Monday, April 24, 2017

Macabre Themes in German Renaissance Printwork

Located beyond the Alps and shielded from Italy, which was considered the fountain of art, Germany was late to the Renaissance. Up until the beginning of the 1500’s, German artists were still producing works in styles which has been discarded by other countries. By the time Italy had undergone the Early Renaissance and was moving into the High Renaissance, Germany was just beginning to depart from its more stylized and Gothic influences. As Germany’s artists began to travel and experience the movements going on in other European countries, their work shifted and evolved along with the times; interest in studying anatomy and depicting the human form naturalistically began to blossom.

    Even during these changes, though, German artists developed certain practices and themes which became distinct to their Renaissance. Germany became known for its woodcuts and engravings. This, along with the creation of the printing press caused a significant rise in mass produced art which was cheaper and more accessible to the general population. Printmaking was not the only distinctly “German” development during this period, as very specific subject matter was also present. Superstition and pessimism was fused with Christian themes, and there is much attention given to black magic and pagan myth. This sense of fear and dread serves as a sort of reminder for the viewer to understand the inevitability of death and damnation.
The Witches Sabbath, Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, Chiaroscuro woodcut in two blocks, printed in gray and black. 41.1.201
Three nude witches dominate this scene. They are seated on the ground, surrounded items which appear to be aiding in their sorcery. The woods have a dark and ominous tone as smoke billows up the left side of the scene, leading the eye towards another figure, also nude and seated on a goat which is hovering in mid-air. One of the pots is placed in a central spot, with the witch closest to the viewer tilting the lid open slightly, which is the origin of the smoke. The presence of both a cat and goat is explicit symbolism, as both these animals were feared and thought to be associated with dark magic. Heavy interest in witchcraft in Germany is demonstrated through works such as this, which shows a sense of apprehension, but also curiosity in such practices.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Albrecht Durer, 1497/98, Woodcut. 40.139.6(5)

Four figures are mounted atop horses which gallop in a diagonal line across the picture plane, their hooves trampling people crumpled across the bottom of the scene. Above the riders, light is breaking through the rolling clouds. An angel hovers above the action below, his eyes turned towards the viewer with an intense expression. The detailed horizontal lines rushing across the backdrop create a sense of movement and intensity. Third and most well known in a series of woodcuts created by Durer titled, Apocalypse, this scene is a dramatization of the text from Revelation 6. The four horsemen (from left to right), Death, Famine, War and Plague (or Pestilence) represent the last judgment and are a form a symbolic judgment. 

The Nun, from The Dance of Death, designed by Hans Holbein the Younger, Hans Lützelburger, ca. 1526, published 1538, Woodcut. 19.57.24

A young nun kneels in front of an alter, but turns to face a musician sitting on the bed behind her. A representation of Death as a skeletal hag with sagging, exposed breasts is behind them, moving forward with arm outstretched. Both of the figures seem oblivious to the presence of the hag, and instead seem frozen in place, with no obvious signs of movement. In the bottom right corner lies an overturned hourglass, a common symbol of death and transience.This woodcut is one out of a series designed by Hans Holbein the Younger which illustrates many different versions of Death appearing to people from all walks of life. This concept instills quite a sense of unease in the viewer.

The Count, from The Dance of Death, designed by Hans Holbein the Younger, Hans Lützelburger, ca. 1526, published 1538, Woodcut. 19.57.31

A Count dressed in elaborate armor looks behind himself in terror as the figure of Death approaches. The Count’s helmet lies on the ground, as does a wooden flail, which it appears he might trip over as he tries to escape. Eyes wide, mouth open, the Count clasps his hands together as if praying for his life to be spared. The skeletal figure of Death, with a loosely draped tunic and a knife strapped to his belt, is holding the Count’s own shield, about to strike him with it. Another scene from Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death, this piece addresses similar dark subject matter as The Nun, yet is slightly more terrifying rather than merely unsettling. The use of the Count’s own shield in his execution is an interesting bit of irony. 

Knight, Death and The Devil, Albrecht Durer, 1513, Engraving. 20.46.23

A knight rides through a dark gulley looking straight ahead as the skeletal figure of Death comes alongside him on a gaunt horse. A grinning demon with an animalistic face holds a pike against his shoulder and stares at the passing knight with wide eyes. Death taunts the knight with the all-too familiar hourglass, holding it out towards the armored figure. A small frame with the date, 1513, rests on the bottom right, leaning against a rock. The knight is about to pass it. This scene is a grim reminder of the inevitability of death and our fate as mortals.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Candle as a Symbol

Symbolism plays a large role in how we view, understand, and interpret art.  At times, viewers may see symbolism in artwork that may be intentional by the artist.  That is how natural it is for people to see artwork and immediately look for or notice symbolism.  It’s the artist’s way of conveying a broader message without using texts or words to get across a larger point.  The candle was used as a symbol in art long before it became a fixture in Dutch genre paintings of the seventeenth- century.  In the fifteenth-century, the candle was often used in Christian genre paintings, and the symbolic meaning of the candle would change after that time period to represent different themes.  The wax candle was and still is a unique tool for artists because as a symbol, its’ meaning and significance are capable of changing depending on the context of the painting.  Gerrit Dou, a distinguished Dutch genre painter, had a unique style focused heavily on dark oil paintings where the only source of light was a single candle.  Other Dutch genre painters also included wax candles in their paintings but the symbolic meaning of the candle in their paintings was not always the same.
The following series of paintings portray how the symbolic meaning of the candle in art changes depending on the context of the painting as a whole.  Overtime, the same wax candle has stood as a symbol for numerous things, and each time, artists have used the candle as integral to the meaning of their paintings.  

Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), Workshop of Robert Campin (Netherlands, ca. 1375-1444 Tournai), ca. 1427-32, Oil on oak, Overall (open): 25 3/8 x 46 3/8 in. Central panel: 25 1/4 x 24 7/8 in. each wing: 25 3/8 x 10 3/4 in. The Met, 56.70a-c.

This painting predates all Dutch genre paintings by nearly 200 years.  It’s an important painting and starting point as we think about the candle as a symbol because it provides context about a different time period in art history where the candle’s symbolic meaning was predominately associated with the presence of the Divine. The center of this wonderfully constructed triptych shows the Virgin Mary about to learn from the angel Gabriel that she will be the mother of Jesus.  On top of the round table between the Virgin Mary and Gabriel, notice the snuffed candle.  The implication of the snuffed candle is that the Holy Spirit has entered, thus extinguishing the candle.

Astronomer by Candlelight, Gerrit Dou (Dutch, 1613-1675), Late 1650s, Oil on panel, 
(12 5/8 x 8 3/8 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, 86.PB.732 

Gerrit Dou’s depiction of an astronomer working hard late at night is a classic example of the artist using the technique chiaroscuro.  Dou uses the light from the wax candle to create an effect with the light so that it looks like the only place light is coming from in the painting is from the candle. The candle illuminates his face as he studies.  It is the only source of light.  The glow from the candle symbolizes knowledge as it is passed from the work the astronomer is diligently studying to his mind.  This specific type of symbolism is significant because Gerrit Dou uses it multiple times in his Dutch genre paintings. 

An Evening School, Gerrit Dou (Dutch, Leiden 1613-1675), ca. 1655-57, Oil on wood, (Arched top 10 x 9 in.) The Met, 40.64

In this beautiful Dutch genre painting of a small evening school, Gerrit Dou creates another scene where the only light in the room is a wax candle.  The three students and their teacher are only clearly visible if they are in close proximity to the candle.  Because the teacher is the closest to the candle, and therefore the most clearly recognizable, the candle symbolizes enlightenment, and the stronger the glow from the candle, the more enlightened the person is, and the farther from the candle, the less enlightened.  The use of chiaroscuro is significant because it makes Gerrit Dou’s Dutch genre paintings easily recognizable. His style was unique and distinguished.  

Old Woman Chopping Onions, Gerrit Dou (Dutch, Leiden 1613-1675), ca. 1660-1665, Oil on panel, (12 ¼ x 15 1/5 in.) Huntington Museum of Art

In another one of Gerrit Dou’s Dutch genre paintings, this one dated several years after Evening School and Astronomer by Candlelight, the dark color scheme surrounds the old woman whose face glows in the reflection of the candlelight. The wax candle, as it was burning, often symbolized the passage of time in the seventeenth-century.  In this painting, that is exactly what it symbolizes, but as you study the painting, notice the detail of the old woman’s face. The burning candle reveals the wrinkles on her forehead and cheeks.  As the candle burns out, so are the years on her life.  The candle, in a broad sense, represents the nature of human existence.  We are here for a moment, and just like the light of a candle burns out, so do we.

Boy with a Candle and Girl with a Mousetrap, Probably Dutch School, before 1688, Oil on canvas, 64.5 x 89.5 cm, Dulwich Picture Gallery, DPG413

So distinguished were Gerrit Dou’s genre paintings that others soon tried to imitate his work.  The use of the candle and the mousetrap as symbols during the seventeenth-century Dutch genre was common.  There are multiple renderings of scenes like this one because Dutch genre painters like Gerrit Dou made the style popular. The mousetrap was an often-used metaphor during the seventeenth-century.  Just as the mouse loses his life in attempt to satisfies its appetite, so the man loses his liberty when he gives into the lustful passions of his sexual desire.  The candle, also representative of man’s sexual desire, is just as easily aroused as it is snuffed, just like the glow of the candle.  This symbolism in this painting is different from the other Dutch genre paintings, and it further demonstrates the adaptability of the candle as a symbol for multiple themes.

Maid with a Mousetrap, Nicolaas Verkolje after Gerrit Dou (Dutch, 1673-1746), ca. 1700, Mezzotint, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Nicolaas Verkolje’s black and white rendering of a similar piece by Gerrit Dou makes use of subtle gradations of light and shade as opposed to lines.  His piece depicts a maid, holding a lit wax candle and a mousetrap, and a young boy, both leaning over a table and smiling.  A common scene depicted during the period, the thing to note about this particular rendering is the style.  The symbolism is not that far off from Boy with a Candle and Girl with a Mousetrap, but the medium and style are different from other Dutch genre paintings.  It is worth noting this particular piece because as artists, like Verkolje, imitate Gerrit Dou’s work, they experiment with the style and medium, but notice the symbolism and subject matter are largely the same.  This is significant because it makes a broader statement about society’s uniform understanding of the candle as a symbol for specific things during the period. 

The Penitent Magdalene, Georges de La Tour (French, Vic-sur-Seille 1593-1653 Luneville), ca. 1640, Oil on canvas, (52 ½ x40 ¼ in.) The Met, 1978.517

 Notice that this is not a Dutch genre painting.  The symbolism of the candle however, is still just as significant and integral to the meaning of the painting as all the Dutch genre paintings of the same period.  The mirror, associated with introspective thought or reflection, is symbolic of Mary Magdalene’s introspective look into her own personal spiritual health.  The glow from the flame of the wax candle signifies enlightenment, not unlike many Dutch genre paintings; however, a key difference is that the enlightenment represented by the candle in this painting is a spiritual enlightenment.  Notice the change in the symbolic meaning of the candle from the Merode Altarpiece to La Tour’s painting.  They are both scenes depicting biblical figures, but the same wax candle means two totally different things in the context of each individual painting.

Truth in Portrayals of Ballet: Edgar Degas

Through the ages, dance has always held a special place in society. Ballet began in the 15th century during the Italian Renaissance and was loved especially by those in Italy’s royal court. Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry II of France, brought ballet to France. She gave ballet a place in the French royal court, though at that point it was simply a spectacle to be enjoyed by royalty. It did not become a profession that required formal training for another century. King Henry XIV helped it to grow in France, and even danced in several ballets himself. By 1661, a dance academy had been opened in Paris, and that year also signified the beginning of ballet being performed on the stage and not only in the royal court. The early 19th Century introduced Romantic Ballet to the dance world with ballets like Giselle and La Sylphide. Dancing en pointe became normal for ballet dancers, as well as wearing tutus that were 3/4 in length. 
While ballet gained a good amount of popularity at the beginning of the 19th Century, it had lost the majority of its dignified mystique. Instead, it was seen by society as the hard work of the daughters of the lower-class who were required by their mothers to help earn money. This sometimes included a young girl using her ballet skills to seduce a wealthy gentleman who could afford to sponsor her classes and help her maintain a living. 

In his artwork, Edgar Degas alludes to Ballet’s strong history as a true form of dance, while also showing what it had become through his natural style of depicting dancers in their element. This style includes things like creating pieces that appear to be snapshots in time and a unique use of space.

Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage, 1874, oil colors freely mixed with turpentine, with traces of watercolor and pastel over pen-and-ink drawing on cream-colored wove paper, laid down on bristol board and mounted on canvas, 29.160.26, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This piece shows the viewer the brutal honesty of a dance rehearsal. When someone looks at this piece, they can feel the tension of the instructor as he tries to make the dancers in the center perform the routines correctly and the intense boredom of the other subjects of the drawing. It is clear that even thought he finished product will appear otherworldly, there is still an air of the everyday in The Rehearsal. This is found in the way the dancers to the left are all doing things like fixing shoes, yawning, or scratching their backs. The subjects and the materials give an interestingly sharp contrast between the grace and beauty of ballet and the fierce normalcy of the dancers; they are normal people too. 

Edgar Degas, Dancer with a Fan, 1880, pastel on grey-green laid paper, 29.100.188, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In this pastel drawing, a girl pauses from a dance as she holds a fan. The sweeping motions of the pastel emphasize the movements of the body, which symbolize the work involved in ballet. The amount of detail given to the dancer’s head, torso, legs, and feet and the lack of it in the tutu support this as well. The dancer’s position seems to dramatize her present state — one of exhaustion from her labor; her shoulders are slumped over with her left arm up behind her head, as if she is rubbing a cramp out of her neck. The expression on her face emulates this as well as she tilts her face upward and closes her eyes. Though Dancer with a Fan alludes to the status ballet had in 19th Century France, it also shows the noble aspect of ballet, which is even seen today.

 Edgar Degas, Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot (Fourth State), modeled before ca. 1895-1900, cast 1920, bronze, 29.100.377, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This sculpture depicts a dancer in minimal dance attire as she lifts her right foot to glance at her sole. Degas’ simplistic style emphasizes the dancer’s movement and posture and not the dancer herself. Her position references the status of ballet in society in late 19th century France, while giving a perfect depiction of the graceful movements involved in the dance. Degas uses this to reference the former mindset that was tied to ballet, but has been almost lost. Her precarious position alludes to how easy it would be for this mentality to be lost completely.

Edgar Degas, The Dance Lesson, 1879, pastel and black chalk on three pieces of wove paper, joined together, 1971.185, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The subjects of The Dance Lesson mirror Degas’ other works of dancers in the middle of class and could be said to show the beginning stages of a dancer’s career. The girl in this drawing seems very young and her position seems juvenile, leading the viewer to believe that she is a somewhat new student. Her facial expression adds to her naivety; she is clearly uninterested in her present location and would rather be doing something else. Degas’ odd use of depth and dimension in this drawing make the viewer feel almost uncomfortable when they look at it, giving them a sense of how the original viewers felt when Degas first created it.

Edgar Degas, cast by A. A. Hérbrard (Paris), The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, model executed ca. 1880, cast 1922, Bronze, partially tinted, with cotton skirt and satin hair ribbon; wood base, 29.100.370, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Degas’ Dancer was not received well at all when it was first exhibited because she was viewed as too low in society to be seen at a prestigious art show. People also disapproved of it because it was originally crafted from beeswax that was tinted a nude color to represent skin, human hair, and a real dress, tutu, and slippers. It was unnerving to people because it looked like a real girl. The Little Dancer showed all too well the reality of ballet; it was performed by those of the lower class even though the ballets portrayed romantic settings in far off lands.

Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, 1874, oil on canvas, 1987.47.1, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Degas’ The Dance Class is one of his most iconic paintings and one that viewers see very often in all kinds of settings. Because of this, the meaning behind it can sometimes be lost. This painting depicts real life. These girls are clearly regular people; they are adjusting tutus, not paying enough attention to the instructor, or paying too close attention in the hopes of gaining a higher status in his eyes. Degas’ use of monochromatic colors like green, red, and blue give a sharp contrast to the harsh blacks worn by the women in the back who retain the job of ensuring the girls remain in their class to gain the talents that would enable them to earn a living. Though paintings like this did not receive praise when they were first created, we can still enjoy them with the knowledge of the hardworking dancers they represent. 

Naturalism in Art History

Art has commonly been known as a way to tell stories or to convey emotions, feelings, or ideas. Many such pieces rely on a refined sense of naturalism to convey these ideas. This naturalism allows the viewer to better relate and interact with a piece of art. Since the time of ancient Greece, many artists have tried to create a pieces of art, whether sculpture or canvas, that would capture a story, emotion, or idea and often times this was done through naturalism. Naturalism can be used as a tool by artists through a variety of mediums such as marble, bronze, and wood. Many artists have also achieved a surreal sense of naturalism in two dimensional pieces such as paintings or drawings. While some of these pieces are representational of an idea and are created from the imagination of the artist, others are portraits of people or a landscape and are made as an attempt to recreate what we see in the world. While viewing these pieces, ask yourself what the artist is attempting to convey through the piece. How would this work be viewed by the original audience? Is the artist displaying an idea or emotion? Is the work attempting to elicit a response from the viewer?

Mater Dolorosa, Pedro de Mena, ca. 1674–85, Partial-gilt polychrome wood, 2014.275.2

Pedro de Mena’s Mater Dolorosa or Our Lady of Sorrows is a Baroque style wooden sculpture that depicts the virgin Mary in a state of heartbreak and suffering as a result of the physical suffering of her son. The Mater Dolorosa has been described as “a pinnacle of naturalism and expressive force in the 17th-century Spain.” Pedro de Mena effectively uses polychrome wood, paint, glass eyes and hair to create a convincingly naturalistic representation of a heartbroken mother and invites the viewer to interpret the piece in a slow and methodical manner.

Laocoön and His Sons, Unknown, 40-30 B.C., Marble, Cat. 1059 Vatican

Laocoön and His Sons is a sculpture depicting the struggle of a Trojan priest and his two sons. It has been described as a masterpiece of the sculptors of Rhodes and also as an icon for human agony. This piece is one of the most famous ancient sculptures in the world for good reason. The artist behind this masterpiece created a piece that features an incredible display of naturalism as well as telling a story and creating movement in the mind of the viewer. The variety and contrast in texture pulls together the piece as a composition while the body of the snake draws the eye of the viewer across the piece.

Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci, ca 1503-06, Oil on canvas, Louvre

The Mona Lisa is one of the most famous works of art in the world. This piece is believed to have been commissioned as a portrait of the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. Leonardo de Vinci continued to work on this piece until 1517 as it became a sort of obsession of his. Da Vinci was a master of naturalism and showed off his skill in this piece with his incredible eye for detail in the woman herself and also the landscaped background.

Augustus of Prima Porta, Unknown, 1st Century AD, Marble, Cat. 2290 Vatican

Augustus of Prima Porta is a sculpture of the emperor himself in an ultimate state of command. The armor and rolls of fabric display the emperor as a Roman officer and the outstretched arm clearly sets him in the midst of a command to his troops. On the outside of the right ankle is a small sculpture of Cupid riding a Dolphin. This is meant to elevate the emperor past a simple man to a place where he is with and one with the gods. The stance of the man, along with the outstretched arm, gives the viewer the illusion of implied movement and activates the space in front of the piece.

Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Leutze, 1851, Oil on canvas, 97.34

Washington Crossing the Delaware depicts one of the United States’ greatest moments as General Washington leads an attack against the Hessians at Trenton. This painting is meant to bring the viewer a sense of pride or nationalism. The view of the small boats on the ice river convey difficulty but the confident and stoic stance of General Washington gives the viewer an idea of what will come after this captured moment. Emanuel Leutze uses his skill to capture a moment of history in a way that draws us in and allows them to interact with the moment.

Untitled, Allison Vaught, 2017, Raku clay and Plaster wash

This sculpture was made as a Senior project by Allison Vaught as a representation of the pain of her mother who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis and Trigeminal Neuralgia. Although Allison was not trying to simply make a portrait of her mother, she was trying to capture a moment that was all to familiar to herself and her family. She invites the viewer to take part in the emotions that her family has felt by creating a naturalistic and almost life sized representation of this pain. Allison says “The struggle to learn how to empathize with my mom reflects a broader struggle to love my neighbor.”