20, January 2012 § 1 Comment
In the first half of the 15th century lived a monk by the name of Fra Giovanni da Fiesole (born Guido di Pietro) who worked and resided in the Monastery of San Marco in Florence, Italy. He was a painter. He painted altarpieces and panels, illuminated choir books and frescoed the walls of his own monastery. According to Giorgio Vasari who wrote in Lives of the Artists, Fra Giovanni was a man so devout in his love of Christ that “he would never take up his pencil until he had first made supplication, and he never made a crucifix but he was bathed in tears.”
It is from Vasari that Fra Giovanni attained the name we know him best by, “Fra Giovanni Angelico” (Brother John the Angelic One) now shortened to simply, “Fra Angelico.” When one sees his pictures one understands just how appropriate this name is. While in Paris this past January I was able to do just that at the Musée Jacquemart-André in the exhibition, “Fra Angelico and the Masters of Light.”
It was the first ever exhibition of Fra Angelico’s works in France and the Musée Jacquemart-André was able to acquire almost 25 pieces for the show. This was quite a feat considering Fra Angelico’s fragile works are very rarely transported. Along with Fra Angelico there were works by his fellow monk and teacher, Lorenzo Monaco, as well as Masolino, Gentile da Fabriano, Lippo Lippi, Paolo Uccello and his student Benozzo Gozzoli. Through Fra Angelico and these exceptional painters we are able to understand the progession of artistic development which occurred in Florence during the first half of the 1400s.
As masterful as he is in portraying paintings worthy of deep religious contemplation and meaning, Fra Angelico was a leading thinker and technician in the new and innovative approaches of image making. In his ability to show perspective and form we can see the leap that Fra Angelico made over the generation of artists preceding him in Florence. We get a sense of this in two cases, where Fra Angelico treats similar subjects as Gentile da Fabriano and Lorenzo Monaco, both masters in the school of International Gothic painting. In the depiction of Saint Francis receiving the stigmata, Fra Angelico is able to covey much more space and form than in Gentile da Fabriano’s version.
Exhibited side by side in the show, Lorenzo Monaco’s “Miracle of Saint Nicholas” and Fra Angelico’s “Thebaide” are quite astonishing in illustrating the contrast and progression in portraying sea and landscapes. Monaco’s depiction of the sea is as a pattern made up of spirals. Fra Angelico conveys a real sense of depth in the the gradations and the changes in scale and detail.
Regarding Thebaide, it is remarkable how Fra Angelico was able to paint so much in such a small space, from monks praying and reading, beautiful naturalistic animals, light falling on plants and trees, to the texture of the earth, which Fra Angelico achieved by using a pointillist approach.
We also find that Fra Angelico delves deeper than his contemporaries in exploring the uses of new artistic innovations. Taken from the museum’s permanent collection the use of perspective in “Paolo Uccello’s Saint George and the Dragon” is effective but a bit arbitrary to the main subject. On the other hand, in “The Story of St. Nicholas,” Fra Angelico uses linear perspective as a means to intertwine three narratives in a coherent manner. For Fra Angelico, perspective is a useful tool to amplify his intentions, whether it is a narrative or an idea.
The exhibition is called “Fra Angelico and the Masters of Light” and it is an apt title. Fra Angelico’s paintings are rich with color, light and gold. Fra Angelico was a master of gold leaf. In his “Virgin and Child” we notice not just the gorgeous designs and patterns in the haloes but the way the gold curtain turns and folds in his magnificent tooling of the gold.
Light permeates Fra Angelico’s paintings in his use of color. When colors go in to shadow they never get too dark, only more pure in their hue. Each color is distinct, pure and balanced throughout the painting. There is a mosaic quality in some of Fra Angelico’s busier paintings where figures are cut out from one another by the offset of colors. This is visible in the triptych “The Ascension, The Last Judgement and the Pentecost” where through a balance of pinks, blues, reds and golds each figure is clearly delineated and the composition remains balanced. I found this painting to be captivating for many reasons, especially the solidity and beauty of Christ, in particular the drapery over his legs as he pronounces the Last Judgement.
At the end of the exhibition we find a video showing the works at the monastery in San Marco. Frescoed on the walls in each cell are scenes from the life of Christ. There is a sobriety and gravity to the images and we are reminded of the religious sentiment and conviction in Fra Angelico’s work. Perhaps this is why his paintings are so moving; with all his technical know-how we still find a sweet simplicity and clarity in his panels and frescoes. Fra Angelico’s works do reflect the intellectual achievements of his age but ultimately it is the pureness and deep spirituality in his own heart that makes his work so moving and unforgettable.
16, January 2012 § 3 Comments
Waiting in line at the Musee d’Orsay on a cold January morning is no joke. It is such a visited destination that even with a reserved ticket one needs to wait outside for close to an hour. As placeholder in line I anxiously awaited the arrival of my brother, sister and brother-in-law. After waiting forty minutes and with the vast majority of the line behind me, my tardy siblings sheepishly arrived and took their places next to me, much to the irritation of the Australian couple behind us. Kindly the Australians let them pass and soon we entered the beautiful train station turned museum.
Not surprisingly, the museum was completely packed.
The exhibition, “Beauty, Morals and Voluptuousness in the England of Oscar Wilde” currently on display at the museum was our first destination, shows works that were created under the “Aesthetic Movement” occurring in Britain during the second half of the 19th century. The Aesthetics were invested in making works of beauty without overarching meanings that went beyond the piece itself. It was “art for art sake,” a stance that permeated the culture in Victorian England in art, design, fashion, literature and poetry.
It was a movement which started in painting reacting against everything from the gritty realist art of Gustave Courbet to the ugliness found in mass industry. John Ruskin’s idea of art as the ultimate in human endeavor was challenged by Ruskin’s rival in later life, French born, American painter John McNeil Whistler, a major figure in the movement. Whistler stated, “art should stand alone and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism”. The Aesthetics aimed to make their world more beautiful, using influences as wide in scope as ancient Egypt, the early Italian Renaissance, classical Greece, Japanese tapestries and ukiyo-e, chinese porcelain bowls and illuminated manuscripts.
It must have been an exciting time, experiencing the effects of globalism in London in the second half of 19th century. The Acropolis marbles that were taken from Athens and placed in the British Museum impressed many artists in England. Soon after, images portraying life in idealized ancient Greece and Rome became the rage. Albert Moore’s “Summer Solstice” depicts a sleeping toga-clad Greek fanned by attendants. Lawrence Alma-Tadema, one of the most successful artist/designers of his day, is represented by pieces of furniture that drew inspiration from Greco-Roman design motifs. In the exhibition we also find a small, gorgeous Alma-Tadema painting of a woman resting in a Roman bathhouse titled “Tepidarium.”
Through Whistler we see works greatly influenced by Japanese design and color principles. Often the models in his paintings are wearing kimonos and holding Japanese fans. His pieces are often titled with references to music, such as “Symphony in White,” “Harmony in Gray and Green, and “Nocturne: Blue and Gold.”
Whether it is a portrait of a statesman or his own mother, it is the composition and arrangement of colors that seem to be of paramount importance to Whistler. Blurring the eyes, Whistler’s portrait of Thomas Carlyle, “Arrangement in Black and Gray No. 2” becomes a play of positive and negative shapes. Whistler was a designer as well. There is an interactive digital video of his masterpiece, the “Peacock Room,” a room entirely designed and painted for shipping tycoon Frederick Leyland for his Chinese porcelain collection. Art as design and as decor–this is the trend that soon emerges throughout this exhibition of the Aesthetic movement.
Works by many of the preeminent Pre-Raphaelites are included with paintings depicting innocent maidens with doe-eyed expressions. The figures in the works of Edward Burne-Jones are reminiscent of Botticelli with languishing looks and red lips and hair. The spaces in his paintings are much denser however, flat and patterned like a medieval tapestry.
Where is Oscar Wilde in all this? Quotes from a wide range of his writings are to be found stenciled throughout the exhibition. Through Wilde’s insights and musings he plays the role of a guide, explaining to the viewer how such an artistic movement could have had such an effect on the London of his time. “I am finding it harder and harder to live up to my blue china,” he quipped, shedding light on the craze for imported Chinese plates. For what starts as the ideas and motivations of mid 19th century painters Dante Rossetti and William Morris in painting grows into a cultural movement that permeates the aristocratic classes, the way they dressed themselves and their homes, and the places they went and with whom.
One is struck by how much was made within the spirit of Aesthetism: everything from chairs to wallpaper to whole rooms; it was an industry unto itself. We find with all the myriad objects and images collected in this exhibition the Aesthetic movement feels like a passing fashion, one that made its mark and then moved on. To find a real revolution one must go up to the fifth floor of the Musée d’Orsay and see the works that were painted at roughly the same time across the English Channel in Paris. There the works of Monet, Degas, Cezanne and the rest of the Impressionists truly challenged the way people thought about art and beauty.
“Beauty, Morals and Voluptuousness in the England of Oscar Wilde” shows us that the Aesthetic movement was such a mix of ideas and influences that we need some sort of anchor to comprehend how the whole movement fits into our understanding of art history and the world at that time. Wilde provides the anchor. As beautiful as it is, the art of Wilde’s world, that of Victorian England, simply reflects the man’s refined tastes and trappings. The Aesthetic Movement aspired to little else in their philosophy of art.
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless. — From “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde
13, January 2012 § 3 Comments
During the holiday season in Paris there is a multitude of art exhibitions on display to tempt tourists and locals alike. As I was fortunate enough to be in Paris during the New Year’s festivities, I was able to enjoy a number of the shows and museums, indulging in artwork of all kinds. I will be writing three reviews of exhibitions I visited while in Paris, “The Wyeths: Three Generations of American Artists” at the Mona Bismark Foundation, “Beauty, Morals and Voluptuousness in the England of Oscar Wilde” at the Musée d’Orsay and “Fra Angelico and the Masters of Light” at the Musée Jacquemart-André.
If one is determined, in a week they can cover a lot of ground in a city like Paris, where strolling is pleasant and the metro is easily accessible. The first exhibition I saw was “The Wyeths: Three Generations of American Artists” at the small and charming Mona Bismark Foundation, across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. The show features the works of painter and illustrator, N.C. Wyeth, his son Andrew, perhaps the most important figurative American painter of the 20th century, and his grandson Jamie. The draw is quite rightly Andrew, but from the collected works we get an idea of the evolution of one of the truly great American artists and his family legacy.
The exhibition starts with bright, dramatic paintings by N.C. that were used to vividly illustrate stories such as Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and King Arthur. N.C.’s paintings are bold and direct, depicting the tales of swashbuckling pirates, soldiers and knights. There is no ambiguity in NC’s pieces and his brushwork and color are always sure and confident. Perhaps the lack of subtlety in N.C.’s works may be cause for criticism, but it is clear that he was a painter of suberb technical skill and range. NC’s work is a helpful introduction to the formation of his son, Andrew. We could even find Andrew drawing in on of NC’s paintings, “Eight Bells” hunched over his drawing in N.C.’s lobster boat off the coast of Maine.
In contrast with N.C.’s colorful, almost theatrical paintings, Andrew’s works, mostly in egg tempera or watercolor, are by contrast subdued, still and personal. There are no classics in this exhibtion, no “Christina’s World,” but instead intimate depictions of Andrew’s immediate surroundings: his neighbors, his studio window, his barn, his boots, etc.
Around the time of his father’s death from a car crash in 1945, Andrew’s color palette changes, and gone are the vivid blues and reds of his earlier watercolors, replaced with muted browns and grays. Andrew’s ability to capture his subjects in fine detail is breathtaking. Yet, in their balance, design and tone, it is the compostional arrangements in Andrew’s paintings which sustain the viewer, elevating his pieces from being simply well observed landscapes and portraits, to poetic and intensely personal works. When we see his paintings we get a sense of seeing not just through the eye of Andrew Wyeth, but through his temperament and sensibilities. In so doing we get a sense of the man himself.
After Andrew, the show continues with the paintings of his son, Jamie. If the Wyeth show were a three course meal, then N.C.’s contribution would be a spicy beef tataki appetizer, Andrew’s would be an aromatic and delicately prepared salmon fillet with herbs and Jamie’s would be a cheeseburger, some fishsticks, and a cheesecake for dessert. That is to say that there is a whole lot of Jamie’s work in the exhibition, and the range is wide, most of which are a far cry from the paintings of his father and grandfather. Jamie is a competent painter and he has works of true merit but they would do better in a personal retrospective only. In “The Wyeths” exhibition, it is a bit like having cheesecake after one has reached a sufficiency.
“The Wyeths: Three Generations of American Artists” is a show that doesn’t have enough work from its star draw, but his pieces alone are worth the trip. N.C.’s works are enjoyable and Jamie’s portraits are worthy of note, but ultimately, “The Wyeths” highlights Andrew Wyeth as the supreme painter of his renowned family. The exhibition is a fine example of the power of the subdued. N.C.’s paintings are dynamic. Jamie has many of all kinds. Yet, Andrew with only a select few watercolors, egg temperas and drawings makes the biggest impact.
10, January 2012 § 4 Comments
The National Gallery in London is hosting a show entitled “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” which opened last month and focuses on his time as court painter to Ludovico Maria Sforza.
The exhibition sold out in the first week but we were fortunate enough to get tickets in advance. On view are 7 paintings, 60 drawings, 33 of which are from the Royal Collection. This makes the show a unique opportunity to see an artist at work, thinking through ideas and culling through various postures and positions for compositions. The paintings are surrounded by preparatory drawings, some of which relate directly to the work on display. The most sensitive drawings are those done on prepared paper with silverpoint and white highlights. This means that the paper was covered with a layer of animal hide glue mixed with pigments, in this case usually blue. The drawings were done on this ground with a fine piece of silver wire, carefully and gently touched to the paper and built up in intensity by continued stroking. The white highlighting is probably pigment mixed with egg tempera applied with a brush. Looking closely at these drawings I could barely see the strokes of the brush in many cases leading me to believe that he may have just tapped the pigment on, dotting it onto the paper with a tiny brush. These drawings were more delicate and refined than I had imagined before I saw them in person. They are small in scale, perhaps extracted from sketchbooks. Other drawings were done with pen and ink, the diagonal shading lines revealing the left-handedness of the artist. Leonardo believed that he could reveal scientific truths about the world thorough deep and clear observation. These intense and precise drawings give us insight into the physical world as well as into the mind of the artist himself. Leonardo’s sketches of human anatomy are still among the most admired drawings of their kind.
The crowds were rather overwhelming but we managed to spend time with each piece. A companion of mine remarked that she found the paintings rather cold. Indeed, Leonardo is not appealing to our heart but to our head. His intellectual approach demands a quiet and intense engagement with the work which was rather difficult at times with the press of people. Still I found time to inspect each piece. It is interesting to note how much of each composition was left unfinished, revealing the underdrawing in many cases. Leonardo was known for leaving his paintings incomplete, but it is hard to determine how much of this is out of neglect or if he purposely chose to leave areas as they were first drawn. His exquisite angel in The Virgin of the Rocks (from London) has perfectly realized features but his hand is a smear of lines on the back of the baby Jesus. The paintings are full of these inconsistencies. He was among the first Renaissance artists to use light rather than color to direct the eye. His sfumato, or smokey, technique reveals and disguises edges leading the viewer through his rocky landscapes and over the curvature of the human visage.
John and I were able to see the show two days in a row, thanks to his foresight in purchasing tickets. It is an education for modern artists to see such an sumptuous body of work, to understand better the process of a great genius. I also plan to apply some of the things I learned to my own methods this winter. There is no greater joy than having new inspiration and the National Gallery show has provided ample opportunity to imbue some Leonardo.
-Jane Morris Pack