179 – Surviving treasures

Jacques Daret, The Adoration of the Kings, c. 1434-35. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

It’s December 1st – let the Advent Calendars be opened! I wrote one in 2020, and if you want something to read every day, and weren’t with me two years ago, I wrote about a single detail from Gossaert’s glorious Adoration of the Kings for all the days leading up to Christmas. If you do fancy it, click on An Advent Calendar – 1, and once you’ve read it, bookmark the page. Then tomorrow, you can go back, click on Next Post: An Advent Calendar – 2 which you’ll find to the bottom right of the first post, and so on… And if you haven’t read last week’s blog (178 – No crib for a bed), you might want to do that now, as today I will make certain assumptions. I enjoyed looking at one of the panels from Jacques Daret’s Arras Altarpiece, and thought it might be a good idea to look at the others. There are two more today, and a fourth in two weeks’ time. This occurred to me because Monday’s talk (5 December at 6pm), From Shepherds to Kings, will cover the Adoration, one of the four panels to survive. In many respects the next talk will be far more straightforward than last week’s, but it will be interesting to see how the Church celebrates the time between the arrival of the Shepherds (arguably Christmas day itself) and the arrival of the Kings. Although celebrated on the 6th of January (or the evening of the 5th), the precise date of the latter – well, let’s just say that it’s open to debate. One more thing before we get going: a newsflash! I’m adding in a mid-week talk to cover the Sofonisba Anguissola exhibition which is currently on in Nivå, just outside Copenhagen. I’m getting very excited about going to Copenhagen for the first time, and about seeing the work of this remarkable 16th Century woman: I’m bound to want to report back. As everything else is already scheduled, Sofonisba in Denmark will take place on Wednesday 14 December, at the usual 6pm. There are bound to be Christmas parties on, I know, but if you are free it would be lovely to know that you’re there! Meanwhile, back to the Kings.

Mary is seated as if enthroned at one end of the stable – the open, triangular ‘gable’ frames her and acts as a marker of her high status. It’s not entirely clear what she’s sitting on, to be honest, but it appears to be covered with a rich, royal red. At the apex of the ‘gable’ are beams of light emanating from the star, ‘right over the place,’ to quote the carol, ‘where Jesus lay’, although he is now standing, supported by his mother, and holding one hand up to the eldest king. OK, so in theory he is only 12 days old at this point, but he was the Son of God, so anything is possible, including standing up. Mary wears her most usual colour, blue, although as we saw on Monday (and maybe I’ll do a talk about this one day), the precise colours she wears can vary. Here it is a blue cloak over a blue dress. The eldest king is wearing red – often the most expensive fabric, and one associated either with royal courts or with wealthy merchants. That he is a king is vouchsafed by the broad cuffs of his sleeves and the hem of his robe, made of ermine, a pure white creature with a black tip to its tail, the fur of which was often reserved for royalty. His crown – an elaborate red hat – has been taken off and lies on the floor at his feet, a sign of respect for the boy born to be king. Behind him stand his two companions, a middle-aged man with long dark hair and a dark beard, and a young man, with no beard at all. Joseph stands to the left, and also wears red, not because he is part of a royal court (although that could be argued, as step-father to the second member of the Holy Trinity), but as a sign of his status (for the same reason). As in the Nativity, which we saw last week, notice how he is, nevertheless, slightly excluded from the proceedings. The king kneels in front of Mary and Jesus, who (if we adjust for the point of view) are in the centre of the opening to the stable, whereas Joseph is ‘outside’, cut off from the action by the same rough-hewn tree trunk which excluded him before. And this is something I love about these paintings: it is the same stable, but seen from a different angle. I really hope these two pictures end up next to each other, but it depends on the type of device you are using, I think.

In the Nativity we are alongside the stable, whereas the point of view for the Adoration is a diagonal, from what was the front right. The rough-hewn, slender trunk at the corner is the same, with a y-shaped cleft at the top, supporting the horizontal beam which runs along the bottom of the sloping roof. The diagonal beam which forms part of the ‘A’-frame at the end projects beyond this cleft in both images, and the same bevelled branches are attached top and bottom of the slender trunk to make it more secure. The back wall of the stable has an open window divided into three by two vertical beams – it can be seen next to the midwife Zelomi in the Nativity and above the head of the eldest king in the Adoration. If we were watching this in the theatre, a high budget production would place the stable on a revolve, but with less money a couple of stage hands would have to run on and trundle it round the requisite 45˚. And yet, even if the stable is the same, there is a major difference. One of the actors appears to have been replaced by his understudy.

Compare these two images of Joseph. All that really remains the same is the shape of the face, and arguably the purse – green, with diagonal decorations, slung on a dark leather belt.  The coat has been removed, yes, but everything else looks different. The robe has changed from purple (in the Nativity) to red, and the hat, which he has now put back on, has a more blue-ish tinge. It is worthwhile remembering that these paintings are now in two different museums, have different histories, and have probably been given different conservation treatments. Not only that, but different cameras were used to take the photographs, under different lighting conditions. So a few variations in tone and hue would be understandable, but not a shift from purple to red. And what would definitely not happen is a change in age. In the Nativity Joseph had white hair and a white beard, in the Adoration all this has miraculously gone brown – he has regained his lost youth! Now, given some of the stories which surround the birth of Jesus, this would not surprise me, but I have never come across a story which includes Joseph’s rejuvenation. What seems more likely is that this is a studio production – everything of any scale was – and that different members of the workshop painted the two Josephs. The general shapes and overall details of props and costume remain the same, but colours are different.

The gesture which Joseph uses, with his right hand cupped to the side of his head, is not familiar to me, but the same gesture is employed by the middle-aged king. Admittedly the latter is on the verge of removing his crown, but nevertheless it is similar, and I imagine it could be an expression of awe. Unless, that is, Joseph has decided he shouldn’t have put his hat back on after all. He is wearing a common form of medieval headgear called a chaperon, made up of three elements – the patte, which could be a relatively simple cap, although it could become more elaborate, surrounded by a bourrelet, which is a round, effectively donut-like form, and a liripipe (or cornette), which we see as a long tail which hangs down as far as Joseph’s knees. Chaperons are commonly seen in portraiture: several of Jan van Eyck’s sitters wear them, for example. Meanwhile, as we saw before, the eldest king has placed his crown on the floor. With his left hand he passes the gift of gold to Joseph, who is, likewise, reaching out to take it with his left. I have seen him given this practical responsibility – of looking after the gifts – more than once. With his right hand the king holds the child’s tiny arm, preparing to kiss Jesus’s hand as a further acknowledgement of his respect.

If you look back to the full picture, you will see that the youngest king has removed his hat, and holds it by his side. The middle king wears a turban, topped by crown-like elements. The turban was commonly used as an ‘exotic’ feature, to mark the king as ‘other’, and to explain that he was not European. However, there is no black king here: it was really at about the time this image was painted that the the black king starts to appear. Within a few decades he would become a constant presence. The gospels do not say where, exactly, the kings came from. But then, the gospels do not mention kings at all. According to Matthew 2:1,  ‘there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem’. It doesn’t even mention how many. So why three, and why kings? Well, they brought three gifts, and the number three is significant because of the Holy Trinity. That’ll do for a start. But then, they were also seen as representing the three known continents (Europe, Africa and Asia), although not all three are ‘east’ of Jerusalem. They are also frequently interpreted as representing the three ages of man: old, middle-aged (or ‘mature’) and young. As for their identification as kings – well, you’ll have to wait until Monday for that to be explained.

In the same way that the Nativity shows us the next bit of the story – the Annunciation to the Shepherds – so does this Adoration. Way away in the distance at the top right we can see soldiers on horseback emerging from behind a hill, and, on the far right, they have gathered in front of a wooden building, where you might be able to discern frenetic activity. The scale is tiny, and the image unclear, but these are Herod’s men. The kings were warned not to tell Herod of Jesus’s whereabouts, and the jealous monarch has realised that they have not reported back. He sent his men out to kill all the infant males – an episode known as the Massacre of the Innocents – and that is what is taking place in and around the wooden building.

The Nativity and Adoration, together with this Visitation (the story was covered in Monday’s talk), were all painted for the outside of the wings of an altarpiece dedicated to the Virgin in the Abbey of St Vaast in Arras, now known either as the Arras Altarpiece or the St Vaast Altarpiece, for obvious reasons. It was commissioned by the man who had been abbot there since 1428, Jean de Clercq, Daret’s great patron. It is him kneeling between St Elizabeth and his own coat of arms in this Visitation. He kept remarkably good account books, which record Daret’s activities over a period of about 20 years – but sadly the results of almost all of this have been lost. When open the wings revealed a sculpture of The Coronation of the Virgin above a series of sculptures of the twelve apostles. Although he did not carve them, Daret was paid to paint this ensemble, and to build and decorate the structure which framed and supported all the figures. On the inside, the wings were painted blue and decorated with gold fleur-de-lys. When closed, they were surmounted by an Annunciation group (presumably with Gabriel above the left wing, and Mary above the right), but that is now lost. The four surviving panels – the Visitation, Nativity, Adoration of the Kings which we are looking at today, and the Presentation in the Temple which I will come back to – made up the remainder of the wings. We know this thanks to a description from 1651, but sadly, some time later, and probably in the 18th Century, the whole structure was dismantled, and everything, apart from the four painted panels, was lost. This is a great pity – but it is a reminder that the vast majority of paintings from the 15th Century and before have been lost. We are so lucky to have the elements which survive – and I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ve seen them all yet: there is still so much more to look forward to! Some of these treasures will inevitably be included on Monday


178 – No crib for a bed

Jacques Daret, The Nativity, c. 1434-45. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

If you have ever enjoyed the obligation of seeing your child, or a friend’s child, or relative’s child – or anybody’s child for that matter – in a school Nativity play (now curiously abbreviated to ‘their Nativity’ as if you were about to watch their birth), you may have wondered at the twists and turns of the narrative that call for quite so many random characters, creatures, and I suspect even inanimate objects to pay homage beside the manger. ‘Jesus wants me for a snowflake’ must be the song on every with-it teacher’s lips. But trust me, whatever you have seen is nothing compared to what the medieval mind was able to imagine. Dragons? Animated trees? Toys coming to life? Jesus being grounded? Trust me, it’s all out there, and we’ll see all of these in Week 3 of my series The Childhood of Christ which starts this Monday, 28 November – the first Monday in Advent – with Until the Nativity. Of course, there will also be the usual wholesome ox and ass, even if they don’t get a mention in the gospels. Today’s painting includes more than one such apocryphal story, although I’m only going to tell you one of them for now…

I wanted to look at this painting because it is one of the few known works attributable to Jacques Daret. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of him: although a surviving account book from the 15th century lists many of his paintings, only four survive, all panels from an altarpiece originally made for the Abbey of St Vaast in Arras, Flanders (now France). Daret was born in Tournai, Flanders (now Belgium), and studied with Robert Campin, who had settled there in the first decade of the 15th Century. Daret was a member of Campin’s studio for 15 years, and coincided with another student who is named in the archives as Rogelet de la Pasture. If you were to translate that in to what is presumably old Flemish, that would be Rogier van der Weyden, a more familiar name, I imagine, and another great artist who was a native of Tournai. And why am I interested in Jacques Daret? Well, I was in Tournai last week, and I’ll be going again next… Sadly they don’t have any of his works there: two are in Berlin, one is in Paris and today’s is in Madrid.

As foretold, it shows the Nativity, or, to be more precise, The Nativity of Christ. He is lying on the floor, waving his arms and legs and looking up at his mother, who can be identified easily thanks to the traditional blue cloak, which spreads around her as she kneels on the ground, and from her immaculate complexion, and flowing blonde hair (I know, this is supposed to take place in the Middle East, but fair-skinned and blonde she is – more about that another time, probably Monday, although I must have discussed it elsewhere already). To the left are the ox and ass in their stall, and beams of light come down from God the Father up in Heaven. If these are the only things in the painting you can identify, don’t worry – we’ll get there. There are two more women, who I really doubt have ever made it into any school Nativity play, and a wealthy-looking man. They are all gathered in and around a rickety-looking stable, apparently made of re-purposed wood and rough-hewn branches which prop up a decaying roof, attached at the back to a crumbling wall. At the top of the painting is a smattering of angels, but we’ll come back to them. I want to focus on Jesus.

He has been left on the ground, without as much as a bottle of hay to keep him warm and comfortable. As if the idea of placing him in a manger – a food trough – was not enough to show God’s humility in taking on human form, here he is completely exposed and vulnerable. This exposure is only enhanced by the way in which he is surrounded by expensive-looking fabrics, with the hem of Mary’s cloak meandering to the left, the purple skirts folded over the knees of the woman at the back, and on the right, a rich array of different, costly materials. In case we’d missed who this is, golden beams of light – the glow of sanctity – emanate from him in every direction, not unlike the beams of light that reach down to us from his Father in Heaven. The woman on the right has a red brocade dress woven with gold thread, and a fur-lined overskirt of green brocade. She also has two belts – a wide purple one around the overskirt, both ends of which hang behind her, the longer of the two falling to the bottom of the painting. It terminates in a simple knot, and has gold studs, or embroidery, as a ‘simple’ decoration. The red dress is gathered at the waist by what looks like a black and gold plaited belt, and there is sheathed knife tucked under her left knee. Golden, pearl encrusted cuffs circle the ends of the short sleeves of her red dress. From these emerge fuller blue sleeves. Her hands hang limply, their light colour and the angle of the fingers directing our attention towards the similarly pale baby. He looks up at his mother, as I have said, but what is his expression? Slight surprise, and concern, perhaps? There is a little questioning as well. ‘What, exactly, is going on?’ he could be asking. As for the waving arms and legs – well, they’re not, really, are they? They are placed very specifically. One foot over the other, and two hands raised, with both palms clearly visible. This looks like a non-verbal means of communication, an explanation of his purpose here on earth. In approximately thirty-three years’ time nails will be driven through those hands and feet in almost exactly that configuration. We are always being reminded of where the story is going. Flat on the bare ground, he could equally uncomfortably be lying on an altar as a sacrificial victim.

The focus is so intently on Jesus. Mary and the two women look at him almost demurely, whereas the Ox and the Ass stare with determined focus – as if to show that they can. They recognise their maker, which is why, as we shall see on Monday, they are there in the first place – even if they aren’t mentioned in the gospels. The only ‘creature’ whose gaze is not certain is the man, who may well be looking timidly towards Mary. He is, as you have probably realised, Joseph, but unlike most Josephs you will have seen. He is imagined not as a poor carpenter, but a successful merchant: he would be more than capable of making, or having made, and selling you for a good price, a far more sturdy stable. He wears a purple robe under a lined, brown cloak, together with a fashionable black hat. This he has removed, as a sign that he is in a holy place, and a specifically Christian one at that (were he Jewish, which of course he was, he would have been required to put one on). He also has a finely decorated purse attached to his belt, green, with embroidered ribbons appliqued in diagonals – a sure sign of wealth – and he holds a candle, which seems to have little effect – but more of that on Monday, too.

As far as the stable is concerned, this is not the product of a skilled workman: we are making do with what is available. The notches and peg holes in the vertical on the left suggest that it has been used for something before, while the support on the right is little more than the trunk of a tree felled young (are we looking forward to the Crucifixion again, and Jesus’s untimely demise?). It is cracked, with some branches sawn off (one of which, about a third of the way up, was sawn off some time before the tree was felled, allowing more growth to accumulate around the stump), and some bark still clinging on, a marvel of naturalistic detail. There are also two smaller, rough-hewn branches which have been trimmed, bevelled, and attached to keep it upright. Notice how the three women, as well as the ox and the ass, are all framed neatly between the two uprights, whereas Joseph is standing just to the right – effectively ‘outside’ this humble shelter.

And the two unknown women? Well, they are the midwives, clearly. You can’t have a birth without midwives, even if they weren’t mentioned in the bible. However, the fact that they weren’t there is a result of the way in which the bible was edited. Some of the gospels didn’t make the final cut (and when we hear some of the stories they tell in Week 3 of The Childhood of Christ you will realise why). The midwives are mentioned in at least one of them, the so-called ‘Gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew’ (that’s a link to the whole thing, if you want to read it all). In chapter 13 Joseph goes to look for a midwife, but the miraculous birth occurs while he is gone. He returns with not one but two, who he introduces to Mary. The first, Zelomi, goes in to the stable (which I think we must imagine as being more enclosed than this one), examines Mary, and realises that, even after the birth, let alone after conception, she is still a Virgin, causing her to cry out in amazement. This brings the second midwife, Salome, into the room:

And hearing these words, Salome said: Allow me to handle thee, and prove whether Zelomi have spoken the truth. And the blessed Mary allowed her to handle her. And when she had withdrawn her hand from handling her, it dried up, and through excess of pain she began to weep bitterly, and to be in great distress, crying out, and saying: O Lord God, Thou knowest that I have always feared Thee, and that without recompense I have cared for all the poor; I have taken nothing from the widow and the orphan, and the needy have I not sent empty away. And, behold, I am made wretched because of mine unbelief, since without a cause I wished to try Thy virgin.

And while she was thus speaking, there stood by her a young man in shining garments, saying: Go to the child, and adore Him, and touch Him with thy hand, and He will heal thee, because He is the Saviour of the world, and of all that hope in Him. And she went to the child with haste, and adored Him, and touched the fringe of the cloths in which He was wrapped, and instantly her hand was cured. And going forth, she began to cry aloud, and to tell the wonderful things which she had seen, and which she had suffered, and how she had been cured; so that many through her statements believed.

This is where we are in the story. Zelomi is at the back with hands which are both expressive and beautifully articulated. Salome’s withered limbs droop down towards Jesus, about to touch him and be healed.

I am now beginning to wonder whether Jesus is really looking at his Mother, or rather, perhaps, to the longest beam of light which crosses Zelomi’s green sleeve, and red overskirt, reaching as far as its incredibly plush fur lining. This, the longest ray, is pointing directly towards Jesus – and maybe it is this that the new-born is fixing – the radiance of God the Father. Our course will end in Week 4 with Jesus’s first biblical miracle, turning water into wine. But already, in the apocryphal texts, minutes after his birth, the miracles are happening – and Jesus could well be looking up to Heaven in the knowledge that they won’t stop any time soon. No peace for the perfect.

Meanwhile, at the top of the painting, we continue to look ahead. In the distance, on the far right, an angel is announcing the great tidings of glad joy to the shepherds (we’ll talk about them in Week 2), while more angels – and birds – gather on the roof. This angel is happy to point to the baby Jesus, while holding his voluminous and magnificently flowing robes. Just to the left is a goldfinch, a frequently-seen symbol of the Passion of Christ. It was believed that goldfinches ate thorns, and that one went to eat from the Crown of Thorns. A drop of blood fell from the Saviour’s forehead, and left a permanent red stain, which you can see to this day around the Goldfinch’s beak. At the top are two swallows – barn swallows, presumably (or stable swallows, I suppose). Migration was not fully understood until we travelled far enough and fast enough and could track where the birds went in the winter. But it was clear to the medieval mind that they went away and came back again. Jesus did the same, but far more quickly – and so the swallow became a symbol of his death and resurrection.

At the other end of the roof there are three more angels in even fuller and more swirling robes. They are on the verge of singing. I say ‘on the verge’ as they appear to be holding their song sheet (such scrolls are often are inscribed with the words ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’, although I can’t see anything here) – and yet their mouths are shut. There are also two things I don’t remember seeing before in paintings of the Nativity. I’m sure I have, I just don’t remember. First – icicles, hanging from the beams and the thatch. In the deep mid-winter frosty winds made moan, even in the Middle East. Second, at the top left, a great tit: yellow breast with a black stripe running down the centre, and a black head with white cheeks. It’s unmistakeable. And it’s there because – well, because it wanted to join in, maybe. I see them a lot in my garden, and I bet Jacques Daret did too. I can’t for the life of me imagine what it’s symbolism could be, simply because it doesn’t occur often enough to be commented on. For us now, though, it’s a symbol, as much as anything, of the observational skills of the artist, and the growing interest in naturalistic detail; of looking at the world around us and painting things which we know are there. And if we know that the great tit is real – then the angels must be too. Its presence helps us to believe. The tit is looking in to the centre of the picture, as is the goldfinch and at least one of the swallows. Even if they are not looking down, their gaze focusses us inwards, towards their maker. Not only that, but the beak of the goldfinch is directly above the forehead of the baby on to which – in thirty-three years’ time – a crown of thorns will be driven. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.


177 – Taking Germany by storm

Gabriele Münter, Portrait of Anna Roslund, 1917. New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester.

I love exhibitions which truly have something new to offer, and Making Modernism at the Royal Academy is, for me at least, one of those – so I’m looking forward to talking about it this Monday, 21 November at 6pm. My only problem will be the usual one – too much to say! I found that on Wednesday morning when I took 40 minutes of an hour’s tour in the first room – with two more rooms to go. But don’t worry, I really will edit down and show you the best! The exhibition focusses on four superb women artists who were not only innovative, but also highly successful. And yet they are relatively unknown today. Käthe Kollwitz is probably the most familiar of the artists, and I was also aware of (but not familiar with) Paula Modersohn-Becker’s work. I knew Gabriele Münter’s name, but I don’t think I’d ever seen any of her paintings. Marianne Werefkin, on the other hand, is completely new to me – and a great discovery. There are also three ‘guest’ artists – but more of them on Monday. The following week I will move on to The Childhood of Christ, which I will discuss over the four Mondays in Advent – but can more details about those talks can be found via the links in the diary. Art History Abroad have now announced their tour schedule for the first half of 2023, including a trip I am taking to Amsterdam to see the Vermeer exhibitions in Amsterdam and Delft. But for today I want to look at the ‘Poster Woman’ of Making Modernism, Anna Roslund, as painted by Gabriele Münter. I would say ‘Poster Girl’, but recently had my wrist slapped for my careless use of language…

Munter, Gabriele; Anna Roslund (1891-1941); Leicester Museums and Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/anna-roslund-18911941-80902

I’m afraid I can tell you relatively little about Anna Roslund herself, but we get a strong sense of her character just by looking at this portrait. Apart from anything else, how many women have you ever seen smoking a pipe? I know there are some famous examples in history, but I can’t for the life of me remember who they are. ‘Women smoking’ is something one didn’t used to see (a long, long time ago), and ‘women smoking a pipe’ make up an even smaller sub-group.  This bold gesture is combined with an open pose, left arm resting on the arm of the chair, with her head resting on her left hand. The right arm is tucked in, holding the pipe to the mouth. Add to that the strong, bold colours of the outfit, royal blue and black, heightened by the bright red of the pom-pom (?) in front of her chest, and you have a strong sense of individuality, the image of self-confidence.

Anna Roslund has the clearest, light-blue, piercing eyes, and a stylish haircut, apparently bobbed with a fringe (although we can’t see what it’s like behind), which makes me think more of the 1920s than 1917. She is clearly a serious, thoughtful woman, her head tilted to one side and her eyes gazing into the middle distance some way above our left shoulders. Like Rodin’s Thinker, with his chin on his fist, or Dalí’s Narcissus, who we saw last week, his chin on his knee, the head leaning on the hand adds to the sense of contemplation, albeit in a different way. Each finger is clearly demarcated (although the little finger is oddly truncated – I don’t know whether that was an anatomical fact, or an artistic abbreviation), and there is a clear space through to the light background. Presumably, given the curtain, this is a view through a window, with broad, light brushstrokes of white and pink over a darker ground, giving an idea of a light, but cloudy sky. The curtain itself, in a deep turquoise, is angled parallel to the tilt of the head, and completes the ‘virtual’ pyramid which gives this composition – and Anna Roslund – stability, and strength of presence. Another note of stability is the horizontal of the arm, marked strongly by the contrast between the upper edge of the blue sleeve and the light background (and see how the thumb and fingers echo shapes of the arm and head).

Roslund is clearly comfortable in this chair, and I love the way in which the curve of her right shoulder, clad in blue and enhanced by a subtle black outline, echoes the curve of the left arm of the chair – it is as if she is a completion of the chair on that side. The chair itself, with the yellow arm given texture and form by the darker brushstrokes, is painted in a similar technique and colour to Van Gogh’s more famous example, a symbolic self portrait (having said that, having posted the pictures, the chair looks more violet than it did in the file on my laptop!). Indeed, as we shall see on Monday, Münter was an admirer of the Dutchman’s work, even naming her house in the country ‘The Yellow House’, as a nod to his home in Arles.

The arms of the chair curve round and in before flaring out again, as if hugging the sitter. The right arm (seen on our left) is more brightly illuminated, and, as a result, appears to be a different colour (but with colour, everything is relative – see above). The left arm (on our right) reminds me of the roads you see in some Dutch landscape paintings, which start in the bottom corner of the painting, and lead you into the middle ground, as if the artist is expecting you to go on a journey with him (I don’t think there was a woman who painted landscapes in the Dutch Golden Age). I think the same is true here: Münter is using these arms, particular the one on our right, to lead our eye into the painting – and also, as the corners of the pyramidal composition.

I’m not an expert of women’s dress (nor of men’s, for that matter), but the blue top appears to continue as an open overskirt, framing the sleeker black skirt. Either that, or she is sitting on a blue cushion of the same hue as her blouse. Whatever it is, this blue, and the uncovered section of the seat of the chair, both form triangles pointing up towards Roslund’s face. Her left leg is crossed over her right – again, a confidence in her body language which we might not think of as ‘lady-like’ for the first half of the 20th Century.  The black outlines to the blue blouse might relate to the clothing itself, or they may be the result of Münter’s interest in Bavarian folk art, particular reverse glass painting (painted on one side of the glass, to be seen from the other), which often had rich, jewel-like colours separated by black outlines, a cloisonné effect not unlike stained glass windows.

Munter, Gabriele; Anna Roslund (1891-1941); Leicester Museums and Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/anna-roslund-18911941-80902

So who was this remarkable, stylish, self-confident, thoughtful woman? Well, a musician and author at the forefront of the Danish Avant Garde, but that is as far as I can get, I’m afraid. Münter met her while living in Copenhagen during the First World War. However, I can tell you that Anna Roslund had a sister called Nell, who was an artist, and who married a man called Herwath Walden in 1912. And it is this that makes the portrait a key image for Making Modernism, one theme of which is the nature of artistic communities and the resulting dissemination of ideas. From 1910 Walden published a weekly journal dedicated to modern art (monthly from 1914-1924). It was called Der Sturm – ‘The Storm’ – the title expressing Walden’s conviction that that was how modern art was going to take Germany. His focus was on Cubism and Futurism (he effectively introduced these movements to the German public) and also on the burgeoning German Expressionist movement. In 1912, the year in which he and Nell Roslund married, they opened an art gallery in Berlin under the same name. Both Gabriele Münter and Marianne Werefkin were exhibited regularly, as was Dutch artist Jacoba van Heemskerck, one of the ‘guests’ in the RA’s treasure trove of an exhibition. Münter’s introduction to today’s sitter came via her gallerist, effectively. It might even have been this connection that took her to Copenhagen.

One question remains: if these artists were so successful when they were alive, why is their work so little known today? One reason, for the British at least – apart from the fact that the men they were associated with took all the limelight – is that there is very little of their work in public collections (Kollwitz excepted – but hers are works on paper which are rarely on display). This portrait is one of the few which has been borrowed from a British institution. It forms part of Leicester’s notable collection of German Expressionism, one of the rich seams of great art which, when you find them, are a surprising, but rewarding, feature of our regional museums. As to how they came to acquire this remarkable body of work – well, that’s another story. For now, though, I can highly recommend Making Modernism at the Royal Academy as a way of discovering – or, if you know them already, familiarizing yourselves with – some great and unjustly neglected artists.


176 – All change!

Salvador Dalí, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937. Tate.

Salvador Dalí was a Surrealist, obviously, and, some would say, the Arch-Surrealist. In 1934 he even claimed a form of ‘über-Surrealism’ when he explained that ‘The difference between the Surrealists and me is that I am a Surrealist’ – a typically Surreal statement. As such, like all members of ‘Modernist’ movements, we would probably expect Dalí to turn his back on the art of the past and everything it stood for. However, on Monday I will be talking about one of his paintings of the Crucifixion, putting it (briefly) into the context of the rest of his career, and comparing it to a work by El Greco. Both are on show together at the Spanish Gallery in Bishop Auckland in a display entitled Dalí/El Greco: Christ on the Cross – a micro-exhibition which is well worth a visit if you’re in the area before Sunday 4 December. Having discussed both works I will also introduce the Gallery itself (briefly) for those who haven’t been. I’m saying ‘briefly’ to myself as a reminder not to get carried away when I’m prepare the PowerPoint. Dalí, El Greco and the Spanish Gallery will be on Monday 14 November at 6pm, and if you can make it you’ll see whether or not I succeed! Other talks up until Christmas are, of course, in the diary, and there will be more news about my plans for the New Year soon. As I’m talking about Dalí and Christianity on Monday, today I thought I’d have a look at him confronting another pillar of Old Master Painting: classical mythology. So here is the Metamorphosis of Narcissus.

‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’, 1937, Salvador Dali (1904-1989). Purchased 1979 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T02343

The story is probably well-known to you – or, if not the story itself, the general idea: Narcissus was in love with himself. Only that’s not exactly what happened. Let’s start by looking at the painting, though. There are two main forms set in a landscape. To the left of centre is a person crouching or sitting in the water at the edge of a lake. The right knee is strongly bent, and appears to lie across the surface of the water, where it is reflected in the mirror-like surface. This would only be possible if the figure was completely immobile, and had been still for some time: any movement and ripples would disrupt the reflection. The left knee is raised, and the chin of what must be the head (even if there are no facial features) rests on the knee. A chin resting on a hand implies thought – just think of Rodin – but here we can see that a knee can perform the same function: this figure is deep in contemplation. The shoulders are hunched, and frame the head, both being caught in the brilliant sunshine which streams down from the top left of the painting. The right arm is barely visible, bent back behind the form, with the hand probably resting, unseen, on the shore of the lake. The left hand is dipped into the water, though. We can see the articulation of the wrist, and the flare of the hand, but the fingers are out of sight. The arm frames the figure, and is bent at the elbow, with the joint itself in deep shadow. Like the right leg, the left leg and arm are both reflected in the lake. The hair, which seems to blend with the flesh of the forehead, is pulled back in a topknot, which blows in the breeze above the left shoulder. The head itself is furrowed and rough: to me it looks a bit like a walnut.

The ‘figure’ on the right is remarkably similar in form, but looks more like a sculpture, or statue, carved out of white marble. Standing on the shore of the lake, and a little closer than the human figure, it represents a hand holding an egg, delicately poised between the tips of thumb, index and middle fingers – it is a right hand. The ring and little fingers are both bent. A flower is growing from the egg.

If we take this detail out of context, the brilliance of Dalí’s conception becomes clear, if it wasn’t already. No longer are we distracted by the placement of the figures. It is irrelevant that the hand is closer to us than the human figure, as the head and the egg are at the same height, and appear to be the same size, on the picture surface at least (perspective would suggest that, as it is further away, the head is actually larger). However, now that we are looking closer we can see that the index finger does not touch the egg, but is at a small remove, the gap being equivalent to the area of shadow cast on the left shoulder by the head. In between the finger and the egg is a root – perhaps a development of the hair which has otherwise disappeared. Dalí is showing us metamorphosis –  a change of form. However, in order to do so he is also using a staple technique of medieval and renaissance art: continuous narrative. This allows an artist to tell a story by showing the same character more than once in different time frames. Here we see Narcissus both before and after his transformation, or rather, perhaps, shortly after the metamorphosis has commenced, and when it is all but complete. But why does this happen in the first place? And how? The origins of the story are, of course, Greek, but it is told at its fullest in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a treasure trove of source material for classical myth which was used by artists across the centuries. Using these stories Ovid set out to show how everything changes: the world we live in is in a state of flux, and everything we know now was once something else. As such, it is a sort of origin myth, with explanations of the creation of many plants and animals, among other things, and story of Narcissus is just one of these – or maybe two, as his fate was tied in to that of Echo.

Long story short: Narcissus was so beautiful that everyone fell in love with him: men, women and minor deities alike. Beautiful on the outside, he was less than perfect within, and he treated all his suitors with bitter disdain. Eventually one of them begged the gods to let him know the same pangs of unrequited love that they endured, and the plea was answered by Nemesis, the goddess of retribution. This is how the story progresses, in a prose version I’ve just found on the internet (click on this link for the whole of Book 3, and if you start with line 339 you’ll get the story of Echo as well):

There was an unclouded fountain, with silver-bright water, which neither shepherds nor goats grazing the hills, nor other flocks, touched, that no animal or bird disturbed not even a branch falling from a tree. Grass was around it, fed by the moisture nearby, and a grove of trees that prevented the sun from warming the place. Here, the boy, tired by the heat and his enthusiasm for the chase, lies down, drawn to it by its look and by the fountain. While he desires to quench his thirst, a different thirst is created. While he drinks he is seized by the vision of his reflected form. He loves a bodiless dream. He thinks that a body, which is only a shadow. He is astonished by himself, and hangs there motionless, with a fixed expression, like a statue carved from Parian marble.

So he himself waits, motionless, like a marble statue – hence the stillness of Dalí’s figure, and the appearance of its equivalent, the hand. Important for the story, though, is that Narcissus did not know what – or who – he was looking at. As far as he was concerned it was a beautiful boy in the water, who actually reached out to touch and even kiss him – but who shied away at the moment of contact. Only later did he realise that it was his own reflection, and that his love was doomed, like that of those he rejected, never to be requited. In Ovid’s telling of the story, Narcissus weeps, and the tears disrupt the reflection, but still he continues to watch the effects of unrequited love on his own behaviour, and body:

‘As he sees all this reflected in the dissolving waves, he can bear it no longer, but as yellow wax melts in a light flame, as morning frost thaws in the sun, so he is weakened and melted by love, and worn away little by little by the hidden fire. He no longer retains his colour, the white mingled with red, no longer has life and strength…’

Eventually his sisters, the Naiads, lamenting his death, prepare a funeral pyre, but there was no body. They came upon a flower, instead of his body, with white petals surrounding a yellow heart.’ So Narcissus is transformed into a flower: a narcissus, a type of daffodil. It’s Latin name is Narcissus poeticus – which is, of course, entirely apt – and this is what Dalí shows, with poetic (and surreal) ambiguity, emerging from an egg.

The lower half of the painting shows how ingeniously Dalí mapped one form onto another. The bent right leg becomes the ring finger, and its reflection is the little finger. The thumb is continued down to the wrist by its own reflection – and there is subtlety here: the surface of the water is mapped onto the hand with a crack in the marble. This gives the impression that the metamorphosis is ongoing, and that the stone will eventually break up and wear away. This feeling of decadence – literally a state of deterioration or decay – is enhanced by the ants which are swarming up from the ground and along the thumb. Ants are frequently included in Dalí’s art as symbols of death and decay, apparently the result of him seeing them on the bodies of decomposing animals when he was young. The scrawny dog has a lump of raw meat in its mouth. A scavenger, it might even be imagined as eating the flesh of the dead boy.

If we’re talking symbols, Dalí uses the egg as a sign of hope – of new life, or rebirth – hence its place as the origin of the flower. Like the rest of the hand further down the thumbnail is cracked – another sign that the transformation is continuing, and that eventually only the flower will survive. On either side of the hand are more elements of continuous narrative. The myriad figures to the left of the hand, stretching and writhing, are usually interpreted as Narcissus’s suitors, suffering the pangs of rejection, while to the right a figure stands on a plinth looking down: Narcissus admiring his own perfection. He’s been placed on a pedestal, either by the suitors, who have put him there metaphorically, or by himself: he has set himself apart, whether metaphorically or not. Placed on a grid like a chess board there is perhaps a sense of strategy at play here. And directly above this statuesque figure – a hint at what is to come – there is an echo of the finger tips holding the egg in a distant mountain. Maybe there are more people like Narcissus out there, suffering a similar fate.

Dalí did not always elucidate every detail of his work – probably just as well, given how much detail each painting contains – and as often as not he is providing poetic suggestions which give full rein to our own interpretative powers – and to our imagination. However, it is interesting to consider what his interest in this particular story was, and how it relates to his practice at the time. It is one of the fullest realisations of a technique he called the paranoiac-critical method. One of the main symptoms of paranoia is the ability to find links between things which, in reality, have no rational connection. Although not paranoid himself, Dalí had what was an extraordinarily active imagination, and, after letting himself go on more than usual flights of fantasy, he would re-form his ‘paranoid’ imaginings into a concrete image – the ‘critical’ side of the paranoiac-critical method. One of his suggestions about this particular painting was that you should stare at it in an unfocussed way until the two primary forms combine. A bit like ‘magic eye’ images – which rely on the left and right eyes focussing on two different elements of the image to allow the brain to resolve a single, three-dimensional design – he was basically suggesting that we let our focus go so that our left eye sees the left form and our right looks at that on the right. At that point the two forms would merge into one, and Narcissus’s transformation would be complete: the human figure  would ‘disappear’ within the hand.

‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’, 1937, Salvador Dali (1904-1989). Purchased 1979 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T02343

In 1938 the Catalan artist was taken to see one of his heroes, the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud: both were in London. Dalí had read The Interpretation of Dreams years before, and Freud’s interest in the subconscious was one of the driving forces of his art – as it was for all Surrealists. On the visit he took this painting, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, with him, like a proud schoolboy eager to impress the teacher. Sources relating to Dalí tend to stress the positive outcome of this meeting, quoting Freud’s letter to Stefan Zweig, the Austrian author who had introduced the artist to the thinker, in which the psychoanalyst said:

I really have reason to thank you for the introduction which brought me yesterday’s visitors. For until then I was inclined to look upon the surrealists – who have apparently chosen me as their patron saint – as absolute (let us say 95 percent, like alcohol), cranks. That young Spaniard, however, with his candid and fanatical eyes, and his undeniable technical mastery, has made me reconsider my opinion.  

Elsewhere, though, he said, ‘In classic paintings, I look for the unconscious – in a surrealist painting, for the conscious.’ Some suggest this was said directly to Dalí, thus completely undermining one of the cornerstones of the entire Surrealist movement. I shall leave you to look into Freud’s own theories about the story of Narcissus and its relationship to homosexuality for yourselves – the theory has long been discredited, even if this may well be the reason why Dalí chose this myth in the first place. For now, I am happy to enjoy the painting’s appearance. In any case, I would prefer to move on to Dalí’s interest in Christianity, which is precisely what I shall do on Monday.


Second Impressions

Mary Cassatt, The Tea, about 1880, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Things have been building up with all the exhibitions opening over the past few weeks, and I’ve run out of time – so, time for a re-post! But what to choose? Would would be relevant to the National Gallery’s third exhibition to open this autumn, Discover Manet and Eva Gonzalès, which will be the subject of my next talk on Monday, 31 October at 6pm GMT (remember that the clocks change in the UK on Sunday)? It is, I would suggest, the best of the three. Definitely the smallest, it is also the most focussed, beautifully coherent, with a number of fantastic paintings which you have probably never seen, by artists of whom you might not have heard, but which are truly wonderful. It is also far-reaching for an exhibition based on one painting – the portrait by Edouard Manet of his only formal student, Eva Gonzalès. As well as this painting, the exhibition also explores the nature of their complex relationship, looks at how the portrait relates to paintings of other women artists, including a superb selection of self portraits, as well as exploring the possibilities for women in the arts in the late 19th Century. All this is supported by a brilliantly written catalogue, which I would certainly recommend. This was sponsored by ARTscapades, a superb organisation who raise money for the arts, and if you’re not free on Monday, I will be repeating the talk for them on Tuesday… After that, of course, my talks until the end of the year are all listed in the diary.

So, what to choose? I could have gone for one of my favourites from the selection of self-portraits in the exhibition, the complex ‘manifesto’ by Laura Knight, which I discussed back in January, or an alternative self portrait by other women exhibited, including Vigée Le Brun or Angelica Kauffman. Or I could have gone for paintings related to Manet’s portrait which are cited in the catalogue but not exhibited, such as the self portrait by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard or the allegory of painting by Artemisia Gentileschi (which I no longer believe is a self portrait). Indeed, thinking about this has given me an idea for the new year (spoiler alert!) when I will deliver a series of five (I think) talks, introducing women artists over the centuries. More of that in December…

In the end I’ve chosen one of my earliest posts, Picture of the Day 15, which was originally ‘published’ in the second week of lockdown, on 2 April 2020, on my Facebook page, before I’d even started this blog. It is a painting by Mary Cassatt, one of the great Impressionists – and even if Eva Gonzalès chose, like her master, not to exhibit with the young rebels, her work can certainly be associated with this diffuse ‘movement’. Enough introduction. This is what I said over two years ago, and reading it through again today, I think I would probably agree with myself (although there are only two cups).

A change of mood: let’s calm things down a little, and have a nice cup of tea, brought to us by Mary Cassatt, and the good people of Boston. There are some paintings which just make me want to stop, and look, and say, ‘Isn’t that lovely!’ And this is one of them. It’s so carefully composed, and harmoniously coloured.  The two women, the tea service, and the vase in front of the mirror – or is it a painting? – are evenly spaced across the surface. The rich red of the tablecloth, with its thin, decorative border matches the floral patterning of the upholstered sofa shared by the two women, as well as the stripes of the wallpaper. The blue, presumably Japanese vase, with its gilt fittings, together with the frame of the painting (or is it a mirror?) echoes the colours of right-hand woman’s outfit, while also, together with the carved marble fireplace, describing the richly appointed lifestyle that was Cassatt’s milieu. The antique silver tea service is another indicator of this. There is such a focus on these still life details, with the carefully but freely painted teapot, sugar bowl and cup, the reflections on their surfaces and their reflections in the tray, that we might assume that this tea service is the real the subject of the painting. It is more prominent than the women, a third character in this domestic drama. 

Mary Cassatt came from a wealthy Pittsburgh family, and left the States just after the Civil War, like so many other Americans – she could almost have been in a Henry James novel.  She wasn’t the only woman to exhibit with the Impressionists, but she was the only American. She joined them in 1877 at the invitation of Edgar Degas, so often maligned for his misogyny. I suspect he got grumpier as he got older (I know the feeling), and so a lot of the misogyny was general misanthropy.

You can see what he liked about her work from this image. The composition of The Tea is not so very far from some of his own: two people in a room, drinking, a tray on the table, the table taking up most of the foreground space, the same tones and colours as the walls – a description that would fit both The Tea by Cassatt and Absinthe by Degas, painted three or four years earlier. The connection is purely coincidental, I suspect – or rather, it is part of what makes them both Impressionists: they have common interests and concerns.

The Impressionists didn’t set out to be the most famous and successful artistic movement of the 19th Century – they just wanted their work to be seen. At the time there was only one main art exhibition per year – the annual ‘Salon’ – held by the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and therefore officially sanctioned. If you wanted to get known, to be accepted and to sell work in France, you had to be seen there. But the paintings of a group of young artists who hung around in the circle of Edouard Manet in the Batignolles district of Paris were rejected. In true 1950s American movie fashion, they decided to ‘put on a show right here’ – ‘here’ in this case being the studio of the photographer Nadar at 35, Boulevard des Cappucines. This was in 1874. But what should they be called? Well, they marketed themselves as ‘The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc.’ It was never going to catch on. 

Although there were bad reviews, they were not really as bad as everyone always says. One critic did try and suggest a name for the group, saying that, as the word ‘Impression’ had been used by one of the artists – Claude Monet exhibited a landscape called ‘Impression: Sunrise’ – you could do worse than calling them ‘Impressionists’, as they really did capture the impression you had on first seeing things. The exhibition was definitely not a financial success, and they didn’t follow it up the following year. However, in 1876 they put together a second exhibition, under the same name and, in 1877, a third. This was the first that Cassatt contributed to – she was delighted to be involved. On receiving Degas’ invitation she said, ‘I accepted with joy… I hated conventional art’. This was the moment, she thought, at which she ‘began to live’. It was also the point at which the ‘Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc.’ decided to cut to the chase and call themselves Impressionists.

They weren’t really a group, as such, and they didn’t really have a single style, although some of the more prominent artists did share similar interests. A lot of them painted outside, to capture the freshness of the moment – although Degas never did: he based a lot of his work on photography. Some of them were interested in bourgeois society, and the life of the city. Cassatt certainly fits in here. However, someone like Pissarro preferred peasant life and chose to live in small towns some way outside the capital – like Norwood, where he stayed during his years in London. But with all of them there is a sense that they stand on the outside looking in – voyeurs, perhaps. Or anthropologists. They loved people watching, and Cassatt’s great advantage was that she was a woman. Not only did she know how women behaved, but she had access to spaces and rituals that men could not have experienced. Had The Tea been painted by Renoir it would have been very different. The women would have been more buxom, for a start. And probably more girly – looking at the artist and smiling. Even giggling. Or languishing with bedroom eyes. Not Cassatt, though – she’s too good for that. She knows what it’s really like.

The similarities with L’Absinthe relate to her attempt to make the image look real – almost like a snapshot. The table gets in our way, and distances us from the women, although, in an apparently contradictory way, it also bridges the gap between us and them, leading our eye into the painting. Cassatt has portrayed the scene just as she saw it, without bothering to tidy it up, to move the table out of the way, or to make sure we can see both of the women clearly. In fact, she goes out of the way not to show us the women, choosing, very carefully, the moment at which one of them is drinking her tea, so that the cup is almost completely covering her face. This is the point at which you realise that the Impressionists’ claim to be painting what they saw, when they saw it, just as they saw it could not possibly be true. This isn’t ‘fly on the wall’ observation, it is careful calculation. How long would you spend with a cup tipped up like that? And how long would it take to paint? More than a few minutes, certainly.

The women are dressed rather differently, one in plain brown, her right hand leaning on her cheek, the other resting her saucer on her left hand, which is clad in a delicate primrose-yellow glove. The other gloved fingers lightly hold the cup to her mouth, little finger aloof, as she looks away from her companion. As well as gloves, she wears a hat – she is a guest in the other woman’s house and has recently arrived from the outside world. Her rich, deep blue coat, like the accessories, points to her wealth. The woman in brown is presumably as wealthy – look at her room – but, as she is at home, she does not feel the need to make the point (all those Working From Home bear this in mind). Cassatt was the master (or mistress?) of gesture and character, of setting and mood. Why did she want to paint the guest in the act of drinking? Why cover so much of her face? And why is she looking away? The cup is tipped quite high – she must have nearly finished. And not a moment too soon – the hostess has nothing more to say to her, it seems. And, possibly, she is thinking to herself, ‘I hope that’s the last sip’. The patient, long-suffering expression seems to say as much. And why is there so much focus on the tea service? Maybe we are also present in this room, a third, unseen person, and like the woman in blue we have looked away, we’re focussing on the silverware, as there really is nothing more to say, nothing more to do.  Talking of which, I really wouldn’t want to keep you any longer. But do feel free to linger, and enjoy the colours, the careful composition, the contrast between reclined relaxed hostess and upright, edgy guest, and that wonderful, tense, long, dramatic pause…

Having said all that way back when, I can now add that Eva Gonzalès was every bit as good in her observation of behaviour, and was also at the forefront of innovation in the genres of art. I do hope you can get to the exhibition at the National Gallery, or, at least, join me for the talk on Monday.


175 – Solid and durable

Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1886-87. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Mont Sainte-Victoire was undoubtedly Paul Cézanne’s favourite landscape motif. He painted it over 80 times, but, to keep a handle on things, today I’m just going to look at one. However, my next talk, on Monday, 24 October at 6pm, will be an introduction to Tate Modern’s exhibition – Cezanne – and that includes a whole room dedicated to the subject (Tate have omitted Cézanne’s accent, as apparently, in Provence, where Paul grew up, it was not used). It is a monumental exhibition, and if you are planning to go, you might want to plan to go twice. Talking of planning, my Zoom talks are already lined up for the rest of the year – so do check out the diary to see what is on the cards. In November I will pay a visit to The Spanish Gallery in Bishop Auckland, and I am also looking forward to the exhibition of ground-breaking paintings by early-20th-century German women at the Royal Academy, Making Modernism. Throughout Advent I will be hanging around the Wallace Collection – and elsewhere – thinking about The Childhood of Christ in Art. But for dates and details, as I say, you’ll need to check out the diary.

I’ve long been fascinated by Cézanne’s stated wish to ‘make of Impressionism something solid and durable like the art of the museums’. His misgivings were that, in capturing a fleeting impression, the work itself might end up being ephemeral, too closely related to a specific moment in time. His repeated studies of Mont Sainte-Victoire were therefore completely different to Monet’s various series, with which he aimed to show how different his motifs looked at different times, in different weathers, and in different moods. Cézanne was in search of the timeless and unchanging, something universal, which would last. But how to achieve that? He wanted to rely on his sensations – a French word which translates as ‘feelings’ – although ‘feelings’ in terms of ‘sensations’, I suspect. So, effectively, he did want to paint what he felt, as a result of what he saw – he wanted to convey the impressions he had when looking at something (just like the Impressionists) – but he wanted to make it last. Not only that, but the image had to make coherent sense on a two dimensional surface – the painting – while holding true to the three dimensional nature of the motif. Put like that, it seems like a tall order – so it’s hardly surprising he tried so many times to ‘get it right’. Did he ever succeed? And if so, how?

The paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire are so familiar that it is perhaps hard to stop and look at them properly, or to see them afresh. In this example, as in so many, the Mountain – in reality a limestone ridge stretching over 18km – takes its familiar position on the horizon, rendered blue by the aerial perspective as if enough sky has got in between us and the distance to render it celestial – the colour of the sky (indeed, for Italians, celeste is a different colour from blue, in the same way that, in English, pink is different from red). The view is framed by two trees, one of which leans into the picture and spreads its branches across the sky, while the other is close enough to the artist that we can see neither its base, nor canopy. The lower two thirds of the painting is taken up with farmland, with the upper third being mountains, hills and sky, together with the aforementioned branches. The palette is extremely limited: greens, blues, and sandy browns.

This detail, from the bottom of the painting, is almost all of the ‘farmland’, the lowlands before we get to the foothills. At the top right you can see a railway viaduct – but, without knowledge of the location, it could have been an aqueduct. Quite apart from the fact that it was there, Cézanne may well have painted it to make Provence look a little more like the Roman Campagna. Indeed, it is the sort of thing you can find in some of the paintings of Poussin. In another of his aspirational statements – although one that some doubt he ever made – Cézanne is supposed to have claimed that he wanted ‘to redo Poussin all over from Nature’. This implies that he wanted to paint classical landscapes – in terms of harmony, proportion and monumentality – by looking at the real thing, rather than using his imagination, as Poussin did. In this detail we see him seeking out these harmonies. There is a long, straight track leading from behind the brow of the hill at the bottom right, which rises on a low diagonal toward the top left of the detail. Indeed, if we were to continue this line in either direction, it would stretch to the bottom right-hand corner of the painting, and reach the top left-hand corner of this detail. I cut the detail here deliberately, to show how the top of this diagonal would coincide, more-or-less, with a continuation of the viaduct, were it to stretch all the way across the painting. To the right of this straight track two dark lines – hedges perhaps? – run parallel to the same diagonal. Was this ‘harmony’ really there? Or was the ever-observant Cézanne simply enhancing the classical possibilities of his motif, idealising what he saw to make it more ‘timeless’?

Another way to harmonise the image was to make certain aspects of the painting consistent across the whole surface. Let’s focus in on the bottom right hand corner.

The predominant colours here are green and a neutral off-white. But only the green is painted: the ‘off-white’ is the colour of the primed, but unpainted, canvas – the ‘ground’. This might imply that the work is unfinished, but no, it is a technique Cézanne learnt from the Impressionists: you don’t have to cover every bit of the canvas with paint. Indeed, if you leave some gaps, and providing that your ground is light, it will add a sense of luminosity to your painting. After a certain stage in his career Cézanne did this with practiced regularity: look out for it in the following details. As well as adding luminosity, the repetition of these light areas across the whole surface of the painting lend it a sense of unity. The track – so important for structuring the composition and leading our eye into the distance – was also left ‘unpainted’, although as it emerges from the foliage at the bottom of the hill the artist has decided to emphasize its presence by heightening it with a brighter off-white paint. However, by the time we get to the top left corner of this detail, we seem to be back to the unpainted ground, ideal to represent the track, which is, after all, bare, and free of vegetation. The brushstrokes in this detail are quite scrubby, but many of them are short diagonal strokes going from top right to bottom left. These are Cézanne’s ‘constructive’ brush strokes, themselves derived from the Impressionist tache (blotch, patch or stain), which made up the tesserae from which many of their mosaic-like images were formed. In other, slightly earlier, works, Cézanne’s constructive brush strokes are far more consistent – ‘monotonous’ would be the correct word (but without the implication that they are boring), because they are all the same. The artist uses them, as the word suggests, to build up the entire image, and they also become another way of unifying the surface. The brushstrokes have the same function in this painting, but are used more freely – a sign that Cézanne is relaxing into his technique.

If the unpainted ground and constructive brush strokes can unify the surface – thus making the image coherent on the canvas – how can he imply a sense of distance, while still holding onto this cohesion? The answer is in the palette. The same sandy browns are used from the foreground slopes, through the middle ground (omitted above) and all the way into the foothills of the mountain. The greens – of different shades – are similarly disposed. Notice how the dark bottle green of the shrub in the bottom right – just above the largely ‘unpainted’ section – can also be seen in trees next to the farmhouse on the left of the upper detail here, and all the way over to the viaduct, recurring in shrubs which are growing at almost evenly spaced intervals. Every point where this bottle green can be seen is therefore related to every other one in our eyes, and therefore also in our mind. The same is true of the lighter emerald and jade hues, not to mention the sandy browns, and their more orangey variants, as seen in the cuboid farmhouses to the left and nearer the viaduct, which are exactly the same colour as one of the fields at the lower left.

The leaves of the pines at the top of the painting use the same bottle green, thus tying the foreground at the top to the foreground at the bottom – and to the middle ground, in the middle of the painting. But Cézanne also ties the foreground into the horizon by emphasizing the apparently concentric growth of the branches around the curves of the distant hills. There is unity across the surface, and also in depth. Like Lucian Freud (although in reality, of course, Freud was like him) Cézanne was a very considered painter. He would look at the motif and determine what it was he was seeing, then look to the painting and his palette and mix exactly the right colour for a particular brushstroke, before applying it. He was painting exactly what he saw as he saw it, looking directly at the section of the motif he was painting. One effect of this was to deny a sense of perspective. All the branches appear to be growing parallel to the picture plane, even if we do try and make sense of this by pushing some of them further back into the space. The branches and leaves form a two-dimensional filigree across the surface of the painting, and the darkness of the branches echoes the darkness of the edges of the distant hills. Atmospheric perspective does apply though, as somehow there is a softening of the brushstrokes – and undoubtedly a lightening of the tones – for the distant fields.

Another result of this painstaking approach was that every additional brushstroke altered what had already been painted. We do not see digitally, but by comparison. Adding a dark brushstroke would make the previously painted areas look lighter, and so adjustments had to be made continuously. Inevitably, like a game of patience, there were times when both Cézanne and Freud realised that the combination of brushstrokes meant that the painting would not have a ‘solution’, and remained unfinished.

Looking back at the whole painting, you can see colours calling to each other across the painting. For example, the tree framing the painting on the left has one visible branch – even if its connection to the trunk cannot be seen – which appears to reach down to the bottle green of the tree lower down the slope at the bottom right; the nearer face of all the cuboid buildings ring out with the same yellow/orange notes; the brushstrokes of the grass at the bottom echo the leaves of the trees at the top, and even there the constructive brushstrokes of the leaves seem to harmonise with those of the sky, as if tree and sky move together in harmony with the wind. A patchwork of dabs and dashes summons up this whole world, compelling us towards the might of the distant mountain. To answer at least one of my questions at the end of the second paragraph, I think this counts as a success – and this is only one painting. There are six alternative views in the Tate’s impressive exhibition – and that is only one room. Elsewhere Cézanne approaches Still Life and the human figure with an equivalent rigour. Don’t miss it.


174 – Freudian

Lucian Freud, Painter and Model, 1986-7. Private Collection.

I think it is an unacknowledged sign of ageing that more and more I am aware of a succession of artists’ retrospectives. The exhibition to celebrate Lucian Freud’s 80th Birthday, for example, at the relatively-recently renamed Tate Britain in 2002. Or the 90th Anniversary exhibition in 2012, the year after his death, at the National Portrait Gallery. And now, at the National Gallery, the celebration of the centenary of his birth. Nevertheless, with each iteration I have seen something new, and something which has come as a surprise. In this embodiment of the great artist’s work, apart from a number of paintings that I have never seen before, I have been really impressed by something I have always been aware of: Freud’s admiration for the delicacy of touch, and for the profound nature of the relationships between people, animals, and even things, that touch implies. I will talk about this more thoroughly on Monday 17th October at 6pm when I introduce the exhibition Lucian Freud: New Perspectives. If you’re not free, or fancy hearing the talk in person at the National Gallery on Thursday 20th, have a look for details in the diary. Today, though, I want to focus on something else: a painting in which the artist gets to grips with the nature of painting itself.

Called Painter and Model, we see a woman standing on the left wearing a brick-red painting smock, covered in paint, and holding a paintbrush between both hands. She is effectively in profile, looking down towards the bottom right corner of the painting, with her pale face standing out against a dark wardrobe which occupies the back left corner of the space. On the right is a battered leather sofa, the colour of which is strikingly similar to the woman’s smock. Lying on it, on his back, is a naked man. If her head is framed by the wardrobe, his is placed against the far arm of the sofa, and is seen full face, rather than in profile. Binaries, and contrasts, are always an important aspect of Freud’s work. The man’s left forearm lies along the back of the sofa, while the right rests on the seat, with the hand just sticking over the edge. His right leg, extended, stretches down so that the heel of his right foot is resting on the floor. The lower half of this leg, and the foot, cast intense, dark shadows on the meticulously detailed floorboards. His left leg is bent, and leans against the back of the sofa. His left foot is tucked up behind the near arm, and can’t be seen. Lying on the floor in the foreground is some of the paraphernalia of painting – tubes of paint, and paintbrushes of different sizes. The walls are in an appalling state of repair – painted yellow, but re-plastered with pink plaster, which nevertheless still seems to be showing signs of damp, presumably the initial cause of the repairs, and which has not yet been repainted. A blind has been pulled down over the window, and crumples untidily as if in need of replacement itself. The top of the walls are deep in shadow, but brightly illuminated further down, with the boundaries marked by uneven half shadows, probably cast by an uneven lampshade.

Lucian Freud was renowned for making what might seem to be unreasonable demands of his models. Once his career was established, he became a man of habit, and would paint regularly, either during the day, in natural daylight, or after nightfall, in artificial light. This is clearly a night-time painting – the stark shadows tell us as much. He would work on more than one painting at a time, with the daytime models making way for those arriving in the evening. They would return every day at the allotted time for weeks or months, or even, in some cases, for years. In order for him to discover something ‘unexpected’ and create something new, he would often pose them in unusual positions, or in surprising relationships to one another. It might seem that he was being entirely controlling, making the models obey his whim. And yet, of course, they didn’t have to be there. Often they were friends or family, but above all, they were people he was interested in. If he wasn’t interested, he couldn’t paint. Nevertheless, as a substantial number of his models were women, and, moreover, women who were naked, he was sometimes criticized as a voyeur.  I’m sure this painting was intended to confront this claim, as it turns the idea of ‘the male gaze’ on its head.

In terms of the title, Painter and Model, it is surely clear which is which. The woman on the left is the painter, the naked man is the model. In this one bold gesture Freud manages to subvert the whole history of the Western European nude, in which, we imagine, a fully clothed man paints a naked woman, and in the process, he objectifies her. It is the man here who becomes the object, subject to the whim of the female artist. She is standing, upright and secure, whereas he is supine, passive and vulnerable – apparently a complete reversal of gender stereotypes. Of course, it’s a little bit more nuanced than that. Or, to put it in other words, it’s nowhere near that simple. I’m intrigued, for example, that the painting is called Painter and Model rather than Artist and Model, but paint is clearly of the essence. And, whether Painter or Artist, is the woman really the one who is in control? One of the problems for women over the course of Western European Art History was the nature of the female gaze, because, quite simply, it wasn’t allowed. ‘It’s rude to stare’, as I’m sure many of you were told by your parents, and it was particularly rude for women to stare. You were supposed to stand with your hands politely held in front of you, and look modestly down. And if you’re looking ‘modestly down’ all the time, then you can’t look at things to paint them. Women weren’t allowed into life drawing classes until the 20th Century (on the whole): for them to look at a naked man was considered to be inappropriate. But in this painting we see Freud reconsidering the whole issue. Or do we? Maybe we should have another look at the painting. Even in this detail, although more pointedly if we look at the whole image (above and below), it becomes clear that the woman is standing in precisely that appropriately ‘modest’ feminine way, hands held in front of her body, and her face looking down towards the floor. She is not staring at the man, not even gazing at him, despite his unabashed nudity. Indeed, the male gaze is still fully active, but it is the naked model in the painting – the man – who is gazing – even staring – at us. The model seems to be more in command, and more commanding, than the painter.

It becomes more complex when you realise that, given the title of the painting, the woman on the left is both painter and model. Although she holds a paintbrush, she is modelling for Freud as a painter. And she is painted – in more ways than one. First, she is one of the subjects of the painting, one of the models that Freud has painted, but second, her smock is covered in paint. She appears to have used the fabric to clean her brushes in between different brushstrokes, as Freud used to, either on the walls of the studio or using the rags which can often be seen lying on the floor in the background of his paintings. So, Freud has painted her, and she has ‘painted’ herself. Look again, and you will her smock covered with the yellow of the walls, the light greys of the damp and of the window frame, and the darker shades of the wardrobe and of the shadowed areas of the sofa, with the smock itself more or less the colour of the sofa. Indeed, the smock is effectively Freud’s palette, an inchoate mass of paint like that from which he has formed this image.

We add yet another layer of complexity when we realise that both models were also artists. On the right is Angus Cook – described as ‘model and artist’ in the National’s exhibition, although I can find little about his work online. One source describes him as a poet, and there are also some of his texts about art. Above all, he was part of a nexus of friends and lovers, several of whom feature in Freud’s work. On the left is Celia Paul, a respected artist in her own right. She came to Freud’s attention as a student at the Slade School of Fine Art, where he was a visiting tutor. They went on to have a ten-year relationship, with Paul often modelling for Freud, as she does here.

In the bottom half of the painting we can see five feet – three human, two sofa. It’s a sort of game, and one that Freud played in different ways in different works. Each foot has a different relationship to the floor (and Freud was always interested in relationships). The two carved wooden feet are connected by the sharp line of shadow cast by the edge of the sofa which, together with the glints of light on the curving bulges of these feet, reminds us that this was a night-time painting. Cook’s right heel rests on the floor, whereas Paul’s two feet are firmly and securely planted, the toes turned out a little from the heels. And yet, how secure are they?  A curious detail suggests that something might be awry.

Whose paints are these? Stop and think about it: have you seen an easel, or even a canvas? If Paul is the painter, what is she painting, and where, exactly, is the painting itself? Or is she just posing as a painter, for Freud? Are these her paints or his? And look – her right foot is planted on one end of a tube of paint. A tube of green paint. You can see that: the lid was not put back on the tube, and some of the green paint (more brightly coloured in the original than in this reproduction) is squeezing out. Am I wrong in seeing some form of sexual connotation here? Would I be right in going so far as to say that it seems a little bit, well, Freudian?

In case you didn’t know, Sigmund was Lucian’s grandfather. This must have had an impact on the boy, but more so on the student, and, as he came to a fuller understanding of the world, and of the significance of his grandfather’s work, on the adult artist. Both spent a lifetime analysing people lying on couches, for one thing. On Monday we might just find that there were other things that they had in common.


173 – Illuminating

Eadfrith, Chi-Rho page, The Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero DIV, f. 29r), c. 700. British Library London.

Today I’m going to look at one page of one book. It is, surely, one of the most spectacular pages of what is – according to every account you read – one of the most spectacular survivals from Anglo-Saxon England. However, England is not an accurate geographical designation, as the manuscript was the product of the kingdom of Northumberland, the largest kingdom in the British Isles at the time. Spreading North from the River Humber (how had I never realised that before?) it reached well into what is now undoubtedly Scotland. On Monday 10 October at 6pm I will flick through the whole book – or rather, turn the pages carefully (and virtually, in virtual white gloves) in a talk entitled The Lindisfarne Gospels. I will focus on the book itself before putting it into the context of the exhibition mounted by the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, but will discuss the Gospels as thoroughly as I can (given the time available) as, whenever you get to see it, you only ever see one opening, so it is hard to understand how everything fits together. For that matter, it is not entirely obvious exactly what is in it: it’s not just the Gospels! In the following weeks I will turn to Lucian Freud, Paul Cézanne (or Cezanne, as Tate would have it) and Eva Gonzalès (with a French accent, rather than a Spanish one…). Details can be found via these links, or as ever (together with details of an in-person repeat of the Freud), in the diary.

I suspect that, for most of us, the initial impact of this page is pretty much the same experienced by much of the congregation who may have had a distant view of it during religious ceremonies when it was first produced: bright, colourful, intricate – magical even – but ultimately, incomprehensible. And even if they had a chance to get closer, for the illiterate it would not have revealed its secrets. There are no pictures here to explain what is going on, but rather a celebration of the word itself, and, in this case, of the word made flesh: it is a celebration of the birth of Jesus himself, even if, to the uninitiated, that is by no means clear. However, the richness of the decoration, its elaborate sophistication and vibrant colours, not to mention the space it occupies on a single page, tell us how important the initiated knew this was. They also knew that the image, not to mentions the devotion, skill and time required to make it, would be one way to impress the illiterate with its significance: sometimes words are not enough.

The inscription at the top of the page says ‘incipit evangelium secundum mattheus‘ – which literally translates as ‘begins the gospel according to Matthew’. Almost all the letters are there, although in evangelium the ‘l’ and ‘i’ are combined and similarly, in secundum, so are the ‘u’ and ‘m’. However, the illumination seems to have got in the way of mattheus, so a small squiggle is added over the ‘u’, to imply an abbreviation, and there are also a couple of dots: the ‘s’ is implied. Above this inscription more words are written in smaller, darker letters. The first two read onginneð godspell – ‘begins the gospel’, in Old English, rather than Latin. A truly remarkable thing about the Lindisfarne Gospels is that, centuries after the book was first created, somebody wrote all over it. It isn’t the only manuscript this happened to. The entire volume (well, almost the entire volume) was translated into Old English, and the translation was added to the pages. I may have suggested that sometimes words are not enough, but sometimes words that people understand are valuable. In this case, they are also significant: this is the very first surviving version of the bible in English (even if it is Old). So – the book has been defaced, but we know a lot more about it as a result (more about that on Monday). The word onginneð is not so very far from ‘beginneth’ (‘ð‘ is effectively ‘th’) nor is godspell that far from ‘gospel’. Back in 1971 it was even used as the name for a musical based – albeit loosely – on the evangelium secundum mattheus. The ‘spell‘ is related to magic (the other ‘spell’, as in spelling a word, has a different etymology), and also to ‘spiel’, which is now slang parlance for a glib recitation, apparently recited often, showing a practiced stance or belief. The incantations of priests were often likened to magic spells, given that they were related to raising the dead, turning water into wine and the like. However, the curious thing about this inscription – which is not even the most visually striking element on the page – is that it is wrong. This is not the beginning of the gospel according to Matthew. It is chapter 1, admittedly, but verse 18: ‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.’ As the text was written in Latin, though, it would be as well to quote the Vulgate (St Jerome’s translation of the bible), of which this happens to be one of the purest versions:

Christi autem generatio sic erat: cum esset desponsata mater ejus Maria Joseph, antequam convenirent inventa est in utero habens de Spiritu Sancto.

Notice that ‘Christ’ comes first, as, for Christians, Christ surely should. And now look at this.

What we see, on the largest scale, is the word ‘Christ’ written in Greek, but represented with only the first three letters, chi, rho, and iota – or Χρι (the full word ‘Christos’ would be Χριστός). This abbreviation was effectively standard practice, and the combination of just the first two letters, chi and rho, was one of the earliest symbols of Christianity. It was adopted even before the cross, which was such a humiliating form of execution that, in the early days, it was deemed unsuitable for celebration. Like mattheus, therefore, this is an abbreviation, and, in the same way, I think there is a hint about that: you could read the elaboration of forms at the top right of the chi and above the rho as equivalent to the ‘squiggle’ above the ‘u’ in mattheu – a sign for an elision, or abbreviation, which would be used for centuries.

It is, therefore, the word Christ which is the most important thing on this page, vibrant with colour and apparently moving forms, wheels within wheels, stylised, elongated birds, writhing and threaded together, and knotwork. The whole form is surrounded by a series of small red dots, as if it were glowing. This is not, maybe, the beginning of the gospel of Matthew, but it is the first time in the bible, after the list of his ancestors, that Jesus appears. It is where he is born, the first mention of the incarnation – god made flesh. As such, as well as being called the Chi rho page, this is also sometimes referred to as the Incarnation page, and it was a fairly common feature of the most elaborately illuminated manuscripts. According to the gospel according to John, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ Here, in the gospel according to Matthew, we see the Word for the first time, and we see it as a word. It was clear to the early Christians that the Light of the World came into the world at this point, and that this was worth celebrating: let Salvation begin!

The letters underneath Χριστός make up the following one and a half words of the Vulgate: ‘autem gene’(‘ratio’is on the following line). The ‘u’ and ‘t’ are combined, as are the ‘e’ and ‘m’. After this, the ‘g’ is looped round the ‘e’, and the ‘n’ and ‘e’ also combined. This abbreviation may simply help to fit the words in, although it also adds to the almost magical nature of the text – as if this were an incantation to summon the birth of Jesus, the words transformed beyond their mundane import. The way in which they have been written shows what a brilliant visual sense Eadfrith, believed to be both scribe and illuminator of the gospels, had. Like most of the work, they were sketched out in lead point (a bit like starting with a light drawing using a modern-day pencil), and then outlined with red dots. They have an obvious presence on the page, but interrupt the background tone and colour of the vellum as little as possible. This allows Χριστός to ring out loud and clear at the top of the page: when shown to the congregation (or even, when opened in front of the officiating priest) the impact would be clear: Christ is here, visible, among us, the most important thing.

Without considering their impact on the whole page, these (partial) words, ‘autem gene’ might seem incomplete, as all the others here are filled in with black, and heightened with yellow, pink and green infills. The whole text is contained by the elaborate tail of the chi to the left, and a green-bordered frame which comes down from the top right of the page, wraps along the bottom and continues up on the left.

The second line of text continues after the ‘gene’with ‘ratio sic erat cum’. In the King James Version, this would be the end of the word ‘birth’, followed by ‘…in this wise. When…’. Although I said that all of the letters (after the first line) were filled in black, the letter ‘c’ of ‘cum’ is not. It’s not clear why – it might just be a mistake! Eadfrith, scribe and illuminator, was Bishop of Lindisfarne from around 698 until his death in 721, and some people think that his work on the volume was not complete at his death. The British Library wisely refuses to be too specific. Between the text and the illumination the gospels would have taken at least five years to complete, and possibly as much as ten – so the given date of the manuscript as ‘c. 700’ can only really be counted as the date it might have been started.

The final lines on this page are ‘esset desponsata mater ejus Maria Joseph’, or ‘…as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph’, leaving the second half of the verse to the next page – or rather, the next side. Manuscripts, have ‘leaves’ rather than ‘pages’. This is leaf 29, or folio 29, and we are looking at the ‘front’ side of it, the recto (so this is f. 29r). The rest of the verse is on the ‘back’ of this folio, or folio 29 verso (f. 29v). Despite the technicalities, I think the amount of the verse that is included might explain why Eadfrith went to the pains of abbreviating the ‘autem gene’. It was, I think, quite simply, to get this much onto this one page. As a result we have all of the Holy Family present at Jesus’s birth: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. And notice that Joseph only just makes it – the green frame has had to be thinned, and even broken, to accommodate the letter ‘h’. Or he might have done that to emphasize Joseph’s name, or even to imply a continuation of the verse onto the verso. But I suspect it is, practically, to fit it all in. Poor Joseph: always squashed into corners. But at least he’s there. Above the word ‘mater‘ is written ‘moder’ – the Old English form of ‘mother’ – but the rest of the translation has been squashed into the margin.

We’ve got to the end of the page, but before we go, let’s have a look back at the top – and get a little bit closer. You can all do this, in the comfort of you own homes, which is just as well, as the British Library doesn’t lend to private individuals. However, part of their remit, as a national institution, is to make their collection available as widely as possible, and they are attempting to digitize as much of their collection as they can. The Lindisfarne Gospels can be accessed if you click on this link. I’ll leave you to read it all cover to cover before the talk on Monday! But not before this:

It is truly astonishing.  The intricacy, the complexity and the sheer attention to detail – the time taken to write just one word – speaks of a faith and devotion so profound that it is hard to measure. And within this one detail we also have all of the common decorative techniques. On the left are the red dots, an influence from Ireland, and in the cross of the chi, we see a writhing mass of birds, biting their own elongated necks which are looped around and threaded through the equally elongated tails and the knotted legs of their fellows. Between the chi and the edge of the rho on the right are spiralling circular forms, often described as pin wheels, which would seem to derive from the La Tène culture, one branch of the broader Celtic tradition, as is the knotwork in the rho itself. It is open to debate as to whether these forms of decoration have symbolic significance within a Christian context. Most obviously, many of the pin wheels have threefold symmetry, and, at the heart of the word ‘Christ’, this must surely be an allusion to the Holy Trinity, with God present in Christ and Christ as a part of God. The knotwork could be interpreted as a reference to eternity – each is an endless loop – but also to the journey of the soul on a defined, if complex path. In some way this imagery must also function in like a mandala, encouraging contemplation and meditation. This is perhaps clearer with the manuscript’s glorious carpet pages, each a variation on the shape of the cross, but I will look at them – and, indeed, at all of the fully illuminated leaves – on Monday. All that, and many more remarkable details, too, not to mention the overriding structure. And, despite what I said above, you really don’t need to read it all before then!


172 – Incisive

Winslow Homer, The Army of the Potomac – A Sharp-Shooter On Picket Duty, 1862. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Today I want to look at an engraving as a way of introducing the work of a great painter: Winslow Homer. This is, of course, by way of an introduction my talk this Monday, 3 October, which is in itself an introduction to the exhibition at the National Gallery, Winslow Homer: Force of Nature. There follows a series of talks related to exhibitions which are mainly in London, and which are dedicated to The Lindisfarne Gospels (in Newcastle, 10 October), Lucian Freud (National Gallery, 17 October), Cezanne (Tate Modern, 24 October) and Edouard Manet and Eva Gonzalès (National Gallery again, 31 October). The blue links will take you to the relevant Tixoom page for information and booking, and they are also all listed in the diary.

Winslow Homer has been a revelation to me, as there is not a single painting by him in a British public collection. I haven’t been to the United States for well over a decade, but in the days when I went regularly I tended to focus on the Italian Renaissance, or on American works from the second half of the 20th Century. Having discovered his paintings, I now want to know more about Winslow Homer’s prints, even though, as far as I can see, he doesn’t seem to be classed as a printmaker as such, for reasons which may become clear. In 1855, at the age of 19, he became an apprentice at John H Bufford and Co., a lithographic printing shop in Boston. Two years later, his apprenticeship complete, he entered the profession which he was to follow for the next two decades at least: an illustrator for popular magazines and periodicals. However, the majority of his work was not in lithography but wood engraving. The technique is different from engraving on a metal plate. For the latter the design is gouged out of the plate using a tool called a buren, and when the plate is inked the ink fills the resulting grooves. This is what is known as intaglio printing (tagliare is Italian for ‘to cut’), which is different to Japanese wood blocks or linocuts (see, for example, Sybil Andrews’ Via Dolorosa in 161 – Negative Spaces), which are relief prints. In a relief print the lines are the result of ink sitting on the ridges between the carved out gaps. Wood engraving is a form of relief printing, so everything white has been cut out of the block, and everything black is printed from thin ridges which sit proudly at the top, on the original surface.

We see a man in uniform – a soldier – sitting in a tree, with his rifle trained on a target to our right. His position is precarious, perched on a diagonal branch growing from the trunk of a conifer growing on the right of the image. His left foot is in the crook of the branch, where it joins the trunk, and his left leg is slightly bent, leaving a gap between the branch and his knee. His right leg is more bent, and the foot hangs freely, offering neither support nor security. He grasps a small branch with his fully stretched left arm, which forms the only real horizontal in the image, affording him, and the composition, some degree of stability. The rifle rests on the same branch, next to his hand, tilted at a slight angle downwards, implying that the soldier is aiming at something on the ground at a considerable distance – although we cannot be sure how high in the tree he is. The marksman leans forward with his torso at roughly 45˚to the vertical, showing how intent and focussed he is on his activity, while the precarious position, and the fact that he is surrounded by foliage and branches – which stretch downwards almost more than up – creates a real sense of tension, which is only enhanced by the view of the sky we see through the branches and needles of the conifer in which he is sitting, some way above our heads.

A water bottle hangs from an offshoot of the branch the soldier is holding, knotted around it to keep it secure. The attention to detail is supreme, from the precise definition of the sole of the shoe, to the exact arrangement of the laces, threaded through holes and tied, defined by spaced, diagonal lines, suggesting that the laces are formed from strands of thread which are twisted together. The ends of the trousers are tucked into socks, or puttees, both garments depicted using regular parallel lines. The branches are created with shorter, curved lines, dashes and dots, which convey the rough, varied flakiness of the bark. Clouds in the sky are blank paper, with the clear blue, slightly darker than the clouds, is indicated by thin, horizontal lines. There is some sort of bird hovering high up, visible to the left of the soldier’s right foot, its distant presence adding a somewhat vertiginous feel to the danger inherent in the situation.

The sky under the left arm is one of the brightest parts of the print. It helps to emphasize the stability of this gesture, and to enhance the drive of the focus from left to right, towards the unseen target. The right hand, holding the rifle, and about to pull the trigger, is almost equally bright, only a few lines having been left on the surface of the wood to create the shape of the fingers and define the tendons on the back of the hand. Against the darker carving of the rifle, and emerging from the mid-tones of the sleeve, this hand and its imminent action become the main focus of the image. Near to this is the white of an eye, flashing from the dark socket, in shadow thanks to the soldier’s cap. We are looking at a sharp-eyed sharpshooter intent on his enemy. On top of his cap the letter ‘A’ tells us the company with which he served. The intricacy of detail and subtle variety in tone and texture which Homer has been able to achieve, creating the appearances of different materials, and defining the forms and positions in space simply by varying the length, density, and direction of the lines, show him to be a printmaker of the highest order. However, unlike, say, Dürer or Rembrandt, he is not necessarily celebrated as such. But why not? Well, the pictures I have shown you so far are from a print which has been cut out of its original context – so let’s put that back. This is another example of the image, also in the collection of the Met in New York.

The print was published as a page-sized illustration. Indeed, the detail below shows us that it was page 724 of Harper’s Weekly, published on November 15, 1862 (that was volume VII, in case you wanted to know).

Homer had worked for Harper’s more-or-less since its inception in 1857, and four years later, in October 1861, the periodical sent him to Washington D.C., where he was to become an artist-correspondent during the American Civil War. He joined the Union Army, representing the Northern States which were fighting to maintain the Union (as the name suggests), against the Southern Confederates, who had seceded. By the time the Civil War ended in 1865, the New York Tribune called Homer ‘the best chronicler of the war’, and this image, The Army of the Potomac – A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty, became one of his most celebrated works from that period.

The wood block was not necessarily carved by Homer himself . The hard-wood block was both polished and whitened, and Homer would draw his designs directly onto this pristine surface in pencil. Highly skilled craftsmen would then cut away all of the remaining white surfaces – effectively removing what would be left white in the print. This is equivalent to the way in which Dürer created his relief wood-block prints, such as the Small Passion series, although Dürer drew his designs onto paper, which was then attached to the block and cut through. As a result, although some of the blocks survive, Dürer’s original drawings do not. I suspect that Homer’s skills as a printmaker are accorded a lower status because he worked as an illustrator: it was only when he turned to painting that he would be called an artist. As it happens, it was with this very image that he made this step. Have a look at the caption of the image as it was originally published.

After the title, there is a parenthetical statement, ‘[FROM A PAINTING BY W. HOMER, ESQ.]’. In this detail, we can also see his signature, inscribed among the whorls of the bark, at the bottom right corner. At this point Homer was already known as an illustrator, but now his status as a painter has been revealed – even advertised – to an already eager public. The painting itself, quite possibly the earliest he completed, and certainly the first significant oil of his career, is the first on view in the National Gallery’s current exhibition.

Winslow Homer, Sharpshooter, 1863. Portland Museum of Art, Maine.

Its title is slightly different, reduced, simply, to Sharpshooter. However, the composition is fundamentally the same. The foliage is denser in the painting, so there is less open sky, but this is probably because the clarity needed for a monochrome print becomes less important when colour can be used to distinguish forms as well. However, details are omitted. There is no bird (too fiddly?), nor is there a water bottle hanging from the tree. The company letter ‘A’ has been replaced by a red lozenge. However, there is something about this painting which, at first glance, could appear oddly inconsistent with the evidence so far provided. It is dated 1863, and yet the wood engraving was published in 1862, claiming to be ‘from a painting by W. Homer’. However, this is by no means impossible, and his first painting could also be the first example of the artist changing his mind. In the following decades Homer would regularly complete a painting and exhibit it, only to rework it later, often to simplify, and so clarify, the image. He may well have decided that the water bottle didn’t read well enough in the painting, and although it was ideal for an engraving, the company letter could well have proved too intricate in paint: presumably he replaced it for reasons of clarity. Have a look at these two Union Army hats which I found on Pinterest. The first is a ‘Union Model 1858 Forage cap, circa 1861, with company letter “C”’, while the second is described as a ‘Civil War Bummers Cap’ (another name for a Forage Cap), with the ‘Original insignia of the 3rd Corps 1st Division, 3rd brigade, Army of the Potomac’. The brigade number here is not unlike the company letter in the print.

According to one war insignia website I have just found, from which you can buy a reproduction red badge of the Third Corps, Army of the Potomac, for a mere $4.95, the lozenge was adopted on 21 March, 1863 – so in time for the painting, but not the wood engraving. I imagine that it was adopted for the same reason that Homer included it in the painting: it is far easier to see from a distance than it would be to read a brass letter. This is one of the reasons that I love the History of Art. Some people mistakenly think it is about looking at pretty pictures, but in reality it can cover every human discipline, from religion to war (and let’s face it, often there hasn’t been much difference between these two). Whatever the subject, I always end up learning so much about the world by learning about the art it produces… In later years Homer showed that he was all too aware of the inhumanity of the action in this particular painting. We are looking intently at a single man, himself intent on seeking out and killing a single opponent. In 1896 Homer wrote to his friend George Briggs, saying, ‘I looked through one of their rifles once when they were in a peach orchard in front of Yorktown in April, 1862’. He included a sketch of this, and went on to write, ‘The above impression struck me as being as near to murder as anything I could think of in connection with the army & I always had a horror of that branch of the service’. The print I have been looking at today illustrated a report on the sharpshooters of the Army of the Potomac, which explained that, from 600 feet, the men were expected to be able to hit a target no more than 5 inches from the bullseye with ten consecutive shots. You can find some more information in a short article about the painting which was published in the Washington Post last year.

Conflict was to be a constant theme in Homer’s work, but although the Civil War was to be important for his development, and brought his name to a broad public, it did not remain a subject to be revisited for long. However, the repercussions of it did, particularly in regard to the Abolition of Slavery, which the victory of the Union Army helped to bring about. One of the things I will be exploring on Monday is the ways in which these repercussions played out, but I will also be looking at other manifestations of conflict which were essential to his work, especially in regard to the natural environment – just one of his concerns which make the paintings entirely relevant to us today, more than a century after his death.


171 – All together now…!

Attributed to Michelangelo, Study for one of the Medici tombs at San Lorenzo, 1524. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Gesamtkunstwerk. It’s the word that Wagner used in 1849 to describe his ideal art form, with all genres of art working together through theatre. Of course it applies specifically to opera, which involves music, drama, and visual design, which in itself includes painting, sculpture and architecture. But gesamtkunstwerke have existed ever since… well, ever since anybody ever built any environment in which people would gather. A church, for example, has architecture, sculpture, painting and music. And, of course, drama. Birth, death, and resurrection – what could be more dramatic than that? And then, of course, there’s the liturgy. However, there are relatively few artists who were talented enough to create ‘a’ Gesamtkunstwerk on their own, although some, like Michelangelo, were nearly there. He was only really held up by external circumstances. Throughout much of his life he wanted to be known as a sculptor, but he is equally well known for his painting. And as you will know by now – especially if you joined me for the talk this week (thank you!) – he also wrote some rich and complex poetry, and was a great correspondent. As he became more successful, he also became an architect – the subject of the fourth and final talk in my series Almost All of Michelangelo. But of course, being Michelangelo, it’s so much more than just putting up walls. He sculpts with light and space, he creates theatres of public drama, and he even manipulates the way in which we move through the environment. No time to talk about all of that today, so I do hope you can join me on Monday 26 September from 5.30-7.30pm. Today, I just want to talk about one drawing of one element of one of his Gesamtkunstwerke, the Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo.

Buonarroti, Michelangelo dit Michel-Ange, Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts graphiques, INV 838, Recto – https://collections.louvre.fr/ark:/53355/cl020001376https://collections.louvre.fr/CGU

This is one of the drawings I didn’t include in the talk this week, having deliberately omitted anything architectural as otherwise there would have been too much to look at. It should be said that not everyone believes this drawing to be by Michelangelo himself, although Carmen Bambach, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and curator and author of the catalogue of the exhibition Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, which I mentioned, does. And that’s good enough for me. For those of you familiar with Florence, or Michelangelo, you will instantly recognise one of the Medici tombs from the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo, although this is not how the tomb was finally executed. As work progressed on the chapel Michelangelo gradually simplified his ideas, in part because, stylistically, he was moving towards a greater simplicity, and in part because it was proving impossible to get everything done. As executed, we have the architectural structure from this drawing, including the sarcophagus, plus three sculptures: the figure seated in the central bay (a ‘unit’ of architecture) and the two figures reclining on the casket.

If we start with the top half of the drawing, we can see that it is a highly refined image, drawn in black chalk with a brown wash to give the forms volume and to create a sense of ‘atmosphere’ that is more than diagrammatic. It is clearly a highly finished drawing, with few pentimenti (changes). The only hints of ‘planning’ are the vertical and horizontal lines which are ruled in different places across the image, as well as a very faint circle which would define the lunette of the wall above the monument – although that is all but cut off at the top (the circle is most visible on the right). This is clearly a drawing by someone who has made up their mind exactly what they want, and wants to communicate that to someone else: the patron or his agent, in this case Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, who by this time was Pope Clement VII. I will tell you more about the chapel itself, and its history – both as planned and as executed – on Monday. Today I just want to look at this drawing.

The architectural structure of the tomb is three bays wide, two narrow bays flanking a wider, central bay. The bays are separated by paired pilasters, with slightly taller and simpler pilasters at far left and right. The rhythm of the tomb – narrow, wide, narrow – is not unlike that of a triumphal arch, and inevitably the implication would be that the soul of the deceased will triumph over death because of their Christian faith. The two outer bays contain niches framed by tabernacles – like a temple front but with only one ‘opening’ – topped by segmental pediments (i.e. a segment of a circle). In each we see the top half of a standing figure. The central bay is less shadowy, which implies that it is further forward, and also that it doesn’t have any sculptural framing elements, like the two tabernacles, to contain the seated figure, of which here we can only see the head and shoulders.

The four pilasters support a cornice, which itself supports elaborate decoration, none which was executed (with the exception, perhaps, of one of the crouching figures – I’ll show you that on Monday). Above the outer bays are pairs of seated figures – their legs dangling over the cornice to the left, and tucked up on the right. The paired pilasters support narrow balustrades, the balusters being placed further apart than the combined width of the pilasters, making these units look a bit top heavy, almost like a sense of growth as we go upwards. There is a herm – a flaring column which develops into the torso of a person – standing on each of the balusters, and each pair of herms holds a scallop shell. Garlands hang from the outer herms, looping up again towards the edges of the monument, where each is supported by a candelabrum. In the centre are trophies of war – an empty suit of armour, topped by shields, with a helmet at the very top.

It is the lower part of the monument with which we are more familiar. Not only does it have the most identifiable sculptures – and ones which were actually executed – but also, when we are in the chapel, this is the section at eye-level. Certainly in this detail we can ‘recognise’ the two figures slumped across the sarcophagus, even though there were not finished in exactly this form. But they do have the extreme articulation which is typical of Michelangelo’s ‘early mature’ style, an extreme exaggeration of contrapposto whereby one leg is as bent as it can be, while the other, if not exactly straight – and certainly not ‘weight bearing’ in this context – is at least stretched out. Both figures also twist through the torso, with one arm bent, and the other more elongated. A clue to their identities is given by details sketched around the heads. On the left, the bearded figure has at least four wavy forms radiating around his hair, while the figure on the right has two curving horns. These represent the sun and a crescent moon – unusually diagrammatic elements of symbolism for Michelangelo, which is probably why he simplified the figures and carved Day and Night without them. These figures refer to the passing of time, which is, in itself, a memento mori – a reminder of death – an idea made explicit by the two skulls carved on the capitals of the pilasters which support the sarcophagus.

Seen in the context of the lower half of the tomb, the figures of Day and Night still look familiar – but you’ll know if you’ve seen them in person that there is nothing lying on the floor. Reclining on one arm with both legs stretched out, these characters have circular objects tucked under their arms. These are jugs, and the reclining pair represent river gods – we saw the river Eridanus, who ‘received’ Phaeton as he plummeted to his death, in last week’s blog. Michelangelo did get as far as planning these sculptures. There are drawings of them, and he even made a full-sized model for one of them which is now in the Casa Buonarroti in Florence.

Modelled in terracotta, Michelangelo could have handed this over to an assistant to carve, but chose not to, preferring the bold simplicity which the chapel has now. It’s a remarkable sculpture, but not the most flattering image of a god. Rather than the bold, broadly muscular classical figures he arranged on the Capitoline Hill – one of his great architectural projects which is effectively small-scale town planning – this figure looks somewhat emaciated, with admittedly muscular, but wiry legs, and too much skin, but not enough muscle, around the midriff. It has to be said that the current ‘simplicity’ of the chapel was not just an artistic choice. He left Florence in 1534 never to return, and the chapel was put together by assistants following Michelangelo’s instructions which were posted from Rome, a correspondence course in architecture.

Had the River Gods been included there would have been a strong pyramidal structure, with the seated figure – a portrayal, though not a portrait, of Giuliano de Medici, Duke of Nemours – at the top centre. Notice how the feet of the river gods lie in front of the base of the tomb. Not only would they have been further out to the left and right, but they would also have been further forward, encroaching onto the floor space of the chapel (another potential reason why they were omitted). Day and Night are further back and further in, with Giuliano further back again. The sculpture recedes in space towards the middle of the wall. So although the architecture seems to push forward, the sculpture pulls back, a tension typical in Michelangelo’s work as a whole. This also creates areas of light and shade, with the side niches, the rivers, and the sarcophagus creating the darkest shadows, leaving Giuliano in the light – so as well as being at the apex of the pyramid he is also the most brilliantly illuminated. This is what I mean by sculpting in light – and I’ll talk more about this, and other ways in which Michelangelo achieved it, on Monday.

When I was talking about Michelangelo’s drawings this week, I started with the earliest, which were drawn from frescoes by Giotto and Masaccio. As a young man he learnt from the Masters, and the most sculptural painters at that. Inevitably later artists learnt from him in the same way. How do we know that? Well, apart from the obvious visual influence in their art, there are other drawings which suggest as much. As well as today’s drawing of Giuliano’s tomb by Michelangelo himself, the Louvre also has a drawing by Federico Zuccaro of the opposite tomb – of Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino – as it was executed. If you thought it was busy the last time you visited, that’s not entirely new. Look at what it was like in 1580. These are all artists drawing (plus a dog). I don’t think you’d get away with clambering over the architecture nowadays.

Zuccaro, Federico, Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts graphiques, INV 4554, Recto – https://collections.louvre.fr/ark:/53355/cl020101809https://collections.louvre.fr/CGU

170 – Drawing to an end

Michelangelo, The Fall of Phaethon, 1533. The Royal Collection/HM King Charles III.

This week, a drawing from the Royal Collection – it seems apt. And, although Monday sees the funeral of its former owner, Queen Elizabeth (she held it in trust for the nation), I have decided to go ahead with my talk, Michelangelo 3: The Works on Paper. Between those who believe that we should stop our normal activities as a sign of respect, and those who wish to carry on to honour our late Queen’s memory and celebrate a steadfast life, I have decided to leave the choice to you: feel free to join me from 5:30-7:30pm, or to take some quiet time for yourselves. Future plans, including a talk on the National Gallery’s revelatory exhibition Winslow Homer: Force of Nature, are listed in the diary.

The talk on Monday will cover different forms of ‘work on paper’. Drawings, yes, but also letters and poetry. And of course there were many different types of drawing – preliminary sketches, compositional studies, detailed analyses of form, cartoons, and architectural plans to name the most important. But this – this is something else. All the other types of drawing listed are preparatory works, made to enable the completion of a painting, sculpture or building. This is not preparatory, it is a work of art in its own right, to be presented to someone as a completed project in and of itself, and this gives it its title: a presentation drawing. The composition, on a sheet of paper in portrait format, is clearly divided into three main sections structured as a pyramid, with two elements – man and bird – at the apex, six in the centre, and seven or more at the base. We’ll start by looking at the central section, as it is this which gives the drawing its title.

We see a chariot – reduced to a simple box-like element with a wheel on either side – a male nude, and four horses in free fall. Given the small scale (the drawing is 23.4 cm wide) the detail is remarkable. The nude is Phaeton, and he is almost upside down, his left arm curled round his head, the right arm extended. There is a bend in his torso, stretching the skin over his left ribs, and creating folds to the right of his abdomen. The right leg is strongly bent at the knee, with the sole of the right foot just appearing behind the left knee, which is less bent. The right foot, more stretched out, can be seen in front of one of the wheels of the chariot. The horse seem to collide with one another, curling forward, or bending back, their legs flailing as they try to find some form of foothold, vainly seeking security. Each figure has a firm, but soft outline, and the shading is delicate, as if stippled. Individual details are sketched in with the greatest delicacy – tails, manes, facial features. And surrounding them all, there is an atmospheric haze, indicating the horses’ trappings and clouds in the sky.

What can have happened? Well, if you’ve ever given your children driving lessons, look away now.  The story is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which all shapes change: the poet’s message is that the world we live in, and everything in it, is in a state of flux. Phaeton was the son of Phoebus, God of the Sun (we tend to call him Apollo now) – although he grew up in ignorance of the fact. Long story short: he finds out, seeks out his father, and, to prove his paternity Phoebus offers his son anything he wants. Phaeton asks for the use of the chariot of the sun for a day, which would be a bit like driving a Ferrari at full speed over a revolving race track with no breaks, with the combined engine and steering wheel headstrong and out of control. Of course, despite his father’s warnings, Phaeton never had control, shot far too high, and then plummeted towards the earth, causing forests to burn and oceans to boil. Short story shorter: Jupiter was summoned, and solved the problem the only way possible, by blasting chariot and driver out of the sky with a thunderbolt.

At the very top we see the Jupiter, unusually beardless, seated astride his familiar bird amidst the vaporous clouds. The eagle looks round to its master, its legs fully extended on either side – spread-eagled! – and firmly planted on a cloud as if it has slammed on the breaks having arrived at precisely the right point. Jupiter raises his right hand high, twisted 90˚at the waist – so that his shoulders are at right angles to his hips – the torsion giving him the full force necessary to fling the thunderbolt, which is shown as a suitably indistinct, but jagged, blur.

Down below, on the ground, we see distressed, lamenting figures. On the left is a river god, implacably and impossibly pouring the flowing water from a jug, as classical river gods always do. This is Erídanus, which Ovid describes as ‘the longest of rivers’, and which is now a southern constellation, one of the 48 listed by Ptolemy in the 2nd century. According to Ovid, the river ‘received [Phaeton] and washed the smoke from his charred face’. That is where he was buried, and where his three sisters, the Héliades, mourned him. They spent four months in hopeless lamentation, wishing that the earth would just swallow them up, only to realise that they were indeed setting root. They were metamorphosed into poplar trees, and through it all their tears continued, now falling as drops of amber. Also present was Cycnus. ‘He was related to Phaeton through his mother, but feelings of friendship were stronger than kinship,’ Ovid tells us. A later writer, Servius, makes this more explicit – rather than ‘friend’ he uses the word ‘amator’, or lover. Basically, Phaeton’s boyfriend also mourned his death, and was transformed into a swan – Cygnus – another constellation. The quotations are from the Penguin Classics edition of Metamorphoses, but for something meatier, though not as detailed, Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid is more exciting.

The inclusion of Cycnus gives us a hint about the origins of this drawing, and about the person to whom this drawing was presented. In 1532, at the age of 57, Michelangelo met the young nobleman Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, who was probably less than half his age, although his birthdate is unknown. The artist seems to have fallen hopelessly in love. We don’t really know what this meant for Michelangelo, as we know nothing of his relationships in physical terms, or even if there ever were ‘physical terms’ with anyone. However, a correspondence ensued, a number of remarkable poems were written, and several astonishing drawings ‘presented’. They remained friends for life, and Tommaso was one of the few people present at the artist’s death. This is just one of the drawings – I will talk about the others, and how they relate to this one, on Monday. Unlike the other drawings made for Cavalieri, preparatory sketches for this one survive.

The Accademia in Venice has what is probably an initial idea, although the precise ordering of the drawings is not certain. Michelangelo may be rethinking the composition after initially sketching it all out. He is thinking about a more ordered composition here, with Jupiter dead centre, though in a very similar position to the drawing we have seen, at the top of an axis which passes vertically through Phaeton. The main focus is on the horses, though – they are the most highly finished. There are two on either side of a centrally-plummeting Phaeton, with the right-hand pair almost grabbing each other from fear. Phaeton falls headlong, his arms stretching out below him, legs bent above, with the carriage behind. I suspect this idea was rejected as being too neatly arranged given the apocalyptic events of the story. At the bottom the sisters, and possibly also the river, are just sketched in, apparently based, as so often, on male models.

This example is in the collection of the British Museum, and is closer to ours, though less highly finished. It is not so obviously pyramidal, even though Jupiter is still at the top, with the horses below in a different state of disarray, and Phaeton in a similar position. The major difference is down below. Erídanus and the Héliades are in more-or-less the same arrangement, with Cycnus wandering among them. But the sisters are already in a state of transformation, being or becoming trees, their hands close to their faces, or thrown out as branches, with shoots sprouting from their fingers. Unlike the other examples, there is writing on this particular page, probably using the same piece of black chalk with which the image was drawn. It is quite legible, and can be translated. The name referred to is not the city, but Michelangelo’s assistant, and friend, Pietro Urbino. It was he who took the Risen Christ to Rome, installed it, and even carved its final details. This is what it says:

Mr Tommaso, if you don’t like this sketch, tell Urbino so that I have time to do another tomorrow evening as I promised, and if you like it, and would like me to finish it, send it back to me.

What did Tommaso think? We can’t be sure, but the Royal Collection version must be the final, finished work. Either the young man didn’t like it, and what we see is an ‘improvement’, or he did, and rather than finishing the BM’s drawing on the same sheet, Michelangelo made a fine copy, altering his ideas in the process. Both are superb, and I for one would be happy with either. It didn’t end there, though. The drawings Michelangelo sent to Tommaso were highly sought after among the cognoscenti in Rome, to the extent that a highly skilled craftsman, Giovanni Berardi, was commissioned to cut replicas of them in rock crystal. We know this, because Cavalieri wrote to Michelangelo to tell him about it, and I’ll read some of that letter on Monday – as well as suggesting why Michelangelo might have chosen to draw this particular subject. For now, though, I’ll finish by showing you one of the surviving examples in rock crystal, from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The composition is different though (compare and contrast for yourselves) – maybe there was yet another version of the drawing which has subsequently been lost.


169 – Michelangelo’s Lost Love

Alessandro Algardi, Sleep, 1635-6. Museo Borghese, Rome.

Yes, you’re right, this is not a sculpture by Michelangelo. Nor is it, for that matter, ‘Love’. You might have realised that already from the photograph – or for that matter, simply by reading the caption. But I do love this work – and after Bernini’s flashy showpieces on the ground floor of the Museo Borghese I love the calm of this glowing gem which you can find upstairs: Algardi may have been outranked, but he was never outclassed. As I can’t show you Michelangelo’s lost ‘Love’ (for the simple reason that it’s lost), I’m showing you the Algardi instead. However, I wanted to tell you about the renaissance equivalent today, as I won’t feature it in my talk on Monday, 12 September (Michelangelo 2: The Sculptures). There are enough sculptures I can show you without taking time for things we can no longer see. After that, weeks three and four of the series Almost All of Michelangelo will look at The Works on Paper and The Architecture – click on those links or check out the diary for more information. And if you missed the first talk, don’t worry – each one is effectively a free-standing entity. Meanwhile, back to Michelangelo, albeit Michelangelo via Algardi. Look first, think later.

This is, in a way, one of my secret pleasures, something I always look forward to seeing, especially as it is something I see relatively rarely. The Museo Borghese in Rome is a hugely frustrating place, you have to book in advance and even then you only get a two hour slot. At one point you had to check in to the ground floor, check out again, and then check into the first floor, but I think they gave up on that complication fairly early on. When I take groups I find I can spend all two hours on the ground floor looking at the Canova, the Berninis and the Caravaggios: five sculptures and five paintings are more than enough for one visit. But if I can get upstairs (where most of the paintings are) then I will make sure I catch at least a glimpse of this sleeping marvel. However, I will rarely say anything about it, short of ‘look at that – isn’t that wonderful’, which, despite my usual verbosity, should be all that anything really needs. What do I like about it? The richness of the colour, the perfection of the forms, their apparent softness (yes, it’s hard stone) and the roundness of most elements, which adds to the sense of repose created by the total relaxation of this child, helplessly abandoned to a deep sleep.

The child is lying on a sloping ground. The latter is differentiated from the rest of the stone by its rough, unpolished surface, created by small, regular chisel marks which make the black stone look grey. Spread over the ground is a cloth, which, like the infant, is highly polished, the sharper, more angular folds of the fabric contrasting with the rounder forms of the body. The child’s left knee is raised, the sole of the foot resting flat on the ground, with the right foot stretched further out. The left arm, slightly bent, lies by its side, resting on some rounded forms, while the right arm is wrapped around its head – you can just see the right hand resting on top of the hair at the far right. The shoulders are turned slightly towards us, and the chubby face lolls, allowing us to see it from this angle – which is presumably why almost every photograph I can find of the sculpture is taken from this side. As ever, with sculpture, this is so frustrating: it is a three-dimensional art form, this is only a partial view! The eyes are closed, and the mouth downturned – looking a little grumpy, perhaps, but really showing the release of sleep. There is also a creature with a long bushy tail curled up on the rough ground (rather than on the cloth), presumably also fast asleep.

This is not a great photograph, I know, but it is one of very few that does not show the ‘predominant viewpoint’ seen above. It’s surprising there are not more, as this side reveals some new information, and helps us to understand what is going on. This is a boy, for one thing, and he has wings, although they look more like butterfly wings than the usual feathered forms you expect to see on amoretti and angels alike. The subtle twist through the body is more evident from this point of view, with the shoulders turned a little to our right, the knees to our left, a movement that is indeed a common feature of works by Michelangelo. However, there is none of the tension inherent in his output, and the cloth lying on the ground is more fulsome, maybe even more generous – look at the rich, unnecessary folds going down the right side in this photograph. It has all the sensuality of the Baroque – which it is, of course, being by Algardi –  and a dramatic naturalism (at least, I think that if sleep can be dramatic, this is how it would look), which is what separates it from the contrived etiolation of Mannerism.

Without a close up – again, the best that I can find – it is hard to see what the rounded forms under the winged boy’s hand are – but they also form a garland around his head. Even here I suspect it’s not obvious, unless you are an avid, and slightly imaginative, gardener. They are the seed pods of a poppy, the source of opium, and a symbol of Sleep. The butterfly wings, too, belong to this pint-sized personification, as, unlike Cupid’s flapping bird wings, which presumably would wake you up, these would flutter noiselessly as you drift away. The small creature we saw before is a dormouse (I would never have recognised it) – just think of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and you’ll realise they have always symbolised sleep, because they really do sleep for up to seven months a year. The choice of a black material is, of course, not coincidental, as most sleep takes place at night.

The sculpture was carved in what is called Belgian black marble, although it is not, truly speaking, marble (a metamorphic rock, transformed by high temperature and huge pressure), but a very fine-grained carboniferous limestone – a sedimentary rock. It was commissioned in 1635 by Marcantonio Borghese, nephew and heir of Cardinal Scipio Borghese who had built a phenomenal collection of ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ art, and who had died just two years before. We don’t know why, exactly, Marcantonio wanted a personification of Sleep, but it was an image derived from antique prototypes which were popular not only in classical times but also in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Here is another embodiment of a similar idea, and another of my ‘secret pleasures’.

Well, not so much a secret, as a treat I look forward to seeing on the way to talk about something else – usually, in this case, the portraits by Raphael or the ceiling paintings of Pietro da Cortona in the Galleria Palatina in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. It is Caravaggio’s Sleeping Cupid, painted while he was in Malta in 1608. Photography doesn’t always cope well with Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro, and here, if anything, the image is lighter than when the painting is seen in the flesh, when it appears more subtle and evocative, at the same time as allowing the boy greater dignity: the shadows function as a loin cloth, and grant him a deeper repose. He rests on a plank on the stone floor, bow and arrow by his side, his head resting on his quiver. The left wing lies on the ground, the right is just traced across the darkness of the background, both framing the figure and protecting it. Like Algardi’s Sleep, his left arm lies beside him, although the right does not curl round his head. Again there is a Michelangelesque twist through the body, although going the other way – the knees fall towards us, the shoulders are flatter to the floor. But there is still the utter calm of undisturbed slumber.

This is one of the classical prototypes, a Sleeping Cupid in the Uffizi dating from the 2nd Century CE. The idea goes back (as so many Roman ideas do) to the Greeks, and there is a wonderful Greek bronze Sleeping Eros, which was restored by the Romans, in the Met in New York – click on that link if you’d like to see photos, and read a very detailed analysis. I’m showing you this one because it was once – like most things in the Uffizi – part of the Medici collection, and so could easily have been known to Michelangelo. More of that in a moment. Like Algardi’s Sleep, this little chap (he’s only 69 cm long) lies on a cloth on the ground holding poppy seed-heads. This is definitely cupid, though – look at the wings – although there is a butterfly (perhaps not the most naturalistic) lying next to the poppies. His legs are spread, and flat out, while his right arm falls over his chest onto the floor. His left arm curves round his head, and holds onto some sort of bag or cushion to make himself more comfortable.

The Ancient Greek for ‘butterfly’ is Ψυχή – or ‘Psyche’ – which also means ‘soul’, while poppies, as well as referring to sleep, can also imply death, the sleep from which we do not wake. Sad as it is, one of the reasons why this particular genre of sculpture was popular in classical times was its suitability as a marker for the graves of dead children. This was not the motivation behind Algardi’s Sleep, though. Instead it was, like many other of the ‘modern’ sculptures in the Borghese collection, made ‘in competition’ with the classical prototypes – an idea which had been essential for the development of the Renaissance a good two centuries before Algardi turned up in Rome from his native Bologna. Sometimes, though, the admiration and emulation which inspired great art could descend into forgery, with even the greatest falling foul to temptation.

As I discussed last Monday when talking about Michelangelo’s paintings, the young genius was an apprentice in the workshop of painter Domenico Ghirlandaio from the age of 12, in 1487, until he was about 15. Then, from roughly 1490-92, he seems to have studied informally at the Medici sculpture garden. Nobody is really sure how it worked, or who taught him to carve, but I’ll talk a bit more about it on Monday anyway. What is certain is that the garden was home to some of the Medici collection of classical sculpture, potentially including the Sleeping Cupid in the Uffizi (above), and another example, in bigio morato (a different type of black limestone), which might be the ‘cupido nero’ which was a gift to Lorenzo the Magnificent from the King of Naples. After Lorenzo’s death in 1492, and just before the Medici were exiled in 1494, Michelangelo fled – the first of several times he did this – heading first to Venice and then back to Bologna, where he carved a number of figures on the Arca of St Dominic (see 159 – Michelangelo, holding a candle). On his return to Florence in the autumn of 1495 he worked for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, who was from a different branch of the family to the previous (unofficial) rulers. It was then that Michelangelo carved his own Sleeping Cupid in emulation of the antique. Vasari mentions it the first edition of his Lives in 1550, and in his biography, three years later, Condivi gives us more information, describing it as ‘a god of love, aged six or seven years old and asleep’. Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco approved, and also suggested to Michelangelo that he if he sold it in Rome as an antique, he would get a better price than if it was marketed as his own work. Indeed, a dealer managed to sell it to Cardinal Raffaele Riario, one of the nephews of Pope Sixtus IV, for 200 ducats – although he told Michelangelo that he’d got 30, which is what a ‘modern’ sculpture might have fetched. However, Riario found out it was modern and sent for the young upstart who had deceived him. The Cardinal returned the Cupid to the dealer, but commissioned another work from Michelangelo – which he then also rejected (more of that on Monday, too). In later life Michelangelo claimed that Riario had never bothered to commission anything from him, covering his back, no doubt, for the double rejection.

So what happened to the Cupid? It went back on the market, and initially Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, showed an interest in it – until she found out that it was modern. At this point nobody really knew who Michelangelo was. It’s not clear what happened to it next, but somehow it ended up in Urbino, where it was seized by Cesare Borgia (son of the Pope) when he sacked the city. In 1502 he gave it to none other than Isabella d’Este, who, by this time, would probably have heard of the young sculptor who had carved a Bacchus and a Pietà in Rome. She exhibited it alongside a genuine, classical cupid (with an unlikely attribution to Praxiteles) which she acquired a few years later. Both remained in the Gonzaga Collection in Mantua until the 17th Century, when the family’s fortunes had waned, and much of the remains of their collection were sold to King Charles I of England. There are references to it in inventories of the Royal Collection, and even, potentially, a drawing, but sadly it seems that the sculpture could well have been destroyed along with almost all of the Palace of Whitehall in the fire of 1698. But what did it look like? Condivi’s description gives us few clues, nor do any of the descriptions in the Gonazaga or Royal Collection inventories – apart from the fact that, unlike other versions (Isabella’s classical Cupid, for example) it was not lying on a lion skin. However, we might get an idea from a painting in the National Gallery.

Workshop of Giulio Romano The Infancy of Jupiter mid 1530s Oil on wood, 106.4 x 175.5 cm Bought, 1859 NG624 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG624

This is The Infancy of Jupiter from the workshop of Giulio Romano, painted in the mid-1530s. Giulio, you may remember from the recent Raphael exhibition, was probably the great master’s ablest associate, and ran what remained of the workshop after his death. However, with the Sack of Rome in 1527 he fled the Eternal City and headed north, where he did great work for the Gonzaga family, effectively taking over from Mantegna as Court Artist (at 21 years remove). The painting shows the infant Jupiter, who was saved from the fate of his siblings by his mother, Ops. His father, Saturn, did not want to be overthrown, so had eaten his other children at birth. When Jupiter was born, Ops gave Saturn a stone to eat in place of her new-born, and placed the baby in the care of the Corybantes. This was a good choice, it seems, as they were a holy heavy metal group, dancers dedicated to the Goddess Cybele, who played loud music and clashing cymbals to cover the sound of the baby crying (see far left and right) so that Saturn would not discover him.

Jupiter lies on a white sheet in a wickerwork cradle, his legs apart, with his his left arm lying by his side, and the right arm wrapped around his head. The legs are not dissimilar to those of the classical Cupid from the Uffizi, whereas the arms are more similar to Algardi’s Sleep (which is actually the same arrangement as in the Medici bigio morato Cupid).  It is assumed that Giulio’s model was none other than Michelangelo’s fake, which he would have seen as part of the Gonzaga collection. There is a version of it in Corsham Court in Wiltshire – go and have a look if any of you are in the area: I can’t find a good photograph of it. Some people have suggested that it is indeed Michelangelo’s original, but very few have ever been convinced. We’ll just have to imagine a small figure in white marble with legs like the first of following, and arms like the second… and then console ourselves for its loss by enjoying the multitude of Michelangelo’s surviving sculptures which I will talk about on Monday.


168 – Michelangelo: Leaning back, looking forward

Michelangelo, Jonah, c. 1511-12. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

I’m just about to start a new series of lectures, Almost All of Michelangelo, and we kick off this Monday 5 September with The Paintings. Unlike my previous online talks, these will be two hour sessions, and will last from 5.30-7.30pm – with a ten minute gap in the middle. So far only this and the second talk, The Sculptures (Monday 12 September) are on sale, but the following two (The Works on Paper and The Architecture) will be released after the talk on Monday evening. As ever, for other in-person and online talks, not to mention overseas tours, please check out the diary. Today, as an introduction (as if any were needed) to the work of this extraordinary genius, I want to talk about my favourite figure in the Sistine Chapel. It’s a hard choice, given that there are so many, and, if I’m honest, I keep changing my mind anyway. But here we go.

This is Jonah. Like the other prophets and sibyls his name is painted on a plaque underneath his feet (as we will see when I show you another detail), but unlike the others, there is enough narrative detail here that we don’t actually need the label. More of that later. He sits on an imposing stone throne, which here, perhaps more than in the other examples, looks profoundly uncomfortable. A massive slab of stone forms the seat, with two square, cylindrical ‘legs’ stretching down to the footrest – not that his feet reach that far. Precisely how these ‘legs’ are attached to the seat is not clear, as they are covered by some red/green drapery, presumably a shot silk, which, together with some folds of his white loin cloth, is the only padding between prophet and stone. Another featureless slab of stone forms the back of the throne, with two ‘arms’ made of square columns, into each of which have been carved a pair of putti. Jonah leans back, away from us and to our left, while looking up to our right and pointing down in the opposite direction. He is looking up towards God, no doubt, and pointing to some aspect of his story, but precisely which aspect is not defined. As well as the loin cloth, short enough to reveal the full length of his legs, he wears a tight, pale bodice clinging to the underlying anatomy. Emerging from this is an undershirt – although what we can see of it is remarkably untidy.  As the closest part of his body to us, the legs benefit from Michelangelo’s full attention, with precise details of musculature and skeletal structure clearly defined subcutaneously thanks to the fall of light from top right to bottom left. Leaning back as he is, his feet do not reach the ‘ground’ – his right foot hovers above it, while the toe of the left, which is slightly less flexed, almost touches the marble footrest. This proximity is also conveyed by the shadow, visible close to the left foot, below and a little to our left. The shadow of the right foot is further from its origin, and only the toe of the shadow lands on the horizontal surface.

The two figures who are not Jonah are presumably agents of God – angels – involved in the miraculous events of the prophet’s narrative, which of course involve an enormous fish. Everyone thinks it was a whale, but no, that was Pinocchio. This is what it says in Jonah 1:17,

Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

So yes, it is a great fish, although it is still in some way symbolic, as, however big, I can’t quite believe that you could get all of Jonah inside it. Of course, if it were big enough, there would be no space for Jonah on the throne. More than one angler has identified the fish as an Atlantic tarpon, while also wondering how the artist could possibly have seen one – but as I’m not a fish person, I’ll just give you links to the articles posted in 2012 and 2015 and leave you to think about it. What is clearer is that, at the end of the story, Jonah is sitting in the shade of a gourd tree, and we can see that growing up over his left shoulder. And the story itself? Well, there are only four chapters, so why not read it here? Or, short story shorter, Jonah was sent, by God, to tell the people of Nineveh that they were bad, and that He would kill them. Jonah didn’t want to do this, so ran away on a ship, so God sent a storm. Jonah told the sailors to throw him overboard, as it must be his fault. They didn’t want to, but when they couldn’t get the ship to shore, decided that this was, in fact, their best option – at which point God sent the fish. At the end of verse nine of chapter two Jonah states, ‘Salvation is of the Lord’ (remember the idea of Salvation), and this is followed by,

And the LORD spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.

If we are at this stage of the story, it is hardly surprising that his clothes are in disarray… but there is more. He goes to Nineveh finally, preaches to the people, and they repent. God does not kill them. For some reason this really angers Jonah, and he storms out of the city and sulks, sitting in the shade of a tent and waiting for the city to be destroyed. God causes a gourd tree to grow up and shade Jonah further, ‘So Jonah was exceedingly glad of the gourd’ (Jonah 4:6)– until the next day (4:7):

But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered.  

By this stage Jonah had really lost the will to live. God just chides him gently, saying (roughly speaking) ‘You seem to be more concerned about the gourd than the people of Nineveh. I made the gourd, and I can make another. I also made all the people of Nineveh, so don’t you think I can do what I like and show mercy to whom I please?’ At which point the story ends. But what is the point of the story in the context of the chapel? Well, we’ll come back to that when we’ve seen where Jonah sits.

He is in the most prominent position, dead centre, above the altar, not far above Christ at the Last Judgement (which wasn’t there, of course, when he was painted – but more about that on Monday). Like his fellow prophets and sibyls he sits on the curving section of the vault, a transition between walls and ceiling. If we were to enter through the Ecclesiastical West Door (geographically it’s actually the other way round, but never mind), he would be one of the first things we saw. However, tourists enter through the door at the bottom right of the Last Judgement. Suspiciously this is directly underneath the depiction of the mouth of hell – are the directors of the Vatican Museums trying to tell us something? It is as if we, unlike the other damned, are escaping everlasting torment only to endure the purgatory that visits to the Sistine tend to be these days. And what are the little yellow squares at the bottom of this image? Well, it comes from my new favourite website, a high-resolution virtual model of the whole chapel hosted by the Vatican itself. Click on the link, and I’ll see you in a couple of months when you’ve finished looking round.

The four corners of the chapel are filled by four fan-shaped areas often called pendentives, like the triangular units which help support a circular dome above a square space beneath. The stories depicted here are important to understand the relevance of Jonah in this prime position. To our left we see the Crucifixion of Haman, from the Book of Esther (ten chapters…). Haman had secretly plotted to have all the Jews killed. Esther was both Jewish, and Queen, and went to her husband Ahasuerus (the King) to tell him about the plot, even though no one – not even his wife – was admitted to his presence without his express permission. However, he pointed towards her, thus granting her the right to speak (and also to live). Michelangelo has imagined him reclining in bed on the right of the pendentive. Eventually Esther, Haman and the King dine together – the scene in the background on the left – and Esther reveals the plot, which leads to Haman’s execution on the gallows he had previously prepared for Mordecai, Esther’s adoptive father. Now, Haman was hung on the gallows, not crucified, as Michelangelo shows here (in the most tortured foreshortening), but Michelangelo knew his Dante, and Dante said that Haman was crucified. It is the story of Esther which is celebrated by Jews during the feast of Purim. For early Christian theologians, though, Esther was seen as the ‘type’ of Mary. The word ‘type’ comes from printing – the typeface letter ‘M’ will print an ‘M’ on the page, for example – and Esther is the ‘type’ of Mary as she is the idea periods which models the realisation: both are virtuous women whose action results in the salvation of their people. This symbolism was used throughout the medieval and renaissance and well beyond. In this particular instance it is worthwhile remembering that the Sistine Chapel was actually dedicated to the Mary, and specifically to the Assumption of the Virgin, and so this story is especially important. At the other end of the chapel we find Judith and Holofernes, who, like Esther, saves her people through her actions – she is another type of the Virgin.

The story in the other pendentive is perhaps more familiar. It comes from the Book of Numbers, Chapter 21: 4-9. The people of Israel were travelling from Egypt towards the promised land, and were complaining about the lack of food and water. God sent a plague of serpents to punish them, they realised their mistake, asked Moses to intervene, and God told Moses what to do – make a serpent of brass. You can see it erected on a pole in the middle of the image. Numbers 21:9 says,

And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

In the same way that Esther was the type of Mary, the Brazen Serpent (as it became known) was the type of Jesus on the Cross. It even says as much in the bible.  According to John 3:14-15, Jesus himself said,

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

Salvation is relevant to the story of Esther, to the story of Moses and the Brazen serpent, and to the story of Jonah. According to Matthew 12:40 Jesus said

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

So the story of Jonah and the whale (yes, it does say whale) is the type of the death and resurrection of Jesus, which is precisely why Michelangelo has given it such an important position in the chapel, directly above the altar. It could even be that, rather than leaning back, Jonah is in the process of sitting up, a physical action expressive of resurrection, having been ‘vomited… upon the dry land’. In terms of his position in the chapel, he is looking up towards God the Father dividing night and day on the ceiling, and appears to be pointing down to the forgiving Ahasuerus – so we have death, resurrection and forgiveness, night and day. This is just as well, as you would be hard pressed to find an image of the Crucifixion in the Sistine Chapel. Rather oddly it is hidden away in the background of one of the scenes on the walls, visible through the one of the windows in Cosimo Rosselli’s Last Supper at the far end of the chapel. Michelangelo uses this figure of Jonah leaning back to look forward to the Crucifixion, to Christ’s death and resurrection, thus making it symbolically more present. However, this theological complexity doesn’t really go all the way towards explaining why he is my favourite figure.

It is, quite simply, the technical brilliance of it all. To unify the ceiling and its many disparate elements Michelangelo has created an underlying architectonic structure. There are seven prophets and five sibyls all seated on these enormous, unforgiving thrones, one at either end, and five atop each wall. Sitting on the arms of the thrones along the sides of the chapel are the twenty ignudi, ten pairs of naked men. You can just see bits of them in this detail, but there is no space for them above Jonah’s throne, as the others are in the way. Behind the ignudi are pilaster strips which link one side of the chapel to the other, and also frame the old testament stories on the ceiling. But just above Jonah’s throne is a detail that is very often missed, partly because it is so plain. Above the cornice which goes round the top of the throne and ties the whole ceiling together – just as, by Michelangelo’s design, there is a cornice that is continuous around the tops of the walls inside St Peter’s – there is a thin strip of pale blue. It is the sky, seen through the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. You can only see it here, and at the other end of the ceiling, because elsewhere there are pictures in the way – the stories of the creation and fall. The prophets and sibyls are sat where they are to console us. They are intermediaries, letting us know, whatever is painted above them on the ceiling, that, thanks to what is painted below them on the walls, we, at the very bottom of the chapel, will be redeemed.

The continuous cornice implies that the walls of the chapel end above the heads of the prophets and sibyls, and that their thrones are the vertical continuation of those walls. We can buy into that illusion because they appear to be flat in front of our eyes, because this is the part of the vault which curves from vertical to horizontal. As we look up they are effectively on a curving diagonal at right angles to our direction of vision: we could equally well be looking at right angles to the vertical wall. But what that means for Jonah is that he is leaning back on a piece of vaulting which is actually curving forward – and as a feat of foreshortening this is unparalleled. I think Condivi, who wrote his biography of Michelangelo in 1553, put it better. When praising the prophets and sibyls he said,

But marvellous beyond all of them is the Prophet Jonah, placed at the head of the vault. This is for the reason that against the plane of this vault and through the power of light and shadow, the torso, which is foreshortened to recede inwards, is in the part which is nearer to the eye, and the legs which project forwards are in the part farther away. A stupendous work , and one which makes clear how much knowledge this man had of principles and the use of line in creating foreshortenings and perspectives.

Not only that – but Jonah is a true giant, but one so far away that you can’t possibly measure how big he really is. Gianluigi Collalucci can help us. He was a paintings conservator most famed for his work on the Sistine Chapel between 1980 and 1994. This is photograph of him next to Jonah. Enough said. Just as well, you say, but sadly I won’t have time to go into every figure with this much detail on Monday!


167 – Looking back, moving on

Tom Hunter, Woman Reading a Possession Order, 1997. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

I don’t think I’ve written about a photograph before (correct me if I’m wrong), but this one is rather beautiful, and featured in the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition Reframed: The Woman in the Window to which I will be returning this Monday, 29 September to finish my talk from a few weeks back. It turned out that there is just too much there to talk about in one session. The exhibition is a rich and endlessly rewarding investigation of a ubiquitous motif, and this week I will be focussing on the photographic and ‘modern’ works which are on display. The following week I will start my four-part series Almost All of Michelangelo – as ever, each part will be an independent talk, so you don’t have to sign up for all four! You can find details on the diary page, together with information about two in-person talks for Art History Abroad at the National Gallery on 23 September and 20 October. And for anyone who missed my series on sculpture, I am condensing it into two 90-minute online talks for the Watts Gallery at 11am on 5 and 12 September – again, details are in the diary. But today, a photograph from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum which I have seen not only in the current exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery but previously at the National Gallery and the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden: you’ll see why very quickly. I did talk about it briefly in Part 1 of Women Seeing… but I’ve learnt a lot more about it since.

A woman stands in a shabby room looking down at a piece of folded paper held between her hands. In front of her is a dirty sash window, which sheds light on her, and on a baby lying on a blue cloth on a table in the foreground of the photograph. This table would block our access to her if we were physically present. Under the blue cloth is what appears to be a rug, rucked up like the broad folds of the blue cloth. The baby, wearing blue trousers and a red top with matching socks, lies on its back with its arms spread out. The top of its head is brilliantly illuminated, the light also catching its right cheek, which tells us that its gaze is turned, deliberately or by chance, towards the woman, who is, by implication, its mother. The walls of the room are painted off-white at the bottom, and a dull orangey-yellow above. The join is at the level of the cross-bar of the sash window. If the woman were to lift her head from the paper, it would be at her eye-level. Two brackets support a simple shelf, which is attached to the back wall with three undefined objects resting on it, two at the left, and one, almost ‘off screen’, at the right. There appear to be nails in the wall, and something, possible a picture, hanging to the far right.

I find the quality of the light really beautiful – it creates an atmosphere of profound calm. A surprising number of people used to doubt photography’s status as art, and perhaps some still do, their attitude based on the misunderstanding that it is ‘merely reproduction’ and that ‘anyone can do it’. But then anyone can paint with oils on canvas. However, in this case, I think the way in which the model has been posed to catch a very specific fall of light is just one of the aspects of the work which reveal Tom Hunter’s artistry. Notice how the light falls directly onto the model’s face and hands, which, as a result, are the brightest elements here, meaning that we focus on them. It falls tangentially across the paper, ensuring that the paper stsand out, but does not pull focus from the hands and face. The dull green top also catches direct light, though interrupted in places by the window frame, and models the form from a light, olive green on the left to deep shadow, almost black, on the right, where it is crisply defined against the off-white wall. I find the model’s expression indefinable. She is deep in thought, undoubtedly, but whether this is good news or bad does not yet appear to have sunk in. Having said that, we are told by the title of the photograph: Woman Reading a Possession Order. This is how the work is currently exhibited in the Dulwich Picture Gallery:

To the far left is a post card by Oscar Kokoschka entitled Woman at a Window, made for the Wiener Werkstätte in 1908. Like our photograph it is on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum. On the far right is Gerrit Dou’s A Woman Playing a Clavichord, from about 1665, in Dulwich’s own collection. Each has a white label, whereas our piece has three additional elements associated with it: a white label, which also has an image on it; a grey panel (‘Another Perspective’ on the work, written by a perceptive student from a local school); and a mounted and framed piece of paper. This is the last of these:

It would appear to be the very possession order of the title, the paper which the woman is holding in the photograph. However, there are no visible folds. Initially I thought that it must have been ironed, but I went back to Dulwich yesterday to catch the exhibition one last time – and get some better photographs of some of the works for Monday’s talk – which meant I could check the label: this turns out to be a photocopy of the original. Nevertheless, it reveals that what we are looking at in the photograph is not a fiction. The paper is inscribed in (photocopied) pen at the top ‘ORIGINAL SUMMONS’ and bears three official stamps, one of which is dated 17 JAN 1997. The text starts,








There is more, of course, but I’ll leave it there, as we have got to the title of a series of photographs Tom Hunter took in 1997: Persons Unknown. Curiously, as I headed out to Dulwich yesterday there was a man outside my local pub, which, since I arrived here twenty years ago has closed three times and only re-opened twice. For the last three of four years it has been a squat. The man was affixing an equivalent possession order to the door of the pub, similarly addressed to ‘Persons Unknown’.  At the time Tom Hunter took his photograph he was in his last year at the Royal College of Art, and living in a squat in Hackney – 8, London Lane, as specified above – when he, together with the other squatters, were sent a summons for a hearing at which the Mayor and Burgesses would put forward their claim for re-possession of the premises. They were being evicted, and Hunter made this event the subject of his work, using his fellow squatters as his models. I don’t know what your experience of, or feelings about squatting are, but there is a rather lovely video on the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s website with a discussion between Hunter and his model, dancer Filipa Pereira-Stubbs, about their memories of the squat, what they thought they were giving to the community, and of the photo shoot. You can find it via this link on YouTube. She was 27 at the time, and 25 years later she still has the same poise and beauty. And, of course, her daughter Saskia is now more-or-less the age that she was when this photo was taken. From the whole sequence of portraits, both of individuals and groups, this particular image won the John Kobal Photographic Portrait award in 1998, and has been widely exhibited since. But why has it been shown in the galleries I mentioned? If you haven’t recognised it already, the answer is given by the image on the white label next to this work in the exhibition, which you can see (just about) in the photo above.

This is Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (1657-9), from the collection of the Dresden Gemäldegalerie. This particular version is the one that Hunter and Pereira would have known in 1997. He gave her a book of Vermeer’s paintings to choose which one they would interpret, and this was the one she went for. He was then incredibly rigorous, insisting that they get the exact pose – the tilt of the head, the precise level of the hands – and so on. In the original, the table which blocks our access has a rumpled carpet, but no baby, although there is a bowl of fruit: a different symbol of fertility. For Vermeer there is a curtain, but no real change in colour on the walls – although there does appear to be a darker patch above and behind the woman’s head, at the level of her eye line. Vermeer’s window is open, Pereira’s closed. Both are assessing the news, with Pereira deciding what to do next. For this reason, perhaps, there is a greater focus on the figure, with less space given over to the blank wall. However, let’s look back to the exhibition in Dulwich.

Even on this small scale, you may notice that the Vermeer as illustrated does not appear to be the same as the reproduction I have shown you. An X-ray of the painting taken in 1979 showed that the dark patch on the wall was covering another image. It was believed back then that Vermeer himself had painted over it. However, when they started to clean the Vermeer just four or five years ago, the conservator involved soon noticed that the paint in this dark patch was responding very differently to that on the rest of the surface. A tiny sample of the paint (which you would only ever take from a part of the painting that was already cracked, in case you were worried) was examined in cross-section. This revealed that the painting had been varnished, and a substantial layer of dirt had built up on top of the varnish, before the image was then painted over. This implies that Vermeer himself had not done it. Indeed, it was probably done after the original painting had got quite dirty: the colour of the wall for the overpainting was matched to the dirty paint of the original section of the wall. When it was subsequently cleaned, the original colour would have been revealed on the original bit of wall, but not on the overpaint, hence the dark patch. An international conference of Vermeer experts and conservators then made the incredibly brave decision to remove the overpaint (the original varnish was acting as a safety net!), and this is what they found:

As they knew from the 1979 X-ray, an entire painting of Cupid had been covered over. It’s not entirely clear when this was done, but probably in the first half of the 18th Century, just before the painting was acquired for the Dresden collection. The presence of the little god of love suggests that the woman is reading a love letter. Her lover is in all probability far away – in the ‘outside world’, hence the open window. It is this restored version that is illustrated on the label, and comes with a suggestion in the catalogue that the baby in the photograph is effectively the result of Cupid’s action. This is not inaccurate, even if it is not what Hunter or Pereira would have known or been influenced by.

The photograph of the Vermeer above shows how the painting is currently exhibited – I am very grateful to Mark Haimann for tracking it down for me. The bottom of the curtain hangs just above the picture frame, suggesting it is not meant to be in the room with the woman, but hanging in front of the painting itself – a trompe l’oeil game implying that Vermeer was good enough to trick us into pulling it back further to see more of the hidden image. I am also interested in what the painting looks like without the frame.

Look at the very bottom right corner of the painting: a rounded shape tells us that there was originally going to be a large Dutch glass, known as a roemer, standing on a shelf in the foreground, out of proportion with everything in the painting. You might just be able to see the ghostly outline of the rest of the glass through the curtain above the base. The implication would have been that the roemer was in our space, on a shelf in front of the painting, which might originally have been set into a perspective box. Vermeer changed his mind, though, and replaced it with the curtain. In the 17th Century paintings in the Netherlands (and elsewhere) were often protected by curtains like this, hanging, it would seem, from rails attached to the frame (just like this one pretends to be). When painted, as well as showing us Vermeer’s skill, it also tells us how learned he was: it is a reference to a story Pliny told about a competition between two artists. Parrhasius, who won the competition, painted a curtain which his rival Zeuxis tried to pull back to reveal a painting – not realising that the curtain was the painting. Having tricked a fellow painter, Parrhasius must surely have been the better artist. All this is coincidental when considering Hunter and Pereira’s beautiful – and, I think, meaningful – collaboration. But it is because Vermeer was such a great artist, who showed an interest in the life of his community, that Hunter chose him – and that Pereira chose this particular image – to be reinterpreted. And, of course, it is precisely because I get easily side-tracked like this that I am giving a second talk, Women Looking 2… on Monday!


166 – From C- to Sea

Barbara Hepworth, Pelagos, 1946. Tate.

As so often, things have turned out to be more complicated than I expected – and that refers not just to today’s post, but also to what, exactly, I’m going to be doing in September. This much is settled: on Monday 22 August I will be giving a talk entitled Negative Spaces 3: Barbara Hepworth, as an introduction to the work of one of Britain’s greatest sculptors, and in parallel with the superb, touring exhibition Life and Work which is currently at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. The following week, I will return to the Dulwich Picture Gallery, with Women Looking 2… Then, as I’m not sure what September holds, and I’m not sure how much travelling and seeing I’ll be able to do, I am going to revive a 4-part course I did for the National Gallery a while back. This will be different to my usual Monday talks, as each one will last 2 hours: for the four Mondays in September, (starting on the fifth) I aim to talk about Almost All of Michelangelo. You can find links to book for each individual talk on the diary page… But for today, I would like to look at one of my favourite Hepworth sculptures, and maybe untangle the strings that tie her to Naum Gabo, the subject of last week’s post.

Pelagos 1946 Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975 Presented by the artist 1964 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00699

I’d like to start by taking you on a walk around the sculpture, without telling you anything about it, apart from what I see. Admittedly this is led by what I already know is there, but I’ll try to keep my observations to the purely visual. The title, Pelagos, is in the heading above, but I will tell you that Pelagos is one of the Greek words for ‘sea’: this might influence your own interpretation of what we are looking at, which I would strongly encourage. In some ways I want to try and approximate the possibilities of ‘slow looking’ – and at each stage you might want to consider what images or ideas – if any – the sculpture evokes for you. Starting, almost at random, from this particular viewpoint (above), we can see a hollowed out form, which is more-or-less spherical, sitting on top of a rectangular wooden base. As it happens, it is ovoid, but we’d probably need to measure it, or move around (as we shall), to make this clear. Like the base this ovoid is carved from wood, which is left visible on the exterior, while the interior is painted a light colour – white, or bluish-grey. There are two projections, or arms, which curve around, with squarish, but rounded ends. They are joined together seven times by a string which is threaded through holes in the two ‘tongues’.

Pelagos 1946 Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975 Presented by the artist 1964 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00699

Moving to our right – anti-clockwise around the sculpture – it is perhaps more obvious that the arms are carved out of a single form, but presumably have a gap between them. Seen square on to the long side of the base, the arms reach the same distance across the central void. The exterior of the ovoid is polished, but not highly: it has a matte sheen.

Pelagos 1946 Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975 Presented by the artist 1964 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00699

The arm which is further back here is far more curved than the other, which is why it appeared lower down in the previous image. The grain of the wood and its sheen are more evident here.

Pelagos 1946 Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975 Presented by the artist 1964 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00699

Seen flat on to one of the short sides of the base, it is clearer that the two arms are curling round and in, and the distance between the two – which is not that great – becomes more obvious. What I described as the ‘lower’ arm is also the ‘upper one’, the result of its greater curvature – the other arm is far more ‘open’, or less curved. The long diagonal formed by the light interior – from top left to bottom right here – implies that the right side of the sculpture (seen from this point of view) appears more open. At the top, between the arms, the paint looks to be pale blue, whereas below and to the right it looks lighter: this is presumably the effect of the shadow higher up.

Pelagos 1946 Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975 Presented by the artist 1964 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00699

This side of the sculpture is indeed more open, and the painted interior forms a backdrop to the wood of more convoluted arm. The smooth curves of the interior overlap to create a point: remember this in relationship to the drawing which I will show you below.

Pelagos 1946 Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975 Presented by the artist 1964 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00699

Seen flat on to the second long side of the base, the negative space created by the two arms takes on its full value, and could be seen as being held in place by the arms. The more open one is hardly visible here, although the strings indicate its position. The more convoluted arm defines three concentric loops – the wooden exterior, the border between the wood and the paint, and the negative space within the paint. It has to be said that Hepworth herself might not have been too keen on these particular photographs – placing the sculpture against a plain, white background takes away the value of the space: something should be seen through every hole. She frequently photographed her sculptures – even the wooden ones – in her garden, thus giving them a place in the world and in our appreciation of it. I’ll leave the last two images for you to describe for yourselves.

Pelagos 1946 Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975 Presented by the artist 1964 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00699
Pelagos 1946 Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975 Presented by the artist 1964 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00699

More about the physicality of the sculpture: the materials are given, both on the Tate website and in Eleanor Clayton’s superb book Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life (which accompanies the exhibition) as ‘Elm and strings on oak base’. There is no mention of the paint, even though a work from more-or-less the same period, Wave, is described as being made of ‘wood, paint and string’. The paint was originally pale blue, which presumably relates to the title, Pelagos, or ‘Sea’. However, Hepworth often had problems with blue paint, as it often faded. In the end she decided that the matte quality of the paint was more important than the colour, contrasting as it did with the sheen of the wood. At one point the interior was even repainted white. Eleanor Clayton, who is also the curator of the exhibition, tells us, when speaking of Wave, that, ‘The strings are fishing line, connecting materially with the sea and the human community whose livelihoods are bound up with this elemental force’. Given that our sculpture is also called ‘sea’ – albeit in Greek – I am sure that fishing line was used again. It is undoubtedly relevant that Hepworth was living in Cornwall, and near to the coast, at the time the sculpture was made. She described the view from her studio, ‘looking straight towards the horizon of the sea and enfolded (but with always the escape for the eye straight out to the Atlantic) by the arms of the land to the left and right of me’ – which makes Pelagos look less like an abstract sculpture than an accurate description of the landscape. Indeed, Hepworth description was completed with the phrase, ‘I have used this idea in Pelagos’.

In addition to this landscape-inspired interpretation of the sculpture, a statement written for a retrospective exhibition of her work in 1954 – eight years after Pelagos was made – includes Hepworth’s summation of three different ‘types’ of sculpture which had long been important to her. Of these, the third was,

… ‘the closed form’, such as the oval, spherical or pierced form (sometimes incorporating colour) which translates for me the association of meaning of gesture in landscape; in the repose of say a mother & child, or the feeling of the embrace of living things, either in nature or in the human spirit.

So, as well as being an image of the landscape, it is also an expression of the relationship between people. Perhaps the two arms of the sculpture could be seen as two arms reaching around a central space, embracing a void – like the gap that parents feel when children leave them. Look back at the pictures above – there is one I find particularly reminiscent of a ‘mother & child’, and I’d be interested to hear if you see that too. But where do the strings fit into this? Well, we all have invisible ties to people and places. Hepworth herself stated that they represent ‘the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind or the hills,’ but, like everything else, they are open to more than one interpretation, and refer to more than one ‘tension’. It is all, in some way, related to our experience here on Earth. For this very reason, the base is important. It is not a subsidiary element, but an essential part of the sculpture – the ovoid form, the arms, the strings – everything is seen in relationship to this flat rectangle, everything is part of a specific environment.  

And what of the question hanging over from last week? What is the relationship to the work of Russian Constructivist Naum Gabo? Well, it’s simply the string really. As I said last week, Gabo arrived in London in 1935, and moved to Carbis Bay in Cornwall shortly after his friends Barbara Hepworth and her husband Ben Nicholson moved there in 1939. It was at that point that he started using nylon thread in his sculptures. The first was Linear Construction No. 1 of 1942-3. I included an illustration last week, but here it is again for good measure.

Linear Construction No. 1 1942-3 Naum Gabo 1890-1977 Presented by Miss Madge Pulsford 1958 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00191

There are several versions and variants of this piece, all of which seem to have more or less the same date. It is called ‘linear’ construction, because of the straight lines made by the nylon filament. Seen together, these become tangents to a virtual curved line. In the 1930s Hepworth and Nicholson became active members of the European avant garde, and became particularly associated with the Constructivist movement. In 1937 the book Circle: International Survey of Constructivist Art was published in London. Its editors were none other than Naum Gabo and Ben Nicholson, together with architect Leslie Martin, while Hepworth designed the layout, as well as being responsible for the production of the book and writing one of the essays. At the time her sculptures had names like Three Forms (1935), Ball, Plane and Hole (1936) and Pierced Hemisphere (1937) – entirely abstract titles. On moving to Carbis Bay in 1939 things started to change. In part, this was the result of the war – materials were not readily available, and she was left with full responsibility for looking after her four children, leaving precious little time to work – and precious little material to work with. When she could grab a moment she would draw. Here, for example, is Oval Form No. 2, from 1942:

Many of the drawings executed at this time were titled Drawing for Sculpture. These were not plans for sculptures as such, but explorations of the possibilities of three dimensional forms. I have chosen this example because it considers the inner geometry of an oval, as many of them do. If you look back, you’ll see that some of the overlapping curves in this drawing are not unlike some of the views of Pelagos above. Notice how, in a Constructivist way, she builds the drawings from separate lines and geometric shapes. Notice too, that two of the curves are constructed from overlapping straight lines. There is every possibility that this work precedes Gabo’s sculpture (the drawing is dated 1942, Linear Construction No. 1 is 1942-3), rather than being inspired by it. As it happens, there are plenty of drawings from 1941 using similar ideas. And anyway, Hepworth used string for the first time in a piece called Sculpture with Colour (Deep Blue and Red), which she completed in 1940. So maybe it is not Gabo influencing Hepworth, but the other way round? However, I should show you two other works, both by Gabo: Sphere Construction of a Fountain and Construction in Space (Crystal), dated 1937 and 1937-9 respectively.

The former, as far as I am aware, has not survived, while the latter is just about holding on in the Tate collection. Gabo used new materials, not all of which have stood the test of time. Cellulose acetate in particular – from which these two were made – is not as stable as was initially believed. Both use threads of some form. Gabo had also incised lines into his plastics. He didn’t start using nylon thread until 1939, perhaps, but ‘lines’ had been an element of his work for some time before this. What we are seeing is a shared idea, a common interest, a new way of defining space through line, and, as in one of the interpretations of Pelagos, the fact that both Hepworth and Gabo used ‘string’ of one form or another is as much an indicator of their artistic relationship as anything else. However, it is also an indicator of the differences between them. Hepworth was profoundly affected by living in Cornwall, and, having been an avid Constructivist in London, in 1946 she wrote to her friend Margaret Gardiner, ‘I hope my work will always be constructive but I don’t want to be called a “c-ist” any more than “Nicholson”’. By the time she was fully settled into Cornwall, the titles of her works changed: Wave (1943-4), Landscape Sculpture (1944) and Pelagos (1946) are just three examples. Her art was always part and parcel of her lived experience – hence the title of Eleanor Clayton’s book and exhibition – and that applies to the works with abstract titles as well as those with more lyrical, picturesque names. And there are plenty more! On Monday I’m planning to talk about several which are not in the Edinburgh exhibition, hence my comment in the first paragraph that my talk is ‘in parallel’ with the exhibition, rather than an introduction to it, as other talks in this series have been… just so you’re warned!


165 – Sculpture Ban

Naum Gabo, Revolving Torsion, Fountain, 1972-3. Tate, on loan to St Thomas’ Hospital, London.

OK, I’m not suggesting that art has been censored here, but as a fantastic embodiment of Naum Gabo’s art, his Revolving Torsion, Fountain, on long term loan from Tate to St Thomas’ Hospital, has probably been switched off in line with the hosepipe bans which are (or should be) in place by now, given the imminent, if not current, drought. It is, after all, a fountain, and as much as fountains are highly decorative, they are also a profligate use of water. Having said that, when I have walked over Westminster Bridge and past St Thomas’, the fountain has only sometimes been working, but I don’t know if there is any rhyme or reason for this. I want to look at it today only partly because I am interested in the use of water as a sculptural medium, but also because its ethos is related to the work of Barbara Hepworth, the subject of my next talk (Monday 22 August at 6pm). The following week I will return to Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition, The Woman in the Window, for the cut-price part 2 of my introduction Women Looking… I’m also looking forward to more talks ‘in person’ at the National Gallery for Art History Abroad. They will introduce the Winslow Homer and Lucien Freud exhibitions, on 23 September and 20 October respectively, and you can read more about those on the diary page of my website. I will repeat these talks online for those who aren’t free on those dates, or can’t make it to London, and will let you know the dates as soon as they are fixed. Sadly I can no long go on the trip to Porto this year, but AHA will be announcing next year’s tour schedule soon.

So just what is it about this fountain that is relevant to Barbara Hepworth? Before we can answer that, it would help to look at Gabo’s work, so that we know what we are talking about. Resting on a circular base is a geometric, stainless steel framework defined by straight and curvilinear elements. Numerous jets of water issue from the inner curves of the form, projecting both into and out of the sculptural structure. These jets create lines in space, a bit like a three-dimensional drawing, and they break into individual droplets, an impressionistic spray. The concave unit which faces towards us in this photograph is made up of three identical elements, almost triangular, but with the same segment of a circle cut out of each, which are welded together along the straight edges. There are more units exactly the same which go together to form a fourth projecting axis at the back of the framework. At the top the two projecting elements – flared, and looking a little like arrow heads – are braced by a slim, curving piece which you might just be able to see has a kink in it. There is a similar brace at right-angles to this one going across the bottom of the form. The framework is supported by two elements which spiral up from the circular base: the nearest lower projection is held up by one which comes in from the bottom left, and the back lower projection is supported by a unit which starts just behind the front centre (from this point of view) and slopes up to the right of the base. Of course, the best way to see this framework would be to walk around it, but it would take a lot to get you all there. However, I can help by showing you a photograph of a sculpture Gabo made some 35-40 years early, which is also part of Tate’s collection:Torsion, from 1928-36.

Torsion 1928-36 Naum Gabo 1890-1977 Presented by the artist 1977 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T02146

Made out of plastics (polymethyl methacrylate and cellulose acetate, according to Tate’s website), the sculpture espouses Gabo’s belief in using modern materials for a modern age. As most of the materials are transparent, it allows us to see the whole form, without the sculpture itself getting in the way, with the reflection and refraction of light – off and through the transparent form – turning the edges of the piece into a three-dimensional drawing, just like the jets of water in the fountain. The form of the sculpture is essentially the same as that of the fountain, with four of the cut-out triangular elements stuck together, creating four of the arrow-head projections. In this work we can see that the kink in the slim braces at the top and bottom are made of rectangular elements – opaque black here – and that, like the braces, the two black rectangles are at 90˚ to one another. The sculpture – and fountain – use a form of  symmetry regularly adopted by Gabo. For me, the best way to explain it is to ask you to touch the tips of your fingers and thumbs together so that your hands form a broad, curving dome, then twist one hand a bit towards you and the other a bit away. You could then put them together so that they meet between thumb and forefinger – but don’t. This is the symmetry: a mirror image with a 90 degree rotation. It sounds rather mathematical – and it is. The beauty of the geometry, and its mapping of space, is exactly what Gabo wanted. As he said in his Realistic Manifesto in 1920, ‘we construct our work as the universe constructs its own, as the engineer constructs his bridges, as the mathematician his formula of the orbits.

Head No. 2 1916, enlarged version 1964 Naum Gabo 1890-1977 Purchased 1972 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01520

In 1916 he had made his Head No. 2 from cardboard, but this version (like everything else today, in the Tate collection) is an enlargement of the original, made in 1964 from cor-ten steel. The shape and volume of the head are mapped out by the edges of two-dimensional planar elements. The fact that it is put together – rather than carved or modelled – was also an innovation: Gabo was one of the first ‘Constructivists’, putting their works together, as the name suggests, from separate elements. He published the Realistic Manifesto with his brother, Antoine Pevsner (Gabo had changed his name to avoid confusion), and as part of it they established five ‘fundamental principals’. In the fourth they stated, ‘We renounce in sculpture, the mass as a sculptural element… we take four planes and we construct with them the same volume as of four tons of mass’. The volume that Head No. 2 occupies is not defined by the solid mass of, say, marble or bronze, but by the planes from which it is constructed. It was the definition of space which really interested them. They had already covered this in their third principal: ‘We renounce volume as a pictorial and plastic form of space; one cannot measure Space in volumes as one cannot measure liquid in yards: look at our space. . . what is it if not one continuous depth?’ Admittedly, with Head No. 2 the depth is not continuous – the planes of cardboard (1916) or steel (1964) get in the way. Not so with the plastic of Torsion, where the transparency allows you to see the continuous space, and to appreciate fully the volume which the piece occupies.

Linear Construction No. 1 1942-3 Naum Gabo 1890-1977 Presented by Miss Madge Pulsford 1958 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00191

This can also be seen in Tate’s Linear Construction No. 1 of 1942-3. Made from the same colourless transparent plastic as Torsion (polymethyl methacrylate), it also utilises nylon thread, and embodies Herbert Read’s statement that Gabo’s work hovered ‘between the visible and the invisible’. Gabo was born Naum Pevsner in Briansk, Russia in 1890. Staring in 1910 he studied medicine, and then natural sciences, and then engineering in Munich, where he met fellow-Russian Wassily Kandinsky and was intrigued by the possibilities of abstract art: he started making his constructions in 1915. He returned to Russia after the Revolution in 1917 in the hope that they would welcome his revolutionary art, but inevitably this was not to be. He left for Berlin in 1922 and a decade later headed to Paris, then on to London in 1935. Among other artists, he got to know Barbara Hepworth and her second husband Ben Nicholson, following them to Cornwall in 1939, thus escaping the capital as the nation was on the brink of war. The year after the allied victory Gabo left for the States, which is where he died in 1977. It was shortly after his arrival in Carbis Bay – very close to the more artistically ‘famous’ St Ives – that he started using nylon thread, the straight lines defining curves in space in a similar way to the definition of space itself by the edges of the planes in Head No. 2.

When looking back to Revolving Torsion, Fountain all of these ideas coalesce: the construction of a sculpture from separate elements; the definition of its volume by the edges of these elements; an appreciation of the continuity of space through, in, and around the sculpture; the jets of water creating their own, complex and changing lines as the wind, weather, and water pressure also change, in many ways equivalent to the nylon threads. And yes, the water pressure does – or should – change. From a still photograph you wouldn’t be able to tell, but the title gives a clue: this is not a static piece. Unlike Torsion, the plastic embodiment of this form from 1928-36, this is Revolving Torsion, and it does – or should – revolve a full 360˚every ten minutes. At the same time the pressure of the water – and so the projection of the jets – decreases to a minimum and returns to full every 10 minutes, two cycles of change which are synchronised.

Torsion (Project for a Fountain) 1960-4 Naum Gabo 1890-1977 Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1969 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01171

The project for a fountain went back to the 1960s. As yet another of its remarkable collection of Gabo’s works, Tate also holds Torsion (Project for a Fountain), 1960-4. Again, the precise forms of the sculpture are far clearer here than in the photograph of the fountain, which is helpful. In 1968, four years after this maquette was completed, the then director of The Tate Gallery (as it was originally called) Sir Norman Reid, visited Gabo in his studio in the States. Gabo told him about the project, and showed him this model. Long story short: Reid made it happen. Alistair MacAlpine, since the age of 21 a director of the engineering and construction firm Sir Robert McAlpine and Sons (founded by his great-grandfather) had by this time reached the grand old age of 26. He agreed to cover all of the costs. The firm drew up detailed plans, the fountain was constructed by Stainless Metalcraft Ltd between 1972-73, and on completion McAlpine gifted it to The Tate Gallery. Two years later it was installed in its present position outside St Thomas’ Hospital, where, since 2016, it has rejoiced in its new status as a Grade II listed building.

Back in 1920 the Realistic Manifesto had proclaimed:

We say . . .
Space and time are re-born to us today.
Space and time are the only forms on which life is built and hence art must be constructed.

In 1905 Einstein had published two articles on the Theory of Special Relativity. One of the things this theory tells us is that time is a fourth dimension. Artists tried to include the fourth dimension in many ways, just as the Renaissance had developed perspective to show the third. Kinetic sculptures – sculptures which move – were just one of these strategies.

Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) 1919-20, replica 1985 Naum Gabo 1890-1977 Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1966 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00827

Gabo had introduced movement, and therefore time, with his sculpture Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) of 1919-20, just before the publication of the Realistic Manifesto itself (this photograph is of a replica from 1985). It is made from a steel rod – a solid, straight line. It is only its motion, created by a motor in the base, which makes it look curved, and almost transparent. It would be another fifty years before an equally eloquent statement of Gabo’s radical ideas would be realised with the creation of this magnificent fountain.  It may seem sadly inappropriate now, during a time of drought, but let’s hope it won’t last long… However, none of this answers my earlier question: what relevance does this have for Hepworth? Well, you’ll have to read next week’s blog… or come to the talk on Monday, 22 August!


164 – Nude, with clothes…

Glyn Philpot, A Student with a Book, 1920. Ömer Koç Collection.

Glyn Philpot is one of those artists who should never have been forgotten. There’s a long discussion in ‘The History of Art’ which asks who the last ‘Old Master’ was – but of course it’s a question which has no answer. There is also a long discussion about whether the term ‘Old Master’ really has any validity nowadays. However, you could just conceivably argue that one answer to the first question would actually be ‘Glyn Philpot’. There is certainly no doubt that for the two thirds of his career he was consciously working in the tradition of the Old Masters. Not only did he have the most brilliant technique, but he also had a superb understanding of their work – as today’s painting demonstrates. The current exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester – the first retrospective of his work in 38 years – is a brilliant introduction to the artist and his career, and I’m looking forward to talking about it this Monday, 8 August at 6pm, as part of my series Looking in Different Ways, in a talk entitled Looking at Men. Two weeks later, and still part of that series, there will be an introduction to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s comprehensive exhibition Barbara Hepworth, which fits into my subseries Negative Spaces. I thought talks for the summer would end there, but there was so much material in the Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition Reframed: The Woman in the Window, I ran out of time last week, and decided to do a cut-price sequel, Women Looking 2 – which will be on Monday 29 August at 6pm. All of these exhibitions are accompanied by superb books, rather than a ‘traditional’ catalogue. Chichester has published a monograph on Glyn Philpot – the first in 71 years – written by the curator of the exhibition, Simon Martin, who is also the director of the Pallant House Gallery – none of which is a coincidence. I can recommend it very highly – although it came out after I’d published a list of The best recent exhibition catalogues with Shepherd, a new book sales website, which might interest you.

Today’s painting was exhibited in 1920 under the title A Student with a Book next to another, The Rice Family. The student looks similar in appearance and dress to Mr and Mrs Rice’s son Bernard, and so it has long been assumed that he was the model for this work. The family had recently arrived in England from Austria: Bernard was born in 1900 in Innsbruck, and had studied drawing, painting and wood engraving even before arriving in London. The family had been interned in Austria during the First World War, and, according to the exhibition label for this painting, ‘Philpot found them accommodation in London and helped Rice to secure a place at Westminster School of Art’. Bernard went on to study at the Royal Academy Schools, but didn’t hang around: in 1922 he left for Yugoslavia, and continued to travel for much of his life, not dying until 1998.

Rice sits on a plain wooden table with a large book held open on his lap between the thumb and forefinger of each hand. Visible on the right hand page – the one which has more visual prominence when leafing through – is a monochrome image, presumably a black and white engraving. But then the painting as a whole is more-or-less monochrome, moving through a palette of ivory, creams and browns to black, with nothing quite as bright as high white, or even as dark as the deepest black. It is the palette you would associate with the late works of Leonardo, Rembrandt or Caravaggio, although the clarity of depiction is closer to the earlier, but mature phase, of the third of these. The sitter looks over his left shoulder, creating a strong twist through the body, given that his legs are angled to our left, and his head to our right. He doesn’t appear to be looking at anything, though, but remains deep in thought, maybe contemplating what he had been looking at in the book, or planning something, or maybe even musing on the past – we are not told: this, I think, is part of the allure of the work for me.

At the back right corner of the table is a still life arrangement of rectangular objects: a cuboid box with a lid and a book with a pale cover on which rests a thin, cream-coloured booklet. There is a pencil just in front of the objects, and a piece of paper tucked under the book – together with the book Rice is holding, these can be seen as some of the tools of a student artist. Formally they are also an abstraction of Rice himself – the box is equivalent to his torso, while the booklet resting on the pale book is not unlike the larger open book resting on the student’s lap. As well as echoing Rice’s form, these details also close off the composition, making sure that our eyes don’t follow his gaze. By placing the sitter’s head in the centre of the painting Philpot creates a strong pyramidal composition – a typical construction of the Renaissance and Baroque.

Philpot was a keen observer of fashion, and interested in details of clothing of any sort. The attention he pays to the turned-back left cuff of Rice’s shirt is typical, as is the precise delineation of the folds of the thin cotton of the sleeves. You should see Siegfried Sassoon’s collar in another portrait! The artist was also keenly aware of human anatomy – particularly male anatomy – but apart from his own personal interest in the subject, this was also something he’d learnt from another artist. If you look at the very specific inflection of the right wrist, which is maybe slightly exaggerated, you may recognise the major influence on this painting. But then, if you can work out what the illustration in the book represents, the inspiration is made explicit.

It’s one of Michelangelo’s Ignudi, the naked men who sit atop the imagined continuation of the walls of the Sistine Chapel and frame the outer edges of the ceiling. As nudes they must be in a state of grace (Adam and Eve only started wearing clothes after the fall), and I’ve always assumed they are Michelangelo’s representation of angels. Philpot – and the student Bernard Rice – would both have been interested in the work of the great Renaissance master, but maybe, as curator Simon Martin suggests on the exhibition label, it was also ‘a covert expression of [Philpot’s] interest in the male nude’. Even if this is the case, does that say anything about Bernard Rice? To be honest, it doesn’t really have to, given that this is not a portrait, but a character study, and doesn’t seem to have left Philpot’s possession during his lifetime. However, as Martin points out in the book, this particular ignudo also appears in the background of the Portrait of Montague Rendall, Headmaster of Winchester College – admittedly in an incredibly shadowy form.

The painting to our left of Rendall is far clearer – the prophet Daniel, also from the Sistine, who just happens to be seated above the head of our ignudo, if on the other side of the chapel (which is not far…). Given that Rendall was, presumably, a far more ‘public’ figure than Rice, it seems surprising to me that Philpot might risk expressing his own personal interests in the male form – strictly illegal if acted upon, of course – in this portrait. This in itself might explain why the representation of the ignudo is so unclear. But why choose it in the first place? There are plenty of bold, female figures to choose from: the five Sybils who alternate with the prophets, for example. It would help to know more about Rendall – or Rice, for that matter – and I’m afraid I’m still writing these posts on an extremely ad hoc basis, gradually building up endless possibilities for future research. However, I have tracked down what I believe to be an entry from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which was included on a web entry of imprecise nature. Here are just a few details. Having been awarded a first class degree in Classics at Cambridge in 1887, two years later Rendall ‘…made the first of many journeys abroad to study the masterpieces of continental art, and laid the foundations of his lifelong enthusiasm for medieval and Renaissance Italian painting. In the same year he was appointed to the staff of Winchester College.’ This could, of course, explain everything. A ‘lifelong enthusiasm for… Renaissance Italian painting’ would more than justify the inclusion of two details from the Sistine Chapel. However, the biography also makes reference to ‘his sensitive taste’, and states that he was ‘Almost resolutely unmarried’. I could be wrong to focus in on these phrases, but, as far as I’m aware, sensitivity was not a quality greatly prized in men outside of the 18th and 21st centuries, and for many years, when sexual acts between men were illegal (and for a couple of decades after they weren’t) the term ‘confirmed bachelor’ in obituaries would have been interpreted by anyone even slightly in the know as a euphemism for ‘homosexual’. It’s not as if Philpot’s own tastes were unknown. He was a member of the Official War Artists Scheme during the First World War, when he asked if could paint soldiers bathing – as Michelangelo had intended to – but his request was denied. ‘I will bet anything that Philpot suggested it because it gave him the opportunity of painting the nude,’ according to one official. There are other references in Rendall’s biography which I find intriguing, but my reasons for choosing them could all too easily be misinterpreted by the ill-disposed. Of course, I could be imagining things. It could simply be a love of the work of Michelangelo that Philpot shared with Rendall… but why include the ignudo in the first place, and then go on to disguise it? And why choose Daniel, rather than any other prophet or sybil? I’m not sure there’s any way of answering the latter question. All I know about Daniel (without re-reading the book) is that he was protected by God, and good at languages. The first could possibly be said of Rendall, and the second was certainly true. In later life he was a trustee of the BBC, and devised its motto ‘Nation shall speak peace unto Nation’, for example. Daniel was also a just judge, which would be perfect for applying discipline in a school. As the biography states, ‘In college Rendall upheld high moral standards but softened any severity by his natural sympathy for boys.’  It was Daniel who cleared Susannah of the accusations of the elders, after they had spied on her while she was bathing naked. But we must be wary of drawing too many conclusions about someone who condemned looking on naked women: we could so easily be led up the wrong garden path.

Whatever the reasons for including Daniel, or this particular ignudo, Philpot really did understand Michelangelo’s work. I remain entirely convinced that I recognise the pose of Bernard Rice. Indeed, I’ve been trying to pin it down, to see if it has an exact source, but as far as I can see it doesn’t.

Overall it is remarkably similar to the Delphic Sibyl, who also has her knees to our left, whilst looking over her left shoulder to our right. The arms are in a different position, perhaps, but if you were to lift her right arm and lower the left, they wouldn’t be far off.

I suspect I might have recognised the inflection of Rice’s right wrist from Adam’s – or Rice’s right arm as a whole from Adam’s left, stretched out towards God the Father. But then, it’s not that different from the left arm of the ignudo above, either. There is no exact source for this pose (although I am increasingly convinced that the Delphic Sibyl is a good fit), but the position of the body as a whole and the articulation of every single joint speaks of a thorough understanding of Michelangelo’s work, which has been seen, studied, appreciated, absorbed, digested, and then remade in a new way. The only real difference is in the palette – nothing like the lucid and luminous colouring of Michelangelo. But even here Philpot is being remarkably sophisticated, and subtle, I think. Michelangelo is represented in Rice’s book by a black and white engraving. Modelled on elements derived from similar reproductions, the student appears to us in all his full, three-dimensional, monochrome splendour, every bit a sculptural as a Michelangelo painting, but with the tones of the print. This is Michelangelo remade for the neo-classicism of the 1920s, a trend which has been widely ignored, unless espoused by an acknowledged master such as Picasso – until recently, that is, and with Pallant House at the forefront of its rehabilitation. However, a decade after Bernard Rice was painted, Philpot would have his own ‘Picasso’ moment. He changed direction completely, and started to embrace modernism in his own, remarkable, idiosyncratic way. But to learn more about that you would need to see the exhibition, read the book, or come to my talk on Monday! Keep looking for those sources…


163 – Mary, multi-tasking

Dirk Bouts, The Virgin and Child, c. 1465. National Gallery, London.

I love it when I go to an exhibition which makes me think about something in a completely new way – or for that matter, which makes me look at something differently, or even properly, for the first time. That is certainly what happened with the subject of today’s post. There are so many paintings of the Virgin and Child in the National Gallery that I’m afraid this one has never really had a look in. However, it features in the Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition, Reframed: The Woman in the Window, which will be the subject of my talk this Monday, 25 July at 6pm, Women Looking. It is one of relatively few religious images included in a diverse and fascinating display, and grabbed my attention straight off: it turns out to be a truly great and surprisingly complex painting! The exhibition itself is superb, and constitutes a prime example of Looking in Different Ways – the title of my current series of talks – which will continue on 8 August with Looking at Men: The Art of Glyn Philpot and conclude with Negative Spaces 3: Barbara Hepworth, on 22 August. But back to Bouts.

Dirk Bouts, The Virgin and Child, about 1465. Oil with egg tempera on oak, 37.1 x 27.6 cm. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG2595

What better choice for an exhibition entitled The Woman in the Window? After all, The Virgin and Child appear to us through one window, and there is a second in the background – an idea which is elucidated, along with so much else, in the exhibition’s thoroughly researched and brilliantly written catalogue by curator Jennifer Sliwka. The Christ Child sits on a cushion on the window sill, supported by his mother’s left hand, his legs and back echoing the horizontal sill and vertical frame respectively. Mary proffers her breast for him to feed, and looks down tenderly, swathed in her traditional blue mantle. A red cloth of gold hangs over the wall, and on the left the second window looks out on the surrounding countryside, and a not-too-distant city.

What role does Mary fulfil in this painting? Primarily, of course, she is the mother of Jesus – or, to give her the title bestowed unequivocally by the Council of Ephesus in 431, Theotokos, the Mother of God. This not only defines Mary’s status, but also confirms Jesus’s divinity. Her role as mother is demonstrated through her act of feeding, although, given that it was common for members of the moneyed classes to employ wet nurses to suckle their babies, Mary’s nurturing and care of her own child would have been doubly significant. Her ‘sacrifice’ in this regard also became equated with Jesus’s care for us. In the same way that Mary fed Christ from her breast, the wound in his side, from which blood and water flowed when pierced with a spear at the crucifixion (John 19:34), feeds us spiritually.

As well as Mother of God, Bouts also shows Mary as Queen of Heaven. The red cloth in the background is the same as that hung behind her when enthroned. It is a cloth of honour, used to enhance the status of medieval monarchs and serving to emphasize their physical position while holding court. It can also include a canopy, or baldachin, which effectively crowns the throne, as it does in the National Gallery’s Donne Triptych by Hans Memling. However, when ‘used’ as the cloth of honour, the fabric would be directly behind the monarch. Here it is hung to one side, suggesting that ‘Queen of Heaven’ is just one of several roles that Mary performs. The green trim with which the cloth is hemmed hangs on the central axis of the painting, implying that the cloth takes up half of the background – but notice that the framing is not symmetrical. In the foreground the light comes into the window from above and from the left: the right inner face of the window frame is well lit. The joints between the stones from which it is constructed are angled differently, telling us that Bouts had a good sense of spatial recession, even if this isn’t a geometrically consistent perspectival system. Nevertheless, these lines lead our eye into the painting, and into a space made holy by the presence of mother and child. The underside of the frame at the top, and the inner side on the left, are both in shadow. On the left there is less of the frame visible than on the right, suggesting that our view point is to the left of centre, as if we are directly in front of Mary, who is likewise positioned slightly to the left.

The window at the back is also important. The inside of the frame and its tracery are in shadow (which is not surprising, given that they are ‘inside’). I can’t help myself seeing the shape of the cross in those dark lines. The light would appear to come from the right here, but we can’t see the other side of the tracery to see if it is lighter or darker, so it is not necessarily inconsistent. As so often in paintings of this time (and so, one would assume, contemporary houses) there is glass in the upper sections of the window, but not in the lower (see, for example, the Arnolfini Portrait). The shutters are perfectly defined, and you can even tell that, in bad weather, the lower shutters would be closed first, and then the upper ones shut over them, if you wanted to keep out the light as well as the cold and rain. Rust streaks down from the iron nails in the lower panels. This detail is, I suspect, purely naturalistic, and helps up to believe in the setting. The glass too, is an example of naturalism, but it is also symbolic: light passes through glass without the glass breaking. In the same way, Jesus, both God and Man, passed through Mary, and she remained virgo intacta – intact, unbroken. Glass, and light passing through glass, is symbolic of Mary’s virginity. One of the many epithets applied to her was fenestra crystallina – ‘the crystal clear window’. Placing her blue mantle next to the (anachronistic) church tower, blue as a result of atmospheric perspective, and reaching up to the deeper blue of the zenith, helps to emphasize Mary’s role as Queen of Heaven. But it also, perhaps, suggests another role – Ecclesia, a personification of The Church.

Bouts was not stupid. He painted the blue with the most expensive pigment, ultramarine, but he didn’t waste it. He painted it over a ground layer of azurite, a far cheaper form of blue. This was standard practice, to make the painting look good, but not to be too costly. And he didn’t use gold for the cloth of gold, although this was as much a display of painterly skill as anything else. I can see four different colours there: a ground layer of brown, and then, over the stylised leaves, cross-hatching of a creamy-butterscotch colour. The fruits are stylised pomegranates – I know, they really don’t look much like pomegranates, but comparison with other painted fabrics – not to mention real fabrics – show different degrees of stylisation. They appear to have been woven in a different way to the leaves, and rather than cross hatching Bouts has applied texture with dots, both orangey-brown and a light cream. Seen this close up the vertical line of light cream dots looks unconvincing – but seen from a distance it becomes clear that here, as across the whole surface, the fabric is creased by careful, regular folds. Elsewhere, as below the line of dots, it is the contrast of light and dark which defines the folding.

Jesus is not sitting directly on the cushion, but on a white cloth, held next to his hip by Mary’s hand. This may well be his swaddling, but it is inevitably reminiscent of the shroud to come. That’s the third reference to his death, by the way. The first was Mary’s breast, with its echo of Jesus’s wound, the second was the cross formed by the transom of the rear window. And there is a fourth. Look at the delicate way in which Bouts has painted the creases of the baby’s hands and feet. In 33 years – more or less – they will be pierced with nails. Even as an infant he is showing us his hands much as he will as in some versions of the Man of Sorrows which show his wounds post-crucifixion. We are never allowed to forget why this fragile infant has come to earth. And yet, I find his expression in this painting delightful, if not entirely easy to define. Is he slightly sleepy? And content, maybe, having eaten? I can almost imagine a gurgle.

The light coming from the left casts a shadow on the inside of the front window frame – the edge of his head and his elbow – and indeed, the light on his body is beautifully painted. Look at the way his left hand stands out against the fully illuminated arm behind it, for example, or the subtly varied shadows on the different joints of the fingers of his right hand. Look, too, at the gentle pressure applied by Mary’s fingers on his stomach, and on her own breast, which even wrinkles slightly – such delicacy of depiction!

Dirk Bouts, Portrait of a Man (Jan van Winckele?), 1462. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG943

The composition of The Virgin and Child is not unlike a standard formulation for portraiture. Here is Bouts’ own Portrait of a Man from 1462 (the date is ‘carved’ into the wall at the top right) also in the National Gallery. His arms are firmly placed on a window sill, although in this case there is no surface visible: it would have been represented by the original frame of the painting, which no longer survives. We know that he is at a window, though, as the light casts a shadow of his head on the back wall – in the same way that Jesus’s shadow is cast onto the frame in today’s painting. There is also a window in the background, with a similar view, apart from having a distant town, rather than nearby city. However, this window has no tracery. It is more modest than that at the back of Mary’s house, although similar, perhaps, to the foreground window through which we see her. By painting The Virgin and Child with the same formulation as a portrait, Bouts makes them, too, look like they are sitting for a portrait, thus making them look more ‘real’. Not only are they appearing to us in the window, but they are very much a part of our world, the world we live in and see around us. But why did Bouts feel compelled to paint the window frame, when the picture frame could have fulfilled the same function, as it would have done in the portrait?

This is not the original frame – although it is a style that was common for paintings of this period. However, we don’t know if the original frame was painted: many were (for example, the Portrait of a Man by Jan van Eyck in the National Gallery). And if it was, it makes sense that, rather than being cut off by the frame, the white cloth hanging below Jesus may have hung over the frame – as if it were a physical connection between us and the divine. Mary is seen as the Mother of God, the Crystal Clear Window, Ecclesia, and the Queen of Heaven – the last role emphasized by the cloth of honour hanging in the background. Jesus sits on a green cloth of gold cushion, the underside of which is red – the same red as the cloth of honour. But then, the green of the cushion is the same colour as the green trim of the cloth, centrally located and seen only at the very top of the painting, where it leads our eye back down and connects to the cushion. If Mary is Queen of Heaven, Jesus, sitting on inversely coloured fabric, is its King, making Mary the Sponsa Christi or Bride of Christ. This is a title now commonly given to consecrated women whose life is dedicated to Jesus, but it also relates to the interpretation of that most intriguing of Jewish texts, the Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon, long seen by Christian theologians as an allegory of the love of the Church for Christ – or, for that matter, of the mystical marriage of Christ and the Virgin, as King and Queen of Heaven. In that light, Chapter 2, verse 9 is of particular interest:

My beloved is like a roe or a young hart: behold, he standeth behind our wall, he looketh forth at the windows, shewing himself through the lattice.

Admittedly the rich language of the King James Version is not at its clearest here, but the implication is that the bridegroom (Christ, in the Christian interpretation) is outside, and looking in at the bride (‘Mary’) through the window. This is one of the origins of an idea which culminates, poetically at least, with Petrarch (as quoted by Sliwka in the catalogue cited above). In the third verse of his ‘song’ Vergine bella, che di sol vestita (‘Beautiful Virgin, who is dressed by the sun’) is the phrase ‘o fenestra del ciel lucente altera’ –  ‘o noble and bright window of heaven’. As well as fenestra crystallina – ‘the crystal clear window’ – Mary was also seen as fenestra coeli, ‘the window of heaven’. It is through her that we can heaven’s beauty and truth. The window frame through which The Virgin and Child appear to us is a symbol of that concept, and represents yet another of the many roles that the Virgin adopted for the medieval and renaissance church. That is presumably why Bouts wanted to paint the whole stone frame, rather than relying on the painting’s wooden surround.

I do hope you can get to see this wonderful painting in the context of the Dulwich exhibition, given that this is just one of many roles that the window plays in art – but if not, it should be back on view at the National Gallery before too long. And if you can’t get to see the exhibition, but would like to know what else is there, please do join me for my introductory talk on Monday.


162 – Betrayal Redeemed

Cornelia Parker, Thirty Pieces of Silver, 1988. Tate.

Given that my current series of talks is called Looking in Different Ways, Cornelia Parker, about whom I will be talking this Monday, 18 July at 6pm, is a perfect choice. She sees the world in such a completely different way to most artists, and, with all of the advantages of living in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, drawing on inspiration from decades of modernist thinking, she creates some of the most exciting and innovative work to be seen. She is not someone who has ever been accused of ‘attention grabbing’, unlike some of her contemporaries, which is odd given the unconventional, even crazy ways she has gone about making her work. That’s probably because everything she does has a purpose, which she is incredibly good at explaining. Not only that, but her insights into the way the world works, and into the complexities of modern history and society, are always a revelation. More of that in moment. The talk will be followed, on 25 July, by an introduction to a superb exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Reframed: The Woman in the Window – a thematic show, which constitutes very different way of looking at the art itself. Slowing down for the summer, on 8 August I will talk about the Pallant Gallery, Chichester’s Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit – a comprehensive view of a truly great, but sadly neglected, artist. These two talks will be called Women Looking and Looking at Men respectively – for more information, click on any of those blue links. My final talk for the summer (22 August) will be an introduction to the well-reviewed exhibition of the work of Barbara Hepworth currently on show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. But before then, let’s dip our toes into the world of Cornelia Parker by looking at the work which takes up the first room of the exhibition – Thirty Pieces of Silver.

It’s hard to convey what seeing this installation for the first time is like – and unfortunately, just by showing you this photograph, I will, perhaps, have taken away some of the magic. This is a shot of what is apparently the whole work, although there is more to it than meets the eye, as I will explain below. On entering the room, you find most of the space occupied by the work. It is not a site-specific piece though, and can be hung anywhere – indeed it has been, and the photographs which follow come from at least three different locations. Consequently, it will always look different, as it takes on some of the qualities of the environment (having said that, the same is true of paintings – they always look different when seen against different backgrounds). It is also different though, according to how many people are in the room. As it happens, this photograph makes the work look a little dead, although if you are in the room on you own, it is, however quietly, fully alive. It takes a little time to evaluate what you are looking at, but basically there are a number of ‘pools’ of silver objects – five rows wide, six deep – making up the Thirty Pieces of Silver of the title. These ‘pools’ or Pieces float about 20 cm off the ground – the height is specific but I haven’t seen it written down anywhere – hanging from almost invisible threads, which create a luminous haze throughout the room, like mist over the water. Parker herself has said that the work ‘is reminiscent of waterlilies,’ and inevitably I am reminded of Monet.

Getting closer, you can see that each pool is made up of a number of domestic objects. In this detail there are six spoons top left, and fives forks to the right of top centre, for example. But there are also jugs, teapots and tankards, salt cellars and candlesticks, and what must have been some form of trophy. But these objects are not as they were, they have suffered considerable damage, subjected in some way to violence: they have been flattened. And they are hung from thin wires – the slight kinks tell you these are not cotton threads (for example). Lit from above, they cast shadows on the floor.

Now here’s a thing I don’t know: is each pool, each lily pad – each piece of silver – a separate identity? Are the constituent elements fixed for each one? Although the individual objects are always the same, I don’t know how rigid their arrangement is. In this view (from the current installation) the ‘front centre’ pool (as you enter the exhibition) also has a number of forks, but more than in the last detail. I’ll check next time I’m there to see if I can locate the ‘six spoon, five fork’ piece. I don’t think it matters, as it’s the idea as a whole, the overall appearance, which is important. But even between these two photographs you can see a substantial change: with a different floor the work already looks different. A lighter floor, as in this case, gives the work a more ethereal appearance. But that effect is also enhanced by a more focussed system of lighting, with the shadows overlapping less. This creates a different form of ‘drawing’ on the floor, a two-dimensional representation of the flattened, but still three-dimensional objects hanging above.

The wires must change. If hung in a different room, the ceiling will have a different height, and, if the pieces must be a set distance from the floor, then the wire has to be different. It’s copper wire, and I suspect that is to create a specific feeling, slightly warmer than all-over silver, maybe a hint of sunlight shining down. Although maybe it is because the objects themselves are not solid silver, but silver plate – a very thin layer of silver over another, cheaper metal, usually brass, which is itself an alloy of copper and zinc. Eventually, with polishing, Parker says, the brass will show through. None of the objects were new: as she says in an extended interview with the Tate’s curator, Andrea Schlieker, in the catalogue for the current exhibition, the work ‘is made of objects from ordinary people’s lives. None of it is new’. This gives it a history – gives every pieces a history – an unwritten catalogue of many people’s day-to-day existence. The stories they could tell. But why have they been flattened? And how? It’s quite simple really (this is the ‘more to it than meets the eye’ which I mentioned above).

For a while Cornelia Parker ran a market stall on Portobello Road, selling ‘silver objects,’ among other things. She ended up buying many of them – bags full – from car boot sales, and markets. ‘I used to cycle around with these big backpacks full of silver plate.’ When she had enough, she laid them all out in a strip, on a road, and hired a steam roller to flatten them all – thus starting her act of creation with an act of destruction, as she herself says. These were all discarded items – having seen many meals, sat endlessly, un-regarded, on mantelpieces, or, like the trombone, having uttered music – sacred or profane – thanks to the inspired exhalations of unknown musicians. But eventually all of these objects were rejected. Their original financial value was maybe not as much as it might have seemed, so in some ways they had been deceptive. As for their emotional value – well, who can put a price on what people feel? But all this was given up, betrayed even, when they were thrown out, and then doubly betrayed when they were flattened, so they could not longer be valued as functional objects either. But was it Parker, or the original owners, who were like Judas?

This is Judas accepts the Thirty Pieces of Silver, Giotto’s version of the biblical story which provides the title for today’s work. It was painted in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, effectively a thirteenth century ‘installation’ which occupied many of my previous posts, as many of you will remember (for this particular episode, see 102 – Jesus… and Judas). Judas, in yellow, the devil goading him on, accepts a purse containing thirty pieces of silver, as his reward for betraying Jesus to the authorities. As a result, Jesus was arrested, tried, condemned, and crucified. Through his sacrifice, and triumph over death, Christians believe that we are redeemed of our sins, and given new life in Christ. Having betrayed the objects, and having condemned them, Parker gives them new life – she redeems them, and they become art. You could say, more simply, that she recycled them, or made old things new, or gave them a new life, but she sees her artistic practice as a form of transubstantiation. It will not surprise you to learn that she was brought up a Catholic. Transubstantiation is the word used to describe what happens to the bread during mass (and I can’t help noticing that for Catholics, the ‘bread’ comes in the form of wafers, small, thin, circular objects, their shape not unlike that of each of the Thirty Pieces). The bread changes its substance, and becomes the actual body of Christ, even though the ‘accidents’ of the bread – its appearance, its texture, its taste even – remain the same. Well, the objects Parker used are still silver plate objects, and yet they are now art: transubstantiation has occurred. Another word would be alchemy – base metals are turned to gold. Alchemists also used the word ‘redemption’. After all, gold is pure and unchanging, just like God. But did she have to flatten the objects?

At the very centre of Hugo van der Goes’s Portinari Altarpiece, painted in Bruges around 1475 and now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Christ Child, newly born and naked, lies starkly on the ground. Above him his mother Mary kneels in prayer, and he is flanked by angels who join her in silent adoration. In the foreground is a beautiful still life – a vase and a glass containing flowers, with more scattered on the ground, and a sheaf of wheat. Notice how the wheat lies horizontally in the painting, flat on the ground, and parallel to the infant. The wheat has been cut down, some of the grain will be ground to make flour, and the flour made into bread. Some of the grain will be sown to grow more wheat. If the wheat were not cut down, there would neither be bread, nor new life. Like the wheat, Jesus had to be ‘cut down’ to give us new life. Without his death he could not have become the bread that feeds us, and the bread could not become him. For Parker, if the objects had not been flattened, they could not have been redeemed…

Photo: Shannon Tofts

The objects are resurrected, and even, like Jesus start to ascend, floating above the floor at the average height of the objects when they were new. There is a rigor here which is rather surprising. They are hung in a minimalist grid, and indeed some artists would have been happy arranging circles in a rectangle, five wide by six deep. Think, for example, of Equivalent VIII, the ‘Tate bricks’, the eighth equivalent way Carl André found to arrange 120 bricks. But Parker takes the cold (but, to me, compelling) logic of minimalism, and renders it humane – it holds life, and hope, not just rigor. Nor is her work like the newly-minted Readymades to which Marcel Duchamp (a hero of Parker’s) gave new thoughts: her work has a depth, and thought, and feeling – and more than a little bit of magic. Do try and see the work in person in the exhibition at Tate Britain before it closes on 16 October. Or failing that (or as an introduction to that), come to my talk on Monday! Given all that I’ve said, I wish I’d seen the installation in St Mary’s Church in York…

Photo: Shannon Tofts

161 – Negative Spaces

Sybil Andrews, Via Dolorosa, 1935. British Museum, London.

As my next two talks are entitled Negative Spaces, I wanted to write about the concept, and explain the reasons why I am using it. And I want to do this because the artists to whom I am dedicating the first talk, Mary Beale and Sybil Andrews (on Monday 11 July), would seem to have nothing in common, apart from the fact that they both came from the charming medieval town of Bury St Edmunds. I will explain what inspired the talk towards the end of the post. These two women have even less in common, perhaps, with Cornelia Parker, who is the subject of the following week’s talk (Monday 18 July) – but again, it is the concept of absence – of ‘negative space’ – which brings them together. To try and explain these ideas I shall focus on one of Sybil Andrews’ linocut prints, and one of which I am increasingly fond: Via Dolorosa.

The subject is not strictly biblical, but rather, part of church tradition. The Via Dolorosa is the Way of Sorrow, and is a processional, pilgrimage route in Jerusalem, taken by the faithful who want to follow the steps that Jesus took on the way to his crucifixion. The current route was established in the 18th Century, but is based on earlier, medieval versions. Although this print was executed in 1935, a version of it was later incorporated in a series of Stations of the Cross which Sybil Andrews worked on from 1946-78, in which it represents Station IV: Christ meets his Mother. The series was never completed –  Andrews made only 10 of the 14 traditional Stations – and although Station V marks the point at which Simon of Cyrene takes the cross, he is already present. Simon’s role on the road to Calvary is mentioned in all three synoptic gospels. For example, in Matthew 27: 31-32 we read,

31 And after that they had mocked him [Jesus], they took the robe off from him, and put his own raiment on him, and led him away to crucify him.
32 And as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name: him they compelled to bear his cross.

In the linocut Jesus is wearing red, ‘his own raiment’, as opposed to the ‘royal’ purple garment in which he was dressed as part of the process of being mocked by some of the bystanders. Simon, already bearing the cross, which ways down between the broad arcs of both arms, seems to wear nothing but a loin cloth. In her grief, the Virgin, in her traditional blue, lunges at her son in desperation, her left knee bent, her right leg stretching behind. The long, urgent reach of her body makes a strong diagonal from the bottom left corner of the image up towards Jesus’s head. He collapses around her, his face lost behind hers, her face hidden by his left arm, which crosses over her right. Their hands rest on each other’s shoulders, the echoing gestures complemented by the sharp inflections of their elbows: these two people are in harmony, they share a common grief. To the left of the Virgin is Mary Magdalene – identified by her long, red, flowing robe (darker than Jesus’s to ensure that he is the focus of attention), and by her long, red, flowing hair – which echoes that of Jesus.

The Virgin stretches up between the Magdalene and Jesus, as if they are a pair of brackets containing her. The Magdalene’s form curves in from the left, and Jesus’s from the right, showing how they try to comfort Mary in her inconsolable grief, but also how they support her. One of the Magdalene’s arms stretches under the Virgin’s, while Jesus’s rests on it, setting up a rhythm linking all three figures. And yet Mary is left isolated, the blue ringing out clearly against the off-white background of the paper. The space between the Virgin and Jesus reminds me of nothing so much as a bolt of lightning, as if that is what has struck her down. It is this ‘negative space’ which fascinates me. Put succinctly (I hope), the ‘positive space’ is the space taken up by the subject matter – in this case Mary and Jesus. The ‘negative space’ is the space in between – all of the composition which is theoretically not part of the subject. It is something that intrigued Sybil Andrews, and I was, in turn, intrigued to read in a biography (details below), that she found reliefs from the Chinese Han dynasty at the Victoria and Albert Museum ‘“tremendously exciting,”… especially the artists’ use of negative space’. I’d show you an example, but, to be honest, I can’t quite pin down what (in the V&A) is being referred to here, and anyway, it might get in the way…

However, look at the negative space created by Simon of Cyrene’s legs, and the equivalent shape formed by Jesus’s leg and foot: both have a similar, straight diagonal at the top (leading in different directions), and a similar broad curve leading down from the upper end of this diagonal. These similar, off-white forms are part of the rhythm of the image. Notice also the curving, triangular section between Jesus’s legs and Simon’s. The same shape appears under Simon’s left arm: another echo, more harmony.

At the top of the image Andrews has titled and signed the work, labelling it as the ‘1st State, No. 1’ – she made other ‘1st states’, apparently, with only minor variations to the wood grain of the cross, before printing the edition. The looming diagonals of the cross help to structure the composition, and reinforce the energy of the Virgin’s dramatic move towards her son. Indeed, the two diagonals of the cross are an abstraction of the bodies of Mary and Jesus. The cross also frames the figures, with the negative space between it and the embracing figures of Jesus and his Mother pushing them towards us.

This is a linocut, or linoleum block print, a technique invented early in the 20th Century, of which Sybil Andrews was one of the first exponents. I will talk more about the technique, and Andrews’ use of it, on Monday. For now, I will limit myself to pointing out that this image uses only three colours of ink, described by the British Museum (which owns this particular version) as ‘red, viridian, dark blue’. The red defines Jesus’s robe, the Magdalene’s face and the sides of the cross, the viridian, like a jade green, can be seen in Simon’s loin cloth and the highlights of the Virgin’s drapery, while the dark blue forms the rest of this robe. Everything else you see is a combination of two of these colours, or, in the case of what might look like black, all three. Three different ‘blocks’ were used, each cut into a single sheet of linoleum, with each being inked in succession. The paper was carefully lined up, laid on top of the blocks, and pressed down. Inevitably the ink would ‘bleed’ out from the blocks, so the printed paper, as a whole, looks like this:

When framing a print, the frame is often an equivalent to the size of the paper as a whole, while the mount is cut to reveal only the image – basically, the cropped version that I showed you first. But if this is a 20th Century technique, what could be the relevance to Mary Beale, an artist working in the 17th Century? Well, compare these two details:

A version of the linocut, and the painting from which this detail comes, both belong to the Moyses Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds, and both are on show there now. The museum is currently exhibiting their collection of Andrews’ linocuts in a display which will be on show until September at the latest – although I couldn’t find any secure information about the dates (I did ask, but to no avail…). Having spent some time looking at Via Dolorosa, I was then struck by this detail from one of Beale’s portraits. The deep blue in the depiction of the Virgin Mary is derived from the traditional medieval iconography, and relates, in part, to the expense of the pigment ultramarine, the very pigment which Beale is using here. Colouristically, therefore, there is a connection between the two images. In addition, though, the highlights and dark shadows in this oil painting create a counterpoint with the Virgin’s robe in the linocut, I think. Beale makes a very specific choice to splay the fingers of this hand, creating curving triangular forms, not unlike those seen in the print, which exist as blue ‘negative spaces’ between the fingers, and between the forefinger and the hem of the bodice. I was also impressed by the way in which the chemise forms a long, gentle curve which approximates to the more linear, geometric form created by the horizontal of the top of the hand and the diagonals of the blue bodice leading up to the shoulders, a rhythmic form which I imagine Sybil Andrews would have enjoyed. The detail comes from this painting:

Beale, Mary; Self Portrait; St Edmundsbury Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/self-portrait-10558

Traditionally described as a self portrait, I was happy to read that Penelope Hunting, author of the most recent and authoritative book on the subject, My Dearest Heart: The Artist Mary Beale, doubts this identification. Again, more about that on Monday, although if you have any thoughts about the urn and brazier, I’d be interested to hear them (I have some ideas, as it happens, and they make more sense if this isn’t Beale!) While I’m talking bibliography, there is also a recent biography of Sybil Andrews, On the Curve, by Janet Nicol, although it has precious little about her art. I’m hoping Jenny Uglow’s Sybil and Cyril: Cutting through Time, which I should get tomorrow, will be more… incisive (pun not originally intended…). I’ll let you know.

Having been struck by the ties between what are otherwise two unconnected images – and let’s face it, if I had seen the works in two separate museums I would never have made the connection – I was also struck by the notion of ‘negative space’ – something which is not, supposedly, the subject of a composition, but is a vital part of it. Had you heard of either artist before? You’re a sophisticated lot, so I’m sure you had. But they do not exist in a standard ‘History of Art’. Indeed, until relatively recently, women had been notably absent – certainly before the 20th Century. And yet, they were vital, even important in their own day. But since their deaths they have become negative spaces – notable for their absence – and I can’t help thinking that the concept is a valuable tool for thinking about a history of the art made by women. Which is precisely why I will be talking about these two artists on Monday


160 – Painted by a madman?

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1895. Private Collection.

If you think I’m being rude – or insensitive – I should point out that the title of today’s post is simply a translation into English of words that Edvard Munch himself wrote on the first (or second) version of The Scream. An infrared photo of the offending text is at the very bottom of the post, if you want to check it for yourself… There are several versions of this image – two in paint, two in pastel, and a lithograph which survives in a number of different versions, some coloured, some not. I am looking at them today as an introduction to the talk I will be giving on Monday 4 July, Seeing and Feeling: Edvard Munch. This is the first of my ‘scattered’ series, Looking in Different Ways, which will include artists who have found news ways of looking at the world, or which are introductions to exhibitions which look at art in ways that you might not have expected. There are details of the talks I have planned so far on the diary page, and via the links to Tixoom you can find there.

The Scream is one of those images which needs no introduction, so familiar are we with it, and with all the versions, mainly satirical, that it has spawned. Let’s face it, it’s the only painting I can think of that has inspired an emoji 😱, and the film franchise, Scream, uses the face for the mask worn by the killer. Like the many pastiches of Munch’s masterpiece, this franchise is a ‘comedy’ hommage (French pronunciation) to the slasher genre it apes. I’m sure the irreverent approach is just a means to undermine the darker implications of the painting. It is so familiar, perhaps, that we no longer look at it properly. We think that we know what is there, and we just stop looking: familiarity breeds disregard. So let’s look again. I’m going to focus on Munch’s third version of the subject, the pastel painted in 1895, but will consider the development of the series (briefly) below.

When you look at this image (and try to look at it as if you’ve never seen it before), what is the first thing that you notice? My first response, when I started thinking about this post, was surprise at the brilliance of the colour. The colour is why I’ve chosen this particular version to focus on – the others have faded, or were, in any case, duller. The sky is an intense vermillion, the bold, wavy lines interspersed with buttercup yellow and a couple of bands of pale blue. It takes up just under a third of the height of the painting, with a clear horizontal line in a darker blue marking, as the adjective suggests, the horizon. The lowest band of the sky appears to be made up of undulations of this darker blue – although reference to other versions imply that these ‘undulations’ are based on distant hills, blue as a result of atmospheric perspective. The majority of the land and sea is formed from a mid-toned blue, although small amounts of the reds and yellows creep in, in the same way that there is some blue in the sky. Overall, therefore, we have warm colours in the sky and cold down on earth. This lower section is almost square in shape, cut across diagonally by a straight path, with a fence or railing running alongside it. The path is formed of a series of straight lines, individual strokes of the crayon, and the railing consists of three parallel bars. The lines of the path and the bars of the railing conform to a strict, if exaggerated, perspective, converging at a vanishing point on the horizon at the far left of the image. The depiction of the land and sea is all curves, contrasting with the rigid, linear depiction of the path – we are looking at geometric forms and abstract values, particularly contrasts: warm and cool colours, straight and curved lines, squares and triangles, horizontals and diagonals. These abstract values are given meaning by what is represented. The path is presumably a jetty, and we see the sea with a curving coastline forming a bay, and, judging by the greens interspersed on the right, some vegetation. There is an androgynous figure, just to the right of centre, cut off by the bottom of the image. Its mouth and eyes are wide open and its hands are clasped on either side of its face. Further away on the jetty two more figures – men, as they wear top hats and this is 1895 – are sketched out full length. There is a boat on the sea, and buildings on the land, just visible on the horizon.

Looking closer at the figure at the bottom we can see its alarm more clearly, although the precise nature of the expression of this skull-like face is not easy to define. What is the wraith-like figure actually doing? The body seems almost immaterial: it is wavy, rather than solidly vertical, and is made of strokes more like the sky than the earth, all of which gives it a sense of insecurity. Is this person screaming, or does the open mouth speak of surprise, shock or horror? And do the hands express surprise as well, or are they clasped over the ears to shut out sound? There seems to be an unbearable pressure here, either coming from within, or closing in from the outside. As suggested above, the perspective of the jetty is distorted. It seems to recede too quickly, or, rather than receding, it could be seen as rushing towards us, giving the impression that we are zooming in, focussing on a close-up of the protagonist in a moment of high drama. Even the vegetation pushes in, the curved lines echoing the bend of the inflected wrist, pressing claustrophobically on the fragile figure.

Compared to the heightened drama of the protagonist, the two characters in the background seem relaxed, nonchalant even. One walks away, another stops to lean on the railing. If there is an audible sound – a scream – they do not seem to hear it: they certainly do not appear to be reacting to it. The boat just off the shore is a common feature in Munch’s work, and may imply the possibility of escape – but this is a possibility that is all too distant.

The sky is searing, with rich and brilliant colours, although oddly only the yellows are reflected in the water. The railing along the jetty, and even some of the planks of the path do take on some of the reds, but the intense colour is really the preserve of the sky, and is its defining feature. However, the nonchalance of the two figures could suggest that there is nothing unusual about it. Or maybe it is simply that they do not see it – or, that they do not see it like this. But then, the character in the foreground is not looking at the sky: he (is it ‘he’?) may have turned away.

I think that everything I have said so far is visible in the painting, although I can’t help wondering that so much of what I ‘see’ is coloured (deliberate choice of word) by what I have always known. It seems like ‘always’, anyway. I can’t remember when I first became aware of Edvard Munch, let alone The Scream. However, although there are unanswered questions in the interpretation of the image, we do know what Munch himself thought about the painting, as he wrote about it on more than one occasion. His first account was written a year before he made the first image. In a diary entry dated 22 January 1891, he said,

I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun went down – I felt a gust of melancholy – suddenly the sky turned a bloody red. I stopped, leaned against the railing, tired to death – as the flaming skies hung like blood and sword over the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends went on – I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I felt a vast infinite scream through nature.

This makes considerable sense of the image: it is Munch and two friends. They have moved on, but he remains, ‘trembling with anxiety’. Maybe this explains the wavy forms of the torso, even if he is not now leaning against the railing. The sky is ‘bloody red’ and we get a sense of the ‘blue-black fjord and city’ even if the colour chosen is not quite as dark as that might imply. What is key here is the last phrase, ‘I felt a vast infinite scream through nature’. He is not screaming (it is ‘he’), but there is a scream, a scream that maybe he is trying to block out with his hands. However, this is problematic, as he doesn’t hear the scream, so he can’t silence it – he feels it. What is truly ground-breaking about this image is that it isn’t a picture of something seen, but of something felt – hence the title of Monday’s talk: Seeing and Feeling. We are at the very beginnings of Expressionism.

The year after Munch had this experience he tried to capture it visually twice, once in pastel – which may have been the first version, it’s not entirely clear – and once in paint, using both oil and tempera, with pastels as well. These two are both in Oslo, and are owned by the Munch Museum and the National Gallery respectively. The reason for thinking that the pastel is the earlier of the two is that, although the basic ideas are sketched out, the details are absent – no boats, and no buildings – features which do appear in what is, presumably, the later version.

There were two more versions in 1895 – the pastel which I have discussed (the only one in which one of the ‘friends’ leans on the railing), and a lithograph. We don’t know how many prints were drawn from the original stone, but about 30 survive, some of which were hand coloured by Munch himself. They were published in Berlin, and bear the title Geshrei, i.e. ‘The Scream’ in German, although the literal translation of this would be ‘Screaming’ or ‘Shouting’, apparently (‘The Scream’ would be Der Shrei in German, or, in Norwegian, Skrik). There is also a phrase at the bottom right, ‘Ich fühlte das grosse Geschrei durch die Natur‘ (‘I felt the great scream through nature’). Often the image has been trimmed down, effectively cutting it out of the original ‘page’, meaning that the words do not appear – even if they were clearly important to Munch. This particular version, in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was signed by the artist in 1896.

A final version was painted in tempera in 1910. This, too, is in the Munch Museum in Oslo, and, like the others (with the exception of the lithographs), is on cardboard. The first version in paint (1893) is the one which bears the inscription, ‘Could only have been painted by a madman!’ It is written in pencil on top of the paint, and recent analysis has confirmed that it is in Munch’s handwriting. It was probably his reaction – presumably ironic – to the public response to the painting when it was first exhibited in 1895. Typical of this was the comment of critic Henrik Grosch, who wrote that the painting was proof that you could not “consider Munch a serious man with a normal brain.”  The implications of this statement would have been more profound for the artist than Grosch would have realised – probably. I don’t know how aware he was of Munch’s family background. Born in 1863, Edvard was the second of five children. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was five, as did his elder sister when he was fourteen. He was a sickly child, and was often kept out of school, which created an enduring sense of isolation. One of his younger sisters was diagnosed with a mental health disorder at an early age, and by the time The Scream was exhibited, she was cared for in a local institution. For the rest of his life the artist was haunted by the possibility that he had inherited the same condition.

Somehow, through all of this, he seems to have captured the essence of what could be described as one of the defining features of the 20th and 21st Centuries: angst. A quick internet search defines this as ‘a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general’. The painting would have been perfectly at home in Vienna at the time of Sigmund Freud, and appears to visualise the Existentialists’ post-war fear of ‘the Void’: if there is no God, what is the point? Or for that matter, an expression of man’s inhumanity to man, as seen in the holocaust, or again, the cold war fear of nuclear annihilation. It speaks of the inner horror of so many of Francis Bacon’s subjects – even if it isn’t one of the usually acknowledged sources – and, oddly perhaps, it seems to demand to be owned. Both paintings have been stolen – the 1893 version in 1994, and the later one ten years later. And in 2012 the 1895 pastel – the one we have looked at – was sold for $119,922,600 to a private buyer. That’s very nearly 120 million dollars, which at the time was the most ever paid for a single painting.

‘Could only have been painted by a madman!’? It was as much the fear of the implications of this phrase – even before he had written it – that must have inspired his initial experience, and the images that flow from it. This total honesty is what people have found hard to face, and yet, at the same time, it is so totally compelling. What else can have made it an early modernist Mona Lisa, ubiquitous and instantly understood? As we shall see on Monday, things were not always bad for Munch – indeed, the exhibition at the Courtauld, to which the talk is an introduction, ends on a note of positivity. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that his perceptive work can undoubtedly be a key to our understanding of the human psyche.


Some Virtues

Andrea del Verrocchio, Model for the Funeral Monument for Cardinal Niccolò Forteguerri, c. 1476, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Sculpture course Form, Function, Material and Memory is rapidly drawing to a close. The last talk will be this Monday 27 June at 6pm, when we will consider Memory – Something to Remember. This will look at sculptures which were made with a very specific purpose: to remind us of those not present. The sculptures are all portraits of different types, including busts, full-length, and equestrian, or effigies on funerary monuments, which is just another form of portraiture. Today I am choosing to repost a blog about a sketch model for one of the latter, as, in its own way, it sums up all four talks. In its form it is a relief, its function was to show people (including the artist) would the finished monument would look like, it is a superb use of terracotta as a preparatory material, and the function of the finished monument was to keep the memory of someone ever present. Our usual heroes will feature, of course – Donatello, Verrocchio, Michelangelo, Bernini and Canova – but I will also introduce the brilliant French émigré Louis François Roubiliac. Before Monday’s talk, though, I have to pay a quick visit to Dresden, which is why I’m reposting. I’ll start afresh when I’m back, in preparation a whole new series – loosely titled Looking in Different Ways – which will start on Monday 4 July. All I know so far is that it will include talks on Edvard Munch, Mary Beale and Sybil Andrews, and Cornelia Parker, and may include more once I’ve seen more things and finished planning. There is more information on the individual links above, and in the diary. But back to the sculpture. What did I say about this lovely Modello when I talked about it towards the end of April 2020? It was still relatively early during the pandemic, someway into Lockdown 1:

Not exactly a request today, but I was asked to talk about some Virtues a while back, and this terracotta relief sprang to mind. I have since realised which Virtues had been requested, and why, and I will get back to them soon – but for now, a charming sketch which goes to show what a brilliant artist Andrea del Verrocchio was.   

Niccolò Forteguerri was born in Pistoia, not so terribly far from Florence, and rose through the church to become a Cardinal in 1460. It probably helped that his Uncle was Pius II, Pope from 1458-64. Niccolò was, therefore, his nephew, or, in Italian, nipote, from which, of course, we get the word ‘nepotism’ – jobs for the boys. He died in 1473, and was buried in Rome, in his titular church, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, but his hometown decided that they wanted to remember him, and held a competition to design a memorial. We know little about the process, apart from the fact that in 1476 Verrocchio was commissioned to execute the monument following the design of a bozzetto – or sketch – which he had presented to the steering committee.  It is generally assumed that this is the very bozzetto that Verrocchio submitted.

(c) Victoria and Albert Museum

Made out of terracotta – which translates literally as ‘cooked earth’ – the relief is both wonderfully realised and beautifully sketchy. It is evocative, rather than precise, but allows you to see the disposition of all of the figures, as well as giving a wonderful sense of character and mood. It is full of vibrant movement and flowing draperies, light and airy, as if the characters were out in the open on a windy day, flying or coming in to land, above a platform on which a man is kneeling. 

We are very familiar with the idea of a sketch as a drawing, but anything that is done quickly, or remains apparently unfinished, can be considered a sketch. It could be an oil painting (remind me to show you one of my favourites!) or, as here, a sculpture. They are sometimes also called modelli – or models – as this is what they are – a small version of something which, when finished, will be far larger. Given the vicissitudes through which all art has past, the survival of a clay model from the 15th century is quite remarkable. Admittedly, it has not come down to us unharmed – there are a few repairs visible at the bottom of the relief  (the man’s praying hands are made from red clay, for example) – but it is still in a wonderful condition.

At the top of the image, Christ appears in a mandorla. The word means ‘almond’, and is used to refer to the almond-shaped ‘glory’ held up by the angels. The stress should be on the first syllable, by the way – MANdorla – as so often with three syllable words in Italian (Medici, Cupola… but not modello, where the stress is on the second syllable). In religious dramas, whenever anyone descended from heaven, or was assumed, they did so in a mandorla which was physically winched up or down, to or from the roof of the church…  

Jesus looks down, blessing those below with his right hand, while supporting an open book on his knee with his left: this is the image of Christ Pantocrator, or ruler over all (we’re all too familiar with ‘pan’ as a prefix these days), and is a slightly medieval feature of the monument. However, Verrocchio subverts this ‘medieval’ feel with a touch of proto-baroque humour. Although in other images Christ manages his own Ascension unaided [although on reflection in 2022, this is a vision of Christ, rather than an ascension – I got carried away by the mandorla] here four angels hold him aloft – although they do not seem entirely secure. The one at the bottom left may have lost his grip, and has had to adjust his hold, or maybe the one above him wasn’t pulling his own weight, I’m not sure what’s happened, but they are not entirely in control of the mandorla. It has tipped sideways, as you can see from the winged cherub’s head at the top, which is not directly above its companion at the bottom, but some way to the left. This slight shift, with its sense of movement and asymmetry, can be seen in almost all of Verrocchio’s output, a sense of drama which, as I have suggested, prefigures the Baroque in an unprecedented way. 

Moving to the bottom of the bozzetto it is the Cardinal himself who we see. He is kneeling on a sarcophagus, praying, and looking up to Jesus, either witnessing a vision of Christ, or the real thing – it’s up to you to decide [I got there in the end]. A woman steps towards him, although she is not fully on the sarcophagus. Under her feet is what could be a small rock, but is meant to be a cloud – this was the standard, accepted ‘sign’ for clouds in sculpture at the time. In her left hand, and close to Forteguerri – almost as if she is handing it to him – is a cross. In her right is a chalice, held above her shoulder. These are both items of Faith, and that is indeed who she is: a personification of Faith. Her movement towards him is swift, her right leg stepping across and in front of her left, her drapery flying out behind – again we have a wonderful sense of movement and of asymmetry. The dress of the figure on the right also billows out behind her. More obviously standing on clouds – she is further from the sarcophagus, after all – it is almost as if she is swooning, the rapid movement inward combined with a lowering of the body as she leans forward. Her arms are crossed over her chest, and she looks upwards, her gaze parallel to the Cardinal’s own. Her prayer, like all requests, wants fulfilment – that is what she hopes for. Indeed, she represents the virtue of Hope. Notice how Faith’s chalice, the direction of her gaze, and her cross, form a diagonal leading our attention to Forteguerri, while the angle of his head makes us look towards Jesus: Verrocchio expertly directs our eyes around the surface of the relief. Hope’s trailing left leg, and her gaze, create a diagonal which is continued by the leg of a third Virtue who appears above them.

Given that we already have Faith and Hope, this can only be Charity. Together they are the three Virtues named by St Paul in the thirteenth chapter of his first Epistle to the Corinthians. This is verse 13:

And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; 
but the greatest of these is charity.

As they are in the Bible, they are often known as the Theological Virtues. Now more often translated as ‘Love’, Charity, or Caritas, is the boundless love of – or for – God, and is expressed in a number of ways. Love is like a burning fire, which is why she carries a flaming torch in her right hand. The love for one’s children is unqualified, and a baby sits on her left. Charity is often surrounded by three – or more – babies, clambering all over her, and you’d have to be really loving to put up with that. Here she has just one, held safe in the crook of her left arm, the torch held as far away as possible. Unusually, she is winged. Verrocchio seems to be equating her with the angels. She flies above the other two virtues, perhaps in line with Paul’s assertion that she is the greatest.

Niccolò Forteguerri kneels on his sarcophagus awaiting the life to come. Faith offers him the consolation of the Cross, Hope echoes his own yearning for Salvation, and there truly is Love between him and Jesus. These three Virtues gather round him – flock to him, even – and reassure us that his soul will be with Jesus in Heaven. What better way to remember a man of whom the city of Pistoia could be justly proud? And even if we thought he wasn’t that great, maybe this monument could persuade us we were wrong – that is the often the function of memorials, if we’re honest.

Sadly the commission did not proceed smoothly. There was disagreement among the commissioning body in Pistoia, and at one point they tried to replace Verrocchio with Piero del Pollaiuolo. But Verrocchio went straight to the Boss – who at this point was Lorenzo ‘the Magnificent’ de’ Medici – who sorted things out. Nevertheless, the monument hadn’t been completed by the time the sculptor headed to Venice in 1483 to complete a more prestigious commission.  The sculptures were completed by his assistants in Florence, and were finally taken to Pistoia five years later. Some were deemed to be substandard, and were re-worked, meaning that the monument wasn’t erected until 1514, more than 40 years after Forteguerri had died. By this time, the Pistoiesi were probably asking ‘Niccolò who?’ And that wasn’t the end. In the 1750s the monument was moved, the figures altered and re-installed, bunched up and straitjacketed by an unimaginative Rococo frame. The kneeling effigy was replaced with a bust, and although it survives in the local museum, Verrocchio’s original intention is lost. There is ongoing scholarly debate about which bits of the sculpture Verrocchio had anything to do with, and to what extent the life, the energy, the vitality of the bozzetto ever made it into marble. What is certainly clear is that, in the monument as installed, Jesus is secure, the angels are fully in control. I can’t imagine that the church would have allowed any doubt of that. The flare is gone, the daring sway of the mandorla… but how wonderful that we still have this magical bozzetto to see in the V&A.

I mentioned this relief briefly during last week’s talk while I was talking about its Material – and inevitably it will feature again on Monday, when it will appear among the many portraits – of different genres – that we will consider when we look at the final topic, Memory. I do hope you can join me!


159 – Michelangelo, holding a candle…

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Angel, 1494-5. San Domenico, Bologna.

You would think that no one could hold a candle to Michelangelo – but everyone has to start somewhere, and the young sculptor must have learnt from someone. Indeed, today’s work is an example of the young genius responding – directly and overtly – to someone else’s work, while also enabling the good people of Bologna to burn the candle – or rather, candles – at both ends (in a manner of speaking). It also happens to be a very good example of one of the strengths of sculpture: it can be used for many different things. In this case, it is a candlestick, something that just wouldn’t work with a painting. It is, inevitably, one of the sculptures which will feature this Monday, 13 June, in the second talk in my series Sculpture: Form, Function, Material and Memory. Being week two, we will be looking at the function of sculpture, and asking What is it for? We will look at many of the potential uses of three-dimensional art – besides the ‘merely’ aesthetic, that is – with works varying from fountains to funerary monuments, and from candlesticks to coinage. Today’s work is a good example of this, given that’s its own function is just one element of a sculptural ensemble which in itself fulfils more than one role.

The angel kneels on his left knee, with his right foot firmly planted on the ground. The left is resting on its big toe, bending under the weight at the very edge of a scalloped base. A sizeable candelabrum rests on the angel’s right knee, and is held in place at its base by the left hand, with the right, wrapping round the shaft from behind, about half-way up. The top of the candelabrum is at the same level as the top of the angel’s head. Two wings project behind the figure, and we can see a space carved between the lower section of the candelabrum and the angel’s torso. He wears a long robe which forms full, rounded folds – even though the hem below the raised knee would make it appear very thin. Not only is it very delicately carved, but some of the folds are excavated deeply to create dark shadows. Some of the drapery falls over the base, and even over its edge, making the figure seem more ‘present’ in our space. The angel’s full, round face looks out, turning a little to his left, with slightly parted lips. He has a full head of curly hair piled on top of his head, but cut shorter at the back and sides.

He has a companion – another candle-bearing angel, kneeling on his right knee, with the left foot planted firmly on the ground, and the right resting on a bent toe at the edge of an identical base. The robe is perhaps simpler, and the folds, although similarly rounded, fall more directly downwards. Even so, one crosses the edge of the base in an equivalent way. The delicate hems of the sleeves suggest that this robe was also made from thin fabric. The wings are different, perhaps, but not as different as the face – longer than that of Michelangelo’s angel, more delicate too. This angel’s hair falls in luxuriant curls which spiral down on either side of the face and behind the neck – although as we can’t see the back of the sculpture (the photographs simply don’t exist) we can’t tell exactly how long it is. The hands do not seem to hold the candelabrum so firmly, with the fingers of the right hand merely resting on its base.

When seen side by side these two angels remind me of two very different altar boys, one refined, effete, polite, patient and following all the rules, the other a little bruiser, muscular, chunky even, getting into trouble but getting away with it, and probably there because his mum is a friend of the priest, but he’d really rather be somewhere else. The former is by Niccolò dell’Arca, the latter, Michelangelo. And while most people look to the famous artist’s work as a precursor of his late, great interest in the potential power of the male physique, I should really point out that he carved this sculpture when he was still only 19. He was still learning, and he was learning as fast as he could from Niccolò. The pose of the figure is a deliberate echo, as the less famous master had died leaving the work (after which he was named) incomplete. One of the missing figures was this angel. The pair was meant to kneel at either end of the Arca – the tomb, or shrine – of none other than St Dominic. Hence my suggestion that Michelangelo facilitated the burning of a candle at both ends…

This is the Arca in its entirety, almost a history of Italian sculpture in its own right, with some post-dating both of our angels. St Dominic died in Bologna in 1221, and was canonised thirteen years later. Compare that with St Francis who died five years after Dominic, and was welcomed into the Canon of the Saints within two years – eight years before Dominic. But then he was far friendlier, told good stories, and spoke to the animals. Dominic was more hard-line – and, as I said last week, particularly down on the heretics. Good for the church, some would say, but hardly endearing. As a result almost no one visits his shrine – the Arca – which means you’re bound to get it to yourself – although a friendly Dominican may well extol the good man’s virtues while you’re there.

In 1264 the Dominicans commissioned a sarcophagus from Nicola Pisano, although he was called away the next year, and it was completed by his workshop. The shrine would originally have stood in the middle of a chapel atop a group of caryatids, which are now believed to be dispersed among a number of different museums. The bold, Romanesque, almost classical figures in the scenes from the life of St Dominic (two on each side and one at each end) are set against a gold mosaic background. These scenes are separated by the Madonna and Child and Christ the Redeemer in the centre (front and back respectively) with a saint at each corner. In this detail you can just see the heads of the two angels at either end (bottom left and right).

Between 1469 and 1473 the Arca was remodelled by Niccolò, a sculptor from Puglia, and by this time as well as functioning as a tomb it had also became an altar, with the sculptures on the sarcophagus acting as an altarpiece. Niccolò added the tiled ‘roof’, and topped it with a remarkable superstructure. The four evangelists, in unconventional ‘oriental’ garb, stand on the four corners, with God the Father at the very summit above putti and garlands and any number of extravagant architectonic details. He also intended to carve eight saints to stand on the cornice of the sarcophagus – but only finished five – and two candle-bearing angels – but only managed one. It could be that he continued to work on the project until he died, but by 1494 there were still four figures missing. Nevertheless, it became his defining work. Referred to in documents as Niccolò da Bari and Niccolò d’Antonio d’Apulia, among other names, he is now universally called Niccolò dell’Arca – Nicholas of the Shrine.

So how did Michelangelo get involved? Well, Vasari tells us that, after the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492, the teenage Michelangelo carried on working for Lorenzo’s son Piero until 1494, when he left Florence abruptly, just weeks before the Medici family were deposed. He went to Bologna, then on to Venice, and then, ‘Being unable to find any means of living in Venice, he went back to Bologna.’ However, he failed to follow regulations, didn’t have the money to pay a fine, and ended up in trouble – a predicament he managed to get out of quite possibly because the Medici had connections in Bologna. Long story short: he carved three of the missing four figures, a great honour given that (a) it was one of the major monuments in Bologna, (b) he was almost totally unknown, and (c) he was not yet 20 when he started. The fourth ‘missing figure’ wasn’t carved until 1539, when it was assigned to Girolamo Cortellini. Before that, though – in 1532 – Alfonso Lombardi had added the predella-like section, the base of which is the same height as the bases on which the angels are kneeling. And centuries later, in 1768, the ensemble as we see it today was finally completed with the addition of the altar frontal, designed by Carlo Bianconi.

What I find fascinating is that Michelangelo was so keen to learn from Niccolò’s example. Although not as long, the hair is every bit as curly, and he attempts to carve each individual whorl just as deeply. He also strives to make the facial features every bit as delicate. Even the drapery (see above) is carved as thinly as possible, and made to flow in the same rounded folds – even if the flow itself is more complex. And yet he can’t quite get there, he can’t quite do it as well as Niccolò. I’d even go so far as to say he can’t hold a candle to him, in terms of delicacy and refinement, at least. But that’s because, ultimately, this is not the direction in which his art would go. From this point on he left delicacy behind, and took on determination, boldness, complexity, the depths of the inner life, torment, and ultimately, terribilità – one of those words it is almost impossible to translate. Indeed, the Mirriam-Webster dictionary online says, ‘an effect or expression of powerful will and immense angry force (as in the work of Michelangelo)’. His work defines the word. Admittedly Wikipedia’s definition is better, although again, somewhat circular: ‘Terribilità, the modern Italian spelling, (or terribiltà, as Michelangelo’s 16th century contemporaries tended to spell it) is a quality ascribed to his art that provokes terror, awe, or a sense of the sublime in the viewer’. We don’t yet see that here, but maybe (just maybe) it is on the way.

And yes, I do ‘prefer’ Niccolò’s angel. But I’m also carrying a torch for the Michelangelo.


158 – Never forget…

Gianlorenzo Bernini, An Elephant with an Obelisk, 1665. Piazza della Minerva, Rome.

This is the sculpture I was going to write about last week, before I ran out of time. Like Apollo and Daphne, it is a perfect introduction to the forthcoming course which starts this Monday 6 June, Sculpture: Form, Function, Material and Memory. The blue link will take you to my diary page, which has links to information about all four talks, but I will also include the same links in this post as they become relevant. Bernini’s Elephant has always been popular with tourists. It is wonderfully charming, after all – delightfully so – and even, seen in the right way, humorous, so what’s not to like? But how many people, I wonder, have ever really  stopped to think about it as a ‘sculpture’? Or, for that matter, as a ‘Work of Art’? I happen to think (surprise, surprise!) that it is one of the Roman genius’s late, great works, rather than ‘just’ a flippant amusement. Though when you come to think about it, what is wrong with amusement? It is an essential part of life. Perhaps the best way to explain why I find this work so interesting is to consider how relevant it is to the four lectures in the forthcoming series.

The first talk is called Form: Looking in Depth and will cover the shape of sculpture. Sculpture is three dimensional, the quality which supposedly distinguishes it from painting (even if many paintings have three-dimensional qualities), although not all sculptures take up space in the same way. There are relief sculptures, for example – both high and low relief – and sculptures which are fully in the round, like Apollo and Daphne last week, designed to be seen from every conceivable point of view. So how would this week’s work fit into a scale running from ‘relief’ to ‘fully in the round’? The photograph above suggests that, if nothing else, it looks very good from this side of the plinth. I can’t imagine anyone imagining that Bernini had conceived any other view as being the ‘front’ of the sculpture: this is undoubtedly the principle point of view. We can see clearly that this is an elephant standing on a plinth, supporting an Egyptian obelisk on its back. At the very top is a cross – just visible against the blue sky – which stands above a star, itself projecting from something that looks just like a jelly mould, or for that matter, the jelly itself (American readers: jello, not jam… um…). These are elements from the coat of arms of Pope Alexander VII, and suggest either that he was the patron of this work, or that the patron wanted to acknowledge his papacy. As he ruled from 1655-1667, we have a rough idea of the date of the work, although we needn’t worry: documentary evidence tells us that it was unveiled in 1667, and turned out to be Bernini’s last commission from this particular papal patron. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The elephant and obelisk stand in front of the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, and are beautifully framed by the door of the church, the triangular pediment of the door frame, and the circular window in the façade – but only from this very specific view point directly in front of the sculpture. In front, that is, if the ‘front’ of the plinth is parallel to a supposed picture plane (as it is in this photograph). However, it is a sculpture, and you can walk round it to see it from different points of view!

But before we do that, let us think a bit more about the elephant. It is richly caparisoned, a word I hadn’t used before this week, when it was adopted in reference to a horse in Stockholm – thank you Fiona – and I assume the term can be applied to elephants as well. If not ‘caparisoned’, it does at least have a cloth over its back, which is fringed with large tassels and appliquéd with the star and jelly at the bottom centre, as well as branches bearing oak leaves and acorns on either side. This cloth must make the ‘saddle’ more comfortable. I say ‘saddle’, but I’m really not sure what to call it. As this is, presumably, an Indian elephant (it has smaller ears than its African cousins), it could even be a type of howdah. Decorated with an inscrutable mask, with eyes, nose, mouth and beard, this saddle/howdah serves to support the obelisk. The elephant looks off to its right, with its trunk curving across its right flank. In this photograph, we see again that the sculpture is beautifully framed by the doorway – which might imply that it was always meant to be here.

My main advice when looking at any sculpture – if it is freestanding – is to walk around it, and as you do so, to look for the most interesting points of view. Consider which are the better ways to look at it, and if there is a single ‘best’ viewpoint. For the elephant, the front – as discussed above – is definitely the best, but looking diagonally across the plinth we get the unavoidable feeling that the enormous beast is looking towards us. However, the carving of the eyes – making shadows which we read as pupils – suggests that the creature is looking over our heads. The trunk frames the right ear rather beautifully, and makes a nice counterpoint with the straight edge of the saddle. I’m sure that Bernini was interested in this point of view as well – although I’m not really sure what relevance it has. Sadly, this photograph shows us the damage which the poor pachyderm suffered back in 2016 – an unidentified vandal struck off the tip of its left tusk, although the severed section was abandoned nearby, and has now been skilfully reattached.

The drawing on the left (I hope it’s on the left, rather than above) shows Bernini’s design for a very similar monument – so similar, in fact, that you would think it was the same thing. But no – in place of the jelly and star, bees have alighted at the very tip of the obelisk. This is a study for a monument commissioned for the garden of Urban VIII (pope from 1623-44), and the bees have flown in from the coat of arms of the Borghese family to which Urban belonged. The drawing dates to c. 1632, but the project did not see the light of day for another 33 years, for a different patron and a different location. Bernini clearly wanted this point of view, from directly in front of the elephant (rather than from the side) to have an impact, as he designed the trunk to stick far out to our right, thus making the ‘image’ far more dramatic. The drawn elephant looks far fiercer than the docile, even friendly sculpture, and was probably intended to be trumpeting. The sculpture as executed is not as impressive from this angle, with the trunk tucked around to the side, and the position of the head, looking to our left, suggests that it might even look better if we moved in that direction, and indeed it does (as we have seen): a good sculptor can show you exactly where he wants you to be. Below the elephant, on the plinth, we see Alexander VII’s coat of arms – an oak tree top left and bottom right, and the ‘star and jelly’ top right and bottom left. Above this are the crossed keys of St Peter, and the triple tiara – the crown worn by popes until the 1960s – both of which emphasize Alexander’s status.

It was quite hard to find this photograph, and that’s simply because, apart from the elephant’s wonderfully wrinkly bottom, this view of the sculpture is just not that interesting. When leaving the church the view of the left flank of the creature is similarly unremarkable – indeed, I haven’t found a single photograph of that viewpoint. Even though this is a sculpture ‘fully in the round’ – i.e. it is a free-standing sculpture, and is carved on every side – it was not necessarily meant to be enjoyed from every point of view. There is one predominant viewpoint – the first photograph I showed you – almost as if Bernini were planning a sculpture that could just as easily have been a painting. You could argue that this is, in fact, a very (very!) high relief. It really doesn’t matter if you don’t go round the back: you don’t learn anything new, and indeed, you can guess what is there by looking at the ‘front’. This ‘frontality’ implies that the work was meant to emphasize a vista – a particular view from a particular angle – focussing the attention when the viewer approaches from a certain direction, like a punctuation mark at the end of the main approach. Bernini executed other sculptures which have a similar single, predominant viewpoint, and we will see some of them on Monday. However, there is a subsidiary viewpoint – looking the elephant fully in the face – which would imply that the viewer might be expected to approach from a different direction. It would be seen from this angle if you were to enter the Piazza della Minerva from the Piazza di Santa Chiara, but I don’t know if there is any reason why this particular approach should be favoured over any other. Maybe it’s just a result of the elephant turning round to see who’s coming.

The second talk in the series, on Monday 13 June, is called Function: What is it for? – a very good question as far as this particular sculpture is concerned. Is it simply there to amuse? If so, it certainly succeeds! But no, of course not. The point of the elephant is to support the obelisk, which was discovered in 1665 during excavations taking place near to the church. It is just one of a number of Egyptian obelisks which were taken from Egypt to Rome in the first centuries of the Roman Empire, and erected in prominent places to demonstrate Rome’s dominance over the ancient realm. After the fall of Rome, the obelisks gradually fell too, and by the 15th Century they were still there, supine among the rubble, or even buried. From the end of the 16th Century they were gradually re-erected to guide pilgrims towards the most important shrines, and Christian symbols were mounted on top of them to show the Church’s triumph over the pagan past. This obelisk was one of the last, and one of the smallest ever found, and is one of a pair: its twin is now in Urbino.

Apart from the Royal Collection drawing, others suggest that Bernini contemplated other means of holding the obelisk up – one features Old Father Time holding both a scythe and the obelisk, while in another it is Hercules who carries the weight. In the Piazza Navona, as you may well know, there is a different obelisk born aloft by the rocky structure of Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain. It may be that the Pope was given a choice as to how he wanted the Egyptian treasure borne aloft – and if he was, he chose the elephant. But why?

The image was probably inspired by a print from a rather odd but surprisingly popular book published in 1499, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. It too shows an elephant and an obelisk, although in this case the obelisk appears to pierce the elephant. In some respects the sculpture is also related to the age-old notion of the ‘elephant and castle’ – which would bring us back to the howdah. But the simplest way of understanding it is as one thing on top of another – just like the church itself. The Christian building, dedicated to the mother of Jesus, was constructed on top of the ruins of the Roman temple of Minerva, hence the name: Santa Maria sopra Minerva – ‘Saint Mary on top of Minerva’. Minerva was goddess of war and wisdom, and it is no coincidence that the church which superseded the temple belonged to a Dominican Friary. A main aim of the Dominicans was to defend orthodox beliefs against the heretics, and consequently they were famously studious. You need the right arguments to defeat heresy, and the Dominicans saw themselves as the guardians of Christian Wisdom. Again, not by coincidence, the church is close to the original seat of ‘La Sapienza’ ­– ‘The Wisdom’ – the University of Rome, which was founded in 1303. So why an elephant? Well, we could assume that, as elephants never forget, they must be very wise.  Or, to put it in the words of one of the inscriptions on the plinth, ‘Let any beholder of the carved images of the wisdom of Egypt on the obelisk carried by the elephant, the strongest of beasts, realize that it takes a robust mind to carry solid wisdom.’ The obelisk may stand on the elephant, but at the very top is the cross, resting on symbols which represent the Pope – and before I forget, it is not a jelly, but a stylised representation of the hills of Siena. Back in the 16th Century the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi, whose coat of arms included the six hills of Siena topped by a star, became one of the best friends and closest colleagues of Pope Julius II. As a member of the Della Rovere family, Julius’s coat of arms included an oak tree (‘rovere’ is one of the Italian words for ‘oak’), and he granted Agostino Chigi the privilege of using the Della Rovere oak on his own coat of arms. Pope Alexander VII was also a member of the Chigi family, several generations down the line, which is why the hills, stars and oak branches appear on this monument. Soon after the obelisk was discovered scholars attempted to decipher the meaning of the hieroglyphs on the obelisk, and their assumptions went unchallenged. However, even if the elephant bears witness to the knowledge of the Egyptians, the hills, star and cross are at the very top. Christian wisdom, supported by the authority of the Pope, is uppermost, just as Mary is above Minerva. And why was the church dedicated to Mary? Well, one of her titles was sedes sapientiae – ‘the seat of wisdom’ – the name given to Solomon’s throne (Solomon himself was famed for his wisdom). As the Christ Child sat upon Mary’s lap, she was, herself, his throne – sedes sapientiae.

In the third talk, Material: Method and Meaning we will explore the very stuff from which sculpture is made. In this case there are at least three materials – the marble from which the elephant is carved, the granite of the obelisk, and the bronze of the cross and Chigi symbols. We will also discuss how sculptures are made, explaining the techniques of casting bronze, and of carving marble, for example. We will also discuss the advantages and limitations of the materials. It is unlikely that the elephant’s trunk would ever have projected as dramatically as the drawing suggests – it would be all too likely to break off. From the end view of the finished version, you can just see how the trunk as carved is actually attached to the saddle, although this join is disguised from the ‘front’. As it happens, it was not Bernini himself who did the hard work. He left the carving of the elephant to one of his main assistants, Ercole Ferrata, and, while we’re thinking about it, it was other people who dug up the obelisk. A fascinating way of thinking about this monument is that, as well as the traditional techniques of carving and casting, it also uses ideas associated with sculpture at the beginning of the 20th Century. Constructivism, for example, made sculptures by ‘constructing’ them from separate, pre-existing elements, precisely what has happened here. And then there was a new genre of sculpture, the ‘readymade’, invented by Marcel Duchamp when took objects from the everyday world (the most famous being a urinal) and gave them a new context. That is exactly what Bernini has done here with the obelisk. In the same talk (no. 3) we will also consider the reasons for using these materials: what does the use of marble, granite, or bronze ‘mean’? I’ll leave you to worry about that for a couple of weeks, but, as just one suggestion, granite is a remarkably durable stone, and so can, in itself, imply permanence and therefore power. With so much to cover, it’s going to be a busy week!

Finally, the fourth talk is called Memory: Something to remember. As it happens, even though elephants never forget, I will not be referring to this sculpture. The talk will really be concerned with portraiture: sculpture as a means of remembering those who are not present, whether in terms of those living or effigies of the departed on funerary monuments. Even if Bernini might have based his work on drawings of a real elephant which came to ROme in 1630, this could never be considered a portrait. However, I’ll let you know more about that talk another day. In the meantime, I hope you won’t forget the elephant, and can join me Looking in Depth on Monday.


Back to the Chase

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25, Museo Borghese, Rome.

It’s got to that stage… I was wondering what to blog about this week as an introduction to my new lecture series, Sculpture: Form, Function, Material and Memory and I realised that a great choice would be Bernini’s astonishing Apollo and Daphne. Indeed, I was rather surprised that I hadn’t blogged about it before. That is, until I looked through the back catalogue and found that, fo course, I had. So I found another sculpture to talk about – but then life happened, it’s now Wednesday, and I’m off to Stockholm for a week tomorrow, with no time to write. What a perfect opportunity, then, to look at Apollo and Daphne again. Let’s face it, it’s been more than two years since I wrote this, and maybe it’s not surprising that I’ve forgotten what I’ve written about before. As I say, it’s got to that stage.

Why is it an ideal introduction to the series? Well, the first talk, on Monday 6 June (at 6pm, as ever) is called Form: Looking in Depth, and is about the shape of sculptures, and the space they take up – and this truly is a sculpture ‘in the round’, designed to be seen from every conceivable angle. It is definitely not, like many of Bernini’s works, a very high relief, with one predominant view point. It also has some of the most virtuosic use of marble. The third talk in the series, on Monday 20 June, is called Material: Method and Meaning. We will think about how you carve a marble sculpture – or cast a bronze – and why artists use these materials (or for that matter, wood, or clay, or wax, or…). But, apart from the material it is made from and the way it uses space, what is the point of the work? Lecture two, Function: What is it for? will cover just that. But then, for this particular sculpture – although not all the others by artists as diverse as Michelangelo, Canova, Verrocchio and Niccolo dell’Arca (and if you don’t know him you should) – you could just read the blog.

This truly is one of the marvels of marble carving – nothing can rival the delicacy of the leaves rustling in the breeze, the firmness of the roots thrusting into the ground, or the varied textures of tree and tresses – nor is there anything to match the scent of fear, and of confused compulsion, which the sculpture exudes.

And to think that Bernini was only 23 when he conceived this masterpiece! Not only that, but it was the third sculpture he completed for the most important patron of his youth, Cardinal Scipio Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul IV. He probably started work on it after finishing the Pluto and Proserpina, but then broke off to execute his David before completing Apollo and Daphne. Three larger-than-life-size masterpieces before he was 26, it’s quite remarkable. And this is the tour-de-force.

The story is well known, but just in case, here it is again. Daphne, daughter of the river god Peneus, had asked for something rather special: perpetual virginity. Her father thought this a strange request, suspecting she might grow out of her dislike of men, but she was adamant. After all, she said, ‘Diana’s got it – why can’t I have it’ – just like many teenagers nowadays (although, nowadays, they are more likely to want a new phone). So that’s what she got. Meanwhile, not so far away, Apollo came across Cupid playing with his bow and arrow, and laughed, and teased him: ‘You’re just a baby, playing with your toy bow and arrow set – wait until you’ve grown up, and get some real weapons – then you can have proper arrows like mine, which cause the plague’. Cupid wasn’t having this. He can be vicious when he wants, so watch out. He waited until the right moment and shot one of his best golden arrows at Apollo – so that Apollo would fall desperately in love with the first living thing that he saw. Cunningly, Cupid had waited until Daphne was nearby, and shot her with one of his worst leaden arrows. If you didn’t know he had leaden arrows as well – well, he does. This might explain any problems you’ve ever had chatting people up: a leaden arrow makes you hate the first thing you see. So of course Apollo sees Daphne, and goes up to her, she sees him coming and starts to walk away – already averse to the company of men, but now with a strange new compulsion. So he speeds up – and so does she. Before long, it is an all-out race, with him charging full pelt towards her, and her fleeing as fast as her feet will allow. She called out desperately to her father, pleading with him to save her honour, to protect her chastity, to change that beauty that would be her downfall. So he turned her into a tree. How many fathers would do that for their daughters nowadays?

The story is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses – the changes of form. We live in a fluid world, were things are always in flux, and this is what Ovid explores. It’s not just the physical form, but our shifting moods and emotions as well. His description of Daphne’s transformation is wonderfully specific, and shifts from sensuous to serious: ‘a heavy numbness seizes her limbs; her soft breasts are surrounded by a thin bark, her hair changes into foliage, her arms change into branches; her foot, just now swift, now clings to sluggish roots.” Bernini must have read this carefully, but inevitably he riffs on the idea, and we see leaves growing from her fingers as well – although as yet, there is no bark on her breasts.

A while back I mentioned that I think that Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes is the first sculpture of the Renaissance to be conceived fully in the round (Picture Of The Day 35). By the time Bernini was born, the idea was old hat – but that doesn’t stop him from excelling. It is not possible to see this sculpture from enough different angles… here are just some suggestions.

It rewards continued inspection, looking at it from every possible angle, including stooping down and looking up, if you can. And if I could take in a step ladder, I would. It is also worthwhile getting as close to it as you can (wisely, there is a chain at some distance, this is a remarkably fragile piece) – or for that matter as far away, to get the overall feel of the piece. I would advise a variety of viewing distances for any work of art, to be honest – the further back you get, the more likely you are to be able to take in the overall composition. As it happens, the room in which this sculpture is exhibited is not very big.

Bernini has chosen the moment at which Apollo finally catches up with Daphne – his right foot is firmly planted on the ground, his left is trailing behind, as is his right arm. The left hand rests on her waist, but – almost as if the transformation has responded to his touch – he doesn’t feel flesh. Oddly, and ironically, her feet are not firmly planted – it is almost as if she was trying to fly away. But you can see the roots shooting out of her toes, and bark has grown up between her legs, leaving a tantalising gap between its rough exterior and her soft, shadowed thigh. It grows over her groin, and round her left hip, and that is where his left hand rests, delicately, his thumb and forefinger a matter of millimetres away from her stomach. But he doesn’t quite touch her. As his face approaches her right shoulder, she twists it away, elongating the stretch between her right foot and hand, but she looks round, involuntarily perhaps, to see how close he might be. Her mouth is open with an almost audible cry.

His cloak is wrapped around his left arm, and falls over the protecting bark, his fingers and the folds of the cloak contrasting with the rough and smooth of tree and flesh. The cloak then goes round his shoulder and flies out in a loop behind him, before wrapping around his hips, leaving a inviting gap just like her bark. If you stand at the right angle you can see the light from the window glowing through this cloak – in places it is so thin it is translucent.

When we get closer in, we learn more about their feelings. Bernini has carved their irises and pupils – eyes are always hard to capture in sculpture. Daphne is looking right round, her pupils in corners of her eyes, whereas he looks quite vacant. His lips are slightly parted – but do not seem to express worry, or determination, or even love or longing. He may still be running towards her, reaching out to grab her, but he is not even looking at her – his gaze misses the mark. And I think that is the unrealised genius of Bernini’s sculpture. Neither of these people know what they are doing. They are both bewitched by Cupid, he to run towards her, she to flee. They are acting under compulsion and do not understand their own actions. Her hair flies out behind her, between them and then up towards her fingers, where both hair and hands become leaves. There is just one delicate, stray curl above her right eyebrow. Similarly his hair flies back in the wind, soft and supple – no one could texture marble like Bernini. It is a soft and flowing variant of Apollo’s classical top knot.

Indeed, if we look again, it is clear that the figure of Apollo as a whole is based on the Apollo Belvedere, one of the classical treasures of the Vatican Museums: it has stood in the Belvedere Courtyard since 1511, and is not so far away from the Belvedere Torso which we saw Angelica Kauffman drawing in POTD 48. Bernini was keen to make his mark, not just by his conceptual and technical skill, but also by acknowledging his awareness of the art of others. An early work (and you thought this was early!), which is also in the Museo Borghese, is his Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius, completed before he reached the ripe old age of 21. Aeneas, carrying his aged father on his back, is modelled on Michelangelo’s Risen Christ. His Pluto and Proserpina includes the three-headed Cerberus, modelled on a classical sculpture of a dog, which, like the Apollo Belvedere, is in the Vatican Museums. By breaking off work on the Apollo and Daphne to carve a sculpture of David he could only have been pitching himself against Michelangelo himself. The face of his David is a self portrait. Bernini casts himself as the giant-slayer, and the giant at whom he was taking aim was undoubtedly Michelangelo. With Apollo and Daphne he pitches himself against the ancients. 

All of this was exactly what his patron wanted – the next bright young thing, who not only had the most fantastic technique, and the most imaginative ideas, but also the intellectual grasp of the subject to make it doubly rewarding. But surely, neither this sculpture, nor the Pluto and Proserpina, were ideal subjects for a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church? The former is another fantastic sculpture – a monstrous act, but a fantastic sculpture – and like this, it is another pagan story. But this one is maybe worse, seeing how it flirts and tantalises with its strip-tease-like semi-concealment of the figures, and its tempting tactile values. It is just asking to be touched. To be caressed. To be enjoyed. So how could Cardinal Borghese possibly justify it? Well, there’s an inscription on the base – two in fact, one on either side. On one side, there is a quotation from Ovid – more or less the section I quoted above – and on the other, a moral verse, written by Maffeo Barberini, who would become Pope Urban VIII, the next Pope but one after Scipio’s Uncle. They are held by the eagle and dragon of the Borghese coat of arms.  

On the left, the Ovid. On the right, in a rough translation, it says: ‘If you chase the joys of fleeting beauty, you’re grabbing at leaves and picking bitter berries’. So that’s alright then – this is a moral sculpture, it teaches us a lesson, it warns us of the dangers of physical pleasure. Which might convince me if the sculpture itself wasn’t quite so sensuous. But then, like many Cardinals, Borghese knew how to have his cake and eat it…

There are several theories about how it would originally have been displayed. Is there a predominant view, for example? I’m not sure that there is. Several of Borghese’s sculptures were placed against a wall – this is clear in the David, the back of which hasn’t even been carved. But I can’t see how that would make any sense with this one. Every viewpoint is interesting. However, given that there were so many different, and interesting ways of looking at it, which would be the best view to see first? After all, anyone entering the room where it is exhibited will have their viewpoint determined by the position of the sculpture in relationship to the position of the door. And I favour this final position. Not the most striking perhaps – and this is not quite the right view. Maybe the top left one in the mosaic up above… but, basically, there is a viewpoint whereby you can only see Apollo – and leaves. He appears to be running headlong into a tree. I think that would be a great ‘first view’ as you really wouldn’t know what was going on. Only as you walk into the room and around the sculpture would you discover the story – you see Apollo first, and then the chase, and then the transformation. That sense of the viewer’s participation in the drama is one of the things that can make the Baroque so profound, and so profoundly exciting.


157 – Florid

Caterina Angela Pierozzi, The Annunciation Miniature, 1677. Colnaghi, London.

I’ve just read a wonderful article in the New York Times, A Messy Table, a Map of the World by Jason Farago, and I’m half inclined to post a link to that today (which I have) and leave it at that. It’s a richly illustrated piece, and works particularly well on a smart phone, but I can see that scrolling through on my laptop it functions just as well. The technology is ingenious: as you scroll through the text, the illustrations move to focus your attention on what is relevant – a bit like a lecture in print… He starts by posing a bold question: ‘When you visit a museum’s collection of European painting, do you skip by the still lifes and head for the showier stuff?’ Well, do you? I confess, I often do… He then goes on to demonstrate precisely why we shouldn’t. This is timely for me, as next week I’ll be talking about a group of still life artists of whom I suspect many of you will never have heard. They are all remarkably good, or, at least, remarkably interesting. And if one of them wasn’t the best artist ever, that wasn’t her fault: women just didn’t get the chances that their male colleagues had, and from which they could learn. That’s what I’ll be talking about next Monday 16 May at 6pm: Women Painting Still Life in the 17th Century. The overall title, Forbidden Fruit, is taken from a display at Colnaghi, ‘the first commercial art gallery in the world’ according to their own website. It’s a clever title, referring of course to Eve in the garden of Eden, although no reference is made to the fall or its consequences in Colnaghi’s small display, nor is it, as it happens, in any way relevant! None of the fruits on view were ever forbidden, and these women were remarkably successful – it’s just that we don’t hear about them so much today. Fortunately, things are changing. The title is not the only thing I disagree with (as you’ll see below), but don’t worry about that, as the art is superb. I’ve included a number of the paintings I will talk about at the very end of this post.

Today, though, I want to look at the piece which alerted me to Colnaghi’s show – a (relatively) recently discovered painting by Caterina Angelo Pierozzi. I thought I had heard of her – a well-documented female artist none of whose work was known. But I’m starting to think that that was someone else, partly because the text written by Colnaghi seems to be the only thing currently available. However, there are many women whose work is still to be discovered.

It’s called The Annunciation Miniature, not necessarily because of its size, even if it is relatively small at 14.6 x 19.4 cm. It’s really because of the technique, which is that of a miniaturist: tempera and gold leaf on vellum. The expensive materials tell us that it must have been a luxury item. It’s not really a still life either, as the main focus is on the Annunciation, although it is surrounded by a rather beautiful border of intertwined flowers.

As I’ve said, the painting is presented as a work by a previously unrecognised artist, but if none of Pierozzi’s work was known before the discovery of this piece in a French private collection about 18 months ago, how can we possibly know that this is really by her? Well, quite simply, in this case, because she signed it.

Her name is clearly visible in the gold border, which just begs the question, why is it a recent discovery? Presumably because the owner didn’t know that it was important. This detail shows, of course, the archangel Gabriel. His flat, gold halo has a medieval appearance, although the softness of touch – the delicate stippling with a minute brush – tells us that this is not a medieval painting, as does the subtlety of the modelling around the eyes, nose, mouth and neck. He wears the palest of pink robes (I suspect it has faded), with a green cloak, and ringing out against the dark background is a pair of brilliant blue wings – the left one projecting behind the head much as it did in Raphael’s Annunciation drawing a few weeks back (see 155 – Pre-Announced). He looks down with humility, the angle of his head contrasting with that of the Virgin’s – her eyes are turned upward towards Heaven.

Mary has the same flat, patterned halo, and also has a pale pink robe, which is even more faded, perhaps. On top of this, her traditional blue cloak, which unifies her pictorially with Gabriel’s wings, appears to be trimmed with ermine, speaking of her future coronation as Queen of Heaven. Her long, uncovered hair – referring to her youth and virginity – is picked out in individual strands, parted centrally and falling in waves over both shoulders. In the gold border we see that Caterina Angela Pierozzi (as identified under the angel) was Florentine, and that she made this image in 1677.

It is not a coincidence that both figures look medieval: Caterina has taken them from what was once one of the most famous paintings in Florence. However, its fame was not due to its art historical relevance, but because of its status as a miracle working image.

So famous is it, that an entire church is named after it: Santissima Annunziata, the Most Holy Annunciate (Virgin). The myth behind the painting is that, two years after the foundation of the church in 1250, one of the friars, a certain Fra Bartolomeo (no, not the famous one – he came two and half centuries later) set out to paint this Annunciation, but, worried that he wouldn’t be able to make the Virgin sufficiently beautiful, he left it unfinished and had a nap. When he woke up, there she was, in all her divine grace, presumably finished by an angel. All well and good, and who knows, potentially even true, apart from the fact that the story must refer to a different painting: stylistically, this one is dated about 100 years later – mid-14th Century – and was painted by an unknown follower of Giotto. Not that an angel might not have followed Giotto. Nevertheless, its status as a miraculous image remained undiminished, and it was particularly highly revered in the 15th Century, when numerous devotees, from the local Lorenzo ‘the Magnificent’ de’ Medici to the visiting Leonello III d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara, paid homage and left ex-voto images of themselves in wax. This led to at least one fire, and, a contemporary author worrying, given the weight of all the tributes, about the potential collapse of the church. In 1448 Piero ‘the Gouty’ de’ Medici, son of Cosimo il Vecchio, paid for a tabernacle to be built around the shrine. The curiously obstructive and asymmetric frame, which oddly doesn’t even focus on the Virgin, was stuck over it on a different occasion. Equally oddly, despite all this attention, and even a recent restauration (2020), there doesn’t seem to be a single good image of the fresco available.

Following on from Piero the Gouty, Medici interest in this painting continued well into the seventeenth century, with artists such as Alessandro and Cristofano Allori (father and son) commissioned to paint multiple copies for members of the ruling family and as diplomatic gifts. The illustration above is one of around 20 which Cristofano is known to have completed early in the 17th Century. It is painted with oil on copper, which, like vellum, was seen as another ‘luxury’ support.

That Pierozzi’s Annunciation is based on the fresco can be seen from a simple comparison between the two images of Mary, and could easily be another example of Medicean devotion: Caterina is known to have worked for the family. However, go back to the images above and look at the angel’s wings – Pierozzi has replicated neither the colour (reds and pinks in the original, rather than the vivid blue) nor the form (the left wing is lowered in both the fresco and copy, and does not project to the right of the halo). She did not reproduce exactly what she saw, whether she was looking at the original or a copy, and this is worthwhile bearing in mind for later.

So what do we know of Caterina Angela Pierozzi? At the moment, relatively little. Even the longest reference to her is relatively short, and comes from a biographical dictionary of artists written in 1702, which tells us that she was the niece of an artist, Fra Manetto Pierozzi. In an entry on the uncle, the author Filippo Baldinucci writes,

‘Caterina Angela Pierozzi, niece of said Fra Manetto, who having learned from her uncle the art of miniature, with praise she practises in it, and we have from her hand in the chambers of the Serenissimo Palace a painting of circa 2 braccia, in which is represented the Blessed Virgin in the act of sitting, there are St. Joseph, and St. Ann, and the baby Jesus, and a little St. John, who, with beautiful grace, and extraordinary naturalness, pressed on his chest his little apron, in which he holds tightly wrapped two kittens, almost as if he wanted to defend them from a little dog, which with a beautiful gesture seems to want to cause them harm, and so realistic are the gestures of the young boy and of the little dog, that more could not be desired’.

From archival references we learn that, as well as having an uncle who was an artist, she was also married to one, a certain Michelangelo Corsi, and that one of her works hung in a Medici Grand Ducal Palace. An inventory of 1692 states that it was a miniature showing a portrait of a woman holding ‘a small image of the Annunciation in her right hand, covered with crystal and adorned with a floral frame’. In many respects this sounds like a portrait of a woman holding today’s miniature, which itself has a remarkably elaborate frame.

I’ve taken the above quotations from the Colnaghi website, as this is currently the only source I can track down. However, Sheila Barker, Art History professor at the University of Pennsylvania and specialist not only in the Medici in the 17th Century, but also artists such as Artemisia Gentileschi and Giovanna Garzoni (who will be featured in Monday’s talk), has made significant discoveries about Pierozzi which will soon be published. Hopefully she will also counteract some of Colnaghi’s inaccuracies. I just happen to be married to a plant ecologist, and I asked him about the plants in this image. His comments went something like this:

‘At the very top left, that could be the bottom of a striped tulip, and below that is something a bit like a pheasant’s eye. The one with six blue petals is a bit like a gentian but they don’t have six petals. Then there’s something that’s a bit like a rose, and a bit like a peony, and coming down the right side, maybe a dead poppy head, but verging on a clematis,’ at which point he gave up and said, ‘they are all bits and pieces, really’.

On the far right of this section there is, admittedly, an upside-down striped tulip which is reasonably accurate, and going across the bottom (left to right) we have ‘one which is vaguely chrysanthemummy… that’s a bit like a peony, they are possibly cornflowers and something vaguely magnolia-like…’. Please remember, though, that this is not a botanical illustration. It is, I think, a beautifully painted garland, even if it is not an accurate representation of known flowers. And remember, I’ve never seen an angel, and yet I still believe that there is one depicted here. And yes, this is the point at which we should bear in mind that she didn’t even copy the angel accurately, so why should she reproduce real, as opposed to imaginary, flowers? Given Pierozzi’s obvious creativity, it was with some surprise that I read Colnaghi asserting that the Annunciation is surrounded by  ‘… a border of minutely rendered flowers, which include irises, tulips, hyacinths, peonies and lilies.’ Tulips, yes, peonies, maybe – but the others? Admittedly hyacinths looked different in the 17th Century (they have been bred so that the florets grow closer together), but they still looked nothing like anything here. In a later paragraph the text continues, ‘The flowers are beautifully rendered with botanical accuracy, and presumably Pierozzi had these floral specimens in front of her as she created the miniature,’ which is, to adopt a technical term sadly underused in academic art history, utter garbage. Further on they point to the visible under-drawing (you’d have to get very close to see it) and extol Pierozzi’s skill with disegno, i.e. drawing (basically), the defining feature of Florentine painting in the 16th Century. The only problem with this assertion is that line is not at all important for this particular work – it is a soft-edged, painterly image which is almost entirely defined by the colour of the forms… It is an undoubtedly beautiful image, it’s just that the description – over-stated to promote an important work for a successful sale (let’s just say ‘florid’) – is wrong.

It’s a fantastic discovery, and a superb painting – and I’d love to be able to mount it on the wall of my study. If you would like it, why not make an enquiry at Colnaghi?! However, if I’m honest, I’d equally like one of the other images I will be talking about next week. Just to whet your appetites here are works by Rachel Ruysch, Giovanna Garzoni, Clara Peeters and Fede Galizia – all of which will be featured in Forbidden Fruit on Monday (even if not all are in the Colnaghi show).

Fede Galizia

156 – Second helpings at the Feast

Donatello, The Feast of Herod, 1423-7. Baptismal Font, Battistero di San Giovanni Battista, Siena.

‘Please, sir, I want some more.’  OK, so it seems extremely unlikely that these words, said by Oliver Twist in the eponymous novel by Charles Dickens, and so often misquoted, nor indeed anything like them, would ever have been uttered at the Feast of Herod, an event that would have put even the hungriest off their food. And yet, I want to return to the Feast. This is, in part, because I want to return to the fantastic exhibition in Florence, Donatello: The Renaissance – and maybe I’ll find the time to do so. At least I will be able to revisit it in my mind’s eye when I deliver Part II of my introduction to this rich and inexhaustible display this coming Monday, 9 May at 6pm. Of course, even single works of art can be remarkably rewarding, and any painting or sculpture can benefit from repeated viewing: there is always more to see, and so there is always more to say. A month ago I looked at today’s gilded bronze relief, putting it in its context as part of the decoration of Siena’s Baptismal Font (154 – A Feast for the Eyes), and today I want to look at its immediate impact on local artists. As an aside, people have asked a number of questions about sculpture as a result of the Donatello exhibition, so I thought I would dedicate a series of four lectures to the subject, stretching across all the Mondays in June – but I’ll give you more information about them nearer the time. Before then I will talk about Women painting Still Life in the 17th Century on Monday 16 May. The talk will be entitled Forbidden Fruits, and is inspired by Colnaghi’s focussed display of the same title – click on one of the links for more information. To return to Donatello, I want to start by comparing his relief to its equivalent on the front of the font, The Baptism of Christ by Ghiberti (if you want the context, have a look back at A Feast for the Eyes).

When you walk into the Baptistery, Ghiberti’s relief is the first that you see, and this is, of course, a deliberate choice. Any separate baptistery is effectively a church dedicated to St John the Baptist, and it is where the Sacrament of Baptism – recognised as a sacrament by Catholics and Protestants alike – was, and is, celebrated. Nowadays, of course (and for many centuries, it should be said) Baptism can take place in any church. St John the Baptist is overtly defined by this act, the ritual purification which Jesus undertook at the beginning of his mission. Not that he needed purification (and John was aware of this), but he was, in every way, acting as a role model. As this particular episode defines John’s role in God’s plan, it must be in the prime position on the font – the first thing we see. This also means that the decoration of the font had to be planned with the other ‘chapters’ of the story arranged appropriately around it. But this is all slightly beside the point for this post. It the style of the relief which really interests me today. Notice how all of the figures stand out in relief against a flat background. Jesus is in the centre, of course, where he is framed by John on the right, and two full-length, standing angels on the left. John’s elongated right arm stretching out over Jesus’ head is a curious throwback to gothic ideas for Ghiberti, an artist who had made so many strides into the Renaissance, but it is remarkably expressive, and may well relate to Sienese precedents: the late 13th century sculptures by Giovanni Pisano for the façade of Siena Cathedral, for example. The four figures I have mentioned are in the highest relief, together with the foreshortened, half-length figure of God the Father at the top of the panel. Below the Father is the Holy Spirit: it was at this point in the narrative that the bible says ‘And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased’ (Luke 3:22). In one verse we have (a) an explanation why artists usually depict the Holy Spirit as a dove and (b) the whole doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Joining the two full-length angels and John is a multitude of the heavenly host, arcing up and over Christ. The figures go into lower relief as they get higher up and further away. Nevertheless, however low the relief, the figures are still built up from a flat background. Let’s compare this technique with Donatello’s in The Feast of Herod (as so often, I hope these two images end up next to each other for you, it’s easier to see…).

In Ghiberti’s panel, the representation of the ‘sky’ is indistinguishable from the material nature of the gilded sheet of bronze from which it is made. I get the feeling that, if we were to imagine this as a ‘real’ space, and if we were to walk past Jesus into the depth of the landscape, we would soon bump into a featureless gold barrier.  Donatello’s space doesn’t seem to be limited in the same way – it just keeps going. There is, eventually, a wall – through two sets of arches – but it is a wall which limits the progression of space, rather than the background of the sculpture. He is creating the same pictorial illusion as a painting does, and although Ghiberti hints at this idea with the ‘fading’ of the angels, his background remains a sheet of gilded bronze, rather than a brick wall at the back of the third room in. This difference may have resulted from the practical technique used: rather than building the image up from a flat background, Donatello appears to have dug into the depth of the wax, or clay, from which his original model would have been made – almost a carver’s technique, rather than a modeller’s.

Ghiberti’s relief had been commissioned in 1417, and he was supposed to have finished it, together with the next relief in the sequence (showing the arrest of the Baptist) within 20 months. However, they weren’t finished until 1427, the same year in which Donatello submitted his relief. Meanwhile, Ghiberti had started work on his second set of doors for the Florentine Baptistery. Compare these two panels, one from the first set of doors – the ‘North Doors’ (made between 1403-24) – and one from the second, the so-called ‘Gates of Paradise’ (1425-52). The format changed, and so did the style.  

Although the second example is still based on a flat background, it shows a far greater interest in painterly effects and the recession of space defined by linear perspective. Admittedly not all of the panels from the Gates of Paradise use linear perspective, but overall their interest in spatial illusion is far greater, and, to a large degree, I think this is because Ghiberti was influenced by the work of his former pupil (Donatello is documented in Ghiberti’s workshop from 1403 – 1407, at the beginning of the work on the North Doors). The change in format, from quatrefoils to rectangular, painterly fields, was also influenced by the experience in Siena – the overall design of the font being a collaboration, it would seem, between Ghiberti and Jacopo della Quercia, with the latter taking the lead. So let’s compare Donatello’s Feast of Herod with Jacopo della Quercia’s Annunciation to Zacharias. This is the story which starts the sequence, and is found at the back of the font – it is next to Donatello’s relief, which marks the end of this abbreviated biography.

Jacopo’s relief was modelled and cast in 1428-29 – the years immediately after Donatello’s was completed – and the influence is clear. You’ll have to take it on trust for now, but his other relief sculptures place mid-relief figures against a plain background. The insistent brickwork of the walls should be enough to show that he was keen to capture something of the remarkable originality of Donatello’s creation, and as if that isn’t enough, look at the two figures in profile on the left, visible in the adjacent room through the archway. Even if they are not exactly a quotation, they are certainly an interpretation of the figures seen through the arches on the left of the Feast. Jacopo even tries trimming the edges of his figures, as if they are disappearing into the wings. However, he hasn’t quite got it, and doesn’t commit to the idea as fully as Donatello – and he certainly doesn’t understand perspective. The projecting arch, which frames the altar, seems to be folded back, as if it were made of jointed cardboard and someone has pushed the front edge of the structure to the right, a flat-pack temple that could be collapsed into one plane. Don’t get me wrong – I love Jacopo della Quercia’s work, and when he’s doing his own thing (look up the Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, for example, or the reliefs around the portal of San Petronio in Bologna) he is quite fantastic. But he’s not Donatello. Another person who wasn’t Donatello is Giovanni di Paolo, one of Siena’s leading painters.

His Feast of Herod – one of four predella panels illustrating the Life of St John the Baptist painted in 1454 and now in the National Gallery in London – is so obviously inspired by Donatello’s relief that his failure to get anywhere close to it is almost inspiring. It has a naïve charm which makes it a wonder to behold. Compare and contrast!

Although excess ‘staffage’ has been thinned out, almost all the main characters have equivalents: Herod, the kneeling servant, one of the people behind the table, Salome and the two men behind her. The last pair is the most interesting feature for two reasons, I think. First, it’s not immediately clear in the Donatello that there are two men, until you notice the hand on the nearer man’s shoulder, and then pick out he headdress above Salome’s own head (you’ll have to zoom in, or look at the details below). Paolo has made it more obvious that there are two men, the one at the back with his arm around the other, and both enjoying the view. The second reason, and perhaps even more intriguing, is that he has also quoted from Jacopo. The nearer man, in the Donatello, has his hand on his hip. Jacopo’s equivalent figure, framing the right-hand side of the relief of the Annunciation to Zacharias, has his hand tucked into his belt. It is this detail that Paolo has picked up on. Paolo has noticed the tiles of the floor – but cannot reproduce them – and the spaces in the background – with which he struggles even more. On the right-hand side the opening up of the doorway into a garden – not based on Donatello – takes on an almost Escher-like impossibility. He has noticed the way that Donatello frames the narrative, with figures actively leaving the space on both left and right, and even though he doesn’t have the same transitional figures he clearly wants to hang onto this idea of framing, and has painted two vertical grey strips, like the proscenium arch in a theatre. It would be possible for the characters to exit stage left or right, even if none of them is currently doing so. But the borrowing that always delights me the most is the cloth hanging over the edge of the table. Donatello does it, Paolo likes it and wants to do it too, but gives it form without function. He really hasn’t understood why the cloth is there: not as a serviette, or anything to do with the feast, really, but as a marker of the perspective, leading our eyes back towards the vanishing point. That’s what it represents for Donatello, who makes the section of the cloth lying on the table inflect to the left accordingly. Paolo makes it go to the right, and misses the point entirely. It’s hardly surprising that the man at the back of the table behind it has got his head in his hands. Again, don’t get me wrong: it’s not bad art, it’s a very different thing. OK, so it’s not great art either, but it is entirely delightful – and an important example of the transmission of ideas.

Somehow, Donatello only managed to make great works of art, and there is a lot which I haven’t spoken about yet currently on view in Florence – so do join me for Donatello: The Renaissance II on Monday!


155 – Pre-Announced

Raphael, The Annunciation, c. 1506-7. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

I’ve said in two different lectures (to two different audiences) that I intend to write about this drawing, thus announcing the Annunciation. I’d not seen it before my first visit to the glorious Raphael exhibition at the National Gallery, but it grabbed my attention, and instantly became my new favourite drawing. Having said that, I’m not sure that I had an old favourite drawing, even if there are many that I love! I showed it during the talk last Monday, but didn’t talk about it much. As it was probably drawn while Raphael was in Florence, and on Monday 2 May at 6pm I will be talking about Raphael: The Triumph in Rome – the second of my two-part introduction to the exhibition – I won’t talk about it then either. So I’ll just have to do that now. The week after (9 May) I will return to Donatello, and on the way home on the train today I decided that the following week (16 May) I will talk about the Colnaghi exhibition which opened today, which includes the only known painting by the 17th century artist Caterina Angela Pierozzi. It’s only just been re-discovered, which is remarkable, as for years everyone has assumed that all her paintings were lost! But more of that nearer the time – let’s get back to Raphael.

The subject matter is unsurprising, perhaps – The Annunciation – but what is remarkable is the quality of the drawing and the degree of finish. This is not a ‘sketch’, nor is it a working-through of ideas, it is a fully-fledged composition with almost every detail thoroughly considered and all the concomitant problems effectively resolved. What is surprising about that? Well, what is it a drawing for? Raphael made other drawings like this for altarpieces – but no such painting exists. In the catalogue of Raphael drawings, written by Paul Joannides (my PhD supervisor) it is categorised as a ‘presentation drawing’, which means, effectively, that it was made as a drawing in its own right, to be given (i.e. presented, hence ‘presentation’) as an independent work of art. It was only during the Renaissance – at some point in the late 15th century – that drawing acquired this status. On the whole though, drawing was still used to make observations, to think through ideas, to develop forms, to plan compositions, and to transfer the ideas to the finished work.

There are other oddities. Usually the Annunciation takes place in a domestic setting – Mary’s room, usually her bedroom, or some private space where she has been contemplating the scriptures.  However, in this instance the characters appear to be in a large building, presumably a church – although as the events depicted took place nine months B.C., and churches wouldn’t be legal for another 313 years, that would be entirely anachronistic. So it could be a synagogue or temple, I suppose. The angel Gabriel kneels in humble reverence of God’s chosen vessel, holding the by-then (then being Raphael’s time) traditional lily, symbol of Mary’s purity, in his right hand. His left hand rests on his chest as a sign of his heartfelt awe in the face of such beauty and perfection. Mary turns to greet him, standing in a classical contrapposto with the weight on her left leg and the right leg bent, the drapery pulling tighter around her right knee, her thigh illuminated by the bright light shining down from above.

In between them we can see a large, semi-circular apse, the architectonic structure that makes this look like a church, which is exactly the place where we would expect to see an altar. However, there is none there. Nevertheless, directly behind Mary, and off-centre, there is a large flat block of stone (presumably) on slightly broader base. It is too tall to be an altar, and its function is not clear. This should make us realise that the drawing is not, perhaps, as fully resolved as we first thought. It could be the base of a large column, although there is no column there – which could be a metaphor for the promised arrival of the Messiah, a tower of strength, if not, exactly, a column. To the right of Mary you may just be able to make out the rising diagonal of a reading desk – the drapery falling from her left arm falls from it (and while we are there, notice how her left hand is on her breast, just like Gabriel’s). She has been kneeling there, reading, and presumably praying. When the angel appeared she stood and turned round to greet him – her body turning 90 degrees, with the head completing the full 180. The shadowy depth of the apse is conveyed in two ways. To the left, above the angel’s head, there are vertical lines, and then, overlapping these, are slightly curving diagonal strokes which appear to link the two figures, almost as if this is the energy binding them together. The slight curve shows us the way they were drawn, with Raphael holding the quill (this is a pen and ink drawing) and making long strokes like a compass, with his elbow at the centre of a circle and his hand tracing arcs around it at the full length of his forearm. Try this yourself, and if you are right handed – like Raphael – you will make this sort of curve, with the lines going from top right to bottom left (for the left-handed Leonardo, the diagonals go the other way). The angel’s wings are just sketched in, the right one fully visible, with the other crossing behind his head, so that the foremost curving outline (do wings have ‘elbows’?) projects to the right of his nose. Notice how, despite the subtlety of the shading, none of the three hands in the detail above (or, for that matter, Gabriel’s right hand in the previous detail) is shaded. They are defined by outline alone, forming bright highlights, this clarity serving to make them more expressive.

The arched top of the drawing is very subtly sketched in, and perfectly frames God the Father, who looks down at the action below while surrounded by clouds and a small delegation of the heavenly host. Equally spaced are five tiny heads of cherubim and seraphim, creatures so holy they do not need a body but appear just as heads with wings. They are disposed symmetrically, with one each at top left and top right, two more towards the bottom left and right, and a fifth, bottom centre of this detail – although, if you wanted to read the loops of cloud as further cherubim, I wouldn’t disagree. Then there are four winged youths, evenly spaced in a rectangular formation, hands held in prayer or resting on chest or cloud, with the Father central. He looks down to Mary, his right hand raised in blessing, the fore- and middle fingers separated, and thumb held apart – so delicately defined, for such a tiny detail. The left hand seems to hover, as if to calm – to calm the angel, perhaps? It’s as if he was worried about getting the words wrong, but I suspect he is following the divine instructions well, and is being reassured from above. Or maybe, to calm Mary – who, nevertheless, does not appear to be especially troubled at the angel’s saying.

The Father hovers above the apse. It is almost as if the roof of the church – or temple – has dissolved as he manifests his presence. Yet more cherubim and seraphim solidify from the clouds below the previous group, and below them all, at the centre of the semi-dome of the apse (but some way in front of it) is the Holy Spirit, a tiny dove with a tinier dove-sized halo, appearing against another, larger halo, the same size as the Father’s, but flat against the surface of the drawing rather than angled in space. Of course, it is not there at all. There is a circle drawn by the pen – quite firmly, as the light catches indentations made on the paper – but the halo itself is not there. That is just blank paper. It is possible that details like this halo – the glow around the Holy Spirit – were drawn first with a ‘blind stylus’ – i.e. a pointed object without any ink. The outlines were indented in the paper in a way that is almost invisible – and then traced over with pen and ink if they are deemed to be in the right place.

Overall, the position of God the Father directly over the circle enclosing the Holy Spirit looks like a practice run for the Disputa, one of the frescoes Raphael would later paint in the Vatican Palace (if you don’t remember it, there is a detail below, and I will show a full image on Monday). The position of the dove is slightly unusual, to my mind. If proceeding from the Father, I would expect to see it in between the Father’s head and Mary’s. However, I suspect its position speaks of an absence – or rather, of a future presence. The apse should contain an altar, and on the altar, during the Mass, at the Elevation of the Host, the bread becomes (in Roman Catholic belief) the actual body of Christ. And so Christ would eventually be physically present directly underneath the dove, forming a vertical axis of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Again, this is equivalent to the monstrance containing the consecrated Host in the Disputa. I hope these two details appear side by side for you:

The space between Gabriel and Mary is, after all, full of grace. These are the words Gabriel is speaking in Luke 1:28. In the Vulgate, the Latin is ‘ave gratia plena Dominus tecum’. The King James version gives us ‘Hail, though that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee,’ or, in the Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition, about which I know little but seems a more accurate, and poetic, translation than some, ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee’. Imagine these words written on the curving lines between Gabriel and Mary, and you will realise that the space between them is sanctified – it is, in itself, ‘full of grace’. This is the place where the Mass will one day be celebrated, and so where the body of the announced Messiah will be shared. Raphael is imagining Jesus between Gabriel and Mary, I think.

As for the function of the drawing – well, however highly finished it is, I don’t think it’s quite finished enough to be a presentation drawing. There are still ideas which aren’t clear enough. I’m fairly sure that it is the design for an altarpiece, in which anything that is not yet specific would be resolved by colour. So much survives by Raphael: he was remarkably productive given that he only lived 37 years. In part, that was because of his skills as a draughtsman, and because he was an incredibly generous man. For example, he designed altarpieces for other people to paint: I showed an example of this on Monday, The Holy Family with a Pomegranate, which was designed by Raphael, but painted by Domenico Alfani. And yet we shouldn’t be surprised if other things haven’t survived. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Raphael’s renown would mean that we would know about any altarpieces he painted himself, even if, by now, some no longer exist. But if this drawing were used by another artist the painting would not have had the same reputation, and neither its existence, nor its loss, would have been recorded in the same way. On the other hand, it could simply be that it was a project for an altarpiece that, for one reason or another (for example, the unexpected death of the patron) was never executed.

I don’t know the answer to this problem – but I don’t really mind. It’s such a beautiful drawing that I’m not too worried about what it was ‘for’. And trust me, it is far more impressive than the photos I have shown you would suggest. Let’s face it, I took them on my phone. So I urge you (I don’t do nearly enough urging, quite frankly) to go and see it for yourselves in the exhibition at the National Gallery in London before 31 July, when it will disappear back to the shadowed safety of the stores in Stockholm. But for now, I need to move on to pastures new. For Raphael, this meant leaving Florence, and led to his Triumph in Rome. And trust me, there will be many more delights – not to mention a number of curiosities – in the talk on Monday!


Revisiting Raphael

Raphael Sanzio, The Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saints and Angels, about 1502-3, National Gallery, London.

Happy Easter! And greetings from Vienna! I’m here with a group, and actually wrote this paragraph in London on Easter Monday: I’m sure I’ll have to do a bit of preparation before I go. However, the blog below was written on Good Friday two years ago – it was Day 23 of Picture Of The Day during lockdown. It seems apt to re-post it now, though, as the painting in question, Raphael’s Mond Crucifixion (named after the family who bequeathed it to the National Gallery), is the very first thing you see on the way into the truly beautiful Raphael exhibition at the National Gallery. You see it even before you get through the doors, as it happens. I will ‘introduce’ the exhibition in two talks. The first is on Monday 25 April at 6pm (and don’t worry, I get back from Vienna on Sunday evening), and the second will be a week later. I’ll need two talks, partly because there are so many wonderful paintings and drawings to see, but also because this is the first exhibition in the UK to cover all aspects of Raphael’s multi-faceted production. Obviously, he was a painter, and, as a result, he also drew. On the whole, people know that he also designed tapestries. But did you know he designed mosaics? And sculptures? Or that he was also an architect? Or, most surprisingly (to me at least) an archaeologist? But more of that over the next two weeks! Let’s look back to Good Friday two years ago.

Of course, every year, the name of the day on which Jesus was crucified prompts the question, ‘Why is that Good’? Well, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of ‘guode friday’ was in 1290, and the word ‘guode’ is used in reference to ‘a day (or season) observed as holy by the Church’ – and we all like holy days – or rather, holidays. They are really good, even if this year [remember we were in lockdown!] the long Bank Holiday weekend will be spent at home. So now you know, don’t ask again next year.

Raphael, The Mond Crucifixion, about 1502-3
http://www.nationalgalleryimages.co.uk © The National Gallery, London.

It is of course the day on which Christians remember the Crucifixion of Jesus – making the choice of subject matter for today’s Picture Of The Day obvious. But why Raphael? Well, I missed it on Monday, but that day marked 537 years since he was born – or, more significantly, 500 years since he died. Like Shakespeare he had the good sense to die on his birthday, thus cutting down the number of dates we’d have to remember and making him look More Significant. ‘Why don’t you just say Anniversary?’ you ask. Well, it isn’t the same day. In the 16th Century, everyone in Europe was using the Julian Calendar. The Gregorian Calendar was instituted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, but Britain didn’t fall into line until 1752 (after all, it was clearly a Popish plot) when we ‘lost’ 11 days. By now the Julian Calendar is 13 days behind the Gregorian Calendar, apparently… so… oh it really doesn’t matter.

Back to the painting, which is a brilliant example of Raphael’s early style. As an artist he was a sponge – anything that he saw and liked he absorbed, assimilated and regurgitated, and here he is giving us his Perugino. Born in Urbino, the son of court artist Giovanni Santi, Raphael was initially trained by his father. He was then apprenticed to Pietro Perugino, and his early works are almost indistinguishable from that of his master – compare the second image. This is Perugino’s Archangel Raphael with Tobias painted around 3 or 4 years before Raphael’s Crucifixion – if you want to know the story, see Picture Of The Day 4 – Tobias and the Angel

If you compare the paintings, the standing figures in both have one foot firmly planted on the ground, with the heel of the other slightly lifted, making the knee on that side bend – a position known as ‘contrapposto’. The head is tilted to one side. The articulation of the angel’s fingers, especially the delicate curve of the thumbs, and exaggerated separation of the little fingers, is very similar to those of St Jerome, the figure kneeling on the left of the Crucifixion. The overall effect is feminine – or effeminate – and slightly fay. The landscapes are – or were – also similar, but you can’t really see that as the Perugino has been cut down, also losing Tobias’ and Raphael’s elbows, and most of the dog. It’s what is called an Umbrian bowl landscape – seen in Umbrian paintings, rather than in Umbria itself. On the left and right the horizon is higher, and more or less horizontal, dipping down to a lower central section, thus looking like a bowl. The distance is blue, the middle ground green and the foreground brown – an early example of atmospheric perspective (the effect that the atmosphere has on the way we see things as they get further away). This colour scheme is formulaic: if you were standing on green grass it wouldn’t look brown. Notice, in the Crucifixion, that they are also standing on a hill. Yes, that does have a narrative function, ‘There is a green hill far away’, after all (even if it is brown here), but it is also a way of coping with the progression from foreground via middle ground to background. It cuts out the transition between the first two stages, and brings the characters further forward. Raphael isn’t the only artist to do this.

Raphael, The Mond Crucifixion, about 1502-3 © The National Gallery, London.

The more astute among you will have noticed that I said that the man kneeling on the left of the Crucifixion is St Jerome. And the most astute will also have realised that St Jerome was not present at the Crucifixion, living, as he did, from 347-420 AD.  The other three were, according to the bible. Standing on the left is the Virgin Mary, and on the right, John the Evangelist. We know that, because the gospels mention them standing at the foot of the cross: this is the point at which Jesus, from the cross, commended them to each other’s care. Also, they wear their traditional colours, Mary in a blue cloak over a red robe, and John in red and green (his colour scheme is not so fixed as it is for other saints). Kneeling on the right is Mary Magdalene, who is also mentioned as present in the Bible. I’m glad she’s there, as she is a useful antidote to those who would rather believe bad fiction than standard Christian theology and art history. Mary Magdalene was not present at the Last Supper, and has never been depicted as being there. Yes, John looks very girly – with long flowing hair, and a smooth, beardless face, but that’s how the young Raphael depicted young men – as, of course, did everyone else, including Leonardo. Any self-respecting woman would have her hair covered, or at least dressed, and the Magdalene does indeed have ribbons in her hair. I know, you could argue she was not a self-respecting woman, but by the time she was kneeling at the foot of the cross, she was, having repented of her sinful ways. This is why she is paired with St Jerome. They are the two leading saints associated with the act of penance. Mary is repenting her sinful ways as a prostitute (there is no biblical evidence for that, by the way, but that is another story), whereas St Jerome is lamenting the fact that he had read so much classical literature. Not an ideal saint for the Renaissance, you might think, but renaissance scholars were adept at sidestepping minor inconveniences like this. According to his story, he retired to the wilderness as an act of penance for the folly of his youth, beating his chest with a stone and contemplating Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross.  This painting was commissioned for an altar dedicated to St Jerome – so he is there by necessity. As a result, you could argue that the Crucifixion is really there because of him, in this case, rather than the other way around.

What we are seeing is an elision of two separate things. The Maries and John are physically present at the Crucifixion, whereas St Jerome is contemplating a Crucifix. Another way of looking at it is that everything in the painting, with the exception of St Jerome himself, is one big thought bubble: the Crucifixion, the Virgin, St. John, and Mary Magdalene are all part of Jerome’s contemplation. This goes to show that however realistic a painting might look, the visual elements are predominantly symbolic. And indeed, the more you look at it, the more you realise that the art is in the artifice. The figures are perfectly balanced – if not exactly symmetrical – from one side to the other. With the inner figures kneeling, the four heads take on a similar profile to the horizon, with those of the Virgin and John standing clear against the sky, and those of the kneeling figures seen against the rolling hills lower down. The colours of their clothes tie them together as well, with the Virgin’s dress, Jerome’s belt, and John’s cloak being the same shade of red. Exactly the same shade of red is used for Jesus’ loincloth, which, if you haven’t noticed it already, is remarkable.

Have you ever seen Jesus in anything other than a white loincloth? It is one of the features of this painting that suggests it was commissioned to replace a far older image, as the only other examples I know were painted in the 13th Century. The third image is a Crucifix by Cimabue in Arezzo, and is dated to around 1270. The colour is associated with Royalty, and goes back to the Byzantine tradition, when the Emperors wore purple – which is often shown as red. It is also, of course, associated with the blood that you can see in the Cimabue flowing from the wounds in Christ’s hands and feet. In Raphael’s version the angels gather Christ’s blood in chalices. This is the Holy Blood, which was the subject of yesterday’s image (POTD 22).

Notice how, in Raphael’s painting, the angels are flying in the same plane as Jesus. No, I know what you’re thinking: they are on the same spatial plane – the picture plane – and their ribbons fly out parallel to the picture surface as well, as does one end of Christ’s loincloth. Raphael is using them to pattern the surface of the painting – they do not move in depth at all – and, as ever, this placing of things parallel to the picture plane makes them look more iconic, taking them out of the reality of this world. In the real world, we move in and out of space. Likewise, and most otherworldly, we see the sun and the moon in the sky, on either side of the Cross, depicted with gold and silver leaf respectively. This is another feature of archaic images of the Crucifixion, and can be interpreted in several ways – all of which are valid. It probably derives from the biblical passage which states that the sky darkened when Christ died – we have night during the day, and see both heavenly bodies at the same time. But it is also prodigious – the two shouldn’t be seen so close together – and so it forebodes ill. In some cases they mark God’s anger at the death of his son. They also came to symbolise the Old and New testaments – St Augustine, a contemporary of St Jerome, promoted that interpretation.

In between the Sun and Moon we see the titulus, or ‘title’, which Pontius Pilate attached to the cross, saying ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Sometimes, but only rarely, artists include the full inscription in all three languages. More often, as here, they only include the abbreviation I.N.R.I., which comes from the Latin inscription: Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum.

Raphael has produced a static, almost timeless image. However relevant to today, this lasts for all time, night and day. The angels gather the precious blood – too precious, indeed, to allow it to fall to the ground. The Virgin and St John stand witness with long-suffering devotion while Jerome and Mary Magdalene look on in humble, penitent adoration. The symmetry of the composition, its order and balance, are given strength by a pyramidal composition. The figures of Christ, Jerome and the Magdalene define a triangle – and no normal triangle at that. This is the golden triangle – the ratio of the long side to the short is the golden section, and if you were to bisect one of the lower angles, one of the resulting triangles would also be golden. The base is the length of a pentagon which would have its apex at the top of this triangle. 

The golden section occurs often in nature – usually in terms of growth – and is so remarkable that it was the subject of a book written around 1498 that was first published in 1509. The author, a Franciscan Friar by the name of Luca Pacioli, called it ‘De Divina Proportione’ or ‘About Divine Proportion’. This shape is, in itself, holy, it seems, and so is the painting – the angels and the angles tell us so. It is Good.


153 – Fly on the Wall?

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child, c. 1480. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Buona Festa! The ‘Festa’ in question is the Feast of the Annunciation, or, to give it its English name, Lady Day. It’s the reason why we (in the UK) have Mother’s Day this weekend, rather than in May like everyone else. I suppose I should write about a painting of the Annunciation today (as I did two years ago), although I’d rather look at something else, as I will include The Annunciation with Saint Emidius – briefly, at least – when I talk about the exhibition Carlo Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky this Monday, 28 March at 6pm. Today I want to talk about a painting which is not in the exhibition to explain why I think Crivelli is such a remarkable painter, and, as it is Lady day, it is a painting of Our Lady.

The curators at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham wanted to include it in their exhibition apparently, but as it is painted on a wooden panel it is too delicate to travel. Wood is especially sensitive to fluctuations in humidity, among other things, and so it has stayed at home in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. However, that does mean that we can get up close to the details without worrying that someone might think we’re going to touch the painting.

Mary stands behind a stone parapet with a cloth of honour hanging behind her. Not only does this frame our view of her, so that we see her more clearly, but it also speaks to her high status, being effectively a sign of royalty: it reminds us of her role as Queen of Heaven. Another cloth is hung over the ledge, and Jesus sits on a cushion placed on top of it. Behind the cloth of honour is a landscape: we are out in the countryside, with a track running from one side to the other. It is not entirely clear where Jesus and Mary are, when you stop to think about it: what is the function of this wall, other than as a support for the child? And if Mary is in the countryside, where are we, on this side of the wall? Crivelli is actually using the convention of Northern European portraiture, in which the sitter appears behind such a parapet, or balcony, which both distances them from us, but also, conversely, forms a bridge. linking us to them. It also explains why we can’t see their legs. In this case, it allows us to see a bust-length image of the Madonna, while also providing a convenient surface on which her son can rest. In other paintings such a structure takes on the appearance of an altar, or tomb, or even both, and although that doesn’t seem to be the case here, we shouldn’t discount the possibility that it provides at least a distant echo of Christ’s fate.

The cloth of honour is held up by broad red laces, bound at their ends with metal aglets. A garland of fruits and a vegetable hang from the same type of lace, in front of the cloth but behind the Virgin’s head. It is not clear what these are attached to – or even what they could be attached to – and originally they would just have appeared from behind the engaged frame. ‘Engaged’ in this context means that the frame was attached to the panel before painting commenced, and the paint surface would have been continuous from one to the other. You can tell it was engaged because there is a lip around the edge of the painted surface just next to the bare wood: it’s hard to know why anyone would ever have wanted to rip off the original frame, and is greatly to be regretted, although it did happen surprisingly often. The vegetable is a gourd, which, from its appearance in the Book of Jonah (who disappeared into the belly of a giant fish, only to be spat up on the third day) is often seen as a symbol of the Resurrection (given that Jesus disappeared into the belly of the Earth, only to return after the same time had elapsed). Whatever the fruits are – apples or peaches, I’m not entirely sure – they represent the forbidden fruit from the Book of Genesis (it never actually says ‘apple’). Either way, between gourd and fruit, we are looking at sin and redemption. The garland casts shadows on the cloth of honour – but not on the sky. It would be very unusual if it did, of course, but another garland, in one of the paintings I will discuss on Monday, does – hence the title of the exhibition, Shadows on the Sky. It is unique in the History of Art as far as I am aware, and worth thinking about in detail – but more about that on Monday. However, Mary’s halo also casts a shadow – which is very odd. A halo was originally a way of representing a glow of light expressing the figure’s sanctity – but how could light cast a shadow? What Crivelli has painted is definitely a gold disc, a solid object encrusted with jewels, capable of casting its own shadow. Mary’s headdress is elegant and delicate, with the concentric arrangement of the opaque and transparent layers over her forehead entirely typical of his work, in which shapes are often echoed as he thinks about the patterns formed on the surface of the painting as much as the imaginary depth he can create using perspective and tonal variation.

Jesus’s halo is a similar gold disc, although marked with a red cross (it is only Jesus, as ‘himself’, or as the Lamb of God, or the Holy Spirit – as a dove – who have cruciform halos like this). He holds a goldfinch in his hands, a symbol of his passion. The goldfinch was supposed to have eaten one of the thorns from the eponymous crown when a drop of Christ’s blood fell on its head – hence the red marking. As if to emphasize its own symbolism, the bird stretches its wings like a cross. Jesus is not sure whether to look, or to look away: his face is turned to our left, but his pupils are in the corner of his eyes, looking towards the bird. Mary has the long, slim, fingers typical of Crivelli’s etiolated forms – they are overlong even, adding an almost unnatural refinement to her delicate gestures, as if unsure of how to hold her own son. The open stretch between her right thumb and forefinger loops his waist in the same way – and with similar angular inflections – as the loop of fabric that rings his right arm, another one of those echoes of form.

It is at the very bottom of this small painting – measuring just 37.8 x 25.4 cm – that it gets conceptually complex. There is no problem with the cloth – a yellow water silk equivalent to the pink of the cloth of honour. Having been stored tightly folded, one of those folds is clearly visible as the central axis of the material. But it is also softly wrinkled, the subtle shading forming a counterpoint with the markings of the fabric. The child’s legs and the tasselled cushion cast shadows, those of the latter being remarkably crisp. They tell us that the light is coming from high up to the left, and from just in front of the painting. At one end the parapet is cracked, and at the other there appears to be the most enormous fly. Both are symbols of change and decay, but Jesus has come for our redemption – to free us from the sin, which, in some way, the fly represents, associated as it is with death and disease, in part because of the brevity of its own earthly existence. The cracks can be read like the ruins in the background of many paintings of the Nativity: Jesus has come to rebuild, rather than to destroy. But let’s look at the fly again – and compare it to Christ’s feet. They are of the same order of size. Can you imagine a fly the same size as a baby’s feet? Look again at the fly, and then at its shadow, and compare the shadow to that cast by the tassel. The light on the fly appears to be coming from the wrong direction… which suggests that it is not standing on the parapet at all. It appears to be standing on the surface of the painting, and casting a shadow onto the paint. If I were there in front of it, I’d be tempted to brush it away. It is a fly from our world – hence its disproportionate size – and Crivelli is playing with our perception. If he is good enough as an artist, he will trick us into thinking it is real – like the old story of the competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis painted grapes which were so real that birds flew down to eat them, but when he went to pull back the curtain in front of Parrhasius’ painting, he discovered that it was a painting of a curtain… so which was the better artist? Crivelli adds these details to keep us involved, to make us believe what we see (‘if it can crack, it must be real stone’), but also to remind us that this is a painting. Why do we want to know that it is a painting? Probably because that itself implies that the subject is worthy – that Jesus and Mary are worthy – to be represented, and so should be honoured accordingly. And also, of course, to show us how good he is. But how do we know who ‘he’ is? Well, because he tells us.

‘The work of Carlo Crivelli from Venice’, says the cartellino (a word which nowadays could now be translated as ‘tag’, but which means ‘a little cartello’ – itself a word which could be translated as ‘sign’, but means ‘little carta’ – or paper – so a cartellino is a little little paper…). The wording is Crivelli’s standard signature: he was keen to be known by his origins .Venice was, after all, one of the great centres of art, and its inclusion implies that he must have been good. However, nothing he painted there is known, and all that survives comes from the Marche, where he spent the last three decades of his life. He was not the only artist to depict a cartellino like this. There are so many, in fact, by so many different artists, that we can assume that they really did put their names onto pieces of paper and then physically attach them to the painting, rather than painting their names directly onto the finished work. Indeed, one suggestion why we don’t know the names of so many early Northern painters is that the original cartellini have simply fallen off. This might happen here: the cartellino is attached by blobs of red wax, although the blob at the bottom right has fallen off, leaving a red stain. But what is the paper supposed to be attached to? To the water silk? Or to the painted panel itself? I’ll leave you to have a look and decide for yourselves, but do bear in mind what would be more appropriate. Whichever it is, Crivelli had the most remarkable sense of the possibilities of painting, of illusion, and of crossing the boundaries between reality and imagination. This, together with his technical brilliance, is what has convinced me that he was such a great artist. We will talk about about these ideas, including trompe l’oeil and meta-trompe-l’oeil – ‘going beyond deception’ – on Monday when we look at the Shadows on the Sky. And if you still want an Annunciation for today’s Festa, you could always look back to Piero della Francesca, from two years ago (Day 7 – The Annunciation), or Veit Stoss (Day 70 – The Annunciation, again) or Giotto (Day 80 – Gabriel’s Mission)…


Day 1, Two Years On…

Another re-post – but why? Well, simply to celebrate the fact that this, my very first blog, was posted two years ago today. The day before I had been rescued from London, where my Borough alone had an unnerving 22 cases of Covid. We really had no idea what was coming. Three days later lockdown was announced. Up in Durham, knowing I had nothing to do, and that many others had nothing to do, I decided to go on ‘going on’ and write about a ‘Picture Of The Day’ every day for the next couple of weeks, by which time it would all be over… We really had no idea what was coming. It turned out to be 100 days, in the end. Initially I posted on Facebook, and then transferred the old posts – and then new ones – to this site. In an ever-evolving form we’re still here, with the now-irregular posts as much a newsletter as anything else. Zoom talks have been happening for just over a year, and finally I can even list live events. OK, so there’s just one ‘live’ talk so far – there will be more – but you can find details of that on the diary page, along with everything else that’s coming up. Thank you to all of you who have joined me on the way: I don’t know about you, but I’ve learnt a huge amount! Here’s to much more great art – and better health for all – in the years to come.

Day 1 – Titian, The Rape of Europa, 1562, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

Originally posted on 19 March, 2020

In these extraordinary times, I’m going to attempt to write about a painting every day – but where to start? Having made a pilgrimage on foot to the National Gallery on Tuesday to catch the wonderful Titian exhibition just after it opened and immediately before it closed again, I am choosing the Rape of Europa from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

The painting is one of six Poesie which Titian made for the man who would become King Phillip II of Spain. They must rank among Titian’s greatest achievements. Not only do they show his phenomenal technique, his astonishing ability to manipulate paint and to form worlds out of colour, but they also demonstrate his brilliance as a storyteller. Drawing on classical mythology, and mainly the Metamorphoses of Ovid, he enters into a common Renaissance debate about the arts: which is better, poetry or painting? Although drawing much of his imagery from Ovid’s text, these are not illustrations.  He adapts the stories, reworks them, finding the perfect way to spin his yarn on canvas. He retells the tales with brushstrokes rather than words. 

Why this one, of the six? Well, although I have been to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum at least three times, I can’t in all honesty say I stopped to look at this painting – there are so many other wonders there, and at the time I was either in my early stages of studying art history, and knew nothing, or was obsessed with the Ferrarese paintings in the collection. I’ve come to know it better through talking about the Poesie – particularly when the National Gallery acquired, with the National Galleries of Scotland, the two Diana paintings – and while teaching courses on the art of the 16th Century. I also love the fact that Velazquez knew it in the Royal Collection in Spain, and quoted it in the background of one of his own works. However, before Tuesday, I couldn’t swear that I had seen the original before, so in that respect, it is new to me.

In this work we see how, in his endless and unquenchable lust, in order to get his hands on the beautiful nymph Europa, Jupiter has transformed himself into a bull. He persuaded Mercury to drive a herd of cows down to the beach, and frolicked among them, flirting with Europa, who happened to be there with her companions. She was gradually entranced by his winning ways, and, as she clambered upon his back, he sidled from shore to sea, going from the shallows through the waves, without her realising what deep water he was getting her into. Her companions – and the unwitting herd – can be seen in the distance, helpless on the shoreline.

It’s a problematic story – it is after all a story of rape. Is she entirely unwilling? In this instance it isn’t all that clear, although in other encounters Ovid is explicit about the dread and terror Jupiter’s victims experience. Like Jupiter, Titian seduces us. His means: rich colours and lushly applied brushstrokes, underplaying the horror with a touch of the absurd. I’d never noticed before how cupid rides his fish in much the same bizarre and awkward way that Europa rides the bull, one arm clinging on, waving (not drowning), a leg flying free.

The other fish was a revelation, a new favourite, and I’d like to nominate it as the Best Fish in Art, a category of which I was previously unaware (although I do have two suggestions for the Best Cabbage). Its scales are evoked with flicks of white and blue paint, making it glimmer at the bottom of the painting, as if is merging with the sea, appearing and disappearing, painted with similar brushstrokes and tones to the sea itself, part of the watery world over which Europa is now conveyed.

Eventually she will get her feet back on dry land – on the continent of Europe, which took her name. And eventually we will be able to see these paintings again, brought together for the first time, to be seen as Titian himself never did, all in one room. I am a least glad that these paintings, long separated, must be enjoying some quiet time together, but I am looking forward to seeing them all again when we have got to the other side.


Rethinking Artemisia Painting Painting

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait (?) as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), c. 1638-9, Royal Collection Trust, London.

This Monday 21 March at 6pm I will return to the exhibition Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace to have a look at some of the paintings which I couldn’t cover last time. When I did Part 1 – not that I knew then that it would be Part 1 – I posted about Rembrandt’s portrait of Nicolaes van Bambeeck, as Bambeeck’s wife, Agatha Bas, is the ‘poster girl’ of the exhibition. I didn’t get to talk about her in the end, but I will on Monday – so if you want to remind yourself about him, why not click on that blue link? I’d write about something new today, but as I am up against a deadline, and away for the weekend, I thought it would be as well to revisit one of the paintings which was not in the exhibition when it was first mounted: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Allegory of Painting. At that stage the painting had been promised to the Artemisia exhibition at the National Gallery, but after lockdown the Queen’s Gallery restaged the show, and was able to include it. However, by then, the Wallace Collection had mounted Frans Hals: The Male Portrait – which meant that the Royal Collection took their Hals out of the Treasures and lent it to the Wallace: it’s been an exhibition with flexible contents. I can’t be entirely sure what will be included when it opens on 25 March at the Queen’s Gallery in Edinburgh – so I will go by what I saw in London, and what is in the catalogue. In subsequent weeks I will talk about Three Renaissance Heroes – Crivelli, Donatello and Raphael – as exhibitions about all three are currently on, or about to open. Information about these talks (all of which are now on sale) can be found on the diary page – where you will also find information about an in-person talk at the National Gallery on 24 May, and a trip to Vienna from 21-24 April (there are now spaces again as a couple of people have dropped out).

Since I first wrote this post, I have changed my mind slightly about this painting – a result of seeing the Artemisia exhibition at the National Gallery. I am no longer entirely convinced that it is a self portrait – but I’ll tell you the reasons why on Monday.. In the meantime, this is what I said about the painting back in May 2020:

It’s a while since I last talked about Artemisia Gentileschi – way back in Picture Of The Day 17 – so I thought we should re-visit her to see how she’s getting on in lockdown. There is still no sign of the museums opening, though, and the exhibition at the National Gallery is still on hold – it is yet possible that it will open… You could, of course, order the catalogue directly from the National Gallery – it has great essays and superb illustrations.

This particular painting is always worth thinking about, as it shows just how brilliant Artemisia was – in many different ways. For one thing, it is a self portrait, so it gives us some idea of what she looked like. It’s perhaps not the best self portrait from this point of view, and that is because of the point of view: it is extremely unusual. She paints herself from high up, and from off to one side. It’s hard to know how she could have seen herself from this angle – it would take at least two mirrors set up in the right positions. It’s still not going to be easy though. Unlike some of the other self portraits we’ve seen of women painting – notably Judith Leyster and Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (POTD 34 and 55 respectively) – she hasn’t bothered too much about her appearance. She may be wearing a rather wonderful green bodice, beautifully painted, but she has rolled up her sleeves and is wearing an apron. Who wouldn’t, while painting? Well, judging from most self portraits, most artists! And her hair is a bit of a mess! She has, however, put on some jewellery: a gold chain, with a pendant.

The pendant is the real clue to this painting’s meaning – it is a mask. It looks like a face, but is only the image of one, in the same way that this looks like Artemisia, but is only a portrait… This necklace is one of the ways of identifying this as an Allegory of Painting. Even in this detail we can see so much. Her left hand holds a few paintbrushes and a palette – one of the more ‘old fashioned’ rectangular ones, from our point of view. What is not so easy to identify is the object she is leaning on, the sort of stone slab used to mix her pigments – the coloured powders that give the painting its vitality – with the oil – the medium which binds the pigment; makes it liquid, so that you can actually paint; adheres the pigment to the support (usually, by this period, a canvas); and dries to protect it. Artemisia’s palette, brushes, and the stone slab form a stable foundation on which this portrait rests – they are the foundation of her art, after all – and it is here that she has chosen to sign the painting, using the initials A.G.F. – Artemisia Gentileschi Fecit – or ‘made this’, in Latin. Not only that, but she is showing us her technique. The left arm may now be a little worn with age, but it was always fairly thin – sketchy even – showing her skill at building up an image with an economy of means. Once the canvas was attached, taut, around the stretcher, she would have primed it, painting a dull brown ground layer of paint all across the surface: if you look at the areas of shadow between the green folds of the sleeve, that is the ground – particularly clear in the curving fold that comes up from the flash of white cuff, and curves down again just below the cord with which she has tied up her sleeve. This is something she could have learnt from her father, or directly from the work of Caravaggio, who often used this shorthand: not so much painting the shadow, as leaving it absent.

As for her hair, well, would you bother with that if you were hard at work? The fact is, this is another feature that helps to identify the subject of the painting. Artemisia is drawing on the Iconologia written by Cesare Ripa, an emblem book that describes the way in which personifications should be represented – a sort of ‘Handbook of Allegories’ . The first edition was published, without any pictures, in 1593, with a second illustrated edition following ten years later. ‘Painting’ is described thus:

A beautiful woman, with full black hair, dishevelled, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought, the mouth covered with a cloth tied behind her ears, with a chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask, and has written in front ‘imitation’. She holds in her hand a brush, and in the other the palette, with clothes of evanescently coloured drapery.

Clearly, Artemisia has chosen some, if not all, of this description. Beautiful – well perhaps that was not for her to say – but with black hair, certainly. In other self portraits she has auburn hair with a wonderful sheen, beautifully dressed – whereas here it is ‘dishevelled, and twisted in various ways’, showing the distraction of the artistically inspired. The eyebrows are not arched – but this allows a wonderful passage of paint across the forehead: a thickly loaded brush was pulled across to pick out a highlight, emphasizing the light within, the power of her intellect. Or perhaps it was just showing us the form – like the little white fleck that shapes of the tip of her nose.  Her mouth is not covered with a cloth, of course. Ripa wanted to show that painting is mute, it speaks through the eyes, and not through the ears, but that wouldn’t make for a good self portrait. It also wouldn’t have allowed us to see the wonderful, pensive, slight parting of the lips (I almost expect to see the tip of her tongue. like you do with children when they concentrate). However, she does have the ‘chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask’. We don’t need the word ‘imitation’ – Ripa was always guilty of over-egging the pudding – the mask is sufficient. It is a symbol of imitation, yes, but it was also a symbol of deceit (POTD 32), and what is painting, if not deceit, trying to show us something that is not real?

Scholars have argued about the background of this painting – even though there is almost nothing there to argue about. There is vertical line, which is not so much a line as a change of tone. This could be the corner of a room, with two walls meeting. Or the lighter area might be a blank canvas, about to be painted. If it is, then we have an even more sophisticated possibility. Artemisia holds the paintbrush between thumb and forefinger just below the top left corner of this blank canvas, with the tip of the brush just about to touch very close to its left-hand edge. And what do we see in the self portrait just below the top left corner, very close to its left-hand edge? Well, the tip of the paint brush. Artemisia is about to start painting by depicting the very paint brush that we can see her holding. Which just shows us how clever she was. And it has to be ‘she’. Ripa tells us that ‘Painting’ is a beautiful woman – and that’s because, in Italian, ‘Painting’ is La Pittura, a feminine noun. Artemisia’s male contemporaries simply couldn’t have painted this. Apart from anything else, it would never have occurred to them.  


152 – One and a half princesses…

Thomas Gainsborough, The Three Eldest Princesses: Charlotte, Princess Royal, Augusta and Elizabeth, 1783-84. The Royal Collection.

This Monday, 14 March, I will be talking about Gainsborough’s ‘Blue Boy’ and the following week, I will be returning to the Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace which I didn’t get round to talking about the last time I tried… so what should I talk about today? Well, how about sticking with Gainsborough, and children (though maybe girls, to even out the gender balance), in a painting which is in the Royal Collection? It makes sense to me, at least. There are plenty to choose from, not least because poor Queen Charlotte had 15 children, and Gainsborough painted them all. Today I want to look at a portrait commissioned by the eldest of those children, George, Prince of Wales – the one who grew up to be King George IV.

This portrait was included in the truly splendid exhibition George IV: Art and Spectacle, and although that is long gone, the catalogue, which must be the definitive book on the patronage and collecting of the most acquisitive of monarchs, is still availabl