The House Where Beauty Lives

Rosenthal artwork 137“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

Art collector Roberta Ahmanson quotes this famous challenge by the late nineteenth century British artist William in her interview with Greg Wolfe in the current issue of Image (issue 83). Morris’s imperative naturally moves me to make a mental inventory of the stuff in my house.

In my clothes closets, I instantly fail his test; too much there is no longer useful. The hand-woven blouse that I bought in Guatemala and don’t wear passes because of its beauty.

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The Crucifix’s Motley Crew

motleybluesArchibald Motley’s most famous paintings jump and jive, then they wail. You might have seen Blues (1929) or Hot Rhythm (1961). There are a lot of people moving around on those two canvases.

There is music. There are fabulous outfits. The word “commotion” comes to mind when you look at a painting by the mature Motley (a retrospective of his work is currently on display at LACMA in Los Angeles).

Motley studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. Later, he received a Guggenheim Grant to go to Paris. This was in the late 1920s. Looking at a painting like Hot Rhythm, you can see that Motley picked up lessons in composition by studying everyone from Rubens to Picasso.

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Appreciating Andrew Wyeth

I’ve had a few nasty discoveries of late. All too often, I’ve found out that things I’ve always valued are considered to have very little value in the estimation of the going market. They’re just not worth as much as I’d believed.

“And why the hell not?” I’ll ask, irked, when given the dismissive news by financiers, appraisers, auctioneers, and agents—anybody whose expertise I’ve called upon for a valuation.

It doesn’t sit well, disillusionment—especially when you think the rest of the world has got it all wrong, and when you’d been counting on their tastes to be in line with your own.

So I wasn’t in the mood for more of the same the other day, after I went to The National Gallery of Art’s new exhibit on Andrew Wyeth. I like Wyeth very much, and after seeing the works—wonderful, evocative renderings of various portals in the farmhouses that he memorialized around his Maine landscape—I did a little research to learn more about some of the images.

Lo and behold, turns out Andrew is a favorite whipping boy of the modern art scene.

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Making It New: The Image Fall Appeal

Consider the coffee table. It’s a venerable and eminently practical piece of furniture. Most of us have at least one. It’s a great place to put centerpieces, books, even literary journals. Some of us may put our coffee mugs on it from time to time.

But have you ever noticed how often these days that coffee tables aren’t coffee tables? Walker Percy did. In Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Guide, Percy noted that a home and garden magazine had listed fifty ways to make coffee tables…out of something else. The examples cited included: a polished Cypress stump, a lobster trap, a large spool for telephone cable, and a stone morgue table, with the runnel for blood used as an ash tray.

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The Mill and the Cross

In Breughel’s panoramic painting, “The Procession to Calvary,” the fallen Savior, collapsed under the cross beam, is mostly ignored. Although he’s right in the center of things, nobody pays him too much mind. Instead, the fantastic landscape that surrounds him churns with a thousand wheels of activity, each cog connected to the other, spinning upon its fellows like the clockwork mill that sits atop a monument of stone, high above.

Breughel seems to have loved this approach, philosopher artist that he was. It made a lifetime of statements for him: E.g., “Yes, a winged man is falling from the heavens over there to my right, but I’ve got forty acres to plow and my feet are killing me.” Historic things can happen throughout a day, implies Brueghel; still, the pot boils, the baby cries, and the cow bellows to be milked; our attentions go elsewhere. The eschaton might begin its fateful crack right next door, but chances are we’ll be tying our shoelaces when it does. One of Breughel’s modern descendants is the Englishman Stanley Spencer, who used Cookham village to stand in for the world, going about its hum-drum business as its creator ambles by on the road to reality’s inversion.

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