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

What Makes Rodin’s The Thinker a Great Sculpture: An Introduction to Rodin Life, Craft & Iconic Work

Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker exists in about 28 full-size bronze casts, each approximately 73 inches high, in museums around the world, as well as several dozen castings of smaller size and plaster models and studies. The Thinker also exists as one of the most copied and parodied artworks in world history, perhaps because of its ubiquity. “Unfortunately,” Joseph Phelan writes at the Artcyclopedia, “there is a side of Rodin’s work that has become kitsch through cheap reproductions and commercial rip-offs.”

In popular interpretations, The Thinker represents philosophical abstraction. But Rodin’s figure doesn’t contemplate Plato’s forms or Kant’s categories. He dreams of hell, and brings a vision of eternal torment into being. He is a representation of the poet Dante (hence his original name, The Poet) in Rodin’s most ambitious masterwork, The Gates of Hell, made on commission from the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. The subject, “bas-reliefs representing The Divine Comedy,” was “surely suggested by Rodin himself, as he was an avid reader of Dante,” the Association for Public Art points out.

Divorced from its original context — a work begun in 1880 and only completed after the artist’s death in 1917 — The Thinker becomes “a universal image,” the National Gallery of Art writes — one that “reveals in physical terms the mental effort and even physical anguish of creativity.” As Rodin himself put it, “what makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.” If we can see his thoughtful posture with fresh eyes, we’ll notice his extreme stress, tension, and pain.

Rodin worked on The Gates of Hell for the final 37 years of his life, and didn’t live to see it cast in full during his lifetime. The massive bronze doors — which also produced such famous Rodin sculptures as The Three Shades and The Kiss — contain around 200 individual figures and groups of sufferers from the Inferno. “For Rodin,” notes the Rodin Museum, “the chaotic population on The Gates of Hell enjoyed only one final freedom — the ability to express their agony with complete abandon … The figures on the doors poignantly and heart-rending evoke universal human emotions and experiences.”

While hell’s denizens writhe and burn below him, The Thinker, perched atop the door, curls in on himself with the strain of imagination. Whatever his original inspiration, he came unglued from the Inferno, his modular nature part of the sculptor’s original design. The Thinker is Dante, but also “in a very real sense,” the Met writes, “The Thinker is Rodin. Brutishly muscled yet engrossed in thought, coiled in tension yet loose in repose.” As a universal symbol for contemplation, he is also an image of bringing art into being through the sheer force of one’s mind.

Rodin, after all, “never produced a work of plaster, bronze, or even marble with his own hands,” says the Great Art Explained video above, preferring “an industrial approach to producing art” that meant a  supervisory role over crews of workers, raising questions about “authenticity and originality.” Perhaps Rodin “shows us that an artist should be judged by what’s in his head, not in his hands,” but The Thinker shows us that what’s in the head is also in the hands, the gnarled back, tense sinewy arms, and curled up toes.

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

MoMA’s Online Courses Let You Study Modern & Contemporary Art and Earn a Certificate

The labels “modern art” and “contemporary art” don’t easily pull apart from one another. In a strictly historical sense, the former refers to art produced in the era we call modernity, beginning in the mid-19th century. And according to its etymology, the latter refers to art produced at the same time as something else: there is art “contemporary” with, say, the Italian Renaissance, but also art “contemporary” with our own lives. You’ll have a much clearer idea of this distinction — and of what people mean when they use the relevant terms today — if you take the Modern and Contemporary Art and Design Specialization, a set of courses from the Museum of Modern Art (aka MoMA) in New York.

Offered on the online education platform Coursera, the Modern and Contemporary Art and Design Specialization promises to “introduce you to the art of our time.” In its first course, Modern Art & Ideas, you’ll learn “how artists have taken inspiration from their environment and responded to social issues over the past 150 years.”

In the second, Seeing through Photographs (whose trailer appears above), you’ll explore photography “from its origins in the mid-1800s through the present.” The third, What Is Contemporary Art?, introduces works of the past four decades “ranging from 3-D-printed glass and fiber sculptures to performances in a factory.” The final course, Fashion as Design, affords the opportunity to “learn from makers working with clothing every day — and, in some cases, reinventing it for the future.”

You can view the entire Contemporary Art and Design Specialization for free, by “auditing” its courses. Alternatively, you can join the paid track, which costs $39 USD per month, which at Coursera’s suggested pace of seven months to complete (including a “hands-on project” for each course) comes out to $273 overall. Then, when you finish the specialization, you’ll “earn a Certificate that you can share with prospective employers and your professional network.” Whether you go the audit or certificate route, you’ll earn an understanding of “modern art” and “contemporary art” as they’re created and regarded here in the 21st century: the era deep into modernity in which we live, and one in which the boundaries of art itself — not just the adjectives preceding it — show no sign of ceasing to expand.

Note: Open Culture has a partnership with Coursera. If readers enroll in certain Coursera courses and programs, it helps support Open Culture.

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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.

360 Degree Virtual Tours of the Hagia Sophia

Last year, when Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Hagia Sophia would be reconverted into a mosque, he assured a concerned UNESCO that changes to the 1,500-year-old former cathedral-turned-mosque would have “no negative impact” on its status as World Heritage Site. “A state must make sure that no modification undermines the outstanding universal value of a site listed on its territory,” the world body has said. Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the “universal value” of the site does seem to have been undermined.

Designated a museum by the secular Turkish Republic in 1934, the site contains hundreds of years of history for both the Christian and Islamic worlds, and the shared heritage between them in the shifting mix of peoples who conquered, settled, and moved through the city first called Byzantium, then Constantinople, then Istanbul.

“The World Heritage site was at the centre of both the Christian Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires and is today one of Turkey’s most visited monuments,” Reuters noted last year.

The mosque is open to the public for prayers, and anyone can visit. What they’ll find — as you can see in this recent tour video — is ugly green carpeting covering the floor, and screens, panels, and plywood obscuring the Byzantine Christian art. (The same thing was done in the smaller Hagia Sophia in the city of Trabzon.) These changes are not only distressing for UNESCO, but also for lovers of art and history around the world, myself included, who had hoped to one day see the millennia-and-a-half of blended religious and aesthetic traditions for themselves.

It’s possible Turkish politics will allow Hagia Sophia to return to its status as a museum in the future, restoring its “universal value” for world history and culture. If not, we can still visit the space virtually — as it was until last year — in the 360 degree video views above, both of which allow you to look around in any direction as they play. You can also swivel around a spherical panoramic image at 360 cities.

The BBC video at the top narrates some of the significant features of the incredible building, once the largest church in the world, including its “colored marble from around the Roman Empire” and “10,000 square meters of gold mosaic.” Learn much more about Hagia Sophia history in the video above from Khan Academy’s executive directors (and former deans of art and history), Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.

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

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