Archive for Piero della Francesca

Thinking Differently About Art: Anne Patterson’s Seeing the Voice at Grace Cathedral

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Installation, Liz Hager with tags , , , , , , on March 21, 2013 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2013. All Rights Reserved

Seeing the Voice (performance still) ©Sean O'Leary

Seeing the Voice (performance still) ©Sean O’Leary

At some point in the recent debut of Anne Patterson’s striking work Seeing the Voice: A Synthesis of Light, Color, and Music at Grace Cathedral, my mind drifted to Piero della Francesca’s fresco cycle in the Basilica of San Francisco.  On the face of it, The Legend of the True Cross would seem worlds away from Patterson’s collaboration with cellist Joshua Roman, which produced a synergistic evening of light, streamers, and music.

The pictorial art commissioned by Popes and princes from the 14-17th centuries served a fundamentally didactic purpose—to instruct a largely illiterate congregation on biblical narratives—while presumably invigorating the collective belief in mysteries and miracles (not to mention the Church’s temporal prestige).

Seeing the Voice (performance still) ©Esteban Allard-Valdivieso

Seeing the Voice (performance still) ©Esteban Allard-Valdivieso

In contrast, today’s literate first-world citizen is likely to be deeply skeptical of religion. If spiritually disposed at all, s/he has a seemingly infinite array of venerable and newly-minted traditions from which to create any number of hyphenated identities. As Dr. Jane Shaw, Dean of Grace Cathedral, has expressed: this à la carte mentality stems from the deep need we have to belong without wanting to believe.

Further, the decoupling of art from religion, largely accomplished by cultural shifts in the 19th & 20th centuries, means that for most of us, if we enter a contemporary sacred space at all, the last thing we might expect to see is a work of contemporary (non-figurative) art.

Understandable then that I, resolutely wary of organized religion, approached Seeing the Voice with minimal expectations. Unpredictably, the evening was a complete delight.

Seeing the Voice (performance still) ©Estaban Allard-Valdivieso

Seeing the Voice (performance still) ©Estaban Allard-Valdivieso

Patterson conceived Seeing the Voice as the debut of her year-long artist in residency at Grace Cathedral. The installation itself (which Patterson calls Graced With Light) was worth the price of admission. Some 200 miles of light-reflecting ribbon strands hung from the ceiling of the nave, catching the rays from various colored spotlights as they lazily twisted in the air currents.  The effect was mesmerizing, evoking at times primitive worms responding to stimuli, a mad highway of car headlights at night, and comets in the night sky. Underneath this stage set, Roman played two cello pieces composed especially for the evening. The cellist sat behind a long white banner, while fragments of his silhouette danced and flickered on the banner as a result of some clever back lighting.

The wow factor of the evening was pretty high, even before we were invited, no encouraged, to lie in the pews and look up at the ribbons, while Roman played Bach’s Suite #4. Outstanding! Shooting meteor effect!

More than the sophisticated elegance of the installation and the interesting, often lovely music, the piece caused me to think more explicitly about the nature of art and religion.  Specifically, does art have fundamentally different meaning in sacred vs. secular settings?  If not didacticism (story telling), what are the effective uses of art in contemporary faith? While art certainly has a spiritual component, does it move people to become spiritual?  Practically what does a spiritual life look like, if organized religion is not a component? Does art bring the non-believer closer to understanding the believing community and vice versa?

Seeing the Voice (performance still) ©Sean O'Leary

Seeing the Voice (performance still) ©Sean O’Leary

Seeing the Voice sparked me to experience art a bit differently. After a week or so of rumination, I still have no firm answers to the questions above.  (See below for links to what others have said on the topic.) However, as a result of my explorations, one thing does seem evident to me.   Although time and traditions separate Seeing the Voice and Legend of the True Cross, in their own ways each invites the viewer to imagine a world they don’t exactly live in. And that may be at the heart of a spiritual life.

Wider Connections

Anne Patterson—Seeing the Voice (video); Seeing the Voice is a yearlong exploration of the synthesis for the spirit with our traditional five senses. Although it is unclear whether the performance will be repeated, the installation Graced With Light will remain, growing and changing over time. Patterson is scheduled to present a new piece at  Grace Cathedral this fall.

Aspen Ideas Festival: Jane Shaw—”Our Moral Imagination”, What Sustains Us

SFMOMA (in conjunction with The Contemporary Jewish Museum)—“100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art”

Ecclesiart

The growing intersection of contemporary art and faith: ArtNews—“The Church Gives Contemporary Art Its Blessing;” Contemporary Art Flourishes at New York City Churches

Michael Sandell—What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

Mark Rothko, Houston Chapel

Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire

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.

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

Piero della Francesca, Madonna del Parto, ca. 1455
Fresco,
(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
Fresco
(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.

By LIZ HAGER
© 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
Fresco
(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
Fresco
(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
Fresco
(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
Fresco
(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
Fresco
(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
Fresco
(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
Fresco
(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
Fresco
(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
Fresco
(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
Fresco
(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
Fresco
(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

Ten plus One from the Musée d’Orsay

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2009 by Christine Cariati

Inspired by your “Fortune Smiles” blog post, I took myself on a tour of the collection of the Musee d’Orsay. I thought it would be impossible to choose, but it was easier than I imagined. There were ten clear winners–well, with an 11th thrown in for sentimental reasons. There were also a few I’d love to see as runner-ups, all oddities for one reason or another. Vuillard’s Au lit–a completely monochromatic, pattern-free study, more like a Morandi than a Vuillard. Tissot’s Faust and Marguerite, a quite wonderful pastiche that somehow combines the monumental quality of a procession from Piero della Francesca with the formality of a history painting—all in a theatrical format. And then there is Renoir’s portrait of my favorite composer, Wagner, odd because it has a softness and tentativeness so uncharacteristic of Wagner and so unlike any portraits or photographs of him that I have seen. As a curiosity, I’d be interested to see August Strindberg’s painting, Vague VII, predictably moody, dark and filled with anxiety. And I have to admit to a fondness for Gustave Moreau’s Galatea. It’s a bit overwrought but it has that quality of myth turned psychological study that I like.

This exercise is a bit of a Rorschach test. As I review my choices, the dominant themes seem to be the enclosed space and pattern. Clearly, I am drawn to interiors—the dark inhabited space—at home, in the theater, even the outdoors—or a portrait that draws you in to someone’s soul; they all have an element of drama and psychology—something has happened and we’re not sure what.

bonnard
Pierre Bonnard
, Dejeuner sous la Lampe (Lunch by Lamplight)

Love the dark and light, it is tender and funny and I love the way he framed the image, it is so intimate, you’re right there, in the space…

cezanne
Paul Cezanne, Portrait of Madame Cezanne

I know this is heretical, but I have never been drawn to Cezanne’s landscape and still life paintings. But I love his portraits. This one is a different type of interior, we enter into her stillness, her sense of peace, tranquility. The simplicity, the ethereal color palette, every brush stroke of this painting is in the service of creating a deep moving portrait, he must have loved her.

corot
Camille Corot, Une Matinee, danse des nymphes (The Dance of the Nymphs)

Very drawn to the inhabited landscape. This painting is mythological in its inspiration but doesn’t get stuck there. The humans and the landscape are one, distinctions blurred—it manages to co-exist on two levels—it is almost like a stage set and yet has a very primeval landscape-as-memory quality.

courbet
Gustave Courbet, Le ruisseau noir (The Black Stream)

Another interior landscape. It is dark and intimate, no panoramic views, nothing larger than life that causes you to simply step back and admire. This is a path you could walk in solitude or quiet companionship. Gorgeous rendering of foliage, so evocative with such a light touch.

degas
Edgar Degas, La Famille Bellelli

This painting is wonderfully subtle and sinister, so much tension and discomfort. A family portrait, yet everyone is so separate. The father, somewhat indifferent, turning his back to us; the mother so cool, her right hand on her daughter’s shoulder conveys no more affection than her left hand placed on the table. That daughter is already the image of her mother—the other girl looks ready to run off with the dog. I love the way he divided up the room, angles and partial glimpses of doorways–makes you feel that much more hemmed in. And then, there’s the wallpaper…

fantin-latour
Henri Fantin-Latour, La liseuse (Woman Reading)

What a beautiful painting. I love Fantin-Latour’s portraits. Here is an interior within an interior. She is so absorbed in her book, it is so peaceful, meditative. The whole image is so beautifully framed, the pile of books, the painting on the wall, the hint of detail in the wallpaper–and then that gorgeous curve of the sofa, its deep red, the only really warm color, enveloping her. Not only the reader, but every object in this painting seems to have an interior life.

gonzales
Eva Gonzales, Une loge aux Italiens (A Box at the Theatre des Italiens)

Here we are, another enclosed space, another mystery. I am not familiar with Gonzales’ work but I see from this painting that she learned her lesson well from Manet—present the relationship, don’t explain, leave the storytelling to the viewer. Beautifully painted curtain and flowers, wonderful light and dark. I love the way her arm is resting on the edge of the box, just the right amount of pressure, and the luminously painted skin, glove and jewelry just glow against the rich, dark velvet.

klimt
Gustav Klimt, Rosiers sur les arbres (Rosebushes under the Trees)

I’ve only recently become an admirer of Klimt’s landscapes. I love the shimmering, decorative quality and the subtle way the greens play against the pinks and mauves of the roses. It comes so close to abstraction but still keeps you firmly grounded in landscape. Especially like the patterns on the tree trunks and the little patch of sky in the upper right corner.

manet
Edouard Manet, Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass)

manet2
Edouard Manet, L’asperge (Asparagus)

Ideally, I would include every Manet in the world in this list, so I could not limit myself to a single one—so it’s a tie for my ninth pick.
I had to choose Dejeuner because the first time I came face to face with it, at the Jeu de Paume, I was absolutely thunderstruck by its beauty and power. I thought that a childhood and young adulthood spent gazing at masterpieces at the Frick, the Met and other great museums of New York had inoculated me from being knocked off my feet by seeing in person a painting I had so admired in reproduction. I can’t add anything to the volumes written about this painting, except to say that the crazy theatricality, the abstract light and dark, the sense of it being out of time and place, all combine to make it a painting you can never tire of looking at, there is always another mystery to unravel.

L’asperge is to me one of the most beautiful paintings ever made. In a way it has the quality of his late flower paintings, the still lifes painted as he was dying. Not their elegiac quality exactly, but the sense of clarity and light in every stroke of those flowers, is here in this asparagus. The luminous, infinite tones of white, the way it is hanging off the edge of the marble towards the dark wood of the table—it is one of those small paintings that manages to combine an amazing intimacy with a sense of monumentality, like a Turner seascape.

vuillard
Edouard Vuillard, Le salon aux trois lampes, Rue Saint-Florentin (Interior with Three Lamps)

This painting has it all—pattern everywhere you look, a wonderfully theatrical sense of space, lights and darks, an ambiguous mood. The figures are in repose but the room is animated with energy,  light and pattern. There are all these wonderful angles, recesses, a wonderful cool palette, set off by the glow of those three lamps. If they send this one, I am going to have to steal it.

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