Scottish artist James Cowie, and his enigmatic and mysterious A Portrait Group of 1933/40. It's in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.
The painting originally featured portrait of four pupils from Bellshill Academy, where Cowie taught until 1935. He then extensively repainted the figures in 1940. With portraits, he started with the eyes, as the artist felt that these were the most important aspect of the figure, giving an insight into the character.
I like this painting because of its ambiguity - you can't tell what the relationship is between the sitters, or where they are exactly, or what is going on. It's everyday, but mythical - a bird flies in, steam or smoke rises from behind the hedge as if a train has passed by,m and is that washing or drapery fluttering down from the top of the painting? Meanwhilre, a rider on a horse gallops past on the right, like a figure from a fairy tale.
The sitters are in a shallow space as if on a stage, and yet beyond the hedge, the very Scottish landscape stretches far off into the distance. The sitters are all crammed together, like a shuffled pack of cards, and yet beyond the hedge, there seems to be excitement and adventure and possibility - so near and yet so far. There's a real sense of yearning, of magic realism about the painting.
This is Andy Warhol's huge screenprint Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times. It was made in 1963 and is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Fifty years old, but fresh as a daisy.
I love it because the repeat of the screenprint fades and becomes indistinct, meaning it is hard to make out the horror of the image of the car crash that has been taken from the newspaper photograph. On the second panel, it is just a blank, as if time has eroded the scene and made everything calm. I find it a really powerful piece.
However, before getting too carried away with reading things into it, one should bear in mind what Warhol said of the two canvasses.
Andy was quizzed as to how the work should be displayed. What was the correct way to hang the printed half and the blank half?
"The two are designed to hang together however the owner wants." shrugged Andy.
And why create a piece using a printed part and a blank part? Warhol replied drily "It just makes them bigger and mainly makes them cost more."
Because Warhol was a smart guy who was self-aware enough to realise that his paintings about consumerism would ironically become the ultimate consumer objects themselves. Consumerism would consume them.
Andy, I love your style.
Now, this piece wasn't in the Guggenheim in New York last time I was there, but somewhere in its collection (because I've seen it there before) is Robert Rauschenberg's Untitled (Red Painting) of 1953.
Obviously, it's a little difficult for this little image to convey the impact of the piece, which is why you really always need to see real art in situ.
It's got a lot of surface texture going on with layers and layers of collaged materials of different textures and thicknesses, such as newspaper and fabric, and layers of differently applied types of paint and varnishes. Two pieces of wood lie at the top and bottom of the paint surface. These echo the more subtle brown shades in the painting, and are organic beginning and end-points for the piece, which have been machine-cut to fit. So they are organic and natural, but tailored by machine.
Although it is one colour - red - there are lots of subtle colours - oranges and vermillions and ochres, and shadows cast by the layers, and then really deep parts where you can physically look right into the dark heart of the picture, and then bright reflected light on the varnished surface.
The paint, which could be oil or household, is in parts dribbled or splattered or brushed, so there are different forms of action used to apply the parts, some carefully, some energetically, some thoughtfully, some accidentally. Instead of mark-making with a brush or charcoal, it is huge gestural mark-making with scraps of two dimensional materials which are then wrinkled and layered to make animated three-dimensional form, in a method of art-making that is right in the point between a sculpture and a painting.
When he was a child, because they were poor, Rauschenberg's mother resourcefully made clothes from scraps of materials in order to make do and mend, even, apparently, making a skirt for herself out of a suit which her brother had died in. Nothing was wasted. The house was always full of these scraps of material being transformed and pieced together into a new shape and a new life, although Rauschenberg longed for something new and shop-bought.
His art, then, consists of taking the found and treasuring it, transforming it into something new that is labelled as and revered as 'art'. He would also later make a series of work called the 'Glut' series, a comment on the throw-away consumerism of middle-class America. He travelled round the roads of the US, stopping to pick up car wreckage and other discarded objects, and taking them back to the studio to make into assemblages.
Untitled (Red Painting) is both beautiful and raw, formed and unformed, organic and man-made. It's very, very exciting and full of a powerful energy. I couldn't take my eyes off it.
When I was studying Fine Art at university, a lot of the famous paintings that we needed to study either had no images available, or were in black and white (which was useless). That's because they were in The Barnes Collection, and Dr Barnes had rules about access to his paintings.
However, now you can go and see the Barnes Colection in Philadelphia. And I did. And this is in it.
It's "A Montrouge" - Rosa la Rouge by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, painted in 1886/7. Again, it's a very enigmatic painting, and it just really struck me. There it was, upstairs in the Barnes collection, displayed amongst a whole lot of ceramics and with ironmongery stuck to the walls amongst the paintings.
Dr Barnes made his fortune through a chemical formula for an eye ointment for infants. Deciding he wanted to collect art, he set about finding the formula for beauty, and for the perfect work of art. He wrote to (and fell out with) various artists and thinkers, trying to get the 'formula' from them.
When you see the collection, you are struck by the amount of ironmonergy - metal escutcheons, door-knockers, hinges and so on - that are hung on the walls in between the paintings. The collection - and the metalwork - is hung according to the way that Dr Barnes displayed the work. Apparently this was the formula for beauty and aesthetic perfection. Because, of course, that's how every great collection hangs works of art, and as an artist, I know that my own work would not be complete without a large keyhole beside it. Because that will 'unlock' the mystery of art. Or something.
Albert C Barnes was a man who bulldozed his way through the art establishment, hated the discipline of art history, and said that he created his Barnes Foundation for not for the benefit of art historians, but for the students. Students of what, I've no idea. Obviously not Art History. Certainly when I was a student (of Art History - tut tut), I was determined that one day, I would see what this Barnes person had hidden away, and it aggrieved me eatly that one person could hide such treasures of art history from the rest of the world in such a way.
Dr Barnes was a prickly man who, from what I've read of his letters, seems to have felt that everyone was a potential enemy out to get him. Matisse (who was commissioned to do a freize for him) was so nervous of Barnes's intimidating personality that he had a minor heart attack on the spot.
Barnes was not a man to take advice from anyone, nor from inanimate objects. He died when his car was hit by a truck after he failed to stop at a stop sign (no road sign was going to tell him what to do). His little dog Fidel was thrown from the car, and had to be shot by a police officer who arrived on the scene.
Ah, poor Fidel. Fidel's name contains the ideas of faithfulness and loyalty which you feel Barnes felt were lacking in those around him. Fidel was lavished with all a dog could wish for and more, including a fancy bed (which is on display). I think Barnes felt that it was only Fidel that he could trust...you certainly couldn't trust those pesky Art Historians.
Back to the Top Ten. Of course there's got to be a Cezanne. So I've chosen this one, Still Life with Basket of Apples 1890-94. I haven't seen it in Chicago, but I've seen it at a Cezanne exhibition some years ago in London, and I've made several copies of it over the years.
I love it because it plays a lot of games. It looks like an ordinary everyday scene. It's not. Look closer and things don't quite add up. Look at the lines of the table. Or are there two tables under the cloth? They don't form a line. The tablecloth is like a little Mont St Victoire landscape in miniature, and the apples in the basket couldn't quite really all be sitting in there (although Cezanne wasn't averse to using wax fruit in his still-life set-ups). Nor could the little pile of biscuits at the back actually tip up like that, or the bottle actually sit at that angle. Everything is a little drunk, a little out of equilibrium.
I love the colour of it, the harmonies and the subtleties, and the rather sexual undercurrent. It has a real tension to it.
It's a saucy still-life by the master of modernism.
This is Degas' La Coiffure of 1896 from the National Gallery in London. I've written about it before HERE and HERE. So take a look!
This is Van Gogh's vulnerable little Crab on its Back painted in 1889, in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It's not big, but it is very beautiful. Read more about it in my blog HERE.
This is Rembrandt's The Jewish Bride of 1666 in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It made a huge impression on me when I was studying in Europe as part of my Fine Art course, and was one of my must-see paintings then. It didn't disappoint.
I've written more about it HERE.
Also see for the first time on that trip to Europe was this, Michelangelo's Libyan Sibyl from the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, which was painted during 1508-12.
Of course, the first time I saw it, it was before the restoration. I saw it during and then after, when it became just the most lustrous, breathtaking jewel of a thing, far above your head, to be glimpsed only for a few moments during your short time in the Chapel. What a truly stunning thing.
And top of the list, it's the painting that I would most like to have.
It is of course Caravaggio's The Deposition of 1600-04, which is in the Pinocoteca of the Vatican Museum (be careful when you go - check it isn't closed). I've written about it HERE , and there's lots more on the blog if you type Caravaggio into the Search.
It's a huge painting. It thrusts out at you, it includes you in the drama. You're in the grave looking up. You are dead, but you are alive, looking up at the great tumble of figures falling inevitably towards the grave. And yet the composition rises up and up as you look up. Because Caravaggio is saying that the miracle of the resurrection is there, implicit, in the painting, if you look.
I love the detail of Christ's dead index finger just catching the top of the stone of the tomb. and bending back. It's a tiny gesture that says so much. There's a beautiful movement to it, and a weight, and a truth, and a realness, yet it's all just paint.
It's just breath-taking genius, and it gives you that real goose-bumpy feeling that Caravaggio actually touched it. How amazing is that?
Okay. That's all. Everyone happy?