Saturday, November 23, 2013

Art I'm Looking At: Anders Zorn at The Legion of Honor (November 23, 2013)

Anders Zorn (1860-1920) is a name I've long been dimly aware of. On travels in Europe I've seen a few of his paintings and I've been impressed by them, but until today I'd never had the opportunity to see a full range of his work. It was a treat to see a representative selection of his early efforts--mostly extraordinary watercolors--, of his society portraits, of his nudes (oils, watercolors, and etchings), and also of his later works, which are mostly oils depicting rural scenes in his home country of Sweden, to which he retired after periods of living in London, Paris, and elsewhere, and doing a great deal of other traveling around the world, including seven trips to the United States (which included a visit to San Francisco in 1903).

According to the large, wall-mounted text panels at the show, Zorn studied mostly oil painting as an art student, but a chance meeting with an English watercolorist shortly after graduation inspired him to take up watercolors, and he seems to have applied himself with singular concentration. The early watercolors on show at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco (Anders Zorn: Sweden's Master Painter runs through February 2, 2014) are nothing short of breathtaking technically, if somewhat idiosyncratic; Zorn uses watercolors more like oil paints, employing thickeners and adding touches with gouache to create heavy (but by no means clumsy) layers with less transparency, less wetness, than is usual. Zorn must have been an especially meticulous and patient man, at least in his youth. The detail of the water surface in a painting like Summer Vacation (1886) shown here is hard to believe. The figure in the boat is almost photographically rendered. If Zorn had lived in a later period, it's tempting to think he might have become a photorealist.

Zorn took up etching fairly casually, at the suggestion of an artist friend, the panels tell us. He seems to have mastered it in a very short time. His ability to capture light effects--so ably demonstrated in the watercolors--is apparent here, and again Zorn's approach is somewhat unorthodox. On the Sands (1916) pictured above (although not in the Legion of Honor show) is a good example of the style he developed as an etcher, using very long, parallel hatching to conjure startlingly life-like figures out of what look like hastily worked backgrounds (the freedom of line here and in some of the oil paintings is surprising when juxtaposed with the painstaking watercolor work). Remarkably, some of the lines are a third or even half as long as the long side of the plate. The woman on the beach looks as if she's been carefully carved out of a jagged stone matrix. Looking at other work in the show, this contrast between loving attention to a central figure and a less-meticulous rendering of a background began to seem typical as I walked through the galleries. The "floated" effect created by a figure rendered so surely as to look almost alive surrounded by a markedly more sketchily approached background is apparent in some of the oil paintings as well--notably Herdsmaid (1908) in which a young female cowherd (partially obscured by pine saplings and other low vegetation) is seen through a gap in the plants around her; the figure seems uncannily present, but what surrounds her is ever-so-slightly blurred--again suggestive of photography and lens effects (more below).

Zorn was immensely successful as a society portrait painter, both in Europe and on his trips to the United States. Looking at Zorn's work in the genre, the paintings of nearly contemporary painters John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and Valentin Serov (1865-1905) immediately come to mind. These painters all had an uncanny ability to capture something about sitters that make their portraits look absolutely authentic while using brushstrokes that call great attention to themselves if viewed from too close to the canvas. An entire room in the Legion of Honor show is devoted to portraits like this one of Elizabeth Sherman Cameron (1900).

The orange-red of the sofa in the Cameron portrait is a color Zorn appears to have liked very much. This (or a similar shade--the raw flesh of a Coho Salmon and the red sandstones of Arches National Park, in Utah, come to mind) is present in every one of the paintings in the portrait room--in the red bow in a sitter's hair, in the glowing, rusty curtains behind the former president in Zorn's portrait of Grover Cleveland (1899), or in a piece of furniture or clothing. In his Self-portrait in Red (1915), at the top of this page, Zorn took his predilection to an extreme.

Being a photographer, I was particularly interested to see the show touch upon how Zorn used photography as a resource in at least some of his later work. The etching called Cabin, of 1917, has its own display case. An example of the print is set alongside the original plate from which it was pulled and a set of five snapshots Zorn made of the two models depicted descending into the cabin of what is described as "Zorn's yacht" (his society portraits appear to have made him very rich). The photos are fascinating in themselves. The women are laughing. They seem to be having a great deal of fun. It's easy to imagine Zorn joking with the models, getting them to take the positions he was trying to visualize, in the right light, without making them unduly self-concious. Seeing the snapshots makes me wonder how often Zorn was drawing on photographs earlier in his career and exactly how he may have used them, if he did.

This work and the other nudes in the show (there are many, mostly oils) makes apparent the artist's love of the female form. He appears to have been especially fond of rear ends, and in the Legion of Honor show are some of the most lovingly rendered backsides you're ever likely to see in paint. Look for the one Zorn slashed to pieces and discarded because he was dissatisfied with it (a fellow artist rescued the pieces and sewed it back together).

Zorn retired to his home town of Mora and spent his last years mainly painting the country life of Sweden's Dalarna region--paintings that appealed to me less than some of the other pieces in the show (although everything was worth looking at). Here I've posted just a few impressions based on a single viewing of a selection of Zorn's work, but Zorn is a painter I'm now interested in learning more about.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Miscellaneous: 50 Years Since the Kennedy Assassination (November 22, 2013)

I imagine many of the people in the United States old enough to remember that day are thinking back on this 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. On Facebook people are asking their friends the inevitable questions--"Where were you?" and "What were you doing when you heard about it?"
People standing in line at Costco are probably doing the same thing, strangers sharing stories. Have you tweeted something about it on Twitter?

I was three years, seven months old on the day Kennedy was killed. My memories of that day are sketchy, dream-like, but November 22, 1963 is the first day in my life that I have memories of.

We lived in Brooklyn. Our six-storey brick apartment building had a small flight of stairs from the street to the front door. My mother and I had been down the street, shopping for groceries. My mother was carrying a brown bag of groceries. As we approached the stairs to the building, Sue, one of our neighbors, suddenly came out the front door. The image I have is of her lips moving, but no words come out. Sue was the mother of my best friends. Clearly, though, something she says upsets my mother. Our apartment was at the end of a long hallway. We somehow find ourselves at our apartment, although we never walk down the hall. The key is in the lock. My mother steps across the front room to the TV and turns the knob to switch it on. That is strange. The TV is never a priority. It's never on in the afternoon. She never turns the TV on the moment she enters the apartment. Next I see my mother sobbing in front of the TV, kneeling on the floor in front of the small black-and-white screen, still clutching the bag of groceries. I don't know what's going on, but clearly something is wrong.....

That's how I remember it*. Memory is a tricky thing. It may not have happened that way, but these images are nevertheless an integral part of my personal history. In the following days, I keep hearing the name Lee Harvey Oswald. It becomes as familiar as the name of a relative. Conflated are images of the eternal flame at Kennedy's grave, which for many years as a child, I mistakenly believed was somewhere in our neighborhood, at Grand Army Plaza. Beyond that, I cannot separate actual memories from what I know about the assassination as an adult.

*[I asked my mother about what she remembers. She points out that I would have been at day care when news of the assassination broke. So, the way I remember the day is impossible. She says she heard the news from Sue when she went over to Sue's apartment to give her daughter, my playmate, a birthday present. So, what I remember must have been from later in the same day.]

I believe the photo above to be in the public domain. I was unable to find an attribution for a photo credit.

Wines I'm Making: Pressing Apples for Cider

Last Sunday we pressed apples for hard cider. Earlier this year, I made cider by fermenting store-bought organic apple juice (Sonoma County is blessed with many apple orchard, so excellent juice is easy to come by), but this year I decided to make cider from scratch. I rented an apple mill to process 200lbs of apples harvested from our own tree, a tree at my brother's home, and a tree belonging to a friend. I used about 70lbs of Golden Delicious apples (sweet, but low in acid), about 90lbs of Pink Lady apples from our own tree (sweet but quite tart as well, very aromatic), and about 40lbs of an unknown, older tree, in Sebastopol, probably planted in the 1960s, although not a Gravenstein, the apple most closely associated with Sebastopol (again tart and aromatic). The result was a good blend, I hope--sweet enough to make a fairly alcoholic cider (the juice tested at 17 degrees Brix, which should result in an alcohol level of about 8.5%), but also with enough tartness and apple aroma to keep things interesting. The top photo shows the raw material.

It took the entire day. Most of the time was consumed washing apples. Apparently commercial juice and cider makers don't bother, but I wanted at least to get the dust and occasional splatter of bird droppings off the fruit.  Once cleaned, it was just a matter of dropping apples into a chute above a rotating masher that pulps them and drops them into a press basket for pressing. Two-hundred pounds of apples yielded about 12 gallons of juice. One gallon I gave to the friends with the Golden Delicious tree. The rest I sulfited lightly and let rest overnight. That juice is now fermenting in the living room, well on its way to becoming cider. The second photo shows juice samples--Golden Delicious, unknown Sebastopol, and Pink Lady, left to right.

I used two different yeasts. On Monday afternoon (November 18) I inoculated five gallons with the same yeast I used to make the cider from store-bought apple juice--WLP775 "English Cider Yeast" made by White Labs, in San Diego (I hope that's not Walter White Labs), a liquid yeast in a glass vial. The remaining six gallons I inoculated with a powdered yeast from Mangrove Jack's--"Craft Series MO2 Cider yeast." It will be interesting to see if the two yeast strains produce different results. The liquid yeast has so far produced a much more vigorous fermentation. I filled the containers somewhat too full. I've had to repeatedly empty the air lock of bubbles and juice spilling out the top of the White Labs fermentation, making something of a mess, but it's all under control now. The juice fermenting with the Mangrove Jack's yeast hasn't been quite so exuberant. I expect the initial fermentation to take about three weeks or so in either case. For now, it's a waiting game.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Art I'm Making: Small Works Show at Art Works Downtown, San Rafael (November 29, 2012 - January 3, 2014)

Two of my collages have been accepted for inclusion in a juried show of small art works in San Rafael over the holidays (November 29, 2013 to January 3, 2014), in the main gallery (also known as Gallery 1337) at Art Works Downtown (1337 Fourth St., San Rafael, CA 94901-- (415) 451-8119, or

There were about 400 submissions, I'm told. Mine were two of only 83 accepted--somewhat ironically. I say somewhat ironically because these are not representative of my work, which has long been focused (excuse the pun) more on photography and printmaking. I began making collages only in July this year. That said, I've been pleased with what I've done and most people who have seen my collages have responded well. If you're in the San Rafael area over the holidays, I hope you'll have a look--although they will disappear if they sell.... There will be a reception at the gallery from 5:00PM-8:00PM on December 13. The image in the top-right corner on the postcard pictured here is one of mine--kind of hard to see, but it gets bigger if you click on the card--or, use the Art I'm Making label here (to the right) to see more of my collage work.

Miscellaneous: Signs of the Times (literally)

In Sebastopol, California I recently saw this sign in front of a small shopping center. I had to look at it carefully to decipher it. In fact, I had to stop and get out of my car to get a good look at it and to understand what it was trying to tell me (I've isolated it from its background here, but this is a photo of the actual sign at roadside).

I mention it mainly because it's new (I've never seen this type of sign before) and because it uses a symbol (top, center) that underscores how important computers and wireless technology have become.

But is this a good sign? The knife and fork are easy to see--and easy to interpret: Food available here. The coffee cup, indicating a coffee shop, I assume, makes sense too. The icon at the top is relatively familiar now to anyone who uses the Internet--wi-fi available here--but the dot and waves would have mystified many people not too many years ago. The glass started me wondering. I've decided it's specifically a beer glass (because it's squat and appears to have a head) but that it's probably intended to indicate alcoholic beverages generally, without suggesting hard liquor (which presumably would have called for a cocktail glass icon).

The bass clef seems an odd choice. It suggests music, naturally, but are we to understand this as indicating a place to buy recorded music, a place to listen to music, a place to make music? And why a bass clef? Is the music here typically of a low pitch? I suspect the G-clef is much more familiar to most people. I remain uncertain about the intention here, and I wonder if this sign is a Sebastopol thing? It appears to be a bona fide road sign, as opposed to a privately commissioned advertisement for the shopping center or its tenants. Has anyone seen one of these anywhere else? Let me know in the comments below.

The sign above seems very modern, the locomotive sign pictured at left, in contrast, is a vestige. This sign may on rare occasions alert drivers to a possible encounter with an actual steam locomotive, but mostly signs like this one persist at rail crossings that for many years have seen nothing but diesel engines (or no engines at all). The steam locomotive sign is a kind of fossil, a leftover that reminds us of obsolete technology. Nevertheless, we interpret the image as a warning about possible train traffic, even if it's a more modern kind of train traffic we're likely to encounter.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Rain: First Substantial Rain of the 2013-2014 Rainy Season (November 18-20, 2013)

It's been terribly dry this autumn. Until last night (the night of the 18th), we'd had only 0.85 inches of rain since July 1, the start of the 2013-2014 rainy season. Overnight we got 0.15 inches, for a total of 1.00 inches, but this afternoon it finally began to rain in earnest. From the sound of things, I expect to find a couple of inches in the rain gauge tomorrow morning. This rain has made our cat miserable, but it's very welcome to us humans around here.

[Update: Checking the rain gauge on the morning of the 20th, we got an additional 1.05 inches, bringing the total to 2.05 inches so far this year. Normal for this date is a little over five inches, so we are about three inches behind already.]

Monday, November 18, 2013

Wines I'm Drinking: 2010 Carmen Casablanca Valley Gran Reserva Chardonnay

When I lived in Tokyo, the wines of Carmen, one of Chile's best-known producers, were readily available and I often drank them, but I infrequently see them here, so I decided to try a bottle of the 2010 Carmen Casablanca Valley Gran Reserva Chardonnay when it showed up recently at my local Grocery Outlet. I remember Carmen as a maker of inexpensive but good-value wines, and this one was typical in that respect. Brief tasting notes follow.

A very pretty, pale gold. Looks bright and inviting. Nose is suggestive of resiny pineapple and very ripe melon with dusky floral scents (hawthorne, or pear blossom). Vanilla. Later some sappy scents. Fresh and appealing. Slightly unctuous, rich fruit on the palate tempered by bright acidity. Despite the fruit, the overall impression is one of reserve rather than opulence because of the strong acidity. A little tannic grip as well. Quite concentrated with a long finish that goes back and forth between the ripe melon flavors and the tart acidity. Hints of butterscotch at the very end. Later I was getting something spicy that put me in mind of cinnamon. Normally retails for $14-$17, but I paid $4.99 for it--and I judge it well worth the modest price.

(I have no financial connection with any producer or retailer of wine.)
Related Posts with Thumbnails