Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Painting a Day: Ellen Terry at 16, by Julia Margaret Cameron


Today's painting isn't a painting at all, but a photograph...so guess the year. When I first saw this image, I assumed it was a modern black and white photograph. The clarity of the image, coupled with the seemingly modern pose and the model's unblemished youth, points to a faux-vintage image. Clearly she's trying to capture another age and time, as evident in her dreamy expression and antique dress, but this couldn't be a stuffy Victorian portrait, could it? Ah, but it could...the date of this portrait is 1875, though the negative is earlier still--1864.
This is a portrait of Ellen Terry, a famous child actress who grew into a tempestuous young woman who captured the public's imagination (here she is at 16, just coming into her adult fame). The photographer is Julia Margaret Cameron, a famous portrait taker who captured images of Darwin and Tennyson, among others. Her artistic mentor, the painter George Frederic Watts, married Ellen despite an enormous age difference, and not surprisingly the marriage barely lasted the year.
This photo is from the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and I first encountered it recently in an exhibition catalog from the museum. I found it startling because it reminded me of a Pre-Raphaelite painting come to life. Indeed, Ellen posed for her husband and other painters, so she literally IS just such a painting, which gives you a hint of why these men were so inspired. Though an idealized portrait, Cameron captures her as the very epitome of Victorian womanhood: beautiful, dreamy, melancholic, isolated, and even a bit dangerous. She reminds me of what Helen of Troy might have looked like, a woman who was probably well aware of her power over men, and not above showcasing it theatrically (Ellen became a Dame by 16--no mean feat for a girl born in the theater circuit!). The pose seems affected and definitely staged, not just by the photographer but by the model herself. She seems to be longing for release or fulfillment, yet for all its allurements, she seems to resist being sexually enticing. Instead, she emerges as a vision of classical innocence, unattainable to any man save the artists who can merely capture her image for the ages. But if he tries to get closer he will find himself clasping a shadow--or a medusa.
The rounded portrait shown here is called a tondo, and was a style preferred by the Pre-Raphaelites in their paintings. The connection between photography and painting has been lost in recent ages, but this reminds us that a photo doesn't record life as it is, but is carefully staged and edited by the eye of the photographer. Ellen was reportedly quite a hellion even at 16, and hardly the ethereal innocent we see before us. But if social media teaches us nothing else, it's that we manipulate images to suit our identity of the moment: how Ellen Terry would have loved Facebook and Instagram!

Monday, April 24, 2017

A Painting a Day: Denis' The Muses (1893)


A painting of the day to start off the week: Maurice Denis' The Muses (1893). Denis was a member of the late 19th century artistic movement The Nabis (Prophets), a group of Symbolist painters who wanted to go beyond mere images of nature to show the inner "nature" of man. After all, art doesn't have to merely record impressions of the world around us, it can be whatever we want it to be, taking those impressions and mixing them with our inner sensations and even random thoughts from other worlds. While Denis' work isn't necessarily expressionist or bizarre, it does have a cooly detached, enigmatic view of the world which makes it highly decorative and somewhat mysterious.

This is definitely the case with The Muses, which ostensibly depicts the Nine Muses of antiquity. Yet this is not immediately recognizable, since the women seated in the foreground do not look like Muses at all but typical late 19th century society ladies. The most prominent of the trio is filing her nails (do Muses file their nails?!), with a look of bored concentration. Beside her is a more Muse-like woman in an ethereal pose, baring her back and shoulder for the viewer. Her face is a mere abstraction, just enough to stylistically suggest a kind of aristocratic ennui or immortal indifference. A third woman is caught in the act of reading--or more accurately, of losing interest in reading--and looks off into the distance, with the same deathless stare. Her hair and her dress have coalesced into a single color, a mere blob of shape. All three women look curiously like decorations more than women, each one an art nouveau print.

The forest the Muses find themselves in is also less Impressionistic as artistic and stylized: it's like a funky wallpaper print, lacking depth and reality, but all the more seductive for that. The other Muses amble about in the grove, strutting and posturing, but all of them in a daze. The one on the far left looks over at her companion blankly, as if to say "anything new going on this century?" Other women examine a book, and one seems to be completely naked toward the horizon. Yet each one is detached, a world unto themselves, utterly alone in their immortality.

Of course, maybe the title is ironic: maybe class and wealth have made these women "immortal"? They have become isolated by their status and forced into a cage of privilege, where they can only read about the world--not experience it. They have become, like the figures on Keats' Grecian Urn, trapped as lifeless art, more to inspire others than to enjoy life themselves. To quote Keats' poem, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty'--that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." I get the sense that these women would like to know more, but have forgotten how to ask...

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Painting a Day: Bocklin's In the Sea (1883)



The painting of the day: a work by a largely forgotten painter who was once very important to the late 19th century, Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901), and his painting In The Sea (1883). When I briefly lived and worked in Chicago, I would walk across the street once a week to the Art Institute (free on Tuesdays back then) to see my favorite paintings. This was one of them, a painting I had never heard of before by a painter who existed as a mere footnote (another painting, The Isle of the Dead, inspired Rachmaninov's famous symphonic poem). Something about this painting captured my interest and made me rush back to it each time like a treasured acquaintance. The postcard I found of it in the gift shop still stares down at me when I write.

So what makes this picture--a very odd one, even an ugly one to some--so unique? For one, it treats a mythological subject in the least dignified manner I can think of. The Pre-Raphaelites, famous at this period, were known for sumptuous, sensual images of antiquity, celebrating their favorite models in poses of longing and rapture. Not so Bocklin. In this scene, which depicts various mermaids and tritons, no one looks ethereal or even sexual. They look exhausted, annoyed, mischievous, and argumentative. Even the ocean itself looks more like a pond than the vast, immortal sea of legend. The entire picture looks cramped and claustrophobic, as if the creatures are saying "morals tell all these grand stories about us--but this is REALLY what it's like!"

Note the mermaids hanging onto the triton like a piece of driftwood, while he tries to sing--or protest--in vain. He might be plucking a tone of ancient wonder, yet it's comically foiled by the mermaid pulling him down, not in a sexually enticing way, but more in a "please carry me, I'm tired!" manner. Another mermaid does a backstroke beside him, looking halfway interested in his song--but perhaps more interested in using him as a dock. In the distance, two other creatures are swimming toward him with a conch shell, perhaps to add to the festivities. But again, we imagine a loud, boisterous tune to be the result--a triton's drinking song, perhaps. Yet despite the comedic setting, the painting is quite beautiful, with the reflection capturing the shimmering, unearthly quality of the scene in a different light. Almost as if Bocklin is saying "however sordid the characters and their deeds are, they can be transformed by the poets."

Monday, April 17, 2017

A Painting a Day: van Gogh's Room in Arles (1889)


A painting for the day to remind us what happens when we lose arts funding, education, and programs that inspire a new generation of artists and thinkers. Are the arts necessary, or just window dressing? You be the judge...
Today we have one of van Gogh's many portraits of his room--the Room in Arles (1889), painted at the very end of his life as he was trying to recover at the hospital in Saint-Remy. Naturally, his entire world, once almost boundless, shrank to encompass a single room (and sometimes, the hospital grounds). Like Monet's paintings of a single cathedral at various times of day, this painting reflects one of van Gogh's many attempts to capture the mood and personality of his room. And quite clearly, he did something more, too--he captured his own mental state and perspective each time he contemplated the objects in his room.
He told his brother that the subject of the painting was "color alone," and that's the first thing you see here--the vibrant colors, intense and jarring, like a fruit which is so tart that it's almost overwhelming. The sickly looking green of the window (which reminds me of the color of absinthe advertisements from the 19th century) seems out of sync with the rich, sky-blue of the walls--yet of course they complement one another at the same time. These greens, also seen in the cloth hanging from the wall, and in the paintings, seem to reflect his sickness, or uneasiness at this sedentary existence. The blue seems to be the hospital's attempt to ease his mind and assure him that everything will be all right, that convalescence is right around the corner. And yet, the room is full of motion and unease: the chairs seem to be moving, or even floating, above the floor (the perspective is slightly off, the one near the bed appearing to be tipping over). The bed, however, is the most alarming object: it towers over the viewer like a castle, less a bed than an edifice--even a battering ram. Even the paintings on the wall seem to be swaying in the breeze, including van Gogh's own self-portrait (the one with the red hair), a subtle reminder that the occupant was taking the cure, but it wasn't "taking" to him.
In Peter Gartner's book on the Musee d'Orsay (where this painting hangs), he notes that "The painter has no fixed viewpoint in relation to the room; it varies from object to object as the viewer surveys the picture. A subjective experience of space is a feature of van Gogh's composition, and, together with a use of color aiming to achieve heightened symbolism, is typical of his style, which van Gogh wanted to be seen as "grand style" (281). I love the idea that a single room, however modest, can be grand--an entire world, an entire universe of feeling and personality. Every object here seems buzzing with life, from the brush to the floor itself. It reminds us, as William Wordsworth once wrote, that the "To me the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Painting a Day: Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533)


A painting for the day to remind us what happens when we lose arts funding, education, and programs that inspire a new generation of artists and thinkers. Are the arts necessary, or just window dressing? You be the judge...
This is Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533), a double portrait of Jean de Dinteville (left) and George de Selve (right). Dinteville was the ambassador between the French king, Francis I, and the infamous Henry VIII. Negotiations did not go well, and Dinteville found himself in an impossible position trying to placate both monarchs. Though he asked to be recalled, the French instead offered him a companion, his friend de Selve, to assist him. Both were great men of learning (though Dinteville didn't mind burning a few heretics if the need arose--this was the age of the Inquisition, after all), and upon completing their mission, Dinteville wanted to commemorate his 'triumph' with a grand portrait by the great master himself, Hans Holbein. Holbein set to work immediately and created not only a masterpiece, but a work that is pregnant with meaning--and requires days and months and years of careful snooping to figure it all out.
The most obvious details are the men themselves: both are young (Dinteville was 29), handsome, and prosperous. Dinteville looks a bit like Henry VIII himself--perhaps he stayed in England a bit too long!--as his sumptuous jacket attests, with its ermine embroidery, framing a flouncy pink shirt and an enormous gold medallion. de Selve, by contrast, is more the scholar, wearing a simple robe and looking much less ostentatious. Indeed, he seems to be saying "are we done yet?" though he, too, portrays an air of confidence--as well as concern. The table each man is leaning on is burdened with the weight of their Renaissance scholarship: a globe, various devices to measure distance--an astrolabe, etc. Also visible is a lute and a book of music, and beneath it all, stretched cryptically across the floor...a skull?
The skull is part of the famous memento mori genre of paintings and poems famous in English literature. It translates to "remember your mortality," and here the painting transforms from a celebration of youthful achievement to an older man's warning: perhaps the mission itself was fraught with danger, or perhaps that the youthful confidence of Dinteville should have been tempered with a bit of modesty and forethought? Either way, it lends a chilling note to a painting that seems to say "we have the world!" while Holbein whispers "not for long."
The scholar Derek Wilson in his book on Holbein notes this about the painting: "It is a testament by Holbein and his patron to their shared concerns in the uncertain England of 1533...The lute has a broken string. The crucifix in the top left-hand corner is almost obscured by the curtain. On the celestial globe a hen attacks a bird of prey...In Holbein's composition the younger man (de Selve) literally upstages his friend. Set slightly further back, he appears introverted, nervously clutching the folds of his gown and tightly grasping his gloves. Yet Holbein makes us fix our attention on him."
There's so much going on here, and entire world in turmoil, leading to an uncertain future--for them and for us.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Painting a Day: Goya's "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" (c.1799)


A painting of the day to remind us how vitally important art is under a president (and a larger culture) that doesn't value the humanities and sees it as "useless" to the business of society.
Today we have Goya's famous etching "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" (1797-99) from his series of grotesque and gothic imagery, Los Caprichos. This is one of my favorite Gothic images and one I used often in my classes in any number of contexts--to introduce Frankenstein, to discuss Romanticism, to critique the Enlightenment, etc. Goya was a true visionary, very like Beethoven in his ability to transform old genres and ideas and then turn them into something powerful and unrecognizable. This piece, in its stark black and white imagery, is designed to be nightmarish--yet with a purpose. Far from simply giving us lurid imagery, Goya uses horror as a metaphor the same way Mary Shelley would a decade or so later. Because ultimately, the most terrifying things in the world are all born from our imagination--and then let loose upon the world.
In this image, an Enlightenment gentleman has fallen asleep in the midst of his labors, perhaps writing a treatise on reason, or the fundamental "rightness" of all things. I always imagine this figure as somewhat like Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire's Candide (1759). who assured his pupil that "we are in the best of all possible worlds," and that the nose was created so that we had somewhere to place our spectacles. Yet as soon as he slumbers, the dreams awake--all manner of nocturnal terrors such as bats, owls, and disturbingly sphinx-like cats. The swarm of terrors surround him, with the intention of either eating him or carting him away to a midnight mass of spirits. The idea being that no man or woman is so in control of their faculties--the darkness is always there, waiting to be unleashed or even whispering at your ear. Reason denies the existence of imagination and nightmares at its peril, for when reason sleeps, the terrors go unchecked and give birth to even greater chaos.
Goya completed this painting with the sentence "the sleep of reason produces monsters...united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels." The Romantic poets and artists knew that you had to channel the darkness of the psyche and of society itself to create great art. Art is never born of rejection or of denial; only by looking deep into the well of the sublime can you hear the echo of your own thoughts. Goya knew this, and no one peered deeper into that well than he did. Society, unfortunately, continued to deny until they had several bloody revolutions on their hands..

Friday, April 7, 2017

A Painting a Day: Liotard's Marie Adelaide of France in a Turkish Dress (1753)


A painting of the day to remind us how vitally important art is under a president (and a larger culture) that doesn't value the humanities and sees it as "useless" to the business of society.
Today we have Jean-Etienne Liotard's Marie Adelaide of France in a Turkish Dress (1753). another one of my favorite paintings for its sense of whimsy, unpretentiousness, and sumptuous colors. Actually, we don't know whether or not this is really Marie Adelaide (daughter of Louis XV, who escaped Versailles on the eve of the Revolution) and not an anonymous noblewoman enjoying her favorite pasttime--reading. Whoever she is, she's certainly in style, as she's indulging in the mid-18th century rage for all things "Turkish," which mean quasi-Turkish clothes, hats, and wigs (Mozart would celebrate this mania in his Rondo alla Turca, the last movement of his Piano Sonata No.11). The young woman is no doubt reading a romantic novel which takes place in Turkey or Persia as well, another genre that flourished and was inspired by works such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Turkish Embassy Letters (1716-1718), which suggested that women in Turkey had more freedom as anonymous subjects of a seraglio than they did in England, where any man could view them and restrict their movements.
But back to the painting...if this is Marie Adelaide, I love how he's caught her in such a casual, unguarded moment--as if she's totally in private, not acting, not playing a role. This could be a modern woman in a fancy dress, just chilling out and reading a book. She seems comfortable, relaxed, and completely engrossed in the book. So much so, that she's forgotten that women in 18th century portraits are supposed to be seductive! What, no looking longingly at the viewer? No show of skin at all? No looking like a thoughtless and desirable match (and Marie Adelaide never married--probably because she read too many books!). In short, Liotard is simply painting the woman as she was, not when exposed in public, but simply as herself. It was a tremendous compliment to pay a woman at this time, to suggest that she had her own space and time and freedom, and didn't need to display herself to the male gaze or the marriage market. Sometimes, damn it, you just want to read a good book!