Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Autumn Rhythms

Autumn has arrived in Florida -- high of only 65 today in St Petersburg! Brrr...that's January weather! I had to excavate a sweater this morning from the depths of the closet, forgotten since about February.

In honor of the lovely fall weather (many folks outside FL actually have autumn leaves to see), here is one of Vincent's many autumn-themed pictures, "Autumn Landscape with Poplars," from October 1884, while he was living in Nuenen with his family. Today the painting is in the Van Gogh Museum, having made a circular route through galleries and collectors. Vincent loved fall, and he used his (at this point) newfound interest in complementary colors to celebrate the season: orange leaves, blue sky. He also used a perspective frame to construct the image, a wooden frame strung with string that he adopted early in his artistic career and continued to use until around May 1888 in Arles. The perspective in this picture is mostly successful, aside from the bridge-fence at left, which is a bit off, and the size of the farmhouse in the background, which is slightly too big. But in general Vincent displays his growing confidence both in the rendering of perspective and in the paint medium.

The woman walking into the foreground wears a traditional Dutch mourning shawl, a garment that Vincent seems to have admired for its visual qualities, as he depicted it more than once in paintings and drawings. Here, the theme of mourning and melancholy ties in to the passing of time and the passing of the seasons. But Vincent's attitude about autumn was not gloomy -- he considered autumn to be part of the cycle of life, and as such, it had its own beauty.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Signs & Wonders

I wouldn't call myself a superstitious person per se, but I do believe in signs: coincidences that aren't really coincidences, little nods from the universe that can show us we're on the right path -- or the wrong one. So when I stopped by the post office today to mail my signed author contracts for The Sunflowers to Avon/HarperCollins, imagine my reaction when I saw a colorful sunflower display on the counter to celebrate the USPS new Sunflower Stamp!

Speaking of signs & wonders, I have to mention a big local miracle: a mere six or seven minutes away from where I'll be teaching my class tonight, the Tampa Bay Rays will be playing Game 1 of the World Series. Now the Rays were *dismal* until this season, really dismal, the joke of the league. But now they are American League champs! They could win it all! Worst to first! Superstitious folks may tell you it's not a coincidence, that changing the name from "Devil Rays" (which many people thought would bring a curse on the team when team was created in 1998) to just "Rays" this year made the difference. I don't know about that ... but it does make you go HMMM...

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Up for Auction

On the evening of November 3rd, Sotheby's NYC will be hosting its fall Impressionist and Modern Art night sale. Among other goodies, including a very nice Munch, is this van Gogh painting of a plaster cast, dating from his time in Paris (1887). The estimate is $ 7- 10 million. The provenance is solid and can be traced back to the van Gogh family collection; collector Paul Cassirer acquired the painting from Johanna van Gogh-Bonger in 1910, and the painting was first publicly exhibited in Berlin in 1914. The picture here comes from the Sotheby's website; they have a larger image available there.

Learning to draw and paint from plaster casts, especially casts of antiquities, was a mainstay of the academic tradition. Vincent had the opportunity to work from casts in the fine arts academy in Antwerp, which he briefly attended before going to Paris in February 1886, and also in the studio of Fernand Cormon, where he took instruction after arriving in Paris. In Cormon's studio, he met such fellow artists as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Émile Bernard. Bernard later described Vincent working in front of casts: "Seated before a plaster cast of a classical sculpture, he copies the beautiful forms with the patience of a saint. He wants to seize hold of these contours, those masses, those reliefs. He corrects himself, passionately starts afresh, erases, until finally he wears a hole in the paper with the vigorous rubbing of his eraser." *

Vincent's many drawings and sketches after casts, as well as some paintings, reveal his determination to master the human figure, especially the nude. He also had a small collection of reduced-scale plaster casts at home; the painting to be auctioned was done after one of these. The actual cast, along with a few others, is still in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum. A display-case of them was set up in the galleries during my 2007 visit. He could have acquired them any number of places in Paris; they were sold in shops and even by street vendors for not much money. While some casts he drew and painted multiple times, this one he seems to have depicted only once.

I've seen a picture of the painting before, and when I saw the cast too, it made my classicist alarm go off. The other casts of Venus that Vincent used are clearly based on real Venus sculptures and exhibit classical poses. But this one is weird. Someone can feel free to correct me, but I can't visualize in my mental leafing through ancient statues of Venus an example of a Venus seated like this. It's not very 'ladylike' compared to other examples (mentally extend those broken legs out and you'll see what I mean). If I may go out on a limb here (pun intended), I think the cast-maker took the Belvedere Torso -- an extremely famous sculpture very popular as casts for study -- and made it female. I include here a picture of the Torso as a comparison. If that is correct, then this cast would have been made in one of the literally hundreds of private casting workshops in Paris, not an 'official' workshop connected with the Louvre or École des Beaux-Arts. Which would explain why Vincent could afford it!

*1911 quote, trans. in M. Vellekoop and S. van Heugten, eds., Vincent van Gogh Drawings, vol 3: Antwerp and Paris (Van Gogh Museum 2001) p. 141.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sun Salutations

Last week, I learned I have elevated blood pressure, for all I know a fairly recent development, right on the borderline to stage 1 hypertension. Since I am clinically a healthy weight and don't smoke, stress and lack of exercise are the probable culprits. I'm trying to make lifestyle changes to avoid going on medication, and my certified-yoga-instructor sister suggested I take up yoga, which according to studies has positive impacts on blood pressure levels. Today is day 4 of my new yoga regimen. In this morning's practice (I use dvd's at home for now), during the meditation, I found myself casting for a visual image to serve as inspiration. The Van Gogh painting pictured here (click image to enlarge) popped in my head, and I think I've found the perfect inspiration image to waken me to each day.

Meditating on an image is not about "facts," but the facts for me help provide the inspiration. Vincent painted this in late Nov-early Dec 1889, while he was in the asylum at Saint-Rémy. The walled wheatfield was visible from his bedroom window, and he drew and painted it many times during the seasons of his year there. This particular painting is unusual for him because it was done specifically for an exhibition: an exposition hosted by the avant-garde artists' group Les Vingt, which would be held in Brussels in early 1890. After receiving the invitation to participate--a great honor--Vincent chose five works from his Arles and Saint-Rémy oeuvre for Theo to send, and made this one especially. Also unusual for him at this point in his career, he spent weeks on it, working and reworking it to the point he felt it perfect. "I am curious to know what you will say," he wrote to Theo. Theo replied, "[It] has poetry in it." Vincent wrote to artist friend Émile Bernard about this picture and said, "I have tried to express calmness, a great peace." Vincent believed that his painting helped him with his illness and that painting soothing pictures would soothe his mind -- self-diagnosed art therapy!

What a life-affirming result. The rising sun with its "yellow halo" (Vincent's words), the greens of the young wheat growing in the field, the undulation of the Alpilles mountains behind...the painting reminds me what it felt like in summer 2007 to stand in that very field (now a flower garden), feel the warm sun on my face, the brisk wind at my back. A day that had no stress at all, just enjoyment of the moment and the experience of travel. I am reminded with this picture that even at his most ill, Vincent tried to find hope and peace in the world around him, especially in nature. And if that's not inspiring, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Van Gogh in Brescia

The Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia (northern Italy) will be hosting an exhibition of 85 drawings and 15 paintings from the Kroller-Muller Museum from 18 October through 25 January -- "Van Gogh, Disegni e Dipinti". The exhibition will be divided into five sections, covering the major periods in Vincent's artistic career, and represents one of the largest exhibits of van Gogh's drawings ever held in Italy. The paintings in the show are paired with preparatory sketches and drawings. Pictured here is a drawing of two women walking among cypresses from 1890, done in Saint-Remy at the asylum.

Legge italiano? Clicca qui.

What a Hottie, He Throws Lightning!

We're talking about fifth-century BC Greek art in art history survey today, and I have to share on this blog a photo I'm sharing with my class. I took this in the National Museum in Athens in March 2007, wanting to get an oblique back view of the famous Artemision Zeus (he probably was originally throwing a lightning-bolt, now lost). What I didn't notice until I had downloaded the photo to my computer at home was the gaggle of fellow females checking him out. Hilarious!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Bella Ostia

Today's New York Times features a terrific article about the unveiling of newly restored buildings in Ostia Antica, ancient Rome's port town and an archaeological site open to visitors. It took nine years to complete the restoration project -- the buildings contain fragile frescoes, and conservation takes money that needed to be raised. The results are amazing.

I visited Ostia Antica back in 2004 for the first time, and I recommend it as an easy daytrip from Rome. You take a suburban train, then it's a short walk to the site. It's a splendid alternative to Pompeii if your plans don't include the Bay of Naples. The ruins of Ostia Antica include public buildings like theaters and temples, as well as buildings that reveal the everyday life of citizens: apartment buildings, bakeries, laundries, and even fast-food joints (thermopolia). There are wonderful mosaics and paintings to see, most in their original homes. I was particularly interested in the various religious structures of the town; as is typical in Roman cities, all manner of cults and deities are represented. In addition to temples dedicated to the Olympian gods (Jupiter, Ceres, etc), you can find sanctuaries devoted to foreign gods, including Isis and Serapis, Attis, Cybele, and Sabazios. There's a Jewish synagogue, as well as one of the earliest preserved Christian basilicas. The most evocative experience for me was visiting the so-called Mithraeum of the Baths (pictured, courtesy Wikimedia Commons). I had the site virtually to myself that day (aside from an Italian school-group or two), and descending into this underground, cave-like sanctuary of Mithras was like walking back in time. It was very easy to imagine a gathering of Mithraic worshipers in that space.

It's possible to spend at least half a day, or even a whole day, at Ostia Antica. There's a nice archaeological museum with many of the sculptural finds, and a cafeteria for lunch or a snack. I suggest buying the guidebook to the site (available at most museum bookshops in Rome) to better enjoy your experience, as there is much to see. The site tends to be under-touristed in general, but I found a weekday made for a peaceful visit. Not much shade, so wear your sunscreen!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Tulip Mania

Catherine over at Versailles and More (I read this blog regularly, can you tell?) provides an apt comparison for the recent Wall Street collapse: the 17th-century phenomenon of tulip mania in the Netherlands. Allow me to add my two cents about tulip mania...

First, a reading recommendation: the novel "Tulip Fever," by Deborah Moggach. I read this after my trip to the Netherlands last year, wanting to learn more about tulip mania in a fun-reading way. I enjoyed this book very much, and if you're like me, when you get to a certain point near the end, you'll exclaim "Oh NO!" (Read it -- you'll see what I mean.)

And second, an interesting painting: pictured, "A Satire of Tulip Mania" by Jan Brueghel the Younger, ca. 1640. I discovered this painting on a visit to the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem during my Dutch trip. It's a "singerie," a painting in which monkeys are used as an allegory to expose the foibles of humankind. Here is the museum's own description, from its website:

"One monkey points to flowering tulips while another brandishes a tulip and a moneybag. This is how artist Jan Brueghel indicates that this painting is about the tulip trade. A sale is concluded by hand-clapping. Bulbs are weighed, money is counted, a lavish business dinner is savoured. The monkey on the left has a list of names of expensive tulips. The sword at his side is a status symbol. Farther back, a monkey sits like a nobleman astride a horse. Another in the mid-foreground is drawing up a bill of sale. The owl on his shoulder symbolises folly. Brueghel is ridiculing tulip mania by depicting the speculators as brainless monkeys. The painting also shows what happened when the tulip trade crashed: a monkey on the right urinates on the - now worthless - tulips. Behind him a speculator who has run up debts is being brought before the magistrate. A monkey sits weeping in the dock and in the centre at the back a disappointed buyer is wielding his fists. At the back to the right a speculator is even being carried to his grave."

Brueghel's painting follows much of 17th-century Dutch genre painting by providing a moral lesson for the viewer, here done as a scathing satire of human greed. Vincent van Gogh knew about tulip mania; in a letter to his mother, he provides a comparison to the art market of his day that proves an odd premonition: "Those high prices one hears about, paid for work of painters who are dead and who were never paid so much while they were alive, it is a kind of tulip trade, under which the living painters suffer rather than gain any benefit. And it will also disappear like the tulip trade. But one may reason that, though the tulip trade has long been gone and is forgotten, the flower growers have remained and will remain. And thus I consider painting too, thinking that what abides is like a kind of flower growing. And as far as it concerns me, I reckon myself happy to be in it." (letter 612, November 1889, written in the asylum of Saint-Rémy).

I highly recommend the Frans Hals Museum to anyone visiting Haarlem, and I recommend Haarlem for anyone visiting the Netherlands. It's an easy train trip from Amsterdam and a charming town. The museum has a superb collection of mostly 17th-century Dutch art (it was larger than I expected), beautifully presented. Try to visit Haarlem on Saturday, when a market takes over the square around the cathedral of St. Bavo, and don't miss the cathedral itself -- Frans Hals' tomb is inside. The market of Haarlem will always be special in my culinary memory as the first place I had a stroopwaffel: a sort of waffle sandwich with syrup inside, but that description in no way captures the absolute heaven that is a stroopwaffel!