Episode2

Murder, by Death. Episode 2

Read Episode 1 here


She was the most beautiful woman in the country, and the king’s lover. He was the country’s richest man, and married. Her beauty and wit had the king wrapped around her finger. He had the king firmly in the wrestler’s lock of his financial might and diplomatic talent.

Together, they could rule the country.

No power in the world could stand in their way.

Except, perhaps, death and the death row.


Historians have always been puzzled by the amiable attitude of Charles’ wife, the queen, towards Agnes. The simple answer is that she was a wise daughter of a wise woman.

Charles’ wife thought a constant relationship with Agnes was better, both for the State and personal hygiene than occasional debauchery escapades with a variety of women of dubious morals. A single permanent lover meant stability and predictability that a new French Kingdom so much craved and lacked. The only drawback in the whole setup was that the permanent lover was meant to be loved. I guess Marie d’Anjou didn’t find it easy to maintain the front of the lawful wife of a husband who was passionately in love with someone else. Still, the queen thought it was a preferable alternative to the more standard ways of venting out royal promiscuity.

The whole affair was so…calculated that some contemporaries believed Charles’ mother-in-law herself, having inspected Agnes’s beauty and temperament a year before the two met each other, had arranged for Agnes to be presented to the king. Of course, this is the point where historical analysis gets replaced by historical bullshit, because no sane mother would be arranging a rival for her own daughter out of political expediency. It was Pierre de Breze, a rising star of the king’s council, who orchestrated the affair to insure his ascension. Many courtiers hated him, and started hating Agnes, whose favours were helping de Breze, but no one would risk poisoning the king’s love for a dubious effect of softening de Breze’s rise (his son would marry Agnes’s daughter long after Agnes died).

Regardless of how passionate was Charles’ “enamouring” with Agnes, no one believed she could hold a grip over Charles for more than a year or two. Kings have never been known for their loyalty, although quite famous for their appetite.

But the queen’s new lady-in-waiting was full of surprises. She was not just a beauty queen capable of supporting a witty conversation. She was a clever woman the Psychologies magazine would be proud to carry on its front page.

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Another woman of similar achievement, who sings rather than talks. And… there is even some facial similarity to Agnes.

She was making sure she stayed attractive. She was at the forefront of fashion, so provocative that the Chancellor (who was second after king at the king’s council) became a strong proponent of anti-Sorel modesty. Again, Jean Fouquet helps us to put face to ideology:

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Portrait of Guillaume Jouvenel des Ursins by Jean Fouquet (1460-1465). As you can see the fashion for padded shoulders was catching on.

His brother left letters which show just how strong they felt about Agnes Sorel style,

“…in his own household itself the king should prohibit openings in front through which you can see women’s nipples and breasts…he shouldn’t tolerate men or women tainted with whoredom and ribaldry and all sorts of sins…”

If only the good Chancellor could imagine what would become of the court after Agnes’ death, when Charles started fighting boredom with ever more whoredom.

Agnes’ 16th-century portrait by an anonymous artist who used Fouquet’s Madonna as his inspiration shows the ribaldry at all its glory:

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Staying ‘abreast’ of fashion was but a part of Agnes’ strategy. She was managing Charles like a circus animal, offering him the treats of her grateful smiles only occasionally, for especially good tricks and gifts, and always making certain he knew of her sadness or unhappiness. A dog trainer knows all about how it works.  As do most wives!

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Some ill-wishing contemporaries accused her of greed. No. She was one of the most generous benefactors of the Church and the poor. Her first recorded donation to the Church was a reliquary with hair and a bone of St.Mary Magdalen, which many find rather symbolic. Agnes didn’t really care about riches: wealth was not an end in itself, but a means of securing Charles’ attention.

And it was in the process of receiving king’s gifts and fripperies that she got to know Jacques Coeur.

Six years before Charles met Agnes, Jacques Cœur was appointed the argentier, the keeper of the office, exclusively tasked with supplying everything the court needed, from silk ribbons to armour, and from spoons to liquid cash. He set off as a low-born petty merchant and built a “business” that amassed a capital of 3500 florins by 1450. If this figure doesn’t immediately impress you, compare it to the Medici empire that was estimated to be worth 5000 florins at the time.

The Medici are famous globally but Jacques Coeur’s fame is far from being proportionate to his assets. Most people have never heard his name. I guess this a living proof (albeit the partakers are very much dead) that arts can be good for you if you are super rich, provided you are endowed with good taste and vision.

The majority of courtiers owed money to Jacques Coeur, and the king was his biggest debtor. Jacques practically financed the retaking of Normandy out of his own pocket (with compound interest, of course).

When Charles was making a gift, he would first borrow the cost of the gift from Jacques Coeur, and then ask the latter to provide the gift itself. It must have been somewhat embarrassing for the king, I reckon.

Jacques Coeur was the king’s financier, the biggest ship owner in France, had built an exclusive silver mining operation, was licensed to trade with Muslims, and employed most of the king’s own bureaucrats part-time as his own “managers”. Yes, many king’s men were also employees of Jacques Coeur, and I bet they spent 90% of their time on his commercial projects, with the treasury backing the full cost. When France was fighting the English in Normandy, his trade branch in London kept the English court happy by supplying them with silks and other valuables.

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The beautiful Gothic palace of Jacques Coeur in his home town of Bourges is the city’s main attraction today.

And, certainly, he made sure he was friends with Agnes.

They had much in common.

They were both low-born (relatively), they both achieved the highest status possible, and they both were envied by virtually everyone around them.

Jacques was a handsome man, who didn’t have to pad shoulders of his coats to look strong.

Jacques Coeur, by follower of Jean Fouquet

Jacques Coeur, by a follower of Jean Fouquet

He travelled a lot: to Levant, Italy, and all over France. He was sent on difficult diplomatic missions and during one of them remedied the papal schism, earning immeasurable gratitude of Nicolas V, who became uncontested pope thanks to Jacques’ efforts. I am sure he was an interesting guy to talk to.

In this portrait we see a strong man, looking into the future, a 15th century visionary, the forerunner of great trading empires and inspiration for generations of entrepreneurs. Bourges citizens erected his statue, which only fault is shameless beautification:

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Agnes and Jacques were known to be very good friends, so special that she would even advocate his interests before the king.

Did their relationship stretch beyond an engaging conversation by the fireplace?

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that a man who owned France financially would not be tempted to take possession of one of its most prized assets, La Belle Agnes.

It is also easy to assume that Agnes could get attracted to a man like Jacques Coeur, but difficult to accept that she, being the wise woman that she was, could risk her position by walking out on the king. She knew it full well that the moment she dropped out of king’s favour, she was to lose everything.

And still, being attached to a man who was far from the Apollonian ideal and could only stop being weak when pushed by a strong woman must have been… tiring.

Could those rumours about her girls being not entirely Charles’ issue be true?

We will never know, for if there was something, it was kept secret, and kept well. Or paid well to be kept well.

Eighteen months after Agnes’ death, Jacques Coeur was arrested and accused of poisoning her.

It was easy to find witnesses, given that all of them owed him money and none of them was present at the châteaux where Agnes died.

Two years later, these accusations were dropped (and the accusers were arrested themselves). Instead, Jacques Coeur was charged with a whole lot of unrelated heinous crimes ranging from siphoning income from royal estates to selling a Christian slave to the Saracens. He was found guilty of these crimes on the very day of the fall of Constantinople. Charles sentenced his former friend to death, but on Pope’s intercession the execution was replaced by heavy fines and imprisonment.

There was a man who profited immensely from the death of Agnes and disappearance of Jacques Coeur.

King Charles the Victorious.

His major gain was financial. By 1450, Charles was desperate. He was spending more money than he could possibly get as taxes or revenues. He was paying out huge bribes and rewards to…enemy soldiers and captains who would surrender English-held towns and castles or help with intelligence during his military campaigns. However, the more territory he won in this manner, the more he had to spend on his regular army to guard it against the threat of an English invasion. Charles’ coffers had run so dry that even the budget for the kingdom didn’t exist at the time. Having appropriated most of Coeur’s assets, he finally got liquid cash to complete his reconquest.

Jacques Coeur broke a fundamental unwritten rule of medieval banking: don’t lend money to a king who might feel obligated to pay it back.

His other gain was Agnes’ cousin, 16 years of age. Charles first met her two years before the tragic event. Six months after Agnes’ death, Charles married off this young cousin to his Master of Bedchamber, and she became a new king’s lover. There is certain irony here, with the Master of Bedchamber providing alibi for the king to sleep with his wife. Times a-changing, and the current French leader has sunk to using a plastic helmet to cover up his amorous adventures.

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So, no, Jacques Coeur didn’t poison Agnes. He most likely loved her (if you believe in true friendship between the most beautiful woman and the richest man, lucky you).

But does it all mean that Charles poisoned Agnes to blame Jacques Coeur, seize his fortune, and start bedding a younger version of Agnes?

Charles was not a leader who created opportunities, but he never missed opportunities created for him by others. It is unlikely that he poisoned Agnes, the mother of his three living daughters, setting up Jacques Coeur along the way. It is more probable that Charles simply snatched the chance the poisoning presented, or he wouldn’t wait for 18 months to press the charges.

Or he learned of Agnes’ treason and – blinded by jealousy – decided to revenge himself?  Was it a crime of passion?

Unlikely again.

One of contemporary accounts mentions the last meeting of Agnes and Charles. The chronicler says Agnes came to Charles, who was traveling towards his army in Guienne, She burst into his chamber with the news of an English conspiracy to have Charles captured. Charles laughed and sent her away.

This story, however simple, has two important implications.

A pregnant woman undertakes a perilous journey on worn down winter roads to warn her lover of a non-existing conspiracy. If that’s not a woman desperately seeking attention, I don’t know what is. Agnes felt that the king’s loyalty was failing.

The king laughs away the warning and sends her away. The same king who would go to great lengths to enjoy a moment of privacy with Agnes before their relationship went “official”. Yes, it does seem his affection had…weakened, but it also shows that Agnes had lost any sway she might have had over the king in political affairs.

It means we can exclude political reasons for killing her, for there were none, and finally clear Louis XI of suspicion. Yes, the primary reason to suspect Louis was that he detested Agnes’ undue influence on his father in political matters. Why would he reopen investigation into her death then, when he ascended to the throne? To clear his name? He didn’t need it. He was accused of too many plots and murders to care about something as insignificant as poisoning a king’s lover.

We end up empty-handed again. Perhaps, we got it all wrong from the beginning? What if it was not a man of power? What if it was not a man at all?

That cousin, who had suddenly risen so high – perhaps, it’s time we stretch her on the rack?

Or maybe we need to start pulling the string from the other end and look at the potential executor?

We’ll get to them in Episode 3.  Stay tuned.

Murder, by Death

She was 21 when they met. He was 40, and married with 6 children. He fell for her at first sight.  In the six years they would spend together she would produce for him four children and become one of the wealthiest and most influential women in the country. She would die at the age of 28.  Yet, even though the doctor assigned to her would diagnose dysentery, rumours would start, rumours that persist to this day, that she was poisoned.

So if you are all sitting comfortably, we shall begin by playing a game, the game of detective, homicide detective.  In the following narrative names have not been altered to protect the innocent as in truth, and as you are about to discover, no one is entirely innocent when we start to consider the events and the clues that inevitably lead us to the unshakable conclusion of, murder.

Our story begins innocently enough, This is one of the most famous Madonnas of the French Renaissance, painted by Jean Fouquet in 1452. This artist  apart from his unfortunate surname, is famous for blending a healthy dose of the Van Eycks with a good measure of the Tuscany school, and brewing the concoction on the low fire of French charm, at a time when Frenchness didn’t quite exist yet. France was slowly emerging from the Hundred Years’ War, when a half of it was occupied by the English, and its people were just beginning to discover what it meant to be French.

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Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim by Jean Fouquet, 1452, currently in Antwerp because French revolutionaries destroyed or exported everything that had been made by and for royalists.

It is well known that the model for this painting was Agnes Sorel, the official mistress of Charles VII.

I suspect the very first questions that involuntarily pop up in the mind of a modern observer are related to the breast augmentation techniques existing in the mid-15th century, and the tombstonish colour of her skin.

But these are not the questions we’ll be addressing right now. It’s a criminal investigation, remember?

She died suddenly, aged 26, after giving birth to her fourth child, two years before the panel was painted. In 2005, her remains were exhumed for analysis that confirmed she had died because of mercury poisoning.

The scientists also reconstructed her face, so we can see her “photograph” now, and wonder at the beauty standards of the 15th century:

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The scientists didn’t say that mercury poisoning was by itself evidence of murder. They also found out that Agnes had ascarides: at the time the illness was cured by mercury-containing medicines, so theoretically she could have simply taken an overdose, whether voluntarily or not can never be proved.

The artist who made the painting above left us a series of portraits of almost all the people who surrounded Agnes during the six years that she was Charles’ mistress.

It is very unlikely that any of the portraits can point at the perpetrator of the murder (if it was a murder, of course), but perhaps they can help us develop hypotheses about who the poisoner might be?

Let’s check out the painting’s historical context and meet a cheerful crowd of 15th-century French aristocracy, who were still a hundred years away from discovering the table fork, not to mention table manners.

Continue reading

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Is Body Art Art?

Car shows, fashion events, and corporate dinners become so much more lively and spicier if the organisers pepper them with thematically illuminated naked girls.

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Note how a SINGLE body art model created jobs for TWO photographers.

Need to boost attendance? Bring out the nudes with T-shirts drawn over their tits, not put on their bodies!

Besides increased traffic, and cheer, the benefits of body art are many and varied.

Think of the workplace atmosphere, for instance.

Most corporate IT policies discourage googling “nude girls”, effectively depriving men of a third of their motivation (I am not aware of any company banning the search for power or money). It may not be OK to google nude girls, but “body art” is totally legit. It is art, it helps intellectual development, and promotes friendships by giving men something to share with their mates over coffee breaks.

Russian MPs during a Parliament session

Russian MPs during a Parliament session, it is not body art, but again, corporate slaves are not as immune as MPs, and body art is what can save their skins.

Body art can help a good cause, like anti-fur movement. It adds “cute” to “potty”, making the whole affair less embarrassing for the activists.

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Even hardcore feminists find it difficult to object to the objectification of body art models because, well, a woman can do anything she wants to her body, and no man shall advise her what’s appropriate and what’s not.

Not that men are going to start telling girls it’s not decent to bum around topless.

It is a win-win type of art, that motivated countless men to get divorced, buy a Ferrari and start a new life. It also inspired catpaining, the body art for cats, that I detest even slightly more than the traditional body art. Facebook wants more than just a cute or grumpy pussy now. It craves for some domestic violence to the domesticated.

One of the pics in the gallery earned $15K for the cat’s owner. Catpainting can be financially satisfying, not just the fun you get when the neighbour cat gets a heart attack as it ventures into your garden.

P.S. Before you decide to crush me with the argument that body art can be art if it is performed by Marina Abromivich, please note the joking character of this post, which is a teasing prequel to an essay on nudes in painting, and the role of Degas in turning the nude into the naked.

Repression art

Wars have inspired many artists throughout the centuries to come up with art glorifying the victors or lamenting losses, or thinking of the ways wars make people stop being human. We talked about it here, in the War Art post.

Surprisingly, repressions against a country’s own people have largely failed to produce anything that would be similarly impressive. I can understand why. First, killing or imprisoning your own people for entertaining ideas the boss doesn’t approve of is a relatively new concept. Second, artists who have enough strength of spirit to come up with such art are usually repressed first. Unless, of course, they join the other side, but even that does not guarantee their safety.

Repression art done by the descendants of the repressed often turns out to be a trite repetition of the kind of war art that talks about the plight of the defeated, with truly unique insights very difficult to come by.

This a memorial to Stalin’s repressions in Moscow, that uses a statue of Stalin, a wall made of stones shaped as heads, and a small pyramid of the same head stones.

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How is this, conceptually, different from Vereschagin’s Apotheosis of Death, made more than a hundred years before it? Especially if we add some etchings made during the reign of terror in France?

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The French reign of terror produced mainly illustrations of executions, and the Death of Marat which is only interesting as a confirmation that an artist (David), however classic, can be a butcher. Arts do not make all people better.

So, here comes Russia again, with one of the most powerful contemplation of repressions to be made by an artist who was – on the outside – supporting Bolsheviks. He captured the horror of repressions in two seemingly innocuous paintings.

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin named the first one “the Anxiety of 1919″ for the authorities to think that he was depicting the time when counter-revolutionary gangs threatened supporters of the Revolution. But the clock on the wall shows 9:34, the real time when it is taking place and a clear reference to 1934, when he painted it.

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The man looks out the window, and Petrov-Vodkin’s contemporaries would know why: the sound of a car engine in the night. A black car in the night was picking up dissidents, or enemies of the state. Once arrested, people were gone, and their families would often disappear too. There are no severed heads, but the bloody horror of the woman in the red skirt who fears for her husband, and her children is contagious.

Three years later Petrov-Vodkin came up with a merry celebration of moving into a new flat:

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What can be ominous about it? Well, the pictures on the walls. The pictures belonged to the family that lived in this flat before the new arrivals. There’s a pre-Revolution chair in the left corner on which someone from the previous family used to sit. It stands empty now. The horror in this painting is in the knowledge that a whole family was “removed” from life and no one knows where and how. This was the kind of horror people had to live with daily.

It is difficult to keep scaring people with a guillotine or a pyramid of sculls, if possible at all. Such overused images get worn out with time. Conveying the ordinariness of everyday evil is the key. Everyday’s fear, lies, betrayals… Petrov-Vodkin could do it with Stalin’s censors breathing down his neck.

In the 1990s, when Russia came out of its socialist stupor and victims of political repressions were massively rehabilitated, each and every city would put up a monument to that dreadful epoch. As it often happens with hastily erected monuments, most of them are artistic failures. I wouldn’t want to illustrate my point by a gallery of semi-Christian crosses, roughly cut stones, barbed wire, and cell windows. Believe me, there is a multitude of them.

There is one monument, though, that is worth looking at. It was commissioned to Ernst Neizvestny, a dissident artist of the 1960s and 70s, who now lives in the US, in the late 1990s. Its name is the Mask of Grief.

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There is a wind bell which irregular chimes provide the broken rhythm of the lives extinguished by the GULAG. The sculpture can be entered through the staircase leading to the left nostril. On the inside, it even has a replica solitary cell:

3VSN1153Its cold concrete sends across the awareness and pain of unstoppable, fatalistic brutality and oppression, which was a part of life for millions of people. I think it is a convincing argument for the scale of repressions, but it is not about the individual horror of it all.

It also doesn’t really address the issues faced by repressions’ survivors and next generations. I am surprised that for many years I couldn’t find an artwork that would address the consequences of Stalin’s repressions. Perhaps, no one believed that this kind of Russian history could repeat itself. Well, Russia is almost there now, again.

Surprisingly, I ultimately found an artwork like this, by Botagoz Tolesheva, an artist from Kazakhstan (a USSR republic that suffered just as much as the rest of the country at the time). It is a Kazakh carpet, with torn threads representing lives stamped out by repressions. The carpet has a huge hole because of it. The hole that can never be mended looms at the observers, making them think of not just how many lives were taken, but how much was cut out of their own present, and future.

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Another artwork from the same exhibition, by Asel Kadyrkhanova, aptly named The Machine, shows a typewriter from the 1930s with red threads linking it to the typewritten verdicts on the wall.

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I have not seen a better representation of a smoothly running repression machine producing everyday evil and death. For me, it is even more scary than the Mask of Grief by Neizvestny.

Today, most of art inspired by repressions is a mixture of protest and provocation, be it the Pussy Riot performance or Pavlensky’s nailing his scrotum to the Red Square.

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Somehow, even with the massive media buzz they create, none of it infuses the observer with horror in the face of the returning reign of “limited terror”.

I am curious what comes next, even though I’d prefer not to witness it coming.

Lubyanka Cellars, or why I was absent from my blog

This is the last photo I took on my prolonged vacation in the mountains, which ended in Geneva. This long holiday also explains why I’ve been vacationing off my blog.

This window is indeed in the basement of the Justice Palace in Geneva, and strangely is made me think of Moscow’s most “tallest” building, the former KGB (now rebranded into the FSB) at Lubyanka, 2.

It was jokingly referred to as “the tallest building”, because “one could see Siberia from its basement”. Indeed, the cellars housed a prison where people were tortured and executed for joking about Moscow’s tallest building, as well as other heinous crimes.

A business idea popped up immediately.

What if I could rent out a part of the basement there for a liquor store?

“Wines and Liquors from Lubyanka Cellars”, or “La Cave du Palais de KGB”.

With the after-sale slogan to be printed on the bill, “If you don’t come back we assume you didn’t like it here. We’ll find out why”.

I could run promotions like, “Buy two bottles of vodka, get standard-issue handcuffs free”. Though I am sure I won’t have to. I mean, who would refuse getting a specially designed bottle from the KGB cellar?! Imagine the touristic value of a vodka bottle bought at such an establishment, all the legends and stories the happy customer could share with his mates back home…

And, of course, there would be plenty of art. I talked about the art of war in my previous post, and I think it’s time to share the art of repressions in one of my next ones.

P. S. Any ideas on how to sell this plan to the FSB director? 

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War art

People dream of societies that live at peace with each other, and are prepared to slaughter millions to achieve this ideal. More than once, God himself, having realised his plans for humans were going astray, reset the civilization to ground zero with holy weapons of mass destruction. God’s biggest promise itself is a new order that would follow the absolute and final extermination of everyone living. Don’t forget that God loves people, at least in the majority of religions, He made us in His own image, so people’s love-hate relationship with war shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Art has been walking hand in hand with War for most of its history, mostly glorifying the victors. Examples to the contrary, showing suffering and desolation caused by wars, are very few and relatively recent.

If you ask an art history expert about art dedicated to war suffering, the Christian theme of the Triumph of Death is very likely to come up first, even though it was more often used as a moral reminder that Death does not differentiate between people than a contemplation of war’s consequences. That “theme” was first spotted in the 14th century, reaching climax in Pieter Bruegel’s painting of 1562: Yet, even here war does not take full precedence over other, less violent causes of human demise. War is a part of life here, but not an extraordinary occurrence.

Surprisingly, the first artistic insight into the consequences of War appeared more than a hundred years before Bruegel, in 1338, when Ambrogio Lorenzetti was commissioned to paint a fresco in Siena’s Palazzo Publico. Today it is known as The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, but originally it was conceived as The Allegory of War and Peace.

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A fragment of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fresco: The Consequences of Bad Government

Trade is dead, buildings stand empty, and crumbling, with no one trying to mend the facades. Stone debris cover the empty streets, and no faces can be spotted in the windows. This fresco provides a stark contrast with the Effects of Good Government on the opposite wall, which is about education, merriment, and prosperity.

Sixty years after Bruegel the issue of war-caused suffering was addressed again. Jacques Callot made a series of 18 etchings dedicated to the Great Miseries of War in 1633, featuring marauding troops, pillagers, and executions. This “Hanging” is known best: Les_misères_et_les_malheurs_de_la_guerre_-_11_-_La_pendaison Rubens was inspired by the same atrocities of the Thirty Years’ War when he painted his own anti-war statement five years after Callot’s etchings. His Consequences of War send a powerful, albeit hopeless, allegorical message: war tramples upon arts, humanity, knowledge, and life itself, and no love can stop it, even if it comes in the image of a naked sex symbol of the 17th century. Strangely, while the message is clearly there, the painting lacks emotional impact, for it states the obvious in a rather literal way. War is known to silence arts and to kill people. Love is not known to stop War: it is Victory or Exhaustion that put an end to it. So what? The allegorical figure of Europe with her arms thrust towards the skies is, perhaps, the only image truly relevant today, especially in view of Germany’s threats to cut the slice of Greece out of the EU common pie, if their nationalistic party with populist agenda wins the elections.

An overdose of allegory is just as bad for a painting as too much focusing on naturalistic detail that links it to a very specific conflict and does not allow for a generalisation.

There is one allegory though, that still reverberates as clearly and emotionally as a Stradivari violin. It’s Goya’s mad paintings, made early in the 19th century, and inspired by civil strife in Spain: Wars do not just kill off scores of people, separating them into winners and losers.

Wars exterminate humanity, and do as much harm to the victors as to the defeated. The defeated lose their lives or freedom, and the winner loses his soul, or humanity. 

A very good friend of mine who inspired me to write this post, shared with me a Goya’s painting that he finds most horrific:

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Just as Saturn devouring his children, it was painted inside Goya’s house. We don’t know what it means, but we can safely assume that the inspiration behind it was similar to that of Saturn. This friend of mine interprets the painting as something a fallen soldier might see in his final moments. Other people may interpret it differently, but what is certain is that any verbal narrative freezes down and dries up in the face of this visual image. If my friend’s interpretation is right, it can be seen as a war-consequence painting.

In the 19th century, with weapons of destruction getting more and more powerful, artists went for the shock of mass death to make observers recoil from war, if not their paintings. In 1871, Vasily Vereschagin, a Russian artist, assigned to document a Russian war in the Central Asia, came up with this Apotheosis of War which he explicitly dedicated to all conquerors, past, present, and future:

Apotheosis

The painting references legends of Tamerlane who is believed to have repeatedly erected such pyramids with sculls of people he didn’t quite like. Vereschagin modernised the story by showing bullet holes and saber slashes on the sculls.

Eight years later, Vereschagin produced another powerful testimony to the mindless brutality of the Balkan war in the Fallen:

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But it was the WWI that would change the course of arts forever. The indiscriminate, inhumane slaughter that it unleashed made artists turn away from the traditional representations of war consequences. Artists wanted to discover imagery that would not just truly horrify observers (photography and film were quite capable of that), but would make people recoil from the concept of war, not just a particular conflict.

At the time, Spanish artists were most prolific in producing War-related allegories. 

Picasso, perhaps, is the most well-known with his Guernica, which proved to be so powerful, its copy at the UN was draped for the press-conference of Colin Powell on the start of the Iraq campaign.

Then comes Salvator Dali with his Face of the War (sculls within sculls) and the Premonition of Civil War, the latter showing a body destroying itself: Powerful, isn’t it? But does this gruesome painting really make you shiver? Well, perhaps it does, but I see a lot of Dali’s personal sexual obsessions here, and it somehow narrows its impact.

And then another Spanish artist reinterpreted war once again. Still Life with Old Shoe (1937) by Joan Miro is one of my all-time favourites.

still-life-with-old-shoe

It is both a landscape and a still life, showing very simple objects: the eponymous shoe, a loaf of bread, an apple with a fork stuck in it, and a bottle. You can find these objects in any house, even in a war zone. The key colour here is black. It permeates everything, it spoils the food and poisons the drink. Wherever you are, war finds a way to get you. Black is unstoppable here, it seeps through the canvas, coming at you from behind it, and as you watch the painting, its blackness expands, grows bigger, and devours all these simple elements of life.

For me this is an ultimate anti-war statement: there are no escapees, there can be no survivors, even if the war is waged far from your home. War is an all-consuming fire and blackness.

I find it somewhat strange the painting is not on display (and not on loan) there. Is it a too powerful anti-war statement to be shown to the public?

P.S. I have intentionally omitted some of the best war-related works by Sargent (Gassed), Paul Nash (We are Making a New World) or Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country. There are many more out there, and I’ve chosen the most famous + my favs. Please share your favourite war-related artwork! Do you have the one that resonates with you?

 

 

Rembrandt makes you feel holy

Christmas in art is usually represented via the Adoration of the Magi. There are dozens of paintings with three wise men of the East kneeling in front of the cradle, with the Virgin presenting her Son, and Joseph standing back, respectfully. Artists played with light coming from the star right onto Christ, with angels cheering up or even dancing (Botticelli), with various saints and benefactors attending the scene, but few dared to capture the Christmas spirit beyond a trite illustration of the Bible. Most artists didn’t have the creative liberty to experiment. Clients wanted the Magi, and a client’s wish was just as sacrosanct as the story itself, if not more so.

My favourite representation of Christmas is the Holy Family with Angels by Rembrandt (St.Petersburg, the Hermitage), painted three years after Rembrandt’s wife died leaving him a widowed father.

34newtes

Rembrandt makes the observer actively present, and not a passive voyeur, by using three light sources, with the observer being “responsible” for one of them:

Light_sources

 

The stove represents a problem though. It is, most likely, a stove like this one:

vrel

Jacobus Vrel, the Hospital Orderly, 1654-1662

So the light must travel from the bottom up, and strangely enough, it lights up Joseph’s instruments as if the flame is as high as the stove itself. Rembrandt twisted physics to show the earthly, man-made light (even if it is as huge as implied in this painting) is something far inferior to the light created by God or (!) the observer.

This is the genius design of Rembrandt: the observer walks in, lets the light in, and in its intensity it is almost equal to the celestial light. Don’t you feel holy, standing there, in front of Infant Christ, with the Virgin presenting Him to you?

Yes, Rembrandt makes you not just present, he hints at your holiness as well, and by that he fills your heart with holiness. Even non-religious people say they feel something extraordinary in front of this painting.

Joseph is busy making a yoke (an obvious reference to Christ’s destiny and role), and he doesn’t seem to be afraid of waking his son. It means you shouldn’t be afraid too. Take your time, digest the scene. Rembrandt doesn’t want you to feel an unwelcome intruder (unless, of course, you wear clogs and keep playing your violin).

The Virgin checks on her son, but it becomes a presentation of Christ to you.

So, you are holy, and you are being presented with the Son of God, who would make this individual holiness possible, by showing the road to fighting sin.

I am not religious, but I am awed.

I have to mention the red cover of Christ and the cherry-red dress of the Virgin. Besides their symbolic reference, these “details” create heat in the picture. infant Christ and the Virgin not only give you the opportunity to become a righteous man, they also give you warmth and comfort, which are much warmer and more comforting than the man-made heat of the stove.

Merry Christmas, my dear readers!