Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Painting a Day: Holbein's "The Duchess" from The Dance of Death (c.1525)

The painting (or in this case, engraving) of the day: "The Duchess" from Holbein's series of prints called The Dance of Death (c.1525). The Dance of Death was a genre in European art from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, mocking the pretensions and vanity of various professions who think themselves free from the touch of death. Yet Death ultimately chooses us each for a partner and dances us straight into the grave. These generic images also contain a healthy share of satire and social commentary, usually showing how Death sees through the sham and hypocrisy of religion/society to reveal the truth that riches can blind. Holbein took this genre and made it much richer, adding increased realism and making his pictures seem to move by the placing of bodies and action--nothing is static. These pictures were meant to delight and frighten, and hopefully, to make people see the corruption of the world around them. Yet it also offers a note of consolation, since Death is not a mindless, malevolent force, but also akin to the Greek Furies, delivering revenge on a host of disreputable popes, monks, kings, and lawyers.
Though any picture in this series is worthy of scrutiny, one of my favorites is "The Duchess." Of all the images, it's one of the most cinematic: the perspective is dynamic, as we see the duchess from behind, allowing us to share her perspective as she beholds the two skeletons tugging her into consciousness--and death. Clearly she lives a sumptuous life, as she has been awakened in bed (during the day, perhaps?) and has popped up with a start. Yet far from screaming or running out of the room, she seems more shocked and bewildered, as if to say, "am I dreaming? Is this real?" Her hands clutch the bed (her worldly wealth) for protection as the skeleton tugs on her skirt. Her mouth is open, perhaps calling to her servants to come to her aid (yet no aid is forthcoming). Her dog, too, doesn't seem to be barking at the skeletons, perhaps too frightened--or too docile--to do so. In short, all of her protectors--her servants, dog, and wealth--have abandoned her in her moment of need.
The other skeleton is sawing away on a violin, playing the danse macabre to usher her into the dance. Both skeletons sport the remains of hair--tattered, unruly locks that suggest that they were once young and beautiful, too. Yet they have now come to tear away her youth and beauty, as if to remind us that beauty is not a virtue, anymore than wealth. Both pass, and neither of them are granted through virtuous acts. The tremendous detail that Holbein lavishes on this image reminds us that though we long for earthly goods, they don't weigh in the balance of good or evil. In fact, they might weigh us down--as we imagine the woman's voluminous dress will, as she tries to escape.
This image is even more striking if you realize how small it is: the size of about 4 postage stamps put together. On a very small canvas, Holbein inscribed an entire world, as well as the fate of that world, for all to see

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Book Reviews as Blind Dates (Not Diary Entries)

The great (but largely forgotten) composer Max Reger (1873-1916) received more than his share of bad reviews. After reading a nasty review of his Sinfonietta, he wrote the following response to the critic in question: “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me!” This little witticism reflects the pose that many artists adopt—a pose that is only skin deep. For even if you toss the review behind you, or into a convenient trash can, the words don’t go away. A bad review is a bad review forever, haunting the writer, or composer, or artist with the thought that he/she simply isn’t good enough; that he/she really doesn’t have any talent, and that the critic has seen through his/her facade to the ‘real’ man or woman beneath the mask. We’ve all heard the saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Clearly these words were not written by an author—or anyone remotely involved with the creative arts. Reger, or someone much closer to their art, might have revised this to read, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will cut my throat!” 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Painting a Day: Boldovinetti's Portrait of a Lady in Yellow (c.1465)

Today's painting: Alesso Boldovinetti's Portrait of a Lady in Yellow (c.1465), one of the great Renaissance portraits. The Renaissance represented a rebirth of Western art, particularly in the idea that a person could represent an artistic ideal, rather than a religious dogma. While most portraits depicted in the Renaissance were of the nobility, and thus reflected a kind of secular hagiography, it's still a great leap from centuries of painting Madonnas and saints to suddenly see a woman--and in this case, an anonymous one. We don't know who this woman is, though scholars have made conjectures for some time. But ultimately that's not important. What IS important is how Boldovinetti (great name!) wanted to capture the art in a human face. For our faces are masks, particularly when immortalized for the ages in oil. They represent less who we are than what we would appear to be. But an artist knows better!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Painting a Day: Uccello's St. George and the Dragon (c.1456)

After a brief hiatus, the painting of the day returns with Uccello's St. George and the Dragon (c.1456), a dramatic rendition of an episode from the life of St. George, as well as the prototypical hero narrative in miniature (monster kidnaps girl, boy kills monster, saves girl). This painting has had an interesting history, as it was stolen by the Nazis and wound up in a Swiss bank vault for several years, before being deposited in the National Gallery in London. It was then thought to be a fraud, as it seemed stylistically inconsistent with Uccello's other work, and great scholarly debates raged over its authenticity. Fortunately, it is now considered a bona fide Uccello, as well as a priceless contribution to Renaissance Italian art.
And what a strange painting it is! Though the story seems simple enough, observe some of the smaller details: a swirling cloud hovers over the hero, as if demonstrating divine intervention--or an even worse danger to come! A waning crescent moon hangs overhead, despite the glorious light of the painting, which suggests that a second moon is shining somewhere overhead (or perhaps the glory of his conquest brings its own illumination). Also, note how statuesque and lifeless the two people are compared to the detail and beauty of the two beasts. St. George seems positively bored by his conquest, while the princess seems to be locked in a formal dance, gesturing politely to the dragon as if to say, "perhaps you should kindly withdraw from the fray." Nor does St. George seem to spring into action, his body frozen into a conqueror's pose almost against his will (on second thought, it looks like he's fallen asleep!).
The horse, however, is captured rearing up and ready to spring to the defense of the girl--much more so than his rider! Uccello lavished loving detail on the horse, as indeed he did in many of his other paintings, notably The Battle of San Romano, where the horses dance and prance across the battlefield, the people mere footnotes to their ballet. However, the true star of the painting is the dragon itself, whose grotesque face captures defiance and pain, and evokes the viewer's compassion. He's been speared in the nose, and blood is dripping out of his mouth. This seems all the more cruel since the princess is in no immediate danger--indeed, she is leading the dragon forward with a leash! Some critics (and initially myself) have suggested that she is actually chained up to the dragon protectively, but her gesture seems to indicate leading/guiding, rather than servitude. I think this could help explain her slightly annoyed appearance, which could also be saying, "thanks, but I had this all under control, no thanks to you!" So perhaps the Princess has rescued herself (or never needing rescuing in the first place!).
The dragon is also a wonderful creation of fantasy, with its butterfly-like wings and beautifully rendered claws (the poor guy only has two appendages--he's basically defenseless on the ground; good going, Georgie!). While this painting is the basic hero archetype, Uccello makes us question what story is being told. Who is the hero? George? The Princess? The Dragon? What is the relationship between the Princess and the Dragon? And is this a good deed--or an act of evil? The dark, spinning cloud might suggest that he's actually committed a sin of sorts, and God (or the gods) will punish him for his hubris. Not surprisingly, this painting has inspired many other works of art and literature, including U.A. Fanthorpe's poem, "Not My Best Side," which is linked here for your reading pleasure:…/paintings&poems/uccello.html)

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Woman By Any Other Name...

This week on our Academia FB page: ( groups/1232336103498178/), we asked the question, “what does it mean to write a “feminist” heroine in the 21st century, particularly in genre fiction? Does it mean simply casting the woman in a man’s role (the princess = the warrior)? Or does a truly feminist approach require us to abandon the script of heroes altogether?” Like so many literary questions, this one appears to have as simple answer: no, it means you have to write a woman with as much complexity as you would a man. But even this begs a larger question: what does it mean to write a ‘complex’ woman in fiction? In fact, if we draw attention to the word ‘woman,’ aren’t we already having a different discussion? Think about it: if you had to describe Gandalf to someone who had never read The Hobbit, you would call him a “wizard,” or perhaps “an old wizard.” You wouldn’t bother to explain, “well, he’s actually a male wizard.” No, a wizard implies that he’s a man—we take it for granted. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Painting a Day: Hokusai's "Clear Day With a Southern Breeze" from Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji (c.1831)

Today's painting, an all-time favorite: Hokusai's "Clear Day with a Southern Breeze" from his series, Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji (c.1831). Hokusai, and Japanese painting (and prints) in general, profoundly influenced one of the biggest movements of European art, Impressionism. Painting in the 18th century and much of the 19th century was based in a stylized realism, with very definitive rules and formulas. But as painters started to look East they questioned how these very rules came into being, and an artist like Hokusai must have seemed inscrutable at first, since he broke every possible rule except for one: his works are so beautiful you can't look away.
In Buddhism, there is a famous saying that says, basically, "look at the moon, not the finger." This means that if someone points out the moon to you, realize that their finger is just a pointer, a guide to the moon, but not the moon itself. It's a great way to think about metaphors and art itself (which represents reality, but is not reality). Hokusai is always trying to capture the 'moon' in his work, while realizing that this is an impossible task. It's also a bit like the Dao (the way), as recorded by the Dao de jing: if you know the way, you don't know it; if you know you don't know it, you know it. Hence Hokusai's 36 views of Mt. Fuji, captured in (almost) every conceivable light, season, and context. He knows he can never capture the totality of Mt. Fuji, but is instead capturing his impression of it at a certain time of day, while in a specific mood or sentiment.
This one shows us a clear day (despite many cirrus clouds) with a "southern breeze," which is suggested by the thin, stretched-out clouds. Many people also note the "cartoonish" nature of the painting. This is NOT realism as the Impressionists would have known it. It's not a mountain, but the impression or abstraction of a mountain, just as the trees are mere impressions of trees. It's all highly stylized and graphic, rather than realistic; it makes an impression as a sheer work of art apart from the subject matter. The harmony of the white clouds and the orange-brown mountain is balanced nicely by the deep green of the trees. Yet beyond the breathtaking colors, you get a sense of immensity, of the ancient mountain rising above the earth to exult in the heavens. More than anything else, this painting seems like an act of homage: Hokusai is paying tribute to a never-ending portrait of beauty that can never be truly seen or known. Only by painting it again and again can he slowly, tentatively, come to know some small aspect of it. And as viewers, we come to know the mountain, and his work, in the same way.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

A Painting a Day: La Tour, The Fraudulent Player (1635)

Today's painting: a study of fraud and deceit by Georges de La Tour, The Fraudulent Player (c.1635). La Tour has an instantly recognizable style and subject matter, as Christine Stukenbrock explains: "[his paintings] consist of a few large figures placed in the immediate foreground and defined by strongly contrasted light and shadow." Usually his paintings (such as The Magdalen of the Candle, c.1644) have a single source of light in the painting that splashes light across the characters' faces, leaving the rest of the painting shrouded in darkness. The Fraudulent Player is a bit of a departure for him, since it offers a more humorous subject, one more familiar from Dutch genre painting of the vices and follies of mankind. Yet even here, the dark/light contrast is noticeable, the characters set against a pitch black background, with an unseen light (coming from the viewer) illuminating their actions. It makes the painting appear as if it occurs on-stage, and indeed, the entire work has the air of a comedy.
At the far right, a naive fellow plays cards with a group of hustlers. We know he's supposed to be a provincial bumpkin because he's dressed to the nines (complete with frilly feather in his cap), looking very proper--yet very stiff--as he holds his cards. Notice how carefully he's inspecting his cards, as if he's only just memorized the rules and is terrified of making a mistake. On the other side of the table is a rakish fellow, his arm perched in a "devil may care" pose as he reveals his cards to the viewer. He also reveals some sleight-of-hand action behind his back: two Aces buried in his belt, one of which he handily removes to bolster his hand. He seems to be glancing at us, as if to entreat our silence--or approval.
The two women in the center are engaged in some chicanery of their own. The imposing-looking woman gives an arch look to the servant, who clearly has more on her mind than serving refreshments. Decked out in a fashionable dress and necklace, this woman is out to dazzle the young man, all the better to distract him from the real wager of the evening. She crooks her finger as if to summon a glass of wine, but she seems to stop the servant at the last minute, as if to say, "serve him first." The servant cuts her eyes over the young man, perhaps hoping to catch his eye with her decollete. This might also be why the young man is looking nervously down at his cards: he's probably never seen so close to such beautiful women before and is getting flustered!
Though the young man seems to have the most money at the table, we imagine that this will soon change...and he will soon be in their debt. All the vices have assembled against him this evening, and if one doesn't catch him, another will. Many scholars have seen parallels with the Prodigal Son, since here's a young man ready to sow his wild oats, not realizing that he's actually the dish being served! Now doubt he will return repentant back home the next morning, having been robbed and humiliated by these polished cardsharps. Humorously, the painting makes us an accomplice, since we see all the trickery--and do nothing. As with so many things in life, it's easier to see the injustice done to others than the trickery behind our backs.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

A Painting a Day: Arcimboldo's Spring (1573)

Today's painting not only celebrates spring but embodies the very nature of an artistic rebirth: Giuseppe Arcimboldo's Spring (1573), from his series of The Four Seasons. Arcimboldo was a MIlanese painter who also designed costumes and other decorations, skills which served him well in his portrait painting. Rather than simply painting people as they were, he conceived the idea of allegorical portraits--that is, of using unrelated objects to create an impression of the subject. In this way, he anticipated both the Impressionists and the Surrealists by a good 300-odd years. His hilarious and delightful paintings use flowers, trees, fruits, vegetables, and even household objects to embody portraits of Renaissance men and women. Amazingly, the people still emerge boldly from the artifice, yet the closer you examine it, the more you see the theme inside the portrait.
In Spring, we have a vernal portrait of a beautiful young woman, with literal roses in her cheeks. Her hair is festooned with flowers and weeds of all varieties, varied by color and size for artistic effect (including the white lily at the very back of her head, like a feather sticking out of her cap). Amazingly, every single detail of her face, from her eyes, teeth, lips, and even eyebrows are composed of flora large and small. Note how detailed each one is, as if they have nothing to do with the larger portrait, but exist only for themselves (or for inclusion in a textbook). Arcimboldo lived during the height of the Renaissance, and his art undoubtedly reflects the urge to explore and classify the natural world. A botanist could have a field day naming every variety on display, of which I can only identify a handful.
However, this painting is ultimately an allegory, which was the literary form most beloved of the ancients. Naturally, it makes sense to depict a young woman as blossoming spring flowers, as she is just coming into bud herself. The entire picture is full of life and vitality, so overgrown that even the edges are framed by flowers--perhaps on the verge of forming a companion for this woman. Yet there is a hint of the famous "memento mori" (remember your mortality) in this portrait, since flowers can only bloom a short time before they fade to their doom. At the height of her youth and beauty, she can only look forward to a quick decline into autumnal old age. As Robert Herrick wrote in his famous 17th century poem, "To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time",
"Gather ye rosbeuds while ye may
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
Only painting can grant the spring immortality--the rest of us have to spend it while we have it. As an artist, having painted woman after woman at the height of her beauty, Arcimboldo knew this lesson well. But the young ones never listen...