Fêtes Galantes

“The Italian Comedians”

Today, Martine and I took the bus to the Getty Center (to avoid paying the $20.00 parking fee). Each time I visit, I make surprising discoveries. Today’s surprise was two paintings by the French Painter Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). In the 36 years of his life, Watteau combined two themes again and again in his fêtes galantes, both of which figured in paintings on display at the Getty Center.

On one hand, there are theatrical characters from the Italian commedia dell’arte. To serve as contrast, they are usually outdoors in natural settings. According to he museum’s description:

Five comedians have just finished their performance in a verdant park on the outskirts of Paris and look expectantly at their audience. Pierrot, the clown in a baggy white suit, is already holding his hat in his hand, hoping that a few coins might be thrown into it.

Flanking Pierrot are four other performers dressed as characters from the Italian commedia dell’arte, which enjoyed great popularity in 18th-century Paris. Brighella wears a splendid greenish-gold suit and shoulder cape trimmed with black stripes. Mezzetin strums a few chords on his guitar, while Harlequin in a black mask with its horsehair eyebrows and moustache peers over his shoulder. A mock Spanish costume of black velvet with a white ruff identifies the figure on the far right as Scaramouche.

The actors penetrate our world with an intense humanity and vivid reality, far removed from the theatrical artifice and caprice of the stage they have just left.

“The Surprise”

A smaller painting is the same artist’s “The Surprise”:

In a verdant park at sunset, a young woman abandons herself to her tousle-haired companion’s ardent embrace. Coiled up in a pose of centrifugal energy, the impulsive lovers are oblivious to the third figure: Mezzetin, sitting on the same rocky outcrop. Drawn from the theatrical tradition of the commedia dell’arte, this character represents a poignant foil to the couple’s unbridled passion. Introverted and with a melancholy air, he tunes his guitar, knowing that his serenading will mean nothing to the lovers and serve only to heighten his own sense of lonely longing as he gazes upon them. His costume, a rose-coloured jacket and knee-britches slashed with yellow and adorned with blue ribbons as well as a lace ruff and cuffs, is reminiscent of the paintings of Anthony van Dyck. The small dog at lower right, a quotation from Rubens, watches the couple with considerably more appreciation than Mezzetin can muster.

Curiously, both paintings share a sense of sadness. Common to both paintings is the character of Mezzetin, both times strumming on a guitar. In the commedia productions, he plays the part of a schemer and trouble-maker, one who tries to flirt, but frequently comes across as a little creepy in his efforts. He is a frequent subject in Watteau’s paintings, perhaps personifying a kind of talented loneliness.

The Long Shadow of Egypt

Torso of Harchebi (Archibios), Ptolemaic, 170–116 BC, Granite

The most interesting special exhibit at the Getty Center currently is the one entitled “Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World.” And the one work that caught my interest was a strange sparkling granite torso of Harchebi. I tried to take a photo with my camera, but was prevented by the guard, who pointed out that this was one of the items in the exhibit that bore a small cartouche in the corner of the description forbidding photography. No matter, I hijacked a photo from the Getty website.

The above photo does not do justice to the statue, which actually seems to sparkle. Was there mica in the granite? Perhaps.

Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra II or III Making Offerings

I loved this exhibit, even though it was excessively crowded. Saturdays at the Getty, particularly during the summer months, can be trying. In any case, the exhibit concentrated on Egyptian art during the Greek and Roman rule of Egypt. The works were gathered from a number of sources, including the Vatican Museum, and were of consistently high quality. I may sneak back to the Getty on a weekday to take a second look.

What draws me to Egyptian art is the simplicity of the figures. When I compare them to the comparable Mayan figures, which also accompanied by hieroglyphs, the Mayan images are usually more ornate, and their hieroglyphs are more difficult to read.

Lintel 16 Yaxchilán, Mexico. In The British Museum

 

 

The Italian Comedians

Antoine Watteau’s “The Italian Comedians” at the Getty Center

I have always loved the paintings of Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), especially his “The Embarkation for Cythera” (1717) at the Louvre in Paris, which says everything one can say about young love. At the Getty Center, there are two other Watteaus that I rather like. The one illustrated above is called “The Italian Comedians.” It shows a troupe of commedia dell’arte that have just given a performance. I keep thinking of Shakespeare’s couplet from Act V of The Tempest:

As you from crimes would pardoned be
Let your indulgence set me free.

According to the description provided by the Getty Center:

Five comedians have just finished their performance in a verdant park on the outskirts of Paris and look expectantly at their audience. Pierrot, the clown in a baggy white suit, is already holding his hat in his hand, hoping that a few coins might be thrown into it.

Flanking Pierrot are four other performers dressed as characters from the Italian commedia dell’arte, which enjoyed great popularity in 18th-century Paris. Brighella wears a splendid greenish-gold suit and shoulder cape trimmed with black stripes. Mezzetin strums a few chords on his guitar, while Harlequin in a black mask with its horsehair eyebrows and moustache peers over his shoulder. A mock Spanish costume of black velvet with a white ruff identifies the figure on the far right as Scaramouche.

The actors penetrate our world with an intense humanity and vivid reality, far removed from the theatrical artifice and caprice of the stage they have just left.

There is that momentary feeling of. “Well, what do you think of it, guys?” It lasts but an instant. Either the audience will cheer and toss coins and huzzahs in appreciation—or not! The key thing is that Watteau has shown us an instant in time, as if we were the audience privileged to view the comedy.

My Favorite Watteau: “The Embarkation for Cythera”

There is a lot to be said for going back to the same museum a couple times a year and seeing what has changed in my own perception of the paintings. Yesterday, I still loved Dosso Dossi’s portrait of Saint George after he has killed the dragon and Antonio da Correggio’s head of Christ—about both of which I have written in the past. “The Italian Comedians” is relatively new to the Getty, having been purchased in 2011-2012 from Hazlett, Gooden & Fox Ltd in London.

 

 

Pearblossom Hwy., 11 – 18th April 1986, #2

David Hockney’s Image of the Pearblossom Highway in L.A.’s Antelope Valley

One of my favorite parts of Los Angeles County is the remote Antelope Valley, which hugs the north edge of the San Gabriel Mountains. The Pearblossom Highway (California Route 138) connects the Antelope Valley Freeway to Victorville, enroute to Las Vegas or Northern Arizona. I may not be known as a devotee of modern art, but I love David Hockney’s photo collage, described as “Pearblossom Hwy., 11 – 18th April 1986, #2,” which actually does capture the elusive light of the desert and the eerie Joshua Tree cacti (Yucca brevifolia) lining the highway.

One of my favorite L.A. parks is in this area, the Devil’s Punchbowl County Park, which sits at the junction of several earthquake faults, most notably the San Andreas. In fact, many of the more interesting geological features were sculpted by the 1857 Fort Tejon earthquake’s Richter 7.9 forces.

The Getty Museum South Pavilion


Martine and I had lunch at the museum’s café and split up as we pursued our separate interests, coming together at 4:30 pm in the bookstore. Every time I visit an art museum like the Getty, I get ideas for several posts; so you may hear more about my visit in the coming week.

Madame Vleughels

Edmé Bouchardon’s Bust of Madame Vleughels

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles has been putting on an exhibit entitled Bouchardon: Royal Artist of the Enlightenment, which ends in a few days. I was enthralled by both his drawings and his sculptures, of which the above bust of Mme Vleughels is one of my favorites. Edmé Bouchardon (1698-1762) is not well known to most people, but thanks to the Getty, I have made another discovery.

His work that shows the same technical virtuosity of some of the great rococo painters, as in the ornately draped blouse worn by the young woman, yet retains an austere classicism in her facial features and shoulders. Below is one of his drawings:

Head of a Woman Wearing a Scarf

Here again we have a combination of simplicity and technical virtuosity, which seems to be a hallmark of Bouchardon’s style.

Visiting an art museum can be a thrilling experience. But you have to open your eyes and be willing to make comparisons.

Butter Bread

“A Woman Preparing Bread and Butter for a Boy” by Pieter de Hooch (early 1660s)

“A Woman Preparing Bread and Butter for a Boy” by Pieter de Hooch (early 1660s)

Tomorrow I begin working full time once again during a particularly stressful tax season. Yesterday, I prepared by going to see the flowers at Descanso Gardens. Today, on the other hand, I went with Martine to the Getty Center, a museum I could see from the front door of my apartment. Nothing could be more peaceful than this painting by Pieter de Hooch entitled “A Woman Preparing Bread and Butter for a Boy.” The view through the open Dutch doors is of a placid yard. What I get from this painting is a feeling of love and peacefulness. De Hooch finds much to say in a small compass, a talent that is central to the great Dutch painters of the Seventeenth Century.

It is very likely that I will be working on Saturdays beginning next week and Sundays as well beginning the week after. Natural beauty, great art and literature—all these will help see me through the next six weeks, and going forward thereafter.

According to Henry David Thoreau, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Going to a museum and looking long at paintings and sculptures helps one understand life better. Understanding helps one to survive tough times. The mobs of young fools with their smart phones and selfie sticks are not likely to understand anything. They were looking but not seeing.

What I saw at the Getty today will result in several more postings in the weeks to come. Every time I go to a great museum, I leave energized and eager to communicate what I have learned.

Omigosh, What Have I Done?

Saint George by Dosso Dossi (ca. 1515)

Saint George by Dosso Dossi (ca. 1515)

Today Martine and I drove to the Getty Center and looked at the paintings, special exhibitions, and decorative arts. What particularly interested me was a painting by the Italian Dosso Dossi (born Giovanni di Niccolò de Luteri) around 1515 of Saint George immediately after slaying the dragon. It’s not an expression of joy or celebration by any means. Almost, it seems as if the saint is asking himself, “Oh my God, what have I done?” Perhaps some ancient knowledge of the dragon’s has been conveyed to the Roman soldier, and he foresees that the world will never be the same again.

The painting is a small one, measuring 27½ x 24 inches, and by no means in a dominant location in the exhibition hall. Still, the facial expression drew my attention immediately and held it. I would have liked to photograph it (without flash, of course), but the guard in that particular hall forbade it; so I noted the name of the artist and luckily found it on the Getty Center website, which describes the oil as follows:

Dosso Dossi depicted the aftermath of Saint George’s battle with the dragon, in which he wields the creature’s bloodied head and the lance broken during the fight. Under an emerging rainbow, the victorious patron saint of Ferrara, Italy, emerges from the darkness of the battle. Dossi poignantly expressed his subject’s recent emotional turmoil in the saint’s penetrating expression. He appears weary yet resolute in his triumph.

The symbols of Saint George’s Christian faith—crosses rendered in vivid strokes of red paint as though the blood of his opponent drips down its shaft—mark the weapon. The color of the crosses echoes the blood ringing the beast’s mouth and also symbolizes the blood of Christ.

I don’t altogether agree with Saint George appearing “weary but resolute in his triumph.” I guess each work of art speaks to different people in different ways.

There is a poem by Jorge Luis Borges entitled “Limits” which, to me, conveys the spirit of this painting:

There is a line of Verlaine I shall not recall again,
There is a nearby street forbidden to my step,
There is a mirror that has seen me for the last time,
There is a door I have shut until the end of the world.
Among the books in my library (I have them before me)
There are some I shall never reopen.
This summer I complete my fiftieth year:
Death reduces me incessantly.

(Translated by Anthony Kerrigan)