Happy New Year!

Seasonal greetings to all my readers, friends, and even to over a thousand visitors who ended up on this blog googling “nude white women standing facing forward” (I hope antique Venuses you were likely to find here provided an adequate reference if not the desired thrills).

I wish you all a year full of creativity, new art finds, ancient art history revelations, and – to the “forward-looking” thousand of guests – to discover the “three quarters” angle.

I have seen precious little art and read nothing but labels since December, travelling through Geneva to the French Alps and lamenting global warming along the way. If you doubt it exists, go visit glaciers or rather places where glaciers used to be a mere decade ago.

In fact, Geneva should run a referendum of relegating December from winter to late summer.

It’s serene, green, and ticks life away as a $2m tourbillon watch locked in a safe deposit box in an underground bank vault. Geneva is great to visit if you need a few peaceful days, but many of its residents complain it becomes too peaceful in about two weeks of living there, when life starts resembling the said bank vault, but without the money being stacked high all around.

I am sure in terms of art Geneva could benefit from an injection of creative steroids. The only exhibition I enjoyed (out of the two I visited) was a tiny show of Apocalypse graphics in the Art and History Museum, where visitors were provided with magnifying glasses to see tiny details of the exhibits.

It helped me to find something new even among the images I had seen many times before, like Durer’s Adam and Eve of 1504:

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No, it’s not the cat and mouse at the bottom. They are too obvious: one can miss neither them nor their metaphoric references.

My surprise was the bewildered goat at the top right corner that has climbed up a cliff and watches birds flying below, and the cunningly evil expression of the snake achieved by Durer’s endowing the snake with almost human eyelids.

Of course, as any large city, Geneva tries to compensate the lack of private art initiative with public spending. This Xmas it was running a festival of light installations by contemporary artists which I would totally miss were I not living right in front of one of them.

Sophie Guyot, an artist from Lausanne, converted Longemalle square into a garden of symbolic objects that would light up in the evening changing colour from white to red and providing the perfect photo opportunity for transit skiing enthusiasts:

She left the interpretation open: it can be flowers, animals, or even human organs. The latter must be addressed to those who have reviewed a Hannibal Lector movie recently, which I find slightly disturbing, given the generally festive time of the year.

Otherwise, it is just fun and a huge electricity bill.

But, despite the slow start, I hope 2016 will serve me with a healthy helping of great art, heaps of art history discoveries, and plenty of opportunities to write about it all.

Happy New Year and see you soon in this blog!

P.S. WordPress spellchecker insists on replacing “Durer” with “Durex” in a vain hope I would abandon art and move over to the more popular domain of erotic literature. Thank you, I’d rather stay with “ü”.

There is money in fandom

We all know there’s lots of money in fandom: all those tickets, scarves, t-shirts, badges, and hospital bills for cracked skulls, squashed faces, and broken teeth. When I think of fans, and especially fans of popular games, I imagine a legion of happy bartenders, dentists, and Chinese exporters of fake club paraphernalia.

Ever since men first united for a mammoth hunt, they’ve been happy to splash on tools and tokens that would help them reach their cause, even if it was another evolutionary dead-end.

Fans, and especially male fans, are a treasure trove for any trade, because men get irrational when it comes to being a club member, especially when this club encourages mad behaviours, idiotic hats, and girls’ getting topless.

fans

Men frown at their wives when they want to change curtains bought ten years ago (“nothing’s wrong with the old ones!”), but are happy to buy club shirts that change design each season to make fans keep buying them, and then pay for tickets to stand-up shows to be informed by comedians of how stupid they all are.

Fandoms keep everyone happy. Except artists. 

Artists celebrate sports and sportsmen, but ignore fans and their fandoms.

My dear fellows, why do you turn your back on an opportunity that’s more generous than Donald Trump in his promises?

The global art market features precious few artworks that celebrate fans (if you take wedding cake toppers off the list).

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Throughout art history fans only feature in supporting roles.

Alexandre Falguiere Lutteurs Борцы 1875

Alexandre Falguiere Lutteurs, Wrestlers, 1875

George Bellows Stag at Sharkey's (1909), oil on canvas

George Bellows Stag at Sharkey’s (1909), oil on canvas

And only occasionally, in preparatory drawings or sketches, fans take centre stage:

George Bellows, Preliminaries of the Big Bout (1916), lithograph

George Bellows, Preliminaries of the Big Bout (1916), lithograph

In the examples above, artists used the audience as a backdrop to enhance contrast in their work. The strained body of the fighter becomes all the more strained when contrasted with a relaxed pose of a spectator. The honestly of the fight becomes accentuated with a fat cat watching it with a betting interest in his eyes. Still, it’s never about fans themselves!

In my search of artworks dedicated to sport fans, I couldn’t walk past Toronto.

There, Michael Snow, a renowned polymath artist, mounted sculpted fans high up on the wall of a stadium. This is a rare case when sculptural caricature is paid for by the caricatured (indirectly via taxes, of course).

6732492143_b84b2b6617 The Audience (1)

I find it strange. Is there nothing to glorify about fans?

Fandom can be a good thing, you know. There are decent values in there, hidden beneath all the violence and stupid acts we get in the news.

First, fandom is about equality. It is about people being equal in the ecstasy of victory, in the drunken gloom of defeat, or in their meaningless fist-fights with men from other fandoms. Second, fandom is about togetherness, being a part of the pack. Give me a third or even fourth if you are a fan of anything, but even equality and togetherness alone are enough to cheer up the fandom concept.

Where is art that would celebrate this?

So far, I could find only a single artwork that would not be a mockery or social critique of fans. It is a work by a Latvian sculptor, Olita Abolinya.

Olita Abolinya, 1971 Latvia Болельшики.preview

Olita Abolinya, Fans, 1971

I assume this is a group of Soviet soccer fans. Soccer championships in the USSR were taking place in winter because sports were meant to build character rather than entertain.

It’s a good piece. It shows fans in cold weather but the pink clay somehow radiates warmth that the group generates by being connected to each other.

And this is it.

Just. One. Piece.

So, if you are an artist and want to sell to the profitable fan community or get over a creative block, look into the fandom good sides.

Show fans resolved to support their team when it lost.

Show a family, in which husband and wife support opposing teams, and do not fight over which club their kids will support when they grow up.

Show fans united not through a goal or win, but through deep understanding of tactics and strategy in football, soccer, hockey, golf, or sack jumping.

It’s all out there, waiting for your talent to crack it.

PS If you are not an artist, but have artist-friends, forward it to them. Make them rich!

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Ass to luv iz da baby

This is how a rapper would understand “astalavista baby”, I assume, and you’ll get my drift in a minute, for I have a bum-related art question for rappers. As I don’t know any personally, I hope you can propel it to someone who knows one, so that they could answer it.

Who the hell is buying the stuff?!

Under “stuff”, I don’t mean art or contemporary art, in general. Of course, you can hear this question when a Gainsborough admirer stumbles upon Turner Prize exhibits at Tate Britain in London; a lover of Raphael takes a wrong turn and ends up in Centre Pompidou instead of Louvre, or you yourself see a yellow Hummer H2 squeezing through a side street. In the latter case, we know the answer, of course: it must be a rap performer, a Top Gear show making fun of rap performers, or Arnie on a mission.

Yet, there’s one kind of art that makes me whisper this question. It is a realistically sculpted nude female body in an erotic posture. There are a few sculptors, quite successful commercially, who make this stuff.

Something tells me that the buyers come mainly from thriving mob and rapper communities. Unlike art historians who present their evidence and then shoot their arguments, these gangsta art-lovers shoot first and try to hide all the evidence later: that’s why I have to lower my voice asking this question in public.

There are sculptors who do it in wood, which makes me think of a moment when Mr Gepetto, Pinocchio father, was feeling especially lonely.

rs1

This is work of Richard Senoner, who claims he is “converting expressiveness, aesthetics and harmony into sculpture”

Potential customers! Remember, this art is unsafe. The wood will crack in unpredictable places just about the time the running of your hand over it becomes an integral part of your daily routine. Instead of thrills, you may start getting daily splinters.

PS. If you don’t run your hand over it, what was the point of buying it in the first place?

There are artists who do it in bronze. Galleries in seaside French towns are filled to the roof with bronze seductresses sporting polished thighs and bums. It is as if Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Miro, Signac or Marquet have never existed, let alone lived in this part of the world. But I will rest the issue of why French Rivera visitors are prone to indulge in bronze figurines with fake-looking breasts. It is probably the sun. My question is not about this artless and anatomically bizarre bronze merde that costs marginally more than the metal that went into making it in a Chinese melting shop.

My question is about this:

bum1

This is a French sculptor. Great carving. Unparalleled polishing. His stone bums sell for 5 to 7 thousand euros. To whom?! Who is stoned enough to buy himself a stone bum?

Wood is warm to the touch at least. But what do you do with stone?

This sculptor also does ice.

08_09_2008_0798142001220859142_dominique_regnier

Ice I can try to understand. Get yourself an ice bum, lick it to nothingness, die from pneumonia, don’t forget to croak you die as a performance artist before your last wheeze.

But, I am sorry to repeat myself, what do you with a stone bum?

08_09_2008_0622517001220859142_dominique_regnier

You can treat yourself to his website if you choose to. There are a few items there that could make this blog banned in some conservative countries. Remember, it can’t be unseen.

No rapper friends? Then give me your vote, please!

The Burden of White Liberal Intellectuals

The initiative of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to change politically incorrect names of its exhibits is big news now.

NYT: The Rijksmuseum is in the process of removing language that could be considered offensive from digitized titles and descriptions of some 220,000 artworks in its collection. Words that Europeans once routinely used to describe other cultures or peoples, like “negro,” “Indian” or “dwarf” will be replaced with less racially charged terminology.

The museum’s management believes that black people coming to galleries would be offended by portraits of long-dead black people painted by long-dead white artists. I think that this assumption is very contemptuous of black people and is, in fact, racist.  This belief assumes that black people are intellectually inferior: unlike white curators, black visitors are incapable of understanding that, sometimes, a historical artwork needs to be viewed in its historical context to be appreciated.

This theory of black people’s inability to come to terms with historical facts is justified by Martine Gosselink, a high-brow Dutch curator of the museum, through what she believes is a valid parallel with a nickname the Dutch are referred to by other Europeans.

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First, I don’t see a problem here. People of Wisconsin, also called Cheeseheads, be they dark or fair-skinned, seem to have no objections to cheer-cheesing anytime, anywhere. Perhaps, a Wisconsin consultant could enlighten the Dutch on ways to embrace and enjoy it, rather than resist it.

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Yes, the guy in this photo looks like a grumpy cat, but I am sure it's not because he's wearing a silly hat. I bet it was an awkward question about his performance during the football game.

Yes, the guy in this photo looks like a grumpy cat, but I am sure it’s not because he’s wearing a silly hat. I bet it was an awkward question about his performance during the football game.

Second, the curator exaggerates the offense. A cheese tasting room in Amsterdam openly invites visitors to “become a cheesehead” and no one complains that the slogan is cheesy.

Third, “Cheesehead” may represent an ethnic slur for the Dutch, but – come on! – the Dutch are famous for their cheese, and they make a lot of money out of it. It’s ridiculous to equate it with the offense contained in the word “Negro”, which reminds black people of the times when they were slaves and worked for food and not being beaten by their owners, staying destitute after decades of hard labour if they were lucky to survive.

The curator’s artless cheese vs.slavery analogy reminds me of a story a friend told me about her birth-giving experience.

She goes into labour; her hubby is at her bedside, holding her hand. While thrashing about in acute pain, she notices her husband’s suffering expression: he is, obviously, in agony, but is doing his best to hide it. She asks him through clenched teeth, “Darling, what is it? I can see you’re in pain!”. “Yes,” he answers, pointing at the elastic band of his disposable med cap, “it’s killing me. It chafes my forehead terribly!”

She started laughing so hard she pushed the baby out.

Yet, there is a voiceless minority group that might be actually offended by this anti-offense campaign. It is the group of dead artists whose artworks are being renamed.

Simon Maris, “Young Girl Holding a Fan,” circa 1900. Old title: “Young Negro-Girl.”

Simon Maris, “Young Girl Holding a Fan,” circa 1900. Old title: “Young Negro-Girl.”

Simon Maris made his name painting female portraits, and being a friend of Piet Mondrian.

At the time, black women were employed as domestic help or concubines, which was not hugely different from slavery. They were referred to as Negroes. They were being dehumanised by “scientists”, white elites, and common people. A year before the painting, Kipling’s The Burden of the White Man was published. Racism, that justified invasions and atrocities in “less developed countries”, was on the rise.

It was at this point that Maris painted a Negro-girl as a princess, bringing out her humanity for everyone to see.

It is not a young girl holding a fan. It is a brave statement that a Negro-girl is as beautiful, graceful, intelligent, and interesting as the most refined white lady.

I guess, Maris, and the girl he painted, would be deeply offended if they learned the title of the painting was changed to please…no, not “a million people deriving from colonial roots, from Suriname, from the Antilles, from Indonesia, and so on” of whom the curator pretends to care, but the curator herself.

Even though I can’t stop white liberal intellectuals in their pursuit of boasting to the world how liberal they are (no one, actually, can stop them), let me know if you agree or disagree with me on this particular case of liberalism mopping up [art] history. 

Cucumber up your art

Friends&Family know I love pickled cucumbers. My fav restaurants are aware of this character flaw and bribe me with an extra portion of pickles whenever I order a burger. Pickled cucumbers guarantee my loyalty, shut my eyes to poor service, and double sales of mineral water.

There was a single artist in history who had a similar infatuation with this vegetable, and I am sure he was not into its fresh variety because the colours he used to paint cucumbers appear rather pickled.

It was Carlo Crivelli, a Venetian-born artist of the 15th century.

He was a cheerful descendant of the Renaissance line fathered by Pisanello and Gentile da Fabriano, who, unlike Masaccio, didn’t care about humanistic ideas, focusing instead on truthful depiction of nature, and especially those bits of nature that make today’s hipster Instagrammers so hip with their snapshots of dead leaves, graffiti, and other hipsters taking pictures of graffiti and dead leaves.

Hipsters making hipster photos

Hipsters making hipster photos

It wouldn’t come as a surprise now that pre-Raphaelites, the hipsters of the 19th century, embraced Crivelli as a brother.

Carlo’s love for cucumbers is unique in art history. He understood that the beauty of cucumbers was not in the eye of the beholder, but in the contrast of its rough pimpled skin and irregular shape vs. the smooth and round forms of meaty leaves, apples, and marble floors.

DT1356 - копия

Madonna and Child — Carlo Crivelli, ca. 1480,

Yes. I know.

The giant fly in the left corner, which scares infant Jesus into bracing himself while protecting his bird, commands your undivided attention now, in the manner of an Italian driver holding you by the scruff of the neck after you’ve backed into his van.

Resist. Leave the fly where it is. It is not going to buzz away, and we are here to talk about cucumbers, OK?

The Metropolitan, which has the Madonna, say the cucumber is a symbol of redemption. Sorry, guys, but redemption is reserved after gourd, which looks like a pear-shaped pumpkin, unless it is molded into Chairman Mao or Buddha by its Chinese grower (it is all the rage in China right now, I am told):

Gourd

German art historians believe Crivelli used cucumber as a symbol of the male side of sin, with its female side contained in an apple.

Really? Hanging a cucumber as a Freudian symbol (long before Freud) off the garland right in front of Madonna’s face and not being burnt at the stake would be, I assume, an impossible achievement in Italy 550 years ago.

The problem is that no one seems to know what symbolic meaning Crivelli attached to cucumbers (or, as I am certain, pickled cucumbers).

Most of Renaissance symbolism is well-researched and widely known. Cherries stand for droplets of Jesus blood; pomegranate is the Church and its flock; buttercup means Christ and his future passions; and massive fruit & veggie garlands hint at agricultural achievements of Paradise gardeners who can do wonders without manure-based fertilisers and pesticides.

What about cucumbers?

Look at this Annunciation by my cucumber friend Carlo:

The_Annunciation,_with_Saint_Emidius_-_Carlo_Crivelli_-_National_Gallery

As we scan this painting, we are awed by its wonderful detail, amazing colours, and perspective perfect for exactly 50% of perspective (its depth is OK, but horizontally it ceases to exist). I love the scene with the Archangel, who is performing his most important duty in all of the New Testament, and is distracted by a saint who hopes to get a blessing for his construction project. Somehow, it is a very familiar situation.

And, as we get to the bottom, we can’t but frown at the cucumber there.

Somehow, the apple is OK. Adam, Eve, the original sin, it all fits the narrative. But a cucumber?

Let me blow it up for you, so that its wonderful detail can be appreciated in all its exquisite glory.

cucumber

What is its meaning?

One bit I am sure of, is that experts who believe it is a dick metaphor are dickheads. The myth of Crivelli’s cucumbers being related to the male end of the original sin appeared because of Crivelli himself. In Venice, he fell in love with a beautiful woman. Take a young Italian artist, add a beautiful woman, sprinkle it with Venetian atmosphere (remove the stench of canals first) and you get love potion you can sell to anyone any time. Carlo fell in love so hard that his Madonnas would have the face of his beloved thereon in. This story could have an ending similar to that of Filippo Lippi’s love affair with a nun if only Carlo’s sweetheart was not already married. That adultery cost Carlo six months in prison, banishment from Venice, and the myth about cucumbers for the next five centuries.

When this painting was exhibited in the Hermitage in St.Petersburg, their curator explained it as a symbol of paradise abundance. Why is then a single apple placed next to it? I doubt paradise menu is limited to these two food items. Instead, I see the Hermitage curator going like, “oh, my god, oh my god, this is a dick metaphor! Those religious fanatics won’t let the gallery show it! What shall I do? What shall I do? I need to invent something entirely different!”

A curator from the National Gallery in London, which is the Annunciation’s home base, asks a food expert about the cucumber meaning. The food expert offhandedly says the cucumber is the symbol of Christ, and apple stands for the Virgin. Yes, my jaw dropped too.

As I and Carlo are both cucumber enthusiasts, I am sure I can propose my own, undoubtedly correct, explanation for his cucumbers.

Five hundred years ago, the cucumber was associated with the image of the Virgin Mary. It implied that the Mother of Christ was never touched by sin. The idea originated from a passage from the prophet Isaiah: “And the daughter of Zion is like a booth in the a vineyard, like a lodge in a cucumber field, like a besieged city”.

A cucumber, populated by numerous seeds residing inside its thick “walls”, may indeed be seen as a metaphor for a besieged city. It’s a bit stretched but who wouldn’t struggle to come up with a symbol for a woman who had a child and stayed a virgin resisting all the temptations that might have been around?

That’s the reason a cucumber appears in the Madonna and Child painting, although the way it sits next to apples creates a very bizarre still life.

apples-cucumber

I don’t think apples here stand for the original sin either. There are three of them there and even though Christ was brought into this world to atone for the original sin (and a lot of other sins tailgating it) putting an apple into triplicate to drive a point seems a bit excessive, especially next to the symbol of the Virgin. Note that the apples are still attached to the branches (disregard the inconvenient fact that the cucumber grows on an apple tree: even Gregor Mendel would struggle to explain it).

It’s more likely and logical that the apples stand for wisdom, which people should respect but leave to Nobel Prize winners to pick. There’s wisdom in it too: I knew guys who hoped they could do six years of pure math and not become decidedly potty in the process. Ha! This kind of wisdom takes no prisoners.

The Annunciation cucumber is more complicated.

cucumber

It slips out of the frame into our world. It is possible that Carlo did it to flaunt his painterly skills, of course, but I don’t think it was his sole intention. He was very careful about symbolism and wouldn’t waste a whole cucumber to boost his vanity.

The Virgin sits behind an iron-barred window. This makes a cucumber, as a besieged city metaphor, quite appropriate here but…placing it on the floor ruins the hypothesis. No one dared to throw symbols of divine entities on the floor. Never.

You only throw sins beneath your feet. And sins indeed are the alternative, and more fitting, interpretation of the cucumber and the apple.

Let’s begin with the cucumber.

When the Israelites were in the desert, they preferred to eat cucumbers rather than manna sent from Heaven. It’s not a figment of my imagination, it’s the Bible:

The Israelites complained (Numbers 11:4-6): “Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at.” 

Thus, cucumber became associated with perdition, or final and irrevocable spiritual ruin, resulting from rejection of God and His gifts. Was this tiny bit of the Scripture well-known or relevant to Crivelli? And why didn’t he use watermelons, onions, or garlic (it could guard the painting against vampires as well)? My hypothesis is simple. Carlo was a vegetarian. Out of the list of vegetables in the paragraph above only cucumbers represent something that can make you sated. Cucumbers were the only “real food” on that menu. Crivelli awareness of the story might have been additionally supported by the fact that Christian vegetarians have often used manna to justify their claim that God never intended man to eat meat. This made the story top-of-mind for Carlo.

In this context the apple next to the cucumber stands for the original sin (we can’t do much about it because of Eve), and the cucumber, as a symbol of perdition, becomes logically protruding into our world (avoiding irrevocable spiritual ruin is indeed in our own hands).

Crivelli doesn’t just decorate his painting with symbolic stuff, he sends out a coded message, a motivational prep talk that, given the meaning of the cucumber and apple, can be reduced to: “Do not reject God who once came into this world to atone for your sins.”

Bingo!

We all know that love can do miracles. It can heal wounds… save lives… help to explain art history mysteries (if it is love for cucumbers, of course). So, spread the word, love pickles, and tell me if your feelings are changed next time you bite a cucumber!

Disruptive Eruptions

I can understand why painters love sunrises and sunsets. They sell well. Both are visually striking, symbolically linked to new beginnings or twilight romanticism, but above all, it is possible to paint them in a more striking manner than what the reality is offering us within its daily urban diet. People who live in cities don’t see much of either anyway.

Why then do painters miss out on volcano eruptions? I feel there’s demand for them among the adventurous, explosive, and testosterone rich.

Look at Etna, informing Sicily that the planet was feeling a bit flatulent the other day.

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Isn’t it inspiring?

Imagine this photograph to be a painting though.

I bet art critics would write it off as a painter’s reference to a childhood accident with a box of matches, and what the painter’s father said about it afterwards. Critics would scoff at the painter’s implied intent to give the viewer cheap thrills through overdramatisation.

And, you know, I’d be among those critics too. We say “wow” to a photograph like this without questioning it (I hope you think it’s awesome too), because a photograph of an eruption has the documentary quality of a fact in much the same way that a painting doesn’t.

A painter invents and creates conflict in his work, and to avoid copying from a photograph, he would have to make the conflict more…dramatic, because there is no point in making it less dramatic. And, trying to make it “better” the painter would make it false and pretentious.

Indeed, in all the history of art, only a few volcano paintings are worth a second glance.

So, what do the famous painted eruptions have that makes them interesting?


Some of the eruption paintings are pure documentaries of artistic experiences. A modern consumer may not believe it, but before smart phones, artists usually had to be physically present at an eruption scene to sketch and remember it. Alas, these documentary illustrations have lost all their illustrative value once the public got access to colour photos.

It is surprising, really, how few eruption artworks proved to be disruptive enough to stay in art history. The ones that remained are less about volcanos and more about their impact on the surrounding nature and people.

Joseph Wright of Derby, an English painter, more known for his Caravaggio-styled paintings of scientific advancement in 18th-century England and failed attempts to win clients from Gainsborough, set the tone for volcano painting with dozens of works inspired by Mount Vesuvius activity he witnessed in Italy (he missed the big eruption that happened a few years after he left Napoli). 

His set the golden compositional standard for the theme: he would contrast tranquility of the sea and the dead light of the full moon against the startingly alive fire of the volcano, throwing in a few people at the foreground, who watched the eruption apprehensively or were doing their usual stuff while stealing alarmed glances at the mountain going whoopee.

Joseph Wright of Derby, 1778, Vesuvius from Posillipo

Joseph Wright of Derby, 1778, Vesuvius from Posillipo

Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples

Joseph Wright, 1776-80, Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples. The islands he painted can not be actually seen from the vantage point but help to emphasise the stillness of the sea.

At the bottom of the last painting, there’s a group of people carrying the body of a victim along the banks of a lava river. While the scene is intended to be dramatic, somehow, it loses out to the conflict in the skies and becomes an unnecessary sideline plot:

Joseph Wright, 1778, Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples, fragment

Joseph Wright, 1778, Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples, fragment

Wright’s approach to the portrayal of eruptions gave rise to a whole school of painting, appropriately named the Volcano School that existed in the Aloha State in the late 19th century. It consisted of two dozens of non-native artists lured to the islands’ non-stop volcano activity. None of them could take the theme beyond the compositional ideas of Joseph Wright, so I am not showcasing their work.

Some forty years after Wright, Johan Christian Dahl, a Norwegian artist, witnessed a real eruption of Vesuvius, and created one of the most striking images of volcanos, shifting the focus from Man as Victim, to Man as Explorer (though many believe it is about Man as a curious-idiot-who-doesn’t-know-when-to take-cover-until-it’s-too-late).

J.C.Dahl Eruption of Vesuvius, 1826

J.C.Dahl Eruption of Vesuvius, 1826

Unlike Wright, Dahl witnessed the real eruption and was decidedly true to nature (this is a photo of an Aloha volcano):

vulkan-gavai-lava-izverzhenie

Still, just like Wright, Dahl tried to embrace the unembraceable by squeezing a massive eruption scene and two tourists with their guides and mules into a single painting. The human aspect of the story was pushed to the sidelines, again.

I.C.Dahl_Vesuv (2)

Dahl would then rework the painting several times to highlight the travellers, adding more contrast to the figures and reducing their numbers, but that didn’t amount to much:

Dahl fragment

The artist who realised that you don’t have to show the whole eruption to convey its horror and beauty, was a Russian.

Nikolai Yaroshenko painted this Man Vs. Nature statement in 1898. It is unfair that it is virtually unknown.

Н.А. Ярошенко. Извержение вулкана. 1898 год. Холст, масло. Калужский художественный музей.

Nikolai Yaroshenko, Volcano Eruption, 1898

The two tiny figures at the edge of the crater stand firmly in stark contrast against the unfathomable power of the volcano, and the stones that blast out and would start falling any moment make me, the viewer, cringe and awe at the courage of the explorers.

In terms of colour, this is a clever piece too.

Yaroshenko reinforces the conflict by using complimentary colours. He contrasts the green shoulder of the crater against the red of the fire inside it, and the orange lighting of the cloud of smoke in the centre with the blue shading of the mountains at the back.

yaroshenko1

The most famous volcano painting was also done by a Russian artist who lived in Italy at the time. It is the Last Day of Pompeii by Karl Bryullov.

Karl Bryullov, The Last Day of Pompeii, 1830-1833

Karl Bryullov, The Last Day of Pompeii, 1830-1833

When exhibited in Milan for the first time, it brought Bryullov (who was 30 at the time) to such fame that people in theatres would stand up and applause him whenever they’d notice him entering, and admirers would literally lift him up in their hands and carry their hero through Milanese streets if they saw him walking.

This painting is a great example of classicism fused with romanticism, as well as Bryullov’s passion towards a beautiful Russian princess who posed for one of the women in the painting.

But, as it is not, really, about a volcano eruption, I will not talk about it, except for one thing. Everyone is running, stumbling and trying to get away in this painting. And yet, its composition is constructed in such a way that you KNOW they won’t escape from the box of the painting. Take a moment to reflect on how this is achieved, it’s fun.

Surprisingly, volcano art ends here. I’ve got nothing else to show. How tiny is this heritage if compared to millions of sunrises and sunsets you find in galleries and museums!

The irony in this comparison is that without volcanos some of the most famous sunsets would not exist. 

A group of Greek and German scientists studied  red-to-green ratios in sunsets by famous masters and discovered that the more artistically and emotionally sticking sunsets were painted in the years immediately following volcanic eruptions that created a imbalance in the atmosphere resulting in sunsets having more reds and oranges with greens and blues filtered out by ash particles.

This link takes you to their paper, which you will have no problem to understand if you have a Physics PhD in your pocket or a healthy dose of masochism in your character.

PS. Before you click out of this blog, please tell me if you are interested in me talking more about Bryullov or romantic classicism makes you sick. 

And if you missed my previous post on art use in movies, check it out – I’d love to know what you think.

Art and Movies Snuggle up Together

What inspires film directors to make movies? Fat salaries, Oscar dreams, sexy starlets, the need to pass on their “message” to the unenlightened spectator? I don’t know much about cinema, so I can’t be certain of anything beyond what I am told by people who do.

For instance, I read that Lars von Trier filmed Melancholia because he’d wanted to vent out his depression, which he accomplished with double success. He has cured himself and passed it on to millions of his fans. This also makes it a unique case of depression treatment, which is hugely profitable to the sufferer, though not easily accessible to the public at large.

Even though I am not a cinephile (excluding Star Wars, of course), I am curious about ways art of the past inspires modern film directors.

Sometimes, a painting can inspire a scene that becomes iconic and, perhaps, becomes known to more people than the painting that inspired it. I remembered von Trier because he seems to have stolen fame of Ophelia by Everett Millais (1862) in his Melancholia.

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For me, Lars’ cutting his palette down to green and white shows he understands as much about Millais as I understand about his movies. The painting’s concept is in the contrast between the live red flowers and green duckweed. Without it, all you get is an ordinary drowned woman.

Sometimes, film directors are inspired by stuff everyone knows, like Goya’s Saturn devouring his children or Botticelli’s Venus. I don’t know why they do it: It is difficult to make a quote interesting by just quoting it.

Did Guillermo del Toro invent a new monster in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)? No, borrowing ideas from Goya was not enough.

Toro

Toro’s creature is sickeningly ugly, but Goya’s Saturn is way scarier, don’t you think?

Unike Toro, who uses paintings to help him out with images, Terry Gilliam (in The Adventures of Baron Munchausenuses art to build narrative, like in this animation of the Birth of Venus by Botticelli (1486):

I once read that “Gilliam uses Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus as a vehicle to critique overelaboration and the illusory grandeur of illustration. As a figure divorced from her context, Venus appears embarrassed and self-conscious”. I struggle with this logic because, first, I don’t know why would anyone could be concerned with “the illusory grandeur of illustration” to the point that its critique would be appreciated, and second, Botticelli’s Venus is pretty much self-conscious and a lot more embarrassed than the Gilliam’s twin, not to mention that Simonetta Vespucci who inspired Botticelli was indeed a beauty goddess while Uma Thurman is just an A-list celebrity.

Venus

Or take the famous still from Coppola’s Lost in Translation literally quoting the work of John Kacere, a butt-crazy photo-realistic painter whose heritage is 90% female back sides. With all due respect, we know many men are fixated on this part of the female body, but spending a life painting it photo-realistically seems a case for therapy rather than artistic recognition.

lost in translation

What surprises me is the massive applause the film got from critics known for their feminist stance.  A female film director uses Scarlett Johansson’s butt as the main selling point with deafening success. Doesn’t it make all the debate about female objectification sound a bit artificial?

I like it when paintings inspire directors to do more than just quote them.

This portrait of an emancipated journalist and poet by Otto Dix (1926) was briefly quoted in the opening sequence of Cabaret, but it also defined how the German society was portrayed in the movie further on.

cabaret

Otto Dix created a portrait of a generation. It is a great work of art. I can imagine only a single organisation to be reticent about it: the World Health Organisation. Not surprisingly, its idea could roll out into a movie.

I am not sure I know any other example of art being cleverly used in a movie. Help me out, please. Do you remember art in movies being more than just a passing reference, or a primitive quote? As of today, I have a feeling film directors, generally, love talking about great art of the past that inspires them, but fail to create something bigger than the art that allegedly inspired them. I’d love to be proven wrong. 

PS I just remembered this great series of Francis Bacon as the inspiration behind the Joker. Christopher Nolan produced a villain who was, actually, a step ahead of Bacon’s visions:

joker