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.


Saint Stephen Stoned

May 27, 2012

I am not very familiar with the work of Lorenzo Lotto, but what I had seen of it didn’t leave me panting for more…until today!  At the Metropolitan, I saw this panel depicting the martyrdom of Saint Stephen and was knocked out by it.  Those two guys on the left, lounging and bored by it all.  Their staffs are perfectly parallel, pointing heavenwards: the one in armor is missing a greave (leg armor) and his legging is flapping out.  The dog just in the middle of a leap.  The entire landscape, a hillside, seemingly tilted, as if in sympathy with the cosmic outrage being perpetrated.  The killers, in various stages of the lift, wind-up, and pitch of the deadly projectiles…


Images of Anxiety

March 30, 2011

George Tooker, a painter of weird, ‘magic-realist’ images of dread and anxiety died, and is written up in this NYTimes obitFor most of his life, he was outside of the artistic ‘mainstream,’ but his images are familiar to many from book covers and magazine illustrations.  

Farley Granger also left this world:  according to the Times obit, he was a ‘screen idol’ and a rather independent minded fellow.  I know him only from two fine film noir classics which I discussed here, and as we all know, noir and anxiety are good companions.


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.


On reflection…

May 20, 2010

 

Mr. Savage, of Swiftly Tilting Planet fame, commented on my recent post about my visit to the Frick Museum.  He mentioned the reflection in the mirror in the painting shown here.  That got me thinking about how often artists use mirrors in their work, to deepen the meaning, to add interest, or to display their virtuosity.  Some favorites here:

A mirror is sort of like an ironic painting – it’s flat, it creates an illusion of a world beyond, except it’s the real world.  For centuries, painting was preoccupied with creating that illusionistic realm, behind the flat picture-plane.  With perspective, they could make it appear as it appeared to us.  The concept had legs – Stendhal famously compared a novel, his anyway, to a mirror being carried along a road, reflecting the life around it.  Well, it’s easy to go on, but I’d be repeating myself…


I’m watching you

May 18, 2010

I ran up to the Frick Museum for a quick visit today, and of course, I took a long look at one of my favorite paintings.  I had never noticed that her gaze seems to meet yours, no matter whether you are standing to the right or the left of the picture.  It seems to follow you.  That sort of thing probably tickled Ingres.


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.


At what secret thought does she smile?

January 20, 2010

I visited this exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum today.  This drawing is a cartoon for a fresco, in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, created for the Princess Eleonor of Toledo, by Bronzino.  The woman in the drawing is one figure in the crowd around Moses as he strikes a rock in the desert to make water gush forth (yellow square in image below-right).


John Singer Sargent

January 2, 2010

A remarkable painter!  He was the favorite of Edwardian society, but at the height of his success as a portraitist in the “grand manner,” he gave it up.  A very private man, sophisticated, yet also naive, dedicated to his art, his friends, and his family, but little else.  So what?

He knew what he was.  He moved in those circles, but he was not quite of them.  Who knows what he really thought?  He certainly was never ironic or satirical in his depiction of the rich and great.  He never shared their anti-semitism either, doing  some of his best work in portraits of the Anglo-Jewish financial and merchant kings, much to the chagrin of the Establishment.

With the advent of Modernism, and the self-conscious avant garde, his reputation went into eclipse, to be resuscitated later.  Sample this from the great puritan – I do love him, though – Lewis Mumford (from wiki):

“Sargent remained to the end an illustrator…the most adroit appearance of workmanship, the most dashing eye for effect, cannot conceal the essential emptiness of Sargent’s mind, or the contemptuous and cynical superficiality of a certain part of his execution.”

Appearance of workmanship..? Alas, Lewis, I couldn’t disagree with you more.


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