The eye is keen. The mind is thoroughly grounded. The goal is to maintain a sense of intellectual honesty while exploring the culture of criticism and evaluating creativity in all its glory.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Extraordinarily Ordinary

There are names that always stir the imagination. Zorro brings visions of a black mask, cape, horse, and dashing sword-play. Neil Armstrong perpetually gives us one giant leap for mankind, and Kermit keeps insisting that it’s not easy being green. For me, there are dozens and dozens of names that trigger cogitation on a wide variety of subjects, revolving around a broad collection of people who inspired a little girl from the west. When a name from my inspiration-list appears anywhere, I stop and read or look and learn some more. Recently, the name Amelia has come two fold.

We all know who Amelia Earhart was; the female champion who flew far and wide to show the world that girls could tame distance just as well as the boys. Her story is the legendary tale of record breaking, cutting edge technology, tough as nails and still as pretty, love and dreams and tragedy kind of thing. I ate that up as a little girl. I wanted to be Amelia. Well, I didn’t want to fly, but I wanted the courage to do what I dreamed of doing; to go beyond being just a girl; to find the bravery to look a challenge in the eye and spit on it.

Young women today may not really comprehend how significant those rebellious thoughts of mine were. Just consider, for a moment, that when Amelia was hired to be the first woman to ‘fly’ across the Atlantic in 1928, she was not allowed to control the plane. She sat in the back and looked out the window. Though she had her pilot’s license, the idea of a female having the stamina to perform a trans-Atlantic flight was incomprehensible. Amelia was distressed by the attention she got for just sitting there:

"I was a passenger on the journey...just a passenger. Everything that was done to bring us across was done by Wilmer Stultz and Slim Gordon. Any praise I can give them they ought to have...I do not believe that women lack the stamina to do a solo trip across the Atlantic, but it would be a matter of learning the arts of flying by instruments only, an art which few men pilots know perfectly now..."

Do you hear that?  She believed a woman could learn the art of flying better than few men pilots knew how. When I was a little girl women still had very few opportunities to pursue any dream that existed outside of the prescribed idea of the perfect woman’s world. She was the first person who helped me understand that in order to play with the boys I would have to be many times better just to receive half the recognition. And, living like that as a girl was possible to achieve.

When I first heard her name she’d been missing for 30 or so years and was still very much an enigma. I loved her ... her tomboyishness, her fashion sense, the truth that she was as ordinary looking as anyone else in the world. And, I loved the idea that she found a man who supported her ambition and was seemingly fine living in her shadow of fame and popularity. Yes, Amelia gave hope to little girls who would rather play with a frog than a doll.

So, as I grew I always acknowledged any new information about Amelia. We all know her Electra disappeared as she attempted to fly more than 7,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean. She had already flown 22,000 miles and this part of the journey would take her to Hawaii, and then to California where she would be praised for two major firsts...she would be the first woman, and she would travel the longest possible distance, circumnavigating the globe at its waist.

But, she never landed for refuel on Howland Island. The world has since asked, “Amelia, where are you?” Several theories continue to circulate:

• Amelia was on a spy mission for President Roosevelt, was captured by the Japanese and forced to broadcast to American GI’s as “Tokyo Rose” during World War II.

• She purposely drove her plane into the Pacific.

• She lived for years on an island in the South Pacific with a native fisherman.

• In 1961 it was thought that the bones of Amelia and her navigator had been found in Saipan, but the bones turned out to be those of Saipan natives.

• Amelia secretly finished the mission then moved to New Jersey, assumed a new name, married a different fellow, and lived out her life.

• And, the most exhaustive inquiry into Earhart’s fate since the US Navy’s 1937 original search has been (and is continuing to be) by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), who are attempting to conclusively solve the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance with investigation procedures that employ rigorous standards of evidence and documented facts. They are focusing on a remote, uninhabited Pacific atoll of Nikumaroro (formerly Gardner Island, which is where garbled transmissions believed to be from the electra happened for 4 days after she failed to find Howland Island) and have recovered physical evidence that suggests the Earhart flight may have landed there on July 2, 1937. In 1940 a partial skeleton and an old fashioned sextant box were found under a tree on the island’s southeast corner. The skeleton was eventually lost in Fiji sometime after 1941, but detailed measurements of the bones indicate that they belonged to a “tall white female of European ancestry”. Other artifacts include improvised tools, an aluminum panel (possibly from and Electra), an oddly cut piece of clear Plexiglas which is the exact thickness and curvature of an Electra window, and a size 9 Cat’s Paw heel dating from the 1930’s, which resembles Earhart’s footwear in world flight photos.  In 2007 TIGHAR performed another high-profile expedition where they were reported to have found additional artifacts, including bronze bearings which may have belonged to the aircraft, and a zipper pull which might have come from her flight suit. All this evidence is circumstantial, but quite interesting when you consider the island is uninhabited.

Today, there is continuing promise with TIGHAR’s research.  That is part one of the two fold that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. TIGHAR’s team will be on the island until June 14, 2010 and they are releasing new finds continually. I encourage you to follow TIGHAR’s 2010: Niku VI Expedition updates, and to read this Discovery News article that was released on June 3, 2010.

New hard truths about the real Amelia continue to tickle our hopes that someday, and maybe soon, we'll know for sure if she was a castaway on Gardner Island. This moment reminds me of the days right before they found the remains of the Titanic ...

(Part two, of my two fold story, will be coming next posting)

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Lesson in History - Rembrandt

From time to time I have an urge to share some truths I've learned over the years. This is one of those posts, which contains adapted excerpts from my book Of Fur & Feathers - An Artist Passing Through

This story is about Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (July 15, 1606 – Oct. 4, 1669). Rembrandt was a Dutch painter who is generally considered one of the greatest painters and printmakers in European art history. His contributions to art came in a period historians call the Dutch Golden Age.

Having realized youthful success as a portrait painter, his later years were marked by personal tragedy and financial collapse. Throughout his lifetime his reputation as an artist remained high and for twenty years he taught nearly every important Dutch painter. Rembrandt's greatest creative triumphs are epitomized in his self-portraits, in which he surveyed himself without vanity and with unconditional sincerity and truth.

When I was a very little girl I found a mentor. Rembrandt. He was the first master that I copied and when I learned to read I began to understand his history and purpose. Everything he was has everything to do with who I am as a painter today. Why?

In the beginning I had only the pencil. I could hold it and with concentration it would mimic the lines I saw on a piece of paper. Coordination was the first step and, like everything in life before the pencil, it was a doable thing with practice. Basic lines, shapes, and added values were practiced daily. I was limited to only the technique of creation by imitation until words began to enlighten the mysteries of art. Once I could read I began to study everything I could about painting, with Rembrandt consistently remaining at the center of my interest.

In all honesty, I found that Rembrandt and other masters were like gods to me. They were beings who turned simple pieces of paper or canvas into perfect dimensional worlds of beauty and drama. Their humanness didn’t become clear until I could research and dig for the truth. I had to know – what made them so great? Could their time have been so different from ours that their brilliant minds rose above and beyond what simple folk like me could achieve? What gave them such passion to learn to be the best? In all my studies I found there are links from there to here and each master is but one piece of massive puzzle. And, here is one piece to serve as an introduction to a brilliant mind:

Greatness Was Born

Rembrandt was born at a most opportune time, when his world was a newly formed country that pulsed with the fever of expansion and growth. The Netherlands had recently won an eighty-year war of independence with Spain, and Europe was beginning to recognize it as a country in its own right. The artist was born to a miller in Leiden on July 15, 1606, the ninth of ten children. He was the only van Rijn child to go to the University of Leiden (at age 14), and his training there was probably geared towards preparation for fine citizenship in Leiden – perhaps as a preacher, or civic councilman. Or, maybe he was placed in the University to avoid service in the town Militia. Rembrandt’s father had injured a hand as a town soldier, and his oldest brother had problems while in the Militia, as well. As a University student no service was required, and one received a good ration of free beer to boot!

After a short stay, Rembrandt dropped out of the University and enrolled as an apprentice in Jacob van Swanenburgh’s studio to learn the craft of picture making. No one really knows why his schooling at the University was cut short right before its finale; but I imagine he may have found ‘classical’ training boring and desired to satisfy a passion for painting. His parents  allowed and supported this direction for his life.

There are no surviving paintings from his earliest years in that studio but, surely, what he learned there were the basics every artist needed; how to grind paint, size canvases, clean brushes and palettes; and how to stroke with a brush, draw with chalk, and compose a painting; how to render drawings from live models, or make copies from early masters. Swaneburgh had spent time in Italy and surely the Italian influences began for the budding artist in this studio.

Rembrandt stayed with Swaneburgh for three years, then did a brief six months apprenticeship with Pieter Lastman, a famous master in Amsterdam. Lastman had recently returned from Italy, where he was strongly influenced by Caravaggio’s use of lights and darks (chiaroscuro), as well as works from the famous masters Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. There is no doubt that Caravaggio’s techniques, taught by Lastman, had a profound effect on  the very young artist from Leiden.

After his stay with Lastman, Rembrandt returned to his home town and appears to have opened a studio with a fellow Lastman student named Jan Lievens. In that studio, the two painters often rendered paintings of the same subject, using the same models and props, and their resulting works have been a challenge for historians in respect to attributing certain paintings to either artist. They were friends with the same goal in mind; become a better painter and find success as masters in their own right.

By 1627, Rembrandt began taking on his own students (most notably, Gerrit Dou). In 1629, the statesman Constantijn Huygens, came to the Rembrandt/Lievens studio and purchased a few paintings from each, then secured a commission for Rembrandt that began a series of Passion Paintings for the Court in Hague, which was concluded in 1646.

By the end of 1631, Lievens left for England to become a Court painter, and Rembrandt moved to the new business capital of the Netherlands – Amsterdam. There, he began an association with an art dealer named Hendrick van Uylenburg and found success as a practicing portraitist. He also met and then, in 1634, married Hendrick’s cousin, Saskia van Uylenburg.

It is easy to imagine his life to this point. He was a very young man with a driving interest in painting, and by his mid-twenties he was a sought after portrait painter with a stunning reputation. Success was not only at his fingertips, it was clinch-fisted and strongly held by an extremely confident young artist.

The training that brought him to success is an interesting point. Rembrandt got a late start in his education as an artist. Most young people at that time began at the age of eight or nine and were well advanced by the time Rembrandt apprenticed at his first studio at the age of fourteen. By nineteen he seems to have learned all that he could from Swaneburgh and Lastman and his work quickly surpassed his teachers. Still bucking the established system, he did not dream of going to Italy to learn directly from those thought to be the best. It is said that Rembrandt, when asked when he planned to visit Italy, replied that there was no need for that. All of the old masters’ work was coming to Holland and he could study what he needed right at home.

After he moved to Amsterdam, before he married Saskia, a very significant event happened that tells us much about his disposition and personality. He was commissioned by the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons to produce a group portrait that would represent Dr. Nicolaes Tulp as the director of a human dissection. Prior to Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, those sorts of paintings held a simple row of men, all looking equal in importance and rather boring. This artist took the composition to a place never before seen. He built a pyramidal setting where each person within the canvas space expresses a different emotion and purpose. Dr. Tulp is the only fellow wearing a hat, and his hands are absolutely perfect and delicate in every way. He was the leader of the group, both in reality and in this painted recording.

When looking at this Anatomy Lesson it’s easy to believe that much effort was made to create a fantastic portrait of each individual man, even the poor criminal whose body is being taken apart for the sake of scientific discovery and teaching - he lies motionless wearing his ashen skin rather naturally.

One element of the painting that is often over-looked, but fascinating none the less, is that the right arm of the corpse is too short when compared to the rest of the body. This is the only imperfection I can find when reviewing Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, and modern x-rays of the arm reveal that it was originally painted as a stump without a hand, which reflects the truth of the situation. The criminal’s hand was chopped off as part of his punishment for being an armed robber, and then he was hanged. What this tells us is that Rembrandt most likely attended the actual dissection in preparation for his painting, and the missing hand was painted over the arm-stump later. Why did the painter do this? Did the surgeons wish to pretty-up the painting? Or was it Rembrandt’s decision? When one studies the work closely, from the rich flesh-tones of the living to the blueish-gray of the dead, including all the clothing and instruments and props, and the expressions of every body within the space, the conclusion has to be that it was at the direction of the surgeons.

Whoever delegated the alteration, a puzzling point still remains. Why did the artist simply make a hand on top of the stump instead of extending it from the wrist joint as it would naturally be? Rembrandt was a realist who painted the truth as he saw it, whether it was ugly or beautiful. He painted from nature, always. More than that, when he considered composition, he combined inspiration from nature with elements from those he admired most; Caravaggio and the other Italian masters. He was an intellectual artist who calculated every inch of his canvas and painted accordingly. My gut tells me that Rembrandt thought that the  painting was perfect with the stump, and the hand was simply painted because he had to do it to please the patrons, so he placed the new limb in an area that did not affect the white loin cloth of the dead, or any other space around it. It’s the only part of the piece that is not true to life.

With The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, Rembrandt believed he hit his stride and this painting was proof to the world that he was a master equal to the Italians everyone loved. He signed his forename for the first time in the upper right hand corner of the canvas. Rembrandt. In his mind, he must have believed he belonged with Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Caravaggio, and the world needed to know him on a first name basis. The rest of Amsterdam society believed Rembrandt to be great, too, for the Anatomy Lesson was a huge success that propelled him to the status of Holland’s absolute best portrait painter. His reputation was established and he settled down into a life as a wealthy, successful man. All the self-portraits he executed during this period show the content painter loaded with confidence and faith in his future and position as a master artist.

When I first read the story of Rembrandt’s early years I became fascinated with the idea that he didn’t follow the established rule. His schooling was short and influence from his teachers limited. He took the basics, then walked away to find his own interpretation of technique, and didn’t seem to admire his contemporaries enough to follow them. Rather, he adored the work of the Renaissance masters and hungrily sought examples from them to emulate. In reality, he was combining the very new with the very old and the end result was a stunningly powerful mix that would push him to a place of high honour. Are his paintings the thing that makes high honour so? Or is it the artist himself?

After all my years of study, I have come to believe that his nature has everything to do with our respect for the painter from Leiden. And, his nature was all about process and understanding. I admire his steadfastness; his ability to pick up his brush and simply paint as he wanted to paint; his urges to explore beyond examples left by the masters before him, as well as contemporaries around him; his will to survive which allowed him to continue during times when most people would have crumbled; his tendency to buck the established system and never bow down for the sake of money; most of all, I admire his sense of self.

He dares us to look at him, with all his self-portraits. This man is an enigma who has challenged historians since before he died. His life was devoted to painting and teaching, yet he left no journals or books that speak of his processes or intent. He does not tell us how the applications came to be, or why.  Even with our scientific brilliance we cannot understand his simple act of impasto or varnishing techniques. We can only study the paintings. Those tell us he followed the general process of inventing, dead colouring, and work-up.  Everything about his paintings follow the rules set forth by the traditions of painting, as well as rules established by the art scene of his day. Yet, everything about his application has a twist. Rules are bent and subjects are a reflection of the raw world around him, not a classical ideal at all. With this in mind, one can only think that in Rembrandt’s mind process was important and good, yet the individual perspective must provide a balance of honesty in an otherwise cookie-cutter world. If I were to advise anyone who wishes to become a painter, I’d tell them to build a strong foundation of technical prowess, then search their soul for the honesty one needs to find the perfect place of self, for what is seen through those eyes can only be beautiful and good.

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