Archive for July, 2010

“Manly Pursuits”—Thomas Eakins at LACMA

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting with tags , , , , , , on July 29, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: Nancy Ewart, whose posts appear on ChezNamasteNancy and, is a guest contributor at Venetian Red. Today she comments on “Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Thomas Eakins, Wrestlers, 1899
Oil on canvas, 62 x 72 in.,
(Courtesy LACMA; gift of Cecile C. Bartman and The Cecile and Fred Bartman Foundation.


Although Eakins is now considered one of the great masters of nineteenth-century American art, his work, surprisingly, has not been extensively exhibited on the West Coast. During his lifetime, the artist showed close to home, primarily in Philadelphia and nearby New York City. Not until the end of his life, in 1915, did he display on the West Coast, at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. After his death, Eakins’s widow, in a concerted effort to sell some of the extensive oeuvre that remained in her possession, organized traveling exhibitions of his paintings. The 1927 West Coast tour of twenty-five paintings was the first and last showing of Eakins’s paintings in Los Angeles—until now.

Although I have problems with the way the work is displayed in “Manly Pursuits”, it’s well worth the trip.  Eakins’s work doesn’t need a “steampunk” version of the rigging and ropes which were placed around the show’s advertising banners; the visual clutter detracted from the paintings. I had just viewed the Fisher Collection at SFMOMA which is organized and hung so beautifully that it sensitized me to how a show looks when it’s well.  I wouldn’t say that the Eakins show was hung badly; it just wasn’t hung well enough for a museum of LACMA’s stature. The introductory banner of John L. Sullivan was nice but it really didn’t mirror Eakins’s vision which was far darker and internal.

I also appreciate that the curators avoided any of the controversies around his sexuality. They let the works speak for themselves. A wall text—there is no catalog—attests that modern sports signaled a new economic possibility for leisure time and a novel means of class mobility. (The wrestlers have sunburned faces and hands, meaning they’re probably working-class young men.)

Thomas Eakins, The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull), 1871
Oil on canvas, 32 1/4 x 46 1/4 in.
(Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

I doubt if I will be traveling to Philadelphia any time soon where Eakins’s masterpiece, The Gross Clinic, has been restored and will be on display until 2011. The last time I was in the East Coast, all of the Eakins’s paintings that I saw were in need of serious cleaning; the 19th century varnish had darkened so much that you couldn’t see a lot of the painting through the murk. Additionally, none of his drawings or the photographs that he used were on exhibit.

So this show is a much needed look at at one of American’s genuine Old Masters. One of the things that I liked about Eakins is that his work is not controversial for the sake of being controversial; there’s no sense of “look at what I did, see how modern and transgressive and just oh-so-chic I am.” He certainly had the ego and used it, sometimes to his own detriment, but the grand standing that so often passes for talent in modern art is just not on display.

Thomas Eakins, The Swimming Hole, 1884/5
Oil on canvas, 32 1/4 x 46 1/4 in.
(Courtesy Amon Carter Museum)

Organized exclusively for LACMA by Ilene Susan Fort, the museum’s Gail and John Liebes Curator of American Art, the exhibition celebrates the museum’s acquisition of Eakins’s last great sporting painting, Wrestlers (1899)—which also happens to be one of the single most important American paintings ever acquired by LACMA. Featuring around 60 oil paintings, drawings, watercolors, photographs, and sculpture by the great American master, the exhibition serves as a rare opportunity to examine for the first time the entire range of sporting images by this iconic American artist.

“Eakins considered the body amazingly beautiful and a remarkable mechanism of movement,”  Ms. Fort has commented. “In his images from the late nineteenth-century of the athletic figure in action, Eakins created a new modern American hero; the sportsman—who can still be admired today by athletes and sports enthusiasts, as well as connoisseurs of great art.”

Thomas Eakins, Salutat, 1898
Oil on canvas, 9 ¾ in × 39 ¾ in
(Courtesy Addison Gallery of American Art)

“Manly Pursuits” is organized chronologically, from the 1870s to 1899, and thematically by type of physical endeavor:

1870s: Rowing, Sailing, Hunting and Coaching : Although sun and fresh air pervade these river scenes, Eakins recorded the races with the precision and mathematical interest of a scientist. On view with their related paintings will be the large-scale perspective drawings in which he calculated the position of boats, oars, waves and even reflections.

Eakins’ most colorful and impressionistic scene, Fairman Rogers’ Four-in-Hand was the sole example Eakins devoted to the upper middle-class activity of coaching (the art of driving horse-drawn carriages). It also was perhaps his most controversial sporting canvas since in it he attempted to depict the movement of the horses and wheels with photographic accuracy—an impulse many critics found to be at odds with the art of painting.

1880s: Swimming and Photography: Eakins devoted his sole sporting canvas of the 1880s to this subject. Swimming (1884-85) was also one of the major paintings in which he demonstrated his new interest in photography. On view will be photographs that helped Eakins compose the scene along with his scientific studies of human anatomy and posture and his experimental motion photographs.

1890s: Boxing and Wrestling:
Eakins’s last sporting images feature boxers and wrestlers and showcase the new indoor spectator sports that attracted the attention of middle and working-class enthusiasts. These paintings, some of which rank among the artist’s largest canvases, are ironically among his least known endeavors in the sporting genre.

Wider Connections

Christopher Knight (LA TImes)—interesting comparison of Eakins with Courbet
William S. McFeely—Portrait: The Life of Thomas Eakins
Sidney Kirkpatrick—The Revenge of Thomas Eakins

Venetian Red in Ravenna: All That Glitters

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Mosaic, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: During July Venetian Red continues to post on topics of interest in Italy.


The Presbytery and Apse of San Vitale (constructed 526-547 CE)
(Photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

To stand in the presbytery of San Vitale in Ravenna is to be struck nearly dumb by the basilica’s dazzling mosaic program. Narrative compositions complemented by decorative motifs cover literally every square centimeter of the surrounding walls. Individual tesserae—in shades of turquoise, green, red, brown, black, white, and of course gold, glittering gold—skillfully placed, create a riot of color that magically blends into a gorgeous chromatic harmony.

The sheer physical grandeur of the space and its uncompromising sensuality is almost overwhelming. It’s an exquisite feast for the eyes; they strain to take in all the heavenly morsels.

Exterior View, San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

But oh the morsels! The side walls of the presbytery contain Old Testament stories of sacrifice—on the one wall, Abel sacrificing a lamb paired with Melchesidek offering bread and wine; on the other, Abraham visited by angels in the valley of Mambre with the Sacrifice of Isaac. Each lunette created by these scenes is crowned by a pair of angels, holding a medallion with a cross and depictions of Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles with their animal symbols.  The narrative program soars skyward to the cross-ribbed vault of the presbytery, which contains paradisiacal scenes of fruits, flowers, birds and angels. Appropriately, the four wedges of the vault converge in the center in a crown that encircles the Lamb of God.

View of Presbytery Arch
Mosaics, San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

Christ Medallion, Presbytery Arch
Mosaics, San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

The apse feature perhaps the most famous panels in San Vitale—on the left, Emperor Justinian with court and church officials; on the right, Empress Theodora, looking all the world like a goddess, surrounded by her court. Between them, a clean-shaven Christ the Redeemer sits with open arms majestically facing the congregation, flanked by San Vitale (accepting the martyr’s crown) and Bishop Ecclesius (who began construction of the church in 526) holding a model of the church in his hands.

Emperor Justinian with entourage, 526-547 CE
Mosaics, San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

Emperor Justinian with Entourage (detail), 526-547 CE
Mosaics, San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

Christ the Redeemer, Apse, 526-547 CE
Mosaics, San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

Inside the triumphal arch that separates the presbytery from the octagon-shaped nave are 15 mosaic medallions—12 apostles and the two sons of San Vitale rise along the arch to meet Jesus Christ.

Presbytery Vault showing Lamb of God medallion, 526-547 CE
Mosaics, San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

The artisans of San Vitale didn’t stop at the walls. The Byzantine-styled column capitals as picturesque as anything Romanesque, featuring crosses, vegetation and peacocks (the latter being references to Paradise). The floors too are covered with wonderful, though less colorful designs, inspired by Roman mosaics.

Capitals with peacocks and other paradaisical motifs, 526-547 CE
San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

Floor Mosaics, San Vitale, Ravenna, 526-547 CE
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

The mosaic program at San Vitale was meant to convey a single idea—the redemption of mankind by Christ. One cannot help but believe that Bishops Ecclesius and Maximian intended this awe-inspiring experience. Perhaps they reasoned that, if the attention of their congregation were to wander during a service, it should come to rest on instructive scenes of miraculous beauty. Thus, the mosaics of San Vitale served many purposes—they were a reminder to the 6th century world of the meaning of the Eucharistic rite, the glory of a newly-sanctioned religion, and of the idea that beauty is created by man in service of the divine.  Today, whether enjoyed within a religious or secular context, the art here is among the most beautiful on any wall in Italy.

Interior of Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, ca. 417
East Wall with upper lunette depicting apostles;
lower lunette depicting The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence

Amazingly, San Vitale is just one of the eight similar buildings in Ravenna, many of which also house some of the best-preserved Byzantine style mosaics outside present-day Istanbul. The group also includes the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, the Arian Baptistery, the Neonian Baptistery,  the Archiepiscopal Chapel, the Mausoleum of Theodoric, and the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe. Citing “outstanding universal value” UNESCO designated the group a World Heritage Site in 1996.

The Good Shepherd, ca. 417
Mosaics, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna
(Photo © Ancient Mosaics)

Dome Mosaic, ca. 417
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna
(Photo © Breic, Flickr)

Not only are the mosaics an artistic treasure, but they have historical significance as well.  Three people responsible for the buildings—Emperor Justinian I, Galla Placidia, and Theodoric the Great—were key players in the drama that was the decline of the Roman Empire.

Ravenna and the Decline of the Roman Empire

Though Gibbon puts the fall of the Roman Empire at 476, in many ways the Empire was already declining by the reign of Diocletian (284-305 CE). The Emperor divided the by-then unwieldy empire into a tetrarchy, ruled by himself and three subordinates. This only served to further destabilized the empire, making it actually harder to manage. Though largely a tolerant ruler, Diocletian nonetheless was persuaded to wage a series of horrific persecution campaigns against the Christians that lasted from 303-311.

Constantine’s Hand, Capitoline Museum, Rome
(Photo ©Liz Hager)

On the heals Diocletian’s abdication (305 CE) and dissolution of the Tetrarchy, the new Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity (311) and proclaimed tolerance against the religion in his 313 Edict of Milan.  Additionally, as a strategic move, he established his power base on shores of the Bosphorus, building a new city on the ruins of an old, Byzantium. And though in the 4th and 5th centuries Rome was still the seat power for the Western half of the Empire,  she competed openly with factions ruling in Constantinople.

View of the nave mosaics, ca. 561
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

Though historians now dispute the notion that Ravenna was ever the capital of the Western Roman Empire, there is no argument about her military importance in the 4th and 5th centuries as the first line of defence against invading Goths or about her administrative importance as conduit between Rome and Constantinople.

View of the nave mosaics, ca. 561
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna
(Photo © 2006 Mary Ann Sullivan)

The Goths—divided into two main tribes, Visigoths and Ostrogoths—repeated attacked the Roman Empire in the 4th century.  Forces led by Visigoth Alaric I finally succeeded in sacking Rome in 410 CE.

Ravenna Sidebar: Whether she went willingly or not, Galla Placidia—daughter of Emperor Theodosius I and sister to the then current Emperor Honorius—left Rome with the Goths. Alaric died shortly thereafter. His brother-in-law Ataulf succeeded him and married Galla Placidia in 414 in an attempt to strengthen alliances in the Empire. Ataulf was killed a few years later, the Goths surrendered, and Galla Placidia returned to Rome as part of the treaty.  Her brother, Emperor Honorius, then forced her into marriage to co-Emperor Constantius III in 417. She was soon widowed. A devout Christian, Galla Placidia committed herself thereafter to building churches in Rome, Ravenna and Jerusalem, while exercising the duties of Regent (until her son Valentine III reached his 18th birthday).

The final blows were dealt in 476 when Romulus Augustus was deposed and exiled by Odoacer, a Germanic chieftain. Julius Nepos, the legitimate emperor recognized by the Eastern Empire (i.e. Byzantine) continued to live in Dalmatia until he was assassinated in 480.  The Western Roman Empire continued under Ostrogothic rule until Theodoric the Great was defeated by the forces of the Byzantine forces in 554, led by Justinian I.

Baptism of Christ, Cupola, late 5th century
Arian Baptistry, Ravenna
Erected by Theodoric the Great
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

Ravenna Sidebar: Justinian (reign 527–65) took a leading role in shaping church policy. As an adamant defender of Christian Orthodoxy, he attempted to rid the Empire of the last vestiges of paganism and opposed competing Christian sects, including the Arians and the Monophysites.Justinian’s reign is further distinguished by an exceptional record of architectural and artistic patronage and production in Constantinople and beyond, including most famously Hagia Sofia.

In 540, the Byzantine general Belisarius conquered Ravenna, a critical step in Justinian’s campaign to reclaim Italy from the Ostrogoths. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the Ravenna Bishops must have been thankful that their city had fellow Christian protectors. It is clear that various buildings received his indirect patronage (for propagandistic purposes?) or perhaps curried his favor. The portraits of him in San Vitale and Sant’Apollinare Nuovo tell us so.

Portrait of Justinian,
Sant’Appolinare Nuovo, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

With Justinian, the Byzantines had effectively became the Roman Empire.  While Byzantine emperors never gave up the idea of reconquering Rome, as the centuries wore on, the Byzantine Empire declined in political influence and became more isolated from Europe. Still, as the mosaics in Ravenna remind us, at one time their power reached the glittering heights.

Wider Connections

David Talbot Rice—Art of the Byzantine Era (World of Art series)
World Heritage sites
Dante online
Bryon and Ravenna
PDF—The Art of Gold in Mosaics

Petrus Christus’ Portrait of a Carthusian

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting with tags , , , , on July 20, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Editor’s Note: This is Venetian Red’s third installment about the work of Petrus Christus, the master painter of Renaissance Bruges. Click through on the links to read earlier posts on his St. Eligius or The Madonna of the Dry Tree.

Petrus Christus, Portrait of a Carthusian, 1446
Oil on oak, 11.5 x 8 in.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Portrait of a Carthusian is a gem-like portrait, considered to be Christus’ finest. I’ve been visiting this painting for so many years at the Met that I feel like we are old friends, with a long and shared history. Many scholars believe that the sitter, likely a lay brother of the Carthusian order, was known personally to Christus—what else could account for the naturalistic intimacy he created in this work? This portrait, while showing the influence of the work of Jan van Eyck, moves beyond that master’s portraiture in some significant ways.

The sitter is in three-quarter view, his gaze resting upon the viewer. Portraits by the earlier masters Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden used flat backgrounds—in this portrait, the monk clearly inhabits the corner of a defined space, and the deep red background glows. Light falls on his face and garment, illuminating both, bringing him to life in an immediate way. The angle, the subject’s gaze, the warm, defined, yet ambiguous background—all intensify the intimacy. The naturalistic detail—the delineation of each hair, the translucence of the skin—is astounding. The portrait represents a leap forward in the art of portraiture.

The stone molding painted at the bottom edge is inscribed PETRVS XPI ME FECIT, “Petrus Christus made me in the year 1446.” Note the fly poised on the edge of the stone—does it serve as a memento mori, as a talisman against misfortune, or is it merely Christus showing off his consummate skill at trompe l’oeil?

Like many Netherlandish masterpieces of the Renaissance, this portrait keeps its secrets. Scholars can speculate, viewers may wonder—but many questions will simply remain unanswered. The real mystery of a work like this is its magical power to reach across the centuries and seize a powerful hold upon our imagination.

Wider connections:

From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Venetian Red: SFMOMA Presents the Fisher Collection

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 17, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: On occasion, Venetian Red invites guest writers to contribute to these pages. Today Nancy Ewart, whose posts appear on ChezNamasteNancy and, covers the debut of the Fisher Collection as SFMOMA. VR has a long-standing interest in the Fisher collection; for other posts on this topic, click here.


Anselm Kiefer, Melancholia,
(courtesy of SFMOMA)

I was out of town last month so I missed the press preview. However, one of the first things I did on my return was to get over to SFMOMA and see what all the shouting has been about. The museum is celebrating its 75th year and obtaining this collection gives them another reason to break out the champagne. This sweeping exhibition, entitled “Calder to Warhol: Introducing The Fisher Collection,” offers an extraordinary preview of the depth, breadth, and quality of the Fisher holdings, with works by Alexander Calder, Chuck Close, Sam Francis, Philip Guston, Anselm Kiefer, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell, Gerhard Richter, Richard Serra, Wayne Thiebaud, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, and many others—160 works by 55 artists, a tasty amuse-bouclé indeed!

Roy Lichtenstein, Reflections
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

Even if the museum had the resources of the legendary King Midas, there is there is no way it could have bought even a fraction of these pieces. While it is difficult to get accurate figures on the sales of contemporary art, a 2005 Artnet article reported that the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC paid $4.5 million for one of Serra’s pieces. Richter’s auction high is the $5.4 million paid for the “Three Candles” and Twomby’s key works from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s have exceeded $10 million. The collection is rich in works from artists below the top-ten echelon. According to a recent (May 1010) article in the Huffington Post, artists such as Chuck Close, David Hockney, Ellsworth Kelly, Anselm Kiefer, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Ryman, and Wayne Thiebaud, sell for prices in the $2 million to $4 million range.

Chuck Close, Agnes Martin
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

Agnes Martin, well represented in the exhibit, sells for around seven figures; her prices are probably higher by now. So, while the dollar value of the collection is into the stratosphere, the artistic value to art lovers and the museum is beyond price. Anybody who has followed the saga of the Fisher’s and their art knows about the long and acrimonious battle over his wish to have a museum at the Presidio. Conservationists and wiser heads prevailed to stop it. It wasn’t just a case of NIMBY but involved serious issues over questions of traffic, a huge footprint and, frankly, some distrust of what would happen “after” all the shouting died down. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors were anxious to keep the collection in the city and passed a resolution in 2007 to that effect. Nevertheless, the ultimate fate of the collection was unknown until the Fishers finally announced that the collection would to go the museum, by means of a 100-year renewable loan. Maybe it was astute behind-the scenes talks or perhaps an intimation of mortality that made Don Fisher agree to this for he passed away a few days later.

Andy Warhol, Nine Multicolored Marilyns
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

It is said that you gain immortality through your children; in a very significant sense, his art collection was one of Fisher’s children and now, it’s been gifted to us. The collection is a huge addition to SFMOMA’s collection and puts the museum on the map as a major destination for lovers of modern art. With few notable exceptions, the pieces are huge, bold and brassy, with a focus on the blue chip artists of the last decade or so. It’s beautifully organized and hung, thanks to curator Gary Garrels and the rest of the museum staff. The entire fourth and fifth floors of the museum, including the Rooftop Garden, present a distillation of the sculpture portion of the collection. The Fifth Floor gallery is full of light and airy Calder mobiles. One of the pieces, a charming freestanding sculpture evokes the aquarium of the title with a few witty twists and scrolls of wire. Calder could have given lessons to any minimalist sculptor on elegant simplicity. Major works by Serra, Richter and Kiefer, Lewitt and Bourgeois are also on display.

Alexander Calder, Double Gong
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

After all that, you will need a big cup of Blue Bottle coffee to tackle the rest of the show. The Ellsworth Kelly pieces are textbook examples of his statement that paintings should be the wall, art as a geometric idea and not an emotion. The Kiefer pieces will be another wonderful addition to the museum’s existing one. I am a fan of this enigmatic and philosophical artist so I lingered in front of his Sulamith” with its evocation of the Holocaust. Kiefer’s enigmatic and emotional pieces display an evocative Teutonic angst combined with an awesome list of painting materials (oil emulsion, wood cut, shellac, acrylic and straw on canvas).

Anselm Kiefer, Sulamith
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

Throughout the exhibit, Garrel’s has intelligently paired pieces against one another—a thickly textured Sam Francis (Middle Blue, 1959) matched with the more open brushwork of a 1989 Joan Mitchell; Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park #67 on a wall where it visually leads to the gallery full of Agnes Martin’s pieces. One of those paintings, (Wheat) with its subtle rectangles of cream, parchment and a glaze of creamy yellow, is possibly one of the quietest and most beautiful pieces in the show. The fourth floor is too full of good pieces to list but one in particular—a great Oldenburg Apple Core—adds a much needed taste of wit to the more ponderous pieces in the collection. SFMOMA has announced plans for a vast addition to the museum. Two hundred and fifty million of the needed $480 million has been raised by “friends of the museum” and the board is currently looking for an architect. When the new wing opens in 2016, it will include a 60,000-square-foot Fisher Wing and allow a far more extensive display of the collection.

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #67
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

“At this momentous time in SFMOMA’s history, we are not only celebrating 75 years of accomplishments and innovation, we’re also looking forward to a new era of growth and community service that will be greatly enhanced by the museum’s presentation of these outstanding works of art from the Fisher Collection,” said SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra. “Our collaboration with the Fisher family will give visitors access to some of the finest modern and contemporary masterpieces, placing SFMOMA among the greatest museums for contemporary art and elevating the cultural profile of the city as a whole.”

Claes Oldenberg, Apple
(Courtesy of Civic Center Blog)

As the first unveiling of Doris and Don’s incredible gift to the city of San Francisco, this exhibition will introduce the public to an incomparable group of iconic works that will inspire and educate generations of visitors in the years to come.” I think that Grace McCann Morely, the museum’s first director would be well pleased.

“SFMOMA: From Calder to Warhol.” On display through September 19.

Wider Connections

More on the Fisher collection from ChezNamasteNancy
Kenneth Baker weighs in

“Toy Theater: Worlds in Miniature”

Posted in Christine Cariati, Collage & Photomontage, Fine & Decorative Arts, Illustration, Music & Dance, Paper with tags , , on July 14, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Toy Theatres: Worlds in Miniature is now on exhibit at San Francisco’s Museum of Performance & Design.

The exhibition is a wonderful display of 21 rare toy theaters from the United States, England, France, Germany, Spain, Denmark and Mexico—they date from the 18th century up to the present. In addition to the theaters, the walls are filled with colorful printed sheets of scenery and costumed characters.

Venetian Red has previously written extensively about toy theaters, so this post is merely a reminder to anyone in the Bay Area to go see this delightful show. Perhaps it will inspire a toy theater festival like the one Great Small Works hosts annually in New York!

Wider Connections

The Play’s the Thing: A History of Toy Theater in Three Acts
Great Small Works
Peter Baldwin, Toy Theatres of the World
Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop, London

Maira Kalman: Everyday Illuminations

Posted in Christine Cariati, Contemporary Art, Design, Drawing, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Illustration, Painting with tags , , , , , on July 13, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

My dream is to walk around the world. A smallish backpack, all essentials neatly in place. A camera. A notebook. A traveling paint set. A hat. Good shoes. A nice pleated (green?) skirt for the occasional seaside hotel afternoon dance.

I don’t want to trudge up insane mountains or through war-torn lands.
Just a nice stroll through hill and dale.

But now I walk everywhere in the city. Any city. You see everything you need to
see for a lifetime. Every emotion. Every condition. Every fashion. Every glory.
—Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman, The Inauguration. At Last.
from And the Pursuit of Happiness Blog, New York Times
January 29, 2009

Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)” is currently on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Maira Kalman is an award-winning illustrator, designer and author who is perhaps best-known for her New Yorker covers, children’s books and illustrated And the Pursuit of Happiness Blog for the New York Times. She also created an illustrated edition of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style in 2005. In Various Illuminations,” we get a glimpse of Kalman’s other pursuits—including photography, textile design, embroidery and set design.

Maira Kalman, Self-portrait with Pete, 2004-5
Gouache on paper, 16″ x 15″

Kalman has lived in New York since the age of 4, when she moved with her family from Tel Aviv. In New York and on her travels, she walks everywhere, taking photographs and turning many of them into small gouache paintings. Kalman has an engaging narrative style—her stories immediately grab you and draw you in. Her sense of color is exhilarating. Kalman’s work is joyful, sad, humorous and witty—and her objects and people seem to embody a touching faith that the world around them, in spite of all the lurking chaos and danger, will ultimately protect them. She brings your attention to ordinary objects—tea cups, cakes, sofas—in a way that illuminates their essence.

Kalman’s interiors and portraits bring to mind the work of another favorite artist of mine, Florine Stettheimer. Like Stettheimer, Kalman infuses her portraits with the emotional and intellectual energy of the sitter—the flattened, vividly-colored surfaces come alive with cherished objects and artifacts that define the sitter’s interests and personality.

Maira Kalman, Kitty Carlisle Hart

Maira Kalman, Marie Antoinette

Maira Kalman, Emily Dickinson

Kalman wrote an entertaining illustrated essay (see below) about the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Mad About the Metropolitan, for the May-June 2008 issue of Departures Magazine.

What I’ve always admired most about Kalman’s work is her humanity—she manages to portray vulnerability and bravery in equal measure. Her work is completely free of irony and cynicism—she delights in the ordinary, finds the charm in everyday objects and has a boundless enthusiasm for looking at things and turning them into art—an impulse that is nicely summed up in the quote below:

I was out walking the dear dog and I saw 500 things that made me want to make art.

Kalman’s show is at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through October 26, 2010.

Wider Connections
Maira Kalman, The Principles of Uncertainty
Maira Kalman, Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)

Venetian Red in Tuscany: The Many Marys of Piero della Francesca

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: During July Venetian Red continues to post on topics of interest in Italy.  This is the second of two posts on Piero della Francesca.

© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Piero della Francesca, Madonna del Parto, ca. 1455
(Museum of the Madonna del Parto, Monterchi)

It seems only fitting to follow The Legend of the True Cross post with an entry on Piero della Francesca’s Madonnas. After viewing scores of 13th and 14th century Madonnas stylized in the Byzantine icon tradition, I found Piero’s Marys refreshingly human. I can imagine scores of the faithful loosing their hearts to these radiant beauties.

Piero della Francesca, Madonna del Parto (detail)

There’s a physicality about Piero’s figures, which derives I think from the artist’s sensitive modeling of light and dark, but also from the figures’ weighty stances and individualistic features—i.e. full lips, averted eyes, not to mention a very unusual pregnant belly.

Piero della Francesca, Mary Magdelene, ca. 1460
Fresco, 190 x 105 cm
San Donato cathedral, Arezzo)

Through these techniques, Piero managed to create an archetypal Virgin with attributes beyond the usual sweetness, docility, and humility. His Madonnas display an earthy strength and dignity, characteristics I believe that no artist before or after him equally achieved.

Piero della Francesca, Polyptych of Misericordia, ca. 1460
Tempera and gold leaf on wood
(Municipal Picture Gallery, Sansepolcro)

Piero della Francesca, Polyptych of Misericordia
(detail showing The Madonna of Mercy), ca. 1460

Piero was greatly influenced by the Northern masters, and no doubt that is part of the reason he made his Madonnas resemble real people. I suspect, however, that years and years of looking at the country girls around him imprinted on his mind a particular female presence. And this he translated into figures of transcendent spirituality.

Piero della Francesco, The Annunciation (detail), ca.1432-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

One can be lucky to see most of the Piero Madonnas along small corridor between Arezzo and Urbino.  The drive from  Sansepolcro (Piero’s birthplace) to Urbino is especially spectacular. From Sansepolcro, Italian route SS73 climbs precipitously up the  towering Apennines. The views are thrilling, if dizzying at times. Once through the pass, the road descends into a picturesque valley populated by gently rolling hills, before arriving in the hilly environs of Urbino.

Piero della Francesca, Madonna of Senigallia, ca. 1470-78
Tempera on wood
(Ducal Palace, Urbino)

Wider Connections

The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca
Popular Images of the Madonna
Other Piero Madonnas:

Venetian Red in Tuscany: The Masterwork of Piero Della Francesca

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: During July Venetian Red continues to post on topics of interest in Italy. This is the first of two posts on Piero della Francesca.

© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Apse of the Basilica of San Francesco (Arezzo) showing
Legend of the True Cross frescoes by Piero della Francesca
and 13th century crucifix.

Arezzo seduces, especially on the first weekend of every month when the city hosts its annual antiques fair. Merchant booths are lined up chock-a-block along the streets that radiate downhill from the Duomo. One could spend many pleasant hours scanning tables piled with lace, jewelry, lamps, paintings, sculpture and house-hold goods.

Piero della Francesca, The Story of Adam (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Arezzo is also the epicenter of Piero della Francesca country. No antique dealer’s offering entices as alluringly as the Basilica of San Francesco, an otherwise unadorned 12th century church, which safeguards the Piero fresco cycle, The Legend of the True Cross. Ruined by centuries of moisture and crude repair, the frescoes were painstakingly restored and unveiled in 2000.

Piero della Francesca, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Piero della Francesca, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

While not as majestic a visual program as Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling, Piero’s Legend attempts arguably a more ambitious feat; that is, the visual interpretation of a single, highly-complex narrative. What’s remarkable about the frescoes is the spiritual power of the subject matter, which Piero manages to convey without the use of excess theatricality. Each scene is rendered with appropriate solemn majesty and yet the figures are, as Vasari reported “so well executed that but for the gift of speech they seemed alive.”  Nothing in my opinion comes close to the simple and earthy elegance of the human figures in the San Francesco frescoes (unless of course it’s figures in another Piero fresco). And though these faces were executed some five and a half centuries ago, they resonate fully in our modern world. It’s confirmation to Piero’s long-lasting appeal that many 20th century artists, including Cezanne, Seurat, and Giorgio Morandi, were explicitly inspired by his color palette and style of modeling.

Piero della Francesca, The Vision of Constantine (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Piero della Francesca, The Invention of the True Cross (detail) ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

After decades of scholarship, the details of Piero’s life (1415-1492) remain sketchy. Although well known in his own time as a mathematician and a painter, Piero’s reputation was virtually obliterated in the decades after his death, through the destruction of many of his works. In 1508, for example, Pope Julius II ordered the demolition of his frescoes at the Vatican (along with those of other great painters of the previous century) to make way for Raphael’s Stanze. Similar fate befell Piero frescoes in Perugia, Florence and Ferrara, to Ancona, Loreto and Pesaro. Given the relative paucity of extant work, it wasn’t until Roberto Longhi’s monograph was published in 1927 that the artist’s reputation as one of the greatest Quattrocentro artists was secured. (VR readers will remember that it was Longhi who resurrected Caravaggio.)

Piero della Francesca, The Battle of Heraclius and Chosroes (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Piero della Francesca, The Battle of Heraclius and Chosroes (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Piero della Francesca, The Battle of Heraclius and Chosroes (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Piero was born and died in Sansepolcro (where the grand Polyptych of Mercy is on view in the Municipal Picture Gallery), a stone’s throw from Arezzo. He trained Domenico Veneziano and associated with Fra Angelico, Masaccio and Brunelleschi. Though he worked in Florence and Rome for periods of time, he never strayed far from Tuscany. He remained at heart a country painter; witness his predilection for the earthy features of country folk around him.  Man or woman, royalty or commoner, holy or not, these figures have, as John Pope-Hennessey described it in The Piero Della Francesca Trail, “a natural, spontaneous and unpretentious grandeur.”

Piero della Francesca, The Annunciation (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Piero della Francesca, The Exaltation of the Cross (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

As the only extant Piero fresco cycle, The Legend of the True Cross is a precious gem. But it is the faces that provide the true sparkle.

Piero della Francesca, The Invention of the True Cross (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Wider Connections

Restoration of Legend of the True Cross
Piero della Francesca: The Frescoes of San Francesco in Arrezzo
Judith Veronica Field—Piero della Francesca: A Mathematician’s Art

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