07 July 2009

Art | Witnessing history

I am currently reflecting on art that has changed the world, and in particular, the pieces that I was fortunate enough to have seen on my "grand tour of Europe" - hah, you may laugh, but I like to call it so. I bring you:

These are not necessarily my favourite painters, nor the painters whose stock is currently highest or currently in vogue. Further, you'd have heard of Velaquez, Caravaggio, Piera della Francesca and Manet, all notably absent from my list. Here I bring forward what I consider to be the most seminal painters of our time - the art that painters flocked to for inspiration, and thereby redirected the direction of art and its movements.

1. Giotto (c. 1266 - 1337) - Early Renaissance

Ognissanti Madonna The Uffuzi, Florence Visited May 2008

Hark! Here the artists come! I begin here, in the early 1300s, which heralded the arrival the artists who sign their work, travel in packs, and live lives about which much is known. Before Giotto, the painter hadn't counted for much more than a stonemason or a glassblower. Now, he'd be accorded a degree of respect, authority, and press unknown since ancient Greece. The human body was rediscovered, as previously the courtly and rigid Byzantines had felt some combination of deep shame and lack of interest anyway. Giotto, out of the blue (we're waist deep in the middle ages remember), turned mannequins into people, dry Christian doctrine into vivid narrative, the shapes into objects with weight and volume, and his native Florence into the red-hot centre of the art world for the next 250 years. No painter would prove as influential as Giotto for six centuries, until Cezanne decided that eyewitness-style reporting of what is seen is not necessarily the ultimate in art.

A statue of Giotto stand proudly outside the Uffuzi in Florence. I am still yet to see Giotto's Lamentation of Christ, one of his many Arena Chapel frescoes in Padua, Italy. The chapel's fresco cycle, which was completed by Giotto in about 1305, is one of the most important masterpieces of Western art.

2. Masaccio (1401 - 1428) - Early Renaissance

The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden Brancacci Chapel, Florence Visited May 2008

This work is an unequalled image of pain and exclusion.

Masaccio played John Lennon to Giotto's Buddy Holly. That is, Masaccio took his predecessor's 3-D realism and gave some real depth to it, and generally shook the large vestiges of the middle ages out of the whole performance. Thus begins the Renaissance, the era that rediscovered Greece and Rome; that promoted such novelties as humanism, freedom, and the idea of living a full life. Such ideas brought support to studios, patrons, and apprentices. Massiccio made his mark at the Renaissance's heroic beginnings, right in the centre of boom-town Florence. New sciences of perspective an anatomy encourage painters to paint things as they appear to the eye.
That doesn't however, mean that you're going to get off on Masaccio in the same way you got off on John Lennon. Firstly, Masaccio dies at twenty-seven, before he'd really done that much. Also, until recently most of his work was in really bad shape or stuck in badly lit Italian churches. Most importantly, few of us today are vowed by perspective and anatomy. As a result, Masaccio is what art historians call a "scholar's painter." You must admit, Eve's face is pretty below ordinary. But in the mid fifteenth-century, Leonardo, Michelangelo et al. where making their way to Brancacci Chapel to take a long hard look at his work.

3. Raphael (1483 - 1520) - High Renaissance

The School of Athens Apostolic Palace, Vatican City Visited May 2008

Together with his contemporaries Leonardo and Michelangelo he forms the trinity of the High Renaissance. Raphael is just so perfect. Everything is in wonderful harmony, he never makes mistakes, or fails to achieve desired results. He's like an engineer as he perfects his paintings, each of his canvases is an exercise in balance, in organization, in clarity and harmony, in coherence and gracefulness. He was everyone's favourite for over 400 years, but now he's being viewed as more bland and assimilated other artists too much. In the High Renaissance, painting packs its bags and heads from Florence to Rome, where the papacy has taken over the Medicis' old role of financing, and Raphael, in possession of a good sense of timing, was there in Rome in a flash.

4. Titian (1477 - 1576) - Venetian School

Venus With a Mirror Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna Visited December, 2007

Welcome now to Venice: opulent, voluptuous, pagan, and on the popular trade route to the Orient. Here, light and colour are reverent, as opposed to Florence where structure and balance are the name of the game. Titian was the most important of the Venetians, at a time when painting was at its most competitive, with PR reps, agents, and outrageous political and religious demands. The stakes were rising. Titian was extremely versatile (painting erotica to straight portraits to complex mythologies), and extremely long-lived, dying at the ripe age of ninety-nine.

Titian dominated the art scene for seventy-five years, and helped ensure that the primary medium of painting would be oil and canvas. Don't expect anything amazingly imaginative in his works, but do expect supreme beauty, energy and expansiveness. However, in his old age when his eyesight diminished, he began to paint with overbold strokes, and has as a result been cited as "the first impressionist" for painting how he saw things, rather than how he knew them to be.

Later in May 2008, I saw Titian's Venus of Urbino (right) in the Uffuzi, Florence. I turned a corner of the museum, and there she was waiting for me. Venus had been flaunting her curves on the cover of one of my favourite books: "In Defence of Sin" for the last 10 years of my life, and here she was, patiently lounging.

5. El Greco (1541 - 1614) - Mannerism

The Holy Trinity Museo del Prado, Madrid Visited October 2007

In the words of Manet, he was "the great alternative". El Greco's dramatic and expressionistic style was met with puzzlement by his contemporaries, and was too much of an anomoly to have real impact. It wasn't truly appreciated unitl the 20th century - appauling his distortions - especially those gaunt, tense, strung out figures - and his creation of an inward fire-and-ice world, complete with angst and hallucination. He is just absolutley fucking awesome if you ask me.

El Greco is regarded as a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism, while his personality and works were a source of inspiration for poets and writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Nikos Kazantzakis. El Greco has been characterized by modern scholars as an artist so individual that he belongs to no conventional school. In fact, from Van Gogh through to young Picasso and the German Impressionistss, up to American Abstract Expressionism of the 40s and 50s, all of whom had a big "I've-gotta-be-me" streak, El Greco has served as a patron saint.

Next time I go to Madrid, I must also venture 70km south to visit Museo Del Greco, Toledo, where he moved to in 1577 (after spending time in Venice, Rome, and Florence) and worked there until his death. There, you can to see Burial of the Count of Orgaz which is currently my favourite painting, and also the infamous View of Toledo.

6. Rubens (1577 - 1640) - Northern Baroque Style

The Judgment of Paris National Gallery, London Visited June 2008

Rubens, the "prince of painters", lived in Antwerp, now Belgium, but then the Spanish Netherlands. He purveyed his billowy, opulent, robust, and sensual portraits, altarpieces, lanscapes and mythological depictions to churches, private patrons, and almost every royal household in Europe. It helped that he was as much of a diplomat as an artists, and was entrusted with secrets of state by the Infanto of Spain, and hence allowed entrance to all the best palaces.

Flemish painting, which began with the restrained van Eyck, proceded through Bosch and Brueghel, and reached its culmination now, an art that was drumming up a full-tilt Catholic sumptuousness even as its orth-of-the-border Dutch cousin was becoming more Protestant and bourgeois.

The principle of baroque is the organizing principle behind all seventeenth century art - dynamic, emotional, exuberant, and asymmetrical in all those places where the classicism of the High Renaissaince had been static, poised, and balanced. The consequence of this principle was that a work or art in this period was greater that the sum of its parts.

7. Rembrandt (1606 - 1669) - Dutch School

The Night Watch Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam Visited July 2007

What stands out the most about Rembrandt, is his ability to manipulate lights and darks, and he enshewed contour better than anybody. Rembrandt was a painter who realized, first and most fully, that the eye could take in a human figure, the floor it was standing on, the wall behind it, plus the flock of pigeons visable through the window in that wall, without having to make any conscious adjustments. Sort of the art history equivalent of the transfer from manual to automatic in automotive industry!

Further, Rembrandt was unbelievably perceptive and sensitive to his actual surroundings. He encapsulated a panorama of Dutch life - guild hall to slum, merchant to beggar - and portrayed it in all its poignancy and detail. This was the first art to be consumed exclusively by "mere mortals", due to the lack of popes and patrons farming out commissions in 17th-century Netherlands.

8. Monet (1840 - 1926) - Impressionism

Le dejeuner sur lherbe Musée d'Orsay, Paris Visited October 2007

Monet has two legendary reputations. Firstly, he is the father of Impressionism - the mid-nineteenth-century that grabbed an easel and a handful of paint brushes and headed outdoors and attempted to capture the spontaneous and transitory effects of light and colour by painting with the eye (and what it saw), rather than with the mind (and what it knew to be true). This style couldn't care less about form, in the sense of either composition or solidity. It was initially reviled by the conservative French critics and artgoing public, however it wound up becoming the 20th-century's most drooled over style of painting.

The second Monet is the father of Modernism, the man who - getting progressively blinder and more obsessed with reducing the visable world to terms of pure light - eventually gave up form all together and took out the first patent on abstraction. It's this Monet that the avant-garde has tended to prefer, and it's this Monet that I think is pretty bad.

I also saw "Le Bassin aux Nymphéas Avec Iris" at Kunsthaus Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland in May 2008. This was one of my favourite museums in Europe, but not because of the Monet Waterlillies collection, but instead for it's outstanding range of 20th century art.

Also, when I was in Sydney, Australia in Januray 2009, there was a temporary collection of Monet's later works, that I found rather underwhelming.

9. Cezanne (1839 - 1906) - Post-Impressionism

A Modern Olympia Musée d'Orsay, Paris Visited October 2007

If you understand Cezanne, you'll have less problems understanding "modern" art, abstraction, alienation etc. Firstly, Cezanne was rejecting Impressionism, not only it's commitment to transience and to truth-as-what-the-eye-sees, but also its affiliation with the bourgeouisie and the boulevards. Cezanne wanted to infuse some gravity, even granduer back into painting.

Second, he refuting classical "one-point" perspective, which makes the viewer the person on whome everything converges and for whome everything is done. For Cezanne, "seeing" was a process, a weighing of choices, not a product. He also declared colour, not line, to be the definer of form, and also that geometry, not the needs of composition, are the basis.

Thirdly, Cezanne singlehandedly reversed the pendulum swing towrds representational "accuracy" to Giotto had set in motion 600 years earlier. Now, how you percieve is more important that what you percieve - the artist's modus operandi for more than the illusions he can bring off. Granted, this is heavy stuff, but the paintings are still sensuous, inviting and of the world we know.

10. Picasso (1881 - 1973) - Proto-Cubism

On the Beach (La Baignade) Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice Visited January 2008

Well, the best way to start to understand Picasso is to undertand Cubism (nothing to do with actual cubes and everything to do with seeing things in relationship to one another, simultaneously, and from more than one vantage point at a time, with the result that you can find yourself looking at a teacup from both head on, and above).

Understanding celebrity is also relevant to Picasso, as towards the end of his life, he enjoyed a fame no painter, not even worldlings like Raphael and Rubens, had ever known, complete with bastard heirs, sycophantic dealers and Life magazine covers.

Beyond his art that was influenced by cubism and celebrity, there's his basic energy, the fecundity, the frankness, the perchant for metamorphis and welter of styles, the mythologizing (with Minotaurs, nymphs and river-gods) and in a personal vein the womanizing (he was famous for classifying women as either "goddesses" or "doormats").

Modern Lovers | Pablo Picasso

"some people try to pick up girls
and get called an asshole
this never happened to pablo picasso
he could walk down your street
and girls could not resist to stare..."

This is witnessing history.