Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Louise Bourgeois, Abstraction and Archetypes in Modern Sculpture

"Contemporary and ancient art are like oil and water, seemingly opposite poles....now I have found the two melding ineffably into one, more like water and air."  Hiroshi Sugimoto, Japanese artist
Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 1952, Spring, 1949 and Mortise, 1950 National Gallery of Art


Two separate exhibitions in Washington at the moment illustrate the commonality of modern art and prehistoric -- especially in sculpture.  The me, that theme resonates with two sculptors who lived through most of the 20th century, Louise bourgeois and Isamu Noguchi.  The National Gallery has a two-room exhibition Louise Bourgeois: No Exit, and Noguchi (hopefully in another blog) works are a major part of the Hirshhorn's exhibition, Surrealist Sculpture: From Paris to New York.

Constantin Brancusi, Endless Column,1937


Three sculptures by Bourgeois in the National Gallery are what she called personages.  As a whole they're not unlike the archetypal images of Henry Moore o Constantin Brancusi.  Among these three works are a group of three piles of stones resting on stilts.  It's one of the Bourgeois sculptures that
Henry Moore, Interior and Exterior Forms
appears simple and somewhat primitive.  Untitled is above on the left.  The stones stand tall and top heavy; they seem to be wearing big hats.  I'm reminded of the precarious state of human existence. I am also thinking of the top-heavy candidates in the recent Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, weak on bottom and they may fall.   Aesthetically these works form a link to Brancusi's birds on pedestals and the Endless Column, Targu Jui, Romania, part of a memorial for fallen soldiers in World War I.

The sculpture of Spring center above is reminiscent of a woman, or of the ancient Venus figures, which date to the Paleolithic era, around 20,000 BCE.  It can be compared the the elongated marble burial figures from prehistoric, Cycladic Greece as well.
"Venus" figures from Dolni Vestinici, Willendorf, Austria and Lespuge, France


Henry Moore's Interior and Exterior Forms, near the sculpture garden of the Hirshhorn is a theme he did over and over, an archetype of the mother and child.  Bourgeois's sculptural art is generally rougher and has less refined simplicity works of Moore and Brancusi.  In 1967, the Ludwig Mas chocolate company in Cologne, Germany asked for one of her sculptures to be replicated in a single large piece of chocolate.  She chose Germinal, its name suggestive of germination and new beginnings.  (Germinal is also the name of Emile Zola's famous French novel of 19th century coal minors.  I wouldn't put it past her to be referring to the story, but don't have an idea as to how and why)
Germinal, 1967, promised gift of Dian Woodner, copyright


Bourgeois, who died in 2010, lived to be 98 years. She continually worked and invented anew. In time, I think she will be considered a giant among the sculptors of the 20th century, on par with Moore, Brancusi and Calder.  Her art was more varied than the others and she defied categorization and/or predictability.  However, certain themes seemed to carry her for long periods of time, such as the personages of her early to middle period and the cells she did late in her life.  She worked both vary large and very small and with an infinite variety of materials including fiber. She grew up in a family which worked in the tapestry business, primarily repairing antique tapestries.  To her, making art was making reparations making peace with the past.  Some wish to put her in the category of Surrealism, but she calls herself an Existentialist, in the philosophical realm of Jean-Paul Sartre.  Looking at some of the drawings in the National Gallery and how she explained it does give a clue into the existential thoughts and feelings.

Spider, 2003 (not in exhibition)
One of Bourgeois's best-known themes was the spider, having done several monumental statues in public places.  The spider stands for the protective mother, and her version of the archetype, as it also alludes to the weaving activity in her family.   It is large and embracing but can also have a dark side.  I like best the spiders that combine the metal sculpture with the delicate tapestry figures.  The delicacy and litheness of her spider people remind me of the wonderful organic acrobat sculptures from ancient Crete.

Bull-leaping acrobat, ivory, from Palace at Knossos, Crete, c. 1500 BCE
Bourgeois deals with metaphors.  She calls sculpture the architecture of memory.  She is poetic, but she's also quite humorous.   She also made a sculpture series of giant eyes.  She describes eyes mirrors reflecting various realities.  I'm reminded that in ancient times, the eyes were the mirrors of  a person's soul. As different as her works may be, she portrays a consistent voice and aesthetic throughout her career.
Eye Bench, 2005, Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle

When I went to the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle back in 2010, a friend of mine from California and I came upon her Eye Benches.  We sat down and enjoyed it.  In the end, it seems Bourgeois used her art to make sense of her very complicated world and our experience of that world, but maybe she doesn't quite grasp and make sense of it all. So she laughs at it, and laughs at us with all our serious endeavors. This calls for a good laugh and relaxation.
Louise Bourgeois, Eye Bench, Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Gauguin, Picasso, Rouault and Split Identities in the Phillips' show

Paul Gauguin, NAFAE faaipoipo  (When Will You Marry?) 1892
 Rudolph Staechelin Collection
The Phillips Collection's latest loan exhibition, "Gauguin to Picasso: Masterworks from Switzerland," draws upon a pair of collections assembled by two prominent but very different Swiss art collectors. To me, the theme of dualism, pairs and split identities stands out strongly.  The exhibition highlights one of Gauguin's most famous paintings, When are You to be Married? -- a painting that recently was sold.  (The Staechelin and Im Oberstag collections of modern art are normally on display at the Basel Kunstmuseum. Here's an article for background on the collectors why the paintings are traveling.) 

Like so many other paintings by Gauguin, the two women in this infamous painting express two realities, which could represent the split identities within Tahitian society. He painted it during his first stay in Tahiti in 1892. The woman in front is natural, organic, relaxed and colorful in her red skirt. The orchid in her hair was said to suggest that she is looking for a mate.  A woman behind is taller, more severe and covered in a pink dress buttoned to the top--an influence of Western missionaries. The woman in back has a bigger head than the woman in front.  Does he mean to imply that she dominates? Or, is Gauguin imagining a single Tahitian woman who is torn between her native identity and the invasion of western civilization.


Eugene Delacroix, Women of Algiers, 1834, The Louvre
The woman in front may be inspired by one of the very beautiful, sensual women painted in Delacroix's Women of Algiers, one of my all-time favorite paintings. (Delacroix was allowed into the mayor's harem to sketch the women--pictured at right.  Like Gauguin, Delacroix was European observing women in an exotic, foreign land.)

Gauguin, Self-Portrait, 1889, NGA



In his self-portraits and so much of his art, Gauguin expresses the split nature in mankind, the areas where there is inner conflict. Symbolist Self-Portrait at the National Gallery of Art (NGA), Washington, is a divided person, both a saint and a sinner.  He has a choice in the matter, and we wonder what he'll choose.

The two Tahitian women are different, yet blended.  Warm brown skin tones unite them and the hot red skirt of the "natural" native woman flawlessly flows into the warm pink of the stiffer, "civilized" woman. The colors blend and contrast simultaneously into a beautiful harmony.  (Is it surprising that this picture was the most expensive painting ever sold?  Rumor has it that it was purchased by a Qatari for Qatar Museums.)
Georges Rouault, Landscape with Red Sail, 1939, Im Obersteg Foundation, permanent loan to the Kunstmuseum Basel. Photo © Mark Gisler, Müllheim. Image © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Other artists in this exhibition continue the theme of duality and split personality. Early 20th century Expressionist Georges Rouault was honest about his identity as a person belonging in another century, the age of the cathedrals.  His heavily-outlined Landscape with Red Sail uses colors reminiscent of the colors in stained glass and the way stained glass is divided by lines of lead. Yet, his paint is applied in a very rough, heavy manner, hardly like the smoothness of glass. His beautiful seascape does, however, evoke the light of a sunset peaking behind the sailboat--like the light filtering in medieval churches.

Alexej Jawlensky, Self-Portrait, 1911 Im Obersteg Collection

The Expressionist painter Alexej von Jawlensky was a Russian living in Switzerland, in exile there during World War I.  There's a haunting quality to his Self-Portrait, left. Jawlensky and Im Obersteg had a strong friendship throughout his career.

One side of a Picasso painting features a woman in a Post-Impressionist style, "Woman At the Theatre," and the other side has a sad woman, The Absinthe Drinker, from the beginning of the "Blue period." Both were painted in 1901. They could not be more different from each other.  Picasso  was very experimental at that
Picasso, The Absinthe Drinker, 1901 Im Obersteg Collection

time of his life and in his career.

Expressionism is a large part of the exhibition, especially with Wassily Kandinsky, Chaim Soutine, Marc Chagall and Alexej von Jawlinsky.  Swiss Symbolist Ferdinand Hodler shares with us his experience of love and death in a group of paintings of his dying lover Valentine Gode-Darel.  It is difficult to watch and for him painting may have been an attempt to make peace with the awful situation.  

The series of paintings by Hodler are some of the most powerful in the exhibition because we experience the unfolding of a tragedy.  Gode-Darel died of cancer in
Ferdinand Hodler, The Patient, painted 1914, dated 1915. The Rudolf Staechelin Collection © Kunstmuseum Basel, Martin P. Bühler
1915, a year after diagnosis.  The three paintings of rabbis by Marc Chagall continue in the theme of portraiture.

There are very fine small paintings by Cezanne, Monet, Manet, Renoir and Pissaro, two beautiful landscapes by Maurice de Vlaminck. Van Gogh's, The Garden of Daubigny, 1890 is one of three he did of the same subject weeks before his death. The black cat in the painting is small but curiously out of place. The 60 paintings on view, on view until January 10 -- are worth the trip to the Phillips. Here are some of the best photographs of the paintings in the show. These Swiss collections complement the Phillips own marvelous collection of early Modernism.  It is curious that the Swiss collections don't show the greatest of all 20th century Swiss artists, Paul Klee. 

Vincent Van Gogh. The Garden of Daubigny, 1890  Rudolf Staechelin Collection



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.