After my last missive about George Condo’s advanced goofiness, dozens of emails remarked about art relating to the art of others. Art about art is in tsunami-mode these days. The wave made me want to say a few words about Cesar Santos.
In Three Graces Santos shows us Henri Matisse’s The Dancers, awkwardly simplified and well-gushed ladies eclipsed by three mini-skirted, heeled and booted, bare-breasted contempo-girls dangling colourful garlands in homage.
Santos was born in Santa Clara, Cuba in 1982. While growing up in Miami he studied conceptual art at the New World College. Eager to get a “sound training in the art of painting” he moved to Florence, Italy to study under Michael John Angel, a student of Pietro Annigoni. Married to the lovely Valentina, who frequently models for him, Santos now cleans his brushes in New York. His recent work touches the nexus of academic art, Renaissance art, and contemporary society. Like Condo, folks are eating the guy up.
Another painting, After the Arrival, mimics Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa. It shows contemporary folks reenacting, as if self-consciously bored with the lack of challenge in modern life, the famed shipwreck and distress but in the safety of a rubber inflatable in a modern, neoclassical hot tub with hints of the Berlin Wall.
When an artist takes as a starting point some popular work that has entered the public imagination, he starts to say,
— Art has universal values that are immutable and timeless.
— Art is not so sacrosanct that it cannot be parodied.
— There’s nothing new under the sun.
— There’s always something new under the sun.
— Art is a brotherhood and sisterhood that defies death.
— Art about art teaches the dangers of entrenched tradition.
— Older and time-worn ideas are forever worth examining.
— Art about art need not answer all the questions about art. Riddled as it is with riddles and enigmas, art lends itself to further riddles and enigmas.
PS: “Tradition becomes our security. When the mind is secure, it is in decay.” (Jiddu Krishnamurti)
Esoterica: In many of Santos’ paintings he seems to be saying, “Look, I can do better,” and “Look, there is something to be said for the human figure as it is.” This is the prerogative of the golden ego. But more than anything it’s a triumph that a young man might follow his bliss to a place where a dying art is still taught, that he might make it his own and do it with honesty and little fuss. Say what you will — it’s a wise understanding. “The world,” said Joyce Cary, “is in everlasting conflict between the new idea and the old allegiances, new arts and new inventions against the old establishment.” What is old? What is establishment?
by Bill Skuce, Sooke, BC, Canada
In Gericault’s painting the arrival meant rescue, but a rescue, by contrast, from much different circumstances… modern life, boredom, the undramatic. The title After the Arrival …does it not raise questions? Arrival where? Arrival of what? Or of Whom? In Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa it was the life-saving arrival of the rescue ship on the horizon. Perhaps, among other things, Santos is saying his rafters are seriously adrift in a senseless stupor, unaware, even, that they need rescuing.
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Why stop now?
by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA
We’ve imitated and mimicked art forever and who’s to say we should ever stop? Look at Picasso’s outright theft of African art, the effect of Japanese woodcuts on Europe, classical images appearing again as impressionist ‘follies.’ It is very cool to notice how a few basic designs permeate every single culture, whether ‘primitive’ or ‘sophisticated,’ like the simple fish outline, the spiral, the stair step, the zig zag.
Have you seen Andrew Leipzeig’s work? Same idea — with pretty hilarious (and sometimes pretty glum) variations.
by Joseph Jahn, Nibe, Denmark
His work is an interesting solution to a problem. How does one pursue classical figure study and still look contemporary? That’s usually done by using surrealism, but Santos has found another and unique way. I think he just enjoys painting in a traditional manner and to his credit has found a way to enroll critics and public to his side. Bravo.
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Santos’ figures too real
by Gail Caduff-Nash, Mountain home, NC, USA
I disagree that Santos’ work is “having a go” at other artists. The message I seem to get from his work is that he can’t let go of the realism to get into abstractions. His grasp of the human form is pretty clearly good, and his ability to mimic other art is also clear but there’s no real connection there. And the figures in his work just look like studio models to me. I like Three Graces and consider it very talented and a good way to define HIS 3 Graces by using Gauguin’s Graces. Saying “chicks are chicks.” I’m no fan of Gauguin.
It strikes me that, to borrow from your last article, Robert, artists who are very excellent draftsmen need to tone down their realism when they want to create something intangible. In other words, Santos’ people are too real. My imagination has little to work with when I view his work. He tells me too much. Apparition does not look apparition-like. It looks like a woman about to fall onto that guy. Maybe I’m missing something?
But about the main thought of your thesis, why not use other art as a subject of art? If you look around these days, it’s really hard to NOT include other art into your own when you’re painting real things. Everything has art on it now, from bed sheets to bumpers, from t-shirts to tomato sauce. I really like Santos’ painting of the woman painting plein air. It might be an inspiration for a piece I’m working on. Perhaps I’ll do a painting of a painter who is Santos painting Gauguin.
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Life expressed visually
by Susan Holland, Bellevue, WA, USA
Any subject can be worthy of a piece of art, and if angst, grief, lust, religious fervor, grandeur, poverty, terror, cuteness, fury, etc., are ok in famous art, why not humor? Laughter is as normal as sneezing, and it’s all about life, and visual art is life expressed visually, yes? We are funny, as well as all the other stuff. And we can make serious art about funniness, oddness, eccentricity, and even the bizarre. DaVinci did some very, very strange and unattractive face drawings that are included in his collections in art history books, and they are instructive and quite beautifully crafted. Toulouse Lautrec found very funny things to paint, and we would pay big money to have Jane Avril in our houses, would we not? I have a great postcard book of take-offs of famous art pieces that are very funny, and if I feel safe, I send them. Not everyone thinks all kinds of humor funny. To each his own. That doesn’t make it bad art.
Riding on another painter’s emotion?
by Nancy Ness, North Creek, NY, USA
What about communication? Does this artist have any relationship with the subject matter or is he riding on another painter’s emotion, passion and era? These paintings are clever, but not sure how believable. “To thy own self be true.”
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by Richard F Barber, Watford, Hertfordshire, UK
Your letter “Just for laughs” brought to mind a painting that I did while living in China. It was a spoof of Edouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur L’Herbe, but I had renamed it McDonalds pour le déjeuner sur l’ herbe. I used one of the characters from another painting of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Le Dejeuner des Canotiers. He’s the guy on the bike returning with their order from McDonalds. I married the two together because Edouard Manet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir often painted together. I have tied their works in together on this one because I could visualize the robust character from Le Dejeuner des Canotires pop in on his bike to McDonalds for an order of Big Macs, and taking them back to the gallery where Manet’s party were having lunch.
I lost track of the painting after returning to the UK. The painting is a large one 122cm x 122cm on 6mm plywood. So whoever has it, I hope that they enjoy it as much as I enjoyed painting it.
Humour a fleeting emotion
by Marney Ward, Victoria, BC, Canada
I think that the reason Fine Art is seldom associated with humour is because humour tends to be a fleeting emotion. We laugh at something briefly and then move on. It is found as brief interludes in Opera, Theatre, Literature, even classical music. There are comic scenes in Shakespearian tragedies, to lighten the mood after a heavy dramatic scene. Even in comedies, there is a serious undercurrent to the comic scenes. But a painting doesn’t unfold the way a novel or a play does. Its impact is absorbed in one long moment of time, immediate and complete. A painting’s mood needs to have integrity. Most people want to hang a work of art in their home that stirs the deeper emotions. Whether it is exciting or calming, it needs to please us in a more profound way. Most people would get tired of a painting that simply amused, especially since the amusement depends to a large degree on the element of surprise and tends to lessen with familiarity. There is also the time-honoured association of humour with sex and toilet functions, which works well for comic relief or stand-up comics appealing to somewhat soused audiences, but isn’t really something most of us want hanging in our living rooms, though I suppose there will always be some market for the prints of Hieronymus Bosch. I suspect that as we age most of us refine our sensibilities away from what amuses us briefly to something that fills a deeper need for beauty in our lives. We like to laugh daily at cartoons or comics, visual treats that we look at once and enjoy, but expect more from paintings we intend to look at again and again. Those works of art need to endure the test of time.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Art about art…
Columbia Gorge 223
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Lucan Charchuk of White Rock, BC, Canada, who wrote, “I thought art was always about art, except when it’s about life.”
And also Haim Mizrahi of New York, NY, USA, who wrote, “One must get to know one’s self before one ventures into anything other than the inner message, waiting to be revealed.”
And also Jane Walker who wrote, “Art referencing art is one way we pass the culture from one generation to another.”
And also Ben Novak of Ottawa, ON, Canada who wrote, “In my view both Condo’s primitive style, and Santos’ classic mastery, is way better than painting from photographs. I would pay for some of these works. They are creative.”