Red, yellow, and blue are the three primary colors, the painter’s building blocks. You can mix every other color out of this trio. At least, that’s what they taught me in art class: combine any two primaries, and you get a “secondary” color, which lies between the primaries on the color wheel.
Then I picked up an optics textbook, and my world was turned upside down: the true primary colors are red, green, and blue. You can mix any hue out of these three shades of light. That’s how LCD displays work: by building pixels out of tiny sources of red, green, and blue light.
Why is the painter’s color wheel different? The textbook explained that light and pigments combine in opposite ways. Superimpose a blue and red spotlight, and the resulting light will emit blue and red wavelengths. Light mixes “additively.” By contrast, mixing paints is subtractive. A patch of red pigment is red because it absorbs light of all wavelengths except the red ones. And if you combine red and blue pigment, the mixture will absorb everything that either pigment absorbs. A pigment is a trap for particular wavelengths of light, so the more pigments you put in, the more light you catch and the less can get out.
So the physicist’s color wheel differs from the painter’s because light combines additively, while pigment combines subtractively. Except… this doesn’t make any sense! Yellow and blue paints make green, right? But if paints combine subtractively, yellow and blue should actually make… black. Here’s why.
Blue pigment reflects blue light and absorbs red and green light. If you look at the physicist’s color wheel, you’ll see that red and green light combine to make yellow light:
So blue pigment reflects blue light and absorbs yellow light. Conversely, yellow pigment reflects yellow light and absorbs everything else – i.e. blue light. So blue pigment traps yellow light, yellow pigment traps blue light, and if you put the two traps together, you’ve caught all the light of the rainbow and made black!
And yet… I’ve been painting for years, and I can assure you: at least sometimes, blue and yellow do make green.
But how? Here are three reasons yellow and blue don’t always make black and sometimes make green, even though physics basically works.
1. Real-world pigments are impure.
Your typical tube of blue paint won’t perfectly absorb yellow light. Instead, it will reflect some light in the whole spectrum, and quite a lot of light in the green part of the spectrum in particular. So if you mix a pigment like this with a “cool” yellow – that is, a yellow that also reflects a fair bit in the green range of the spectrum, you’ll get a pigment that reflects quite a lot of green light. It will still be more muted than pure green, but it will be much closer to green than to black.
So your art teacher wasn’t lying to you: yellow and blue sometimes make green. Well, maybe they lied a little bit: you can’t actually make all the colors out of red, yellow, and blue. Certainly not if you only have one tube of each color. You can mix green from a cool blue and cool yellow, and orange from a warm yellow and warm red. But if you use the same tubes of yellow throughout, either your green or your orange are going to look quite a bit like brown.
2. Painters and physicists speak different dialects.
My Polish friends take offense when I call navy blue jeans “blue,” since “navy blue” is a separate Polish word. My partner keeps insisting that my blue shirt is “purple.” By what right was I assuming that my art teacher and the optics textbook meant the same things by “blue”?
In fact, as a painter, I’d call the physicist’s blue a warm blue, almost a purple. If I try mixing a paint of that precise shade of blue with a yellow, I’ll still get green, but a very impure one. So at least some of the disagreement between painters and physicists is terminological.
For the physicist, the true additive primaries are cyan, magenta, and yellow. Compare that to the most influential color wheel in art history, taken from Goethe.
If you forget about the names, Goethe’s color wheel is remarkably close to the physicist’s one. Goethe’s “red” is a cool red that is quite close to what a physicist might call “magenta;” his blue is a cool, almost turquoise cousin of “cyan.” (And his “purple” is basically the physicist’s blue.) Given the limitations of the pigments that were available in Goethe’s day, that’s really the closest you could expect him to get to the “true” subtractive primaries of yellow, magenta, and cyan.
So even if pigments combine subtractively, what the painters call “blue” and “yellow” does often combine to green. And now… time to knock down this whole house of cards. The final reason why yellow and blue don’t always make black (but do sometimes make grey):
3. Pigments don’t always combine subtractively.
What happens if you combine red and white paint? You get pink, right? But that’s not what physics tells us! White paint reflects (more or less) the full spectrum; it doesn’t trap any wavelengths. So (subtractively) mixing in white pigment shouldn’t do anything to red!
Here’s the secret: red and white make pink because most paints don’t actually combine subtractively. Instead, if you mix equal amounts of two perfectly opaque pigments, each ray of light will interact with particles from just one of the pigments. So in an opaque red/white mixture, about half of the light will interact with white pigment particles and be reflected back, and half will interact with red particles and be reflected only in the red spectrum (and absorbed in the green and blue spectrum). And that’s precisely what pink is: light with components in all wavelengths, but with more intensity in the red range.
This is so-called “additive-averaging mixing.” By contrast, if the pigment is transparent, light will pass into the paint mixture and bounce around inside it, interacting (and getting absorbed by) pigments of both colors. This gives our old friend, subtractive mixing. This is how your printer works: by combining thin, transparent layers of yellow, magenta, and cyan. It’s probably not a coincidence that Goethe’s color wheel was made with watercolor paints, which are quite transparent as well. It’s also possible to dilute oil paints and apply them in transparent glazes; if you do that, you can actually become a human printer and paint with a cyan, magenta, yellow palette!
There’s that old joke where a farmer asks a physicist for help increasing milk production. “I have the answer,” responds the physicist, “but it only works for a spherical cow in a vacuum.” Blue and yellow only make pure black when they are such spherical cows: fully transparent pigments which perfectly absorb all wavelengths except those determined by the physicist’s idiosyncratic dialect. Outside of textbook vacuums, blue and yellow make brown, grey, green, and everything in between.
If you’d like to learn how to mix colors in practice, I’m teaching a color-centered beginners’ painting coursestarting July 7th. You can learn more about it and sign up here. (The first session just passed, but please feel free to contact me if you’re interested; I might create a makeup session.) And if you’d like to get my essays in your inbox, you can sign up below.
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In the 1950s, B.F. Skinner got a pigeon to spend 16 straight hours pecking at a sheet of plexiglass, at an average rate of 2.5 pecks per second. What could have caused this frenzy? Was the pigeon held at gunpoint? Threatened with the murder of its family? Attempting to break the pecking record?
No. It pecked because this action was rewarded with food pellets at random intervals.
Skinner kept other pigeons too, in pellet-dispensing containers that would come to be known as “Skinner boxes.” In the second group, pecking produced food at predetermined time intervals. These pigeons would go about their pigeon business until it was feeding time, at which point they would casually peck on the plexiglass. Predictability versus randomness made the difference between sanity and psychosis.
Don’t mock the psychotic pigeons; we are much the same. From the simple slot machine to Facebook’s endless scroll, humans inhabit their own Skinner boxes. I am only a pigeon, so I scroll through 99 blurry photographs and poorly targeted ads just to get to that one video of a cat guarding its owner’s phone.
Without pausing to take the cue, I keep scrolling. I am the endless scroll. I’m a narrowed vision, a crazed emptiness, an engagement metric. I’m a shadow of myself.
I am only a pigeon, waiting for treats at the Facebook feed.
I tried to quit, but Facebook had given me a brain itch. Nothing would scratch it: not yoga, not books, not movies. There’s no jackpot in yoga, no scrolling in a book. Every activity I could think of felt boring; in the evening, it was hard to get myself to do anything.
I could have gritted my teeth and picked up a book, but I wondered if I could make things easier for myself. Was there something like a nicotine patch for the social media itch, a harmless substitute that would take my mind off the craving while I transitioned out of the pigeon’s life?
I decided to build a personalized Skinner box.
I put names of evening activities on strips of paper. Mimicking the variable reinforcement of the feed, I included chores (doing the dishes, responding to emails), wholesome pleasures (reading a book, calling a friend), and dopamine hits (ice cream, cat videos). Instead of rationally deciding how to spend my evening, I would draw an item from the box.
The effect was immediate. Even though I didn’t actually want to do most of the individual tasks, somehow I thrilled at the prospect of randomly drawing from among them. Sometimes, the sense of adventure persisted even if I drew a chore. The very tasks my rational mind struggled to coax me into were magically transformed into treats by the power of the Skinner box.
The next day, I tried simply doing the dishes without the seemingly unnecessary detour of the box. Poof! The adventure was a chore again. Clearly, the box was an indispensable part of the magic. But how did it work? I think it helped me access a different mental space. When I use the box, instead of trying to find the absolute best activity for a given moment, I open myself to possibility. I lean into my adventure-loving, curious side; I harness my inner pigeon.
I had discovered something better than a nicotine patch: a way to joyfully addict myself to the things I actually want to do.
I applied this discovery when working on a series of landscape paintings based on photographs from El Paso, Texas. When I started the project, rationally choosing which photo to work from felt like the evening fiasco all over again: no choice seemed particularly appealing. This time, I knew what to do: it was time for a handcrafted Skinner box.
Using a random number generator, I picked one of my top 130 El Paso photos. It was a dud: an abstract, nearly monochrome closeup of the desert floor after a snowstorm. I tried copying it, but it seemed stupid to aim for a realistic representation of something that didn’t even look like anything to begin with.
Besides, I’m not a monochrome kind of person. So after a few frustrated marks, I started focusing on the brushstrokes instead, transforming the image into an abstract color field. It’s not my absolute favorite painting, but I learned more about paintbrush and color use than I would have from a “better” source photograph.
I reach for the random number generator every morning… and wake excited to paint. By combining the predictability of painting at a fixed time with the addictive power of randomness, I have turned myself into Pavlov’s pigeon, drooling at the regular appearance of the Skinner box.
Come to think of it, I had been harnessing the addictive power of randomness in my art way before I knew about Skinner boxes.
Like the pigeon whose treats come at predetermined intervals, if I know precisely what I want a painting to look like, I lose my interest. To combat this ennui, I build stochastic surprises into my process. I’ll often prepare my canvases with a layer of random colors and textures. Searching for affinities and tensions between underpainting and model, I open myself to happy accidents. I find delicacies at every corner: shades of yellow and pink in the model’s skin which echo the underpainting; a figure 8-shaped silhouette which can be made to dance with swirling brushstrokes.
I don’t like certainty. What propels me is curiosity, a sense of adventure, a hope that the next pellet is just around the corner. When I make things, I try to leave room for such treats. This is why I rarely outline my posts. The first draft of the essay you’re reading was a random collection of anecdotes about, er, randomness. Before draft #2, I had no idea that any anecdote except the first would mention Skinner boxes. Writing gave me the very gift I’m trying to pass on to you: a new mental framework.
Many posts fail to deliver such kernels. As any pigeon knows, this only makes the search more enticing.
As much as it was a revelation, the “Skinner box” framing isn’t perfect. The gaze of the Facebook-scrolling pigeon is frenzied and narrow, focused on a single, distant point. Intent on the upcoming reward, she barely notices the dozens of mediocre posts running through her feed, frantically scrollingscrollingscrolling. Unlike Facebook, creative randomness expands my vision. When I make things, I am excited, sometimes brimming with exuberance — but never out-of-control frantic.
What makes the difference? It’s pretty easy to tell whether a Facebook post is a treat or not — but discovering whether a photograph is good source material for a painting requires attention and exploration. (If you’re inventive enough, anything is good source material.) Instead of treats, the Artist’s Box dispenses puzzles. Crack them the right way, and you’ll unlock the delicious core. That requires constant alertness, and since a treat can appear at any moment, I’m motivated to keep going.
A recent vacation really brought home the power of putting ambiguous treats in your Skinner box.
I love daydreaming about upcoming travel. Wanting my trips to live up to these dreams, I plan… and I plan, and I plan. I make sure I end up in the right place at the right time, seeing the sunset at the Grand Canyon and the sunrise in Zion.
Of course, nothing is ever exactly as planned. During a trip to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, my partner felt some knee pain and needed to stay in the car and rest, so I agreed to substitute a short solo hike for the long and scenic one I had dreamed of.
As I started walking, volcanic rocks loomed against an otherworldly yellow. The blustery landscape suited my sulky mood. By the time I reached the trail’s end — an underwhelming drip of waterfall, seen from above — I had traded disappointment for a sense of adventure. Since I had some time to spare, I decided to go exploring. I crossed over the creek, thrilled by the (minuscule) danger of slipping and plummeting down the waterfall. The view on the other side wasn’t any better, but the sense of adventure was its own reward.
Then I wandered off up another hill, idly searching for a more sweeping vista. There was no view here either. Instead, a museum opened up at my feet. Bowls of volcanic rock served up air bubbles. Tongues of lava seemed to cool before my eyes. Lichens and sulfur rivalled the abstract expressionist’s brush. It was one of the highlights of the week-long vacation.
When I returned to the trail, to my amazement I saw that it had been strewn with equally magnificent stones all along. I never had to go off-trail to see such marvels.
Oh, but I did: off-trail is a state of mind.
The pigeons with predictable feeds wander off to do other things when it’s not feeding time. Similarly, when I plan a hike with a clear treat at the end, my attention wanders before the climax. But if the treat could come at any time — and if, moreover, what counts as a treat is as much a matter of how you look as a matter of where you are, then I will walk through the landscape open-eyed — and gasp.
All of my Skinner boxes eventually stop working. I have enough of a feel for all of the tasks in my evening box that “use the box” now feels almost like its own predictable activity, forcing me to keep adding more items. And sometimes, I opt for the radical act of… rationally deciding how to spend my evening. It’s a little like putting my Skinner box inside another Skinner box — the big box sometimes delivers the small box, and sometimes the instruction “do what you think is best right now.”
Though it needs regular maintenance, the slot machine is a powerful tool. You can’t decide whether or not to become a pigeon; randomness will always be addictive. But you can build better Skinner boxes. You can addict yourself to Twitter — or to creativity. You can engineer a slot machine that will shrink your world — or one that will open it wide, then fill it to the brim with possibility.
You can see more of my paintings on Instagram. And if you’d rather learn about my art (and thoughts) in a less addictive way, sign up below to get my posts delivered to your inbox.
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When Japan opened its borders to trade in the 1850s, inflation, epidemics, riots, murders, executions, and battles ensued. It’s easy to rattle off the sequence of events, tracing chains of political cause and effect, and lose sight of the human dimension of all this carnage. The imagination smooths over the detail, removes individual faces, wipes out the actual blood.
The art of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi puts the blood back in the picture. He was there amidst it all, sketching in the execution grounds and battlefields. His prints zoom in on individual people — beheader as well as beheaded — and condense the spirit of his time. At this scale, his era’s violence attracts as much as it repels, leaving us face-to-face with our own capacity for bloodlust. It’s no wonder he called one of his series Biographies of Valiant Drunken Tigers; the warriors he depicts are as abhorrent in their bloodthirsty battle trance as they are admirable in their bravery. To look at his prints is to mourn the loss of life and to revel in it.
Yoshitoshi was born as Owariya Yonejiro in Edo (now Tokyo) on April 30, 1839. His father was a merchant wealthy enough to buy himself a place in a samurai family register — and hence a samurai title — from a financially struggling clan. Around the age of three, Yoshitoshi left home to live with his uncle; one of Yoshitoshi’s students would later claim that this was because Yoshitoshi disliked the mistress who moved in with his father at the time. At 11, he was apprenticed to printmaker Utagawa Kuniyoshi, whose studio specialized in depictions of heroic battle scenes.
In Kuniyoshi’s studio, the aspiring artist learned to draw human and animal figures from live models (a rather unusual practice, which Kuniyoshi had adopted from the West), perused his teacher’s art collection (which included Western engravings), and copied his designs, including gruesome prints like Byôkwansaku Yôyû Gazing at a Severed Head. He was building the foundation of his pictorial language. As was customary, he acquired his name as part of his artistic training; Kuniyoshi gave his student the name “Yoshitoshi,” including the character “yoshi” from his own name as a mark of lineage.
Outside the studio, history was happening. In 1853, three years after the start of Yoshitoshi’s apprenticeship, Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Edo Bay and demanded that Japan open its borders to trade with the US. The shogun (military leader) complied with Perry’s demand, and the following years saw massive inflation, epidemics, and riots. As if that wasn’t enough, in the years 1854–1855 Japan was hit by a series of devastating earthquakes.
When the 1855 Edo earthquake hit, Kuniyoshi was returning home from the kabuki theater. He had just watched a performance of the chilling tale of the hag of Adachi Moor, a cannibalistic witch who preyed on visitors to her home, especially pregnant women. By the time he made it home, his students (including the 16-year-old Yoshitoshi) had given him up for dead.
Sometime during the next few months (or perhaps that very night), Kuniyoshi suffered a stroke. Though he lived for another six years, he hardly made any more work after the earthquake…with the notable exception of multiple prints of the Hag of Adachi Moor, whose image seems to have lodged itself into his brain. As we’ll see, his student inherited the fascination.
When Kuniyoshi died in 1861, 21-year-old Yoshitoshi hadn’t had time to establish his own art studio. Meanwhile, unrest was reaching new heights. After the opening of borders, inflation and unemployment skyrocketed, and epidemics swept across the country. Hundreds of thousands died of cholera in 1858, twice as many of measles in 1862. Westerners were blamed for this and anti-Western sentiment soared; rebels began murdering foreigners. The murderers, in turn, faced execution. During these restless years, Yoshitoshi would join the crowds at execution grounds, continuing his teacher’s practice of sketching from life…or, in this case, death. There were many scenes to behold. A samurai plunged the knife into his bowels himself when ordered. Others were hanged or crucified, but good old-fashioned decapitation was favored for its simplicity. Plus, the severed head was a useful deterrent, easily exhibited and paraded around town; 123 severed heads were displayed in Edo between 1862 and 1865.
The fruit of all this observation can be found in the 1866–1867 series 28 Famous Murders with Verse, which Yoshitoshi completed in collaboration with another of Kuniyoshi’s old students, Utagawa Yoshiiku. (Each artist designed 14 of the prints.) The stories depicted in the series draw from history, popular legends, and the kabuki theater.
Fukuoka Mitsugi with Flying Papers, Severed Head, one of the 28 Famous Murders, is based on the true story of the 1796 Aburaya teahouse murder, during which a 27-year-old doctor flew into a jealous rage, murdering three and seriously injuring six. The print captures the instant after the decapitation. Everything about the composition implies the recent struggle: the papers scattered during the altercation haven’t had a chance to descend, the killer’s expression is still frozen in fury. The red pigment mixed with glue spattered across his robe horrifies with its verisimilitude. Look more closely, and it only gets creepier: two of the bloodstains are handprints, left there by the woman whose head lies severed in a puddle of its own blood.
Yoshitoshi was hardly the first Japanese artist to represent violence. Long before it was a print, the story of the raging doctor had been dramatized in a kabuki play. Violent plays like this one were traditionally performed in the summer, to cool the audience with shivers of horror. Gore in woodblock prints was nothing new, either. By the time of the 28 Murders With Verse, the genre of violent art was splitting into subgenres, common enough to have their own special names: chimidoro-e (blood-stained prints), muzan-e (atrocious prints), namakubi (depictions of severed heads).
Yoshitoshi’s prints are gorier than those of his predecessors, but this may be due less to his personality than to temporary lapses in censorship. During the last years of the shogunate, his police force must have had better things to do than chase down unruly artists. (In 1884, the police would start a clampdown on prints depicting blood and violence, which had nominally been forbidden all along.) Perhaps the 28 Murders were simply the result of the shrewd marketing decision to print gore while that was still possible. Given how often woodblock printers turned to violent subject matter, there must have been demand for it; we know that 28 Famous Murders with Verse sold extremely well.
Tradition, demand, and lapses in censorship all conspired to make Yoshitoshi’s art possible, but it was the violence of the final years of the Edo period that turned the possibility into bloodstained reality. The years of the series’ publication saw killings, rebellions, executions, and riots caused by an unprecedentedly bad rice shortage. Yoshitoshi’s art was a mirror held up to its time.
The prints also coincided with the death of both heads of state: the shogun in 1866, the emperor in 1867. When the 14-year-old Meiji succeeded his father as emperor, opponents of the shogunate saw their chance: if the shogun could be deposed, the “restored” emperor could be controlled by his cabinet. So began the Boshin War of 1868–1869.
By May 1868, the shogun had given up Edo (soon to become Tokyo) — but a band of his samurai were too honorable to follow suit. They fought to the death against the emperor’s modernized army at the doomed Battle of Ueno. Yoshitoshi was there too, sketching the fighters, and perhaps even the 83 bodies left to decompose in the summer heat due to an edict that forbade burial.
Yoshitoshi’s Selection of 100 Warriors, printed during the years of the war, represents the violent acts of famous samurai, and features such bloodthirsty work as Sakuma Daigaku Drinking Blood from a Severed Head. The print applied lessons learned in the battlefield, execution ground, and Kuniyoshi’s studio. The debt to Kuniyoshi’s Byôkwansaku Yôyû Gazing at a Severed Head is clear in the hair-clutching and the green kimono (complementary to the red of blood) — but the terrifyingly compelling result is Yoshitoshi’s own. The print traps the eye in a gory loop: from the grimacing mouth of the victim, down the blood trail dripping into Sakuma’s armpit, then back up to the gaping mouth, the gaping neck…The dead and the living are inextricably bound, the winner and loser have almost the same face — two heads like theater masks, differing only in mood.
The image depicted a scene from the 16th-century war between brothers Oda Nobuyuki and Oda Nobunanga; Sakuma Daigaku took the head of Nobuyuki’s general during one of the battles. He doesn’t appear to have drunk his victim’s blood, though his leader Nobunaga did eventually have the skulls of his defeated enemies gilded and turned into sake cups. Perhaps Yoshitoshi combined the two events for dramatic effect. The subject-matter — a war between brothers — echoed the civil war of Yoshitoshi’s own era, while avoiding possible censorship.
Sakuma Daigaku Drinking Blood from a Severed Head is the 20th in a projected Selection of 100 Warriors, but Yoshitoshi would abandon the series by #65. Just as the country was returning to a semblance of peace, the artist would suffer what appeared to be a mental breakdown and fall into a deep depression. During the five years that followed, he had to accept his students’ gifts of rice and pickled vegetables. Once, he burned the floorboards of his home for warmth. To support him, his mistress, Okoto, would sell her possessions and formal clothes. A few years later, she would move back to her hometown, sell herself to a brothel, and send Yoshitoshi the profit.
Yoshitoshi emerged from his five-year hiatus into a changed Japan. Though the pro-imperial samurai had rallied under the slogan “Western technology, Japanese values,” what followed the Meiji Restoration was in fact the dissolution of much that traditional Japan had held dear. Replaced by a conscripted army, the very samurai who had helped overthrow the shogun would soon become obsolete. The same fate was befalling many Edo traditions — including, eventually, woodblock printing, which would be superseded by the Western techniques of lithography and photography.
Yoshitoshi clung to tradition as stubbornly as the samurai fighting at Ueno. He took up time-honored artforms like Noh chanting, abstained from Western technologies like gas lighting, and sang praises to old ways of life in his many historical prints. His work took on a more subdued tone; in addition to near-bloodless warrior prints, he now designed images of beautiful women. His treatment of real women remained appalling, though; around 1878, his second mistress sold her formal clothes and possessions to support him, then contracted herself out to a brothel. Though biographers praise the wife he married in 1884 for her stabilizing influence, Yoshitoshi “did not stop his philandering” after their marriage, Eric van den Ing and Robert Schaap noted in their book, Beauty and Violence: Japanese Prints by Yoshitoshi, 1839–1892.
And then, in 1885, he produced perhaps his most bloodcurdling design. In The Lonely House on Adachi Moor, a heavily pregnant woman hangs upside down from the ceiling, her round belly flopping helplessly downwards. Below her, the shriveled hag of Adachi Moor readies a knife to slice open the womb. There might not be any blood (by then, censors wouldn’t allow that), but this print is as haunting as any Yoshitoshi produced.
Yoshitoshi’s Lonely House on Adachi Moor — designed on the 30th anniversary of the Edo earthquake — is strongly indebted to Kuniyoshi’s earlier prints. The flaccid-breasted, bony hag is almost the same; her victim even wears the same red skirt. Still, let’s give Yoshitoshi his due: it’s the innovation of hanging the victim upside down that turns his design into the stuff of nightmares.
As with the teacher, so with the student: prints of the hag heralded the beginning of Yoshitoshi’s final years. She reappeared in one of his last masterpieces: The Actor Onoe Kikugoro V as the Hag ofAdachi (1890). The following year, Yoshitoshi invited his friends to meet a group of artists…who turned out to be a figment of his imagination. He spent the next year between several mental health hospitals, then died from a cerebral hemorrhage at 53.
Hoping to extend the artistic pedigree which stretched back behind him in unbroken lines of repeated syllables — Yoshitoshi, Kuniyoshi, Toyokuni, Toyoharu — Yoshitoshi trained more than 200 students and gave 60 of them artist names. None of their work passed the test of time; woodblock printing effectively died with its bloodiest proponent.
Like the subjects of his prints, Yoshitoshi had been a “valiant drunken tiger,” risking his life to view the carnage from up close, battling mental illness, bravely and foolishly pushing his medium forward even as it was becoming obsolete. Like the samurai he admired, he was the last of his kind. He was also, by 21st century consensus, the greatest Japanese artist of his era.
Originally published as “The Artist of Japan’s Bloody Era” in Rabbit Hole Magazine. Reprinted with Rabbit Hole’s permission. All images in the public domain.
I want to stroke Alma’s silky wisp of hair, put ointment on her peeling ankles, kiss the place where a drop of blood has dried on her teeny heel. I keep scrolling. Eloisa stares at me with vacant green eyes, her fists delightfully wrinkled but eerily glossy. I keep scrolling. Red-eyed and deathly pale, Isadora makes my heart stop. Beneath her button nose, the minuscule mouth dribbles blood, sports fangs.
Adopted, the caption reads. Painted and designed by an 11-year-old – under her mother’s supervision – Vampire Isadora was sold at a discount.
At reborns.com, anyone can become a happy parent. With the help of a dropdown menu, you can narrow down the 657 lifelike dolls by price ($100-$5000), ethnicity, gender, eye material (glass, acrylic, polyglass). Select “boo boo,” and the faces scrunch into pouts. Choose “realborn,” and the vampires, chimpanzees, and waxy misproportioned monstrosities all blessedly disappear – replaced by something which, in its own way, is even eerier: dolls made from 3D-printed babies. (Where do the models for the dolls come from? Bountiful Babies, the top supplier of 3D-printed doll parts, is suing dollmaker Stephanie Ortiz for libel over alleged ties to the Kingston Clan, of polygamy and child marriage fame.)
Reborns.com lies deep in the uncanny valley: that terrifying twilight zone whose residents appear almost-but-not-quite human. Is this website a Toys“R”Us or a slave market? Are these dolls babies or playthings, dead or alive? Unable to settle on a characterization, my mind churns; my stomach churns with it.
Not everyone feels that way, though. The community of hyperrealistic doll enthusiasts has been steadily growing since 1989, when Joyce Moreno created the first “reborn” doll. The original process of “reborning” involved stripping store-bought dolls of their paint to give them a more lifelike makeover. These days, most artists use unpainted, purpose-built doll kits instead, but the name has stuck.
There are now tens of thousands reborn artists and collectors worldwide. They chat on specialized forums and buy the dolls on eBay, Etsy, Facebook, even walmart.com.
Rather than being put off by ambiguity, the reborn community appears to thrive on it. A reborn “mother” might find her baby at a convention, displayed next to bags of disembodied, unpainted doll parts. She won’t mind knowing that the womb this doll came from was the oven which helped set the paints.
Or perhaps she had her baby shipped by mail from an online “nursery.” In this case, she might post a carefully choreographed unboxing video on YouTube. Like a mother at a baby shower, she’ll coo over the accessories that come with the purchase: the cardigans, onesies, itty-bitty shoes. Then comes the birth certificate, and finally: the doll itself. Tradition dictates that the feet are unwrapped first, precious toes squeezed while the head and torso remain swaddled in a blanket. Unboxing complete, the new mom might cradle and rock the doll like a real baby, even change its diapers – only to plonk it unceremoniously to the ground, the neck lolling back as if snapped.
Who are the people who collect these dolls? Why do they do it? And with a lifeless baby in the house, how do they sleep at night?
Most (though by no means all) reborn collectors are American or European women. Reborns are mostly white, so many of their collectors (who often refer to dolls of other races as “ethnic”) probably are too. About half have real children. Beyond that, every collector’s story is different.
Shane Pointon’s reborn was modelled on his stillborn son. The father, who burst into tears when receiving the doll from his wife, delights in combing its hair and choosing its outfits. This is the sort of story you’ll find in the tabloids, but Pointon is hardly your typical collector; one reborn artist reports serving a single bereaved customer over seven years. In the minority of cases in which a reborn is based on photos of a real baby, the tragedy prompting the rebirth is usually only this: the prototype had gone on to become an adult, sometimes, the very adult requesting the reborn: more than one son has gifted his mother a reborn version of his baby self.
Many, perhaps most, collectors see themselves as just that: collectors of world-class masterpieces. The artistry really is spectacular; Vermeer would be put to shame by the 30 layers of paint a reborn artist might use to mimic skin over veins. Small touches complete the illusion: individually rooted hairs, heartbeat and voice modules, baby scents.
Some display the dolls in cribs; others arrange their vinyl babies in glass cases. Kellie Eldred prefers to think of the dolls as “huggable works of art.” She cradles her masterpieces to decompress at the end of a long day at work; nothing soothes your nerves quite like the sensation of holding a pellet-weighted doll.
Though literal loss of an infant is uncommon, other losses abound: childlessness, infertility, miscarriage. Lucenda Plancarte, who has stage four endometriosis, picks up her reborns on her sad days, the ones when she can’t help asking “Why am I not a mom today?” I half-expect Plancarte to dissolve into tears on screen as she says this. “Okay, you’re gonna get through this,” she chirps instead. Like so many reborn moms, she has pulled off the trick: dreaming on the verge of her nightmare, finding comfort in a memento of her loss.
“When you go out and push a pram, everybody looks…You feel seen when you’ve got a baby. I can walk down the street now and nobody looks at you, nobody talks to you.”
Christine was the one who cut her grandson Harry’s umbilical cord. She was his primary caretaker for 2.5 years, while his mother battled from cancer. Then the mother recovered, snatched Harry, and immigrated from the UK to New Zealand.
It’s time to take out the stroller; Christine has had Harry reborn.
For 2.5 years, Christine had a purpose, an identity. And just like that, it was snatched away. For other mothers (birth or not), the transition is less abrupt, but who’s to say it shouldn’t hurt too?
I think back to the sons who reborn themselves for their mothers. I’m your baby – the best gift you can have. I first saw it as infantile egoism. Now, I sense a tenderness beneath the strangeness: he understands his mother’s loss. For years, she had tethered herself to his development; nobody checked whether she was dizzied by its speed. He doesn’t see himself as a baby, but a part of her always will. He is finally old enough to understand this.
The next moment, I’m spooked again. What will Harry think when his grandmother shows him his doppelgänger? If you can replace me with a doll,did you ever really love me?
Reborners have a penchant for bluntness. The doll, unlike a real child, won’t grow up, won’t do drugs, won’t move to New Zealand, won’t die of leukemia. This is all said explicitly. “Let’s be honest, children are cutest when they’re newborns. We all want them to stay that way.”
Reborns “don’t give you any trouble,” collector Lachelle Moore sums up. “There’s no college tuition, no dirty diapers…Just the good part of motherhood.” To hear this as a onetime child is to feel, literally, objectified. It’s to become nothing more than the trigger for the secretion of maternal instincts. Whatever happened to loving a child’s interior? To watching and helping a baby become her own person? Is none of that part of what makes motherhood worthwhile?
Reborning shines a blinding light on parenting’s dark side. Our parents did want to hold on to us forever; a part of them did, anyway. And still, they let go. That is love.
When Christine brought “Harry” back home, her husband couldn’t hide his revulsion. “It’s like something out of the mortuary!” he protests. The quiver of Christine’s lip is barely perceptible, but it stings more than the sharpest accusation. For all the sympathy I have come to feel for these collectors, I remain repelled by the reborns themselves. Why must the dolls look so alive – and hence so dead? Why can’t their owners play with ragdolls instead?
It’s tempting to say: to better inhabit their fantasy. But despite all the talk of “adoption,” for all the diapers and doll-strollers, it would be a mistake to accuse reborn collectors of delusion – and not just because they themselves deny that the dolls are real babies.
Do you believe in a movie’s fiction when you watch it? What if you’re engrossed in a gripping scene? These collectors embrace their dolls in a similar way.
When Lucenda Plancarte sits with her dolls, she is also sitting with her infertility. What Shane Pointon, the grieving father, takes out of the wrapping paper is a fantasy child and the reality of his son’s death. When Christine puts her newborn in a stroller, she imagines he is Harry even as she learns to accept that he isn’t.
The very feature of reborns which repels me – their residence at the edge of the uncanny valley – is what allows their owners to move through their grief. The doll is an infant one moment, and just a doll the next; the owner can escape her grief for an instant, then be brought right back.
More than their mindboggling realism, this is what makes reborns art to me. Like the most beautiful tragic play, they connect their audiences to their sealed-off feelings, offer solace, so that, fortified, they can return to reality.
After hours of polishing this article, I look in the mirror and see…a doll. A physical mechanism which will one day fail me; a bone-sack which can kill each dream through infertility, illness, death.
What if I’m wrong? What if the illusion lies in finding these babies creepy, not cute? What if I, not the collectors, am the escapist?
If something out of a mortuary looks cute, then something cute can end up in the mortuary. I can’t bear to face this conclusion – the staggering fragility of babies – so I deny reborns their cuteness.
The uncanny valley exists because our brains abhor ambiguity. We want an impassable boundary between fact and fiction, the human and the inhuman, the living and the dead. Of course, no such boundary exists; we are all sliding towards the uncanniest of valleys: death.
There is no place to dream but at the nightmare’s edge.
“Would you take a pill which removed your boredom forever?”
I almost said “yes.” Boredom is excruciating. Doing nothing – meditating, sunbathing, kicking down the cobblestones – is lovely. Boredom is an unscratchable itch layered on top of that glorious nothing. Who needs that?
I almost said “yes,” but I know the trickery of thought experiments. I hedged: “yes, if it doesn’t change anything else about my life.”
“Oh, but that’s the point: what do you think it would change?”
Recently, I wanted to paint this gorgeous view:
As usual before starting a landscape, I tallied the things I loved about the view: the depth of the green of the poplars(?), the wildflowers scattered in the foreground, the glow on the lake.
A glorious view, but fifteen minutes later I was yawning. The vista was green on green on green, and trying to differentiate those ten muddy greens from each other made me want to shoot myself.
I paused and reconsidered. What was my aim in painting? Capturing my excitement about the view. Enhancing my appreciation. Riding the edge between representation and paint, playing with my brushstrokes. Loving nature like Joaquin Mir did:
Well, I sure as hell wasn’t heading in that direction. Even if I got the damned greens right, would that take me where I wanted to go? It would lead me to accuracy, to realism – not to the type of art that brought me alive.
I loved the depth of the color of the poplars, but did I love the particularities of their muddy color? I placed a stroke of pure, delicious blue in their shadows. I put purple on the trunks. I made the grass in the foreground emerald green because I love the color, then, seeing the grass pinking slightly as it dried, added a blob of pink in for good measure.
I didn’t know where this would take me; I loved every moment.
There are terrible pictures that have taken time and pain to make, intricate and difficult, results of grinding patience, research, great amalgamations of material. They frighten the sensitive student for the message they carry is of the pain and boredom of their making.
Robert Henri, “Art Spirit“
When I read this quote, I think not of painting but academic philosophy. How many papers had I read like that – intricate and difficult, results of grinding patience, research, great amalgamations of material? How many papers like this had I forced myself to read through tears of boredom, since they were on the topic of my dissertation – that great amalgamation of material I thought I had to write?
Henri gave me permission to trust my boredom. What if rather than a sign of insufficient stamina, it was a sign of taste? What if these texts were exactly what they appeared: meticulously researched crap?1
I used to feel guilty for how much “non-philosophy” was on my reading list: how much literature, pop science, education. About how much time I spent painting and writing non-academic essays, or polishing the words in my dissertation to my liking. I found those things so much more interesting than what I was “supposed” to do, but I approached them half-heartedly. Now I realized that it was how Henri had said:
People are often so affected by outside opinion that they go to their most important work half hearted or half ashamed.
Henri’s insight helped me write a better dissertation faster and more joyfully. I started aggressively skimming my bibliography and writing things I would actually enjoy reading. And these parts – faster, better, more joyfully – weren’t in conflict, as I’d thought – they were correlated! Henri says, startlingly:
It is easier, I think, to paint a good picture than it is to paint a bad one. The difficulty is to have the will for it.
That’s not true for all senses of “easier,” but it points in the right direction. But then why do so many people do boring work? If it’s easier, why is having the will for it hard?
Doing and making what excites you is a high-risk, high-reward strategy. You risk judgment. You risk finding out that no one else is excited by what excites you. Straying from the beaten path, half of the time you’ll walk aimlessly through the darkling forest.
Being meticulous is safe. Doing what everyone else is doing is safe. Academia is – yes, safe.
At least, that’s what had brought me to grad school: safety, not excitement. I wanted to look like someone who does what she loves, but I was terrified of stepping outside of the strictures of academia (with its promises of status, perhaps even of stable employment) when my love flowed elsewhere.
Fear – of the “real” world, of judgment, of unemployment – brought me to academia. Boredom was the antidote which helped me escape.
Of course I wouldn’t take the pill from the start of this post. Boredom is a guide. It’s almost a moral compass. It’s what tells me that I have lost my “why.” Removing it would mean crawling patiently in the wrong direction.
People who suffer from congenital insensitivity to pain don’t live very long. They don’t notice that they’re ill until it’s too late; they burn, cut, and bite themselves without realizing.
Boredom is a type of pain, and it’s important for similar reasons. Maybe it’s even more important. I’m happy that my hand automatically escapes a hot burner before I even physically feel pain. But I wouldn’t want my boredom replaced by an automatic reflex, even if I ended up doing the same exact things I do now.
My painting – and my life – wouldn’t be mine in the same way if I didn’t actively use my boredom as a guide.
And my landscape? I painted over the patch of red-pink in the foreground three times before I found the right balance between safety and excitement, between getting it “right” and making it alive. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
 Taste is subjective, so this is all about what I personally find interesting, not what anyone else “should” be interested in.
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Hyman Bloom’s New York Times obituary opens with a fantastically backhanded compliment.
A mystical and reclusive painter who for a brief time in the 1940s and ’50s was regarded as a precursor to the Abstract Expressionists and one of the most significant American artists of the post-World War II era, died on Wednesday in Nashua, N.H.
How did Bloom turn from art-world darling to apostate? And did he really deserve such a snarky obituary?
If you’ve seen any of Bloom’s goriest paintings, you might be unsurprised, even relieved, to find his art buried in obscurity. “A Matter of Life and Death,” a recent exhibition of Bloom’s paintings at the Boston MFA, was filled with depictions of decaying corpses and bloody autopsies. The works might have reminded you, like one of my fellow visitors, of the gratuitous violence of the TV series Dexter. Turning your face away from the canvases, you too might have explained: “I don’t want to know a mind like that!”
I’d like to show you some paintings which might lead you to reconsider, maybe even catch a glimpse of beauty behind the blood.
In this exhibition full of cadavers, the painting which upsets me most shows a living woman. She’s old, very old, and completely naked, her body a heavy sagging. You can feel its weight, its emptying. It — she — is sitting in an equally bare landscape — a world sliced in half by a lumpy, menacingly near horizon.
Her body is an hourglass, bottom-heavy. You can almost see the sifting. The tips of her fingers are already dissolving into grains of sand.
She’s sitting below a blank sky, on the edge of a dark, earthy precipice. On the edge of her own grave. Soon, she will simply vanish downwards in a puff of dirt. For now, she looks away, her toothless mouth widening in a grimace.
This looking away is what upsets me most. The body goes where it must. It is obedient. The mind, chained to this inevitability, winces. It turns away — though there is no turning away.
There is no turning away: if you follow the woman’s gaze out into the next room, you’ll find that it leads straight to her inevitable future — to Female Corpse, Back View.
The body is lying face-down, irrevocably pressed against this flat brown surface, this dead end. There is nothing but the hard cold earth.
And yet… we are viewing this from above — so there is an above, a hope.
Our bodies are parallel to this body. So it is standing up, in a gate of shroud, of bone, of paint. No one can stand on feet like these, but the body is a fish, swimming upwards.
We are viewing this from behind — standing in line to the gate to nowhere.
Why were these rich paintings forgotten?
Antisemitism may have played a role. The critic Hilton Kramer compared Bloom’s paintings of rabbis, cantors, and the interiors of synagogues to “gefilte fish at a fashionable cocktail party.” Kramer didn’t exactly undo the damage by later explaining that his remark was just “one Jew against another.”
But that can’t have been the whole story. After all, we still remember Marc Chagall. A more surprising (considering the painter’s identity) prejudice played a role in the poor reception of one of Bloom’s paintings.
Female Corpse, Front View and Corpse of an Elderly Male are bloated, repellent jewels. The bodies decay into a shimmering mess of paint. It’s hard to look, impossible to look away.
These two paintings were shocking in their day — but not equally shocking. Reasoning that “the Woman is a much finer picture than the Man,”1 Bloom’s gallery owner tucked away the latter — but not the former — in a back room, viewable only by special request.
Why were the paintings treated so differently? As far as I can tell: sexism with a dash of homophobia. Strike one: the corpse was male. The viewer, who was presumed to be a man, could distance himself from the female corpse, see it as a mere object — but viewing the male cadaver meant staring his mortality in the face. Strike two: the corpse was nude. Male nudes have been censored throughout art history. After all, if the only sexual desires which count are those of straight men, why would you even want to paint a nude man?2
Today, the only difference between the male and female nudes is that one has a penis. Which of our aesthetic judgments will our descendants find equally laughable?
Maybe you think both corpses should be tucked away in a back room. Fine. But why were Bloom’s other, gentler works forgotten?
Take Christmas Tree. Everything I love about Bloom’s oeuvre is present in this early painting. Made of light and hope, it feels sacred. The tawdry ornaments turn me into a toddler on Christmas Day.
In crucial places, where the painting ought to be convex, it almost seems concave — like a gaping hole at the heart of a mystery. In fact, the tree is a gaping hole: the painting is more red than green, a tower of ornaments piled over a smattering of branches.
This is one of Bloom’s signature paradoxes. His paintings lie at the meeting-place of flatness and depth, interior and exterior. They urge us to go beyond the surface, to excavate and to dissect — and yet they themselves are only surfaces.
There’s one more thing I love about this work: the paint in Christmas Tree forms an unbroken swirl. I imagine removing a single brushstroke, and it’s like pulling a plug in a bathtub; everything would drain away.
You could call this unity “beautifully balanced design” or perhaps an abstract “allover.” But when I look at Bloom’s paintings, I experience the impossible unity of his works not as an aesthetic ideal, but as a spiritual truth. The works are one because the world is one — and I am one with it.
Whether they represent Christmas trees or cadavers, all of Bloom’s paintings take me to that same place of wholeness.
That may be because they all come from the same place: they all have their roots in a single transformative experience. One night in the fall of 1939 (soon before painting Christmas Tree), Bloom, alone in his studio, “felt himself transformed into a boundless being, caught up in an ecstasy of color.” He “had a conviction of immortality, of being part of something permanent and ever changing, of metamorphosis as the nature of being. Everything was intensely beautiful.”
He would be painting that experience for the next 70 years of his life.
Well, that plus its exact opposite:a time of irreparable horror. Earlier that fall, Bloom had had to identify the body of his close friend Elizabeth Chase in the morgue. She had committed suicide.
Death and wholeness. Wholeness and death. From now on, he would grasp these twin experiences, pieces of the human puzzle — one in each hand — every time he began a painting.
In The Harpies, eerie monsters are tearing apart a body. Elaine de Kooning singled out the painting for praise, approvingly quipping that “composition, progressing toward total abstraction, seems to devour the subject.”
But while individual works such as The Harpies leaned toward abstraction, Bloom’s oeuvre as a whole was headed in a completely different direction. Just as the art world embraced Abstract Expressionism as the only “progressive” style, he moved further from the mannerism he had helped to create. As he explained,
the Abstract Expressionists, Jackson Pollock, for example, hurled themselves at the paintings with a destructiveness that was a form of nihilism, destroying everything because the world was not to their liking. (…) What I was trying to create was a complex picture in the classical sense; a work with depth and subject matter that was readable and over which I had exerted control. I thought of art as elevating, and I didn’t think Jackson Pollock even had a foot on the ladder.
Bloom painted bodies sliced open; Pollock splashed paint onto canvas. And then Bloom had the gumption to call Pollock’s work “destructive!”
He was right.
The Harpies represent (among other things) the cycle of life and death, the beauty and terror of the bacteria which will devour our bodies after our demise. The painting hovers on the edge of chaos, yes — but only because the world does. It may be “progressing toward total abstraction,” but it will never get there. To get there would be to give up the animating tension, the redemptive kernel which is the whole point of Bloom’s work.
The way I see it, Bloom’s paintings are mandalas. They are maps to the universe and keys to spiritual experiences akin to the ones which started Bloom’s career. (One of the paintings, Treasure Map, is a literal map.) They weave together shattered objects into dense, unbroken tapestries.
Each painting is a step on a quixotic quest: capturing the universe in a single canvas.
Disappointed at the reception of his cadaver paintings, Bloom exclaimed “I thought they would thank me!” Hardly the words of someone wanting to shock… (He had no intention of shocking when he continued: “the human body is beautiful, inside and out,” either — though admittedly those are just the words a murderer like Dexter would have used.)
What are we supposed to thank Bloom for? What did he think he was giving us?
I see an answer in The Anatomist — a self-portrait of sorts. Like the anatomist, Bloom opens up the body again and again, not gratuitously, but to learn something. Like doubting Thomas, he places his finger in the wound so that he might believe. In what? At times: in the resurrection. At other times: in his own mortality.
I remember what I felt in front of Seated Old Woman: nothing is more heartbreaking than turning away from death until it’s too late. Bloom didn’t want to end up like her.
I think this is why he oriented TheAnatomist vertically. If he had rotated the painting by 90 degrees, he would have shown the anatomist’s — his own — perspective. Instead, he gives us three hands (two living, one dead) made of the same stuff, species of the same genus. He gives us a mirror.
Or maybe we’re hovering above, beyond, the body. Either way, the painting occupies an eternal, multi-temporal viewpoint which includes life as well as death.
Its orientation is towards final matters.
You can neatly slice the Cadaver on a Table into an upper and a lower half. One half is sinking; the other soars skywards. One hand points to the ground; the other opens to the heavens. In a perfectly balanced tension — or a perfectly tense balance — the two gestures almost send the whole thing spinning.
The cadaver is rudely thrown onto a wooden table. This turns the body into a slab of meat, a mere thing. At the same time, the table’s edges form a triangle, offering the flesh-flaming body up to the heavens. At the apex of the triangle — the cavity in the cadaver’s chest.
That gaping hole — that tunnel — is the spiritual center of the painting — and of all these paintings of dissection. Their subject is precisely what isn’t there: the departed.
Bloom, who believed in an afterlife, studied astrology, theosophy, and occultism. He searched for spiritual truth in unusual places, taking LSD as part of a psychological study on creativity and attending (and painting) seances. These facts make it easy to dismiss the spiritual themes in his work — and, honestly, make me feel embarrassed to defend them. But when I look at his paintings of the deceased, I viscerally feel the beauty of his faith. It’s a faith I don’t share, but I’m grateful to be able to try it on through these works. They help me look more kindly on people I’d otherwise label “foolish.”
Even without the promise of an afterlife, I find hope in nearly all of Bloom’s paintings — hope in the very emptiness of the bodies. At times, it lies simply in honoring the departed, in the contrast of what was there a moment ago with what is not. Other times, it’s just the opposite: the works uncover an emptiness, something that had been missing long before death. Concavity instead of convexity. As if the thing I’m most terrified of losing was never there to begin with.
Somehow, that makes it okay.
If Bloom’s paintings had merely been shocking, he wouldn’t have been forgotten. Just think of the work of his contemporary Francis Bacon (who once had a joint exhibition with Bloom), whose paintings were made of blood and hopelessness. Or think of Duchamp’s urinal. In the art world, shock value is a feature, not a bug.
Bloom’s work benefited from this for a while. In fact, Severed Leg, one of his least redemptive paintings, hung the dining room of MoMA curator Monroe Wheeler. Imagine sipping cocktails below it!
Painted against the hopelessness of a blank wall, the Severed Leg is achingly disconnected from the rest of the world. Bloom’s other dissection paintings aren’t like this. In front of these paintings, which ought to have shocked me most, I lose even the qualified, mesmerized sort of repulsion I experienced in front of the male and female corpses.
It’s hard to explain my immunity to these works’ ostensible violence. They’re so much gentler in person than in reproduction — as if their aura could take me in its arms and shield me from their horror.
In photographs, these are unambiguously paintings of flesh; the red is undoubtedly blood. In person, the flesh is fully flesh, but also the most mesmerizing, caressing paint. The red is blood, yes, but also fire, and light, and soul.
When Kramer compared Bloom’s work to “gefilte fish at a fashionable cocktail party,” he was right that Bloom’s work didn’t fit in with the fashion of his day. Bloom painted representational work just as influential critics like Clement Greenberg proclaimed that the future of painting lay with abstraction.
But Bloom was worse than unfashionable. He didn’t just paint in the wrong style; he didn’t even have a style. His work ranges from the anatomical accuracy of Michelangelo, through the exquisite chiaroscuro of the Baroque, to Pollock’s splattered abstraction. He didn’t have a brand. How, then, was he to make a splash at any of the art world’s fashionable parties?
Instead of a brand, Bloom’s works are tied by a series of spiritual, conceptual threads. His work is animated by paradoxes, pairs of opposing properties. Surface and depth. Emptiness and fullness. Unity and dissection. Life and death. Standing in front of any one of his paintings, I feel these words rub against each other, flint to the flame of spiritual truth.
Such paradoxes were central in Baroque art, and if I had to lump Bloom in with any art-historical movement, it would be the Baroque rather than any twentieth-century current. But Bloom was a Baroque artist only in the sense in which Rembrandt was one. Both artists were fundamentally interested in the human condition. Both reveled in paint — not as mere paint, but as skin, and light, and life. Both had something so much more important than style: soul.
The paradoxes which for a Rubens might only be a technical exercise were, for Bloom, achingly alive. A matter of life and death.
The popularity of the Abstract Expressionists depended on the myth of a linear progression in art. According to this way of thinking, each era comes with one and only one revolutionary style; everything else is reactionary. In her incisive book Hyman Bloom: the Sources of his Imagery, Dorothy Abbott Thompson sketches the history of this myth.
In the 1950s, a new class of wealthy Americans was making its fortunes. Old ways of displaying wealth were falling out of fashion, and
art collecting (…) provided an alternative amusement for the wealthy. (…) An important collection was a testament to the taste, discernment and adventurous nature of the collector (…) Collectors aspired to be both daring and correct — in the lead, and yet sanctioned by the art world.
This aspiration enabled the rise of influential critics such as Clement Greenberg.
Greenberg’s position was that “avant garde,” “modernist,” or “high art” (terms used interchangeably) was difficult and could only be appreciated by those who understood and adhered to the precepts of formalist theory.
The very destructiveness and nihilism of Abstract Expressionism which appalled Bloom ensured the style’s popularity. The paintings were shocking on the outside: collectors could use them to display their discernment and adventurousness. And they were empty on the inside: ready to be filled with fashionable theory that would vindicate the collector’s judgment.
The wide acceptance of Greenberg’s art criticism
among wealthy collectors (many of whom were also museum trustees), museum directors, critics and art historians helped create an interlocking and mutually dependent group that, without being intentionally conspiratorial, determined what sort of art would be treated seriously.
Bloom was one of the unlucky.
Bloom was a mystical and reclusive painter who for a brief time was regarded as a precursor to the Abstract Expressionists. But if the judgment that his work was a precursor to the Abstract Expressionists is a mistake, then — well, so much the worse for the Abstract Expressionists.
Bloom’s mysticism and reclusiveness perfectly explain why he was forgotten. In fact, being reclusive is enough. The real question isn’t why Bloom was forgotten, but why anyone is remembered. Bloom never lived in New York, and eventually moved from Boston to the more provincial Nashua, New Hampshire. How could you be remembered if you stop showing your work?
But even if Bloom had continued to exhibit, his “mysticism” would have ensured failure in the art world. His paintings were religious icons; each brushstroke was a prayer, with no gaps that might be filled with fashion.
What shocked collectors about Bloom’s cadavers weren’t the holes in their center. It was the hope that filled these holes.
When Kramer called Bloom’s paintings “gefilte fish at a fashionable cocktail party,” he wasn’t wrong about the dish Bloom was serving. What he was fundamentally, depressingly confused about was the sort of event Bloom was hosting.
It was never a fashionable party; it was an ecumenical Sabbath.
 All quotes from Hyman Bloom: the Sources of his Imagery by Dorothy Abbott Thompson.  One book claims that in the 40s it was illegal to exhibit frontal male nudity, but I haven’t been able to back up the claim elsewhere.
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Two paintings. One — rough rainbows, jagged angularity, empty textured patches. The other — soft rounded glow, smattering of light, pearly overflowing haze. An etching table, some mushrooms. Between them — an unmistakable, unexplainable thread of kinship. In front of them — me, heart racing.
It was supposed to be just another stopover. I might have easily gone to see Magritte instead, but I hesitantly opted for the unknown and the temporary. It was meant to be a little excursion to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium; just passing the time on the outskirts of the real adventure: a week in Morocco.
Morocco pales in comparison.
Rik Wouters, this painter I’d never heard of before, followed me all the way to magical Marrakesh. His life and paintings kept me up at night for the entire trip.
What was it about Wouters? Many of his paintings are seemingly unfinished, as if he just stopped as soon as he got bored. This might sound like a weakness. In fact, it means the complete banishment of boredom from the canvas. It means achieving one of the alleged aims of impressionism — “capturing the moment” — like no impressionist ever had. It means staying true to the essences of things, even if these turn out to be no more than a smudge of paint. Just look at the shoe below!
Others of his works are filled to the brim with paint. Filled even to overflowing — I wasn’t the only person to audibly exhale in front “Apples and artificial flowers B.” So gloriously too much.
Wouters loved Cézanne, and the kinship between their work is clear — but their paintings have different personalities. Where Cézanne is meticulous, Wouters is fervent.
Wouters is all intensity.
A woman’s face recurred in these paintings over and over. With romantic naivety, I found myself thinking “please let it be his wife!”
It was. Nel Wouters appears in her husband’s works again and again and again. Sleeping, waking up, ironing, looking out the window, ill with tears in her eyes, dancing, hugging herself tight — in all the motley instants which held her husband’s gaze.
And reading. “Woman reading” is warmer than any painting I’d ever seen. Nel is perfectly self-contained, wrapped in her own shoulders mirroring the curve of her engrossing book. I come closer, scrutinize her face, and am startled, almost upset to find that it reveals nothing more. There is only the instant.
In “Woman reading,” Wouters painted love itself. I can’t put it any other way.
As I look at yet another portrait of Nel, I have an epiphany. Love is the missing link, the glue which holds all of Wouters’s paintings together. In the empty canvases and in the overfull ones, the soft and the jagged — everything is there because it’s loved. Everything is seen with the lover’s intoxicated eyes. Not just Nel, but the mushrooms, the furniture, the light. And, of course, the paint.
Wouters painted not so much the impression of things as their atmosphere. In one work, he depicts only the feeling, the glow of furniture in a living room. He painted domestic life as it is — suffused with meaning.
I stand in front of “Domestic cares” — a monumental sculpture of Nel, strikingly intimate despite its grandeur, which Wouters sculpted in his basement in 1913–14 — listening to the audioguide. The accumulation of portraits of Nel in the room, witnesses to love, becomes almost unbearably moving. The larger-than-life “Domestic cares” in front of the miniature “Woman reading.” In their opposite ways, each doing exactly the same thing —giving off the same love.
The audioguide informs me that “Domestic cares” was supposed to represent the overcoming of financial hardship. Rik and Nel had been living in poverty for years, but this was the turning point after which everything would get better.
This was the turning point after which the war started. The days of domestic cares, the audioguide tells us, had been their happy days.
I don’t quite know what’s coming— but behind my eyes, tears are getting ready.
The last room cut me with the abruptness of death. One minute —love’s kaleidoscope. The next — a handful of dark paintings, “Self-portrait with an eyepatch” — and the exit door.
Wouters was conscripted in 1914. He couldn’t bear the horrors of war. On top of that, he started suffering from horrible headaches. It soon turned out that he had sinus cancer. He had to have several operations, and in 1915 he lost his eye and part of his jaw. He died in 1916.
He was 33. Nel was 27.
I can’t do justice to what Wouters’s paintings did to me. I’d hit the highest notes of praise too soon, in posts about puny Munch and Matisse, and I ran out of notes for Wouters. I’d lied about Munch — it turns out that was nothing like seeing a painter for the first time. With Wouters, there was no bewilderment — just instant connection.
Why hadn’t I heard of Wouters before? Maybe universal renown is too much to ask for a painter who spoke to me on such a personal level. After all, he’s famous enough in Belgium, and not many are privileged to be remembered outside of their homeland.
Still, I think art history has been unfair to Wouters. He puts more famous painters to shame. Why did Matisse have to buy all those antiques, if there is so much to shimmer in Wouters’s humble interiors? Just look at Wouters’s paintings of Nel — did Gaugin really have to leave his wife and kids? What good are Munch’s tormented mirages when there is so much color in a plate of mushrooms?
I like those famous guys — but Wouters is mine like they never will be.
As critics emphasize, Wouters’s work is touchingly simple. But these words have to be carefully cleaned of misguided associations to be recognized for what they are: the highest possible praise.
It’s a simplicity that doesn’t give up anything that matters. A refusal to give the viewer empty riddles, to show off your personality, to be part of a movement. An homage to the beauty ordinary people and things exhibit not despite their ordinariness — but because of it. An exuberance rather than a calm contemplation. A cutting open of the smallest things to reveal the jewels inside. A fervent polishing of surfaces till they shimmer from all angles — with their own natural light.
It’s a simplicity that manages to paint love itself, over and over. Without a trace of boredom or sentimentality — only earnestness.
Simple, but not easy — like all great art.
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