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.