Tag Archives: National Gallery

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.

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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):


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:


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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!


Not a good painter, but a great artist

This autumn, the National Gallery in London hosts Goya: the Portraits, a show which preparation spanned a whole decade.

As you start looking at Goya’s portraits, a terrible realisation hits you like a ton of bricks. Goya was not a good painter, in the classical sense.

He was so bad with colour nuances that his seated men look like men whose legs were cut in half. He could rarely separate an object from the background and most of his characters look like cut-outs pasted on a background painted by an amateur theatre decorator. His attempts to add depth by mixing colours of the background and the garment of his sitter are appalling.

Here are a few examples of his failings:


Yet, he was a great artist.

To judge Goya by the standards of classical realism is like…judging Einstein by spelling errors in his thesis on the theory of relativity.

Goya was a prophet. He foresaw the new levels of inhumane cruelty that would blast the world apart a hundred years later. He felt that the time was coming when Man would become a suicidal mass murderer. He drew the WWI and WWII a hundred years before tanks and gas chambers were invented.

I understand there was no space for it, but if I curated the exhibition, I would show at least some of his Disasters of War to remind people of his greatness that exists beyond his career as a court painter.

But even if he never produced his haunting images, he would still be a great painter. His radical inventiveness might have come from his desire to hide his lack of painterly skill, but it doesn’t make his innovativeness any less seminal.

He brough the genre of Reclining Nude to a new high by replacing nudity with nakedness in his Nude Maja. It was not just about the body. It was about transforming women from a passive object of male desire into an active party in negotiating a sexual situation.

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He then created the concept of eroticism that is still in use today with this reclining girl:


A note to my male readers. If a woman has never thrown herself at you, you may experience the feeling standing in front of this painting. Beware! She is also so innocent that when you catch her, you’d feel an immediate urge to propose.

Would you care then that the cover on the bed could be painted somewhat better? There were hundreds of classical artists all across Europe at the time, but you wouldn’t want to propose to any of their nudes or semi-dressed girls. In ten minutes, you wouldn’t even remember what they looked like.

Again, his nudes were not his major achievement as a painter. I began with them because I hoped they’d motivate you to read further on.

His most important contribution was the introduction of an artist’s attitude to the sitter as an essential element of portraiture. He was honest with his sitters, showing their faces with all the defects, wrinkles, and after-stroke consequences, and he was honest about his feelings towards them.

This makes his portraits alive and speaking to or even conversing with the modern observer. Not all of them, of course, because we are generally very selective about people we want and like to talk to, but regardless of how picky you are, you can find your perfect mate among the 70 portraits currently on show at the National Gallery.

Goya’s sitters have been dead for two centuries already, but their types live on.

A wise man who wants to make the world a better place and knows the recipe? To whose ideas the world resists (which is normal) and creates in the man a melancholic attitude?

Meet Mr Jovellanos, portrayed in 1798.


We can skip the symbolism of Minerva (she’s a retired goddess anyway) and, having appreciated the melancholic pose of the portrayed (who wouldn’t get stressed out by so much paperwork?), focus on the face:

Francisco_de_Goya_y_Lucientes_-_Gaspar_Melchor_de_Jovellanos - копия

The guy is talking to us. Goya captured one of his words in mid-air. He may be tired, but he is still interested to know the observer’s (or, rather, the listener’s) thoughts on the subject he is talking about.

Perhaps, he is explaining why he hates wigs, and that the man’s fundamental freedom to wear his hair the way he wants it should be respected by the king? We don’t know. Appropriate this wise guy and make your own story.

Or, if you want to meet a man of action, here’s your hero, Mr Saavedra.


The man’s impatience is conveyed by his pose and the camp table that can be folded and moved any moment now. There are only a few sheets of paper on it. The sitter is not a man of many letters, but of much action.

I have to note that many observers go dizzy about the way the chair, the legs of the table and those of the sitter are arranged, wondering if Mr Saavedra may require assistance to disentangle himself, but, as I said at the beginning, the composition Goya had chosen for this portrait might simply have exceeded his abilities to paint it.

Eight legs are difficult to handle, but it is not an important (albeit funny) part of this painting. It’s the sitter’s eyes, his gaze, which is inexplicably intense and serene at the same time, that makes him into an archetypal action hero.

Or, perhaps, you don’t care for wise or action men, and want someone to share you passion for arts and music?

I have a buddy for you. The Marquis of Villafranca.


This man could become a second (or first) Casanova, but he’d chosen music as his passion. He is wealthy, but modest (his hat is quite ordinary). He is sporty (note the riding boots) but cultured (he leans on a piano). He’s got great legs and tender hands.

And the way he looks back to the observer still sends crowds swooning.

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You can imagine how many more friends there are in this show to choose from.

Goya brought his love, respect, adoration, and sometimes hate of the sitter into his paintings.

A modern man may wonder why an artist would want paint a portrait of someone he detests. That’s the downside of being a court painter who is obliged to paint his king.

So, here is my warning to you:

As I was standing yesterday in front of his official portrait of King Ferdinand, the tyrant who came to power after the French were finally kicked out of Spain, I was overwhelmed with a desire to kick first his knee, then his groin, and when he would have bent over with pain, his face. My murderous intent was so strong, I wondered if the National Gallery should place a couple of armed guards in front of this painting. I am afraid there bound to be a visitor who may not have the nerve to hold back.


Ferdinand VII was a bastard, metaphorically and literally. His mother confessed on her deathbed that none of her children were conceived by her husband, the king. Ferdinand was selfish, vengeful, dishonest, and, above all, dumb, which made him exceptionally cruel to his people, friends and enemies, both real and imaginary. He bankrupted his country and left it in the throes of a civil war upon his death. Well worth kicking in the groin, if you ask me.

I can’t recommend to skip, to walk past this portrait because it shows how innovative Goya could be when he had strong feelings towards his subject.

The embroidery on the king’s cape is pure abstract expressionism. In fact, it is so expressive it can be a painting in its own right. The royal symphony of pure reds, golds and silvers is poisoned by streaks of pure black that represent the chaotic and toxic character of the king better than a wikipedia article on him.

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So if you decide to go to Goya: the Portraits show at the National Gallery in London, leave all sharp objects at home for you might be tempted to use them on a painting.

Besides, there’s a bag search at the entrance.

Renoir’s Dance: story of passion

I still remember my first slow dance with a girl I fancied at the time when instead of proper chemistry I was researching the effect of having crystals of Iodine dissolved in Ammonia solution (a bang occurs when the resulting residue dries up, loud enough to make the teacher beat the school’s record in vertical jump). This, and the day I got drunk for the first time are the three things I remember from my school days.

Dancing was erotic then, even more so than making loud bangs. It was all about courting, flirtation, passion, and much jealousy for the less fortunate wall-propping boys.  I am not sure it holds true for contemporary dance, but even a twerking fan can try to imagine what it is to waltz with a partner who is not bobbing up and down like a sledge-hammer.

Dance is a single reason to come to National Gallery’s Inventing Impressionism show twice. I mean the three Dance paintings by Renoir. Rarely shown together since they were sold by Paul Durand-Ruel, a famous dealer who commercialised the Impressionists, they offer an ironic insight into the passions swirling on the dance floor.

Art historians seem to know everything about these paintings: time, location, model names, and brands of clothes they wear, but I feel the painter’s idea has been eluding them or they didn’t feel the general public should be made aware of it. Let’s remedy this, for it is best seen when the three paintings are together.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir made two paintings of dance in the country and one ballroom version in 1883.

Look at them and note the major difference between the two types of dance:


Dance at Bougival, 1883(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) Dance in the Country and Dance in the City (Paris, Muse´e d’Orsay, Photographs © Re´union des Muse´es Nationaux / Art Resource, NY) Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841–1919)

Outdoor dancing is much wilder than its ballroom counterpart. In the country, men don’t have to put on gloves, women can wear loosely fitted ones; the movement is dynamic, the plants, trees, and feelings are real. The ballroom type, with its somber white columns, potted plants, controlled steps, and orchestrated music, pales in comparison. That is, at first glance. Because at second glance, we can notice that the two country scenes are very different to each other, and there is a lot of passion in the ballroom scene too.

Let’s get closer to the couple in the middle, who seem to have left their table in a hurry to join the merry-making on the dance floor.

Dance 1 Reduced size

The man has put the hand of his lady in a firm grip, but she holds on to her fan as if it were a symbol of her independence. She didn’t take off her gloves: it is another barrier between her and her partner. The man is obviously quite taken by passion: he dropped his hat, but doesn’t notice it, his lips are almost touching the cheek of the girl, his eyes are cast down towards her face.

While she maintains her barrier at the top half, she’s quite flirtatious at the bottom: look at how her dress is painted against his leg. First, there is no separation between her dress and his suit, it looks like an Yin Yang symbol. Second, it’s the tiny details that you can only see up close and personal.


The blue reflection on the dress is very weak, implying there is no distance between them. The vertical border of the dress is also slightly shaded, because it is pressed against his leg. And yet, her hand rests on the man’s shoulder without embracing him, and her eyes flick back to the observer (and the artist).


She’s aware she’s being watched, and she flirts with her partner and the observer.

I can understand Renoir who used his future wife as the model here, and, perhaps, could not show her infatuated with one of his best friends, but I also understand her: she’s obviously playing with the man she’s dancing with, and with the man observing the scene, and enjoying every moment of it.

Now let’s spy on the left couple. Their dance is much more dramatic. When thinking about it, we need to remember that Renoir painted the background of his portraits to express his view of the portrayed person’s character. Here, the background is not just merrymaking and chatting. There are more men than women in it, and girls appear somewhat “hunted” by men.


Compare the way this man is dressed to the previous gentleman. He is very casual. Of course, dancing at a country cafe didn’t require a formal suit, but a white shirt and black shoes were still a must. Our guy breaks all the rules. And there’s something wild about him that screams he can, or at least he thinks he can behave like a predator.

Look at the way he holds her. In the previous dance, we had “separation” at the top and union at the bottom. Here, the position is different.

At the top, there’s a lot of passion: his neck is craned towards her, and even though she averts her head, perhaps, to avoid his forced kiss, her hand is thrown over his neck.

Dance at Bougival, 1883  Pierre Auguste Renoir, French, 1841 - 1919  Oil on canvas, 71 5/8 x 38 5/8 inches (181.8 x 98.1 cm)  *Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Picture Fund, 37.375  *Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston  25missing

At the bottom it is the opposite: they are apart.

We don’t have a thin “blue” line separating the girl from her partner. Instead, we have a blue blur that signals motion, clear lines that mean separation, and blue reflections indicating distance:

blue blur

So, what’s going on in this painting? The girl does not seem to offer much resistance, otherwise she wouldn’t be embracing the man, yet she somehow doesn’t what “it” to happen here and now. What is she afraid of?

Perhaps, the clue is in the painting itself. We just need to follow the girl’s line of sight.

Dance-line of sight

She looks at the flower on the floor. A cut, used, and thrown away flower, the colour of the man’s suit. Does the man strike you as an experienced ladies’ man  who had seduced and abandoned a legion of poor souls before his eye fell on this beautiful girl? Even if he does not seem the kind to you, the girl still doubts the prudence of offering him her lips. She wants to, desires to throw herself into his embrace, but… remember the flower, sweetheart, remember the flower, she keeps telling herself.

A friend of mine, having studied the painting, noticed a ring on her ring finger. Is she engaged? If yes, then it is unlikely she is engaged to the man she is dancing with: he doesn’t have a matching ring.

And now, we sail on to the ballroom, that initially seemed so lacking in passion against these country-cafe diversions.download2

How do they feel?

Unlike in the country dance paintings, we don’t see much of the man. But what we can see is quite revealing.


And what about the girl?

Perhaps, Renoir left us clues about her character too?

The simplest clue is this:

download (2) - копияHave you ever played with making shadows on the wall with your hand?

Look at the space between her thumb and index finger and then look at her slightly parted lips.

She and the man are bound by the rules and norms, but she dreams of a kiss, and that dream makes her blush.

If we look at her dress, which is cut by the frame, so that we don’t know where it ends or originates from, it looks a metaphor for passionate innocence that climbed up the man like a snow avalanche, just going upwards.

Remember, all the three “dances” are life-size: Renoir invites you to become a participant, and build your own plot from the glimpse of a story he painted in each of the them.

Renoir's Dancers, and an admirer
Сlick on the photograph to get to its source

And if you are not satisfied with life-size, there is a US artist who offers you an alternative:

Renoir - Dance at Bougival-L

It’s fun, I agree, but… it’s not good for artists. Artists who can’t make a masterpiece of their own love to exploit masterpieces of the past by turning them into hollow pop-art exhibits. It is an easy path to commercial success, but it is often a one-way road: there’s no turning back to creating your own masterpiece.

I am coming back to the show to see the three of them together, and then back again once more. It’s almost as good as mixing Iodine with Ammonia in the school lab and watching your classmates catapult themselves in the air.