Friday, September 3, 2010

"The Bedroom" Is Back!

The first version of "Vincent's Bedroom in Arles" -- painted in Arles in October 1888 -- returns to display today in the Van Gogh Museum, following an intensive and successful six-month restoration. A special display, "Bedroom Secrets," reveals the conservation process and complicated history of the painting for visitors. But hurry: the mini-exhibition of "The Bedroom" will only remain in Amsterdam until September 19th; after that, the picture heads to Japan for a Van Gogh retrospective co-organized by the VGM and Kröller-Müller Museum.

More details, including before-and-after photos and an account of the conservation process, can be found on the Van Gogh Museum's website and on the conservators' blog, Bedroom Secrets. My hat's off to the conservators for a fantastic job: even in photographs, one can see how much brighter the colors are after cleaning, details previously obscured now more visible. Most importantly, this painting, which was in a very fragile condition prior to restoration, is in a much safer state. The fact the VGM is sending it to Japan shows how confident the museum is; it almost never traveled in recent years because of its condition. I enjoyed reading the conservators' updates throughout the process and their interesting discoveries. Congratulations to the VGM on what must be a very exciting day!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Have You Seen This Painting?

The only van Gogh painting in Egypt has been stolen...again. An 1886 still-life of poppies and viscaria (F324a, JH1137 for those keeping score in the catalogues raisonnés) disappeared yesterday from the Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo and contrary to early published reports, has NOT yet been recovered. (Note to CNN on tv: update your crawler.) This particular painting, valued at about $50 million, was purloined in 1978 but recovered in Kuwait a decade later; nine different paintings were taken from this same museum last year, so something is clearly amiss with security. Easy to see what: reports this morning are that only seven of the museum's 43 security cameras were working, and that none of the individual alarms on the museum's paintings worked, either. The museum's records show only ten visitors to the museum yesterday. Police tracked and arrested two of them, a young Italian couple, at the Cairo airport yesterday afternoon...but the painting is still at large. If you see it, call the cops immediately! (Wild speculation: could it be an inside job, with the Italian couple used as a diversion à la "The Thomas Crown Affair"? Someone who knew the alarms and cameras were not working? Hmm...)

I've noticed a couple of the news stories have illustrated the wrong painting with their reports: the one pictured here is the correct canvas. It is one of a series of floral still lifes produced by Vincent while he was living in Paris and thought to date from summer 1886 (some of the stories have the wrong date, too). They are 'practice pieces' -- studies Vincent did to explore his ideas about color theory. Friends and obliging local florists provided him with blooms to paint.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Caravaggio Update

News from Caravaggio's world...the painting an art historian from the Vatican thought might be a Caravaggio, announced in L'Osservatore Romano last week? Um, not so much. The Vatican's chief art historian, Antonio Paolucci, admits in the latest L'Osservatore that the painting is likely a copy of an original by a follower of Caravaggio, although he was careful not to disparage his colleague who had suggested otherwise.

In other news, attendance figures have been released for the Caravaggio show at the Scuderie del Quirinale this spring...try 600,000 visitors. For a show that featured only about 25 paintings, that is downright amazing. Vincent draws that many at some venues (often more, granted). But Caravaggio? Told you he was HOT. As for the all-night opening of the Galleria Borghese and Caravaggio-owning churches in Rome last week, an estimated 20,000 visitors followed the trail. WOW!!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Run, Pheidippides, Run!

I'm going to put on my classicist hat for blogging today and say that I can't BELIEVE I haven't realized next week is the 2500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.)! I'm serious, I can't. Today Reuters has a news story about two Greek long-distance runners who plan to recreate one version of the Marathon legend: that Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Sparta (where he couldn't get help), back to Marathon, and *then* from Marathon to Athens. (The modern marathon race was inspired by the Marathon-Athens leg of Pheidippides' trek. p.s. He died.) Maria Polyzou and Panayiotis Skoulis will run the 325 miles from Athens to Sparta to Marathon in six days' time, from July 26th to August 1st. The route begins at the Akropolis and ends at the Tomb of the Marathonomachoi (Athenian dead at Marathon, who received hero-cult in the Classical period). Polyzou has not only run marathons for 23 years, she's also director of the Marathon Museum and trumpets the historical significance of the anniversary. Apparently this run will be like a double marathon every day for a week, and apparently Skoulis has done it before (!!). Celebrations in Greece will continue and will culminate in the Athens Marathon on October 31st, which is expected to have about 20,000 participants this year.

Shout-out to my sister and brother-in-law, themselves marathon runners, who plan to take on the Disney Marathon (again) in January 2011. Being closer to a library cat than a cheetah, I won't be joining them. But I may have to re-read Aischylos' Persians next week for the anniversary...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Chasing Caravaggio

It's the 400th anniversary of his death this year -- this week, in fact -- and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (aka my second favorite painter) is hot hot hot. Record-attendance exhibition in Rome at the Scuderie del Quirinale, other exhibitions in Florence and elsewhere...check. Stolen Caravaggio recently recovered...check. A group of scientists announcing they've found Caravaggio's bones and are installing them with honors in Pont'Ercole, where he died...check (although on this one I'm tempted to say, Isn't that conveeeeenient?). And now this morning, none other than Vatican officials are speculating whether they've "discovered" a new Caravaggio. What would Caravaggio himself think of all this fuss? Well, unlike my friend Vincent, who I believe would be embarrassed and bewildered over the modern attention paid to him, I suspect Caravaggio would guzzle it like a good Chianti. Caravaggio was anything but shy!

I went to Rome earlier this summer (for the fourth time) and followed my own Caravaggio trail. The Scuderie exhibition was *amazing,* to say the least. By the time of my visit, about four of the paintings had already gone home or on to other shows, but the twenty or so that remained -- all securely attributed paintings by the master -- were knockouts. Even with massive crowds, Caravaggio's work has the power to smack you around and call you chump. The Scourging of Christ (from a Vienna museum) was the one that affected me the most, not having seen it before in person. The Taking of Christ (in Dublin) was another powerful piece. A special treat was seeing the first version of The Conversion of Saul (or The Conversion of Saint Paul): that version was rejected by its patrons, and Caravaggio's second version is the one hanging in Santa Maria del Popolo today. The first version is in a private collection and is seldom displayed in public. (Mille grazie, by the way, to the nice guard who pitied short little me and led me to the front of the pack for a good look-see!) In Florence, before coming to Rome, I had just missed by three days (THREE DAYS?!) a big show on Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti, which means I also missed the Uffizi's Bacchus and their works by Artemisia Gentileschi. Caravaggio's Medusa, though, was on view all by itself in a spotlit room, watched over by a bored guard filing his fingernails. Three trips to the Uffizi, and I'd never seen the Medusa. She's fabulous.

Other stops on my Caravaggio trail in Rome: the churches of Santa Maria del Popolo (Conversion of Saint Paul, Crucifixion of Saint Peter), San Luigi dei Francesi (the three Saint Matthew paintings), and Sant'Agostino (Madonna of the Loreto). Also paid a visit to the Chiesa Nuova to see the original site of the Entombment, although the painting now hangs in the Pinacoteca of the Vatican Museums. The Galleria Borghese to see their paintings they hadn't lent to the Scuderie. The Galleria Doria Pamphilj (Mary Magdalene). And just for pure atmosphere, a swing through the creepy little backstreet the Vicolo del Divino Amore, where himself lived during his last and most turbulent months in Rome. I didn't see any plaque commemorating Caravaggio's time there, but once I entered the almost-alley, I didn't exactly stick around!

Last night, to commemorate the anniversary of Caravaggio's death, the Galleria Borghese and the above-mentioned churches stayed open all night -- with free admission -- for his devotees to pay their respects. I bet there were a lot of them. The first time I walked 'the trail' in 1996, I had the churches to myself. Now you jostle with hordes of admiring fans. Oh he's hot, all right. And somewhere he's smiling.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Go(gh) Netherlands!

You know the World Cup Final is serious business when a city's museums post huge banners in support of the national team. This photo comes from the Van Gogh Museum's Twitter page; apparently the Rijksmuseum has a banner too. The Museumplein will be hopping on Sunday!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Tiffany in Florida

This weekend I was in Orlando for the inaugural University of Central Florida Book Festival (a big thank-you to the organizers for the invitation and the hospitality), and I took advantage of the proximity to the town of Winter Park to visit the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, which I've wanted to visit since I moved here nearly nine years ago and somehow just never made it. Boy, have I been missing out! The Morse is an absolutely delightful museum, specializing in late nineteenth-early twentieth century American art, and in particular on the art of Louis Comfort Tiffany. The museum claims to have the most comprehensive collection of Tiffany in the world, and it certainly seems to be true: from famous household items like the Wisteria Lamp (pictured) to stained glass windows, glass vases, pottery, mosaics, jewelry, even architectural elements. The museum's founders, Hugh and Jeannette McKean, were ardent collectors of Tiffany artworks and other American decorative arts and paintings; indeed, it was the McKeans who rescued elements of Tiffany's Long Island estate, Laurelton Hall, from certain ruin after a devastating fire in the 1950s. (They donated or loaned some of their collection to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, so we can thank the McKeans for some of the Tiffany artwork there, too.) At the Morse Museum you can see the famous Tiffany Chapel, conserved and reconstructed in its own gallery, and room after room of beautifully displayed Tiffany glass. A selection of the museum's painting and print collection is also on view, featuring work by Sargent, Henri, Mucha, and Parrish, as well as furniture and decorative arts from the European and American Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts Movements. What a treat! Construction is underway on a new wing set to open in fall 2011, dedicated solely to Laurelton Hall; here, guests will enjoy among other things the reconstructed Daffodil Terrace. (Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum's Tiffany & Laurelton Hall exhibition in late 2006-early 2007 will remember the restored Daffodil Terrace -- well, it belongs to the Morse and soon will be in Winter Park for good. I happened to see that show and remember gasping at the Terrace's beauty. I also remember seeing Tim Gunn from Project Runway there!)

Visitors to the Morse will learn about some of the new research surrounding Tiffany and Art Nouveau. For instance, due credit is given here to Clara Driscoll, one of the Tiffany Studios designers who actually designed some of the most famous Tiffany lamps, including the Wisteria Lamp, the Dragonfly, and the Pond Lily lamp, all of which won international design awards. In spring 2011, Susan Vreeland's new novel, "Clara and Mr. Tiffany," will be published, which explores the career of Clara Driscoll and brings this artist even further into the spotlight.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Renovating "The Bedroom"

Visitors to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam between now and August will be looking in vain for one of the VGM's most beloved paintings, "Vincent's Bedroom in Arles" from October 1888 (click image to enlarge). That's because "The Bedroom" is receiving much-needed conservation work, the last major campaign of restoration on the painting having taken place in the 1930s. But leave it to the very plugged-in Van Gogh Museum to bring virtual visitors into the process: the museum has launched a blog wittily titled Bedroom Secrets, in which head of conservation Ella Hendriks will post week-by-week progress on the project. Presumably the team will not only be restoring the "The Bedroom" but doing some research on its pigments, canvas, etc., continuing ongoing study of Vincent's painting materials.

Some of the damage to "The Bedroom" that the current conservation will seek to stabilize dates back to Vincent's own day. In a letter to Theo before leaving for the hospital of Saint-Rémy in spring 1889, Vincent explains that during his most recent stay in the hospital at Arles, flooding from the Rhône River and the spring rains had created a damp atmosphere in his house and "The Bedroom" was particularly affected. "There's one which is flaking onto which I've stuck newspapers," he says, and at another point tells Theo he believes "The Bedroom" will need to be relined or recanvassed completely. Vincent must have been distressed at the damage to this painting, for his letters to both Theo and Paul Gauguin from mid-October show he was very proud of it. "Looking at the picture ought to rest the brain, or rather the imagination," he says in a letter to his brother and crows about the effect of simplicity he had sought to attain. After Vincent's initial breakdown in late 1888 and his first return to his house, he wrote to Theo (January 1889): "When I saw my canvases again after my illness, the one that seemed the best to me was my bedroom." Once Theo received the painting in Paris in May 1889, he was concerned enough himself about the damage that he sent it back to Vincent in Saint-Rémy to copy (this copy is today in the Art Institute of Chicago and dates from Sept 1889). Still proud of "The Bedroom," Vincent of his own accord made a second, smaller copy as a gift for his mother and sister; this version hangs today in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

Vincent created the Amsterdam version of "The Bedroom" during a period of hard work, when he says to Theo he had been exhausted and in need of deep rest. For him, the bedroom scene evoked calm and tranquillity; he also used the composition as an opportunity to explore complementary color pairs and a flatness of tone that he felt was Japanese influenced. It is interesting to note in all three versions the peculiar shape of the room: it would be easy to think Vincent was "off" in his perspective or that the distortion was somehow due to his mental state (yes, this has been claimed)...except that his room really was shaped that way. The so-called yellow house no longer exists, having been damaged by Allied bombing in World War II and later torn down, but surviving ground plans make the trapezoidal shape of the bedroom very clear. Some have also noted the dual chairs and dual pillows in the room, as if Vincent imagined a second occupant (i.e. the wife he always wanted); however, he does not explain that detail in his letters. There is no doubt that "The Bedroom" and the pride Vincent felt in this painting echo the love and pride he felt for his little yellow house. He had moved all his possessions into the house in September, and judging from the detailed letters he sent his brother, put much thought, care, and money into the house's decoration and upkeep. Even though rented, the yellow house was the first home Vincent had that was completely his--it was his refuge, the locus for all his hopes and dreams. It's no surprise he immortalized one of its rooms on canvas.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Southwest Florida Reading Festival

Got a couple of "Sunflowers" events on the horizon in late March and April...the first coming up is the Southwest Florida Reading Festival in lovely Fort Myers on Saturday, March 20th. At 10:30 am, I will be sharing the stage with the groovy and talented Johanna Moran, whose historical novel "The Wives of Henry Oades" was just released a few weeks ago. (I'm halfway through it now: it's terrific!!) Knowing Johanna already -- we share the same literary agent -- I can guarantee a good time as we relate our debut-novel experiences. There will be a book signing afterward, so come on down (or over, or up, as appropriate) and join the fun. The place to go for more information is the festival website at Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A "New" Van Gogh

It's not every day the world gets a new van Gogh painting.

Oh, sure, there are folks who *think* they have an original van Gogh, but thinking you have one and having one are two different things. These days, the official imprimaturs come from the good scholars of the Van Gogh Museum, and although they probably get many, many authentication requests, only once in a blue moon do they hit the jackpot.

Dutch art collector Dirk Hannema thought his "Le Blute-Fin" (AP Photo/Fundatie de Zwolle, click to enlarge) was a real van Gogh -- he thought so for 35 years. And finally, for the first time since 1995, the VGM has authenticated a never-before-catalogued van Gogh. Louis van Tilborgh, research curator at the VGM, did the honors. According to the Associated Press article published today, van Tilborgh cites the stamp on the back of the canvas, from a Paris art store Vincent frequented, and the types of pigments used in the painting as evidence for authenticity. Research on pigments is relatively new business, new enough that a forger working long enough ago for Hannema to acquire the painting wouldn't have known what to fake. Van Tilborgh dates the painting to Vincent's Paris period and more specifically to the year 1886. This is not a surprise, for not only does the painting show a Parisian landmark -- the Blute-Fin windmill in Montmartre -- but Vincent painted this windmill several times. This image of "Le Moulin de Blute-Fin" (F273), for instance, is dated to summer 1886. The one closest in composition to the "new" painting is this one (F271),which (alas) was destroyed by fire in 1967. The big difference between the latter painting and the new picture, though, is the amount of figures. Rather uncharacteristically for van Gogh's work, especially at this point, the stairway in the new painting is crowded with people. Not only that, but the people are shown closer in than was typical for him: compare for instance this painting (F272, in the Art Institute of Chicago),where the figures on the observation deck of the Blute-Fin are standing at some distance from the artist. In the 'new' painting, no doubt it was the figures that kept this canvas in the "doubtful" category for so long, until the technology evolved for the examination of the pigments. In fact, while I don't claim to be nearly the expert as the VGM curators, if you'd shown me this picture and asked "Real? Not real?" I would have voted "Not Real" because of the figures.

So what was Le Blute-Fin? In Vincent's day, three windmills still stood on the hill of Montmartre, nostalgic leftovers from the days when the landscape was peppered with them. One of them was actually nicknamed the Peppermill (aka the Debray), then there was le Radet and le Blute-Fin. Vincent's early Paris canvases show many views of Montmartre and his new home, but as a Dutchman, no doubt he had a particular attraction to the windmills. Le Blute-Fin was built in 1622 and was perhaps better known in Vincent's day as "Le Moulin de la Galette," a nickname it shared with Le Radet. Together these two windmills anchored the famous dance-hall painted by Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vincent himself [van Gogh only painted the exterior though]. The Blute-Fin was also noteworthy for its "point de vue," its panoramic view down to Paris from its belvedere, or observation deck. In the foreground of Vincent's 'new' picture we probably see a stand for buying a beer or lemonade, and the figures crowding the stairs are beautifully dressed in seemingly Sunday best, enjoying a walk on a pleasant afternoon.

The new van Gogh is on view at the Fundatie de Zwolle in Zwolle, the Netherlands.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Snowy Day

No snow on the ground here in Tampa Bay, of course, but since much of the rest of the country -- including my hometown in Georgia -- has at least a few inches lying around, seems a good time to introduce one of van Gogh's rare snowscapes. "Snowy Landscape with Arles in the Background" (click image to enlarge) dates from late February or early March 1888, just after Vincent arrived in Arles. He'd stepped off the train on February 20th to a surprising sight: about 12 inches of snow covering the Provençal landscape. The irony? Well, firstly that Arles rarely saw that kind of snowfall, and secondly, that van Gogh had come south seeking the sun and a warmer climate. In a letter to Theo after his arrival, he expressed surprise at the weather but then added optimistically that the snow-blanketed landscape reminded him of some Japanese prints.

"Snowy Landscape" shows a view of Arles that Vincent would later depict in summer: the city's skyline distant on the horizon, a vast, flat field in between. We can spot the towers of the various churches, including Saint-Trophime, as well as smokestacks of the PLM railway workshops. Appropriately for the wintry day, no figures can be seen, although footprints dot the snow...the artist's own? The composition of this painting recalls seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painters such as Jacob van Ruisdael, whose work Vincent admired, although Ruisdael's landscapes tend to show a more expansive sky. Lest we think this snowy landscape is too melancholy, van Gogh includes hints of green, suggesting some plants have survived the snowfall and wait eagerly for spring. Just like Vincent himself must have done!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Casting "Sunflowers"

"What if your book was made into a movie? Who would you want to play Vincent and Rachel?"

I've been asked that many times since "Sunflowers" was released, and believe me, I've thought about it. "Daniel Craig for Vincent," I say without hesitation, "you know, James Bond." If my listener is a woman, the reaction is always "Ohhhh" with an appreciative smile and nod. Those ice-blue eyes, the craggy face filled with character...oh yeah. He's the right age, and before he became Bond he was an intense indie-film actor. He could do it. He'd be perfect. He even looks good with a beard--here he is in "The Golden Compass."

Rachel is harder. I'd want a French actress in my imaginary movie, and so far I hadn't found just the right one. But last week I caught the charming film "Faubourg 36" on cable, and debut actress Nora Arnezeder (pictured) seems ideal for Rachel. She's a little taller than I've imagined, and currently a blonde, but in "Faubourg 36" she had the vulnerability, inner strength, and sense of innocent-in-the-big-city that would totally fit the character.

What do *you* think of these two? Have your own ideas?

Gogh-ing to the Nelson-Atkins

The Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City -- a gem of a museum with a very fine collection -- just received quite a 75th birthday present: 400 new artworks as gifts from some of its patrons. Among them: a treasure trove of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pieces donated by Henry and Marion Bloch, longtime friends of the museum (Henry Bloch as in founder of H&R Block). The Bloch donation includes works by Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Degas, and van Gogh. The van Gogh in question is pictured here -- "Restaurant Rispal at Asnières," dating from 1887 and Vincent's Paris period. It is one of a series that van Gogh did at the suburb of Asnières and shows the influence of Divisionism and his friend Paul Signac. This painting was included in the landmark "Van Gogh à Paris" exhibition held at the Musée d'Orsay in 1988.

The Nelson-Atkins already owns two van Goghs: "Head of a Young Peasant" from 1885 and Vincent's time in Nuenen, and "Olive Grove" from 1889 and his time in Saint-Rémy. (The Nelson-Atkins "Olive Grove" is one of my favorites of the olive tree series.) Congratulations to the Nelson-Atkins on 75 years of excellence and on their splendid new acquisitions.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Auction Results

For those dying to know what happened with the two van Gogh works on paper up for auction last night at Christie's London..."The Iron Mill in The Hague" (1882) sold for 505,250 British pounds ($803,348) and "Six Pines Near the Enclosure Wall" (1889) sold for 769,250 British pounds ($1,223,108), including the buyer's premium. Both fell within estimate, "Six Pines" on the high end. Congratulations to the (I'm sure) happy new owners!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Up for Auction

Christie's London has its Impressionist/Modern Evening Sale tomorrow night, Feb 2nd, and there are two van Gogh works on paper up for grabs.Lot 11 is a charcoal and pencil drawing done during Vincent's time at the asylum of Saint-Remy, "Six pines near the enclosure wall" (F1564 in the de la Faille catalogue). More specifically, this drawing is conventionally dated to a period after one of Vincent's attacks when he was still unwilling to leave the walls of the asylum to paint. Instead he did drawings inside the asylum's walled garden. The provenance can be traced back to Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, and the estimate is 600,000-800,000 British pounds.

Lot 17 is of historical interest because, dating to June 1882 and Vincent's time in The Hague, it's one of his earlier works. "The Iron Mill in The Hague" (F926) is gouache, watercolor, wash, pen and ink, and pencil on paper and has an estimate of 450,000-550,000 British pounds.

Thanks to former van Gogh seminar student Michelle for letting me know about this auction!!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

L'anno di Caravaggio

Just as 2010 marks an anniversary for Vincent van Gogh (the 120th anniversary of his death), it's also a key anniversary for my tied-for-#2 favorite artist, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (the other tied-for-#2 is Michelangelo Buonarroti). Caravaggio died 400 years ago this year, and the art world is predictably commemorating the occasion. Last month the famed Taschen publishing house released a brand-new catalogue raisonné of Caravaggio's work incorporating all the newest research (must get, must get...), and museum exhibitions have also been happening. The Art Institute of Chicago's show revolving around Caravaggio's "Supper at Emmaus" (normally at the National Gallery in London) has its last day today, and visitors to Rome can enjoy a Caravaggio-Francis Bacon dual exhibition (there's a combo to make your head spin) at the Galleria Borghese for another few weeks. The pièce de résistance, however, will be a show at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome opening February 20th and running through June 13th. This exhibition will bring together securely attributed Caravaggio paintings from throughout European and American collections into one place, including the two paintings 'rediscovered' in the 1990s: "The Taking of Christ," from the National Gallery of Ireland, and "Cardsharps" from the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth. In my opinion, the organizers have been especially clever in focusing on paintings not in Roman museums/churches (with the exception of "David Holding the Head of Goliath" from the Galleria Borghese and "Deposition" from the Vatican), so that Caravaggio lovers can enjoy the exhibition, then traipse merrily to the churches and museums elsewhere in Rome that hold his work. Result: an overwhelming proportion of Caravaggio's oeuvre in the same city at the same time. Rapture!! Visit this website for a list of the paintings expected in the Scuderie show (in Italian) and some pictures, and the official website of the Scuderie del Quirinale for more information about the show and the venue.

Did I already mention that I LOVE Caravaggio? I'd never heard of him until spring 1989, when in the large auditorium hosting Art History 102, Emory's then-professor of Baroque art, Dr. Crelly, unleashed the painter's "Conversion of Saint Paul" (click image to enlarge) on the gathered students. I'd never seen anything like it. And the more Caravaggio paintings I've encountered, the more I've admired his dramatic use of light, his unconventional approach to very conventional religious subjects. And let's not forget his raucous personal life: Caravaggio has a likely deserved reputation as the bad boy of Baroque painting, working hard in his studio by day, prowling the backstreets of Rome with a sword on his hip and a gang of friends by his side at night. He used prostitutes as companions and models, got arrested more than once for incidents involving his legendary bad temper, and finally had to flee Rome to four years in exile after accidentally killing a man during a fight over a tennis match. Everyone wonders how such a "sinner" can create such sublime religious images -- but perhaps a sinner like that understands more than anyone the struggles and fears that actually underlie many of the stories. Not for Caravaggio the often-saccharine smiling figures of many Baroque altarpieces: his Christ, his saints, his Virgin Mary are REAL. So real that it sometimes got him into trouble. The first version of his "Saint Matthew and the Angel," for instance, intended for the Contarelli Chapel of the church of S. Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, was rejected by the patron because Caravaggio showed the saint with a laborer's tunic and dirty feet. The second, more decorous version hangs in the church today.

Caravaggio died in a small town on the coast of Italy of probably yellow fever, although the circumstances of his death remain murky. He was on his way back to Rome seeking a formal pardon for the accusation of murder, having spent time down south in Naples, Sicily, and Malta. He was almost thirty-nine years old. The face of Goliath in his alleged last painting, "David with the Head of Goliath," is said to be his own.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Real Van Gogh

"The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters" opens January 23rd at the Royal Academy in London -- the first van Gogh retrospective exhibition in Britain for quite some time -- and buzz is starting to build. Check out the excellent articles by Martin Gayford in the Times Online and by Mark Hudson in the Telegraph.

2010 also marks the 120th anniversary of Vincent's death in 1890. The newest issue of the New Yorker apparently has an article entitled "Van Gogh's Ear," which re-examines theories of his illness and suicide. I've not seen this yet but will soon.

I'm pleased that the republication of Vincent's letters this past October and the accompanying exhibition in Amsterdam, the new exhibition in London, and the anniversary are prompting reconsideration of van Gogh's place in art history and his identity as an artist. Let's put those mad-genius clichés to rest, already! The real van Gogh is far more complex and far more interesting.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Venus Fixers

Anyone who loves Italian art and cares about our shared cultural heritage needs to read Ilaria Dagnini Brey's "The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy's Art During World War II." Italian-born journalist Brey follows first the attempt by the Italians to protect artworks in the face of oncoming war -- everything from bricking up "David" to hiding paintings in Tuscan villas -- then the valiant efforts of the "Monuments Men" to keep them safe during and after the Allied invasion. The Monuments Men were a band of artists, art historians, architects, archaeologists, archivists, etc. who served in the British and American armies and used their expertise to look after monuments and artworks in time of war. Brey focuses on those who served in Italy: we learn about Yale art professor Deane Keller, who had the artworks of western Tuscany as his responsibility, and for me a familiar name was art history professor Frederick Hartt, whose landmark "Italian Renaissance Art" textbook I knew from university but I had no idea he'd served as a Monuments Man. So too John Ward-Perkins, a prominent Romanist in his day: again, I know his work but enjoyed reading about his Italian service. As a card-carrying professional art historian, I couldn't help but feel proud as I read this book; it was like learning one's great-uncles or second cousins or whatever had been war heroes.

There are heartstopping moments in this book -- the American bombing of the Florence railyards for example, which through the skill of the pilots and the maps provided by the Monuments Men left the Duomo, Santa Maria Novella, and everything else unscathed. There are also heartrending moments: the Nazi bombardment of the Florentine bridges, the Allied bombardment of the monastery of Monte Cassino, the accidental near-destruction of the frescoes of the Camposanto in Pisa. Not being a specialist in Renaissance art, much of the story was new to me, save what I'd seen in the documentary "The Rape of Europa." Although I *knew* Michelangelo's David, Botticelli's Birth of Venus, and any number of treasures are safe now in their museum homes, Brey kept me in suspense throughout her account.

In recent years, the effects of World War II on the artistic heritage have gotten increased attention (e.g. Lynn Nicholas' book "The Rape of Europa" and the excellent documentary of the same name, plus the books of Robert Edsel, including his newest, "Monuments Men"--which I now HAVE to read). There are lessons for all in studying this time period, especially since artworks and monuments continue to be imperiled every day in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Read this book!!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Painting the Wind

"I've already had an opportunity to find out what this mistral's like too. I've been out on several hikes round about here, but the wind always made it impossible to do anything. The sky was a hard blue with a great bright sun that melted just about all the snow -- but the wind was so cold and dry it gave you goose-pimples." -Vincent to Theo, 9 March 1888, writing from Arles

It came in the middle of the night. BANG! I sat up with a start in my room on the top floor of a hotel in Arles, then scurried to the window to secure the shutters. Oh yes, it was...


I was very excited. Unlike many visitors, who'd rather not have their Provence vacations disrupted by a cold northwest wind, I was eager to feel the mistral for myself, because I was writing about it in "Sunflowers." While in Arles, Vincent hated the mistral, because it made it difficult to paint outdoors. By summertime he had concocted a solution, as he explains to painter friend Émile Bernard in a letter from June 1888: "My easel was fixed in the ground with iron pegs, a method that I recommend to you. You shove the feet of the easel in and then you push a 50-centimeter-long iron peg in beside them. You tie everything together with ropes; that way you can work in the wind." Even so, he had plenty of complaints, calling the mistral "a very nasty, nagging wind" (letter to sister Wilhemina, 31 July), "the devil" (letter to Theo, 18 August), and any number of other adjectives...aggravating, pitiless, violent. The mistral is mentioned many times in the Arles letters. Although there was mistral in Saint-Rémy as well, Vincent had fewer problems there. "The mistral (since there are a few mountains here) appears far less annoying than in Arles, where you always get it at first hand" (letter to Theo, ca 6 June 1889).

There is plenty of wind-lore in Provence: the climate is governed by winds, and every wind from every direction has its own name in the Provençal language. Folks in Vincent's day believed the mistral could bring about a nervous condition or at least headaches. I began to understand that during my trip: the mistral blew for three days straight, and the novelty quickly wore off. It whips through the plains around Arles with great strength, and it is COLD, blowing as it does from faraway mountains. The city itself seems designed to fend off the mistral, as the old medieval streets wind and turn and never go completely straight. This does help. But once you get by the river and into the open...brrrr.

The mistral was still going strong the day I went to Saint-Rémy. As I walked around the asylum and through the ruins of the Roman town of Glanum, I noticed the wind felt different than in Arles. There at the foot of the Alpilles, with the mountains to partly block the mistral (as Vincent observed), the wind was ... swirly. You couldn't tell what direction it was coming from. It was almost dancing.

I thought immediately of the painting seen here, "Wheatfield with Cypresses" (Met. Museum, image from Wikimedia Commons, click to enlarge), done in June 1889 while Vincent was staying at the asylum. The Saint-Rémy paintings are filled with swirly skies (think "Starry Night" from the same month), and many have suggested it says something about Vincent's mental condition. No, it doesn't. He was painting the wind! Notice how the wheat bends one way, the bushes another. Only the mountains and the cypresses barely move. Farmers in Provence still plant cypresses in strategic rows to buffer their fields from the mistral's force. Although the cypress can also be a symbol of death (and is often interpreted as such in Vincent's pictures), it's equally a symbol of strength, of protection. And those lavender mountains? The Alpilles are bare limestone peaks that pick up the colors of the clouds and sky. The day I visited Saint-Rémy, they were almost purple. Vincent certainly changed what he saw to suit his vision for the picture, but there's more "reality" here than meets the eye. It took a trip to Provence and a firsthand experience of mistral for me to understand that.