Monday, March 31, 2008

Both Sides Now

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I've looked at clouds from both sides now

From up and down, and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all

From “Both Sides, Now” by Joni Mitchell

Is there any artist more buried by his mythological status in popular culture than Vincent Van Gogh? Born March 30, 1853, Van Gogh embodies the romantic ideal of the tortured artistic genius ignored in life and discovered tragically too late. A surefire way for any museum to score a big attendance hit is to run a show featuring Van Gogh in some way. Even people who don’t like “art” like Van Gogh, or at least pretend to. People who do love art then feel compelled to reclaim a more exclusive Van Gogh for themselves, like Diane Keaton’s character in Woody Allen’s film Manhattan overpronouncing his name as “Van Gaach.” We all think we know Van Gogh from the many self-portraits (such as the amazing Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, above, from 1887), the letters, Irving Stone’s novel Lust for Life, and Kirk Douglasfilm of the same name, but I think we’ve all been too presumptuous to believe we truly know him at all. Like Joni Mitchell’s clouds, we only know the “illusion” of Van Gogh, a caricature of the multidimensional man and artist.

The one myth I always find the most amusing about Van Gogh is the idea that he came out of nowhere, free of all influences and painting directly from his magical imagination and profoundly exuberant heart. Van Gogh loved the masters, from Rembrandt to Millet, taking pieces here and there and absorbing them into his own vision. Some people think that such influences diminish Van Gogh, but I see them as a strength—the coming to terms with the visions of others and overcoming them to use them for your own purposes. Van Gogh’s use of non-Western sources, such as the Japanese print, appears in the beautiful work Japonaiserie: Plum tree in Bloom (after Hiroshige) (above, from 1887). Many other contemporaries of Van Gogh produced similar Japonisme, but Van Gogh achieves a different sort of homage, taking the spirit of the original culture and seamlessly weaving it into the fabric of his own artistry. It makes me think of the great jazz artists and their ability to listen and learn while remaining true to themselves, even when breaking all the rules. Charlie Parker allegedly believed that you had to learn a song in every key, developing the ability to quote any tune at any time in any key that he used to great effect in his collage-like compositions. Louis Armstrong placed the mouthpiece on his lips incorrectly, leading to mouth problems later in life (which necessitated his “second” career as a vocalist) but also to the unique sound that gave birth to the virtuoso jazz soloist. Like Parker and Armstrong, Van Gogh learned art the “wrong” way, but from that “error” created something much greater than he could following any standard lesson plan.

The other myth that I find amusing and befuddling about Van Gogh is the idea of him as a secular saint. Van Gogh famously disdained organized religion, but mainly out of his sense of social justice for the poor that the church no longer served. I’ve always seen Van Gogh not so much quitting religion as religion quitting Van Gogh. The obvious feeling of a work such as his Pietà (After Delacroix) (above, from 1889) comes not just from his admiration for Delacroix but also from a heartfelt identification with Christ as the Suffering Servant. Van Gogh recognized the godhood in each person, regardless of social class, including himself. The self-portraits often elevate him to the status of a deity, surrounded by the nimbus of brilliant color. Van Gogh elevates us as well, placing himself in the role of Everyman, just an ordinary man full of the same extraordinary soul found in each of us. Many of the portraits, of course, show the suffering Van Gogh, struggling to keep it all together. Beneath all the clutter of what we think we know about Van Gogh, it’s important to remember that he was a man who struggled, sometimes winning and sometimes losing, but always a man and not a myth.

Master of Disaster

For a man who painted much of his life for the rich and powerful, Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes depicted the plight of the poor and powerless with a tenderness and unwavering clarity that still shocks us today. Born March 30, 1746, Goya painted The Third of May 1808: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid (above, from 1814), perhaps the most stirring depiction of an execution made in the nineteenth century. I’ve always found the white shirt of the central figure to be almost hypnotic in its ability to draw the eye directly to the center of the picture. Goya literally highlights the plea for mercy of this individual, whose outstretched arms echo the pose of the crucified Christ. King Carlos III and later Charles IV may have provided the patronage that allowed Goya to paint, but it was the Spanish people caught up in the endless power plays of the age of European revolution that provided Goya with endless inspiration.

After some kind of encephalitis robbed Goya of his hearing and nearly drove him mad in the early 1800s, he became infatuated with the dynamics of cruelty. In the last four years of his life, Goya covered the walls of his final home with paintings now known as the Black Paintings. In Saturn Devouring His Son, Goya shows the pagan god tearing apart his son and eating him. Another Black Painting shows two more mundane figures beating each other to death with clubs. These Black Paintings distill in the abstract the gloom that Goya kept locked up inside after years of witnessing the madness and inhumanity around him. A decade earlier, in The Disasters of War (Los desastres de la guerra), Goya took the specific atrocity of the Peninsular War and created universal images of the human cost of conflict. It’s hard to look at the outstretched arms of the individual in Goya’s Gloomy Presentiments of Things to Come (above, 1810-1815) from The Disasters of War series and not look back to The Third of May 1808 and forward to Satar Jabar, aka, the “Hooded Man” of the Abu Ghraib torture photos.

Stephen Eisenman’s The Abu Ghraib Effect (my review here) hails Goya as one of the few artists who offered resistance against the overwhelming tide of cruelty embedded in the course of Western Civilization. It’s a common trope to call Goya both the last of the Old Masters and the first of the Moderns, but I see it as a disservice to Goya to lump him in with the majority of Modernists who rarely speak truth to power. Goya’s ghoulish Bury Them and Be Silent (above, also from The Disasters of War, 1810-1815) speaks for the silenced as it documents the code of silence agreed to by the survivors. Eisenman sees complicity with this code of silence as participation in the pattern of violence. Goya’s powerful humanity provided him with the courage to speak out in images and refuse to be party to the death and destruction. In our image-maddened society today, we can learn a lot from a man who made these images two centuries ago. Goya, a man who could not hear himself, still has the ability to stir us to hear the cries of the war-inflicted suffering around us today.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Painted Photographs

Finding that he couldn’t capture through the medium of painting the images he saw in his mind, Edward Steichen turned to photography. Born March 27, 1879 in Luxembourg, Steichen’s family came to America when he was only two years old. America seemed like a magical place of possibilities to Steichen, a feeling he tried to convey in his photographs such as that of The Flatiron Building (above, from 1905). Steichen’s friend and fellow photographer Alfred Stieglitz also photographed The Flatiron, a point of fascination for many New York artists of the time. With Stieglitz, Steichen created the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, which helped promote the pictorialist style of photography soon to be en vogue thanks to Steichen and Stieglitz. In today’s world of the digital snapshot, it’s hard to imagine the painterly approach such early photographers brought to that still-developing art form.

Although Steichen couldn’t truly be called a Surrealist, his photographic portrait of the actress Gloria Swanson, titled Gloria Swanson, New York 1924 (above), comes close. Between the odd pattern of the black lace veil and her surprised expression, you would think that Man Ray had taken this photo. Steichen brought to the photographic portrait the same deep psychological approach that painters were bringing to their modernist portraits. Steichen’s photographs of film stars Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich helped forge the mystique surrounding them. Again, it is hard for us today to understand the aura surrounding such early stars when modern movie stars come and go so easily, neatly dissected by the entertainment press before they can even establish a personal visual signature.

Steichen’s eye for composition and form was remarkable, as seen in the study Heavy Roses (above, from 1914). He easily crossed over from world of the palette to the world of the darkroom. As photography evolved from a “different” kind of painting to an art form in its own right, Steichen evolved with it. During both World War I and World War II, Steichen served his adopted country as a key photographic documentarian. His documentary film The Fighting Lady won an Academy Award in 1945. As the Director of Photography at the MoMA until 1962, Steichen continued to serve photography and America. With the publication of The Family of Man in 1955 (accompanied by text by Steichen’s brother-in-law, the poet Carl Sandburg), a collection of more than 500 photographs documenting life in almost 70 countries, Steichen left behind a final statement of his belief in the power of photography to speak in ways just as powerfully as painting, if not more so.

Father Figure

After studying painting for years with Cosimo Rosselli and briefly with Domenico Ghirlandaio, two of the four artists that first worked on the Sistine Chapel in 1480, Bartolommeo di Pagola del Fartorino found himself searching for something more in life than just art. The man better known today as Fra Bartolommeo found that meaning in the teachings of the Dominican priest Fra Girolamo Savonarola (above, in a portrait by Fra Bartolommeo from 1498). Born March 28, 1472, Fra Bartolommeo joined the Dominican order shortly after the charismatic Savonarola, who condemned the corruption of the Florentine government and the Catholic church and decadent worldliness in general, met his end by hanging and burning the same year that the above portrait was painted. The Latin inscription says “Portrait of the Prophet Jerome of Ferrara, sent by God.” Fra Bartolommeo was a true believer in the power of religion and of art and did his best to bring those two worlds together.

After joining the Dominican order in 1500, Fra Bartolommeo actually gave up painting for four years. However, Savonarola believed in the visual arts as serving a role as a poor man’s Bible to help him understand the meaning of God’s Word, so eventually Fra Bartolommeo followed Savonarola’s preachings and recommitted himself to religious scenes such as his moving Descent From the Cross (above, from 1515), in which his skill in rendering color and drapery come to the forefront. Raphael actually studied color and drapery under Fra Bartolommeo in 1507, in exchange for Raphael teaching his friar friend the intricacies of perspective. Raphael may have been more creative in his paintings, but something remains to be said of Fra Bartolommeo’s combination of workmanlike technique and sincere religious fervor.

One of Fra Bartolommeo’s most fascinating scenes is The Marriage of Saint Catherine of Siena (above, from 1511). Saint Catherine was a tertiary of Fra Bartolommeo’s own Dominican order, giving her special significance for him. However, despite this connection and the prominence of her name in the title, we only see Saint Catherine’s back as she kneels before the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus raised upon a throne. Like Catherine, Fra Bartolommeo saw himself as a simple servant of a higher power, content to rest at the feet of glory. Fra Bartolommeo neither rises to the angelic status of Fra Angelico or descends to the tawdry reputation of Fra Filippo Lippi, but remains a bit of a cypher whose work is all we know of the man and priest, and perhaps all we need to know.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Japanese Import

You’ve probably seen them in the bookstores, the droves of young people standing around the manga section, flipping through the latest offerings. In Japan, tachiyomi, Japanese for “stand-reading,” goes beyond anything you’ve seen in an American store (and they’re rarely shooed away, as in the U.S.). If you grew up before the American manga explosion of the late 1980s, like I did, it remains a mystery. If you’re curious about art or comics or, more importantly, curious about the comics your children might be reading, Jason Thompson’s Manga: The Complete Guide lifts the veil of obscurity and allows us to see manga in all its variety—the bad, the good, and the culturally bizarre. If he achieves nothing else, Thompson dispels the misconception of manga as a monolithic entity of Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh!. Manga, Thompson demonstrates, is a medium, like television, film, or literature, with a wide array of subgenres appealing to all kinds of readers. To turn a familiar phrase on its head, Thompson’s message is the medium, which he explores and maps out fully so that even the complete novice can feel comfortable in beginning to navigate the seas of manga out there today.

Legendary 19th century Japanese artist Hokusai coined the term manga, which means “whimsical sketches” or “lighthearted pictures.” Manga has existed in some form for over 100 years, but really took hold on Japanese culture after World War II, when television was uncommon in Japan and movies prohibitively expensive. Manga provided a cheap form of entertainment, first for young boys but soon branching out to fill every corner of the market. Tezuka Osamu, the “God of Manga,” became the first manga star artist with works such as Astro Boy (above), which features the round-eyed, cartoonish style most Americans associate with manga. Comics remain more widely read and respected in Japan than anywhere else in the world, thanks mainly to the power of manga. Nearly half of all books and magazines sold in Japan qualify as manga. Not until the late 1980s did translated manga come to America, riding the wave of popularity of anime. Reflecting the state of American comics more than that of Japan, manga mostly for boys (known as shônen in Japanese) and men (seinen) appeared first in American stores, with manga for girls (shôjo) and women (jôsei), still smaller audiences in the U.S., following behind. Thompson traces the popularity of manga to it’s sense of “otherness” for American readers. “We love them more than any test-marketed, focus-group products designed for us,” he argues (which, of course, doesn’t preclude the original targeting to Japanese readers). Thompson also cites how manga stories have endings (versus the never-ending franchises of American comics, such as Superman or Spiderman) and the ownership of artistic property by the artists themselves (rather than soulless corporations) as additional reasons behind manga’s popularity in America, which reached sales of $170 to 200 million in the U.S. and Canada in 2007.

After giving a detailed introduction to the world of manga, Thompson provides an exhaustive guide to the individual works and the many genres of manga, complete with a 4-star rating system, age range, and warnings for nudity, violence, etc. Listed alphabetically, these ratings provide the perfect reference for newbies standing before those intimidating racks of manga titles for the first time. Even more invaluable are the essays on the genres, which provide fascinating glimpses into the manga publishing world and Japanese culture while also listing examples of key works in that genre. Some of these genres mirror American comics, such as kazoku, i.e., “family manga,” which resembles the old-fashioned American comic strip. (Kô Kojima’s Sennin Buraku recently broke Charles Schulz’s record with Peanuts as the longest running comic strip done by a single author.) Superheroes, romance, comedy, science fiction, fantasy, and others also offer direct parallels. Manga, however, offers comics on cooking (think Iron Chef), politics, and, my personal favorite, office politics, known as salaryman manga. Kenshi Hirokane’s Division Chief Kosaku Shima (above) stands at the top of the salaryman genre, which Japanese publishers created to appeal to white-collar audiences as well as out of a sense of social responsibility. Salaryman characters think of the good of the company and of society before their own personal needs, reflecting a deeply ingrained trait of Japanese society. (Just try to imagine publishing the same material set in America!) Perhaps the most striking difference between Japanese and American comics is the treatment of sexuality, which, again, reflects the larger cultural differences. Japanese culture has long accepted homosexuality, so gay, lesbian, and even transgender manga exists. Although Japan remains a sexually repressed culture on the surface, an adult manga industry thrives, similar to the thriving American pornography business that mainstream culture prefers to ignore. “The world of adult erotic manga can seem like a print bacchanal, an omnivorous orgy in screentone and ink,” Thompson cautions, “and that’s only the material deemed palatable for Western mores [in translation].” In such adult manga lies the dark side of manga fandom. In 1989, Tsutomu Miyazaki, a 27-year-old manga addict, kidnapped, molested, and killed four little girls. The public outcry in Japan against the crime tainted the name of otaku (Japanese for manga fan) in a sinister way that goes far beyond American stereotypes of reclusive comics’ fans such as The SimpsonsComic Book Guy. (Thompson separates the reviews of gay and adult manga from the main listings in another nod towards making his guide family friendly without sacrificing completeness.)

When the day comes for me to introduce my son Alex to comics and manga, I’ll be sure to consult Thompson’s guide. Thompson’s ability to balance a desire for comprehensiveness with practical usefulness makes his guide not only complete but invaluable for the parent looking to understand his or her child’s interest in manga. Not only does Thompson warn you of the dark places of manga, but he brings you the shining lights too easily missed, such as Barefoot Gen, Keiji Nakazawa’s manga recounting life after the bombing of Hiroshima, which he survived. Like Art Spiegelman’s Maus comics, Barefoot Gen looks at history from a wholly new imaginative perspective, bringing it alive to a new audience to be entertained and enlightened. Manga: The Complete Guide will entertain and enlighten you in a way that will make you see those kids loitering around the manga section of the bookstore in a whole new light.

[Many thanks to Del Rey for providing me with a review copy of Jason Thompson’s Manga: The Complete Guide.]

Caught in the Web

Many thanks to Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes for adding me to his blogroll. Called "The most influential of all visual-arts blogs" by The Wall Street Journal, Tyler's blog is the big kahuna of art blogging. I'm thrilled to be included in such company. Many thanks, too, to Mary Klein for nominating me and bringing me to Tyler's attention.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Go Tell It on the Mountain

"The reason for building any work of art can only be for the purpose of fixing in some durable form a great emotion, or a great idea, of the individual, or the people," wrote Gutzon Borglum, the man whose name is now synonymous with his greatest creation, Mount Rushmore, South Dakota. (Borglum appears above with a model for Mount Rushmore around 1930.) Born March 25, 1867, Borglum thought big and literally needed a mountain to convey his personal convictions about what America as a nation and an idea truly meant. In 1909, Borglum first gained attention with a monumental head of Abraham Lincoln that Theodore Roosevelt himself admired. Years later, Borglum depicted those two presidents along with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on Mount Rushmore. (Women’s civil-rights pioneer Susan B. Anthony almost appeared alongside those gentlemen, but conservative politics thwarted that effort in the late 1930s.) Mount Rushmore represents America in many ways, good and bad, as its finest and yet most overwrought monument to itself.

Mount Rushmore wasn’t the first mountain Borglum sought to conquer with his sculpture. In 1915, he accepted a commission to sculpt a monument to the Southern soldier of the American Civil War on Stone Mountain, Georgia. Borglum had actually begun work on the memorial that remains there today, grossly unfinished, before walking away because of a dispute with the managers of the site and beginning work on Mount Rushmore. The Ku Klux Klan reportedly contributed heavily to the funds for the commission, hoping to use the monument for their own purposes. (A nighttime laser-light show at the site helps liven up Borglum’s fragmentary work today, showing that the South will rise again and again and again.) It’s unclear whether Borglum, who was born in Idaho, sympathized with the Southern “cause,” but he later did a smaller monument (above, from 1929) now at the Gettysburg battle site for the North Carolina soldiers killed in the infamous Pickett's Charge. The flurry of activity between these different soldiers in the heat of battle recalls the work of Rodin, whom Borglum knew and studied with while in Paris.

Another Rodin-esque work by Borglum is his The Aviator (above), placed on the campus of the University of Virginia for James R. McConnell, an American pilot who flew with the Lafayette Escadrille for France before the United States entered World War I . McConnell’s heroism in the name of the democratic ideal and with the idea of “repaying” Lafayette’s aid to America during the American Revolution, undoubtedly appealed to the romantic idealist in Borglum. When Borglum died in 1941, his son Lincoln Borglum supervised the Mount Rushmore project to completion, leaving it pretty much as his father had left it—unfinished. Borglum originally dreamed of carving the presidents from the waist up, but his death and insufficient funding left us with his magnificent monument to America. On one hand, Borglum’s foursome represents all that is good about the American experiement—Washington’s bravery and leadership under fire, Jefferson’s visionary expansionism, Lincoln’s bold holding of the union together, and Roosevelt’s populist battles for the little guy. On the other hand, Mount Rushmore also celebrates two slaveholders and a war-instigating colonialist, excludes women and people of color, and remains incomplete thanks to the shortsightedness of politicians and the public. Like the America it represents, Mount Rushmore is a work in progress that may never be completed.

Anything But Grey

Born Jose Victoriano González on March 23, 1887, Juan Gris oddly chose the Spanish word for grey as his artistic pseudonym. Gris’ life was anything but grey and dull, spent amidst the excitement of early twentieth century Paris in the company of fellow Cubists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Gris even painted Picasso’s portrait (above, from 1912) to pay tribute to the man who helped him become a serious painter. In many ways, Gris is a poor man’s Picasso, at least of the Cubist period, coming from Spain to Paris to paint many of the same subjects in the same style as Picasso. No less an authority than Gertrude Stein believed that Gris "was the one person that Picasso would have willingly wiped off the map." Whether Picasso wanted Gris gone out of anger over being copied or out of jealousy isn’t clear.

Like Picasso and many other artists of the period, Gris loved the Commedia dell'Arte, especially the figure of the Harlequin. Harlequin with Guitar (above, from 1919) could easily make Picasso’s Three Musicians a quartet. Gris’ work actually predates Picasso’s famous work by two years. Both works exemplify the style of Synthetic Cubist that replaced the brown studies of early Cubism with bold, energetic color. In the 1920s, Gris took that bold color and designed set designs for Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. Before becoming a painter, Gris made a living, however meagerly, selling humorous illustrations to newspapers and magazines. That wit comes through in his harlequin as well, which becomes more of an excuse for the play of color and form than a real body at work.

When you look at a painting such as Gris’ Violin and Playing Cards (above, from 1913), it’s hard to distinguish what is really going on—the case in many cubist paintings, which are often more like intellectual puzzles to be solved. Thanks to the different wood grains, you can distinguish the violin from the table. The playing cards on the table and the wallpaper are easy enough, too. When you get to the other shapes surrounding the violin in black, green, and purple, it takes some imagination to picture them as the shadows of the violin. Not only does Gris separate the instrument from its shadow, but he dissects the shadow itself into the secondary colors reflected in it. Sadly, Gris died before turning forty, leaving his wife and son as well as a world of artistic possibilities behind. The history of Cubism duly notes the contributions of Picasso and Braque, but in that colorful tale we should find a little room for a touch of grey, er, Gris.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Struck by Power

Niccolò Fiorentino, Florentine, 1430–1514. Lorenzo de' Medici, il Magnifico, 1449-1492, obverse, c. 1490; bronze; diameter: 8.7 cm (3 7/16 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of The Circle of the National Gallery of Art.

Coins continue to fascinate me. As a young boy, I’d look at the intricacies of United States currency, with all the symbolism of eagles, arrows of war, laurels of peace, etc., and the vaguely ominous Masonic all-seeing eye on one side, yet the proud and, sometimes, even kind faces of historical figures on the other. Movies such as National Treasure tap into this fascination we have for these symbols as a kind of key to unlocking the past and past treasures, real and imaginary. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC recently published a systematic catalogue of the 900-plus Renaissance medals in their collection, the most important collection of its kind in the United States. John Graham Pollard’s Renaissance Medals, Volumes I and II, provides a glimpse onto the way power and influence literally stamped itself for posterity through the talents of contemporary artists and metalworkers. Looking at Niccolò Fiorentino’s portrait of Florentine leader Lorenzo de' Medici, known as “il Magnifico” and part of the powerful Medicis (above, from 1449-1492), you can still feel the power of his sneer.

Pisanello, Veronese, c. 1395—1455. Obverse: Leonello d'Este, 1407-1450, Marquess of Ferrara 1441; Reverse: Lion Being Taught by Cupid to Sing, 1444; bronze; diameter: 10.3 cm (4 1/16 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington. Samuel H. Kress Collection.

Volume I begins with the Italian Renaissance medal, where the modern commemorative medal began, specifically with the innovations of Pisanello. By the Renaissance, “Heraldry had ossified and was insufficiently expressive,” Pollard writes, leading artists such as Pisanello to revisit the ancient Roman imperial coins. Inspired by those ancient coins of the Caesars, Pisanello combined portraits of living persons on one side with “an illustration of his or her deeds or allusion to his virtues” on the other, refreshing the stale symbolism of heraldry with a new format uniting realism with personalized mythology. “Pisanello’s humanist background, training, and artistic skills enabled him to recreate an antique art form into a perfectly considered contemporary work of sculpture,” Pollard writes in praise of the “father” of the medal. “The form given to the medal by Pisanello in 1439 is still in use today.” Looking at Pisanello’s medal for Leonello d'Este (above, from 1441), we see the powerful man’s profile back to back with a scene showing a lion being taught by Cupid to sing. That strange scene of power commemorated Leonello (the “lion”) marrying Maria of Aragon, whose love tempered his rougher, warlike edges. Pisanello’s medals offer a humanizing glimpse into these historical figures, literally displaying that even the most hardened leader had a softer side.

Benedetto Pistrucci, Italian, 1784–1855. The Waterloo Medallion: The Prince Regent (later George IV) of England, Francis II of Austria, Alexander I of Russia, and Frederick Wilhelm III of Prussia Surrounded by Symbols of Power and Justice, with Day, Night, the Fates, and the Furies, designed 1817-1850, produced 1861; copper; diameter: 13.87 cm (5 7/16 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of Lisa and Leonard Baskin.

Volume II traces the expansion of Pisanello’s innovation throughout Europe, specifically Germany, France, the Netherlands, and England. The first dynastic use of medals begins in France in the seventeenth century. Henri IV commissions a series of medals to commemorate his reign, but is assassinated in 1610 before they are realized. Jean Warin carries on his Histoire Metallique to create a tableau of French history in coins that is as much diplomacy as propaganda, literally coining the visual language of French historical memory. In England, transplanted Italian Benedetto Pistrucci designed the Waterloo Medallion (above and below, from 1816) at the request of the Prince Regent, the future King George IV, to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon. On the front (above), the Prince Regent poses with Francis II of Austria, Alexander I of Russia, and Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia–the royal leaders “responsible” for the victory. On the reverse (below), military leaders Wellington and Blucher appear in a mythological stage setting involving Jupiter’s conquest of the giants, who number nineteen to represent the number of years it took to finally stop Napoleon’s forces. With such a medal, the trappings of power simply ooze from every detail, down to the connection to the ancient Greek gods. You really have to admire the hutspa of the Prince Regent to put his face and name out there in connection with a winner after the fact.

Benedetto Pistrucci, Italian, 1784—1855. The Waterloo Medallion: The Victorious Generals Wellington and Blücher, with Jupiter's Conquest of the Giants, 1861; copper; diameter: 13.9 cm (5 1/2 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of Lisa and Leonard Baskin.

Pollard’s mammoth text (it’s actually physically exhausting to lift) provides an amazing panoramic view of the role of the medal in Renaissance art and culture. Artists such as Giorgio Vasari and Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini lent their considerable drafting skills to the medal in Italy. The medal served a valuable role in terms of promoting and maintaining the often unstable political families holding power. These medals began as the calling cards of the rich and powerful, but eventually evolved into a tribute to other worthies, some of whom were artists themselves. When Leone Leoni wanted to thank Michelangelo for sending a sculpture commission his way, Leoni had a medal of Michelangelo made. When Albrecht Durer wanted to memorialize his own fame in Germany, he commemorated a medal from Hans Schwarz, the “father” of the German Renaissance medal. Within the context of the humanist spirit of the Renaissance, it seems fitting that giants such as Michelangelo and Durer get their due alongside the kings and queens of the times.

Niccolò Fiorentino, Florentine, 1430—1514. Florence under a Laurel(?) Tree, Holding Three Lilies, c. 1490; bronze; diameter: 8.7 cm (3 7/16 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of The Circle of the National Gallery of Art.

Pollard provides an invaluable primer on the history of the Renaissance medal and the world it inhabited. He even explains the difficulties of establishing ages for different coins and the added complication for today of fakes that flooded the market at the time. What I find most endearing about Pollard’s catalogue is it’s ability to take even the most feared name and face, such as that of Lorenzo de' Medici (top of post) and marry it with a gentler side such as the figure beneath a laurel tree holding three lilies (above). How accurate that marriage of mean and merciful may have actually been is up for debate, but the fact that someone cared enough to at least promote that appearance, and even stamp it into metal, should establish that it was as true then as it is today—image is everything.

[Many thanks to the National Gallery of Art for providing me with a review copy of John Graham Pollard’s Renaissance Medals, Volumes I and II and for the images above.]

Monday, March 24, 2008

More Than Just a Beard

I’ve never succeeded at growing facial hair resembling anything respectable, but if I could, no Maynard G. Krebs soul patch for me. I want a Van Dyck. Born March 22, 1599, Anthony Van Dyck is far, far more than a snazzy beard. The star pupil of Peter Paul Rubens, Van Dyck found his greatest subject and patron in Charles I of England, shown above in a triple portrait (from 1635-1636) painted to be sent to Italy instead of Charles I himself for a portrait bust by Bernini. (That royal head would fall from those shoulders a decade later in the English Civil War, beginning the English Interregnum.) Van Dyck painted Charles I from literally every angle—wearing the trappings of power, on horseback, etc.—all with the same stylish facial hair that the Flemish artist himself sported so eponymously.

Although he’s most famous for his portraits of the powerful, Van Dyck also painted religious and mythological scenes. In Susanna and the Elders (above, from 1621-1622) Van Dyck shows his mastery of the Rubenesque nude he learned at the feet of the master. It’s fascinating to look at these non-portraits of Van Dyck’s and see a dramatic flair completely missing from the almost aloof depictions of royalty. Van Dyck certainly knew his audience, whether it was a royal patron desiring a portrayal as a fearless leader or the buyer of a ostensibly religious yet still salacious work such as Susanna, a common excuse for a “religious” nude in the same vein as the “acceptable” nudes posing as Aphrodite or other goddesses.

In addition to Rubens, Titian, Veronese, and the Italian masters Van Dyck studied firsthand in Italy for six years left a lasting impression on his art. The two young men shown in Van Dyck’s Lord John Stuart and His Brother Lord Bernard Stuart (above, from 1638) could be taken for young mythological gods if not for their seventeenth century dress. The same disdain the Olympians showed for the common people appears on the faces of these young noblemen in Van Dyck’s double portrait. It’s not a pretty picture in terms of showing the humanity of the upper class, as few portraits of that time aimed to do, but Van Dyck is masterful in his painting of the rich textures and fabrics of their clothing. The soft leather of their riding boots is beautifully modeled. The gloves hanging from the grasp of the boy on the right fall perfectly. In many ways, the storied history of English portraiture—Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas Lawrence, and others—begins with Van Dyck, a Flemish import.

Off the Grid

"Artwork is a representation of our devotion to life," Agnes Martin once wrote. "The enormous pitfall is devotion to oneself instead of to life. All works that are self-devoted are absolutely ineffective." Born March 22, 1912, Martin’s paintings, such as White Flower (above, 1960), don’t fit neatly into the narrative of modern American painting, just like the artist herself. A contemporary of the Abstract Expressionists, Martin didn’t connect with that group, devoting herself to life itself rather than herself, which she saw as the “pitfall” of the self-involved, often self-destructive art of Jackson Pollock and others. Like the pencil marks comprising the grid of White Flower, Martin herself floated in a realm of her own making, never really making any connection with the world around her or the currents of culture, content instead to exist in a Zen–like state of being.

Martin called herself a minimalist, but even her minimalism strikes a different chord than that of most artists in that movement. Like a great pianist who knows how to work the silences as much as the notes, she expresses a great deal with little detail, as in her painting Friendship (above, from 1963). Through these grids, Martin longed to create an artistic correlative with the spiritual truths she felt were timeless, such as the value of friendship. Grids hint at geometry and the cold rationality of mathematics and science, but they also speak of the order of the universe, the pattern of reality beneath the surface that we somehow “know” is there but cannot put into words. Wordsworth called them “intimations of immortality.” It’s hard to look at reproductions of her work in a book or on a screen and think that they can address you emotionally or spiritually (it’s just a grid, right?), but in person, these works have a peaceful, calming effect akin to a koan or Japanese rock garden.

Originally trained as a teacher, Martin longed to teach through her art. In the spare beauty of Taos, New Mexico, Martin, like many artists, found her subject. The art business required her to live in New York City for a time, but she soon found herself drawn back to the desert. Like some kind of shaman, Martin grew reclusive, but continued to write books on her theories of the true meaning of art. The grids themselves grew even more evocative of natural beauty, such as the untitled watercolor above (from 1978). Martin wanted her paintings to be open, calling the experience of opening yourself up to them "the simple, direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean." She never owned a television or radio and reportedly didn’t read a newspaper for the last 50 years of her life, which stretched into her nineties. Maybe that’s a lesson to us all to stop listening to all the trivial traffic of our daily lives and to take the time to “cross that empty beach” of serenity and gaze upon the “ocean” of Martin’s significance.

Friday, March 21, 2008

On the Wild Frontier

Whereas other artists celebrating the American West, such as Frederic Remington and William Ranney, spent little time witnessing that time and place firsthand, Charles Marion Russell knew the life of a rancher and horseback cowboy intimately. Born March 19, 1864, Russell, known more popularly as C.M. Russell, read everything he got his hands on that could teach him something about the still “Wild West” while growing up in Missouri. Explorers and traders coming back east through Missouri brought with them more stories that Russell would transform into sketches and clay figures. Russell’s painting Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia (above, from 1905) owes much to these men who seemed larger than life to the young artist. Although Lewis and Clark’s expedition was history when Russell was born, the yen to explore the mysterious plains still captured many imaginations, including Russell’s.

At the age of sixteen, Russell left school and traveled to Montana to work on a sheep ranch. Within a few years, the artist graduated to full cattle-hand status. Such hands-on experience gives paintings such as Bronc to Breakfast (above) a life and reality that Remington’s outlandish depictions of superhuman feats lack. Russell’s eye for detail as well as narrative impact create a mini-story in a simple image, here the disruption of a hearty breakfast on the plains thanks to an out-of-control mount. Of course, Russell indulges in some fiction as well, depicting only white cowboys in contradiction of the reality that most cowboys were African-American former slaves. I’ll give him the benefit of a doubt that he knew the true face of the cowboy but had to make some concessions to salability in a mostly white market. It would be fascinating to know just how aware Russell was of the work of Remington, whose widespread fiction easily outpaced Russell’s realism, forcing him to “catch up” as best as he could while remaining as true as possible to the subject.

And where there’s cowboys, there is, of course, Indians. In Ranney’s paintings, Native Americans are rarely scene and occasionally hinted at as a malevolent off-screen presence. In Remington’s paintings, Native Americans become the embodiment of evil itself, the savage villains to play the foil against the virtuous cowboys with their devotion to their almost Arthurian code of conduct. Russell paints Native Americans as neither saints nor sinners but equal participants in the battle between humans over the same stretch of land. He is clear-eyed enough to have seen the conflicts between different tribes, as in When Blackfoot and Sioux Meet (above, from 1905), rather than portray Native Americans as a monolithic force. The combination of men and animals struggling against one another gives this painting a narrative force and drama that verges on the cinematic. In fact, Russell knew such early Western film stars as William S. Hart, Will Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks, who collected Russell’s paintings as inspiration for their films. If Russell contributed to the mythic aura of the American West, it was inadvertently and the unfortunate result of painting the reality so well that it became hard to separate from the myth.

An Interview of the Soul

"When the impulses which stir us to profound emotion are integrated with the medium of expression, every interview of the soul may become art,” Hans Hofmann once wrote. “This is contingent upon mastery of the medium." Born March 21, 1880, Hofmann both excelled at self-expression and teaching others to master the medium of painting. In many ways, Hofmann is the father of both Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting in America, having taught such diverse artists as Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Larry Rivers, Red Grooms, and, almost, despite an introduction through Krasner, Jackson Pollock. While teaching, Hofmann continued to paint in his own unique style, creating beautiful works such as The Golden Wall (above, from 1961), which epitomizes Hofmann’s concept of “push and pull” in creating the illusion of movement and depth in violation of the classical idea of perspective.

"Colors must fit together as pieces in a puzzle or cogs in a wheel," Hofmann said in reference to his theory of “push and pull.” In Equinox (above, from 1958), for example, the cooler colors (the blues) seem to recede into the distance as the warmer colors (red and yellow) appear to move forward, creating an illusory effect of movement that intellectually you know is impossible but emotionally and aesthetically you can believe in. When PBS broadcast a special on Hofmann in 2003, they included on their website a Push and Pull Puzzle interactive feature that allows you to play with the “cogs” of color that generate such perpetual motion machines. When Pollock and the other Abstract Expressionists longed for a way to create motion on a flat canvas, they looked to Hofmann. When the Color Field artists searched for ways to express emotion through the interaction of pure planes of color, Hofmann provided the answers for them, too.

Hofmann’s life and career span almost the entire history of modern art. In Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century, Hofmann met and learned from Picasso, Braque, and Matisse. From them he developed his approach to the figure, as seen in his 1942 Self-Portrait (above). Later, Hofmann explored the world of color with Robert and Sonia Delaunay, whose Orphism certainly played a role in his “push and pull” theories. Through his teaching, Hofmann connects the roots of European modern art with the golden age of post-World War II American art. Fame for Hofmann himself, however, came late in life. His first solo exhibition came at the age of sixty-four. As his students rose to prominence and critics began searching for their origins, they discovered the talents of Hofmann, who patiently waited for his day in the sun. It wasn’t until Hofmann reached his late seventies that he finally gave up teaching to devote himself to his painting entirely. With patience not only for his students but also for the praise long overdue, Hofmann literally gave his entire life to the pursuit of art.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Laughed Behind

Both scarier and funnier than a library full of only Left Behind novels, Jim Munroe and Salgood Sam’s Therefore Repent!: A Post-Rapture Graphic Novel asks the disturbing question: “What if the religious right… are actually right?” Set in a post-rapture world, when Heaven’s non-elect are left behind to pick up the pieces after the “chosen” have ascended to their just rewards, Therefore Repent! imagines a world in which magical powers become commonplace and the same pre-rapture biases and prejudices rule the day.

Where else but Canada could such a work come from? First published by No Media Kings in Canada and now brought to America by IDW Publishing, Therefore Repent! takes aim at the fundamentalist foibles of the American Christian Right with withering satire. When “Dubya Almighty,” as one character calls him, appears on a television news broadcast to discuss his post-rapture tour of the Red States, Bush spins wildly in response to the question of why he himself has been left behind. When Bush refers to the faux Jesus beside him as “Mr. Christ,” it’s laugh out loud funny as well as cry in your pillow sad, especially if you’re an American surrounded by the consequences of conservative “religion.”

One good aspect of the post-rapture world is the availability of good housing vacated by the chosen. Raven and Mummy, the two main characters of Therefore Repent!, find themselves a new home in the chaos of the aftermath (above). Although basic services are spotty at best, a number of “splitters,” those who believe in a second round of rapture to pick up those who needed to atone during the “tribulation” period before ascending, keep hope alive and the wheels of society turning to a degree. Munroe and Maxim Douglas (Salgood Sam’s real name) create a credible incredible world of “radical splitters” performing the miracles of Jesus, talking dogs, and sibylesque figures who replace e-mail with “she-mail.” Like Milton’s Lucifer in the early sections of Paradise Lost, this depiction of “evil” seems infinitely more interesting and fun than the world of the holy rollers. If you’d “rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints,” post-rapture Earth and America seems not so bad, at least for a while. Douglas’ edgy, almost grimy black and white images compose the perfect atmosphere for this magical realm set in all too familiar places.

Unfortunately, the powers of religious bigotry remain strong after the rapture, and perhaps even gain strength in the vacuum of legitimate authority. Military figures with angels’ wings (above) wreck vengeance on the unfaithful practicing “black” magic. Militiamen calling themselves “God’s Faithful” decide who lives and dies based on their personal creed. In these passages, Munroe and Douglas reveal the roots of the destructive tendencies of the Christian Right in America and their ties to other wings of conservatism such as the militia movement and just how deep those roots go. Of course, Therefore Repent! is fantasy, but only in fantasy can you find the license to connect the dots in such profound and illuminating ways. Therefore Repent! is social commentary disguised as fantasy literature. “It’s just a comic book,” they say, allowing these ideas to get under the radar in a way that more mainstream media no longer provides.

Therefore Repent! begins by quoting the Bible passage from which the title is taken. “Therefore repent!” says Revelations 2:16. “If you do not, I will come to you soon and fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” In Therefore Repent!, Munroe and Douglas use the “sword” of their mouth and pen to fight against those crippling America under the weight of their right-wing prejudices codified in religious language. Those who need to repent are not the sinners but the “saints” who have taken their country down a very strange and twisted path leading to the violence of illegitimate wars and legitimized torture. In Therefore Repent!, we receive a valuable Bible lesson that questions the nature of what it is to be God’s chosen and who has the right to do the choosing.

[Many thanks to IDW Publishing for providing me with a review copy of Therefore Repent!: A Post-Rapture Graphic Novel and for the images above.]

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Patron Saint of American Modernism

When European Modernism landed on American shores with the 1913 Armory Show, planners such as Walt Kuhn and Arthur Davies searched for an American artist to include with the likes of Cezanne and Matisse. Reaching back into the past, they pulled forward Albert Pinkham Ryder as the standard-bearer of proto-Modernism in American painting. Born March 19, 1847, Ryder had become by 1913 a sickly, eccentric, reclusive old man holed up in his filthy Greenwich Village home, nearly forgotten by the art world except for the informed insiders. The Ryder who painted works such as Roadside Meeting (above, from the 1880s) and befriended artists such as John La Farge and J. Alden Weir and authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson now appeared as a ghost of artistry long past and simultaneously a harbinger of things to come.

Ryder’s penchant for simplifying shapes and colors in works such as Moonlight Marine (above, from 1908) easily fits in with the reduction of the subject into basic shapes that marks much of modern art. Ryder’s love for imaginative literature, from the stories of Edgar Allen Poe to the tales of the Ring Cycle that Richard Wagner mined for his operas, fired his visual imagination. Moonlight Marine shows a mysterious seascape that suggests more than it presents, coyly drawing you into the darkness of the work itself. It is easy to take this mystery of Ryder’s paintings and apply them to the man himself, especially when considering his change in behavior in later years. However, Ryder did help found the Society of American Artists in 1878, the closest thing American art has had to a secessionist movement, in response to the exclusionary actions of the National Academy of Design. Like his paintings, Ryder himself was multi-layered; unlike his paintings, however, the façade of the myth of the lonely genius has yet to crack.

I like to think of Ryder as the American visual arts’ equivalent of Herman Melville in terms of “rediscovery.” Melville was never “forgotten,” but in the 1920s and 1930s, when America rose to world prominence post-World War I, the call went out for a great American novel and Moby-Dick was nominated. When American art and culture first embraced European modernism in 1913, they needed a champion of their own to meet the European modernists on the playing field. Ten of Ryder’s works appeared in the show. I personally love works such as Ryder’s The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse) (above, from 1895-1910) for their weirdness and strange beauty. He’s so unlike contemporaries such as Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent that it’s hard to believe they lived and painted at the same time. Ryder reportedly slept on a rolled-up carpet in his slovenly apartment near the end, having few visitors yet welcoming those who did seek him out. His poor technique of applying paints and varnishes, as well as the dirt that literally found its way from his studio into the paintings, has taken a toll on the works, with still-moist layers of paint beneath dry surfaces cracking and shifting to the point that helpless conservators need to exhibit some works flat. The unstable chemistry of the paintings has altered their appearance, most likely making them darker, leaving us only to guess at what caught the eye of earlier admirers. Jackson Pollock ranked Ryder as one of his influences, a prophet of sorts that served as the template for the isolated American genius painting in his own way and ignoring the popular trends. Sadly, we see Ryder as if through a glass darkly today, but the glimpses we do catch make him all the more fascinating.

In the Line of Fire

While Jacques-Louis David painted the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars from the home front, Antoine-Jean Gros ventured forth into the thick of the action. Born March 16, 1771, Gros actually fled France in 1793 when the Reign of Terror began in earnest. Escaping to Genoa, Italy, Gros met there Joséphine de Beauharnais, i.e., the Empress Joséphine (above in a portrait by Gros, from 1809), who introduced the artist to her husband Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon admired Gros’ work and enlisted him to follow his conquering armies as an official war artist. Gros also assumed the duties of selecting the plunder that would be sent back to Paris to fill the museum we know today as the Louvre.

Between David and Gros, the visual propaganda of Napoleon grew in earnest. Bonaparte Visiting the Plague House at Jaffa (above, from 1804) shows Napoleon fearlessly visiting his plague-stricken soldiers, oblivious to the risks of contracting the disease himself. Gros transforms Napoleon into a Christ-like figure, healing the spirits if not the bodies of his men purely by his miraculous presence and touch. Of course, Napoleon never exposed himself in this way in real life, but the power of this inspirational visual cemented the public’s conception of Napoleon as a leader selflessly loyal to his men and his country. Gros’ classicism comes through clearly here, as if a conventional religious scene were defaced with the insertion of Napoleon. The figures writhing about Bonaparte resemble the dramatic bodies of the Renaissance and presage the Romantic art of Gericault, Delacroix, and others influenced by Gros.

As Napoleon’s fortunes faded, Gros’ enthusiasm for conquest as a subject faltered. Gros’ Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau (above, from 1808) shows Napoleon still the victorious general, again the central, almost messianic force to which all others turn to for guidance. To see this painting in person at the Louvre is to understand the still-potent attraction of the cult of the personality surrounding Napoleon. Gros left many followers, including many who came to him after David fled France to avoid the Terror. Gros continued to paint until his death by suicide in 1835. A note near Gros’ drowned body spoke of being “tired of life” and “betrayed by the last faculties rendering it bearable,” reflecting his disillusionment after the fall of Napoleon and the repercussions that fall held for France as the conquered nations sought recompense. Like David, there’s something monstrous about Gros’ service to the propaganda machine of Napoleon and his wars, but there is also something compelling about the power of those images to make us want to believe.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Building a Mystery

No trip to Europe is complete without the requisite visits to the beautiful churches and palaces that stand as memorials to past power, both sacred and profane. Standing in those huge structures, you find yourself overwhelmed with the ornamentation, unsure of where to look and literally hurting yourself straining to see the details of the ceilings so far above. With their series on Italian Frescoes, Abbeville Press saves you the neck strain and allows you to bring the beauty of these places to your home to study at your leisure, just like the nobility who commissioned it once did. Steffi Roettgen’s Italian Frescoes: The Baroque Era, 1600-1800 completes the five-volume cycle begun with The Age of Giotto, The Early Renaissance, The Flowering of the Renaissance, and The High Renaissance and Mannerism. Through new photographic techniques and the talents of photographers Antonio Quattrone and Ghigo Roli, The Baroque Era brings these heavenly works down to earth for us to wonder at and understand. At the heart of the frescoes of the baroque period lies the power of illusion. In the fresco above (from the Sala d’Alessandro of the Palazzo Pepoli Campogrande in Bologna, Italy), we see Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian Knot amidst a bravura display of illusionistic architecture and foreshortened perspective. “An ability to achieve a maximum of deception with the simplest of means was what distinguished the era’s foremost painters,” Roettgen writes. While delighting in the visual trickery, viewers also took in the sleight of hand in which the owner of the palace would take on some of the aura of past luminaries such as Alexander or the Greek Gods, gilding the façade of their own power through the ostentation of their surroundings. The Baroque Era takes you behind these curtains to reveal the secrets behind the trickery.

Of the twenty-two sites discussed, more than two-thirds are from secular places, to reflect the reality of the times and refute the common misconception of baroque splendor as a primarily religious trend. Of course, the secular and profane intermingled quite freely during that era, with popes often coming from the powerful families and religious and political dynasties blurring the virtually nonexistent line between church and state. During the baroque period, these religious sites evolved from picture galleries to cohesive works of art—a theatrum sacrum presenting a unified effect on the devout. Father Heinrich Pfieffer's The Sistine Chapel: A New Vision, also by Abbeville Press (my review here), outlined the programmatic nature of the works of the Sistine Chapel as dictated by religious scholars. A similar programming, albeit less complex, takes place in these religious places, in which the structure of the church itself is employed to great effect, as can be seen in the cupola vault of San Andrea Della Valle in Rome (above), which shows a swirling heavenly host witnessing the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Over time, however, such illusionary foreshortening as seen here was seen as too distorting for biblical scenes, which were later depicted without perceptional trickery as if the characters were floating free of all earthly bounds and architecture. While such perspective was permitted, it literally blew the roof off of these churches, opening up the imagination of the viewer to an entire cosmos of spiritual possibility.

When the powers that be decided to shift that power of that imaginative possibility and harness it to their own interests, they borrowed much of the sacred imagery for their own purposes. In the Palazzo Barberini in Rome, the Barberini celebrated their clan’s rise to prominence and eminence with The Triumph of Divine Providentia: Apotheosis of the House of Barberini and the Papacy of Urban VIII. The heraldic bees of the Barberini family buzz about as Maffeo Barberini becomes pope. The Barberini's Florentine counterparts, the Medici, similarly catapulted the propaganda by staging the apotheosis of Cosimo de’ Medici (the elder), who is shown before Jupiter’s throne. Roettgen’s text provides ample historical background to understand the motivations of these blood-stained dynasties not only to impress their lofty position to all those who looked upon their palaces, but also to rise above the earthly and turn their eyes to their place in the next life. The question remains as to how much these powerful figures believed their own personal mythology. Did such tyrants truly believe that commissioning paintings of themselves in such poses could somehow make them true?

Looking at these works and the symbolic language they present, you feel tempted to tease out the meaning of all of these complex works, lulled into the belief that a coherent message is there to be unlocked once the keys are discovered. Roettgen and other scholars now question “whether these pictorial programs were in truth as multilayered, coherent, and learned as scholars have long supposed,” being instead just an arrangement of the “reservoir of motifs” artists “employed as needed.” “Today,” Roettgen writes, “the prevailing view is that their ambiguity was calculated, leaving room for provocative detours, contrary associations, and witty enigmas.” While the grand apotheosis of a Barberini or Medici could be easily discerned and, thus, easily ignored after repeated viewing, more openly suggestive works such as the scene of Aurora and Apollo in the Chariot of the Sun (above) in the North Wing of the Palazzo Barberini encouraged repeated viewing through ambiguity. Roettgen describes this fresco as “an allegory, ambiguous and applicable in many contexts, of ascent, new beginnings, or triumph over the powers of darkness.” Such timeless works offer something for everyone, rewarding repeated inspection and even “adapting” (in the mind of the perceiver, of course) to suit the mood of the day.

Ultimately, it is this adaptability that has given the baroque fresco its staying power. When Louis XIV visited the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, he became enthralled with the Rooms of the Planets, which associate five planetary deities with stages in the life of an ideal hero. After seeing scenes such as Jupiter Crowning the Victorious Hero (above) in the Sala di Giove, Louis XIV wanted to transport that visual of power to his palace in Versailles. “Virtually no other fresco cycle from the Italian Baroque has been studied more intensively than that of the Rooms of the Planets,” Roettgen writes, confirming that the Sun King had excellent taste. Like “Impressionism,” the term “baroque” began as a disparaging word in the nineteenth century—a condemnation of the ostentation and clutter of the churches, palaces, and their decorations from that period. Steffi Roettgen’s Italian Frescoes: The Baroque Era, 1600-1800 helps restore the good name of the baroque and impresses upon the reader the impact these works once had for a contemporary audience and still have for modern audiences today. I found myself paging through the book over and over, pausing here and there to look closer and closer at the tiniest details, “lost” for centuries but now recovered through beautifully performed restorations and the magic of modern photography. The true meanings behind these images of heavenly and mundane power may always remain a mystery, but thanks to Roettgen’s text and the stunning accompanying photography, the beauty of the Baroque period in Italy no longer remains one.

[Many thanks to Abbeville Press for providing me with a review copy of Steffi Roettgen’s Italian Frescoes: The Baroque Era, 1600-1800 and for the images from the book.]