The Imperfect Stitch and the Beauty of Asymmetry

My friend (and past research colleague), Frances Bell, is attending an online free motion building quilting course run by The Crafty Nomad. I have been enjoying watching her progress as she posts images of her practise samples to her Flickr site, and rather envying her skills. Frances has already made some beautiful quilts so it was interesting to read her explanation of why she is doing this course:

What I am hoping to learn from this course is more about constructing a design – putting together different elements into an overall design. The project that I’ll do in a couple of weeks will have 12 coloured rectangles separated by white space so that’s plenty of opportunity for experimentation.

The image above was the first photo that I noticed. I really liked the trailing thread in the top left hand corner, which I saw as ‘breaking the boundary’, an idea that for some reason appealed to me. Frances explained the stitching that breaks the boundary was where I started’, which of course made sense (you have to start somewhere), but I still prefer to think of it as breaking the boundary! Frances went on to explain that ,

we are encouraged to have a high contrast between the thread and fabric colours. This is so that the “mistakes” stand out so we can work on avoiding them. Then in the projects we will choose a thread that blends with the fabric to make any mistakes recede. I think there’s a powerful message in there for learning/education in general. There’s a lot of controversy about “safe spaces” but I do like the idea of an educational space where learners are comfortable to acknowledge what they will do differently next time.

This idea of making mistakes stand out is further developed by Frances in another practise sample that I really like.

My reaction to this sample was: This is lovely. I like the different coloured stitching on the white background – very subtle and delicate, and once again Frances responded that this is a technique used to highlight errors:

I love variegated threads – they tend to distract from errors. I have chosen a different contrast thread for each module specifically to highlight errors while learning on practice pieces.

Quite by chance, at the same time as having this exchange with Frances I have come across the idea of ‘the imperfect stitch’, or ‘Persian flaw’, which is a deliberate error in an otherwise perfect work of art. The errors are not intended to detract from the beauty of the work of art (which could be a rug, a piece of embroidery, a quilt, or a piece of pottery), but rather to be subtly introduced (so subtly that the imperfection might be difficult to detect), to signify the inherent humanity and imperfection of the artist.

‘A Persian rug is perfectly imperfect, and precisely imprecise’.

In the eyes of the Persian rug makers and in other cultures of rug makers, such as the Navajo rug weavers, ‘Only God is perfect’. Flaws are an integral part of being human. Similarly, according to Iain McGilchrist, in Chinese architecture, the last three tiles are always left off the roof. The first great Chinese historian, Ssu-ma Ch’ien, records:

Even heaven is not complete; that is why when people are building a house they leave off the last three tiles, to correspond. And all things that are under the sky have degrees. It is precisely because creatures are incomplete that they are living .

(Ssu-ma Ch’ien’ quoted in The Matter With Things (TMWT) by Iain McGilchrist , p.840)

When I first came across the photos of Frances’ work which I like so much, I hadn’t read Iain McGilchrist’s chapter on The Coincidence of Opposites (Chapter 20) in his new book, The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. In this chapter Iain writes about the importance of asymmetry. Here are a few quotes from the chapter:

‘There is also a necessity for slight imperfections in DNA transcription for there to be change and creativity: evolution.’ (p. 840, TMWT)

‘Sameness is indeed sterile, and cannot give rise to anything.’ (p. 840, TMWT)

‘Balance needs to be constantly disturbed and restored. Symmetry breaking is everywhere in living organisms.’ (p.840, TMWT)

I realise now that this is why I was drawn to Frances’ practise samples with their errors, which I find so attractive. They include an asymmetry which is a beautiful expression of the combination of sameness and difference, order and disorder (TMWT, p.839). For me, the art of deliberate imperfection seems one worth pursuing, and one which helps to ensure the uniqueness of the art.  I wonder what Frances’ tutor would make of this idea, and indeed Frances herself?

References

Patowary, K. (2017). The Art of Deliberate Imperfection

Why Imperfect Quilts are Beautiful

Deliberate Mistakes in Handmade Persian Rugs and Carpets

McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.

Mackness, J. (2021). The Coincidence of Opposites. A talk by Iain McGilchrist

Art History 1700-1800

Module 5 of the National Gallery’s course, Stories of Art. A Modular Introduction to Art History, covered 18th century art. This six week online course was presented by Dr Richard Stemp, who wrote in his introductory handout:

The 18th century was an important period of change across Europe. The death of Louis XIV in France led to a relaxation in court life, which led to a far lighter touch in French art, and the development of Rococo.

(I have included lots of images in this post. Clicking on them enlarges them.)

Week 1: A lighter touch

Baroque art of the 17th century had suited the bold dramatic style of Louis XIV and his court in Versailles. With his death, and the ensuing regency, the court returned to Paris and became more relaxed. Two artists whose work flourished in this new lighter atmosphere were JeanAntoine Watteau and William Hogarth.

Watteau was born at Valenciennes in the north of France and arrived in Paris in 1702 where he began to paint. He died in 1731 at the age of 36 from consumption. This lovely portrait of him, was painted by Rosalba Carriera (who was enormously popular in the 18th century and did wonderful work in pastels).

Watteau himself is considered one of the greatest of Rococo artists. His paintings were observations of society, normal people doing normal things. In the tradition of Rubens, he used red, white and black chalk for drawings, before he started to paint, creating hundreds of drawings which he used over and over again in his paintings.

E.H. Gombrich writes of Watteau, ‘The qualities of  Watteau’s art, the delicacy of his brushwork and the refinement of his colour harmonies are not easily revealed in reproductions. His immensely sensitive paintings and drawings must really be seen and enjoyed in the original.’ I also think that it really helps to be able to zoom in on his paintings, which is an advantage of an online course.

In Week 1 we also examined in close detail Hogarth’s first series dedicated to ‘Modern Moral Subjects’, Marriage A-la-Mode.

William Hogarth, Marriage A-la Mode: 1. The Marriage Settlement, 1745

Hogarth’s paintings exposed the follies and vices of the age. He was the finest and liveliest British portrait painter of the time, a man with a well-developed sense of cynical humour,  and also an engraver, so he sold many prints of his work.

In Week 4 we were shown this painting, which illustrates his skill as a portrait painter.

William Hogarth, Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants, c.1750-1755. Tate Britain, London.

Week 2: Defining the Rococo

In this week we were shown the work of a variety of artists of the period and at least 120 slides to explore the differences between Baroque and Rococo art. It seems that Rococo art is difficult to define. Some think that it’s not a style at all but a form of late Baroque, others that it is a style in its own right; it’s not what the baroque is. In his book Baroque and Rococo, Gauvin Alexander Bailey writes :

‘Baroque (c.1580-c.1700) grew out of the Catholic Reformation, and is a powerfully persuasive style based on rhetoric and drama, whereas Rococo (c.1700 – c.1800) began as décor, a whimsical, more intimate style that values ornamentation over structure and is more concerned with pastoral and exotic forms than with weighty theological or historical themes.’ (London: Phaidon, 2012)

Henrico Zucalli and J.B. Zimmermann, The Great Hall, 1701-2 and 1755-58, Nymphenburg Palace, Munich

Rococo art was described in this lecture as frilly, and joyful in its approach. Whereas Baroque art is bold and symmetrical, characteristics of Rococo art are asymmetry, and sinuous S-shaped scrolling curves. Rococo paintings were described as effervescent, gentle and elegant, employing soft, gentle colours and grounded in the world of imagination. An example of this is Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing. There couldn’t be a more Rococo painting than this.

This frothy, titillating painting is considered one of the quintessential works of Rococo art. Fragonard was influenced by the work of François Boucher and Giambattista Tiepolo.

Week 3: The Grand Tour

The 18th century was the time of the grand tour. Photography had not been invented so the best way to see European art was to travel to Europe, which many young gentlemen (known as ‘bear-cubs’) did, in the company of a tutor (the ‘bear-leader’), after studying at either Oxford or Cambridge (the only two Universities that existed at the time). These tours usually took about eighteen months, and of course they also served the purpose of ‘sowing wild oats’. The most common tour was to travel from England through France to Italy and down through Venice to Rome and Naples, but some ‘bear-cubs’ travelled further afield, and later in the century it became fashionable to travel to Wales, Scotland and the Lake District, no doubt attracted by the likes of Wordsworth and Coleridge.

And since there was no photography in this era, what better way to capture memories of the tour than by buying paintings, either of memorable sites and monuments, or of having your portrait painted in situ. Even Goethe had his portrait painted in Italy on his grand tour. So, at this time artists could make money by painting souvenirs. Notable amongst these artists was Canaletto, who is known for his many, many paintings of Venice. Typical of these paintings is The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day.

Canaletto Venice: The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day about 1740 Oil on canvas, 121.9 x 182.8 cm Bequeathed by Lord Revelstoke, 1929 NG4453 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG4453

To really appreciate Canaletto’s skill, visit the painting on the National Gallery’s website and zoom in, where you can see the extraordinary amount of detail in the painting and in his other paintings.

In this week’s session we saw many of Canaletto’s paintings of the Grand Canal in Venice and those which Canaletto painted of the Thames whilst living in England. We also saw how Canaletto’s work influenced other artists and architecture of the time, but we didn’t discuss this lovely painting (below) of The Stonemason’s Yard, although we were recommended (as homework) to watch a really interesting video of Associate Curator Francesca Whitlum-Cooper giving a talk about this painting – https://youtu.be/03BfPn6xrSo

Canaletto The Stonemason’s Yard about 1725 Oil on canvas, 123.8 x 162.9 cm Sir George Beaumont Gift, 1823; passed to the National Gallery, 1828 NG127 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG127

I think I prefer this painting to the canal paintings. Maybe because there are so many Canaletto paintings of the Grand Canal in Venice. There are even two in the Bowes Museum in County Durham, not so far from where I live.

Week 4: Crossing Genres

Part 1: A New Face for Portraiture

The first half of this week’s two hour session was presented by Richard Stemp, who discussed the new face of British Portraiture in the 18th century. He focussed on three artists, Thomas Gainsborough, William Hogarth and George Stubbs. Gainsborough combined portraiture and landscape painting; portraits made more money than landscapes, so many landscape artists turned to portraiture. Gainsborough’s famous painting Mr and Mrs Andrews, is an example of this, and also an example of a conversation piece, a type of painting that became popular at this time and depicted an informal group portrait in which people are gathered together and involved in real or imagined activity. The National Gallery has a very entertaining video on its site of a variety of people discussing this painting – https://youtu.be/g_w–aEYmH8  Hogarth also painted a number of conversation pieces, as did Stubbs, but in the case of Stubbs the portraits were often of animals (particularly horses) as well as people, set in landscapes and depicting a narrative.  

George Stubbs, The Milbanke and Melbourne Families, c.1769. National Gallery, London

Stubbs studied the anatomy of horses, dissecting them and making many anatomical drawings which he later used to inform his paintings.

George Stubbs, Plate for the Twelfth Anatomical Table of the Muscles, Fascias, Ligaments, Nerves, Arteries, Veins, Glands, and Cartilages of a Horse, viewed posteriorly, explained, which is the twenty-first plate in the book, The Anatomy of the Horse, London, 1766

Part 2: Dido Elizabeth Lindsay Belle (1761-1804) and the Beginnings of Abolition

The second half of this session was presented by Leslie Primo, who traced the beginnings of abolition through the eyes of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a black woman living in Kenwood House in the late 18th century. Through looking closely at her portrait by David Martin, and other art work of the time, we observed the emphasis in 18th century art on white skin superiority, and considered how Dido was depicted as an exotic other, and what her life might have been like.

David Martin, Dido Elizabeth Belle and Elizabeth Murray, c.1779, Scone Palace, Perth, Scotland

Week 5: Taking things seriously – Academies and Enlightenment

In the first half of this week’s two-hour session, Richard Stemp discussed how during the 18th century art was changing, from the ‘lighter touch’ of the Rococo period, to the more serious period of the Enlightenment (the Age of Reason), focussing on advances in science and philosophy. This was illustrated by discussion of  Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, which depicts a scientist conducting an experiment during which a vacuum is created by the air pump, which for a moment robs the bird of the air it needs in order to breathe. The people in this painting are ‘being enlightened’ and their faces are lit up.

Richard Stemp then went on to discuss some of the great thinkers so of the age; Mary Wollstonecraft, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot (who published the first encyclopaedia and became one of the first art critics), Voltaire, Goethe, Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Edmund Burke. These thinkers encouraged artists to take art more seriously, which led to the founding of the British Royal Academy, depicted here by Johan Zoffany.

Artists working at this time included Francisco Goya, François Boucher, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Jean-Simeon Chardin, William Gilpin, Joshua Reynolds, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser. As women, Kauffmann and Moser did not attend the academy, although Kauffmann was one of the most successful artists of the time and hugely wealthy; their portraits are displayed on the wall.

The second half of this week’s session was led by Dr Jenny Graham, Associate Professor (Reader) in Art History at the University of Plymouth, who spoke on the cult of sensibility and changing representations of masculinity in 18th century art, with reference to the paintings of Reynolds, Gainsborough, Chardin, Boucher and Greuze. We were shown a wide range of portraits showing the shift from portraits of men of power, very often symbolised by the white stockinged masculine calf, to softer representations of men of feeling, surrounded by nature, or depicted as loving husbands and tender fathers, often seated amongst their family. These two portraits below by Reynolds and Gainsborough, which have taken similar subjects, show the shift from Reynolds’ benchmark portrait of machismo, to Gainsborough’s pensive officer, lost in thought.

Week 6. Neo-Classicism: From Revolution to Empire

Richard Stemp introduced this module as follows:

Changes in artistic style are the result of many overlapping ideas – political, historical and theoretical. From the Renaissance onwards, an interest in the antique had been one of the major forces behind artistic style, but the focus had always been on ‘Rome’ as the highpoint of classical civilization. In 1764, Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s History of Ancient Art was one of the first books to distinguish between the arts of Greece and Rome, and to identify the primacy of the Greeks. At this point, the ‘Neo-Classical’ was born – the perfect antidote to the apparent superficiality of the Rococo. It became the perfect language for French revolutionaries to express the earnestness of their beliefs about the decadent monarchy, and an ideal form of expression of dignified intent for the revolutionary turned Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte.

There was far too much information packed into this week to cover in this very short reference to Week 6 of this module. Neo-Classical art was described as rational rather than emotional, with its origins in Greek sculpture. Neo-Classical art exhibits noble simplicity and quiet grandeur. It is cool, calm and sophisticated, with sculptures being white and paintings worked in subdued colours. Richard Stemp said, Baroque is like dark chocolate; Neo-Classicism is like spearmint, and Baroque is like full fat cream; Neo-Classicism is like skimmed milk. Many artists were referred to in this session. Here are some which exemplify Neo-Classical art.

Antonio Canovo, The Three Graces, 1814-17
Anton Raphael Mengs, Self Portrait in Red Mantle, 1744
Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat, 1793

And these wonderful male nudes by Giulia Lama (1720-23). Most women artists at this time worked from sculptures rather than directly from the male model, but Giulia Lama broke with the convention of the time.

Module 6 will be led by Dr Amy Mechowski and will look at 19th century art (1800-1900).

It will start on June 2nd 2021

https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/events/course-stories-of-art-online-module-6-1800-1900-2021

The Art of Seeing with Mary Attwood

This is just a quick post to recommend Mary Attwood’s monthly one hour sessions on The Art of Seeing. I attended my first session in this series this week in which we looked closely at one sculpture by Antony Gormley. This was the sculpture – Feeling Material XIV (2005).

For the first 15 minutes we were invited to look slowly at the image of the sculpture, taking a mindfulness approach to observing the details. We did this in silence, with audio muted, and, if we wished, with video switched off. During this time of silence, Mary projected slides of the sculpture from different angles for us to observe. We were asked to engage imaginatively with the sculpture through reflection, writing and drawing or however we wished to respond, seeing round it and through it.

There were about 16 participants in the session who all had unique responses to this work, but it was also possible to detect common threads.

Mary then shared with us her knowledge of Gormley’s work including this writing by Gormley:

I particularly liked the first 15 minutes of silent observation in this session. Such a relief from constantly being required to speak and explain our thinking, although we were also invited to do this. So there was a very nice balance in this session which I found both stimulating and relaxing.

Art History 1600 – 1700

Last week I completed the fourth module of the National Gallery’s six week online course – Stories of Art: A Modular Introduction to Art History, 1600 -1700. The title of this module, hosted by Lucrezia Walker, was Baroque and the Dutch Golden Age. I really enjoyed this module, probably because of the amazing artists discussed – Bernini, Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi, Rubens, Poussin, Velázquez, Rembrandt and Vermeer.

What I didn’t know before starting this module is that the word ‘baroque’ derives from the Portuguese ‘barroco’ word, which describes a large, irregularly shaped pearl. In relation to art, this was originally a derogatory term, suggesting excess, a flamboyant response to Renaissance classicism. Baroque was the leading style of this period.

As for previous modules, the course covered a wide range of artists, and showed hundreds of slides. There were 70 slides in Week 1 alone. For this post I will select one or two images from each week, to share a flavour of what the course was like.

Week 1: The power and the glory

The focus in Week 1 was on the power and glory of 17th century Rome and in particular the wonderful sculptures of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, described by Lucrezia Walker, as the ‘big boy of Baroque’, an extraordinary tour de force. Bernini’s father was a sculptor, so Bernini began his learning at the age of eight, to ultimately become the Michelangelo of Baroque, a giant figure of many talents – sculptor, architect, painter, playwright, theatre designer and musician. He has been described as the ‘artistic dictator of Rome’. Bernini worked on St Peter’s Basilica for 40 years, and was so talented that he could make marble look like flesh, as you can see from this photo below of his sculpture of The Rape of Proserpina.

Not only did we get a great introduction to Bernini in the first half of Week 1, but we were also given a good look around the sites of Rome where his work features.

The second half of Week 1 was devoted to the art collection of King Charles 1, which was unprecedented in England. This collection was an indication of his power and glory. He collected work by Van Dyck, Titian, Rubens, Holbein, Bronzino and Mantegna.

Week 2: Caravaggio, the Catholic Reformation and the beginnings of Baroque

This week focussed on the first half of the 17th century in Rome, and in particular on the work of Caravaggio, in the first half of the session, and Artemisia Gentileschi in the second half. Both Caravaggio and Artemisia were hugely influential in the early 1600s, and then became less important, and were not rediscovered until the late 20th century (Caravaggio) and 21st century (Artemisia).

Caravaggio had a violent temperament, characterised by drinking, brawling, gambling and fighting. In 1606 he had to flee Rome after killing a man and spent the rest of his life travelling between Naples, Malta and Sicily. He was constantly in trouble, but he was hugely influential. His style was innovative and naturalistic, with dramatic contrast of light and dark. It formed a new kind of art for a new catholic church, and from about 1600 onwards, Caravaggio never wanted for patrons. Because Caravaggio produced a lot of work for churches, his work was widely viewed, more so than if he had painted solely for private collectors.

Artemisia was the most celebrated female painter of the 17th century. Her mother died when she was twelve and being the eldest child of a family of daughters she worked in her father’s studio, producing professional work by the age of 15. As a young woman, aged 17, Artemisia was raped by Agostino Tassi, an artist who visited her father’s studio. He was convicted of rape in 1612, but this event influenced not only Artemisia’s work, but also how her work was perceived. Nevertheless she became a successful court painter in Florence. Artemisia was strongly influenced by Caravaggio; her paintings were highly naturalistic.

Her painting, in 1610, of Susanna and the Elders (image above), which she painted at the age of 17, shows her distinctive style and was surely a premonition of what was to befall her within a year of painting it. But Artemisia has become a heroine of feminist art history. ‘I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do,’ she wrote to a Sicilian patron. ‘You will find the spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman.’

Week 3: The embarrassment of riches: Painting in the Dutch Republic (not baroque)

I found this the most stimulating all the six weeks. In preparation (as homework) we were asked to watch Rembrandt vs Vermeer on Intelligence Squared – https://youtu.be/cCQZnXz2Uss. This is a highly entertaining programme which I can recommend. Tim Marlow chairs a debate between Simon Schama and Tracy Chevalier over who is better, Rembrandt or Vermeer? This reminded me of a wonderful trip to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 2014, where I saw paintings by both Rembrandt and Vermeer.

At the beginning of this week’s session we were asked to vote on whether we preferred Rembrandt or Vermeer. The result of the poll was exactly 43% to each, with the remainder being ‘no preference’ responses. I voted for Rembrandt, which I probably wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t been to the Rijksmuseum, but as one participant said, it’s like comparing apples and pears.

Rembrandt was the 9th child of a wealthy miller and had a classical education. He was married twice (his wives feature in his paintings), lived to the age of 63, and was successful in his lifetime with a large studio. He produced a huge amount of work, including 80 self-portraits. He was a great painter of humanity.

Rembrandt, Portrait of Aechje Claesdr, 1634

Vermeer, a tavern owner and a dealer, as well as a painter, lived a shorter life, dying at the age of 42 . He was a much quieter artist than Rembrandt, painting simple images of glorious ordinariness. He produced relatively few paintings, working slowly and producing a couple of paintings a year. Vermeer painted scenes from everyday life, often a single figure in a room with light from the left. It is thought that he may have used a camera obscura, and he is known for lavish use of the expensive pigment lapis lazuli.

Vermeer, Woman pouring milk, c1658

Between 1640 and 1660, Amsterdam was the place to be, clean, ordered, with impressive land reclamation projects (God made the world, except for Holland, which the Dutch made!). There were more painters than butchers in Amsterdam and an explosion of different genres of painting, portraits, landscapes (townscapes, seascapes, urban landscapes, winter scenes) and still-life (lavish still-life and the vanitas still-life); ordinary people were buying art. This was the era of the rise of the dealer and the beginning of the art market. This was also a time when artists worked collaboratively on paintings. Some of the other painters introduced this week were Gerrit Berckheyde, Peter Saenredam (so different from Italian paintings of Catholic Church interiors ), Willem Kalf, Jan Janz Treck, Harmen Steenwyck, Adrien van Utrecht, Rachel Ruysch (whose paintings sold for more than those of Rembrandt‘s at the time), Willem van Aelst, Jacob van Walscappelle (still life), Aelbert Cuyp (landscape), Judith Leyster (portraits) and Pieter de Hooch.

Week 4: The art of Spain

Significant artists working in Spain in the 17th century included El Greco, Zurburan, Velázquez and Murillo.  For the first half of this week’s session we looked at the work of all these artists. The second half of the session focussed on Diego Velázquez, whose work was discussed in more depth by Dr Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery.

El Greco’s work took me by surprise. It seems so modern, and his influence can be seen in both cubism and expressionism. El Greco was a one off. He doesn’t seem to fit in any art school. His style was highly individual to the extent that people wondered whether he had a problem with his eyesight. His work is other worldly. He often elongated or over exaggerated his subject and used unusual colour effects. El Greco was born in Crete, but he travelled to Venice and Rome, before finally moving to Toledo, which was the capital of Spain until 1560. He was influenced by Titian, but particularly by Tintoretto.

El Greco, View of Toledo, 1596-1600

Velázquez was born into an educated literary family (a Portuguese mother and Spanish father) in Seville. but ultimately moved to Madrid where he spent his entire career in the service of King Philip IV, who was a sophisticated admirer of art. Velázquez was a famous painter at court, knighted by the King, with the Order of Santiago, and twice sent to Italy, which played an important role in shaping his art, where he came under the influence of Titian’s work. Las Meninas is thought to be Velázquez’ masterpiece.

Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656

The painting doesn’t particularly appeal to me, but Dr Gabriele Finaldi, gave a very plausible explanation of why it has become such a revered work of art. It is a large group portrait which includes Velázquez himself with the cross of the Order of Santiago on his chest and the King’s daughter. The painting is a fascinating paradox of what is shown, and what isn’t; what is said and what isn’t; what is real and what is not; a story within a story; an image within an image. Las Meninas is a manifesto for painting. It shows that for Velázquez, painting is a speculative activity, not simply mechanical.

Velázquez is also known for The Rokeby Venus, which was famously attacked and badly damaged in 1914 by the suffragette Mary Richardson, although later restored.

Week 5: Rubens and Van Dyck (Flemish art)

This week the focus was almost entirely on Rubens and Van Dyck, Rubens’ pupil. The first half of the session provided an introduction to both painters by Lucrezia Walker, and the second by Dr Chantal Brotherton-Ratcliffe, who explored the work and skill of both artists in more depth, showing us how to recognise the difference between these two artists by their brush strokes.

Rubens was described as the most successful artist who ever lived. He was extraordinarily important as a painter and was knighted by both Charles I of England and Philip IV of  Spain. He was charming, and not only a painter, but also a polyglot, businessman and diplomat. Rubens had a very happy private life, marrying 16 year old Isabella Brandt at the age of 32, and after she died marrying another 16 year old, Hélène Fourment, at the age of 53. From Antwerp, Rubens visited Rome, where he saw the work of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Caravaggio, who all influenced his work. As a painter Rubens was prolific. He had a studio of about 50 assistants and was therefore able to take on large commissions and deliver them quickly. On some paintings he collaborated with Jan Brueghel the Elder who painted the backgrounds. Rubens also painted landscapes but he was known more for his paintings of fulsome women.

Rubens, Le Chapeau de Paille, 1622-25

He was strongly influenced by the work of Titian, and like Titian used thick paint on a heavily-laden brush, which gave his work a 3-dimensional sculptural feel. He loved strong colour, particularly vermillion. Later in his career, like Titian, he began to experiment with ‘less is more’, a softer, non-specific way of painting and used thinner paint.

Van Dyck was Rubens’ best pupil, very precocious and almost like a post-grad student, to the extent that it was sometimes difficult to tell their work apart. He was born to prosperous parents in Antwerp and by the age of 15 was already an accomplished artist. His father was a silk merchant, so Van Dyck was excited by fabrics, which can be seen in his paintings. Van Dyck spent most of his life working in Spain and England, where he became the leading court painter and was knighted by King Charles I, but he also visited Italy. Like Rubens he was heavily influenced by the work of Titian, and owned 19 Titians by the time he died. Van Dyck was known for his portraits.

Van Dyck, Charles I in Three Positions, 1635 or 1636

Van Dyck died at the age of 41 by which time he was painting with thinner and thinner paint to the point where the ground paint showed through.

Week 6: Dreaming in Rome

In this final week the focus was on two important French artists working in Rome in the 17th century:  Claude Lorrain (commonly known as just Claude) and Nicolas Poussin. Both these artists influenced future generations of painters. The influence of Poussin can be seen in the work of Benjamin West, David, Ingres, Delacroix, Cezanne and Picasso. The influence of Claude on Constable and particularly Turner is easily seen, to the extent that Turner, in his will, requested that the National Gallery hang two of his paintings next to two of Claude’s.

In the 17th century Rome was being revivified. The city was in ruins, but was full of vestiges of a great lost past, which artists found charming and poetic.

At this time the Cardinals were amassing art collections and there were many Papal commissions. This drew Poussin from Normandy to Rome in 1624 at the age of 30, when Rome was entering its full baroque period under Bernini. Poussin’s early work depicted mythological scenes and historical narratives, but later in his career he began to paint landscapes.

Poussin, Landscape with a Calm, 1651

Claude also finally ended up in Rome in 1628, where he too worked on landscapes, going out to paint with his friend Poussin. Both artists constructed their landscapes to lead the eye back through the paintings.

Claude, A Sea Port, 1639

Next week will see the start of Module 5 in this art history course, and will explore the 18th century (1700-1800), looking at the art of Fragonard, Watteau, David, Hogarth, Gainsborough, Stubbs and others.

Nature in education and education in Nature

The past year has seen a surge of interest in what has been called ‘reconnecting with Nature’. It is a sign of our times that it has taken a pandemic of global proportions to bring about this surge of interest and greater recognition of the importance of Nature to our lives, health and well-being.

The one thing everyone in the UK has been allowed to do during lockdown has been to exercise once a day outdoors, and many people have spoken/written about how this has helped them to reconnect with Nature for the first time in many years. Last week I attended an online event which explored this need for re-connection.

The event was organised by  Invisible Dust  – “What will our view of nature bring to the future?” in which a panel of speakers explored the following questions:

  • What changes in how we see the natural world could lead to a brighter future?
  • Rather than seeing ourselves as separate from nature, might we see ourselves as a part of it – changing how we see non-human animals and our relationship to the natural world?
  • Can we move forward positively from the COVID-19 pandemic and act to reduce future risks?
  • What can we learn from the indigenous communities that have lived in harmony with nature rather than tried to conquer it?

The panel was made up of a diverse and very interesting group of people, who were all deeply committed to exploring these questions:

Danielle Celermajer, author of Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future

Milka Chepkorir, advocate for indigenous land rights from the Sengwer community.

Usman Haque, artist-architect and creative director at Umbrellium.

Iain McGilchrist, psychiatrist and author of The Master and his Emissary

Hosted by: Jessica Sweidan, founder of Synchronicity Earth and Patron of Nature for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature

The discussion started from the premise that we are now experiencing an ecological crisis in which our relationship with Nature is broken, and this is the root of some of our greatest problems. We are removed from the consequences of our actions and numb to the loss of our connection with Nature, but the paradox is that we, as human beings, have never been more connected, to each other, to other cultures, and to other ways of living.

Whilst panel members were coming from different perspectives, they all agreed that the heart of the problem is that we now think of Nature as something separate from ourselves, an exotic ‘Other’, something we use, something we are different from and superior to. We fail to recognise and acknowledge that there is no line between human beings and Nature. As McGilchrist said, We are Nature and Nature is us; we come out of Nature and we go back into Nature. Nature is not out there around us, but in us; it is something that is always being born. Milka Chepkorir, coming from the indigenous Sengwer community of Kenya, recognised this as a symbiotic relationship, saying that for her people there is no separation between Nature and people, and that we should know that if we harm Nature, then it will harm us. Indigenous people have not lost their connection with Nature, but are having to fight to maintain it. In a rather sad indictment of our education system, Milka said that in order to get her voice heard about this she had to get a recognised academic qualification for which she had to study what she and her people already knew! At one point she said that indigenous people don’t understand why the rest of the world don’t get it. Why don’t non-indigenous communities understand that Nature is in us and we are in Nature? The question of trust was raised in answer to this. How we can become more accepting of other cultures?

All agreed that we have to change the way we think to address the problem of disconnection from Nature. Usman Haque is just starting to work on The Eden Project in London, which aims to ‘rewild’ London; this would also involve ‘rewilding’ people! What an amazing idea! By this he meant that they would try and transform people’s relationships to each other and to non-human systems, and find ways to enable people to make a visible first step, such as growing things to eat, or bee keeping. These small individual steps would hopefully then grow into larger more collective actions.

There was a lot more in this discussion than I have mentioned here, and it is well worth watching the video of the whole event, not least because it is so enjoyable and uplifting to watch.

Of course, changing the ways people think is no easy matter, as Usman Haque mentioned, and it was recognised that education would play a key role in this.

It’s interesting that a brief look at the UK National Curriculum for schools doesn’t mention Nature in the science curriculum, but rather the environment. For example, in Year 1 Pupils should use the local environment throughout the year to explore and answer questions about plants growing in their habitat. McGilchrist does not like the word environment, which he believes reinforces the idea that we humans are somehow separate from the world, and the statement above does seem to emphasise the use of Nature. Pupils throughout school do of course study ecosystems and the interdependence of organisms, but I wonder if there is enough emphasis on our place as humans within Nature rather than separate from it, and I wonder whether a simple change of language, i.e. exchanging the word environment, for the word Nature might kick-start a change in awareness. The language we use is so powerful in influencing the way we attend to the world.

There are of course many projects which are being developed in the hope of helping people to reconnect with Nature. In my local area, there is the Morecambe Bay Curriculum (part of the Eden Project North), which aims to work with local schools to develop a unique educational tool to help unite and inspire the next generation in terms of our natural history and the immense environmental challenges we face as a society. But projects such as these will need to go beyond thinking of Nature as something ‘Other’ if we are to overcome the current ecological crisis. Studying Morecambe Bay or any other aspect of Nature from a distance, or from within a walled classroom, will not foster an understanding of Nature being in us and we being in Nature. Hopefully the Morecambe Bay Curriculum project, and others like it, will involve a lot of hands-on time in Nature. One of the richest educational experiences I have ever had was a week long field trip to Seahouses (North-East England) for my ‘A’ level Biology course.

Source of photo: https://www.trekearth.com/gallery/Europe/United_Kingdom/England/Northumberland/Seahouses/photo199218.htm

This involved days of peering into rock pools, and studying every imaginable aspect of the seashore. It was magical. This experience was more than 50 years ago, but it greatly influenced my relationship with Nature, and I still have the book in which I pressed the seaweeds I collected for identification purposes at that time.

The Invisible Dust event panel members were optimistic that people haven’t lost the ability to love and feel connected with Nature. Let’s hope so.

Art History 1500 -1600

Last week I completed Module 3 of the National Gallery’s ‘Stories of Art Online: A Modular Introduction to Art History’ course. I completed Module 2, Renaissance Art 1400-1500,  before Christmas 2020.

Whilst I know I could never be an art historian (too many facts to remember!), it has been wonderful to attend this course, listen to the extremely knowledgeable presenters (in this case, Dr Richard Stemp) and be introduced to amazing work and art history, that previously I knew very little about, during this long trying period of Covid lockdown, compounded by one of the coldest winters I can remember in recent years. Plenty of other people must feel the same, since we were told in Week 1 that more than 900 people from around the world had signed up for this course. I was so pleased to hear this, as it must be a way for the National Gallery to help keep their financial heads above water, during this time which is so difficult for anything to do with the arts.

Each week we are sent a handout about the week’s content, which includes not only the outline of content for the week, but also reference to additional resources. I particularly enjoy it when we are sent links to videos that further explain the paintings/art works that we will be introduced to. Many galleries, including the National Gallery, have freely accessible videos on their websites which are well worth watching and very enjoyable to watch. A video can zoom right in to details of a painting that you probably wouldn’t be able to see in the gallery itself, particularly if the painting is very large.

Dr Richard Stemp, who like Jo Walton, presenter for Module 2, was impressively knowledgeable about this era of art history, told us in his handout that the aim of this module was:

“.. to explore the ways in which the complex political interactions and religious developments of the 16th century influence paintings in the National Gallery. Artworks will be explored in relation to patronage – the people or organisations who paid for the paintings – and their function – whether they were intended for a public audience, religious or secular, to instruct or commemorate, to delight the eye or intrigue the mind of a private viewer.’

The course was structured over 6 weeks as follows:

  • Week 1: Religion
  • Week 2: Politics and portraiture
  • Week 3: Mythology
  • Week 4: Rivalry and collaboration
  • Week 5: Women as artists and patrons
  • Week 6: Questions of style

Each lecturer brings his/her own style, but Jo Walton and Richard Stemp were equally enthusiastically passionate about their interest in art history of the period being presented. For this module there were also some invited speakers. In Week 1, Leslie Primo explored the iconography of the black king, Balthasar, in imagery of the Adoration of the Maji. I loved this presentation and might write a different post about it and save it for posting at Christmas time. In Week 2 the course was joined by Dr Caroline Campbell, who reflected on the legacy and learnings from the 2006 National Gallery exhibition “Bellini and the East’. In Week 3 the invited guest was Michael Ohajuru, who discussed how the black female image was whitewashed from Renaissance art and in the art of the following centuries. Another different feature of this module was that each weekly handout included a glossary of terms, which was extremely useful to an art history novice like me!

And now to each of the weeks in turn. Since we were shown hundreds of slides during this module, I am going to attempt to select just one from each week, something that stood out for me and made the week memorable.

Week 1: Religion/Faith

This week focussed on the influence of the Reformation on 16th century art. Focus paintings included:

Words to remember for this period are iconoclasm (the destruction of images for political and religious reasons), and indulgences, a Catholic practice in which an indulgence could be bought as a payment for sin to reduce the time spent in purgatory, or put another way, to buy your way into heaven. This was thought to be exploitative by the Protestant Reformation.  The Catholic Reformation (also known as the Counter Reformation), was a response to the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Reformation reasserted a belief in the importance of images for worship, albeit with a change in form and content.  The Roman Catholic Church said it needed art to teach and communicate, and spending money on art demonstrated your faith. So Jan Gossaert’s amazing painting of The Adoration of the Kings survived this period of iconoclasm.

To appreciate the detail in this painting, visit it on the National Gallery’s website where you can zoom in, and from where this screenshot was taken.

Week 2: Politics and Portraiture

Art is often highly political. If you know who paid for art, you know a lot about the political landscape. One of the main ways that rulers of this period expressed their power was through portraiture. It was used to memorialise the deceased and make the absent present, representing the subject accurately in terms of appearance and their role in society. The focus paintings for this week were:

All the paintings are in the National Gallery, and the videos in the links provided are a wonderful introduction to each painting. Each painting has a story to tell; it’s difficult to choose which one to include in this post. I have decided on Christina of Denmark, even though ‘The Ambassadors’ is full of symbolism (watch the video for more information) and includes an example of ‘anamorphosis’ (a technique in which the artist presents a distorted view of an object which can only be seen if the viewer looks at the painting from a particular angle – in this case the skull in the foreground of the painting). But Christina is not only beautiful, her story is also wonderful. She was considered as a possible bride for Henry VIII, after he had divorced Catherine of Aragon and beheaded Anne Boleyn. Hans Holbein was dispatched to Brussels to meet Christina and paint her portrait for Henry to consider, given there was no photography in those days. But as you can see from her portrait she was very self-possessed and is supposed to have said “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.” In other words, there was no way she was going to marry Henry VIII.

This is a screenshot of part of the painting. The painting is a full-length portrait.

Week 3: Mythology

The Renaissance was a period when artists and thinkers returned to the myths of ancient Greece and Rome for their creative inspiration. Focus paintings for this week were:

Significant in this period is the work of Titian, in particular the series of six large paintings (poesie) he created for King Philip II of Spain, which were the focus of a National Gallery Exhibition that had to close early because of the Covid 19 pandemic. In an article about the exhibition in The Art Newspaper, Ben Luke writes:

Much is made of the erotic charge in the abundance of female flesh of the poesie, often seen to be at odds with Philip’s piousness. But as a young prince and king, his sexual appetites were well documented. Yet [Matthias] Wivel argues that the power of Titian’s series is not just sensual but sensory: they “appeal not only to our sense of sight and obviously our sense of touch but also smell and sound. He’s sort of a synaesthetic painter at this point. And the Europa [The Rape of Europa]  is a great example of it: you can feel the dampness of the air.”

There is a good BBC introduction to this exhibition – Titian Behind Closed Doors. I don’t know how long this programme will be available for. There is also an interesting short film on the National Gallery’s YouTube channel about how new frames were made for the Titian paintings.

Lucas Cranach’s work also focusses on classical narratives and mythological subjects. Here are two examples of his work.

On completing this week of the course I realised that paintings that focus on mythological imagery are not my thing, however obviously skilled and great the artist.

Week 4: Rivalry and Collaboration

This was an interesting week, which explored the collaboration between Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo (see Matthias Wivel’s Introduction to the 2017 National Gallery Exhibition – Michelangelo and Sebastiano). It also explored the rivalry between them, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael.

Sebastiano was from Venice, along with Titian, but Titian was younger and, at this time, not yet established as a great artist. In Rome, where Sebastiano travelled to, Michelangelo’s position as the greatest artist was being challenged by the younger Raphael, not only because of Raphael’s charm and skill (Michelangelo was seemingly a bit of a grouch!), but also because Raphael was thought to ‘steal’ Michelangelo’s ideas and techniques, or put more politely, to be a sponge, absorbing the ideas and transforming them into his own. There is even a story that Raphael managed to get access to Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine ceiling and ‘stole’ some of the unusual figurative postures used by Michelangelo, to incorporate in his own work, which he made public before work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling was completed.

Focus paintings for this week were:

At this time most works were collaborations of one form or another. The Raising of Lazarus is an example of the collaboration between Sebastiano del Piombo and Michelangelo. Sebastiano’s strength was as a skilled oil painter and colourist. At this point Sebastiano was more skilled than Titian and Raphael. Michelangelo at this time could draw like nobody else and so realised that by collaborating with Sebastiano they could be a match for Raphael.

The Raising of Lazarus (Sebastiano del Piombo)

In this painting the drawings for the figure of Lazarus and some of the other main male figures (but not Christ) were provided by Michelangelo.

Week 5: Women as Artists and Patrons

I also enjoyed this week. It’s not hard to recognise that for women to become artists, or even patrons of the arts, would have been a real achievement in the 16th century. At the time, the role for women in society was domesticity – they should stay at home, or go into the church. If they went out at all, they should keep their eyes on the ground, or look admiringly at their husbands (shades of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and  The Testaments). But some women did manage to break through this oppression. They were either women who had been sent into convents to become nuns (fathers couldn’t afford dowries for all their daughters!), or they were daughters of artists. Women could become patrons if they were wealthy widows and had no sons in majority, or were nuns in convents.

There were a lot of lovely focus paintings for this week:

It was quite moving to think of how these amazing women managed to create enduring art in a time when women were not talked about, were frowned upon for painting self-portraits as it was considered vain, couldn’t become apprenticed to a male master artist, because it would mean going to live with him,  and couldn’t, in normal circumstances travel. But Sofonisba Anguissola did. She was one of five daughters whose father ensured that four of them could paint. She travelled to Rome on her own and met Michelangelo. Later she became an official course painter to Philip II of Spain. Here is a painting of hers of her sisters playing chess.

Week 6: A Question of Style

In this final week I learned three new terms in relation to the question of style.

1. Contrapposto – ‘an asymmetrical arrangement of the human figure in which the line of the arms and shoulders contrasts with, while balancing, those of the hips and legs’.

2. Mannerism – ‘Where High Renaissance art emphasizes proportion, balance, and ideal beauty. Mannerism exaggerates such qualities, often resulting in compositions that are asymmetrical or unnaturally elegant. The style is notable for its intellectual sophistication as well as its artificial (as opposed to naturalistic) qualities. This artistic style privileges compositional tension and instability rather than the balance and clarity of earlier Renaissance painting.’

3. Sprezzatura – studied carelessness so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it

Focus paintings for this week were:

Bronzino’s ‘The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence” is an example of ‘mannerism’. You can see it in the dramatic convoluted postures. The content is also convoluted.

Mannerism is all about exaggeration. It takes art out of the everyday. It is not naturalistic. Once you become aware of it, you can see that a number of recognised artists have used this style, including Michelangelo.

I am now looking forward to Module 4, which will start on February 24th. The tutor for this module will be Lucrezia Walker, who will introduce us to the work of Caravaggio, Velázquez and Vermeer.

The Black and White Photography of Sebastião Salgado

At the beginning of this month I attended a How To Academy online event in which Alan Riding, author, playwright and former foreign correspondent for The New York Times interviewed Sebastião Salgado, Brazilian photographer and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, about his work. This was a fascinating hour on many levels.

I have attended many How to Academy events this year, and all of them have been good. This one I came across by chance, and although I had never heard of Sebastião Salgado before (and now wonder how I missed him), I was immediately struck by the power of the photograph used to advertise the event, and so decided to attend. It was time well spent.

This is the image used to advertise the event. It was taken in the aftermath of the Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein set fire to Kuwait’s oil fields. Salgado describes how at that time he was working for the New York Times. 600 oil wells were burning at the same time. One of his camera lenses melted because it was so hot and very heavy oil was raining over him, such that he had to cover his camera with his body to protect it, and constantly use kitchen roll soaked in petrol to clean both his camera and his hands, so that he could take the photos.

Salgado did not start out his working life as a photographer. He qualified as an economist and it was only when he was sent to work in Africa, and borrowed his wife’s camera for the trip, did he realise that photography would be his life. He then knew that it was humanity in distress that concerned him. He himself was a migrant, leaving Minas Gerais in Brazil, the place of his birth, and taking refuge in France during the time of the military dictatorship.

In the following years he worked for many humanitarian organisations, was committed to projects that were concerned with social justice, photographed the migration and movement of populations and covered the genocidal civil wars in Rwanda and Bosnia.

Rwandan Refugee Camp

Ultimately this led to him becoming physically and psychologically sick, when he withdrew from his work as a ‘photojournalist’ and returned to the farm he inherited from his parents in Brazil.

Here he was dismayed to find that the land was as sick as he was …

Before

…. so, with his wife Lélia Wanick Salgado, he set about replanting and restoring the natural forest, turning 17,000 acres into a nature reserve and creating the Instituto Terra. The institute is dedicated to a mission of reforestation, conservation and environmental education.

After

Salgado does not consider himself a social photographer, saying:

It’s limiting. Listen, I am not a social photographer. I am not an economic photographer. I’m not a photojournalist. Photography is much more than that. Photography is my life. It’s my way of life, and my language. I went to photograph the things that I had a great curiosity to see and to organize. I felt a certain revulsion, and a compulsion to show that others also have dignity, that dignity is not an exclusive property of the rich countries of the north but exists all over the planet. That’s what photography was for me, my language, my life and my way of going about and doing things. (https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/03/23/sebastio-salgados-journey-from-brazil-to-the-world/)

I found this talk fascinating. It included many of his amazing photographs and the stories behind them, but the reason for this post is the question that Alan Riding asked Sebastião Salgado right at the start of the interview: Why do you photograph in black and white?

Salgado explained that when he first borrowed his wife’s camera for his trip to Africa, he took photographs in colour, but then he began to find colour disturbing. He felt that a colour photograph both detracts and distracts from the subject, and from the information that he was trying to capture. I think I understand this, in the context of what he chooses to photograph. I find his photographs stunning and extremely powerful. But for me the world is full of colour. I am happy to look at black and white photographs as works of art, or as statements on our social condition, and to appreciate the contrast between black and white and the many subtle shades of grey, but I see the world in colour, and it is colour that draws my attention.

Renaissance Art from 1400 -1500

For the past six weeks I have been attending the National Gallery’s course, Stories of Art Online – A Modular Introduction to Art History.  This was the second module of a six module course which will run until June 2021. Regrettably I missed the first module (1250 -1400), not being aware of it, but since the modules cover specific time periods, they can be enjoyed as stand-alone events.

This was my first experience of an art history course, and quite unlike any other online course I have attended, and I have attended many over the years. The delivery was didactic; a two hour lecture each week, with at least 50 slides being shown in each lecture. This might seem daunting, but the lectures were captivating. Not only was the lecturer, Jo Walton, impressively knowledgeable and easy to listen to, but she was also warm, friendly and infectiously passionate about the art history she was discussing. The slides she selected to show us were stunning.  I linked my laptop to a large monitor for these lectures, so that I could enlarge the slides and see them in all their glorious detail. I took this screenshot as an example of one of the slides shown in the final week.

Despite each week being essentially a lecture, it didn’t feel overly formal. Most weeks there were one or two polls which asked attendees to vote on questions posed by Jo Walton, who then showed us the results of the poll. Each week we were emailed slide lists and a handout with some homework for the following week. These handouts included resources for further exploration, which usually involved visiting galleries’ websites to explore and examine some of the paintings that would be shown in the following week. In Week 5 the homework included a task which required submitting our opinion to a Googledoc, where we could then see how others on the course had responded. There was always a 10 minute break in the middle of each week’s lecture which was preceded by a question and answer session. Attendees could post questions in written form during the lecture. These were either answered by Jo Walton in the break, or in the final 10 minutes, or by a lecturer who assisted in the background by responding to questions as the lecture was being delivered. I’m not sure exactly how many people were on the course, but I think probably hundreds. The National Gallery team certainly worked hard to ensure that all questions were answered.

Too much was covered in this wonderfully enjoyable course to record here, so instead I will select an art work from each week, and post it here. The images selected are not necessarily my favourite images of the week, but rather have been selected to illustrate a point. There were so many wonderful slides in this course that it was hard to make these selections. (Clicking on the images will enlarge them).

Week 1. The idea of the Renaissance

As we know, ‘Renaissance’ is a French word meaning ‘rebirth’. At the time, people started looking to the past and taking an interest in the learning of ancient times, in particular, the learning of Ancient Greece and Rome. The Renaissance was seen as a ‘rebirth’ of that learning. Painting, architecture, sculpture, music and philosophy all flourished during this time. Week 1 focussed on artists in Florence such as Ghiberti, Donatello, Masaccio, Masolino, Fra Angelico, Uccello and Piero della Francesca.


Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano, 1450, National Gallery, London, Room 59
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Battle_of_San_Romano#/media/File:San_Romano_Battle_(Paolo_Uccello,_London)_01.jpg

During the 15th century developments in art were influenced by new materials and techniques, an interest in subjects such as portraits, tales of myth and history, a delight in landscape and the depiction of realistic details. One of the new techniques was single point perspective. Uccello’s painting is an example of this. You can see it particularly in the bottom of the painting, in the lines created by the swords and lances on the ground.

Week 2. Bruges and the artists of Flanders

I particularly enjoyed this week, probably because I have visited some of the galleries in Bruges which were mentioned, whereas I have never been to Florence. The course did make me want to visit Florence though – maybe when this pandemic is over!


Robert Campin, The Annunciation Triptych, 1425-1428, Metropolitan Museum of Art
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Robert_Campin_-_Triptych_with_the_Annunciation,_known_as_the_%22Merode_Altarpiece%22_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

At this time Bruges was an important and wealthy trading city, as was Florence. Although Paris was a large city, its focus was on civil unrest, plagues, famine and war. Thus Bruges, Ghent and Brussels became the creative centres of western Europe, and through strong trading links with Florence, ideas, techniques and skills were exchanged between the artists of Florence and Flanders. In the wonderful Triptych above, Robert Campin uses his own version of perspective (look at the table top in the central panel). He also includes a lot of symbolism, the lily, the snuffed candle, the tiny figure with the crucifix, the copper vessel and the lions. In Florence, artists used fresco and tempera techniques, but these techniques are not suitable for wet climates like Bruges. Artists in Flanders therefore used oil paints. Oil paint is translucent and allows light to penetrate. It also dries slowly so can be manipulated. This changed the quality of the paintings.

Some of the other artists discussed in Week 2 were Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling.

Week 3. Portrait, people and gods

The Renaissance was underpinned by humanist ideas, moving away from the idea that all was ordained by God, towards a greater sense of individuality. This in turn promoted the development of more realistic portraits and sculptures, as seen in the work of Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, Sandro Botticelli, Albrecht Durer and Giovanni Bellini.

The study of ancient texts, which was a feature of this time in art history, also led to an interest by artists in the stories of gods and goddesses, lovers and nymphs, myths, legends and past heroes. See, for example, the work of Antonio Pollaiuolo and, of course, Sandro Botticelli’s painting ‘Venus and Mars’, which you can see in Room 58 of the National Gallery, and on the gallery’s website, which features a talk about it – https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/sandro-botticelli-venus-and-mars 

But, I have selected these amazing murals in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence, as an illustration of the content of this week. These murals, depicting the journey of the Magi, were painted by Benozzo Gozzoli. The detail in these paintings is extraordinary.


Benozzo Gozzoli, The Journey of the Magi, 1456-61, The chapel of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence http://www.travelingintuscany.com/art/benozzogozzoli/processionofthemagi.htm

Detail from The Journey of the Magi

There were also slides, this week, of many wonderful portraits, in paintings, sculpture and on cameos, medals and coins. The latter depicted portraits in profile, since these poses were easier for working in metal, leading to many artists painting portraits in profile. Throughout this period, painters, such as those I have mentioned above, explored many different faces and emotions which they expressed with some stunning results.

Week 4. Secular and domestic

At this time in art history painting landscape for it’s own sake didn’t really exist. So this painting by Albrecht Durer in 1496 was unusual.


House by a Pond, Albrecht Durer
https://www.wikiart.org/en/albrecht-durer/house-by-a-pond
 

Where landscapes were painted, they were secondary to the main subject of the painting, such as a historical, religious or mythological event. Paintings  of such events were considered the most important of the time, followed by portraits of prestigious people and then paintings of ordinary and everyday life. Landscape painting didn’t become a genre in its own right until the early 1500s. Urban landscapes were also included as backgrounds to portraits, and these, together with the interiors in which subjects for portraits were painted, provide a lot of information about life in the time. For example, wardrobes had not yet been invented, so households kept all their belongings in chests, which could be very ornate and exquisitely painted (see, for example, Cassone with a Tournament Scene in the National Gallery).

Week 5. Arts of court and state

This week focussed on the second half of the fifteenth century art in different cities. The lecture began with the story of Rome. At the beginning of the 1400s Rome was a very depressed place, with various families fighting for control of the city and the Pope was based in Avignon in France. But by the late 1440s, the Pope had returned to Rome and the Papacy began the work of creating a modern city, and commissioning and collecting modern and classical art. At this time the Sistine Chapel was built and the Vatican decorated with opulent interiors and wonderful frescoes. Artists in Venice, Florence, Nuremburg and Rome, continued to develop their understanding of linear and aerial perspective and their fascination with the human body. Drawings were rare at this time because paper was very expensive, but Jacopo Bellini began to make drawings for his own interest, and Pisanello began drawing horses and wildlife. By 1450 artists were making sketches from life, particularly of the human figure, and print making, and engravings became important, as demonstrated by the work of Antonio Pollaiuolo, Andrea Mantegna,, Martin Schongauer, Piero della Francesca and Albrecht Durer.


Battle of the Nudes, Antonio del Pollaiuolo, circa 1489
 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Antonio_Pollaiuolo_-_Battle_of_the_Nudes_-_Google_Art_Project_(CAH0xbSFiSpKkg).jpg

Week 6. The artist as ‘star’

Today we accept as the norm, artist as ‘star’, an isolated individual working on art of intense personal meaning. This was not the case in the 15th century, when art was a more collegiate experience. Artists worked alongside other craftsmen such as shoemakers, and worked in many different disciplines. For example, Botticelli started as a goldsmith.


Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Magnificat, circa 1483
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/23/Madonna_of_the_Magnificat.png

But, by the end of the 15th century some stars were rising, notably Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and later Raphael. All three raised the status of the artist in society, and still inspire us today. Jo Walton suggested that Leonardo was more interested in engineering than painting. He didn’t complete a great many paintings. In fact, he rarely finished anything. More important to him were his notebooks, which I was fortunate to see in an exhibition at the British Library in London in 2019.

I have not been able to do justice to the content of this course. For example, Jo Walton talked a lot about sculpture, which I haven’t included here. I also realise looking back through the portraits that I haven’t mentioned how artists began to work so effectively with light and the direction of light as depicted in this painting by Bellini. There were many illustrations of this during the course.


Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child with Two Saints, circa 1490 
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giovanni_Bellini_-_Madonna_and_Child_with_Two_Saints_(Sacra_Conversazione)_-_WGA1730.jpg

But hopefully there is enough here to spark an interest in the art of 1400-1500 Renaissance art.

Immoderate Greatness. Why Civilizations Fail:  Time to build an ark?

Immoderate Greatness. Why Civilizations Fail, by William Ophuls (2012) – Notes

This short book, only 70 pages of well-spaced type and beautifully clear prose, packs a strong punch. It ends with the question of whether it is time to build an ark. Has our civilization declined to the extent that we should prepare for an uncertain future, in which humanity may survive, but civilization as we know it will not?

In a series of short chapters, Ophuls discusses six major factors which lead to the breakdown of a civilization. Rome is an example of this. Ophuls organises the six factors under the headings Biophysical Limits and Human Error.

Biophysical limits include ecological exhaustion, exponential growth, expedited entropy and excessive complexity.

Ophuls points out that we have consistently degraded and exhausted our natural resources, resources that are critical to our long-term survival. We have overlooked the consequences of continuous growth and failed to understand exponential growth, which is both insidious and explosive. The solution, he says, lies in controlling growth; we cannot flout or evade the laws of nature for ever.

Ophuls also points out that civilization expedites entropy. Through increasing technological advances the movement of energy from more useful to less useful increases. The greater civilization becomes, the more citizens produce and consume, and the more they produce and consume, the larger the increase in entropy (energy return on investment is negative). The only way out is strong checks on will and desire, i.e. powerful negative feedback.

But as civilization grows with associated excessive complexity, it becomes harder for the human brain to adapt and solve the problems. Linear minds cannot comprehend non-linear systems. Limited, fallible human beings are bound to bungle the job of managing complex systems.

The wise way forward would be to renounce ‘immoderate greatness’, but human error (moral decay and practical failure) prevents us from doing this.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the parallels of all this with our civilization today, which Ophuls believes is already in a state of well-advanced decline, due to moral decay and practical failure. Ophuls describes this as the age of decadence in which we want to hang on to what we’ve got and buy off our enemies; there is an increasing sense of entitlement and loss of responsibility; there is growth in civil dissension and argument; and a society that is increasingly value free and no longer believes in anything much or takes anything seriously. Such a society is governed by a force that we can call moral entropy, and becomes dysfunctional and ungovernable. Morale is gradually eroded, and discord increasingly fomented by a succession of practical defeats. What used to work no longer does and the social contract unravels.

Ophuls believes there is no viable way forward. Ecological problems, exponential pressures, thermodynamic losses, risky complexity, moral decay and human incapacity are evident everywhere. Biophysical limits with human fallibility lead to eventual and inevitable collapse of civilisation.

Evidently the natural lifespan of a civilization is about 250 years and our time is up, so the task is to salvage as much as possible and prepare for an uncertain future. This requires present sacrifice; renunciation of greatness in favour of simplicity, frugality and fraternity. Is it time to build an ark?

I can recommend this book, but it is a sobering read.

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The Master and His Emissary – Wiki Notes

This is an image of the front page of a wiki I have created to record my notes on Iain McGilchrist’s ‘ground breaking’ book, The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. During this time of enforced lockdown, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to re-read and engage more slowly and deeply with this very long and dense text.

The wiki is open to the public for reading and comment. Here is the link – http://iainmcgilchrist.pbworks.com/w/page/140284002/FrontPage

Iain McGilchrist’s thinking and ideas seem even more relevant today than when his book was published ten years ago. He claims that we live in a world dominated by the left hemisphere. In the concluding chapter of his book he describes what the left hemisphere’s world would look like, if it managed to suppress the right hemisphere altogether. It is easy to recognise our world, the world we are living in now, in much of what he describes. For this reason, the book is an important one for our times.

If you are interested and would like to know more, but don’t have the time to engage with this long and dense book, or have tried it and find it over-whelming, the wiki notes might help, but I must stress that any errors are mine. In addition the selection of what to attend to is mine. Someone else’s notes might read differently, and no doubt the notes would be different if I myself wrote them again at another time. So these notes are no substitute for reading the book.

 

There are also other ways to access Iain’s ideas, which include a variety of articles and videos. I recently listed them in another post – Introducing the Work of Iain McGilchrist

I agree with Jonathan Rowson, who in his review of the book wrote:

‘[A] grand theory for our times. If properly understood and acted upon, it has the potential to transform our view of ourselves and our cultures, and prevent us from making a huge number of mistakes that might otherwise seem like sensible decisions  … a truly wonderful book.’