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So it is the end of another year, and it is time to write the post which I always put off again and again…right up until the last day of the year–which is to say I still need to write the year-end obituaries. Ferrebeekeeper readers will recall that the obituaries here are obituaries for those departed who meant a lot to me–so if you want to know about queens, popes, soccer guys, rappers, or whatever, you will probably have to look elsewhere. For example, last year, I only wrote about my grandfather, an international master operative who battled against Soviet and Chinese dirty tricks in Africa and Southeast Asia throughout the middle of the 20th century. These days, everyone rolls their eyes about the worldwide cloak-and-dagger proxy wars by means of which the Cold War was fought, but, please note that as soon as grandpa was dead (and his ilk out of power), Russia formed an alliance with China and attacked Europe, so I tend to think it all WAS pretty necessary, no matter what the anti-American apologists say.

Grandpa taught me how to take stock of the world and look at art (which he avidly collected), but for more specific lessons in world history and painting, I turned to a generation of teachers and masters who are now also passing away. And so it is with great sadness that I write about two of my illustrious teachers who died in 2022.

Walter Kaegi Abroad (a professor unafraid of travel)

Walter Emil Kaegi, (1937 – 2022) was one of my favorite history professors from college (along with the late, great Emmet Larkin). Kaegi was a professor of Byzantine history, a broad subject which he approached with polymath intensity from all sides. In some respects, Byzantine history is regarded as the story of one thousand years of precipitous and ineluctable decline. Kaegi, however, remembered that history does not seem inevitable to those leading it. His multi-faceted view of the Byzantines was indeed filled with trademark battles, religious controversies, and palace intrigue, but he also added the trade, farming, technology, music, poetry, and ecology missing from the work of great Byzantinists of yore. Kaegi was a scholar’s scholar who knew Latin, Greek, and Aramaic just as well as English, but also learned French, German, and Russian so he could read the works of other scholars. Speaking of Russian, the professor always wore a hilarious heavy Russian hat which we bare-headed undergrads laughed at in the bitter Chicago winters (which illustrates that comedy, like history affords multiple vantage points on what is actually the truth).

Although history scholars like to speak of him like he was Gibbon, Kaegi was definitely not Gibbon. He instead synthesized some insights into the long fall of the Roman Empire from new resources–particularly archaeological/geological ones. Whereas most historians fixate solely on the doings of emperors, courtiers, bishops, and generals, Kaegi came to the conclusion that a combination of climate change, agricultural collapse, and religious change was driving events to a heretofore unappreciated extent (an insight worth remembering when eyeing the events of the present).

Of course he didn’t paint a self portrait, so here is a photograph of Ron Sherr

My other teacher who passed away last year will probably not be remembered foremost as a teacher–since he was actually an artist first. Ronald Sherr (1952-2022) was a brilliant portrait-painter who studied with Daniel E. Greene, Harvey Dinnerstein, and Burton Silverman before going on to paint America’s leading politicians, soldiers, and business leaders (and win all sorts or awards and accolades chronicled elsewhere). Since he rubbed shoulders with the mighty (or at least painted those mighty shoulders) he is liable to be incorporated as part of this era’s political zeitgeist. Indeed, in the recent headlines about former house-speaker Boehner crying when Nancy Pelosi’s official portrait was unveiled, CNN and the NYTimes neglected to dwell on the fact that Ron had painted the official portrait of both speakers!

Portrait of General Colin Powell (Ronald Sherr, 2012) Oil on canvas

Yet world-renowned clients was not what made Ron important as an artist. Ron was an artistic anachronism of sorts–he painted beautiful realistic portraits which looked like they had some piece of the living subject inside of them. His real method for obtaining these incredible results was not some trick or secret tool, but constant practice and stringent self-criticism. Ron’s artistic hero was Jon Singer Sargent who combined the unparalleled draftmanship of the Old Masters with the realistic color and focus of the impressionists. Ron likewise used this combination and it is what he tried to teach his students. We all remember that during our first year painting he would mostly ask seemingly obvious questions like “Is the head you have painted bigger or smaller than the model’s actual head? Is the torso you have painted more yellow or less yellow than the model’s actual torso?”

Our utter inability to answer these questions (at first) reveals part of why it is hard to teach painting. A great teacher must teach looking and comparing first….and then second and then last. Unless you can look at a subject with fresh eyes and regard your own efforts honestly, true realism will forever remain out of your reach.

Speaking of which I have not been painting realistically! Nor have I been applying the lessons of Byzantine history to the Byzantine circus factions of today. I worry that I have dishonored my amazing teachers by not making use of what they worked so hard to teach me. Now, thanks to time’s one way arrow and the nature of mortal existence, we no longer have the real masters. All that is left is the hazy memory of their teachings…although, come to think of it, here I am on a Saturday night (on New Year’s Eve no less) trying still to understand their teachings and make use of such learning to explain the world to others. Keep asking questions! Keep comparing. Keep striving for greater honesty. This is what I hear in my head as I set down the obituarist’s pen and reach again for the artist’s brush.

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A Young Man in a Fur Cap and a Cuirass (Carel Fabritius, 1654, oil on canvas)

A Young Man in a Fur Cap and a Cuirass (Carel Fabritius, 1654, oil on canvas)

Carel Fabritius (1622 – 12 October 1654) was the most gifted and innovative of Rembrandt’s many pupils. He alone escaped from the master’s shadow by reversing his teacher’s signature style: whereas Rembrandt was known for showing a brightly lit subject against a background of darkness, Fabritius painted dark subjects on a bright background. He certainly had a measure Rembrandt’s masterful humanism (as is evidenced by the soulful self-portrait above). In the early 1650s, Fabritius moved to Delft where a revolution in optics was underway. Based on the below painting “A View of Delft” painted in 1652, Fabritius was an early experimenter with lenses and optics in the visual arts. It is believed he taught Vermeer (who also used lenses to create special effects in his masterworks) and thus was an integral link between the two great 17th century Dutch masters.

A View of Delft (Carel Fabritius, 1652, oil on canvas)

A View of Delft (Carel Fabritius, 1652, oil on canvas)

Indeed Fabritius would likely be one of the most famous luminaries of world art with renown commensurate to Rembrandt & Vermeer except for a tragic and bizarre accident. On October 12, 1654–360 years ago yesterday–Cornelis Soetens opened the door of a gunpowder magazine located in a repurposed Clarissen convent (Soetens was the official keeper of said powder chamber). It is unclear what exactly went wrong but all 66,138 pounds of gunpowder ignited and combusted. The resultant explosion destroyed much of Delft. Fabritius was caught in the explosion and sustained mortal wound. As an added injury, the explosion destroyed Fabritius’ studio along with the majority of his life’s work. Only twelve known paintings remain—but they are very good paintings!

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