Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Bite 159: Leonardo da Vinci - The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and the Infant St. John the Baptist ('The Burlington House Cartoon'), c. 1499-1500

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and the Infant St. John the Baptist ('The Burlington House Cartoon'), c. 1499-1500, charcoal on canvas, 141.5 x 104.6 cm, National Gallery, London
In this daringly monumental drawing the entangled figures of St. Mary and St. Anne with Jesus and St. John the Baptist dissolve into the canvas, the drawing unfinished.

St. Anne points upwards, a reference to Jesus’ destiny, while St. John the Baptist gestures a blessing, indicating his future role in the life of Christ. Improved with age the scene now appears like a mysterious vision, incomplete in places, a strange landscape looming behind the figures, lifelike in their rendering.

The technical term cartoon refers to the intention with such large drawings to transfer the image to another canvas for the purpose of painting a final image. The survival of this work however can be attributed to there being no final painting resulting from it, and it stands as the only surviving large-scale drawing by Leonardo.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Bite 158: Leonardo da Vinci - Drapery Study for an Angel, c. 1495-8

 Drapery Study for an Angel, c. 1495-8, ink on paper, 21.3 x 15.9 cm, Collection of Her Majesty The Queen, UK.
Skin beneath cloth, finely detailed in the grandmother of artistic technique: drawing with pencil on paper. 

Leonardo da Vinci had an uncanny attention to detail and this is demonstrated best perhaps in the huge number of drawings he left behind, many of which are in the collection of the Queens Gallery in London, and a selection of which were shown as part of the unprecedented exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan at The National Gallery until 5 February 2012.

Created to apparently solve a compositional problem in the London version of Virgin of the Rocks, the pose of the figure is very similar to that of the angel on the right of the altarpiece. With the aid of fabric dipped in clay and laid over a clay figure, the resulting still-life has been studied from different angles and under different lighting conditions giving the piece an intriguing sculptural quality.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Bite 157: Ejnar Nielsen - Man and Woman, 1917-19

 Man and Woman, 1917-19, Oil on canvas, 305 x 177 cm, National Gallery of Denmark
"Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As ev'ry fairy tale comes real
I've looked at love that way

But now it's just another show
You leave 'em laughing when you go
And if you care, don't let them know
Don't give yourself away

I've looked at love from both sides now
From give and take, and still somehow
It's love's illusions I recall
I really don't know love at all

Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say 'I love you' right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I've looked at life that way

But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I've changed
Well something's lost, but something's gained
In living every day

I've looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all."
                                 - Joni Mitchell, Both Sides, Now

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Bite 156: Ejnar Nielsen - And In His Eyes I Saw Death, 1897

And In His Eyes I Saw Death, 1897, Oil on canvas, 188 x 137 cm, National Gallery of Denmark

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Bite 155: Antonin Mercié - Memory, 1903

Memory, 1903, marble, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek
A cenotaph to lost time, the grieving figure of memory herself is lost in reverie, carved windswept in stone.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Bite 154: Edward Burne-Jones - The Hours, 1882

The Hours, 1882, Oil on canvas, Graves Gallery, Sheffield, UK
Seven maidens, each symbolic of a period of the day, act as melancholy personifications of time passing. A masterpiece of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, The Hours, finely detailed and expertly composed, took 12 years for Edward Burne-Jones to complete.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Bite 153: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - The Bed, 1893

The Bed, 1893, oil on cardboard, 51.3 x 70.4 cm, Musee d'Orsay, Paris

"For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say 'I’m going to sleep.' And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would try to put away the book which, I imagined, was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep, of what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This impression would persist for some moments after I was awake; it did not disturb my mind, but it lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to choose whether I would form part of it or no; and at the same time my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant and restful enough for the eyes, and even more, perhaps, for my mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, a matter dark indeed.

I would ask myself what o’clock it could be; I could hear the whistling of trains, which, now nearer and now farther off, punctuating the distance like the note of a bird in a forest, shewed me in perspective the deserted countryside through which a traveller would be hurrying towards the nearest station: the path that he followed being fixed for ever in his memory by the general excitement due to being in a strange place, to doing unusual things, to the last words of conversation, to farewells exchanged beneath an unfamiliar lamp which echoed still in his ears amid the silence of the night; and to the delightful prospect of being once again at home.

I would lay my cheeks gently against the comfortable cheeks of my pillow, as plump and blooming as the cheeks of babyhood."
                                                                        - Marcel Proust, opening lines of In Search of Lost Time

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Bite 152: Jasper Johns - Map, 1961

Map, 1961, oil on canvas, 198.1 x 312.7 cm, MoMA, New York
The idea of a map is broken apart and revealed in its absurdity - America as paint, a country in its entirety represesnted by oil on canvas.

The states are barely legible and the outline of the nation even less so. Colours blends from one region into another. Text is integral to the collage. Stecilled letters are signifiers for massive areas of land divided up - scattered populations, statistics, differing politics, generalisations. Under this mass of data Johns' map becomes like his flag - referring to everything, and, at the same time, to nothing but the paint and canvas itself.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Bite 151: Antonio & Piero del Pollaiuolo - Tobias and the Angel, c. 1469

Tobias and the Angel, c. 1469
Tobias and the Archangel Raphael are depicted as finely-garbed travellers, a vast landscape stretching behind them. The story is taken from the early Biblical Book of Tobit, written around 100 BC, in which the angel is sent to protect Tobias, the son of the blind Tobit on his trip with his dog to a distant city to collect a sum of money.

After a perilous journey - in which they sieze a fish which attacks them and save a young girl named Sarah from a demon who has killed seven men whom she wished to marry - they return home, with Sarah as Tobias' wife, money in hand, and heal Tobit of his blindness. In a narrative popular among wealthy Florentines the young Tobias is rewarded for his courage and piety and becomes a man.  

Painting as prayer, the work was likely commissioned by a family on the release of their son to travel abroad, wishing him a safe journey and protection from a guardian angel.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Bite 150: Sir Joshua Reynolds - Cupid and Psyche, c. 1789

Cupid and Psyche, c. 1789, oil on canvas, 139.8 x 168.3 cm, Courtauld Gallery, London
Candlelight illuminates the corpse-like figure of the sleeping Cupid. Psyche, seeking to discover the true identity of her lover, sneaks into his bedroom under the cover of darkness. She reaches out her hand, touched with the light of her candle, in surprise or wonder, toward the revealed body of her lover - his wings curled beneath him, the tip grazing one side; his bow - useless without an arrow - clasped against the other. The angel's skin is cold and white, his seemingly lifeless body heavy upon his pillow. The cool light of the moon helps illuminate the mysterious scene.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Bite 149: Zed Nelson - Dolly Parton, 2011

Dolly Parton, 2011
"Well I can't tell you where I'm going, I'm not sure of where I've been
But I know I must keep travelin' till my road comes to an end
I'm out here on my journey, trying to make the most of it
I'm a puzzle, I must figure out where all my pieces fit

Like a poor wayfaring stranger that they speak about in song
I'm just a weary pilgrim trying to find what feels like home
Where that is no one can tell me, am I doomed to ever roam
I'm just travelin', travelin', travelin', I'm just travelin' on

Questions I have many, answers but a few
But we're here to learn, the spirit burns, to know the greater truth
We've all been crucified and they nailed Jesus to the tree
And when I'm born again, you're gonna see a change in me

God made me for a reason and nothing is in vain
Redemption comes in many shapes with many kinds of pain
Oh sweet Jesus if you're listening, keep me ever close to you
As I'm stumblin', tumblin', wonderin', as I'm travelin' thru

I'm just travelin', travelin', travelin', I'm just travelin' thru."
                                        - Dolly Parton, Travelin' Thru

Currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery, London as part of the Taylor Wessing Photography Portrait Prize 2011.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Bite 148: Caspar David Friedrich - Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818, Oil on canvas, 94.8 × 74.8 cm, Kunsthalle Hamburg
"The painter should paint not only what he has in front of him, but also what he sees inside himself. If he sees nothing within then he should stop painting what is in front of him."
                                                        - Caspar David Friedrich
A turbulent sea of fog: a reflection of inner emotion. Turned from the viewer, the subject is the artist himself, while, at the same time, us before the sublime power of nature.

One foot forward, toward the distant horizon, bold and apprehensive, the 'wanderer' gazes out at a mysterious landscape, wide and threatening. Like much of Friedrich's work this painting is mystical and melancholy, religious and quietly profound.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Turning One

I cannot yet say which direction this blog will go in, or even if it will survive its first postings (many blogs don't and Blogger begins to look like a graveyard of forgotten cyber-ambitions). None-the-less I choose to see these points positively: I have an open, indefinite, intangible place from which to muse. It's kind of like buying a Lotto ticket: You know it will almost certainly amount to nothing - but still, you gotta' be in it to win it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                         - My First Post

Bite 147: Andy Warhol - Dollar Sign, 1981

Dollar Sign, 1981, synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen inks on canvas, 228.6 x 177.8 cm, Private Collection
"Money doesn't mind if we say it's evil, it goes from strength to strength. It's a fiction, an addiction, and a tacit conspiracy."
                                                                                - Martin Amis
A work of simple honesty, presenting art as the deceit it too often becomes reduced to, a purely commercial venture. This is art as Warhol saw it: Opportunity.

Could Warhol have chosen a single symbol more loaded with meaning for our society? The double image hovers in green space, an apparition by which our lives are dictated if we let it. Purely a concept, non-existent and slippery, a dominant, moving goal.

Perhaps this work should be titled £1,553,250, the price 'realised' for this work when sold at auction by Christie's in June 2008. In reaching this sum, becoming part of a private collection, long after the artists' death, the work achieves its true conceptual potential; an irony but also a celebration of money itself. There is a reason Warhol remains so attractive to a wealthy, collecting audience of claimed art-lovers - making up a staggering 20% of the contemporary art market: the world he presents is not only unthreatening to those in the 1%, but glorifying of the trivialities that come with excessive monetary power.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Bite 146: Charles Burton Barber - Suspense, 1894

Suspense, 1894, oil on canvas, 78 x 98.5 cm, Private Collection
A  faded reproduction of this image sat on the windowsill at the end of my family kitchen growing up. Seeing it now, in it's gentle humour and nostalgic familiarity, brings back that whole space - alive with the noise of crowded domestisity.

Two loyal pets stare down the quaint breakfast of a young girl, laid out on her bed, as she diligently offers a prayer, staring distracted herself at something out of frame. What more appropriate image to grace the benchtop in the heart of a Christian home? The perhaps simple subject-matter belies a complex composition, maintaining a delicate tension between the players in this warm, homely drama.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Bite 145: Alfred Jacob Miller - The Trapper’s Bride, 1850

The Trapper’s Bride, 1850, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 63.5 cm, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha
"I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west, the bride was a red girl,
Her father and his friends sat near cross-legged and dumbly smoking, they had moccasins to their feet and large thick blankets hanging from their shoulders,
On a bank lounged the trapper, he was drest mostly in skins, his luxuriant beard and curls protected his neck, he held his bride by the hand,
She had long eyelashes, her head was bare, her coarse straight locks descended upon her voluptuous limbs and reach'd to her feet."
                                                 - Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Bite 144: Giuseppe Penone - Tree of 12 Metres, 1980-2

Tree of 12 Metres, 1980-2, wood (American larch), 600 x 50 x 50cm, Tate Modern
Out of processed planks of timber the ancient technique of carving draws out the shape of a tree, wood removed ring by ring until twelve metres of tree - bottom to top and top to bottom - is exposed within two sawn pieces of wood, initially intended for construction.

Twin poles tower above, skeletal totems warning of the future potential for a barren wasteland where forests once stood.

Against a compartmentalised exploitation of nature, Giuseppe Penone reveals the potential for a more sensitive approach to the environment. Sculpture is engaged in a reconstruction through deconstruction, a turning back of the clock, pulling back to reveal the raw within the contained.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Bite 143: Richard Long - A Line Made by Walking, 1967

A Line Made by Walking, 1967, photograph, 38 x 32 cm
The artist paces an empty, nondescript field in the west of England for an indeterminate length of time. The act of walking, over time, creates a line: the sun catching the flattened grass enough to make this physical intervention visible on the landscape itself. 

The artist photographs the result, forming a (semi)-permanent record of a temporal performance.

As a work of 'art' the piece exists in many forms: as an action, a performance; as a temporary 'sculpture', flattened grass left to continuing growing as it had been, soon to disappear; as a photograph, captioned simply A Line Made by Walking, 1967; and as an idea, with the potential of the 'original' action being played out by others.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Bite 142: Julia Margaret Cameron - Julia Jackson, 1867

Julia Jackson, 1867,  albumen print, 30 x 24.6 cm

Julia Margaret Cameron’s expert use of light and shadow is ground-breaking. In this image of Julia Jackson, Cameron’s niece and Virginia Woolf’s mother, the figure is almost lost in darkness, light rimming her face and exquisitely defining a taut tendon on her neck, evidence of the sitters inner tenacity.

This is a widow facing life alone with strength. She has blinked during the exposure bringing a veiled quality to her eyes and reinforcing the impression of inner contemplation. Her tightly bound hair is just as expressive as the unkempt hair in The Echo or The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty, conveying a potential for wild disarray.

She may not be facing the camera directly but she is very much a dynamic representation of the Victorian female - commanding in her beauty and strength.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Bite 141: Julia Margaret Cameron - Mary Mother, c. 1866

Mary Mother, c. 1866,  albumen print, 34.9 x 27.1 cm
It is said that all photographs are in a way self-portraits and there is certainly an element of the autobiographical within Cameron’s oeuvre, a product perhaps of her status as (technically) an ‘amateur’ photographer in the sense that she was not bound by commercial interests or economic necessity. 
An example of this self-referentiality can be seen in Mary Mother. Pensively, she gazes absently out of the frame, the only indication of the role being played the robes around her neck and over her head; a substitute for the untamed hair in other Cameron images. 
We know without explanation that this is Mother Mary following Christ’s death. She is a woman in grief, sacred while at the same time individually human.
Modelled by Mary Hillier, a housemaid to Cameron and her favourite and most frequent model, (depicted separately as both the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene), Cameron explains, “In every manner of form has her face been reproduced, yet never has it been felt that the grace of the fashion of it has perished.” 
In this image Hillier can actually be seen as a stand in for Cameron, who herself lost a child. The tenderness of the image betrays a deep understand of the suffering depicted.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Bite 140: Julia Margaret Cameron - The Echo, 1868

The Echo, 1868,  albumen print, 27 x 22.6 cm
“Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading towards their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people.”
                                                                                 - Susan Sontag, On Photography
Part of what draws us to Julia Margaret Cameron’s images is that, coupled with the exquisite melancholy of her figures and the originality of her technique, is the knowledge that none of their subjects could be alive today. 
Considering the relative youth of the invention of photography this is a fairly recent development, and in the inevitable death of their subjects the conceptual cycle of her images is completed. 
This combination of the theme of mortality along with that of the photographically unique that-has-been adds profound theoretical interest to a modern reading of Cameron’s images. One of Cameron’s most haunting portraits in this respect is The Echo, modelled by the tragic actress Ellen Terry. 
With her particularly piecing yet absent gaze, and pale skin she almost resembles a corpse, the title referencing Greek mythology and perhaps also the inherently reflexive nature of the photographic medium.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Bite 139: Julia Margaret Cameron - The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty, 1866

The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty, 1866,  albumen print, 36.5 x 28.6 cm
Julia Margaret Cameron’s aim was “to ennoble photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and the ideal and sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and Beauty.” To attain the status of High Art it was necessary to depict classical and religious subject-matter but if she had achieved only this she would not appeal to a modern sensibility as she does. 
The power of her images comes directly from the fact that they are startling traces of those who have lived and stood before her camera; what Roland Barthes refers to as “that-has-been”. 
Take The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty as an example. Modelled by Cyllene Margaret Wilson, an orphan adopted by Cameron, the title refers to the Milton poem Allegro. The young girl looks out at the viewer with a direct yet softened stare, her hair tousled and stormy behind her, alternating light and dark. She is in transition, an adolescent moving from darkness into light, from girlhood to womanhood. 
Herschel praised the image, calling her, “Absolutely alive and thrusting out her head from the paper to the air.” 
Alive she certainly was/is, and as the viewer stares her directly in the face the ambiguity of the image and its allegorical title charges the image with questions: “Who was this girl?” “What kind of life did she live?” “Was she happy?” These are questions that haunt the viewing of many of Cameron’s images and they are so strong only because we are before photographs – emanations of reality.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Bite 138: Julia Margaret Cameron - The Kiss of Peace, 1869

The Kiss of Peace, 1869,  albumen print,  34.3 x 27.7 cm
Julia Margaret Cameron's work can be seen as the first example in the history of art of a sustained photographic exploration of women by a woman. Nicole Cooley sees Cameron’s work as decidedly proto-feminist pointing out that “rather than portraying woman’s face as the object of the (male) gaze, Cameron invokes a secret, private world of women together, involved with one another.” Carol MacKay defines it as a “transpersonal” representation in which women represent both themselves and the concept of a higher “collective self.”

In the case of The Kiss of Peace she sees their gazes as providing “a sense of transpersonal dispersion.” Two girls are shown embracing, one laying her lips upon the forehead of the other. But in contradiction to the rather sentimental title she does not appear to be offering any sort of kiss, and the conveyance of the image is more one of melancholy than of a peaceful optimism. Together but alone the figures gaze, in traditional Cameron fashion, towards nothing, one looking up, the other down. 
In what MacKay refers to as “creative negativity” many of Cameron’s portraits, particularly those of women, convey a deep melancholy, a meditation on the plight and hardships of Victorian women. This psychological space, intimate and somewhat claustrophobic, can be seen as a reflection of Cameron’s own confined world, one in which inner creativity becomes a way of escaping imprisonment. 
Her exploration of the photographic medium is inextricably entwined with this transpersonal view of womanhood. The dichotomy of the divine and the human within her work is matched by the paradox of presenting both the personal – photographs of individual woman; and the transpersonal – woman depicted as allegories: metaphors for human (and often uniquely female) experiences.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Bite 137: Julia Margaret Cameron - Iago, Study from an Italian, 1867

Iago, Study from an Italian, 1867, Albumen print
Portraying a man with tenderness and compassion as opposed to lifting him up as a 'Man of Genius', Iago, Study from an Italian is an image unique within Julia Margaret Cameron’s work.

Strongly resembling Domenico Fetti’s painting of Christ with lowered eye, it is possible that Cameron avoided profanity by labelling it instead as the betrayer – more a Judas than a Christ – from Shakespeare’s Othello. But the image of Christ is nonetheless visible, albeit a gloomy or even sinister depiction of the Ecce Homo. As Mike Weaver asks, “Could we not have here a preposterous and beautiful attempt to depict Christ?”
Front-on and close-up, the role, modelled by Angelo Colarossi (probably the only paid professional model Cameron ever used), is portrayed with no props and only the hint of a dark robe. The long, wild hair frames the face along with a strong jaw showing several days of stubble. Even without showing the eyes Cameron again utilises the gaze, dark pits indicating an emotional intensity behind a stalwart exterior. 
The power in the portrait is more in what it withholds from the viewer than in what it gives away, which is decidedly very little. Yet the unmistakable feeling is one of suffering, deep sorrow and concentration. Somewhere between Christ and Judas, strong and fearful, alive and dead, this could perhaps be the most ambiguous image within a photographic project largely defined by ambiguity.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Bite 136: Julia Margaret Cameron - Thomas Carlyle, 1867

 Thomas Carlyle, 1867,  albumen print, 33.7 x 24.5 cm
“From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour, and it has become to me as a living thing, with a voice and memory and creative vigour."                      
                                                    – Julia Margaret Cameron, The Annals of My Glass House, 1874
Julia Margaret Cameron’s dynamic portrait of Thomas Carlyle utilises ambiguity in technique to compelling affect in a portrait made up almost of only smudges and smears on the collodion glass surface streaked with the application of the light-sensitive coating. Yet the image portrays all the more feeling for this, his eyes, similarly to Herschel’s, vacant in contemplation – “staring eagerly into emptiness" - as Carol MacKay puts it, his bright white hair framing his profile, his head filling the frame, arresting the viewers’ attention. 
As with many of Cameron’s portraits the subject is given little context with a deep black surrounding the figure. Movement is evident in what must have been an exposure of several minutes, yet this only adds to the pure energy of the portrait. 
As Roger Fry points out, comparing Cameron to more recent portraitists, “The slight movements of the sitter gave a certain breadth and envelopment to the form and prevented those too instantaneous expressions which in modern photography so often have an air of caricature.” 
Cameron has not captured so much a likeness or a moment, as a manifestation of genius. Carlyle wrote that sitting for this portrait was an “inferno” and this is certainly evident in the resulting portrait, while Cameron described him paradoxically in her Annals as “almost the embodiment of a prayer,” recognising a transcendence which is present in this haunting image.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Bite 135: Julia Margaret Cameron - Sir John Herschel, 1867

Sir John Herschel, 1867,  albumen print,  34.9 x 26.1 cm
“I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me, and at length the longing has been satisfied.”
Julia Margaret Cameron, The Annals of My Glass House, 1874
Sir John Herschel stares off, glassy eyed, to the right of the frame. What he is looking at is not important, instead it is clear that he is in a kind of meditation – “intently seeing beyond the immediate present” as Carol Hanbery MacKay puts it in her essay The Singular Double Vision of Julia Margaret Cameron.
His hair is wild under his set back beret indicating the mental action going on beneath the hat, which seems to be barely maintaining the activity within it. It is reported that Cameron washed and fluffed up his white hair before the shoot. For, “when I have had such men before my camera”, Cameron reports in her autobiographical fragment Annals of My Glass House from 1874, “my whole soul has endeavoured to do its duty towards them in recording faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man.” 
Cameron waited several years for the opportunity to photograph her old friend Herschel, who had introduced her to the photographic process as early as 1839 – the year the Daguerrean invention was first revealed to the public in Paris by Louis-Francois Arago.
Highly affected by Herschel’s character and intellect she successfully translates this impact in one of her most famous images, effectively harnessing the narrative power of hair and the eyes, emotive elements focused on in many of Cameron’s portraits.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Bite 134: Briton Rivière - Beyond Man's Footsteps, 1894

Beyond Man's Footsteps, exhibited 1894, oil on canvas, 119 x 185 cm, Tate Britain
A lone polar bear peers toward the setting or rising sun. The tone, to me, indicates the end of a long day, the final rays of the sun illuminating a monolith of ice in deepest blue. The weary animal, beyond man's footsteps, seems almost human in pulling himself over the ice and reaching out to the western sky.

A romantic gesture on the sublime dominance of nature appears, through modern eyes, rather to hint at the fragility of the polar landscape and the environment in general. That even at the farthest reaches of the planet the impact of 'man's footsteps' is beginning to make itself felt.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Bite 133: Mark Wallinger - Threshold to the Kingdom, 2000

Threshold to the Kingdom, 2000, (still), installation, video: 11min 12sec, Tate Britain
In a grand side-room, reminiscent of a chapel, in Tate Britain, a looped video is projected against one wall.

Accompanied by the haunting hymn Miserere Mei, Deus by Allegri, the single scene, is a pair of automatic double doors at London City Airport; this is the International Arrivals gate, the industrial threshold by which you enter the United Kingdom. Travellers walk toward the viewer, unaware they are being filmed. They stride with purpose, the video slowed down filling their every movement with significance, the door opening as if by the hand of God.

An employee runs across screen. A man stops with his trolley, looks around confused, then regards a scrap of paper and continues on. Three older women greet affectionately, probably after a long absence (above). At this point the video fades out, one of only two cuts. It comes back to the closed doors before further arrivals file through, continually piquing our interest, then looping through again in repetition.

The image fading reinforces the idea of heaven - Kingdom - coming through the work. Each arrival is also a departure, and vice versa.

In a surreal juxtaposition of spirituality/religiosity and the everyday, Wallinger presents a grand and intimate statement about the mundane, generic site airports are - liminal public spaces of boredom, transition and heightened experience.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Bite 132: Caravaggio - David with the Head of Goliath, 1609-10

David with the Head of Goliath, 1609-10, oil on canvas, 125 × 101 cm, Galleria Borghese
In one of Caravaggio's last works before his mysterious disappearance and death, the artist paints himself as the dead Goliath, having been defeated by David. It is said that the young David was modelled on "his own little Caravaggio." This may refer to previous studio assistant - and lover - Cecco del Caravaggio. The diagonal sword - inscribed with an abbreviation of the phrase  "humility kills death" - mirrors David's gaze and has been seen as sexually suggestive. Or rather David may depict a younger version of the artist himself, who, in a double self-portrait, looks upon the head of his adult counterpart with sadness and compassion, in sharp contrast to the jubilant expression typical of other portrayals of this Biblical subject.

Carvaggio is on the run from the authorities, having murdered a man. He paints in desperation - his patron, Cardinal Borgese, maintained the power to grant him pardon. The result is a self-portrait alive with turmoil, his face contorted in hopelessness, mouth gaping as if about to utter his last words. 

A devastating explication on the human condition, the painting itself becomes the artist's own monumental elegy, the bold and mysterious Caravaggio having the final word.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Bite 131: Caravaggio - St. Jerome, 1605-06

St. Jerome, 1605-06, oil on canvas, 112 × 157 cm, Galleria Borghese
In the act of writing St. Jerome gives himself completely to his task. Pen and books become an extension of his body. Furrowed brow, head bowed, this is scholarship as an act of worship. 

The simplicity of the composition, as with the saint's attire, testify to Jerome's ascetic penance, seen as a requirement for an absolute dedication to study, writing and translation. A skull sits with him as a humble reminder of mortality and recognition of the greater purpose of his work.

St. Jerome is recognised as the patron saint of translators, librarians and encyclopedists.