Chirico’s Shadows

Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico’s (1888 – 1978) works from his highly influential metaphysical period lasted for a few brief years before the start of World War I.

The Enigma of a Day

The works show empty, yet architecturally rich, city landscapes with mesmerizing late afternoon wintertime shadows. That hour of the day when the last remnants of the wintertime sun elongates shadows and invites contemplation about the passage of time. It happens during the last few minutes of daylight during the last few months of the year – perhaps it is that proximity to the end of a recurring cycle which invites contemplation – in this we see the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy in Chirico’s works.

His works are what paintings of dreams would look like- there are symmetrical arches and architectural details with a cubist bent, bright surfaces and dark spaces, empty landscapes with shadows of solitary people or statues of dead people, there is no sense of perspective, wind seems to appear only in certain sections of the painting – smoke from a steam engine billows upwards, while flags fly sideways – looking at his paintings seems to slow down time as one contemplates its passing. They are an enigma – perhaps why he himself named so many of them that way.

The Enigma of a Day

The metaphysical period of Chirico’s artistic career was brief – from 1911 to 1915 – after the war he drifted towards classical work. Yet, this brief period was highly influential in paving the way for surrealism and the works of Magritte and Dali – and Hopper’s empty landscapes – among others.

Aivazovsky’s Constantinople

Ivan Aivazovsky, View of Constantinople with the Nusretiye Mosque (1856)

Ninety-one years ago, on March 28, 1930, Constantinople was officially renamed Istanbul by the Turkish Post Office. The city was built in 657 BCE when it was called Byzantium until it was renamed by Constantine the Great in 330. When Constantinople fell in 1453 it became a part of the Ottoman empire. Connecting two continents, this queen of cities has had many names.

The Persians called it Dersaadet, meaning door to ultimate happiness. The Greeks called it Teofilaktos or city guarded by God while the Romans called it Nuova Roma. To the Arabs it was Farrouk, the city that separated two continents, while to Ottoman Turks it was Ummti-diinya or mother of the world. Today it is called Istanbul, which has its roots in the Greek words for simply The City or tin polin – an apt name for a city at the center of the world.

Like many others throughout history, Russian artist Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (1817 – 1900) was enchanted by this city that he first visited in 1845 as the official artist of the Russian Naval fleet of Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich. Between then and 1890 Aivazovsky visited the city more than ten times and captured it in all its glory in numerous paintings.

Aivazovsky was born into an Armenian family in Crimea, and studied art at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. He was considered one of the best marine artists of his time and was appointed the main painter for the Russian Navy. He was so highly regarded in Russia that the saying “worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush,” from Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya became the Russian buzzword for describing something that was lovely beyond description.

Ivan Aivazovsky, Constantinople (1856)

The Red Clay Jug

In 1656, Diego Velazquez (1599-1660), a giant in Western art, painted his greatest work, Las Meninas. This exceptionally large – and enigmatic – painting has captivated viewers and critics alike for over 350 years, and remains one of the most highly analyzed, debated, and discussed works of art. This monumental picture was painted when Velazquez had been working at the Spanish royal court of Philip IV for 30 years – when he was at the height of his artistic skills and creativity. 

Diego Velazquez, Las Meninas (1656), Oil on Canvas

There is so much to look at and absorb when one looks at this picture – the Infanta Margarita Teresa, her dog, the dwarves, the mirror reflecting the king and queen, the man in the backlit hallway who’s either coming – or is he going – the artist himself in the act of painting. Despite looking at this picture, analyzing it for hours, I barely noticed the red jug on the silver plate which the lady-in-waiting is offering to the Infanta. And once I noticed it, it was all I could focus on. It is the same deep red as on Velazquez’s palette – the same red as the cross of the Order of Santiago on his chest. Why did he choose the same deep red for all three – whatever his reasons they add to the enigma that is Las Meninas.

The easy to miss tiny red clay jug is almost as fascinating as the rest of the painting. The jug is there because of the trade between Spain and the Americas. Very often, paintings from this era include objects brought back by traders from oceans away. This water jug – called bucaro in Spain– was most likely from Guadalajara, Mexico and was made of a mixture of clay and spices which perfumed and flavored the drinking water it held.

But that’s not all – the clay itself has mysterious properties – and when women bit off and chewed pieces of the jug and consumed it slowly over time, it made their skin pale – white almost to the point of ghostliness. Eating the clay also induced hallucinations – and of course numerous side health issues. Queen Elizabeth of England had made ghostlike white skin fashionable and a symbol of wealth – which made bucaros a highly coveted item in Spain at this time.

In light of this, Las Meninas become even more enigmatic – look at the Infanta’s fingers just about to wrap around the bucaro, her exceptionally pale skin, and her almost levitating feet – is Velazquez hinting at a trance-like state? What is Velazquez telling us – and why is the red of the bucaros similar to the red of his paint and the red of the Order of Knighthood? More mysteries – or does the bucaro hold the key to the mysteries of this masterpiece?

(Sources: Museo Prado, Velázquez’s Las Meninas: A detail that decodes a masterpiece by Kelly Grovier, bbc.com, Oct 16, 2020)

National Gallery of Art – the beginning

In the second of a series of blogs on the beginnings of museum collections, I decided to write about our nation’s museum – the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The museum and its founding collection was a gift of Pittsburgh industrialist and later Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon.  It was in 1928, that Andrew Mellon first expressed interest in starting a national art museum, and in December 1936 he offered his personal art collection, now known as the Mellon Collection, as well as funds to build the museum. Sadly, he died in March 1937 just as the construction of the museum was starting. It was built however according to his vision.

Sandro Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi (1478), NGA ID 1937.1.22

The Mellon Collection comprised of 125 paintings, 25 of which Mellon purchased from the Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia) in 1931. The young, and poor, socialist government of the Soviet Union needed money which it raised by selling off priceless treasures to millionaires like Andrew Mellon, Calouste Gulbenkian (who founded the Gulbenkian museum in Lisbon), and Marjorie Post (owner of General Foods, Inc.).

The works acquired by Mellon and gifted to the National Gallery included Rembrandts, Van Dyck, Reubens, Botticelli, Velazquez, Hals, and a Chardin. Quite unbelievable that Stalin’s government would have permitted this kind of a cultural drain – but it certainly has enriched our National Gallery beyond imagination!!

(Sources: National Gallery of Art, The Washington Post).

Mughal miniatures.. by Rembrandt?

I am fascinated by the cross-cultural exchanges that were starting to take place in the world in the 17th Century, and the manner in which they manifested themselves in contemporary art. The Dutch and East India companies were trading with Mughal India and other countries in the East and apart from the spices they also brought back Mughal miniatures.

In a previous blog post, East meets West – in 17th Century India, I talked about the influence of European art on Mughal miniatures during Jahangir’s reign as a result of trade and the presence of Jesuit missionaries in the region. On the flip side, the Mughal miniatures that were brought back by the traders from Agra to the Netherlands were of keen interest to many including the most famous artist of the era, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-69). He made several ink etchings of Mughal miniatures on Japanese paper – of which 23 are known to survive.

While some were more or less exact renditions, albeit monochromatic, of the colorful miniatures, in others Rembrandt showed movement – something that is almost always missing from the static miniatures. He mainly focused on the people, their mannerisms, and costumes, and ignored the intense colors and vibrant floral background of the miniatures. Interestingly, the miniatures seemed to have an influence on his later works, which can be seen in Abraham Entertaining the Angels (1656). The circular seating of the figures, the appearance of the bearded Abraham, the round plate and jug all seem inspired by the Mughal miniature Four Mullahs (1627-28) and his copy Four Orientals under a Tree (1656-61).

Rembrandt, Abraham Entertaining the Angels (1656)

(Sources: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rijksmuseum, The Frick Collection, British Museum, San Diego Museum of Art, The Getty Museum)

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)

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).