James Abbott McNeill Whistler rose to prominence as an artist during two very popular, very influential, and very different movements in the art world: the movements of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Impressionists. He was a bit of both, in terms of his aesthetics, and yet not really either in terms of his subject matter or his worldview. His paintings, unlike his eccentric and at times combative personality, were subtle and nuanced. Whistler founded a new movement called Tonalism, which featured an emphasis on detailed texture, bold brushstrokes, muted Earth tones, and a soft focus. Many artists, particularly Whistler himself, oscillated between intimate portraiture and moody landscapes. The resultant accumulation of his life’s work is an oeuvre that is imbued with conceptual depth and intellectual thought, but not necessarily wrought with emotion or overt expression of oneself. Whistler’s legacy is not one of sentimental gratification; not for the artist, who strongly believed in art for art’s sake, and not for the viewer, whose eye is caught more by his technique than by his romantic philosophical worldview. Rather, his legacy, as one must assume he would have preferred it, is the art itself.
Drawing inspiration from mid 19th Century art movements like The Pre-Raphaelites, and from late 18th Century Romanticism, John Atkinson Grimshaw created indelible images that are imbued with Victorian Era ideals. Innocence. Romance. Beauty. These simple aesthetic tropes of the times are permeated throughout Grimshaw’s work. Whether depicting Gothic manors or urban streets lit by moonlight, faeries soaring through the night or ships in the harbor, Grimshaw’s paintings are almost photo-realistic and yet simultaneously elevated by his imaginative lighting and saturated by his use of Earth tones. Little is known about Grimshaw as a man, and little more is known about him as an artist, but his work on the other hand is quite recognizable even to those outside the art community. Our modern notion of what Dickensian London was like has been greatly influenced by Grimshaw’s work, which itself is just as timeless and unforgettable as the writings of Dickens.
The Denver Diaries: Chapter 6 – January 2014 through June 2014
My time on Oneida Street came to an end early in 2014. The Winter season had well begun and I was going to need to find a new place to live. Fortunately, someone at the church where I had been volunteering suggested me as a potential roommate and caregiver for one of the congregation members who had terminal cancer. He was an ex-con who had turned his life around and had been a volunteer at the church himself for years. After miraculously recovering from stomach and throat cancer, he had been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, and between the excruciating pain that he experienced on a daily basis and the effects of all the medications he was on, he needed someone to help him do shopping, accompany him to medical appointments (including frequent ER visits), and keep his apartment clean. He had turned to art in the last year or two of his life and this provided him not only with a means to pass the time, but also a sense of accomplishment and a way of expressing himself outwardly when he was effectively bed-ridden and unable to socialize. I did my best to provide him with good company and would regularly walk from the apartment to the library to pick up DVDs for him to watch. Sometimes we would watch them together. I introduced him to Game of Thrones, which he became addicted to watching, and we sat through the first three seasons together. We also made a trip out to the Denver Art Museum.
Meanwhile, I continued to look for work and volunteered at the church, but I remained depressed and felt defeated by the lack of response to the now 80 plus applications I had filled out. Adding to this despondency was that my new roommate smoked medical marijuana multiple times on a daily basis. Unknown to me at the time was the fact that I am quite allergic to marijuana smoke, which causes me to become very dehydrated, depressed and lethargic, feverish, and increases my appetite as well as causing me severe headaches and dizziness. Though the first month or two with the roommate went relatively well, things began to fall apart as my health worsened, as his health worsened, and other factors introduced themselves. He had a couple of friends who would come to him and borrow his money or would illegally buy his pain medications to get high. I wasn’t entirely certain how to handle the situation and my one attempt to address this ended rather badly with his friend accusing me of being a freeloader living off of a dying man, which was as far as I could tell hit much closer to the mark of what she was doing. He eventually became more withdrawn and reluctant to go out to the church or on social outings, and then as the chemotherapy decreased his energy and caused him to vomit regularly, made it so that he rarely left his room at all. We stopped watching films and television series together around this time. Then to make matters worse, when we finally did decide to watch Aliens, as I inserted the disc into the DVD player, his flat screen TV, which was balanced on a shoe box and the DVD player, fell on my head shattering the screen and leaving me with a concussion. Fortunately, we were able to get a replacement TV and I offered him my Blu-ray player that I had shipped out from Maine as consolation.
Due to my allergies and general sense of ennui at the small shared apartment, I began to go on frequent long walks, anywhere from four to twelve miles. I would walk from the apartment on Colorado Boulevard down to the Denver Public Library on Broadway or go for walks along the various creeks and bike paths. I took long strolls down 16th Street Mall where I took photos of the holiday decorations, the celebratory flashing lights, and all of the families and happy couples gallivanting through the city. It was bittersweet. On one hand, I felt good being out of the apartment, away from the sickness and despair, but on the other hand, I continued to long for a greater purpose and real connection to someone who might enrich my life. The smiling faces I would see on my walks would only remind me of my own isolation. The other faces I saw were the sunken, pale faces of the homeless, whose ranks I had been a part of and whom I would again be joining before too long. So, it seemed to me at the time, that I saw the future that was denied to me and the future that was inevitable, and those walks ceased to be the respite I needed.
I watched the seasons slowly change outside of the apartment’s ground-level basement window and I watched as my roommate become more and more sick and more and more withdrawn. I felt empathy for him, profoundly so, but I also felt frustration. I watched him consume junk food, smoke marijuana constantly, and then refuse to have visitors or go out all the while complaining of being trapped in his apartment and lonely. My efforts to lift his spirits or to engage him were met with increasing resistance and then finally with indifference altogether. I spent many days just reading, listening to music, sleeping in late, and filling out job applications without hopes or expectations of hearing anything back.
I would stay on Colorado Boulevard for five months before moving on to the next phase of my journey, which took me to yet another precarious living situation with a far more detrimental effect on my emotional health, and then from there I wound up on the streets.
To be continued…
When it comes to Gothic imagery, there are few artists so fundamental in the creation of an aesthetic as Caspar David Friedrich. Comprised of desolate landscapes, decrepit monasteries, haunted cemeteries, and gnarled forests, his iconic and often operatic paintings conjure up visions of German Romanticism. At once his compositions are simple in their depiction of the majesty of nature as it dwarfs all human endeavors, but his work is also far more complex than that, employing subtle symbolism and allegory in landscapes to comment on what were then political, social, and religious concerns of his time. Are the duo who appear to be admiring the moon, in fact, conspirators who chose this moonlight rendezvous for a clandestine meeting? Whose is the disembodied spirit that hovers above the uneven grounds of the graveyard? What do the trio of companions spot over the cliffs of Rügen? Friedrich’s paintings are more than epic depictions of crumbling abbeys and ancient trees. They are visual journeys into the heart of the past.
Steeped in allegory, religious imagery, and the darkness and fears within his own soul, the works of Francisco Goya speak much of the world he lived in and the way in which he viewed it. Inspired by the horrors of war, the cautionary tales of myth, and the disarming allure of woman, Goya’s works fit firmly into the Romantic tradition. His grotesque depictions of both real and imagined evils are as harrowing as any ever put on canvas. With his skillful employment of dark and muted tones, heavy brush work, and detailed embellishments of realism, Goya kept his work, even at its most violent and fantastical, grounded in the foundations of reality. He straddled both worlds with ease, just as he stood somewhere between the Old Masters and the New Masters as a legendary painter, perfecting the methods and subject matter of the past while introducing stylistic changed that would revolutionize painting in the 19th Century.
Philosopher. Poet. Artist. William Blake was all of these things. A central figure of the Romantic movement, and a precursor to Symbolism, Blake utilized Judeo-Christian concepts in his artwork and poetry, all the while exploring the ideas of classical philosophy as embodied by the pagan cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, and mining their mythological pantheon for creative metaphors. Throughout all of his work, the same themes resurface time and time again, suggesting a deep and ever-evolving commitment to his convictions of faith and social equality. Rebelling against the dogmas and rigidity of organized religion, Blake confounded his contemporaries who failed to understand why someone with such clear faith in God would reject the church and its doctrines. The Biblical imagery found in his poetry and art is as complex as Blake himself was and shows him often being at odds with himself and the world in which he lived. He was woefully misunderstood in his time, but as Western culture progressed, his work was reevaluated and he has become praised for his genius, if not fully understood. The iconoclast has become an icon to intellectuals, romantics, and rebel spirits, who find within his work an all-encompassing passion and gleaming gems of intelligence.
Few artists have delved so deeply into the darkness of the human psyche as Johann Heinrich Füssli, better known as Henry Fuseli, whose very works are like nightmares realized in oil on canvas. Painted with all the mystery, eroticism, horror, and symbolism that was typical of the Romantic movement, Füssli’s paintings are profound explorations of myth, memory, and dreams, and they provided inspiration for the latter Symbolist and Expressionist genres. As examples of both beauty and grotesquerie, these images fill the mind with simultaneous dread and desire, exciting the senses with a dichotomy of anticipation and apprehension. Modern day art scholars and psychoanalysts recognize the use of archetypal symbology in his work, which might explain the strange enigmatic allure of his grisly depictions of death and decay, violence, and sensual desire emphasized all the more by the stark contrasts of chiaroscuro. Whether this was Füssli’s exact intention or not is difficult to say, but he undoubtedly navigated his own world of fears and longings in the creation of his most impressive pieces, transcending Romanticism and essentially birthing Dark Romanticism. Füssli is, for me, a master of the macabre.