honored and appreciated.  It is a recurring pattern, one that I think is still true and relevant today.  

You Can Not Live Without Art by Chris Hall

You can not live without art.  Perhaps you might think otherwise, because you have never purchased a painting or you have never attempted to make a piece of artwork on your own.  But you pass by art in the doctor's office and maybe outside the elevator at work.  I'm sure you go to movies, listen to music, and read.  We are so much surrounded by art, that sometimes we take it for granted.  

But I insist, you can not live without art.  Even the dullest of minds would, if they were shipwrecked on a barren isle, eventually create a crude work of art to express their torment, or to keep themselves company.  Art is what makes life worth living, worth suffering for.  It eases life's burdens, educates, provides spiritual sustenance.  In this sense, art is just as much a practical value as anything else in this world.  You can not live without art.

Henri Rousseau by Chris Hall

Henri Rousseau,  Self Portrait of the Artist with a Lamp , 1900.

Henri Rousseau, Self Portrait of the Artist with a Lamp, 1900.

Henri Rousseau was a French Post Impressionist painter who worked in the so called “Naive” or “Primitive” style (I don't care for these terms, as they imply a negative connotation to me).  Rousseau was known by his nickname, “Le Douanier,” meaning “the Customs Officer,” for his occupation as a toll collector for the government.  Rousseau always aspired, in vain, to win the recognition of the conventional, Academic Art establishment.  For his efforts he was ridiculed in the press and by critics, who were prejudiced toward him because of his lack of a formal arts education.  Toward the end of his life, his work was appreciated by fellow art outsiders Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh, and would be held in high esteem by future generations of avant-garde artists, most notably the young Pablo Picasso.

Rousseau was a late bloomer and picked up the paint brush for the first time around the age of 40.  He was encouraged in his painting by his neighbor, the artist Felix Clement, who managed to obtain a license for Rousseau to make copies of art at the Louvre and other galleries.  In 1884 Rousseau submitted his work to the official Salon, but was rejected.  They found his paintings to be childlike and naive, lacking perspective and proportion.  But this would be only the first rejection, in a long career of many rejections from the traditional art establishment.

In 1886, Rousseau submitted work to the first Salon des Independants.  Rousseau would participate in the Salon des Independants every year between 1886 and 1910, except the ones in 1899 and 1900.  Anyone could participate in the Salon des Independants, as long as they paid the exhibition fee, and it quickly became a refuge for revolutionary and under-appreciated artists.  Rousseau's work would hang along side many other struggling artists, namely Georges Seurat, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent Van Gogh.

In 1888, Rousseau's first wife, Clemence, died at the young age of 37, of tuberculosis.  The memory of her would figure greatly in much of his future work.  In Promenade in the Forest of Saint-Germain, which he finished in 1890, Clemence is seen alone in the woods where they once liked to go on Sunday walks.  Her hand covers her heart, signifying passion or love, and the branch above her head, which is conspicuously cut off, might signify death.  Clemence is looking back with longing, but she must go on alone, leaving behind Rousseau and the children.  Promenade in the Forest of Saint-Germain was shown at the Salon des Independant, but because of its special meaning, it was not listed for sale.

Henri Rousseau often painted exotic jungle scenes populated with strange plants and animals.  While Rousseau did serve in the Army during the French incursion in Mexico, he was left stateside during the affair.  In fact, Rousseau never left France during his entire life; he was inspired to make his jungle paintings from his frequent visits to the Paris Zoo and the botanical gardens.  In 1890's there was a growing interest within the European public for exotic scenes from the tropics.  The late 19th century was the height of colonialist imperialism, and people were curious about the overseas territories that they felt belonged to them.  The darker aspects of colonialism, its exploitation of people and resources, was then unknown to most people back home.

Rousseau's first jungle landscape, Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) was exhibited in 1891 in the Salon des Independants, and found a small, receptive audience.  Simultaneously, Paul Gauguin was making art in Tahiti, and British author Rudyard Kipling was publishing the first of many stories and poems about India.  Despite the public's new interest in exotic subject matter, the critics were particularly savage, and once again ridiculed his work for what they perceived as an amateurish style.  In response, he would abandon the jungle landscape genre for some time.

In 1893, Rousseau asked for permission to retire early from the Customs House to paint full-time.  He was 49.  Rousseau's superiors and fellow workers had long supported him in his pursuit of painting, giving him the lighter work and  allowing him to paint while on the job.  His resignation was accepted and Rousseau moved with his family to the Montparnasse district in Paris, where he quickly established a studio.  Montparnasse, with its cheap rents and bohemian culture, would soon become famous for its population of young, struggling artists from around the world.

During all of the 1890's Rousseau continued to seek official patronage.  In 1893 he wrote a letter to the President of the Republic seeking assistance, and was rejected.  In 1898 he offered his painting, The Sleeping Gypsy, to the mayor of Laval for a considerable sum of money.  His offer was rejected.  In the same year, he submitted his plans for the decoration of the Vincennes Town Hall, and was rejected.  Two years later, in 1900, Rousseau offered to paint the Asnieres Town Hall, but was once again, rejected.

Rejected by the official art establishment and continually rebuffed in his attempts to find patronage and public commissions, Rousseau soon began to run into financial problems and he accumulated debts.  To make ends meet, he took up work as a part-time salesman for the Le Petit Journal, offered drawing lessons, and occasionally worked as a street musician.  Rousseau was a talented violinist and even managed to have a waltz he wrote for his first wife, Clemence, published by the Literary and Musical Academy of France. 

One day in 1908, a young Pablo Picasso was out shopping at the Père Soulier when he came across a stack of canvases being sold as work to be repainted over.  One of the paintings was a work by Henri Rousseau.  Picasso loved the painting and bought the canvas for five francs.  He did not see the work as amateurish and childlike, he saw it as charmingly nonconformist, as something unsullied by academia.  Rousseau had always tried to establish himself as a traditional painter, yet it was Picasso and the avant-garde artists, those rebelling against the academic tradition, who ended up championing his work.

Picasso tracked Rousseau down and introduced him to his social circle.  Some in his circle thought the untrained Rousseau a joke, a bumbling, old, naive curiosity, but Picasso and his friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, held genuine affection for him and his work.  Later that year, Picasso even hosted banquet for him in his honor.  Rousseau had always considered himself to be a traditional painter, not an avant-garde iconoclast.  Despite the constant rejection and ridicule, he tried hard to impress himself into academic and bourgeois society.  Still, Rousseau was happy that someone, finally, appreciated his work.  Rousseau would die shortly thereafter, in 1910, but his work would live on to become influential to several generations of avant-garde artists, including Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann, Wassily Kandinsky, the Surrealists, and the poets Wallace Stevens and Sylvia Plath.

On Art and Suffering by Chris Hall

Edvard Munch,  Despair , 1894

Edvard Munch, Despair, 1894

In the eyes of art history, Munch’s best work came out of his suffering.  His work after 1910 is generally regarded as weaker than and not as expressive as his earlier work from the 1890's and 1900's.  Is suffering necessary in order to make good work?  Many artists believe this, perhaps because suffering is all they have known, and we artists insist on our wounds (and the world isn’t friendly to artists and the expression of emotions).  I once believed that good work could only come out of suffering, too, but I refuse to believe completely in it anymore.  As someone who has experienced mental illness in the form of major depression and anxiety, I understand this notion to a great degree.  But there is nothing romantic about depression and anxiety.  Looking back, maybe my suffering gave me some clarity, insight, and empathy after the fact, but while being depressed, or in the throes of an anxiety attack, it is impossible to make art.  It is a torture to want to keep on living, let alone hold a paint brush.  I don’t know exactly how other artists work, what makes them tick, what makes them produce art.  Speaking for myself, it is important for me to be happy while having a little bit of an edge and some sensitivity.  I remember being on lithium for a short time, years ago, and how I could not produce any artwork because I felt emotionally numb, so maybe there is some truth to the necessity of suffering.  Maybe a little suffering is good for the soul, but only a little.

Why is contemporary art wary of art as catharsis and the expression of human emotion?  Why is it afraid of color?  In today’s rationally minded art world, perhaps they are afraid of that which is unquantifiable.  They are afraid to look into themselves and recognize that they, too, are feeling creatures, with darkness, anxiety, potential sadness, or worse.  No, if there are to be any emotions in today’s rationally minded society, it can only be emotions that are useful and can be exploited, bright, cheery, happy emotion.  Everything else must be quietly swept under the rug.  While in grad school I was surprised to learn that some of my more emotional and cathartic work would be received not with empathy, but with disbelief that anything of this kind of expression could be genuine.  There is no longer any respect for expressions of suffering.  All one has to do is look at the many parodies, products, and memes out there today of Munch’s The Scream to understand this.  One of the pictures below is of artist Takashi Murakami mocking The Scream.  He should know better.  Clearly he has no respect or empathy for Munch or his work.  Munch must be rolling in his grave.

Munch isn’t the only one to suffer posthumous humiliation.  There are endless parodies, products, and memes concerning Van Gogh’s ear as well.

Early Influence: Edvard Munch by Chris Hall

Edvard Munch was a Norwegian painter and printmaker born December 12, 1863.  The themes of much of his work include love, anxiety, infidelity, sexual humiliation, and separation in life and death.  His work is viewed as an exemplar of the fin-de-siècle anxiety and apocalyptic attitudes of the time as they show not physical reality, but psychological reality.  

Munch believed himself born into a cursed family.  Munch’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1868, and his sister Sophie died of the same in 1877.  Munch himself was often ill and spent a lot of time away from school.  Supported by his father, who was a medical officer in the military, the Munch family grew up poor, and they frequently moved from one small apartment to another.  Mental illness also ran in the family.  Another of Munch’s sisters was diagnosed at a young age, and Munch would later spend 8 months in a hospital in 1908.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Munch needed art to help explain suffering.  Munch would write, “In my art I attempt to explain life and its meaning to myself.”  Munch’s choice to be an artist was not supported by his father or his community, who frowned upon his bohemian and non-traditional ways.  Munch began by painting in a more Impressionist style, and based on his talent his secured a scholarship in France, where he would see the work of Gauguin and Van Gogh.  Both became very influential on his work. His new work showed signs of what would be later called Expressionism.  His stated goal was "the study of the soul, that is to say the study of my own self.”  At first Munch sold very little, but managed to make a little money by charging entrance fees to people who just wanted to see his controversial paintings.  He was also a little loath to part with his work, which he called “his children,” because he viewed his whole body of work to be a single expression.  In order to make sales he began transcribing his work into wood-block prints and lithographs.

In 1893 Munch painted The Scream, generally thought to represent the universal anxiety of modern man.  Concerning the genesis of the work Munch would write:  

"I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature."

He later described the personal anguish behind the painting, "for several years I was almost mad… You know my picture, 'The Scream?' I was stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again."

Munch met with some success, particularly in Berlin with his Frieze of Life exhibition in 1902.  Of this time in his life Munch would write in his journal, "After twenty years of struggle and misery forces of good finally come to my aid in Germany—and a bright door opens up for me."  Life seemed to be finally going well for Munch, and he even almost married the wealthy and “liberated” Tulla Larsen, but Munch’s self-destructive and erratic behavior caught up with him and he began to spiral out of control.  There were heavy drinking, fights with other artists, and even an accidental shooting that lead to Munch losing the use of his middle finger on this left hand.  

In the autumn of 1908, Munch began to hallucinate and hear voices.  His anxiety and depression, compounded by heavy drinking, finally forced him to enter a hospital under the care of Dr. Daniel Jacobson, who prescribed for him a new form of electroshock therapy.  He stayed in the hospital for 8 months before being released.  Meanwhile, Munch’s work was beginning to be appreciated abroad.  He had a show in the United States and even conservative Norway started to warm to his work.  Munch could finally return to Oslo and support his remaining family.  As shown in his 1909 painting The Sun, Munch’s Dark Night of the Soul was over.  

After his stay in the hospital, many felt Munch’s work changed.  Art history would show that much of his great work was behind him.  World War I saw Munch’s loyalties divided.  He loved France, but many of his friends were German.  He nearly died in the Spanish Influenza pandemic, but would survive to make more art for two more decades.  In the 1930’s Hitler’s Germany declared Munch’s art to be degenerate, and removed his work (82 of his paintings) from all their museums.  His German patrons, many Jewish, lost their fortunes and some their lives when the Nazis came to power.  Fortunately for Munch, he began to find new patrons in Norway.  Most of Munch’s work would avoid the flames and would be sold back to Norway.  

In 1940, the Germans invaded Norway and the Nazi party took over the government. Munch was 76 years old.  Norway’s Nazi puppet government offered Munch the figurehead position of its Honorary Board of Norwegian Artists. Munch refused and the Board was dropped.  With nearly an entire collection of his art in the second floor of his house, Munch lived in fear of a Nazi confiscation.  Munch died near Oslo in January of 1944.  He was 80.  Munch bequeathed his estate and all the paintings, prints, and drawings in his possession to the city of Oslo, who would erect a museum for him in 1963.  In a strange twist of fate, the Nazis in Norway hijacked Munch’s corpse, and instead of a simple burial in a family plot, Munch was given a state funeral with gigantic Nazi insignia and flags, giving the people of Oslo the impression that Munch was a Nazi sympathizer, which he clearly was not. 

Edvard Munch was very influential on my own work as a young artist and student.  I would honor his approach to painting as path toward self-examination and discovery.  I was not interested in physical realism, but psychological realism.  I would even emulate his style, using his sinuous, radiating line work and his apocalyptic color in some of my paintings.  Although Munch informed much of my early work, I would like to think I have grown away from making work based solely on my own reality.  I still create artwork for my own self-discovery, but I also want to be critical of my times as well.  Hopefully this new work will fare better than Munch’s work after 1909.  

Absolute Narcissism and Crippling Self Doubt by Chris Hall

Sometimes it might seem to outsiders that artists can be egotistic and narcissistic creatures.   Sure, artists must be selfish with their time, and many artists require a strong, singular vision in order to produce work, and pride often comes with that, but egotism and narcissism?  Well, that serves a purpose, too.  The egotism and narcissism is a self-protection measure, a constructed shield to buffer against the inevitable criticism of the artist’s work, and by extension, the artist’s life, which is often intrinsically connected to the work by their personal philosophy and world view.   It is good for an artist to have thick skin.  Often, though, this constructed shield hides a more sensitive soul that needs protection, and this sensitive soul is necessary if one is to produce good art.  

Although some would argue that the very act of producing artwork is a generous act, that someone who would share themselves with the world shares a gift, I do not think this is always true.  The artist creates for many reasons, many not so generous.  This is why it is important to remember that no good art can be created out of egotism and narcissism.  The result would be decadent, ungenerous, and selfish.  The trick is to present a bit of an ego to the world, project confidence, while remaining humble in the studio.  Good art can only be made in that blurry zone between egotism and self doubt.

Sometimes, however, the protective shield breaks down to a point where there is crippling self doubt, and this happens more often to artists than you would think.  In this state no art can be made, no true art, anyways.  Sylvia Plath would write in her journal, "The worst enemy of creativity is self-doubt."  She is deadly accurate.  Inspirational writer Melissa Ng tells us, “Self-doubt is greedy. When it’s loose, it devours your confidence, strips logic and reason from your mind, and steals happiness from your heart. In return, it leaves you with only fear and insecurity.”   Self-doubt can persuade us to stop creating or keep us from sending our work out into the world.  It can effect the creative process, too, as an artist must always be confident and self-assured in their vision if they are to capture inspiration along the way.  But how does an artist recover from crippling self doubt?  

There are many self doubts and fears that can prevent an artist from working.  One fear that haunts me is the question, “what if I’m not good enough?” Other self doubts include “my work isn’t as good as I had imagined it to be,” or “people will steal my work and ideas.”  Toss in “people won’t take me seriously as an artist,” or “I’m not original enough” for good measure, too.  

“When you doubt your power, you give power to your doubt.” Honore de Balzac

Some people will give you the pat answer to just think positive.  This, sadly, is often not enough.  If you want to get past self-doubt, then you need to get back into the studio and work it out.  There is no other solution.  Getting back into the studio can be hard, though. Thankfully there are some tools you can use to get back into the studio and defeat self doubt.

1.  Remind yourself of what you want to do and why you want to do it.  Perhaps there is some inner longing in you that needs to be addressed, or maybe a sense of mission. 
2.  Find ways to value the creative process as much as the end product.  When you value the creative process, you inevitably spend more time making art, and the more time you spend making art, the better you will become at it, and the better the art product will be, too.
3.  Spend sometime around the work that inspires and motivates you.  Look over the work of your heroes and reignite the passion to create again.
4.  Spend sometime talking with someone you trust.  Having an objective, sympathetic, and understanding mind to look over your block can help get you out of a rut.
5.  Make use of your inspirational tools, maybe it is writing, or perhaps a particular song.  Do whatever it takes to get back into an environment where creativity and inspiration can thrive.

Once you are back into the studio, just start working again.  Take small steps if you have to.  You will find that one mark will inevitably lead to another and inspiration will begin to multiply exponentially.  It is good to remember Van Gogh’s words, “If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”  

The Art of Stealing by Chris Hall

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to."  Jim Jarmusch

Good artists copy, great artists steal.  Pablo Picasso.

Pablo Picasso,  Guitar , 1913

Pablo Picasso, Guitar, 1913

Maybe Picasso is referring to the collage elements in some of his work, where you steal elements from newspapers and advertisement, cultural clutter, and transcend the original.  It is important to transcend the original if one wants to create a valid work of art, or else you are creating homage (and there is nothing wrong with that, but you can not build a career on homage).  The process of artistic theft has been around since the first artists; it is a grand tradition that works in a variety of media. 

Sound artists Negativland steal from a variety of sources and create true sound collage.  For one album, they ripped of a U2 song and outtakes of American Top 40 DJ Casey Kasem cursing while dedicating a U2 song to a dog named Snuggles.  Negativland was sued by both Casey Kasem and Island records.  Artist Girl Talk, however, famous for his pop song mash-ups, pays homage.  Clever as the work is, Girl Talk’s work does not always transcend the original sources.  I get the same pleasure out of listening to a Girl Talk song as I do listening to the original sources (and often, I prefer the original).  Below are links to listen to examples from Negativland and Girl Talk.

If you are going to steal, use the theft to make a better art, and if you can’t do that, make a different or critical interpretation from the original source.  If you can’t do that, well, then you’ve made homage . . . and if your original source is something banal, such a newspaper, or cultural pollution such as an advertisement, well, then you done the world a bad thing by creating more useless clutter. 

In the above quote, Jarmusch says “select only things to steal that speak directly to your soul.  If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.”  I have to agree.  Sherrie Levine, who uses theft to critic modern art, chooses work that for some reason does not speak to her soul and it reflects in her work, which is definitely inauthentic.  Levine would most likely say that is the point, to challenge notions of authenticity.  I would then have to ask, why?  Why is it so important for you to produce work that is so decidedly inauthentic?  What are you trying to challenge?  Below are two works "by" Sherrie Levine.  The first is a pixelated photo of Cezanne painting, followed by a black and white photograph of a Van Gogh portrait.

Gauguin: Imagined Paradise by Chris Hall

A successful businessman, Gauguin soon rejected bourgeois values to paint full-time.  His family, his wife of eleven years and their five children, rejected his new lifestyle and asked him to leave.  Like his friend Van Gogh, Gauguin was susceptible to depression, and he had on at least one occasion attempted suicide.  Despite his desire to become a success in the Paris art world, in 1891 Gauguin sailed to Tahiti, in order to escape European civilization with “everything that is artificial and conventional.”  

Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From?  Who Are We?  Where Are We Going?, 1897

Gauguin seeks a romanticized paradise in Tahiti, but he quickly finds the realities of living as an artist abroad overpowering his imagined paradise.  Imported art supplies are expensive, the locals were willing to model for him in exchange for gifts, but they do not accept him, and no one in Tahiti will buy his work.  Despite living frugally, he suffers from financial worries and attempts suicide by drinking arsenic in 1897. Finding Tahiti too expensive, he leaves for the Marquesas Islands.  Soon Gauguin gets into legal trouble for taking the natives’ side against French colonialists and on 27 March 1903 Gauguin is charged with libeling the Islands’ governor.  He is fined 500 francs and sentenced to three months in prison.  Upon appeal, he had his sentence reduced to 500 francs and one month in prison.  On 8 May 1903, before he could serve his time in prison, Gauguin dies from a morphine overdose at the age of 54.  

Paul Gauguin, c 1895

Paul Gauguin, c 1895

While Gauguin was a little more successful in the Paris art world than his friend Van Gogh, he never really broke through.  Acknowledgement of the importance of his work would come after his death.  Both Van Gogh’s and Gauguin’s work would come to heavily influence the next generation of Modern artists, including both Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

In an effort to devalue his work, much has been made about Gauguin’s life abroad.  Deconstructionalists are now looking at his life and work through the lens of post-colonialism and feminism.  Some have even argued that despite his championing of native rights against colonialist incursion, his presence on the island alone is enough to condemn him.  Others have made much about Gauguin’s abandoning his family.  He never abandoned his family, he was asked to leave, and even then, he kept in contact with them until his death.  In many ways Gauguin was a terrible man, his temperament, excessive drinking, and bullying of his friends are recorded, but perhaps the one thing that we can find to irrecoverably stain Gauguin’s life is his taking of an underage mistress while living on Tahiti.  Yes, we can find this deplorable, but I do not think it is enough to damn the work he produced.  While the artist’s life and the artist’s work sometimes inhabit the same time and place, it is important to remember that they are in fact, two different spheres.  You can’t simply damn the artwork for the sins of the artist.

Below are some of my favorite works by Paul Gauguin.  Click the image to enlarge.

Wheat Field with Crows by Chris Hall

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Crows, July 1890

Many have argued that Wheat Field with Crows (July of 1890) is Van Gogh’s last work.  It is thought that Van Gogh is describing the work in a letter to his brother Theo dated July 10th, 1890:  They are vast stretches of wheat under troubled skies, and I did not have to go out of my way very much in order to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness

There isn’t any real compelling argument to support the theory that Wheat Field with Crows is Van Gogh’s last painting, but let us consider if it were true.  The painting depicts a dramatic cloudy sky filled with crows over a wheat field.  A sense of conflict is suggested with a central path that leads nowhere.  The double square format of the painting (twice as long as it is tall) draws out the vastness of the field, seeming to symbolize Van Gogh’s isolation and loneliness.  Crows are often a symbol of death and rebirth.  With Van Gogh’s suicide (it has also suggested that it was a murder) on July 29th, 1890, interpreting the work in this light would certainly be a romantic take on the Van Gogh mythology.  If this is really Van Gogh’s last painting, then what a compelling look into the mind of the artist this work would be, full of sadness, doom, and thwarted desires.

In 1998 I made my own tribute to Van Gogh and Wheat Field with Crows, entitled Out to Pasture.  At the time I was unaware of the state of the contemporary art world, which is through with heroic expression art and Van Gogh myths.  Looking back now, I wonder if my tribute painting is not just homage to Van Gogh, but also a eulogy for all things Modernism, which Van Gogh no doubt helped create.  

Christopher Hall, Out to Pasture, 1998

Below are some of my favorite works by Vincent Van Gogh.  Click the image to enlarge.