Like Father, Like Son

The illustration above is of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s La Promenade, painted in 1870, and on display at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. I have always been partial to Renoir’s paintings, particularly when they have these luminous portraits of women. In the painting, the man’s face is in shadow; he is reduced to a polite gesture of leading his lady on. The young woman, on the other hand, lights up the canvas.

What I find truly amazing is that much of the same sensibility was passed on to his son, Jean, who became one of the great motion picture directors. There are times when the viewer feels that the father could have directed the same scene in the same way.

Above is a still from A Day in the Country (1946), which is set in the same period and shows us a picnic in the woods—with the same feeling of the radiance of the female character. Some of the same feeling is in his earlier The Rules of the Game (1939), which is set in the present day. The men in the film all fly around the Marquise de la Chesnaye (played by Nora Gregor) like moths circling a flame.

Of course, Jean Renoir was very conscious of his father’s work, appearing in several of the paintings. He also wrote a beautiful biography of him called Renoir, My Father, which is available in a New York Review edition and is well worth reading.

Even the Dreadful Martyrdom Must Run Its Course

Look at the bottom right of the above painting, Pieter Breughel the Elder’s “The Fall of Icarus.” I would particularly direct your attention to the bare legs of Icarus, who has fallen from the sky into the ocean—punishment for presuming to fly too close to the sun. The following poem by W. H. Auden refers to it in the last stanza. The poem is called “Musée des Beaux Arte.”

 About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on. 

Rome in God’s Eye

The title of the illustrated painting is “Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino.” It was painted in 1839 by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). It is the third of five paintings that moved me during my last visit to the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

There is something about the quality of light in J.M.W. Turner’s work. The painting is described as follows by the Getty’s database:

Ten years after his final journey to Rome, Turner envisioned the Eternal City through a veil of memory. Baroque churches and ancient monuments in and around the Roman Forum seem to dissolve in iridescent light shed by a moon rising at left and a sun setting behind the Capitoline Hill at right. Amidst these splendors, the city’s inhabitants carry on with their daily activities. The picture’s nacreous palette and shimmering light effects exemplify Turner at his most accomplished.

When first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1839 with its pendant, Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, the painting was accompanied by a modified quotation from Lord Byron’s masterpiece, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818): “The moon is up, and yet it is not night, / The sun as yet divides the day with her.” Like the poem, Turner’s painting evokes the enduring sublimity of Rome, which had been for artists throughout history less a place in the real world than one in the imagination.

Note the characters and livestock in the foreground of the painting. In the background, ancient and contemporary Rome are intermingled as the light at the end of day washes out all the details. It looks almost as if Rome is in flames.

Campo Vaccino literally means cow pasture or cattle field in Italian. For years, the location had been a cattle market. According to the Princeton Art Museum, “Essentially in ruins since the fifth century A.D., by the seventeenth century the still-to-be excavated Roman Forum was popularly known as the Campo Vaccino, or cow field, alluding to its dual role as pasture and cattle market; it was also a popular sketching spot for artists.”

Allhallowtide

If you were to look closely at the word Halloween, you may notice that it means the Eve of All Hallows Day, November 1, which is also called All Saints’ Day. In fact, the period from October 31 through November 2 is sometimes referred to as Allhallowtide. In a way, the period is a kind of liturgical trifecta, in that November 2 is All Souls’ Day, also known as the Day of the Dead.

The idea of All Saints’ Day was primarily to commemorate the nameless martyrs who died for their faith at the hands of certain Roman emperors who persecuted them. Perhaps the largest single group is the Theban Legion, commanded by Saint Maurice, who was ordered by the Emperor Maximian to defeat rebels in what is now Switzerland and, in the process, to make sacrifices to pagan gods. Maurice and his men refused. As punishment, Maximian ordered the legion to be decimated, that is, to have every tenth man executed. After two rounds of decimation, it was decided to execute the entire legion, which consisted of some 6,700 legionaries. Their martyrdom took place in AD 286.

Above is a painting by Fra Angelico of various saints and martyrs, not including the entire Theban Legion. In fact, none of the saints depicted look particularly like Roman legionaries.

All Saints’ Day (November 1) is still considered a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church, during which all Catholics are required to attend Mass or commit a mortal sin for failure to comply.

Although I continue to hold warm feelings about my Catholic upbringing, I am pretty much a lapsed Catholic and am probably doomed to the fires of Heck.

Nine Apples

Illustrated above is Paul Cézanne’s “Still Life with Apples” (1893-1894). It is my second posting in my Gallery Talks series, based on a visit last week to the Getty Center in Los Angeles. I find that, whenever I visit an art museum, my mind tends to linger on the artworks that struck me the most.

To my mind, Cézanne is the modern master of the still life, easily rivaling the Dutch masters of that genre. Take a good look at the painting. What catches your attention?

Whereas most of the colors are muted greens, blues, grays.and off-white, what stands out are the nine red apples in two groupings, one of seven around a platter, and two more between two pieces of pottery. The table cloth is interesting in that we have no idea of how it covers the table, or how large the table is. Note that there is no real attempt at perspective: The folded dish towel at bottom right is clearly in front of the two jugs, yet the two jugs are not diminished in size. Then, too, what about those two vertical lines that emanate from the table up to the supposed ceiling. It is impossible to speculate from these what the shape or size of the room is. Or are those lines there just to direct our attention to the apples?

Each of the elements of the still life are nicely depicted, though the relationship between the various elements is difficult to ascertain. Was Cézanne telling us to keep our attention on those apples, especially the ones in the dish which seems to be on the point of dumping its contents onto the floor, or wherever?

According to the Getty’s own description of the painting:

During the last thirty years of his life, Paul Cézanne painted the same objects–the green vase, the rum bottle, the ginger pot, and the apples–over and over again. His interest was not in the objects themselves but in using them to experiment with shape, color, and lighting. He arranged his still lifes so that everything locked together. Edges of objects run into each other; for example, a black arabesque seemingly escapes from the blue cloth to capture an apple in the center; the sinuous curves of the blue ginger pot’s rattan straps merge with other straps on the body of the bottle behind. Giving form and mass to objects through the juxtaposition of brushstrokes and carefully balanced colors and textures, he gave the painting a sense of comforting stability.

I do not get a feeling of “comforting stability” from this painting. What I do come away with is a feeling of mastery with a touch of threatened instability. Cézanne knew what he was doing, and he probably enjoyed overturning the rules established by his forebears to point out new possible relationships between the depicted elements.

Rembrandt Laughs

Rembrandt Laughing—Self Portrait ca. 1628

One thing about the later paintings of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s later paintings: They were pretty somber. Not only somber, but Old Testament somber. Therefore, it was nice to see something he painted in a lighter vein when he was in his early twenties.

What made Rembrandt laugh? He must have seen me accidentally dump a bowl of clam chowder in my lap at the Getty Center. The original is a small painting, only 22.2 cm × 17.1 cm (8¾ in × 6¾ in).

I think that, as we get older, we sometimes forget to laugh.We look at the news and are dismayed. We examine the younger generation’s report cards and strange subculture and are nonplussed. We visit the doctor and realize we are not immortal. But we can still laugh. If we can laugh, I think we will live longer and better. The young Rembrandt knew that. The older Rembrandt? Not so much.

For Rembrandt to yuck so heartily while wearing an uncomfortable-looking steel collar is all the more remarkable. I like this Rembrandt. He is fun without being quite so Harmenszoon, and that is a good thing.

This is the first of a series of posts I refer to as gallery talks, based on my visits to various art museums. This particular painting is at the Getty Center.

Pre-Raphaelite Fetishism

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Model Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood consisted of a number of painters, most notably Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and others. During the five years of its existence, it created a number of unforgettable images featuring a number of stunning models.

In his extensive history, The Victorians, A N Wilson writes:

The word ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ in popular modern parlance does not refer to particular painting techniques or attitudes to the Middle Ages. It means young women with pale faces, pouting lips and abundant hair. The hair was important; so important that hairdressing, for the first time in English history, came out of the private domain of the home.

Elizabeth Siddal as Ophelia in a Painting by Millais

Pre-eminent of the abundant red-haired models of the Pre-Raphaelites was Elizabeth Siddal, who had a relationship of sorts with Rossetti. When she died in 1862 after years of drug abuse with laudanum (opium), she was buried with the only copy of a manuscript of poems by Rossetti, who later regretted his impulsive act. In fact, by 1870 he regretted his impulsive act of burying the manuscript with Siddal. He had the body exhumed and retrieved his manuscript.

Other equally beautiful Pre-Raphaelite models were Fanny Cornforth and Annie Miller.

Fanny Cornforth in “The Kissed Mouth” by D G Rossetti

Annie Miller in D G Rossetti’s “The Woman in Yellow”

Artemisia

Artemisia Gentileschi’s Maria Magdalen in Ecstasy

One of the great Italian Baroque painters just happened to be a woman: Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656). The daughter of another painter, her father Orazio, Artemisia concentrated on painting women subjects, frequently using herself as the model. She was raped by another painter of her father’s generation and was hurriedly married off to protect her.

Her paintings have frequently compared to Caravaggio in their sense of immediacy and their lushness. Julian Bell describes her painting Lucretia in The New York Review of Books:

Lucrezia (1621)

The half-stripped woman picked out against the dark in Artemisia Gentileschi’s Lucretia is viewed from above, yet as I stand before this yard-high canvas, she seems to bear down on me. Light, here, is weight: the gleam on shoulder, knee, breasts, arm, and neck presses on my eye and there is no distance from the presented flesh. I have to do with this stout woman as if I were wrestling or embracing her. For whether you interlock with someone in anger or desire, that person will always possess a separate life, will, mind, and narrative, and so it is here. Lucretia tugs not at me but at the dark above, at God. Her prayer, stab-sharp, convulses not only her temples and the hand that clutches a dagger, but the whole rough thrash of limbs, gown, and sheets that fills this single-minded canvas.

Interestingly, the ancient Roman subject of the painting, Lucretia, was—according to Livy—raped by one of her husband’s kin and committed suicide to assuage her violated honor.

Small wonder that Artemisia is regarded as some kind of proto-feminist! But if you disregard for a moment her subject matter, she is also a great painter. She is more than a feminist: she is a profoundly great artist.

The Other Borges

A Painting by the Younger Sister of Jorge Luis Borges

I was reading a radio interview by Osvaldo Ferrari with the late Jorge Luis Borges, when the subject came up of the writer’s sister, Leonor Fanny “Norah” Borges Acevedp (1901-1998):

FERRARI: As for your relationship with painting, Borges, we mustn’t forget that you’re the brother of a painter.

BORGES: Of a great painter, I think, eh? Although I don’t know if the word ‘great’ adds anything to the word ‘painter.’ Brother of a painter, let’s say. Now, as she explores subjects like angels, gardens, angels who are musicians in gardens …

FERRARI: Like the painting of the Annunciation, for example, which has the city of Adrogué in the background, which is in your house.

BORGES: Yes, which she wanted to destroy.

FERRARI: How dreadful.

BORGES: No, it’s because she thinks that she was still very clumsy, that she couldn’t paint when she made it. Well, what I know is that she sketches the plan of each painting and then she paints it. That is, the people who’ve described it as a naive painting are completely wrong. But art critics, of course, their profession is to get things wrong, I’d say … or all critics.

Woman Playing a Guitar, Painted by Norah Borges

Before one raising the issue of the blind writer as an art critic, let me say that Borges lost his vision in the mid 1950s, so he is talking of painters from his memories of thirty or more years ago. There is also a book I have of Borges’s film criticism, which also dates from before the onset of his blindness.

Because Borges and his writings have been so influential in my life, I am deeply interested in works produced by his family. For instance, Borges’s mother, Leonor Acevedo, collaborated with her son on a number of translations from the English.

Norah Borges

The work of Norah Borges is known and exhibited in South America.

Sacred Mountain

Frank LaPeña’s Painting Sacred Mountain

Yesterday, Martine and I visited the Autry Museum of the American West in Griffith Park. Many of the galleries were still closed due to the Covid-19 outbreak, but what there was, was choice. I am specifically referring to the exhibit of California Indian art entitled “When I Remember I See Red: American Indian Art and Activism in California.” What impressed me the most was work from a Nontipom Wintu artist from Northern California named Frank LaPeña (1937-2019).

Artist Frank LaPeña

What draws me to American Indian art is its spirituality and brilliant imagery—both qualities notably lacking in so many academic artists. These are not works to decorate a corporate boardroom: Instead, they are works to make you feel grounded in a separate reality, one that is part of the world from which the artist comes.

Frank LaPeña’s Dream Song

In a strange coincidence, there is an accused murderer with the same name who is totally unrelated to the artist. This other Frank LaPeña was recently released from prison in Nevada where he was wrongfully incarcerated for hiring a hit man to kill the wife of a Caesars Palace in 1974.

I will try in the week ahead to highlight some more California Indian artists from the Autry show.