ILLUMINATING CALLIGRAPHY

JORIS HÕFNAGEL(1542 -1601) was one of the last Flemish manuscript illuminators and one of the first artists to work in the genre of still JORISÕlife. In addition to book illumination, Höfnagel made topographical drawings, maps and oil paintings on panel. The son of wealthy merchants and better educated than most 16th-century artists, he also wrote Latin poetry, mastered several languages, played a variety of musical instruments. Höfnagel also participated in the art market, were he sold drawings and illuminations.

After he published a successful six-volume atlas based on his tracels in England, France and Spain, Höfnagel was appointed court artist by Rudolph II (Holy Roman Emperor between 1576 and 1612). Rudolph greatly valued learning and the arts and his court in Prague was distinguished by the presences of artists and scientists, whose interactions reciprocally influenced their work. Rudolph was a collector and his Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, reflected his interests in art and science. Among the rare minerals, oddly-shaped mollusks, Roman cameos, engraved maps and other “wonders” on display in his gallery was a compendium of decorative scripts entitled the Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta, produced 30 years earlier by the master calligrapher, Georg Bocskay. In 1590, Rudolph instructed Höfnagel to decorate the margins of each page. Höfnagel knew that in the pictorial hierarchy of an illuminated page, the marginal decoration had a lower status than the figural and narrative scenes at center, and that repetitive border decorations were usually assigned to apprentices or less accomplished artists, the master artist contributing the main image. To assert his status as master artist, Höfnagel turned the hierarchy on its head, filling the margins with large, colorful, impeccably-executed tromps-l’oeil images of flowers, fruits and insects, all observed from nature, a tour de force with which the scripts at center cannot complete. Höfnagel also chose the species and varietals, and then arranged them on the page in ways that mimic or interact with the shapes, sizes and weights of the scripts above. The emphasis on empiricism and taxonomy seen throughout the images shows that at Rudolph’s court, the visual arts and science were not viewed as opposites, as they are today, but were equally involved in the gathering and dissemination of knowledge.

Since 1983, the Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta has been in the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles), where is It is the number one most-requested work in the manuscripts collection

GUSTAV KLIMT’S LANDSCAPES


In the summer of 1986, the Museum of Modern Art mounted the Vienna 1900 exhibition and acquired Gustav Klimt’s Hope II (1902), thereby admitting Klimt and his Zeitalter into the official canon of modern art. Despite this belated acknowledgement, and setting aside for a moment his fervent participation in the Wiener Secession (“Der Zeit Ihre Kunst und Der Kunst Ihre Freiheit”), Klimt still looks very much like a late 19th-century artist working in a conservative center at the edges of Europe that valued historicism, eclecticism and high-gloss academic finish. In his early work from the 1890s, he changes styles depending on the job—meticulous, hard-edged idealization for official public commissions like the Kunsthistorisches Museum vestibule murals, to gauzy, soft-focus late Impressionism for portraits and landscapes to murky Symbolist topoi executed in a slick,Jugendstil serpentine manner.

This isn’t quite the eclecticism of the Ringstraße, that schizophrenic collection of revival-styles emblematizing the problem of 19th-century historical self-consciousness in general, which the Secession categorically opposed. Klimt’s eclecticism consists of an ability to inhabit fully and to replicate perfectly a range of styles, each closely associated with other, usually French, painters, without privileging one over the other. This nearly post-modern agnosticism is most visible in Klimt’s landscapes, a genre in which he worked throughout his career. Here, his palette of styles ranges from plein air Impressionism and, more specifically, Monet’s Nymphéas, to the pointillism or Seurat and Pissarro to the expressionism of Van Gogh. It’s not hard to see why Klimt worked this way—each mode has its own gorgeous effects and, is suited to particular landscape sub-genres and his technical mastery of all of them is breathtaking.

The overall application of uniform, atomized, pin-points of pigment to the picture plane in representations of trees—Rose, Birnbaum and, most winningly, in Der Park—is the closest Klimt gets to a modernist concern. This exploration of surface effects on differs considerably from the broadly applied decorative patterning seen in the golden paintings, which in its derivation from Byzantine mosaics, is another example of eclectic historicism. His landscapes are also free of the lurid, psycho-sexual heavy-breathing of the golden paintings and other Symbolist-inflected works, which, ironically, makes them seems more modernist than the works he himself would have considered his most avant garde.

WADE GUYTON: RESUME OR CANCEL PRINTING

Wade Guyton (American, b. 1972) was the subject of a mid-career retrospective, Wade Guyton OS, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in late 2012. The following description of the artist’s work is taken from the museum’s website:

Over the past decade, New York–based artist Wade Guyton (b. 1972) has pioneered a groundbreaking body of work that explores our changing relationships to images and artworks through the use of common digital technologies, such as the desktop computer, scanner, and inkjet printer. Guyton’s purposeful misuse of these tools to make paintings and drawings results in beautiful accidents that relate to daily lives now punctuated by misprinted photos and blurred images on our phone and computer screens.
Guyton’s striking work may been motivated by a printer test sheet or error with an accidentally good-looking image, but they hardly “relate to daily lives now punctuated by misprinted photos and blurred images,” as the press release somewhat sentimentally suggests. For starters, most daily lives do not come equipped with Epson Stylus Pro 9600 inkjet printers, a now obsolete, but surprisingly still expensive, large format machine, used mainly by professional printers. This kind of machine (mal)functions differently than your old HP All-in-One, and requires a considerable level of expertise to wield it for creative purposes. Secondly, Guyton’s pictures are staged errors, deliberately induced, under controlled circumstances. Chance plays a role in his art, but in no way defines it.

Much has been made of Guyton’s use of digital means of reproduction alone, but what that point means to emphasize has nothing to do with analog v. digital media, but the fact that Guyton’s work is conceived and realized entirely mechanically, from computer to scanner to printer, without any actual human mark-making involved. The status and implications of art produced this way have been debated since the 15th century in the context of printmaking and in the wake of Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, mechanically-generated art should hardly raise eyebrows. This kind of point is not made much in the context of large-format photography, which utilizes similar machinery, because one does not expect a photographer to realize his/her images by hand; in the case of a painter, as Guyton is often styled, the question still comes up.

Painting has been reborn, reconceived, redefined and rebooted many times long after the actual craft of painting ceased to dominate art education and production. Despite its displacement as the pre-eminent medium, the word persists, applied to all manner of two-dimensional media in which pigments are involved, often to highly incongruous effect. The case of Guyton could be imagined as a Magritte painting—a printer connected to a laptop, above which ceci-ci est un pinceau is inscribed. Like carved-stone sculpture, there is a sentimentality about painting—we admire Masaccio and Rembrandt and Chardin and Manet and Picasso and resist the notion that the medium in which they excelled is approaching extinction. Media and image technologies will come and go, but the continuum of image makers is unbroken from the caves at Lascaux to the present moment, so don’t by afraid to call a printer a printer.


The pilgrimage church at Wies owes its creation to a miracle. After a weepy, neglected, carved effigy of the scourged Christ began restoring sight and curing illnesses in 1738, a pilgrimage grew up almost overnight, flooding the tiny Bavarian village in the Oberammergau with tourists. By 1745, the Premonstratensian monks of Steingaden, who owned the site, undertook to replace the small wooden chapel housing the miraculous image with more dignified structure capable of accommodating the numerous visitors flocking to Wies. To that end, in 1745, they hired renowned architect to Dominikus Zimmermann (1685 -1766) to design and direct the construction of a new church.

VERY FEW CHURCHES were built de novo in the early modern period. Most ecclesiastical architectural commissions involved restoring, rebuilding, refurbishing and/or re-decorating pre-existing churches. The forms and fabrics of many of those venerable buildings had historic and symbolic connotations, which had to be recapitulated, preserved or at least noted in the new work Given these usual constraints on the design process, one can imagine Zimmermann’s reaction to being handed a blank slate by a wealthy patron. Seizing the opportunity, he designed an entirely modern building, every cubic inch of which was harmonized and coordinated to create a unified setting sufficiently glorious for the spectacle of divine intervention in the profane world that the miraculous image effected.

Wies gave Zimmermann the chance to refine and develop the pilgrimage church solution he had created at Steinhausen in the late 1720s. Both have ovular central plans with timber domes supported by a ring of free standing composite supports, a typology with early Christian origins. At Wies, an elongated, tunnel-like choir with a two-story gallery projects from the east end, focusing attention on the miraculous image preserved on the high altar. The interior is indirectly illuminated by a multiplicity of pculi, hidden and visible.

Dominikus entrusted his brother, Johann Baptist Zimmermann, with the painting of the central domed ceiling, as he had at Steinhausen. The fresco unusually depicts the Last Judgement—Wies’ dedication to an obscure object with no pictorial tradition, necessitated iconographical innovation. At the center of the composition appears the rainbow upon which Christ sits in judgement, as specified in the Book of Revelation. Johann Baptist used the it as visual metaphor for the church decoration as a whole: it is composed of vibrant, soft colors; it is shaped like an arch, a visual shorthand for architecture; it is at once symmetrical and asymmetrical; and it literally bridges the architectural and pictorial realms of the building, therefore symbolically bridging the sacred and the profane worlds, just as relics and miraculous objects do.

Although he worked as an altar builder and marbler for the first 20 years of his career, and referred to himself in an inscription inside the Wieskirche as baumeister, by 1745 Zimmermann was primarily sought out for his skills as a master stuccateur. Polychromed stuccowork as a medium falls somewhere between fresco and sculpture—3D painting if you will—and Zimmermann uses stucco as a transition from the highly sculptural architectural and painted portions of the interior. Like wall frescoes, it is an medium with an exacting schedule—the stuccateur lays on a much wet plaster as he can shape and paint in the brief period before it dries and hardens. Once hard, the colors and forms bind permanently to the plaster and cannot be changed or altered without chipping it all out and beginning anew. Both fresco and stucco are performances that demands physical agility and a quick, sure touch.
Zimmermann clearly felt the building of the church to be a life-defining experience. After the nine years on the site overseeing the construction, and carrying out the extensive stucco work himself, upon its completion in 1753, he permanently relocated to Steingaden, spending the remaining decade of his life in close proximity to his masterpiece at Wies.

NON-AMERICAN POSTWAR ART III: Renato Guttuso


RENATO GUTTUSO (1912 – 1987) is best known for his social-realist paintings of working- and middle-class daily life in the post-war Mezzogiorno. While his pictures are clearly politicized, they are rarely straightforward polemics, just as his naturalistic pictorial mode is qualified and shaped by a shadow modernism. Being Sicilian, Guttuso is reticent and rarely sentimental and living in the exquisite degrado of Palermo and its environs, he is immune to the picturesque. This detached position is seen best in his series of paintings of Italian roof-scapes, gritty urban topographies observed from above, rather than at street-level. While they are emptied of the torrents of humanity churning through the cramped piazze and markets of his other works, these paintings are not impersonal aerial views seen from on high; the point of view is a window, much like the ones arrayed before us, embedded within the fabric of the city, available to, and commonly seen, by all its denizens. As one would expect of a painter of politicized naturalism, Guttuso scrupulously records the material and historical realities of rooves, omitting no crack and effacing no grime. However, the limited palette of flat colors applied to building-block forms generally diffused across the picture plane clearly registers an engagement with Cézanne and Braque. These traces of high-modernist and formalism remind us that that even in aggressively local pictures by a painter living on lawless island on the margins of Europe, international modernism was close to, if not, the default artistic way of seeing.

IN A FERTILE LAND: Paul Klee in Egypt

Although Paul Klee (Swiss, 1879 – 1940) did not travel much, he made the most of his few trips abroad. His 1914 visit to Tunisia altered his approach to art-making and inspired scores of drawings and watercolors. In December of 1928, he fulfilled a long-standing desire to see the monuments of the pharaohs, by making a month long trip to Egypt. Since the sensational discovery by Howard Carter of the undisturbed tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, Egypt had become was a popular tourist destination, and Klee saw Cairo, the pyramids and Sphinx at Giza, Aswan, the temples of Karnak and Luxor and the Valley of the Kings as part of an organized group tour.

Klee had explored striated watercolors prior to his Egyptian journey, but it was the distinctive patterning of the cultivated fields along the Nile that gave that formal vocabulary focus and direction. Once one is aware that the artist has recently been looking at pyramids, triangular forms that appear in his work immediately after the trip take on a new meaning. Having been told that pictures like Monument on the Edge of Fertile Land depicts the profile of the Sphinx in between the fields (left) made fertile by the annual inundation of the Nile and the desert (right), Klee’s seemingly abstract composition suddenly reads as a figural image.

Other works, created in 1929, after he had returned to Switzerland, such as Highway and Byways, which shows a road cutting across the fields, leading down to the Nile, seen in blue at the top of the image, or Evening Fire, which shows a deep red sun setting over the fields, are equally referential and representational. They are analog images that have been reduced to their simplest formal elements, which are then rigorously examined from all points of view—Bauhaus tourist snapshots, if you will.

Given his interest in signs, symbols and inscriptions, it’s not surprising that Klee was drawn to hieroglyphics. However, he approached the subject by painting pastiches of pseudo hieroglyphs that are charming, but not particularly compelling. On the other hand, Klee’s pictures like Eros (1930), which are not representational, but incorporate Egyptian symbolic language and pyramidal forms to make diagrammatic statements about broader issues, are genuinely heady and memorable, allusive without being cryptic. They also show that Klee was not engaged in mindless Egyptomania.

AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL ART VI: Beauvais Cathedral and the Limits of Gothic Verticality

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BEAUVAIS CATHEDRAL AND THE LIMITS OF GOTHIC VERTICALITY

THE THIRTEENTH CENTURY saw a competitive building boom as many the cathedrals of northern France, and later in England and Germany, were rebuilt in the new Gothic style. Like the skyscrapers of today, prestige meant height, and from Chartres to Reims to Amiens, the master masons pushed the limits of their engineering skill to eclipse the heights attained by previous buildings. The Cathedral of St Pierre, Beauvais, was begun in 1225, but never finished. It is the tallest of the French Gothic cathedrals and the tallest medieval structure ever raised—the crowns of choir vaults are 152’ off the ground. Those vaults rest upon an elevation with the lowest percentage of masonry in relation to glazing in any Gothic cathedral, meaning the load-bearing walls, from arcade to the glazed triforium to the huge clerestory, now allocated half of the elevation, appeared to have been dissolved by light, giving the impression that the ribbed, groin vaults floated above the chevet (the main system of support for the vaults, the flying buttresses, having been moved outside the church to prevent disruption of the spectacle of light taking place inside the church).

By late 1284, the building campaign had proceeded as far as the choir and transept, allowing the new structure to be consecrated and used for services. However, on 29 November, the drive for extremes of verticalism and huge light apertures ran up against the material realities of ashlared stone and gale force winds from the English Channel. A contemporary chronicler states that

On Friday November 29 at eight o’clock in the evening the great vaults of the choir fell, several exterior pillars were broken, the great windows were smashed; the holy châsses of Saint Just, Saint Germer, and Saint Evrost were spared and the divine service ceased for forty years.

This laconic statement conveys nothing of what must have been a terrifying disaster as the windsheer caused the external buttresses and arcade columns to shudder then collapse, bringing thousands of tons of stone, rubble, broken glass, lead and timber crashing to the ground and leaving the ruined structure exposed to the raging storm on a pitch black night.

Despite the magnitude of the catastrophe, the choir vaults were quickly rebuilt, supported by a more conservative doubling of the arcade-level columns, but the cost of the project, already astronomical, and now burdened with the rebuilding expenses, bankrupted the bishopric of Beauvais and by the early 14th century, a period of great economic hardship in northern Europe due to crop failures, work was ceased altogether, apart from a brief resumption of activity in the early 16th century, when the transept portals were decorated in the flamboyant style. The nave of the ninth-century Carolingian church, which the Gothic building was meant to replace, is still in use, dwarfed by the later addition.

Like the Hagia Sofia and the Pisan campanile, it is remarkable that the truncated Beauvais Cathedral is still standing today. As there is no equivalent nave mass to counter the choir and transept masses, the downward thrust of the stone’s weight has caused the entire building fabric to lean westward. In the 1990s a tie-and-brace system of reinforcement was erected to forestall a collapse of the entire structure, and a few years later, still more massive and intrusive buttresses were sunk into the transept pavement to halt the listing of the walls, which had proceeded far enough to deform the rebuilt arches of the arcades. Each of the major Gothic cathedrals has its own character as a tourist site and makes a distinct impression on the visitor: Chartres is usually filled with school groups and tourists happily lingering in the colored light or following the labyrinth; at Bourges visitors weep or drop to their knees, staggered by the revelation of the interior, and Reims one encounters well-heeled Europeans on dégustation tours of Champagne. Due to the ominous presence of the braces, and the audible straining on the masonry on windy days, the atmosphere inside Beauvais Cathedral is one of tension and apprehension—the few visitors that make it there usually do not linger—but also of sobering historical insight, as the radicality, modernity, physics and humility of a 900-year old architectural undertaking become vividly apparent.

TONY SMITH INSIDE/OUT

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Although Tony Smith’s cast-bronze sculptures were mainly intended for outdoor and/or public sites, they have also been installed in indoor spaces. Smith said his works were “interruptions in an otherwise unbroken flow of space,” a description that, indeed, obtains in both indoor and outdoor settings. That universality of function having been acknowledged, it is striking how differently the works react to indoor and outdoor settings. Contained in a gallery or museum and photographed under carefully-controlled lighting conditions, the works come across as sleek, monumental, impersonal and reticent, Minimalism construed as decorum and good taste. Outdoors, they are entirely different creatures. Ungainly, even comic, behemoths diverting traffic in urban spaces, the smaller ones approaching humans like pigeons or squirrels. Others graze in a field like middle-aged dinosaurs. In the exhibition space, Smith sculptures are flawless and timeless, a realization of an idea; outside they are like Ford LTDs parked on the street for many years, industrial products that are altered and degraded by use, climate and time.

The Quince

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The quince (Cydonia oblonga) is a flowering tree of the rose family which bears an edible golden fruit. Quinces are rare in America due to their susceptibility to fireblight disease (a bacterial infection caused by Erwinia amylovora).  Because the fruit are unusual here and because, without cooking or other treatment, they are very sour and bitter, quinces are regarded as a sort of poor relation to apples and pears (both of which are indeed very close relations within the rose family), but probably it should be the other way around.  Not only does the quince occupy an exalted place in literature and the arts, but the tree is believed to hold a treasure trove of medically useful compounds in its leaves, bark, and fruit.


Quince trees are small trees which, in spring, bear many large single blossoms of bright pink. The flowers are hermaphrodites, able to fertilize themselves.  When fertilized…

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FASTER THAN PAINTING: Thomas Struth

Thomas Struth (German, b. 1955) studied painting at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie 1973-77, where he was a student of Gerhard Richter and Hilla and Bernd Becher. His is the highest profile member of a group of German photographers, including Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Jeff Wall, and Thomas Ruff—who work in the medium of monumental color photography using large format cameras and emulsion film. He is currently based in Berlin and New York.

The following quotations were culled from a profile written by Janet Malcomb for The New Yorker in 2011:

On his experience as an entering student at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie in 1973:

When I came there, it was a shock to realize that I had to regard art as a serious activity and develop a serious artistic practice. Painting and drawing was no longer my hobby, a private activity that I enjoyed. It was something that had categories. Artists were people who took positions and represented certain social and political attitudes. It was an intense experience to realize this. There was very intense judgment by the students—who is doing something interesting and who is an idiot painting lemons as if he were living in the time of Manet and Cézanne.

On painting versus photography:

After I started taking photographs from which I would make my paintings, I realized that the photograph already does it. The photograph already shows what I want to show. So why make a painting that takes me five months to finish and then it looks like a photograph?

On the limitations of the photographic image:

Some of the pictures don’t show what I was thinking. For instance, when I went to Cape Canaveral as a tourist I was struck with the sense of the space program as an instrument of power. When, as a state, you demonstrate that you are able to do that, it contributes to cultural dominance. I hadn’t realized this before. But when I went there to photograph I saw that it is something you cannot put into a photograph.

A note on the source article:

Early on in her profile of Thomas Struth, Janet Malcomb seems to say that because critical response to Struth has been uniformly positive, she will respond negatively on principle. Throughout her article, Malcomb exhibits a very palpable, and inappropriate hostility to Struth, insulting, criticizing and correcting him at every turn. She deplores castigates critics who admire his work; she misinterprets his photographs; makes middle-brow jokes about his work, and ends the article on a note of particular malice by belittling his recent portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip and then raving about a casual snapshot of Struth, the Queen and the Duke taken by Struth’s assistant after the shoot. She ends by reminding Struth that the Queen had not made her opinion of his portrait known, and then implies he is shallow for caring her opinion, when she was the one who brought it up.

The New Yorker profile is not the right venue for mounting revisionist interpretations of an artist’s work, and, based on her comments on artists, photography and critics, Malcomb would not be the best person to mount that revision.

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