Monday, April 30, 2012

Saint Anne, Leonardo da Vinci's Ultimate Masterpiece, Le Louvre

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin and Child with St Anne, 1501-1519
While the controversy rages over whether or not the Louvre conservation team “overcleaned” Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with St Anne, the 500 year old masterpiece still attracts visitors in droves. The unfinished painting itself is, of course sublime: the beauty of St Anne’s skin, the perfection of her gently smiling regard at the baby Jesus, and the energy of the movement across the three figures are magnificent. These aspects, together with the complex and unusual iconography are what keep the world in awe of Leonardo’s creation. That said, the exhibition brings a new perspective when it focuses on the painting’s restoration, its context within Renaissance painting, and its influences throughout art history. What I didn’t realize before seeing the Louvre’s exhibition of The Virgin and Child with St Anne was that the narrative has produced a veritable fest of St Anne’s throughout the history of art. Even before Leonardo’s influential painting, St Anne was a favorite subject for painting.
Leonardo da Vinci, Study for the Drapery, 1508-10
Leonardo’s painting itself maybe sublime, but what I loved most were his studies and cartoons. Together with the story of its recent restoration, the Louvre has gathered all of the compositional sketches, preparatory drawings, landscape studies, together with the London cartoon, in an effort to demonstrate Leonardo’s working process. If the masterpiece itself is celebrated for its exquisite play of light and shadow, the ethereality and luminescence of the painted figures are already caught long before Leonardo’s brush touched the canvas. The study for the drapery covering the virgin’s legs is about the most magnificent example of Indian ink wash with black and white chalk in the creation of three-dimensional representation I have ever seen. The folds in the fabric are sumptuous, falling more graciously and more gently than they do in their painted version. When I think of the harshness of chalk as a medium, the softness of Virgin’s drapery seems impossible.
Leonardo da Vinci, Ink Study for The Virgin and Child with St Anne, 1508-1510
Similarly, an ink study for the painting is fascinating as we see not only the artist’s thinking along the way to his painted masterpiece, but the drawing and redrawing, the multiple and shifting outlines, the erasure and blurring of the figures and their gestures bring Leonardo, an artist in the process of creating, into the twenty-first century. In this and other of the smaller sketches, Leonardo comes back to life on the centuries old paper, in front of our eyes. In some of the studies we see him exploring the theme, in others the form, or simply the light as it falls on a face.

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist
(The Burlington House Cartoon)
c. 1499-1500.

Inevitably Leonardo’s painting was constantly surrounded making it difficult to get up close. Nevertheless, a stroll around the back of the panel constructed for its display revealed an image that was equally if not more breathtaking. The recto side of The Virgin and Child with St Anne is not only beautiful for its tactility and age, but it reveals barely legible studies of a horse's head and other figures in brown ink. Also, next to the Louvre St Anne sits London's “Burlington House Cartoon”, again executed in black and white chalk on eight sheets of paper, and placed within a huge old oak frame. Even though the aged study didn’t glimmer and glisten like the newly restored Louvre St Anne, the Burlington House Cartoon shows, once again, Leonardo at work on the “canvas”. I am no connoisseur of Florentine Renaissance painting, so I won’t comment on the invasiveness of the Louvre St Anne's restoration as many critics have done. But I will say, there is a fragility and a nakedness to the cartoon and other works on paper that invites us directly into Leonardo’s heart. Contrarily, “the vivid, cool colours … the splendid lapis lazuli blues … violet reds and crimson kermes gum lacquer” of the Louvre St Anne might be admired, but only ever from a distance. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

AES + F, Allegoria Sacra, Art Gallery of South Australia

Visiting my family in Adelaide, South Australia, I have three or four non-negotiable activities, all of which fall within the city square mile. One of these is a visit to the Art Gallery of South Australia where I love to see the post-war Australian paintings. This visit, however, the genteel folk of Adelaide had made so much noise about their new director’s recent choice of temporary installation that I made a beeline for Gallery 15 on the upper floor to see the Russian collective, AES + F’s Allegoria Sacra, 2011.
Giovanni Bellini, Allegoria Sacra, 1485-88
Allegoria Sacra, the third part of a trilogy depicting, heaven, earth and purgatory, is apparently conceived after Bellini’s painting of the same title from 1485-88. Where Bellini’s characters are suspended on a terrace or landing, grouped according to their age, gender, social station, AES + F’s allegory is set in an airport. The modern airport is, as Foucault told us all those years ago, an other space, a place where all social hierarchies become alleviated as everyone waist, suspended in a time and place that is neither then nor now, here nor there. AES + F use this liminal space and time to explore the alienation, the stereotyping, the paranoia and destruction of the contemporary world. Characters are grouped, as they are in Bellini’s work, according to gender, age, and in an obvious contemporary turn, according to their race and religious persuasion. For example, we see young middle eastern men who we immediately interpret as would-be terrorists, two gay men with their perfectly identical twin girls who we assume are the product of IVF, a young boy with the SS insignia tattooed on his neck who wields a baseball bat, model-like white men and women who appear to have stepped off the page of Vogue magazine, and a group of Asian men who are identical in their physical appearance, dress, mannerisms, even their actions. 
AES + F, Allegoria Sacra, 2011

All of these characters proliferate across the 45 minute video. As still photographic images that are put into motion, animated through computer generated video images, what is most impressive is the self consciousness of the images. We perceive the motion as it happens, at times, morphing or stuttering as one image becomes another, as the figures at times awkwardly progress across the huge screen. As viewers we are carried along by the rich soundtrack, that, like the images, is at one and the same time foreboding, dark, and in the vein of all good Romantic aesthetics, energizing, filling us with awe and wonder.  Vivaldi’s Sorrows of the Mary, Handel’s Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, Tchaikovsky’s final symphony, Chopin’s funeral march, all of which are manipulated by the Japanese composer Ryoji Ikeda
AES + F, Allegoria Sacra, 2011
The images in the airport flow into mythical, dreamlike landscapes that reminded me of De Chirico or Dali’s surrealist fantasies. However, in these landscapes Allegoria Sacra finds war, cannibalism, violence and death. Men are repeatedly seen as the progenitors of destruction, and women the caretakers of peace, a centaur as the symbol of strength and power in these hostile lands. These worlds are filled with monsters, rivers that lead to space stations, a jungle in which all vegetation has long since died. And then, outside the airport, all turns to a snow covered disaster, reminding of the hopeless narratives of airplane disaster films from the 1970s. There is apparently no going back from this to another world in which time and space are logical, controllable. Thus, Allegoria Sacra’s vision of the contemporary, multi-ethnic world of infinite possibility is at one and the same time, luscious, lyrical, and visually sumptuous, as well as being devastating, devastated. As worlds, art historical periods and movements as well as people of different ages, races, creeds collide, in a typical postmodern carnival, so do values and ethics. Pure of heart pagans come face to face with unchristened children, the righteous and blasphemous all await their fate in the liminal space and time of Allegoria Sacra.
AES + F, Allegoria Sacra, 2011

The lady sitting next to me on the bench kept telling me that the 10 metre computer generated, video animation image was poorly displayed. She kept telling me we needed to be sitting further away, at a distance where we could consume the entire screen in one glance. On the contrary, I was impressed by the proximity to the screen at which the viewing bench had been quite deliberately placed, in the centre of the nineteenth century hall. The work is displayed so that we are forced to read the video images as we would a classical history painting – from left to right as a narrative. But then I changed my mind. Having begun looking at and reading the video as if it were a historical narrative, on reflection, as one impossible scene morphed into another, I realized the only way to understand the work was to sit and let myself go, to flow with the rhythms and transformations, the morphing of figures and landscapes into unknown and unfathomable dreams, nightmares. And so, because of the beauty of the images, the richness of an albeit fragmented soundtrack, the work filled me with a sense of Romantic possibility. Thus, Allegoria Sacra became gorgeous much more than it was tragic. Surely then anything other than a literal understanding of the dramatic images becomes problematic, that is, if they become sumptuous and given to Romantic yearning?

AES + F, Allegoria Sacra, 2011

Ultimately, the impossibility of our place within this ill-defined world is perhaps what is most troubling about the piece. And this uncertainty is, in turn, no doubt responsible for the gamut of responses the work has attracted from Adelaide audiences. The provocative and radical Allegoria Sacra are, I hope, indicative of the challenges that Nick Mitzevich will bring to unsuspecting Adelaide audiences in his tenure as director. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Cate Blanchett in Sydney Theatre Company's Big and Small, dir. Benedict Andrews

So much of the theatre I see these days has sets filled with video images, lighting effects, sets made to echo the great architectural inventions of the twenty-first century. The first thing I noticed about Big and Small was the sparsity of its stage: this is theatre pure and simple. There was a stage, actors and just enough props to create the space that would mark the borders of the stage for any given scene: a balcony, a telephone box, an elevator, an apartment building, a trash can, a doctor’s office. And like the objects that are the stage, this is a play in which 13 single scenes, or better, episodes, are held together by the powerful performance of Australian actor, Cate Blanchett. Other than her reappearance in each episode, there is little that coheres in this narrative. Big and Small is formally fragmented, and in the extremity of the existential crisis of a protagonist in a hostile world, the piece reaches towards the absurdism of Adamov or Ionesco, while all the time reminding me of the deep unfathomable world of human emotions in Tennessee Williams.

Big and Small is the story of Lotte Kotte, a lost soul in a lost world, a world in which there is no place for her. Lotte searches for her husband, Paul who has left her, who we meet when she returns the house in which they once lived together, in the house where he now lives with someone else. In each of the 13 episodes, Lotte finds herself in a space, in an encounter that takes her deeper into her own anguish, a step closer to madness. But no description of what happens in Big and Small can do justice to the extraordinary magic that results from Cate Blanchett, surrounded by the Sydney Theatre Company in a performance of what must be one of the great twentieth century German theatre pieces by Botho Strauss. The three together are mesmerizing.

I don’t know how the French audience understood the play. I don’t question that they understood it, but how. At least, their interpretation must have been different from mine. In one particular scene, Lotte finds herself at an Australian barbecue. The focus is on a young man who inappropriately plays with himself while his parents and family oscillate between overt sexual crudity and repression, all of it made funny through the turns of Australian accents and humour. Lotte is funny, but the subtlety of her humour is untranslatable, often delivered through a fleeting facial expression, a turn of the head, an anguished clasp of her hands. When Lotte gets a job as a secretary, she takes the dictation of a man who we judge to underestimate her, to misunderstand her. She doesn’t type what he dictates, but rather, what goes through her mind: her yearning for Paul, the husband who dumped her. Once the letter is written she places it on a sleigh, even though there is no snow, and prepares to take it to the post office, wearing a motorbike helmet, even though she doesn’t ride a bike. Which is all to say, even though Big and Small is set in industrial West Germany during the Cold War, it is liberally adapted and performed by an Australian cast.

Cate Blanchett is so extraordinary as she traipses through her emotional nightmare, an odyssey through a hostile world, in search of her troubled self. Blanchett steps over the precipice, to become possessed, energized by the intensity, the madness, and the loveability of her character. The whole of Blanchett is immersed in Lotte, in her dystopic reality, moving with agility through a vast emotional range. It is a character easily identified with, as she comes face to face with madness, becomes lost in the insanity of her own mental wanderings, longs for solace and connection, and is at one and the same time, a visionary of profound proportions. Big and Small cannot exist without a great actress to play Lotte, and Blanchett’s performance is virtuosic. All of that said, perhaps what makes Blanchett shine even brighter is the force of the ensemble of actors that surround her, and the masterpiece which figures her.

I think my favorite of the episodes of Big and Small is the final one in a doctor’s office, a scene where a handful of patients sit and wait their turn to be seen, where Lotte joins them in the waiting room. The scene is balanced on the edge of a razor thin edge, the atmosphere so dense in the silence that surrounds the patients as they wait. The only dialogue comes from the names being called, and Lotte’s random announcement of her husband’s profession as a journalist. As though it is all she has left to say. When Lotte’s name is not called, when she sits alone, the poignancy of her solitude is heartwrenching. She is left alone, yet again, in the waiting room, no one wanting to see her. The doctor comes out, and she admits she doesn’t have an appointment, to which he insists, “leave then.” She stands up and walks into the abyss of black, towards a vanishing point that doesn’t exist, at the back of the stage. In her quiet acquiescence to solitude, in the play’s unremarkable end, we are touched by the power of Lotte’s insufferable alienation from and isolation in a world that never finds a place for her.