Giotto Replies to Giorgio Vasari

st-francis-receiving-the-stigmata

I’ve been reading and re-reading Giorgio Vasari’s remarkable Lives of the Artists. It is often described as among the most readable and influential art history books ever! Click on the painting to enlarge.

Although Vasari often gets dates wrong and some of his stories are embroidered he writes in a very accessible style. In fact it is his humorous anecdotes about artists that appealed to me first of all; they are a mixture of revealing information about the artists’ methods and projects and more questionable dealings with cardinals, popes and other artisans.

I have started a number of poems – imagining some of the artists replying to Vasari. This gives a lot of scope for different ‘voices’ and I may delevop the poems into a book. Here is the first one.

As I am persuing the book idea I won’t be posting any more poems in the series here because of copyright.

 

Giotto Replies to Giorgio Vasari

You said the illusion of three dimensions

started with me. This was a heavy burden

to shoulder but I bowed to your good taste

and decorum and the manner

in which you encompassed my perfect freehand circle.

It was more than enough for the tondo 1who asked,

“Is this all you can do?” Thanks to you everyone

can see the child Giotto scratching a sheep on a rock

his father’s flock nibbling nearby. Cimabue saw me

too and took me under his wing, the pupil soon

to outstrip the master so you said. Yes, I was ahead

of my time – your refrain became my guiding star.

* *

When the king of Naples watched me at work

he thought I was so ahead of my time he offered

to make me the first man of Naples. I told him

I already was as I lived next to the city gates

where my name went before me.

* *

Correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t you talk

of my stunning sense of colour and excellent technique,

again so much ahead of my time, although I seem

to remember something about a sea fret making

the pigments run; you know those frescoes on the walls

of Campo Santo. My fourteen foot angel in St Peter’s

was so ahead of my time you thought it sang, you

saw it levitate, you thought it was made of ethereal paint.

* *

Giorgio, I am honoured you thought I was created

to shed new light on the art of painting. That I was

ahead of my time; but, you know that painting

of St Francis? – you forgot to mention the laser beams

zapping the stigmata onto the saint’s hands and feet

*

1Tondo in Tuscany can mean both a circle and slow-witted.

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Gauguin’s Soliloquy

aftergauguin

Gauguin’s Soliloquy – after Robert Browning

Gr-r-r – there goes my heart’s torment,
take your damn easel for a walk, do –
if hatred could kill men, Vincent,
God’s blood, would mine not kill you!
What? You’re going to pick sunflowers –
well, don’t bring them back to the sink,
I don’t want you painting here for hours.

Well, thank God, that lunatic’s gone –
he not only paints in oils but eats the stuff too!
Last night he went for me with a razor –
he slashed a canvas which I had to mend with glue.
He can only paint what’s in front of him;
I use my imagination as well as chrome yellow
while he complains of being a victim!

I expect you know he sponges off his brother?
Poor Theo has to send canvas and paints,
Vincent spends half the money on gin,
it’s enough to try the patience of saints,
I don’t think I can stand it much longer:
I’m in danger of committing a mortal sin
I don’t want to end up in the slammer.

Ah, I know what I’ll do, if you please,
I’ll pack up my things while he’s out –
I’ve always wanted to go to the South Seas;
the hot sun will be good for my gout!
Yes, I’ll paint native Tahitians – after they undress.
I’ll become famous for my Gardens of Eden
while mad, bad Vincent will die—penni-less!

The starting point for this was Robert Browning’s Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister from which you will see I’ve filtched the first two lines. Browning may be thought old fashioned and ‘Victorian’ but his trade mark dramatic monologues still feel original and alive to me.

It is well known that Van Gogh and Gauguin shared a house – the Yellow House in Arles – for a while and wondered about setting up an artists’ colony. The two artists were pretty temperamental characters and predictably they soon got on each others nerves!

Gauguin wrote a biased account of their time together which blames Vincent for everything that went wrong. As usual reality was more complicated. The stereotypical ‘crazy artist’  gets in the way of the actual complexities. I’ve always warmed more to Van Gogh’s paintings (than Gauguin’s ) and by reading his Letters, realised while he must have been hell to live with, he was  well- read, a visionary like Blake, intellectually and spiritually inquisitive and sensitive to suffering – but of course mentally unstable. There are many theories about this latter point. One of the more recent biographies is The Love of Many Things by David Sweetman which I have yet to read (apart from dipping into it). I would also like some day to visit the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The incidents in the poem are based on real events.

Bruegel for today

 

 

artists_126 bruegel self portrait

Most people have admired the widely reproduced paintings of Bruegel the Elder. Paintings such as Children’s Games have even been made into jigsaw puzzles. However, his worldview and naturalistic style are no longer in favour so much. This is a pity as I believe his paintings and drawings still have much to say to us.
In 16th century Netherlands proverbs which illustrated the vices and foibles of humanity were popular. And this is our main stumbling block. Nowadays we don’t like being told what to think, let alone how to live! Some of the proverbs of Bruegel’s day may seem quaint to us but I’d argue that his broader worldview has a timeless quality more akin to Shakespeare’s view of humanity. In particular the notion of Theatrum Mundi (Theatre of the World), in which all human life is seen as an absurd spectacle acted out on a vast stage, is a view just as appealing today as in the 16th century.
In a short article it is impossible to do justice to Bruegel’s fecund imagination and vision. I’m only going to discuss two of his small drawings but would urge those interested to carefully examine in particular such works as Netherlandish Proverbs, Allegory of Pride, Allegory of Lust, Allegory of Avarice and Battle Between Carnival & Lent.

Bruegel’s countrymen and women were well aware of the moral temptations of a commercial society, particularly where greed and selfishness were concerned. Folk theatre of the age dramatized such follies. Elck was a sort of Everyman figure popular at the time. Elck’s spiritual blindness is depicted in a drawing of Bruegel’s done in 1558. In this exquisitely detailed 8×11 inch drawing an elderly man searches through a pile of barrels, tools, a chessboard and other objects – all of which represent the distractions of the world and the danger of too much ambition and insatiable greed. The broken globe at Elck’s feet is a traditional symbol of vanity. The drawing illustrates two sayings, Elck seeks himself in the world, and Elck tugs the longest end. This latter is depicted by two figures tugging on a strip of cloth. Elck’s lack of awareness is further illustrated by a picture hanging in the background. A fool gazes at his image in a mirror. He is Nemo or Nobody, another popular folk character. The inscription below translates as, Nobody Knows Himself. Pageants of the day portrayed Elck in a series of tableaux and moreover, the saying, Elck seeks himself and comes to grief because he cannot judge himself clearly, was one of the tableaux. Here we are far from quaint proverbs; we are more in the spiritual and psychological realm of Socrates’ Know Thyself.

 

 

Elck2

 

The Alchemist (12×17 in) is another drawing done in the same year. Alchemists were held in low esteem by the Netherlands’ increasingly rational, humanist intelligentsia and merchants. Stories circulated about people being fleeced and losing life savings.

 

 

 

bruegel alchemist
The drawing depicts an ill-clothed alchemist seated at his ‘laboratory’ bench; his wife sits behind him pointing to her empty purse showing that in spite of her husband’s occupation, it is not a money-spinner! Her child sits in a cupboard with an empty cooking pot on its head, further evidence that the family is trading in nothingness. A scholar sits at a desk and tells a fool to pump bellows on a charcoal burner. The learned man points to an entry in his large book which is a pun on the word, ‘alchemist’- all is lost! Through an opening in the back of the room we see the alchemist taking his family to a poorhouse. Exposing fraudulent merchants and enterprises was a popular pursuit in Europe. Today we see the same appetite for ridicule in expose-journalism and the satirical cartoons depicting politicians and celebrities. Also, although there are no alchemists around nowadays, all we have to do is switch on the TV to see yet another scam where someone has fleeced someone else out of thousands (or millions) of pounds. And there are many more kinds of exploitation nowadays where gullibility is involved.
In this short article I have focussed on the message or ‘moral’ of these two drawings as if they were literary forms instead of visual. I think it goes without saying that Bruegel shows his many draughtsmanship and compositional skills in these pictures; skills which would serve him well in his later paintings. (There are, of course, many other qualities to admire in Bruegel, his use of striking composition and colour for example. He was no mere moralist.) It must be remembered that he was working at a time when narrative and literary ideas figured strongly in paintings, etchings and prints.
It is a cliché that human nature never changes. I think that is why Bruegel’s work can still resonate today if we make the effort to really look. We may not know whether to laugh or cry at the world’s follies (Democritus was the optimist in the ancient world and Heraclitus the pessimist!) Perhaps there is a third choice; to see ourselves in the Theatre Mundi, to have compassion for ourselves and others, and live the best we can without causing too much mayhem.
In case it is thought that Bruegel was an out and out pessimist focussing on vice rather than virtue, he did depict The Seven Virtues too, and I should emphasise that his work, above all, celebrates life in all its richness, humanity and folly.
I would recommend using a magnifying glass to examine Bruegel’s work reproduced in books. If you are fortunate to see the originals you could always go armed with a magnifying glass! (I’m sure in Bruegel’s day people would spend considerable time ‘reading’ his paintings. In our world of instant-sensation we may spend a few minutes in front of a painting in a gallery if we are lucky.)
I am indebted to Walter S Gibson for the light he sheds on Bruegel in his excellent Thames & Hudson book, Bruegel, published in 1977.

Eric Nicholson – Cert Ed.
https://erikleo.wordpress.com
Twitter@erikleo8

Meeting Shakespeare

I wrote this poem after visiting the Oak Effect exhibit by Mathew Darbyshire in the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead. The exhibit ‘presents a 2 bedroom show home made to EU recommended standards with ubiquitous oak effect finish.’ Various old artifacts are displayed within the rooms. Hence the juxtaposition of the new and old; and artifacts taken out of their usual context. I didn’t notice the carving of Shakespeare the first time I visited! Its by Gerrard Robinson.

Visiting Shipley Art Gallery

I walk into the art gallery and see
William Shakespeare
carved in wood.
Oak leaves form a sort of halo
around his eight inch figure.
Evidence of his seven ages
is all around:
1. Infant – a wooden African cradle
2. School pupil – a 1930s desk
3. Lover – a 1920s gramophone complete with shellac 78
4. Soldier – a spear from New Guinea
5. Maturity – a Burmese Buddha
6. Old age – an abacus
7. Death – a faceless long-case clock

Falstaff is nearby to ensure we don’t dwell
too much on ‘mere oblivion.’

On the wall behind Shakespeare
there is a chorus of birds, painted in oils on copper(c) Shipley Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
by Jan van Kessel around 1650.
Polychromatic parrots, parakeets and hoopoes sing
from a little song-sheet.
Is this a coda, an afterthought afterlife or
is this how it always is?

The Monuments Men Film

2006AT8379Madonna of Bruges by Michelangelo

The Monuments Men

Director:  George Clooney.

During WW2 the Nazis set up special departments for the seizure and storage of objects of cultural value. They plundered hundreds of thousands of works of art; from Germany, France, Russia and Belgium and other countries. Many were destroyed. They also destroyed thousands of Synagogues, Catholic churches and Russian Orthodox churches.

The Monuments Men was a group of international volunteers from public art services. There were over 300 members drawn from the Monuments Fine Arts and Archives organisation. How many of these were actively involved in recovering works of art during the war, I’m not sure. In any case, the film, The Monuments Men, focusses on a small group of only 7 men charged with recovering works towards the end of WW2. Much more work in this recovery process was done after the war ended, in the following years.

More information can be found on:

http://www.masterworksfineart.com/blog/artists-of-recovery-the-monuments-men

http://www.monumentsmen.com

I went to see the film last evening. It told the story well enough but I’d have preferred less ‘Hollywood’ sheen. There were the clichéd bits of dialogue too- you could almost hear the American constitution being recited in the background.  Given the context of the war setting, there was a surprising lack of plot tension.

The occasional voice-over narration sounded dated. The scenes of the paintings and sculptures hidden in the various mines were among the best. The statistics about how many works of art were destroyed, as well as recovered, were staggering.

The film is worth seeing just for the story: I’m sure the book on which it’s based would be worth reading. (Monuments Men, by Robert M Edsel)