Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City was an iconic modern building, and I was a bit surprised to see some paintings from somewhat older era - early 20th century, which in current art market has almost become "classical".
My favorite painting was Saint-Séverin No. 3 (1909-10) by French painter Robert Delaunay (1885-1941). This monochromatic painting depicted the tall nave of the cathedral and the interlocking buttresses, elongated, soaring, resembling a giant pipe organ, or a glimpse of the hollow of abdominal cavity — vast, cavernous, seductive yet foreboding.
The other favorite of mine was a Cubism-influenced Paris par la fenêtre (Paris Through the Window) (1913) by Marc Chagall, who in his typical fashion, fancifully mixed together various motifs and elements — people, cat, village, window, city, his native Russia and Paris, folk art elements and cosmopolitan sophistication, and the sense of joy, freedom, anxiety and perhaps, malfeasance or even evil. Also very striking was the interplay of his vivid colors, though in a more muted way to his standards.
My 2007 oil painting One Fine Day soon will conclude its five-month long exhibition at at McGuire Real Estate Gallery in Elmwood District, Berkeley. This painting, in somewhat sickly moon light tone (pale Prussian blue), depicted a school of agitated and thrashing fish, tightly packed in confining space, bulging eyes telegraphing anguish, straining to escape of a deadly trap they had unfortunately fallen into. The ironic title I chose, perhaps ought to be ascribed to some lucky fishermen. And that spoke the volume of the relationship of mankind and the unfortunate nature.
One Fine Day Oil on Canvas 22" x 28" Completed in 2007
Practically a next door neighbor to the mammoth Metropolitan Museum, Neue Galerie in New York City was a modest and exquisite museum, which specializes in early twentieth-century German and Austrian art and design, and has become much wider known due to its addition of Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt, after a landmark judgement over its ownership, claimed by Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna, and the original owner's heir, resided then in the US.
That Klimt was indeed amazing and mesmerizing; however, to me, the most engaging painting was a self-portrait by German painter Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait with Horn. This painting had all the hallmarks of this remarkable artist in his artistic maturity: bold black outlines, amazing interplay of light and shadow, clashing yet harmonious palette, economically abstracted forms and shades, somewhat stylized stiff arms and hands, and above all, an unflinching inspection of the sitter and primal emotions emitted from the painting. The artist as the subject was somber, severe, yet fearfully curious, gazing tentatively and intently into the mouthpiece of the gleaming white horn his stiff hand barely held, with his head boldly framed by the golden frames behind him on the wall, and compressed by the narrow space defined by a red partition at the right edge of the canvas — a picture of a man being challenged and confronted by unknown destiny and conditions. Though severe and slightly menacing, the painting did not depress or repel, rather embracing, due to its beautiful and warm coloration and wonderful tonal contrasts, and the rather confident and bold gaze of the sitter.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Berlin Street Scene (1913) was an exercise of urban sophistication and wry irony. The painting was almost decorative, yet the seemingly elegant and harmonious existence could hardly conceal the inner angst, apathy, discontent or even contempt the people exhibited. Those stylized figures, with their fanciful dresses, particularly the head gears of those city women, telegraphed that the society Kirchner observed was perhaps both a decadent and depressing one, as however pleasant they looked, there were traces of ludicrousness and meaninglessness in them, which were equally manifested in the more broadly sketched and burdened people scurrying about in the background, and the composed, sure, and searching women in the center of the scene, and some men in the foreground who averted gazes from those glamorous women. A wry commentary on the lack of human connection, or fluidity of genders in then Berlin?
One of my favorite museums is the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), of whose early 20th century European painting collections I am particularly partial.
My most favorite was a triptych by the German painter Max Beckmann, the mystical and political Departure (1933-35). These beautifully rendered hallucinatory, menacing, foreboding, and just slightly hopeful and redemptive panels, aptly and sadly captured one of the most horrifying moments of human history. These paintings were the answers to the art's existential question.
Less tense, yet no less disquieting, an early Picasso, Boy Leading a Horse (1905-06) from his Rose Period, also registered with me highly. Without any covering and protection, a slender youth and a lean and graceful horse, both economically outlined and modeled, wandered in an abstract landscape — a pale pink expanse of a barren field under a grave and leaden sky. The high horizon enabled the pink boy fully merged with the pink field thus a harmony, and that also contributed to make the atmosphere less menacing; rather, a prevalent melancholy and a tinge of sadness permeated the canvas. The subtle and subdued beauty, the quietly riveting drama generated by the contrasting colors and moods, made one's heart ache.
The most famous burial ground in China, must be that of the First Emperor of Qin Dynasty, who employed a gigantic terracotta army to guard him in the afterlife.
In the ensuing Han Dynasty, one of the emperors employed an army of smaller scale and smaller statue. Instead of human-sized terracotta warriors, this so-called Jing Emperor could only afford to have earthen ware torso armies, with wooden arms, which by now have completely rotten away, thus this army of cripples of one-third of human size. A pitiful and creepy looking army.
The most memorable figures are those riders sans horses, whose arched bow-shaped legs and the perpendicular torso formed a strange looking arrow, and the "arrow-point", the round head with a grinning face, completed this strange spectacle, small in stature, but large in impact.
The second amazing artifact was a hollow brick with a white tiger relief. The fluid and delicate beauty of the noble beast was incredible and the accomplishment of the artist/artisan was of the highest order.
There is a Great Mosque in Xi'an, China, though the main buildings had distinctive flavor of Chinese architecture, amidst Arab characteristics.
I loved a group of wooden scrolls hanging by the entrances to the main hall - gold-filled calligraphy carvings on blackened wood had a pleasing contrast and each character looked like a finely composed picture, perfectly balanced and centered, and full of flowing beauty. Even the chipping of the black paints became well-integrated elements of the larger canvas.
I also liked very much a pavilion protecting a stele. The basic structure of the pavilion was Chinese, but the decorative abstract motifs were Arab; yet there were figures in the relief, and they looked typical Chinese!
Shaanxi History Museum in Xi'an, China had many ancient artifacts due to the fact that it lies in the cradle of Chinese Yellow River civilization.
My favorites there were not very flashy. I liked a shallow basin very much, for the unusual shape, the beautiful interplay of the green bronze and the red rust, and above all, the fine inscription in the middle of the basin - eight characters in the ancient style and hardly legible for a person like me without special training.
My second favorite was one bronze flask (right), for its peculiar shape, the intricate bands of decorations on the belly, the ornate handle, and the top in the shape of a bird's head.
My Mirage, a fantastic painting, was based on a vision visited me when I was falling asleep but with enough mental presence to get up to make quick notes – a distant town, whose outlines barely discernible, in the manner of those commonly seen in old Dutch or Flemish landscape paintings, overwhelmed by several enormous and boldly sketched black feathers floating above the sky. Behind those dark and somewhat ominous feathers, a delicately pretty pale blue sky flashed through persistently. Yet, despite the seemingly menace, those dark feathers also looked rather protective and comforting. A world of ambiguity.
The famed Terracotta Army of the First Emperor of Qin Dynasty in China impressed not only with the sheer numbers of those soldiers, generals and horses, but upon close inspection, the endless variations of those individuals, each one of them seemed to have a distinct look and personalities, a far cry from cookie cutter mass production one might have suspected.
The most impressive was a Standing Archer - whose stylized yet naturalistic posture and his impassive face emitted an aura of zen, strange for a soldier. Also noteworthy was the plain but delicate face of this calm soldier.
I also love the horses "enlisted" in the army. They were absolutely sleek and beautiful. These beasts couldn't be nobler.
Banpo Archaeological Site Museum, Xi'an, China featured one of the earliest civilizations originated in China, in the Yellow River Valley, and it showcased many ancient artifacts remarkable not only for historical values, but the refined beauty belying their primitive and humble origins.
One such wonder was "A basin with abstracted fish design", whose rich earthy red tone was a thing of great beauty, and the black line drawing geometrical design of fish in multiple variations and arrangements was amazingly accomplished and startlingly modern.
A basin with abstracted fish design
Contrasting to the serious tone of the abstract fish pattern above, "A basin bearing the pattern of human face and fish" had a humorous conflation imageof a human face and a pair of triangular fish, sticking out like exaggerated beards. A clown? A dragoon? Fascinating.
A basin bearing the pattern of human face and fish
The breathtaking artifacts in the archaeology site Sanxingdui (Three-Star Mound) in Sichuan Province, China, astonished people with their exotic to the point of bizarre beauty.
For example, this pair of gold-masked busts though had all the prerequisite facial features, but the shape and proportions of those were so strange, that these busts were hardly human, at least not earthly human. However bizarre they looked, they were absolutely to behold. The green patina of the bronze harmonized magically with the pale gold, which shone without being unnecessarily brilliant.
Another strange statue was a giant with the similar otherworldly facial feature. The torso and arms were highly abstracted, resembled that of an advertising AirDancer in front of a shop, though it was obvious that this giant was an inflexible one. His embracing arms and his screw nut hands, must have held a something long and thick, perhaps a holy staff or a scepter.
The origin and the meaning of these mindbogglingly strange artifacts are a great riddle still to be solved.
The ancient culture in nowadays Sichuan Province, China was vastly different from those originated in the Yellow River region, the mainstream Chinese culture as we know it. Jinsha (Archaeology) Site Museum in Chengdu, China, featured many mysterious artifacts resembled those we would see in Sci-Fi movies.
The most treasurable item was a gold foil wheel of Sun Birds - four cutout mythical birds flying around a cutout swirling wheel, spilling flares just like the sun. Perhaps, it was the red background generated the semblance to the fiery sun; but the effectiveness was uncanny. The design of the birds and the flaring wheel were so modern that it was hard to believe that it was 5-6 thousand year old. One would incline to doubt if this had anything to do with extraterrestrials. This gold wheel was so beautiful and touching that it could bring tears to many.
Another intriguing artifact was a quite small gold mask, whose otherworldliness recalled that of the so-called Mask of Agamemnon. The face looked strange and a smile was as indecipherable as that of Mona Lisa.
Xu Beihong (1895-1953) was a renown Chinese artist, who was uniquely accomplished in both western oil paintings and traditional Chinese paintings. The museum bears his name, Xu Beihong Museum in Beijing had many of fine representations of his works.
One of his most famous oil painting was a portrait titled "Sound of Flute", which, though somewhat veered towards sentimentality, was redeemed by the heroine's shagginess, which transported her to the purer and more primitive and private world. Rather than a candied soiree, we were witnessing the sitter's private communion.
One of Xu's large scaled historical pieces in the style of French Academy, "Tian Heng and Five Hundred Followers", depicted a leave taking ceremony of those figures about to face their tragic and heroic collective deaths. The emotion and intensity were enhanced by the stoicism those figures exerted. However, some choices, such as the Titianesque blue sky and the yellow robe on the figure in the center, somewhat lent the painting a suspicious air of socialist realism. That said, one could not deny the painting's restrained grandeur.
The National Art Museum of China in Beijing has interesting oil painting collections, but when I visited it many years ago, the only oil paintings on display were a group of portraits of political and bigness bigwigs, uniformly done in the quite pompous and imperial fashion, therefore the only works worth seeing were some Chinese paintings and here are a couple of such samples.
The 1960 landscape "Xiling Gorge" by FU Baoshi was a bold presentation of an often painted subject - one of the renown Three Gorges in upper Yangtze River. With broad and assertive strokes, and only a few shades of black, gray and white, Fu fashioned an epic scene worthy of Homer, a monumental world of basic elements - river, mountain, fog, rain, and clouds - charged of primordial energy and majesty.
Further in the direction of modern, JIA Youfu's 1984 landscape painting "A Monument of Taihang" left an indelible impression with bold gestures, complemented by fine and layered details. The overlapping angular planes created a receding and serene universe, while the bold red colors and the jagged upward peaks punctuated the scene like a pounding heart.
Nurtured by many Russian novels while growing up, I developed a special feeling towards the omnipresent birches, which not only aptly set the scenes and evoke the particular melancholy especially associated with Russia and Russian people, and finally, I made effort in 2006 to try to capture such feelings with a painting titled Birches, which is currently showing at the McGuire Real Estate gallery in Berkeley as part of the “Crowded by Beauty” exhibit.
I love the slender shapes of the trees, the softness of the finely-layered birch barks and their eerie silver color, and above all, the eye-shaped knobs imprinted on the trunks from bottom to top, as if birches were meant to be the chosen observers from silent world, so as to judge humankind.
Birches Oil on Canvas 22" x 28" Completed in 2006
That painting is also a play of optical illusion - amongst the eyes on the trunks, there was a singular eye floating in the space, unattached, between two indifferent birches. Inundated by so many eyes, this oddity was not immediately obvious; once detected, one might ask, if this is a most determined birch eye, the eye of an invisible human, or just a wandering independent eye belong to nothing and no one.