When Pop Art Gets Critical: Andy Warhol

I used to dismiss Andy Warhol as “shallow”–that is, until I dug a little deeper and discovered the underlying coherence of his work. Warhol’s two most famous pieces, the Marilyns and the Campbell’s Soup Cans, highlight the persistent theme of his body of work: the dehumanizing effects of media.  He didn’t target pundits; his critique was that mechanistic production and proliferation of an image erodes its meaning and value.  In other words, if you see something enough times it doesn’t matter or mean anything to you anymore.

The Marilyns are the first and most famous of Warhol’s Celebrity series.  They are silk screened prints on canvases, the same image but different colors each time.  Warhol chose silk screening because it was mechanistic rather than personal.  These screens could create hundreds of nearly identical prints if maintained well, but he was more interested in the machine-like process than the mass of products it could produce.  He allowed the silkscreens degrade with use, meaning that each successive image was slightly more garbled than the one before, culminating in blocks of color that can barely be recognized as a face.  The result?  A mechanism that, when repeated, resulted in eventual loss of meaning.  That’s the basic process, but that doesn’t explain the subject matter.

Why celebrities?  Same idea: images of celebrities are so pervasive that they destroy our notion of the celebrity as a person; the human is replaced by a photo increasingly detached from the reality of their humanness, reflecting instead a projected persona.  Why Marylin?  Because she was destroyed by the machine.  Warhol developed the process before he chose the subject; when asked why he used Marylin, he answered that he “got the idea to make screens of her beautiful face” from the news of her recent suicide.  The images he created only recapped what had happened in her life: meaning was destroyed by mechanistic production.  Other celebrities in the series include Elvis Presley, Jackie Onassis, Michael Jackson, and Mao Tse-Tung, among others.

The Campbell’s Soup Cans are another approach to the same issue.  He painted a vast series of cans, each a little different from any other, sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly.  As he made them he paid close attention to their differences, and if you were to examine each can individually, you would see the subtleties.  But you see dozens of cans at once, and however intricate each one might be, all you see is a bunch of identical cans.  Warhol repeated this process with other prolific objects, like dollar bills and Coca-Cola bottles.  Asked why he painted such repetitiously mundane material, he answered  “I just paint things I always thought were beautiful . . . things you use every day and never think about.” (quoted in Victor Bockirs’ book The Life and Death of Andy Warhol)  One image, or one object can be interesting, unique, and beautiful.  Hundreds can only be a stack of something, whether it’s a stack of cans or a stack of pretty pictures.

Was Warhol’s critique limited to the culture’s treatment of pictures?  I doubt it.  ‘Image’ can be understood in many ways; broadly defined, celebrities, archetypes, heroes and leaders are all images.   The fact that he applied the mechanistic process to pictures is interesting, but I think the real impact lies in his selection of subjects.  Mao Tse-Tung, Marylin Monroe, soup cans, coke bottles, car wrecks.  What do these things have in common?  That we know, and don’t really care.  That we have seen them too often to actually perceive them anymore; that proliferation has annihilated meaning.

Warhol aimed to draw attention to the mechanism by imitating and parodying it.  He called his studio ‘The Factory’.  He set up assembly lines.  He insisted that “The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine.”  The very absurdity of embracing dehumanization was his social critique.  The tragedy is that no one noticed.

Think about it.  Where have you seen Warhol’s art?  Have you seen the originals?  Probably not.  Most likely you’ve seen posters, T-shirts, tote bags, coffee mugs, calendars, neckties, purses, you name it, mechanically emblazoned with the images Andy created.  This time, there is no human pretending to be a machine- it’s actually pure machinery.  This time, the images do not critique mechanization- they have been subsumed by it.

Minimalist Contemplation

“I once taught art to adults in a night course. I had a woman who painted her back yard, and she said it was the first time she had ever really looked at it. I think everyone sees beauty. Art is a way to respond.”
—Agnes Martin

As a painter, I understand a number of paintings more readily than most museum visitors. Yet there are still some that are challenging to appreciate. I’ll be honest: Agnes Martin’s work is hard for me to access. She paints and draws in a minimalist style, invoking meditation, repetition, and concepts of the infinite. I’ve never been very good at meditation, but I think that we miss something if we dismiss challenging pieces without trying to understand them. So bear with me while I relay to you the results of my grappling with Martin’s painting, ‘Leaf in the Wind‘ (graphite and acrylic on canvas, 72″ x 72″, 1963).

'Leaf in the Wind', Agnes Martin

The 1950s-70s were a period in art history steeped in theory. Many artists wrote to explain their theory of art, or to provide a frame of reference for the viewer. While she does not present a robust philosophy of aesthetics, Agnes Martin’s writings and comments are still helpful as a starting point. Her work is clearly non-representational; she means for it to evoke a response, not to image some foreign object or setting. When questioned about her work, Martin explained,

“When people go to the ocean, they like to see it all day. . . . There’s nobody living who couldn’t stand all afternoon in front of a waterfall. It’s a simple experience, you become lighter and lighter in weight, and you wouldn’t want anything else. Anyone who can sit on a stone in a field awhile can see my painting. Nature is like a curtain; you go into it. I want to draw a certain response like this. . . . Not a specific response but that quality of response from people when they leave themselves behind, often experienced in nature– an experience of simple joy. . . the simple, direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean.”

Detail of the graphite grid

Seeing Leaf in the Wind is a carefully controlled experience. You cannot look at it from across the room: the lines melt away, and all you behold is a blank white square. It is difficult to view it just inches away: you see the ridges of brush marks, the erasures, the unevenness in the pencil lines–but you cannot see the whole image. To actually see the whole piece, you have to stand between one foot and five feet back. Within this narrow window you may move around, examining the workmanship. Seven feet back the image begins to blur; if you have already seen it, you can meditate on the piece from this distance. The piece is difficult to photograph; it demands your physical presence.

Why is it white? Because of the purity and humility of the color. White is unassuming. Why is the grid drawn in with pencil? Because of the shimmering and fragile quality of a graphite line. Why is it a grid? Definitely not because grids are systematic, removed, or in any way mechanistic. Martin clearly uses a ruler, but just as clearly draws every line by hand, leaving them wavering slightly, sometimes not quite straight, sometimes drawn in and erased again where the line would break the pattern of the grid. These erasures are my favorite parts of the painting- traces of the artist’s hand, carefully, thoughtfully, slowly creating the image.

Why name it ‘Leaf in the Wind’? The title certainly recommends a meditative visual experience. Have you ever watched a leaf twisting in the wind? There is a graceful repetition, a motion apparently infinite, a twisting and returning. Martin particularly liked the veins and interwoven lines visible in the back of leaves. She writes:

“The underside of the leaf, cool in shadow, sublimely unemphatic, smiling of innocence. The frailest stems quiver in light, bend and break in silence. … [T]he paintings [are] not really about nature. It is not what is seen. It is what is known forever in the mind.”

Is the painting successful? Perhaps. I do not think it my duty to approve of everything simply because it is in a museum. After you have considered it carefully, after you have done due diligence to understand a piece, after you have seen it in person and grappled with it–if it still fails to move you, then it did not succeed. Painters with lofty aims do at times fail to achieve them. Personally, I am still unsure about Martin’s work. I am inclined to approve, but I need to spend more time in front of the painting before rendering a decision.

If you are interested in reading more about Agnes Martin, the Guggenheim has an excellent introductory page. If you want to read a more sophisticated art-critical discussion of Martin’s approach to drawing/painting, I recommend the book ‘3x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing (Hilma of Klint, Emma Kunz, Agnes Martin)‘, edited by Catherine de Zegher and Hendel Teicher.

Thief! Top 10 Art Heists

By now you’ve doubtless heard about the brazen art heist in France.  The security system at the Museum of Modern Art, Paris, had been broken since March 30 this year.  On May 20, a lone burglar wearing a face mask cut a padlock and broke a window to gain entry to the museum.  He stole five paintings (a Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Leger, and Modigliani, worth a combined $120 Million) and disappeared.Paintings stolen from the Paris Museum

As bold as the Paris thief was, this robbery is not as impressive as some others in the past.  For your reading pleasure, I’ve listed

The Top 10 Art Heists in History

10- The aforementioned Paris theft.

9. Public Service Heist [April 2003]

Sometime during the night, thieves managed to evade CCTV, a night patrol, and all of the Whitworth Art Gallery‘s security alarms, gather the three most valuable paintings in the gallery, and disappear into the night.  The museum was unaware of the theft until moments before opening to the public on the following day.  A day later, police were contacted by an anonymous caller who said the paintings were behind a toilet in a public bathroom near the museum.  They were found there, together with a note explaining that they did not intend to steal these paintings, just wanted to highlight security weaknesses.  The paintings were damaged, but reparable, and were reclaimed by the museum.

8. Frankfurt Theft & Operation Cobalt

This is sheer genius on the part of the Tate Gallery’s director Nicholas Serota, who arranged to secretly buy back two of its Turner paintings stolen while on display in a German gallery.  The burglars hid in the museum until it was locked for the night, then overpowered the guards and made off with three paintings (combined value of £30 million). Two thieves were caught but the paintings were not found, so the Tate received compensation from the insurance company–a fraction of which they used to buy back the paintings directly from the thieves.  The result?  A 20 million euro profit for the Tate Gallery.

7. Tunneling to Riches in Paraguay [July 2002]

This heist was a long time in planning, and wins points for its ‘Great-Escape’ resemblance.  The would-be thieves rented a store under a fake name near Paraguay’s National Fine Arts Museum, dug an 80 ft long tunnel into the museum, and entered after it closed.  Once inside, they took 5 paintings and exited from the building’s balconies.

6. The ‘Fishing Line’ Theft [April, 1987]

Most museums don’t have the sophisticated laser-alarm system depicted in the movies, but this one did.  How’d the thief get around it? The title gives it away: he cut a hole in a gallery window, lowered a thin fishing line and a hook through it, and ‘fished’ up a 14″ x 18″ Renoir painting (Bouquet d’Anemones dans une Vase Verre).  The painting turned up four years later in Japan, by an owner who had purchased it in good faith.  The thief was never caught.

5. Smuggling the Mona Lisa [August, 1911]

This is a crazy story.  The Mona Lisa disappeared from its frame in the Louvre on the morning of August 21.  The museum didn’t know it was stolen until the next day; everyone had assumed it was out for cleaning, or photography. An outspoken poet was arrested on suspicion of the theft, and his friend Pablo Picasso was brought in for questioning. Neither of them had anything to do with it.  Who did?  The mastermind was Eduardo de Valfierno, who planned to sell forgeries of the painting as ‘the returned original’.  He had Louvre custodian Vincenzo Peruggia snatch the painting from the wall, tuck it under his coat, and exit the museum. Voila! the Mona Lisa was gone.  Peruggia was arrested in 1913 when he tried to sell the paining in Florence.

4. Speedboat & Decoys [December 2000]

This one wins the prize for best getaway.  Three armed thieves broke into the waterfront National Museum of Fine Art in Stockholm, Sweden.  They swiped one Rembrandt and two Renoirs, (collective value of $30 million) while accomplices set off car bombs at the opposite end of the city to distract the police and laid tire spikes on the roads approaching the museum.  The men left in a speedboat while the police were dealing with flat tires.   The men weren’t so good at the post-heist planning: eight were arrested in less than two weeks, and the paintings were recovered by 2005.

3. The Thief Known as ‘The Monkey’
[December 2002]

All he needed was a ladder and rope.  Workmen at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, left a ladder propped against the window of an upper gallery. Two men climbed the ladder in plain view, broke the window with their elbows, set off alarms as they snatched two paintings (worth a collective $8 million) and used the rope to escape before police arrived. Their sense of style was their undoing: police arrested the men two years later based on DNA evidence gathered from hats left at the scene.  The paintings were not recovered. If they’re clever, once they finish their sentences the thieves will wait 18 years, then claim ownership: Dutch law will recognize them as rightful owners if they can prove they stole the pieces.

2. Norway, The Scream
[February 1994]

Speed and daring: this daylight theft took less than 2 minutes.  Days before the start of the Olympic games in Lillehammer, Norway, two men climbed a ladder, broke a window in Oslo’s National Art Museum, cut Munch’s Scream off the wall with wire cutters, and fled with the painting.  They left a note reading, “Thanks for the poor security.” The museum received a $1 million ransom demand, but refused to pay, and recovered the painting in a sting operation in May 1994.  By January 1996, four men were convicted for the theft.

1. Gardner Museum Heist [March 1990]

The grandaddy of them all, this theft included 13 paintings, worth a collective $300 million, making it the largest art heist in US history. The night of St. Patrick’s day, two men in Boston, MA, dressed up in police uniforms & costume mustaches, and had the museum’s night security let them in, saying they were responding to a ‘disturbance’.  Once inside they bound the two guards, took 13 art pieces, and disappeared.  The theft was not discovered until 8:30 the next morning, and despite a full-scale FBI investigation, the case was never solved.  The statute of limitation has run out, so if the thieves still have the paintings they now own them.   The FBI has offered a no-questions-asked reward of $5 million for information leading to the recover of the paintings, and their empty frames are still displayed at the Gardner Museums as reminders of the theft.

Paint & Portraiture: John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent may rightly be considered the king of portrait painting. He worked in a style that loosely filled in figures’ backgrounds, while carefully depicting their faces. Most of his portraits were commissions, made either for the person pictured or else someone who loved them. “Portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw”, is a case in point: commissioned by the lady’s husband, the 49″ x 49″ canvas carefully states the face, while suggesting the details of everything else.Portrait of Lady Agnew, Sargent

Sargent’s strokes are bold and fluid. Once he settled on a composition, he would practice the particular brushwork until it was perfect; only then would Sargent touch the canvas. His paintings come in and out of focus, materialize into an object and dissolve again into broad strokes of pigment. His paint application is primarily thin; these portraits read more as images of people than as recognizable swathes of paint.

However, if you look closely at the highlights of Lady Agnew’s skirt, you can see the white brushwork, unblended, sitting on top of the slightly darker white of the garment. Similarly, if you closely examine any aspect of the chair, the floral print dissolves into a series of dashed off blotches of blue and red, the buttons look like so many daubs with a dull grey paint, and the wooden edging becomes four long strokes of thin, dark paint. Look away for but a moment, and everything resolves itself again: your mind accepts the cues, and fills in all the gaps in the paint.

The sitter’s face is, naturally, the focal point of the portrait. She looks straight at us, tilting her head down slightly and raising her eyes. One eyebrow is raised interrogatively. A half-smile plays about her lips. Her expression is friendly, but bemused. Her right eye seems languid while the other challenges our gaze. Her face is difficult to read; it is complex, offering confidence and relaxation, intrigue and, perhaps, boredom. Sargent prided himself on capturing intelligent and complex expressions, and this portrait is no exception.

The similarities between the poses of this “Portrait of Lady Agnew” and Bonnard’s portrait last week are striking. Each figures a young woman in an arm chair, one arm folded into her lap, the other extended at her side, legs crossed, shoulders facing forward. Each wears a white garment, a pendant necklace, and her hair up. Both compositions emphasize a vertical axis, while offsetting it with occasional diagonal elements.

The differences between the two painters, however, could hardly be more staggering. Sargent’s pieces are show pieces: they display what can be done with a brush and pigment, and trumpet the confidence of the artist. Bonnard’s are sustained and almost timid investigations into the color and shape of particular bits of the world. Both were excellent painters, but their own attitudes towards the model and material world are embodied in their paintings. ‘

Paint & Portraiture: Pierre Bonnard

So far we’ve talked a lot about narrative paintings, compositions which are based on or tell a specific story.  For the next couple of weeks, we’ll focus more on portraiture.  Today, we’ll spend the day with Pierre Bonnard’s “Portrait of Leila Claude Anet”.  Painted in 1930, the work is a little over four feet tall, and a little under three feet wide.
Portrait of Leila
Oil paintings are traditionally painted on a neutral base, like burnt umber or grey, to prevent the bright white of an untreated canvas from interfering with the painter’s color judgments.  Bonnard’s painting, however, leaves the white of the canvas untreated.  He was a master of color, and frequently used color rather than line to show the contours and movements of forms.

Ah, the careful color web in which he traced his subject.  Paint applied so thin it was translucent.  This is why he used a white background–his paintings are liquid color shining through to the white base.  His subject in this painting is a young woman with a level gaze, legs crossed, in a white blouse and blue striped skirt.

It is primarily a composition in blue and orange, but not without some red and purple hues.  He left the canvas primer exposed to speak for her blouse in the light, laying thick paint in pale tones to mention its curves in the shadows.  (And such tones!  Zoom in on her stomach: there is green, blue, pink, mauve, grey, and even some brown.)

Her face is textured, heavily worked over, mostly orange.  A cool green marks where the left edge of her brow shifts glancingly away from the light.  The bridge of her nose is the sole feature marked out in crisp outline– carved by a thin but precise line of white.

The rest of the paint is so thin, and so lightly applied, that Bonnard’s loose sketch in pencil shows through.  It is no more anatomically or geometrically correct than the painting.  That, of course, was never the point of this portrait.  An image can represent its subject in ways never dreamt by a mirror; why should it always imitate one?

Bonnard works at the intersection of watercolor and oil; he updates John Singer Sargent with a humble and meek daubing of paint.  The lighting is simple: a single warm source from the upper right, somewhere above the sitter’s head.  It casts a shadow on the left side of her face, and her head casts a small shadow on her shoulders.  The chair’s colors change to blue and orange where it is hit by the light, retreating to red, brown and purple in shadow.

Typical of Bonnard’s work, the sitter’s head is delicately painted, a touch too small, and the jaws undefined.  It seems vulnerable and lost, but simultaneously grounds the whole composition with its steady gaze and built up texture.

Sargent, too, painted loosely all the surroundings of the sitter, reserving the fixed detail work for the head.  For him the fluid brushwork was a musician’s flawless performance, to be rehearsed until the final gesture appeared effortless as it suggested the turn of an arm, a twist of silk, or the recesses of a shadow.  All these strokes, however magnificent, were only stage and set for the real star, the head.  These were carefully built up, and polished to an insane finish.  We’ll look at Sargent next week.

Bonnard eschews polish.  For him, paint is still paint, not a glittering window to a second world.  More still, the edges are clearly diluted paint- visible strokes and scumbling.  The gaze, which in Sargent is always so direct, is deferred or obscured in Bonnard.  you know where the eyes are by where the shadows fall, but you can’t quite make contact.  The sitter looks forever just past you, in an ephemeral world always coming into being and simultaneously about to dissolve.  In short, in a world not unlike our own.

Art and Perception: Degas

Though it is popular to view art as the self-expression of the artist, a great deal of it is in fact dedicated to problems of perception: the process of recording observed forms presents the opportunity to correct perceptual errors. Most drawing instructors will assure you that the first and most foundational lesson in learning how to draw is simply learning how to see– if you can master that, controlling your materials is a cinch.

Frequently, an artist will make a plethora of study sketches before finally producing the painting that becomes famous. The sketches serve a variety of purposes–testing out ideas, balancing a composition, playing with metaphors–but mostly they function as research. If an artist wants to discover how an arm moves, he draws it, or, on occasion, sculpts it. Michaelangelo, Rodin, and DaVinci made drawings to research for their sculptures; Degas sculpted to research for his paintings.

Little Dancer, 14 Years Old

Though over 100 unique Degas sculptures are exhibited in museums today, during his lifetime the artist made only one which he intended for public display: Little Dancer, 14 Years Old. The rest he made for research purposes, and left in his studio. After his death, these study sculptures, originally made from wax, were cast into a more durable bronze material for museum display.

The differences in execution between Little Dancer and these study models are remarkable. The surface of the Dancer is carefully smoothed, and presents itself as a polished imitation of actual skin, tights, and slippers. The surfaces of the study models vary greatly, but none are polished to match the Dancer. Since Degas used these sculptures as studies for paintings and not as display pieces, his attention was focused on the anatomy, movement, and rough proportion of the poses, not polishing their surfaces.

For instance, Degas formed these studies of horses out of a wax composite and used them primarily to solve complex lighting problems presented by his compositions. Painting a horse with intricate muscular structure on an outdoor racetrack is far more difficult than it looks. The main light source is determined by the position of the sun and whether there is cloud cover. Depending on its intensity, that light will reflect varying degrees of local color from all surfaces near the horse, lighting it at odd angles and creating unexpected hues and tones on the body.

When this occurs in daily life the brain processes the effects so quickly that we hardly notice. But when you see a painting that neglects these lighting effects, it will feel off somehow. You may not be able to put your finger on the exact cause, but the image will feel dark, artificial and a bit flat.

Left: 'Race Horses'. Right: 'Training for the Horse Race'

Making a three dimensional model allowed Degas to observe the patterns of reflected light, and thus enabled him to paint the challenging scenes with confidence.

You can tell by the way the horses are sculpted that Degas was interested in the elegant power of the beast. The musculature is carefully observed, but not exaggerated. The skeleton is only visible as a framework connecting and illuminating the muscles. The horses are in poses that showcase their agility and grace, and when Degas paints them they are calm, natural elements of a composition about power.

You may wonder why these study models are on display at a museum: after all, if the artist didn’t intend them to be individual works of art, do they really count?

In short, yes. For the modern viewer, Degas’ study sculptures are eloquent isolations of light and form, paring away some details so that we can observe others. While these models do not create a world or finished object apart from ours, they do focus our attention and perception on the beauty of the forms surrounding us. They say “look here: isn’t the curve of a horse’s underbelly lovely? Aren’t the hocks marvelous in their delicate size and tremendous power?” And we answer “yes, but I never saw that before….” which is precisely the point. Art can create worlds, but it can also be used to see our own world more clearly, which is exactly what Degas’ sculptures do. ‘

Real Heroism: Rodin’s Burghers of Calais

I pass by Rodin’s sculpture of the Burghers of Calais every morning on my way to work.  It’s a difficult sculpture for a modern viewer to access.  Who were the Burghers of Calais, anyway?  And why do these men look haggard and miserable?

The Burghers of Calais

The story is as old as the Hundred Years’ War.  The city of Calais had been under siege for 11 months, and conditions were dire.  King Edward III offered terms: he would spare the city if six of the most important men (burghers) surrendered themselves, dressed in plainclothes and wearing nooses around their necks.  He intended to kill them, and they knew it. Six men volunteered.  Stripping themselves of all the finery that set them apart as rich or important, they donned nooses and left the city, walking barefoot toward the enemy encampment and certain death.

Rodin chose to sculpt this moment–when each man’s love of his city grapples with his own fear of death.   They wear only loose tunics, garments which hang on them like beggars’ rags. Their skin is stretched taught, revealing skeletal cheekbones and sunken eyes.  These men are heroes, not gods, and Rodin emphasizes the pain of their struggle as the defining moment of bravery.  Writing to Paul Gsell, he explained,

In the indecision of that last inner combat which ensues between their cause and their fear of dying, each of them is isolated in front of his conscience. They are still questioning themselves to know if they have the strength to accomplish the supreme sacrifice — their soul pushes them onward, but their feet refuse to walk… If I have succeeded in showing how much the body, weakened by the most cruel sufferings, still holds on to life, how much power it still has over the spirit that is consumed with bravery, I congratulate myself on not having remained beneath the noble theme I have dealt with.

Each figure has a different struggle, but all are noble and all are pitiable. The oldest in the group (Jean d’Aire) bears the key to the city, an emblem of the cause of their noble sacrifice.  His entire body is rigid with resolve: he faces death, but must brace himself.  The key is enormous, a considerable weight and burden which must be born.

Burghers 1-3

The posture of the central figure (Eustache de Saint-Pierre) is similar.  His arms are slightly raised, as if they are guiding his steps forward.  His eyes are downcast but he still holds his head up.  His stance acknowledges defeat, but does so honorably and without flinching.

To his right (our left) is the most famous pose of the group.  The young man (Pierre de Wiessant) turns aside, his head downcast, his right arm gesturing questioningly before his face.  Reminiscent of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be”, this figure finds surrender more difficult.  Just behind him, a fourth burgher (Jean de Fiennes) walks slowly, his arms slightly extended in a feeble plea for an easier fate.

Burghers 4-6

Hidden from our view by Eustache, a fifth man (Jacques de Wiessant) hesitates slightly as he walks, brow furrowed as he contemplates the end that is sure to come.  The sixth and final figure (Andrieu d’Andres) is the most heart-rending.  He leans forward, toward death, but buries his head in his hands, grieving the family whom he leaves behind.

The nooses round the men’s necks are ambiguous: at times they are draped like medals and decorative cords, at others they appear snakelike and threatening. Sometimes the rope just hangs limp, as helpless as its bearer. These cords are at once medallions and death sentences, badges of honor and yokes of shame.

The figures are cast in bronze, slightly over life-size.  Rodin wanted to install them without pedestals (much like our Korean War memorial in DC) but was not permitted.  He wrote:

I wanted them to be placed on the paving stones of the square in front of the town hall in Calais so that it looked as if they were leaving in order to go to the enemy camp. In this way they would have been mixed with the daily life of the town: passersby would have elbowed them, and they would have felt through this contact the emotion of the living past in their midst.

Though these heroes were willing to die for their city, they were not required to.  As it turned out, the English queen talked the king out of executing them.  Jean Froissart recorded the incident, and its unexpected ending:

The queen of England, who at that time was very big with child, fell on her knees, and with tears said, “…I most humbly ask as a gift… that you will be merciful to these six men.”
The king looked at her for some time in silence, and then said; “… you have entreated in such a manner that I cannot refuse you; I therefore give them to you, to do as you please with them.” The queen conducted the six citizens to her apartments, and had the halters taken from round their necks, after which she new clothed them, and served them with a plentiful dinner: she then presented each with six nobles, and had them escorted out of the camp in safety.

Suffering with Christ: Grunewald

Today we commemorate Christ’s crucifixion. I have found myself meditating this week on an old altarpiece from a chapel in Isenheim, Germany, painted in 1512 by Matthias Grünewald. Of the thousands of extant paintings of the crucifixion, this one most powerfully depicts suffering and death as yet unrelieved by the resurrection.

The basic composition is straightforward. The crucifix is the primary focal point, centered, and without any perspectival distortion. To the left John the Apostle comforts the Virgin, while Mary Magdalene prays to Christ. To the right John the Baptist (identified by his sheep and book) points to the Son of God. So far, it’s a relatively normal crucifixion scene.  (To view a larger version in a new window while you read, click here.)

Views of the Altarpiece

This painting is the primary image of a multi-part altarpiece, and in its primary position is flanked on either side by paintings of St. Sebastian and St. Anthony. In the second position it yields to the celebrations of the life of Christ, including the annunciation and resurrection. Most of the year the primary scene would be shown, while on Easter Sunday and certain other Church holidays it would change to the second position. Of all the paintings on this altarpiece, the crucifixion is the most compelling: its gross depiction of a dying Christ transfixes the eye and refuses to leave the mind. There are thousands of paintings of the crucifixion, but few painters as bold as Grünewald to assert the human fragility and ugliness of an embodied, dying Christ.

Christ's Body

Look closely at Christ’s hands and feet, and note the pockmarks in his body. His feet are greenish, the skin loose and the flesh diseased. His hands convulse into claws, issuing from dislocated shoulders. His body is marked allover by small cuts and sores, bristling at times with splinters or sores. These details are not part of the standard injuries of Christ; Grünewald painted them to show a Christ that bears all suffering, especially that of the viewer.

Confused? Here’s some historical background. Many of the painting’s original viewers suffered from Ergotism. Also called ‘St. Anthony’s Fire’, the disease is a slow neurological poisoning caused by ergot, a parasitic rye fungus. People who ate contaminated rye experienced hallucinations of demons (ergot produces LSD when refined), burning sensations, and developed dry gangrene in their extremities. The monks of St. Anthony specialized in treating these symptoms, so the sick were brought to this monastery, and would meditate in the chapel during their course of treatment. They arrived in a state of physical and psychological torment difficult to imagine, their skin an eruption of boils, their hands, ears, and feet decaying slowly. If treatment was unsuccessful, these body parts would fall off and the sufferer would die naturally or kill himself in a hallucinatory fit a few weeks later.

Other Figures

Grünewald painted Christ with the symptoms of Ergotism, reminding the viewer not only that the savior is no stranger to pain, but that He is with them in their own suffering. The anachronistic presence of John the Baptist suggests the resurrection and redemption that Christ’s pain brings, and reminds the viewer that he is one with Christ through the baptism. This is the only figure in the composition that does not visibly suffer, but while he reminds the viewer that hope is not lost, he does little to relieve the agony of the painting. St. John bears the inscription, ‘I must decrease and He must increase’–a fitting reminder of the sufferer’s proper response to his own pain. The other figures, too, suggest appropriate reactions: John the apostle catches or comforts Mary as she swoons from the pain of seeing the beloved son suffer. John at once supports her, and grieves alongside her, providing an image of Christian community. Mary Magdalen kneels, praying for or to Christ. All focus their attention on the crucifixion; all grieve, all suffer, but in their suffering do not despair.

As to the rest of the composition, it is a dark wasteland. Good Friday, and the Saturday that follows, are dark days that hang heavily until the resurrection morning. The agony is not made any less deep, less painful or less real by being eventually redeemed. This is Grünewald’s message, powerfully and viscerally conveyed: you are suffering, and Christ suffers. Your condition is not hopeless, but it is real, and excruciating, and in it you must focus on the cross, and knowing that you do not suffer alone, endure. Quietly, he reassures you– redemption and resurrection are coming. Be patient, Christian; suffer with hope. ‘

Painting Darkness to Reveal Light: El Greco

This Thursday we celebrate the Annunciation to Mary, so it seems right to look at at least one of the hundreds of paintings treating the subject.

My personal favorite is by El Greco and hangs in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. ‘El Greco’ is actually just the nickname the Spanish gave the artist; he was born in Crete in 1541, but when he was making fantastic paintings in Spain it was just easier to call him ‘the Greek’ than to try to pronounce his real name, Domenicos Theotokopoulos.  We’ll follow their example.

He painted this Annunciation composition three times, the largest of which measures over 10 feet high and 5 feet wide. When viewed side by side, it’s obvious that the design is relatively stable: an extra angel’s profile appears in the second composition, and there are minor shifts in his treatment of the fabrics and clouds, but overall the image is the same.

Click to see the painting larger & in a new window

Rather than comparing the three with each other, let’s just focus on understanding the first one. There’s a lot going on in this painting, so as always it’s best to start with the basics.

Formal Elements

The canvas has a strong vertical pull- at ten feet your neck would start to ache as you struggled to look at the heavens and the bottom of the canvas at once. Mary and the Angel are each a little over four feet, not quite life size. There are very few fixed edges: the lectern that holds the bible behind Mary is the sole right-angled architectural structure. The lighting comes from the center of the painting, illuminating the faces of both Mary and the Angel as they look at each other while darkness encroaches on the edges of the canvas.


For being a painting of the Annunciation, El Greco’s composition is quite crowded. Typical paintings of the subject depict the Angel, Mary, her Bible (typically in codex format, despite the anachronism), lilies, some sort of architectural background, and occasionally the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. No such simplicity is found here: the image teems with additional angels and swirls in a dizzying plethora of clouds.

The top half of the painting shows an Angelic concert, celebrating the Incarnation by playing a variety of contemporary instruments (Lute, Harp, Shawm, Clavichord, and Bass Viol). Musical Consorts such as these were the choice entertainment at regal courts at the time, and here they’re basically a heavenly chamber music ensemble meant to underscore Christ’s real status as a king.

The strange bulbous forms lining the clouds that connect the dove and Mary are actually cherubs. I know they look like skulls. That’s part of El Greco’s style, and certainly shouldn’t be overlooked. Perhaps they function as pre-figurations of Christ’s ultimate crucifixion at “the Place called The Skull” (Luke 23:33).  Comparing El Greco’s cherubs with those of Rubens and Raphael reveals both their identity as cherubs (note the curly hair on the heads, framed by small wings) and their radical departure from the traditional representation of a cherub.  Raphael’s cherubs might be cousins of Cupid; El Greco’s really do look more like a pile of skulls.

Despite the typically joyous subject of the painting, El Greco’s color choices (muted reds and greens, a dominating pearl grey offset by black) lend a psychological pressure to the composition that is unsettling. This is an image of upheaval, of celebration and of pain. The lilies -a flower traditionally denoting Mary’s purity- look stretched, strained, half dead. The dark and twisting clouds replace any firm architecture, leaving us unsteady and unsure of our footing. If this had been painted in the modern day, we might suspect Tim Burton had a hand in it. Even the musical angels are distorted, elongated, and a bit creepy- just take a good look at their fingers.

Certainly the image is macabre, but not without relief.  The announcing Angel stands on a cloud that enters the painting from the side- from where we, the viewers, stand. He has actually come to earth, not simply shouted to Mary from heaven. His arms form a cross over his chest, and he wears green, a color symbolizing fertility and rebirth.  Though the rest of the painting is illuminated by a cold silver light, the path of the dove is gold, and it casts a warm light everything it touches. The dove is undistorted, pure, and opens a clean pathway from the heavens to Mary, representative of the earth.  Embedded here is a metaphor of hope, of divine redemption entering the world.

Unlike most paintings of the Annunciation, this one does not celebrate Mary as a pure, retiring domestic woman-it’s hardly a painting about Mary at all. The tension and center of attention is the mixture of light and dark, the grand entrance of the ordered Divine into the chaotic world. This is precisely the reason that El Greco’s version of the Annunciation is my favorite: he does not downplay the darkness of the world into which Christ born, but rather used it to focus our attention on the real event, the advent of mercy and redemption. ‘

Predatory Loneliness: Nighthawks

Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks maybe the most famous painting of urban isolation. Don’t buy it?  Let me try to help. When you’re attempting to understand a piece, the first step is to see it well. Look at the formal elements: color, shapes, and focal points. Once you can see what you’re looking at, you’ll be able to sense the mood and metaphors of the piece.


In Nighthawks, the colors are primarily a dark blue-green contrasted with a warm red-orange. This is a complementary palette in which each color heightens the other. The cream colored far wall of the diner is the brightest portion of the painting, and convinces us that the diner is actually well lit.

The shapes are primarily angular: the windows, doors, bar, and the yawning expanse behind the three seated figures are simple rectangles. The diner forms a strong diagonal from the right edge of the painting, giving depth to what would otherwise be a suffocatingly shallow surface. Even the four figures are angular: their shoulders, hats, noses, and even their postures form triangles. The stools, which you would expect to be circular, are painted from a perspective that makes them nearly rectangles.

The woman in the red dress is the primary focal point. She wears the most saturated color in the painting and sits at the highest contrast intersection (the white wall against the black night outside the window). The other figures blend into their backgrounds: the server is white against a light wall; the two men wear dark jackets and melt into the dark atmosphere.

Compositionally, Hopper’s painting is haunting. Most of the space is empty; the streets echo with loneliness. Despite their relatively close grouping, the figures aren’t interacting. The lone man facing away from us slumps his shoulders and stares down at the bar. The couple sit next to each other, but both stare in the direction of the bartender, who appears to be returning their gaze. But their eyes never meet: the bartender’s line of sight travels over the man’s right shoulder and out into the night.

The scene reads as a single, intricate metaphor for loneliness. The diner is in a city, a hub of people, but there is no one on the streets. The patrons are gathered around a table for a meal—typically a social event—but there is no interaction, no society, no warmth. The yawning windows are empty, and look out on more emptiness. The green halo of light cast by the diner illuminates a sidewalk leading to where we, the viewers, lurk in darkness, voyeuristically peering through those vast sheets of glass. The painting is quiet with the kind of eerie silence that prevails at night, in rooms where everyone is a stranger. ‘