Thursday, October 8, 2015

Images of a Collective Memory

Sally Mann, Candy Cigarette, 1989
Sally Mann created controversy two decades ago when she published photographs of her three children, Immediate Family. The photos are beautiful, artistic and arresting. The idea of publishing nude pictures of her children is startling, knowing it can and would attract pedophiles.  Did she really think the photos would only attract the photographers and art connoisseurs, as she claims? I would not do the same sharing of my children's private moments, but should I judge her? To me, art is reconciliation.  I look at art to bring opposites together and to negotiate the ambiguities of life, so that is what I am able to find in Sally Mann's work.  She, too, photographed her children to reconcile her need to be a mother without suppressing the artist in her.  They are one and the same.

In June Sally Mann spoke at the National Gallery of Art and read excerpts from her book, Hold Still.  She uses language exquisitely, much as she composes photographs with great artistry.  Like any good biographer, she succeeds in creating mythology.  While reading her book, I was thinking isn't everyone's life so rich and interesting?  It takes the artist to know that, to find that and to bring it to light. Her book is worth the read.

Candy Cigarette hits us in the gut about that time and place of transition into adolescence when we try to rush the process. It expresses the essential difference between her three children marked at a moment of time. The pre-pubescent daughter Jesse stands in center, in an affected pose.  The brother is on stilts behind. Virginia, the youngest turns her back to us. The children are together but very separate, each caught in their own version of reality, expressing their individual truths. Composition and placement make the photo work.  Jesse's strong, sharp elbow leads the way to both the brother and the little sister.  The angle of the cigarette points to the younger girl who in turn looks at the brother.  Of course in this image, she brings out the significance of the moment.  In many of her photos, she shows the not-so innocent quality of children, which is why many found it disturbing.
Sally Mann, The New Mothers

Mann's photos can be spontaneous or contrived, or a combination of each. A hallmark of her work is balancing the factual with the contrived. She takes happenstance and makes it better. Artists have an ability to see the significance in some event, enshrine it and visually communicate in way that maximizes its significance.  They help us, the viewers, to see inner states of mind as eternal truths.  Black and white photography -- with the emphasis on contrast -- sometimes is best.

When looking at The New Mothers, I'm reminded of the very first fine art photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron.  The children pose and act, much like Paul and Virginia, a heart-warming photograph of Victorian children acting as if 'in love" back in 1864. These kids were good at it.  Mann's own daughters are delightfully feminine and express the joy being that way.  We appreciate their strength in expressing themselves, as we move into a time period that tries to suppress expression of pride in one's gender.
Julia Margaret Cameron, Paul and Virginia, 1864

When judging on her artistic merit and on what makes her message resonate, I believe her work hits at something quite deep. Rarely does photography approach the artistry of painting, but Sally Mann does by finding what is special in the mundane world.  She can see the extraordinary in the ordinary.  She sees life in death and death in life.

What I personally look for in art is a way to reconcile opposites. All life is paradox, and Sally's art hints of this paradox. Art can unify.  Life is messy but in art there can be a place where all comes together and we can make peace with messy situations.

Among the descriptions of her children's pictures are disturbing, unsettling and "suggestive of violence. There's a wildness about the kids, freedom, strength and to some people, suggestiveness.
Cover photo, Sally Mann, Immediate Family

At the same time there's love written throughout. She loves what they represent and what they  taught her, as children have much to instruct us about uncontrived living. Perhaps it's that she portrays them without vulnerability that disturbs some people. When Mann photographed her children, she had their permission (at least until they reached a certain age). Most pictures don't show them as innocent and vulnerable. As long as they're under her watchful eye (and the camera's eye, they are protected by their mother. As she said in her talk, she saw her roles of being an artist and being a mother as one and the same. Her pictures are daily life. All of life is paradox, and her family photos show everyday life with hints of the paradox between innocence and experience.

How and why did she grow up to be an artist?  Sally claims to have had free-range parents, but lived at a time before free-range parenting became a buzz word meaning neglect. It was possible in ways it isn't today. Accordingly, Mann is an artist from a place, Lexington in southwest Virginia, the burial ground of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Her father, husband and one of her daughters attended school at Washington & Lee.  She went to the Putney School, where she was influenced by an inspirational photography teacher. She then went onto Bennington, but graduated from Rollins College. She has a masters in Creative Writing from Rollins.

Much of what she writes about and photographs is about her surroundings, her identity with the South, themes of life and death which she views together. Is her account a bit exaggerated? I believe so.  I really question if a few of these stories really are true, or if she is merely using her skill at creating a great story. She describers her parents as unemotional people, totally absorbed with matters of the intellect.  She wants to feel closeness to her children, perhaps sensing that she needed more from her own parents.  Of her ancestors, she feels special connection to the sentimental Welshman, her mother's father, and to her own father who had a fascination with death.  Her father was a country doctor who went to people's homes and was totally dedicated to his patients.  He had an artistic side that his profession prevented him from following. Her mother ran the bookstore of Washington & Lee University.  She sees herself as channeling her father's largely suppressed artistic side -- and his obsession with death.  He gave her a Leica camera at age 17 and started her on her photography obsession.

Mann and her husband returned to the Shenandoah Valley to raise their children, as it is a place the kids could run wild and in the nude, as she did as a child.  A nude photo of Jessie in a swan pose took some work.  While watching her kids, with the artist's eye, she noticed the significance of an event in passing. Then she worked on the photo of it, through trial and error until it reached the near perfect.  She grew up playing in old swimming holes.  There was nothing unnatural about skinny dipping in this environment.

Being a photographer was her way of being a hand's-on parent and truthfully I admire this much more than the hard-driving moms who separate their work life from family life and put that life ahead of appreciating the life of child.  (I should write another blog about children in art, and about how other artists treat the theme of childhood.)

Mann has published other books, including What Remains, 2003, Deep South, 2005 (photographed in Mississippi and Louisiana), At Twelve, 1988, Still Time, 1994, and Proud Flesh, 2009.  She is currently working on photos of the theme of black men.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Floor Scrapers and the Making of Caillebotte's Masterpiece

Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers, 1875  Musée d'Orsay, now on view
at the National Gallery of Art, Washington,

Right now the National Gallery is having an exhibition of an Impressionist whose reputation has grown over the last 25 years, Gustave Caillebotte.  Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye will be on view until October 4.

It's interesting how his first masterpiece, The Floor Scrapers was rejected by the Salon in 1875, but part of the Impressionists' exhibition the next year. The masterful painting granted Caillebotte entry into the Impressionist group. He repaid his dear friends by buying up many of their works and then donating them to the French state after he died.  Many of the paintings he owned are part of Paris' great early modern museum, Musée d'Orsay. It's appropriate that the museum that houses so many Impressionist works is a former train station, since modern trains inspired viewers to observe the transient views of the world that the Impressionists transience painted so well.

There are so many reasons The Floor Scrapers is my favorite work by Caillebotte.  The composition is extraordinarily well balanced with an artful asymmetry. There's the tilted floor plane, a view that artists would only start to use after they discovered photography and how it frames pictures differently. There's also the dignity given to labor and the beautiful anatomy.

Finally it's incredible to see how Caillebotte painted tactile contrasts on wood in the various stages of sanding, what looks like with or without varnish, and in the light and shadow. Compared to the other Impressionists, Caillebotte painted with definition and a moderate amount of precision. Yet when he illuminates the floor with natural light from the window, we see a wonderful scintillating values, colors and textures.  Yellow shines through with touches of blue, but in the distance it becomes an earthy brown.

To understand how good this painting actually is, it's useful to compare it with another version of floor scrapers that he did.  It's a simpler composition from a different angle, with fantastic lighting effects. Enlarging the photo here will really show off the reflections on the floor. (It isn't in the National Gallery's show, but was also part of the 2nd Impressionist exhibition in 1876.)
Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers

Many of Caillebotte's other paintings in the exhibition give us a view into his amazing sense of perspective: Le Pont de l"Europe, 1876, for example.  He lived at the time that Paris had just experienced a major rebuilding campaign.  Paris, A Rainy Day gives an impressive viewpoint of how the new city must have looked to the public, in the eyes of a new bourgeoisie class.  Since streets corners were set up in star patterns, the linear perspective has multiple vanishing points and appears to go very deep.  The even greater and more famous artist, Georges Seurat, borrowed from the composition of Paris: A Rainy Day when he did his iconic narrative painting of Paris on a sunny day, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte.

Monet and Van Gogh are two more prominent artists who shared Caillebotte's deep perspective space.  Degas went even further than Caillebotte to exploit the unusual viewpoint. Right now there is an important Impressionist exhibition is in Philadelphia, Discovering the Impressionists, until September 13.  The exhibit showcases Paul Durand-Ruel, the art dealer who took a gamble and went into great financial risk by buying up Impressionist painters because he believed in them.  The exhibit includes Monet's beautiful Poplars series.  However, one of the really important works in the group is by Degas, The Dance Foyer at the Opera on the rue Le Peletier.
Edgar Degas, The Dance Foyer at the the Opera on the rue Le Peletier, 1872,
Musée d'Orsay, Paris, now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

This panoramic ballet scene of dancers offers a wonderful comparison with the Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers. This painting is also asymmetric and appears to look spontaneous, while it is actually exceptionally well-planned. Degas offers many more layers of observation: into another room and out the window, through a mirror (?) or another room in the back center. We imagine that the major source of light is a an unseen window to the right. Whites and golds predominate the scene, with touches of blue and orange. Degas's dancers, though quite strong may seem delicate next to Caillebotte's muscular workers. In truth, Degas' dancing girls and Caillebotte's hard-working men are much the same.  Their work is a labor of love, as the Impressionists saw it. The same can be said about Caillebotte, Degas, Durand-Ruel and those who left us with a wonderful record of life in Paris in the 1870s.  The ballet painting was done in an opera house that destroyed by fire the very next year, probably caused by gaslights.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Wonderful Oddball Artist: Piero di Cosimo

Piero di Cosimo, Giuliano da Sangallo and Francesco Giamberti.  The two-part painting was on loan from Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum recently.
An exhibition of Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo's recently closed at the National Gallery in Washington a few months ago, and it's taken me awhile to develop and express my understanding of him.  Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence continues a the Uffizi Gallery with a slightly different body of works in Florence, until September 27. It's an interesting look at this quirky painter, someone who was living and working at the same time as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Piero di Cosimo's Allegory, is part of the National Gallery's
own collection.  It is seen as an allegory of overcoming
one's animal nature. 
Many of my students who wrote reviews of the exhibition dealt entirely with his religious paintings, the subjects you expect to see most often in Renaissance art. Like most Renaissance artists, Piero also did portraits. Some portraits, especially the diptych of Giuliano da Sangallo, architect, and Francesco Giamberti, musician, (above) are fabulous. Each part of the diptych is a separate window view of the subjects stand in front of deep landscape space. The colors radiant, the textures exquisite.

However, Piero is best known for his paintings of mythological allegories. Allegory in the National Gallery, left, is usually interpreted as a classical story of the choice between good and evil, also called The Dream of Scipio. There's a winged female figure taming the wild horse.  The animal is a reminder of the bestial side of nature. (Most men need to be tamed by women.) The half-human mermaid on bottom is swimming to the right.

Piero di Cosimo, The Hunting Scene, c. 1510, Metropolitan Museum of Art

To me, his paintings are complex allegories of interrelated themes. Even the religious paintings carry the same themes as the mythological paintings.  He's very interested in man's bestial nature, the choices between good and evil and the possibilities for transformation (redemption).  Of interest are two scenes from the Metropolitan Museum. The Hunting Scene, (above) is web of animals fighting men and satyrs.  It looks like two satyrs in front right have clubbed a man to death-- a man who is radically foreshortened and ghostly pale.  It is brutal, like The Battle of Ten Naked Men.  According to the Metropolitan Museum, Piero was inspired by Lucretius' De Rerum Natura.
Return from the Hunt (detail) Metropolitan, NY

Two rooms at the National Gallery were devoted to the mythologies, which I find to be his most imaginative and interesting works.  Giorgio Vasari, the first Italian Renaissance art historian, writing after Piero died, explained the artist by saying,"It pleased him to see everything wild like his own nature."

On the other hand, I see that Piero as relating his depictions primeval themes to Christianity.  The sequel to the brutal hunting scene, Return from the Hunt, has a the detail (right), a man sitting in a tree that resembles the cross, and another man making or carrying a wooden cross like Simon. Is it somehow connected to Jesus' crucifixion, even if Jesus and Simon aren't there?Couples are falling in love. It would seem that Piero believes that even the wildest of men can be redeemed and overcome their animal nature.

It was common for Renaissance artists to do graphic compositions to show off their knowledge of one-point linear perspective. The Building of a Palace is Piero's showpiece of perspective. This interesting demonstration of building methods has multiple activities going on at once. Another wooden cross is visible in the upper right, attached to a piece of machinery in front of the grand palace. He repeats the cross in what appears to be a secular scene, somewhat like the way Dutch artists of the 1600s put in their reminders of death and redemption.  Surely the Christian message was important to Piero no matter how secular or pagan he seems.
Piero di Cosimo, The Building of a Palace, 1515-20, Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida

When Piero painted Perseus and Andromeda, a classical tale from Ethiopia, he picked up a theme not so different from the familiar Christian story of St. George and the Dragon.
Perseus and Andromeda, 1510 or 1513, Uffizzi, Florence

The National Gallery's painting, The Visitation with St. Nicholas and S. Anthony, is one of Piero's most famous paintings.  Vasari describes the reflections on the balls of St. Nicholas as a reflection of the "strangeness of his brain." After his teacher Cosimo Roselli died, Piero shut himself up and led a life less man than beast, according to Vasari.  "He would never have his rooms swept.  He would only eat when hunger came to him, and then only eggs. He boiled 50 eggs at a time, at the same time he boiled his glue for paint."
The Discovery of Honey, from the Worcester Art Museum

Vasari further described Piero's eccentricities. He was deathly afraid of lightning. Is it the real Piero, or something Vasari arrived upon by hearsay or by his own deduction?  We will never know. "And he was likewise so great a lover of solitude, that he knew no pleasure save that of going off by himself with his thoughts, letting his dance roam and building his castles in the air." The small mythological paintings, like The Invention of Honey, show his greatest gift as an artist: the ability to tell a story with allegorical content. Along with this storytelling ability, he had a wonderful capability of creating panoramas with perspective and integrating the figures into nature.
Piero di Cosimo, Vulcan and Aeolus, c. 1500, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Piero is better at painting panoramic allegories than painting figures on a larger scale. Sometimes the anatomy is weak and his foreshortening is inaccurate, as in Vulcan and Aeolus. Yet the painting is enchanting and brings us into a dreamworld where an unexpected mix of events takes place. A Dutch painter who lived at the same time, Heironymous Bosch, also painted giraffes he never may have seen. Like Bosch, he's an ancestor of Surrealists. What was he thinking?
The Myth of Prometheus, c. 1515, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

We don't know if Vasari's description of Piero holds a grain of truth. What seems to be true, though, is that the conflict between good in evil is an essential part of Piero's work. The reconciliation of Christianity to pagan themes is also essential to our understanding of him and other Renaissance masters. Zeus looks just like Jesus in The Myth of Prometheus. The theme is punishments from too much pride. Zeus is destroying the man fashioned by Prometheus and Prometheus's brother is turned into a monkey in the upper left, and several scenes are conflated together. The artist is trying to find an analogy with Christian morality in the stories of the ancients.  Zeus has the long hair, beard and red and blue clothes we associate with Jesus.  (Having taken a class in Renaissance Neoplatonism and knowing writers of the time like Pico della Mirandola and Ficino, it's clear that many Florentines thought of Christian themes and ancient themes as complimentary, like two sides of the same coin.)

Madonna with Jesus, St. John the Baptist, Sts. Jerome and 
Bernard of Clairvaux
A round tondo painting by Piero,  Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist, St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Jerome, is lovely. It also has narrative dramas to illustrate the human struggle between good and evil in the middleground.  St. Jerome is beating his chest to ward off temptation.  The lion is shown with him, because St. Jerome tamed a lion. Behind St. Bernard, a devil is tied to a column, symbolizing the conquest of temptation. Another gorgeous religious painting tondo painting is in Tulsa, where the child Baptist gives his lamb to Baby Jesus.

Simonetta Vespucci, not in the NGA show
Musee Conde, Chantilly France
The National Gallery show had exquisite paintings of Saint Mary Magdalene and St. John the Evangelist that looked like portraits. Their iconographic details show that Piero was influenced by the details and symbolism of Flemish artists.  St. John holds a chalice with a snake a symbol attesting to his faith when the Romans asked him to swallow poison. Piero di Cosimo's most famous portrait, a painting of the beautiful Florentine icon Simonetta Vesupucci, who died too young, was not in the National Gallery exhibition.  Piero painted her as if bitten by an asp, like Cleopatra, on left. Again, he used the theme of snakes, which would seem to fit with his

His bacchanalian scenes had "strange fauns, satyrs, sylvan gods, little boys and bacchanals, that is is of marvel to see the diversity of the bay horses and gameness, and the variety of goat like creatures," describes Vasari. There is a "joy of life produced by the great genius of Piero. There's a certain subtlety by which he investigates some of the deepest and most subtle secrets of Nature, but only for his own delight and for his pleasure in art."

detail the Invention of Honey
Vasari wrote more about Piero other artists who are considered even greater painters, namely Giorgione and Correggio. Vasari had a Florentine bias, and Piero was from Florence. Vasari also wrote, "If Piero had not been so solitary, and had taken more care of himself, he would have made known the greatness of his intellect in such a way that he would have been revered. By reason of his uncouth ways, he was rather held to be a madman."

Piero was a wonderful eccentric who painted many imaginative and poetic mythologies.  What links him to the best of the Renaissance is his lush colors, his landscapes and deep perspective.  Some of his work is excellent but others stand out for their uneven quality. What breaks the mold for this time is when his mythologies reveal mankind's delightful, bestial nature. Like the mannerist images Arcimboldo came up with later in the 16th century, his paintings teach us about the dark side of our human nature.  In fact, his knarled branches look much like Arcimbolodo's portrait of the The Four Seasons in One Head.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Lions Come to Life in Replica of Cave from 32,000 Years Ago

This month a replica of Chauvet Cave -- which holds the oldest known paintings of Paleolithic art --will open to the public in Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, Ardèche region of southeastern France.

As the April issue Smithsonian Magazine details, the early dating of 32,000 - 30,000 years ago has been analyzed and verified by various means. Stone age humans used this particular cave, and so did hibernating bears! Carbon dating confirms the early date of the charcoal pigments, but the bear bones found inside the cave have also been shown to be from around the same time.  A rock slide that occurred 29,000 years ago covered up the entrance -- keeping out the people and bears until just 20 years ago.   Chauvet Cave was discovered in December 1994.

Although the style of art and cultural heritage has continuity with the numerous cave paintings of southwestern France and northeastern Spain, such as Lascaux, there are also species not seen elsewhere, including lions and bears.  The cave artists had an amazing ability of the artists to evoke the spirit of the animals and suggest their power. Their forms follow the convex surfaces of the cave walls, often making their forms come out into space if they were carvings in relief.  Other animals are bison, aurochs, hyenas and horses.

As in most caves, no humans are shown. There's actually a bear head on an altar.  It's reasonable to thing that the animals were considered as having more power than humans.  There's actually a bear head placed as if on an altar. As in most other caves, there are handprints, probably both male and female, mainly done with a stencil technique.

The superimposed horses have remarkably realistic features.  As all other cave paintings, they're superimposed without respect to creating a composition.  Instead, there seems to be an attempt to evoke the spirit of the animals and bring their power, vitality and energy in some type of shamanistic ritual.  Of course, determining exact meaning and reasons for these works will always be a mystery.   There is, though, a fascinating image that links the paintings to Paleolithic statuettes.

The Chauvet artists used pigments of charcoal and red ocher. The two things that come to mind as being different from later Paleolithic paintings are fewer colors and the profile views of horns.  (The bulls of Lascaux have horns are painted in twisted perspective, a frontal view on profile body.)

Only a few years before the discovery of Chauvet, scuba divers near Marseilles discovered a cave under the Mediterranean, by following a channel leading to an underground lake.  Named Cosquer Cave for an diver who found it, no public access possible.  Unwittingly, three divers died while searching for this monument.  Cosquer Cave probably dates to about 5,000 - 7,000 years later than Chauvet, but 5,000 plus years earlier than the earliest paintings at Lascaux.   Horses, reindeer and other images at Cosquer are similar to later paintings, but what are we to think of the penguin, or auk (see below)?
Auk or penguin?  Cosquer Cave near Marseille, France

Few people have been allowed to enter the Chauvet Cave since Eliette Brunel, Jean-Marie Chauvet and Christian Hillaire discovered it back in December, 1994.  The desire was prevent the carbon monoxide damage caused by visitors between 1940 and 1963, when it closed to the public.  A replica of Lascaux welcomes visitors, who can admire the magnificent rotunda with its Hall of Bulls.  However, the replica and visitors center at Vallon Pont d'Arc is far bigger than Lascaux.

Friday, April 3, 2015

"Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea" Brings Top Quality to Washington

Andrea Pisano, relief from Giotto's Bell Tower in Florence, 14th century
One of the things I appreciate most about living in Washington is the quality of its art exhibitions. A National Museum for Women in Arts (NMWA) exhibit,“Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea,” brings some of the best images from Italy in Washington.  This magnificent show dedicated to the mother of Jesus has a Botticelli, two Della Robbias, a Michelangelo and a Caravaggio.  It’s almost better to see it in Washington, DC, than in Italy, because so many of the most beautiful images are brought together in one place.  However, the exhibition is only going to be there one more week, until April 12.

The exhibition also has a significant number of early Italian sculptures, a stained glass window and even an image made in India.  Paintings and sculptures come from several museums in Florence, Rome, Milan and Paris. The National Gallery of Art in Washington has loaned several pieces to the exhibition, which stand up in quality with some of the best in Italy.  Furthermore, NMWA added paintings from its own collection.
Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Book, c. 1480

The exhibition begins with the late Gothic period/early Renaissance. Above all, it captures one aspect of Mary that is most appreciated, her motherhood.  In  Andrea Pisano’s beautiful blue and white relief sculpture from the 14th century bell tower of Florence Cathedral (above), Mary is tickling the baby Jesus.  Italian artists at this time broke from the medieval and Byzantine artists by bringing Mary down to earth.  She is just like any other mother and Jesus is just your typical baby, no longer a miniature adult with an imperial demeanor.  They  have fun and are very playful.  He's a true Italian bambino.

If anything to notice about this exhibition, it's about love. There's so much love.  Some images are incredibly sweet, such as a Madonna by the Master of the Winking Eyes (see bottom).  In this painting and others, Mary wears coral jewelry, a symbol of protection.  In an iconic Botticelli, Madonna of the Book, Mary shows the Baby Jesus a book as he looks up at her.  He holds three nails, foreshadowing His death, while her eyes hints of the sadness in knowing what will come.  Yet the sweetness and love in Botticelli's imagery is heavenly.  Botticelli’s Mary is both a loving earthly Mother and an ideal of beauty that belongs in the perfect world of heaven.  

A spectacular painting in the show is by Botticelli’s teacher, Fra Filippo Lippi.  In his image, Jesus pulls his mother’s veil and snuggles very closely.  Jesus stands on a ledge and Mary holds him in a niche behind.  Lippi’s Madonna and Child does what Renaissance art strove so much to do — bridge that gap between the earthly and heavenly.  He also creates an illusion of three-dimensional depth into space which reaches into our space so convincingly. 

Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child (detail)
Fra Filippo Lippi was a priest by accident.  Orphaned as a child, he raised in a monastery, and raised to be a priest.  It wasn't what he was meant to do. He fell in love with a nun, Lucretia Butti, and had a son who grew up to be the marvelous painter Filippino Lippi. The Pope gave Lippi a special dispensation to leave the priesthood and get married.  Lucretia and Filippino were probably the models for his Madonna and Child.

The Michelangelo in the exhibition is a well-known drawing from the Casa Buonarroti in Florence. Its beauty is amazing even though it's an unfinished masterpiece.  Mary is nursing the Baby Jesus.  Michelangelo drew the baby Jesus with a great degree of light and shadow (chiaroscuro), to make him far more three-dimensional than the image of Mary.  I'm reminded that as an infant, Michelangelo was sent to live with a stone cutter whose wife became his wet nurse.  His own mother didn't have enough milk to feed him.  It is said that living with the stone cutter for the first few years of life primed Michelangelo to become a sculptor.   His baby Jesus is very sculptural.
Michelangelo, Madonna and Child, from Casa Buonarroti, Florence, c. 1520-25

There’s an Artemisia Gentilleschi painting I had never seen previously.  She’s holding out her breast for Jesus, offering to nurse him.  She looks  down at Jesus very lovingly. He stops to think about it ,rather than jumping right to her breast. Artemisia Gentilleschi is the first female artist to have achieved an international reputation.  Her own biography. is very compelling. 
Orsola Maddalena Caccia, St. Luke Painting the Virgin

One of the artists I had never heard of is Orsola Maddelena Caccia, a prolific painter who also was a nun in the 17th century.  There are six large paintings of hers in the exhibition, each with an elaborate iconography.   Her St. Luke Painting the Virgin reminds us that many of the stories surrounding Mary are purely imaginative.  Much of what is painted about Mary's life is the result of popular legends.   

This exhibition is significant and scholarly for a number of reasons.  It delves into the meaning behind the imagery.  It also reveals significant stories in Mary's life and the lives of the artists who painted her.  The NMWA blog has much good information about the symbolism.  It also can teach viewers a great deal about the Renaissance and Baroque styles of art, particularly in Italy.  

However, I appreciate the exhibition mostly for other reasons. When we look at these Madonnas and we see the maternal love, we know that Mary's message is that she can be mother to all of us.  One doesn't need to be Christian or even religious to understand that the love between a mother and her child is a universal truth.  

The NMWA used images from its own collection to enhance the show,  pieces by Elisabetta Sirani and Sofonisba Anguissola.  The museum continues to make a significant contributions to the community, to promote women artists from around the world and to cultivate relationships with significant donors. Generous donors and supporters of NMWA underwrote the cost of insuring individual works of as they traveled from Europe.  The result of their gifts is that Washington has put on another exhibition of universal importance and appeal.

At the National Gallery, there's another exhibition about the Italian Renaissance in Washington, Piero di Cosimo.  It taps into a completely different aspect of the Renaissance, the rebirth of interest in classical mythology.    
Master of the Winking Eye, Madonna and Child, c. 1450

Sunday, February 15, 2015

In the Silence and Minutia of the Birds

Fred Tomaselli, Woodpecker, 2009, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond
gouache, acrylic, photo collage and epoxy resin on wood, 72" x 72" 
I love talking about birds in my Art Appreciation classes, though with a focus very different from from the current SAAM (Smithsonian American Art Museum) exhibition, "The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art."  The exhibition's message is about man's relationship to birds, with the accent on environmental issues.  My class talks about birds in flight, to symbolize our human aspirations.  Flying birds remind us that humans can soar even if we don't literally know how to fly.

Chris Allen, A Grand View,  2010, Stone, beads, fetish
Photo from Pinterest, Bonin Smith
This exhibition and another excellent exhibition called "Bead," at GRACE (Greater Reston Arts Center), honor the minutia of creation in thousands or millions of the small details that make up the birds.  Both exhibitions are breathtakingly beautiful, must-see experiences, though their purposes are not at all similar.  There's only one week left to see the SAAM show, and almost two left weeks until "Bead" ends on February 28.  Two of the 15 artists in "Bead" included birds, but the show also features well-known national artists such as David Chatt and Joyce J. Scott. There are many other masterful and surprising interpretations of beads.  A pair of birds sitting on top of Chris Allen's beaded stones is called A Grand View.  Beads are skin for the timeless stones of the earth and Allen's construction is a metaphor for relationship of body and soul. (Chris Allen reminds me of both a blog I wrote before and the great sculptor I admire, Brancusi.)

Back at SAAM, Fred Tomaselli's Woodpecker, is a large painting, but its smallest details are mesmerizing.  Three of his other large paintings are also in the exhibition, all densely patterned.  Tomaselli, originally from Santa Monica, California, recalls growing up with bright colors of Disneyland, but also is quite a naturalist, a bird watcher and a lover of fly fishing.  Today an exhibition of his work opens at the Orange County Museum of Art. 

Ingrid Bernhardt, Chic Chick, 2014, 5" x 6" 4" papier-mâché, beads and feathers
As in Woodpecker with its beautiful details, there's a dedication to perfection in Ingrid Bernhardt's Chic Chick at GRACE. It's a papier-mâché bird with added beads and feathers.  Tons and tons of the tiniest beads make it very intricate.  From the fallen feathers, the artist has made some beautiful earrings which lie beside the bird.  It's quite a novelty and something special to behold.  Bernhardt compares her beading technique to the pointillism of Seurat and all the dots of color he used.
Laurel Roth Hope, Regalia 63 x 40 x 22 in.
Private Collection
© Laurel Roth Hope. Image courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris
Chic Chick's sheer beauty and attention to detail has lots of competition in the peacocks of California artist, Laurel Roth Hope, currently on view at SAAM.  She makes peacocks out of hair clips, fake fingernails, fake eyelashes, jewelry, Swarovski crystal and other beauty symbols.  One named Regalia, has all the pride associated with its species, and another sculpture named Beauty, is a composition of two peacocks who play the mating game.  This bird traditionally is a symbol of Resurrection and eternal life in Christian art, and the artist evokes a power worthy of that traditional role. Her peacocks are amazingly realistic, but the technique and innovative use of material is an example of how an artist can show us how to see the world in a new way. 

Laurel Roth Hope, Carolina Parokeet, crocheted yarn on
hand-carved wood pigeon mannequin,  Smithsonian
American Art Museum
Laurel Roth Hope is also concerned about the environment and biodiversity  To celebrate certain species that are now extinct, she crocheted sweaters that mimic the coats and plumage of these lost birds.  One, Carolina Parokeet, is in the SAAM's permanent collection. Others in this group include the Passenger Pigeon, The Paradise Parrot and the Dodo. She used her hands to crochet sweaters in beautiful, tiny variegated colors and pattern. Much love goes into her creations. At the same time, we think of so many cultural concepts: beauty, pride, artifice (fake nails and fake eyelashes, loss, death.  We ask ourselves: What does the outer coat (outer beauty)mean? What does pride mean if it bites the dust in the end?  At the same time, the artist is giving tribute and memory to something that is lost.
Laurel Hope Roth, Beauty, detail from the Peacock series photo from the website
John James Audubon was America's master artist of birds. Walton Ford is similarly a naturalist who works with combination techniques--watercolor, gouache, etching, drypoint, etc.  He breaks with Audubon with his complex allegorical messages, however. environmental messages, however. Also among the 12 artists in the Smithsonian show, several are bird photographers.
Walton Ford, Eothen, 2001
watercolor, gouache, and pencil and ink on paper
40 x 60 in.
The Cartin Collection
Image courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery
Only one of the artists, Tom Uttech, painted his birds in the way I usually imagine them -- in flight.   Uttech lives in Wisconsin, and his landscapes come from the North Woods, as well as a provincial park in Ontario. Some of his titles are impossible. Enassamishhinijweian is my favorite.  A bear's back faces us, as he sits still and calmly observes the world of nature passing by.  Multitudes of birds fly. An owl turns to look at us, and even a squirrel flies in the sky.  The museum label mentions Uttech's immersion in nature and his belief in its transformative power, much like Emerson and Thoreau.  I'd guess that Uttech is also an admirer of Heironymous Bosch, a 15th-16th century Dutch painter.  He also loved panoramas. A bear hidden in each of Uttech's three large panoramic landscapes.  These bears are probably the artist himself, or the individual who observes nature.
Tom Uttech, Enassamishhinjijweian, 2009, oil on linen, 103" x112"  Collection of the Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, Arkansas

© Tom Uttech. Image courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York. Photo by Steven Watson
Traditionally in art, birds in flight show contact between man and divinity.  A bird symbolizes the Holy Spirit.  In African and Oceanic cultures, the birds tie a living person to his ancestors.  Only one of the artists I noticed at SAAM, Petah Coyne, sees her birds as the travel guides, the conduit between heaven and earth.  Her elaborate black and purple sculpture is called Beatrice, after Dante's beautiful guide through Purgatory, in The Divine Comedy.  It's about 12 feet high, and is dripping with birds and falling flowers.  The beautiful work must be seen in person to be appreciated.

The many manifestations of birds reminds us of all the roles they fulfill: the silent and the singing and the flying.   We end up with a new, profound appreciation for nature, and the hope to protect its beauty, birds included.  These exhibitions helped me to see the vastness of this world, as well as the minutia of its details.