Definitely Limericks: Artists

One of my areas of limerick writing has been a series of brief biographies of fine artists. Rather than bury them in other pages, I thought I’d put them on display here.

The Scottish-born architect Adam
Would design mighty mansions and clad ’em
In stone and in brick;
All the nobs got in quick,
So to boast at their banquets, “We had ’im.”

The well-travelled Robert Adam (1728–1792) designed and decorated stately homes all over Britain in neo-classical style, notably in Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh, where he had gone to university.

When he wanted both light and dark shown,
Ansel Adams would get in the zone.
Whatever the sky,
His mind and his eye
Gave his landscapes distinction alone.

Renowned U.S. photographer Ansel Adams (1902–1984) co-invented (with Fred Archer) the zone system for controlling how light and dark mapped from scene to final print. It requires significant knowledge of exposures, film qualities and processing techniques, which can make it quite demanding for anyone who isn’t Ansel Adams. His photographic knowledge was so impressive that he was famously able to capture the town of Hernandez perfectly in fading sunlight because he knew the candle count of the moon off the top of his head (Moonrise, Hernandez, 1941).

Josef Albers, a painter of squares
(One inside of the other, so there’s
A whole series, in fact),
Liked his paintings abstract;
Part of Bauhaus, those guys with the chairs.

Albers (1888–1976) was a student and then teacher at the Bauhaus school of art and design from 1920 to 1933, when it closed under Nazi pressure. He emigrated to the U.S., so this piece uses an American pronunciation of ab-STRACT.

Diane Arbus’s portraits beguile;
She would photo her candidates while
They uncovered their souls
And the heart of their roles.
Uncanny, how rarely they’d smile.

Arbus (1923–1971) worked as a photojournalist for various prominent magazines. She is remembered today for her portraits of society’s outsiders, and of ordinary Americans in stiff poses.

I really don’t wanna sound sharp,
But you say that you don’t know Jean Arp?
He was active in Dada,
A sculptor... still nada?
Your pa keep you under a tarp?

Jean Arp (born Hans Arp, 1886–1966) was a sculptor, painter, poet, and founding member of the Dada movement. Most of his sculptures would retain their shape even if they were wrapped in tarpaulins.

Richard Avedon shot JFK,
Although not in a grassy-knoll way.
From the back, to the left,
All his portraits were deft:
Magazine shoots remembered today.

Avedon (AV-uh-don, 1923–2004) went from staff photography for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue into the realm of fine art, notably his large-format portraits of drifters, miners and cowboys from the American west.

Francis Bacon dissected his grief
Using butcherly pictures of beef
Hanging red in the frame;
As for figures, his aim
Was to blur them beyond all belief.

There were few better painters of the nightmarish side of the twentieth-century psyche than this Anglo-Irish artist (1909–1992).

David Bailey takes pictures of girls
Looking glamorous: monochrome twirls
Round their sinuous forms,
And the viewer’s eye warms
To the torsos each photo unfurls.

Fashion photographer David Bailey (b. 1938) captured the look of 1960s Swinging London with his striking black-and-white work, and has photographed many celebrities since.

The expressionist art of Max Beckmann
Showed life as a carnival—heck, man,
A circus of fools—
So the pigheaded rules
Of the Nazis condemned it as dreck, man.

While he didn’t view himself as a German Expressionist, Beckmann’s work is often described as such for its bold colours and stark themes, and was included in the Nazi party’s notorious Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937. Beckmann fled the country first to Amsterdam and later to the U.S., where he died in 1950 at the age of 66.

His sculptures, performances, voice,
Were all heartfelt (and felted, by choice).
From his packs on a sled
To the hat on his head,
There was nothing plain Joe about Beuys.

Joseph Beuys (1921–1986) claimed that his interest in fat and felt as sculptural materials came from a wartime plane crash in which he was rescued by Tartars who rubbed him with fat and wrapped him in felt to keep him warm, although nobody is sure whether this actually happened.

William Blake was an artist of power,
A mystic, a poet, a tower,
Who held in his hand
The infinite sand
Of eternity; England’s wild flower.

Blake (1757–1827) saw all aspects of his work as painter, engraver, illustrator and poet as part of the same spiritual endeavour. His most famous works include the painting The Ancient of Days and the poems “The Tyger” and “Auguries of Innocence”.

My favourite paintings by far
By Parisian artist Bonnard
Show the stretchiest cats
And young women in flats
(Our Pierre liked his femmes in boudoirs).

Pierre Bonnard (bon-NAR, 1867–1947) was one of the core members of the Nabis, a group of Post-Impressionist artists active from 1888–1900 who were strongly influenced by Gauguin and Japonism, using simplified shapes and colours. Bonnard painted many fine interiors typical of contemporary Paris flats or apartments. His extremely stretchy White Cat (1894) hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Though Bosch painted heavenly sights
In The Garden of Earthly Delights,
The devils all tell
Of its portrait of Hell,
Which exquisitely tortures their nights.

The famous triptych by Hieronymus Bosch (originally Jerome van Aken, c. 1450–1516) hangs in the Prado, Madrid.

Birth of Venus by S. Botticelli
Shows a body to die for, her belly
A beauteous pearl—
So is that why the girl
Was allotted a dais so shelly?

Sandro Botticelli (originally Alessandro Filipepi, 1445–1510) painted mythical and biblical scenes of outstanding beauty—and destroyed several of them when he became a follower of the fanatical preacher Savonarola. Thank the gods he didn’t get his hands on the most famous of all.

There are so many works by Brancusi
That choosing is making me woozy—
His refined Bird in Space
Is a picture of grace,
And that polished bronze head is a doozy.

Constantin Brancusi (bran-KOO-zee; also bran-KOO-see, brah(n)-KOOSH) was a Romanian-born sculptor (1876–1957) who moved to Paris in his late twenties, where he became renowned for such abstract and geometrically simplified works as Bird in Space (1928) and Sleeping Muse (1910).

Your Cubist homage? I’d deep-six it.
There’s too little life in the mix, it
Has no sense of motion—
Despite your devotion,
The painting ain’t Braques, so don’t fix it.

George Braques (1882–1963) was, with Pablo Picasso, one of the inventors of Cubism, an early-1900s artistic style that broke up and reassembled objects and figures to give a greater sense of form and movement.

The imbroglio of Brueghels confounds
Our attempts to determine their bounds.
If they weren’t all called Pieter
Or Jan, how much neater
The art lover’s gallery rounds.

Here’s how to tell them apart. Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c.1525–1569, the only one to sign his paintings without the h) is the famous painter of landscapes full of Flemish peasants. His eldest son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564–1638), copied some of his works but developed his own line in religious and landscape art full of fire and brimstone. Pieter the Younger’s brother, Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), specialised in floral still-lifes and landscapes, and Jan’s son, Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601–1678), copied his works, only not as well. Jan the Younger had another painter for a brother, Ambrosius Brueghel (1617–1675), now less well-remembered; maybe he should have changed his name to Jan or Pieter.

Michelangelo, artist of feeling,
Is known for his Vatican ceiling:
The Pope saw some faults
In its featureless vaults
And said, “Paint over that, Mike—it’s peeling.”

The Sistine Chapel ceiling was originally blue with golden stars until Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to repaint it. The Renaissance master also whipped up a few other sculptures and paintings in his time (1475–1564).

A. Calder’s undoubted facility
With works of apparent fragility
Was one of his strengths:
He went to great lengths
In his efforts to capture mobility.

American sculptor Alexander Calder (1898–1976) invented the mobile, to the joy of art lovers and infants everywhere.

Canaletto, or “Little Canal”,
Painted London—its bridges et al.—
But was more of a menace
To punters in Venice:
He’d paint ’em in any locale.

Giovanni Antonio Canale (1697–1768) sold many of his pictures of Venice to Englishmen on the Grand Tour, moving to London for most of his fifties to be closer to his market.

Cassatt’s finest painting could, say, be
Her Girl in an Armchair, or maybe
Some “Mother and Child”
Impressionist-styled
Interior scene with a baby.

American painter Mary Cassatt (cah-SAHT, 1844–1926) spent much of her life in France, where she exhibited with the Impressionists.

Caravaggio’s shadows and light
Made his paintings a powerful sight,
But the dark in his soul
Sent him out of control:
His most powerful urge was to fight.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610) got into endless brawls during his brief reign as the most famous painter in Rome, even killing a man in one of them.

Paul Cézanne as a painter was great,
But so slow! His poor subjects’ sad fate
Was to sit like an apple;
While he would then grapple
With colours, they’d rot on the plate.

One of Cézanne’s dealers sat 115 times for a portrait, sitting absolutely still “like an apple” each time. Cézanne then abandoned the work with only two small areas unpainted.

Marc Chagall painted circuses, cows
In the night-time, and fruit-laden boughs.
Decades later, it seems
That his colours and themes,
With their echoes of dreams, still arouse.

The Russian-Jewish painter Marc Chagall (1887–1985) spent most of his working life in France.

John Constable painted the clouds
Over Dedham, in gathering crowds
Of charcoal and grey;
His bucolic scenes lay
Under heavy-set heavenly shrouds.

The landscape of Dedham Vale in England is now known as Constable Country after its most famous painter, who lived there for much of his life (1776–1837).

Corot was once figured a great,
The Pére of fine art in the late
Nineteenth century, yet
How soon people forget!
Reputations can have a sad fate.

Poised between Neoclassicism and Impressionism, and a leader of the Barbizon school of French painters inspired by Constable, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (cor-OH, 1796–1875) was highly regarded by many Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and even Cubists. Degas, Gauguin and Picasso admired his figures, while others considered him one of the greatest landscape painters. Yet since the 1930s his fame has faded.

Correggio, mystery man,
Was an avid mythology fan,
Portraying what Ovid
Related: how Jove’d
Swan up to each lady he’d scan.

Little is known about the life of Antonio Allegri da Correggio (c.1489–1534), who worked mainly in Parma, but he was highly influential on the development of Baroque art. Late in life he painted a series on the Loves of Jupiter based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, depicting the Roman god in various avian and meteorological forms.

The Realist Gustave Courbet
Caused people in Paris dismay.
His erotic late paintings
Led ladies to faintings,
And thus were removed from display.

Courbet (1819–1877) broke with the Romantic and Neoclassical schools of the day and attempted to portray real life as Rembrandt had done. Among his most famous works are Femme nue couchée (1862), The Sleepers (1866), and the graphic The Origin of the World (1866), which remains provocative today. During the Paris Commune of 1871, Courbet proposed the dismantling of the Vendôme Column commemorating Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz; when it was later rebuilt, he was held liable for the expense, avoiding bankruptcy only by dying of liver failure first.

Aelbert Cuyp painted afternoon light
Washing over the countryside—quite
The serene point of view,
Which has caused some ado—
But once married, he faded from sight.

Cuyp (1620–1691), one of the most celebrated Dutch landscape painters, was almost forgotten for two generations after his death. In 1658 he married a rich widow, and afterwards seems to have stopped painting. His bucolic scenes of the golden hours of early morning and evening have earned him something of a chocolate-box reputation.

Salvador Dalí would laugh
When the critics objected that half
Of his work made no sense.
“It’s intentional—hence
My new painting, The Burning Giraffe.”

Catalan painter Salvador Dalí (1904–1989) was one of the most famous surrealists, partly because of his talent for self-promotion. His most reproduced work is undoubtedly the Chupa Chups logo.

Was it Mona, you reckon, who chose
To look cryptic? Or do you suppose
Leonardo da Vinci
Just gave her a pinch? She
Perhaps had a Code id her doze?

.tpircs derorrim ni slanruoj sih gnitirw, sgniht rehto ynam, ynam gnoma, rof elbaton saw (9151–2541) odranoeL, nam ecnassianeR lapytehcra ehT

De Chirico’s colour and line
Were intense; his determined design
Was to paint the surreal-
ness of Turin. Most feel
The results are declaredly fine.

The archways and piazzas of Turin deeply impressed the young Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978). The haunting “metaphysical” paintings they helped inspire were a major influence on the Surrealist movement.

Sacré bleu, Monsieur Edgar Degas,
What a difficult figure you are!
Your artworks were great,
But irrational hate
Cut across your old age like a scar.

It’s hard to reconcile Degas’ delicate dancers in sculpture and on canvas with the indelicate anti-Semitism he expressed in his later years (he died in 1917, aged 83). Renoir said: “What a creature he was, that Degas! All his friends had to leave him; I was one of the last to go, but even I couldn’t stay till the end.”

The surrealist Belgian, Delvaux,
Painted women at night in a slow,
Doe-eyed, naked parade;
Trains and skeletons made
For an ever more mystical show.

Paul Delvaux (1897–1994) rarely strayed from these dreamlike motifs throughout his career.

Herr Ziegler’s Reichskunstkammer hicks
Considered the work of Herr Dix
Insufficiently Nazi
(Degenerate art, see)
And burned it. Insufferable pricks.

The expressionist paintings and etchings of Otto Dix (1891–1969) displeased the Nazis, depicting as they often did the horrors of war. Two of his paintings were exhibited in the 1937 Entartete Kunst exhibition and later destroyed. Dix was forced to join Adolf Ziegler’s Reichskammer der bildenden Künste (Reich Chamber of Fine Arts, or Reichskunstkammer in shortened form) with the promise to paint only landscapes, and to cap it off was conscripted into Hitler’s Volkssturm militia towards the end of the Second World War.

Shove your landscapes, you boring old fart—
I’m Dada! R. Mutt! Anti-art!
It’s the end of the old—
It’s exciting! It’s bold!
Here, I’ll sign this urinal, to start.

Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) famously exhibited the key Dadaist artwork Fountain (1917), a urinal signed “R. Mutt”. This verse uses the UK pronunciation of yoo-RY-nul (is something I never thought I’d have to write).

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