I just had a picture that belongs here today.
With my phone I was out in Non Fiction taking pictures from a book of photos of the Orsay painting collection. Nothing tears through time quite like taking pictures of pictures. I was ten minutes late to my next hour’s library assignment, something that never used to happen but now really needs to stop happening. I shelve, listen to a talking book, start taking photos and lose complete and total track of time. It’s dizzying.
Hi. It’s so lovely to see you here in the Art Room today. It would be terribly elegant in here if most things weren’t covered in sheets.
Can I get you a tot of Green Chartreuse?
Anyway, we were at antique stores over the weekend. I was looking for a nice lowball glass (which I did not find). I didn’t buy anything, but I did take a few pictures. Today at work I put a couple of those together, one of a giraffe and one from many years ago of a park in Paris that I’m sure we were at a few years ago. Then I made it sort of Pointillistic, like a Seurat, Painting.
So I thought I’d better put it in this room before I forget all about it.
8/12/21: Weird experiment day!
Today I am going through every page I have in Life is a Fountain and adding something hopefully relevant to it from the annals of Clerkmanifesto. It’s my desperate attempt to freshen up everything after being away for a couple weeks. So here you go:
(Note: I refer to part one and two in this “Third Part” piece below, but don’t worry, parts one and two are sufficiently summarized therein)
(Also note: This is pretty long by my standards)
The greatest painting ever made is…
Oh my god, this is so exciting!
I’m on the edge of my seat!
The greatest painting ever made is…
The Deposition from the Cross by Jacopo Pontormo!
Wait, why isn’t everybody more amazed and excited?
Oh, right, because this is the third part of our analysis of this painting.
You want to see the painting?
Okay, here is a barely adequate reproduction to get us warmed up:
Now, even though we are on the third and final part of our review of this greatest painting, parts one and two have merely set the stage and provided the context for our discussion today. So finally there’s going to be tons of stuff today actually about the Deposition!
But first let’s review as briefly as possible so we’re all set to discuss this masterpiece like we’re all big time Art History Majors.
1. Deposition from the Cross is the greatest painting ever, better than any other, with the understanding that there are many other greatest ever paintings, also better than any others. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it.
2. There were three sequential periods in art broadly around the time of this painting; Renaissance, then Mannerism, then Baroque. They are like an Oreo cookie. Renaissance is the first cookie and was about harmony, balance, developing naturalism, and the birth of individual celebrity genius. Baroque is the second cookie naturally progressing from the first, being about applying that mastery of naturalism to our own recognizable world and all its passionate, gritty reality. In between the two lay the strange and mercurial cream of the Oreo, Mannerism, the period which our painting by Pontormo occupies the very epicenter of.
3. Mannerism was the wild and crazy artistic answer to “What do you do when you’ve mastered naturalism and perfect anatomy and 3D rendering through linear perspective?” With the answer being:
You mess with it.
4. Michelangelo, genius of the Renaissance, kicked off Mannerism by getting so good at Renaissance art that he was bored of it (see hand, below, for example of perfected Renaissance naturalism).
So Michelangelo invented (sort of) Mannerism, taking complete command of the naturalism of Renaissance art and twisting it to the artist’s vision, understanding, and expressions of heightened elegance. This, as seen below, in an example of his Sistine Ceiling, which is the first, great, and wildly influential, Mannerist work.
Now we’re up to date!
Here is Jacopo Pontormo:
Hey, wait, we recognize this guy.
Where do we know him from?
Oh yeah, there he is. The figure on the far right in our painting, kind of in the back there.
Hi Jacopo! (One day maybe I’ll tell you about his food journals!)
The best place I have ever been for looking at art, just wandering in someplace and looking at art, is Rome. It’s not that there aren’t dozens of places to pay to go see amazing art, or even legendary museums with blood curdlingly long lines and oppressive crowd control (hello Vatican Museum!), but you can also just wander into any number of mostly churches and see Raphael frescoes ignored in the corner, or a Michelangelo sculpture with a few velvet ropes protecting it, or countless Caravaggio paintings in dark side chapels that you will find pictures of in every reputable book on the history of art, and that are now just… sitting there, for you, in the dark.
But The Deposition (as we will henceforth call it) is in Florence.
And Florence, while featuring nearly as great and vast a collection of art as Rome, does not have much one can just wander into, free and half ignored, and can have to yourself. Even though there is plenty of legendary Florence art socked away in churches and cloisters and side aspses and whatnot, they’ve done a fairly serious job of monetizing the lot of them, and making a little mini museum out of everything.
But there is one exception.
Yep this one, here it is, in situ:
Now, amazingly, this little chapel, the Capponi Chapel, was designed by one of the most important architects ever, Brunelleschi, the same guy who designed the Florence Cathedral Dome, one of the greatest feats in the entire history of Architecture!
But we don’t have time to go into all that.
We’ll just say Pontormo was asked (hired?) to decorate it.
This Capponi Chapel is in Santa Felicita, a modest church in (sort of) the heart of Florence. I say “sort of” because Santa Felicita really is pretty central, right near the Ponte Vecchio (the famous bridge) and just down the street from the Pitti Palace.
But it is on the “wrong” side of the river, in the neighborhood called Oltrarno. So, “sort of”.
Anyway, nice place, convenient location, free admission. I mean, one can just walk right into this church, Santa Felicita, and see the greatest painting ever made. That’s how my wife and I saw it. It was crowded outside, but we were all alone with the painting. It’s a pretty amazing thing.
But you might be able to pick out a problem.
Yes, it’s behind a cage.
So that’s kind of too bad.
Pontormo’s Deposition is a picture of when Jesus’s friends and family take him down from the cross after he’s dead. That’s why everyone looks pretty gobsmacked in the painting. Like:
I think that’s Mary. And then there’s this guy:
God I love their strange, almost elfen rounded faces, but I mustn’t get sidetracked. Because my point is that even with all the weird, wild, Mannerist craziness in this painting, it is fair to start with this:
1. It is full of feeling.
The Messiah guy, who was supposedly super nice and generous and wise, was institutionally murdered in an unbelievably brutal way, God on Earth was killed, and these people are brokenhearted! They are wandering, almost lost with grief, with his body, and with nowhere to go. It’s terrible.
Remember how I said Mannerism came after The Renaissance and it was like they already mastered anatomy and naturalism and space and rendering in the Renaissance, so the Mannerists were like:
Let’s mess with it?
That doesn’t mean they hadn’t mastered all those things too. Remember Michelangelo’s hand of David above as my example of perfecting representation? This painting is full of warped laws of physics, strange elongations, crazy colors, and twisting poses, but, check out, for example, this hand by Pontormo:
When Pontormo paints a pink lobster 9-foot crouching carrier of Christ it’s not because he doesn’t know how to do the perfect normal version at full on Rembrandt level.
What I’m saying is: This painting is full astonishing rendering.
It’s just got some bigger fish to fry too.
Oh, and by the way. Do you know how many hands I counted in this painting? Eleven.
That’s also the number of people in this painting.
It probably means something.
So what all is in this painting:
11 people with 11 hands visible
Some featureless ground that sort of disappears
A tiny cloud in the upper left
Enough pretty, colorful fabric that one could probably wrap up the moon in it.
Brunelleschi, who designed this chapel, is generally credited as being the person who described and articulated the rules for linear perspective. This may have done more to change western painting than anything else ever. It ruled painting for 500 years and created the naturalism of space in painting according to scientific and mathematic principals.
But get this: Pontormo, painting said chapel many years later, fully versed in linear perspective, is nevertheless having none of that. Figures are floating in air, rising up (maybe that’s why he put in a cloud, though it’s a sad little gray one). There is no ground. No horizon. Not really even sky. And no linear perspective!
Here, look at this guy again:
He’s carrying the larger part of a dead Christ, crouched awkwardly, and it’s like he’s floating on his toes. Feet rise away from him on cloth, off the ground, into nothing.
He curves, he floats, he grieves. He’s resplendent in gold and pewter and pink and sadness.
But look at it: everyone is floating, rising, lamenting, twirling, grieving, swirling. It’s like a dance with everything curving and curling into everything else. The curve of the pink back. The curve of Christ’s torso and thighs. The curve of Mary’s head through her reaching arm, the curve of the leaning figure above her, and on and on.
Christ has died and they are lost, in space and time and purpose and grief.
It’s pretty neat.
They are burdened with a dead god and it’s beautiful and terrible.
It’s a good painting.
I just finished this picture of Bill the cat painting over on the river graffiti wall:
And the version in Black and White:
An older, but not much older post:
Abstract painting has never been my favorite style of painting. But I love painting enough that over the years I came to enjoy it more and more. One of the art schools I went to, The San Francisco Art Institute, was absorbed in abstract expressionism when I was there, but I was not happy at that school so it made little impression. My wife’s interest is probably what most won me over, and I have been enthralled standing in front of Kandinskys and Rothkos, Cy Twomblys and Pollocks. To remind myself of abstract artists I like I just now stumbled upon Zao Wou-Ki and I’d love to see some of his work in person.
For many years I painted, but as I look back on it I have had an increasing sense that it was never entirely to my satisfaction. I liked my portraits best, but I think there was some slightly missing talent or fluidity that held me back. And I never felt the freedom or sense for painting I might have loved or that had any chance of leading me to working abstractly.
However, had I ever managed to make large scale oil abstractions, I think, if I been able to do it, I would have had them look something like this:
(Dual posted on the Spirituality Page)
Did you know that the Aramaic word for ‘Artist’ derived from the word for ‘God’. Some scholars even suggest that the Aramaic word for ‘God’ derived from the word for ‘Artist’. But this all was a long time ago and so little is known concerning these ancient languages that you will occasionally find unscrupulous websites just making stuff up about it.
But they have a purpose.
They are saying that artists are just like God!
I know that sounds grand, but what it really means is that it can be wonderful to be an artist, sure, but it is full of rules.
Well, there is actually just one rule.
It is the same one rule God has.
You cannot intervene.
You can inspire, suggest, and raise empathy. You can dazzle, cast spells, amaze, and allude to the right thing. But hands off.
You cannot touch directly.
Or it all goes “poof”.
I know what you are thinking:
Maybe then there is just no god.
That works too.
But artists exist.
And so perhaps they cast god in their own image.
I was walking along the river today. It has been snowing all February and so the world is full of this strange glow, not white exactly, almost grey, but a grey full of light. There was the ground, covered in snow, and I trudged, slipping along it, the ground giving away under my feet. There were the trees, weighed, ribboned, and outlined in snow. The river was as frozen as it could manage, and then it too was covered in snow. Grey, white, grey, white. And then there was a cardinal. There were several cardinals. Red, red. All alone in its red. Jewel red like fresh blood and Summer sour cherries.
I talk about birds that I see on my walks quite frequently in this space. I talk about turkeys and crows, robins, geese, and eagles. I mention the woodpeckers, and if I see a hawk I’ll probably say something. But for a cardinal I’ll hardly say a thing. It seems like cheating.
They are so red.
On a major industrial website of the Internet someone posed a question to the millions of people: “What’s a tourist attraction you’ve been to that was 100% not worth the hype?” Among the top answers, that is, among the most popular and highly rated answers, was The Mona Lisa. They said it was small and insignificant. They said far greater paintings lurked unviewed nearby while crowds fought for a glimpse. They were unimpressed, these nameless denizens of the Internet.
I too have seen images of the Mona Lisa all my life. I have seen mock versions. I have seen it in its faithful reproductions. I have seen, in untold places, its ubiquitous image. There, even you too see it in your mind as I say its name. It is everywhere! But before I saw the Mona Lisa in person I had rather less the hype about it than the blowback from the hype: I had heard it is a small, not so impressive painting, that it’s not up to its reputation and that the crowds ruin it anyway. And while I thought it a mildly interesting looking portrait in my picture book views of it, there were hundreds of paintings in the Louvre I was more interested in seeing. If not for the wisdom of my wife I probably wouldn’t have taken the trouble to go see it.
It is incandescent. It is rich. It is meticulously painted and full of life. It is an absolute miracle of a painting. The person shimmers alive, 500 years later, in the small frame.
You just have to look at it. The real thing. There is magic there for the taking, but you do have to take the magic.
Like any magic.
I suspect that nearly every cheap nature calendar produced in the past fifty years includes, maybe for February or March, a picture of a cardinal in the snow, on a little branch, often with a couple colorful Winter berries nearby. It’s a red bird, so brightly red, against the white snow. Who wouldn’t take that picture? Why wouldn’t you put it in your almost pleasant little calendar? It is pretty, but forgettable. It is not a strange or rare bird, especially to most of us North Americans. No one around here would have any more trouble identifying it than they would, say, The Mona Lisa. We’ve seen it a million times.
And so, when on a snowy Monday morning in February, with no birds around, a few cardinals fly by, I don’t get excited. I am not amazed. It is business as usual. I have seen the calendar photos. I already know them.
But then, possessed by weariness perhaps, or having had enough of the endless blank white scene, I look into the grey-brown trees, into the flat glow of the snow. And there one is. A cardinal. The only color in a thousand miles.
And I have missed everything up until then.
A Theory of Art
My wife and I were out at our local museum last week and ended up in a dark room watching a movie about the restaurant El Bulli, Ferran Adria, and the idea of cooking, restaurant food as fine art. Well, that’s not particularly what it was about, but it’s the question that I took away from it.
For the purposes of this essay let us take the meaning of “Art” to be the more stringent:
A medium of something created primarily for the communication of feeling or normally incommunicable ideas, sensations, or interior experience.
With this in mind I believe art is not limited to painting, or music, or short essays. Virtually anything created, or performed; a ceramic mug, an appetizer, or library clerking, can, conceivably, be art. But with most things it’s just astonishingly difficult. Various mediums are more or less conducive to the carrying of artistic meaning. Just as a bucket is well designed to carry water, music is perfectly designed to carry artistic meaning. And just as a hot marble is poorly designed to carry water, so too is mortgage banking, for instance, ill designed to carry the meanings that would make it art.
Or let me put it in other terms. Different mediums contain different difficulty levels for becoming art. Paintings have a low difficulty level relatively speaking. Thus many of the paintings I have seen I would call art. Art is enormously difficult and complicated, but paintings are good at being art, so I have seen a lot of paintings wherein that goal was achieved. Cooking, as wonderful as it is in so many ways, and as highly evolvable as a skill as it is, doesn’t strongly lend itself to being art. I have never had food, as delicious and amazing and satisfying and brilliant as some food I have had has been, that I would consider art. But I have never been to El Bulli. I am willing to accept that it could be art, and from the sound of it from others, it probably is.
And blogging? Can blogging be art?
I don’t know. One day someone should give it a shot.