Cornelis van Spaendonck, 1793
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art
A lesson in Art History has been mounted ( I imagine it's intentional ) in the galleries of the Herbert F. Johnson Art Museum in Ithaca, on the Cornell University campus. As I have written here before, my studio window looked out on this building as it was constructed, while I was concentrating on earning my MFA in Painting back in the early 1970's. I still go back periodically to the museum to take in the shows and this time I could just hear my professors talking about the paintings on view just a few feet away.
Rembrandt drawing circa 1638-42
The Leiden Collection
Dutch paintings from the Leiden Collection were a strong calling card, and this group demanded close attention. There are also prints and drawings in this show most notably a small Rembrandt of a Lioness with a beautifully composed use of charcoal and a bit of grey wash with some white highlights. The head of the animal is balanced on some rugged shading with a second thought or two evident in the artist's process especially around the forelegs. Later, when I went downstairs the thought of contrast and comparison became clear, as I studied Philip Pearlstein's nude, after being immersed in the Dutch painting world of artists like Pieter de Hooch, and Gerrit Dou.
Brueghel the Younger
oil on panel, 1592
The scandalous painting from Brueghel the Younger, a circular oil on panel has the title " He Who Holds The Sack Of Gold Will Always Have Flatterers". I don't recall seeing this in my art history books! It has the substance of a modern artist ( like Peter Saul maybe? ) but it also has the paint handling and classic touch of a different era. Thinking about this, I look at the flower painting at the top by Spaendonck, and I say - How Did They Do This? Without the crutch of the ever-present photo reference ( or as my students use it - their Smartphones ) - these master painters must have had photographic memories, and they trusted their sense of form, light and shadow, and all kinds of ability to render what they saw. And there is always a bit of theatre in all of their work.
From the Leiden Collection
When I went downstairs to see the contemporary art, the Dutch painters still echo in my mind.
Phillip Pearlstein's nude has some of that classic approach to figure painting, but on a much expanded scale, and in a spare, almost minimal setting, even the play of light tries to strip away any sense of the theatrical, and just makes as plain a presentation of the artist's skills as it can be.
"Seated Nude on Bentwood Chair" by Phillip Pearlstein, 1967
The Johnson Museum has created a new look for their galleries, especially with more recent art on display. After looking at the Dutch paintings one can compare their skillful determination with a photo-realist like Ralph Goings. His pick-up truck from 1973 has a matter-of-fact realism that communicates what things look like in the documentary style of the time and this shares something with the Pearlstein process, strip away the stories, and narratives from the past and show things just as they are, or as William Carlos Williams writes: " No ideas but in things".
Ralph Goings, Acrylic on canvas, 1973
The figure is the important subject in the latest re-hanging of paintings in the Harris Gallery at the Johnson Museum. There one can look at fine examples of modern art from Leger, and Giacometti to
Wayne Thiebaud and Milton Avery. If I were a student today, this is the place I would use as my compass to get my bearings, it was a very pleasant visit to the museum!
Alberto Giacometti at the Herbert F.Johnson Museum of Art