Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Caryatids Have Hair - Lots of it!

Six famous women hold up the Porch of the Maidens of the Erechtheion, a temple on the Acropolis of Athens. These statues are admired for their graceful poses and drapery, but who notices the hair? An Art Historian who specializes in the sculpture of the Acropolis, Katherine Schwab, has studied the hairstyles and made a project of it for her students at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Here's a summary of a presentation she gave last night at the Greek Embassy in Washington.

In the New Acropolis Museum, Athens --which was just built a few years ago -- one can see the statues from the back with their beautiful long braids of hair, falling in fishtails followed by more curls. In fact, the hair of the statues is in better condition than the faces and bodies whose arms are completely missing. (Caryatid is the name given to a feminine statue which acts as a column to hold up a building; Kore is a statue of a maiden.)

These six caryatids are

labeled Kore A - Kore F.

Every hairstyle is a bit different. Most have fishtail braids down the back, along with regular braids wrapped around the head. Some of the caryatids have sidecurls, while others do not. Professor Schwab did the Caryatid Project with hair stylist Miloxy Torres who recreated the braids on 6 students, all of whom had long, thick and mainly curly hair. The students acted out the caryatid poses other at the Fairfield University campus in 2009.


 The Porch of the Maidens adorns the Erechtheion which honors Athena, Poseidon, and two legendary kings Erechtheus and Krekops.  It is an unusual building in many ways: three porches of different sizes going out in different directions.  It was of special civic and religious significance to the ancient Athenians, because it marked the site of the contest between the god of the sea, Poseidon (Neptune) and Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, for control of Athens.  In that competition presided over by legendary King Kekrops, Poseidon's Neptune struck a hole on a rock to bring forth a spring of salt water.  Nearby, in front of the building, Athena miraculously brought to life an olive tree. Athena's gift was deemed greater and she became the ruler of Athens.  One portion of the Erechtheion contains a wooden statue of Athena which fell from heaven during the reign of Erechtheus, but the Porch of the Maidens stands over the hole where Poseidon tapped his trident.
The original caryatids are now on view in the New Acropolis Museum, Athens

The photos are from the Caryatid
Project and Wikipedia. For more information and a video, see                                Here's the video

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Gauguin's Shame and Salvation

Paul Gauguin was impressed with the sincere, unspoiled piety of women from Brittany, where he painted in 1887. He placed the Yellow Christ, 1889, in a Breton landscape.
Paul Gauguin, an early modern rebel against western culture, is influenced by religious culture like his French forebears who painted for kings and churches 400 years earlier. After seeing the Art Institute of Chicago's exhibition of Early Renaissance Art in France, I saw the Gauguin exhibition at the National Gallery. Many of Gauguin's subjects also had religious themes. He put the Crucifixion in a setting of yellow and ocher pigments, and blended it into the landscape of Brittany, a region he respected for its piety and cultural backwardness at that time.

The standing woman in Delectable Waters, above, has the shame of Eve being expelled from the garden of Paradise. We don't know her relationship to the other women, although they also seem to live in a lush tropical place, much like a Garden of Eden

Many of the paintings in Gauguin: Maker of Myth come from his Tahitian stay after 1891. He treats several scenes of Tahitian women and gods through the lens of Christianity and other religious traditions. It's curious that the moon goddess Hina who appears in Delectable Waters, above, is actually in a pose from Hinduism that Gauguin morphs into this Tahitian image. In some canvases the Tahitian women, rather than Eve, deal with evil and temptation. He portrays human dramas of guilt, fear, agony and pain.

Why Are You Angry, from the Art Institute of Chicago, has always fascinated me. It also seems to have a mysterious theme of guilt or shame. This encounter between a standing lady and two seated girls who humble themselves creates a provocative drama separated by an old woman and a tree. Each woman is strongly modeled with lovely, brownish skin tones. The colors of this paradise blend warm hues of yellow and red with the cool, peaceful colors of mauve and blue.

Why Are You Angry, from the Art Institute of Chicago, exemplifies Gauguin's ability to balance the warm and cool colors of nature, while the composition is balancing the various sides of the human drama .

Even before going to Tahiti, he painted of Christ's Agony in the Garden, showing Jesus is a human who feels the same pain of rejection that we, as humans, do. He uses his own face as Jesus Christ. Bright red-orange hair is symbolic of the fire and pain of human suffering, which we see not only as Jesus but part of humankind. There are many self-portraits on view. Symbolist Self-Portrait from the National Gallery's collection, shows the paradox of his own good and evil natures, making his choices appear like Adam and Eve's. More powerful than ego promotion, these self-portraits are powerful expressions of the human dilemma. After all, he started out as a stockbroker, which clearly did not work for him. The exhibition has an impressive display of Gauguin's sculpture and ceramics, even in self-portraiture.

The Agony in the Garden, is a Christian theme. Here Gauguin has given Jesus his own face, suggesting that he empathized and identified with the suffering of Jesus.
One can wonder if Gauguin ever overcame his pain, shame and reached a type of salvation in his final destination, Tahiti. Whether it was Eden, Tahiti or Gethsemane, he seems to paint so many gardens, the paradises for which he hoped. (He had spent a childhood in Peru, traveled to the island of Martinique, to the opposite corners of France, Brittany and Arles, in search of simplicity before arriving in the South Seas.) Curiously, there are no paintings representing his short stay in Arles with Vincent Van Gogh.

In the end, Gauguin leaves his meanings ambiguous, but color is Gauguin's salvation as an artist.

Two Women
, above, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, shows Gauguin's gift of color--not only yellow sky and brilliant red cherries. The woman to the right is painted with green hues beneath her brown skin, a wonderful match for her blue dress, while the other women has red under brown skin.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The amazing unknown master in an Art Institute exhibition

This Crucifixion from the Getty Museum is the center of a 3-part altarpiece which can be seen at the Art Institute in its original format until May 30th. The unknown master used saturated colors in oil paint, while packing an incredible amount of detail into a panel 19 x 28 inches. Click on the photo to see an enlargement.

The Art Institute of Chicago is currently showing a major exhibition of French Renaissance painting, Kings, Queens and Courtiers. To me, the most impressive and interesting piece is by an unknown painter, the Master of Dreux Budé. It dates to about 1450.

One of the values of this type of scholarly exhibition is the opportunity to find and gather lost or separated parts of paintings. Here, we view the original pieces of what was once formed a triptych, three panels connected by hinges to tell a concise history of Christian Salvation. The largest painting was in center; it's a Crucifixion from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The Resurrection, from the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, France, was once a wing on the right side.

It's a special treat to see the left panel, The Kiss of Judas or Betrayal of Christ, which starts this Passion, Death and Resurrection story. (The painting is in private hands, therefore rarely seen and photographed.) This artist's conception is very original; Judas' kiss of betrayal is set in the darkness of night with moon, stars and faces as the light which heightens the drama of Christ's arrest. Suddenly we notice a crowd of soldiers that is emerging from behind. The Crucifixion in center continues the story in a daytime landscape and tells multiple episodes as well, including the Harrowing of Hell on the far right.

Each panel of the painting is a masterpiece by itself but more complete when grouped together. The unknown painter is a vivid and imaginative storyteller.

A few suggestions for the identity of this painter have been made: Andre d'Ypres or Colin d'Amiens. We know of the patrons: Dreux Budé, a wine merchant, and his wife, Jeanne Peschard. The three-part painting, called a triptych, was for the altar in the Budé family chapel of Saint Gervais, Paris. A Crucifixion in the Louvre, Paris, is by the same painter, who may have learned from Rogier and/or Robert Campin in the guild of Tournai.

A double-mouth demon and sinners in a cauldron, above left. In the bottom left of the Crucifixion is a demon in Hell whom Jesus encountered while going there to rescue Adam and Eve. The photo is courtesy of Dawn Pedersen of Blue Lobster Art & Design.