Thursday, December 4, 2014

"The Little Dancer" Brings Art to Life

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1878–1881,pigmented beeswax, clay, metal armature, rope, paintbrushes, human hair, silk and linen ribbon, cotton and silk tutu, linen slippers, on wooden baseoverall without base: 98.9 x 34.7 x 35.2 cm (38 15/16 x 13 11/16 x 13 7/8 in.) weight: 49 lb. (22.226 kg)  National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

It was a joy to see the Kennedy Center's world-premiere production, The Little Dancer, which closed on November 30th.  Tiler Peck, principle of the New York City Ballet had the lead as 14-year-old Marie van Goethem, the ballerina who posed for Degas' famous statue, Little Dancer.  Although Peck is definitely far more mature than Degas' model was, she certainly was a good choice for the role.  Boyd Gaines, as Degas, really does not look like him but I guess it doesn't matter.   Some of the settings and compositions are the same as you will see in his paintings.  (My blog about Degas's paintings of dancers)

The music is delightful, and most of the story is fairly credible, so I do hope the musical will go to more venues. The Kennedy Center audiences loved it.   The musical fits in with what I've been writing about, Degas and Cassatt and the relationships between artists.  The story opens in 1917 with a visit to Degas' household after his death.  Mary Cassatt is there, wishing to turn the ballerina away, but she came back to see the sculpture he did of her many years earlier.   It's fairly funny as it refers to the yellow coat with a fur collar that was annoying to Marie.
Tiler Peck in front of the National Gallery of Art's Little Dancer Aged Fourteen , from Tiler Talks Blog, October 15, 2014 

The story is truthful in that portrayed some of the challenges in the lives of the dancers who were working class girls.  Marie's mother was a laundress, and I'm guessing she posed for Degas, too. Laundresses -- like dancers and race horses -- were part of Degas' continuous subject matter, as he studied the movements of muscles and limbs at work and in stress. (While we think of dancers and race horses expressing consummate grace, we don't think of laundresses that way.)  In the play, Marie was put into a competition with snooty, upper class girl who had a stage mother, a story for a Disney movie or a story which would be more truthful today.  Wealthy girls were not so likely to be ballerinas in the 19th century, as their parents wouldn't have subjected them to gawking men.  Class differences, as a major theme of the play, are historically correct for the time.  Other details of biography, Degas' grumpy outer shell that hid his softness, his sensitivity to strong light and fear of going blind were woven into the tale.  Of course, the close companionship and artistic relationship with Mary Cassatt, especially during the time Marie would have posed, were very true.

Tiler Peck as Marie, the Little Dancer, in the Kennedy Center Musical of that name
The musical, too, has flashbacks to old the older and younger Marie.  Rebecca Luker, an experienced Broadway star who plays the older Marie, has a powerful voice.  The musical is similar to a recent genre of books which use a work of art to create a historical fiction.  Like Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier's book about Jan Vermeer and his famous subject, much of the details are imagined.

For the importance of the statue artistically, the National Gallery of Art will have Little Dancer Aged Fourteen on display in an exhibition with other sketches, paintings and sculpture until January 11, 2015.  I think the importance of Degas' wax sculptures as comparable the importance of his sketches.  Waxes to bronzes are like drawings are to paintings, although not necessarily the case here.  It helped him realize his vision for his paintings.
Fourth Position Front, on the Left Leg, c. 1885/1890 pigmented beeswax, metal armature, cork, on wooden base
overall without base: 60.3 x 37.8 x 34.1 cm (23 3/4 x 14 7/8 x 13 7/16 in.)
height (of figure): 56.8 cm (22 3/8 in.)
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon


Degas built the statue in wax over an armature, and he did it in an additive process. In the play, it is called a "characterizing portrait." and As such, it was quite innovative. Details are not the important part as much as the essence the characterization.  The play opens with a famous by Degas: "Art is not what you see, but what you make others see."  What Degas did so brilliantly make us see the essence of the practice, the work, the attitude and the dedication which made the ballet become what it became.  Most of his paintings are of rehearsals rather than performances.  Seeing his work makes our lives richer, and seeing "Little Dancer" enriches us.  Even the 6-year old boys near me were entranced by it.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Cassatt and Degas: An Impressionist Duo in Portraits

Mary Cassatt, La Loge, 1878-79
Mary Cassatt was several years younger than Edgar Degas, but when he saw her work he exclaimed, "Here's someone who sees as I do."   Currently, the National Gallery is showing Cassatt side by side with Degas, comparing how they two worked together and shared.  Both are remarkable portrait artists.

Like Manet and Morisot, their relationship was especially helpful for each of them reach the fullness of artistic vision.  They spent about ten years working closing together.  As their artistic visions changed, they grew in different directions.  They share same daring sense of composition. Both are excellent portrait artists.  I just finished reading Impressionist Quartet, by Jeffrey Meyers.  It's the story of Manet, Morisot, Degas and Cassatt: their biographies, their art and their interdependence.

Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt
Degas and Manet were good friends, too, and had a friendly competition. They had much in common, having been born in Paris and coming from well-to-do backgrounds.  Both had a strong affinity for Realism, but Degas was the greater draftsman, and probably the greatest draftsman of the late 19th century.  (Read my blog explaining Degas's dancers)  Cassatt and Morisot also were friends, as the two women who were fixtures of the Impressionist group. They were very close to their families, and their subjects were similar. Their personalities were quite different. Berthe Morisot was refined and full of self doubt, while Mary Cassatt was bold and confident. Cassatt did not have Morisot's elegance or her beauty.

Her confidence shines in all of Degas' portraits.  She was not too pleased with the portrait at right, but Degas often did get into the character of his subjects. Degas painted her leaning forward and bending over, and holding some cards. He put her in a pose used in at least two other paintings, but I'm not certain what he meant by this position.  The orange and brown earth tones, and the oblique, sloping asymmetric composition are very common in Degas' paintings.

Degas may have been somewhat shy, but caustic, biting and moody.  By all accounts, it appears that Cassatt made him a happier person. Degas was the one who invited her to join the Impressionist group in 1877, three years after it had formed.. They worked together to gain skills in printmaking.  In addition, to their common artistic goals and objectives, both had fathers who were prominent bankers.  Mary Cassatt was an American from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, while Degas had relatives from his mother's family who lived in New Orleans.  Some of his father's family had moved to Naples, Italy, and had married into the aristocracy there.

No on seems to know if they were lovers. Both artists were very independent, remained single their entire lives.  Neither was the type who really wanted to be married.  However, each of them had proposed to others when they were very young, and before they knew each other.  Writers don't spend a lot of time speculating about their love lives, still an unknown question.  Most art historians believe Degas sublimated his sexual energies fairly well while exploring the young girls and teens who were ballet dancers.
Degas, Henri De Gas and His Niece Lucie, 1876

I have always loved this painting of Henri De Gas and his niece Lucie, from the Art Institute of Chicago.  It seems a very sympathetic portrait of his uncle and cousin, both of whom have kindly faces. Sometimes it's been explained that the chair as a vertical line showing the separateness of the relationship.  I see it differently.  The composition has a large diagonal, and an arc brings are eye from the upper right side to the lower left corner.  A continuous compositional line from their heads down to the edge of his hand and the newspaper pulls the older man and young girl together. There heads are nearly at the same angle, single expressing their togetherness.  The uncle looks like such a kindly man, and both look at us the viewers.
Marry Cassatt, Portrait of Alexander Cassatt and His Son Robert Kelso Cassstt

Mary Cassatt also shows an even stronger family bond in the Portrait of Alexander Cassatt and His Son, Robert Kelso Cassatt, her brother and nephew.   Her brother ultimately rose to be President of the Pennsylvania Railroad and may have been somewhat of a robber baron. You would never see his harshness in his sister's portrayal.  He seems like the ultimate warm, affectionate father.  The two faces are placed so closely together, and they're similar.  Degas and Cassatt often portrayed individuals in relation to each other to show their great affection for each other, so differently from the way Manet did.  In most of his group portraits Manet makes us keenly aware that each individual is a unique soul.  He emphasizes differences and oppositions,
One the best of Mary Cassatt's portraits is the Young Girl in a blue armchair.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Calling of Henry O Tanner: A Religious Painter for America

Henry Ossawa Tanner,   The Raising of Lazarus, Musee d'Orsay, Paris, 1896
Henry Ossawa Tanner, the most important African-American painter born in the 19th century, should probably be considered America's greatest religious painter, too.  He came into the world in when our country was on the brink of its Civil War, in Pittsburgh, 1859.  Though his paintings are profound, he normally doesn't get as much recognition as he deserves.

Religious painting has never been a significant genre in the United States. Mainly, it has been used for book illustration and in churches with stained glass windows. Of course, Europe had its own rich tradition of paintings for Catholic Churches and even in the Protestant Netherlands, Rembrandt made paintings and prints of biblical subjects for their religious significance.

Tanner reinvented religious painting with highly original interpretations.  His father was a minister in the AME Church who ultimately became the bishop of Philadelphia in 1888. His mother was born in slavery, but escaped on the underground railway. Although Tanner was born free, he obviously experienced turbulent times and discrimination; faith could have given him solace.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation, 1894, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

In 1894, Tanner painted Mary, mother of Jesus, at the Annunciation, the biblical story of an angel announcing to Mary she is to be the mother of God.  Typical Annunciation scenes put a flying angel interrupting a teenage girl in her bedroom.  Tanner leaves out the angel and only a beam of light represents the divine encounter.   Pictured as a young women in her bedroom, Mary reflects inward on the meaning of the light, knowing God has things in mind for her.  The painting is absolutely beautiful, a show-stopper with a profound imagining of how Christ's earthly life began. The streak of light appears as the leg of the cross as it passes through a horizontal shelf on the wall.  When we notice this detail, we're given a hint of how Jesus' life ended, death by crucifixion.

detail-The Raising of Lazarus
Tanner's technique uses mainly the pictorial language of realism to convey divine presence on Earth, in contrast to Abbot Handerson Thayer who used symbolic angels and winged figures in an idealized classical figural style.  Another way to explain the difference is to say that Tanner painted in a vernacular language, instead of using the classical Latin language.  His religious stories are without supernatural excess, but he uses light strategically to illuminate miracles.

Although born in Pittsburgh, most of his early life was in Philadelphia.  He became the pupil of legendary teacher Thomas Eakins in 1879.  Although Eakins considered him a star pupil, he faced racial prejudice from other students.  Not receiving recognition in the United States, he set out for Europe in 1891, and received additional training at the Academe Julian in Paris.  Philadelphia may have been the best place for an American to study art in the 19th century, but Paris was the best place for an artist to be.  By 1895, his work was accepted in the Paris Salon.  The next year he received an honorable mention at the Salon, and in 1897, his recognition was complete with The Raising of Lazarus, 1896.  The success which alluded him the US came after only a few years living in France. 

The Raising of Lazarus (top of this blog page, and to the right.) received a third class medal in the Paris Salon, but it also became the first painting to be bought by the nation of France and placed in a national museum. The painting tells the story of Jesus going into the grave of Lazarus to bring him back to life, with sisters Mary and Martha and a group of his stunned followers.  Tanner captures in paint the earthly event as it actually could have taken place, but uses heightened light-dark contrast to illuminate the miracle.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Two Disciples at the Tomb, 1906
Art Institute of Chicago,  51 x 41-7/8"

We can think of Tanner as similar to Caravaggio who introduced dramatic light - dark contrast to show that the calling to follow the Lord is a mysterious event.  More importantly, we can think of Tanner like Rembrandt, who used light to convey subtle and mysterious psychological states that accompany a person undergoing a spiritual awakening, or witnessing a miracle.  As in the works of both the earlier artists, the drama becomes an interior event.


In 1906, Tanner's painting of Two Disciples at the Tomb won first prize at the Art Institute of Chicago's 19th exhibition of American painting..  In it, Peter, the older man points to himself as if saying "Oh my God," while the younger apostle John raises is head straining to with expectancy to see fulfillment of Jesus' promise with the Resurrection.   Light is strategically placed on the whitened necks against dark clothing, and the glow of their bony faces radiate a sudden awareness of the miraculous event of Christ's Resurrection.  They're the faces of simple men, whose faith has saved them.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Three Marys, 1910  Fisk University, Nashville, TN  42" x. 50"
The Three Marys is a particularly beautiful portrait of women as they see the light in front of Jesus' tomb and that he has risen from the dead.  The witnessing of a miracle is a profound spiritual event. Each woman has a slightly different psychological response. Like many of Rembrandt's paintings, The Three Marys is nearly monochromatic, with blue as the primary color. He explained the intent of his paintings, "My effort has been to not only put the Biblical incident in the original setting, but at the same time give it the human touch....to try to convey to the public the reverence and elevation these subjects impart to me."  It seemed that as time went on, the blues get stronger and stronger in his paintings.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893
Hampton University, Hampton, VA


Actually Tanner's best know paintings are The Banjo Lesson, 1893, at Hampden University and The Thankful Poor, 1894, in a private collection.  He painted them on return to the United States and based them on memories from travel in North Carolina.  Instead biblical stories, these paintings are scenes of everyday life.  Yet they have a religious significance in their contemplative spirit and the suggestion of humility.  The Banjo Lesson has two sources of light, an unseen window and an unseen fireplace or stove to the right.  The glow of light shows that he was familiar with Impressionism and applied some of its diffusive, scattered light it.

Tanner traveled extensive to the Middle East and into the Islamic world.  Trips to Egypt and Palestine in 1897 and 1898 may have given him inspiration for the settings in his paintings.  After 1900, he developed a looser style, with more tonalism and the possibility of becoming more poetic.



Henry Ossawa Tanner, Abraham's Oak, 1905, Smithsonian American Art Museum
As we may expect, the city of Philadelphia has a substantial collection of his work, particularly where he studied, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  The Smithsonian American Art Museum has a large collection of his works also.  I particularly like Abraham's Oak, which can be read as a pure landscape painting.  Also fairly monochromatic, the painting reflects the Tonalist style prevalent in the United States at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.  Tonalist landscapes are moody, evocative, contemplative and spiritual.  He combines the underlying beauty in nature with a symbolic oak, the place Abraham staked out for his people as the Jewish patriarch.

Like the great early 19th century artist Eugene Delacroix, Tanner was fascinated by North African subjects and themes.  (I see Delacroix's influence in the vivid colors and the way he treated the floor patterns in The Annunciation.)  He went to Algeria in 1908 and Morocco in 1912.  The Atlas Mountains of Morocco are said have been inspiration a late painting, The Good Shepherd, also in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  Figures became smaller, but faith is still his driving force.  The unification of subject with landscape has increased.  There's a huge precipice these sheep could fall down, but their loving shepherd protects them.  According to Jesse Tanner, his son, the artist believed that “God needs us to help fight with him against evil and we need God to guide us.”  He lived to be 79, dying in 1937.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Good Shepherd, c. 1930 Smithsonian American Art Museum
(I have seen only one exhibition of his paintings at the Terra Museum of American Art, back around 1996 and the work mesmerized me.)  An exhibition in Philadelphia two years ago attempted to bring Tanner the recognition due to him.  Here's a professor's review of the exhibit which also traveled to Cincinnati and to Houston.

There may be reasons apart from racism as to why he is not more famous in America. The United States lacks a tradition of religious painting and doesn't easily embrace it.  Furthermore, art historians celebrate artists who are innovators, those who bring art forward.   Although Tanner was painting at the time of Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, Klee and O'Keeffe, he was not strongly affected by their trends of change.  He stayed true to himself and in that way, he is a prophet of his faith rather than a prophet of the avant-garde.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

On the Wings of Angels by Abbott Thayer

Abbot Handerson Thayer, Winged Figure, 1889, The Art Institute of Chicago
It may be the dreamer in me who is so attracted to the winged paintings of Abbott Handerson Thayer.  The first of his paintings that I fell in love with was Winged Figure. above, at the Art Institute of Chicago.   I've always admired the loose simplicity of the Grecian style of clothes, even before studying Greek art. However, what appeals most to me is the sense of security and peace this figure has as she sleeps, protected and held by the curve of her wing. Her leg and golden garment are strong and sculptural, but it's not clear if she's on the ground or on a cloud.
Abbott Handerson Thayer, Angel, 1887, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gift of John Gellatly             Mary, the artist's daughter, posed.

After moving to Washington, I found that Thayer is represented well in the nation's capital.  Angel of 1887 is a very young figure, and Thayer's daughter Mary served as the model when she was 11. She's frontal, symmetric, quite pale and white. She may or may not be in flight.  Thayer is probably the premier American painter of angels, a Fra Angelico or a Luca della Robbia in paint.  He gives them an idealized beauty and paints in a pristine Neoclassical style, as well as Europeans did. 

Abbott Handerson Thayer, A Winged Figure, 1904-1913, The Freer Gallery of Art,
Smithsonian Institution  Gift of Charles Lang Freer.  The model is the

artist's daughter, Gladys
One of the winged figures at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art wears a laurel wreath.  More rigid than his other angels, she faces us frontally with the geometry of a Greek column.  Her face is severe, too, and she doesn't quite touch the ground.  Daughter Gladys was his model. (The Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian has published an explanation of the Winged Figures collected by Charles Lang Freer.)

Thayer's preference for painting winged figures was not entirely religious.  His interest in naturalism started as a 6-year old living near Keene, New Hampshire, when he began the avid study of birds and nature.  However, his obsession with painting winged figures, angels and innocent children may have something to do with the fact that two of his children died unexpectedly in the early 1880s.   That so many of his figures gained wings may represent hopes he had for coming to terms with loss.
Abbott Handerson Thayer, Virgin, 1892-93, 
Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution  Gift of Charles Lang Freer
(The artist's children, Gladys, Mary, Gerald)




He painted his three remaining children over and over again, and three of these paintings are in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In Virgin at the Freer Gallery of Art, the oldest Mary faces us frontally walking in a pose similar to the Nike of Samothrace.  Although she doesn't technically have wings like the Nike of Samothrace, the clouds behind her become large, white wings.   Mary is an icon in the center who boldly holds and leads the younger sister and brother.  She is noble and unflappable but moves swiftly.  The younger children are strong, too, and do not smile. Their hair flies in the wind and the ground they walk on is hazy.  Above all, they're innocent.   (These two younger children, Gladys and Gerald, also became painters.)   

Understandingly, there was some intense melancholy surrounding he and his wife for some time.  In 1891, his wife died, too. Thayer may be sentimental, but the paintings of his children would suggest he wanted them to be strong, triumphant and prepared for any event.   

Abbott Handerson Thayer, Roses, 1890, oil on canvas 22 1/4 x 31 3/8 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum,   Gift of John Gellatly

Thayer was a superb painter of other subjects.  He also did portraits, landscapes and still lives, which can be found on the Smithsonian's websiteAn exceptional still life at Smithsonian American Art Museum, Roses, demonstrates his incredible skill.  He manages to be highly detailed with the leaves and blooms but spontaneous and expressive for the vase and background.  The color is somewhat muted, but the texture is strong.   The style of his still lives compares well to Edouard Manet's textured still lives and the pristine beauty Henri Fantin-Latour's still lives.  Like the highly skilled academic painter Bouguereau, he seems to be able to combine the best of the great 19th century styles: Neoclassicism, Realism and the emotional or dreamy qualities of Romanticism.

Abbott Handerson Thayer, Mount Monadnock, 1911, 22 3/16 x. 24 3/16 "
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
The other great style of the period was Impressionism, which captured the fleeting qualities of light and colors.  While Thayer may not be categorized as an Impressionist, he should be added to the list of marvelous snow painters.  His best scenes of snow come from the area near where he lived in Keene and in Dublin, New Hampshire.   In the Corcoran Gallery of Art's Mount Monadnock, 1911, Thayer captured some of the beautiful scenery surrounding this mountain very familiar to him. There are vivid blues, purples and reds in this snow and the lights on the mountain top are brilliant.  There's a small, horizontal string of light coming across the ground to separate trees from mountain. 
Abbott Handerson Thayer, Monadnock No. 2, 1912,
Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Charles Lang Freer

He repeated the composition over and over, as Impressionists did.  Mount Monadnock, 1904 and Monadnock No. 2, 1912 are in the Freer Gallery of Art.   The snow topped mountain is also brilliant and even whiter in the painting of 1912.  Touches purplish-gray suggest how cold it must have been.  The trees are dark however, a definite force of nature.  Thayer knew Impressionistic techniques and had lived in France, but he was also an artist who wanted to find some solidity and permanence in the world, even as it will change and be gone.  He painted Winter Dawn on Monadnock in 1918, now in the Freer, too.  There were less pine trees at this time, but the radiant pinks of dawn pervade the scene on the left.


Abbott Handerson Thayer, Winter Dawn on Monadnock, 1918, The Freer Gallery of Art,
Smithsonian Institution  Gift of Charles Lang Freer.

Who can see and understand illusion in nature better than an artist?  In 1909, he and his son, Gerald Handerson Thayer,  wrote a major book on protective coloration in nature, Concealing and Coloration in the Animal Kingdom: An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise.   He ascertained that in shadow birds or animals become darker to be hidden, but naturally turn lighter in sun.  Another naturalist, former President Teddy Roosevelt, scoffed at his ideas and they were not accepted. However, he tried to share his ideas with the American government during World War I.
Abbott Handerson Thayer, Stevenson Memorial, 1903,  81-7/16 x 16 1/8 "
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC  Gift of John Gellatly
Thayer made as a memorial, above, to author Robert Louis Stevenson, someone he deeply admired but did not know.  His first idea was for the memorial was to paint his three children, in honor of Stevenson's book, A Child's Garden of Verses.   He changed his mind, and a winged figure sits on a stone marked VAEA, the spot in Samoa where Stevenson is buried.

Thayer memorialized Stevenson, but what about his salvation?  In 2008, the Smithsonian did a documentary film about him, Invisible: Abbott Thayer and the Art of Camouflage.  Apparently his ideas about camouflage are more readily accepted now than they were in his time.  Doesn't his reputation as a painter deserve wide recognition, too?   While keeping a foothold here on earth, his winged figures suggest that humans have the potential to transcend the hard life and fly above our limitations.



Monday, February 24, 2014

Heaven and Earth: The Middle Ages in Hildesheim and in Greece

Archangel Michael, First half 14th century tempera on wood, gold leaf 
overall: 110 x 80 cm (43 5/16 x 31 1/2 in.) Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens



Gold radiates throughout dimly-lit rooms of the National Gallery of Art's exhibition, Heaven and Earth: Byzantine Art from Greek Collections.  Some 170 important works on loan from museums in Greece trace the development of Byzantine visual culture from the fourth to the 15th century. Organized by the Benaki Museum in Athens, it will be on view until March 2 and then at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles beginning April 19.  The National Gallery has a done a great job organizing the show, getting across themes of both spiritual and secular life spanning more than 1000 years.  The exhibition design is masterful and includes a film about four key Greek churches. The photography is exquisite and provides the full context for the Byzantine church art.

There are dining tables, coins, ivories, jewelry and other objects, but it's the mosaics which I find most captivating, and this exhibition allows a close-up view.  Their nuances of size and shape can be closely observed here, but not in slides or in the distance. Byzantine artists gradually replaced stone mosaics with glass tesserae, painting gold leaf behind the glass to portray backgrounds for the figures.  It was the Byzantines created these wondrous images by transforming the Greco-Roman tradition of floor mosaics to that of wall mosaics.

Van Eyck, St John the Baptist, det-Ghent Altarpiece

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art recently hosted another exhibition of the Middle Ages, "Treasures from Hildesheim," works from the 10th through 13th centuries from Hildesheim Cathedral in Germany.  Even though Greek Christians of Byzantine world officially split from Rome in the 11th century, the two exhibitions show that the art of east and west continued to share much in terms of iconography and style.  Jan Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece, from the 15th century, contains a Deesis composed of Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist, in its center, proving how persistent Byzantine iconography was in the West.  That altarpiece shows the early Renaissance continuation of imagining heaven as glistening gold and jewels.

Church architecture evolved very differently however, with the Latin church preferring elongated churches with the floor plan of Roman basilicas. The ritual requirements of the Orthodox Church resulted in a more compact form using domes, squinches and half-domes.  Fortunately, the National Gallery's exhibition has a lot of information about Orthodox churches, their layout and how the Iconostasis (a screen for icons) divided the priests from the congregation. 

Reliquary of St. Oswald, c. 1100, is silver gilt
Both cultures re-used works from antiquity.  In the East, the statue heads of pagan goddesses could become Christian saints with a addition of a cross on their foreheads.  In the west, ancient portrait busts inspired gorgeous metalwork used for the relics of saints, such as the reliquary of St. Oswald, which actually contained a portion of this 7th century English saint's skull.   Mastering anatomy, perspective and foreshortening was not as important an aim as it was to evoke the glory and golden beauty of heaven as it was imagined to be.  The goldsmiths and metalsmiths were considered the best artists of all during this period in the west.

Mosaic with a font, mid-5th century Museum of 
Byzantine culture, Thessaloniki
Photo source: NGA website


Perhaps the parallels exist because many artists from the Greek world went to the west during the Iconoclast controversy, spanning most years from 726 to 843.  Mosaic artists from the Byzantine Empire peddled their talents in the west, particularly in Carolingian courts of Charlemagne and his sons.  From that time forward certain standards of Byzantine representation, such as the long, dark, bearded Jesus on the cross. While we seem to see these images as either icons or mosaics in Greek art, they become symbols in the west, often translated into sculptures of wood, stone or even stained glass.
An interesting parallel of the two exhibitions is the early Byzantine fountain, a wall mosaic of gold, glass and stone in the NGA's exhibition, which compares well to the 13th century Baptismal font from Hildesheim, showing the Baptism of Christ.  The font mosaic is from the Church of the  Acheiropoietos in Thessaloniki.  It is thought to emulate the fountains and gardens of Paradise.  One can visualize of the context in which the fragmentary mosaic was made by watching the film in the exhibition, which shows another wondrous 5th century church in Thessaloniki, the Rotonda Church.
A Baptismal Font, 1226, is superb example of Medieval
metalwork from Hildesheim Cathedral.

The exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum had a life-size wooden statue of the dead Jesus, dated to the 11th century, originally on a wood cross, now gone. Wood carvers out of Germany were masters of emotional expression.    In the iconic Crucifixion image in the Greek exhibition, a very sad Mary and Apostle John are grieving at the side of Jesus.  It's poignant and emotional, with knit eyebrows, tilted heads and a profoundly felt grief. 


Golden Madonna is wood covered in gold, made for St. Michael's Cathedral before 1002
The iconographic image of the Theotokos, a Greek type is normally a rigid, enthroned Mary who solidly holds her son, a little emperor. The format expresses that she is the throne, a seat for God in the form of Baby Jesus.   From Hildesheim, there is a carved  statue which dates to c. 970, carved of wood and covered with a sheet of real good.  Both heads are now missing. At one time the statue was covered with jewels, offerings people had given to the statue. In the west, this type became common, called the sedes sapientaie, but the origin is probably Byzantium.
Although heaven is more important than earth, and God and saints in heaven are more powerful than humans, sometimes medieval artists have been capable of revealing the greatest truths about what it's like to be a human being.  In the icons, there is great poignancy and beauty in the eyes.  At times the portrayal of grief is overwhelming, as we see on an icon of the Hodegetria image where Mary points the way, the baby Jesus but knows He will die.  On the reverse is an excruciatingly painful Man of Sorrows.


Icon of the Virgin Hodegetria, last quarter 12th century, tempera and silver on wood, Kastoria, Byzantine Museum. On the Reverse is a Man of Sorrows
The Metropolitan exhibition of course could not bring the two most important works from Hildesheim, the bronze relief sculptures: a triumphal column with the Passion of Christ and a set of bronze doors for the Cathedral.    Completed before 1016, I often think of the figures on the relief panels on those doors as one of the most honest works of art ever created.  As God convicts Adam of eating the forbidden fruit,  Adam crosses his arm to point to Eve who twists her arms pointing downward to a snake on the ground.  We may laugh because God's arm seems to be caught in his sleeve as he points to Adam. Though this medieval artist/metalsmith (Bishop Bernward?) may not have understood anatomy and perspective, he understood how easy it is for humans to pass the blame and not take responsibility for their actions.  
The Expulsion, before 1016, detail of bronze door, St. Michael's, Hildesheim

Medieval artists in both the Greek and Latin churches are normally not known by name.  After all, their work was for God, not for themselves, for money or for fame.



Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Last Missing Pieces of The Monuments Men

Jan Van Eyck, Mary, part of the Deesis composition,  detail
of The Ghent Altarpiece in St. Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium, c. 1430
photo source: Wikipedia
The Monuments Men is a true story about saving cultural artifacts in war.  George Clooney has done a great job acting and directing this film which has an important message about art, what it means for us and the efforts some would go to save culture. One woman who played a huge part in saving art is shown and Cate Blanchett played that role with depth and finesse.   An all-star cast doesn't guarantee good reviews, but I often disagree with movie reviewers.   Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Jean Dujardin star in the movie, too.
Tourists in front of the Ghent Altarpiece in recent times. A film, The Monuments Men,
explores its theft and recovery in World War II.  Photo source: daydreamtourist.com
The star monument is Jan Van Eyck's The Ghent Altarpiece, an example of one of the earliest oil paintings. (If students had seen the movie, they would have known it on a test, but the film was released only 5 days earlier and we had a snowstorm) In fact, the last missing part of the Ghent Altarpiece, was the panel of Mary, mother of Jesus from a Deesis grouping (an iconographic type western painters adopted from the eastern Orthodox Church).  She is exquisitely beautiful and radiant. Van Eyck's ability to visualize heavenly splendor and beauty in paint is astounding.  I appreciate the film for showing how big the altarpiece actually is, and how a polyptych, of many panels, needed to be broken up into its parts to be moved.  Actually, I wonder if Van Eyck and the patrons knew that using the polyptych format, rather than just a three-part triptych, would have its advantages in the time of war.  Actually that painting has been the victim of crime 13 times and stolen 7 times, including the times of the Reformation, Napoleon and World War I.
Michelangelo's  Bruges Madonna, the last work to be
recovered, is under glass at the Church of Our Lady
in Bruges.  Photo source:Wikipedia

The other star monument is Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna, a free-standing sculpture the artist did shortly after The Pieta.  It was the last and most precious piece to be found.  The film makes an important point about the British man who insisted on protecting it during the war.  I'm honored to have seen both monuments in their current homes and thank the determined people who sacrificed so much to do this for posterity.  (I also love that the movie gives goes into the Hospital of Sint-Jans in Bruges and gives good views of the medieval cities of Bruges and Ghent, even in the night time.  Thanks for acknowledging to what these places represent to earlier European culture.

Much of the film is about uncovering the mysteries, as well as anticipating the need for protection.  It has both comic and tragic elements, as we watch injury and death and the dangers that common to all war.  Not all paintings were saved, however.  Some works ended up in Russia after the war and are still there.  Picassos and Max Ernst paintings, even in German hands, were determined to be decadent and burned.   The movie showed a Raphael portrait of a young man that has never been found.
Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine, c. 1490, is a
portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, and an early work of Leonardo.  It's
in the Czarytorski Museum in Krakow  Photo source: Wikipedia

Among the paintings captured by the Nazis, saved and uncovered by the rescue team of  Americans, French and English were: a Rembrandt portrait, a Renoir, a Van Gogh, Manet's In the Conservatory and Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine which had been taken from Krakow, Poland.  Most of these paintings were shown to be hidden in underground mines.  I've checked a little bit into the history of each of these and found that the Leonardo had been hidden in a castle in Bavaria.  The Nazis stole the Manet from a museum in Berlin, and it's not clear to me why they would do that unless it was planned to be in Hitler's own museum.

The movie may have intentional inaccuracies. It also looked like a poor replica of Leonardo's  Ginevre de' Benci was in the movie, and I am not sure if that could be accurate.  That painting, as far as I know, already had been in the Mellon Collection that became part of the National Gallery.

There is much more to the story, I know, because Italy was allied with Nazis during most of the war  and those works of art needed to be protected, too. At the point of action where the movie had started, most of the works in France had already been protected.  The Monuments Men deals mostly with works in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Robert Edsel wrote the book that is the basis for the movie.   I certainly hope to read it now, as well as another followup book he published last year, Saving Italy.
Edouard Manet, In the Conservatory, 1879, Altes Museum Berlin  Photo: Wikipedia