Thursday, June 18, 2015

Sketches of Marvin Franklin

Some artists are indefatigable sketchers.  Once such example was the late, great Marvin Franklin, a working artist in every sense of the term.

Franklin worked two jobs.  At night, he worked on the New York City subway system, fixing the tracks.  By day, he would work on his art – drawing, painting, and attending classes at the Arts Students League.  And for good measure, he volunteered two days a week at a homeless shelter, volunteered one day a week at his church helping young kids, and taught art classes to teens in the Bronx.  Franklin was clearly a man of remarkable energy and significant artistic curiosity.

Franklin lived with a sketchbook in his hand.  He always carried an 11x14 sketchbook, and usually used a simple ballpoint pen.  Franklin thought the pen was the ideal tool to hasten his artistic development; he thought it made the artist look more closely and draw more carefully since erasure was impossible.  He also thought ballpoint pens were resilient, compact, handy and ubiquitous. 

I don’t know how the many impromptu models felt when Franklin sketched them, but I’m sure it helped that he was over six feet tall and weighed some 230 pounds.  Franklin would fill an entire spiral sketchbook every week or two; his pen seldom left the surface of the paper. 

On April 29, 2007, Franklin, then 55, was carrying a piece of equipment across the tracks at the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station in Downtown Brooklyn when he was struck and killed by a G train. He left behind a wife, three grown children, and hundreds of sketch pads, watercolors and etchings. Many of his works depicted subway riders and, often, homeless people.

Franklin came to his empathy for the homeless through direct experience:  he was homeless once himself for about a year, and said that the discipline of art helped him put his life into order.  Upon his passing, the New York Transit Museum curated a show of his most significant work.

Even the most cursory look would reveal the Franklin was an acute observer of humanity, and that he sketched with a remarkable fluidity and sense of detail.  Though his sketchbooks were not home to finished drawings, the images he created had a vitality often missing from more academic work. 

What would have happened to Franklin had he lived longer?  That will be forever unknown to us; he seemed to live for his art, but did not dream of artistic fame.  His ambitions (and passions) were more down-to-earth; to Franklin making great art was not more important than being a good man. 

I had not the pleasure of meeting Franklin, though his legend at the Arts Students League looms large.  I would’ve been delighted, I’m sure, to call him a friend.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Literary Education and Other Essays, by Joseph Epstein (2014)

Here is a book of deep learning, smart (in both senses of the word) writing, and significant importance: A Literary Education and Other Essays, by Joseph Epstein (born 1937).

Epstein is the former editor of the American Scholar, and has taught English and writing at Northwestern University for many years.  Many of his 24 books are collections of essays.  Epstein is one of our most significant living essayists – few contemporary writers have managed to make take this form as their primary means of expression, and even fewer have managed to be as successful at it as Epstein.  Unlike academics who write mostly “for the trade,” Epstein writes to be read by all, providing insight and context about the world in which we live, and all-too-often pointing out where we have gone wrong as a culture and as a people.

A Literary Education collects those essays that have not yet found a home between hardcovers.  Do not think, though, that this is merely Epstein clearing out the back files – each and every essay in this collection is a delight.

The oldest essay in the collection (about growing up in Chicago) dates back to 1969, the most recent (on the late Hilton Kramer) to 2013.  He writes about his boyhood, his period as an advisor to the National Endowment for the Arts, on Jewish humor and standup comics, academic freedom, the death of poetry, as well as people like Walter Cronkite (not a fan), Paul Goodman (ditto) and Hilton Kramer (whom Epstein seemed to idolize).  What astonishes upon reading them is the range of topics Epstein writes about, and the depth of humor and humanity that he brings to them.

Certainly humor and humanity are the two qualities that can be found in abundance in A Literary Education.  In a culture where much writing about the arts has become arid or politicized or mired in theory, Epstein talks abut aesthetic quality, the importance of distinguishing between high and pop culture, and what art (and experience) means to us as human beings.

Epstein is also a man of serious purpose.  He freely admits that he was not much of a student, and that built a life of the mind for himself through reading, through a love of high art and challenging literature, and through what he calls a higher seriousness.  Higher seriousness, he implies, is meeting challenging works on their own level, thinking about them, and maintaining an adult perspective.  (The latter very difficult in these days of perpetual adolescence, he opines.)  We need more like him.

He is also never less than quotable.  Writing about the various flavors of deconstructionism that have plagued literary studies for the past several years, Epstein muses so many looney tunes, so few merrie melodies.  (This was repeated around Your Correspondent’s household for several weeks.)  Or, better yet, this wonderful sentiment from the essay The Academic Zoo:  Theory – In Practice, which chronicles how arts studies in our universities have really become an intellectual garage sales:

All this might be entirely comical – it’s still pretty damn ridiculous – if it didn’t have real intellectual consequences.  Life without a sense of humor, which is life as it tends to be lived in the contemporary university, is life without any sense of proportion or perspective.  Where laughter has been abrogated, so has common sense, which is why much in current English department studies seems, not to put too fine a point on it, quite nuts.  Thus I read not long ago a batch of student papers in which I learned that “English is the language of imposition for African-Americans, a language of slavery and domination”; that “Shakespeare and [Robert] Coover [what a jolly pairing!] are both products of propagators of a male-dominated capitalistic society and both use their mastery of rhetoric to reinforce the status quo”; and that Joseph Conrad, benighted fellow, shows “ethnocentric androgenism,” which goes a long way toward explaining that Mr. Kurtz’s problem, in Heart of Darkness, is apparently that he failed to acculturate sufficiently with the tribesmen he met up with in the Congo.  “You don’t like my brother,” an old joke about cannibalism has it, “at least eat the noodles.”

Personal story here:  last Christmas I was at a party thrown by an old friend.  I was talking about my boundless admiration and affection for Charles Dickens when a drunken English lit professor (with the worst breath I have ever encountered) descended upon me. 

Drunken Professor sneers and asks how I could admire Dickens.  I respond with his love of humanity, the warmth of his heart, his expansive good cheer.  She turns to someone and says, “Is he serious?”

I go on about how his characters become friends, and that there is the glow of hearth and warmth and love.  Metaphorically patting me on the head, she says that he’s great in a Classic Comics sort of way, and that she used to love Classic Comics, too.

So … I couldn’t help it.  I told her my favorite Classic Comic was Remembrances of Things Past.  “Did they do that?” Drunken Professor asks.

“Yes, it was great.  Visually it was a little boring, because every panel was just this guy in bed.”

“How did they fit it all in one comic?” 

“Oh, it was 45 issues, just this ongoing series.  But my favorite,” I said, “Was the Kafka Classic Comics.”

“They did that, too?” 

“Yes, but they made the mistake of getting Jack Kirby to draw it, so the roach looked like the Mighty Thor.”

Well … I had lots of fun that night.

Back to Epstein: one of the other amazing things about the man is that here is an intellectual who, frankly, loves America.  He also believes, however, that with the advent of the various lunacies of the 1960s, that the nation has been in an intellectual and cultural decline.  Here he is in the essay, What To Do About the Arts?:

Nobody with a serious or even a mild interest in the arts likes to think he has lived his mature life through a bad or even mediocre period of artistic creation. Yet a strong argument can be made that ours has been an especially bleak time for the arts.

One of the quickest ways of determining this is to attempt to name either discrete masterpieces or impressive bodies of work that have been written, painted, or composed over the past, say, 30 years. Inexhaustible lists do not leap to mind. Not only is one hard-pressed to name recent masterpieces, but one’s sense of anticipation for the future is less than keen. In looking back over the past two or three decades, what chiefly comes to mind are fizzled literary careers, outrageous exhibitions and inflated (in all senses of the word) reputations in the visual arts, and a sad if largely tolerant boredom with most contemporary musical composition.

Perhaps my favorite piece in A Literary Education is A Case of Academic Freedom, in which Epstein accounts the denial of tenure to a radical activist professor, Barbara Foley (born 1948) for her role in forcibly preventing a talk by Adolfo Calero, then commander-in-chief of the Nicaraguan Democratic Forces, all in the name of “free speech.”  Epstein does much to remind us that the adjective Orwellian can be liberally applied to both the left and the right.

A Literary Education comes highly recommended, and will be savored by anyone serious about art, culture and education.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Artist’s Sketchbook: Civil War Sketches In the Becker Collection

Sketch From the Becker Collection, copyright The Becker Collection

Few places and conditions on the earth are less involved in art or creation than the battlefield.  In the field of fire, destruction, not creation, is the name of the game.  But in the pre-photography days, sketches were often the most efficient way of documenting man’s inhumanity to man.

These thoughts came to mind while paging through some of the sketches in the Becker Collection, which currently reside in Boston.  The Becker Collection consists of more than 650 sketches, and is the largest private collection of Civil War drawings, and is second only to the collection of the Library of Congress.  Artist Joseph Becker (1841-1910) was an artist-reporter in the mid-19th century for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.  Becker and other artist-reporters satisfied the public’s appetite for images of the war as it progressed, sending eyewitness accounts on all facets of military life.

Photography at the time was often staged, or capable of recording quiet and at-peace moments.  These sketches were not the finished works that would appear in print; rather, they were preparatory sketches to keep perspective, scope and incident in mind when Becker and a cadre of other artists would make finished drawings.

Becker was born in Pottsville, PA.  He started at Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper as an errand boy.  He had no formal training in art, but newspaper staff encouraged his raw talent, and in 1863, Leslie sent Becker to accompany the Union Army and make drawings.  When not sketching the battlefield, Becker recorded scenes of daily life in the army camps.

The Becker Collection travels often, and they have orchestrated many outstanding retrospectives.  If it travels to your city or town, it comes highly recommended.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Artist’s Sketchbook

Let us first consider what a sketch is not.  A sketch is not a finished drawing; a finished drawing is often a work of painstaking effort and an artistic product in-and-of-itself – a drawing is its own thing.  A sketch is not a preparatory drawing for a larger work per se; preparatory drawings during the Renaissance, for instance, were works that were made to be used to transfer finished compositions to larger canvases or onto the wet plaster of a fresco.

No.  A sketch, simply, is an artist’s first draft, a rough idea, the idle result of his drawing implement(s) and spare paper.  They are not finished works of art, but, rather, places where he is thinking on paper.  Most every artist of any importance (and most who are not) have kept sketch books – Your Correspondent has been guilty of this, as well.  Artists carry sketch books on vacations, on the subway, at the café or restaurant, at the concert or to the market.  In short, wherever there is life (or landscape!), the working artist takes his sketchbook, ready to think on paper.

And that’s what an artist’s sketchbook is – thinking on paper.  Sketches are not made for the general public, or even for small audiences – they are reference works for the artist as he is working out his ideas, planning out his compositions, or explaining his ideas.

Artists will also add sketches to the darndest things.  Much to the horror of restaurateurs everywhere, I am an inveterate tablecloth sketcher.  Can’t help it – but I do make sure that I doodle in pencil, so as not to ruin the cloth.  I have also added little sketches to the bottom of bills and receipts, and in letters.

Many artists, in fact, have loved to put little drawings in their letters.  Here is a typical letter from Van Gogh:

These are not finished drawings, and are just tossed into the text as an illustration.

Look, here, at Thomas Eakins, who sought to illustrate his letter about furnishings he admired with some quick sketches:

What I find most interesting about the sketches of even the greatest artists is that they are not often all that good.  And that’s the point – a sketch is simply the artist thinking pictorially, because that’s the way artists think.

That was what came to mind during a recent visit to Rome, where I saw a sonnet Michelangelo wrote to a friend (essentially, a poetic letter), about the experience of painting the Sistine Chapel.  (See above.)  The sonnet also has a very loose sketch of himself, arms overhead, brush in hand, performing an impossible task of artistic creation.  The sonnet reads:

Here like a cat in a Lombardy sewer! Swelter and toil!
With my neck puffed out like a pigeon,
belly hanging like an empty sack,
beard pointing at the ceiling, and my brain
fallen backwards in my head!
Breastbone bulging like a harpy’s
and my face, from drips and droplets,
patterned like a marble pavement.
Ribs are poking in my guts; the only way
to counterweight my shoulders is to stick
my butt out. Don’t know where my feet are -
they’re just dancing by themselves!
In front I’ve sagged and stretched; behind,
my back is tauter than an archer’s bow!

This is not an impressive sketch (and, perhaps, not an impressive sonnet), but it is a perfect example of the artist working out his ideas on paper.

More on sketches tomorrow!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe by Daniel Hoffman (1972)

Many readers are put off from Poe by the décor of his writings – the setting of his tales and poems, the often grotesque style of his prose, what Aldous Huxley object to as the vulgarity of his verse.  His excrescent Gothic conventions which are often on the verge, if not over the verge, of self-parody, seem willfully remote from any possible reality.  It is, however, a function of Poe’s theories of both poetry and fiction that so many mannerisms be interposed between reality and the reader.  It is my hope, in writing sometimes personally about one reader’s relationship to Poe’s work, to suggest how Poe’s artifices – the images and patters in his Arabesques, the strange diction of his poems and tales – are intensifications of the realities they seem to avoid.  Poe has exerted a force upon later readers and writers quite disproportionate to the weight of his slender stock of verses and the brevity of his tales.  Although the characters in his tales are without exception fantastic personages, they must touch some deep, responsive nerve hidden in ourselves.  Whose image do we see in Poe’s insane criminals, in his detectives with their superhuman intelligence, in his protagonists driven by mysterious obsessions or passively suffering equally mysterious adventures?  As Thoreau replies to a correspondent who complained about Whitman’s animality, of whose experiences has he the power to remind us?

Quite excellent, and taken from one of the most idiosyncratic – if not the most idiosyncratic – book on Poe, poet Daniel Hoffman’s odd Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, first published in 1972.

If the French believe it’s essential to send a thief to catch a thief, it is probably fitting that we send a poet to root out another one.  Hoffman (1923-2013) was a poet, essayist and academic, serving a term as the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (1973).

Born in New York, Hoffman was a World War II veteran, and a graduate of Columbia (B.A., M.A., and Ph.D.).  He wrote several volumes of poetry and criticism, and despite holding many public positions (he was Poet in Resident at the Cathedral of St. John the Devine, for example), he is perhaps best known for his study of Poe.

To be sure, Poe7 is a very strange book.  Hoffman set out to write a book about Poe in much the same manner Poe would have written it.  This leads to a sometimes labyrinthine syntax, a love for emphasis, and a heavily-applied layer of subtext (and sub-subtext).  It is not to everyone’s taste, but if you are interested in Poe, Hoffman’s book is essential.

Hoffman makes the point throughout that we never quite get our hands around the totality of Poe; that once we think we have wrung him dry of layers of meaning and importance, more come to light.  I first came to Poe thought my keen interest in the Gothic, then found that – despite the gloom – that he had much in common with the aesthetes.  What is his figure of Roderick Usher, for example, other than that of an aesthete who finds his highest artistic fulfillment in decadent art?  All artists speak in the language that means the most to them, and Poe’s taste for Gothic tropes and wildly Romantic characters does not mean his art is any the less subtle, layered or significant.

I had revisited Hoffman’s book recently when reading about Poe in the news.  Hoffman goes into great detail on Poe’s inductive reasoning regarding the origin of the cosmos and our place within them, as outlined in the prose-poem Eureka.  Hoffman wrote his book in 1972, yet here is author Marilynne Robinson writing about Poe and Eureka in the New York Review of Books this past February:

Poe’s mind was by no means commonplace. In the last year of his life he wrote a prose poem, Eureka, which would have established this fact beyond doubt—if it had not been so full of intuitive insight that neither his contemporaries nor subsequent generations, at least until the late twentieth century, could make any sense of it. Its very brilliance made it an object of ridicule, an instance of affectation and delusion, and so it is regarded to this day among readers and critics who are not at all abreast of contemporary physics. Eureka describes the origins of the universe in a single particle, from which “radiated” the atoms of which all matter is made. Minute dissimilarities of size and distribution among these atoms meant that the effects of gravity caused them to accumulate as matter, forming the physical universe.

This by itself would be a startling anticipation of modern cosmology, if Poe had not also drawn striking conclusions from it, for example that space and “duration” are one thing, that there might be stars that emit no light, that there is a repulsive force that in some degree counteracts the force of gravity, that there could be any number of universes with different laws simultaneous with ours, that our universe might collapse to its original state and another universe erupt from the particle it would have become, that our present universe may be one in a series.

All this is perfectly sound as observation, hypothesis, or speculation by the lights of science in the twenty-first century. And of course Poe had neither evidence nor authority for any of it. It was the product, he said, of a kind of aesthetic reasoning—therefore, he insisted, a poem. He was absolutely sincere about the truth of the account he had made of cosmic origins, and he was ridiculed for his sincerity. Eureka is important because it indicates the scale and the seriousness of Poe’s thinking, and its remarkable integrity. It demonstrates his use of his aesthetic sense as a particularly rigorous method of inquiry.

Writing on the Scientific American blog, writer scientist John Horgan responds to Robinson with: Now that is a theory of everything. But it isn't "sound," it's batshit crazy—in a good way.

Like Hoffman, I don’t think we will ever be through with Poe, nor will we completely understand him.  His mind was too subtle (the melodrama of his plots and prose notwithstanding), his science too colored by aesthetics, his aesthetics too colored by his deductive and inductive reasoning, his true sense of beauty too tinged with melancholy and sadness.  Poe remains one of the few great writers who was, at heart, a fairly miserable man – a walking anomaly, a personality divided.  A man who saw horrors and sorrow everywhere, and yet dreamed of beauty.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Oscar Wilde Discovers America, by Louis Edwards (2003)

We have in previous months looked at contemporary novels featuring poet, playwright and aesthete Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) as a fictional character. 

Wilde has now turned up in a series of detective novels of varying quality by Gyles Brandreth, the latest of which is Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Goal.  These books are amusing time-wasters, rich with little details of Victoriana, but Wilde traipsing around pretending to be Sherlock Holmes is something of a misconception.  Also popular were Sherlock Holmes and the Mysterious Friend of Oscar Wilde, by Russell A. Brown, and The West End Horror, by Nicholas Meyer, both of which had Wilde meeting the Baker Street detective himself.

Though these books are non-serious entertainments, Wilde does show up in other, more adult fictions, as well.  He is the center of Peter Ackroyd’s most adroit novel to date, The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983), which includes a fascinating closing chapter written in the voice of Wilde’s (imagined by Ackroyd) valet, Maurice.

A similar literary conceit was employed by Louis Edwards (born 1962) in his excruciating novel, Oscar Wilde Discovers America, first published in 2003.  Though the mysteries mentioned above are by no means serious literature, they are in almost every way infinitely superior to this misconceived, ham-fisted and poorly written novel.

Oscar Wilde Discovers America is mostly about the valet who accompanied Wilde in 1882 on this coast-to-coast American lecture tour.  (This is based on an actual event and a very real individual, though the valet’s name and identity have been lost to history.)  The valet is named Traquair in the novel, and he is the privileged son of New York City servants.  Traquair is a recent college graduate and with the help of his father, and the banker his father works for, Traquair lands a job looking after the celebrated Irish poet. 

Traquair is African-American, a great admirer of Wilde’s work (though, historically, there was not much work at this time for anyone to admire), and eager to learn about life from a master.  Wilde, of course, is captivated by the plain wisdom of his servant, and learns much from him, as well.  Yes – it’s The Help with green carnations.

Well, as would be the case with a premise so loaded with political correctness, Wilde takes to calling his servant Tra (sigh) and steals some of the young man’s epigrams as his own.  Sharing cocktails with Tra, Wilde even imagines a new form of music that is largely improvisatory and connected to non-European rhythms.  Yes … Oscar Wilde imagines jazz.

Of course Wilde falls in love with Tra, and they consummate their relationship before Wilde returns to England and Tra to his life in the US.  And despite the fact that Tra will love many women in the future (the novel is told in flashback), he will always remember the power of Oscar’s kiss.

Don’t look at me – I didn’t write it. 

Edwards’ novel is alternately tedious and uninvolving, with long, exasperating passages where his tin ear tries to reproduce the cadence of 19th century prose.  Here’s an example of what Edwards serves up – a particularly apt example considering the author’s limitations:

“Oh, that’s enough about my book,” Mr. Davis said.  “Tell me, do you foresee yourself documenting your Aesthetic Movement in any way?”

“Daily,” Oscar said.  “I foresee my life itself being the documentation of my movement.  If my biographer is adequate, he will note this fact.  But biographers, in their enthusiasm to re-create life, bear a great resemblance to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and their creations are just as monstrous.  And I don’t think a talent so rich as mine should be wasted on the tediousness of writing an autobiography – an endeavor which, of course, modesty precludes.”

“You might change your mind about that point should you live as long as I,” Mr. Davis said.  “One might think that when an old man lies down upon his bed at the end of one of his many long days, all he would want to do is rest.  But what you will learn is that at some point simply to rest becomes too much like death.  In the relentless retreat that is old age, an old man looks for pauses.  He spends entire mornings and entire afternoons and evenings searching his mind for remote islands of memory, for familiar by exotic distractions.  He reflects incessantly upon a past illustrious or inglorious.  One way or another he writes his autobiography.  That is what I do now over there in my little library when the mood strikes me, which is often.  I must admit that there is a temptation to grant oneself perhaps more importance than one is due, to lend to oneself a representative quality, to attempt to take on all the meaning of one’s people.  This may be my personal predicament only, but I’m not so sure.  I would wager that a poor, destitute soul who dies a lonely death in a dark hole someplace feels bearing upon his spirit the weight of the entire Confederacy of the Wretched.”

There are pages of this stuff (287, to be exact), and Your Correspondent has waded through it so you wouldn’t have to.  Oscar Wilde may have discovered America, but this book has been merely … detected.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Dream of Solomon, by Luca Giordano (1693)

The Dream of Solomon is a truly stunning picture by Luca Giordano, painted when the artist was nearing his 60th birthday.

For those who do not remember, Solomon was the king of Israel and the son of David.  It is believed that Solomon reigned from circa 970 to 931 BC.  He is best remembered, perhaps, for his vaunted wisdom, which was the result of a specific request for guidance by God.

Upon achieving the throne, Solomon wondered where best to build a temple to worship God.  He also sought to be a good, just and kindly ruler.  Upon thinking about it, he retired to bed in Gibeon and had a heavenly vision.  As it is recorded in the King James Bible, Solomon prayed, asking God to:  Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people?

This request, so simple yet so profound, moved God.  The Bible says:

And the speech pleased the Lord, that Solomon had asked this thing. And God said unto him, Because thou hast asked this thing, and hast not asked for thyself long life; neither hast asked riches for thyself, nor hast asked the life of thine enemies; but hast asked for thyself understanding to discern judgment; Behold, I have done according to thy words: lo, I have given thee a wise and an understanding heart; so that there was none like thee before thee, neither after thee shall any arise like unto thee. And I have also given thee that which thou hast not asked, both riches, and honour: so that there shall not be any among the kings like unto thee all thy days. And if thou wilt walk in my ways, to keep my statutes and my commandments, as thy father David did walk, then I will lengthen thy days.

Your correspondent simply loves this picture.  Not only is it painted with a master’s touch, but for its sumptuous and allegorical qualities.  As Solomon sleeps, God appears in his dream, surrounded by angels.  God shines the light of wisdom onto Solomon, and provides a vision of what will be Solomon’s temple. 

The Temple Solomon would build following his visitation would hold the Ark of the Covenant, and stand for 410 years before being destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II

Above Solomon is the vision of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, who will inspire Solomon in his judgements.  (Minerva is also the goddess of music, poetry, medicine, weaving, crafts and magic – such a one-stop shop.)  She represents a pre-Christian figure here; at her side is a lamb and a book, representing the eventually arrival of Jesus (the Lamb of God), and the holy book, the Bible.

This is such a rich picture, anticipating the abundance that would be later be found in rococo painting.  There are the angels surrounding God, his flowing robes, the delicately rendered blankets on Solomon.  The fantastically ornate bed upon which Solomon sleeps is a marvel in itself, particularly with the golden headboard in the figure of a faun near which rests his crown.  (Fauns would unconsciously impart wisdom – another pre-Christian echo.)  The muted colors promote the dreamy mood of the story, and there is a gauzy quality that provides a quality of a vision.

Interesting, too, are the use of yellows and blue to create light.  It is not a picture of many colors – yellow, blue, gold and orange – and yet it is bright and sensuous rather than drab and monotonous.  And despite the supine character of Solomon, Giordano still manages the dynamism of movement simply through his inventive composition.

Solomon himself is, frankly, beautiful, looking more like a reclining Apollo than anything else.  His features have an almost feminine cast of beauty (not unknown in Giordano’s other work), and combined with a beefy musculature create a figure both strong and sensitive.

It is, to this viewer, Giordano’s great masterpiece.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Saint Michael, by Luca Giordano (1663)

We return to our look at some of the work by one of history’s most prolific painters, Luca Giordano (1634-1705). 

During his 10 year period in Spain (1692-1702), Giordano carried out major decorative commissions in Madrid, Toledo and the Escorial.  He grew to greatly admire the Spanish painter Velázquez, and painted A Homage to Velázquez (circa 1692, now in the National Gallery London).  Giordano had an incredible ability to mimic the work of other artists, and for some time his Homage was attributed to Velázquez himself.  Indeed, after a trip to Venice he painted an Annunciation (now in the collection at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art) in the manner of Titian, and Giordano’s ability as a mimic are clearly apparent.

Giordano was an incredibly active painter, prolific until the end of his life, and is currently credited with some 2000 paintings.  As such, some are quite wonderful and others, less so.  One of the great challenges with prolific genius is to separate the great from the near-great from the best-left-forgotten.

Giordano painted St. Michael several times.  One depiction, dating roughly to 1660-65, clearly owes its inspiration to the painter Raphael; and while that is certainly a beautiful picture (showing a profound understanding of the color blue), I much prefer the one here, from 1663, as it owes its greatest debt to Giordano’s first master and mentor, the painter Ribera.

St. Michael, along with Gabriel and Raphael, is one of only three angels liturgically venerated by the Church.  He appears twice in the Old Testament as a helper to the early Christian peoples; he appears twice in the New Testament, once first arguing Satan over Moses’ body, and again when he and his angels fought Satan and his dragons and hurled him and his followers from heaven. 

He appears repeatedly in apocryphal literature and was regarded by the early Church as the captain of the heavenly host, the protector of Christians against the devil (especially at the time of death, when the soul is most vulnerable), and the leader of Christian armies against the heathen. 

The cult of St. Michael started in Phrygia, but soon spread to the West, where it gained traction when it was recorded that Michael appeared at Mt. Garganus during the rein of Pope Gelasius.  He is always depicted with a sword or lance, and often standing over conquered devils and dragons.  He is the ultimate conception of the warrior angel in all his glamor and strength, valor and might.

Like much of Ribera’s work, there are hints of the dark, brooding genius of Caravaggio, as well as the influence of Spanish and Venetian masters.  The work is heavily reliant on the dramatic use of shadow, and a moody sense of coloration.  The picture is both … unsettling and startling; despite the heroic visitation of Michael, the overall image is somewhat horrific.

The triumphant Michael is perhaps somewhat fleshy and feminine to the contemporary eye, but the manly torso and powerful legs indicate the strength of a warrior of Christ.  The golden tresses of the angel, along with the girlish face perhaps still owe something to Raphael, as do the draping of his cape behind him. 

Curious about the cape: its pinkish color reflecting the lights of Hell seems as if the brighter, pinker side should be on the viewer’s right, rather than the left.  Also odd, too, is that on Michael’s left hip (or on the right side, to the viewer) the dragon-headed hilt of a sword is clearly visible, but the corresponding blade seems no where in evidence behind the angel.

No, the real triumphs here are the wonderfully bestial devils and the hellish landscape.  The fingers of our devils taper into wonderfully pointy fingernails, and the eyes register as dead black.  Also wonderful is the devil’s cavernous mouth, which seems genuinely otherworldly with its snake-like note of two teeth visible at the bottom.  His leathery, bat-like wings are in marked contrast to the feathery white clouds provided for Michael.  Curiously, the spear of St. Michael pieces the side of the devil almost exactly where the Roman spear pierced the side of the dying Christ.

The background has a sulfuric quality; one could almost choke on the red and brown mists.  Between the serpent wrapped around one unfortunate’s arm, a howling beast and the foot of a plummeting body, Giordano’s hell is truly a fearsome creation.

More Luca Giordano tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Pilate Washing His Hands, by Luca Giordano (circa 1655-60)

This week, we look at some of the works by one of history’s most prolific painters, Luca Giordano (1634-1705).  Luca was one of the most important painters during the latter 17th Century, but many critics do not know where to place him.  Fabulously popular in his day, his sheer fecundity makes it difficult to fully assess his corpus of work.  (His nickname was Luca Fa PrestoLuke works quickly.)

The son of a painter, Luca Giordano was born in Naples.  Young Giordano was recommended by the viceroy of Naples to the artist Ribera, and the older artist greatly influenced the younger.  Giordano proved to be very facile as an artist, and quickly learned a versatility that enabled him to imitate the styles of other artists.  This gift for prolificacy and imitation has hurt his career somewhat; critics have always been suspicious of artistic abundance.  While Giordano painted many pictures that were not as impressive as his talent would demand, the sheer number of masterworks by his brush is amazing.

Giordano apprenticed in Rome, Parma and Venice, eventually developing a Baroque style.  This involved a mastery of design and composition, a taste for luxury, and a lively sense of color. 

Giordano tried his fortunes in Florence, where he painted worthy frescos and worked with the influential Medici family.  He painted the dome of the Corsini Chapel of the Chiesa del Carmine, and painted the ceiling of the Biblioteca Riccardiana (the Allegory of Divine Wisdom); a man of business as well as art, Giordano incorporated the visages of the Medici family into his works.  Stroking wealthy patrons has always been a key component of the career of any artist looking for a paycheck.

Giordano spent 10 years in Spain at the invitation of Charles II.  Following his father’s death, Giordano returned to Naples in 1702, where he painted for a variety of clients, including the church, the court and the rising merchant class.

Pilate Washing His Hands is one of our favorite works by Giordano.  Painted somewhere around 1655-60, when Giordano was in his mid-20s, it is a smallish picture measuring some 17x26.  It was painted in oil on copper sheet, and can be found in the Prado in Madrid.

Pontius Pilate was the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judea under the emperor Tiberius from AD 26-36.  Though commonly mistaken as the man responsible for the condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the gospels tell a more complex and interesting story.

In each of the gospels, Pilate actively seeks to spare Jesus from execution, and only relents to placate the crowd who wants Him dead.  He makes clear in the Biblical accounts that he bares no responsibility for the death of Jesus.

In Matthew, Pilate ceremoniously washes his hands to show that they are clean of His blood.  Mark and Luke indicate that Pilate recognizes Jesus is innocent of conspiring against Rome, and executes him with great reluctance.  In John, Pilate actually asks the Jews to release Jesus from custody.

Giordano’s depiction of the scene is full of drama and subtlety.  The composition itself is fairly static, most of the figures at the same head-level.  The dynamism of the picture is accomplished (amazingly) by following the gaze of the principals.  The two soldier bearing Jesus openly look at Pilate, entreating him for mercy.  The pages at other side of Pilate (one pouring the water with which Pilate will symbolically absolve himself of any guilt), clearly look at Him in frank astonishment.  Pilate, however, is isolated by his gaze – his eye look over the head of Christ, and into the undiscovered future.  Does he see the judgement of history, or his own eventual damnation?  We do not know, but the face of Pilate is painted with more detail, more sensitivity and more … deliberation than that of Christ.

As with the great masters, look for little touches that delineate Giordano’s complete command of the medium.  Note the tiny earring on the ear of the guard in the furry cap, the shadow cast by the details adorning the plated shoulders of the guard, the faint gleam of light caught in the eye of the guard immediately behind Christ.

The two pages, and Pilate himself, wear the garb of the Renaissance and not antiquity, and the armor is surely the creation of Giordano’s imagination, but not a single detail seems out of place, too dramatic, or in any way underdone.

Fascinating, too, is the depiction of Christ.  Much more pale than anyone else in the picture, Christ already seems sickly and near-death.  But the suffering has none of the sadism (or masochism) so often associated with paintings dealing with His trial and crucifixion, and Giordano show admirable restraint.

A fascinating, masterful and psychologically complex work.

More Giordano tomorrow.