Friday, February 3, 2012

Remedios Varo, Embroidering the Earth's Mantle, 1961

Remedios Varo's triptych Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle of 1961 uses both narrative and fantastic modes of transportation to convey her vision of escape to freedom.  Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle is the central panel in the triptych; it is preceded by Toward the Tower, and followed by The Escape.  In Toward the Tower (above), Varo depicts a pack of essentially identical girls following their leader in a trance-like state.  Only one figure veers her gaze, potentially Varo's inclusion of herself as the heroine, she is the rebellious resistor.

In the central panel, Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle (above), the same young women are fervently working in their studio space - a small, isolated environment that emerges commonly in Varo’s work.  Inside the tower, the women are weaving out the surface of the earth under intense supervision.  The rebellious heroine is here as well, spinning out a hidden secret within her weaving - an image of her with her lover.  In the final panel, Varo reveals The Escape (below); the heroine has successfully fled her restrictive world with her lover on a fantastical umbrella-like ship.  This ship in particular reveals a strong influence from Leonora Carrington who often included such motifs in her earlier work (several of Varo’s recurring images come from Carrington’s work in the 1940s).  

     The autobiographical implications of this work seem clear: Varo’s own escape from the creatively restricting environment of her childhood with her lover Gerardo Lizarraga. The pairing of fantastical and historical elements is a common in Varo's work, she combines her actual escape with an escape through the imagination.  As a woman living within confinements (both in her childhood, as well as in her adult life as a female painter in the male dominated Surrealist field), escape through the imagination was a strong part of her life.

Bazzano- Nelson, Florencia. Lecture: November 7, 2006. Tulane University.   
Chadwick, Whitney, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (London: Thames and Hudson, 1985).
Kaplan,  Janet A. “Remedios Varo: Voyages and Visions,” Women’s Art Journal 1.2 (1980-81).
Kaplan,  Janet A, Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varo (New York: Abbeville Press, 1988).
Collection of Walter Gruen, Mexico City

Friday, January 27, 2012

Leonora Carrington, Grandmother Moorhead's Aromatic Kitchen, 1975

     Leonora Carrington's work teems with references to escape and freedom, alchemy and transformation. These themes are often closely tied with her biography; running away from her restrictive childhood and into the male-dominated Surrealist world, that Carrington sought out a means of escape through painting and her dear friend Remedios Varo is no surprise. Carrington and Varo, both ex-patriot female painters living in Mexico, helped each other escape everyday confinements through the transformative powers of alchemical cooking.

     At its root, Alchemy is the ancient practice of transforming base metals into gold. However, in their sharing of recipes and ideas, alchemy enabled Carrington and Varo to transform a traditional domestic space (the kitchen) into a powerful site of female fortitude. Susan Aberth notes that, “for Carrington, traditional sites of female domestic labor are transformed into arenas of occult drama.” In her painting of 1975, Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen (above), she transforms the kitchen from a place of female oppression and labor into one of female power. Carrington has represented the kitchen as a place of strange transformations. Women are engaged in mysterious activities in a secret world unbeknownst to men; the women in this kitchen appear not to be cooking dinner for their family, but instead concocting magical spells. The painting also includes women huddled over a Mexican griddle, a place where many Mexican women spend most of their day, cooking. The garlic cloves on the floor also have a history in Mexican healing and magical rituals, of which Carrington was very interested.

Aberth, Susan, “Leonora Carrington,” Women’s Art Journal, 51.3 (1992). 
Chadwick, Whitney, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (London: Thames and Hudson, 1985.)   
Chadwick, Whitney.  “Leonora Carrington: Evolution of a Feminist Consciousness.”  Women’s Art Journal 7.1 (1986). 
The Mexican Museum, Leonora Carrington: The Mexican Years, 1943-1985 (San Francisco: The Mexican Museum, 1991). 
Charles B. Goddard Center, Ardmore, Oklahoma

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Limbourg Brothers, Tres Riches Heures du Jean, Duc de Berry, 1410-16

Jean de Berry was the third son of King John the Good (of France).  His position as third son made his asscension to the thrown highly unlikely, and was probably a main cause of his becoming an incredible patron of the arts.  He commissioned architecture, stained glass and books of hours (devotional books, made on commission, for the elite to utilize during their daily prayers).  The Tres Riches Heures, a book of hours created by the Limbourg brothers for Jean was his seventh (and last) commissioned book of hours.  The Limbourg Brothers were considered part of the court and were quite friendly with Jean de Berry.  The Tres Riches Heures was the second book of hours they created for Jean, and it is one of the greatest examples of illuminated manuscripts and Medieval lifestyle.  The impeccable details of the book are teeming with portrayals of the extreme contrasts in the lives of the wealthy and that of the poor in Medieval Europe.  

In the pages for January and February (above), the stark contrast between the lives of the nobility and that of the peasants is apparent.  In January, a host of immaculately dressed figures swarm around a table overflowing with feast - even the pets are feeding well at this banquet.  In February, we see peasants working hard and struggling to keep warm in the snowy scene.  Three scantily dressed figures warm themselves by the fire - one is even lifting up his dress to reveal his genitals (suggesting a lack of decency in the lower class).  This lack of decency is seen again in the brothers' painting for August (below).  The court falconry party is parading across the page while a group of peasants are skinny dipping in the background.  And even further in the distance we see Jean de Berry's Chateau d'Étampes.

Jean and all three of the Limbourg brothers died in 1416, most likely of the Plague, leaving the book unfinished.  Following their deaths, the Tres Riches Heures was worked on by Barthélemy d'Eyck and then completed later by by Jean Colombe.  

Benton, Janetta Rebould. Art of the Middle Ages. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002.
Longnon, Jean. Tres Riches Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry. New York, George Braziller, Inc. 1969.
Pognon, Edmond. Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry: 15th Century Manuscript. New York: Crescent Books, 1979.
Schachrel, Lillian. Tres Riches Heures: Behind the Gothic Masterpiece. Munich: Prestel Books, 1997.
Musée Condé, Chantilly, France

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1615

Artemisia Gentileschi is an artist whose biography, namely one specific event in her biography, has cast a long shadow over interpretation of her work.  Artemisia was raped by Agostino Tassi, a fellow painter and friend of her father (Orazio Gentileschi, who taught her daughter to paint).  It is unclear the extent to which this rape (and the trial that followed) impacted Artemisia's work, however the drama of the events has given the artist a lot of attention.

Artemisia's work is extremely powerful.  Her use of chiaroscuro, in which the influence of Caravaggio can be seen, and her dramatic choice of subject matter create an indisputable forcefulness to her paintings.  Particularly in Judith Beheading Holofernes (c. 1615), where she chose to paint the most violent moment of the story, there is a violent energy to her work.  This energy is often categorized as sexual energy when paired with the details of Artemisia's rape and trial.  Though it seems clear that Artemisia was a strong and resilient woman, claiming Judith Beheading Holofernes to be a revenge painting is a dangerous game.

Cohen, Elizabeth S. "The Trials of Artemisia Gentileschi: A Rape as History," Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 31, No. 1, Special Edition: Gender in Early Modern Europe (Spring 2000).
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Umberto Boccioni, The Charge of the Lancers, 1915

Umberto Boccioni was one of the lead artists in the Italian Futurist movement of the early 1900s.  His most famous works are in bronze, where the energy of his forms are represented by a solid trail following a figure.  In The Charge of the Lancers, a collage of 1915, Boccioni depicts a fierce cavalry trampling soldiers with bayonets.  The tragic irony of this picture lies in the fact that just one year later Boccioni died after being thrown from, and trampled by, his horse.  The forceful power of this image is an excellent visual representation of the ideas of the futurists.

Futurism was founded by the writer Filipo Tommaso Marinetti, and was joined by a handful of young artists, including Umberto Boccioni at the forefront.  Based on Marinetti's radical manifesto of 1909, Futurism was an extremely fast paced and modern movement.  The following were the main points outlined by Marinetti:
  1. We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.
  2. The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt.
  3. Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.
  4. We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath ... a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
  5. We want to sing the man at the wheel, the ideal axis of which crosses the earth, itself hurled along its orbit.
  6. The poet must spend himself with warmth, glamour and prodigality to increase the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements.
  7. Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.
  8. We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries! What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed.
  9. We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
  10. We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.
  11. We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-colored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals: the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons: the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers: adventurous steamers sniffing the horizon; great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for bridle, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag and the applause of enthusiastic crowds.

Joll, James. Three Intellectuals in Politics. Haper & Row, 1965.
Ricardo and Magda Jucker Collection, Milan

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 1849-50

Gustave Courbet was at the forefront of the Realist movement in 19th century France.  Two of his major influences were the Dutch Masters (namely Rembrandt), who painted the world around them with a low degree of editing, as well as the 1830 invention of photography (which pushed painting to address what the camera couldn't).  Courbet was a very original thinker whose paintings scandalized Paris on numerous occasions. 

Courbet's painting A Burial at Ornans (1849-50) was shown in the Paris Salon of 1850-51 to ardent mixed reviews (one claimed him to be deliberately creating ugliness).  The huge (10x22') canvas depicts the rural funeral of Courbet's uncle.  The models for the painting are the actual townspeople, in the raw.  Putting this "insignificant" moment on such a large canvas, and to show it at the Paris Salon, was unheard of.  Paintings of this scale had previously been reserved for royalty or grand history paintings.  Courbet himself was very aware of the groundbreaking nature of the painting; he said, "The Burial at Ornans was in reality the burial of Romanticism."

Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Joaquín Torres-García, América Invertida, 1943

In 1943, Joaquín Torres-García created the "School of the South," with the ambition of aiding Uruguay's artistic isolation.  His mission was founded on a statement he had made in 1935, "A great School of Art ought to arise here in our country...I have said School of the South; because in reality, our North is the South.  There should be no North for us, except in opposition to our South.  That is why we now turn the map upside down."  Torres-García was interested in pushing Uruguayan artists to negate colonialism; to make art as though they were directly descended from their pre-Hispanic heritage.  His drawing of 1943, América Invertida, is an excellent visual articulation of his desire to put Uruguay in control of its own artistic production.

Barnitz, Jacqueline. Twetieth-Century Art of Latin America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.
Museo Torres García, Montevideo, Uruguay