Vincent Van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890 at the National Gallery of Art, a recent gift from the Collection of Mr & Mrs Paul Mellon
Vincent Van Gogh’s Green Wheat Fields, Auvers came into Washington’s National Gallery of Art on December 20, 2013. It’s a windswept scene that sucks us in with intensity and urgency. Green Wheat Fields, Auvers is among the 70 or so paintings he did during the two months of 1890 when he lived in Auvers-sur-Oise. Experts believe he painted it in June, 1890, the month before he died.
Fortunately the new painting entered the museum at the same time Washington’s Phillips Collection is hosting an exhibition, Van Gogh Repetitions, until February 2, 2014. The exhibition of 14 paintings examines why the artist repeated compositions in the same format with different colors and very minor design changes. It features several portraits, The Bedroom at Arles and two magnificent Van Goghs owned by the Phillips Collection, The Road Menders, 1889, and The Entrance to the Public Gardens at Arles, 1888.
Vincent Van Gogh, The Road Menders, 1889, from the Phillips Collection, Washington
Like the National Gallery’s new canvas, the paintings from the Phillips Collection are also landscapes with sweeping roads veering to the right side. They have predominantly yellow-green color harmonies, rushed perspective and ground levels that are tilted. Although people are included in these paintings, they’re small compared to nature. Trees and rocks are more powerful than the people and nature is a force to behold. Like many Japanese artists, it seems that Van Gogh felt the power of the natural world more powerful than an individual.
Vincent Van Gogh, The Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles, 1888, Phillips Collection
To gain an historical perspective, he painted The Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles during the period he lived in Arles, and he did The Road Menders during his sojourn in the asylum of Saint- Paul de Mausole in St-Remy de Provence in 1889, the year after his notable breakdown. The National Gallery’s new painting comes from the next year, the last phase of his life, when he returned to northern France. Most of his landscapes from this time period totally lack figures, as it seems to him that the power of nature, as in Rain, Auvers, was taking over more and more in Van Gogh’s view.
Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, hung in a private residence from 1955 on, but now hangs with other Van Goghs: a very intense self-portrait, a vase of Roses, The Olive Orchard and Roulin’s Baby. Each of these paintings have variations of the magnificent Van Gogh greens or blues, including olive-greens, chartreuse, lime green, forest green, blue-greens and mint.
Green Wheat Fields, Auvers gives feelings of total immersion as the best Van Gogh paintings, including The Starry Night, do. It’s hard to imagine walking in this field without sinking or drowning in it. The road is very irregular and there is a roughness to this place. Texture is thick and visibly tactile even in the reproductions. The swirls of clouds feel like the swirls of fields. A swiftly rushing road on the right suggests the wind also flows from the same direction and brings field and clouds together. Colors of field and cloud are not the same, but they are in the same family of colors, analogous blues and greens.
Van Gogh was swept into this landscape, but a strong upright shaft of wheat in center seems to have brought him back to his center. It is here the viewers can be brought into focus, because the painting would not hold together as well without this strong vertical focus.
Van Gogh, Enclosed Field with the Rising Sun, 1889, painted in St-Remy Private Collection, photo taken from www.vggallery.com
In the same way, the power of the sun brings the viewer into focus on Enclosed Field with the Rising Sun, aview he painted looking out of the asylum in Saint-Remy de Provence. He expanded the natural vista, using a very wide-angle perspective. Tilted landscapes, openings in the foreground, and exaggerated perspective are some of Van Gogh’s best tools for making us feel his perspective.
Jean-Francois Millet, The Sower, 1850 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
He painted wheat fields over and over, but some of the best renditions of man in nature come from his portrayals of The Sower, of which he did several versions, acknowledging the artistic legacy of Jean-Francois Millet. These are my favorite paintings by Van Gogh because they remind us of mankind’s dependence on nature and the interconnectedness of nature.
Vincent Van Gogh, The Sower with Rising Sun, 1888, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
Van Gogh felt a oneness with the natural world, as if he saw the separate parts of the natural world as one unifying force. The best of his landscape paintings, are so powerful when they remind us, like Green Wheat Fields, Auvers or The Starry Night, of the interconnectedness of all things.
In the end, we, the viewers, are swept into his psyche and feel an empathy for him and his vision.
Diego Velázquez, Las Hilanderas (The Spinners), oil on canvas, H: 220 cm (86.6 in) x W: 289 cm (113.8 in) The Prado, Madrid
(Not for beginning art students; I was not able to understand or interpret this painting at all until teaching a class in Mythology.) The study of myths in all cultures, like the study of art, may seem obscure but it can illuminate some truths about humanity. Around the world, the beauty of weaving has some association with magic. So we look to Diego Velázquez’s Las Hilanderas (also called The Spinners, The Tapestry Weavers or The Fable of Arachne) which focuses on the weaving contest between Pallas Minerva and Arachne described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The foreground scene is about a competition which includes spinning and carding, preparations that come before the weaving of tapestries. The final outcome of the story is implied, not shown. Velázquez used a complex composition of diagonals to weave a tale, a fable that lovers of Charlotte’s Web should appreciate.
Velázquez often put humor into his mythological scenes, but The Spinners is not a satire. It’s related in theme to Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), considered by a majority of art experts to be the greatest secular painting of all time. The painterly effects of hair and material which dazzle us in Las Meninas go even further in The Spinners, whichhas a similarly complicated meaning. Its format is horizontal rather than vertical, but it also features a foreground and background for two tiers of storytelling connected by an opening of light and stairs. As Las Meninas is a group portrait disguised as everyday life in Velázquez El Escorial Palace studio, Las Hilanderas is a narrative posed as a genre scene in the dress styles or 17th century Spain. It’s dated one year after Las Meninas, 1657.
Detail of Pallas Athena (Minerva) and a “spinning” wheel
According to Ovid, Arachne was a girl born to humble parents in Lydia (an area of Turkey famous for beautiful weavings). She was reknown for her remarkable skill, but did not see her art as a gift from the goddess of weaving. Arachne accepted praise that set her above Pallas Minerva (Pallas Athena–also the goddess of wisdom) in the art of weaving. She said, “Let her compete with me, and if she wins I’ll pay whatever penalty.” So Pallas Athena disguised herself as an old crone, saying “Old age is not to be despised for with it wisdom comes…..seek all the fame you wish as best of mortal weavers, but admit the goddess as your superior in skill.”
Arachne wasn’t humbled and said “Why won’t (the goddess) come to challenge me herself?” Athena then cast off old age and revealed herself. Arachne was not scared and immediately took up the challenge of the competition. In foreground of Velázquez’s canvas, Athena (in a headscarf) and Arachne set up their spinning and carding operations in preparation for the weaving competition. At least three assistants are helping in the task. There are balls and balls of wool and thread and even a cat, but no looms in sight.
Just as Shakespeare liked to insert plays within his plays to elucidate the story, Velázquez was fond of putting subsidiary stories in his paintings. Another episode takes place in the background, although Velázquez skipped parts and hinted of the conclusion under the archway. Here Athena wears her goddess of war helmut. There are the same number of people in front as in back, five. It would be reasonable to believe that the young women in the back are the same assistants who help in the foreground, but have changed their clothing into fancy dresses. Only the lowly-born Arachne, furthest from the viewer, is modestly dressed.
From the girl “Fate” in shadow, we peer into a scene where Athena is about to strike Arachne. Arachne’s belly is the center of the painting, hinting of the spider’s belly she will become.
According to Ovid’s tale, when goddess and girl had completed their tasks, Athena revealed her tapestry with its central subject of Athena winning her competition with Poseidon to be the patron of Athens. She wove an olive vine from her sacred tree into the tapestry’s border. Secondary scenes showed the power of gods and goddesses as they triumphed over humans. The subject of Arachne’s tapestry was stories of trickeries by gods and goddesses, at the expense of mortals. She had shown as her central subject as the rape of Europa by Zeus in the form of a bull. This scene is recognized in the back of this painting as a replica of Titian’s famous painting of that subject in the Spanish royal collection.
“Bitterly resenting her rival’s success, the goddess warrior ripped it, with its convincing evidence of celestial misconduct, all asunder; and with her shuttle of Cytorian boxwood, struck at Arachne’s face repeatedly.” In the painting, Athena holds her shuttle in the foreground, not the background, but Velázquez cleverly placed it in Athena’s left hand where it points to the next image of Athena in armor. Velázquez highlighted the goddess’s anger against a light blue background and emphasized the force of Athena’s striking arm. Arachne’s head is nearly the center of the painting, but the viewer realizes she will exist no longer. “She could not bear this, the ill-omened girl, and bravely fixed a noose around her throat: while she was hanging, Pallas, stirred to mercy, lifted her up and said:
“Though you will hang, you must indeed live on, you wicked child; so that your future will be no less fearful than your present is, may the same punishment remain in place for you and yours forever!” Then, as the goddess turned to go, she sprinkled Arachne with the juice of Hecate’s herb, and at the touch of that grim preparation, she lost her hair, then lost her nose and ears; her head got smaller and her body, too; her slender fingers were now legs that dangled close to her sides; now she was very small, but what remained of her turned into belly, from which she now continually spins a thread, and as a spider, carries on the art of weaving as she used to do.” Note that the belly of Arachne which will be the spider’s core is at the exact center of the painting.
The Spinners, right side, detail of Arachne
With the fable explaining the origin of spiders, it makes sense that the preparatory activity in the foreground is all about the thread (and the spinning of fate), because there is so much winding to that thread. I interpret the young helpers to Arachne and Pallas Athena as the three Fates. The Fates can be described as Moira in singular name, or Moirai. Their specific names are Clotho meaning “Spinner,” Lachesis, who measures the thread, and Atropos who is inflexible and cuts it off. The three Fates are goddesses and daughters of Zeus who are sometimes considered more important than Zeus in their ability to seal destiny. They come in various disguises, and wouldn’t be surprising if these young women seen as helpers are really the ones who ultimately are in charge. In myth and life, there is always the question of how much free will or how much fate determines outcome.
Velázquez uses highlights and shadows strategically for his story telling goals. Arachne stands out because she is highlighted to a much greater degree than Minerva is, yet we see nothing of her face. How ironic that he, Velázquez who proudly showed his face in Las Meninas, his allegory of painting, does not allow Arachne to show hers. Her back is to us, as she labors deftly and diligently. Both Athena and Arachne are barefoot. The goddess, who is older though not an old lady, even shows some leg!
One of the women in the background is looking back to the foreground, a complexity that pulls the composition together. Perhaps she had been the only one of three Fates who supported Arachne and was pulling strings for her. The woman or Fate dressed in blue shows her back to the viewer, but she appears again immediately below in the foreground, though separated by stairs. Here Velázquez has deliberately darkened her face in shadow, in deeper shadow than is necessary for the composition. As in other Velázquez paintings, shadowed figures can signify that a character in the painting is an actor, an actor who is playing a role in an act of deception. Though she aids Arachne in the guise of as a common peasant girl, her concern with thread could actually be in the process of spinning a different fate.
Peter Paul Rubens, Pallas and Arachne, oil, 1634, at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond
Velazquez was familiar with the fable of Arachne from a Peter Paul Rubens painting of Pallas and Arachne which was owned by the Spanish royal family. The Rubens composition is more violent, with Pallas Athena striking Arachne to the ground. A copy of this painting was in the background of Las Meninas, Velázquez’s most famous painting of 1656, a composition which raises the status of art and the artist. Velázquez must have thought of the art of weaving as a noble pursuit, similar to the art of painting. Both require exceptional talent and skill. Weaving and spinning have additional, magical connotations in mythology, such as the woven clothing of goddesses, the weavings of Odysseus’ wife and the thread which let Theseus out of the labyrinth. Velázquez was a great artist, but, like the prodigy Arachne, he was not of noble birth.
Detail of self-portrait in Las Meninas, with the red cross added later
Las Meninas — which contains a portrait of the artist in the act of painting — is about the role of the artist, the origins of creativity and the attainment of status. The Spinners further explores these subjects and elucidates some of the same ideas. Our talents are divine gifts and, as mortals, there are limitations on us. No matter what the artist’s genius is, there are warnings against boasting. In the end, we are left with a reminder of the punishment which comes from carrying pride too far.
The paintings compare artistry and skill, and the status of the artist, to the non-negotiable status of higher beings, i.e., the Spanish Royal family, and an Olympian goddess. There is a crucial difference, however. Arachne, an upstart weaver, was just a girl when she challenged the goddesses of wisdom and weaving and the Fates. Velázquez, on the other hand, was 56 when he painted Las Meninas, and his self-portrait looks outward asserting the importance due to him. Remember how Athena in the guise of an old lady had warned Arachne that with old age comes wisdom.
Velázquez, The Water Seller of Seville, c. 1620 Apsley House, London
Velázquez had also been an extraordinary prodigy, only about 20 when he painted The Water Seller of Seville. There, an elderly man is passing a glass of water to an adolescent boy while a young adult man stands behind. It was nearly 40 years later that he finally gained knighthood status, the Order of Santiago. A red cross, painted on his chest three years after completing Las Meninas, indicates that title he attained shortly before death in 1660. However, from Velázquez’s other paintings, we know he treated royalty and peasant with equal respect and dignity. The old man in The Water Seller of Seville wears a torn cloak indicating his humble means compared to the young boy he serves. So it is not Arachne’s lowly birth, but her youthful pride which denied the wisdom of age that Velázquez sees as her ultimate downfall. The attainment of greatness is possible if one waits, for only with age comes wisdom.
Velázquez’s stylistic change over the years from tight and controlled to very painterly is typical. He painted two allegories of deception, one mythological, when he was around 30 and in Rome, a turning point in his career. (You can some of the changes of his style from early to middle and late in a blog about him.)
Claude Monet, The Road to Giverny in Winter, sold last year, but hadn’t been seen in public since 1930
When Monet’s The Road to Givernyin Winter came up at auction about a year ago, it was the first time this idyllic painting had been on the art market since 1924. The painting leaves me with a magical impression, in the way Monet painted a pink sunset with warm highlights poking through the winter chill. Leave it Monet to see the beautiful warmth in the coldness of winter. So I wanted to explore his other paintings of snow and see how he developed the theme. At one point in the late 1870s, Monet’s colleague Manet tried to paint a scene of snow, but gave up, exclaiming that no one could do it like Monet.
When looking at reproductions online, we get a great variety of versions of the colors in the various photos of the same painting. No reproduction can substitute for seeing the actual painting. Monet did about 140 paintings of snow, but they represent just a fraction of his work. It’s snowing this morning March 18 and, looking out the window, I see only white, gray and brown with touches of forest green in the grass and pines. But I try to imagine how Monet would have seen it and the answer is that would depend on where he was in his long career.
The Road to Giverny in Winter is from Monet’s mid-career, before the extreme abstraction of his late style, but with the abundance of color characteristic of the fully developed Impressionism. There are several contrasting textures and the blurriness in the foreground indicates an icy wind. Some very dark blues and purples represent tree trunks and limbs, serving to anchor the painting’s composition. If Monet had a unifying color in The Road to Giverney in Winter, I’d guess that it had been blue. There are gray blues, powder blues and green blues. His blue is mostly a soft blue, but it is so well modulated with the pink, the green, the purple, rusty red and yellow.
The detail from the center of The Road to Giverny in winter shows Monet’s array of colors
The center is yellow, though. That’s the beginning of Giverny, the village he lived in from 1878 until his death in 1923. It’s where he created the ponds and nurtured the lily pads which gave rise to his most famous paintings. He placed this village in the center of the painting and painted its buildings yellow, appropriate because Giverny was a place of warmth where he found his center, his life. Warm yellow ochre meets its match in the yellows of the sky. There, it takes on radiance, brightness and a hint of green. The touch of green in the sky balances a deep forest green along the road on the right.
Color and composition are wonderful, but the brushstrokes are another reason this painting is so successful. Through his textural strokes, he suggests the flow of light at the end of day, the directions of winds and the barrenness of winter trees. Yet the sky is very smooth and we can sense that our shoes or boots will sink if we walk on the ground.
Claude Monet, The Magpie, 1868-1869
The Magpie, one of the most popular paintings in Paris’ Musée d’Orsay, is also one of his earliest snow paintings. From this work, we trace how much he changed as his Impressionist style developed. He painted The Magpie in 1868-1869, before the first Impressionist exhibition of 1873. The public was not used to white paintings and it was rejected by the Salon of 1869. The way Monet created the magpie as a focal point in the composition reveals his genius, leading our eye to the bird through contrast and through repeated lines of movement in the fence’s shadows. The brushwork is masterful, as he uses the brush to show light, shadow and what remains of snow on narrow branches of trees. The Magpie is a masterpiece of Monet’s early style, more Realist than Impressionist. There’s a sharp differentiation between light and shadow, though the shadows are mainly blue and not gray. Dark footprints in the foreground add a bit of mystery, but more than anything make us think of the rawness of nature’s beauty with only a hint of human intervention. He is still using black which may have added just the right amount of contrast. If we could not see the energy of his brushstrokes, a viewer may think the painting’s quality so good that it could be a photograph. The whites are bright enough, though, that you’d almost want to wear sunglasses to look at the painting. The Magpie appears to work its special magic by depicting what may be the day after a night of snow.
Monet, The Street at Argenteuil, Snow Effect, 1874
In contrast to the view of snow in sunlight, it’s snowing in The Street at Argenteuil, Snow Effect, painted about 5 years later. The snowflakes are big, perhaps Monet was inspired by Japanese artist Hokusai. The whites are still very bright, but the most of the painting is gray or taupe, with touches of deep green and deep purple to make up the dark colors. There is a feel of something magical to be walking in this snow, even if it is cold. There’s touches of blue in the sky and a forest green where grass or pine needles appear.
Monet, Snow at Argenteuil, 1875. Argenteuil was particularly important to the development of Monet’s Impressionist style. The years 1875-79 included some cold, harsh winters.
Snow at Argenteuil, 1875, could be the day after a snow. It was painted in the same village but perhaps a year later. Its also a logical progression of style.Value contrast diminishes, but Monet loves to create a sense of depth and he is truly a master of perspective space, as much as the master of reflecting color. Black is almost entirely eliminated but we only have a few strokes of colors in their dark values. The town, nature and people are alive with movement and they go about their business despite the overall chill in the air. The blue in the painting, and the red bricks that been dulled to a pink, let us know it’s cold outside.
By 1880, Monet’s paintings were gradually becoming more and more abstract. He was less concerned with structure, depth and perspective. The paintings become more and more about color, pattern, vibration. In the Floating Ice near Vertheuil, we see tons of blue: deep blues green-blues, purple-blues and powder blue for the sky. Nearly half the painting is a reflection of the water, something he take to full abstraction with his water lily paintings later. It’s not only about the weather and how light effects the color, but Monet was also very concerned with pattern. The brushstrokes look like dabs of paint, just quick impressions.
Monet, Floating Ice Near Vetheuil, 1880
As time goes on, even his snow scenes begin to take on more colors. Fortunately, 19th century painters were allowed an expanded palette of colors, and, for the first time, they could buy their paints in tubes. In many paintings, snow and ice become less dominated by white and gray, and appear to be dusted with all the hues of the rainbow. Near Lavacourt and Vetheuil, he did many paintings of the break up of ice on the River Seine. In these paintings, snow and ice combine with water in Monet’s color analysis of the reflections as they hit the water.
The Road to Giverny in Winter is chronologically between the ice series on the Seine and the Grainstacks series
Monet’s Grainstacks series of about 25 paintings includes at several snow scenes which offer a good comparison if we see them as Monet intended, next to the other paintings in the series. The Art Institute of Chicago’s painting, Grainstacks, Snow Effects, Sunset, 1891 is an example. This painting, an explosion of color on form is viewed in the gallery with at least six other paintings from the series. Shadows are not painted black or gray, but only as cold colors. (Blue, green and purple are cold colors, yellow, orange and red are warm.) Complementary color contrast creates a sensation, with the warmest colors in the upper righthand corner.
Monet, Grainstacks, Snow Effect, Sunset, 1891
Monet traveled to Norway in 1895 and painted landscapes in the palest of colors. From Sandviken, Village in the Snow, it’s apparent that Monet’s interest in spatial depth, so apparent in earlier paintings, is gone, and overlapping shapes are the only forms to give definition to space. He used the lightest of pastel tints to differentiate color in paintings flowing with the brightness of snow, or in the whiteness of paint. The reds of barns are very red, yet they are submerged in white. It does seem that snow is everywhere and this is truly a winter wonderland. The edges of the canvas look as if they could dissolve in continuity.
Monet, Sandviken, Norway, Village in the Snow, 1895
If snow continually inspired Monet and if he pressed himself to paint it whenever possible, we must see his relationship of snow as being akin to his relationship with painting water. Snow, like water, was a vehicle for him to explore the wonders of refracting light and reflection, to scatter colors as they reflect off of each other while forming unexpected designs and patterns.
About 10 years ago I took a painting class. Using a photo of a snow scene from the Morton Arboretum, my teacher kept encouraging me to see the purple in the landscape. She said that every landscape has an underlying color that unifies it and in this one it’s purple. The snow is purple, the water is purple, the tree trunks are purple, she said, and suggested that I stop interpreting what I knew was there: grays, whites, browns and blacks. She was trying to help me see as the artist sees and to use my eye to see an Impressionist’s vision of the world. There also was a gorgeous sunset in the painting I was doing, but I certainly didn’t paint a glorious rainbow of color effects as Monet did. Check out more of his snow scenes on this website.
Paul Cézanne, The Large Bathers, 1898-1906, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Cézanne worked on The Large Bathers, now owned by the Philadelphia Art Museum, during the last 8 years of his life. He did about 200 paintings of bathers, and another one in the National Gallery of London is also called Large Bathers. Its French name, Les grandes baigneuses, pays homages to the grandest of Cézanne’s compositions of this subject, which may be his final statement of the theme as well. To me it seems truest of an Arcadian dream, as witnessed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s recent exhibition.
The composition was clearly important to Cézanne in the search to find his truth. Through making art, he explored, subjectively, that which is true and everlasting in nature and in human existence. In his early paintings he used heavy brushwork, but as time went on he thinned the paint and applied it tentatively, as if his vision was changing. Planes of various colors overlap, but outlining shapes brought transient visions back to clarity. Cézanne worked with the Impressionists in the 1870s and had painted with them near Paris, but returned to his hometown, Aix-en-Provence in the early 1880s. In Aix, he mixed modernism and classicism, searching to add something solid and permanent to an Impressionist vision of color, while painting some of the same scenes over and over again.
Cézanne, Riverbank, c. 1895 National Gallery of Art, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection
Location is imprecise, but it is the type of river scene which inspired him The Roman name for Aix-en-Provence implied natural baths or springs
Of course truth to Cézanne was tied to nature, where he sought refuge. Cézanne was equally tied to Virgil, whom he regularly quoted in Latin while painting among the rocks, trees, waters and paths that still contained vestiges of ancient Roman pastoral life. Romans founded Aix-en-Provence, called Aquae Sixtiae Silluviorum, in 123 BC, at the site of natural baths or springs, and fought a battle at the site of Mont Saint-Victoire 20 years later. Cézanne grew up with a very classical education of Latin and Greek at the École Bourbon in Aix. We note that this painting and others are modern but seem as classical as paintings by Poussin, who also often included landscapes similar to Mont Saint-Victoire is his compositions.
In Cézanne’s The Large Bathers, the nude women stand, kneel or sit, almost in symmetric formation, creating several triangles within the larger triangle of trees. They are enclosed within the trees just as an altar is enclosed within a church. The curved roof of a Gothic church could provide a sacred space, but here it is nature’s roof, the trees. The women seem to be performing a ritual, as if making a picnic, but we can’t tell what they do. A river and two patches of scorched brown earth run horizontally, suggesting true-to-life distance. Further back, trees and church steeple point upward.
Usually a church is the highest point, the center of a composition, but here it is subordinated to nature. Note, that in the background that the shape of the church and the trees is the same. The larger trees, the foreground trees which frame the women, don’t join at the top, and a central tree in the distance points to an opening, very suggestive of the upward ascent to the divine. The church is within this framework and a part of this ritual space where these women play a role and act out a ritual, but not the means to an end. The trees, i.e.nature, have replaced the church as the shelter and the vessel to carry them to divinity.
One woman’s finger points to the water where there is a swimmer, a detail too deliberate to be ignored and obviously something Cézanne wished to emphasize. The painting may suggest death, as the artist himself knew he was approaching the end. (In Greek and Etruscan paintings, swimmers diving into the water are thought to represent the diving into the afterlife, although I’m not sure if Cézanne was familiar with such paintings.) Beyond the swimmer, two figures have reached the other side. When we get back to main scene, we see that two or three women on the right will be diving soon. The other nymphs are acting, making preparations or staging a dress rehearsal, without clothes, for their ultimate transformation, the passing from earth to afterlife. Note they are calm and at peace, which makes me think Cézanne must have been at peace when he died.
Cézanne worked on this painting for about 8 years and it is the culmination of so many studies of bathers he did. (I was told that his models were actually bathing men, but he made them into women.) He lacks interest in correct anatomy and sensuality, but was deeply interested in meaning which he explored by connecting the relationship of the parts to the whole. Their nude forms take on geometric constructions, and motifs of the circle, triangle and cone are present, even in outline, here. He left open patches on parts of their bodies, as he sometimes did, but it’s also possible the painting is unfinished. This painting represents Cézanne as an artist on a quest to understand humankind in the order of things, whose place in strong, but humbled next to the greatness of nature. Detail photos come from this website: http://www.artble.com/artists/paul_cezanne/paintings/the_large_bathers
We note that in painting and others by Cézanne, there is balance of verticals and horizontals, warm and cool tones, sky and earth — the heavens and the earth. Cezanne is also both classical and modern in style and composition, as he takes from the past to point to the future. Again, that pointing finger reminds us of the journey from the world of the past to the world of the future, just as it reminds us that death is a natural process of life.
Though Cézanne may not have been pleased with much of his art while here on earth, he has received an immortality in the end. Picasso, Matisse and others said he was the single greatest inspiration on the course of 20th century art, perhaps because of his ability to capture the essence over detail. The Grand Bathers is the essence of living life attuned to nature.
Joan Miró, Nocturne, 1935, is a small oil on copper from the Cleveland Museum of Art. A jumping man, crescent moon and spiral suggest the artist ability to leap above problems of life.
“We Catalans believe you must always plant your feet firmly on the ground if you want to be able to jump into the air”
In 1948, Joan Miró used these words to describe the Catalan mentality. Like Salvador Dali and Antoni Gaudí, giants of modern art and architecture, Miro came from Catalonia, the area of Spain on the Mediterranean Sea near the French border. Catalans had a language and cultural identify different from the rest of Spain. Washington’s National Gallery, which hosts a Miro exhibition until August 12, completes the quote on a wall label:
“The that I came down to earth from time to time makes it possible for me to jump higher.”
Joan Miró: Ladders of Escape is the appropriate name for this exhibition which captures the flying spirit of this Surrealist artist. From beginning to end, the exhibit relates him the times and places he lived. His lifespan was long, from 1893 until 1983. As the world changed so much during the the 20th century, politically, artistically and technologically, his art also changed but kept some continuities.
Vegetable Garden and Donkey, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 1918, reveals Miro’s roots
Miró’s family had a farm in the country town called Montruig, “red mount” in Catalan. Theearliest paintings show his roots in an agricultural land which launched him. Some of the animals, particularly the rooster, will recur in his art, after he moved to Paris in 1920.
The National Gallery of Art’s large painting called The Farm, 1921-23, in a style at times called detailism, shows a compulsive need to fill up the painting. Miro considered it autobiographical and Ernest Hemingway, who owned it, thought it represented both the artist and Spain in the midst of change. Meticulous and precise, The Farm has two ladders, 4 rabbits, 2 roosters, other birds and crops, buildings and a tree in the center. There is “earthiness” on the ground, but the animals are perched on top of various launching pads; In this painting, we witness a Miró who is ready take off as an artist.
By the time Miró painted the National Gallery’s The Farm, 1921-23, his art began to change. Shown above is a detail of the painting has farm animals and other symbols such as the ladder which will remain most of his life.
in 1923, he joined the Surrealist group of artists led by André Breton.He adopted a biomorphic Surrealism which is more abstract than realistic. He began to use repetitious motifs, such as a “Catalan Peasant,” ladders, roosters. Surrealism put the subconscious mind on equal par with the conscious mind and Miró’s images appear as symbols. A painting of 1926, Dog Barking at the Moon, gives insight into Miró’s thinking. If the barking dog is chasing the moon, his dreams, the ladder suggests a way to get there.
Joan Miro, Dog Barking at the Moon, 1926, is from the Philadelphia Museum of Art is an early example of his Surrealism.
During this time in Paris, Miró was working with free association. He even said, “Rather than setting out to paint something, I begin painting………and the paint begins to assert itself.” In style and in working methods, we can also associate him with Antoni Gaudí, who was constantly revising and changing his drawings for the Sagrada Familia as he worked. The ladders of Miró are like the towers of Gaudí, leaping points into an imagined world. The ability to escape proved to be a good tool to use in hard times. The state of affairs surrounding Miró got worse. The economy in Europe became very difficult and Miro returned home to Catalonia, to the city of Barcelona. Peace in Spain was shorl-lived; the Depression hit in 1932 and in 1934, the Catalan Republic was suppressed. In 1936, The Spanish Civil War began and lasted until 1939. Still Life with an Old Shoe, a painting from this time, has a fork going through and apple. Miró described the painting as having a “realism that is far from photographic.”
Still Life with Old Shoe, 1936 is in MoMA’s Collection. Miró managed to find color in the depressing conditions of the Spanish Civil War.
Morningstar, 1941, is the in the Fundació Miró of Barcelona, one of two European museums which has hosted the exhibition.
By 1933, Miró grew apart from the Surrealists, as he did not support Communism, and they did not respect him working with popular art and designing tapestries. During the Spanish Civil War, he did a series of dark paintings and, like Picasso, did a piece for the Spanish Republican Pavilion in the 1937 Paris exhibition (The Reaper was political, but is not in this show.) When Franco triumphed in Spain’s Civil War (with the help of Hitler and Mussolini), Miró did not support his regime. He went back to Paris briefly, but the Nazis would soon invade Paris and he left again. During his self-imposed exile to Normandy and the Spanish island of Majorca, he did a “Constellation” series of gouaches, combining black lines with solid colored shapes. Stars, towers, and human forms dance in patterns of optimism expressing his hope in dreary times. Miró’s vivid color and organic forms solidify his artistic identity. Each painting has a star as he visualizes a dream for something better, but the work is still grounded, and never “flighty.”
Message to My Friend, 1964, is in the Tate Modern Museum.
The late paintings of Miró get even simpler and more symbolic, for example, Message to My Friend, 1964. Since the 1920s, he had been a friend of American artist Alexander Calder who had developed the mobile as an art form. Washington’s Phillips Collection in held an exhibition to highlight the artistic connection between these artists about 7 years ago. As the curator explained, they shared an incredible ability to compose line in space. (Calder’s playful circus figures remind me of the Constellation series.)
I am thankful the curators of this exhibition presented a consistent view of an artist who is able to fly and dream in the face of a pessimistic world. The exhibition does not include some of his most famous paintings, such as Harlequin’s Carnival, which would not fit into the theme. Of all the “automatic” and playful artists of the Dada and Surrealist eras, Paul Klee is my favorite because he remains truest to an automatic, childlike, form of communicating in his art. However, Miró also draws upon an honest, open and ingenuous vision. Perhaps some of his ability to look for greater heights was shown to him by an older and endlessly imaginative countryman, Antoni Gaudi.Joan Miro: Ladders of Escape will be at the Gallery until August 12th. It has already traveled through Europe, starting at the Tate in London and the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona.
Martha and Mary Magdalene, c. 1598, shows the saint at the moment of her conversion. It is from the Detroit Institute of Arts, but is currently on view in Caravaggio and His Followers, at the Kimbell Museum of Art
In Caravaggio’s remarkable version of the Mary Magdalen story, he painted the moment of her transition from sinner to saint. As much as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code popularized the idea that the Church demonized Mary Magdalen, more commonly she was idealized in art as a saint who turned her life around. The painter Michelangelo Merisi, who is nicknamed Caravaggio, was demonized in his lifetime for his shockingly realistic paintings and his own “sinful” life. (He was charged with murder and often on the run.) The inclusion of Martha with Mary Magdalen and other objects requires the viewer to interpret the symbolism. Martha is seated with her back to the viewer, with only one shoulder and her hands hit by Caravaggio’s dramatic lighting. On the table are a comb, powder puff and mirror, symbols of vanity. Mary points to her chest holding a flower, while her other hand points emphatically to a diamond square of radiant light on the edge of the convex mirror. The naturalistic light, seemingly projected from a window, is also a divine light, the ray of God which has inspired the worldly Mary Magdalen to “see the light.” In the moment that Caravaggio highlighted and caught in paint, as if on camera, we witness spiritual transition. From this point on she will give up her luxury and prostitution to follow Jesus. By using models who resemble contemporary people in Rome, rather than Biblical characters, the viewers were supposed to identify with the personal nature of the conversion process.
Light is concentrated in a few important places: Martha’s hands, Mary’s face and chest, the hand and patch of light on the mirror. Sister Martha’s hands are lit because she is pleading for Mary to change (and perhaps counting her sins and/or the reasons she should convert). Mary answers by pointing precisely to that light on the mirror.
Perhaps because Mary Magdalen was seen as an instrument of change, and as the most loyal companion of Jesus in his death, she was greatly idolized in the Middle Ages. The church of Sainte-Madeleine, Vezelay, in Burgundy, was a site of her relics and one of the most important of all pilgrimage churches. However, in the late 13th century, a 3rd century Christian tomb discovered in the crypt of a church in Provence was connected to Mary Magdalen. The site of her devotion then moved to this church and another site in the delta of the Rhone, where legend claimed she had relocated after Jesus’ death. After seeing Caravaggio’s painting of Mary Magdalen, I thought differently of Georges de la Tour’s The Penitent Magdalen at the National Gallery. Like Caravaggio, he used a contemporary young woman as his model. Yet this contemplative scene omits symbols of vanity and the light-dark contrast comes from candlelight hidden behind a skull. As Mary looks in the mirror, the skull is reflected rather than her face, as de la Tour has artfully manipulated perspective. Life as a sinner leads to a spiritual death. Death is inevitable, but if she chooses to follow Jesus she will die of the self and be reborn in new life.
Here Mary Magdalen may either be pondering her fate before conversion, or thinking of her wish to be reunited with Jesus in eternity later in life. Oddly, she caresses the skull as if wanting to die, perhaps because death for a person at peace with God is ultimate goal and preferable to life on earth. The shape of the skull mimics, in reverse, the shape of her sleeve, arm and hand, showing her intimate connection to thoughts of death. In his view, we are also encouraged to ponder our actions and/or sins and consider our life in eternity. Personal faith is in important factor of both the Reformation and Counter-Reformation at this time, although only the Catholic artists would portray saints. De la Tour leaves the meaning ambiguous, unlike Caravaggio who shows a transitional moment. Georges de la Tour, The Repentant Magdalene, c. 1635, at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, shows her in a contemplative mode, perhapsthinking of death.
In the 6th century, Pope Gregory gave a sermon suggesting Mary Magdalen had been a prostitute before following Jesus. (Of her past, the Bible refers to the seven demons Jesus cast out of her, a vague description.) Although the church usually portrayed her to show that salvation is possible to all who ask for forgiveness, the model for Caravaggio’s Mary Magdalen was Fillide Melandroni, one of Rome’s most notorious courtesans. Neither she nor Caravaggio–who revolutionized art in his time–seem to have undergone a spiritual revolution. Caravaggio was frequently in fights and in 1606 he appears to have gotten into a fight with another man over Fillide, this remarkable woman.
(Note: Caravaggio’s more famous paintings of religious calling/conversion are The Calling of St. Matthew and The Conversion of St. Paul, both in Rome and done around 1601. This artist’s life is always a fascination to the public. There is a new biography about him by Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, which may try to explain the contradictions of his life. A biography I read a long time ago is Desmond Seward, Caravaggio: A Passionate Life.)