2, February 2015 § 1 Comment
Knowing the exhibition would be crowded we organised our tickets for the last two hours of the day. Even so the smallness of the rooms and the number of people jammed into them did not make for comfortable viewing. A similar crush occurred during the Da Vinci show. It’s time the National Gallery allocated a bigger space for its major shows.
The first room of the exhibition held four self portraits from the last ten years of Rembrandt’s life. Entering from the grey damp London weather directly into the vivid charcoal reds and resinous blacks of the paintings we experienced a quick intake of breath. The powerful self portraits each capture a memento of passing time on his face and form, his flesh more grey, his eyes growing more opaque with the years. Those who know any of the other nearly one hundred self portraits can see his loss of energy, humour and confidence. We believe the paintings to reflect the veracity of his physiognomy and yet we are not looking for attributes that would identify him. We feel he is revealing his inner depth. Knowing that he died bankrupt having turned away from the lucrative commissions which would have kept him in the public eye, suffering the death of lover and children, we feel we are witnessing his sorrowful soul.
The exhibition continues with a journey into the oeuvre of the great Rembrandt as he experimented and pushed his technical skill to express his tender view of humanity. The paint itself captured us as it pulsed and swirled, thin as silk one moment and heavy with turbid weight the next. The transparent darks pushed back into unspecified backdrops while the lead white clumped or embroidered the edge of collars or highlights on nose and eyelid. We were particularly taken by these warm and textured whites. They were a character of their own, playing a part as varied and eloquent as a Shakespearian actor. Rembrandt placed the white with palpable energy, using a stick, a brush, perhaps a rag. It hovered under glazes and emerged like waves breaking. His limited palette, with little or no blues and limited earth greens did not keep him from expressing nature while his concentration on capturing faces was best served with the “tetrachromy” of the Ancient Greeks: white, black, yellow and red.
A portrait of Lucretia whose blood leaves her white gown stained red, trembles with sadness and dishonour as she plunges the knife into her side. Perhaps it is a tribute to his mistress, Hendrickje, who was hounded by society to confess her sin of living out of wedlock with Rembrandt. The subject from Roman history expresses a woman’s deeply conflicted emotion. The emotion is the theme again with the magnificent painting of Bathsheba as she contemplates the letter from David, her King. The somewhat damaged surface of this work does not distract from the subtle current of anguish she expresses.
There are many etchings and drawings interspersed with the paintings in this exhibition. Rembrandt’s etchings are a miraculous tangle of haunting lines. With bravado and verve he depicts so much information with so little effort. These pieces greatly added to our understanding of his vision and method. The vivacious brushwork is equivalent to the handling of the etching needle, the supremacy of white is equal to the vibrant unmarked white of the paper. Light is the subject and everything else falls to its authority. We see his thought process more clearly in the etchings but the large textural paintings dominated the show.
13, May 2014 § 6 Comments
by Stephanie Dissette
The decision I made to study with the Aegean Center five years ago, as a gap-year student (only planning on one semester, then staying two years), has completely defined and outlined my adult life. Now, I have a bachelor’s degree in art history and a fine arts minor from the American University of Paris. I will begin a postgraduate degree this fall with Warwick University’s History of Art (Venice stream) postgraduate program. Eventually, I hope this will lead to a career as an art history professor.
When I started with the Aegean Center, I had no intention of becoming an artist or art historian – I just wanted to see the world. At the time, I thought even simply visiting Italy and Greece would satisfy: the art was a perk.
Please understand, contrary to popular belief, not all gap-year students travel in order to party and relax before getting serious about school. I can still hear my high-school guidance counselor warning, “the longer you wait to go, the less likely you’ll actually make it through college.” What an idiot. To be fair, I grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, where at least three-quarters of students who continue on to higher education chose a state school, or at least stay within about 3-4 hours of home at another Midwest college or university. Students who don’t feel certain about their goals for college (what 18-year old is ever certain anyway…?) usually go to the nearby junior college, saving money the first couple years, and then finish their degree elsewhere. I bet most students my old counselor deals with (who don’t choose one of those obvious, typical paths) have no intention of continuing their education at all. I bet, just like the parents of some of my friends, that counselor was thinking, “what parent in her right mind would spend that kind of money and let her kid go that far away, just to see it all wasted on partying abroad?”
Well, my mom couldn’t spend that kind of money, for one. I had some help from my grandparents, but otherwise managed a lot of help through scholarships and work-study. And as far as sending me so far away… well, she knows there is a lot more to learn in life than what any school can offer, and looked forward to my travels. The best part of my counselor’s lack of faith in my future education: I was an honor’s student, who participated in many extra-curricular activities, and, of the 997 students that graduated from my high school that spring, I ranked in the top 10% academically. Even if none of that were true, even if I was the kind of student that chose school abroad to party as an under-21 (where it is legal), there was no way to avoid the kind of education I received with the Aegean Center.
In one word, the Aegean Center is an education in perception. Whether through the literal or philosophical reading of the word, there is perhaps no better place in the world to challenge one’s perception than with the Aegean Center. If you read this blog often, you know about the Friday hikes – the communion with nature that refreshes the spirit, but perhaps more importantly teaches purity in light, color, planes, even materials – and how they open up the world in a way many of us have forgotten or possibly never experienced. The courses follow a classical approach to fine art, based on masterworks, providing a basis many well-respected art schools have stopped offering their students. The blog also features articles the teachers have written about exhibits they’ve visited or projects they are working on. Perhaps its time to re-read those articles and recognize the freshness of their perspectives and techniques compared to the typical, contemporary take on art: a true Renaissance, if you’ll excuse the pun, in classical approach. My personal favorite: stories about the month touring Italy.
Chicago doesn’t have a very impressive collection of Renaissance art – the city is better known for its world-class impressionist collection and modern-contemporary art. The only connection I had to Italian Renaissance art in my first experiences abroad was an appreciation for public outdoor art – Chicago is packed full of that! And while I’m a big fan of the Chagall wall, Calder’s Flamingo, and the Picasso in Daley Plaza; for me, they hardly compare to Ghiberti’s Baptistery doors, Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women, or the Michelangelo David. That perception, of course, is all about personal preference. I just never had the context before to understand where that preference came from. Now, I do.
And it is easier for me to make these comparisons now, after finishing my degree in art history, but getting there is its own story too. For the record, I am the wrong kind of art history student – at least traditionally speaking. Most art history students are excellent at remembering detailed information, especially names and dates; my memory does not hold those kinds of details very well. I’m lucky to get the century right with most works, and even if I can talk you through exactly where a painting hangs in the remarkable chasm of the Louvre, or break down the full story of nearly any biblical subject in an artwork and tell you why you should care about it, I will always double check my notes for names and dates. Definitely did that writing the previous paragraph here (at least now we have the internet!). And all the ways I am different or wrong compared to the typical, traditional art history student, I credit to the Aegean Center. First off, in my experience, very few art history students have a background in fine art. Many come from families that exposed them to every museum imaginable, or took a liking to art early on and chased it themselves; however, very few have picked up a pencil, crayon, paintbrush, or camera for anything artistic since they were in grade school. In fact, most would probably tell you that they are terrible at anything creative. Can anyone please explain to me how someone who does not consider him or herself creative ends up studying art history?
The truth is, as far as I’m concerned, uncreative people (or those without interest in being creative) do not study art history. The people who choose to study art history definitely have a creative side, whether they’ve acknowledged it or not. The Aegean Center embraces students with all levels of experience because they know the secret: art isn’t just talent, it’s work! Yes, anyone CAN draw. Anyone CAN paint. Anyone CAN take a beautiful photograph, then edit and print it like a real artist does. The trick is hard work, studying the great masters, and committing to practice. I may never display any artworks of my own in galleries or magazines, but I can paint properly with oil paints if I so desire, and my drawing does still improve, even when I stop practicing for a couple months now and again. The American University of Paris (AUP) does offer fine arts courses, and in fact, just recently launched a fine arts major (in addition to the minor). While most of my fine arts experience comes from the Aegean Center, AUP caught my attention by valuing the education the Aegean Center offered, and gave me full university credits for all the work I accomplished through the Aegean Center’s rigorous courses. There is currently one fine arts course AUP students must complete in order to graduate with an art history degree called “Materials and Techniques of the Masters.” I remember explaining the course to teachers at the Aegean Center, hardly containing my excitement, and then expressing honest disbelief when I realized how few students in the course had any background in the fine arts, as well as how many of them were seniors, graduating that same semester. Those students hadn’t ever specifically studied the materials and techniques used in all the works they had spent up to four years analyzing until their final semesters. Enter me: a number’s dummy, yes, but also the only one in the room who cared whether a work was made in tempera or oils… better yet, I’m the only one who could usually guess the material before asking.
Consider this: does a painting receive the same reaction, and hold the same majesty, projected in a classroom as it does when viewed in the flesh? While I’d like to think I understood the difference as a kid wandering through the Art Institute of Chicago, it probably wasn’t until my time with the Aegean Center that I really became aware of the difference. I have shown so many of my favorite artworks to friends and family through photos I’ve taken, or pictures I find online, and they never really compare to the awe acquired in being inches away from that full-scale work. Before I even committed to studying art history, the Aegean Center was preparing me to better understand and appreciate art, architecture, and history.
That also explains why, researching masters programs in art history, I had to somehow still experience the art in person; and I couldn’t do that with Renaissance works in Chicago. Starting this September, I’ll have come full circle – back to Italy, the same way the Aegean Center begins its fall semesters. Attending a British school as an American, I’m already preparing to stand out in more ways than one. I’ll probably be the wrong kind of student, again – I wish it all started tomorrow.
Thank you, Parian family, for helping me see fully and understand deeply. I couldn’t be more pleased for what I see coming next.
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.
7, December 2009 § Leave a comment
Art History means knowing the history of art – societal expectations, stylistic norms, symbols, social and religious context, commercial background, and more. You need it to recognize skill, freshness, and intention, and to develop taste, which is to say personal preference based on knowledge and discrimination. And as history illuminates art, so art illuminates history. Art appreciation means having enough aesthetic sensitivity based on knowledge to form your own opinions – which is more than “I like/dislike it.” So art’s history and appreciation are intimately connected. And if you love art, it is a joyful lifetime study.
In the autumn of 2008 and spring of 2009, a lot of students who had studied Art History with Jeff, Liz, John, Jane, and Jun in Italy and in Greece, upon learning that Elizabeth and I were to be in New York City this Christmas, requested that we take them around the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This would be a reunion based on study and recognition of what we all care deeply about. Since this is the museum where Elizabeth and I, New Yorkers both, first learned about the art of the world, we have a special affection for it, and we agreed.
Our time in the City will be only a few days, and we perforce have many obligations, but we have now made a date. We will meet students (siblings and partners welcome) who are able to join us on Tuesday, December 22, at 10:30 a.m., at the big central desk in the museum’s lobby. Our e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
What should we look at first, the Girl with a Dove from Paros or Giovanni Pisano’s Pulpit Eagle from Pistoia? Or maybe the giant crèche with its 18th-century Neapolitan carved wood figures under the tree?
See you there!