Archive for April, 2010

Et in Arcadia Ego: Still-Life with Strawberries

Posted in Christine Cariati, Contains Video Elements, Drawing, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on April 27, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Jean-Siméon Chardin, Wicker Basket with Wild Strawberries, 1761
Oil on canvas
Private collection

Recently, while looking at Chardin’s Wicker Basket with Wild Stawberries, a beautiful, elegiac passage from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited crossed my mind:

At Swindon we turned off the main road and, as the sun mounted high, we were among dry-stone walls and ashlar houses. It was about eleven when Sebastian, without warning, turned the car into a car track and stopped. It was hot enough now to make us seek the shade. On a sheep-cropped knoll under a clump of elms we ate the strawberries and drank the wine—as Sebastian promised, they were delicious together—and we lit fat Turkish cigarettes and lay on our backs, Sebastian’s eyes on the leaves above him, mine on his profile, while the blue-grey smoke rose, untroubled by any wind, to the blue-green shadows of foliage, and the sweet scent of the tobacco merged with the sweet summer scents around us and the fumes of the sweet, golden wine seemed to lift us a finger’s breadth above the turf and hold us suspended.

—Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, Book I, Et in Arcadia Ego

It was Chardin’s strawberries, luxuriating in their rich atmosphere of air and light, glowing with ripeness and warmth from the sun, that I imagined Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder feasting on in their summer idyll—not the bloated, tasteless behemoths that pass for strawberries these days.

So, here is a visual ode to the strawberry, as brought to vivid life in a handful of favorite still-life paintings. I apologize, dear reader, that I cannot deliver a basket to your door—but, by all means, open a bottle of Château Peyraguey, and feast your eyes.

Georg Flegel (1566-1638) Still Life with Pygmy Parrot, n.d.
Water color drawing
Staatliche Museum, Berlin

Adriaen Coorte, Still Life with Strawberries in a Wan-Li Bowl, detail, 1704
Oil on canvas
Private collection

Eloise Harriet Stannard (1829-1915) Birds and Strawberries, c. 1852-93
Oil on canvas

Pierre-August Renoir, Strawberries, 1905
Oil on canvas
Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris

Édouard Manet, Strawberries, 1882
Oil on canvas
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Venetian Red Bookshelf: Just Kids

Posted in Artists Speak, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Music & Dance, Photography, Poetry with tags , , on April 24, 2010 by Liz Hager

Venetian Red Bookshelf is a monthly feature which highlights books of interest from our bookshelves and studio worktables.

By LIZ HAGER

Just Kids could be described as the story of Patti Smith’s five-year relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe (first as lovers, then as friends), played out against the background of the post-folk, pre-punk, gritty downtown Manhattan of the 1970s. But this description doesn’t do full justice to the book, which is, by turns, a tender memoir evoking the exuberance and naiveté of youth (and of Smith); a Dickensian chronicle of a chaotic time and place, which nurtured many famous (and infamous) talents; and  a poignant eulogy to a deep and lifelong love fueled by a shared passion for art (Smith and Mapplethorpe remained close friends until his death in 1987).

The “facts” of the Smith-Mapplethorpe story are well recorded. One needn’t read Just Kids for that, although Smith’s adept juggling of the many themes gives the book depth beyond the usual “kiss and tell” narratives.

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, ca. 1969

It is Smith’s prose style that provides Just Kids with the wings to soar. Smith has a way of seamlessly weaving the banal with the profound, simultaneously grounding a scene in detail and elevating it to the realm of the prophetic. This is her signature poetry/song-writing style, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that the book is a sneaky, sometimes quiet, always powerful and, ultimately, riveting read.

Smith arrived in New York in the summer of 1967, virtually penniless and alone, having been transformed by the revelation that “human beings create art.

It was the summer Coltrane died. The summer of “Crystal Ship.” Flower children raised their empty arms and China exploded the H-bomb. Jimi Hendrix set his guitar in flames in Monterey. AM radio played “Ode to Billie Joe.” There were riots in Newark, Milwaukee, and Detroit. It was the summer of Elvira Madigan, the summer of love. And in this shifting, inhospitable atmosphere, a chance encounter changed the course of my life.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 31)

Patti Smith & Robert Mapplethorpe, 1969

Actually, she encountered Mapplethorpe twice that summer. First, he simply pointed her to a place to crash. Though a brief encounter, the attraction was instantaneous and intense. Later, Mapplethorpe happened to be walking through St. Mark’s Square and rescued her from a date on the verge of going bad.

In the beginning, theirs was a life defined by near-destitution—scrounging for food and living in a string of truly grungy apartments. It’s no surprise the transformation of these spaces gives rise to their early collaborative work together.

Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, ca 1969 (Photo by Norman Seeff)

By the time they met, Mapplethorpe had studied art formally at Pratt. He was already a confident soul with absolute clarity about becoming the rage of the art world. Smith was largely self-educated but

. . . longed to enter the fraternity of the artist: the hunger, their manner of dress, their processes and prayers. I’d brag that I was going to be an artist’s mistress one day. Nothing seemed more romantic to my young mind. I imagined myself as Frida to Diego, both muse and maker. I dreamed of meeting an artist to love and support and work with side by side.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 12)

As their orbits merged, the mutual devotion to each other’s talent became lasting and unshakable.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1975

Smith was Mapplethorpe’s soul mate and muse. In the early years she constantly suggested he move from collages to his own photographic work. When he did switch, she was the model in his early Poloroids. These were true collaborations from choice of set up to pose. Smith would appear in his work, as he moved to formal studio work and movies.

Mapplethorpe was the more self-possessed of the two, and Smith describes him as “looking for shortcuts.” “Why should I take the long road?” he wonders. The following passage is an illuminating one:

Robert’s great wish was to break into the world that surrounded Andy Warhol, though he had no desire to be part of his stable or to star in his movies. Robert often said he knew Andy’s game, and felt that if he could talk to him, Andy would recognize him as an equal. Although I believed he merited an audience with Andy, I felt any significant dialogue with him was unlikely, for Andy was like an eel, perfectly able to slither from any meaningful confrontation.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 116)

Robert Mapplethorpe, Cover of Witt, 1973, Poloroid photo

Mapplethorpe was always highly supportive of Smith’s work, pushing her to write and publish. She admits to being less confident of her own talents:

Robert had little patience with these introspective bouts of mine. He never seemed to question his artistic drives, and by his example, I understood what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of color and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies His motion. To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution. From this state of mind comes a light, life-charged.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 65)

Over time, Smith’s creative force would be coaxed from her. In a poignant note,  she writes of Mapplethorpes effect on her:

You drew me from the darkest period of my young life, sharing with me the sacred mystery of what it is to be an artist. I learned to see through you and never compose a line or draw a curve that does not come from the knowledge I derived in our precious time together. Your work, coming from a fluid source, can be traced to the naked song of your youth. You spoke then of holding hands with God.

Patti Smith, Just Kids p. 276

In 1969 the two moved to a tiny room in the Chelsea Hotel, a seminal move which ultimately set their respective careers on track.

Patti Smith and Jim Carroll, ca. 1970

A cast of greater and lesser characters tramp in and out of the Chelsea’s lobby. It was here that Smith and Mapplethorpe met many of the people who would have defining roles in their careers—Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Harry Smith, Sam Shepard, filmmaker Sandy Daley, Andy Warhol and members of the Entourage, Janis Joplin, Bob Neuwirth, Todd Rundgren, Jim Carroll—though Mapplethorpe also had a vibrant life outside the hotel.

The Chelsea was like a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe. . .  So many transient souls had espoused, made a mark, and succumbed here. I sniffed out their spirits as I silently scurried from floor to floor, longing for discourse with a gone procession of smoking caterpillars.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 112 and 113)

Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, 1975

Encouraged into poetry readings and then musical performances, Smith was ultimately signed by Clive Davis to Arista Records 1975. Her 1978 song “Because the Night” (co-penned with Bruce Springsteen) made her famous, an irony that was not lost on Mapplethorpe.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1985
(The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation)
Mapplethorpe evoking a favorite artist, Michelangelo.

Mapplethorpe would climb to fame his own way, mostly along the rungs of high society. Under the auspices of John McKendry (Curator of Prints and Photographs at the Met), who was married to socialite Maxine de la Falaise, and later collector/curator/lover Sam Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe began to show his photographs. Though he photographed many subjects, it was his male nudes and their often explicit evocation of gay sexuality that gained him notoriety.

Just Kids reports, but does not linger, on Mapplethorpe’s journey out of the closet. Though Mapplethorpe was an expert at hiding his orientation, it’s hard to believe the Smith of the early 1970s was naive enough not to recognize the outward signs of his inner life. Evoking his grounding in Catholicism, she reports:

Later he would say that the Church led him to God, and LSD led him to the universe. He also said that art led him to the devil, and sex kept him with the devil.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 63)

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1988
(The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation)

Inevitably,  melancholy hovers over the pages of Just Kids. The book evokes the promise, freedom and exuberance of youthful world in which, as Smith coins it “everything awaited.” But we know the adult world is coming—kids, careers, and ultimately death (AIDS). Both Smith and Mapplethorpe achieved their dreams of fame. One paid for it with his life.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, 1986
(The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation)

Wider Connections

Patti Smith reads from Just Kids
Youtube: The Photography of Robert Mapplethorpe
Patricia Morrisroe—Mapplethorpe: A Biography
Patti Smith Complete 1975-2006: Lyrics, Reflections & Notes for the Future
Victor Bokris and Roberta Bayley—Patti Smith: The Unauthorized Biography

Insects in Art: The Busy Bee Has No Time for Sorrow

Posted in Christine Cariati, Design, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, Illustration, Installation, Painting, Printmaking, Textiles, XC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Seest thou the little winged fly, smaller than a grain of sand?
It has a heart like thee, a brain open to heaven and hell,
Withinside wondrous and expansive; its gates are not closed;
I hope thine are not.                       — William Blake

While rather squeamish about actual insects, I am entranced by images of insects in art—in still-life, natural history illustration and design. As Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) wrote:

It is indeed true that art is omnipresent in nature, and the true artist is he who can bring it out.

Albrecht Dürer, Stag Beetle, 1505
Watercolor on paper
Getty Museum

Dürer’s beautiful and dignified watercolor of a beetle is an early embodiment of the Renaissance respect for nature—Dürer was among the first of his contemporaries to give an insect center stage in a work of art. In antiquity, insects had been included in trompe l’oeil and memento mori paintings to demonstrate technical virtuosity and as symbols of evil and death, while butterflies represented transformation and resurrection. Insects in themselves were considered unworthy of consideration as subjects for painting.

By the 17th century, the obsession with natural history—and with insects as a miraculous part of the natural world—took precedence, and symbolism was left behind. Insects became subjects of study and fascination. Dürer, as always, ahead of his time, brings his masterful draughtsmanship to his watercolor, of a beetle—which he considered a finished work of art, not a study.

Francesco Stelluti‘s Melissographia, 1625, was the first scientific illustration done with the aid of a microscope and included three magnified views of a bee.

Wenceslaus Hollar, Forty-One Insects, Moths and Butterflies, 1646
Etching from Muscarum Scarabeorum
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677) was a Czech-born master printmaker, whose natural history illustrations have an elegant sense of pattern and design. Cabinets of curiosity were the rage among collectors of the day, and assemblages such as this would part of the display. Hollar’s illustrations were likely influenced the engravings that Jacob Hoefnagel did from his father Georg Hoefnagel‘s original drawings.

Like many still-lifes of the period, Hoefnagel’s natural history studies often had a somber message. The title of his piece, below, which features flowers, a chrysalis, insects and a moth above a dead mouse reads: Nasci. Patri. Mori. (I am born. I suffer. I die.)

Jacob Hoefnagel, Archetypa Studiaque Patris Georgii Hoefnagel, 1592
Engraving
Private collection, Switzerland

Alexander Marshal (c.1620-82) is famous for his beautifully drawn florilegium (flower-book) which he worked on for thirty years, until his death. This lovely butterfly study, above, was painted from one in the collection of naturalist, gardener and plant-hunter John Tradescant the Younger (1608-62) when Marshal was a guest at his house in London in 1641.

Robert Hooke, Ant, from Micrographia
London, 1665
The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

John Covel, Natural History and Commonplace Notebook, 1660-1713
Drawings and notations by Robert Hooke and others
The British Library

Robert Hooke, Eye of a Fly, from Micrographia, 1665
Engraving
The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

The work of Robert Hooke (1635-1703) is extraordinary in its detail and accuracy. Hooke’s Micrographia is a landmark work in natural history illustration. It contains thirty-eight copperplate engravings, his subjects all brilliantly translated from his keen observations under the microscope to an authentic, beautifully rendered two-dimensional image.

Mark Catesby, Nightjar and mole cricket, detail, c. 1722-6

Mark Catesby‘s (1682-1749) life work was his The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. His work really captures the life force of his subjects, and in this case, the predatory demands of survival.

William Blake, The Sick Rose, from Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1789

No artist captured the contradictory aspects of nature with more force and beauty than the great visionary Romantic poet, illustrator and printmaker, William Blake (1757-1827.) Blake, who described the human imagination as “the body of God,” and died singing and clapping his hands at the vision of heaven that awaited him—was nevertheless able to beautifully describe the dark, destructive aspect of nature.

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Lens Aldous, Head of the Flea, c. 1838
Hand-colored lithograph, poster for Entomological Society of London
Hope Library, Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Two more impossibly detailed images of the heads of insects. Above, Lens Aldous was a specialist in micrographic illustration. The year this image was made, Charles Darwin was Vice-President of the Entomolgical Society of London.

Jan Swammerdam, The Book of Nature; Or, The History of Insects, 1758
Engraving
Cambridge University Library

The drawing, above, of the head of a male bee, is in a book from Charles Darwin’s personal library. Microscopic studies were extremely important to the development of Darwin’s theories about evolution.

R. Scott, Arachnides, Myriapoda, c.1840

This illustration, above, is not just an inventory of types of spiders, it also shows the predatory nature of these creatures—note the bird in the grasp of the giant spider.

Jan van Kessel, Insects and Fruit, c. 1636-1679
Oil on copper
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Jan van Kessel, Insects on a Stone Slab, c. 1660-70
Oil on copper
Kunstmuseum, Basel

My favorite painter of insects is Jan van Kessel (1626-1679.) As with his bird tableaus, van Kessel created mini-universes teeming with life in his natural history scenes. His works are mostly small oil paintings on copper or wood. Often studies like these were made into prints for natural history collectors.

Justus Juncker, Pear with Insects, 1765
Oil on oakwood
Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

There are many 17th century still-lifes in which insects do not have center stage but instead play a supporting role. This beautiful painting by Justus Juncker (1703-1767) presents the pear as a sculptural form—the dramatic lighting and its isolation on the pedestal gives it a mysterious and monumental presence. Again, there are intimations of mortality—the plinth is chipped and cracked, and the small tears in the skin of the fruit has attracted insects.

Maria Sibyla Merian, Branch of guava tree with leafcutter ants, army ants, pink-toed tarantulas, c. 1701-5

I can think of no more intriguing examples of botanical art than the work of artist and naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717.) Merian began her entymological studies at thirteen, when she embarked on a study of flies, spiders and caterpillars.  In 1705, Merian published her stunning Metamorphosis, a folio of 60 engraved plates of the life cycle of the butterflies and insects of Surinam, where she’d been on expedition from 1699-1701. I love the way Merian plays with scale, conflates species and creates drama with her lively and energetic compositions.

Maria Sibylla Merian, Passion flower plant and flat-legged bug, c. 1701-5

Maria Sibylla Merian, Vine branch and black grapes, with moth, caterpillar and chrysalis of gaudy sphinx, 1701-5

Insects also fired the imagination of Victorian fairy painters. Their work was full of creatures that were half-human/half-insect—and elves and fairies ride around on the backs of butterflies and birds. This costume sketch, below, is from Charles Kean‘s production of a Midsummer Night’s Dream which was produced at Princess’s Theatre, London, in 1856. Shakespeare’s play was an abiding theme in paintings of this genre.

Joseph Noël Paton, The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, detail, 1849
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Scotland Edinburgh

John Anster Fitzgerald, Faeries with Birds, detail

In the area of design, textile designers have also made good use of insect imagery, for example, this charming and colorful insect design from France, c. 1810.

And, below, Dagobert Peche‘s vibrant Swallowtail design done for the Weiner Werkstätte c. 1913.

In 1926, master of French Art Deco design, Emile-Alain Seguy painted this beautiful pattern of butterflies and roses.

Seguy was perhaps most famous for his amazing series, Insectes, done in collotype with pouchoir.

Contemporary artist Jennifer Angus creates large-scale installations made from petrified insects that are reminiscent of Victorian cabinets of curiosities. Angus’ work, with its kaleidescopic imagery, is an amalgam of science and art. It is highly decorative but is also meant to educate the viewer about the important role of insects in our environment.

Jennifer Angus, Grammar of Ornament, 2004
Installation, University of Wisconsin

Angus gets most of her bugs through harvesters in Southeast Asia, and recycles insects from piece to piece. A link to a podcast about Angus’ 2008 show at the Newark Museum, Insecta Fantasia, is below:

Before humans drew plants, landscapes or images of themselves—they drew animals and insects. The fascination with the natural world and the creatures that share our planet is ancient and enduring. I am grateful to the artists whose sustained intense observation and attention to detail have brought these creatures to life on the page.

The busy bee has no time for sorrow.
The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock; but of wisdom,
No clock can measure…
—from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake

“Swan’s Way”: The Many Seductions of Leda

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved

 

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

—William Butler Yeats, excerpted from “Leda and the Swan”

MoreauLeda

Gustave Moreau, Leda and the Swan, 1865-75
Watercolor on paper, 34 x 21 cm
(Gustav Moreau Museum)

Since antiquity, when it was first associated with music (through Apollo), the swan has occupied rich symbolic territory within the annals of art. Other birds may have commanded more visible spots: the dove (peace, the Holy Spirit); the owl (wisdom); the crow (loquacious indiscretion), the peacock (pride), but the swan has adeptly defended a more difficult tract—the duality of human nature.  At once graceful and sinister, placid and nasty, chaste and sexual, poetic and prosaic, the swan has functioned as the representative of hypocrisy.

Leda-and-the-Swan—Sanctuary-of-AphroditeLeda and the Swan, mosaic from Sanctuary of Aphrodite on Palea Paphos, ca. 100-200 CE

The most oft-depicted swan motif in the history of art is of course Zeus’/Jupiter’s “seduction” of Leda—Jupiter, in the guise of a swan and seeking protection from a marauding eagle, “falls into” Leda’s arms. She is married to Tyndareus at the time, so this is an illicit affair. Depending on the version, the union produces either all celebrated offspring—i.e. Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra and Castor/Pollux—or just Helen and Pollux.

Rich with symbolic possibilities, the theme has inspired scores of artists to heights of visual poetry and understandable flights of eroticism.

After Timotheos, Leda and the Swan, AD 1-100
Marble, 52 inches
(The Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

Seduction and violation, fidelity, sex, love, and motherhood—Leda has it all.  The comparative ways in which artists through the ages have dealt with the myth illuminate different cultural touch points. But the Leda of art almost always seems to exude the enjoyment and satisfaction that comes with seduction, rather than the deminution, degradation, and shame brought on by violation. Perhaps this is because Leda has been largely rendered by men.

Beyond this, the male pantheon is nearly equally divided between those depicting the act of copulation itself and some other moment, either before—foreplay and caressing—or after—tending the babies.  Interestingly, not until the modern era have female artists in any numbers embraced the theme.

Apparently, the Greeks and Romans did not consider it permissible to depict a women in the act of copulation, so, in the few examples of classical sculpture that have survived, the swan slithers up Leda’s front side, its phallic neck telegraphing the act to come.

Leonardo da Vinci, Leda and the Swan, 1510-1515
Oil on panel, 112 x 86 cm
(Galleria Borghese, Rome)

The myth languished until the late Middle Ages, when Humanist rediscovery of classical texts (in this case, Ovid’s Metamorphoses) led to its rejuvenation. Renaissance artists were hugely enthusiastic about Leda, no doubt in part because it allowed them to depict copulation, a most profound human act. The mind-boggling paradox here is that at the time it was acceptable to depict a woman fornicating with an animal, though not with a man.

Many versions echo the Leonardo example above—narrative time has been erased, so that Leda may embrace the swan and her children in a pastoral scene of familial affection. (Note: Leonardo also expressed his naughtier side in this Leda.) Corregio and Pontormo provide further examples of this tradition.

Tintoretto, Leda and the Swan, 1555
Oil on canvas, 162 x 218 cm
(Galleria Uffizi, Florence)

Tintoretto twisted this convention and brought Leda inside, though who can blame him with sumptuous Venetian interiors all around him. The nude defensive gesture and the cage show us that she is protecting Zeus (swan) from being carried away by the eagle (domestic). But it’s hard not to think that Tintoretto is suggesting she might want more of a good thing.

Michelangelo went all the way, so to speak, by throwing Leda’s leg over the slithering swan. He set a more explicit standard and his painting, now lost, inspired numerous copies, most famously Rubens and Bartolomeo Ammanati, who executed the moment in sculptural form.

after Michelangelo, Leda and the Swan, after 1530
Oil on canvas, 105.4 x 141 cm
(National Gallery, London)

Subsequent artists were not so chaste. In the particular work below Boucher focuses greater attention on the sumptuous rippling of the flesh of the women than on the act of seduction/violation. But the painting is still rather tame—the phallic symbolism of the swans neck only hints at what is to come. (Is it too much to wonder about two women and a swan?) Other Bouchers are not so implicit.

Francois Boucher, Leda and the Swan, 1742,
Oil on Canvas, 23 1/8 x 29 1/4″
(Stair Sainty Matthiesen Museum, New York)

In his rendition below, Paul Cézanne used various figural attributes to compositional success. The exaggerated curves in Leda’s body mirror the bird’s graceful neck and arc of its wings; therein Cezanne achieves compositional balance. One senses that the story and its symbolism were of less important to Cézanne than the opportunity to show what he could do with shapes and color schemes. Although the scene isn’t as explicitly sexual as some of the other Ledas, though all those curves suggest enough.

Paul Cézanne, Leda and the Swan, 1880-1882 (best estimate)
Oil on canvas, 59.8 x 75 cm
(The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pa.)

A few years before Cézanne, Moreau painted his Leda series. Drawn to symbolism, Moreau focused predominantly on the union, the sacred marriage of woman and god. Reputedly, it was these paintings inspired Yeat’s poem.

Salvador Dali took a decidedly contemporary approach, linking Leda (a portrait of his wife Gala) to the atomic bomb (dropped on Hiroshima in 1945). Like suspended particles, all elements of the painting float more or less unconnected in space. Nevertheless, the composition is highly-organized, for Dali strictly followed divine proportions. It’s all connected with his deep belief in the efficacy of mathematical ratios. As Dali was deeply religious, this painting could also be interpreted as his version of the annunciation.

Salvador Dali, Leda Atomica, 1949
Oil on canvas
(Teatre-Museu Dalí)

Cy Twombly’s 1962 abstract version is powerful visual evocation of motion. One feels the beating of the swans wings, the pumping of the heart, the  flurry of activity inherent in the act of seduction.  On a more literal level, the work ties into the artist’s environment, specifically the graffiti-covered walls of Rome, where he lives.

Cy Twombly, Leda and the Swan, 1962
Oil, pencil, and crayon on canvas, 6′ 3″ x 6′ 6 3/4″
(Museum of Modern Art, NY)

Marie Laurencin was one of the first modern female artists  to tackle Leda. In her 1923 work, she elicits the protective mother through the tender embrace of the woman’s arm around her swan. Note the calming hand upon on the bird’s back. This painting speaks quietly but convincingly of the nurturing female.

Marie Laurencin, Leda and the Swan, 1923
Oil on canvas, 26 1/2 x 32 inches
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Contemporary women seemed to have pushed the myth beyond conventional interpretive boundaries. In her performances, Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta channels the myth through themes of violation, rage and revenge. Contemporary sculptress Barbara Balzer finds the whimsy in a swan literally “coming home to roost.”

LedaBarbara Balzer, Leda and the Swan
Ceramic sculpture.

The male contemporary renditions of the theme are fairly graphic—interestingly Steven Kenny adds a menacing swan, thus straying into the territory violation (though Leda doesn’t resist much).

And then there are the just plain weird interpretations, i.e. Bjork’s 2001 Oscar dress.

21st century Leda—Bjork in a distinctly unsuccessful interpretation.

Certainly, Leda and the Swan provided fodder for much artistic inspiration over the ages. And it’s gotten me thinking about the implications of an ancient myth in today’s cultural milieu.

The Rabbit Hole

More Ledas: Géricault; Pier Francesco Mola; Jean Thierry
The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats
A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke
“Sculpture by Barbara Balzer: Timeless World of Intellect and Beauty”

Notes from the Studio: The Iconic Face of Liberty

Posted in Christine Cariati, Contains Video Elements, Fine & Decorative Arts, Public Art, Sculpture with tags , , , , on April 13, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

This striking black and white picture, shot by an unknown photographer, is the face of the Statue of Liberty. It was taken in 1885 when the statue was uncrated and waiting to be assembled at Bedloe’s Island. I’ve had this picture tacked up on one studio wall or another for more than 30 years. During that time, hundreds of other pictures—inspiration, sketches and notes—have come and gone, but this one remains a constant. The scale (note the man standing frame right), the shadows and the intense gaze, create a dramatic image that has never lost it’s impact.

Model for plaster mock-up in Bartholdi’s studio, c. 1880

Stripped of all her symbolism, including the radiant crown, the torch, the  broken chains underfoot—and all of our many associations with the assembled statue and its abiding presence on Liberty Island in New York Harbor—what remains in this photograph is the powerfully haunting face, strong and beautiful. No one knows exactly who served as model for this statue by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. It is said to either be a likeness of Bartholdi’s mother, Charlotte, or Isabella Eugenie Boyer, the French-born widow of American industrialist Isaac Singer.

Whatever Bartholdi’s inspiration, it is always instructive to step back from an overly-familiar image and think about the meaning and depth behind it. This statue, originally entitled Enlightening the World, has a face worth taking a second look at.

Notes From the Studio: Swagger & Despair

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , on April 10, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Mark Rothko, White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), 1950
Oil on canvas,
(Private Collection)

Swagger and despair—two sides of the same coin permanently on deposit in an artist’s pocket.

To be an artist in search of an audience is to possess a deep unwavering belief in the uniqueness of one’s talent, or voice.  As it turns out, the mantra oft chanted in business circles—i.e. “Fake it ’til you make it”—is also at work in the world of art.

More often than we may admit, we artists talk a good game—we hit deadlines and speak as if our talent is undisputed—even in the face of deep feelings of doubt and insecurity.  That’s swagger.

But the private and elusive Holy Grail—the creative “AH-HA” moment—knows no deadline. And therein lies the essence of despair.

With alarming regularity we go into the studio bereft of inspiration. Despair slips in before the door shuts behind us.  Like an alien being it hovers over us, ever present, pulsating silently.  Often despair completely envelops us, greedily sucking the creative will from our bones.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Multiform), 1948
Oil on canvas,
(Collection of Kate Rothko Prizel)

The term “creative block” is a wholly-inadequate descriptor.  Who has not waited for days on end hoping for a divine spark? As days wear on without inspiration, who has not felt like a creative fraud—an interloper or, worse yet, a spy in the House of Art?

My nemesis appears in the form of a Canson Montval 9×12 inch sheet. I’ve managed to put a 3 1/2 inch square in the center of the paper. Good start, but what’s next?  It’s easy to get twisted in my knickers.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Seagram Mural sketch), 1959
Oil on canvas
(National Gallery of Art, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc.)

In disquieting times I find comfort in Allen Ginsberg’s advice:

The parts that embarrass you the most are usually the most interesting poetically, are usually the most naked of all, the rawest, the goofiest, the strangest, the most eccentric and at the same time, most representative, most universal. . . That was something I learned from Kerouac, which was that spontaneous writing could be embarrassing. . . The cure for that is to write things down which you will not publish and which you won’t show people. To write secretly. . . so you can actually be free to say anything you want. . .   —Allen Ginsberg, City Lights Anthology, 1974.

And, in the meantime, swagger on.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Blue, Green,  and Brown), 1952
Oil on canvas
(Collection of Mrs. Paul Mellon)

Wider Connections

“Abstract Expessionism: When Art Became Larger Than Life”
John Lahr—“Escape Artist:Mark Rothko on Stage”

Death and the Maiden: The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

Posted in Christine Cariati, Contains Video Elements, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting with tags , , , , , , on April 6, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Hippolyte Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833
Oil on canvas
The National Gallery, London

When Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche (1797-1856) exhibited The Execution of Lady Jane Grey at the Paris Salon of 1834, it was a sensation. In the early 19th century, Delaroche was among the most popular French historical painters—during his lifetime his work met with greater acclaim than that of his contemporaries Ingres and Delacroix. Delaroche’s reputation languished in the twentieth century, and this powerful work—which in its day was lavishly praised and widely reproduced in lithography and popular prints—was believed lost, until it was rediscovered in 1974.

Magdalena and Willem van de Passe, Lady Jane Grey, 1620
Engraving
Private collection

Like others in post-revolutionary France, Delaroche had monarchist sympathies, and, seeing parallels to recent French history, developed a romanticized interest in English history and literature—particularly the works of Shakespeare, Byron and Sir Walter Scott.

Delaroche, who also painted portraits and religious subjects, was very interested in theater, which is evident in his large-scale, very literary, theatrical and often tragic-themed history paintings. The Execution of Lady Jane Grey is no exception—it is filled with drama. Jane, blindfolded, on her knees in a light-saturated white dress, is gently led to the block by the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir John Brydges. The executioner stands by, unmoved, while her ladies in waiting are overcome with grief. The straw surrounded the block where she is to lose her head will soak up her blood.

Lady Jane Grey’s brief life is yet another chapter in the bloody history of the Tudors. After only nine (or thirteen, accounts vary) days as Queen of England, Lady Jane Grey was removed from the throne and taken to the Tower of London to await execution. When she was beheaded six months later at Tower Green, on February 12, 1554, she was only 16 years old, and has since been mythologized as an innocent martyr to Catholic tyranny.

Anonymous, Edward VI and the Pope, c. 1570
Oil on panel
National Portrait Gallery, London

Jane’s cousin, Edward VI, died unexpectedly at age sixteen. Jane, a devout Protestant, and considered by Edward to be his lawful heir, was installed on the throne in an attempt to ward off the rising influence of the Catholic Church, an attempt which failed. Edward’s half sister, Mary Tudor, a Catholic (and illegitimate), had greater public support, and took her place as Queen. The painting above, celebrates Edward VI’s anti-papal stance and the successful re-establishment of Protestant rule. In the painting, Henry VIII lies on his deathbed, pointing to his successor, Edward VI—at whose feet the Pope lies crushed, under a book that says: “the worde of the Lord.”

Jane Grey’s short life was filled with difficulty. Her parents were cold and cruel and she took refuge in scholarship and her Protestant faith. She was very well-read and mastered Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Jane, pictured below in what is perhaps the only contemporary portrait of her, confided to her Cambridge tutor, Roger Ascham:

When I am in the presence of either Father or Mother, whether I speak, keep silence, sit, stand or go, eat, drink, be merry or sad, be sewing, playing, dancing, or doing anything else, I must do it as it were in such weight, measure and number, even so perfectly as God made the world; or else I am so sharply taunted, so cruelly threatened, yes presently sometimes with pinches, nips and bobs and other ways … that I think myself in hell.

The Streatham Portrait, Lady Jayne, n.d., c. 1550?
Private collection

Beautiful, intelligent and well-educated, Jane nevertheless met a tragic end—but she lives on in Delaroche’s theatrical and evocative masterpiece. The painting is currently the centerpiece of the exhibition, Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey, at the National Gallery, London, through May 23rd, 2010.

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