Lost Wax

February 4, 2014

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The “lost wax” (cire perdue) process has been used for millenia to produce cast metal sculptures, usually  bronze, that are hollow. Making them hollow is essential, because otherwise, the piece would be enormously heavy, even if small, and too expensive to produce.  The clever technique for producing a thin-shell casting can also, with a few additional steps, produce a master that can be reproduced at will.

Considering how important this process is in the history of art, I am amazed at how difficult it is to find a decent explanation of it. Without clear diagrams, the lengthy narratives of the process are impossible to follow, and among the many illustrations I found, all seem to leave out one crucial step or the other!

Just to keep my own thinking on the subject straight, I created my own diagrams.  Click to enlarge them.

Direct Lost Wax Process:  no multiples
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Indirect Lost Wax Process:  multiples
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Castle of Love Besieged

December 25, 2012

Trebuchet – lower left

A common secular theme in medieval artifacts, often in beautifully wrought ivory cases for whatnots and mirrors.    Knights attack the castle of love, defended by maidens who have only buckets of roses with which to repel the attackers.  Sometimes Cupid lends a hand…to whom?  The knights use the usual run of siege tactics, and sometimes a trebuchet is present.

Another view of the one above

Trebuchet

Lower left – another trebuchet

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Trebuchet on the right

For a change of pace, the two left-hand panels on the case below show the story of that lovable old coot, Aristotle, tutor of Alexander the Great, being humiliated by Phyllis.  The ones on the right tell the tale of Pyramus an Thisbe, from Ovid, and known to most through its later incarnations, such as Romeo and Juliet and The Fantasticks.

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More siege craft and love below.

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Warhol’s Work

December 19, 2012

Warhol
Watching the movie Capote (2005) yesterday, and it was pretty good, I got to thinking of Warhol.  Turns out he was fascinated by Capote and his portrait on the back of his first book.  Seems a lot of people were taken by the photo, and it became as much, or more of a cause célèbre than the book itself.  Warhol wrote fan letters to Capote and called his first gallery show Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote.  

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Yes, I think the visual influences are clear.

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There’s a scene in the movie when Capote is talking to the New Yorker editor, William Shawn, after his successful preview reading from In Cold Blood:  he asks breathlessly, “Should we do more readings?”  Shawn replies that they should not; they will let people talk about the book, build interest.  “Let them do the work.

Well, nobody could accuse Capote of not doing his work.  As one character in the film remarks, “You’re nothing if not hard-working.”  But then there’s Warhol…

I think Warhol realized that popular culture in the early 1960s was ready to step lightly over the homosexual bar, and Capote’s unabashedly affected and effeminate manner were probably an inspiration to him.  His great insight was that if he just played himself straight, people would not know how to accept - process – his personality, and would assume he was ironical, sophisticated, in other words, an artist.  Then he could do the things he most wanted to do: get rich; hobnob with the rich and famous; be famous; and play with pictures other people made, while others did his publicity and produced critical laurels and justifications for him. He was dead on, and his blockbuster success was the proof.  The only irony was that he assumed others would assume he was an ironist, and he was happy to let them.

There’s really not  much to Warhol’s work, unless you enjoy his colors and designs, at least, not much that isn’t created and put there by others.  But that never mattered to him.


Paradise Lost and some paintings…

September 23, 2012

babel

But God who oft descends to visit men
Unseen, and through thir habitations walks
To mark thir doings, them beholding soon,
Comes down to see thir Citie, ere the Tower
Obstruct Heav’n Towrs, and in derision sets
Upon thir Tongues a various Spirit to rase
Quite out thir Native Language, and instead
To sow a jangling noise of words unknown:
Forthwith a hideous gabble rises loud
Among the Builders; each to other calls
Not understood, till hoarse, and all in rage,
As mockt they storm; great laughter was in Heav’n
And looking down, to see the hubbub strange
And hear the din; thus was the building left
Ridiculous, and the work Confusion nam’d.

from Paradise Lost Book XII

And from an earlier passage in the poem, where Satan meets Sin and Death (I think he is kin to both of them…) guarding the gates of hell, James Gillray drew inspiration for one of his most popular caricatures.  (In Sin, Death and the Devil (1792). Pitt is Death and Thurlow Satan, with Queen Charlotte as Sin in the middle.)  Then Jacques Louis David somehow took it into his head to use the Gillray’s pose for his Rape of the Sabine Women.  More here.


Public Image

March 15, 2012

I was struck by this image of the Prime Minister of China that appeared in today’s NYTimes.  I don’t know enough of Chinese art to be able to place the style of the image in the background, or to know if it is a reproduction or a valuable original, but it is interesting to me that he is happy  to be shown in front of an image that depicts peacocks.  Can you imagine Obama in such a pose?  Or Sarkozy? 

China is, after all, the oldest continuous civilization in existence, and the imagery of state power does  change slowly.  The Emperor simply changes his clothes.


Dalí and Me

September 1, 2011

When I was in high school, I loved Salvador Dalí.  I knew all his paintings, read his biography, his novel, and his autobiography (The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí.)  I vividly recall the first time I saw one of his pictures:  it was in fourth grade, and I opened a book that had his premonition of the civil war.  I thought it was the weirdest, most grotesque thing I had ever seen.

He did a lot of junk, but at his best, he was very good.  I always wished I could have attended the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme and seen Rainy Taxi, with the bedraggled mannequin in the back seat, water cascading through the roof, and snails crawling over her limbs.  Seeing the car in the lobby of the Figueras Theatro Salvador Dalí was a thrill.  I still get a kick out of much of his work.  There’s no surrealist like him.  The ancient church across the street from the theater is a beautiful complement to his craziness, and one he surely appreciated.


The Many-named Jan Gossart

November 27, 2010

The Metropolitan has a marvelous exhibit of the works of Jan Gossart (he is known by a variety of names) that I visited today.  A northerner, in the pictorial tradition of van Eyck and other pioneering artists in oil, he, like Albrecht Durer, went south, and was enthralled by the ruins of the classical world and the Humanist revival in Italy.  He fuses this taste with his northern gothic tradition and produces something that is at times downright weird, but compelling.  The exhibit was unusual, I thought, in its emphasis on the sources in contemporary art of the north for many of his works.  Gossart was on the cutting edge; one of a group of humanist-scholar-artist afficianados who found deep-pocketed patrons to finance their new vision. 

As always, click on the images to enlarge them.

The image at the top was one of my favorites – a disguised portrait of a young girl as Mary Magdalen, so simple, plain, and lovely compared to the other Magdalen below.

His debt to Durer’s popular engraving is clear and direct, but he drops some of the classicizing of the print’s image.

   

Here, he cuts loose a bit and depicts Adam and Eve as actual human beings, rather “than Biblical Figures”, who are obviously quite attracted to one another.

The Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalen:  The first is calm, contemplative, and shows that strange marble-like texture found in so many of his portraits.  He seems to enjoy painting people as though they were sculpture, sometimes to a degree that it appears trompe l’oeil.  The second is strange, twisted, writhing, and definitely tipping in the direction of mannerism.

  

Hercules and wife, classical architecture, bodies – see, her breasts are perfect hemispheres – and a weird, erotic entangling of legs.  The picture on the right makes use of blue pigment created from lapis lazuli that was as expensive as gold.

      

A bit of weirdly erotic classicizing…

A portrait of a man who was in charge of municipal toll collections, an important and lucrative post.  From his look, he seems right for the job.  If you look very closely at his eyes, at the white highlight on the iris reflecting the incoming light, you can see the image of the mullions of the window from which this scene is illuminated.


Correspondences

August 10, 2010

Another visit to a museum after Spanish class – this time to the Frick.  Madame d’Haussonville is ever watchful, and I still cannot figure out how her eyes follow one no matter from which side you look at her.  My brain was very much softened by the oppressive heat and humidity here – I saw correspondences everywhere!

Do I imagine them only?

Looking at the Old Testament stalwart by El greco brought Samuel Beckett, a very different sort of seer, to mind.

The pictorial source for the famous pose of the female at the center of J. L. David’s Rape of the Sabines has been documented as deriving from my favorite cartoonist, James Gillray, but did Gillray get his idea from…Fragonard of all people?  Can you imagine a more bizarre commutation of ideas:  rococo Fragonard  —>  acerbic, TORY, and hilarious Gillray —> righteous revolutionary propagandist, David??!

And just what is the meaning of the gleaming white silk dress that George Romney has painted onto Lady Warwick’s otherwise unimpressive figure?  An entire painting about a fabric?  Do you get to be a Lord or a Lady if you can illuminate your surroundings that way?


Perfection: nowhere to go but down

March 19, 2010

In the Preface to Part II of The Lives of the Artists, Vasari presents his theory on the history of western art, an idea that we take for granted today, that the Italians of the 13th century (Cimabue and Giotto) revived the arts that were decrepit and moribund.  He says that they were reborn, a renaissance, and from that point onward to his own day, they continually improved until they reached a peak of accomplishment with the painting, sculpture, and architecture of Michelangelo and his contemporaries.  Today, we call that the High Renaissance.  But…then what?

…and I may safely declare that its art has achieved everything which could possibly be permitted to an imitator of Nature, and that this period has risen so high that there is more reason to fear its decline than to expect further advances.

Nowhere to go but down.  Decline-ism!  The decadence.  The inevitable decay from the classic ideal…

This idea is so deeply ingrained in our thinking, and it fascinates me, but I don’t agree with it.  Perhaps in Vasari’s day it was a new twist on an old  notion, in that he felt the peak had been reached in his own day.  The Greeks had gone on about The Golden Age, sometime long before what we see as the classical apogee of ancient civilization, and felt that they were living in an age of iron.  That the best times, the most beautiful times are long behind us is such a common idea – when I was a kid, things were better…Nowadays, everything is going to the dogs!…People didn’t used to do that sort of thing… – but it is often little more than nostalgia and wishful thinking.  The Golden Age is one of the more serious historicist myths of The Fall:  we were good once, but since then, we have decayed.  With Vasari, it is more of an anxiety.

See how linear his thinking is too!  Picture a graph like this one, with time moving to the right, and artistic accomplishment going up and down.  One line, we move in one direction through time, in one place.  But what if instead of two dimensions, we had three or four, or N?  A peak in one sort of perfection at one time and place is not necessarily superior to a peak somewhere else, in some other context, of some other type.  Of course, Vasari didn’t think that way for a variety of reasons.

The idea of this “natural” cycle in the arts – birth, growth, maturity, decay, death,  and re-birth with luck, is obviously born of the universal experience of life and death that people have.  It’s useful to a point, but the problem is identifying just what’s the peak, and what’s the trough, and doing so in a way that is somewhat objective.  There is also the problem of scale, or temporal parochialism.  Some people, taking a very long view, might see western art as still developing towards some very arcane, ideal state that appeals to them.  Modernists at the turn of the 20th century did not so much worship the past golden age of the Renaissance as feel oppressed and exhausted by it.  Duchamp declared the end of retinal art.  In a way, they confirmed Vasari:  the Renaissance had gone as far as one could go in imitating Nature, so they stopped trying to do that!

The anxiety of being at the peak is common in geopolitical talk as well.  Decline-ism, defeatism. The Decline of the West by Spengler, and Kennedy’s much touted The Rise and Fall of Great Powers come to mind.  In Spengler’s case, it was metaphysical dry rot; in Kennedy, it is the relative decline of one power and the relative rise of another that matters.  Are we on our way up or on our way down?  The funny thing is we don’t know.  In the Middle Ages, everyone knew which way they were headed!  How’s that for progress!

I think this image brings it all together nicely:  modern circus fare in the form of Vanna White, hostess of the TV show, Wheel of Fortune; decadent art brought to you in the form of nudes by Sir Edward Burne-Jones; and High Renaissance art, nudes in the manner of Michelangelo.


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