[Metroactive Arts]

[ Arts Index | Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

Model Behavior: A painter gets carried away in Jean-Michel Moreau le Jeune's 1770 etching 'The Shy Model.'

In the Looking Glass

Artists create images of themselves in new Stanford portrait exhibit

By Michael S. Gant

IN THE SURPRISE hit movie about, of all things, the 17th-century Dutch painter Vermeer and Griet, the Girl With a Pearl Earring, a slow dance of repressed sexuality links the moody artist and his serving girl turned model. The possibility that not all the stroking is being done with brushes on canvas is what piques the prurient interest of Vermeer's patron--not to mention audiences waiting for, so to speak, the other pearl to drop when Vermeer and Griet are alone. The movie, however, remains discreet about what the French artist Jean-Michel Moreau le Jeune makes a little more explicit in his 1770 etching The Shy Model, where a randy painter looks ready to abandon his canvas and make a move on his comely poser.

The playful piece is part of a fascinating new show at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center called "The Artist Observed: Portraits and Self-Portraits." Ranging from the 16th century to the present, the selections by curator Betsy Fryberger chart the ways in which artists have presented themselves and their profession in their art. The blank paper or canvas is as much a mirror for many artists as it is a window on the outside world.

Some of the early works emphasize the business end of art making. An etching from the 1600s shows an assembly line of engravers hunching over their worktables grinding out product. An English group portrait from 1773 of the Members of the Royal Academy confirms a stark point about the profession: There's not a woman artist in sight.

The 19th-century artists take themselves less seriously. Honoré Daumier mocks the pretensions of creative geniuses with Ungrateful Nation, You Will Never Have My Words, a lithograph that catches a furious artist destroying a spurned masterpiece.

Starting with Rodin in the late 19th century, the portraits concentrate on promoting--puffing up, even--the idea of the artist as heroic presence. Rodin, as burly and bulky as his bronzes and something of a martyr to aesthetics (his nude of Balzac gave the novelist a penis as mighty as his pen, setting off a national scandal). Edward Steichen's 1907 photogravure portrait of a godlike Rodin in contemplative silhouette confronting two of his massive pieces was the result of a year's worth of sessions, and the moody image made the young photographer's name in America.

Many of the most revealing portraits are photographs, as if the mechanics of optics and emulsion could pin down truths that painters might fudge. Ansel Adams' 1933 Portrait of José Clemente Orozco closes in tightly on the Mexican muralist's intense features, his eyes tightly framed by black glasses. Another Adams, Georgia O'Keeffe and Orville Cox, presents the artist and her companion, both wearing wide-brimmed black hats, as cowboy artists posed against a high, wide Southwestern sky. Leo Holub, the first teacher of photography at Stanford, is represented by a series of portraits of artists at work, the most striking of which is a 1980 studio shot of San Francisco abstract expressionist Frank Lobdell (who taught at Stanford for many years)--a barrel-chested master of pure painterly gesture, a throwback to a time before minimalists and conceptualists started to tear down the image of artists as romantic heroes.

Ending somewhere close to le Jeune in spirit is Brassaï's 1939 photograph of Matisse drawing a young female model. The elderly eminence of modern art is dressed in a smock that resembles a lab coat, and with his white beard and glasses he looks uncannily like Sigmund Freud analyzing a patient--except this patient is nude. Art has its perks.

The Artist Observed: Portraits and Self-Portraits shows through May 2 at the Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University. (650.723.4177)

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

From the February 5-11, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

Foreclosures - Real Estate Investing
San Jose.com Real Estate