Paintings of Deception

Valentin de Boulogne, Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice, c. 1618/20


A magnificent exhibition of Caravaggio and His Followers at the Kimbell Museum in Fort Wort
h features the Washington National Gallery of Art’s Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice by Valentin de Boulogne. The painting tells a story of deception. Caravaggio had also painted Card Sharks with fewer figures. Boulogne, a Frenchman working in Rome, may have known of his composition.

Boulogne’s painting is a tight, close-up composition with masterfully chosen areas of ligh
t. Two simultaneous episodes are taking place: dice throwing on the right and cheating card players on the left. The card sharks are the first to demand our attention, as they look startlingly real. Behind the central figure, who is in the process of cheating, another drama is happening. A man on the right looks down and covers his dice, perhaps hiding something while his adversary with the red hat seems about to erupt in anger. Although not a traditionally religious painting, Boulogne suggests two of the deadly sins, deception and anger. He warns of the hazards of gambling, exactly what these two vignettes represent.

The dice player with downcast eyes can be variously interpreted.

The sinister scene is set in a dark room. The well-dressed young man in front left is being duped by two soldiers, while two men cross behind them playing dice. The compact composition and the forceful use of diagonals heighten the tension, connecting the men who otherwise would be seen as individual character types. Colors are primarily earthy for these ruffians. But other colors fight for attention: white, scattered touches of blue clothes and the brilliant red hat in center (symbol of anger?), which is replicated in less vibrant red stockings on bottom facing the other direction.

A dark, sinister man in the upper left corner startles with his realistic presence. The details of faces come from a blog, Head for Art, May 24, 2010.

Eye movements and gestures pull us around the painting. At first glance, I am attracted to the white face and dark staring eye of the man in center (see below). His gaze goes past his competitor, to the man in shadow behind. Though the face of this man on the far left is darker than the others, his expression is so real as his fingers signal the number two (above). The shadowy compositions suggest that more than cheating is going on, something very dark, sinister and deceptive. Boulogne warns against taking chances in life. Intense light- dark contrast is a legacy of Caravaggio.

Viewers note the intensity of this soldier’s stare and his slow, careful choice of cards pulls the viewer into the story.
 

Caravaggio, The Fortune Teller, of 1594, comes from the Capitoline Museum of Rome. The aristocratic young man falls in love as he is being duped.

Another allegory of deception Caravaggio painted is The Fortune Teller, 1594, a startlingly realistic depiction in the Kimbell’s exhibition. An alluring young gypsy and fashionable aristocrat look at each other with an intense hold. Her face suggests she is attracted to him, or at least feigning an attraction. His puffed sleeve, puffed cheek, elbow, sway of hips and sword express confidence, but caution is thrown to the wind. As the girl reads his palm, she slyly slips off his golden ring. The viewer, captivated by the couple’s loving gaze and beautiful clothing, is also tricked. We only see this detail by close inspection. The colors are primarily earth tones, black and white.

The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs, by Georges de la Tour, 1630-34. The cheat, who slyly looks at us and shows his deck, is a “shady” figure, both literally and figuratively.  The shadiness of the story is in contrast to the highly polished figures and their clothes.


Georges de la Tour’s scene of card players, in the Kimbell’s own collection, rounds out these tales of deception. Some elements of The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs are familiar– its close-up view and dark background. But the colors are brilliant oranges, pinks and reds. The youngest boy will get duped, and everyone else knows they are taking advantage of him. Cheating begins with the large woman who glances sideways at the woman bringing wine, who in turn casts one eye towards the “shady” cardplayer. In shadow on the left, he holds out the cards for us to see and looks at us outside the painting, bringing the viewers into the drama. The boy on right is innocent, but flirting with a world beyond his experience. The background is completely black behind the evil threesome, while the young boy is still halfway “in the light” of the painting, midway between good and bad. He can choose to stay on the right side, both literally and figuratively.
 

Certain Baroque painters could visually portray situations comparable to the dramatizations of Shakespeare from the 1590s and early 1600s. Carefully calculated figure placements and compositional angles let the human drama unfold before our eyes. They moralize and forewarn viewers of evil. Caravaggio’s Fortune Teller and de la Tour’s Cheat with the Ace of Clubs also are also comedies, because the well-dressed young men, possibly aristocrats, do not realize their susceptibility to trickery.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

Degas’s Dancers at the Barre

Two Dancers at the Barre, early 1880s−c. 1900, Oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 38 1/2 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1944. This painting is the centerpiece of the current exhibition.

Point….Flex…..Relevé—–these themes of ballet dancing were the obsession of Edgar Degas, an artist associated with Impressionism but known for his paintings and pastels of dancers. Washington’s Phillips Collection recently put their large painting, Dancers at the Barre, under their conservator’s care. In the process, they discovered wonderful color and took a deeper look into the process of this artist. The exhibition Degas’ Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint transports the viewer into Degas’ mind and back into the opulent Garnier Opera House which opened in Paris in 1875.

Most of the paintings, drawings and studies in the exhibition feature women, mainly ballerinas. After viewing the show, I once again get the feeling that Degas is the foremost among artists in his understanding of the strength of the female body, just as Michelangelo leads all artists in the understanding of the male bodies. However, unlike Michelangelo, Degas did not demonstrate knowledge of musculature or make his figures sensual. At times he appears to negate the underlying anatomy and distort in order to show the body’s expressive possibilities.

Ballet Rehearsal, c. 1885–91. Oil on canvas, 18 7/8 x 34 5/8 in. Yale University Art Gallery. Gift of Duncan Phillips, B.A., 1908 The composition is asymmetric, typical of Edgar Degas.

Degas’s compositions are about contrast: left and right, point and counterpoint, up and down, orange and blue-green, line and shape, solid forms but with diaphanous clothes, stability and movement. He portrays movement with color and with spontaneous, oblique compositions, allying him with the Impressionists. He exhibited with them from 1873-1886. Arguably, Degas was the greatest of all draftsman during the 2nd half of the 19th century, a time of tremendous artistic creativity.

Degas’s studies of dancers reveal his desire to understand and express the outward effects of stretch and stress, not inner musculature. At this time, ballet was not the idealized performance art we imagine. Instead young girls worked long hours under difficult conditions, with much strain on their youthful physiques. Under Degas’ interpretation, we witness the precision and tour de force of their labors. He drew and painted the rehearsals more frequently than actual performances. In Degas’s early paintings, the viewers admire the dancers’ poise and balance, as they move into difficult positions. In later works, such as the signature piece of the exhibition, we see much contortion and distortion, somewhat like a Cirque du Soleil performance. Through Degas’s drawings, paintings and pastels, we do not necessarily appreciate the body’s outward beauty, but we understand its possibilities, flexibility and the strength of human effort. The bodies’ movements are gestural and evoke strong feelings.
Dancer Adjusting her Shoe,1885, Pastel on paper, 19 x 24 in. Collection of The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tennessee; Bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Hugo N. Dixon, 1975.6. Drawings repeat poses in his paintings and often show changes of the artist’s mind.
Degas is unique amongst the Impressionists in the strength of his line. Outlines at times contrast with the soft tutus of transparent colors. But his colors are sometimes brilliant, particularly oranges and blue-green. There are also vivid bows of pink, yellow, orange and red. He is superb at using color contrast to create light and shadow. Degas painted mainly indoors, but he used natural light from windows to sparkle on his dancers.

He normally works with off-center compositions, an effective foil to the dancers in their shoes. His asymmetry is like the fragile balance of the ballerinas on the tip of their toes: it can be a precarious balance. The art of the ballerina is to remain strong and poised in difficult positions, and Degas balanced his asymmetric compositions artfully, which was equally a challenge.

In a nearby gallery are the works of other artists, such as Manet‘s Spanish Ballet. S
culpture helped Degas refine his vision and the exhibition includes 3 bronze-cast sculptures. Like any great artist, he worked on the same themes over and over, same pose with slight differences. Several late works are pastels, a ideal medium for his methods. The Phillips’ exhibition also runs a filmed performance of Swan Lake.Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Two Dancers Resting, c. 1890–95, Charcoal on paper, 22 3/4 x 16 3/8 in. Private Collection.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

The Many Voices of Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch’s The Scream is so powerful that the other works of this great Norwegian artist are overlooked. Other art by Munch articulated his feelings about the sad passages of life–sickness, death and breakups. Currently at The National Gallery of Art in Washington is an exhibition of Munch’s graphic art which represents many of the other themes he dealt with intensely, including illness, love, loss, and loneliness. The museum has pulled together prints from its own collection with images from two private collections to present a fuller view of the real artist. In fact, the sounds of silence in Munch’s work are as frequent and powerful as the voices of pain.

 


Munch also can be subtle. He explores the possibilities of images morphing into something else. In Waves of Love, we see a floating woman but don’t notice the man right away. Yet, when we discover him, the work becomes even more powerful.

Munch, Vampire II, 1895, lithograph with watercolor, from the National Gallery of Art

 

Whether there is silence or pain depends on who you are and when you see these works. Vampire II, above, can be seen as a comforting relationship, but the playwright August Strindberg renamed it with a more provocative title and Munch let it stand. Munch’s original title was Love and Pain, suggesting that falling in love ultimately causes pain, or, more optimistically, that love will console you from the other pains of life.The Vampire series of prints, three prints entitled Sin, and a group of images from the Ashes and Madonna series may suggest unkind, fearful views of women or anxiety in regards to relationships. However, Munch was deeply hurt by the loss of his mother at age five and his older sister when he was 14, both of whom he adored. They died of tuberculosis and he feared the same for himself. Interpreting his images as misogyny is too simplistic.
The Ashes series of prints, above, explores the turmoil after a breakup.

A group of prints entitled The Kiss
can be seen as more harmonious symbols of love. One of these prints, an early intaglio example of The Kiss, is sensual in a idealized, classical form. You can see how it became a precursor to Munch’s symbiotic, unified idea of love in the woodcut versions, such as the one on the left, The Kiss IV of 1902. Here, Munch used different colors of ink and exploited the grain of wood to replicate the curves of the couple. Notice that the side view of “his” face is the front of “her” face. This print was certainly an inspiration for Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss–with its colors and mosaic patterns– much more popular and famous than Munch’s versions. Klimt borrowed Munch’s vertical emphasis and upward sweep of motion ending in the curving form of “oneness,” the back of a man’s head and the front of a woman’s face. In Munch’s version the man and woman’s face become one, a prelude to the unity of form that Constantin Brancusi used for his abstract rectangular block sculpture of The Kiss in 1910, where the eye of two becomes the eye of one.

 


Klimt’s The Kiss shows the influence
of Munch, above left

The beauty of seeing these graphic images is to see how he reworked themes over many years, changing the content as he made minor changes to the works. His prints are done in multiple colors and states, and vary in graphic techniques, from woodcut to etching, lithograph, aquatint and more. The Impressionists influenced his color and Van Gogh inspired his line, but he tried to reduce expressions even further than Van Gogh, making each of his images powerful symbols of human experiences.

Two Women on the Shore focuses on one central standing woman, with the seated person behind her — perhaps alluding to an elderly figure in her life, a ghost from her past, an alter ego, or a projection of whom she will become. Munch probably wished to evoke different viewpoints and we are likely to experience her differently depending on our individual conception. The colors changed a great deal from print to print, and this series of prints evokes variety of meanings. I am particularly fond of the way Munch repeatedly used a large bright symbol resembling the letter i — the sunlight or moonlight reflecting on water.

Two Women on the Shore, 1920s, color woodcut National Gallery of Art


Often the power in Munch’s imagery comes from the push-pull effect of space: figures in front, space rushing behind, or figures in both places so we can’t help but be aware of the drama of their distance. Ashes explores the debris left over at the end of a relationship. Repeatedly, Munch used the figure in a landscape as a vehicle to summarize feeling. His women can be brash, his men often hurting.

It’s likely that two of the great images of the early 20th century, Matisse’s Blue Nude and Picasso’s Les desmoiselles d’Avignon fell under the influence of Munch’s slightly earlier, unforgettable figures, the women in Ashes and Madonna. Some find Munch’s art too pessimistic; others say his art was less inspired after a breakdown at age 45 after which he gave up drinking.  

Madonna

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2022

The Veiled Woman – Who is She?


Over a Thanksgiving trip to Portland, Oregon, I came upon a pleasant surprise, Raphael’s Donna Velata, was visiting the Portland Art Museum for a one-painting loan exhibition. One of my top 10 favorite paintings, I had last seen the veiled lady at the Art Institute of Chicago 10 years ago, when two Renaissance portraits had been sent from Florence in exchange for five Monets.

Who is this Donna Velata, this remarkable woman, who is succeeding in the quest to bring crowds into smaller regional museums? How can she capture so much attention? She is not as well known as the Mona Lisa, but most of my students past and present have stated a preference for the kinder, gentler vision of womanhood presented by Raphael over the all-knowing, godly woman of Leonardo.

The white lady wins over the shadows of Mona Lisa. Donna Velata’s dress is luxurious, full, silky and lined with gold. The sleeves are voluminous. An elegant necklace doesn’t detract from the welcoming gaze from that lovely face where the eyes alone can hold our attention. Invisible lines between the eyes’ inner corners lead directly downward to where her fingers point between the breasts, perhaps a suggestive motif, however subtle. We are quickly pulled back up to those captivating eyes.

Certainly Raphael put a great deal of love into this portrait and she appears to be the image for Raphael’s Madonnas of the same time. Giorgio Vasari, seeing the painting 1550, wrote that the subject was Raphael’s lover. Some scholars claim similarities in appearance to the slightly later portrait of La Fornarina, a bare-breasted, more provocative image with a harder finish and less appealing mouth and chin. Either woman could be Margherita Luti, whom the artist appears to have loved but never married, as he provided for her in his will when he died prematurely at age 37.

When the Art Institute exhibited the painting, its literature argued that the portrait may have been someone’s wife, because the veil was a convention of married women in Rome when it was painted, probably between 1513 and 1516.

Regardless of its meaning, the veil brings harmony to the composition and unifies the color, a balance of mainly whites, neutrals and small touches of warmth. The beige of the veil blends with the white of flesh, a tiny but luminous pearl and the sparkling dress. Unity and perfection are goals of both the Donna Velata and the Mona Lisa. Raphael explained his perceptions in a letter: “I do make with a certain Idea that comes into my mind” Raphael’s Idea is an idea of beauty something more beautiful than can be found in one woman, and must be searched for in many and then portrayed through the mind’s eye. Certainly Raphael’s Idea evolved over time in his career, as hair changed from medium tones to dark brown, eyes grew larger and face became rounder, lips fuller.

No reproduction can capture her beauty, as shadows in photographs tend to harden her real softness. Her eyes–deep, brown and open–engage the viewer, inviting us into her warmth and love. She is kind, generous, forgiving, indeed an ideal of womanhood and all humanity. Furthermore, as we are directed to her face, unadorned with makeup and framed by simple, pulled-back hair, we note a lack of pretense and utter earthiness. The clothes and necklace are unnecessary for the real drawing power of this natural beauty. If we think she is too perfect and that humans cannot achieve this state of being, I noted one imperfection–a dangling hair out of place, seldom seen in photos. She is mother to all, a person we can aspire to be. You must see her in real life to become fully immersed in her warmth and love. It is not who she is that is so important, but the aspiration for what humanity can become that she represents.

Portland, Milwaukee and Reno, Nevada will have the opportunity to see her. Whether or not she can compete with the attention given to casinos in Nevada remains to be seen. It is ironic that her simplicity and grace will be so close to the glare, glitter and aesthetic overkill of Las Vegas, not to mention greed and debauchery–the latter which call to mind one theory that fine art can bring moral improvement. Is this a case where art’s purpose is to morally uplift us where and when it is needed most?

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016