Tuesday, August 16, 2016

David Ligare: California Classicist

David Ligare is a classical realist painter who lives in the mountains of Monterey County. His home overlooks country much like this painting; I fear that country may be burning as I write (August, 2016).

Corral de Tierra with White Cattle, 1999

I've been noticing his work for a few years, so I was delighted that a survey was exhibited at the Triton Museum in Santa Clara, hardly 15 minutes from my house.

The first of his paintings to catch my eye was this one, which is owned by the San Jose Museum of Art. Unfortunately, at the Triton, a spotlight cast a glare on the face of the rider. An ideal figure rides an ideal horse in ideal light. All the horizontal and vertical lines create stability and eternal ideals. The title, Arete, refers to the "innate excellence of the human spirit."

Arete (Black Figure on a White Horse), 2000

The Crocker Museum in Sacramento specializes in California artists, and they organized this exhibit, managing to secure loans from many individual collectors, as well as from museums as far away as the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Here's one of the Ligare works that belongs to the Crocker. The title, Penelope, refers to the long-suffering wife of a Greek hero named Odysseus who had many adventures on the way home from the war in Troy. Ligare updates the image just enough to connect it to the modern world as an eternal image of patient waiting. It is what it is.

Penelope, 1980

Ligare is committed to classical aesthetic values, such as linear perspective. In the demonstration of linear perspective below, the spatial depth is convincing because all the lines that should be parallel converge at a single point in the center, through the open doorway, and the relative size of forms diminishes accordingly. The traditional story is that the architect Brunelleschi discovered linear perspective while making drawings of the Baptistry in Florence. Those drawings are lost, but they inspired this exercise.

On Perspective, 2000

The next example, from very early in Ligare's career, shows how he combines his love of the classical stories with his love of the California landscape. It illustrates an ancient Roman story about an poor, elderly couple called Baucis and Philemon who are the only people to offer hospitality to a pair of visiting gods, Jupiter (the top guy among the Greek deities) and Mercury (his messenger). Offended by the inhospitable town, the gods flood it, killing the inhabitants. As a reward to Baucus and Philemon, the gods turn their humble hut into a shining temple on the edge of the flood zone, and they allow the pair to die at the same time, something every loving couple longs for. After death the pair becomes entwined oak and linden trees, as shown here on the right.  Ligare places the temple of their love on the shore of Lake Cachuma, a reservoir in Santa Ynez Valley.

Landscape for Baucis and Philemon, 1984

Here's a similar example. The subtitle of this painting—(Veritas, Utilitas, Venustas)—refers to Roman principles of architecture: strength, usefulness, and grace. The arch, whether natural or man-made, symbolizes these qualities in their most elementary form.

Landscape with a Specific View (Veritas, Utilitas, Venustas), 1988

Ligare is fascinated by the ancient stories of Greece and Rome. He was particularly interested in a hero named Hercules, the offspring of Jupiter and a mortal woman. Hercules was known for his strength and he had innumerable adventures requiring feats of strength, but the story that interested Ligare was the time that Hercules was required to chose between virtue and pleasure as a course of life. This has been a popular story among artists with classical leaning. Usually, pleasure is represented as a voluptuous woman and virtue is represented by a woman of ideal beauty, but during the Renaissance a German artist named Albrect Dürer introduced the idea of Hercules protecting Pleasure from an attack by Virtue, the idea being that humans should strike a balance between the two in the way they live.

Albrect Dürer (1471-1528)
Hercules at the Crossroads, 1498
Internet grab

In one of his paintings on this story, Ligare followed Dürer's example, although he reduced the composition to its essential elements. Notice that he traded serene horizontals and stable verticals for dynamic diagonal lines. The basket of fruit near the woman connects this story with that of Adam and Eve; Virtue's stance and look are just like those of the angel who drove Adam and Eve out of paradise for enjoying the fruit of knowledge; but in this case, the male character fights back instead of slinking away in shame.

Hercules Protecting the Balance between Pleasure and Virtue, 1993

In another painting, Ligare simplified the story even further, showing Hercules standing alone at a crossroads, choosing between the easy path of Pleasure along the silvery river or the hard path of Virtue through the rocks.

Hercules at the Crossroads, 1997

Another Greek hero who interests Ligare is Achilles, whose mother was a minor deity while his father was mortal. Achilles was one of Greece's greatest commanders in war, but he got into a snit and refused to enter the war against Troy. Finally, when Greece is on the verge of being overwhelmed by the Trojans, Achilles allows his best friend, Patroclus, to lead the troops into battle disguised as himself and wearing his armor. Patroclus leads the troops to victory, but he is killed in the process. In this painting, Patroclus' body has been retrieved from the battlefield by fellow warriors and brought back to Achilles. This becomes the turning point in the war. Achilles gets some new armor from his divine mother Thetis, and leads the Greeks in devastating Troy, not because he believes in their cause, but for his private revenge. The composition is a tumble of angles that alludes to the theme of the Deposition of Christ from the Cross, a common theme in religious painting. The subtitle of the painting—The Spoils of War—is charged with irony.

Achilles and the Body of Patroclus (The Spoils of War), 1986

Even a still life can be ancient and modern at the same time—that is, eternal. The subtitle of the next painting—Xenia—refers to the Greek concept of hospitality where food and shelter are offered to strangers, as in Baucis and Philemon. Bologna sandwiches and grape juice was the typical meal offered to people at a homeless shelter run in Salinas where Ligare volunteered in the 1980s, but he has treated them with the reverence due a holy sacrament.

Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches (Xenia), 1989

This final image epitomizes Ligare's values. In the first place, it refers back to a painting on the roof of a tomb that dates from the 400s BC, in a part of Southern Italy that was a Greek colony at that time. First the Greek original. My husband and I actually visited this tomb and saw this artwork amidst many other paintings on its walls. The diver is supposed to be launching himself toward Eternity.

Tomb of the Diver
Internet grab

In Ligare's version, the posture required to dive from a high perch symbolizes the perfect union of freedom and control. Perhaps the painter suggests that this is the proper attitude toward life. Instead of stable verticals or dramatic diagonals, the composition features a graceful curve, against the dependable horizon of the ocean. The emblem of the triangle within a circle within a square represents the Greek idea of perfect proportions.

Diver, 2003

It's unusual to encounter a painter with such a coherent philosophy and such commitment to expressing eternal values as David Ligare. It's unusual, and very, very satisfying.

Here's a photo of the artist that I grabbed from his website.

David Ligare
Grab from his website