Yellow is the Color

“The yellow glistens.
It glistens with various yellows,
Citrons, oranges and greens
Flowering over the skin.”
Wallace Stevens

cadmium yellow
Cadmium yellow, above, is involved in a chemical contretemps affecting priceless artworks.

In some recent news that caused a bit of concern in art circles, researchers have confirmed that those golden hues so brilliantly used in paintings by Henri Matisse (as well as Vincent van Gogh) have been slowly degrading over the years into dullish, beige-like tones, giving the works a considerably altered appearance since their creation a century ago.

It’s all due to a complicated chemical process involving the pigment known as cadmium yellow (not to be confused with chrome yellow, which falls differently on the color spectrum).  Used by artists from the 1880s until the 1920s, cadmium yellow was a popular compound among the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists at the time (though, alas, not Edgar Degas, who once harrumphed, “What a horrible thing yellow is.”) The ramifications of this not-so-mellow yellow debate are not insignificant: “Literally billions of dollars’ worth of art is affected by this chemistry,” said one scientist at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

Henri Matisse was, of course, the “master of color” — and naturally, the master of yellow. The intensity of his passion for all things chromatic is captured in several conversations cited in the book, Matisse on Art, an illustrious detailing of the artist’s insights on the subject. In one interview, he talks in gushing terms of a cactus flower in his French garden: “…look how it shines like a burning coal against the grayish green background, like a spider web hanging above thick dark silk!” In another, he speaks of the blue tomatoes that appear in a famed canvas. Why blue? “Because I see them that way, and I cannot help it if no one else does,” he answered. (You go, Monsieur Matisse!)

As for yellow, it’s one of the colors (blue and green being the others), which appears most often in his work. A hue he specifically derived from the blossom of the cactus tree, he considered yellow an abiding and life-affirming symbol.

matisse young girl with a sofa
Matisse’s “Young Girl with a Yellow Sofa,” from 1940.

I wondered about Matisse’s thinking in the use of the color in “Young Girl with a Yellow Sofa,” above (the painting was unaffected by the cadmium controversy, as it was produced in his late career). More than just a splash or a highlight — it’s red that he chose to do that with here, even on the chair itself — the yellow envelops the reclining figure in an almost organic sense. And is it too farfetched to think the patterns on the young lady’s blouse as well as those that appear directly behind her, put together, are reminiscent of cacti? Maybe a stretch, but the artistic mind works in curious fashion, as they say.

“Color acts in the way that music does,” the Cubist Georges Braque once mused. “You put a blob of yellow here, and another at the further edge of the canvas: straight away a rapport is established between them…”

The yellow glistens, in the poet’s words — and it sings, as well.

Timeless Troubadour

james taylorFOR TODAY’S GENERATION  of pop music fans, the initials “JT” may stand for Justin Timberlake. But for those of a certain age, they will always be synonymous with another JT: James Taylor, who – lo and behold – recently scored his first No. 1 album on the Billboard music charts at the age of 67 with Before This World, his first recording of original material since 2002.

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Fields of Gold

summer fieldsWith summer now upon us, a deeper meaning to a lighthearted season comes by way of some evocative lines by the great American poet Mary Oliver from her poem, “The Summer Day” — and its challenging conclusion:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Photo: Stanislava Kyselova

Doctor of Sculpture

medina alegria sculpture
“Alegria” sculpture in stainless steel

It’s not often that one runs across an artist who effortlessly bridges the seemingly polar-opposite fields of art and medicine.

When I saw the work of Colombian-born sculptor Santiago Medina, I was immediately captivated not only by the beauty of his pieces, but by the fact that he had a dual career as a physician and radiologist. And even more intriguing was his use of medical technology — in this case, computerized tomography (CT) and MRI scans — to help fashion the sinuous creations that have been featured at notable art-fair venues like Art Basel Miami and Arte America, and installed on the campuses of such exalted halls of higher learning as Harvard, Stanford, and Tufts.

The 51-year-old Medina has a history of forebears in the medical profession, but it was the grandfather who added art to his resume who was an inspiration to his similarly multitalented grandson, who went on to specialize in diagnostic radiology and neuroradiology (otherwise known as brain imaging). At the same time, Medina was building on the artistic training of his youth to pursue his goal of bringing “inert stainless steel to life by creating timeless masterpieces full of light and movement for art lovers.”

santiago medina
Medina in his workshop

Medina cites the abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky, who was also an accomplished lawyer, as an archetype of the unusual path he was to follow, as well as the creative influences of Picasso and Brancusi, and — not surprisingly – the British sculptor Henry Moore, whose spirit can be felt in many of Medina’s monumental sculptures.

Of course, Moore would have been awestruck at the many facets of technology that can now be applied in the creation of art. Case in point is Medina’s distinctive use of digital imaging in the processing of his work. “Using medical imaging as part of my sculpture career and artistic expression arises from the highly sophisticated software that is available for medical imaging, specifically three-dimensional reconstructions,” he commented in a recent e-mail.

sculpture scan
“Alegria” as seen through a CT scan

“Once I’m done with the initial model for my sculptures in Styrofoam or clay, I scan them primarily with CT, which uses very low-dose radiation, to get images of the surface and inner structures of the sculpture model. I then export these images to a computer station where I use very advanced medical software to generate multiple three-dimensional reconstructions.

“Some of the reconstructions show the surface of the sculpture and others reveal the inner part of the sculpture with its supporting internal skeleton. I can then do multiple renditions of the original sculpture model. Modifications of the original model on the computer can then be recreated using a 3-D printer.”

The idea, Medina says, is to “take my sculptures to a completely new level, which enhances their volumetric appeal and sculptoric form.”

It’s a fascinating example of form following technological function, and in this case, brings new meaning to the phrase “breaking the mold.”

Kindred Spirits

Mona with a twist: Dalí’s photographic self-portrait from 1954, right.

Two extraordinary creative minds, centuries apart, both united in their daring artistic visions. Leonardo da Vinci and Salvador Dalí may not immediately seem the most likely of pairings, but Dalí and da Vinci: Minds, Machines and Masterpieces, an exhibit at St. Petersburg, Florida’s Dalí Museum, brings home similarities in temperament and instinct that are deeper than they may initially seem.

Dalí’s affinity for da Vinci was both lifelong and indelibly felt, from his own version of the The Last Supper completed in 1955, to the “Hommage to Leonardo da Vinci” series, a celebration of inventions throughout the centuries in a portfolio from 1975. (His bow to da dali airplane 1975Vinci’s breakthroughs in the field of aerodynamics is illustrated in the “Airplane” sketch shown at left.)

Dalí is responsible for one of the more famous of the 20th-Century parodies of the Mona Lisa (to be joined later by  reproductions by artists such as Andy Warhol all the way to Banksy). His Self-Portrait as Mona Lisa, at top, is actually an image taken by Philippe Halsman, the renowned photographer and frequent Dalí collaborator. The concept, of course, is sheer Dalí, including the bag of coins that “Mona Dalí” holds in his/her lap. It’s the reason for the eternally enigmatic smile, the artist later said.

(It’s interesting to wonder what Dalí was up to with this spoof, as he curiously later published an article in Art News, “Why They Attack the Mona Lisa,” in which he defended the painting from such caricatures as Marcel Duchamp’s objet trouvé of the venerated masterpiece, where she’s depicted with a moustache and goatee.)

Ambitious, but with a sense of the whimsical, the Dalí and da Vinci exhibit groups the artists’ mutual themes of interest into several categories, such as Youthful Scientific Dispositions, Invention, and the Power of Mathematics. Dalí’s quasi-obsession with the Italian genius bridged the psychological as well; he was fascinated by Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, a work that one can assume had an outsized influence on the Surrealist movement and its wanderings into the subconscious. For Dalí, another of Freud’s essays, “Leonardo da Vinci: A Memory of His Childhood,” a psychoanalysis of Leonardo as a youngster, was revelatory — details from da Vinci’s youth found their way into the paintings of his adoring acolyte, hundreds of years later.

From early designs for bicycles and helicopters to perpetual-motion machines, da Vinci as inventor would have kept a modern trademark office working overtime. Dalí was no slouch in this department either. Among his out-there creations, not realized in his lifetime: a giant sphere, which would now be described as a sort of hamster ball, that humans could play around in. (As Peter Tush, the Dalí Museum’s curator of education recently quipped, “Now you can find them on Amazon.”)

In Dali’s own words, that were as true for himself as for his Renaissance alter ego: “The one thing the world will never have enough of is the outrageous.”

[Dalí and da Vinci: Minds, Machines and Masterpieces runs through July 26.]

Fateful Voyage

dead-wake Timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of one of history’s most famous maritime disasters Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania features Erik Larson’s typically thrilling you-are-there narrative style, adding to his noteworthy list of previous bestsellers that includes Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm.

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Creative & Otherwise