Saturday, April 25, 2009

Veronese, The Wedding Feast at Cana, 1563

Going to the Louvre is still my favorite thing to do on a Friday night in Paris. Even though I do it regularly, I am never anything short of blown away by the extravagance and excess of this museum. It's so insanely rich and so far removed from anything that resembles the reality of my life, that everytime I go there, I feel as though I have stepped inside a fantasy and my mind starts to believe I am part of this world. The surface measurements of many of the paintings - by Delacroix, Gericault and co. are sometimes twice the size of my apartment. The way I approach it - every time - is I go with the intent of seeing only one, at most, two rooms. It's a time consuming place to be in - there's always lots of climbing up and down stairs, getting lost in the rabbit warren of Catherine de Medici's house, and then there's the absolute must of people watching. With limited time on our hands, and a friend from out of town by my side, the chosen room the other night was the Mona Lisa's.

The Mona Lisa herself is now hardly visible. She sits behind layers of bullet proof perspex, which is then mounted on a wooden screen that dwarfs her and does not complement her complexion. In turn, this screen sits behind a semi-circular wooden barrier which itself is behind a rope that, unless you are in a wheelchair, the very alert guards will ensure you do not cross. Why bother even trying?

But, it's still worth following the signs through the Denon wing to her room, because she looks out at the most extraordinary Veronese painting. Despite the fact that at 70 m sq. The Wedding Feast at Cana is about twice the size of the average two bedroom apartment in Paris, all eyes are focussed on the Mona Lisa. Apparently the Benedictine Monks of the San Giorgio Maggiore monastery in Venice commissioned this immense painting in 1562 to decorate their new dining hall. And it had to fill the entire wall. Somehow, I can't see the Monks going in for lunch everyday and being inspired to get closer to God by looking by this painting. It's so full of life, laughter and excitement. And the colors, even in reproduction, are luminescent and shine much brighter than the star the Mona Lisa has become.

Still today, when I see this painting, I am filled with joy and amusement as I notice all the details in the painting that I didn't see the last time I was there. I love the dog poking his head through the balcony in the upper left hand corner. His master above him looks as though he is straining to get into the painting, not wanting to be left out of the action. And I love the guys in the upper right hand corner at the back who look as though they are about to fly from the gallery. Everyone is looking in different directions, and not one person seems to be having a bad time. It really makes me start thinking what it would be like to have Jesus over for dinner - at least we could be guaranteed never to run out of fish, bread and wine - no wonder the French put the painting on center stage of their national museum! What could be more important than an abundance of poisson, pain et vin? And not to mention, if Jesus did turn up to secular functions such as weddings as he does in Veronese's daring imagination, no one would call the police to close down the party.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Melancholic Muse: Dürer and Kiefer at Thaddaeus Ropac

Anselm Kiefer's most recent Melancholia (2006) is included in Thaddaeus Ropac’s latest group show, “Fuentes”. The exhibition focuses on the influences of prominent contemporary artists, and side by side with Kiefer’s impressive canvas, sits Albrecht Dürer’s gloriously detailed engraving Melencolia I, 1514. The juxtaposition is not Thaddeas Ropac’s idea as the work has often been cited as a direct influence. And nor is this the first time that Kiefer has taken up the iconography and influence of Dürer’s most oft quoted engraving. He painted a Melancholia in 1988, again in 1989, and 1991.

At first glance, Kiefer’s huge canvas covered in thick crustations of paint, dirt, ash representing a catastrophic, turbulent sea, with a dirty glass and metal polyhedron falling out of a leaden sky couldn’t be more at odds with Dürer’s delicate composition done with a burin. Dürer’s precise and nuanced engraving, creates a heavenly grey, light and shadow, that gives the folds in Melancholia’s dress and the shimmering ocean a hyper-real appearance. Dürer’s image is vulnerable — so vulnerable the gallery have placed it behind a velvet curtain. It is so precisely rendered, graceful and filled with a quiet sadness. Kiefer’s canvas on the other hand is robust and powerful, and in typical Kiefer style, it has a grandeur and a visibility that draws attention to it immediately we walk into the gallery. And so, the debt to Dürer is surprising, because Kiefer’s use of materials such as lead and dirt in compositions that emphasize the sculptural, tactile three dimensionality of painting pushing their way off canvases are so consciously designed to create distance from classical techniques such as those of Dürer’s engravings.

Beyond technique and material, as we look closely, we see the imitation of the folds of Melancholia’s dress in the coagulations of paint, shellac and dirt that form the waves of Kiefer’s restless sea. And the imitation extends beyond the compositional: the material build up on the surface of Kiefer’s Melancholia is cracked, appearing brittle to the touch, in what Donald Kuspit has likened to the fragility of German history. There are of course the symbolic connections — Kiefer’s appropriation of Dürer’s iconography, his title, his immersion in the bind of artistic (and Germany’s) creativity born of dark melancholia and depression, the brilliance and genius of the artist, the repeated use of the polyhedron as the symbol of mathematical logic, and rationality in a spiritually ethereal world. All of these influences are, however, almost more obvious, less interesting, than Kiefer’s debt to the physical, tactile beauty of Dürer’s masterpiece – the fabric, created as it is through an infinitesimal, ethereal lines – a process that is apparently diametrically opposed to the solid and wretched protrusions of Kiefer’s cataclysmic vision.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Joseph Wright of Derby "Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump" exhibited 1768

As a student of silent cinema, I remember reading that this painting was somehow cinematic. At the time, I was captivated by the light, by the huge looming shadow cast by the scientist, or is it the glass bell that is in the process of suffocating the bird? Seeing this extraordinary painting again at the National Gallery in London last week, I have no doubts as to why it might be more at home in the cinema than in the hallowed halls of the art museum. Everything about it speaks its kinship with the art form that would not be invented for another 130 years. I was struck last week by how dark it is. It’s not only in the reproduction that that the events have a clandestine feel thanks to the chiaroscuro lighting. The light source looks as though it is behind the beaker of fluid containing an already dead animal on the table. And maybe it is the brightness of the light that will kill the bird? The illumination of the audience gathered around the table, in its contrast with darkness, gives the event the appearance of the most underground of secret activities in a film noir hideout. There is something illicit about the scientific act as it is performed for an audience engaged to varying degrees, exhibiting a range of emotions from horror through disinterest to wonder. Although brought together around the magical act of the suffocation of a bird, the lighting gives each an individuality, the same individuality that the darkness takes away from us in the cinema. The couple on the left, more interested in each other (as lovers often are in the cinema), the young girls, one fascinated the other terrified, the man on the right quietly contemplative, in his own world, and the two on the left, gracious, dutifully watching and waiting. My favorite figure is that of the young boy at the window. Is he opening or closing the curtain? Is his face lit by the remnants of light from the table, or the luminescence of the moon? He is the “man behind the scenes,” the real master of appearance and illusion. And as if another character in the drama we watch, the moon mysteriously shines in from behind clouds. As such it predicts the death of the poor bird in the name of science and entertainment.

As well as the extraordinary lighting that brings alive the figures as audience to the experiment, the figures are also actors in the painting, the painting which is the drama that we watch. We follow the movement of the glances around the room: just like the cinema, there is no single consistent focal point. Even if there is an illusion of stasis in the form of a two-dimensional painting, the reality is one of motion as emotions are ignited. And we read and understand these emotions through the dynamism of each individual gaze, each individual response to the horror and wonder of what is being revealed to them.