suicide

Pablo Picasso Part Two by Chris Hall

“There are painters who transform the sun into a yellow spot but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence transform a yellow spot into a sun.” Pablo Picasso.

Referencing Picasso's earlier Proto-Cubist work, the Surrealist writer and poet Andre Breton declared in a 1925 article that Picasso was “one of ours.”  Picasso had largely sublimated eroticism and psychically charged ideas in his art since 1909, when he moved on to Cubism and Neoclassic art.  After things began to go sour with his wife Olga, these themes started to return to his work.  Although he retained the spacial relationships of Cubism, he seems to have rediscovered the primitivism and eroticism of his earlier works.  Picasso's work during the last half of his career did not vary in style as drastically as it did during the first half.  Still, there are subtle differences to be found.  Picasso's work during the second half of his life is often categorized by the woman he happened to be in love with at the time . . . and there were a lot of women.

“Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art.”  Pablo Picasso.

“The chief enemy of creativity is 'good' sense.”  Pablo Picasso.

Marie-Therese Walter

Perhaps this new found primitivism and eroticism was due to the influence of Picasso's new mistress, the blond and athletic Marie-Therese Walter.  Pablo Picasso met Marie in 1927, as she lived across the street from the Picasso family.  Their relationship began when she was 17; Picasso was 45.  Marie, with her telling blond hair, became a model for many of Picasso's paintings.  Picasso managed to keep his affair with Marie a secret from his wife Olga until 1935, when someone informed Olga that Picasso had gotten Marie pregnant.  Olga and Picasso separated.  He refused to divorce Olga, to prevent her from acquiring half of his wealth, and they remained legally married until her death in 1955.  Meanwhile, Marie gave birth to a daughter, Maya Widmaier-Picasso.  Picasso, not wanting to settle down with a family, moved on from Marie in 1936.

 "What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has nothing but eyes if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician . . .? Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being, constantly aware of what goes on in the world, whether it be harrowing, bitter, or sweet, and he cannot help but be shaped by it . . . No, painting is not interior decoration. It is an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy."

Guernica

In January of 1937, Picasso was commissioned by the Republican government of Spain for a mural to be displayed at the World's Fair in Paris.  By this time, there was already a Nationalist Fascist uprising being led by General Francisco Franco, which threatened to collapse the democratically elected Republican government.  On the 26th of April, 1937, Hitler showed his support of Franco by sending his Condor Legion of Luftwaffe warplanes to bomb and strafe the Basque town of Guernica.  The bombing is considered the first raid on a civilian population by a modern air-force.  

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

Picasso had already started working on his commissioned mural, but on learning the news of Guernica, he scrapped his original plan and began work on a new painting.  The completed work, Guernica, would become a Modern Art masterpiece, and is often heralded as one of the best anti-war works of art ever created.  For many people, Picasso's Guernica is to art what Beethoven's 9th Symphony is to music.  Following the World's Fair in Paris, Guernica embarked on a world tour, fostering international awareness for the plight of Spanish refugees following the Fascist Nationalist victory in the Spanish Civil War.  Guernica was eventually entrusted to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  Picasso stipulated that Guernica was not to return to Spain until liberty and democracy had been restored.  While living in Nazi-occupied Paris during the Second World War, one German officer, upon looking at a photograph of Guernica in Picasso's apartment, allegedly asked him, “Did you do that?”  Picasso replied, “No, you did.”  Francisco Franco died in 1975, and Guernica was returned to Spain in 1981.  

Dora Maar

Like Spain, Picasso's personal life while creating Guernica was also in disorder.  His mistress Marie-Therese Walter had given birth to their daughter, Maya  Widmaier-Picasso, but Picasso had already moved on to his next mistress, the photographer and painter Dora Maar.  Dora had met Picasso in 1936, and was documenting his painting of Guernica.  Marie became jealous when Picasso fell in love with Dora.  Marie and Dora once accidentally met in Picasso's studio while he was painting Guernica.  When asked about it later in life, Picasso said that the two women demanded that he choose between them.  He told Marie and Dora that they had to fight it out amongst themselves, at which point the two women began to wrestle.  Picasso described it “as one of his choicest memories.”  Picasso left Marie for Dora, though he continued to support Marie and their daughter, Maya, for the rest of his life.  In 1977, Marie chose to end her life by hanging.  With Marie out of the way, Dora became Picasso's constant companion, and the subject of many of his paintings.  While Marie is often shown as blond and bright, Dora is often shown as being sad, dark, and in pain.

“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”  Pablo Picasso.

“It takes a long time to become young.”  Pablo Picasso.

Dora Maar stayed with Picasso for the nine years.  She wanted to have children with Picasso, but was often sad because she was sterile.  Dora was introspective, and Picasso called her his “private muse.”  She was his “woman in tears.”  Nevertheless, the always restless Picasso found a new mistress in 1943, Francoise Gilot.  When the relationship was revealed in 1944, the long suffering Dora entered treatment with the famous psychiatrist, Jacques Lacan.  Dora would return to art after Picasso, painting, taking photographs, and writing poetry, though she would die a recluse, poor and alone.   

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”  Pablo Picasso.

“To draw you must close your eyes and sing.”  Pablo Picasso.

Francoise Gilot

Picasso met the young art student Francoise Gilot in 1943.  She was 21, Picasso 62.  They would spend ten years together.  Francoise wrote in her diary that Picasso once took her to see an old woman, Germaine Pichot.  Germaine was Picasso's love interest in 1901, and the girl who had earlier spurned Picasso's best friend, Carlos Casagemas, leading to his suicide.  Picasso said to Francoise, “I want you to learn about life . . . That woman's name is Germaine Pichot.  She is old and toothless and poor and unfortunate now.  But when she was young, she was very pretty and she made a painter friend of mine suffer so much that he committed suicide . . . She turned a lot of heads.  Now look at her.” 

Picasso would have two children with Francoise, Claude, born in 1947, and Paloma, born in 1949.  During this time, Francoise reported that she was frequently harassed by Picasso's legal wife (he was still married), Olga Khokhlova.   Francoise grew tired of Picasso's many infidelities, and left him in 1953.  Eleven years later, Francoise published her book, “Life with Picasso.”  Picasso tried to stop the book from being published, unsuccessfully.  The book was printed in over a dozen languages and sold over a million copies.  Afterward, Picasso would refuse to see his children by her, Claude and Paloma, ever again.

“Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don't start measuring her limbs.”  Pablo Picasso.

“There are only two types of women - goddesses and doormats.”  Pablo Picasso.

Genevieve Laporte

Picasso began seeing the 24 year old Genevieve Laporte while still in a relationship with Francoise Gilot, in 1951.  Genevieve was a former French resistance fighter, writer, and model, and had met Picasso for the first time at age 17 in 1944, while conducting an interview for a school newspaper.  Picasso would dedicate some of his paintings to Genevieve, and when Francoise Gilot left Picasso in 1953, he asked her to move in with him.  Genevieve, aware of Picasso's reputation, refused, and shortly afterward, also left him.

“Every positive value has its price in negative terms... the genius of Einstein leads to Hiroshima.”  Pablo Picasso.

“Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”  Pablo Picasso.

Jacqueline Roque

1953 found Picasso dejected and alone for the first time in many years.  And while his work was still in high demand, the art world's attention had shifted away from Paris and Picasso, and toward New York and the Abstract Expressionists.  The ever optimistic Picasso soon rebounded, however, and later that year he met Jacqueline Roque, at the pottery where he created his ceramics.  She was 27, he was 72.  

Picasso romanced Jacqueline by drawing a dove on her house in chalk, and by bringing her a single rose everyday until she agreed to date him, six months later.  When Picasso's first wife, Olga Khokhlova died of cancer in 1955, he was free to marry.  Picasso and Jacqueline married in March of 1961.  He would paint over 400 portraits of her (160 of which were created in 1963 alone), more than any of his other loves.  She is recognized by her elongated neck, high cheekbones, and classical features.  They were together for 20 years, until Picasso's death in 1973.  Jacqueline prevented Claude and Paloma, Picasso's children by Francoise Gilot, from attending the funeral, and she entered legal entanglements with Francoise Gilot concerning the distribution of Picasso's estate.  In 1986, at age 59, Jacqueline Picasso killed herself by gunshot. 

“It means nothing to me.  I have no opinion about it, and I don't care.”  Pablo Picasso on what he thought about the first moon landing, quoted in The New York Times, (7/21/1969).

Toward the end of his life, Picasso's relevance had waned.  Some critics thought his later work was not as strong as his earlier work.  Many thought his style had changed little since the 1930's, while others detected subtle differences in his work each time he fell in love with another woman.  Late in his career, however, he began making interpretations of paintings by other famous artists.  These later works are now seen as being more expressionistic than his earlier surrealistic work, prefiguring the Neo-Expressionist wave of the 1980's.  Once again, Picasso was ahead of the curve.   

It seems so strange that Picasso, perhaps the 20th century's best known and greatest artist, can wreck such havoc on the lives of the many women whom he loved.  It is an irony that he was so cruel and insensitive to all those around him, yet he could produce such loving, and, at times, even sensitive art.  Picasso might have been a bastard in life to those around him, but he did great things for art and because of that, I believe it is alright to celebrate Picasso today.  Pioneers are the first to explore new territory, and Picasso was a pioneer.  Picasso was also a master, producing some of the 20th century's best known art.  After all he has done for art, how can we begrudge Picasso for his personal life problems?  We can't, we must take it all together in stride.  Certainly, we shouldn't gloss it over, but we should accept Picasso as a flawed human being and an artist.  

“Others have seen what is and asked why.  I have seen what could be and asked why not.”  Pablo Picasso.

Pablo Picasso Part One by Chris Hall

“That fucking Picasso . . . He's done everything!”  Jackson Pollock

“To copy others is necessary, but to copy oneself is pathetic.”  Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) was a Spanish artist, who spent most of his adult life in France.  He generally regarded as one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century.  Picasso's earlier career is marked by his jumping from one avant-garde style to another, from Post-Impressionist and Symbolist work, to his Blue and Rose periods, Proto-Cubist Primitive work, Analytical and Synthetic Cubism, Neoclassic works, and then to Expressionistic Surrealist work.  

“Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility.”  Pablo Picasso

“Good artists copy, great artists steal.”  Pablo Picasso

Post Impressionist Period

The son of an art teacher, Picasso began studying art in the academic tradition at age 13.  At that age, Picasso already showed signs of great things to come.  In 1900, Picasso left Spain with his best friend Carlos Casagemas, to work in the art capital of Europe, the Montparnasse district of Paris, France.  Picasso lived in abject poverty and desperate circumstances with his roommate, the poet Max Jacob.  Not much of Picasso's earliest work survives, as Picasso reportedly burned a lot of this work for warmth when he first moved to France.  

“Painting is a blind man's profession. He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen.”  Pablo Picasso

The Blue Period

In 1901, Picasso's best friend Carlos Casagemas committed suicide over the unrequited love of Germaine Pichot.  Picasso's own depression following the suicide, the guilt of dating Germaine Pichot after his death, along with his poverty, would lead to the works of the Blue Period.  Earlier, Picasso's art was starting to attract attention, but just when people were getting acclimated to his work, he abruptly changed style to the Blue Period.  The subject matter of the Blue Period included starving mothers with children, beggars, and prostitutes.  The public found this work too depressing, and it did not sell, thus continuing the cycle of poverty.  

“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”  Pablo Picasso

“We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.”  Pablo Picasso

The Rose Period

In 1904, as Picasso's depression lifted, perhaps because of his new relationship with the bohemian artist and model Fernande Olivier.  Olivier was frequently a model for Picasso in what would become known as the Rose Period.  His colors and subject matter lightened considerably, as he began to paint circus people, acrobats, and harlequins in cheerful orange and pinks tones.  Circus people were still considered societal outcasts, but they were less taboo than his depictions of poverty in the Blue Period.  During this time, Picasso also met the Americans Leo and Gertrude Stein, who began collecting his work.  At one of their parties, he also met Henri Matisse for the first time, who would become his lifelong friend and rival.  

“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”  Pablo Picasso

“I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.”  Pablo Picasso

Proto-Cubist Work

In 1906, Picasso began to find inspiration in African sculpture and masks.  Parisians were being exposed to it for the first time as a result of French colonial expansion into Sub-Saharan Africa.  During this time Picasso was also influenced by Iberian sculpture and art from Oceania.  These new influences would culminate into Picasso's breakthrough painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907).   Picasso's Proto-Cubist work would easily transition itself to his next painting phase, Analytical Cubism.

“The world today doesn't make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?”  Pablo Picasso

“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.”  Pablo Picasso

Analytic Cubism

Picasso, with Georges Braque, is credited with the invention of Cubism.  The first phase, Analytic Cubism, began in 1909.  In Analytical Cubism, Picasso and Braque (and later many others) dissected and analyzed objects in terms of their shapes.  The broken up shapes were reassembled into abstract compositions, often painted in monochrome brownish and neutral colors.  Also, instead of the subject being depicted from one viewpoint, Analytical Cubism shows the subject from many viewpoints at the same time.  During this time, Picasso and company were notorious for their wild, bohemian lifestyle.  Picasso's friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, was arrested on suspicion of stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911.  Picasso was also brought in, but both were later exonerated.  

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”  Pablo Picasso

Synthetic Cubism

Picasso's Cubist innovations had given him some new fortune and fame.  In 1912, Picasso left Olivier for a new girl, Marcelle Humbert, who he called Eva Gouel. He had fallen madly in love with Eva, and would declare his love for her in the title of some of paintings.  Nevertheless, Picasso still managed to have an affair with another woman, Gaby Lespinasse, though he was devastated when Eva died of tuberculosis in 1915, age, 30.  As a Spanish citizen, Picasso was not expected to fight for France during the First World War.  He used this time to further develop his Cubist style, which became known as Synthetic Cubism.  Picasso created Synthetic Cubism in 1912.  Synthetic Cubism reintroduced color into Picasso's palette.  Through Synthetic Cubism, Picasso also gave the world another innovation, the collage and assemblage, which would have far reaching implications for Modern Art.  

“Never permit a dichotomy to rule your life, a dichotomy in which you hate what you do so you can have pleasure in your spare time. Look for a situation in which your work will give you as much happiness as your spare time.”  Pablo Picasso

Neoclassic Works

In the summer of 1918, Picasso married the ballerina, Olga Khoklova, who he had met the year before in Rome, while designing a set for a ballet.  In the fall of 1918, the First World War ended.  Both of these things would have a calming effect on Picasso's art.  This era in Picasso's oeuvre  would become known as his Neoclassical Period.  The calmness of Picasso's work during this time, however, soon began to mask Picasso's troubled marriage.  Olga was all class and high society, while Picasso had more bohemian interests and pursuits.   Nevertheless, they had a child together, Paulo, born 1921.  Picasso's marriage to Olga would collapse in 1927, when he took the younger Marie-Thérèse Walter as his mistress.  Picasso refused to divorce Olga in order to prevent her from acquiring half of his wealth, as was French law, and the two would remain separated until her death in 1955.

Mark Rothko by Chris Hall

Mark Rothko was an American Color Field and Abstract Expressionist painter.  With Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, his considered to be one of the most famous postwar American artists.  Rothko's art grew from representational to amorphous mythological subjects, to pure abstract, non-objective fields of color and light.  Rothko was born in Dvinsk, Russia (now Latvia), in 1903.  Fearing that Mark Rothko's older brothers might be drafted into the army on the eve of the First World War, the Rothko family emigrated  to Portland, Oregon, in the United States.  

Rothko received a scholarship to Yale, but when the scholarship was not renewed after his first year, Rothko worked as a waiter and delivery boy to pay for his education.  He found the Yale community to be elitist and racist, dropped out at the end of his sophomore year, and moved to New York City to study art. Rothko enrolled in the New York School of Design, where he worked with instructor and abstract artist Arshile Gorky.  Rothko thought Gorky a domineering figure, and so he left to take classes at the Art Student's League, taught by cubist artist and instructor Max Weber.  Under Max Weber, Rothko began to view art as a tool for emotional and religious expression.  Rothko's early influences were the works of the German Expressionists and the surrealist artist, Paul Klee.  Rothko also met fellow artists Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman.  The Rothko family did not understand his decision to be an artist, especially in the middle of the Great Depression.  Rothko, however, like Gorky, Pollock, de Kooning, many other artists, found employment with the Works Progress Administration.

When World War Two erupted, Rothko felt that a new art was needed with a new subject matter that would have social impact, yet would also be able to transcend the confines of political symbols and values.  Rothko also wanted this new subject matter to complement his growing interest in form, space, and color.  He temporarily stopped painting in 1940 and immersed himself in studying Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, the works of Carl Jung, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and others.  From this was born Rothko's “Mythomorphic Abstractionism” period.  

 Rothko's interest in using mythology to transcend the troubled times was not unique.  Gottlieb, Newman, and Pollock were at a similar crossroads in their art, using mythological symbolism to bridge the gap between representation and pure abstraction.  They were all interested in dream theory and the archetypes of the collective unconscious, and believed that by using mythological symbolism they could transcend specific history and culture.

Rothko had a noble goal in mind for his art.  He wanted to relieve modern man's spiritual emptiness, which he believed resulted from a lack of mythology.  Rothko felt his art could free unconscious energies in the viewer, which were previously liberated by mythological images, symbols, and rituals.  In this respect, Rothko viewed himself as a modern day “mythmaker,” and proclaimed  that "the exhilarated tragic experience is for me the only source of art.

Rothko debuted his new paintings in 1942, at a show in a New York City Macy's department store.  In response to a negative critical review of the show by the New York Times, Rothko and Gottlieb issued a manifesto where they stated, "We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth."  Rothko and Gottlieb also fired a broadside toward those who would prefer a less challenging art, writing that their work “must insult anyone who is spiritually attuned to interior decoration.”

In June of 1943, Rothko and his wife Edith separated.  Rothko suffered a long depression following his divorce.  Thinking that a change of scenery would help, Rothko returned to Portland.  From Portland, Rothko traveled to Berkeley, where he met and befriended the artist Clyfford Still.  At this time, Still had already eschewed surrealist representation in favor of pure, non-objective abstraction.  Rothko looked at Still's work and saw his future.  Rothko's experiments in unconscious symbolism had run its course; abstraction would be the next step.

In 1945 Rothko painted Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, showing his new-found interest in abstraction.  His new work possessed a more organic structure, often featuring blurred blocks of various colors.  They were devoid of any reference to the figure or the landscape.  Rothko thought that these new works, by shedding figurative qualities, had a life force  of their own and contained the “breath of life.”  Rothko discovered his trademark symmetrical rectangular blocks of two or three opposing and contrasting, yet complementary colors in the winter of 1949.  He also began to use large, vertically formatted canvases, which he intended to make the viewer feel “enveloped within” the painting.

Rothko viewed his work as living entities.  As he began to achieve success, he also began to be increasingly protective of his works, turning down several potentially important sales and exhibition opportunities.  Of this, Rothko would write, “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer.  It dies by the same token.  It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world.  How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the vulgar and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend the affliction universally!” 

Beginning in 1950, Rothko started to meet with financial success and fame.  Despite his success, Rothko felt himself isolated and a sense of being misunderstood as an artist began to developed.  He feared that the people purchasing his paintings were doing so simply out of fashion and that the true purpose of his work was not being grasped by his collectors, critics, and audience.  Compounding his isolation, many of his friends began to abandon him, Rothko's new fame and patrons not sitting well with them.  Old friend Clyfford Still even asked for the return of his of gifted paintings.

Rothko defended himself against accusations of selling out.  He maintained that his work was “only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.”

Some people, however, did understand Rothko's work.  New friend and poet Stanley Kunitz saw Rothko as "a primitive, a shaman who finds the magic formula and leads people to it." Great poetry and painting, Kunitz believed, both had "roots in magic, incantation, and spell-casting" and were, at their core, ethical and spiritual.  Rothko was insistent upon the proper interpretation of his work and worked hard to spread his message.  In 1958 Mark Rothko spoke at the Pratt Institute and gave his recipe for a work of art:

1.  There must be a clear preoccupation with death - intimations of mortality... Tragic art, romantic art, etc., deals with the knowledge of death. 2. Sensuality. Our basis of being concrete about the world. It is a lustful relationship to things that exist. 3. Tension. Either conflict or curbed desire. 4. Irony, This is a modern ingredient - the self-effacement and examination by which a man for an instant can go on to something else. 5. Wit and play... for the human element. 6. The ephemeral and chance... for the human element. 7. Hope. 10% to make the tragic concept more endurable.  I measure these ingredients very carefully when I paint a picture. It is always the form that follows these elements and the picture results from the proportions of these elements.

That same year the beverage company Joseph Seagram and Sons had completed their new building on Park Avenue.  Rothko agreed to provide paintings for the building's new luxury restaurant, The Four Seasons.  Other three months Rothko completed forty paintings in a series of dark reds and browns.  Shortly afterward, Rothko, with his new wife Mell, sailed to Europe aboard the SS Independence where he joked with Harper's Magazine publisher John Fischer that his true intention for the Seagram's murals was to paint "something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room.”  He hoped that his paintings would make the restaurant's patron's "feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall."  Upon his return to New York, Rothko and Mell visited the nearly completed Four Seasons restaurant.  Rothko became upset with the restaurant's dining atmosphere, which he considered pretentious and inappropriate for his work.  Rothko quit the project and returned his cash advance to the Seagram and Sons Company.  

By the 1960's the art world began to turn away from Abstract Expressionism, turning their gaze toward the next big thing, Pop Art, particularly the work of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rosenquist.  Rothko labeled Pop artists as “charlatans and young opportunists,” and wondered aloud during a 1962 Pop Art exhibition, “Are the young artists plotting to kill us all?”  On looking at Jasper Johns' flag paintings, Rothko said, “We worked for years to get rid of all that.”  Rothko knew that his fame would be fleeting, and that he would eventually be replaced, but what he could not fathom was that he would be replaced by Pop Art, which he found sterile and vapid.

Rothko spent his last years working on a commission for a chapel in Houston, Texas, which he believed would be the artistic pinnacle of his career.  He would never see the installation of his work.  Rothko and his wife Mell separated on New Year's Day, 1969, and he moved into his studio.  On February 25th, 1970, studio assistant Oliver Steindecker found Rothko's body lying dead on the floor in front of the sink, covered in blood.  He had sliced open his arms.  An autopsy also revealed that he had overdosed on anti-depressants.  He was sixty-six years old.  On February 28th, 1971, at the Rothko chapel dedication in Houston, Dominique de Menil said, "We are cluttered with images and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine."  I believe Rothko would have agreed with him.  Initially the chapel was to be Roman Catholic, but within three years the chapel expanded to become non-denominational. 

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.

Kirchner and Nolde by Chris Hall

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self Portrait as Soldier, 1917

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a founding member of the German Expressionist group Die Brucke (The Bridge).  Kirchner and many of his compatriots sensed the tension in air of pre World War One Germany, and they reflected it in their work.  When war broke out, Kirchner, fearing being drafted into infantry, decided to enlist as an artillery driver.  During the war he suffered a nervous breakdown and was put into a hospital.  The post war years were likewise unkind to him, and he became depressed with the growth of Nazism and the condemnation of his work.  639 works of his was confiscated from German museums and galleries.  Many were shown in the Entartete Kunst exhibit of 1937 and were subsequently sold off or destroyed.  In 1938 Kirchner shot himself in a cabin outside Davos.  

More work by Kirchner.  Click to enlarge.

Emil Nolde

Emil Nolde, Still Life With Carved Wooden Figure, 1911

Emil Nolde, another Die Brucke painter, had a better fate.  He managed to sit out World War One and his work met with success in the 1920’s.  Nolde joined the Nazi Party in 1920, shortly after Hitler.  Despite his support of the party, from 1935 on his work began to be confiscated from German museums, with 1,052 works removed in 1937 alone.  Nolde’s work was featured prominently in the Entartete Kunst exhibit, with 29 pieces, more than any other artist in the show.  In 1941 Nolde was told he was not allowed to paint anymore, even in private.  Despite the order, Nolde continued to paint in private, mostly watercolors on scrap pieces of paper.  He called these works his “Unpainted Pictures.”

More work by Emil Nolde.  Click to enlarge.

I was heavily influenced by both of these artists early on.  I liked their use of color and their championing of subjective expression.  I also empathized with their stories.  In Kirchner’s case, I related to his sensitivity to the environment, and in Nolde’s case, I liked that he felt compelled to paint, despite the risks involved in defying the Nazi government.

The Art of Suicide by Chris Hall

I recently read over a list on Complex.com, of the top 25 Performance Art Pieces of All Time.  I found many expected works of art, both good and bad, ranging from Joseph Beuys’ I Like America and America Likes Me (1974) to Pussy Riot’s 2012 Punk Prayer.  Acconci’s Seedbed was there, as was Schneemann’s Interior Scroll.  As much as I would like to discuss the merits and flaws of each inclusion, as art, I feel more compelled still to question the presence of one inclusion at all.  I am thinking of Yukio Mishima’s suicide (1970).

Yukio Mishima giving his speech to the soldiers just before he committed Seppuku.

Yukio Mishima was a Japanese author, poet, playwright, actor, and film director.  He is considered one Japan’s most important authors of the 20th century.  Indeed, he was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  

But Mishima was a troubled soul.  Having survived WWII, he became a fervent rightwing nationalist; he pined for the pre-war days with its samurai mythology, bushido code, veneration of the emperor, and other traditional Japanese values.  Mishima formed a militia called the Tatenokai (Shield Society) on October 5th, 1968.  Two years later, on November 25th, 1970, Mishima and four members of the Tatenokai, visited the commandant of the Tokyo headquarters of the Japan Self-Defense Force.  Once inside, they barricaded the office and tied the commandant to his chair.  Mishima then stepped out onto the balcony with a prepared manifesto and a banner listing his demands, and then addressed the group of soldiers gathered below.  His speech was intended to inspire a coup and restore power to the emperor, but instead the speech was received with mocking and jeers.  Finishing his speech, Mishima then returned to the commandant’s office where he committed the ritual of Seppuku (self disembowelment with sword followed by a beheading).  Later it was revealed that Mishima had been planning the suicide performance for at least a year and had composed a ritual death poem in preparation.  

While Seppuku is a kind of performance it is also a ritual with a long tradition, going back to the 12th century.  It was reserved for samurai who would rather die by their own hands than face dishonor and be captured by their enemies, as a form of capital punishment for samurai who had committed a serious offence, or performed by a samurai to atone for a great shame.  Did Mishima view his Seppuku as an art piece (did he hope to inspire change by his act) or did he view his act as a something more private and personal, an act of reverence for samurai tradition?  Did he know he would fail to inspire a coup and was seeking to atone for this failure?  Perhaps it was all of these things.  If it was a final work of performance art, I can think of no greater conflation of life and art.

Kathy Change during happier times, before she committed self-immolation.


Similar in circumstance to Yukio Mishima’s suicide by Seppuku, Philadelphia artist Kathy Change death by self immolation on October 22, 1996 on the University of Pennsylvania campus might be argued as being art action.  Born Kathleen Chang, she legally changed her name to Kathy Change to indicate her commitment to political and social change.  Change’s life was defined by acts of political activism as art and also bouts of mental illness.  For twenty years Change was a fixture in Philadelphia, giving street performances on the University of Pennsylvania campus and in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  She would sing, dance, play guitar and keyboard, wave handmade flags, and give speeches, all while dressed in different outlandish costumes.  Her performances were meant to education the audience on various government and economic issues of the day, and to wake people up from their complacency.  Perhaps feeling like her work was not getting through to her audience, she decided on final act . . . but was it art as suicide or just suicide as an act of despair?  Is art as suicide truly even possible?  Like Mishima, the suicide act was meticulously prepared.  She practiced with meat and different accelerants before settling on gasoline.  Unlike Mishima, we do know that Change had hoped that her self immolation would wake people up from complacency and inspire them to take action on the formation of a new government.  In a packet she delivered to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Daily Pennsylvanian, and to several of her friends, she writes:  

I want to protest the present government and economic system and the cynicism and passivity of the people…as emphatically as I can. But primarily, I want to get publicity in order to draw attention to my proposal for immediate social transformation. To do this I plan to end my own life. The attention of the media is only caught by acts of violence. My moral principles prevent me from doing harm to anyone else or their property, so I must perform this act of violence against myself. . . . Call me a flaming radical burning for attention, but my real intention is to spark a discussion of how we can peacefully transform our world.  America, I offer myself to you as an alarm against Armageddon and a torch for liberty.

With a history of mental illness, it is difficult to say whether her suicide was a matter of free will and artistic agency.  Much depends on how one perceives not only mental illness, but also the act of artistic creation.  But if she felt she had to kill herself because of a suicidal urge, that is a depression perhaps brought on by her perceived failure to change the world, perhaps, she decided to make the most of it, and turn the act into one final work of art.  

Artist Ray Johnson with painting.

I think of one final example of the possibility of art as suicide, Raymond Edward “Ray” Johnson’s suicide on January 13th, 1995.  Known primarily as a collage and correspondence artist, Ray Johnson was a seminal figure in the history of Neo-Dada and early Pop Art.  On January (Friday) 13th, 1995 Johnson was seen diving off of a bridge in Sag Harbor, New York, and then backstroking out to sea.  Earlier that day Johnson checked into a hotel in room number 247 (2 + 4 + 7 = 13).  The age of his death was 67 (6 + 7 = 13).  Witnesses have even suggested that the exact time of Johnson’s jump also added up to 13.  Could it all have been a strange coincidence, or was this Ray Johnson’s final art action?  We will never know for sure, as Johnson did not leave a suicide note.  Johnson’s body was found washed up on the beach the next day.  

A Dark Humor by Chris Hall

Sometime during my undergraduate days, one of my professors criticized someone in my class for making “funny” paintings (he was always good at rattling cages and making people cry).  He said that the first word in painting is PAIN, and that he would not have any of that fantasy clown shit in his class. I laughed inwardly, because I happened to agree with him; this was in my younger, more angstier days. Now, however, I have reevaluated my position somewhat.  I think there just might be a place for comedy in art.

The world, in such a condition as it is, is in need of all the humor it can get.  In fact a sense of humor is all that keeps many people, including myself, sane.  I tend to cling to any joy, laughter, or beauty I can find.  Humor to me is my way of assimilating and recuperating from pain, of which there is plenty.  I understand that a lot of comedy comes from pain.  Not many people know this.  It was no surprise to me, for example, that such an outwardly happy and comedic an individual as Robin Williams recently committed suicide, God rest his soul.

In my art, my humor tends to be dark.  It is my way of inverting the pain into something more palatable (to me anyways).  The results are usually grotesque, abject, and ridiculous.  Some people find it surprising that I don’t paint flowers anymore, instead opting for gross out, violent, and sex heavy humor.  So be it.  I don’t think I can ever adequately explain it to them if they are that far removed.  Some things for some people are beyond understanding.  For the time being, I am content knowing that I found my own way transmuting humor from pain.  

Christopher Hall,  Born To Paint , 2002

Christopher Hall, Born To Paint, 2002