Last November, I visited some folks that I know and love in sunny, smoggy Los Angeles. I always check out art museums and parks when I travel. It’s very important for any working artist to continue to research art history and to see art in person. I love all kinds of art, and I got lucky with some spectacular artwork while I was there. At LACMA, there were three things that really stood out for me.
I was in one of the galleries, when I approached an etching that was about 16”x30”. It was called Das Waldfraulen (The Maid of the Woods) from 1845 by Eugen Napoleon, a German artist. I was about to get my mind blown. I don’t want to give away too much of the story of this artwork, so you can experience the surprise for yourself. (Somewhat of a spoiler alert.) But I will say a few things. Basically, in the center of the visual field there is a lovely maiden, being comforted or protected by a young man. They are resting at the base of a tree, and the strongest light source shines on them, so the viewer’s eye is drawn there first. They are surrounded by gnarly, twisted trees and shrubs; a woodsy scene. It’s drawn in a beautiful, busy, detailed, expressive style. The eye then moves to the center of the composition, where there is some kind of demon above the couple. The maiden is shielding herself with her hand, the couple are both looking ahead of them, as if there is something sinister approaching from the right side of the composition. But you can’t see what’s coming, it’s blocked by trees, which adds to the mystery. Two of their friends are in the bottom right corner, one is panicking and the other is praying to heavens. Does the etching represent the fear of nature and the unknown? The fear of getting lost in the woods?
Then you start to look around to the rest of the painting, and there is another maiden. And she is being threatened by another demon/etc or being tended to by her companions. Then another maiden. Then another one. And another… and so on. It’s not a goofy Where’s Waldo kind of deal. Each maiden is hides in a layer that includes an interesting use of perspective. Which makes this piece one of the most fascinating and engaging drawings I have ever looked at. The layers of perspective in this artwork are outstanding. It’s like going to a National Park and staring at a scenic viewpoint that stretches for hundreds of miles, and trying to take it all in. I can’t imagine how long this artwork must have taken to complete. There must have been at least dozens of prepatory sketches, and then larger sketches to work them all into a cohesive unit. I made a mental note that I need to purchase a print of this piece when I returned home. I should have checked the LACMA gift shop to see if they have one. Much to my chagrin, when I returned home, I googled the image and could not find a single retailer selling it. I couldn’t even really find anything about the piece, so it must not be well known. I love this etching! (Update: you can now find this image online, but you can’t see any of the detail that makes it so great. That’s why you need to see art in person.)
Between that last piece, and all the fantastic art at LACMA, I would have been happy with my visit. But I was in for some more treats. Or tricks? I think a goal of art should be to make the familiar unfamiliar. Take something the viewer knows about, and then change their perspective about it. Make them see it in a new light. The aim is not to distort or confuse, but to reveal. Down into the rabbit hole, seek and find something new. The opposite goal is also important; make the unfamiliar familiar. Take something that the viewer is uncomfortable with, or doesn’t know well, and make it familiar. Find a a way that the audience can relate; a way that the viewer can identify with the art. For example, themes today could include the refugee crisis, sexuality, war and violence, our warming climate, and the struggle for human rights. By choosing one of these two goals, you can usually create some great art. Aren’t there enough portraits of landscapes and baskets of fruit in the world? Non threatening subject matter is often uninspiring, happy to collect dust in the Imperial Museum, near the river of sleep. Isn’t there enough vapid art and soporific music?
Which brings me back to LACMA and the small exhibit of prints titled “Fantasies and Fairytales” which collected graphic works from around 1900. “Ooh” I thought to myself, here we go.” Every piece was unique and inspiring, I must have spent up to an hour in the room. The standout piece was Christ’s Descent into Limbo by Pieter Van Der Heyden, an etching from 1561. In this image, limbo is populated by all kinds of strange creatures and demons.
The third amazing thing I saw at LACMA was part of their exhibit on Stereograms and 3D art. A stereogram is a way to make images appear three dimensional to the viewer. You view a pair of images through binoculars called a stereoscope. It tricks the eye into combining the pair into one image, and seeing depth in the image, much the way our eyes work.
There was a table with the stereoscope on top. You peeked through the binoculars to view images that took you to another world. There were scenes of comical, cartoony yet somewhat realistic skeletons, people and demons, doing various things like eating at a banquet, things that look funny when skeletons and devils are doing it. And of course the scene looked even more appealing because it appeared three dimensional. Each scene appeared in black and white, and you could press a button to add color to the scene. When you press the button, parts of the scene would be illuminated by colored lights, like the skeleton’s eyes. The scenes were “laced with political and social commentary about France around the time of Napoleon III’s regime (1852-70.)” They had a lot of detail for being so tiny. This was one of the funniest and most interesting artworks I’ve ever seen in my life. You have to experience it. It’s called Les Diableries, Ou Voyage Dans L’autre Monde (Devilments, or Voyage to the Other World.) It was created by two French artists, Louis Alfred Habert and Pierre Adolphe Hennetier in 1875, from hand colored, albumen silver prints. When backlit, the colored light shines in the image because of small, strategically placed pinpricks.
I managed to visit a few other museums while I was in LA, they were all excellent. I’ll be back every year. New York and LA are my favorite American cities; I could see myself living in LA but the air pollution is pretty bad. I went during the wildfires, which was even worse, Malibu was burning to the ground. Also, LA is not a walkable city, which is unfortunate. That Mediterranean climate calls me though, my body wants to be there; it recognizes that feeling of “home.”