Category Archives: Art

Jimmy Reagan’s “Outsider” Art

Jimmy Reagan is a Minnesota artist in his twenties. At age 2, he was diagnosed with a complex form of autism. In his teens, he began working as a serious painter, and he’s had a lot of success. Above is a self-portrait. I saw his work in a recent exhibit in St. Paul.

Above is another self portrait: “Jimmy Painting Pretty Girl in Orange Dress and Pearls.”

He does a lot of portraits. Above is his mom.

Apparently Jimmy has done some traveling. Above is a portrait of a “Girl from Italy.” He often paints his backgrounds and sometimes his frames with what he calls “ticks”–bright splashes of brilliant color.

Jimmy lists his artistic influences as Picasso and Van Gogh. I can see the influences, but to me Jimmy seems totally original.

This is “The Emperor.” Looks pretty self-important, don’t you think?

I like his “Golden Hair Man.”

I’m an aspiring painter myself, and I know what a challenge it is to develop a distinctive style. It really takes a distinctive way of looking at the world.

My painting teacher recommended the book pictured above, “The Innocent Eye” by Jonathan Fineberg. I highly recommend it. Many artists we think of as “modern,” like Picasso, Klee and Kandinsky, were fascinated by children’s art. They actually collected and studied it, and even collaborated with children.

Picasso famously commented that all children are artists. He said that when he was age four, he could draw like Raphael–very probably true. But he said that it took him a lifetime to be able to draw “like a child.”

I especially like Jimmy Reagan’s animal portraits. Above is “Blue Sheep,” acrylic on foam carving.

Here is “Cow, Pig and Rooster.” Jimmy has sold a lot of prints of many of these pieces. I can see why.

“Just Cow” may be just a cow, but what personality. She’s acrylic on carved foam.

Elizabeth” is another cow, an especially joyful one.

My very favorite animal of Jimmy’s is “Dirty Happy Pig.”

On this Thanksgiving Day, I’m thankful there are “outsider” artists, and people who nurture and encourage them. I’m also thankful to be setting off on a trip, hoping to see lots of art. I’ll take Jimmy’s unique way of seeing the world with me.

Jimmy’s website is jimmyreagan.com.

Paul Klee’s Cats, and Mine

If I could choose one artist to invite over for dinner, it might be the Swiss painter and multimedia artist Paul Klee. He lived from 1879 to 1940. I’d have him bring along one of his favorite cats, maybe Fritzi. Paul Klee loved cats. He painted “Idol for House Cats” in 1924, shortly before Fritzi died.

It’s a watercolor, unusually done on primed canvas instead of the traditional paper. He made it multi-media by pasting on a black lace veil, maybe as a sign of mourning after Fritzi died. The cat looks inscrutable, a little intimidating, yet he has a sweet heart-shaped mouth. Cats are thought to be aloof, but try telling that to anyone who loves them.

“We are mourning him as if he were our child and best friend,” Klee wrote.

I saw quite a few Klee paintings recently at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

I loved “Tomcat’s Hunting Ground” too, from Klee in 1919. I think it was on loan from the Albertina in Vienna. I love the childlike joy in so much of Klee’s work.

Back in my home state of Minnesota for a fall visit, I saw an exhibit by a young artist who reminds me of Klee. Jimmy Reagan is a young autistic man in his twenties.

He’s been painting seriously for about ten years. I loved his cat, titled “Barbara.”

I loved his “Orange Lion” too. He carves some of his images into sheets of foam, then paints them. I think he’s wonderful. I’ll devote another post to Jimmy’s other work.

Then there are the ceramic cats one of my grandchildren made recently. This cat knows exactly how beautiful and amazing she is.

This one is a jar that holds things, maybe cat treats.

And last but not least, there are the gorgeous, brilliant, not-at-all-aloof actual cats that share my house with me. I’m inspired to try painting their portraits. We’ll see how that goes!

Three Witches for Halloween


Henry Fuseli, a Swiss artist, painted “The Three Witches” from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” in 1782. They look surprisingly modern to me. They look like they know unspeakable things, and their mouths are set as though they’re not about to tell all they know. I always think of Shakespeare’s three “weird sisters” as sort of endearingly eccentric mumblers, but these three look like they mean business. 

In theater circles, this play is usually called “the Scottish play.” There’s a superstition that saying the actual title inside a theater, except as necessary in performance of the play, invokes a curse. Terrible things will happen.


The painting is in the European collection at the Huntington Museum and Gardens in Pasadena. I think it’s pretty scary, especially after reading that since the play was written, many people have believed that it incorporates actual supernatural incantations used by actual witches. Speaking the words out loud is said to invoke real spells and curses. (Cue thunder and lightning).

The inscription on the frame is in Greek. It’s a quotation from the ancient playwright Aeschylus: “Not women, but Gorgons I call them.”


Who are Gorgons? They are Medusa and her sisters, monsters whose glance turns men to stone. The Medusa painting above is by Caravaggio, around 1593-1610. It’s in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. (The image is in the public domain). OK, if I suddenly had snakes instead of hair, I’d scare myself to death before I turned anybody to stone. Just saying. 


No doubt there are many other images of Shakespeare’s witches. I’ll close with one painted by an American artist, William Rimmer, in 1850. The weird sisters here have called up some kind of apparition.


I expect to see all kinds of apparitions (wanting candy) on Halloween. Me? I was Cleopatra for this year’s youth group Halloween party. (I could have carried some kind of snake, come to think of it).


But it’s chilly out. For the Halloween Stroll tonight in my small town, when traffic is blocked on the main drag and everybody turns out in costume, I might go with an older outfit: Crazy Cat Lady. Some people would say it’s not a costume: it’s what I really am. Anyway, it features a comfy chenille bathrobe. Happy Halloween!

A Bad Day for Santa Croce


A Spanish tourist was just killed by a falling stone fragment inside Florence’s Santa Croce Basilica. How could this happen?


Santa Croce is one of the major sights in Florence. The interior is warmly lit and surprisingly peaceful, considering the number of visitors.

People pause to pay their respects at the tombs of the great and good:


Michelangelo…


Machiavelli…

Dante…


Galileo…


Rossini, and many others I feel like I should know.

Santa Croce is said to be the largest Franciscan church in the world, with beautiful Giotto frescoes honoring the humble monk from Assisi. 


St. Francis is believed to have actually founded this church. 

And now, it’s closed while the authorities investigate why an unsuspecting tourist was killed by a chunk of falling stone.

No tourists will be gazing up at the beautiful ceilings for awhile. The faithful will have to light their candles and murmur their prayers elsewhere in the city.

Italy has artistic treasures everywhere, but it seems there is never enough money to properly take care of them, or to accommodate the number of visitors lining up to see them. 

In 1966, the Arno River overflowed its banks, flooding much of Florence. Damage to Santa Croce took years and years to repair. There are still high water marks in the building, and some of the artworks can’t be completely restored. I hope Santa Croce can be made safe again.

No doubt lots of ink will be used as the investigation goes forward. One article about it is at:

https://www.msn.com/en-my/news/world/falling-stone-kills-italy-church-tourist/ar-AAtKeGo.

Lord Anglesey, A Man of Parts


Henry, the dashing 7th Marquess of Anglesey, came to mind this morning. In a burst of fall energy, I started madly cleaning out drawers, cupboards, closets and even the dreaded garage. I thought of Henry.


After a couple of strenuous hours of pitching and organizing things I had forgotten I owned, I sank into my softest chair and thought admiringly of Henry’s study at Plas Newydd in Wales. Henry was Marquess from 1947 until he died in 2013. In 1976, he gave Plas Newydd–“New Mansion”–to the National Trust, but still lived upstairs with his family. I think his heirs still live there, too. So would I.


Henry’s study, used daily during his lifetime, is a magnificent jumble of books, papers, drawings, photos, magazines, and who knows what else.


Another part of Plas Newydd displays stuff from the family’s colorful history. Henry was a distinguished historian, and well he might be. His ancestors included the first Marquess, Henry “One-Leg,” whose leg was shot off by cannon fire at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, while he was right next to the Duke of Wellington himself. On the occasion, Henry coolly said, “By God, Sir,    I’ve lost my leg.” The Iron Duke replied, “By God, Sir, so you have.”


The Marquess had what remained of his leg amputated, with a stiff upper lip and no anesthetic, and was fitted with a wooden leg. Afterward, he fathered ten children and walked nine miles a day for the rest of his life.


But back to the 7th Marquess. He must have been something of an artist as well as a politician and a writer. He kept a special drawing table, under a window with good light. Of all the rooms in grand homes that I’ve seen, Henry’s study is one of my favorites.


I can see him happily puttering around, going from one table to the next. The jumble made perfect sense to him. He just kept a separate place for each one of his many projects. If only I had the space to do the same.


The other unforgettable room at Plas Newydd is the dining room. In 1936, the 6th Marquess commissioned Rex Whistler to paint the entire long wall as a mural.


The artist was happy to spend endless hours on the mural, partly because he was in love with one of the daughters of the family, whom he also painted. Tragically, Rex Whistler was killed in action in Normandy in July 1944, having insisted on fighting rather than serving in some less dangerous way. He had just arrived at the front.


I could spend hours taking in the detail of the Whistler mural, which is full of gentle humor and family references.


If I get to return to Plas Newydd, I’ll try to find time to look into the grounds and gardens, another interest of Henry’s.


Meanwhile, I’ll dream of having a room all my own, like Henry’s. “A man of parts” is the British term for a multi-talented Renaissance man.Henry is the best example I know of. Now, about my basement storage room…

There’s an article about the 1st Marquess at:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/11682406/The-Battle-of-Waterloo-is-this-the-most-British-conversation-ever-to-be-held-on-a-battlefield.html

Viking Artistry in Oslo

Talk about spectacular resting places! The Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway displays boats and artifacts from four different boat burials along the Oslo Fjord. Three of the boats are well preserved, and the fourth was reduced to iron nails and other bits and pieces. They date from about 820 A.D. to about 900 A.D. All the boats were used at sea for some years, then drydocked and fitted with burial rooms before being dug into the ground. They were found and excavated between 1852 and 1904.

The most beautiful of the three, the Oseberg, was used to bury two women. How important must they have been? A pair of the legendary shield-maidens, perhaps? Maybe a couple of princesses? How did two powerful women die at the same time? There’s a story here, but it’s lost in the mists of Scandinavian history. Modern dating techniques place this burial at 834 A.D.

The intricate carved wood detail is beautiful.

Oar openings are still present–fifteen of them on this boat. Still-intact shields were hung from some of the oar holes.

Some elements, like the serpent above, were reconstructed from fragments. Mostly, though, preservation was excellent, because the ships were buried in moist ground with high clay content, and covered with turf for centuries.

More beautiful carving…

The solemn fellows shown above worked on the excavation in 1903. The photo clearly shows the intact wood carvings. The graves had already been looted long ago of precious materials, but plenty of grave goods survived.

Who is the bearded fellow above?


He’s part of a fantastically carved wooden cart found with the Oseberg ship. Vikings were known to use utilitarian carts, but this elaborate one was most likely used in ceremonies and religious processions.

The cart is made of oak. Every surface is covered with carved people and animals, possibly showing Norse legends or historical events.

Did Vikings have cats? I think so! The Norwegian Forest Cat is said to have sailed on ships. Who doesn’t need a good mouser?

The cart is not only beautiful, but quite a feat of engineering.

The cart was most likely pulled by two horses. A bridle, decorated with metal studs, is on display in a case nearby.

There’s also a sleigh, proof that the Vikings knew their way around snow and ice.

The sleigh carvings are as elaborate and beautiful as the ones on the cart.


Solid wood sleigh shafts are intricate carved and studded.


Burials included cooking pots and a good supply of food for the journey to Valhalla.


Rattles were most likely used in religious ceremonies. This one would make quite a racket. Maybe it scared away evil spirits?


Leather shoes? Sure.


There are even a few surviving textiles. Most likely some were woven at home, and some came from trading–or raiding.


This is by far the most complete Viking exhibit I’ve seen anywhere. I wouldn’t care to see fearsome Viking raiders on my horizon, but from the safe distance of many centuries, their faces are fascinating.

Art Nouveau Vikings at Frederiksborg 

Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerod, Denmark houses tons of fine historic art, but one of my favorite pieces is pretty humble: it occupies a long lower-level hallway leading to the exit.

From 1883-1886, Lorenz Frolich painted a commissioned piece: a 37-meter frieze depicting the Danish conquest of large chunks of England. It was to be a Danish counterpart to the embroidered Bayeux Tapestry, which documented the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The style of the frieze was from the very early years of Art Nouveau,  also known as Jugendstihl, also known as Skonvirke in Denmark.

The Danish Vikings began sailing their shallow-depth longboats across the sea and up the rivers of England in the late 700s. Before that, they had only ventured as far as the Baltic countries on their raids. The trouble was, the Baltics were almost as poor in resources as Scandinavia. Pickings were slim. But England had rich soil where Danish settlers could grow much more food than in their own rocky soil. English monasteries were crammed with gold and silver candleholders, crosses and chalices.

Raiding was wearying work, but somebody had to do it, right?


After a couple of centuries of striking fear into the hearts of the Brits, and much bloody axe-swinging, the Dane Swein Forkbeard was crowned King of England in 1013.

When Swein died, his son Canute the Great took the crown, and in due course Swein’s grandsons Harold Harfoot and Hardecnut had their turns at ruling the rich land of England. The printed information at Frederiksborg skips over the period when the Danes lost their grip on power in 1042 after the death of Hardecnut. But we’re informed that 1066 was all about the Danes: the Normans were direct descendants of the Danish Vikings who had conquered the part of France that became Normandy.


The Frederiksborg frieze is at pains to depict the conquering Vikings as reasonable, law-abiding fellows willing to sit in orderly rows and debate issues like gentlemen.


There’s also emphasis on their domestic qualities. And it’s true: they were fine farmers and they had domesticated animals.

Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok, photo from review in “Variety,” Feb. 21, 2014

 

All the qualities of the Vikings are on display in the History Channel’s TV series “The Vikings.” I’m anxiously awaiting the 5th season. A disclaimer: yes, I know the show is full of appalling violence. Don’t even ask me what a Blood Eagle is. But for the first time, I begin to understand the Vikings, their world view, and the elaborate mythology that guided their behavior.

The series tells the story of Ragnar Lothbrok, an early Viking of song and legend, and his descendants, who eventually became the Normans of 1066 fame. Following the time-honored traditions of TV showrunners everywhere, real events are compressed and characters invented. But historical research is said to be quite accurate as far as clothing, houses, community organization, laws, and religion.

Travis Fimmel, pictured above, plays Ragnar. He is a former Calvin Klein model, but he has real acting chops to go along with his fierce blue eyes and intimidating tattoos. I’ll watch him do anything, from his early daring voyage to pillage Lindisfarne monastery, through adultery and divorce, and right on into the murderous madness of his old age.

Katheryn Winnick and Travis Fimmel in “The Vikings,” photo from review in “The Telegraph,” May 3, 2014

 

Another big selling point of “The Vikings,” for me, is the depiction of strong women. Lagertha is Ragnar’s brave and loyal wife, a formidable “shieldmaiden.” Even after their messy separation after he takes up with a tall, graceful, ladylike beauty, Lagertha graciously returns again and again to bash heads alongside Ragnar and their sons. Axe, sword and shield in hand, she’s ready save Ragnar’s bacon when he finds himself in trouble. What a woman!


I like the kinder, gentler version of the Vikings depicted in Frolich’s frieze paintings. But I’ll take my Vikings at their fiercest, too.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles!