Monday, May 16, 2011


Sorry if this post doesn't make any sense. The original got lost in the Blogger crash so I will do my best to reincarnate it.

Speaking of reincarnation, India, but first, Europe.  European have always been know for having great paintings of their oh so loved rulers.  When Europe evolved out of the heavily religious ruling of the pre-Renaissance era and into the era of Machiavellian rulers, art had to change with it.  It changed from Byzantine mosaics to a rapidly developing desire for portraits.  The art of the portrait when through many different phases depending on the times but all of them focused on the power.  One of the best examples is the Sun King himself, King Louis XIV. Possibly one of the largest patrons by numbers, Louis commissioned hundreds of paintings, many of himself, and sponsored the state run art academy. This portrait of him by Hyacinthe Rigaud shows the grandeur that was desired in these works.  The opulent decorations include a large amount of gold and oversized textile materials.  The coronation robes that Louis wears are lifted up to show off his legs that he was very proud off.  Along with the material objects in the photo, Louis carries and air of superiority.  The portrait is painted from and upward direction and Louis is looking back and down on the viewer.

This sense of power and superiority was widespread throughout European royalty.  It also managed to travel primarily by way of British Imperialism.  As is seen in the portrait of Maharaja Jaswant Singh of Marwar the attitude of the subjects is almost completely different.  Though the art of portraiture was adopted, the style was morphed to fit the local cultural influences.  Jaswant Singh is portrayed here as a British gentleman next to a table with a simple book and bouquet of flowers.  The flat background and simple patterned floor do not exude the same opulence as Louis's portrait.  Jaswant Singh is also seated in a relaxed position and looking away from the audience.  This accentuates the more humble feel of the work.  There are a couple signs of power however in the large emerald necklace that was given to him by a British overlord and the large sword.  The riding boots also shows his skill as a hunter.  Overall, there is a large contrast between the majority of portraits in 17th century Europe and the portraits in other places like India.

Monday, May 9, 2011


Though these two works were created over 300 years apart and thousands more miles apart, they use many of the same principles.  These depictions of important characters both use symbolism to display their messages.  The Gothic piece God as Architect of the World shows Jesus as an industrious architect of the universe.  The artist gives him to the tools used at the time by Gothic workers to make this piece relate to the population at the time.  The artist also utilized the popular symbols of a triangle to represent the Holy Trinity and a circle to represent the eternity of god.  Touched up with some latin text, this work is filled with symbolism and sends a powerful message.

In Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaykh to Kings, the artist, Bichitr, uses many European techniques and symbols.  Created during the early seventeenth century, India was still under the imperial rule of the United Kingdom and the East India Trading Company.  This led to a large amount of European works entering the area, hence the strong influence on this work.  The ruler, Jahangir, is shown sitting on top of an hourglass that is about to run out.  The text that the cupids are writing, however, wish that the ruler would live for a thousand years.  Jahangir is surrounded by a massive halo that symbolizes his role as that center of the universe and the central light source. The figures in the left of the picture include the artist himself at the bottom and a copied European image of King James I.

There is an obvious similarity between the two, but the mediums used are very different.  The Gothic work was done with ink, tempera, and gold leaf on vellum.  This use of gold leaf is extremely common is Gothic works. The Indian miniature paintings, however, were done in watercolor on paper.  This shows the immense skill that it took because doing detail with watercolor is difficult.  Bichitr did have an advantage though because he come nearly 400 years later, after many artistic developments had happened.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Käthe Kollwitz and The German Expressionists

As a reaction to the strict observational nature of Impressionism, the Expressionist movement bust onto the scene, bringing with it the intense emotionally it pictured.  Expressionism pulls from the depths of Van Gogh, Edvard Munch and the remaining Post-Impressionist artists as well as the Fauvism movement in France that emphasized ‘color for color’s sake’.  The revolutionary Expressionism movement offered the public an antithesis to Impressionism’s passive depiction of light and nature. 
As the title of the movement alludes to, the goal of an Expressionist is to make the viewer feel what they were feeling. Expressionist works are not rated on how aesthetically pleasing they are, but on how well they express the emotions behind the work. According to Joseph Minton, "The expressionist artist displays an internalized depiction of reality and allows their personal and potentially biased emotions to impact that depiction.  It is an art form that comes from the artist’s point of view. It is the one art form that truly allows the viewer to both see and feel the world through the eyes of the artist." Once an observer understands this, they are more likely to appreciate the radical difference between Impressionism and Expressionism.
Anchoring the development of the unique German Expressionism movement were three schools: Die Brucke (1905-13), Der Blaue Reiter (1909-14), and the post-war Die Neue Sachlichkeit (1920s). The Die Brucke (The Bridge) School was the first Expressionist school and stuck closely to the styles of Fauvism and Post-Impressionism, however, they added an interesting twist with the influence of African and Oceanic tribal motifs.  Their works focus primarily on their lives, which lead to a large number of urban scenes, dramatic landscapes, and outdoor female nudes. 
The Der Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) School was loose association of painters who did not have a set artistic program.  A common theme throughout the school was the importance of color as a symbol.  Many of the works border on the incomprehensible compositionally, however, each work carries with it an intense emotion through the color.  By this period, all observation of perspective and illusionism is out (accelerated by the popularity of the crude woodcut) and the abstract style has taken over.  This new abstract style allowed the artists to portray their spiritual values in opposition of what they viewed as corrupt materialism.  The Blue Rider School fizzled out when the war started in part because many of its members were killed and also because the public needed a darker style to reflect the sentiments toward The War. 
Feeding off of the public sentiments, the Die Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) School was formed.  This school rejected the visionary idiom of Die Brucke and the symbolism of Der Blaue Reiter in favor of concrete portrayals of a society filled with all sorts of criminals.  A large proportion of the pieces during this time were detailed portraits of people, but with caricatured faces. The primary reason this school is not part of Realism is because the excessive satire and disillusionment made the subjects unrealistic. During the 1920s there was broad sweeping dissatisfaction with the Wiemar Republic, which can be seen in the pessimistic works of these artists.
Possibly one of the most political movements in art, Expressionist artists found the need for a medium that would allow them to disseminate their works quickly and cost-effectively.  Something that had long been used but had never found a cause so needy was the method of artistic printmaking.  German Expressionist artists flocked to these revived methods and pumped out a flurry of works.  This medium was especially suiting because the black-and-white scheme helped the artists to explore the dark side of life they depicted. There are three different techniques that artist of this time used: woodcut, intaglio, and lithography.  The woodcut was used for works that required bold, flat patterns with not as much detail.  Intaglio allowed artists to create more detailed works with a wider range of shades.  Intaglio includes drypoint, which is the incision of a metal plate, and etching, which is the chemical removal of metal from the plate. These methods lead to fuzzy lines and fine sculptural lines, respectively.  Lithography became the most popular among painters because it was the only one that didn’t involve removing material, therefore not requiring the artist to think in reverse.  An image is created by drawing on a stone with a grease pen and utilizing the insolubility of oil and water for printing.  Because of the revival of these new techniques, German Expressionist artists produced a very large amount of works and had a great public influence.
One of those artists is the well-known Käthe Kollwitz.  As many of the other Expressionists, her work began in naturalism, but took a turn to the new abstract form of expression.  Married to a physician that cared for the proletariat class, Kollwitz regularly came in contact with the poor and suffering. This inspired her two famous series, The Weavers and Peasant War, which depict dramatic themes of the workers’ misery, hope, courage, and doom.  The Weavers series, released in 1898, is done in a very realistic style that predated the high period of the Expressionist movement.  Even though this series is done in a realistic style, the nature of the work and the subjects allows her to emote.  Nobel laureate Gerhart Hauptmann, who based some of his stories on her works, said, “Her silent lines penetrate the marrow like a cry of pain; such a cry was never heard among the Greeks and Romans.”
Although she was never part of a school, most likely because of her gender and subject choice, she had a profound impact on the movement.  In her second series, Peasant War, Kollwitz takes a step up technically with her etchings.  She achieves a dramatic command of light and shadow while widening her subject material.  This series focuses on peasant life during a revolution in the early 16th century. Within that focus, Kollwitz seems to have an affection for women subjects and mothers in specific. Many of her pieces show a mother searching for her children or, in her most famous work Woman with Dead Child, a mother mourning over the loss of her beloved child. It is fair to say that Kollwitz is one of the most prolific artists of proletariat life and suffering.
A third series of Kollwitz’s was released in 1924 titled War.  This series is filled with images of despair inspired by the son she lost to the fighting in 1914.  Kollwitz also switched to the woodcut methods, which led to a compositional simplification but continued to carry the same message.  This transition was in part because of her desire to quickly reproduce these images and disseminate her ideas to the nation.  Being a committed socialist and pacifist, her works are filled with negative opinions towards war and praise for the new ideas of communism.  As a whole, Kollwitz and her fascination with the proletariat class fits as another irregularly shaped puzzle piece in the artistically diverse period called Expressionism.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Rembrandt Affair

I just finished a phenomenal book by Daniel Silva.  The latest in a long series about Gabriel Allon, an Israeli assassin and art restorer, The Rembrandt Affair is centered around the dirty history of one fictional painting.  Though this story is fictional, there are many true ones like it.  Because art is so old, it carries almost all the secrets of society.

In the mass round up of Jewish people during WWII, agents of the SS were relentless in their search for art pieces--Hitler even had a special department tasked with collection of rare art.  This book tells the story of an executive SS officer who bargains the lives of Jews for their art.  Though Jews were ordered to turn in all valuable things like jewelry and art, many kept them for potential leverage and sentimental value.  The SS officer, Kurt Voss, took a Rembrandt, Portrait of a Young Woman, from a family of prominent Dutch Jews in exchange for their youngest daughter's life. Events like these, along with the frequency of art theft, makes provenance the most important thing about a painting.

The book also addresses the extremes of art restoration.  When the painting is stolen from the original restorer, it ends up covered in blood and has a bullet hole.  There are also two deep creases that originated from the documents that were hidden between it and an additional canvas that was added to seal the documents in.  Using a solution that has acetone as the reactionary agent, art restorers use cotton swabs to meticulously move varnish from the canvas.  To replace the hole, a new patch of canvas is added and filled in the same style of rest of the canvas.  Art restoration is a tedious task that takes immense skill and the ability to mirror the work of the original master.

The painting in the book, Portrait of a Young Woman, does not exist but the closest actual painting would be Rembrandt's Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels.  Hendrickje Stoffels was Rembrandt's famed mistress.  He got her pregnant, however, he was unable to gain approval from the Catholic church to marry her because of the child they had out of wedlock.  The sensual mood of this picture is displayed in the clothes and body position.  She is wearing a large fur shawl-like piece with what looks like a thin silk underdress.  The cut is extremely low and show almost her entire chest.  She seems to be lying or sitting on a bed.  The bed being a deep red could symbolize the passion in their relationship.  Her face is a peaceful gaze that seems to be unaffected by having to pose for her lover to paint her. The large earrings and the swooping gold necklaces display the opulent gifts that Rembrandt blessed her with.  Rembrandt was considered the leader of the Old Dutch Masters and he lived a lavish life in his house in Amsterdam. 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Dress To Impress(ionism)

Ben,  Sarah B.,  Anna Claire, Megan, Peter (me)
A couple weeks ago, a dedicated group of Art History students, including myself, piled into the mini-van and headed off for a night of adventure dressed in out finest artsy garb.  We made our first stop at the Local Taco, an over-priced, hip restaurant (not sure if they want to be called that) on the outskirts of downtown.

When we finished out gourmet tacos, we headed to the Frist Center for a lecture by Gloria Gloom about the effect of the Franco-Prussian War on the Impressionist movement in France.  Though the lecture ended up being largely about fashion, it provided us with a great insight into the social life of Parisians during that time period.  The most important point was the importance of court life before the fall of the 2nd Republic and the rise of the common person after.  This can easily be seen in the mood and dress before and after.

Impression: Sunrise (1872)
The exhibit, The Birth of Impressionism, was very well put together and showed the story line of Impressionism.  It is difficult to give Impressionism a single definition because it encompasses a large variety of pieces depicting a large variety of subjects. For the most part, works from this era show life 'as is'.  There are rarely floating objects or flying cherubs of any kind.  Objects are subject to gravity and are given mass.  Almost all works were done with oil on canvas which had become a standard at the time. One of the most characteristic features of this movement are the small and thin yet visible brush strokes.  These can be seen in Claude Monet's Impression: Sunrise, which happens to the be the painting that the movement was named after.  Along with the brushstrokes, Impressionism features ordinary subjects, open composition, unusual visual angles, the inclusion of movement, and an emphasis on the correct use of lighting.  When combined, they make some of the most real paintings ever made.  I highly suggest that anyone who has not seen this exhibit go because this is a once and a lifetime opportunity to see a collection of masterpieces from the Musée d'Orsay in France.  Click on this link to see how the public has reacted to it.

For our final stop, we visited the recently up for business Pinkberry where we enjoyed totes the best hun cal fro yo. To understand what I just said, watch this (happens around 2:50):

The Economics of Art

Why does Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (also known as a shark in formaldehyde) sell for $12 million dollars?  Is art a better investment than stocks and bonds?

Check out this Podcast done by NPR's Planet Money team: Why A Dead Shark Costs $12 Million Dollars

p.s. The first 5 minutes of the podcast is about the old finance reform bill so ignore it.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

College of Arts AND Sciences?

How can one place teach two completely different subject? I thought wearing a lab coat and having inch thick glasses was disjoint with turtlenecks and French cigarettes.  It turns out they aren’t.  The influence of science can be seen in many areas such as the human form, mass, and gravity.  As the scientific understanding of the world evolved, so did the realism of art.  Scientific advances by people like Galileo and da Vinci created a new understanding of how people interact with their surroundings.  Gone were the floating objects and the figures that didn’t create shadows; in were the straight lines of perspective and the fluid style of motion.

A good example of depicting motion is Raphael’s Galatea, pictures above.  Based on the poem Stanzas for the Joust of Giuliano de’ Medici by Angelo Poliziano, this fresco depicts the beautiful Galatea fleeing her hideous lover, the Cyclops Polyphemus.  This piece is filled with movement and tension.  The centaur on the right strain to move and the trumpeters exuberantly blow their horns.  The cupids draw their arrows tightly while their small wings keep them aloft.  Raphael uses all these moving figures to draw the eye back to the radiating Galatea at the center.  This gives the effect of her being the source of their great energy.  The direction of the sunlight adds to the focus of the painting.  The sunlight comes in from the top left corner and lands right on Galatea.  The shadowing in the bottom right corner is proof that Raphael understood the properties of light.  Lastly, the foreshortening done on the cupids creates the effect that they are spiraling away, giving this piece even more 3-dimensionality.  Though many of the subjects in this piece are mythical, Raphael shows a deep understanding of the science behind motion and light and the effect it has on the observer.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

How Romantic of You

Despite his every attempt, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was unable to resist the attractive themes of Romanticism.  Ingres was one of Jaques-Louis David's understudies, but he didn't last for long.  David was educated in the Neoclassical style, but he pushed his students to expand the horizons and find their own artistic identity.  Ingres, fed up with this barbaric deviation from the strict Neoclassicism, left that school and went out on his own.  The main difference between Neoclassicism and Romanticism is that the first involves primarily the observed state of life, whereas the second usually involves an elaborate fictional story behind work.
Grande Odalisque
Many of his compositions, including the Apotheosis of Homer, were strictly Neoclassical, but his Grande Odalisque was demolished by critics for it's Romantic themes.  The reclining nude female is a common Greco-Roman, but by portraying her as a odalisque he used an exotic Romantic image.  An odalisque is a female slave most commonly found in the seraglio (female apartments) of the Turkish sultan.  The nude woman style can be seen in Titian's Venus of Urbino (1538).  The face is a near imitation of Raphel's soft featured and calm style, which can be seen in his Madonna in the Meadow (1505).  The extreme relaxation shown is similar to the Italian Mannerism artist Jacopo da Pontormo's style in his Madonna with the Long Neck and Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time.  Ingres also uses the same elongated body shape and the cool color scheme that creates a calm and relaxed feeling.  No matter how traditional the painting of the subject is, the subject itself is purely Romantic, which puts this work in the transitional period between Neoclassicism and the revolutionary Romanticism.

Venus of Urbino
Madonna in the Meadow

Saturday, November 13, 2010

How Original...Not

Admit it, when we find things that are really clever or really good, we like to tell the world about it as if it is ours.  For example, for Lit class we had to write a 'riddle poem'.  I found a very clever one that went like this, "I drink the blood of the earth/and the trees fear my roar/yet a man may hold me in his hands."  Figure it out yet?  Didn't think so.  It is a chainsaw! Clever, right? I know.  This natural tendency that we have to take from our predecessors and incorporate or flat out copy it for our own uses is prevalent in art.

The Romanesque period is a prime example of that natural tendency.  A majority of the works from this period draw heavily from the Roman period, hence the name Romanesque.  A specific piece to look at is the head reliquary of Saint Alexander from Stavelot Abbey in Belgium. This piece, made in 1145 CE, is almost a copy of the face of Augustus in his statue in Primaporta, Italy, which was made around 30 CE.  The face on Polykleitos's Doryphoros, made in 450BCE, also matches that of Saint Alexanders.

Though made of two completely different materials, they have the same straight mouth, taught cheeks, prominent brow, and long nose.  Their hair even curls the same way; they must have had the same stylist.  Saint Augustine is made of silver repoussé, gilt bronze, gems, pearls and enamel, whereas Augustus is a marble copy of a bronze original. Both of these works were designed to show the calm power that the subject holds, or in the case of Saint Alexander, held.  Alexander's head rests upon a gold reliquary that carries influence from the byzantine age.  A reliquary is a container for holy relics, so in this case it would most likely be ashes or bones of some sort.

The eerie similarity of these two works calls into questions the plagiary rules back then and what morals these copiers had.  Also, the lack of protection for intellectual design is appalling.  Someone better be collecting copyright checks.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

You Should Really Reconsider Entering!

For the often illiterate population, symbols and sculptures were the only way institutions were able to transfer messages.  The use of didactic sculpture has been used for ever but the most popular was during the Greek and Roman periods.  The reliefs on buildings like the Parthenon functioned as narratives for the people.  Used at practically every corner in Rome, the technique faded for a while until Romanesque architects renewed it.  In the 11th and 12th centuries, there was flurry of new narrative stone reliefs and sculptures.  The art work was transferred from the doors themselves to the surrounding areas of the door.

In the picture on the left you can see the standard design of a Romanesque church portal.  The most important part is the tympanum, which is the large lunette above the doorway that would house the main work.  The wedge shaped blocks that make up the archivolts around the tympanum are called voussoirs.  The lintel, which often holds images of worshipers, is the horizontal beam above the doorway.  Lastly, the columns holding the whole thing up have two different names.  The middle column is called trumeau and the side columns are jambs.

The typical tympanum depicts Jesus in the middle in a mandorla.  He is surrounded by scenes or references to the New or Old Testament.  Many are scary and are intended to scare the common worshiper into considering their actions.  One of them depicts Jesus in the middle with the good side and heaven to his right and the evil side and hell to his left.  We decided to model our tympanum in class after one similar to the good vs. bad one.  We chose to do a Star Wars theme, and chose Darth Vader as our 'Jesus'. On Darth Vader's right there is Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and finally Yoda.  On the Vader's left is Darth Maul and Jabba the Hut.  The figures in the lintel are matched with their particular side.  The good figures are Rebel fighter pilots and the evil figures are Federation battle droids.  Along the archivolt the images are matched to their respective sides as well.  On the good side they are Millenium Falcons and on the evil side they are Death Stars.  Obviously, we took some creative liberty making Vader the main guy.  This also opened my eyes to how bad of a painter I am and showed me that paining is not meant for detailed images without the right brush.