THE QUATTROCENTO ANNUNCIATION

 

I: Filippino Lippi

On the advice of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Cardinal Oliviere Carafa commissioned Filippino Lippi to decorate the chapel he had endowed in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the Dominican convent in Rome. The three walls and vaults were painted in fresco over the years 1489/91.

The altarpiece depicts two separate actions: on the left, following iconographic convention the angel of the annunciation approaches from the left, about to speak, while the dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit descends from above. On the right side of the same chamber, St Thomas Aquinas stands next to Cardinal Carafa, who kneels in prayer. In between the angel and Carafa, the Virgin is shown rising from her chair, her attention divided between not one, but two unexpected visitors. The angelic doctor seems to have chosen an inopportune moment, causing his client, the donor, to interrupt the annunciation.

Being obliged to show the donor present at the Annunciation without appearing to hinder it, turned a standardized image type into a compositional problem. Filippino resolved that problem visually by posing the Virgin in a manner that implies a sequence of events. Her body is oriented towards the donor, whom she was about to receive, when Gabriel arrived. His arrival obliges her to turn her head to the left. Her raised hand reads as an acknowledgement of both visitors. Instead of showing the donor intruding on the mystery of the incarnation, the picture shows the presentation of the Cardinal by St Thomas being interrupted by the arrival of Gabriel, after which the miraculous event will unfold, one imagines, without interruption, while saint and cardinal piously observe from the sidelines.

The solution is a marvel of pictorial tact and effciency and one the painter almost certainly arrived at himself in response to a problem the patron had not foreseen.

Advertisements

MANET’S EXECUTION

L’histoire est une résurrection.
–Jules Michelet

Immediately after news of the execution of Emperor Maximillian I of Mexico reached Paris on 1 July 1867, Édouard Manet began work on monumental painting depicting the event. The planned work would appropriate the scale and gravitas of history painting for the representation of a barely historical,  politically dangerous event.

Initially, the painting’s political credibility was thought to depend on its observed veracity–the painter of modern life, Baudelaire’s man in the crowd, must be present as history unfolds. That wasn’t possible in this case, but Manet was able to obtain details of dress, setting, and figure position from the few published accounts and photographs of the execution that had evaded Napoléon III’s censorship of the press following the incident. Over the following 18 months, revisions, corrections, and additions to those accounts caused Manet to abandon two  large-scale versions of the Execution of Maximilian, which misrepresented either the place, time of day or order of events, before he arrived at the final version. For that version, instead of doggedly attempting to create an illusion of empiricism, he focused on the ability of his chosen medium to capture and frame history. He did so by setting the representation of a political execution in broader art historical context by conspicuously alluding to Goya’s Third of May 1808, which he had seen for the first time on a recent trip to Spain.

The wisdom of Manet’s decision to forego full, descriptive accuracy in order tell a deeper truth about the execution’s political and historical significance becomes clear when his final version is compared to The Last Moments of Maximilian (1882), by academician Jean-Paul Laurens. Fifteen years after Maximilan’s death and 11 years after the end of the Second Empire, Laurens had access to the full historical record, which he scrupulously recreates in every detail of costume, setting, gesture, and position. Laurens’ slavish accuracy overwhelms the viewer with superficiality, as if to divert attention from the utterly banal interpretation of the event, which idealizes and flatters the emperor and demonizes the executioners. Despite his ostentatious fidelity to the record, Laurens omits the most, if not the only, significant fact of that record, the execution itself, sparing us the sight of violence in favor of sentimental “last moments,” while Manet shows us the precise and horrible moment when incident passes into history.

Turning back to Manet, aspects of the Execution of Maximilian that initially appeared to be faults–cramped composition, overly-close point of view, awkward occlusions and so on–now seem like virtues, as the cursory brushwork and laconic approach to detail underscore the empty prolixity and meretricious nature of Laurens’ handling of history and paint.

Due the politically-charged content, none of Manet’s versions of the Execution of Maximilian were exhibited in France in his lifetime.

500 YEARS OF BOSCH

The devil’s ass is hell’s gateway.
Netherlandish Proverb

To mark the 500th anniversary of Hieronymus Bosch’s death, Het Noordbrabants Museum has mounted Jheronimus Bosch, a survey exhibition of the Netherlandish master’s career.

The exhibitions brings together 16 of the 25 surviving paintings and 19 of the 20 known drawings by Bosch. The curators secured unprecedented loans for the show, including the Prado’s Haywain, which has not left Spain for 450 years, the Ship of Fools from the Louvre and Death and the Miser from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, recently re-attributed to Bosch, comes from as far as the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. The show is all the more remarkable because Het Noordbrabants Museum, while located in Bosch’s natal city of ’s-Hertogenbosch, has no works by the artist in its own collections.

The Surrealists saw Bosch as an anti-clerical madman visualizing his dark unconscious; in the 1960s, the counterculture embraced Bosch as a proto-hippie celebrating free love and hallucinations. Both of these self-serving theories are wrong: Bosch appears to have been a religious ascetic who firmly supported official church dogma concerning the fallen nature of humanity, the transience of human desires and, his great theme, the afterlife. Phillip II of Spain was an enthusiastic patron of both Bosch and the Inquisition.

As seen in these details, even by the lurid standards of the Late Middle Ages, Bosch had an exceptional ability to imagine the horrors of eternal damnation,  which were obsessively rendered in oil paint in order to convince the viewer to repent and abjure sin. If we find them unnerving or repellent, then we are having an orthodox 15th-century response, which is perhaps the greatest testimony to Bosch’s skill as an image maker.

Jheronimus Bosch is on view at Het Noordbrabants Museum from 13 February – 8 May 2016. More information.

ART OF THE ANCIENT AMERICAS I: Tlingit and Haida Nations

 

The indigenous people that make up the Tlingit and Haida nations inhabit the coastal regions of what are now Alaska and British Columbia. With its abundant and easily harvested natural resources, the Pacific Northwest supported populations large enough to make it the most densely-inhabited indigenous region on the globe for a time.

Fueled by prosperity and a great concern for social rank, the aristocracy of the North Coast tribes engaged in the ostentatious display of wealth, including rituals of hospitality and expenditure (the potlatch), and personal adornment. A chief could also demonstrate his wealth, and thereby enhance his social status, by hiring artists and buying, displaying, giving away and even destroying works of art, valued for their precious materials and fine craftsmanship,

Images permeated Tlingit and Haida culture to a higher degree than other Native American groups. Objects ranging from prestigious 60-foot totem poles representing the chief’s ancestry, embroidered ceremonial blankets and carved amulets, to simple objects meant for daily use like canoe paddles, bowls and ladles, were decorated with figural imagery, rendered in a highly-stylized formal language that is still practiced today and is a major component of the self-definition and cultural identity of both nations.

The iconography of Tlingit and Haida art is almost entirely figural, with the representation of humans and animals at its center. In North Coast mythology, animals and their behaviors are reflections and/or antiypes of human acts and traits. This is given visual form in the images of ravens, wolves, salmon, bears and seals who stand upright and mimic human facial expressions and comportment.

LA FÊTE À SAINT CLOUD

image

In a recent exhibition* and catalogue, La Fête à Saint-Cloud by Jean-Honoré Fragonard was adduced as a late example of the fête galante genre.

Antoine Watteau formulated the fête galante in the 1710s. The genre consists of figures in contemporary dress and/or commedia dell’arte characters performing the tropes of pastoral poetry while diverting themselves in lushly-landscaped parks. Like the mythic Arcadia, the fête galante’s overall mood of ease and pleasurable sociability is shadowed by a vague melancholy or longing–a sense that the depicted Golden Age must pass, or has already passed.

To be sure, Fragonard’s picture fulfills enough of the genre requirements to be classified as a fête galante, but one with amplifications and qualifications. Whereas Watteau and his followers usually worked in small- to medium-sized formats, La Fête à Saint-Cloud is the expansive centerpiece (2.16m x 3.35m) of an interior decoration scheme for the salon of a Parisian hôtel particulier.

Fragonard’s content also deviates from the generic norm. Not only are contemporary fashions and entertainments depicted in La Fête à Saint Cloud, the fête itself is a representation of an historical event, an annual fair held in September in the park of Saint Cloud. The various spectacles and diversions, including theatrical performances, marionette shows, games, concessions, and the water features for which the park was famous, are all depicted with great accuracy. (Fragonard’s earlier Fête à Rambouillet also overlays a depiction of an historical fair with fête galante imagery.)

Not only does the historicity of the painting’s subject matter run counter to Watteau’s deliberate balancing of equally indeterminate mythic, pastoral and modern elements, Fragonard suggests that the fête galante has been literalized in actual events such as the Saint Cloud fair. Whereas Watteau’s galants embark on a journey to an imaginary destination, in Fragonard’s picture, they have already arrived at a fully-colonized reality. At that moment, when the reification obtains, the fête galante genre ceases to exist, its social function having been absorbed completely into the general culture. La Fête à Saint Cloud is, therefore, not a fête galante genre picture, but documentation of a cultural production derived from the genre.

Since the late 18th century, La Fête à Saint Cloud has hung in the Hôtel de Toulouse, the Paris residence of Louis Jean Marie de Bourbon, duc de Penthièvre.** The mansion was confiscated by the revolutionary government upon the duke’s death in 1793 and, in 1811, Napoleon authorized its sale to the Banque de France. The bank makes the painting, still in its original setting, available to over 10,000 visitors per year.

De Watteau à Fragonard: Les Fêtes Galantes, Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André, 14 March – 21 July 2014.

** No documentation concerning either a direct commission from the artist or a purchase from a third party survives, but that is consistent with the artist’s casual approach to business. Of the 550 known paintings by Fragonard, only 5 are documented–an unusually low figure for a prominent artist of the period.

EXTREME HELLENISM: THE PERGAMON ALTAR

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Pergamon was one of the many kingdoms carved out of the eastern parts of Alexander the Great’s empire. By the year 200 B.C., the Attalid Kings had transformed Pergamon into a major outpost of Hellenic culture and religion, symbolized by the city’s acropolis, on which stood temples and the second largest library of the classical world. In the years 165 – 155 BC, the Pergamenes raised the final structure on the acropolis, a colossal altar, dedicated to Zeus.

In emulation of the Athenian Parthenon, the Pergamon altar was decorated with a narrative frieze. Designed by the sculptor Phyromachus, and executed by a large workshop of marble carvers, the frieze depicts the Gigantomachy, a subject frequently used by the Greeks to distinguish their enlightened civilization from the depravity and barbarism of everyone else (iIn the case of Pergamon, the mythic narrative served to commemorate recent military victories over the Macedonians and Celts). At 113m long, the Gigantomachy frieze is the second longest sculptural program executed in the classical period (the Parthenon frieze is 160m long). Although the Parthenon and Pergamon friezes share a common medium and approximate length, the latter departs from the model of the former in almost every other way.

The Parthenon frieze is carved in low relief. Its placement high above the ground, ensuring that the idealized civic ritual it depicts would be viewed from a dignified distance. At Pergamon, all of that is inverted: the frieze is carved in extemely high relief, with certain figures approaching sculpture in the round. Its over 100 scenes wrap around the lowest part of the altar’s base, sometimes spilling over on to the actual architecture, involving and immersing the viewer in epic mayhem. The drama of the battle is amplified by the over-life sized figures, whose bodies are splayed out wherever possible and by the churning, multi-layered compositions. The sense of turbulent motion pervading the frieze is primarily caused by the the deeply cut drapery folds of the goddesses garments that cling to their bodies as they rush into battle. The entire frieze is soaked in histrionic emotionality, a hallmark of Hellenistic art.

At the height of the classical period, sculptural representations of violence, like the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs of the Parthenon metopes (above), were over-laid with sense of decorum and restraint. At Pergamon, the gods charge in and brawl with the giants, dealing out all manner of graphically depicted punishment. The goddesses are particularly athletic and ferocious. Phoebe uses lit torches as spears; Aphrodite kicks a giant in the head; Nyx hurls an urn filled lining snakes at the fallen giant, the Fates and the Furies jump into the scrum and drag giants away by the hair. The Parthenon iconography informs potential enemies that, Athenian reason and civilization will always prevail. On the outskirts of the Greek world in a time of political uncertainty, the Pergamon frieze grandly and bluntly warns of the annihilation awaiting anyone who threatens the city.

The great altar of Pergamon was excavated, with the approval of the Ottoman sultan, in the late 19th century by German archaeologists. It was then reconstructed and installed in the Berlin museum that bears its name. The Turkish government has requested the altar be returned to Pergamon, despite the fact that, unlike the Elgin marbles, its removal to Germany was perfectly legal. Having just spent millions of euros reinstalling the altar, it is not clear if the German government will buckle under pressure as quickly as did the British Museum trustees.

1989: Robert Mapplethorpe

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Robert Mapplethorpe was the subject of two retrospectives in the last year of his life, Robert Mapplethorpe, at the Whitney Museum of American Art (26 July – 23 October 1988) and Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, which traveled to five other museums in 1989-90.

The religious right successfully pressured the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington to cancel the The Perfect Moment before it opened in 1989 and caused the Cincinnati district attorney to bring criminal obscenity charges against curators of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center in 1990. Right wing politicians made Mapplethorpe and the exhibition the centerpiece of their campaign to discredit and do away with the National Endowment for the Arts, which ultimately failed.

I want everything to be perfect, and of course it isn’t. And that’s a tough place to be because you’re never satisfied.
–Robert Mapplethorpe, 1987

In the starkly-lit, static, black and white photos he produced in the last years of his life, which were heavily featured in the 1988-89 exhibitions, Mapplethorpe certainly aimed at perfection. The still-life arrangements, portraits and heroic nudes are virtually Neo-classical in their purity, restraint, and severity. Every object his camera focuses on turns to stone. In his late portraits in particular, faces are slightly over-lit, like old Hollywood publicity shots, to create a soft focus, luminous effect very close to the lustre of polished marble; applying this technique to actual statuary allows hard surfaces to appear soft and mutable.

I really believe that Robert sought not to destroy order, but to re-order, to re-invent, and to create a new order.
—Patti Smith, 2010

Deeply influenced by Edward Weston and Minor White, Mapplethorpe used the camera to abstract from objects and bodies an inner or underlying essential form. The effect of timelessness—a moment captured and preserved—is, to some extent, unavoidable in photography. When a photographer takes as his or her subject nothing less than beauty itself and purity of form, time ceases to be a referent at all.

In the 1980s, critics praised Mapplethorpe either for his transgressive depiction of graphic and hitherto unrepresentable content or his formalism, which gave the impression of a seemingly split artistic personality (the essays in the Whitney catalogue read as if they were about completely different artists). The problematics of foregrounding the formalist over the hardcore Mapplethorpe became very evident in the expert testimony in the Cincinnati trial, which attempted to explain one version of Mapplethorpe in terms of the other.

Because his Black Book photos are now widely-known, and due to changing perceptions of gay sexuality, Mapplethorpe’s work is less shocking than he was in 1989 (which is what it sought to achieve, on some level). This makes the consistency of his visual interests clearer. The perfect moment turns out to be the perfect form, which is visible in all subjects once the filters of the dominant paradigm are removed.

This concludes The Art of the 1980s series.

%d bloggers like this: