Early #selfie: William Orpen


This early self portrait by William Orpen dates from about 1910, and shows the young artist as the fashionable portrait painter in London that he was. Alternatively titled, “Leading the Life in the West,” a telltale camera in hand could bring this mirror shot of early self-fashioning into the present day.

Soft Focus: Julia Margaret Cameron at the Met

Thomas Carlyle, 1867

Thomas Carlyle, 1867

A delightfully small photography exhibition up at the Met displays early photography from a woman who cut a decidedly aesthetic path. Julia Margaret Cameron began taking photographs in 1863, about a decade after the wet-plate collodion process had been introduced and in the midst of contemporary debate about whether photography could be a form of fine art akin to painting or sculpture. Cameron inscribed a print of the powerful portrait above: “Carlyle like a rough block of Michelangelo’s sculpture,” claiming an artistic lineage not popularly given to photography at the time. At the same time, the great virtue of photography–it’s presumed truthfulness–was eschewed by Cameron for an aesthetic of soft focus and artful composition.


Pomona, 1872

Seemingly a dauntless personality, Cameron’s led a rich and intrepid life as a women in Victorian England and was connected to many cultural figures–from her grandniece Virginia Woolfe to the PRB –who appear in her portraits. Pomona, above, is an allegorical scene modeled by Alice Liddell (as a little girl, Liddell was Lewis Caroll’s Alice for Alice in Wonderland). Allegorical scenes, elaborate tableaux, and soft focus portraits were as uncommon as a woman wielding a camera at the time, and regardless are well-worth seeing in their own right. Julia Margaret Cameron is up at the Met through January 5.


Circe, 1865


Kusama at the Whitney (a belated post from Hungary)

Note: I meant to send this before I left for Hungary, and then have a fresh start about Hungarian art…but here this draft is, sitting and waiting to be published. So…

Self-Portrait, 1972. Collage with pastel, ballpoint pen, and ink on paper.

Yayoi Kusama courted and received a lot of attention in New York in the 1960s for her truly groundbreaking and unique work. It’s how the Whitney Museum of American Art can justify having the Japanese artist’s retrospective on view, despite her having lived most of her life in Japan, as she still does today. Kusama has her trademark polka dot works up, supported by some works from the beginning of her career, documentation about her activities in the 60s in New York, and a final roomful of her most recent paintings, all atop each other like the inside of a Kusamaesque Rubik’s cube.

The exhibition allows you to see how themes develop in her career–her initial white dot paintings become dots she paints on people to “obliterate” them, which becomes the undulating patterns of her paintings in the 2000s. She also returns to soft, abstract sculptural forms reminiscent of the body and of Louise Bourgeois, at multiple points.

Man Catching the Insect, 1972. Collage with oil on paper.

Her collage works, two examples of which are shown here, don’t fit as neatly into these patterns. They aren’t as clean and graphic design-y as her current works, but I found them as strong as anything else in the show. The more literally evoke Surrealism and the exploration of consciousness, but they do it in a very Kusama (note the polka dots) and very accomplished way. They are one of the rare times her obsessive attention to detail combines with recognizable imagery. Kusama is notoriously and publicly of a “fragile mental state,” to quote the artist herself, and these works show again how that mental instability plays into and feeds her artistic production.