Archive for Venetian Red Bookshelf

Venetian Red Bookshelf: Headlong

Posted in Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2011 by Liz Hager

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

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

There are some paintings in the history of art that break free, just as some human beings do, from the confines of the particular little world into which they were born. They leave home—they escape from the tradition in which they were formed, and which seem at first to give them significance. They step out of their own time and place, and find some kind of universal and enduring fame. They become part of the common currency of names and images and stories that a whole culture takes for granted.   —Michael Frayn, Headlong, p. 53

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters, 1565
Oil on wood, 45 7/8 x 62 7/8 inches
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Who says art history has to be boring?

I recently reread Michael Frayn’s contribution to the artwork in fiction genre, Headlong (1999), curious to revisit what I had remembered as a thoroughly engaging tale of the easily distracted and ethically challenged philosopher, who convinces himself that he has discovered a “lost” Bruegel.  I’m happy to report that the novel is every bit as fun the second time around.

Headlong pits the distinctly unheroic Martin Clay against his aristocratic neighbor. Residing temporarily in the country to work on a long-delayed book, Clay and his wife are invited to dine with Tony Churt, the penurious squire next door. In the process of opining on a few of Churt’s Baroque paintings, Clay views a grimy canvas stored behind the breakfast room firescreen of the tattered estate.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Haymaking, 1565
Oil on wood, 28 x 39 inches
(National Gallery, Prague)

It’s a thrilling moment. Readers familiar with Bruegel especially will appreciate Clay’s description—

The high air is still cold, but as you move down into the valley the chill dies away. The colors change, from cool brilliant greens to deeper and deeper blues. The season seems to shift in front of you from April into May as you travel south into the eye of the sun. Among the trees just below me is a group of clumsy figures, some of them breaking branches of white blossom from the trees, some caught awkwardly in the middle of a heavy clumping dance. A bagpiper sits on a stump; you can almost hear the harsh pentatonic drone. People are dancing because it’s spring again and they’re alive to see it.  (Headlong p.39)

Though an admitted hack when it comes to art history, Clay nonetheless pompously declares (to himself and to us, though not to the picture’s owner): “I recognize it instantly.” In the next second, he qualifies: “I say I recognize it. I’ve never seen it before. I’ve never seen even a description of it. No description of it, so far as I know, has ever been given. No one knows for sure who, if anyone apart from the artist himself, has ever seen it.” (Headlong p.40)

One minute Clay acknowledges that he is “way out of his period with this one” and in the next he manages (in flowery abandon) to persuade himself of the painting’s authenticity:  “Already, even as I look at it in those first few instants, what I’m contemplating is not the picture but my accumulated recollection of it. . . All the same I know. It’s a friend, No, it’s the long-lost brother of a friend. A long-mourned child walking back into our lives the way the dead do in our dreams.” (Headlong p.40)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Return of the Herd, 1565
Oil on wood, 26 in × 62½ in
(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Delusions of grandeur sweep over Clay. He imagines himself as the cultural commando who will rescue this public treasure from private obscurity. Fame and fortune are not far behind in his thoughts.

I feel a flash of pure savagery. I’m going to have his property off him. He can’t make good his claim to it. It’s written in a language he can’t read, because the only language he can read in his necessity is money. If he knew what it was, he’d hold the world to ransom. And if the ransom wasn’t forthcoming, he’d sell it to any money that presented itself—to a Swiss bank, an American investment trust, a Japanese gangster. It would vanish even deeper into the darkness, even further from the light of common day. . .

. . . So I’m going to have it off him. I’m not going to do it by deceit. I’m not going to stoop to the kind of methods he might use himself. I’m going to do it by boldness and skill, in full accordance with the rules of war. —Headlong, p. 44-45

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Gloomy Day, 1565
Oil on wood, 46½ in × 64⅛ inches
(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

With the stage thus set, the remaining 290-odd pages present a pyrotechnic extravaganza of storytelling. The elaborate scheme Clay conceives unfolds.  Though a reader will realize early on (spoiler alert!) that this scheme can only end in failure, he or she will be gripped by the twists and turns of the plot until the denouement.

Success of Clay’s scheme depends on authentication of the painting. Equal in skill to the plot manouevering is the deftness with which Clay/Frayn, though painstaking research, fashions a highly readable and engaging tour through the critical canon on Bruegel’s life and works (and politics), 16th-century Nederlandish art, and the Spanish subjugation of their Dutch and Flemish lands.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Hunters in the Snow (Return of the Hunters), 1565
Oil on wood,
(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Turns out, the canvas of Headlong is based on a real painting, one missing from Bruegel’s only surviving cycle of paintings, commonly known as The Seasons. The six paintings of the cycle were completed in 1565 for a wealthy Antwerp merchant,  Niclaes Jongelinck.  By 1659, the set had been broken up and one was already missing. Five in the set survive —e.g. Gloomy Day, Return of the Herd, Hunters in the Snow, Haymaking, and The Harvesters.

The novel closes with an astute observation that could well apply to scores of other works of art:

And what happened to the pictures themselves, those six historyless panels painted as the torrents of history swept around the studio door in 1565? They were swept headlong into the current like everything else, and tumbled into the world’s changing politics. —Headlong p. 305

The Rabbit Hole

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Wine of St. Martin’s Day, ca. 1565
Glue-sized tempera on linen, 148 x 270.5 cm
(Museo Nacional del Prado)

Simultaneously with my plunge into Frayn’s fictitious world The New York Times published “When Overlooked Art Turns Celebrity,” Michael Kimmelman’s musings on the very real The Wine of St. Martin’s Day, the new-attributed Bruegel rescued last Fall by the Prado from the “proverbial dark corner” of an ancient family’s collection in Córdoba.

Ian Buchanan—“The Collection of Niclaes Jongelinck: The Months by Pieter Bruegel”

W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” (“About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters. . .”)

A short list of art and artists in fiction: Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth; Irving Stone’s Lust for Life and  The Agony and the Ecstasy; Tracy Chavalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring; and (gasp) Dan Stone’s The Da Vinci Code.

Venetian Red Bookshelf: A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book

Posted in Book Review, Ceramics, Christine Cariati, Design, Fine & Decorative Arts, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

A. S. Byatt‘s The Children’s Book is a complex tapestry of a book. It begins in 1895 and ends during the Great War. It is woven through with sensuous descriptions of textiles, pottery glazes, art, clothing and sexual longing, as well as musings on what it is to be an artist or a writer.

As usual, Byatt’s writing is erudite, some would say to a fault. The Children’s Book is unrepentantly intellectual, filled with long, complex digressions on art and nature—and it basks, unashamedly, in the life of ideas. In The Children’s Book, Byatt mines all of her interests—history and natural history, the visual arts, literature, fairy tales, the decorative arts—and weaves them together in an epic tale of two generations of several artistic families (including nearly 20 children) who live in the Kentish countryside.

Victoria & Albert

How could I not love a book that begins in the South Kensington Museum, (later the Victoria & Albert), and immediately engages us with lush descriptions of the forms, ornamentation and glazes of gorgeous decorative objects? The main characters live in a house decorated in the aesthetic of the Arts & Crafts movement, with furniture and wallpaper by William Morris and his cohorts. Their lives are, at first glance, idyllic—Midsummer parties on vast lawns, with theater and puppet shows, open conversation about sexuality, talk about the suffragette movement, the Fabian Society and Socialist idealism. But there’s a dark undercurrent that quickly becomes apparent—a web of adultery, selfishness and secrecy.

William Morris

Byatt is particularly good at illuminating the irony in the disparity between her characters’ professed beliefs and the way they live their lives—whether in the social, sexual or artistic realm. Byatt also doesn’t shy away from showing us the destructive effect that parents’ misguided creativity can have on their children. Most ominously, the carnage of the coming war looms unseen, and many of the children we meet in the opening chapters will be casualties of that war. We feel tragically helpless, even as we worry about the ill effects of  their haphazard upbringing, we suspect these children will not live far into adulthood.

1895 was the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the Edwardian age, when the cult of childhood began. It was the heyday of children’s literature—J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and E Nesbit were writing their masterpieces. In fact, Byatt’s heroine, Olive Wellwood, who lives with her husband Humphry and their seven children in a country cottage called Todefright—a beloved children’s writer of dark, somewhat Germanic versions of English fairy stories—is largely inspired by E Nesbit. Olive says:

Well, I sometimes feel, stories are the inner life of this house. A kind of spinning of energy. I am this spinning fairy in the attic, I am Mother Goose quacking away what sounds like comforting chatter but is really — is really what holds it all together.

Other characters suggest hybrids of H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence—and writers Virginia Woolf, Rupert Brooke, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde have cameos. It is also a conflicted age. As Byatt writes, “people talked, and thought, earnestly and frivolously, about sex,” at the same time showing “a paradoxical propensity to retreat into childhood, to read and write adventure stories, tales about furry animals, dramas about pre-pubertal children.”

This novel has a multi-stranded narrative, touches on many complex issues and has an enormous cast of characters. Among the interesting characters are Prosper Cain, Special Keeper of Precious Metals at the South Kensington Museum, and Benedict Fludd, a tempestuous and visionary potter (based largely on Eric Gill), who is also a monstrous, sexual predator. (Byatt’s choice of names, such as Cain and Fludd, seem somewhat biblical.) The book is filled with artists and political idealists. Midway through the book, many of the characters, in various combinations, attend the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, and there are riveting descriptions of the exposition and its exhibits—including the work of Klimt, Rodin and Lalique.

Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1900

The action often grinds to a halt while Byatt lectures us about pottery glazes, the history of puppet theater or discourses on social issues. Each character’s clothing is lovingly detailed, works of art are described, fairy stories told, historical facts abound. Many find this surfeit of digression an irritant in Byatt’s work, and think the book overstuffed with ideas and descriptions. I can’t really dispute Byatt’s verbosity and her tendency to lecture. Nevertheless, Byatt’s descriptive abilities border on the sublime, and I relish a novelist who thinks—no, knows— that art is important, and who invents characters, for all their serious flaws, who are engaged with the moral struggle to define (or evade) their responsibilities, assess their gifts and search for (or resist) some kind of enlightenment through creativity.

If you decide to read the book, I recommend you slow down and enjoy the ride, including the numerous side-trips and detours. It may, as some critics argue, be too much, but in my opinion, most contemporary novels offer way too little—so I’ll vote  for an excess of ideas, beautifully described, any day. If you’ve read The Children’s Book, please share your thoughts with Venetian Red.

Venetian Red Bookshelf: Inside the Painter’s Studio

Posted in Artists Speak, Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 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

Ross Bleckner, Throbbing Hearts, 1994
Oil, powdered pigment, and wax on canvas, 96 1/8 x 120 1/4 inches
(Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Gift of the artist © Ross Bleckner)

Thanks to a friend of Venetian Red, who passed along an excellent tip regarding Joe Fig’s 2009 compilation of interviews, Inside the Painter’s Studio. I casually picked up the book one evening recently, thinking it was the sort of work in which one could dabble, leaf through an interview or two, put it down, come back to it intermittently. By the second interview (Ross Bleckner, as it turns out) the book had hooked me, and I read straight through to the end. (A 90 minute investment.)

Fig asked the same 18 questions of 24 accomplished artists of different generations (with himself as the 25th). Most of Fig’s questions reflected his primary interest in exploring the nature of the creative process and the role the studio space plays in that. While he fixed-question method has its uses (i.e. levels the playing field, creates boundaries for information), it can also hinder the process of collecting truly penetrating information from interviewees.

On the face of it, some of his questions seemed banal—How long have you been in this studio?, How often do you clean your studio? Do you listen to music or have the TV on or something like that? But other queries drew out more philosophical responses, though, in a number of instances, even those just plain stumped a few interviewees (or they were just unwilling to answer). In these cases, the conversation appeared be grinding to a halt, though Fig skillfully pulled the session back the brink by guiding the artist to the next topic on his list. (That, or interviews were rescued in the editing process.)

Chuck Close, Self Portrait, 1997
Oil on canvas, 8′ 6″ x 7′
(Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Agnes Gund, Jo Carole
and Ronald S. Lauder, Donald L. Bryant, Jr., Leon Black,
Michael and Judy Ovitz, Anna Marie and Robert F. Shapiro,
Leila and Melville Straus, Doris and Donald Fisher, and purchase.)
© 2010 Chuck Close

You will find no profound revelations in Inside the Painter’s Studio. Instead, its pages are punctuated with important (and often eloquently articulated) reminders regarding the creative process (and the business of art). The artists among us may viscerally or intuitively understand these pearls, but hearing them repeated in different ways is always welcome.

More fascinating are those moments when a particular personality emerges through the interview process. Malcolm Morley comes off as a pragmatic curmudgeon; Amy Sillman appears to shoot from the hip (though looking at her paintings you don’t see how that can be true) ; Philip Pearlstein seems plainly sincere; a tinge of haughtiness colors Matthew Ritchie’s responses, etc.

And finally, because you just can’t keep track of everyone, the book was useful in prompting an exploration of artists’ work unknown to me, specifically Inka Essenhigh and Barnaby Furnas, who paints on his canvasses on the floor.

Malcolm Morley, Messerschmitt with Spitfire, 2000
Oil on linen, 79 x 111.3 inches

Following is a brief selection of extracts from some of my favorite responses:

How long have you been in your studio?

Malcolm Morley: That’s totally irrelevant.

Joan Snyder, Blood On Our Hands, 2003
Mixed media on board, 16 x 16 inches

Can you describe a typical day, being as specific as possible?

As Fig expresses surprise at Ross Bleckner’s 7-day a week work habit, Bleckner further elaborates:

Ross Bleckner: Yup. That’s the way I work. It’s very athletic. It’s just good for me, and it is the only way I can really create the rhythm of concentration. For me it is all about the process. There is no idea that I have ever had that comes to me outside the process of work. So therefore, the few months in a row I am working seven days a week—and if I am having a show or not is irrelevant—I guess the operative metaphor for me is that I am a scientist in a lab, on the verge of discovering something. Or  I am just a hound dog sniffing around trying to catch the scent. But in order to do that, I need consistency.  Then when I stop working, when I take a break, I take a break for a month or two.

Amy Sillman, Cliff 2, 2005
Oil on canvas, 183 x 152 cm.
(Saatchi Gallery)

How often do you clean your studio and does it affect your work?

Ross Bleckner: It affects my work a lot. I clean my studio many times a day. But specifically when I come in and when I leave. I don’t like to leave any traces of the day before. . . Brancusi said something that I have always felt was true, which is “All you have to do is show up. All you have to do is get to your studio and put a broom in your hand. Just by the act of sweeping and cleaning you will start working.”

Amy Sillman: I never clean my studio. I’m sure my work would be better if I would. Again, I wish that somebody could come over and help me, but I would have to tell them where everything is, every single thing. I can’t explain it to anyone. . . Once in a while I go around with a huge garbage bag and pretty much throw everything away. . .

Eric Fischl, Bedroom Scene #6 (Surviving the Fall Meant Using You for Handholds)2004
Oil on linen, 72″ x 90″
(Mary Boone Gallery)

Do you have a motto or creed that as an artist you live by?

Bill Jensen: . . . Artists are people who go in a room everyday, let the art drag them a little further, and then sitting back twenty years later say, “How did I get here?” You’ve made this whole other world. You know, there was no idea of what heaven and hell used to look like. Artists made the idea of what heaven and hell looked like. We have the same kind of job today. We’re making these worlds that no one ever dreamed of, yet they are very real. They come from reality.

Chuck Close:  Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work. . .

Julie Mehretu: To take care of my work as best I can. . . you know, really put everything into my work, and the work would return that to me. . .

Jane Hammond, Some Species Like It Hot, 2002
Oil on wood panel, 52 1/2” x 89 “ x 6”

What advice would you give a young artist who’s just starting out?

James Siena: . . . Don’t go knocking on Willem de Kooning’s back door saying “Can you look at my work?” He’s busy!

Bill Jensen: . . . You have to spend the time and pack as much energy into the work, and it will over flow into the world.

Malcolm Morley:  . . . (A) young composer asked Mozart for advice on what he though he should write: whether he should write a saraband, a suite, a romance, a symphony, etcetera. So Mozart looked at him and said, “Well, in your case I’d write a waltz.” So the young composer was very sort of angry. And he said, “But Mozart! At the age of ten you wrote a symphony.” And Mozart replied, “Yes, but I didn’t have to ask anybody’s advice.” So any artist or student that asks advice is already a failure in my view.’

Joan Snyder: My secret is. . . well, it’s not a secret that I have never hung out too much, and I’ve just worked very, very hard for thirty-five years. It’s just a lot of hard work. That’s my secret—it’s a big secret (laughs). . .

Joe Fig, Jackson Pollock, 2008
Wood, polymer clay, oil/acrylic paint, metal, plastic, paper, canvas
(Byron C. Cohen Gallery for Contemporary Art)

Wider Connections

Joe Fig—Inside the Painter’s Studio

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

Venetian Red Bookshelf: Gardens in Art

Posted in Book Review, Liz Hager with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 20, 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

Edward Manet, Music in the Tuileries Garden, 1862
Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 118.1 cm
(Courtesy of National Gallery, London)

In the history of painting all too often the garden has been relegated to backdrop status, playing the role of “exterior décor” in support of the central character—a portrait or depiction of human activity. Unlike its uncultivated cousin the landscape, the garden never caught on as noble subject matter, though Monet’s paintings of Giverny are a notable exception.

Nebamun’s garden
(Fragment of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun)
Thebes, Egypt; Late 18th Dynasty, around 1350 BC
(Courtesy of The Britsh Museum)

Still, this doesn’t mean that gardens are meaningless. As Lucia Impelluso’s Gardens in Art so well demonstrates, gardens are awash in symbols. Wild nature may have no pre-ordained plan, but gardens necessarily do. With the human psyche as creator of the garden, meaning was accorded beyond the sum of its botanical parts. Thus, the motifs and allegories found in the garden offer a tantalizing reflection of human culture and psychology.

Andrea Mantegna, Madonna of Victory, 1496
(Courtesy of Louvre, Paris)

Gardens in Art is 370-plus pages of pure visual delight. While covering a lot of bases, the book educates without resorting to copious amounts of pretentious text. As with the others in the “Guide to Imagery” series, this volume too is filled a diverse selection of illustrations, ranging from ancient frescoes to contemporary sculpture. The text on each topic is contained within one page and each image is accompanied by three or four carefully chosen points that elaborate on the topic at hand.

Johann Jakob Walther, Dutch Garden, 1650
(Victoria & Albert Museum)

The first part of the book concerns itself with the history of the garden—the concept of sacred and profane gardens in ancient civilizations; the elaborate gardens of Renaissance popes and princes; the regal gardens of the Baroque; the Enlightenment ideals, which liberated the garden from rigid constructs; and the manifestations of the public garden.

It’s no surprise that Baroque gardens were a natural extension of the pomp and circumstance of the aristocracy of the time. But the section on Monastic gardens truly enlightens on the symbolism of the Medieval quadrant-design and the connection of various plants to the Virgin Mary.

Thomas Rowlandson, The Temple of the British Worthies, late 18th century
Pen and watercolor on board, 10 7/8 x 17 inches
(Courtesy Huntington Library)

The second, and longer, section of Gardens in Art guides the reader through chapters on the various elements of the garden—plants and pruning methods, water, statuary, architectural structures. While the elements themselves have have remained remarkably constant through the ages, their expression has changed, depending on the aesthetic requirements of the day.

The book concludes with three chapters on “Life in the Garden,” “Symbolic Gardens” and “Literary Gardens.”

William Blake, Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Faeries Dancing, 1785
Pencil and watercolour on paper support, approximately 18.75 x 26 1/2 inches
(Courtesy Tate, London)

Within the serious discussion regarding the meaning of gardens lie fascinating cultural tidbits, such as,

The circular garden was created in the Medieval era as a reflection of the universe.

“Gardens of the dead” arose after an 18th-century ban on cemeteries. The concept of the secret garden originated in the Renaissance derived from the Medieval courtly love tradition.

The Versailles garden became a nonpareil “outdoor stage” for theatrical productions, its ever-changing “sets” suggesting infinite dreams and illusions.

The number of exotic plan species in 19th-century England increased considerably after the invention of the Wardian case, a kind of portable greenhouse that made the long sea voyage transport possible.

In the 18th century, it was permissible for high society to strut and “pose” in public gardens.

Sharawaggi, the term for a popular 17th-century asymmetrical garden,which emulated Chinese examples, was a Dutch corruption of a Japanese word.

 

Edward John Poynter, In a Garden, 1891
Oil on canvas, 30 x 20 inches
(Courtesy of Delaware Art Museum)

The book offered me many more reasons for remaining in love with Gainsborough’s portraiture, the Van Gogh irises, Titan, Lucas Cranach, Manet, Arnold Böcklin, William Blake. . . And it introduced me to the work of artists Hans Bol, Sir Edward John Poynter, Hubert Robert (a painter as well as a garden designer), Filarete. All delicious in their own way!

Niki de Saint Phalle, Tarot Garden,
Sculpture park, Garavicchio, Tuscany

My only disappointment with the book is almost its near exclusive focus on Western art. One would have thought there was more to say about Asian garden symbolism than what’s contained in the chapter on “Gardens of Meditation.”

 

Still, it’s a small price to pay for what is on balance is a thoroughly engaging education. I doubt I shall enter another garden without the contents of this book on my mind.

Next on my reading list: Nature and Its Symbols

Wider Connections
Guide to Imagery series
Codex de sphaera (unique feature that allows you to turn the pages of this beautiful Renaissance book)
Tomb chapel of Nebamun
More Gardens in Art

Venetian Red Bookshelf: The Age of Wonder

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, Science, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2010 by Christine Cariati

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

William Blake, Urizen as the Creator of the Material World, 1794
title page, Europe, A Prophecy

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes

The Age of Wonder is truly an exhilarating book. Richard Holmes deftly captures the sense of curiosity and wonder about the natural world that inspired the explorers and scientists of the 18th century in their quest for discovery in the face of daunting hardships. The book discusses discoveries in the fields of botany, natural history, astronomy, meteorology and chemistry.

Undated portrait of explorer Mungo Park (1771-1806)

The Age of Wonder isn’t just about science, it’s about culture. Holmes illuminates the work of the scientists, artists and poets of the Romantic Age (1770-1830) and beautifully illustrates how these disciplines were intertwined. The book has a large and engaging cast of characters, including botanist Joseph Banks, astronomers William Herschel, his sister Caroline and son John, explorer Mungo Park, chemist Humphry Davy and doctor Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802).

Amelia Curran, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819
Oil on canvas
National Portrait Gallery, London

These scientists shared a romantic imagination about nature with poets like William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Lord Byron—and Holmes quotes these poets to great effect in his text. During this intoxicating period of discovery, the writers and poets of the day were as intensely interested in science, as scientists were in the work of the poets. Many of these scientists and poets were also intimate friends, and a few of the scientists also wrote poetry, as did Humphry Davy and Erasmus Darwin. Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, addresses his speculations about evolution in his book-length poem, The Botanic Garden (1791).

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Joseph Banks, 1771-73
Oil on canvas, Private collection

The Age of Wonder pivots on the life of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who used his influence and passion for science to develop a culture in which the scientists and explorers of  the late eighteenth century could flourish. In 1768, Banks, as a young botanist, sailed with Captain James Cook on the Endeavor, making a three-year journey to the South Seas. One of the goals of this voyage was to observe the Transit of Venus on June 3, 1769. Banks also brought back many botanical specimens from the South Seas and the eastern coast of Australia, many of which plants bear his name today. Upon his return, Banks became a life-long friend of King George III, who shared his interest in botany, and in whose many improvements to Kew Gardens, Banks played a large part. In 1781, Banks was knighted for his tremendous accomplishments as Director of Kew Gardens. Banks introduced many exotic species and planted over 50,000 shrubs and trees, transforming it from a rambling estate into a beautiful scientific and botanical paradise.

Camille Pissarro, Kew Gardens, the Path to the Main Greenhouse, 1892
Oil on canvas, Private collection

Banks was elected president of the Royal Society in 1778, a post he held for forty-two years. During his tenure at the Royal Society, he exerted tremendous influence on the work and careers of many giants of the age, including the astronomer William Herschel. One of the interesting points that Holmes makes, is that Banks, like Herschel and others, believed that science was best done by amateurs. For those without private means, Banks helped to obtain backing from King George III and other aristocrats who had an interest in science.

Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries
The first crossing of the English Channel in a hot-air balloon, 1785

While The Age of Wonder explores the link between science and poetry, it also has some interesting things to say about the art of the day. In his chapter on the invention of the hot air balloon, Balloonists in Heaven, Holmes talks about how this invention spawned the new field of meteorology. As well as inspiring the poetry of Coleridge and Shelley, the Romantic Age fascination with the substance and beauty of clouds was influential on the paintings of J. M. W. Turner and John Constable.

J. M. W. Turner, Sunset, 1830-35
Oil on canvas
Tate Gallery, London

John Constable, Weymouth Bay from the Downs Above Osmington Mills, 1816
Oil on canvas
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

There was also an overheated, excessive side to this romantic view of science—the idea of the solitary, obsessed scientist, willing to make a Faustian bargain with the devil in order to unearth the secrets of existence. Aspects of this idea were brought to vivid life in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, written in 1817, when Shelley, the wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, was only nineteen years old. Shelley might have been partially inspired by the argument then raging about Vitalism, a doctrine which posited the existence of a Life Force that animates all living creatures. She was perhaps also influenced by accounts of  hideous experiments conducted by Giovanni Aldini to revive dead animals—and human corpses—by applying electrical current. However, in Shelley’s moving book, Frankenstein’s creature was a poetic, lonely philosopher, who laments his fate—not the amoral, wrathful monster of later plays and films.

Theodore Von Holst, frontispiece to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, 1831
Steel engraving, Private collection

Perhaps we are approaching another golden age where the great minds of science and art come together, and science is once again viewed as a romantic adventure. In the meantime, I urge you to read Holmes’ engrossing and engaging book about the cultural impact of scientific discovery.  — Christine Cariati

Wider Connections

Interview with computer scientist and author David Gelertner on the interconnection of art science:


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