A CONVERSATION OF JANUARY 1950, reported by Staël’s friend Pierre Lecuire, does something to attenuate, or at least to account for, the seemingly paradoxical character of Staël’s commitment to abstraction. ‘Look,’ he said, pointing to a glue-pot and an ashtray, ‘here are objects, and this is just what I don’t represent.’ Then, picking up a pencil, he made it pass backwards and forwards from the glue-pot to the ashtray. ‘Now, look, that’s painting. L’entre-deux, what lies between the two. Braque paints what is around the objects, then he represents the objects. As for myself, objects, they don’t interest me any longer. I no longer paint them.’ Pressed as to what was left of the object in his painting, Staël said: ‘Rapport. Rapport. Rapport.’ These are the words of what we might call a holistic realist. Scorning perspective and resemblance as means to achieving figuration, Staël edged his way into figuration by first training himself to respect the painting as a wall, then by learning how to create an overall represented space. The depiction of objects came third. Objects could be depicted only when the space into which they were to fit was complete, and this was the point Staël felt he had reached by February 1952. The year that followed showed him his instincts were right. He ended the year by writing: ‘I do not contrast abstract painting with figurative painting.’

The preceding paragraph is from Richard Wollheim’s review of the catalogue* for the Nicholas de Staël exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 2003.

SOME HAVE TAKEN Staël’s statement about the gluepot and ashtray to mean he believed his work occupied a conceptual territory “in between” abstraction and figuration. Actually, as Wollheim eloquently explains, l’entre deux refers to the negative space or interstice between objects; the subject of Staël’s pictures, therefore, is the spatial and representational ether in which objects may be placed and arranged, but the objects themselves are accidents in the Aristotelian sense. Mistaking painting’s purpose for the representation of things on a table would be to lapse into vulgar depiction.** The l’entre deux distinction, which Staël says he learned from Braque, makes his claim to being a non-figurative artist who pictures contain landscapes, still lives, and figures perfectly logical and enlightening, in terms of his own work and Cubism as well.

* Richard Wollheim, “Yellow Sky, Red Sea, Violet Sands,” London Review of Books, 24 July 2003.

** The inclination to pursue the void is not unlike John Keats’ concept of negative capability.

GOD SAVE THE QUEEN: Recent Portraits of Elizabeth II


GOD SAVE THE QUEEN: Recent Portraits of Elizabeth II

Elizabeth II, the queen regnant, is the most-portrayed individual in history, with some 819 official portraits logged since her birth in 1926. Some have been spectacular successes, like Pietro Annigoni’s portrait of the young queen, wearing the robes of the Order of the Garter, painted for the Worshipful Fishmonger’s Company in 1955 and Cecil Beaton’s glamorous photographs of the 1960s; others have not. The failed images go wrong by employing the conventions of aristocratic portraiture of the 18th and 19th centuries for the representation of 20th- and 21st-century subjects. The old formula, which dates back to Van Dyck and Rigaud, calls for military bearing, an idealized yet expressionless face, an impersonal gaze fixed just above the viewer, and places the subject at a distance, both figuratively and literally, from the viewer. When used to portray modern monarchs, those conventions, along with the academic finish and oil paint medium, which are meant to lend dignity to the image, contribute to the pervasive sense of out-datedness, from which flows irrelevance.

In the past 15 years, the Queen has made a conscious effort to keep her public image current by sitting for portraits by critically-admired contemporary artists who work in the visual idiom of her own era, and not that of Queen Anne. This means more photographic portraits and fewer paintings, and the paintings that are commissioned are mainly executed in acrylics. The tone or overall valence of these portraits is different, because the artist, self-effacing in the old formula, is now as much of a presence as the subject. And she is amenable to the process: Elizabeth II is a skilled photographer herself and has hundreds of hours of modeling experience from sitting for her portraits so she is perhaps the portraitist’s ideal subject.

The license to do as they saw fit resulted in the artists thinking about the monarchy and developing highly individual approaches to recording the image of a ruler for posterity. She allowed Lucian Freud to bring us right up to her face and to frankly portray the signs of old age in a non-sentimental manner and which does not suggest a meretricious sense of familiarity. She has also allowed a note of ironic self-awareness to be registered, as seen in the Queen of Scots portrait by Julian Calder (for which she had to stand in a gnat-ridden bog in full regalia for hours) and she gave a cinematic performance of her various official selves and their wardrobes for Annie Liebovitz.

For Chris Levine’s holographic portrait, Lightness of Being, which doesn’t even refer to the Queen in its title, the artist–who is known for his highly-artificial, stylized photographs of Kate Moss and Barbie–has created a superb, completely up-to-date look for the modern monarch, by styling her with makeup and wardrobe that is coolly chic, but appropriate to her royal dignity. In many portraits from the 1960s through the 1980s, the Queen makes eye-contact with the viewer. This was meant to bridge the distance between monarch and subject, but in the end it creates an annoying sense of fake intimacy neither side believes (remember, in the 18th century it was considered a grave offense to look the Sovereign in the eye). Levine drops that convention, and the distant gaze that preceded it, and instead daringly portrays the queen with closed eyes (during sittings for a holographic image made for a bank note, Levine snapped the source still photo while the Queen closed her eyes to rest them in between takes). This conceit forecloses the fatuous illusion of familiarity proposed by the look-you-in-the-eye genre, bluntly informing us that she is distant, that she is not your familiar, but she also not going to lie to you and pretend otherwise. This is not atavistic; it shows clear thinking about about the nature of the monarch, which makes for memorable images.

We recognize the faces of Henry VIII, Charles V, Phillip IV, Louis XIV, and Napoleon because they have been captured by Holbein, Titian, Vélazquez, Rigaud and David; and we do not not remember what Charles II, Leopold I, Charles X, Franz-Josef I or Edward VII because they were painted by less inventive artists. The Queen, too, clearly knows that in the future, her features and her reign will be remembered insofar as the artworks that represent her are remembered and given her recent choices, it seems likely hers will remain a familiar face in the centuries to come.


DISEGNO I: Jacopo Pontormo


Disegno means both drawing and design—it signifies the ability to make the drawing and the intellectual capacity to invent its design.

Disegno…having its origin in the intellect, draws out from many single things a general judgment, it is like a form or idea of all the objects in nature.

—Giorgio Vasari, On Technique (1550).

Thus construed, drawing is the essential artistic skill upon which all others depend and, for that reason, it was the foundation of artistic education from the 15th through the early 20th centuries.

This is the first of five posts on disegno, light on commentary, the emphasis being on the images, which speak for themselves.

JACOPO CARUCCI, called PONTORMO (1494 – 1557) was the son of a painter and an apprentice to Leonardo da Vinci. Although he is was a celebrated practitioner of la maniera, or Mannerism, Pontormo’s superb chalk drawings show the profound influence of his friend Michelangelo in their sculptural approach to depicting anatomy.


0193 Untitled (Fold)-Tauba-Auerbach-large
Untitled (Fold) 2010

TAUBA AUERBACH (American, b. 1981) manipulates large pieces of raw canvas into various configurations through folding or rolling. She then lays the canvas out flat and applies pigment to its surface with an industrial spray gun from different angles to create surface effects reminiscent of colour changeante fabrics or white chalk highlights. Auerbach has been called a semiotician and a conceptual artist, but those terms, to a certain extent, divert attention away from non-discursive, visual/perceptual matters, such as the role played by color in the experience of depth the creation of illusionistic surfaces.

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The Aesthetic of the Chip

THE DIE SHOT is the computer industry’s version of the money shot. These gorgeous photographs of a chip’s die, a block of the semi-conducting material of which integrated circuits are composed, are shot under intense light with a high-resolution digital camera using a macro lens or with a combination of microscope and camera. With their geometrical abstract forms and iridescent, jewel-like colors, the die shots look like a psychedelic form of modern art—think Paul Klee on blotter acid. These ravishing images were taken from, several sources, including IC Die Photography and CPU World



This year, to mark le quatorze julliet, trade in your bonnet phrygien for a brioche and revisit the place where France started and ended it all, Versailles.

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THE PALACE OF VERSAILLES was conceived by Louis XIV and designed by Le Vau, Mansart, Le Nôtre, Le Brun, Boulle, Coysevox and Francine for the staging of the magnificence of the royal self and the power of the state, both parts being played convincingly by the king.

Today, however, Versailles is one of those monuments, like Pompeii and the Tower of London, that one visits unenthusiastically and infrequently. The palace was stripped of its furniture, fixtures, appurtenances by the cash-starved revolutionary government(s) and only a small percentage has been restored and refitted for public viewing. The palace’s disappointing ratio of gloire to square foot manifests itself in herds of sightseers trudging for hours through endless corridors and empty salons en filade. The gardens and grounds seem dusty and desolate and by the time one gets to the end of the grande perspective and realizes one has to walk all the way back, anti-monarchical feelings have set in. The stupidly-big, boring palace is not impressive–it represents a decadent culture’s scandalous misappropriation of resources in support of a risible political system, and the guillotine the fastest solution to a bad idea on a baroque scale.

Versailles is a drag because the monument is being used today in ways that would have seemed irrational and perverse in the 17th century. No one would in Louis’ time would have walked the great distances of the entire complex and grounds at one go, guided by no business or personal purpose and no one be there at all if there was no royal self in residence to stage its magnificence. Like Stonehenge or the Pyramids of Giza, Versailles without the absolutist monarchy is a monument without a raison d’être, and, barring unlikely Bourbon restorations, visiting will always seem like going to a restaurant with long lines, insufficient seating and no food.

That said, in the last third of the 17th century, when Louis’s many complex plans and projects for Versailles were nearing completion, the experience of the architecture, gardens, waterworks, candle-light illuminations, and spectacles, including fireworks and staged sea battles, must have been staggering and magical. The palace and grounds provided not only grand settings for formal events, but also provided more casual and intimate, but no less thoughtfully-designed and luxuriously-appointed, localités–one’s favorite retreats, rendez-vous points, corners, and views, the appeals and attractions of which varied throughout the course of the day and year.

These images are meant to restore desirability to Versailles, to give a sense what made the place the envy of Europe. That journey must take place in the imagination because Versailles no longer exists even though it is still there.

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Charles-André Boulle, Ébeniste du Roi (1642-1732)

Antoine Coysevox, Sculpteur du Roi (1640-1720)

François Francine, Intendant des Eaux et Fontaines du Roi (1661-1688)

François Girardon, Premier Sculpteur du Roi (1628 -1715)

Charles LeBrun, Premier Peintre du Roi (1619-1690)

André LeNôtre, Contrôleur Général des Jardins du Roi (1613-1700)

Louis LeVau, Premier Architecte du Roi (1612-1670)

Jules Hardouin-Mansart, Premier Architecte et Surintendant des Bâtiments du Roi (1646-1708)

Hyacinthe Rigaud, Peintre du Roi (1659-1743)




In 330 AD, Constantine the Great moved the capitol of the Roman Empire from Rome to the newly-founded city named after himself, Constantinople, leaving the western empire to be gradually overrun by barbarian tribes. The ensuing chaos culminated in the sack of Rome itself by the Ostrogoths in AD 410. When the last emperor in the west retired in AD 476, the office of the emperor quietly vanished. The forsaken west, no longer unified by one government, language, currency, law and culture, fragmented into many petty kingdoms, constantly at war with each other. Knowledge of Roman building methods and engineering faded quickly, the temples and roads fell into ruin and architecture ceased to exist for over 200 years. The classical traditions in painting and sculpture disappeared, taking with them the ability to represent the human body and observed world.

Given the scarcity of materials, and lack of technical ability, such artistic production as there was during the Dark Ages was limited to small-scale objects of personal adornment, including jewelry, ceremonial weapons and armour, and some vessels, all made for rulers. Making the best of their restricted circumstances, the barbarian craftsmen made up for lost surface area by obsessively elaborating what little they had with intricate decorative patterns. The Tara Brooch, for example, a Hiberno-Saxon pin for holding fur cloaks closed in the frigid northern winters, was made of just two Roman gold coins which yielded very little space for decoration. Nevertheless, dozens of very fine, interlinked trumpet and whirl patterns, all precisely executed, covered the available surface. When one recalls that the designs were executed by hammering the soft metal and scoring it with what tools were available, the achievement is staggering.

Along with precious metals, barbarian taste also favored uncut semi-precious gemstones, such as agate, amethyst, garnet and cabochon rubies and emeralds, which were fitted into gold settings. Cloisonné enamel (made by slicing very small pieces of colored glass, almost all made from melted-down Roman objects, and fitting them into gold-wire compartments) was employed to create richly-coloured pattern on wristbands, clasps and rings. The more complex the pattern and the finer its execution reflected well on the ruler, who had resources to expend on such things. The display of precious metals and the conspicuous registration of artistic skill were the hallmarks of the northern barbarian aesthetic, which, and the models of classical antiquity rediscovered by the Carolingians and imported from Byzantium, will fuse around the year 1000 to create the art of the High Middle Ages.

Avoiding or ignoring the human body and naturalistic renderings of real objects, the Hiberno-Saxon artists put abstract, geometric patterning at the center of their practice. Whether this represents a positive choice of one mode over another or is the result of lack of skill will never be known. It should be noted, however, that the interlace is not, strictly speaking, an abstract mode. Inhabited interlace of the type seen at Sutton Hoo and in the great insular gospel books, teems with life, as ribbons terminate in animal heads and reptiles that pursue and bite each other and, later on, humans, in an endless, labyrinthine hunt and chase. It is important to recall that throughout the Dark Ages the land was depopulated„ there were no cities of any appreciable size and three quarters of Europe was covered in dense, at times impenetrable, ancient forests (almost all of which were later cut down for timber and the land brought under cultivation, as populations grew). These forests are the wasteland of the medieval quest romances, desolate and fearful places inhabited by dangerous, semi-mythical creatures that were much closer to hand and much more of a threat to humans than was the case the urban centers of the Mediterranean. This reality gave raise to poems like Beowulf, in which a stark distinction is made between the pitch-black outdoors, where monsters like Grendel lay waiting for bragging, drunk humans who stupidly step out of the safety of the warm, well-lit, mead hall. The inhabited interlace registers that reality, and symbolically tames it by reducing it to a controlled pattern—for a moment.



VIII: The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

In 1939 excavations of several barrows, or burial mounds, were carried out on the grounds of a private estate near the village of Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk. The owner of the property, Mrs Edith Pretty, had instigated the digs, which were led by a local archaeologist, Basil Brown. Inside one of the larger mounds the team discovered the grave of the East-Anglian King Raewald, who died around A.D. 638. His funeral rites consisted of placing his body, equipped with armour and a treasure, in a 150-foot long wooden ship, all of which was buried under a vast mound of earth and then forgotten for 1,300 years. Other barrows of the Dark Ages had been explored previously, but none had yielded a complete treasure of this quality, of this historical importance, or in such miraculous condition.

Arranged around the king’s body were a shield, sceptre, helmet, and sword and clothing accessories, including a purse, a belt buckle and clasps that held a cape in place, all fashioned of pure gold and finely-patterned cloisonné enamels decorated with intricate celtic interlace motifs and stylized representations of wild animals. At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum from Greco-Roman classicism, where the idealized human body is pervasive, northern taste valued precious materials and avoided the representation of humans, favoring instead abstract, decorative treatments of baffling complexity. The two legacies of southern classical and northern barbarian art will merge at the end of the Dark Ages, giving rise to medieval art.

Among the items placed in the Sutton Hoo hoard for the deceased king’s benefit in the afterlife were two silver chrism spoons, used in the Christian baptism rite, and several silver bowls decorated with crosses, all made in Constantinople. The king’s purse contained recently-minted Byzantine, imperial coinage. These objects, which seem out of place in an otherwise pagan, Viking-style ship burial, were placed in the hoard partly for their metallic value, but for religious reasons as well. In late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, converts to Christianity waited until the end of life to be baptized. Raewald, an active supporter of Pope Gregory the Great’s efforts to return Britain to Christianity, was probably baptized shortly before he died. The priest administering the sacrament would have used the silver spoons and bowls to anoint and cleanse the neophyte. The bowls and spoons were left on the ship as a precaution: not being sure of what he might need in the afterlife, Raewald took no chances and equipped with both Christian and pagan objects.

Edith Pretty received offers for the treasure from foreign museums and collectors, but, in an act of great magnanimity, she donated it to a grateful nation. The treasure was put into storage during World War II, and in 1945, after being conserved and catalogued, the Sutton Hoo treasure was put on permanent display in the British Museum. The British Museum conducted a second, more extensive, excavation of the Sutton Hoo site, led by Rupert Bruce-Mitford, in the 1960s; the complete findings of both campaigns were published in three volumes by the Society of Antiquaries in 1975, 1978, and 1983.


I: Saint Denis and Gothic Art

II: The Carolingian Renovatio

III: The Monastic Scriptorium

IV: Grisaille, or The Abstention from Color

V: The Social and Material Contexts of Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna

VI: Beauvais Cathedral and the Limits of Gothic Verticality

VII: The Harrowing of Hell

VIII: The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial


Polykleitos of Argos (fl. c. 440 BC) sought to represent in his statuary the ideal proportions of the human figure, and to this end, he developed a set of aesthetic principles and guidelines codifying these proportions that was known as the kanon or “rule.” In formulating this canon, Polykleitos devised a system based on a simple mathematical formula which divided the human body into measured parts that were all proportionally related. These conventions reflect the earlier teachings of Pythagoras, who believed […] that underlying proportions could be found in all of nature, determining the form of the cosmos as well as of things on earth, and that beauty resided in harmonious numerical ratios.

Though we do not know the exact details of Polykleitos’s formula, because he chose to expound the canon by sculptural rather then discursive means. Although one would expect the free-standing image of the spear-bearer to have been commissioned for a memorial to a deceased warrior, the Doryphoros was not intended to refer to any specific individual , but rather to an idealized composite of all individuals. The Doryphoros is the perfect expression of what the Greeks called symmetria. In art of the High Classical period (ca. 450–400 BC), symmetria not only encompassed a sense of proportion and balance, but was also an exercise in contrasts. The body of the Doryphoros, for example, stands in what is termed contrapposto, meaning that his weight rests on his right leg, freeing his left to bend. In the process, the right hip shifts up and the left down; the left shoulder raises and the right drops. His body is brought into a state of equilibrium through this counter-balancing act.

Although the Doryphoros represents a warrior poised for battle, he does not don a suit of armor or any other protective gear. In fact, were it not for the actual spear that that statue originally held, it would have been difficult to identify him as such. A hallmark of classical Greek sculpture, male nudity or nakedness was understood as a marker of civilization that separated the Greeks from their “barbarian” neighbors.

The Doryphoros was originally executed in bronze, the tensile strength of which allowed for a greater freedom of motion in the statue. The weight of the stone requires the marble copies to have ungainly supports props which diminish the effect intended by Polykleitos.

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