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.


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).


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.