Tag Archives: painting

Dogged determination

I once heard Phil Leider say of Francisco Goya that he had only ever truly longed for two things: the career of Diego Velázquez and the love of the Duchess of Alba.

Solo_Goya
The Duchess of Alba in Mourning, 1797, collection of the The New York Hispanic Society (The Hispanic Society of America)

Maybe that's so.

His last duchess Goya depicted several times, most memorably in an enigmatic painting in which her defiant stance seems to contradict the connotations of her mourning apparel. She points down toward the dust at her feet, where some finger — his? hers? — has inscribed "solo Goya".

Seems like something's going on there. He kept this painting among his possessions from the time of its creation until his death in 1828.

However that may have gone, Leider was surely right about Velázquez, the greatest Spanish painter of the 17th-century, and maybe the greatest of them all — the painter of whom Ruskin supposedly said that everything he does "may be regarded as absolutely right" and to whom Ruskin ascribed "the highest reach of technical perfection yet attained in art."

Why wouldn't Goya want to be Velázquez redux? The earlier artist had lived a charmed life as court painter to Philip IV, under whose auspices he cranked out not only a seemingly endless supply of stock portraiture, but also some of the most psychologically and intellectually compelling images in western art.

It didn't matter what Goya wanted, though. It was not to be. Living through the French Revolution and the Peninsular War, Goya was surrounded by destruction, corruption, incompetence, and folly. Sure, he became court painter — nominally the same position Velázquez had held. But Goya's monarch was an imbecile surrounded by monsters. Recognizing the sad irony of his plight, Goya pulled no punches when it came time to speak truth to power. Continue reading Dogged determination

This Is My Body

The Roettgen Pietà
The Roettgen Pietà (Vesperbild), polychromed willow or poplar, 89cm, ca. 1360, Landesmuseum, Bonn

 

The Roettgen Pietà, a painted wooden sculpture about three feet high, tells us a couple of important things about Christian devotion in 14th-century Germany.

In German, this subject is called a Vesperbild, an image for use during ritual devotions at sundown. More broadly, it's an example of an Andachtsbild, an image intended to stimulate meditation. For this reason, the holy figures are isolated from their narrative context and presented in a pose and a moment that amplify the statue's emotional import.

The body of Jesus has been removed from the cross, and Mary now holds her dead son on her lap and laments his passing. The poignancy of the statue resides in a cluster of double meanings. Just as Mary once held the baby on her lap, she now holds the man. Before, he was brimming with new life; now he is beyond life's end. Once he was beautiful; now he is ugly. Once perfect and intact, now distorted and destroyed.

The anonymous sculptor captures these antinomies in visual and tactile form. Mary is straight and rectangular: her knees and hips bend at ninety degrees so that her lower legs and torso form a visual rectangle that establishes the basic order of the artwork. In contrast to her rigid, vertical, rectilinear form, the body of Jesus spreads in a zig-zagging diagonal from upper left to lower right. He bends at the ankles, the knees, and the hips, while his arms extend limply, one dangling straight down and the other resting on his mother's forearm. His enormous, heavy head falls back, bending his neck at an impossible angle and casting the thorns of his crown in sharp profile against the negative space. In macabre harmony, Mary's oversized head tilts slightly off center, toward his, as she stares blankly at the space before them and contemplates the horror of the moment.

The weight and angle of his head, his gaping mouth, his dangling arm, and his broken pose emphasize that Jesus is dead. Amplifying this point, the artist presents the wounds in his feet, hands, and side as plump blossoms of gushing blood held constant. Red paint describes the course of blood that once dripped down his arms, and rivulets of red make a maze of his forehead where thorns have harmed him. His near nudity and the gore of his wounds stand in contrast to the splendor of his mother's blue garment, once partly gilt. Continue reading This Is My Body

Prehistoric painting

My earliest childhood ambition (at least in response to the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?") was to become a paleontologist.  This fascination with prehistory arose in part, as it must with many children, in response to some well chosen dinosaur toys.  I learned to say and spell the names of the various species and staged mighty, improbable battles on plateaus made of sofa cushions.   At some point, a field trip to the La Brea tar pits catalyzed my interest and I began to read whatever I could find not only about Mesozoic megacritters but also about the Pleistocene scene.  I was particularly interested in the edge cases — misapprehensions such as "brontosaurus" and mysteries such as the Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon nexus.

Eventually, this obsession gave way to another (and then another, and then…).  I never returned to it in a serious or specializing way, but I continue to feel the allure of prehistoric artifacts and the poorly understood cultures that produced them.  Interpreting art historical objects unaccompanied by textual or verbal cues — interpreting them only in relation to site-specific material factors and explicitly speculative cultural models — has a way of infusing complex questions of methodology with simplicity, clarity, and humility.

I recently received a copy of the latest (8th) edition of Janson's History of Art and since I happened to have an earlier edition (4th) on hand, I took interest in what had changed in just shy of twenty years.  The quantity of color photographs, like the price, has increased dramatically.  The production values are better.  The earlier text was Anthony Janson's adaptation of his father's famous work.  In the preface, the son embraces Horst Janson's traditional historiography and (with a profession of sympathy if not regret) fends off the encroaching "new art history".  In contrast, the new volume has been revised or rewritten by a committee of six specialists; after a score of years the vitality and value of the (by-now-not-so-) new art history is a settled matter. Continue reading Prehistoric painting

Immersion

persimmon03 In the first post in this series, I discussed ways in which the space around a single figural sculpture becomes a tacit part of the artwork by virtue of the moving viewer's interpretive act. In the second post, I considered how the spatial relationships among multiple figures in a more complex figural sculpture can provide interpretive clues and cues that lead to a rich understanding not only of the fiction's virtual space, but also of its mental, social, and emotional spaces.

Now I would like to consider immersion, which I will treat as a set of visual, spatial, and kinetic opportunities afforded the viewer of an artwork by virtue of its scale, situation, and referential complexity. I will offer two examples, one which invites the interpreter to go around and upon and another which invites the interpreter to go within and beneath.
Continue reading Immersion