Neo-Decadent

The Art and Opinions of Heidi Celeghin, Aesthete


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Thirty-six Views of the Eiffel Tower

I recently visited the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art exhibit at the MFAH.  The show was spectacular.  However, this post is not about the exhibit, it is about books.

Cover

When I was browsing the books at the museum store, I happened upon Les Trente-six Vues de la Tour Eiffel by Henri Rivière.  The book was published in its original format – which is what made it completely irresistible.  It is in the traditional Decadent, Art Nouveau style that was initially pioneered by Whistler.  The combination of text and image on the page is pervasive.

title

Prologue

The prints, however, are large and therefore, allow for close inspection.  They are inspired by Japanese wood-block prints (see Hiroshige), something that Decadent book designers were drawn to.

image

 

In order to fully appreciate the wonderful find that was this book, one has to explore Decadent book-making and design practice.  The theoretical desire to meld text and image, combined with technological advancements, resulted in the creation of the adult illustrated book.  Whistler pioneered the aestheticized book in his objet d’art publications such as The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.  Whistler’s combination of text and image in a compositionally balanced design inscribed the book within aesthetic discourse.  Subsequent publications of “little magazines” such as The Chameleon, The Yellow Book, and The Savoy continued the trend begun by Whistler.  These publications elevated images, traditionally relegated to a secondary position, to the level of text.

The creators of the little magazines tried to unite visual and written art in order to highlight their belief in the possibility of combining diverse arts and paving the way for a new form of art.[1] These magazines were the ultimate mode of Decadent expression and, due to their careful attention to composition, their target audience was the aesthete.

I also ordered painter Odd Nerdrum’s book How We Cheat Each Other and it just arrived in the mail.  Nerdrum is a fantastic artist and I cannot wait to delve into his writing – after all, we are both representational artists who write!  Below is a photograph of the book on the table my grandfather made.

Nerdrum


[1].  Murray G.H. Pittock, Spectrum of Decadence: The Literature of the 1890s (London: Routledge, 1993), 57.

 

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Leonardo, Kundera, and the Barcelona World Race

I have recently started reading Leonardo’s On Painting and have already found some incredible passages that I would like to mention and perhaps discuss.

In the beginning of the anthology, Leonardo speaks of “the desire for wisdom”, which I thought particularly relevant to the artistic life.  I believe that one should always remain curious about the world around them and try to experience as much of it as possible.  This insatiable curiosity will inevitably lead one into an interminable pool of inspiration.  People speak of writer’s block or not having ideas for artwork but that lack of creative power becomes a non-issue when one is submerging themselves into the world.  I hesitate to return to Pater but I fear that I must because his own argument in the conclusion to The Renaissance is so relevant to this issue.  Pater writes that:

With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch. What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy of Comte, or of Hegel, or of our own. Philosophical theories or ideas, as points of view, instruments of criticism, may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us. “Philosophy is the microscope of thought.” The theory or idea or system which requires of us the sacrifice of any part of this experience, in consideration of some interest into which we cannot enter, or some abstract theory we have not identified with ourselves, or what is only conventional, has no real claim upon us.

Leonardo upholds a desire of wisdom that carries into Pater’s philosophical argument.  So, as I always tell my students, refuse to remain within a single field – explore all disciplines, read everything you can get your hands on, experience all that life has to offer, and then you will be a true artist.  It is ultimately not about how many years you will live, but how much you have lived.  Refuse monotony and embrace the haphazard and unexpected.

 

Star of Bethlehem

Study of the Star of Bethlehem, c. 1506

Within the same section, Leonardo argues that, “People who are little reliant upon nature are dressed in borrowed clothes, without which I would rank them with the herds of beasts.”  The second part of the sentence I included because I particularly appreciated its flair for the dramatic (but then again, don’t all artists love embellishment and general dramatic turns?).  I believe that Leonardo’s focus on studying nature, or learning from nature, is central to the artistic lifestyle.  As a representational artist, I have dedicated much of my life to observing my surroundings.  For example, artists have to do figure drawing in order to learn the human form – and they have to draw the human figure for not just months, but years.  I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and he says how it has been shown that it takes roughly 10,000 hours to master something.  Most people within the arts have hit the 10,000 hour mark by the time they are 20, after that they are practicing their art so often that the hours keep on accumulating at an accelerated rate.  For example, I probably hit the 10,000 hour mark some time after my freshman year at Cornell (19) but now that I am professionally an artist, I will reach 20,000 hours in about 4 years (significantly less time than it took me to get the first 10,000 hours).

Next, I would like to go back to Milan Kundera’s book of essays Encounter, which I purchased in Manhattan in November.  In this post, I would like to comment on Kundera’s first essay “The Painter’s Brutal Gesture: On Francis Bacon.”  Kundera writes that “Bacon’s portraits are an interrogation on the limits of the self.  Up to what degree of distortion does an individual still remain himself? … Where is the border beyond which a self ceases to be a self?”  The notion of the limits of self is fascinating as well as particularly relevant to Bacon’s artwork.  It is something every artist should think about to some extent.  How far can the self be pushed?  I feel like in today’s electronic culture, the boundaries of the self are in perpetual fluctuation.  On the Internet, the self can be re-created, continuously propagated, and always present.  Through electronic media, the self can become global.  The self can also become something beyond a body.

Head VI

Head VI, 1949

A point that I disagree with in Kundera’s essay is his absolutism about the state of painting.  (He actually exhibits this absolutism in other parts Encounter and I feel that each time, it can be disputed otherwise.  But that is an issue for another time.)  Kundera states that Bacon “is one of the last painters whose language is still oil and brush … In the history of modern art Bacon and Beckett are not the ones who open the way; they close it down.”  How can painting, or theatre, or any art for that matter, come to an end?  Perhaps it can be transformed or re-assessed, but it cannot be annihilated.  Kundera says that Bacon felt like an orphan – the last of a kind – but that is just the feeling of one artist and the persistence of painting continues despite that.  So we come full circle to where the discussion began: artistic inspiration is always available and therefore, a new approach to an old art is continuously present.

And now, philosophical discussion over, I have some exciting news about a new artistic endeavor I have begun.  While in Barcelona (actually, while in transit to Barcelona), I met the skipper Boris Herrmann who is involved in the Barcelona World Race.  The race is a roughly 90-day journey around the world.  The idea of two people in a boat braving the ocean immediately fascinated me – it simultaneously reminded me of Moby Dick, “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” and the epic tradition.  Moreover, as someone caught between cultures who has never been able to settle in a single location, I found the idea of sailing professionally intriguing – the impetus to be afloat made perfect sense.  Why chain oneself to a single location forever?  Finally, I discovered a sphere where that was the norm and I caught onto it.  My mind latched onto this idea and I suddenly had a creative impulse that had to take form.  Thus, my current major project was born.

I am following Team Neutrogena‘s progress and transforming their journey into a neo-mythic prose poem.  It is neo-mythic in that I was drawn to the mythic status of the race and envision it as a 21st-century re-imaging of the Odyssey or the Iliad.  The idea to create it as a prose poem stems from that epic poetry tradition.  Mere narrative would fall short of the aesthetic I aimed at, so the prose poem was a natural choice.  The prose poem can become the 2st-century version of the epic poem, especially seeing as the prose style has practically supplanted the poetic style.  The prose poem will ultimately be circumscribed within imagetext where I will combine drawings with text.  The second aspect of the project involves paintings that re-imagine the poem and highlight our own reliance on images to experience life.