Monday, December 26, 2016

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Art in Detail: 100 Masterpieces by Susie Hodge

Art in Detail: 100 Masterpieces

By Susie Hodge
Thames & Hudson/$39.95/432 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Art in Detail: 100 Masterpieces is an acutely perceptive survey of some of the greatest paintings and sculptures of the Western world. Written by the noted scholar, Susie Hodge, it is truly an "eye-opening" look at art.

In reviewing a wide-ranging book like Art in Detail, the first task is to find  a common theme uniting all of the disparate parts. That is easy enough with Hodge's book. Every one of the one hundred works she examines, like Georges De La Tour's astonishing contrast of light and shadow, is indeed a "masterpiece."

Georges De La Tour, St Joseph the Carpenter, c. 1642

One might argue that Hodge should have selected several different choices for analysis. Leonardo da Vinci's The Virgin and Child with St. Anne would have made for intriguing study rather than another look at the relentlessly examined Mona Lisa. Yet - overwhelmingly - Art in Detail delivers what it promises: fascinating insights into one hundred of the supreme treasures of Western art.

Lurking just below the surface is another theme that is not so readily apparent. Each of these works of art was painted or sculpted by a recognizable artist. Each can be documented. We know who created it, when, where and what materials the artist used. 

Beginning with Giotto in 1305 and extending to a 2014 painting by Paula Rego, Art in Detail charts the rise of artists as creative individualists. Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533), with its trove of cryptic details, and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin's Soap Bubbles, painted exactly two centuries later, treat the subject of human mortality in totally unique and absolutely dissimilar ways.

Hans Holbein The Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Soap Bubbles, c. 1733-34

Over the vast expanse of human history, almost all artists were anonymous creators of       religious images or monuments to kings and rulers. Occasionally, a master from antiquity like Apelles achieved lasting renown but nothing of his actual oeuvre has survived. Several indisputable masterpieces like the Riace bronzes have been recovered but we do not know the identity of their creator.

That changed at the dawn of the Renaissance with Giotto and the painting of the Arena Chapel frescoes. Giotto was credited by Giorgio Vasari as having initiated 'the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the techniques of drawing from life ..."

Hodge studies Giotto's Adoration of the Magi from the Arena Chapel frescoes, noting for instance that the Star of Bethlehem was painted to resemble Halley's Comet which had appeared in 1301. 

Significantly, the resounding success of the Arena Chapel frescoes did not lead to carbon copy imitations all over Italy. Every major artist who followed Giotto - even Lorenzo Monaco whose narrative sense was much the same - always left a different "finger print" in style and technique.

Lorenzo Monaco, The Adoration of the Magi, 1420-22

This is the central paradox of Western art. The Classical tradition was relentlessly extolled by high-brow theorists. Generation after generation of students were indoctrinated to paint or sculpt like the Old Masters. Yet, nobody taught Rembrandt van Rijn to paint like Rembrandt.

No one taught Frans Hals to paint in his unique manner either. Hodge has selected Hals'     The Laughing Cavalier for analysis and it is a brilliant choice. Painted in 1624, this work has many of the elements of Hals' signature style. But it also has a high degree of detail and "finish" not found in his later portraits.

Early in his career, the Flemish-born Hals used a color-drenched palette and an exacting eye for detail to impress his aristocratic patrons. We don't know the identity of the Cavalier (who really isn't laughing) but he would surely have been pleased with the embroidered lovers' knots, Mercury's staff and other motifs on his sleeves.

Frans Hals, The Laughing Cavalier, 1624

During the 1630's and 1640's, the Dutch middle-class gained social status to match their growing economic power. Hals found a ready market for portraits or character studies, the now famous tronies which American collectors have long favored.

Since many of these middle-class patrons dressed in black, Hals experimented with a bold, loose brushstroke to evoke the folds and sheen of the dark cloth. We can see an early example of this in the Cavalier's black cloak. Focusing closely on Hals' technique, Hodge provides illuminating commentary on this important detail. The following quote is characteristic of the power of perception which she devotes to all one hundred of the art works she studies:

At a time when brushstrokes were meant to be invisible, Hals made his obvious, from fine blended marks in the face to longer marks in the clothing, which create a sense of spontaneity. This freely handled application was unusual then, but in the 19th century was seen as a precursor to Realism and Impressionism.

Hodge has created a very effective technique of analyzing the details of these masterpieces. She divides each work under discussion into tightly-cropped frames. This enables her to focus on technical matters, for instance, the "wet-in-wet" method which Hals often used, "layering wet paint, rather than waiting for previous layers to dry."

This method of analysis also provides insight on thematic factors as well. The exceptional attention that Hals paid to the lace and embroidered sleeve enables Hodge to make the educated guess that the "Laughing Cavalier" was likely a cloth merchant as silk, lace and damask weaving had become major industries in Haarlem, the city in Holland where Hals worked.

Hodge's technique succeeds both for unfamiliar works or art and for paintings we've seen so often that we roll our eyes at the mention of their title. There is always something of value to discover in Art in Detail.

Jacques-Louis David,The Oath of the Horatii, 1784

Jacques-Louis David's The Oath of the Horatii, painted in 1784, has appeared in countless art history books. Kenneth Clark discussed it in the Civilization documentary series as a revolt against the status quo of Europe's Age of Enlightenment. Clark likened The Oath of the Horatii to Picasso's Guernica (which Hodge also discusses), calling it "the supreme picture of revolutionary action..."

The Oath of the Horatii is also the "supreme picture" of Neoclassical art. As such it can be readily contrasted with the "supreme picture" of Romanticism, Goya's The Third of May, 1808, which also is studied in Hodge's book.  But I was very stuck by a lesser known Romantic painting, which movingly demolishes all the male vanity and "call of duty" propaganda evoked by The Oath of the Horatii.

Eugéne Delacroix's Entry of the Crusaders Into Constantinople depicts a harrowing moment in one of the most disgraceful episodes of Western history. Crusading knights marching (ostensibly) to liberate Jerusalem from the Saracens in 1204 conspired with the Venetians to attack and despoil the Christian city of Constantinople instead.

Eugéne Delacroix, Entry of the Crusaders Into Constantinople,1840

The treachery of this incident needs no further comment here. But it is worth noting that Delacroix painted this compelling work of art while memories of the horror of the Napoleonic Wars still lingered in the European mind. These bloody, ruinous wars were founded upon the heartless sentiments of David's The Oath of the Horatii.

Delacroix saw war a bit differently from David. In Entry of the Crusaders Into Constantinople, the outstretched arm of the old man is a plea for the right to life rather than an invocation of the cold steel of revenge and slaughter.

When viewed in this light, Delacroix's Entry of the Crusaders Into Constantinople is not a "history" painting but a testament to humanity. The same can be said, to a greater or lesser degree, for all one hundred masterpieces in Hodge's book.

Art in Detail provides more than a mass of technical detail involved in creating a painting or a sculpture. Here, in this very fine book, is a wealth of information that will draw us back for many a return visit. Here we can explore how great artists have sought to find insights into the dilemmas of human existence and the mysteries of creative expression.

Genius is in the details, as Hodge certainly shows. Yet, the scope of skill in the visual arts is far wider than mastery of technique. Ever since cave walls served as the "picture plane," artists have been searching for ways to express the greater truths of earthly life. It's a messy, often chaotic process, but one that is directly related to human self-realization.

To her credit, Hodge finds room for such visionary matters. In an engaging discussion of Helen Frankenthaler's early experimentation with Color Field painting, Hodge quotes Frankenthaler's reaction to her efforts. Standing on a ladder to survey her work, Frankenthaler declared that she was "sort of amazed and surprised and interested."

No better description could possibly be given for the electric moment when a work of art becomes a masterpiece.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images Courtesy of Thames & Hudson 

Introductory Image: Art in Detail: 100 Masterpieces, 2016 (cover) Image credit: Thames & Hudson 

Georges De La Tour (French, 1593-1652) St Joseph the Carpenter, c. 1642. Oil on canvas. 137 x 102 cm (54 x 40 in.)  Louvre, Paris, France © ACTIVE MUSEUM/Alamy Stock Photo),  

Hans Holbein The Younger (German, 1497-1543) The Ambassadors, 1533. Oil on oak panel. 207 x 209.5 cm (81 1/2 x 82 1/2 in.) National Gallery, London, UK © Peter Barritt/Alamy Stock Photo

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (French, 1699-1779) Soap Bubbles, c. 1733-34.  Oil on canvas. 93 x 74.5 cm (36 5/8 x 29 3/8 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA     classicpaintings/Alamy Stock Photo        

Lorenzo Monaco (Italian, c.1370-c.1425) The Adoration of the Magi, 1420-22. Tempera on panel, 115 x 183 cm (45 x 72 in.) Uffizi, Florence, Italy The Art Archive/Alamy Stock Photo       

Frans Hals (Dutch, 1582-1666) The Laughing Cavalier, 1624. Oil on canvas. 83 x 67.5 cm (32 5/8 x 26 1/2 in.) Wallace Collection, London, UK © SuperStock/Alamy Stock Photo

Jacques-Louis David (French, 1748-1825) The Oath of the Horatii, 1784. Oil on canvas. 330 x 425 cm (129 7/8 x 167 3/8 in.) Louvre, Paris, France © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

Eugéne Delacroix (French, 1798-1863) Entry of the Crusaders Into Constantinople,1840. Oil on canvas. 410 x 498 cm (161 1/2 x 196 in.) Louvre, Paris, France © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo        


Friday, December 9, 2016

Art Eyewitness Review: Mystical Landscapes: From Vincent Van Gogh to Emily Carr

Mystical Landscapes: From Vincent Van Gogh to Emily Carr

Edited by Katherine Lochlan
Delmonico Books-Prestel/356 pages/$60
Mystical Landscapes Exhibit
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto  
October 22, 2016 - January 29, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

In September 1888, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, about his "tremendous need for, shall I say the word - for religion - so I go outside at night to paint the stars." 
This was the genesis of two of van Gogh's most famous paintings, The Starry Night over the Rhone, created at the time of his note to Theo, and the tumultuous, visionary Starry Night, painted less than a year later, in June 1889.

The Starry Night over the Rhone, from the collection of the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, is currently on display in a splendid exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Mystical Landscapes. The brilliant art and provocative ideas set forth in the exhibit are treated in an outstanding companion catalog, Mystical Landscapes: Vincent Van Gogh to Emily Carr.

Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night over the Rhone, 1888

Van Gogh's search for religion led him to paint the constellation, Ursa major - commonly referred to as the Big Dipper. Glimmering above the Rhone River as it flows through the city of Arles in southern France, the star-filled sky evoked a sense of promise and purpose. 

Van Gogh, full of plans for his "Studio of the South," painted this scene which reflected his hopes for the future. Only a few months later, tragic disputes with Paul Gauguin triggered a shattering nervous breakdown.

Mystical Landscapes at the Art Gallery of Ontario shows that van Gogh's yearning for "shall I say the word - for religion" was part of a cultural quest known as Symbolism. Beginning in the 1880's and continuing to the years immediately before World War II, Symbolism was a search for "meaning." Artists probed the human soul and reflected upon the spiritual environment in which they - and we - live.  

Symbolism as an art movement included such a diversity of styles that is easy to think of it as an idiosyncratic sideshow of Modern Art. Yet, Symbolism was regarded by most artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a serious and sincere response to the troubles and challenges of the Industrial Age.

The exhibit Mystical Landscapes was conceived by Katherine Lochlan, one of the leading curators of the Art Gallery of Ontario. In her poignant introduction to the exhibit catalog, Lochlan notes that she experienced a spiritual awakening during a visit to Ireland. This motivated her to begin planning Mystical Landscapes

Several of the team of scholars who assisted Lochlan are members of the clergy. Their essays provide insights of enduring value. Especially valuable are reflections on the need to approach art  - and life - from the point of view of humility and contemplation. John Franklin, who teaches theology at the University of Toronto, comments on mysticism:

This is the way of unknowing. At the heart of this invitation to unknowing is the fact that God is not an object of human knowing. All efforts to include God as simply one more object for our human knowledge bank ultimately fail because of the uniqueness of the divine. 

Comprehending these theological concepts sometimes entails concerted effort on the part of readers. Franklin's essay, for instance, provides a detailed contrast of the two paths of mysticism. Cataphatic, the positive, proactive form of mysticism, takes place when God's presence is closely felt. Apophatic mysticism occurs in the "absence" of God, during the Dark Night of the Soul.

Van Gogh's experience of cataphatic and apophatic mysticism is graphically depicted in his Starry Night paintings. Other artists experienced pain and tragedy, too, like Charles-Marie Dulac who died, aged 33 in 1898, from lead-poisoning which he had contracted early in life while working in the wall paper industry. The dying Dulac was inspired to create stunning works of art based upon the poem by St. Francis of Assisi, Cantacle of the Creatures.

The art works on view in Mystical Landscapes range in date from the 1880's to the 1930's. Yet this impressive exhibit and the superb catalog, jointly published by Delmonico Books and Prestel Publishing, is a tract for our times. Indeed, it will remain relevant for a very long time to come.

The late Victorian era and the first decades of the twentieth century were marked by a crisis of faith. The heartless creed of Social Darwinism became the new "gospel," preempting the place of the four Evangelists. The seeds of spiritual doubt were sown by philosophers like Ernest Renan (1823-1892) who praised the historical Jesus while demythologizing Christ.

Reacting against these developments, artists and poets looked for signs, symbols, testaments to God's presence in the universe. Some artists, like Maurice Denis, remained devout Christians. Denis depicted traditional Christian imagery like Christ's "agony in the garden." Denis, however, placed this sacred scene in a contemporary setting. Gethsemane in his 1918 painting has been relocated to Brittany where a small vessel sails perilously close to the rocky shoreline.

Maurice Denis, La Solitude de Christ, 1918

Brittany was an interesting locale for Denis' La Solitude de Christ. This remote province had been the site of the artist's colony of Pont Aven, founded during the 1880's. It was in Brittany that Paul Gauguin first shaped the religious orientation of Symbolism with three stunning works on view in Mystical Landscapes.

Vision after the Sermon (1888), The Yellow Christ (1889) and Christ in the Garden of Olives (1889) combine Christian iconography with personal, some might say blasphemous, elements. Gauguin placed his own features in each of these works: on a Breton priest, on a statue of the crucified Christ and finally on the face of the suffering, agonized Jesus. 
This identification appears to be scandalous but actually reflects a mystical experience where God and believer become one. 

Paul Gauguin, Christ in the Garden of Olives, 1889

In a brilliant essay in the exhibit catalog, Gauguin's three paintings are interpreted as a triptych, created in a similar way to medieval works by Hans Memling and other masters of religious art. The noted  scholar, Bobomila Welsh-Ovcharov, also makes a convincing case that these paintings reflect the stages of spiritual searching. 

These steps would feature in the seminal 1911 book by Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual ConsciousnessUnderhill's five steps - Awakening of Self, Purgation of Self, Illumination, Dark Night of the Soul and Unitive Life  - appear again and again in the paintings on display in Mystical Landscapes

I have yet to visit Mystical Landscapes exhibit. But when I did see Gauguin's three Breton paintings at an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in 2011 the relation of these works to the stages of spiritual searching escaped me. Once the connection is grasped between the religious convictions of artists like Gauguin and the elements of their paintings, these works take on a whole new significance. They become "icons" in the true sense of the word.

Van Gogh found Gauguin's artistic approach to mysticism hard to accept. Van Gogh, raised a Protestant, believed  that spiritual encounters should be conveyed in "here and now" images not by "abstractions" as he described Gauguin's Breton paintings. While enduring a spiritual "Dark Night" at the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy, he painted his markedly different version of the Garden of Olives. Here, a cloud (representing the Holy Spirit) drifts over the olive trees, signifying God's presence in our lives.

Vincent van Gogh, The Olive Trees, 1889

At first glance, van Gogh's choice of terms to describe his painting is hard to grasp. His mysterious cloud is more of an abstraction than Gauguin's identification with the face of Jesus. In a moving letter to Emil Bernard, a fellow artist and mutual friend of Gauguin, van Gogh advised against painting "sterile metaphysical meditations that aren't up to bottling chaos, which is chaotic for the very reason that it won't fit into any glass of our caliber..."

As I noted earlier, I am familiar with Gauguin's Breton triptych and I studied van Gogh's 
Starry Night over the Rhone at a 2008 exhibit at MOMA. But Mystical Landscapes presents works by major artists rarely seen in exhibits in the United States. We are introduced to unfamiliar artists like Eugène Jansson, the Swedish painter who brilliantly evoked the Dark Night of the Soul in several paintings. 

Eugène Jansson, Dawn over Riddarfjarden, 1899

In an exhibit that emphasizes the way of unknowing, it is a very good thing when we are introduced to new artists or have our assumptions challenged about artists we thought we knew.

In the case of Claude Monet, an unexpected spiritual dimension is explored in the essay on his Nympheas, the fabled Water Lilies.

Claude Monet, Water Lilies (Nymphéas), 1907

Most accounts simply accept that Monet was an atheist. Lochlan notes that Monet worked on the huge panel paintings of the water lilies after prolonged periods of meditation. 

"Monet spent so much time in contemplation," Lochlan writes, "that he entered into a mystical state that he compared to a hypnotic trance."

Learning about the Canadian painters featured in Mystical Landscapes was also a revelation. The spiritual power of Tom Thomson, the Group of Seven and especially the astonishing Emily Carr is certainly worthy of more study - and further exhibits "south of the border."                                                                                                                          
The experience of these Canadian artists was shaped by many factors, a number of which linked them to the mystical experiences of Symbolist artists in Europe and the United States. Walt Whitman's poetry. Ralph Waldo Emerson's transcendental philosophy and military service in World War I were powerful factors. So too were the Theosophical writings of Madam Blavatsky which Lawren Harris fervently embraced. 

Ultimately, it was the Canadian landscape that lead Tom Thomson, Harris, Emily Carr and the others to approach God from the "way of unknowing." Vast, breathtakingly beautiful and still (relatively) undeveloped, Canada in the 1920's inspired these Canadian artists. 

Emily Carr, Sky (ciel), 1935-6

Writing in her journal, Emily Carr placed into words what she had visualized with brush and paint - the mystical landscape within all our souls. 

We are of the same substance for there is only one substance. God is all there is. There is one life, God life, that flows through all. He that formed me formed you. Oh Father of all raise my consciousness to that sense of oneness with the universal.

Mystical Landscapes will travel to the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, in the spring of 2017. It will not, sadly, be making a stop-over in the U.S. But thanks to the wonderful catalog, I have profited immensely by journeying to this exhibition in spirit.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         
Edvard Munch (Norwegian,1863-1944) The Sun,1910-13. Oil on canvas, 162 x 205 cm. Collection of the Munch Museum, Oslo. Image courtesy of Munch Museum 

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890) The Starry Night over the Rhone, 1888. Oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm. Collection of Musée d’Orsay Image courtesy the Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France/Bridgeman Images 

Maurice Denis (French, 1870-1943) La Solitude de Christ, 1918. Oil on canvas, 88 x 136 cm. Private Collection 

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903) Christ in the Garden of Olives, 1889. Oil on canvas, 73 x 93 cm. Norton Museum of Art, Gift of Elizabeth C. Norton

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890) The Olive Trees,1889. Oil on canvas, 72.6 x 91.4 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York Mrs. John Hay Whitney Bequest, 1998 
© The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY 

Eugène Jansson (Swedish 1862-1915) Dawn over Riddarfjarden, 1899. Oil on canvas, 150 x 201 cm. Collection of Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde 

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) Water Lilies (Nymphéas), 1907. Oil on canvas, 80.98 x 92.07  cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Gift of Mrs. Harry C. Hanszen Courtesy Bridgeman Images 

Emily Carr (Canadian, 1871-1945) Sky (ciel), 1935-6. Oil on wove paper, 58.7 x 90.7 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Purchased, 1937