In The Guardian, art critic Jonathan Jones names his Top Ten greatest works of art from all time (that we know of). Many of the commenters note that his choices seem narrowly male and Western, so keep that in mind as you explore his mostly classical choices. You won’t find the usual crowd-pleasers; there’s no Mona Lisa, no Van Gogh sunflowers, no Monet waterlilies. Nor are there any of the great Japanese or Indian or Islamic creations, or anything from a South American culture (I’m not sure how you could even approach a list from that breadth). But certainly it’s a list that’s true to an informed Western perspective.
I’ve looked at this list several times and asked what connects these works. Each is extremely refined and skilled, clearly. But I think Jones is focused on works that are illuminating something about being deeply human, whether it’s cruelty, discovery, or the awakening of conscience or consciousness, as in Picasso’s Guernica or the historic cave paintings. His choices are not about self-expression or reveling in the pure joy of paint; these are constructed works by masters and each one has a soul that is unmistakably moving and timeless.
It’s not my list and probably not yours, but it’s fascinating to see how one critic chooses from thousands of years of art to find these ten.
Guernica by Pablo Picasso. 1937. Oil on canvas. 349 cm × 776 cm. Guernica is in the collection of Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid.
Spring has arrived. I feel like a weary soldier who made it out of the fray but still not sure when I’ll get home, or even where that might be. We’ll still get several inches of snow this weekend but the light is very welcome.
I’m in transition on the art front. I’ve gone to my studio several times this week and have not been able to work much, or very well, because the impending move back to working out of my apartment feels very unsettled and not quite right. It is what it is. I’m trying not to see it as a setback, although six months ago I thought things would be much more expansive instead of this new contraction.
So I’ve just been doing the most straightforward and immediate thing, which is to keep making abstract landscapes that are about materials and action and the connection of eye, hand, paint, paper and horizon line. These, below, are each about 9.5″ x 12.5″.
March rolled in cold and snowy and not too friendly; we usually have real signs of spring by now but it’s slow in coming this year. I have zero interest in winter sports or cold weather, so I sort of survive the winters waiting for the light to return and some warmth and color to appear.
Sadly, I have to give up my outside painting studio after this month. It’ll be all right; the light is actually better in my home, and I can rearrange the space to work. It’s just nice to have a dedicated place (and a real utility sink). I hope the outcome will be more work, since it’ll be right there waiting for me on insomniac nights.
A couple of odds and ends:
Last summer I saw a wonderful exhibition of Japanese kites, some quite old. There was one with a sort of turnip pattern that I loved. I’ve been trying that pattern in some small watercolors:
My small but serviceable studio is about 4.5 miles from where I live, and there’s a lovely trail that goes most of the way; on nice days, if I don’t have a lot to carry, I walk. There’s a large flock of Canadian geese that gathers on a pond along the trail. I’m very fond of them.
In the studio I worked on a painting that’s been sitting dormant for a while. I guess I can’t deny that it’s a decorative painting, but I don’t really mind that at all. I love the iconic graphic lotus patterns that have been around for centuries in Indian textiles and they’re very fun to paint. It still needs a day or two of work but here’s the current state of it:
I was at a good stopping point but had too much paint on the palette to throw away, so I pulled out a sheet of watercolor paper and made this, which I like very much:
And here’s one more “imaginary landscape” that echoes that wintery pond where my geese like to do their networking.
I discovered the concept of asemic writing through Michael Jacobson’s blog The New Post-Literate: A Gallery of Asemic Writing (there is also a Facebook group). Exploring what Jacobson calls “the new post-literate culture,” asemic writing refers to marks and symbols that look to us like writing – literacy – but don’t translate to a known language. The art that’s emerging is beautiful and wide-ranging, from marks of calligraphic fluidity to bold, aggressive patterning reminiscent of graffiti more than calligraphy.
I’d been thinking for some time about a series having to do with the idea of first words and last words — the first written words were, of course, pictograms. The featured painting on this page has subtle pictograms from the first written language.
I had a stack of small cards with watercolor washes in my studio and added some experimental asemic marks.
I think I lean toward the calligraphic/pretty (I studied calligraphy as a kid) but a more gutteral “language” would be good to explore.
That said, as a writer, I don’t know what a think about a post-literate culture. Literacy still matters.