Behold the Newly-Discovered Sketch by Vincent van Gogh Sketch, “Study for Worn Out” (1882)

Having been dead for more than 130 years now, Vincent van Gogh seldom comes up with a new piece of work. But when he does, you can be sure it will draw the art world’s attention as few works by living artists could. Such has been the case with the newly discovered Study for Worn Out, an 1882 sketch that recently came into possession of the Van Gogh Museum, according to Margherita Cole at My Modern Met, “when a Dutch family requested that specialists take a look at their unsigned drawing.” The figure in the drawing strongly resembles the one in van Gogh’s 1890 painting At Eternity’s Gate. But it took the experts at the museum to determine that the artist was none other than van Gogh himself.

“Today and yesterday I drew two figures of an old man with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands,” wrote the 29-year-old van Gogh to his brother in a letter from 1882. “What a fine sight an old working man makes, in his patched bombazine suit with his bald head.” The immediate fruit of these labors was the pencil drawing Worn Out, for which “the artist employed one of his favorite models, an elderly man named Adrianus Jacobus Zuyderland who boasted distinctive sideburns (and who appears in at least 40 of van Gogh’s sketches from this period).” So writes’s Nora McGreevy, who adds that van Gogh revisited the work to adapt it as a painting “just two months before his death” in an asylum near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

“In drawings like these,”  says the Van Gogh Museum, “the artist not only displayed his sympathy for the socially disadvantaged — no way inferior in his eyes to the well-to-do bourgeoisie — he actively called attention to them too.” Another aim with Worn Out, adds McGreevy, was “to seek employment at a British publication, but he either failed to follow through on this idea or had his work rejected.” This would have counted as just another seeming instance of failure, the likes of which characterized the painter’s short life. Little could he, his correspondents, or his models have imagined that his works would one day become some of the most famous in the world — and certainly not that one of his sketches would go on to be enshrined well over a century later, as it has been since last Friday at the museum that bears his name.

via My Modern Met

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

What Makes Basquiat’s Untitled Great Art: One Painting Says Everything Basquiat Wanted to Say About America, Art & Being Black in Both Worlds

They wouldn’t have let Jean-Michel into a Tiffany’s if he wanted to use the bathroom or if he went to buy an engagement ring and pulled a wad of cash out of his pocket. 

— Stephen Torton, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s studio assistant

When Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Skull) sold for $110.5 million in 2017 to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maesawa, the artist joined the ranks of Da Vinci, De Kooning, and Picasso as one of the top selling painters in the world, surpassing a previous record set in 2013 by his mentor Andy Warhol’s work. Untitled dates from 1982, during “the young Basquiat’s mercurial early years,” writes Ben Davis at Artnet, “even before his first gallery show at Annina Nosei, when he was still a Caribbean-American kid from Brooklyn energetically bootstrapping himself into the limelight of the downtown art scene.” It is this period that most interests collectors like Maesawa.

Basquiat’s transition from graffiti artist to art world darling was dramatic, celebratory, and self-destructive, all characteristics of his work. But critical primitivism reduced him to a token — an art world attitude saw Basquiats as objects to be stripped of context, turned into decorative badges of authenticity and worldliness. “Maezawa’s head painting possesses a loud, gnashing, and confident aura,” Shannon Lee writes at Artsy. But the artist’s “use of skulls… is deeply rooted in his identity as a Black artist in America. They are strongly evocative of African masks, which have been so fetishized by the art market since modernists like Picasso appropriated them from their native contexts.”

But head/skull motifs in Basquiat’s work are not only statements of diasporic Black identity — they emerge through his thematic play of human embodiment, mental illness/health, the competitions of the graffiti world and the headgames of the art world, which Basquiat both mastered and critiqued as a canny outsider. “No subject is more powerful or more sought after in the oeuvre of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” notes Christie’s New York, “than the singular skull.” Though maybe not the most reproduced of Basquiat’s heads, 1982’s Untitled — argues the Great Art Explained video above — exemplifies the themes.

At only 22 years old, Basquiat produced “a single painting” that said “everything he wanted to say about America, about art and about being black in both worlds.” So singular is Untitled that it became its own one-painting show in 2018 when its new owner sent it on a tour of the world, beginning in the artist’s hometown at the Brooklyn Museum. Maesawa’s decision to share the painting presents a contrast to the way Basquiat has been treated differently by other owners of his work like Tiffany & Co., who explain their purchase and recent, controversial commercial use of his Equals Pi by citing his “affinity for the company’s statement blue color,” writes Tirhakah Love at Daily Beast — a color they trademarked ten years after Basquiat’s death.

The proprietary co-optation of Basquiat’s life and work to sell symbols of colonialism like diamonds, among other luxury goods — and the turning of his work into the ultimate luxury good — debases his purposes. Why show Equals Pi “as a prop to an ad?” asked his friend and former roommate Alexis Adler. “Loan it out to a museum. In a time where there were very few Black artists represented in Western museums, that was his goal: to get to a museum.” Find out in the Great Art Explained video how one of his most famous — and most expensive — works encapsulates that struggle through its vivid color and symbolic visual language.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


Zoom Into a Super High Resolution Photo of Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night”

“Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star,” Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother from Arles in the summer of 1888:

What’s certainly true in this argument is that while alive, we cannot go to a star, any more than once dead we’d be able to take the train.

The following summer, as a patient in the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Provence, he painted what would become his best known work — The Starry Night.

The summer after that, he was dead of a gunshot wound to the abdomen, commonly believed to be self-inflicted.

Judging from thoughts expressed in that same letter, Van Gogh may have conceived of such a death as a “celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, omnibuses and the railway are terrestrial ones”:

To die peacefully in old age would be to go there on foot.

Although his window at the asylum afforded him a sunrise view, and a private audience with the prominent morning star he mentioned in another letter to Theo, Starry Night’s vista is “both an exercise in observation and a clear departure from it,” according to 2019’s MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art:

The vision took place at night, yet the painting, among hundreds of artworks van Gogh made that year, was created in several sessions during the day, under entirely different atmospheric conditions. The picturesque village nestled below the hills was based on other views—it could not be seen from his window—and the cypress at left appears much closer than it was. And although certain features of the sky have been reconstructed as observed, the artist altered celestial shapes and added a sense of glow.

Those who can’t visit MoMA to see The Starry Night in person may enjoy getting up close and personal with Google Arts and Culture’s zoomable, high res digital reproduction. Keep clicking into the image to see the painting in greater detail.

Before or after formulating your own thoughts on The Starry Night and the emotional state that contributed to its execution, get the perspective of singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers in the below episode of Art Zoom, in which popular musicians share their thoughts while navigating around a famous canvas.

Bonus! Throw yourself into a free coloring page of The Starry Night here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Art History School: Learn About the Art & Lives of Toulouse-Lautrec, Gustav Klimt, Frances Bacon, Edvard Munch & Many More

Artist and videographer Paul Priestly is an enthusiastic and generous sort of fellow.

His free online drawing tutorials abound with encouraging words for beginners, and he clearly relishes lifting the curtain to reveal his home studio set up and self designed camera rig.

But we here at Open Culture think his greatest gift to home viewers are his Art History School profiles of well-known artists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent Van Gogh.

An avid storyteller, he’s drawn to those with tragic histories — the decision to pivot from impersonating the artist, as he did with Van Gogh, to serving as a reporter interested in how such details as syphilis and alcoholism informed lives and careers is a wise one.

Priestly makes a convincing case that Lautrec’s aristocratic upbringing contributed to his misery. His short stature was the result, not of dwarfism, but Pyknodysostosis (PYCD) a rare bone weakening disease that surely owed something to his parents’ status as first cousins.

His appearance made him a subject of lifelong mockery, and ensured that the freewheeling artist scene in Montmartre would prove more welcoming than the blueblood milieu into which he’d been born.

Priestly makes a meal of that Demi-monde, introducing viewers to many of the players.

He heightens our appreciation for Lautrec’s masterpiece, At the Moulin Rouge, by briefly orienting us to who’s seated around the table: writer and critic Édouard Dujardin, dancer La Macarona, photographer Paul Secau, and “champagne salesman and debauchee” Maurice Guibert, who earlier posed as a lecherous patron in Lautrec’s At the Café La Mie.

Queen of the Cancan La Goulue hangs out in the background with another dancer, the wonderfully named La Môme Fromage.

Lautrec places himself squarely in the mix, looking very much at home.

Consider that these names, like those of frequent Lautrec subjects acrobatic dancer Jane Avril and chanteuse Yvette Guilbert were as celebrated in Belle Epoque Montmartre as many of the painters Lautrec rubbed shoulders with — Degas, Pissarro, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Manet.

In an article in The Smithsonian, Paul Trachtman recounts how Lautrec discovered the model for Manet’s famous nude Olympia, Victorine Meurent, “living in abject poverty in a top-floor apartment down a Montmartre alley. She was now an old, wrinkled, balding woman. Lautrec called on her often, and took his friends along, presenting her with gifts of chocolate and flowers — as if courting death itself.”

Meanwhile Degas sniffed that Lautrec’s studies of women in a brothel “stank of syphilis.”

Perhaps Priestly will delve into Degas for an upcoming Art History School episode … there’s no shortage of material there.

Above are three more of Paul Priestly’s Art History School profiles that we’ve enjoyed on Frances Bacon, Edvard Munch and Gustav Klimt. You can subscribe to his channel here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Evolution of Kandinsky’s Painting: A Journey from Realism to Vibrant Abstraction Over 46 Years

Like most renowned abstract painters, Wassily Kandinsky could also paint realistically. Unlike most renowned abstract painters, he only took up art in earnest after studying economics and law at the University of Moscow. He then found early success teaching those subjects, which seem to have proven too worldly for his sensibilities: at age 30 he enrolled in the Munich Academy to continue the study of art that he’d left off while growing up in Odessa. The surviving paintings he produced at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, displayed on Wikipedia’s list of his works, include a variety of landscapes, most presenting German and Russian (or today Ukrainian) landscapes undisturbed by a single human figure.

Kandinsky made dramatic change come with 1903’s The Blue Rider (above). The presence of the titular figure made for an obvious difference from so many of the images he’d created over the previous half-decade; a shift in its very perception of reality made for a less obvious one.

This is not the world as we normally see it, and Kandinsky’s track record of highly representative paintings tells us that he must deliberately have chosen to paint it it that way. With fellow artists like August Macke, Franz Marc, Albert Bloch, and Gabriele Münter, he went on to form the Blue Rider Group, whose publications argued for abstract art’s capability to attain great spiritual heights, especially through color.

“Gradually Kandinsky makes departures from the external ‘world as a model’ into the world of ‘paint as a thing in itself,'” writes painter Markus Ray. “Still depicting ‘worldly scenes,’ these paintings start to take on purer colors and shapes. He reduces volumes into simple shapes, and colors into bright and vibrant hues. One can still make out the scene, but the shapes and colors begin to take on a life of their own.” This is especially true of the scenes Kandinsky painted in Bavaria, such as 1909’s Railway near Murnau above. The outbreak of World War I five years later sent him back to Russia, where he continued his pioneering journey toward a visual art equal in expressive power to music, which he called his “ultimate teacher.” But by the early 1920s it had become clear that his increasingly individualistic and non-representative tendencies wouldn’t sit well with the Soviet cultural powers that be.

A return to Germany was in order. “In 1921, at the age of 55, Kandinsky moved to Weimar to teach mural painting and introductory analytical drawing at the newly founded Bauhaus school,” says Christie’s. “There he worked alongside the likes of Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers,” and also expanded on Goethes theories of color. A true believer in the Bauhaus’ “philosophy of social improvement through art,” Kandinsky also wound up among the artists whose work was exhibited in the Nazi Party’s “Degenerate Art Exhibition” of 1937. By that time the Bauhaus was dissolved and Kandinsky had resettled in Paris, where until his death in 1944 (as evidenced by Wikipedia’s list of his paintings) he kept pushing further into abstraction, seeking ever-purer expressions of the human soul until the very end.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

William Blake’s 102 Illustrations of The Divine Comedy Collected in a Beautiful Book from Taschen

In his book on the Tarot, Alejandro Jodorowsky describes the Hermit card as representing mid-life, a “positive crisis,” a middle point in time; “between life and death, in a continual crisis, I hold up my lit lamp — my consciousness,” says the Hermit, while confronting the unknown. The figure recalls the image of Dante in the opening lines of the Divine Comedy. In Mandelbaum’s translation at Columbia’s Digital Dante, we see evident similarities:

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was,
that savage forest, dense and difficult,
which even in recall renews my fear:

so bitter—death is hardly more severe!

This is not to say the literary Dante and occult Hermeticism are historically related; only they emerged from the same matrix, a medieval Catholic Europe steeped in mysterious symbols. The Hermit is a portent, messenger, and guide, an aspect represented by the poet Virgil, whom William Blake — in 102 watercolor illustrations made between 1824 and 1827 — dressed in blue to represent spirit, while Dante wears his usual red — the color, in Blake’s system, of experience.

Blake did not read the Divine Comedy as a medieval Catholic believer but as a visionary 18th and 19th century English artist and poet who invented his own religion. He “taught himself Italian in order to be able to read the original” and had a “ complex relationship” with the text, writes Dante scholar Silvia De Santis.

His interpretation drew from a “widespread ‘selective use’” of the poet,” dating from 16th century English Protestant readings which saw Dante’s satirical skewering of corrupt individuals as indictments of the institutions they represent — the church and state for which Blake had no love.

Approaching the project at the end of his life, not the middle, Blake drew primarily on themes that Dante scholar Robin Kilpatrick describes as a “searching analysis of all of the political and economic factors that had destroyed Florence …. Hell is a diagnosis of what, in so many ways, can prove to be divisive in human nature. Sin, for Dante, is not transgression of an ordinary kind … against some law… it’s a transgression against love.”

Blake died before he could finish the series, commissioned by his friend John Linnell in 1824. He had intended to engrave all 102 illustrations, conceived, he wrote, “during a fortnight’s illness in bed.” You can see all of his stunning watercolors online here and find them lovingly reproduced in a new book published by Taschen with essays by Blake and Dante experts, helping contextualize two poets who found a common language across a span of 500 years. The book, originally priced at $150, now sells for $40.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Tove Jansson, Beloved Creator of the Moomins, Illustrates The Hobbit

What is a Hobbit? A few characters in J.R.R Tolkien’s classic work of children’s fantasy wonder themselves about the diminutive title characters who don’t get out much. Tolkien describes them thoroughly, a handful of well-known British and American actors immortalized them on screen, but the last word on what a Hobbit looks like belongs to the reader. Or — in an edition as richly illustrated as the Swedish and Finnish editions of the book were in 1962 and 1973 — to the Swedish/Finnish artist, Tove Jansson, most famous for her creation of internationally beloved children’s characters, the Moomins.

Like Bilbo Baggins himself, The Hobbit is full of surprises — while presenting itself as a book for kids, it contains adult lessons one never outgrows. So, too, was Jansson, “an acerbic and witty anti-fascist cartoonist during the Second World War,” write James Williams at Apollo.

“She wrote a picture book for children about the imminent end of the world and spare, tender fiction for adults about love and family.” Jansson had exactly the sensibility to bridge Tolkien’s worlds of imaginative fancy and adult danger and moral ambiguity. But first, she wanted to cast off all associations with her most famous creation.

As Jansson wrote to a friend when she ended the Moomins, “I never spare them a thought now it’s over. I’ve completely drawn a line under all that. Just as you wouldn’t want to think back on a time you had a toothache.” The Moomins were a creative millstone, and she struggled to get their style from around her neck.

“This led to an attempt to change the way in which she drew,” notes “Tove tried different techniques and drew each figure freely again and again 20-60 times until she was happy with the result. From the book vignette illustrations, it is impossible to notice how the individual figures are pasted together into ‘a patchwork’ that made up each vignette.”

Despite her best efforts to escape her previous characters, however, “the majority of the full-page illustrations follow the characteristic style of Tove’s illustrations for the Moomin books.” Her own reservations aside, this is all to the good as Jansson’s Moomin books and comic strips were built from the same mix of sensibility — childlike wonder, grown-up ethics, and a respect for the deep ecology of myth. Both Tolkien and Jansson wrote during, after, and in response to Hitler’s rise to power and drew on “a Nordic folk tradition of trolls and forests, light and dark,” writes Williams. But Jansson brought her own artistic vision to The Hobbit. See more of her illustrations at Lithub.

via LitHub

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A Restored Vermeer Painting Reveals a Portrait of a Cupid Hidden for Over 350 Years

Botched art restorations make good headlines, but rarely are we asked to consider if a posthumous change to a great master’s work represents an improvement. And yet, when images of a restored Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window by Jan Vermeer circulated recently, the world had the chance to compare the restored original painting, at the left, with an unknown painter’s revision, long thought to be Vermeer’s work. (Click here to view the paintings side by side in a larger format.) Several people announced that they preferred the doctored painting on the right, first attributed to Vermeer in 1880 (and previously attributed to Dutch masters Rembrandt and Hals).

As conservators found at the conclusion of a restoration project begun in 2017, it is the painting on the left that Vermeer intended as his final statement on the subject of a girl reading a letter at an open window. That painting puts the subject in a very different light. The naked Cupid behind the young woman — in place of an ambiguously dour patch of beige — revises over a century of art historical interpretation. “With the recovery of Cupid in the background, the actual intention of the Delft painter becomes recognizable,” says Stephan Koja, director of the Old Masters Picture Gallery.

Art historians and conservators had long known the other painting was underneath, having discovered it via X-ray in 1979. But they assumed it was Vermeer himself who made the change. “As it was not uncommon for artists to paint over their work,” My Modern Met writes, “scholars initially accepted that Vermeer had simply changed his mind and decided to keep the wall bare.” Instead, thanks to the 2017 restoration project, “researchers were able to conclude that the overpainting was completed over several decades after the canvas was finished.”

“Vermeer often incorporated empty backgrounds in his genre paintings,” a feature that has become something of a hallmark thanks to the fame of paintings like The Milkmaid. This is one reason the Cupid went undercover for so long, despite an unbalanced composition without it. But Vermeer also incorporated backgrounds filled with art, including the same Cupid painting, which appears in his lesser known A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal and may have been a painting he himself owned. “There has been much speculation,” the National Gallery notes, that this painting (and another, similarly titled work) represent “fidelity” and “a venal, mercenary approach to love.” What approach might be suggested by the newly restored Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window?

via Colossal

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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