Thursday, January 31, 2008

Leonardo & Michelangelo

Today in Survey 2 class we'll begin our discussion of the High Renaissance in Italy. I'm already about 15 minutes behind, thanks to the seductive Early Renaissance, so I'll have to keep myself on task. Hard to do when we've got the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, Michelangelo's David, and the Sistine Chapel (among others) on the list! Somebody will probably bring up Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code--and if they don't, I will. That is NOT Mary Magdalene in Leonardo's Last Supper, there is NO silly hidden code in The Virgin of the Rocks, and there is no way what's-her-name in the book could have pulled the latter painting off the wall like she does. (It's over 6 feet tall.) Dan Brown's author's note really wants people to think much of what he says is true, but it's fiction, folks.

As for the Mona Lisa, call me an art historical heretic, but when I see her in person--even the first time--she leaves me cold. I think it's overexposure. She's built up so much so that when you go to the Louvre and you follow the herd of tourists to her bulletproof case, you expect to be whacked upside the head. I wasn't. I wanted to be, but I wasn't. Still not.

Now Michelangelo's David is another story. No amount of tacky souvenirs (and that includes the Dress Up David magnet on my fridge), no amount of overexposure can take away from him. He is unbelievable. When you stand in front of him, he does make you tremble, he does take your breath away. I love Michelangelo. Feisty, curmudgeonly, my-way-or-the-highway, willing to argue with a Pope to defend his art. He was The Man!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Simon Schama's Power of Art

A friend lent me his DVD set of "Simon Schama's Power of Art," and I'm making my way through the episodes. The Caravaggio episode is fantastic and captures all the intensity--and paradox--of this artist who produced such sublime religious pictures yet had such a turbulent personal life. (I love love LOVE Caravaggio's work.) One of Caravaggio's last paintings, "David with the Head of Goliath," serves as the framing piece for this episode, as Schama begins and ends with it. The Jacques-Louis David episode is also excellent, revolving around the painter's "Death of Marat." As Schama explains, the "Death of Marat," for all its beauty, was born of violence and David's allegiance to a faction of French Revolutionaries. I saw that painting in Brussels many years ago--even knowing the story behind it, it takes your breath away.

The van Gogh episode is good but not the best van Gogh documentary I've seen. Schama uses "Wheatfield with Crows" as the framing piece here. He mostly avoids the usual sensationalism and makes extremely important points about Vincent's populism--his desire to produce an art for the people--as well as his education ("insatiable bookworm," Schama calls him). He also stresses the careful deliberation that went into Vincent's work, contrary to the oft-image of the mad painter slapping paint on the canvas. Andy Serkis (aka Gollum from Lord of the Rings) plays van Gogh in small segments, reciting quotations from Vincent's letters to Theo. He doesn't look much like Vincent, so this distracted me, and I could have done without the shot of Serkis eating yellow paint (the most sensationalist bit in the episode--well, it could have been worse, he could have been hissing "Myyyyy preccccious"). The choice of quotes to present, however, is excellent and shows the complexity of Vincent's character: tender one moment, selfish the next, visionary the next. Worth seeing.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

I'm Looking Forward to Reading...

Good-lookin' books coming out in the next few months! I'm especially looking forward to--
*Cara Black, Murder in the Rue de Paradis (March): The eighth in Black's sassy, smart Aimee Leduc series, set in Paris. This series keeps getting better and better, and I'm excited to read the next installment.

*Donna Leon, The Girl of His Dreams (May): The latest Commissario Brunetti mystery, set in Venice. You'd think Leon would start running out of ideas by now, but she hasn't. The last one, Suffer the Little Children, was the best yet, and the new one promises to be terrific too.

*Sandra Gulland, Mistress of the Sun (June): I usually shy away from the royal-mistress novels (there are SO MANY of them and, well, some are rather silly) but this one is about Louise de la Valliere, mistress of Louis XIV, and that's worth checking out. Gulland wrote a trilogy about Josephine Bonaparte which I haven't read, but I may check those out too if I like Mistress of the Sun.

*Karen Essex, Stealing Athena (June): I am ridiculously excited about this one. What a great concept: a parallel story of Aspasia, mistress of Athenian general and supervisor of the Akropolis building program, Perikles, and of Mary Nisbet, wife of the now-infamous Lord Elgin who orchestrated the removal of many of the Parthenon sculptures to Britain. I haven't read Essex's Kleopatra books but I enjoyed her Leonardo's Swans. Her website already has up a bibliography for Stealing Athena (now there's an author after my own heart--three cheers for bibliographies) and it's got the things it should for a book revolving around the Parthenon sculptures.

And on the van Gogh front...
Ann Galbally, A Remarkable Friendship: Vincent van Gogh and John Peter Russell (June): This is the first book to focus exclusively on the friendship between these two artists and so promises to be informative.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


Dio mio, I love Italy. I'm reminded vividly how much each year in Survey 2 when we cover the Italian Renaissance. Donatello, Fra Angelico, Botticelli, and of course the great Michelangelo...each artist calls up memories of visits to Italy and trips to museums to see Italian art.

I first visited Italy as a grad student in 1996, a 3-week sojourn in the midst of a nearly 9-week dissertation research trip. Traveling alone, I was certain Italy was as "intense" as I'd heard, and I'd be pinched, pickpocketed, and run over by a Vespa. Couldn't have been more wrong. I arrived in Bologna on a rainy night after a daylong train trip from Munich, tired and overwhelmed, but threw open the windowshutters in my modest pensione room the next morning to something out of a movie. Still-damp red brick porticoes, a view to the distant hills, church bells, the beguiling scent of pastry and cappuccino...the only thing missing was Pavarotti singing Puccini beneath the window. I've been besotted ever since. Great art, great food, welcoming and hospitable people -- what's not to love?

Italy had an eventful week last week in their quest to recover looted antiquities. The famous Euphronios krater formerly owned by the Metropolitan Museum (which I'd declare the most beautiful Greek vase in the world, bar none) arrived in Rome to much fanfare, the result of a deal struck in 2006. The Italian government has agreed to lend fine pieces to the Met as an exchange. Last Friday, in an unprecedented arrangement, New York collector Shelby White agreed to return ten antiquities to Italy after 18 months of negotiation. One of those will be her own fabulous Euphronios krater (fragmentary), which has been on loan at the Met for some time. Check out the "Looting Matters" blog (link at left) for more information and links to news stories.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

More on the "Van Gogh" Notebook

A couple more websites have picked up the story of the "Van Gogh" notebook in Greece. I've seen better pictures now, and well, I don't think the VGM curators are going to be falling all over themselves on this one. The owner evidently does believe it dates from 1880 while van Gogh was in Brussels and that the notebook represents his thoughts about works he would do in future. Considering that he hadn't even MET the models in the sketches--Sien Hoornik, Julien Tanguy, Cornelia de Groot--that would be quite a feat.

But let's say the notebook belonged to an art student in 1930s Brussels. What was s/he looking at? 3 of the 60 sketches have been shown in news photos: a detail of "Potato Eaters," a sketch after "Sorrow" (of which there are two drawings and one lithograph done by Vincent); and part of a portrait of Père Tanguy (Vincent did two paintings and one drawing showing Tanguy with a hat). According to Faille's 1970 catalogue raisonnée, none of those were exhibited together in the 1930s. So the art student probably did not sketch from the actual pictures. My theory? S/he was looking at the 1928 edition of Faille's catalogue, which was published--guess where?--in Brussels.

The Nazi stamp, if authentic, raises more questions that can't be answered. Vincent was on the Nazi blacklist of "degenerate artists," his works confiscated from German museums and private collections along with those of other modernist artists. Some van Goghs were tucked quietly into storage, others auctioned to raise money for the Nazi cause, and others just...disappeared. Did a Nazi soldier think the notebook was a van Gogh original? Or even if he didn't, was it taken from its original owner by force, kept as a souvenir of a raid? Or here's the question that sends chills up my spine: what happened to the person who drew those pictures?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Missing Van Gogh Sketchbook?

The Telegraph newspaper and Reuters are both reporting this week about a sketchbook in Greece believed by its owner to have belonged to van Gogh. Her father acquired the sketchbook during WW II, when as a resistance fighter, he apparently took it from a Nazi train during a raid. The sketchbook bears a Nazi stamp and a stamp from the Brussels Academy of Art. The contents include sketches of some of van Gogh's paintings and drawings, including the drawing "Sorrow" (done in The Hague), part of the "Potato Eaters" (a painting done in Nuenen), and a portrait of Pere Tanguy (original painting done in Paris). The current owner believes the sketchbook to be authentic; she has consulted a Greek art expert, who also believes it to be authentic, and has contacted the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, who has yet to examine the object.

Far be it for me to give a strong opinion myself, especially only looking at small pictures on a website, but something that the Telegraph article claims absolutely cannot be true. The Telegraph article says that "The notebook...apparently dates from the year van Gogh was enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art in Brussels in 1880." But every painting/drawing referenced in the notebook dates AFTER 1880: "The Potato Eaters" was painted in 1885, the portraits of Pere Tanguy date from 1886-87, etc. So that at least can't be right. It would also be out of character for van Gogh to have done copies of works from such disparate periods in a single sketchbook. The surviving sketchbooks of his in the VGM mostly contain little scribbles (as he called them) that don't relate to specific paintings, and they don't look backward to earlier periods in his life. He did do drawings after paintings, but these were mostly sent to Theo, Emile Bernard, John Russell, or other friends in the form of letter sketches or larger finished drawings (not in a sketchbook). At least some of these sketches in the Greece notebook are signed, which would also be unusual for one of Vincent's sketchbooks. As for style...well, here again, I'm looking at small website pictures, but...

It'll be interesting to see what the VGM says, if anything. They will evaluate style, materials used (ink, paper), etc. if it comes down to a physical examination of the actual object. A story worth following.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Blood of Flowers

I recently finished reading Anita Amirrezvani's debut novel, The Blood of Flowers and just loved it. The heroine is a young girl in 17th century Iran, whose father dies and leaves their family in dire straits. She and her mother move to the capital at Isfahan to join relatives, where the main character learns about love while pursuing her dreams in the art of carpet making. Amirrezvani's descriptions of Isfahan make the sights and smells of the city come to life, and her descriptions of carpet-knotting make one appreciate all the more the intricacy of the beautiful carpets surviving today. The heroine is spirited but not anachronistic; the plot is engaging and swift-moving. A definite recommend.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Back to the Books

Whew! First week of the new semester is over! It's always a busy time: making sure everybody's enrolled in the courses who wants to be, going over syllabi, trying to convince students that this semester is going to be Challenging but Rewarding. It's a fun time too--I like looking out at the new faces on the first day, calling out names on the roll and trying to guess who's going to be what kind of student. That guy slouching in the back who can barely be bothered to raise his hand may or may not stick around. The girl up front with a bright smile whose hand shoots up like a rocket is going to be making straight A's. Some of this term's students are veterans of past classes and know what to expect from me; others will find out soon enough. (Insert knowing chuckle here.)

I'm (stupidly? heroically?) teaching both halves of art history survey this semester, Ancient-Medieval being one and Renaissance-Present the other. I love teaching survey, I really do, and a selfish reason why is that it's an opportunity for ME to get back to the books, read up on areas that aren't my specialty. I browse the library for new books that may have come out recently, and updating lecture notes is a great excuse to read them. A recent read is Gregory Curtis' The Cave Painters on prehistoric art--a real treat--and this weekend I'm finally going to sit down with Timothy Hyman's Sienese Painting. The names on the roll aren't the only students around. I'm one too, and I won't ever stop!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year

Happy New Year to one and all!

One of my favorite paintings in the Van Gogh Museum is this lyrical little still life, a sprig of blossoming almond branch tucked in a glass of water. Vincent painted this in March 1888, not long after he arrived in Arles. He had expected sunny skies and mild weather, but Arles that winter was socked with rogue snowfall and oddly cold temperatures. Vincent never liked the cold much and so opted to paint indoors on the chilliest days. He brought nature inside, though, in the form of the almond branch. For Vincent, the blossoming fruit trees around Arles were symbols of new life and new beginnings--appropriate symbols for him as he sought to begin a new life away from the strains of Paris. Appropriate symbols, too, for our New Year.