Sunday, 2 December 2012

Unusual Architecture

Think of beautiful and unusual architecture, and the first buildings that spring to mind are the Taj Mahal (with or without Princess Diana on a marble bench), Antoni Gaudi's Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona  and the Sydney Opera House.

A very lovely building, that reminds me a bit of the Opera House, is the Lotus Temple in New Delhi, India. Its 27 "petals" are similar in shape to the "sails" of the Opera House. The temple is a Bahai House of Worship, but is interdenominational in the sense that worshippers of any religion are allowed to read or chant inside it, in any language. Sermons and ceremonies are not permitted. Any religious music may be sung a capella, but no instruments may be used.

The design was inspired, as the name indicates, by the lotus flower. (I suspect it was also inspired in part by Jorn Utzon's work!) The temple, surfaced in white marble, can seat up to 2.500 people. It is surrounded by nine ponds and 26 acres of gardens.

The spectacular Opera House in Beijing certainly rivals that of Sydney for unusual design. It was designed by a Frenchman, Paul Andreu, and took seven years to build. The design is ellipsoid: a dome set in a reflective lake, so that it looks like a giant egg. The entrance to the vast glass and titanium structure is via a hallway that goes under the lake. Inside are three theatres, two seating over 2,000 people and a "small" one that seats only 1,200.

From stately elegance to frivolity and fun … in Sopot, Poland, we find Krzywy Domek, the Crooked House. Inspired by the fairy tale illustations of Jan Marcin Szancer (the Mem Fox of Poland), this jolly, cartoonish structure is not a house but a shopping centre.

It belongs in Diagon Alley, the shopping street in the Harry Potter books! I like to imagine that inside there are curious shops like Flourish and Botts' Magic Book Shop and Ollivander's Fine Wands, but I suppose in reality it's all K-Mart and Target and those kiosks where they want to sell you a mobile phone that can play chess and launch a rocket ship.

As someone who has spent a large slice of my life in libraries (on both sides of the counter), my favourite unusual building has to be the Kansas City Public Library. The "community bookshelf" which runs along the south wall of the building, showcases 22 book spines, eight meters high and two wide. It clads the multistorey car park, so it is not obscuring any windows in the library itself.

The selected titles were voted for by the local community and provides an interesting view of what the good citizens of Kansas City like to read. The chosen works include such iconic books as Catch 22, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Silent Spring. Shakespeare, Dickens and Tolkien get a guernsey, but Tolstoy, Hemingway and Joyce don't. The only poetry is that of Langston Hughes.  What, no Keats?

The non-fiction includes the Journals of Lewis and Clark and a biography of Harry Truman. Go figure.  Is he the most interesting American president? Weell, I suppose he does hold the record for obliterating cities and killing people. Maybe George Bush killed more, but it took him a few years. Harry did it in one fell swoop. OK, two swoops. Anyway, they love him in Kansas.

There are eight children's titles, among them Winnie the Pooh and The Wizard of Oz. Dr Seuss makes the cut, but Lewis Carroll doesn't.

I wonder what a WAS Community Bookshelf would look like? Let's find out! E-mail me your choice of three favourite adult and three children's books (fiction or non-fiction) and I'll compile a list. Get your friends and family to vote too: we need a lot of entries so we can be sure of getting it right before we start putting up the scaffolding round the Highway Gallery!

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Happy and Glorious

Karsh of Ottawa
In this Jubilee Year it seems fitting that we should look at portraits of Her Majesty. She is, after all, our Queen too. Long to reign over us, until she goes to join her predecessors in St George's Chapel, Windsor.  After that … who knows? But I suspect I'll search my purse in vain for an Australian coin with King Charles III's profile on it.

Monarchs have always been able to commission the services of the foremost painters of their day - the trick was to be a contemporary of the great masters. Up to the Plantaganets, there are really no royal portraits that excite me greatly, and indeed it is accepted that the images of the Norman and Plantagenet kings are probably fictitious.
Richard III

Mind you, I have always liked the well-known portrait of the last Plantagenet, Richard III, ever since I read Josephine Tey's novel, The Daughter of Time, as a teenager. It is this intelligent, troubled face that inspired Miss Tey's convalescing Inspector Grant to stave off his boredom by launching a private inquiry into the fate of the little Princes in the Tower: did Richard have them murdered? Grant brings his modern Scotland Yard methods to bear on the historical mystery, with surprising results.

Sadly, the truth is that this romantic portrait of King Richard was painted over a century after his death: the age of the oak panel on which it is painted can be accurately dated by dendrochronology. (I read that word in a National Geographic at the dentist's and I've waited a long time for the chance to impress my Gentle Readers with it!)

With the advent of the Tudors, the kings started hitting the Great Painters jackpot. Henry VII was painted by Michael Sittow, one of the foremost Flemish painters of the time; his successor Henry VIII upgraded the Flemish connection from Sittow to Holbein. The first Elizabeth had Nicholas Hilliard. Charles I trumped them all with Anthony van Dyck, but Charles II fought back gamely with Peter Lely, who for good measure painted all his mistresses too. (That would have been a full-time job!)
"The Secret Picture"

European royalty loved Franz Winterhalter's romantic and flattering portraits, and Queen Victoria was no exception. He painted dozens of portraits of the Queen and her circle, including a very special one which she gave to Prince Albert as a birthday gift in 1843. The Prince considered her bare shoulders, loose hair and langourous expression too sensual and intimate for eyes other than his own, and kept it behind a screen in his private office.  Albert was of course entitled to his opinion but for myself, I can't really see anyone being driven crazy with lust by the "secret picture", as the queen referred to it in her diary. It's no Playboy centrefold.

Our own Queen is undoubtedly the most portrayed monarch of them all. During the first 60 years of her reign, she has sat for 139 official portraits. She is a public figure, instantly recognisable, but she is still enigmatic: her thoughts and opinions remain private.

She has been painted by all the prominent painters of our time, from Piero Annigoni to Lucien Freud. Even Rolf Harris has had a go, not to mention Andy Warhol. Her Majesty has also been more photographed than any of her predecessors: Cecil Beaton, Yousuf Karsh, Lichfield, Snowdon, Annie Leibowitz - she has posed for all the great lensmasters.
Piero Annigoni, 1954

To my mind Annigoni's compelling 1954 portrait is the iconic one of the reign. (I always try to forget that is was commissioned by The Fishmonger's Company - even the Glovemakers or the Pastrycooks would have sounded better!) Anyway, despite the whiff of haddock, it is considered to be one of the great royal portraits of the century. The Queen is an aloof figure, isolated in a wintry landscape. She wears the dark blue cloak of the Garter Knights, and needs no jewels to proclaim her majestic status.
Annie Leibovitz, 2007
  Half a century later, Annie Leibowitz reprised that theme, photographing Her Majesty in an admiral's dark blue cloak, against a dramatic sky. Perhaps Leibowitz also used the sky to reference the storm clouds in the famous "Ditchley Portrait" of the first Elizabeth, although for dramatic impact that theatrical cloak beats the farthingale every time!
"Lightness of Being" by Chris Levine
My favourite photograph of the Queen is one by Chris Levine, taken during a lengthy photo shoot in 2007, when, resting between shots, she briefly closed her eyes. Levine calls it "Lightness of Being". The image seems poised between the public persona and the private individual, an endearing moment in which we see the elderly lady behind the majestic facade. It is a far cry from the posed formal shots of the Beaton era, but no less dignified despite the humanising realisation that Queens also get tired.
Lucian Freud
Lucian Freud is considered one of the greatest British painters of the century.  His 2001 portrait of the Queen was commissioned for the Royal Collection. It is was not well received: generally reviled as ugly, a travesty and a disgrace. Knowing Freud's uncompromising eye and his unsparing approach to his subjects, I can't help but wonder: what did the people who commissioned it expect? Can it be that they were blinded by the Great Name but hadn't actually seen his work? Another of those Little Mysteries of Life that crop up so regularly in these articles.
I dearly wish that I could talk about and show more of the many remarkable portraits of this remarkable woman, but as always, space does not permit. I can, however, recommend "The Queen: Art and Image", available at your local library.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia: Self-portrait
 Many of our members will remember the 2004 exhibition Darkness & Light: Caravaggio & his World, which featured key works by Caravaggio and the "Caravaggisti": the artists who copied Caravaggio's chiaroscuro style.

One of the most arresting pictures in the exhibition was the dramatic "Judith Beheading Holofernes" by Artemisa Gentileschi. Judith has been depicted by innumerable artists: Michaelangelo put her on the Sistine ceiling, Donatello cast her in bronze. She appears in stained glass, in frescoes and in engravings. Caravaggio, Botticelli, Rubens and Goya all had a go. Some Judiths are fierce, some are demure. Some wear lavish gowns, some are nude.  Klimt's Judith is all elegant golden beauty, with Holofernes' head just an afterthought in the corner. 
Judith Beheading Holofernes

But none of them comes even close to the savage intensity which Artemisia's Judith brings to the job. Holofernes,stupefied by wine, is at her mercy. She has grasped a handful of his hair and she has turned his head sideways to expose his jugular. While she hacks away, her maidservant holds him down.

The beheading is at the same time a hideous symbolic castration: his arms and shoulders resemble a pair of raised thighs, between which Judith is wielding the blade. The face of Judith is a self-portrait of the vengeful Artemisia, and she has given Holofernes the face of Agostino Tassi, who raped her while his offsider held her down, when she was eighteen years old.
Artemisia was the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, who was a prominent Roman artist, a contemporary and close friend of Caravaggio. Artemisia was thirteen when Caravaggio fled Rome after killing a man in a street fight.

Despite Artemisia's talent, the art academies would not accept a female, so she received her early training from her father, but continued her studies under the tutelage of Orazio's friend and colleague, the 45-year old Agostino Tassi. Why Orazio would entrust his daughter to this creep, who had already been in trouble for sexual molestation of both young girls and boys, is a mystery. Even as he was engaged as Artemisia's tutor, he was under investigation for incest, in the rape of his late wife's 14-year-old sister. The wife herself was stalked and killed after she left him - case unsolved, but the smart money is on the bereaved husband.

Predictably, Tassi raped Artemisia when her father was not at home, depite her savage  resistance. He must have suspected that she wouldn't be too keen, so he brought a friend to hold her down. Apparently this was not an unusual occurrence in seventeenth-century Rome, and not many eyebrows were raised in such cases as long as the rapist offered to marry his victim. It gives a whole new meaning to not taking no for an answer. There was no turning down a determined suitor!

Tassi duly promised to marry Artemisia, so her father told her to stop whinging and start shopping for a wedding gown, while he continued to work and socialise with Tassi.  When a year later Tassi still showed no signs of marrying Artemisia, who was now expected to submit to his unwelcome attentions on a regular basis, Orazio beatedly decided to play the indignant father and sue the reluctant bridegroom for rape.

Even in modern times, we all know women are unwilling to sue rapists, because they get traumatised all over again by having to relive the experience and being depicted by the defence as a slut who was "asking for it". At least a rape victim in a modern court is only mentally tortured. The Roman court applied thumbscrews while a rape victim gave her evidence, to ensure that she spoke the truth on the witness stand. The accused rapist was assumed to be truthful without the help of thumbscrews. Artemisia also had to undergo a painful and humiliating vaginal examination, although I can't think what that was meant to establish, a year after the event.

The trial lasted seven months, and a transcript of the whole court case survives in the judicial archives in Rome. At the end of it all, Tassi was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison, but he had friends in high places and was out in four months.

Artemisia painted her "Judith" in 1612, the year following the trial. One would hope the work had a cathartic effect, but perhaps not, because eight years later she painted a larger and bloodier version. The owner, the Duchess Marie-Louise de Medici, hung the painting in her private chambers as she considered it too horrifying for her reception rooms. In 2002, it went on public display for the first time at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
Jael driving a tent peg into the head of Sisera

Artemisia painted another notable biblical scene in which a woman wreaks revenge on a male predator: Jael driving a tent peg into the temple of the oppressor Sisera. Once again Jael and Sisera bear a strong resemblance to the artist and Tassi.

The lasting effect of the rape and trial showed in her frequent choice of exploited women as subjects: the rape victim and suicide Lucretia; Cleopatra, defeated and betrayed; Susanna, blackmailed by lecherous and voyeuristic old men.
Susanna and the Elders

Artemisia married a Florentine artist, Pietro Stiattesi, in the same year and moved to Florence, perhaps to escape the sensation caused by the trial. Her career took off in Florence: among her friends and patrons were Duke Cosimo de Medici and the astronomer Galileo. She became an official member of the Academie del Disegno (Academy of Design), an unprecedented honour for a woman.

Her career established, her work was much in demand and commissions flowed in. Nonetheless, she was constantly in financial difficulties, having by now to support two children and a husband who preferred gambling to working.

In 1617 she gave birth to a third child, her first daughter, and became reconciled with her father. Not surprisingly, relations with him had been strained since the horrors of the trial that he had insisted on putting her through. A couple of years later she returned to Rome for a while, but mostly spent her time travelling between Genoa and Rome, and also successfully sought commissions  in Venice. She regained her financial security and the Roman census of 1624 notes her as the head of the household rather than Stiattesi's wife, so she seems to have taken control of her life and kept the loser she married from frittering her earnings away.

There are references from the time describing Artemisia as a "famous Roman artist", "a celebrated woman painter". Artemisia numbered among her wealthy and influential patrons cardinals, merchants and the nobility. Among them were Philip IV of Spain, Charles I of England, and the Duke of Modena.

Artemisia resettled in England, as a court painter to King Charles. Her father joined her in painting the ceiling of the Queen's House at Greenwich, where it is still a tourist attraction today. Orazio died in 1639 and Artemisia went to Naples when the English Civil War started in 1641.
She spent the last years of her life in Naples, continuing to paint until her death at age 59. She died of unknown causes in 1652. Some thirty-four of her paintings are known to have survived, as well as twenty-eight letters in her hand.

She was under-appreciated for centuries, but has now finally taken her rightful place among the great Baroque artists. Her life has inspired several biographies, novels and stage plays, as well as the 1997 film Artemisia, starring Valentina Cervi and Michel Serrault.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Judging a Book by its Cover (2)

In 2009, Kaleidoscope published the shortlist for the Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year, which was won by "The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais" by Philip M. Parker.

The 2012 shortlisted titles are worthy successors - among them we have Memoirs of a Japanese Chicken Sexer in 1935 Hebden Bridge by Takayoshi Andoh (the runner-up) and The Great Singapore Penis Panic and the Future of American Mass Hysteria by Scott Mendelson, which came in at third place.

The other shortlisted titles were Estonian Sock Patterns All Around the World, The Mushroom in Christian Art, Afterhoughts of a Worm Hunter and A Century of Sand Dredging in the Bristol Channel: Volume Two.

… and the winner, ta-raaa! Cooking With Poo, by Saiyuud Diwong, who lives in Bangkok. Despite the natural misgivings of those who may have had unfortunate gastric experiences in Bangkok, I hasten to assure my Gentle Readers that Ms Diwong does not include poo as an ingredient in her recipes. Her childhood nickname is Poo, so giving her book that title seemed like a good idea at the time.

I have been sadly remiss during the last two years in not reporting on the Diagram Prize, but it's never too late:

In  2010 the prize was taken out by Daina Taimina's (no doubt unputdownable) Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes. Runner-up was Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers.

The 2011 winner was Managing a Dental Practice the Genghis Khan Way, by Michael R Young, with Bombproof Your Horse coming in second by a nose.

The award has been running since 1978, when it was conceived at the Frankfurt book fair and given to Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice. Previous winners include Highlights in the History of Concrete and Living with Crazy Buttocks, which was penned by our very own Kaz Cooke. Australia is always in the forefront of world literature!

Vintage Dust Jackets

Original dust jackets in mint condition are pulling in the big bucks at international auction houses. Go check the attic for one of these; you can get up to a million dollars if Grandpa was a keen reader who looked after his books!

Or maybe Granny stockpiled the romances in a trunk under the house … you could be on to a good thing if you discover a cache of old Mills and Boons!

Friday, 25 May 2012

A Carpet For the Barefoot Nuns

Last time I was at the NGV, I thought I would go and look at the Portrait Gallery on the mezzanine. I haven't stickybeaked  round there for a while.
The Trinitarias carpet

As it turned out, I didn't get to look at the portraits - I got sucked in by the carpet in the anteroom to the Long Gallery. The Trinitarias Carpet is one of the treasures of the NGV, but has not been on view much because of its sheer size.  It is a hefty 10.4m by 3.4m, a bit large for your average front parlour. It is displayed on a raised platform a couple of feet off the floor, with a little railing round lest the punters walk on  it, and it takes up the whole length of the room.

The centre medallion has two heartshaped lobes attached to it, and the background is a riot of vines, flowers, and ornamental designs that the wall text tells me are "palmettas and cloud bands". Round the edge is a border of alternating round and oval cartouches the size of tea trays. 

It is altogether a thing of beauty. If you lean in close, you can see how finely knotted it is - the finish is like velvet. It was made in the late 1500s. When I think of the hours of backbreaking and eyestraining handwork that went into it, under medieval conditions, my mind absolutely boggles. No proper lighting, no ergonomic chairs, no eight-hour day, no minimum wage, no workplace health and safety! Just those dozens of calloused little hands knotting, knotting …

I am always so gobsmacked by the miraculous works of art  that our forebears were able to create, in circumstances that would make a modern artist burst into tears and hide behind the sofa.  In the V&A in London I once saw a set of bed hangings: heavy green silk, densely embroidered with exquisite butterflies, peacocks and flowers. The label said they were the work of Lady Somebody, who spent thirty years making them while her husband was banged up in the Tower, where she voluntarily shared his ill-lit quarters. And what about those perfectly detailed miniature paintings in medieval illuminated manuscripts? How did those monks do that without a bright light and a powerful magnifying glass?

Philip IV of Spain by Velasquez
Anyway, back to the Trinitarias Carpet. It is called that because it was a gift from King Philip IV of Spain to the Convent of the Trinitarias Del Calzas. Also known as the Convent of the Barefoot Nuns. Now that is what I call a thoughtful gift. I can just picture His Majesty at the breakfast table with his bride, Queen Mariana (who was also his niece, but if the Pope signed off on the marriage, who are we to raise an eyebrow?)

"What shall we give the Barefoot Nuns for Christmas this year, Maisie Dear? How about a nice painting of Me by Velasquez? He turns one out every fortnight; I'm getting a bit sick of posing for him."

  "No, Uncle Phil, they've already got three …  Senor Velasquez really has to find somebody else to paint for a change.
  I know! Let's get the nuns a carpet from Persia for those cold stone convent floors! The sight of those suppurating chilblained toes gives me a nasty turn every time they ask us over for a prayer-and-tapas evening or a Bible Trivia night."

"Good thinking, Noventa y Nueve! But no need to splash out on a pricey Persian carpet; this is a convent we're talking about, not a palace. We'll get them a rug from India. Half the price and just as pretty."

The carpet was originally thought to be a Persian design, knotted about 1690 in Tabriz, but experts have recently authenticated it as being a Northern Indian work from the late 1500s.

The carpet spent its first four centuries staving off chilblains in the Convent of the Barefoot Nuns. In 1938 it was exhibited at the Seville World Fair, after which it was sold to the Spanish Gallery in London. During World War 2 it was, like  many other works of art, sent to Canada for safe keeping.

After the War, it was acquired by Templeton and Co, a prominent Glasgow carpet manufacturer. They reproduced the design in their machine-made chenille rugs, until they sold the carpet to the NGV in 1959. Like many of the NGV's other treasures, the purchase was funded by the Felton Bequest.

The Convent of the Barefoot Nuns

Girl In a Green Gown

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, 1434
I was sitting in an aeroplane recently, minding my own business, when the lady across the aisle from me took a book out of her handbag and settled down to read. Every now and then I caught a glimpse of the front cover: a lovely reproduction of the Arnolfini Portrait. I kept trying to see the title: a project that kept me occupied until Captain Sally Anderson announced that we will be landing at Tullamarine in five minutes and it is raining.

Stephen Fry and his cohorts on QI tell me that passengers feel more confident at 35,000 feet when the captain's voice is a male one, preferably with a Scottish accent. However, they are a bunch of wimpy Poms - I felt quite safe in what I imagined to be the beringed and scarlet-taloned hands of Captain Sally, who has an accent like Julia Gillard rather than Sean Connery. At least I know she won't be tempted to show off. (Plutonium is not the most dangerous substance in the world - testosterone is!)

No sooner had Sally pulled on the handbrake, or my literary fellow-passenger put the book down on her seat while she reached for her bag overhead, and I was able to see that it is called Girl In A Green Gown, by Carola Hicks. I had no idea whether it was romantic fiction or a scholarly thesis, but I got it from the library the very next day on the strength of the front cover. I love that picture.

It turns out to be a very fascinating and easily readable account of the "history and mystery" of the Arnolfini Portrait. Jan van Eyck painted it in 1434 and it has an impeccable provenance from that day to this: most unusually for a medieval painting, we know exactly who owned it throughout the five centuries of its existence.

Ms Hicks tells its story in alternating chapters: the story of each owner alternates with chapters analysing every detail of the painting. Ironically, it is the first owner about whom the least is known. It is assumed that the figures in this double portrait are those of the wealthy Bruges merchant Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, for it is he who commissioned it.

Subsequently it was owned by Marguerite of Austria, who, as Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands, held sway over Bruges. Marguerite bequeathed it together with the rest of her extensive collection to her kinswoman Marie of Hungary, who succeeded her in the Netherlands governorship. (I like the names of Marie's parents: Philip the Handsome and Juana the Mad.) According to surviving inventories, the picture was encased in a recessed frame with wooden doors, which is one reason why it has survived so well.

Spain had a good grip on the Netherlands all this while, and the painting was next owned by Philip II: the one who married Mary Tudor, was one of Queen Elizabeth's disappointed suitors, and had the stuffing kicked out of his Armada by Francis Drake, John Hawkins and the lads. Philip was of a sour disposition, and who's to blame him? He had a lot to put up with.

The picture remained part of the Spanish royal collection until Napoleon put his oar in and conquered Spain, installing his brother Joseph as King. Joe was a bit of an art collector (funny how conquerors suddenly become art collectors: look at Hermann Goering!) and he "collected" the Arnolfini Portrait along with many more masterpieces from the Habsburg palaces.

However, the Bonapartes didn’t reckon with the Duke of Wellington. He took Spain right back from them, and overnight Joe found himself a fugitive. No travelling light for him: he took a fleet of carriages laden with "his" works of art and valuable museum items, hardly able to move on the inadequate Spanish roads already  clogged with refugees.

Wellington's army was not above a bit of light looting, and The Arnolfini Portrait somehow found itself among the effects that Lt Col James Hay sent back to England in 1812. It remained in the hands of the Hay family until it was bought by the National Gallery in 1842, where you can go and look at it free of charge any time you are in London.

Interspersed with details of the fascinating history which I have only lightly outlined here, Ms Hicks tells us about the meaning and symbolism of all the objects in the painting, many of which I didn't even notice until she pointed them out. The most important aspect of this picture is its emphasis on wealth and status. The author explains how everything, from the fabrics to the oranges in the bowl, are status symbols and items only the very wealthy could enjoy. I was interested to learn that the couple is not standing in a bedroom, but that a bed in the reception room was an important status symbol, showing off as it does the rich colour and fabric of the hangings. The red hangings are significant because red was the most difficult and expensive dye.

The couple's outfits are lined with fur, oranges were only for a privileged few, the glass in the window was a luxury only the rich could afford. The rug, the mirror, the chandelier, the clothes they are wearing - everything is put into historical and cultural context and Ms Hicks explains in fascinating detail about the social and commercial aspects of life at the time.

We don't know why the man is holding his hand up vertically like Glenn McGrath about to bowl a fast ball, and we are not sure whether the lady is pregnant or if it is just the swathes of fabric in her dress that makes it look that way. See how the dress is pooling on the floor: it positively shrieks: "Look at me!  I can afford yards and yards of very expensive material!"

The author deals with the material objects in the painting in a way which brings the society of the time to life, just as she gives us an engaging description of life at the various royal courts whose rulers owned the painting. She has the knack of describing the past in a way that gives it great immediacy and makes it as accessible to the reader as a novel.

I can highly recommend this book to all our members who like a bit of history and a bit of scandal mixed in with their art appreciation!

This winter the NGV will be exhibiting works in all media from the Napoleonic era: from David's masterpieces to the Empress Josephine's jewels.

I am very interested to learn that the exhibition will emphasise the French/Australian connection and tell the story of both Napoleon and Josephine's fascination with our continent.

At Maimaison, Josephine successfully bred black swans, emus and sulphur-crested cockatoos. She had over 200 living Australian plants brought for her personal collection by Nicholas Boudin, who was sent in 1800 to chart the coastline of Victoria, which he named Terre Napoleon after his patron.

Josephine introduced both the wattle and eucalyptus to France, where they still flourish, and she worked closely with the renowned flower painter Pierre-Joseph Redouté to publish pictures of Australian plants and flowers for the first time.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Picasso is still in Sydney

The marvellous exhibition of masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso in Paris, remains in Sydney until 25th March. There's still time to see it! It's cheaper to schlepp to Sydney than to Paris. Plus you won't have to speak French.
I didn't have room to mention all my favourites from the exhibition last month, so here are a few more pictures for all the Picasso-fans out there.

I love the powerful exuberance of Two Women Running on the Beach (1922). This was during the period when Picaso returned to classicism after the dark oppressiveness of WW1. The figures of the two women are robust and joyful, like the couple in Village Dance, which he painted in the same year.

They run in pure abandon, holding hands. Their hair flows in the wind and their loose Grecian dresses fall off their shoulders unheeded. The sea and summer sky are brilliant blue: life is good!

Life was not so good in 1938. Picasso, strongly opposed to the rise of fascism, was exiled from Spain during the civil war. He realised that the Fascists and Nazis posed a threat to all of Europe and he was angry and frustrated by the French and British policies of appeasement and non-intervention. Neville Chamberlain didn't impress Picasso at all, waving that bit of paper he got from Hitler on his sucking-up expedition to Munich.

Picasso made his point with "The Farmer's Wife". The recumbent woman represents the countries of Europe, sleeping while Spain is destroyed by the Fascists and their German allies. But for a bit of faint pink about her head and torso, it is monochrome, like his harrowing Guernica and The Charnel House. The nude, sleeping farmwife is surrounded by chooks: a hen perched on her hip, three little chicks pecking in the foreground, while at her feet the rooster is flapping his wings and crowing aggressively, in a futile attempt to awaken her.

The usually complaisant Marie-Therese Walter was the model for this picture. Since she became his mistress in 1927, when she was 17 and he 45, he painted her many times, delightfully tender and joyous portraits, emphasising her rounded figure and blonde hair. By the time she moselled for The Farmer's Wife, they had been together for eleven years and she had borne him a daughter.

She always refused to marry him, becaue she realised that she would always come second to his art, and that he was not monogamous by nature. There were always other women. She remained loyal to him even after their affair ended. She hanged herself in 1977, four years after Picasso's death.

Marie-Therese did not like The Farmer's Wife. She said at the time "… look how he uses me in ‘The Farmer’s Wife’. I don’t like to analyze his work, especially when I’m the subject. I can’t avoid insight: He is using me as a symbol of European complacency…during the Spanish Civil War… he’s put me flabby on my back, a grimacing, grumpy woman who’s just been screwed by a rooster who’s bit a hole in my navel …. I still love Picasso but don’t want to marry him.”

And who's to blame her? Nobody wants to be a flabby, grumpy, grimacing old bag with rooster issues.

Picasso and his bosom friend Carlos Casagemas were still teenagers when they left their native Spain and travelled to Paris together to paint and study. They immersed themselves in the Paris of artists, cafés and the Bohemian life despite their very limitd means. Most of the time they ahd no money at all, but Picasso (like Toulouse-Lautrec before him) painted the ladies of the night and did murals on the brothel walls in exchange for their services.

Casagemas was not such a steady patron of these establishments as Picasso, because he had a bit of what the late-night ads on my TV call "erectile dysfunction." Probably nothing that a bit of counselling, a cup of tea and a couple of Viagras couldn't cure, but we all know how teenagers agonise - embarrassment and anxiety would have made the whole situation worse.

Then Casagemas became infatuated with Germaine, a dancer. Sadly, she soon dumped him, probably because the demonstrations of his affection didn't come up to expectations. As it were. This sent Carlos into a depression: he drank, he used morphine and he clung to Picasso for support. It seemed like a good idea at the time to take Casagemas home to Spain, give him a chance to get over it. They stayed with Picasso's family and everyone did their best, but Casagemas' self-pity got worse and he clung to Picasso like an emotional leech.

The two boys were only 19 or 20 at the time, not an age known for wisdom or patience. Picasso got fed up with all the whinging and told Casagemas to pull himself together and get on with it. Casagemas went back to Paris, where he resumed hanging round Germaine. At a café with her and several other friends one night, he pulled out a handgun, fired a shot at Germaine which missed and then shot himself in the right temple.

Picasso was overcome with grief and guilt. It was his turn to fall into a state of depression: he had fought with his family who wrre upset at his bohemian lifestyle and lack of a steady job, he was penniless, disillusioned and generally sorry for himself. He didn't snap out of this for the next four years, during which time his work was characterised by a melancholy, blue monochrome palette. From the traumatic suicide of Casagemas, Picasso's Blue Period was born.

Picasso painted several works in an attempt to exorcise his pain and guilt over the death of Casagemas. The Death of Casagemas (1901) is a posthumous homage to his tragic friend, and in this picture I discern overtones of van Gogh's style in the greens and yellows of the face and candle, and the anxious, staccato brush strokes surrounding the flame.

In the same year, he painted The Burial of Casagemas, which reminds me very much of El Greco's Burial of the Count of Orgaz. I was very young and the Orgaz burial made a lasting impression on me when I first saw it in the great church of San Tomé in Toledo. The young Picasso would have drawn upon a similar impression when he painted Casagemas' burial. In the lower half of the painting, he surrounds Casagemas with loving family and friends at the graveside, and in the upper half, his soul ascends to Heaven amid a joyful gathering.

Picasso seemed finally to accept the death of Casagemas when he painted La Vie (Life) in 1903. In the painting, he winds back the clock, giving the Casagemas story a happy ending instead of a tragic one. Picasso has given Casagemas a female figure leaning lovingly against him, and placed him in a family context. He points to the baby in the older woman's arms, and he steps forward as if into a new life. Some art historians see the upraised finger as a symbol of his regained virilty. La Vie was the end of the Blue Period - Picasso now seemed to put his melancholy state behind him and move on.

But the Casagemas trauma reared its head again in 1923, when Picasso's friend Ramon Pichot died, near the anniversary of Casagemas' death. This unhappy event opened old wounds, especially since Pichot's wife was the very Germaine for love of whom Casagemas committed suicide. Picasso was inspired to paint Three Dancers, a chilling depiction of this tragic love triangle, in the Surrealist style with which he was experimenting at the time. The crazed figure on the left in this macabre dance is Germaine, on the right is Pichot, and the ghostly central figure, with arms outstreched as on a crucifix, is the unhappy Casagemas. The painting is at the same time a savage commentary on the ballet, expressing Picasso's anger and pain over the acrimonious breakdown of his marriage to the dancer Olga Kokhlova.