What are they looking at?

our backs
tell stories'
no books have 
the spine to 
carry 
Rupi Kaur

There is something so peaceful about looking out windows – watching the world go by, yearning for the outdoors, day dreaming, pausing momentarily in the middle of a chore, appreciating the beauty of trees or the vibrancy of life on the busy streets – I wonder what these women were thinking of when they looked outside.

Vilhelm Hammershoi, Tall Windows (1913)

There’s something so magical about the windows framing the women and the light streaming indoors from these windows. Most of the women face their backs to us, and instead of seeing what they are seeing, we are only allowed to look at them in the act of looking.

(Source: Met Museum, Sorolla Museum, Museo Prado)

The Golden Age of Letter Writing

I am quite fascinated by the number of women in Dutch paintings of the mid-1600s that are either reading or writing a letter. It is of course one of the many consequences of the Dutch Golden maritime age that the men and women were separated for long periods of time, and this was how they kept in touch. What is interesting however is how many of the artists picked up the same subject.

I think the Dutch artists of the same era liked to present the same content – it seems to be the same pattern with still life paintings, oranges and lemons in paintings, followed by swirly peels of oranges and lemons in paintings – perhaps the patrons all wanted the same content in their paintings.

Apparently, it’s not just us curious to know what gossip was being shared in those handwritten letters – there were others who tried to peek into the letters.

I started looking for paintings of people sitting at their desks and reading or studying because it’s finals week and that’s what I should be doing – then I decided to find women (instead of men) at desks when I discovered how many Dutch 17th Century Dutch paintings showed women reading and writing letters!! Quite a circuitous route – but still interesting to think of all those women sitting at home writing letters, sending all sorts of family and local gossip to their husbands and boyfriends while they were away exploring the world for months on end.

I should be focused like her and study for my exams!!

Pieter Janssens Elinga, A Woman Reading a Letter and a Woman Sweeping (pre-1682)

(Images Courtesy: Google Arts and Culture, Rijksmuseum, The Frick Collection, The Wallace Collection, Dresden Art Museum, essentialvermeer.org, MET Museum)

Looking Out

Once again, we find ourselves in the midst of stay-in orders due to the rising cases of coronavirus across the country. It reminded me of the time earlier this year, when Italians with stay-in orders spent their evenings on the balconies – socially distant yet connected with their neighbors – singing songs together and trying to make the best of a very difficult situation.

This gave me the idea for today’s blog – people in their balconies watching life go by – sometimes wistfully, sometimes happy to be onlookers, sometimes to connect with the outside world, sometimes to disconnect from the world, sometimes spying on others – and occasionally being spied on by others  – like in Caillebotte’s woman looking at and at the same time being looked at by another woman on a balcony across the street!!

Balconies are a special world – a meeting point of the interior world of homes and shelter spaces and the outside world – they can bring a tiny bit of the outside in or take a bit of the inside out – it all depends on the person inhabiting the balcony at any moment in time.

David Hockney, Sur la Terrasse (1971)

Looking out – whether to watch people on city streets, or to become one with nature, or to be mesmerized by the sea…..

Nothing quite like the childlike joy – filled with anticipation – of looking out..

Nicolas Tarkhoff, Children ad Cat by the Window (1907)

(Sources: Google Arts and Culture, Tate Gallery, Art Institute of Chicago, Christie’s, Van Gogh Museum)

So much to be thankful for

Hank Willis Thomas & Emily Shur, Reimagined Norman Rockwell Freedom From Want (2018)

A lot of different flowers make a bouquet (Muslim proverb)

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Thankful Poor (1894)

Enough is a feast.

Buddhist proverb
Jean-Francois Millet, The Angelus (1857 – 1859)
Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good (Maya Angelou).
Paul Gauguin, The Meal (1891)

Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could hold rather a large amount of gratitude (A.A. Milne).

John Singer Sargent, A Dinner Table at Night (1884)

Wear gratitude like a cloak, and it will feed every corner of your life.

Rumi
Norman Rockwell, Family Grace 1938
For me every hour is grace.. Elie Wiesel

(Images courtesy Google Arts & Culture, Musee d’Orsay, Met Museum).

Velazquez..Picasso..Hamilton

In 1957, almost 300 years after Diego Velazquez painted Las Meninas (1656), Picasso painted and sketched 44 interpretations of the masterpiece. Between August 16 and December 30, 1957 Picasso explored every aspect of the painting creating versions of the painting as well as almost daily sketches of the different characters in Las Meninas. While Velazquez’s Meninas was baroque with rich hues, Picasso’s black and white renditions, with their geometric shapes are true to his style.

Picasso saw a painting that was revered, and managed to hold mysteries even 300 years later, and perhaps wanted to leave something of himself in the painting. Or perhaps he wanted to analyze its details and analyze how they fit together into the composition. Perhaps he wanted to carry the painting forward by infusing it with his cubism, and perhaps he wanted to make it truly immortal by removing the humanity of its characters by replacing them with geometric shapes. Whatever the reason, Picasso worked on this, in solitude, for months towards the end of 1957 emerging with a total of 58 sketches – 44 interpretations and the rest of cubist pigeons that came to his balcony while he painted.  

The interpretation was carried even further by Richard Hamilton (1922-2011) in 1972 when he made an etching called Picasso’s Meninas to celebrate the artist’s 90th birthday. Here Velazquez’s composition and Picasso’s style are fused together – the temptation to paraphrase Velazquez in Picasso’s style was irresistible” (Hamilton). And in this paraphrasing, Hamilton did a truly fantastic job!!

Richard Hamilton, Picasso’s Meninas (1972)

In a true homage to Picasso, Hamilton covered all of Picasso’s artistic styles in this one etching – the Infanta is in Picasso’s Analytical Cubism of 1912. The meninas to the left of the Infanta is in the flat graphic language Picasso was using in the 1930s. The maid behind her is in Picasso’s neo-classical style of the early 1920s, whereas the male figure is drawn using spare lines and the vocabulary of African forms that Picasso was using around 1907. The female dwarf is a version of Picasso’s Seated Woman (1927). The harlequin from Picasso’s Rose period stands in place of Velazquez’s page, and the bull, from Picasso’s 1934 Dying Bull replaces the dog (Source, Tate Britain).

The rectangular paintings in the background are copies of Picasso’s surrealist paintings, L’Aubade, 1942 and Three Musicians, 1921. The mirror – which was the focal point of Las Meninas and showed a reflection of King Philip IV of Spain and Queen Mariana, are replaced by Hamilton himself and the artist Rita Donagh, who later became his wife. They are rendered with a particular etching technique that was created by Picasso which made the two figures appear painted in the print. He replaced Velazquez’s self-portrait with Picasso in his etching and added a hammer and sickle on Picasso’s chest.

I think it’s fairly poetic that Hamilton, like Velazquez, managed to insert himself into the painting – that too in the focal point of the original painting – thereby paying homage through the etching not just to Picasso, but to Velazquez as well.

(Sources: pablopicasso.org. Tate Britain, Museo Picasso, Musée d’art moderne, Museum of Modern Art).

Berlin Wall – MADNESS!!

Last year at this time, I had done quite a few blogs on the Berlin Wall because it was the 30 years since the wall fell. I’m going to redo one of these blogs about a section of the wall with the word MADNESS written on it – with an exciting update!!

Originally Written on October 20, 2019

I am endlessly fascinated by the graffiti on the wall.  It captures the essence of the 1980s and while a majority of the wall and graffiti are gone for good, the images from the 1980s have captured and preserved the essence of that raw, youthful energy forever. This was art on the streets being used as protest. It was the voice of a generation that used the wall as a canvas to reduce some of its horror and make it less threatening. In the words of Thierry Noir, who is the first artist to illegally paint large sections of the Berlin Wall, painting the wall, “subverted this iconic symbol of war into a symbol of hope, granting it real human significance.”

Berlin Wall Graffiti by Thierry Noir (courtesy thierrynoir.com)

One of the remaining sections of the wall has the word MADNESS written in large black letters.  It remains to this day in Berlin in the Topographie des Terrors Center and is visited by the millions of people that go to Berlin annually. It would appear to have been done by someone protesting the madness that was the Berlin Wall. 

However, it turns out the graffiti was done by a member of the British Rock Band called Madness when they visited the wall in the early 80s.  In his twitter feed, Dan Woody Woodgate (one of the band members) writes that in 1980 another band member, Graham Suggs McPherson, climbed on top of a van and wrote MADNESS on the Berlin Wall, which is the same one that exists today.  I was thrilled to see the origin of this fascinating and meaningful word that remains to this day. While most people that see the remaining graffiti naturally conclude that it was a teenager’s commentary on what was going on with the wall and the East German regime, it was actually a band member of a popular 1980s band writing his group’s name on the wall. 

In another fascinating find, as I was scouring Instagram for images of the wall, I actually found this word written on the wall from a 1980s image.  What an interesting coincidence – first I found the origin of the word, and then I found an image of what appears to be the same writing from the 1980s.  What do you think? Is it the same writing or another one?

Berlin Wall Graffiti Image from the 1980s (courtesy Instagram Massimiliano T.P.)

I want it to be the same, but I see the differences in placement and letter sizes.  So maybe not the exact same writing but still an interesting find. 

EXCITING UPDATE

A couple of weeks back I received the following image from the owner of the blog www.madnessontv.com, with a note that the graffiti in the second image was definitely done by the band, as proved by this image:

British rock group Madness right after they wrote their name on the wall!!

Madness were in Berlin in January 1980, and appeared on German TV “Musikladen” on January 10, 1980, and then on another TV show on January 17, 1980. Two of the bandmembers were active in the London graffiti scene before they joined the band. A great big thank you to madnesstv.com for sharing this picture with me!!

(Sources: madnesstv.com, concerts.fandom.com)

11 November 1620

After sailing for eight weeks across the Atlantic, the Mayflower reached Plymouth Harbor.

…but at night the winde being contrary, we put round againe for the Bay of Cape Cod, and vpon the 11. of Nouember, we came to an anchor in the Bay, which is a good harbour and a pleafant Bay, circled round, except in the entrance which is about foure miles ouer from land to land, compaffed about to the very Sea with Okes, Pines, Iuniper, Saffafrasm and other fweet wood; it is a harbour wherein 1000 faile of Ships may fafely ride, there we relieued our felues with wood and water, and refrefhed our people, while our fhallop was fitted to coaft the Bay, to fearch for an inhabitation ; there was the greateft fhre of fowle that euer we faw.

Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Edward Winslow
Ferris, Jean Leon Gerome, The Mayflower Compact 1620 (1899): Passengers of the Mayflower signing the “Mayflower Compact.” Seated at the head of the chest is John Carver, Edward Winslow is holding the inkpot for John Alden who is signing his name. Seated in the chair is Myles Standish. Others shown who signed the Compact are John Howland, William Bradford, Isaac Allerton, and Samuel (or Edward) Fuller. Off to one side is Mary Chilton – who, being a woman did not sign, but in a few days will be the first person to set foot on the Plymouth Rock.

This day before we came to harbour, obfeuring fome not well affected to vnitie and concord, but gaue fome appearbance of faction, it was thought good there fhould e an affociation and agreement, that we fhould combine together in one body, and to fubmit to fuch government and governors, as we fhould by common confent agree to make and chofe, and fet our hands to this that follows word for word.”

Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Edward Winslow

What followed and was signed on 11 November 1620 by 41 male passengers of the Mayflower came to be known as the The Mayflower Compact. The original version of the signed document was lost. The earliest known text of the document is found in Mourt’s Relation (1622) which provides an account of Plymouth settlement written by Mayflower passengers Edward Winslow and William Bradford.

Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers

The breaking waves dashed high
On a stern and rock-bound coast,
And the woods against a stormy sky
Their giant branches tossed;

And the heavy night hung dark,
The hills and waters o'er,
When a band of exiles moored their bark
On the wild New England shore.

Not as the conqueror comes,
They, the true-hearted came;
Not with the roll of the stirring drums,
And the trumpet that sings of fame;

Not as the flying come,
In silence and in fear;
They shook the depths of the desert gloom
With their hymns of lofty cheer.

Amidst the storm they sang,
And the stars heard, and the sea;
And the sounding aisles of the dim woods rang
To the anthem of the free.

The ocean eagle soared
From his nest by the white wave's foam;
And the rocking pines of the forest roared--
This was their welcome home.

There were men with hoary hair
Amidst the pilgrim band:
Why had they come to wither there,
Away from their childhood's land?

There was woman's fearless eye,
Lit by her deep love's truth;
There was manhood's brow, serenely high,
And the fiery heart of youth.

What sought they thus afar?
Bright jewels of the mine?
The wealth of seas, the spoils of war?
They sought a faith's pure shrine!

Ay, call it holy ground,
The soil where first they trod;
They have left unstained what there they found -- 
Freedom to worship God.

Felicia Dorothea Hemans (1793-1835)

The world’s too small for walls

What a difference a day can make. The morning of November 9, 1989 started like any other day for Berliners on both sides of the wall – but by the end of the day the barrier that stood between them had fallen. Today marks the 31st anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Two nights ago, as the long-awaited (US) election results were announced, the sombre mood of the nation changed in one moment and celebrations broke out across the country.

In the words of Willy Brandt (1913-1992), German politician, mayor of West Berlin, and 1971 Nobel Peace Prize winner, “Now we are in a situation where what belongs together, will grow back together.”

(Images Courtesy: Guardian, Time Magazine, US News & World Report).

Picture of the Month

While I was looking up info for the wartime evacuation of paintings, I came across the really fascinating start to the Picture of the Month concept that was initiated by the National Gallery in London during wartime. The Gallery had just purchased and exhibited a Rembrandt painting in an otherwise empty museum. Following this exhibition, on January 3, 1942, a Mr. Charles Wheeler wrote a letter to the editor of the Times newspaper.

“because London’s face is scarred and bruised these days we need more than ever to see beautiful things. Like many another one hungry for aesthetic refreshment, I would welcome the opportunity of seeing a few of the hundreds of the nation’s masterpieces now stored in a safe place. Would the trustees of the National Gallery consider whether it were not wise and well to risk one picture for exhibition each week? Arrangements could be made to transfer it quickly to a strong room in case of an alert. Music-lovers are not denied their Beethoven, but picture-lovers are denied their Rembrandts just at a time when such beauty is most potent for good.”

In response, the trustees decided to show one picture every three weeks instead of one a week because they, “felt that many people could not spare time to visit the gallery so often and might be disappointed at missing a favorite  picture.”

The first painting selected by the museum was Titian’s Nole me tangere. The picture with its biblical subject matter that invited contemplation and its themes of Christ’s sacrifice for humanity, seemed like a perfect choice for a nation at war. The picture was selected on March 11, 1942 and was on display for three weeks.

Notice in the Times
Titian’s Noli me tangere (1514)
The next Picture was an El Greco which is now called Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple
El Greco, Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple (1600)

I looked through many months of archives of the Times and could only find three more such notices.

Pieter de Hooch, Courtyard of a House in Delft
JMW Turner’s Frosty Morning: Sunrise was exhibited from August 5, 1942 for one month (source: Tate Gallery, maybe the painting moved there at some point in time)
John Constable, The Hay Wain (1821) was the picture of the month from Jan 15 to Feb 14, 1943

What fun I’ve had with the research for this blog!! As always, I am amazed at the power of art to bring joy and to heal.

(Sources: Times archives and the National Gallery, London).