Saturday, November 24, 2007

If you have any interest at all in the subject of this blog . . .

. . . and live in or close to New York and/or can afford a visit there, you'd be foolish not to try and see this.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Two Paintings

The blog lives! A new post! And, to boot, the revival of what I'd hoped would be a weekly feature of this blog!

(Well, a variation on the feature.)

Though the subject matter in each of these paintings is different, I hope it will be immediately apparent why each appears here. Also, the selection is a way of beginning a response to Robert's comment in the previous post regarding the influence of Caravaggio on Dutch painting.

As always, click on the image to see a larger version.

Caravaggio, The Crucifixion of St. Peter, 1600-01


Dirck van Baburen, Prometheus Being Chained by Vulcan, 1623

I look forward to being a bit more regular in posting here.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Pozzo, (very) up close

Still getting my land-legs from the upheaval of getting the new half-semester started. In the meantime, though, have a look at this: a zoomable image of Andrea Pozzo's magnificent 1685 ceiling painting, La Gloria di Sant'Ignazio.

Hat-tip: Clusterflock.

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Thursday, October 4, 2007

Hiatus

It indeed has been a while. I'm flattered by the rather directly-expressed hopes for new content here, and a bit embarrassed that I just haven't had a real chance to oblige. I want to, though.

Mid-semester tests and grades are next week here. Then a--wait for it--four-day weekend for us. I'll have plenty of time then to look at some pictures and books and think up something to say about them.

Until then, then. And thank you again, loyal visitors.

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Asparagus and Broad Foreheads: Lost Codes, Sensuality, and "Art"

Adriaen Coorte (c. 1663-after 1707), Still Life (Asparagus) (1697), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Well. A couple of weeks has turned into almost a month, as Robert was kind enough to remind me in comments on the last post--and I am flattered that even one person has missed my posting here. I am not sure that this post will make up for my hiatus from here, but at times one has to work with what one has at hand.

The image you see above appeared a couple of days ago on my computer monitor via the Rijksmuseum's desktop widget, which I've mentioned here before and which rarely disappoints. Coorte is a lesser-known painter, but there is something about this painting that made me want to remember to post it here just for what I found to be its attractiveness--not to mention learning from the museum's website that asparagus were (and still is, apparently) thought to be an aphrodisiac.

But it was Robert's comment at my post on grail geometry that prompts something more from me than a bit of bemusement (and I also have in mind some general observations on deliberately-created mysteries that Conrad makes in his most recent post over at Varieties of Unreligious Experience). The questions I have are these: once we've lost the ability to read an artwork as it was apparently intended to be read, are we still able to read it--but just according to a different sort of code? And the corollary: does this new code have its own value? That is, down the road here I'll be saying that what holds my attention as I look at Coorte's painting is its sensual appeal. It is "pretty." But is its prettiness enough to make it "art"?


My first thought when I saw this image that day was, "Hmm--what an odd choice for a still-life subject." But I was drawn to its rich depiction of the spears' surfaces, and that, combined with my not having heard Coorte's name before, caused me to click on the "More" link. It was thus through the Rijksmuseum's discussion of the painting that I learned of asparagus's presumed aphrodisiac qualities. But more surprising to me was that it took that discussion to make me notice that, yes, asparagus are also phallic in their shape. Lots of things in the world resemble penises and vaginas, I recognize, and I note those resemblances on what I would regard as a sexually-"healthy" frequency, not a sexually-stunted or -obsessed one (your mileage may vary, of course). Even so, I felt a bit dense when I read that particular bit in the description, and it was then that I noted the angle of the asparagus as well: a simple horizontal or vertical positioning of the spears would have, to my eye, de-emphasized their phallic-ness.

Enough of that. I'll take myself off the couch now.

Now I know/have been made aware of all this; I now know a Why for Coorte's choice of subject. But does it "do" only what its description says it does? Does it still have something to say to us other than or besides that description? I'll go out on a limb and say that most of today's visitors to the Rijksmuseum who stand in front of this painting aren't suddenly, or even gradually, filled with the desire to Do the Dirty as they gaze upon it. So/But, what do they see or read there, if anything? Another way to put it: in the comment I linked to above, Robert asks, "If you wanted to put some sort of secret code in a painting, what would you do to insure the right person found it and wrong person didn’t?" Yes. And a corollary to that, it would seem, is: what would/could an artist do to ensure that his/her work were still "readable" ages and ages hence--assuming, of course, that sort of thing interested him/her?

Chaucer's Wife of Bath has a broad forehead. It took my going to graduate school to learn that in Chaucer's time a woman's broad forehead was a symbol indicating a rather broad knowledge, shall we say, of sexual matters. Other things in Chaucer's description of her and in her own Prologue confirm that pretty explicitly, so in some sense we today don't need to know what a broad forehead signified for his contemporaries. She remains "readable" for us, at least as regards that aspect of her character. As for Coorte's asparagus, even knowing what I know now about them, I'm still drawn to its skilfully-lit and -rendered surfaces. A different sort of stirring fills me as I look at them: I happen to love asparagus, and so as I look I wonder why my store's asparagus never look anywhere close to this good. But that has to do with sensuality and not with sexuality. The former is ideally a large part of what makes so pleasurable the indulging-in of the latter, of course, but they obviously aren't equivalents.

If, though, we make the case that Coorte's painting also participates in what we might consider the Caravaggesque version of the Baroque--its attention to the world's surface appearances (poorly-put, I know)--then on those grounds we don't need to know about asparagus' sexual attributes or resemblances to enjoy this painting. Above and beyond those matters, it still communicates an aesthetic approach to thinking about and depicting the things of this world, one that we can still read and that, moreover, still holds a broad appeal. Even humble asparagus spears merit the same rigorous attention of the artist as the human form or, for that matter, a "sexy" painting's thematic opposite, a memento mori.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

Caravaggio, The Fortune-Teller

(click the image to enlarge it)

From Peter Robb's M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio:

In the Fortune teller the dynamic . . . was something going on between the boy and the girl inside the picture and left you free to enjoy it. What made the picture delightful, made it sharp as well as sweet, was the poise between the ingenuous boy and the shy girl--the sweet but silly boy with his plumes and his gloves and his pleased sense that she was finding him pretty attractive, and the girl who was slipping the ring from the boy's finger with such delicacy that she seemed to deserve it. The two were distributed evenly on the canvas, a pair of opposites linked in the play of their hands and the switch of sexual roles--the boy being pretty, dressed up, passive and duped, while the girl controlled and orchestrated the exchange. The play of the glances was marvellous, especially the girl's. Her role was the painter's--holding things in balance, not being too obvious, keeping it playful. . . .

Everyone remembered this painting. Real life and delicate eroticism weren't what people were used to in art and the novelty was startling. (49-50)

More regular posting here to resume in a couple of weeks.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Velázquez, Juan Martínez Montañés


Martínez Montañés (1568-1649) was the greatest Spanish sculptor of the Baroque era. His medium was wood; in fact, he was known as "el dios de madera" (the god of wood) because of his skill. Here and here are examples of his work.

Velázquez has among his paintings several portraits in which the subject stands before a background so neutral that it very nearly takes on the quality of a void--see, for example, his portrait of Don Pedro de Barberana y Aparregui. What is striking about this painting is that Velázquez, in his depiction of Martínez Montañés at work, makes it appear as though the sculptor has reached into that void, shaping out of it the rough form of the bust in the lower right.

Like a painter with brushes and paints before a blank canvas, the sculptor and his knives and chisels stands before the blank canvas that is a piece of wood; each coaxes an image from a blankness. I admit to not having thought this through too much, but it would seem that this take on the artistic process isn't that far removed from Milton's notion, in Paradise Lost, of God's having shaped the universe out of unformed matter (Chaos).

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Monday, July 2, 2007

Another visit with Velázquez' Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

Visitors here may remember this post from a while back. This morning, while perusing how people found their way to this blog, I learned about an article on it from two years ago, in which two researchers recreate Velázquez's famous and puzzling painting and come to a surprising conclusion:

[T]he image of Christ in the background scene is a mental image in the mind of the servant girl. Previous scholars believe this scene is either a mirror or a window, but Esler and Boyd disagree.

Professor Esler explained: "We suggest that the girl is from the painter's time and that she is a distressed servant with the unhappy memory and mental image of Jesus devaluing another serving- woman, Martha. To further this, the old woman in the painting appears to be telling her to 'get on with it' as Martha might have felt when Jesus rebuked her. Here we have an interpretation of the Bible text in which a 17th century servant-girl feels devalued because of what Jesus said in a biblical narrative. The artist is subtly criticising the Bible in this work."

Without wanting to pull a muscle from patting myself on the back--because, after all, I don't quite say it in my post--I had considered the image of Christ with Mary and Martha as functioning as a sort of thought balloon for the distraught woman in the foregrounded scene. More significant, though, is the researchers' conclusion that the painting is a quiet critique of the Biblical text. Without arguing that this isn't the case, another possibility not addressed in the article is that Velázquez is offering a critique of a certain reading of that text.

As I learned while doing a bit of reading for this post, during these decades of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, the Lucan story was a favorite of Protestants as they made the case for Luther's argument that Christians are saved not by works but by grace through faith. Here, I note that Arthur Wheelock notes that Vermeer's close grouping of Mary and Martha is his attempt to be more affirming of Martha--that is, his is a more "Catholic" reading of that story. In my humble opinion, one could read the Velázquez in a similar way.

Seen in this way, then, for me the question shifts to the old woman in the foreground. Is she offering comfort to the young woman (the Catholic take), or, as Esler and Boyd suggest, is she a surrogate for the young woman's social superiors? And, for that matter, just who is "thinking" the painting-within-a-painting? How should we understand that, in that painting, Martha has set down the pitcher and bowl on the distant table? (In the Vermeer, Martha, positioned closer to Christ than Mary is, offers him a loaf of bread on a platter.) It would seem that how we answer that question would depend on who is "thinking" it.

For me, at least, Esler and Boyd's conclusions actually open up the painting to still further questions that I hadn't had before. That's not a criticism; rather, it's an implicit warning to my reader(s) that we here might be revisiting this painting yet again on down the road.

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Friday, June 8, 2007

Grail geometry and Baroque painting: Is there any "there" there?

An image from Robert A diCurcio's discussion of The Allegory of Painting at Vermeer's Riddle Revealed

This morning while checking the site stats for this blog, I saw that someone from Argentina found us via a Google search for "Baroque Painting Blog." That would be (partly) us, of course, so I went there as well to, yes, see how highly we rank (nicely, by the way, thanks for asking), but also to see if there are other like-minded blogs out there and link to them.

Anyway, that search also turned up an article from January of this year, "Stop the code conspiracies" by Martin Kemp. The title is a plea; as the article makes clear, no evidence has yet emerged that Renaissance and Baroque painters encoded secret messages into their works. We have, of course, The Da Vinci Code to thank for the recent uptick in this sort of thing; it also reminds me of Michael Drosnin's 1998 Holy-Writ-as-Seek-n-Find book, The Bible Code. This blog has also linked a couple of times to Robert A diCurcio's Vermeer's Riddle Revealed, which argues that Vermeer was a member of a Masonic guild and thus encoded grail geometry into many of his paintings.

My opinion on all this is that, even if these geometries are compositional elements in the paintings, what of it? What do they signify?

Not much, apparently.

Before going on, I will confess that Mr. diCurcio has obviously spent much more time on this than I will spend in offering friendly criticism of it, and I don't wish to be understood as saying that his efforts are entirely for naught. My real question is this: apart from speculation that is at the very least unprovable and certainly in part unfounded, what does all this reveal to us about the paintings and the man who painted them, apart from his, likely, fanatical attention to their composition?

At his website, diCurcio offers no explanation as to how he became interested in applying grail geometry to Vermeer, but it's fair to say that he doesn't appear to have stumbled onto his subject by chance. Consider, for example, this parenthetical aside in his discussion of The Allegory of Painting as he describes his search for a line that will lead to his finding what he calls the Tilted Triangle:

(If you're wondering how I know to do this right away -- let me say right away -- that I spent weeks doing trial-and-error lines before arriving at STEP 2 as I shall present it -- sparing you from going through all that!)
Well, thank you. But this--and, indeed, the tone of most of his site, is that of someone who, given a theory and the tools for applying it, goes off in search of a likely candidate to try them out on, and who better than someone mysterious like Vermeer? I will grant diCurcio this: his discussion of Lady Standing at a Virginal does indeed appear to have its origin in a peculiar feature of the painting--Cupid's bow appearing to grow out of the Lady's head. But once past a point like that, the theory and the geometry take over; the painting becomes something other than (as opposed to something besides) what it depicts.

Or, it just leads us, pretty much, to what is the pretty standard reading of the painting, as with this passage from diCurcio's discussion of The Allegory of Painting:
The intersection point of the diagonals A--N and M--O is the objective of the whole exercise. It is hard to say exactly what symbolism Vermeer had in mind for the 'X Marks the Spot' , which falls on the open book on the table. Since experts contend that the female model represents Clio, the Muse of History, and since Vermeer painted Clio looking down at that open book, we may speculate that his message is that the artist was making history by painting masterpieces that would bring credit to his native land -- and fame for himself. Note that he is shown at work on the crown of laurel leaves, symbolic of victory and fame. Holland at the time had emerged victorious in a struggle with Spain. This could well have been in Vermeer's mind -- and satisfactory it must have been to him, even though this and many other of his riddles would have to wait for centuries to be revealed. (emphases in the original)
Well, okay. But it seems that, apart from the reference to the Netherlands' defeat of Spain, all that is already available in the painting, without the projection of the lines and triangles and squares and such.

Like most of us, I'd also like to know more about Vermeer's life, and it would be interesting to know if he was a Mason. Interesting, but not vital. DiCurcio's study of the paintings leads him to make the claim that Vermeer was "most likely" a member of the Priory of Sion; as to how likely that is, read for yourself.

None of this is to say that diCurcio is mistaken about Vermeer's reliance on grail geometry. In fact, I'd be surprised to learn that Vermeer hadn't employed something like it as a compositional aid. Nor do I claim that secrets don't remain about Vermeer or other painters that are somehow revealed through their art. Personally, I've wondered about the level of Vermeer's commitment to Catholicism and whether that can be discerned through thinking about his paintings. Questions like that, though, will get answered, if they can be answered, through a combination of reading the historical record and looking at the paintings.

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Thursday, June 7, 2007

Caravaggio and the dangers of the life/art nexus

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1606

Today I just began reading Peter Robb's 1998 book, M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio. I read enough of the reviews to know that Robb's work's authority isn't exactly unquestioned; and, because of my near-ignorance of Caravaggio, I know to be a bit cautious in assessing it. But that's what bibliographies are for, and this book's is 15 pages long. In the meantime, I'm so far enjoying Robb's almost Raymond Chandler-like prose style; it seems appropriate, given its subject, and it has me wanting to read more than I have time for today.

In any event, as I go along in it I thought I would share from time to time passages from it that to my mind are especially provocative, for good or ill, and solicit commentary from those so inclined. I'll start today with his brief discussion of the mis-dating of the David and Goliath you see here. It had been customary to think of this painting as being from 1610, one of his very last, its poignancy full of the painter's self-knowledge that his life was approaching the end. But, Robb writes,

[t]hat David was painted four years earlier.

The wrong dating of this bleak and powerful painting matters a lot to anyone trying to make sense of M's life. The error's doubly false. It shifts the emotional gravity from M's tragic year of 1606, when he painted this David--in the time of lucid desperation that followed the killing in Rome. And the painting's own iconic power lends a falsely self-aware and tragic finality to his last months, or even years--as if M by 1610 were resigned and knowingly going to meet his death. It's a misreading that spills over into his other last paintings and throws everything awry. The four year switch is false about his art and false about his life at once. It feeds back into the old story. The old myth. (11)
The dating of this painting seems emblematic of how the writing of Caravaggio's story has gone over the years. We don't have much in the way of written records, and much of that--"hardly a word untainted by fear, ignorance, malice or self-interest," Robb says in his "Note to Readers"--is, well, less than completely objective. So there are the paintings. And just as it was once common to read Shakespeare's plays for clues about his life, so also have people done with Caravaggio's work. Robb will be no different in that regard. But he argues that his book is a hypothesis, to be proven or disproven as we learn more.

Let's find out what he has to say, shall we?

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Monday, June 4, 2007

Venuses: Three paintings

To compensate for not having posted the usual Two Paintings back on Friday, today I want to post Three--one of which, admittedly, is not of the Baroque era but which seems to belong here.

As always, I invite comments on correspondences and differences between/among the paintings; I also want to encourage the especially-inspired to write me about posting something here and, in so doing, begin to move this blog in the direction of what I've always conceived it of becoming: a multi-voiced site.


Titian, The Venus of Urbino, 1538


Rubens, Venus in Front of Her Mirror, c. 1613/1614


Velázquez, Venus at her Mirror (aka The Rokeby Venus), 1644-1648)

For what it's worth, the curious can find a discussion (continued in the comments) of the Velázquez here.

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Pacheco, his famous pupil, and some comments on "influence"

(cross-posted at Blog Meridian)

Yesterday I was surprised to learn that Peter Harrup, the administrator for the Facebook group "The Genius of Diego Velázquez," named me as an officer for that group: Francisco Pacheco. Wonderful, I thought . . . but, who is he? Way leads on to way in the Internets, and what follows are the results of that wandering, along with some speculation and musing.

I quickly learned via consulting my copy of the catalogue of the 1989 Velázquez exhibition at the Met (which, by the way, is well worth seeking out, especially if you a) love Velázquez and/but b) don't have a lot of money) that Pacheco was Velázquez' principle teacher and, eventually, his father-in-law. Pacheco was an agent of the Inquisition and thus very much a loyal adherent to the values propagated by the Counter-Reformation. Though well regarded as a teacher, his talent as a painter was never more than pedestrian1; however, unlike many other tutors whose pupils outshine them, it appears Pacheco wasn't jealous of Velázquez's abilities but taught him what he knew, especially with regard of the then-emerging tendencies toward realism, and then got out of the way. His book El arte de la pintura is still considered an authoritative source of information from the time.

I probably would not have begun to write this post, though, had it not been for going on to read the Wikipedia article on Pacheco--specifically, this sentence:

Although Velázquez was a student in Pacheco's school for six years, and married Pacheco's daughter Juana in 1618, there is no trace of Pacheco's influence in the work of Velázquez.

"No trace"? That seemed to me a bold claim to make; consider Jackson Pollack, who, when asked what he learned when he studied under Thomas Hart Benton (an odd pairing, to say the least), replied, "How not to paint."2 So, I decided to do some looking around for more takes on Pacheco's influence on Velázquez, and I wound up in a surprising place--a post I wrote earlier this month.

In the course of Googling, I discovered a review of a book by Jane Boyd and Philip F Esler, Visuality and Biblical Text: Interpreting Velázquez' "Christ with Martha and Mary" as a Test Case. This was startling because, as readers of this blog know, I had just posted on this very painting. Anyway, in the course of listing some paintings that Velázquez might have seen that may have influenced his painting, the reviewer mentions"St. Sebastian healed by St. Irene, 1616] by Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644, Velázquez's teacher and father-in-law) combining two episodes from the legend of St Sebastian, one seen through a window of the room in which the other occurs[.]"
(Here, by the way, is where I found this image.)

There is no denying the compositional similarities between the Pacheco and the Velázquez, especially if it's the case that, as with the Pacheco, the Velázquez depicts two chronologically-distinct moments. Having said that, though, the Velázquez is no mere copy. The Pacheco has an almost-medieval quality to it in its handling of perspective; as has often been noted, his pupil's painting is a fusion of the religious subject and the genre of the bodegón, itself influenced by Dutch paintings of domestic scenes. Also, the Pacheco lacks any tension between the painting and the painting-within-a-painting: the latter serves to explain the circumstances depicted in the former. The Velázquez, though, is another matter entirely, as I pointed out in my post on it.

So, then: "influence." As a teacher myself, I find my students wanting to give me credit for things they have learned when, in fact, all I had done was give them the opportunity to learn the things they were thanking me for. As it were, I supply the canvas and encouragement, and I have some things to say about the virtues of exploring, of being intellectually curious, but they still have to do the painting, and that they do on their own. What is striking to me about Velázquez's art, quite apart from the brush-wielding, is the intellectual curiosity that fuels it, the willingness to experiment with the tried-and-true. I cannot help but think that it's those qualities that Pacheco encouraged in his pupil; the rest of the time, though, I suspect he alternated between sizing up young Dieguito as a potential match for his daughter and marvelling at his talent, wondering--in a good way--as I myself have had to with some of my students, what he might possibly be able to teach him.

1The Spanish-language Wikipedia article, however, is more generous in its assessment, and indeed includes brief commentary on some of Pacheco's paintings.

2I just now realize that that statement will read differently, depending on one's opinion of Pollack or of Benton.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Yet more housekeeping


Velázquez, The Surrender of Breda, 1634

This still-young blog continues to attract visitors (most of them brought here via Google Images searches--which is fine) and/but more significant, some regular readers, too, as evidenced by the subscriptions to this blog's feeds via e-mail notifications and RSS feeds. Thank you, whoever you regular readers are. As this site increases its content and, yes, adds more images, I hope you'll remain regular readers . . . and, perhaps, consider becoming a co-author of this blog.

Below the fold, two quick surveys: a) changes to the gutter; b) a list of some Facebook groups associated with the Baroque.

I've just finished reorganizing the links sections in the right gutter in hopes of making it easier for visitors (well, okay--for me) to find the sorts of things their looking for. As the number of links grows and I become more adept at adding widgets and HTML, I'll continue to include things that will improve its usefulness for the visitor. Also, I've noticed that a fair number of visitors search this blog via the Blogger labels, so I've also restored the Labels widget to the gutter.

Finally, for those of you with Facebook accounts, I want again to remind you that this blog has its own page (linked to over in the right gutter). Also, a quick survey of Facebook groups revealed the following groups devoted to Baroque artists and writers. Some of them, judging from their discussion boards, seem moribund, some not; all of them are worth your visiting and, if you're so inclined, worth livening up.

The Genius of Velázquez (which at the moment has a nice post up discussing the historical background of The Surrender of Breda).

Don Quixote de la Mancha, dedicated to lively discussions of Cervantes' great novel.

Caravaggio (whose discussion board reveals that even now, his manner of living can stir people up)

Rembrandt

Bernini

Half-Painted Walls and Pearl Earrings: Paint on, Vermeer, Paint on!

Thanks again to all of you for visiting.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Two views of Delft, optical devices, and "art"

Over at this blog's Facebook group page (which, by the way, all of you with Facebook accounts are welcome to join), the matter of the camera obscura has risen in a couple of discussion threads; it is the topic of one, in fact. I figured, then, that via this week's Two Paintings post we could initiate a discussion of the implications the use of such devices may or may not have on the nature of the art that results.

As always, click on the images to enlarge them.


Carel Fabritius, View of Delft with a Musical Instrument Dealer, 1652


Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660-1661

I hope visitors will begin the discussion in the comments section.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Women reading letters--two paintings

Dutch Baroque painters were drawn to the theme of letter-writing and letter-reading. Their evocation of intimate communication between sender and recipient makes the viewer simultaneously curious and, perhaps, a bit like an intruder as s/he enters the painting's space. Despite the sense of intimacy, though, the theme of letters also paradoxically expands the space depicted: in each of the paintings below, for example, the letters we see have writers, unseen by us but certainly seen in the respective minds' eyes of the recipients. The viewer, then, has not merely entered a room; s/he has entered an entire world as configured, oriented, by the envisioned writer or recipient of a letter.

As with the other pairings, I hope that passers-by will feel welcome to comment and, if the muse speaks especially strongly, even to write a post--just let me know, and I'll set things up for you.


Gerard ter Borch, Peasant Girl Reflecting on a Letter, 1650-1660



Johannes Vermeer, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, c. 1662-1665

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Exploring the ambiguities in Velázquez's Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

Click on the image to see a larger version of it.

Since posting this painting a while back, I've spent more time than is perhaps prudent thinking about it. Its title could not be more straightforward, but what is depicted in it is considerably less so. It is filled with ambiguities, as though it's an early proving ground for Velázquez's later, greater paintings and their ambiguities. And the source of its ambiguities is in its excesses.

What I mean by that is this: Luke 10:38-42 makes clear that Martha has no help in attending to her and Mary's guest (though John 11:1-44, which re-presents Mary and Martha as the sisters of Lazarus but within which the Lucan story isn't told, seems to imply that the family is rather better off and thus would likely have household help). The Wikipedia entry for the painting notwithstanding, I don't see how the two women in the foreground of this painting are Mary and Martha--or, if they are, they are not Mary and Martha as depicted in Luke. But it is crucial that we determine who they are if we're going to understand this painting.

I'll spoil for you what's below the fold: I'm not really sure who they are.

I'll begin, though, by stating what I think is not going on here.

In his painting of the supper at Emmaus that hangs in Dublin and which I talk about here, the woman in the kitchen is "excessive": that is, she's not directly accounted for in the story told in Luke 24:13-35; yet, Jesus' hosts being men, we can safely assume at least one woman was present to prepare the meal. In this painting, then, the woman's presence serves to give depth to the Gospel as well as to the space depicted in the painting. As Caravaggio's religious canvases' recurring figures with their dirty toenails and feet remind us, this woman in Velázquez's painting likewise reminds us that Jesus is revealed to all, even to the most humble of us.

However, the present painting's broader theological point is, to put it kindly, harder to get at. Whereas the woman in The Supper at Emmaus works with a busy but otherwise calm demeanor, the same clearly can't be said about the young woman with the pestle in her hand. Perhaps, via her older companion, she hears some cheering words, but we don't see any sign that that cheering is imminent. Perhaps that is part of the point, though: after all, Luke doesn't report Martha's reaction to Jesus' gentle reprimand. Maybe, then, the older woman is meant to uncomplicate the painting.

All these maybes and perhapses. But they do lead me to conclude that the scene in the upper right corner is likelier a painting than a mirror or window into another room. The latter possibility would lead us to infer that the young woman is reacting as she is to something to do with Jesus' presence, which would seem a risky proposition no matter the painting's intended audience. If her unhappiness were in some way directed at Jesus' presence, that would introduce an unmitigated tension in the scene that Velázquez, so early in his career, would have been unwise to brook. My remark in my comment on the previous post to the effect that Martha's now having chosen the better part doesn't get the meal prepared seems now, in retrospect, to be risky as well: however earthily Baroque painters depicted their religious subjects as compared to Renaissance artists, the time had not yet arrived for them to offer up jokey commentaries on the Gospels.

No: what makes the young woman's expression safer in this painting is that she is neither Mary nor Martha and she is reacting to some domestic situation other than having to serve Jesus.

Unless, (again) maybe, she is Mary, and she is grieving Lazarus' death (see John 11:20-29) . . .



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Friday, May 4, 2007

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha--two paintings

As with last week's pairing, the intent here is to invite commentary and, if you are so inclined, a full-blown post on these paintings (which I will be more than happy to post here), their similarities and differences.

Here is Luke's account of the scene depicted.


by Velázquez, 1618


by Vermeer, 1654-1656

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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Defining the Baroque I

From Ruth Gambles, "Redeeming the Sound . . . "

The Baroque signifies an attempt to bridge the gap between man and things implemented by the mechanism of the scientific revolution[.]

The Baroque as a proto-Romanticism, then? Or, perhaps, a proto-Modernism? Either makes sense within the context of the passage quoted here.

But is this in fact true of the Baroque as a philosophy? Was there at that time a cultural anxiety regarding increased mechanization?

UPDATE: A basic principle behind the idea of mechanization is that people know how things work--not just machines, but the cosmos. Caribbean intellectual Edouard Glissant notes that the Baroque (as artistic expression) emerged as a response to Rationalism's claim to contain and codify all knowledge. Those with a greater knowledge of "the modern scientific view of reality" might have some questions about Glissant's claims (I myself know only enough to wonder if what he says is so):
Imitation of Nature as an objective assumes that, underlying outward appearance and inherent in it, there is a "profundity', an unassailable truth, artistic representations of which approximate more closely as they systematize their imitation of reality and discover its rules. The revolution represented by the introduction of perspective during the quattrocento can thus, perhaps, be seen as part of the search for this profundity.

It was against this current that the baroque "diversion' began to make itself felt. Baroque art was a reaction against the rationalist claim to penetrate the mysteries of the known in one single, incisive, uniform movement. The stone with which baroque art disturbed the rationalist pool was an affirmation that knowledge is never fully acquired, a fact that gives it all its value. Thus the techniques of baroque art were to favour "breadth' to the detriment of "depth'.

[snip]

The modern scientific view of reality coincides with and confirms this expansion of the Baroque. Science does, indeed, assert that reality cannot be defined in terms of outward appearances and that it has to be examined "in depth', but it also accepts that knowledge is never wholly acquired and that it would be absurd to claim that its essentials can be grasped at a single stroke. Science has entered the era of the uncertainty principle, retaining, nevertheless, a form of rationalism which henceforth abjures paralysing, mechanical, once-and-for-all dogmatism. Its conceptions of Nature are "expanding', becoming relative, problematical. It is moving, that is, in the selfsame direction towards which the Baroque tends.

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Sunday, April 29, 2007


One Day Blog Silence



Go here for more information.

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Judith and Holofernes--two paintings

An experiment:

When the weekend rolls around, I'll post depictions of the same subject by two different artists and ask for comments or (even better!!) submissions for posts regarding their similarities/differences.

Something provocative, I sense, should kick things off. It's difficult to think of two more provocative works than these. Click on the images to enlarge them:

Caravaggio's Judith and Holofernes (ca. 1598)

Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith and Holofernes (1612-21)

For a quick overview of the relevant events from the book of Judith (which, for my Protestant readers, is in the Apocrypha), here is the Wikipedia entry; and here are the texts of chapters 11, 12, and 13.

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National Gallery online exhibitions of Baroque art


Jusepe de Ribera, The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, 1634

The homepage of the National Gallery in Washington, DC, currently features an online exhibition of paintings from 17th-century Spanish painters. In addition to the Ribera you see above, the exhibition features works by Juan van der Haben y León, Zurbarán, Velázquez, and Murillo. All these paintings are presented beautifully and are well worth a half-hour or so of your time to see.

Other NGA online exhibitions of Baroque art and artists appear below the fold.

Rembrandt's work is featured in three of these exhibitions: an in-depth study of the etching, Abraham Entertaining the Angels, and two larger exhibitions, Rembrandt's Late Religious Portraits and Strokes of Genius: Rembrandt's Prints and Drawings.

A collection of genre paintings and portraits by Gerard ter Borch

And two in-depth studies of individual works: Johannes Verspronck, Andries Stilte as a Standard-Bearer, and Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance

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Rijkmuseum desktop widget


Amsterdam's home of some of the greatest paintings of the Dutch Baroque has what it calls the "Rijkswidget": it allows Mac and PC users to see a different painting from the collection each day.

Nifty . . . or it would be if, that is, my computer and the museum were on speaking terms--which they aren't, at the moment.

Correction: It's working now, and the first image is this one, Rembrandt's The Prophetess Anna.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Art, or art history? Painting, or sculpture?



Top: Bernini, Bacchanal: A Faun Teased by Children

Bottom: Poussin, Bacchanal before a Statue of Pan

Though not about Baroque art per se, Conrad Roth of Varieties of Unreligious Experience has up a thoughtful, closely-argued post addressing just these questions. Roth arrives at a couple of (for me) surprising conclusions, the money quotes of which are below.

Roth notes that, traditionally, painting has been held in higher regard than sculpture because art criticism tends to work from reproductions--engravings or drawings--and paintings naturally will suffer less from 2-dimensional renderings than sculptures will. But consider this:

For [Johann Gottfried] Herder, . . . mere visual sensation is inadequate to an understanding of space, and therefore of Being: 'sight is but an abbreviated form of touch. The rounded form becomes a mere figure, the statue a flat engraving. Sight gives us dreams, touch gives us truth'. Sculpture is greater than painting because it is not confined, as painting is, to the image, to the eye—in Platonic terms, its subject is truth, not dreams or impressions. It cannot be reduced to a series of views, 'dismembered into a pitiful polygon'. Where the painter merely depicts, the sculptor, like God fashioning Adam, creates. The spiritual power of sculpture, as Herder explains towards the end of his treatise, is witnessed by primitive idol-worship; the ancients were aware, he thinks, that the statue must always be an image of the soul, of the world of Forms, bodied forth.

But then Roth expresses his own preference in sculpture for "the unfinished, fragmentary and deliquescent," because
in being (or appearing) incomplete, these sculptures call into question the primacy of the eye. If visual beauty arises from perfect form, these works decline such standards; rather they invite the mind to complete them—what Gombrich called the 'beholder's share'. The intellect, not the eye, is entertained. And this intellectual sculpture, this 'virtual' sculpture, cannot be considered in terms of views or images, not even three-dimensional ones. It cannot even be visualised—to do so is to compromise, to break the spell, just for a moment. It is, in fact, very much like another sort of intellectual construction: the castle of words, which must, again, remain ever incomplete.

Is it any surprise, then, that I, who prize the intellectual above the visual, the unseen above the seen—I, who greedily want my share of the work—should prefer the history of art to art itself?

I personally don't know how to articulate where I stand on these matters, but I'll give it a preliminary try.

I do know that I find it harder intellectual work to look at sculptures than at paintings, just as Leonardo himself argues in his Treatise on Painting (Aside: imagine the strange pleasure of being able to say one thinks like that genius, at least in that regard). Whereas painting creates a virtual space into which the viewer enters, sculpture enters into the viewer's space, becoming quite literally a physical presence that the viewer has no choice but to negotiate at the most basic of levels. The Abstract Expressionist painter Ab Reinhart's quip, "Sculpture is something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting,” indirectly makes that very point.

As for "art or art history," I suppose this blog's existence is a partial answer to that question: If I truly privileged art over art history, I'd either be silent or take some art classes and try to produce some Art myself. But as I read Roth's post some rather unpleasant memories from my grad school days came to mind, memories of times when among my peers it seemed as though theory-for-theory's-sake seemed to matter more than its efficacy when employed in reading actual texts--or, for that matter, that theory lead us back to rather than away from the text. I feel certain, based on my reading of his blog, that Roth's goal is to lead back to the work, equipped with his insight into it. I claim no insights or special knowledge; all I claim, really, is the desire to become better at articulating what I see when I look at these works. Knowing some unsuspecting soul might stumble upon these posts, I try to make his/her accidental visit here as worth his/her time as I am able--not as regards me, though, but as regards the work I'm commenting on. Isn't that all "art history" should do, really?

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Rembrandt, Portrait of a Young Man

In its gallery, it is not front and center on the wall directly opposite the entrance, as you might expect. It hangs on one of the shorter walls, and then not even in the center of that wall. It's in a semi-shadowy corner, in fact, the sitter's white collar being the first thing to catch the visitor's eye there in its penumbra. (Note: the actual painting is not quite this dark.) You almost have to be looking for it to see it: an odd thing to say about a museum's choice in hanging a Rembrandt.

As a general rule, portraits leave me a bit cold. I don't know these people; why should they hold my attention? Of course, there are exceptions, and those I will happily stand in front of, trying to get to know them--it is, after all, as though they have introduced themselves to me, rather than myself to them. I think that's the initial paradox of this painting for me: off in the corner like a wallflower in the Dutch Baroque gallery, as though intimidated by the older, more-worldly man in the 3/4-length Hals in the same room, it's Rembrandt's young man that I want to spend time in front of. The Hals, as good as it is, is dead to me--just another portrait. No offense, sir. Even so, the intensity of the young man's gaze is such that I have to move away from it for a while and then come back to it.

Why is that?

As you can see, information is sketchy as to the sitter's identity or his precise station in life. Whoever this man is, he is just starting out on the adventure called adulthood. Not so his painter, though: Rembrandt would be dead 3 years after painting this portrait. By this point in his life, he knows a thing or two about how to get his viewer to pay attention even to someone who has yet to make his way in the world, at the expense of his more-accomplished companions.

Part of the explanation is "just" technique, which the Nelson-Atkins' website mentions:

Rembrandt has used the butt end of his brush to make incisions in the still-wet paint of the hair to provide a richer sense of texture.
This is certainly true, but it's not what I'm drawn to when I approach the painting for a closer look. What I notice is that Rembrandt also used that butt-end to create a slight depression in his subject's pupils, giving them a 3-dimensional quality. It's the sitter's white collar that initially catches my eye; it's his eyes that hold it.

Tiny wells, "just" minute displacements of pigments on the canvas, nevertheless draw me into the sitter's mind and heart and not just look at his face. I have no choice but to look at this fellow and take seriously his steady, quiet, confident optimism. Whether student, graduate or aspiring artist, Rembrandt certainly seems to take him seriously as well.

But here's where looking at this painting becomes not merely an aesthetic experience but a personal one for me. As so many have said regarding Rembrandt's self-portraits, the directness, the honesty of this fellow's gaze has the effect of not just regarding the viewer but implicitly putting a question to him/her: "And you? What have you to say about your spent time?" A good question, and one that, depending on the day, can be an uncomfortable one to consider. You can't rebut this fellow: he will always be quietly confident, optimistic, damn him. His life remains perpetually ahead of him. But what about yours?

What else to do, then, but promise to amend your life?



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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Jonathan Janson, Lover of the Baroque

Randall Sherman of Musings from the Hinterland has up a friendly nod toward this blog (thank you, sir) and a pleasant remembrance of an exhibit of Rembrandt etchings at the St. Louis Museum of Art from last year. His choice of Rembrandt etching reminds me that I should probably be walking my dog instead of posting this. But never mind that.

Randall also posts a link to REMBRANDT:
life, paintings, etchings, drawings & self portraits
, an attractive site by Jonathan Janson, who, I learned when I visited, is also responsible for the extraordinary site Essential Vermeer. But, good to know as that is, I learned after a little more poking about his site (sorry, Scruffy, we'll be going soon) that Janson is also a working artist whose work is powerfully influenced by Dutch Baroque art. Have a look in particular at these amusing but respectful Vermeer parodies.

In short, Janson's various sites are well worth the visit if you have read this far. I know that I'm looking forward to looking more closely.

I hear you, Scruffy. We can go now.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Baroque art and architecture in Latin America

The cathedral in Mexico City, begun in 1567.

Those interested in an introductory discussion of how the Baroque manifested itself in Latin America will benefit from reading "The Angel with the Arquebus: Baroque Art in Latin America" by Miguel Rojas Mix. The whole piece is well worth reading, but the following, the concluding paragraph, sums up nicely:

Baroque art in Latin America is not a mere transposition of Spanish or Portuguese art. It is a hybrid art. And it embraces more than two cultures, for along with the Spanish tradition it received the Arab heritage in the form of the mudejar style. It is said that the Indian contribution is shown in a preference for a range of pure colours and in the use of abstraction in the portrayal of figures. But the Black influence can also be seen, both in the dark complexion of angels and Virgins and in the syncretism of African gods with the traditional Christian saints. A marvellously enriched style emerged from all these influences, the style of an art that was fundamental to a new world. Such is the art we know as "Latin American Baroque'.


Rojas Mix's article, by the way, originally appeared in the September 1987 issue of the UNESCO Courier, the entire issue of which (contents here) is devoted to discussions of Baroque art, architecture, music, literature and thought from throughout Europe and Latin America. If the titles of the articles are any indication, there's much to learn on those pages.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Why the Baroque? One response

I'm one of those I-know-what-I-like-but-can't-quite-tell-you-why kinds of writers, but it seems to me that if I am going to have a blog devoted to one style of art I should try to articulate in some way why I want one--and why for Baroque art, a whole ocean and 300 years removed from my degree-conferred area of expertise (20th-century American literature). So, it seems appropriate to post some apologias here from time to time until I can whip up my own manifesto. What follows appears to me a very good way to begin that collection of apologias.

Richard John Neuhaus, in this brief review of R.A. Scotti's book Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal of Building St. Peter's, quotes the following passage from that book:

The Baroque is to art what opera is to music–the elevation of pathos; a spectacle of color, emotion, and drama; fantasy rising to frenzied ecstasy. Bernini’s Baroque was art designed to serve religion, and more specifically to serve the needs of the Counter-Reformation.
Whether it was contrived to meet a clear purpose or whether it was a spontaneous expression, it fulfilled the mandate of the resurgent Church. The static perfection of the Renaissance was the art of the elite. The hot, intense Baroque was art to move the masses. It was popular art in the truest sense–cinematic special effects without a camera lens.
The (in)applicability of this observation to the Dutch and Flemish Baroque artists is a topic for another day, but it's hard not to agree with its rightness when applied to the Italians. Equally spot-on is the notion of the (Italian) Baroque's intent to inspire religious fervor in the viewer.

Comments welcome, of course.

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Caravaggio as "underworld painter"


Rather than merely torture visitors to this blog with my own insipid observations about great works of art, I'll also be pointing them to folks much better at writing about these things than I am. One of those is John Berger, in this piece on Caravaggio. Below is his comment on one of my favorite Caravaggios, The Calling of St. Matthew (which Berger would later rewrite a bit for his book Ways of Seeing.

'The Calling of St. Matthew' depicts five men sitting round their usual table, telling stories, gossiping, boasting of what one day they will do, counting money. The room is dimly lit. Suddenly the door is flung open. The two figures who enter are still part of the violent noise and light of the invasion. (Berenson wrote that Christ comes in like a police inspector to make an arrest.)

Two of Matthew's colleagues refuse to look up, the other two younger ones stare at the strangers with a mixture of curiosity and condescension. Why is he proposing something so mad? Who's protecting him, the thin one who does all the talking? And Matthew, the tax-collector with a shifty conscience which has made him more unreasonable than most of his colleagues, points at himself and asks: is it really I who must go? Is it really I?

How many thousands of decisions to leave have resembled Christ's hand here! The hand is hold out towards the one who has to decide, yet it is ungraspable because so fluid. It orders the way, yet offers no direct support. Matthew will get up and follow the thin stranger from the room, down the narrow streets, out of the district. He will write his gospel, he will travel to Ethiopia and the South Caspian and Persia. Probably he will be murdered.

And behind the drama of this moment of decision is a window, giving onto the outside world. In painting, up to then, windows were treated either as sources of light, or as frames framing nature or an exemplary event outside. Not so this window. No light enters. The window is opaque. We see nothing. Mercifully we see nothing because what is outside is threatening. It is a window through which only the worst news can come; distance and solitude.

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Las Meninas: Some places to visit


It's easy to become obsessed with Velázquez's magnificent painting. Speaking for myself, it first fascinated me on an intellectual level when I was introduced to it via Foucault's intricate discussion of it (here is an abstract) in the opening chapter of The Order of Things). The emotional connection came later: One day I realized that my younger daughter, when she was younger, is (or was) the spitting image of the Infanta Margarita, right down to the rather coy, even impish turn of the head.

For some time now, I've also been using this painting in classes to raise questions of just what happens when a viewer stands in front of a painting: Las Meninas, we come to realize, makes explicit what we tend to forget when we're looking at most paintings, that the painting creates a space into which the viewer enters vicariously. I've even used the painting as a way of trying to articulate the complicated reading and authorial perspectives in Mark Z. Danielewski's Baroque-styled postmodern novel, House of Leaves. That novel has a good bit of textual figure-ground confusions, just as Las Meninas, explicitly extending its space outward to include the viewer, creates more than a little disorientation in the viewer who contemplates it.

See what I mean?

All this is to say that it'd be very easy to keep a blog devoted just to this one painting. Indeed, I contemplated doing just that, once upon a time, but in the end I decided that that would be a wee bit excessive: I already use it enough in my teaching life that it doesn't need to have more room than it does here in my blogospheric life. This entry, which I'll also post a permanent link to over in the Sites of Interest, will eventually serve as both a happy medium and as, I hope, a service to others with an interest in this painting. As I and others run across sites that, to my mind, contribute to our thinking about Las Meninas, I'll add links to them here.


INTRODUCTIONS:

The Museo del Prado's in-depth look isn't as elaborate as one could hope for from the home for this painting, but what is here is just enough to intrigue the person who wants to know more. Its chief virtue is that it identifies all but one of the figures who appear and provides names of those who have offered various interpretations of it.

A more thorough introduction is the Wikipedia entry, with brief discussions of famous interpretations.


STUDIES AND INTERPRETATIONS:

"The Making of . . a Camera Obscura Prank: Ordinary Life as Visual Arts in Velázquez's Las Meninas" (pdf file). Argues that the painting documents simultaneously the staging and revelation of a camera obscura prank (a proto-Candid Camera scene, in other words).

"Velázquez: La Kabala y Las Meninas." An(other) extraordinarily-detailed study of Las Meninas' geometry and its possible significance for the painting's meaning. In Spanish.

"Velázquez's Las Meninas". Pays patient, close attention to the painting's geometry (with a nice compare/contrast to Leonardo's The Last Supper) that's blessedly free of the geometric excesses of some articles here (as below).

"Vermeer's Riddle Revealed". Despite the title, an application of grail geometry to Las Meninas.

ACCIDENTS, HOMAGES, PARODIES AND RECREATIONS:

Domingo Barreras

Camille of 327 Market

Francisco Goya

Las Meninas Information. A virtual-reality exploration of the space of the painting, along with intriguing suggestions as to astrological interpretations of the piece.

Edouard Manet (explanation here)

Pablo Picasso

Fairfield Porter

John Singer Sargent

Joel-Peter Witkin

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Housekeeping

Welcome to visitors to this site, first and foremost. We hope you feel welcomed here and will feel that you have a home where you can indulge your tastes in these wonderful artists and their works. The virtual fatted calf is out back; we'll be bringing him round directly.

Two things:

The first is that, through trial and error, I think we have a Labels system that makes sense. As the blog grows, though, we'll have to work out some solution for its eventual unwieldy length. But that hasn't happened yet. First things first.

The other thing is that you can now subscribe to this blog's feed via FeedBlitz. This system allows you to receive e-mail notifications of updates to this blog: definitely a plus in these early days of this blog, given that it's not likely that lots of posting will be going on here. If you like what you find here, I hope you'll consider subscribing by clicking on this link and, even, using it for your own sites as an augmentation of whatever subscription service(s) you use.

So. That's that. I look forward to continuing to grow this blog my and others' contributions and your visits; I hope you'll come back and let others know about us.

UPDATE: A third thing, now: A slight adjustment to the title, from "Admirers of" to "Admiring." What matters more here is the act of admiring, not who is doing the admiring. So there.

UPDATED UPDATE: An enormous thank-you to Hackosphere for two elegant hacks for the not-so-Beta Blogger that this blog, I hope you'll agree, is benefiting from: one for expandable posts, and one that displays recent comments (this last being especially helpful because Blogger, once again, is NOT emailing me notifications when someone comments). Anyway, I strongly encourage those looking for these and other hacks for the new Blogger templates to try Hackosphere first.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

"Blinded by the Light"

Via Raminagrobis, this brief, sharply-observed post on two paintings by Rembrandt, Anna and the Blind Tobit and A Man Seated Reading at a Table in a Lofty Room, which hang in the same room in the National Gallery in London.

Solitude is the unifying theme of these two paintings. Tobit's blindness isolates him from his wife Anna, and he prays for death ("for it is profitable for me to die rather than to live […] turn not thy face away from me." Tobit 3:6). The reader (or is he a writer? Is that a pen in his left hand?) hunched over his desk, withdrawn fully within the ‘little world’ oblivious to those symbols of the ‘big world’ on the right: what looks like two globes, barely visible in the gloom. The function of the light here, it seems to me, is paradoxically not to draw the eye ‘outside’, but to involve it more deeply in the darkness.
More follows, on the relationship between blindness and writing.

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"Art to See Before You Die"

Via Crooked Timber comes news that the Guardian has started a blog on the arts. In its inaugural post on art, Jonathan Jones has a post called "The works of art that matter most," its intention being the generation of a list of the 50 works of art one must see in person before dying. Jones kicks things off with his personal list of 20 works (the list and an accompanying slideshow are below the fold), and he solicits recommendations from his readers. He notes as a sort of pre-emptive strike that his list is exceedingly Euro-centric and Renaissance/Baroque-heavy; still, though, he says that these are the works that he alsways finds himself returning to--which, I suppose, would be the one criterion for works for this list. Not fame, not "beauty;" what works, finally, can you not get enough of, no matter how many times you see them?

Jones includes a Vermeer on his list, but my personal addition would be the one you see here, The Milkmaid. Long, long ago, I blogged about this painting, if you're curious, here and here in an attempt to get at why it may be my favorite Vermeer and one of my very favorite paintings, period.

Honestly, though, I'd have to think a bit before I add some others. I mean, we all have our personal favorites, but do we feel so strongly about them that we would have the temerity to insist to total strangers that they will be lesser human beings if they do not make time to see them in person? I'm pretty sure I can say that about The Milkmaid.

How about you? Jones is soliciting suggestions at his post, but you're welcome to comment here or, even better, take a hint from this post's title.

Below the fold, a slideshow and list of Jones's selections.

slideshow (Be warned that the order here doesn't correspond to that of the list below.)

Jan van Eyck, The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, c.1435, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Caravaggio, The Burial of St. Lucy (1608), Museo di Palazzo Bellomo, Syracuse, Sicily

Rembrandt, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (1654), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

San Rock Art, South African National Museum, Cape Town

Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire from Les Lauves (1904 - 6), Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Michelangelo, Moses (installed 1545), Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome

Leonardo da Vinci, The Adoration of the Magi, (c. 1481), Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Mark Rothko, The Rothko Chapel (paintings 1965-66; chapel opened 1971), Houston, Texas

Vermeer, View of Delft (c.1660-61), Mauritshuis, The Hague

Matthias Grünewald, The Isenheim Altarpiece (c.1509-15), Musée Unterlinden, Colmar, France

Hans Holbein, The Dead Christ, (1521-2), Kunstmuseum, Basel

Velázquez, Las Meninas (1656), Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Funerary Mask of Tutankhamun (1333-1323BC), Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Jackson Pollock, One: Number 31, 1950, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Masaccio, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise (c.1427), Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica (1937), Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid

Titian, Danaë (c. 1544-6), Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples

Raphael, The School of Athens (1510-11), Stanza della Signatura, Vatican Palace, Rome

Parthenon Sculptures ("Elgin Marbles"), c. 444 BC, British Museum, London

Henri Matisse, The Dance (1910), Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

UPDATE: Here is the list of Jones's readers' Top 50 works.

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A quick visit with Las Meninas

One of my favorite personal blogs is 327 Market, which I seem to recall having learned of via Ariel's blog, Bittersweet Life. The writer may or may not be named Camille, but for convenience's sake we'll assume it is. She lives and teaches art and publishes her own work in a place that in some way corresponds to the Bay Area but to which she's assigned her own place names. And she often includes marvelous pictures that she or friends of hers have taken. There's a whimsical, urban-fairy-tale-like quality to the world her blog documents that keeps me visiting and reading.

Context, context. Sorry. But way DOES lead on to way.

This morning I came across her most recent post, in which she describes the circumstances surrounding the accompanying picture. I'll not rehash all that; go read the whole thing, as we say here on the Internets. But what follows is most of my comment that I left there.

I'll believe that you didn't plan it. The thing about Art, though, is that when the artist sees something in his/her work that wasn't planned but it improves the composition, s/he has the good sense to leave it in. It's harder to say this about Las Meninas (or painting in general) because of the medium, but it occurs to me now that the same rule applies--and that Velázquez is even commenting on it in his painting. On the left, the painter himself, palette and brush in hand, gazing at us with his critical, calculating painter's eye at the no-doubt-stiffly-sitting King and Queen . . . balanced on the far right by the little girl doing something I'm pretty sure she's NOT been asked to do.

There's more to say, of course, about the geometric connotations of that word "calculating," and some have done so to such an extent that I don't feel the need to. Besides: I'm more the "oh, look at the pretty picture!!" sort of viewer, anyway. So I'll just conclude this not-terribly-profound post by saying something else equally-lacking in profundity: Sure: Velázquez probably used grail geometry as a way of arranging the figures in this painting; so also, probably, did Vermeer. But, you know, so also, probably, did any number of Baroque-era painters, along with any number of poets of the time, along with Shakespeare and Donne and others you could find in your friendly neighborhood Norton Anthology, who wrote sonnets. To which I can only say, those features, those calculating frames are not why we keep looking at/reading certain people's work. There is something else, another sort of calculating, that exists beyond angles and rhyme schemes, the sort of sensibility that can see, in real life, a little girl's casual act of stepping on a dog and say, "That's going into a painting"--and then make it feel in Art like the casual act it originally was.

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Velazquez, The Supper at Emmaus

As an option for their research papers, students can write about some paintings of their choosing by a painter of my choosing: the idea (the hope, actually) is for them to choose paintings that have something in common and offer and support an opinion about what they think the painter wants to convey via this whatever-it-is that recurs in the paintings they've chosen. So today, I talked through how that might work by showing them three paintings by Velázquez (who, by the way, isn't on their list of painters). Two of them, Las Meninas and Venus at Her Mirror, I've posted images of before and so won't here, but the third one is this one, The Supper at Emmaus. They are very different, to my mind, in terms of style, but what they have in common, and what we as a class have spent time discussing, is the presence of mirrors in each. We spend some time speculating as to why Velázquez has them in these paintings, functioning, as they do, as something more than mere detail; we've also meditated a bit on what mirrors themselves do and so begin to get at the implications of words such as "reflection" and "image." Ultimately, though, the goal has been simply to model for them how to get started on this task of writing about the paintings they've chosen.

Anyway, in the course of discussing The Supper at Emmaus this morning, a student said something interesting that I found interesting about a possible theological reading of the painting.

First of all, note that the event which gives the painting its title is depicted in the upper left-hand corner of the painting. Apparently, there's been some dispute among those who make a living at deciding such things over whether that scene is a painting hanging on the wall in the kitchen or is actually a mirror reflcting the activity in another room--the one we viewers would happen to be standing in; the consensus seems to be, now, that we're looking at a mirror.

Once I got all that out of the way, it suddenly occurred to me to ask something I'd not asked the other classes in which I've shown this painting: does it trivialize the event (Jesus' revealing Himself to his disciples after the Resurrection) to deliberately NOT make it the focal center of the painting? Compare, for example, to one of Caravaggio's treatments of the same theme. A student immediately said No. When I asked him why, he said that the serving woman provides an implicit message about Christ himself: specifically, his humility ("The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve"). Also, there's something in the serving woman's manner--her looking down, the overturned dishes--that suggests a sort of rushedness to attend to the men, and should that not also be our response when guests arrive? So, then, the painting is really more about our response to the event than it is the event itself.

Now: Velázquez didn't paint many religious subjects. in his salad days in Seville, he had to to make a living, but when he became a court painter, he didn't have to except when asked to (aside: but then again, just how many paintings of a Prince Baltasar does a family need? 5 appear in the catalogue of the Velázquez exhibit that I own, and no doubt there are more). Though he'd have to be, publicly, Catholic, there's no way to know the depth of his faith. If his library is any indication, his reading tastes definitively tended toward the secular rather than the sacred. But it IS true that he is very thoughtful about his subjects, that he's not into simple picture-making but is eager to communicate some larger idea through certain canvases. It's equally true that the Church of the Counter-Reformation sought art that would engage its viewers on a more emotional, less cerebral level.

I think this painting reflects both Velázquez' thoughtfulness and that desire of the Church for its art. Making the serving woman the focal point has the effect of creating a sort of 3-dimensionality (one could call it "realism" for lack of a better term) for the viewer: while the acount in Luke mentions no one other than the two disciples, surely a woman served them their meal. And so Velázquez depicts her. But there's more than "mere" realism here: our attention is on this woman. We watch her actions and, surely, wonder what she is thinking. She becomes our stand-in in this scene, even as the mirror on the back wall causes us to stand in the space of the painting.

(Originally posted at Blog Meridian)

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