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.