“Not a Painting But a Vision”

Last weekend the annual Sydney J. Freedberg Lecture on Italian Art at the National Gallery of Art was “Not a Painting But a Vision.”   Andreas Henning, curator from Dresden, Germany, spoke about The Sistine Madonna, a magnificent altarpiece Raphael painted in 1512 which is now in the Dresden State Art Museum.   I have written about it in a previous blog, comparing the Mary of this painting to the  Raphael’s lovely image of inner and outer beauty in La Donna Velata.

However, as the title suggested, it is painting of a vision and that Mary is not of this world.  She has facial features of that generic beauty similar to those of the Donna Velata, but she is more ethereal and otherworldly.  As much as we may want to reach out and hug the baby Jesus, we can’t. The Madonna also carries a tinge of sadness in this image, a practice artists used to reveal Mary recognition that her Son will die someday. 

However, two saints, Saint Sixtus and Saint Barbara have brighter colors and lead the transition to the audience on earth.  The curator explained that they represent a reconciliation of opposites, as we often find in Raphael’s paintings.  They are male and female, old and young, the active life and the contemplative life.  But the truth is that they, too, are in heaven.

When the Sistine Madonna was completed and set as an altarpiece in a monastery church in Piacenza, we must imagine curtains framing the Mary, her veil blowing in a wind, as separating one world from  another.  The drama is in the relationship of the audience to the vision in the work of art.  Only the saturated green curtains and a balustrade on bottom are meant to be part of the material world. In fact, in this visionary painting, Raphael has gone behind the Renaissance perspective which aims for imitation of reality.  He anticipated the triumphant late Renaissance artist Correggio and the visionary art of Baroque, such as Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.

I’ve never seen this painting, but was thrilled to view the new slides since the painting’s cleaning. In the background, the clouds reveal the faces of many more cherubs.  There are 42 faces in the clouds.  (These faces are mainly visible in first image on the upper left side.) What glorious illusion!

The curator also pointed out that these sweet and precious angels, who look upward in observation and wonder, were an afterthought which Raphael  felt the composition needed them for completion.  What impeccable images of innocence, charm and love!

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

Miró: Ladders of Escape

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.  The earliest 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.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

Caravaggio and the Moment of Mary Magdalen


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. Lif
e 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, perhaps thinking 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.)

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

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

Pioneer of Video Art: Nam June Paik

Electronic Superhighway, 1995,a gift from the artist to the Smithsonian American Art
Museum, Washington. This 49-channel installation is neon, steel and other electrical parts.

In the Tower: Nam June Paik is at the National Gallery of Art until October 2nd. This Korean-American artist introduced the realm of tv/video art with sculptures made of televisions in 1966. The exhibit encompasses themes and ideas important to art of the last 50 years.

His last video sculpture made in 2005, Ommah (mother in Korean) uses a 100-year-old boy’s robe, hanging like a cross, with a projection of Korean-American girls at play, linking past and present. It is in the National Gallery’s permanent collection

To fully appreciate his work one must see the exhibition in the museum’s East Wing. His art is about tv/video, a relatively new medium in visual art. A room of Paik’s drawings accompany the exhibition and help the viewer understand his thought process. One of the most interesting takes us back to the 60s culture; it’s a drawing of the Pan Am domestic routes represented by bunny-eared TV icons connected by red lines. He seems to have projected that many networks of our lives have been influenced by TV, and perhaps have changed us.

Paik, who died in 2006, is credited with bringing this medium into the realm of contemporary art. Compared to other video artists (there are many today!), Paik is certainly a multimedia artist who thought more in terms of how television and its relatives can be incorporated into art, rather than end and aim of the art itself.

One Candle, Candle Projection, 1988-2000 candle, candle monitoring device, closed circuit camera, projectors, distribution amplifier, and 5″ color monitor, dimensions variable Nam June Paik Estate

© Nam June Paik Studios, Inc. 2010

He used knowledge of technology and contemporary art to reflect on traditional cultural identities. He was vastly concerned with bringing together aspects of the past with the present. One Candle, One Projection, 1988-2000, is the centerpiece of the exhibition, and one can only grasp its power by experiencing it in the large, dark exhibition room. The dim lighting of the viewing space is ideal for the meditative concepts here. A single candle is lit everyday and a multiplicity of projections move, flicker and interact as the viewer is invited to watch. Time, or the passage of time, is of the essence.

In seeing the Paik exhibition, I appreciated this modern artist’s ability to think about the contemporary aims of the society within which he was working and then make a statement. Personally, he disliked the passivity of television but could not ignore its influence on culture. In an ironic play on this notion, his Standing Buddha with an Outstretched hand is a meditation on the act of watching, using a traditional bronze sculpture as a backdrop to the modern technology. Time passes, but the statue stays the same, and Paik effectively made a statement on the meaning of television in life while connecting it to traditional meditation. Paik was trained a a classical musician and was friends with John Cage.

Three Eggs, 1975-1982
video installation with closed circuit camera, Sony KV-4000 Color Television Receiver, emptied Sony KV-4000 Color Television Receiver, and 2 hen eggs

Nam June Paik Estate
© Nam June Paik Studios, Inc. 2010

Like 20th century artists of the Dada, Surrealist and Conceptual movements, his Three Eggs reflects on the question of what is real and what is image. Three Eggs is 1) a video camera projecting on an egg; 2) a tv screen showing the projected image of this egg, and 3) a tv monitor with the screen removed– replaced by an egg. There is irony and humor, but the passage of time is important to these 3 images, as well, having been made over 7 years. It reminds the student of Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs or Rene Magritte’s Treason of Images, 1929, works found in most art history textbooks.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

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.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016