Alejandra de Argos by Elena Cué

This could be the beginning of a novel: Poseidonia, 5th century BC, and tragedy befalls a family from the local aristocracy. The lifeless body of their only child, a son initiated into Orphic rites, is returned to them from the Wars of Sybaris. The mother covers her son's eyes with Poseidonia's first roses in flower, their praises sung by Virgil for their perfume and twice-yearly blooms. The mother then lays her musician son's lyre, its soundbox a turtle shell, on his breast. As dawn breaks, the father leaves the city walls to commission the most opulent of burials for his son. He seeks out the most gifted painters, those able to create the most moving scenes ..... This article pertains to the story of a burial: an element as intrinsic to the human condition as our own mortality.

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian
 Marina

 

 

 

 

  Tumba nadador 

 

2018 marked the fiftieth anniversary since the discovery of the enigmatic Tomb of the Diver. Now on display at the Museum of Paestum in Campania, its 37-year-old archaeologist director Gabriel Zuchtriegel - yet another German director of an Italian museum - curates the Autumn exhibitions celebrating this ephemeris.

 

*******

 

This could be the beginning of a novel: Poseidonia, 5th century BC, and tragedy befalls a family from the local aristocracy. The lifeless body of their only child, a son initiated into Orphic rites, is returned to them from the Wars of Sybaris. The mother covers her son's eyes with Poseidonia's first roses in flower, their praises sung by Virgil for their perfume and twice-yearly blooms. The mother then lays her musician son's lyre, its soundbox a turtle shell, on his breast. As dawn breaks, the father leaves the city walls to commission the most opulent of burials for his son. He seeks out the most gifted painters, those able to create the most moving scenes ..... This article pertains to the story of a burial: an element as intrinsic to the human condition as our own mortality.

A tomb was - then and possibly still now - a sacred place where, as believed among initiates in the Orphic mysteries, the transmutation of death into resurrection, the moment when the soul was liberated from the body, took place. And for that to occur, a perfect setting was required. This is why Egyptian tombs concentrated all their magnificence and all their condensed artistry on the inside. This is why perfection was sealed up and hidden away. And this was because there was a mystery contained within them.   

 

In Ancient Greece, as a partaker in the mystery religions rather than in terms of its Olympian beliefs, the tomb also became a sacred place. They were a kind of magnificent time capsule, decorated almost to perfection, a little chamber that led to another state of being.  

 

On 13th June 1968, the Italian archaeologist Mario Napoli is carrying out excavations at a small necropolis about a mile south of the city of Paestum - the Ancient Greek city of Poseidonia - on the Gulf of Salerno in Southern Italy. As evening falls, he starts work on a fourth tomb that, when finally dug free from the earth, looks surprisingly intact. With the sun setting, the box is opened and, after 2,500 years of darkness, light floods the interior of the tomb once more, bringing some astounding paintings back to life.

 

 

Nadador

 

Slabs from The Tomb of the Diver, in their original positions

 

The four sides and cover of the sepulchre consist of five slabs of local limestone, while the base is dug into the ground. The slabs are neatly bonded together and form a chamber about the size of an adult male. All of the slabs are painted using the 'true fresco' technique but the fact that the one forming the ceiling is also painted is somewhat unusual. Mario Napoli sees for the first time the scene that will ultimately give the tomb its name: a young man diving towards the curling waves in the waters below. The Tomb of the Diver has just been discovered, the only extant example of Greek painting with figurative scenes from the Orientalizing, Archaic or Classical periods to survive wholly intact. Among the thousands of Greek tombs known of at this time (700 - 400 BC), this is the only one decorated with frescoes depicting humans. It is, in this sense, a revolutionary one. The great paintings of Zeuxis, Apelles and Parrhasius have only come to us through narrative tradition and historians but we have never seen them. They exist only in fragmentary form and, of course, in the richness of the amphorae.  

 

Inside the grave and near the body - probably that of a young man - are two objects: the shell of a turtle, once the soundboard of a lyre whose wooden casing had long since rotted away and an Attic lekythos vase in black-figure technique, as used around 480 BC, which helped to date the year of the tomb to around 470 BC. The lateral frescos surrounding the body depict symposium scenes of a traditional Ancient Greek banquet: bare-chested young men wearing laurel garlands reclining on sofas, partying, dancing, drinking wine, playing lyres and games and being in love.

 

 

La tumba del nadador

The Tomb of the Diver. North Wall (banquet scene detail)

 

However, it is the ceiling slab, the one facing the gaze of the dead man, that has been the still-unresolved focus of much contentious interpretation. It is this segment that encapsulates the mystery and the rivers of ink written in archaeological research: a scene bordered by a black ribbon with palmettes in each of its four corners. In the centre, a naked man suspended in the air, diving into the river below. On the right are three stone pillars, presumably his diving board, and on either side are the bare outlines of two trees. And then, nothing. Just the white background, nothing else.   

 

 

Tumba nadador

The Tomb of the Diver. Ceiling slab. 

 

In Ancient Greece, neither swimming nor diving were activities the elite indulged in. The swimmer depicted in this tomb, isolated against the sky, symbolizes - the jury is still out on all the hypotheses - the intensity of the moment of death. This man and his leap are the visual metaphor for the transition to eternity from earthly life.

At that time, Greece was living the tradition of its Olympian beliefs, with its bored, mountain-dwelling gods, impervious to earthly needs toying with, for pure entertainment, and torturing mere mortals. For them, the vision of life after death was extremely pessimistic. Without exception, without differentiation, without judgement on the righteousness of their previous life, the souls of all mortals were condemned to Hades, a dismal place where they eked out a miserable existence envying the living.  

 

However, around the time The Tomb of the Diver  was constructed, for those living in Magna Graecian cities, new ideas from other Eastern belief systems would come and go in their everyday lives as if by capillary action: the mystic or Orphic cults, for instance, whose occult rites were based on the hope for some kind of life after death. As Pythagoreanism and Orphism spread, only those who had been initiated through a series of secret rituals could aspire to these other-worldly hopes.

 

And it is precisely this aspect that makes our tomb so special: the metaphysical message it communicates through visual language. Because it is the case of The Tomb of the Diver that the paintings seem to be portraying the central ritual of initiatic, religious practices entailing a banquet in which, through orgiastic stimuli, a state of exaltation and mystical fervour is invoked in the participants. This state recalls the passion of the God Dionysus and his presence inside an animal that was ripped to shreds, its flesh and blood  consumed by Titans in a ceremonial banquet. The intense fervency attained enabled participants to feel the force of the soul within the body and this anticipated the experiencing of its liberation from the body which could only happen after death, once the soul had finally departed the body.

 

Incidentally, this idea of life after death was being propagated in Greece a full five centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, Judea. We have here an early precedent for Christianity that would seem to be its replica projected backwards. 

 

It is believed that our young man, who died long before his time, would have been an initiate of these rites. In his tomb, the image of death as a rapid passage through water would remain forever above him. And his body would be surrounded by scenes from a banquet that would never end and in which he would participate for all eternity, playing his lyre with his musician friends.

 

But who was the young man buried there? What kind of life had he led? How did his parents commission his tomb? What of the two artists who painted it? What did they do with their son's body on the days when the tomb's walls were being cut out of rock, plastered, dried out, chiselled to outline the drawings and then filled in with vivid colours? And again, why paint a magnificent tomb to be seen at the precise moment of burial only to seal it up immediately, never to be seen again?

 

An invisible image

 

An invisible image is a challenge. What happens when an image, painted 2,500 years ago never to be seen again, bursts onto our contemporary, traditional, cultural landscape where being comprehensible is the equivalent of being visible?

 

One thinks of other images in art history with encrypted messages, from Malevich's Black Square or the mysterious Romanesque frescos of San Baudelio de Berlanga to the prehistoric Altamira Cave bison and the inscriptions on the earliest Christian catacombs and Banksy.

 

Perhaps what's puzzling about The Tomb of the Diver is not so much the impossibility of deciphering its meaning but rather our attempts at coming to terms with the powerfulness of an image's intrinsic ambiguity.

 

The temples of Paestum and The Tomb of the Diver

 

On this October day, the grassy area surrounding the temples of Paestum is empty of visitors and full of autumn roses. The three Doric temples appear erect and severe in their golden Campania stone, about 90 kms from Naples and the shade of Vesuvius. The Temple of Neptune (460 BC), thus called but wrongly attributed to Poseidonia's protective divinity, is, for many scholars, the best preserved temple in Greek civilization. It is not easy to describe the powerful impact of seeing its facade, devoid of any decoration whatsoever, not even holes in the stone that might have allowed us to imagine there once being a statue clamped into its tympanum, nothing resembling the Pantheon or Phidias's statues of gods, horses, warriors, ..... This temple was conceived of to be bare and stern, even in its triglyphs and the metopes between. No goddesses on horseback. The tension is achieved solely by its monumentality, by the magic of its proportions, by its second row of intact columns, with its fluted pillars high as a forest and its orientation towards the East.   

 

 

The Temple of Neptune. Paestum

 

In the 8th century BC, the Greeks were sailing the Tyrrhenean Sea around the mining regions of the Etrurian coast to buy metal. They settled near Ischia and so began their campaign of colonisation. Around 600 BC, sailors from the city of Sibaris founded the colony of Poseidonia, making it one of the northernmost extremes of Magna Graecia. It was then conquered by the Lucanians and finally, in 273 BC, fell under Roman rule and was renamed Paestum. The discovery of Paestum came in 1752 when King Charles VII (the future Charles III of Spain) ordered the construction of a road which would cut across the city. From then on, European intellectuals doing the Grand Tour, amazed by how well-preserved the temples were, made it their reference point for classical architecture until Athens was added to the European cultural itinerary. It was specifically in Paestum that Greek architecture achieved supremacy over the Roman and where the Greeks regained their "tyranny" over Europeans enamoured with their monuments. Winckelmann (1758), Piranesi (1777), Goethe (1787), John Soane (1779) and almost all the great architects of the time came here to see, study and measure the purest of all Doric temples. In 1758, the architect commissioned to build the Pantheon in Paris, Jacques-Germain Soufflot, found inspiration in the temples of Paestum, making the Neoclassical style so popular in France it would end up replacing the Barroque.

 

National Archeological Museum of Paestum

Vía Magna Graecia, 918

Paestum

Italy

 

(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

- Una imagen invisible: la tumba del nadador -                                    - Alejandra de Argos -

My flight touched down in Marseille on a sunny September morning and although my ultimate destination was Barjac, I couldn't help but make a small detour to visit the Château La Coste vineyards, a magical symbiosis of architecture, sculpture and natural landscape in the south of France. The complex's curator Daniel Kennedy was waiting there to show me the collection. The Tadao Ando Art Centre is a building conceived with the artist's signature elements in mind: smooth concrete, lines that are simple, modern and in tune with the vestiges of Japanese tradition, water, the dominance of light and an architectural design in perfect harmony with its surroundings. Then there's the magnificent outdoor collection comprising projects by the likes of  Louise Bourgeois, Richard Serra, Tracey Emin, Frank Ghery, Jean Nouvel and Jenny Holzer to name but a few, dotted all over the landscape.

 Author: Elena Cué

 

 La Ribotte foto Elena cue 

La Ribaute. Barjac. Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Elena Cué

 

My flight touched down in Marseille on a sunny September morning and although my ultimate destination was Barjac, I couldn't help but make a small detour to visit the Château La Coste vineyards, a magical symbiosis of architecture, sculpture and natural landscape in the south of France. The complex's curator Daniel Kennedy was waiting there to show me the collection. The Tadao Ando Art Centre is a building conceived with the artist's signature elements in mind: smooth concrete, lines that are simple, modern and in tune with the vestiges of Japanese tradition, water, the dominance of light and an architectural design in perfect harmony with its surroundings. Then there's the magnificent outdoor collection comprising projects by the likes of  Louise Bourgeois, Richard Serra, Tracey Emin, Frank Ghery, Jean Nouvel and Jenny Holzer to name but a few, dotted all over the landscape.

 

Chateau la Coste Foto Elena Cue  

Maman. Louise Bourgeois. Château la Coste. Photo Elena Cué

 

But that's not why I came to Provence. The whole point of my trip was La Ribaute so I quickly made tracks for Barjac, my goal. And what or who was it about this little town that had attracted me there? Well, none other than a certain Teuton, his legend and his very personal cosmology. This is a 200 acre estate containing over 60 massive barns, pavilions and greenhouses brimming with Anselm Kiefer's work all inter-connected via subterranean tunnels with caves, grottos, bridges, crypts and an amphitheatre. He has planted trees and vegetation, he has built trails, walls and fences. The La Ribaute project was begun and developed from the abstract idea of a vacuum. A vacuum that had to be filled.

 

Anselm Kiefer moved to Barjac in 1992 where he found, albeit with some reservations, the ideal space to build his own personal creative paradise. On one  of the esplanades in these 40 hectare grounds stands a crown of his iconic and enigmatic towers: "The Seven Heavenly Palaces" that reference the mystic, Hebrew narrative of our celestial ascension by means of the gradual loss of our material bodies and spiritual elevation until we reach the final palace where only our souls remain forever. These apocalyptic towers symbolise the notion of creation and destruction that so characterises the work of the artist, who tells me: "I destroy whatever I make all the time. Then I store the broken bits in containers and wait for their resurrection."

 

 Die sieben Himmelspalaste Barj ac photo by Charles Duprat 

The Seven Heavenly Palaces. Photo: Charles Duprat. (c) Anselm Kiefer

 

This amazing artistic complex has hardly ever been visited, not yet being open to the public, and my tour of it was a succession of unique sensations, beginning at dusk as I made my way to the old silk factory where Anselm Kiefer and his trusty assistant Waltreaud were waiting for me. His face tanned, his eyes lively and intense, his smile inviting me to embark on our visit, we set off for the nearby buildings. We walked along paths lined with flora typical of the region and along which were placed sculptures of his characteristic lead books, symbolic of knowledge, strewn over or piled up on large blocks of stone, almost as if at any moment a sorcerer might emerge from the depths of the forest in some feat of alchemy.

 

  Barjac Foto Elena Cué 

 Anselm Kiefer. Barjac. Photo: Elena Cué

 

What first impacts me is a greenhouse topped with a World War II-like airplane made of lead with dried sunflowers spouting from it. Kiefer cultivates them here from Japanse seeds that grow to seven metres high. As if in a laboratory, he also cultivates tulips and other plants he will later use as materials for his work. These spaces devoted exclusively to one piece are the ones that resonate the most. We continue on to the next pavilions housing installations, paintings and sculptures all with the Holocaust as their theme. Kiefer's childhood was marked by a silence around what had happened: "When I was young, the Holocaust didn't exist. Nobody spoke about it in the 60's." He could feel there was something missing, something hidden and when he found out what it was, Kiefer tells me: "I was so affected by Hitler I started studying the Holocaust. I wanted to know what it was all about. What happened at that time is so horrible it's hard to imagine it." This would become a vital theme in his work. 

In 1945, in the Black Forest, in the city of Donaueschingen where the two sources of the river Danube converge, Anselm Kiefer, one of the most prominant artists of our time, was born into a devastated Germany. While his mother was giving birth in the basement of a hospital, the family home was being blown to pieces by Allied bombs. The son of a Wehrmacht official, his childhood was marked by the authoritarianism of his father and a strict Catholic education.

Growing up in the ruins of a Germany that was destroyed and anxious to erase its tragic past awakened a profound interest in Kiefer to get to know about Judaism and the event that embodied archetypal evil - the genocide committed by Nazis. That catastrophe, so infinite, so boundless in its terror, so impossible to imagine let alone depict was to become the central strand in Kiefer's aesthetic and ethics. 

Barely an hour later, I returned to the main house. In a huge, white, rectangular room of grandiose dimensions, the emptiness was only filled by one white linen sofa, some curtains hiding a bed at one end and an industrial kitchen with a large table of rustic wood at the other. I immediately joined the others for a supper that went on for five hours. Kiefer talked about the sensation he gets on seeing his paintings in retrospect, namely, a certain perception of his work as never being finished. As an aside, he mentioned how difficult it was to transport his "The Morgenthau Plan"  from La Ribaute. This installation, housed in one of the pavilions, is the metaphorical conceptualization of the proposal masterminded shortly before the end of WWII by the US Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau. The plan consisted of the elimination of Germany's industries and its subsequent transformation into an agricultural country. In it, Kiefer explores that would-be rural landscape: the resurgence of flowers from the devastation before. He considered it to be pure propaganda: "You know, all they did was help Hitler with this plan. They calculated that between 10 and 15 million Germans would die of hunger. And Roosevelt didn't want this. Hitler listened to Goebbels and, as far as they were concerned, it was a godsend; they would have the perfect excuse to maintain the German state by warning its citizens about what would happen if they didn't fight on. Not long ago, I also saw something about the Marshall Plan and that was all propaganda, too. Did you know that?"

 

  Der Morgenthau Plan 0326 

The Morgenthau Plan. Barjac. Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat. (c) Anselm Kiefer

 

The conversation went on so long that it got very late and I was invited to stay the night. The room, as with the rest of the building, was huge and somewhat intimidating as much for its dimensions as for the austerity of its minimalist decor. The following morning, we went to have a look at a series of the catacombs that are connected to each other like the creeping roots of a rhizome and to the pavilions above them at ground level. Before going underground, we went into the amphitheatre, which is the centrepiece of La Ribaute, as the artist was telling me: "The amphitheatre came about the same way a painting would. I had a large wall where I hung all my large paintings and I just thought, why not make a little grotto inside? So, I got hold of some containers and covered them with liquid cement and put them all together. The aim was just  to have a little alcove in that big wall. Then, we continued with another layer on top, and another, etc and it kept on working out like a drawing. I've no idea how it will end up ...". This construction, 15 metres high, consists of different installations in each of the rooms within the containers. In one of them, there are reels of film, made out of strips of lead, hanging from the ceiling and featuring photographs taken by the artist thirty years ago.

 

 

  Amphitheatre Barjac 

Amphitheatre. Barjac. Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat. (c) Anselm Kiefer

 

From there, we took an underground route that was somewhat reminiscent of a stone Gruyère cheese and I was immediately stopped in my tracks. Accessed by a narrow cave, we had come face to face with a deeply disturbing room, its walls lined with lead, the floor deep in water and a single light bulb hanging from a cable attached to the ceiling. Kiefer told me this was the first ever room he had completed and asked me, out of curiosity, what I thought of the acoustics. I answered that I hadn't experienced any sound at all. I'd been stunned into silence by what I saw.  

 

 

 Lead room Barjac photo by Charles Duprat 

Lead Room. Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat. (c) Anselm Kiefer

 

As we make our way through the grottos, our perceptions change continually, the artist disappears and we are transported to other times, other places. Through these subterranean passages, we are able to travel to the Palaeolithic age, to the tragedies of Ancient Greece, to the time of Christ and to Auschwitz. And so we arrive at another impactful room: "The Women of the Revolution", sixteen beds with puddles of stagnant water on their rumpled, lead sheets  giving the impression of skin or leather. This was the dividing line between the female interior and exterior that the artist uses as a metaphor for the immense inner power of women faced with the bravado of  men. The highlight of the room is on the wall opposite - a lead panel picturing Kiefer with his back to us, in a landscape that very much reminded me of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich's "Wanderer Above A Sea Of Fog". It brought to mind the Kantian concept of the sublime and the inability of our imagination to grasp something so inestimable and so totally exceptional.  

 

  Les femmes de la Révolution Barjac 

The Women Of The Revolution. Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat. (c) Anselm Kiefer

 

The tour over, I returned, even more staggered by the experience than before, to the main house to interview Kiefer. We talked at length over lunch during which time I discovered Kiefer's interest in science. He spoke with great admiration of the Spanish scientist Luis Alvarez-Gaume and his light particle teleportations to distances of tens of thousands of kilometres. "It's called teleportation. It happened to me and my grandmother. We used to think the exact same thoughts at the exact same time."

 

And we remembered Kant: "Every mention of the sublime has within it more enchantment than the phantasmagoric charms of the beautiful."

 

  (Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

 

 

- In the grotto of the Teuton. Anselm Kiefer in Barjac -                                    - Alejandra de Argos -

2019: The Year of Rembrandt. Amsterdam kicks off Holland's 350th anniversary celebrations for the Old Master with its exhibition "All The Rembrandts of the Rijksmuseum" which will then make its way to Madrid's Prado  as "Vélazquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer ~ Artistic Likenesses from the Spanish and Dutch schools". One would be forgiven for thinking the central gallery of the Rijksmuseum was less than sixty metres long because, on opening its panelled doors of leaded glass, our eyes are immediately drawn to the illuminated hand held out towards us by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq. It beckons us from that distance away, making us want to step into the canvas with him as he gives the order for his company to begin their night watch through the streets of Amsterdam.

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian
 Marina

 

 

 

Vermeer Rembrandt

 

2019: The Year of Rembrandt

 

Amsterdam kicks off Holland's 350th anniversary celebrations for the Old Master with its exhibition "All The Rembrandts of the Rijksmuseum" which will then make its way to Madrid's Prado  as "Vélazquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer ~ Artistic Likenesses from the Spanish and Dutch schools". 

 

One would be forgiven for thinking the central gallery of the Rijksmuseum was less than sixty metres long because, on opening its panelled doors of leaded glass, our eyes are immediately drawn to the illuminated hand held out towards us by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq. It beckons us from that distance away, making us want to step into the canvas with him as he gives the order for his company to begin their night watch through the streets of Amsterdam.

 

The central gallery of this neo-Gothic museum somewhat resembles the stem of a basil plant, with its lateral chapels branching off either side of the central aisle and housing the world's largest collection of Dutch Golden Age paintings. The visitor is thus forced to zig-zag between them while, at the very end, in the apse, as if an alterpiece, hangs Rembrandt's "The Night Watch", his controversial, secular, colossal painting of 1642.

 

From the very start of this visit, we are already getting a sense of something quite different from the mythological, religious and military scenes usually found in other collections of 17th century Dutch, Spanish and Italian paintings. Where are the heavens opening to reveal the glory of God, the Depositions of Christ, the Flights from Egypt or the Epiphanies? Where are Apollo and Daphne, Danae, Proserpine?  

 

Even before arriving at the Rembrandt gallery, several other pictures, oddly small in format, showcase another style of painting.  Theirs saw the establishment of a brand-new genre of painting, one that is striking not just for its relentless verism but also for its never-before-seen themes. Domestic scenes portraying an urban, bourgeois life and families inside their homes of oak furnishings, Delft tiles and kitchens bathed in light. And  their world of scenarios that are essentially feminine and intimate in nature ~ women standing alone, reading a letter or playing the harpsichord, cradling a baby, sweeping a room or putting on a pearl necklace, their faces lit by daylight from an open window. Scenes that almost seem to be happening on a lazy day off.

 

 

vermeer 9

Vermeer, Woman Reading A Letter (1663-64), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

Staggering numbers


There has been, perhaps, no other country ever where so many paintings have been produced in such a short period of time. It is estimated that between 1600 and 1700, up to 10 million paintings were produced in the Netherlands. Between 1650 and 1675, both Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) were active as well as at least half a dozen other top-notch painters such as Carel Fabritius, Gerard Dou, Gerard ter Borch, Frans Van Mieris, Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch and Gabriël Metsu.

 

What made such prolific artistic production possible? What led the United Provinces to write a fundamental chapter in the history of art? An art which, incidentally, was at once so very localised yet so eternal? 

 

From a technical point of view, the theorist Karel van Mander, echoing Giorgio Vasari, confirms that Golden Age Dutch painting derived from 15th century Flemish painting, from the preciosity of Jan van Eyck's, Robert Campin's and Roger van der Weyden's paintings, still under the guise of religious scenes but also depicting the interior of contemporary homes, their fireplaces, chancellors' bibles, saints' clogs, the damask and fur of their garments and the lilies of archangels.

 

The artists' lives were, coincidentally, punctuated by highly dramatic, military and political events that did not, however, seem to have left any mark on their work. The 17th century was one of the bloodiest in history, its wars notorious for their long duration. The Netherlands, divided by Civil War into Calvinists and Catholics, fought the Spanish Crown in the same way it fought the sea which inundated its plains time and time again, filling its landscapes with windmills, dykes, canals and bridges. They were Master Naval engineers whose fleets managed to achieve dominance over most of the world's commerce. Until the 1640's, the Dutch empire extended from Brazil to Africa and from Indonesia or Japan to the east coast of North America, establishing its capital there as New Amsterdam, now known as Manhattan.      

 

In 1602, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was founded, its 160 ships sailing the oceans transporting and unloading extraordinary cargo ~ tonnes of blue and white Chinese porcelain, wood and grain from the Baltics, Persian rugs, sugar from Brazil, fruit from the West Indies, spices and pepper from Java, Sumatra and Borneo. Turkish sultans sent tulips and with them came 'tulipmania' which, in the 1620's, almost caused riots due to a price rise. A few absurd sales receipts still exist ~ luxury mansions paid out in exchange for a single bulb. It was the first speculation bubble in history.

 

Amsterdam and its port thus became the greatest trade centre in the north of Europe. A Stock Exchange was established there and is considered, after that of Antwerp in 1460, the oldest in the world. Founded in 1602 by the VOC, and the first to function like the modern stock market, its aim was to create funding for future commercial shipping. 

 

This global trade network created an elite clientele with abundant amounts of money with which to adorn their houses. The decorative arts flourished, as did the quest for luxury items and, above all, paintings which were to become the new status symbols. Gone the patronage of aristocracy and Church, it would be the bourgeoisie from now on paying the piper and calling the tune on the subject matter to be painted. And they wanted to see a reflection of their own lives, their hardships and dreams in those paintings. They wanted to feel recognised. Dutch art, artists, buyers and dealers were the catalyst for the future international art market, such as we know it today.    

 

 

 Vermeer 1 

Vermeer, The Art Of Painting (1666), detail showing a map of the United Provinces, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

 

Leapfrogs and bounds 


This is script being written and informing our progress through the galleries, providing context and background against which Vermeer in Delft  and Rembrandt in Amsterdam showcase their own particular way of painting. In the case of Vermeer, it would appear to be a natural progression from the mentality of his time. For Rembrandt, it was a giant leap forward. 

On a wall near "The Night Watch"  hang three tiny paintings that signal, from the outset, an ethereal calm in space and time. These are all three Vermeer paintings owned by the Rijksmuseum. "The Little Street" (1658) measures little more than fifty centimetres and is so lifelike it appears not to exist at all. It is as if there were a hole in the museum wall through which a real street scene in Delft can be glimpsed. Perhaps for this reason, it is said of Vermeer's art that it predates the realism of photography, the only artform to, centuries later, attempt to portray the very air surrounding figures in this way.  

 

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Vermeer, The Little Street (1658), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

"The Milkmaid" (1659) is dressed in Vermeer's favourite colours of yellow and ultramarine, intently pouring a fine stream of milk into a clay bowl. She looks as if she is not to be disturbed. The still life on the table with its crusty bread and specks of sunlight, the wicker basket and, most noticeably, the wall behind her bathed in light creating a shadow under the nail, the different colourations of whites marking a stain or, as in the corner, the ochre variations of damp combine to form an intense reality, small but perfectly-formed, vast and magical. The precision of tone is remarkable. An artist must, in short, have the gift of seeing everyday things in a different way to us. Creativity has to entail something like how to illuminate these ordinary things with a brighter light, with more concentrated attention, with a distinctly powerful charge. When Rembrandt paints a glass of wine, it ceases to retain its natural state of being a glass of wine and becomes, rather, part of an action. He beams theatrical light onto it, he sets it on a stage. Vermeer, on the other hand, isolates it, wanting a light just for this one glass, he grants it the virtue of being itself, unique, material and independent, in a moment of time that is motionless. Vermeer paints the time that flies between things.

 


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Vermeer, The Milkmaid (1659), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

In the years when Rembrandt and Vermeer were active, the world was engaged in a scientific revolution. New ideas were being touted about what it meant to 'see'. People had started to believe Nature was hiding a world invisible to the naked eye and that science should focus on researching it and finding out. There was a wave of empirical thought needing to back itself up with instruments able to measure Nature and allow us to see parts of the world that had been hitherto invisible. Hence, the 17th century saw the invention of the thermometer, the barometer, the telescope and the microscope. And its painters, determined to discover Nature and to paint it using an array of optical effects, went back to relying heavily on lenses and camara obscura devices. We do not know whether Vermeer used such techniques in his painting or not but what is certain is that he was familiar with the effects they produced and how light influenced how we see the world. He reproduced how it accentuates colour tonalities until they appear jewel-like, how it blurs or sharpens the outlines of figures, how it highlights where the touches of light brighten and polish whichever reflective surface the sun falls on.    

 

Vermeer painted "The Milkmaid" some 16 years after Rembrandt started work on "The Night Watch". Both paintings were a pictorial revolution but they were poles apart. To simplify Svetlana Alpers' study of 17th century Dutch painting, one might say that Vermeer represents the pinnacle of descriptive painting and its debt to observation whilst Rembrandt uses narration and historical themes as a pretext for injecting a certain wildness into his painting as the key to expression, action, gesture and the innermost recesses of the soul. His studies of light and matter are merely a means by which to paint the depths of pain, loneliness, failure, power, blindness or life just before death.   

 

 

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Rembrandt, The Prophetess Anna (Rembrandt's Mother) (1631), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

Ten years, ten days


In a documentary about the last years of Rembrandt's life, Simon Schama describes a scene. It is 1885 and a young artist visiting the Rijksmuseum stops dead before a painting, his eyes transfixed, breaking into a feverish sweat as he gazes at the adored work. "I would give ten years of my life if I could simply sit and meditate, with a dry crust of bread, for ten days looking at it." So what was it about "The Jewish Bride" that so mesmerised the young Van Gogh? Days later, he would write that Rembrandt had painted it with "a hand of fire". Schama interprets the impact on Van Gogh as that of any masterpiece ~ it takes aim directly and viscerally. Van Gogh was another painter who took brushstrokes to their most physical extreme and this final work of Rembrandt's left him spellbound.  In it, the Old Master, by now penniless and at death's door, depicts the physical incarnation of love. Its whole meaning is that of touch and caress. "The Jewish Bride" is a symphony of four hands, those of a couple. A man's hand on his wife's heart, the woman's hand touching this hand, a man's hand protectively around his wife's shoulder ... 

 

Rembrandt rushes this final painting with the rage of his materials. The sleeve he paints here is not easily explained and one would need to be standing, as Van Gogh did, right in front of it.  The sleeve is a physical crust in dozens of shades of gold, a mass of pictorial density that has a whole world of matter embedded in it: pieces of egg shell, crushed glass, mud, silica, ... The Old Master is acting on the painting the way the likes of Pollock, Freud and Kiefer would act on theirs centuries later ~ painting emotions with their materials. 

 

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Rembrandt, The Jewish Bride (1662), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

"The Jewish Bride" features in the exhibition, as does "The Night Watch" with its outstretched hand, along with the whole astounding collection - the world's largest - of Rembrandt's canvases, drawings and etchings owned by the museum. Nevertheless, what makes this exhibit unique is something else. It is, essentially, about finding oneself in the presence, just a few feet apart, of two genius but contrasting artists. In and out of Rembrandt, on to Vermeer, retrace our steps back to Rembrandt and ..... start all over again. As Simon Schama said about them: Vermeer versus Rembrandt ~ crystallization versus emotion.

 

 

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Rembrandt, The Night Watch (1642), Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

 

All the Rembrandts at the Rijksmuseum 
Rijksmuseum
1070 DN Amsterdam
Curator: Jonathan Bikker
15 February ~ 10 June 2019

 

(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

 

- Rembrandt versus Vermeer -                          - Alejandra de Argos -

The ending of Paolo Sorrentino's film The Great Beauty is one long, slow take over the River Tiber. The aerial camera rolls, at bird's eye height, from one bank to the other, flying over couples out for a summer stroll, or sometimes at one with the channel of water, crossing through the dark eyes underneath bridges or resting on streetlamps lit for a Roman sunrise. The very last scene in this serene finale takes us up close to the Sant’Angelo Bridge. Before the screen fades to black, Sorrentino abandons us on one of the angels that Bernini ideated to decorate this bridge connecting the Vatican with the Tiber. And from there, we call to mind what this city of popes, this epicentre of the 17th century world means for us as we marvel at the works of a unique man with the Eternal City always on his mind.

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian
 Marina

 

 

 

 Bernini 

The Rape Of Proserpina (detail), 1621-22, Borghese Gallery, Rome

 

The ending of Paolo Sorrentino's film The Great Beauty is one long, slow take over the River Tiber. The aerial camera rolls, at bird's eye height, from one bank to the other, flying over couples out for a summer stroll, or sometimes at one with the channel of water, crossing through the dark eyes underneath bridges or resting on streetlamps lit for a Roman sunrise. The very last scene in this serene finale takes us up close to the Sant’Angelo Bridge. Before the screen fades to black, Sorrentino abandons us on one of the angels that Bernini ideated to decorate this bridge connecting the Vatican with the Tiber. And from there, we call to mind what this city of popes, this epicentre of the 17th century world means for us as we marvel at the works of a unique man with the Eternal City always on his mind. 

 

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 Sant’Angelo Bridge, Rome

 

Rome is currently celebrating the 20th anniversary of the re-opening of the Borghese Gallery with an exhibition dedicated to Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), the last of the great, universal masters who made Italy the artistic heart of Europe for over 300 years. Not only was he the greatest sculptor of the 17th century, he was also an arquitect, painter, dramatic author, and, above all, the director general of papal Rome, a Rome that would be required to endure until the present day and to remain the most grandiose show of urbanism ever attempted. Bernini served under eight popes in this most Baroque of cities, a style that grew out of the triumphal catholicism of the Counter-Reformation. By 1600, Italy had already gone through many uneventful centuries when suddenly, in the space of a hundred years, it becomes more active than ever before. But why and how does Italy embody such artistic genius in its most absolute form time and time again? What is the mystery surrounding this small Mediterranean peninsula located between Spain and Turkey? What is its secret recipe for churning out artists of calibre from Giotto to Modigliani? What is the link between politics, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation?

Let's take a closer look at the ten angels sculpted by Bernini between 1668 and 1669 when his entire oeuvre was dedicated exclusively to works that were full of emotion. The windswept Sant'Angelo Bridge angels are disconsolate between the clouds above and the solid, cylindrical Sant'Angelo Castle, with a black angel at its pinnacle, as a backdrop. In his latter years, Bernini, more than ever before, used the movement of robes such as theirs as a language with which to convey feeling.

The Sant’Angelo Bridge was built to connect the two banks of the River Tiber in the 1st century AD. In the Middle Ages, it gave access to the Vatican City. Since the 17th century, Bernini's sculptures have left the pilgrims crossing it open-mouthed with wonder. It is a matchless means of approach into the oval arms and colonnades of St Peter's Square, the bronze Baldechin ceiling, the spiritually-awakening Roman centurian Saint Longinus who had speared the crucified Jesus, the Throne of St Peter symbolic of the new Ecclesia Triumphans (Church Triumphant)  and so on.

 

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St Peter's Basilica and Square, Vatican City, Rome

 

In the 17th century, the power of Rome and its popes was unbounded. The Catholic Church, despite having lost some of its territories, gained a renewed sense of triumph after saving itself and its dogma from herecy. The new popes converted their desire for power into a spiritual empire, believing themselves the heirs of Roman emperors. St Peter's was their work and Bernini their right-hand master artist for 57 uninterrupted years. When our young sculptor, not yet 30 years of age, received and accepted Pope Urban VIII's commission to complete St Peter's, it was a challenge and a feat that, one could say, surpassed that of replacing the Twin Towers in New York after 9/11.

 

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  David (detail), 1623-24, Borghese Gallery, Rome

 

Bernini at the Borghese Gallery

Adding to Cardinal Scipione Borghese's already unrivalled collection, his eponymous gallery, set amongst gardens, lemon trees and fountains between Popolo Square and Mount Pinzio, is currently exhibiting almost all the paintings ever attributed to Bernini. Also on display and facing each other are his two bronze Crucifixions which are both normally housed outside Italy, one in Madrid's Escorial Palace and the other in Toronto.  But, more especially, there are his greatest busts ~ the first and second versions of Scipione Borghese and that of Constanza Bonarelli.

 

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Bust of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, 1632, Borghese Gallery, Rome

 

Bernini brought about a total transformation in the sculpted portrait, taking it out of Renaissance immortality and breathing new life back into it. He was a prodigious craftsman who learnt the trade from his sculptor father. He never attended school, never studied Latin and, since childhood, had escaped from his chores and work in Santa Maria Maggiore to what was his one true place of learning ~ the Vatican Museums. There, he would study works such as the Belvedere Torso  or the Apollo and draw out his first sketches. However, in addition to his talent as a draughtsman and his technical mastery, Bernini's head also harboured the "concetto", the idea or the concept. It did not matter whether it was for an opera set or a village square. One of the "concetti" that obsessed him was to challenge his materials and make them exceed their limitations. To work at the whiteness of the marble until it appeared coloured. To invent unruly manes of hair speckled with shadows or deep beards like foam on the ocean waves, trepanning and chiselling away at his pale materials, the hands of Gods sinking into the flesh of a nymph or tears running down a cheek ... in such a way that he aspired to imbue cold, inert stone with movement and life.  

 

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Apollo and Daphne (detail), 1622-25, Borghese Gallery, Rome

 


Letting the city yield its mysteries

In Alejo Carpentier's preface to Love For the City, he writes: “To roam a city is to retrace it, deconstruct it and look at it until it yields up its mysteries." This exhibition also offers us an exciting second dimension whereby we discover Bernini's signature stamp throughout the rest of Rome via the ecstasies of his sculpted saints in church chapels, in the bronze stolen from the facade of the Pantheon to construct the Baldequin ceiling, in the heraldic bees from the Barberini family's coat of arms that embellish gods of mythology and funeral monuments alike, in his fountains with naked Neptunes stepping out of shells or his elephants carrying obelisks ....  

 

 

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The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, Cornaro Chapel, Santa María della Vittoria Church, Rome

 

And finally, in the Piazza Navona, still as it ever was today, is the palatial home where Cardinal Giambattista Pamphili was living in 1644 when he was elected Pope Innocent X. There was much commentary at the time about his wish not to move into the Vatican, a remote place on the opposite banks of the Tiber that horrified him with its identikit salons and sacred museums. He wanted to stay here in Rome proper, in this square that had welcomed carriages and horses and the whole Roman spectacle for 16 centuries. The Piazza Navona rose out of the Circus Agonalis, Domitian's stadium built in AD 85 and changed name from Agone, to Navone and eventually Navona. Innocent X decided to advance the prestige of his already powerful family by enlarging their palace and revamping the square. After many a trial, tribulation and false start, Bernini was chosen and began his modelling of the Fountain Of The Four Rivers. Often, when strolling through this piazza by night, one might imagine the Innocent X of Velazquez's portrait, with his critical, calculating eyes looking down from a high window, at the end of the long gallery frescoed by Pietro da Cortona and which, at night, even today, remains lit, as if forcing us to remember him. From here, the pope would supervise Bernini, watching as his work took shape ~ the palm tree bent double by the wind, the Statue of the Moor wrestling with a dolphin, the rock that a stubborn Bernini wanted removing from the ground in order to then somehow drill into it and, as if by magic, make it anchor an obelisk in place. There also, in this night of reminiscences, are Francis Bacon's 40 plus versions of Velazquez's portrait and the video in which Jeremy Iron's inimitable voice reads the Irish-born artist's words: "I feel hungry for life and that hunger has enabled me to live. I eat, I drink ... until the emotion of creation surges. I believe art is an obsession for living."

 

 

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Fountain of the Four Rivers (detail), Piazza Navona, Rome 

 

 

 Dialogue in a Vatican room

It is also said that “Art follows money” so questions about patrons and power are bound to come up. What is happening today in the realms of the art market? Perhaps even asking would be like putting one's foot in the serpentine hair of Bernini's Medusa. While waiting to enter the Vatican Museums, we remember Damien Hirst's 2017 behemoth of an exhibition in Venice that threatened to raise the roof of the Grassi Palace, home of the Pinault Collections. It all left one a little cold. Today, however, Laocoon and His Sons  awaits, as do works by Michelangelo and Raphael ... and a room in which we will be mesmerised by Caravaggio's Deposition of Christ, that vertical painting descending from the crown of Mary Magdalen's head in a straight line direct to Jesus' lifeless hand. Under the cornerstone of the tomb there is only darkness and abyss.    

 

 

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A Bernini angel in front of Caravaggio's Deposition of Christ, Vatican Museum, Rome

 

What is a Masterpiece?  wondered Kenneth Clark in his barely 40-page booklet of lecture transcriptions. The answer? It is art that, having entered the mind of a genius in a moment of enlightenment, is capable of giving us either or both butterflies and a punch to the stomach. Caravaggio, from his space on the wall, establishes a dialogue with the Bernini angel in the middle of the room. A kneeling angel, it was once the mold for a Vatican alterpiece and the iron rods that form his wings are exposed to view, having lost the plaster that used to cover them. Likewise, the tightly-packed bundles of straw that shaped his arms under a layer of clay. He is one angel prefiguring another. And a butterfly punch to the stomach. 

 

 

(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin) 

 

 

- Bernini's Rome: For Love Of The Eternal City -                                   - Alejandra de Argos -

In 2004, 50 years after Frida Kahlo's death (Mexico 1907-1954), thousands of her personal belongings and artefacts saw the light of day again. Photographs, diaries, drawings, books ... along with pillboxes of her painkillers, orthopaedic corsets, hospital gowns, half-used nail varnishes, combs, a bottle of Shalimar - the perfume she wore to try and camouflage "[her] body's smell of dead dog" - clothes, a Revlon eyebrow pencil and pink silk ribbons for her braided up-do hairstyle. Today, all of these dresses and objects, as if characters in her own life story, have left their home (The Blue House in Coyoacan) for the first time ever, en route to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London for the exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up.

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian
 Marina

 

 

 

  Frida Kalho 

 

In 2004, 50 years after Frida Kahlo's death (Mexico 1907-1954), thousands of her personal belongings and artefacts saw the light of day again. Photographs, diaries, drawings, books ... along with pillboxes of her painkillers, orthopaedic corsets, hospital gowns, half-used nail varnishes, combs, a bottle of Shalimar - the perfume she wore to try and camouflage "[her] body's smell of dead dog" - clothes, a Revlon eyebrow pencil and pink silk ribbons for her braided up-do hairstyle. Today, all of these dresses and objects, as if characters in her own life story, have left their home (The Blue House in Coyoacan) for the first time ever, en route to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London for the exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up.

 

Frida Kahlo 1

Corset and skirt from Frida Khalo's collection. Photograph from Frida by Ishiuchi (RM Editorial)

 

It's a story straight out of a Fake News headline. On Frida's death, the painter Diego Rivera, in an attempt to preserve their intimacy as a couple, ordered two rooms in their Blue House home to be sealed with all of possessions and documents locked inside. The moment the little ensuite bathroom adjoining her studio was re-opened and its contents revealed, so too was the message that Frida was transmitting through her clothes. Both Frida and Diego were intense characters, poetically terrible at times and touchingly tender at others. On the centenary of her birth, the press announced the emergence of some 22,105 documents, 5,387 photographs, 168 outfits, 11 corsets, 212 drawings by Diego, 102 by Frida, 3,874 magazines or publications and 2,170 books. These can be found in various compilations, for instance, Frida: Her Photographs and Frida by Ishiuchi (both RM Editorial).

 

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Frida Kahlo's make-up. Photograph from Frida by Ishiuchi (RM Editorial)

 

The discord in Kahlo's body began when she was just six years old with a bout of polio which left her bed-bound for nine months. Doctors, pain and sedatives made their first appearance in her life. When she recovered, she did so with one atrophied leg and a complex born of being nicknamed "peg-leg" by the neighbourhood children. She, however, enjoyed climbing trees and learned to overcome somewhat but one of her legs remained shorter and thinner than the other. She disguised this by layering pair after pair of thick socks and wearing knee-high boots. From this tender age, she was already beginning to speak through her clothing. 

 

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Frida Kahlo's boots. Photograph from Frida by Ishiuchi (RM Editorial)

 

17th of September 1925: the accident

Frida was 18 that morning she left home with her school books and her boyfriend. “I got on the bus with Alejandro and sat next to the rail with him beside me. A few moments later, the bus crashed into a tram. It was a strange bang, dull rather than violent. The impact sent us flying forward and the rail pierced my body as a sword pierces a bull. A gentleman, seeing my wound bleeding profusely, laid me on a billiard table."

Alejandro described his vision of the incident as: "Frida was left completely naked. Her clothes had been ripped off in the accident. A passenger, no doubt a painter by trade, had got on the bus with a packet of gold-coloured powder. The packet split in half and the gold dust went swirling around her bleeding body." Frida lay there covered with a dew-like sprinkling of gold. The diagnosis: triple fracture to her spinal column, fractured collarbone, fractured third and fourth ribs, dislocated left shoulder, thigh fractured in three places, perforated stomach and vagina, eleven fractures to her right leg, dislocated right foot. The medics of the Red Cross gathered up the pieces of her body under no illusions that she would survive the operating table. Her human capacity to withstand such horrific pain would have seemed impossible to them. As would her indomitable will to live.

 

On leaving the hospital, her mother settled her in a four-poster bed with a mirror attached above and ordered a custom-made easel. Frida remained locked inside her own world, focused on a mirror the size of a picture portrait. During the day, she read avidly between visits from her schoolmates. Chinese poetry by Li Po, Bergson, Proust, Zola and also articles about the Russian revolution and stamp books by Cranach, Durero, Botticelli and Bronzino. But as night fell, so did the images that devoured her, isolated her and terrified her. “Death dances around me all night long", she wrote to Alejandro.

 

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Frida Kahlo sitting on her bed. The Blue House, Coyoacan, Mexico

 

 

Diego Rivera recalls how Frida first made her appearance in his life: “One day, I was working on frescos at the Ministry Of Education when I heard a young woman's voice shouting up at me saying, Diego, please come down from there. There's something important I have to talk to you about ... and standing below me was a girl of about 18, nice figure, a bit agitated. She was wearing her hair down and she had these thick, dark eyebrows that met in the middle. They looked like the wings of a blackbird." Rivera ~ then 42, nearly 6 foot tall, 16 stone, already married to Lupe Marín and one of the "Three Great" Mexican muralists of that time ~ accepted the role of Frida's boyfriend. Her family commented that it was "the union of an elephant and a dove".

Diego was her God, her father, her son, her "second accident". Every morning, as if in a ritual, Frida would dress herself up like an idol, designing her costume and jewellery so as to hide the wounds on her body. She adorned herself for him as the women of Tehuana did, seeing in their indigenous clothing a political statement and a vindication of her Mexican heritage. Those outfits comprised 3 pieces: the petticoat, the Huilpil (a square-cut blouse that made her look taller) and her updo of braids and flowers which drew the onlooker's gaze upwards to her head and upper torso and away from the lower part of her body.

 

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Frida Kahlo with Diego Rivera

 

The Blue House

The building that today houses the Frida Kahlo Museum was built by her father 3 years before she was born and painted a bright cobalt blue to ward off evil spirits. It was then extended by Diego and decorated by Frida to resemble a microcosm of tropical vegetation with cacti, orange trees and Aztec idols perched on a small pyramid where a coterie of animals held court, all humanised by their names.

In 2004, one of the most exciting moments at the opening of the sealed rooms was the discovery of a drawing entitled "Appearances can be deceiving". In it, Frida's broken, naked body appears as if X-rayed, with blue butterflies painted over her leg fractures and a slender pillar in place of her spine. She then, in purple pencil, drew a sheer gown over herself leaving her battle-scarred body visible. It is curious in that Kahlo, who would dress in real life with a view to disguising her disabilities, allowed those very disabilities to be viewed under stark scrutiny in this and other paintings.

 

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Poster for the exhibition based on Frida Kahlo's drawing "Appearances can be deceiving", Coyoacan, 2013

 

In 1937, Leon Trotsky moves into the Blue House and stays there for two years, making it his revolutionary fortress. It didn't take long for the author of The Permanent Revolution to succumb to the charms of his beautiful hostess. They would speak to each other in English, a language Trotsky's wife Natalia couldn't understand, and Frida would pass him love notes she had hidden in her clothes.

 

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Frida Kahlo with Leon Trotsky

 

Pablo Picasso, too, would adorn Frida. On a visit to Paris, he gifted her a pair of earrings shaped like hands that dangled and twinkled below her braided hair of bougainvillaea and bows. She was forcing us to look at her face. Her lips, painted bright red, always appeared tightly closed in photographs and paintings alike. She never showed her teeth, hiding the invisible jewels that were her gold incisors and which, for special occasions, she would set with little pink diamonds.

 

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Frida Kahlo wearing the earrings Picasso made for her

 
 
 
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Frida Kahlo painting her corsets

 

“I am disintegration”

In early 1950, Frida was admitted as an in-patient for a year in Mexico City. Diego moved into the room next to hers and the hospital stay became a party: "I always kept my spirits up. I spent a lot of time painting because they kept me dosed up on Demerol. That substance made me happy."

A year before her death, the gallery owner Lola Alvarez Bravo organised an exhibition. It's now April 1953. Diego arranged the transfer of her 4-poster bed into the middle of the space. Frida made her triumphal entrance accompanied by the wail of ambulance sirens. The guests gathered around her as she persevered with the aid of painkillers. She was the embodiment of triumph over pain. Then after this homage came the verdict on her right leg. It would have to be amputated. Frida wrote in her diary: "I am disintegration."

From then on, Frida devoted herself and her time to fine-tuning the new parts of her broken body. Her red boots, the finishing touch to her false leg, she decorated with Chinese embroidery, gold thread and little bells. These are, without doubt, the  most enigmatic of all the objects in this exhibition. As are the corsets she had to wear, a stark reminder of her torture. Her relationship with them was one not just of necessity and support but also of rebellion. From then on, we would only ever again see Frida approaching in her wheelchair, preceded by the murmuring jangle of her jewellery.

Meanwhile, death was inching nearer, on tiptoes.  She dressed, now, for days and nights in bed painting and this was how she prepared for her departure from life to heaven. She realised she was killing herself. The drugs and alcohol that gave her relief and release were likewise a death sentence. At the age of 47, Frida is cremated. It is said that, on the exit of her remains from the crematorium, Diego swallowed a handful of her ashes.  

 

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Frida Kahlo's orthopaedic boot. Photograph from Frida by Ishiuchi (RM Editorial)

 

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up

Victoria and Albert Museum

Cromwell Road, London

Curators: Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa

From 16 June until 4 November 2018

 

(Translated for the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

 

 

- Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving -                                   - Alejandra de Argos -

It might seem these days that even the Thames is struggling to keep to its course given the exhibition currently making waves at the Tate Britain sitting on its banks. It tells the story of British art before and after Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and Lucian Freud (1922-2011), welling up from a hot spring of works by Stanley Spencer, Chaïm Soutine, David Bomberg, Walter Sickert and Giacometti, settling in the delta of thirty or so paintings by the eponymous rivals and ending with a small retrospective of contemporary painters such as Slade graduate Paula Rego and Jenny Saville. All too human: Bacon, Freud and a century of painting life is the title borrowed from Nietzche's  book by Tate Britain for its exhibit bringing together 20th and 21st century British artists who sought a new way of capturing the physical and psychological essence of human beings through the medium of paint.

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian
 Marina

 

 

 

 

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  Francis Bacon Three Figures and Portrait, (1975) and Lucian Freud, Leigh Bowery (1991)

 

It might seem these days that even the Thames is struggling to keep to its course given the exhibition currently making waves at the Tate Britain sitting on its banks. It tells the story of British art before and after Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and Lucian Freud (1922-2011), welling up from a hot spring of works by Stanley Spencer, Chaïm Soutine, David Bomberg, Walter Sickert and Giacometti, settling in the delta of thirty or so paintings by the eponymous rivals and ending with a small retrospective of contemporary painters such as Slade graduate Paula Rego and Jenny Saville.

All too human: Bacon, Freud and a century of painting life is the title borrowed from Nietzche's  book by Tate Britain for its exhibit bringing together 20th and 21st century British artists who sought a new way of capturing the physical and psychological essence of human beings through the medium of paint. After WWII, British painters made one of their greatest contributions to the art world by reinventing the European tradition of figurative painting. By 1950, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Freud, R.B. Kitaj, Leon Kosso and Bacon were banded together under the label "London School" at a time in the lives of this group of artists and friends when they all pledged allegiance to past artistic traditions and orthodoxy whilst sharing a rejection of the abstract.

But, how does one paint life? Is it possible to capture the human experience on canvas? These were the questions that concerned and fascinated the artists showcased here with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, trapped in their world of solitude and torment, as the centrepiece.

 

 

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Jenny Saville, Reverse (2002-2003)

 

Two Lucian Freuds?

Until the 1960's, Freud appeared to be painting with a magnifying glass. In an anteroom, separate from the main gallery dedicated to his later work, is Girl with a White Dog (1950). Kitty Garman, his then wife, is depicted sitting with a dog leaning on her legs, her naked body wrapped in a yellow bathrobe left deliberately open to reveal her right breast, the left one covered and her hand cradling it as if feeling for a heartbeat. The detail with which Freud studies the various surfaces is reminiscent of the Flemish Primitives. Kitty's thick, wavy hair as compared to the dog's rough coat, from the fluffy pile of the towelling dressing gown to the tassles that braid its belt.  Those were the years of Freud's fascination with Ingres so Kitty's gleaming gold wedding band could even be deemed a dedication to the French Neoclassisist.  

Freud had always had an obsession with painting eyes. They seemed to him to be the source of presence and power. They could, and even moreso their movements, express everything from desire to hatred, trust to mistrust and whether they decide to look us back in the eye or not. Pupils and the enigma of their dilation on observing an object of interest or fear intrigued him. Kitty's sad eyes are like two pools full of glints and contained tears. The dog's eyes, however, are the ones that, as if a mirror in a van Eyck painting, reflect the window in Freud's studio.   

 

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Lucian Freud, Girl with a White Dog (1950)

 

Towards the end of the 50's, Freud left drawing behind to focus on painting. He changed paintbrushes, replacing the fine, marten-hair ones with thicker, boar-bristle ones that facilitated  his evolution towards those denser and more expressive brushstrokes characteristic of the later stages of his painting and displayed in the next room. There, man and beast return to centre stage in the form of David and Eli (2003-2004), his assistant and his dog exposed on a narrow bed. It is a striking nude study of epic, no-holds-barred proportions. The model in all his rawness, nothing more. It's as if Freud had invented a brand new style of nude and shone a violently bright light on it, subjecting that mysterious layer that is human skin to merciless analysis. Its thickness, its flaccidity and the inherently matte colours of pale skin, inseparable from a painfully lived reality. 

 

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Lucian Freud, David and Eli (2003-2004)

 

Bacon and Freud: not a marriage made in heaven

In his book Man In The Blue Scarf, in which he relates his conversations with Freud while having his portrait painted, Martin Gayford recounts how, one day between poses, they were looking through a book on Van Gogh. Freud chose an Arles landscape saying: "Many people would say this is inspired by Japanese art but I would much rather this one than all Japanese landscapes of the 19th century put together. The most difficult thing is being able to draw well" and, mentioning Bacon: “Francis scribbled away constantly. His best work came solely from his own inspiration, I mean, when it wasn't based on drawing well."

Despite their differences, Bacon and Freud will be together forever in the minds of art historians. Gayford explains that the same thing happens with British artists as with the proverbial London bus delays ~ you wait for hours with no sign of one and then two arrive at the same time. In the 1880's, J.M.W. Turner and John Constable were seen as a pair and then there was nobody else until Bacon and Freud after the Second World War. Like Turner and Constable, Bacon and Freud made a bad marriage of artists, with as much dividing them as uniting them.

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Francis Bacon, Study after Velázquez (1950) 

 

Bacon, for his part, was obsessed with painting mouths: terrifying jaws at the end of eel-like necks that suck and swallow nightmares, lovers, pain, boardgames, alcohol, war and screams. It's life as a taut twine between birth, skinned flesh, violence, the great and the deep in human feeling and, ultimately, death. And, simultaneously, the most breathtaking beauty based on his innate taste for the serene monumentality of the Old Masters such as  Rembrandt, Velázquez and Goya. But it was Picasso who really kickstarted his career, as did the literature of writers from Aeschylus to T.S. Eliot. This whole palimpsest comprising layer upon layer of Venetian colours, the oranges and pinks absorbed by black he daubed on the walls of his studio, transforming it into a giant 3-D palette, is what enabled him to do something that was only possible after the first Freudian generation ~ to paint trauma.

Rarely did he paint life models, prefering instead to work from photographs and movie stills. His painting came straight from his own imagination, capitalizing on every thought that entered his head "as if they were transparencies". He rejected the image as imitation. For him, it was all about that instantaneous piece of evidence transmitted directly to the brain and without the  need for verbal intervention or "what happens in that instant to the nervous system". From there ,and not needing the logic of resemblance, his work would take off from his own aesthetic vision and from the beauty and energy of the strokes that, for him, represented a struggle and an intimate relationship between a painting and its painter.

 

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Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud (1964)


Standing in front of Bacon's Study after Velázquez (1950), we are reminded of this Irish-born artist's love of the Prado Museum in Madrid. His frequent visits from 1956 onwards are described by Manuela Mena as his eyes devouring the paintings of Velázquez: “He would study the brushstrokes, which is where it's all at, right up close and with deep concentration". He would go from painting to painting, "observing his subject much like someone examining the skin of their lover." The Prado exhibited Bacon in 2009 which, in its way, forever united him with Spanish painting of the 17th century.

 

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Lucian Freud, detail from Man's Head (Self Portrait 1), (1963)

 

Finally, the heat in this boxing ring of Tate Britain's creation rises as we approach the face-off between two canvases. In the red corner, Bacon's Study for a Portrait of Lucian Freud (1964), a painting unseen by the public since 1965, and in the blue corner, Freud's self-portrait Man's Head (1963). Freud painted Bacon twice. Bacon painted Freud over 40 times.

 

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Francis Bacon (left) and Lucian Freud photographed by Harry Diamond, 1974

 

 

All too human: Bacon, Freud and a century of painting life

Tate Britain

Millbank, London

Curators: Elena Crippa and Laura Castagnini

Until 27 August 2018

 

(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

 

- Bacon versus Freud, a battle history -                                   - Alejandra de Argos -

Vienna is this year commemorating the centenary of the deaths of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Otto Wagner and Koloman Moser. The celebrations kick off with a Schiele retrospective at the Leopold Museum: oils, watercolours, drawings and gouaches alongside photographs and poems. In all, over 200 breathtaking works of art divided up by theme. Egon Schiele died at the age of 28. The Leopold Museum in Vienna, which houses the largest collection of his work in the world, is now honouring the 100th anniversay of his death with an unforgettable exhibition. In one glass display case, there is a photograph of the artist, lying on his deathbed in a white shirt, his left arm bent lazily to support his head. He would look every bit the young man snoozing in the sun were it not for the wild flowers scattered over his body.

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian
 Marina

 

 

 

 

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Egon Schiele, Seated Woman with Bent Knee, 1917. Narodni Gallery, Prague

 

Vienna is this year commemorating the centenary of the deaths of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Otto Wagner and Koloman Moser. The celebrations kick off with a Schiele retrospective at the Leopold Museum: oils, watercolours, drawings and gouaches alongside photographs and poems. In all, over 200 breathtaking works of art divided up by theme.

Egon Schiele died at the age of 28. The Leopold Museum in Vienna, which houses the largest collection of his work in the world, is now honouring the 100th anniversay of his death with an unforgettable exhibition. In one glass display case, there is a photograph of the artist, lying on his deathbed in a white shirt, his left arm bent lazily to support his head. He would look every bit the young man snoozing in the sun were it not for the wild flowers scattered over his body. Just a few hours earlier, Schiele had finished a sketch of his wife as he watched her from this bed. Edith, pregnant with their child, has her heavy head resting on a pillow, her eyelids drooping. None of them would live. Edith was to die of Spanish flu, whilst being painted by her husband, on the 18th of October 1918. Schiele, who had also already contracted the disease, would die three days later.

 

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Marta Fein, Egon Schiele's Deathbed, 1918. Leopold Museum, Vienna

 

As a child, Schiele (born 1890) started out drawing the trains he watched in Tulln, a small city on the Danube, where his father was station master. He entered the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts at 16 and from then on, he remained inseparably tied to Austria's capital.  Between 1898 and 1918, Vienna was both the finale and the prelude to many things. During the second half of the 19th century, this opulent hub of the Austro-Hungarian Empire saw the building of the Ring Road palaces while life pulsed and revolved around the operas and infectious waltzes of Johann Strauss II. At cafe tables all over the city, people read and wrote about themselves, much like characters out of a Joseph Roth novel, in the twilight of their empire. And still, slowly, Vienna was declining and falling all around them.

 

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Egon Schiele, Small Tree In Autumn, 1911. Leopold Museum, Vienna

 


Sex and death  

It was against this backdrop of an empire on the verge of collapse that the precursor to a new century was ushered in.  It entailed an explosive surge in intellectual pursuit and artistic creativity throughout all  fields.  See the architecture of Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos. Hear Mahler's symphonies seemingly marking out the rhythm of a different spiritual beat. It was the time of writers like Kraus, Trakl and Schönberg and of philosophers like Wittgenstein. As regards painting, Gustav Klimt, the first president of the Secession movement, had started out as a conventional history painter but was now on the lookout for new horizons. Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele were to represent the second generation of this artistic renovation and become the exponents of Austrian Expressionism.  

 

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Egon Schiele, Sitting Semi Nude With Blue Hairband, 1914. Leopold Museum, Vienna

 

The decadence of 1900's Vienna was an emotive catalyst that veered between two obsessions: sex and death. Old Austria was not just a void but a constancy that dissimulated the void. Nihilism made way for a new state of mind and a new bravado. Sigmund Freud discovered that pain created specific problems and conflicts that would not resolve themselves. He wrote The Interpretation Of Dreams and Studies On Hysteria which Schiele became obsessed with. Exploration of the "I" and sexual identity were all that interested him and this spilled over onto his canvasses.

Between 1910 and 1918, Schiele addressed various psychological topics. He left traditional portraiture behind, having pushed it to its absolute limits and, as Richard Avedon said, " he broke the mould and turned up the volume to scream pitch". Schiele's scream came from inside haggard, twisted, satanic bodies that terrified the society of his day. He was often his own model, gesticulating, mouthing words, his hair bristling and a menacing look in his eye, painting hands sharpened like spiders and which rarely depicted a thumb. He cut off his compositions to look almost mutilated, pushing the bodies of his subjects right into the corners of the canvas. His approach was radiacally "flat", like American art of the 1940's. Backgrounds didn't exist and bodies were suspended in the void, alone. Even the paper he used, from 1910 onwards, had something of the past-its-sell-by-date about it, a high concentration of lignin giving it a particular pale brown quality that could not withstand exposure to light. He sometimes outlined them with a white border, as if they had an aura around them. For Schiele, bodies emanated light: "I draw the light that comes from bodies."

 

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Egon Schiele, Self-portrait With Splayed Fingers, 1911. Leopold Museum, Vienna

 

Egon Schiele was all but forgotten during the 1930's but not so much so that the Nazi regime would neglect to include him on their list of degenerate artists. He was, however, rediscovered after WWII as a fundamental figure in modern art. His mutant, narcissistic persona would go on to attract other like-minded egos while later contemporary personalities such as James Dean and David Bowie would fall under his spell.

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Egon Schiele, Self-portrait, 1912. Leopold Museum, Vienna

 

In the vast majority of his over 2000 drawings and 300 paintings, Schiele transforms the body - particularly the female one - into a chilling merchandise of desire. Skirts wide open, exposed genitals, prostitutes, his 14 year old sister, lesbian couples, priests, nuns, postures and bodies as if from an extermination camp. None of them has a real face. They are, rather, stunned masks with a look of the lost about them.

 

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Egon Schiele, Lovemaking, 1915. Leopold Museum, Vienna

 

The aesthetics of the grotesque

One might say that Schiele was a master of the aesthetics of the grotesque. Up until then, in works such as Courbet's The Origin Of The World (1866) or Japanese prints, sex had never been treated in such a sordid manner. Why then do Schiele's paintings move us with their beauty? Why do his stray faces, enraptured gestures and anxious hands seem, at times, to possess the serenity of a Russian ballerina frozen mid-performance?

 

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Egon Schiele, Preacher (Nude With Teal Shirt), 1913. Leopold Museum, Vienna.

 

The answer lies, arguably, in the virtuosity of Schiele's technique. Few artists have managed to convey so much with just one stroke, or even at times, a scribbled line. They ranged from sharp to caressing and from tense to delicate, whether hastily sketched or profoundly deliberate, broken or fluid. But above all, Schiele was prodigious in his use of colours, wholly independent of Nature's own. He used greens and purples, lilac, mauve and reds for human skin. His bodies looked ill but the colourways were sublime. 

 

 
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Albrecht Durer, Wing Of A European Roller, 1512.  Albertina Museum, Vienna.

 

A short distance away from this exhibition in the Museums District is the Hofburg Palace with its still snow-covered gardens, Habsburg library and imperial steel filigree glasshouse and so we arrive at the Albertina Museum. In the rooms containing this collection, Albrecht Durer's watercolours rub shoulders on the walls with those of Schiele. 400 years may separate them but, regardless, they are both stitched from the same cloth of infinite blues, oranges or greens and the same mastery of line that edges each feather on the wing of Durer's birds or the body of Schiele's figures. In these days of strange and seemingly random censorship when photographs of prisoners are taken down at a Madrid art fair or posters for Schiele exhibitions are banned for obscenity in London, Cologne and Hamburg, it's well worth coming to Vienna. Sometimes, it takes raw, naked beauty to make sense of things. As Schiele himself wrote at the bottom of one of his watercolours, "I don't think there's such a thing as modern art. It's just art and it's eternal." 

 

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Egon Schiele, The Embrace (Lovers II), 1917. Belvedere Gallery, Vienna

 

EGON SCHIELE ~ The Jubilee Show

Leopold Museum 

Museumsplatz 1, Vienna

Curator: Diethard Leopold

Until 4 November 2018

 

                                      (Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

- Egon Schiele, beauty and the chasm between -                                   - Alejandra de Argos -

 
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