The robber barons loved the portraits of the 17th century Dutch painter Frans Hals, and nowhere did these barons congregate so thickly as in New York. Not surprisingly, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has this country’s largest collection of paintings by Hals, donated by rapacious financiers who made rivals quake during the early industrial age, such as Collis P. Huntington, Henry Marquand, Benjamin Altman, H. O. Havemeyer and Jules Bache. Stroll across 5th Avenue and you can see more Frans Hals paintings in the Frick collection, amassed by the ruthless Pittsburgh steel magnate Henry Clay Frick.

The Metropolitan recently gathered its impressive holdings of Hals paintings into a sort of mini-blockbuster exhibition . Organized by Walter Liedtke, the museum’s curator of Dutch art, the show contained 13 portraits, two from private collections. There are also a few works formerly attributed to Hals, and by his contemporaries, that set his achievement in context. The show is loosely divided between early exuberant works by Hals, such as the Merrymakers at Shrovetide (circa 1616) and Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart (1623), and the later, more sober portraits, which sometimes have an introspective, even brooding quality reminiscent of Rembrandt.

What’s So Great About Frans Hals?

As a painter, Hals made two great contributions. One was to combine an intense sense of realism with flamboyant brushwork—which gives his work a highly personal quality. When we stand at a distance the image seems “real”: but when we’re close all we see is gestural marks, made by the human hand. At a sort of middle distance there’s a moment when the two modes of seeing precariously coexist, or at which one mode of seeing shifts into the other. The “real” and the “abstract,” the “objective” and the “subjective,” interact with each other in endlessly fascinating ways.

Hal’s other contribution is to fill his paintings with evident psychological intensity, the quality known as “psychological insight.” His figures feel as if we could speak to them.

There are many tricks that Hals used to create this effect, including his dashing brushwork, which gives mobility to the muscles of the face, as if the figures were alive. Another fascinating trick was also used by Rembrandt. Hals recognized that the human face has two halves and the expression on one side differs subtly from the expression on the other. Particularly in his late work, Hals exploited this effect in a dramatic way: the two sides of the face are two slightly different people. The lighted side portrays the sitter’s “public self,” and the shadowed side the “private self”—generally somewhat sadder and more thoughtful, perhaps with an eye that wanders a bit and looks out of focus. Without even being conscious of this difference, we respond to it. Because a portrait by Hals reveals not a single but a divided self, the act of looking at a Hals painting is one of penetrating through the surface presentation of the figure to the inner person.

It’s surely no accident that Hals’s life (1580-1666) overlapped with that of Shakespeare (1564-1616), and the way he evoked a sense of character provides interesting parallels to the characters in Shakespeare’s plays who are generally two or more people in one body, engaged in internal dialogue. In that sense, Hals’s portraits document the emergence of the modern self: they display a new awareness that the “self” is not a single, uniform thing, but the product of conflicting forces and disparate impulses, ruled by a consciousness filled with self-doubt.

I suspect that the robber barons’ fondness for Hals has something to do with this psychological penetration. Success in business depends on an accurate assessment of the person across the bargaining table, and this assessment often depends not only on what is presented on the surface but on facial expressions and gestures that reveal deeper, hidden motives. Is this person telling the truth? Will he double-cross me? Can I trust him? One might add that the rich brown palette of a Hals’ portraits fits nicely in the dark cave-like interiors of the gilded age.

Where to See Frans Hals

After the Metropolitan Museum, the largest collection of Hals in this country is that of the National Gallery in Washington , with an impressive cluster of portraits, most of them assembled by the industrialist Andrew Mellon. But perhaps the best way to get into the Hals spirit is to see his work in the actual home of a robber baron.

Two of these settings come to mind. One is the Frick collection in New York, already mentioned, in a mansion designed by Carriere and Hastings for Henry Clay Frick. The other is at the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, the home of Charles P. Taft, the brother of Supreme Court Chief Justice and U. S. President William Henry Taft. (It has a remarkable group of works not only by Hals but by two other top figures in the art of portraiture, Rembrandt and John Singer Sargent, including the latter’s wonderfully nervous Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, showing the author in a wicker chair, nursing a cigarette.) Of the Taft Museum’s portraits by Hals, surely the most remarkable are those of a married couple: A Seated Man Holding a Hat and A Seated Woman Holding a Fan . Each is a masterwork, and there’s a delightful interaction between the two.

There are other Frans Hals experiences worth seeking out in the United States.

I always feel a bit wistful when I look at Hal’s Portrait of a Woman at the St. Louis Art Museum, or the Portrait of a Man in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. They’re a couple, but somehow got divorced, and ended up at opposite ends of the state.

Finally, it’s well worth studying the two examples of Hals’s work at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The larger of the two, Tielman Roosterman (1634), is not only one of the artist’s best large-scale portraits but one of the very best preserved. Its condition is near perfect. The other, portraying an unknown woman , has a surface that’s been abraded and rubbed, like a garment that’s gone too many times to the drycleaners.  If you study these two paintings you’ll see the distinction between a painting in good condition and one in poor condition, and you can apply this knowledge to every old master painting you encounter.

Sanjay Patel: A Hipster’s Guide to Hinduism

Sanjay Patel arrives at the entrance of San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, breathless. His vahana , or vehicle, is a silver mountain bike; his white helmet is festooned with multicolored stickers of bugs and goddesses.

Though we’ve barely met, Patel takes my arm. He propels me through dimly lit halls, past austere displays of Korean vases and Japanese armor, until we arrive at a brightly lit gallery. This room is as colorful as a candy store, its walls plastered with vivid, playful graphics of Hindu gods, demons and fantastic beasts.

“This is awesome .” Patel spins through the gallery, as giddy as a first-time tourist in Times Square. “It’s a dream come true. I mean, who gets the opportunity to be in a freakin’ major museum while they still have like all their hair? Let alone their hair still being black? To have created this pop-culture interpretation of South Asian mythology—and to have it championed by a major museum—is insane .”

The name of the show— Deities, Demons and Dudes with ‘Staches —is as quirky and upbeat as the 36-year-old artist himself. It’s a lighthearted foil to the museum’s current exhibition, Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts . Patel, who created the bold banners and graphics for Maharaja , was given this one-room fiefdom to showcase his own career: a varied thali (plate) of the animated arts.

“I’ve known of Sanjay’s work for a while,” says Qamar Adamjee, the museum’s associate curator of South Asian Art, ducking briefly into the gallery. At first, she wanted to scatter examples of Patel’s work throughout the museum; the notion of giving him a solo show evolved later.

“[Hindu] stories are parts of a living tradition, and change with each retelling,” Adamjee observes. “Sanjay tells these stories with a vibrant visual style—it’s so sweet and so charming, yet very respectful. He’s inspired by the past, but has reformulated it in the visual language of the present.”

For those unfamiliar with Hindu iconography, the pantheon can be overwhelming. In Patel’s show, and in his illustrated books— The Little Book of Hindu Deities (2006) and Ramayana: Divine Loophole (2010)—he distills the gods and goddesses down to their essentials. Now he wheels through the room, pointing to the cartoon-like images and offering clipped descriptions: There’s Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, with his cherished stash of sweets; Saraswati, the goddess of learning and music, strumming on a vina ; the fearsome Shiva, whose cosmic dance simultaneously creates and destroys the universe.

“And Vishnu,” Patel adds, indicating a huge blue-and-yellow figure. His multiple hands hold a flaming wheel, a conch shell, a flowering lotus and a mace. “Vishnu is, like, the cosmic referee. He makes sure that everything is in harmony.”

Vishnu, I’m familiar with. He’s one of the main Hindu deities, and often comes up in Patel’s work. Vishnu is the great preserver. According to the ancient Vedic texts, he will reappear throughout history to save the world from menace. Each time, he returns as an “avatar,” a word that derives from the Sanskrit avatara , meaning “descent.”

“An avatar is a reincarnation of a deity,” Patel explains, “taking human form here on earth. Vishnu, for instance, has ten avatars. Whenever something’s wrong in the universe, some imbalance, he returns to preserve the order of the universe.”

One might think, from Patel’s enthusiasm, that he grew up steeped in Hindu celebrations.

“Never. Not one.” We’ve relocated to Patel’s sunny apartment, on a hill overlooking Oakland’s historic Grand Lake Theater. He reclines in an easy chair; his hands are wrapped around a mug created by his partner Emily Haynes, a potter. “Growing up in L.A., we went to run-down little temples for certain festivals. But the kids would just play in the parking lot while our parents chanted inside. I learned about Hinduism much later.”

Patel, 36, was born in England. When he was a boy his family relocated to southern California. His parents have run the Lido Motel, along Route 66, for more than 30 years. They never had much money, but through the perseverance of a devoted high-school art teacher—Julie Tabler, whom Sanjay considers almost a surrogate mother—Patel won scholarships first to the Cleveland Institute of Art and then to the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).

It was while Patel was at CalArts that representatives from Pixar, which has a close relationship with the prestigious school, saw Patel’s animated student film, Cactus Cooler .

“It’s about a cactus going through puberty,” explains Patel. “At a certain point, his needles start coming in—but because of the needles, he inadvertently chases away his only friend.

“Pixar loved it, and they recruited me.” Patel was hesitant at first. “I was in love with hand drawing, and the job involved a computer. But after getting some good advice, I did join the studio.” Despite his initial misgivings, taking classes at “Pixar University” gave him a real respect for CAD (computer assisted design). “The computer is just a great big box of pens, pencils and colors,” he concedes. “It’s another fantastic tool.”

Patel has been at Pixar since 1996. He’s done art and animation for A Bug's Life , Monsters, Inc. , The Incredibles , Cars and the Toy Story films. The relationship works both ways. Pixar’s luminous palette and engaging, heroic characters ultimately inspired his own artwork.

Patel didn’t grow up enthralled with Hindu imagery, but the seeds were there. Six years into his Pixar career, he opened an art book and came across paintings from India. “The more I read,” he recalls, “the more I was drawn into a world of imagery that had always surrounded me. Before, it was just part of my family’s daily routine. Now I saw it in the realm of art.”

While Pixar is a team effort, Patel’s books are his personal passion. In The Little Book of Hindu Deities , he unpacks the mythic universe of ancient South Asia with bold, vibrant illustrations. A computer program massages his sketches into clean, geometric figures. It’s a cunning blend of East meets West, at a time when both cultures venerate the microprocessor.

Patel’s most ambitious book, so far, is Ramayana: Divine Loophole . A five-year effort, it’s a colorful retelling of India’s most beloved epic.

“Can you sum up the Ramayana ,” I ask, “in an elevator pitch?”

Patel furrows his brow. “OK. Vishnu reincarnates himself as a blue prince named Rama. He’s sent to earth and marries the beautiful princess Sita. Through some drama in the kingdom, Rama, Sita and his brother are exiled to the jungle. While in the jungle, Sita is kidnapped by the ten-headed demon Ravana—and Rama embarks on a quest to find her. Along the way he befriends a tribe of monkeys and a tribe of bears, and with this animal army they march to Lanka, defeat the demons and free Sita.”

Just how popular is the Ramayana ? “It would be safe to say,” Patel muses, “that almost every child in the Indian subcontinent would recognize the main characters—especially Hanuman, the loyal monkey god.”

In 2012, Chronicle will publish Patel’s first children’s book, written with Haynes. Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth tells the story of what happened when Brahma asked Ganesha—the elephant-headed god—to record another great Hindu epic, the voluminous Mahabharata . Ganesha broke off his own tusk to use as a stylus; the book imagines his various attempts to reattach it. (The Mahabharata’s plot, unfortunately, won’t fit in an elevator pitch.)

Among Patel’s many inspirations is Nina Paley, a New York-based animator whose 2009 film, Sita Sings the Blues , tells the story of the Ramayana from a feminist perspective. Patel credits Paley with giving him the inspiration to create his own version of the epic.

“Religion, like all culture, needs to be constantly reinterpreted to remain alive,” says Paley. “Sanjay’s work is not only beautiful—it updates and freshens history, tradition and myth.”

But interpreting religious themes can be risky, and Paley and Patel sometimes provoke the ire of devotees. Last summer, for example, a screening of Sita Sings the Blues was protested by a small fundamentalist group who felt the film demeaned the Hindu myths.

“It makes me sad,” Patel reflects. “I want to believe that these stories can withstand interpretation and adaptation. I want to believe that one person might have a pious belief in the legends and the faith, while another could abstract them in a way that’s personally reverent. I want to believe that both can exist simultaneously.”

A more immediate issue, at least for Patel, is the challenge of fame. Traditionally, Indian and Buddhist artworks have been anonymous. They arise from a culture where the artist is merely a vehicle, and the work an expression of the sacred.

“These characters have existed for thousands of years, and have been illustrated and re-enacted by thousands of artists,” he reminds me. “I'm just part of this continuum. So whenever the spotlight’s on me, I make a point of telling people: If you’re interested in these stories, the sources go pretty deep. I have nowhere near plumbed their depths.”

In the process of illustrating these deities and legends, though, Patel has been exploring his own roots. One thing he’s discovered is that the Hindu stories put many faces on the divine: some valiant, and some mischievous.

“One of the neat things my aunt told me,” Patel recalls, “was that the Ramayana is a tragedy, because Rama always put everybody else's happiness ahead of his own. But what’s interesting is that Vishnu’s next avatar—after Rama—is Krishna, the hero of the Mahabharata . Krishna is all about devotion through breaking the rules. He steals butter, has multiple lovers and puts his needs above everybody else’s.

“I was struck by the fact that—if you’re a follower of Hindu philosophy—there’s a time to be both. A time to follow the rules, and a time to let go, explore your own happiness, and be playful. That you can win devotion that way, as well.” The notion fills Patel with glee. “I think that’s really neat, actually,” he says. “It’s not just black and white.”

With this artist holding the brush, it could hardly be more colorful.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard: The Man Behind the Masks

One day in 1958 or ’59, Ralph Eugene Meatyard walked into a Woolworths store in Lexington, Kentucky. An optician by trade, Meatyard was also a photographer—a “dedicated amateur,” he called himself—and he kept an eye out for props. He might drop by an antiques store to buy eerie dolls or emerge from a hobby shop with a jar of snakes or mice cured in formalin. In Woolworths, he came upon a set of masks whose features suggested a marriage of Picasso and a jack-o’-lantern.

“He immediately liked their properties,” recalls his son Christopher, who was with him at the time. Meatyard père bought a few dozen. “They were latex and had a very unique odor,” says Christopher, now 56. “In the summer they could be hot and humid.”

Over the next 13 years, Meatyard persuaded a procession of family and friends to don one of the Woolworths masks and pose in front of his camera. The resulting photographs became the best known of the pictures he left behind when he died of cancer in 1972, at age 46. That work, says the photographer Emmet Gowin, who befriended Meatyard in the 1970s, is “unlike anyone else’s in this world.”

“He picked the environment first,” Christopher says of his father’s method. “Then he’d look at the particular light in that moment in that place, and start composing scenes using the camera.” With the shot composed, he would then populate it, telling his subjects where to place themselves, which way to face, whether to move or stand still.

For the 1962 portrait on the preceding page, Meatyard chose an abandoned minor-league ballpark and arranged his wife and their three children in the bleachers. (Christopher is at left; his brother, Michael, is in the middle; his sister, Melissa, at the bottom; and their mother, Madelyn, is seated top right.) The title he gave the image— Romance (N.) From Ambrose Bierce #3 —provides only the broadest hint of what he was up to: In his Devil’s Dictionary , Bierce had defined “romance” as “fiction that owes no allegiance to the God of Things as they are.”

But still, why masks? Well, “the idea of a person, a photograph, say, of a young girl with a title ‘Rose Taylor’ or the title ‘Rose’ or no title at all becomes an entirely different thing,” Meatyard once said. “ ‘Rose Taylor’ is a specific person, whether you know her nor not. ‘Rose’ is more generalized and could be one of many Roses—many people. No title, it could be anybody.” And in the same way, a mask “serves as non-personalizing a person.”

And why would someone want to do that? In an essay on Meatyard’s work, the critic James Rhem quotes one of his sitters, Mary Browning Johnson: “He said he felt like everyone was connected, and when you use the mask, you take away the differences.”

Gowin, who posed for a Meatyard portrait, recalls thinking that wearing a mask would surely erase all sense of personhood. “But when I saw the pictures,” he says, “I realized that even though you have the mask, your body language completely gives you away. It’s as if you’re completely naked, completely revealed.”

Meatyard, whose surname is of English origin, was born in Normal, Illinois, in 1925. He served stateside in the Navy during World War II and briefly studied pre-dentistry before settling on a career as an optician. He plied that trade all his working life—9 to 5 on weekdays, 9 to noon on Saturdays—but photography became his ruling passion shortly after he purchased his first camera, in 1950, to photograph his newborn son, Michael. Four years later, Meatyard joined the Lexington Camera Club. Endlessly curious, he sought inspiration in philosophy, music and books—historical fiction, poetry, short stories and collections of Zen koans. Zen and jazz were enduring influences. “How many businessmen run Buddhist-style meditation groups over the lunch hour?” asks Gowin.

Despite his self-proclaimed status as an amateur, Meatyard soon became known in serious photography circles. In 1956, his work was exhibited beside that of Ansel Adams, Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan and Edward Weston. Five years later, Beaumont Newhall, then director of the George Eastman House, listed him in Art in America as one of the “new talents” in American photography. In the late 1960s, he collaborated with the writer Wendell Berry on The Unforeseen Wilderness , a book about Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. In 1973, the New York Times called him a “backwoods oracle.”

His last major project was The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater , a series of portraits of his wife and a rotating cast of family and friends; it was published posthumously in 1974. The project’s title was inspired by the Flannery O’Connor story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” in which a woman introduces both herself and her deaf-mute daughter as “Lucynell Crater.” In Meatyard’s book, everyone is masked, and everyone is identified as “Lucybelle Crater.” As Gowin says of his friend: “He was so many people all mixed up in one.”

The bookish Zen jazzmeister also served as president of the local PTA and the Little League and flipped burgers at the Fourth of July party. Meatyard “was a quiet, diffident, charming person on the surface,” says his friend the writer Guy Davenport. But that, he added, was “a known ruse of the American genius.”

David Zax , a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York, is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian .

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