Tag Archives: Italian Renaissance

Finding Your Way In: Tips for approaching an artwork you’ve never seen before

One of the things people assume about you when they learn that you’re an art historian (and one of the things that we jokingly say about ourselves!) is that we make brilliant dinner party conversation.  People will throw out their favourite artists (or simply the last one they heard of), and assume that we’re not only familiar with their entire output, but have an insightful and fully-formed opinion on them.  But one of the exciting things about art history, whether you choose to officially study it, or simply indulge a passion for it, is discovering new works of art, artists, and even entire movements you’ve never before encountered.  But this can be a slightly intimidating experience.  It can be difficult to figure your way into a work that feels unfamiliar.  There are however a few things that you can look out for to help you find your way into a new work of art which I’ll be exploring in this new series.  These suggestions are in no way proscriptive, it’s important that you embrace your own response to the work, but if you’re ever stuck when looking at a new work, these tips might be worth bearing in mind.

Material

The artist’s choice of medium can make a huge difference to the overall effect of the artwork.  Often museum labels will help you with this, but it satisfying to be able to identify the materials yourself.  Some are really easy to identify, with oil or watercolours perhaps, but this can sometimes be difficult; often the material of sculpture can be hard to pinpoint.  But with a little practice you start to gain a familiarity with the materials, and build up a knowledge of what they look like and how they’re used.

Once you have an idea of what the material is, it’s worth thinking about the qualities and constraints of that material.  The development of oil painting allowed artists in the Northern Renaissance to create amazingly realistic images, using are fully layered pigments and glazes to bring a vitality to their works unmatched by the frescoes of their Southern cousins.  It is thought that these new paints were created in part in response to the damp climate of the North, which made the plaster-based techniques of Italian artists implausible. Centuries later, the vivid colours of the Impressionists were made possible by the development of new, chemical pigments. The bright yellows and blues seen in so many of their works was made possible by these new pigments.  Their en plain air techniques were also made possible by the invention of tubes of paint, making the materials far more portable.

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pont Neuf, 1872

Sculpture is perhaps even more dependent on its materials.  The physical qualities are of key importance, having a fundamental effect on what one would be able to sculpt.  The poor tensile strength of marble is the reason why so many sculptures are supported by ugly props, with bars of the material holding up their arms or legs.  This is why so many Greek gods are leaning against a conveniently positioned tree trunk.  The opposite quality enables the fantastical creations of the sixteenth century, such as Giambologna’s Mercury ( which positively flaunts the tensile strength of bronze with its outstretched limbs.

Giambologna Mercury

Giambologna, Mercury, 1580

The sculpture’s material isn’t just of interest form the point of view of its physical qualities.  Many materials also take on a symbolic quality, or accrue connotations that can impact on the meaning of the finished work.  In his seminal work The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, Michael Baxandall explored the way in which cultural associations about limewood came to be attached to the sculptures that were carved from it.  The special, pseudo-magical qualities that folklore attached to the tree itself impacted on how the sculptures were understood by contemporary viewers.  This book also contains Baxandall’s examination of the different woods on a cellular level, and the implications of this for the forms it was sculpted into.  Far later, modern sculptors such as Henry Moore would lead the ‘truth to materials’ movement, which sought to exploit the inherent qualities of the material to create sculpted forms that somehow reflected the nature of the material itself.

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Henry Moore, Recumbent Figure, 1938, image credit

In painting too, materials could gain their own symbolic meanings.  The most famous example of this is the use of lapis lazuli in depictions of the Virgin Mary.  The high cost of the pigment, due to it being imported all the way from Afghanistan, where it still only occurred in relatively small quantities, meant that it came to be seen as appropriate for depicting this holy figure.

The Virgin and Child

Massacio, The Virgin and Child, 1426

The price of the material is thus also worth considering.  While it is obviously often the case that materials are chosen for their expense, they can also be deliberately inexpensive.  For instance, Russian Constructivist artists such as Alexander Rodchenko chose cheap, readily available materials such as plywood, in a deliberate attempt to make their art more accessible, and to strip it of the bourgeois connotations of more conventional materials.  In other cases, the material may be chosen specifically for such connotations.  Mark Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant, created for the Fourth Plinth at Trafalgar Square, made use of Carrara marble (Michelangelo’s David was able made from Carrara marble), placing it in a tradition of nude sculptures dating back through the Renaissance to Roman art, which in turn imitated Greek art. By using this material Quinn makes a bold and positive claim for the beauty and importance of his subject, and forces his viewers to reconsider the negative effects of the bland uniformity of sculpture in the Classical tradition.  Quinn himself commented on his choice of material, ‘Marble is the material used to commemorate heroes, and these people seem to me to be a new kind of hero – people who instead of conquering the outside world have conquered their own inner world and gone on to live fulfilled lives. To me, they celebrate the diversity of humanity. Most monuments are commemorating past events; because Alison is pregnant it’s a sculpture about the future possibilities of humanity’.

Alison Lapper Pregnant

Mark Quinn, Alison Lapper Pregnant, 2005, image credit

So there are lots of aspects to the choice of material in artworks.  These certainly shouldn’t be treated as a tick-list of things to go through, but thinking about material in this way can offer a new perspective on a work of art, and can be an interesting approach to take when you find yourself in front of a brand new (to you, or the world) work of art.

 

 

Mark Quin quote excerpted from: http://marcquinn.com/artworks/alison-lapper.

Images unless otherwise stated are sourced from wikicommons.

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Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars, c.1485

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Over-exposure to this painting as a sixth-former had left me feeling it was at worse dull and a best that there wasn’t much left to say about it.  It seemed to be a painting you could analyse with a check-list: classical references, punning reference to family name (the wasps are a possible reference to the Vespucci family, potential patrons of the work), marital context.  It was only when I was unexpectedly re-introduced to the painting at university that I recaptured a sense of real excitement about this painting.  It now stands as one of my favourite paintings in the National Gallery, an amusing and subtle exploration not only of classical references and intellect, but also of human relations and social expectations.

Painted in egg-tempera and oil on a panel of poplar wood, it is thought to have probably served as part of a piece of furniture in a bedroom, possible of a newly married couple.  Though the mostly likely item of furniture used to be identified as a cassone, the chest which held the bride’s trousseau, it is now thought that the painting most likely formed part of a back-rest or spalliera.  This may have been part of a cassapanca, a sort of chest-bench, which could function as a cassone, or it could have been part of a daybed.  We mustn’t allow our modern assumptions to creep in here – bedrooms were in this period by no means entirely private spaces, and might be used as much as socialising spaces during the day.  So we can assume that thought it was placed in a bedroom, the painting’s audience was by no means limited to the occupants of the bed itself.

The story the painting is linked to originates in Homer, that of the illicit affair of Venus and Mars (in Homer they are of course Aphrodite and Ares).  Venus, married to the under-appreciated Vulcan, engages in an affair with Mars, the god of War, before they are caught, in the act, by a net crafted by Vulcan.  In Homer’s telling they are subjected to the humiliation of being laughed at by the other gods.  Though the story certainly doesn’t appeal to the modern sense of humour, and seems rather ominous for a bedroom painting, the central sort of the affair of Venus and Mars took on other connotations.  The emphasis on the ability of Love to subdue War, and thus bring about peace, has often been focused on as a positive interpretation of the story.

Botticelli seems to have been keen to cram in as many classical references as possible, on top of the subject matter itself.  The choice of the satyrs playing in the background may be a reference to a lost work described by the second-century Greek writer Lucan, which depicted the Marriage of Alexander and Roxana, while cupids played with Alexander’s armour.  This demonstrates both Botticelli’s classical knowledge, and puts him on a par with the much admired ancient artists.  Venus’ pose may reference an extant classical work of art, the Roman Hermaphrodite sculpture, which was very popular in Florence in the fifteenth century, and was widely copied.  This sculpture, male when viewed from one side, female from the other, has a similarly reclining pose, and Venus’ foot in particular seems to reference the pose of the sculpture.  However, despite these classical references, there is not a great deal of classical influence in the style of the painting itself.  The costumes are contemporary to the time of the painting, they are not archaicising, but would have been recognisably modern to the painting’s audience.  Venus’ hair is also like that in many other contemporary portraits.  So there in fact seems to be an attempt to position the ancient story in a modern context.

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Bernini’s Hermaphrodite, now in the Louvre

This seems to be related to the moral or implications of the story.  As we have seen, it has been interpreted in a positive light, as representing the triumph of peace or love over War.  However, the painting may also carry more sinister connotations.  A slightly risqué interpretation is that it depicts Mars’s ‘little death’, the post-coital state, implied not only by the fact that he is asleep, but by the fact that even the blast from the conch shell cannot awaken him. This mischievous and someone tongue-in-cheek depiction can be seen as an amusing talking (or perhaps not talking) point.  It might also be interpreted however as carrying a more serious message.  It acts as a warning to the painting’s male audience.  Mars has been so seduced, emotionally and physically, by Venus, that it has led him to neglect his duties and his true warrior-like nature.  He deeply snoozes while his martial tools are used as play things by the naughty satyrs (who are themselves linked with the sinister activities of the Bacchanal).  This might be emphasised by the fact that the scene Venus_and_Mars_National_Gallery (4)is set in a dense thicket, while we see a city in the background, perhaps where the Mars figure should be, attending his duties.  The tree Mars leans against is also noticeably stunted, with its branches chopped off, with rotten stumps in their place (I would not encourage my readers to interpret this too literally), suggesting a state of ill-health, or lack of attention to good care.  The painting thus both acts as a warning to its males viewers, and as an expression of male anxiety in the face of female sexuality and power.  Far from a calming and benevolent bringer of peace, this Venus is depicted as, be it through evil design or not, depriving Mars of his ‘manly’ power and sense of responsibility.

This interpretation of the painting is supported by the fact that that other famous Renaissance figure, Machiavelli, was complaining of Florence’s lack of martial prowess in just such terms.  He saw it as a deep flaw the Florence was heavily reliant on mercenaries for its self-defence, and complained that Florentine men were no longer capable soldiers.  This he blamed in part on their being too interested in sex, and too easily drawn away, by women, from martial concerns.  He campaigned for and eventually succeeded in setting up a Florentine militia in an attempt to solve this problem (whether he succeeded in drawing men’s attention away from women is both uncertain, and quite certain).

Artworks in the Italian Renaissance home often served as conversation pieces 0 they were there to be talked about, not just to be looked at.  So although we may be drawn to one particularly interpretation, it is likely that the painting was valued in part for tis potential for debate and discussion, and its multiple possible interpretations.  We must also remember that it was not necessarily the artist alone who had a say in the content of the painting – the patron might also suggest elements, wither on a broad scale, or down to minor details.

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The technique of the painting mixes ‘new’ and ‘old’ styles and methods.  While he makes use newer techniques such as aerial perspective and foreshortening (particularly well-executed on Mars’s head), he also makes use of more old-fashioned methods.  The figures are all outlined in think black lines, a traditional Florentine technique.  This perhaps helps to give the paintings its pleasing sense of clarity.  The fine folds of Venus’ robes are wonderful, and the use of think brushstrokes is effective in achieving a sense of translucency, particularly noticeable on her lower leg, and clearly designed to highlight her idealised figure.  This is an effect particularly associated with tempera painting.  Tempera is made by mixing dry pigments with, usually, egg-yolk.  The fine wispy curls of the satrys’ fur where it meets their bald upper bodies also demonstrates this translucent quality.  Botticelli has also tipped his head to modern practice by including naturalistic images of real plants, with a variety of small plants growing in the grass on which the figures recline.

 

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So I am glad that I was given the opportunity to take a fresh look at this painting, and reach a new appreciation of it.  It is always interesting to look back a familiar material through a new lens, in my case that of considering the gendered implications of such a painting.  I hope this post has served to both draw your attention to this fascinating painting, and to spur you to take a new look at an artwork you may have thought you were bored of, but might find much more to interest you in. As ever with artworks, the more you look, the more you find.

The National Gallery’s online entry on the work can be found here.

Is there an artwork or artist you would like me to write about next?  Let me know in the comments.  Feedback is always appreciated.

Masaccio, The Virgin and Child, 1426

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Masaccio’s most famous works are undoubtedly those found in the Brancacci Chapel, in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, in Florence, and his Holy Trinity, found in the church of Santa Maria Novella, also in Florence.  Alongside The Holy Trinity, The Tribute Money, and The Expulsion, have become poster-works for the Italian Renaissance, endlessly discussed (or at least cited), and burned into the memory of anyone who has studied European art history.  But for those who can’t make it all the way to Florence, London too holds Masaccio-based delights, in the form of the subject of today’s post, Masaccio’s The Virgin and Child, of 1426.

The large painting (it measures an impressive 135 x 74 cm), would originally have functioned as the central part of an altarpiece.  Commissioned for the Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine, in Pisa, by the Pisan notary Ser Giuliano degli Scarsi, the painting explores the desire to make the Mother and Child both supernatural, and real, human.  This leads to a mix of elements that may seem something at odds with one another to the modern viewer, but which express this central Christian belief in the humanity of the Virgin and Child.  The figures are on a monumental scale, far larger than the instrument playing and singing angels who surround them.  This presents a hierarchy of importance, the larger figures of the Virgin and Child present their far high status.  This scale is emphasised by the composition of the painting, with the Virgin and Child raised above us on a throne, making us look up at them reverentially, something that would have been further highlighted by its being mounted in the altarpiece.  The use of a gilded background also creates a sense of them being in a special, removed space.  There is no attempt to position the throne and its support in a realistically represented space, which may seem to create an odd contrast with the cleverly articulated and perspectivally treated architecture of the throne itself.

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However, Masaccio cleverly contrasts these ‘unrealistic’ elements with more naturalistic modes of representation.  One aspect of this is his interest in perspective and lighting.  The painting has a central vanishing point, with the other elements in the painting arranged according to this single- viewpoint perspective.  He has even attempted to present Christ’s halo, a supernatural aspect the nature of which was cause of some debate, in a foreshortened fashion, to accord with this sense of perspective.  He uses a strong sense of directional light to model the figures, and draw attention to the gentle folds of the Virgin’s mantle and dress.  His understanding of how to use this light is demonstrated by the fact that the shadows are consistent with the direction of the light.  The impressive foreshortening of the instruments of the front two angels gives the painting a clearly defined sense of depth, aMasaccio._Madonna_and_Child._1426._National_Gallery,_London (4).jpgnd again adds to the sense of reverence, placing the Virgin and Child just beyond our reach.  The architectural elements such as the throne both follow the perspective, and offer a sense of realistic familiarity.  The use of Corinthian and composite capitals recreates recognisable architectural details from the city of Pisa itself, giving the viewers a sense that the Virgin and Child are somehow in an Italian setting.

This sense of appealing to the everyday experiences of the painting’s viewers is also carried through to the realistic treatment of the figures themselves.  Rather than remaining distant, aloof, or sombre, Masaccio’s Virgin and Christ appear as a real mother and child.  Christ, often depicted in Virgin and Child images as blessing, or with a general sense of awareness of his own divine nature, here clutches at the grapes offered him by his mother, and sucks at his fingers (those usually used for blessing), just like a real child.  While he is rather large, his plump body and tousled hair recall the features of real babies.  This is mirrored by his mother, who carefully cups her hand around him to hold him on her lap, and gently offered his the fruit.  But, with the serene but perhaps slightly sad expression, we are shown that she understands the significance of her infant child.  We are led to contemplate the undeniable humanity of Christ, an aid to the contemplative religious meditation of the viewer.  This awareness of his human nature only serves to make his later self-sacrifice and the events of the Passi0n all the more profound and moving.  This human aspect of Christ was increasingly emphasised in religious movements of this period, in the preaching of the Mendicant friars for instance, and in the growth of confraternities, and in the numerous festivals and ceremonies commemorating the Passion across Italy.  The angels in this painting almost act as stand-ins for the viewers, they are highly individualized, with different hairstyles for example, and their facial expressions emphasise their individual responses to their religious experiences.  They are much like the human worshippers gathered before the altarpiece itself.

This level of human signification is used in tandem, and in some senses responds to, a layer of symbolic meaning.  The most obviously symbolic element in the painting is the bunch of grapes.  This symbolically recalls the wine of the Eucharist, and thus Christ’s blood, and the Passion itself.  This is particularly touching given the childlike behaviour of Masaccio._Madonna_and_Child._1426._National_Gallery,_London (2).jpgthe Infant, it brings a sense of dramatic irony to the painting, with the viewing seeing the baby foreshadowing the sacrifice of the adult.  The emphasis placed on Christ’s fingers, particularly those he playfully chews or sucks, brings to mind the blessing gesture, and with it Christ’s teaching and works prior to the Passion.  Thus the child prefigures or foreshadows the life and works of the grown Christ.  The words of Mary’s halo are from the Ave Maria, the Hail Mary hymn, thus emphasising the Virgin’s spiritual significance, and connecting her with this image of Christ.  Not only is she pictured as the mother of Christ, but the reference to this hymn highlights her intercessional role – the painting’s viewers would be reminded to pray to her to intervene on their behalf in the Court of Heaven.  This was one of the main reasons the Cult of the Virgin became so popular, because Mary was thought to have this intercessional power, potentially reducing the time the individual human soul would have to spend in Purgatory, so it is interesting to see how Masaccio has linked these two developing religious tendencies, the humanity of Christ, and the power of the Virgin.  To further highlight the Virgin’s importance, Masaccio has used the by then accepted move of using rich blue, made from lapis lazuli, for her mantle.  This stone, found in Afghanistan, was hugely expensive, due to its relative rarity and the distance it had to travel, so came to be seen as the appropriate colour for a figure of such high spiritual significance as the Virgin Mary.

So we see in this painting Masaccio bringing together many different elements and contemporary concerns and religious ideas of the society he lived in, tapping into deeply help religious beliefs as well as exploiting new artistic techniques, and tying them together to create a work which appeals to both the human, and the spiritual, in its viewers.

There is an interesting side story to this painting.  The payments for it were collected on Masaccio’s behalf by none other than Donatello.  He was also working in Pisa at the time, and was friends with Masaccio.  It is interesting to be reminded of the extent to which artists were friends, new one another, and even collaborated.  It can be tempting to be drawn into the post-Romantic idea of the artist as lone genius, and it is refreshing to be reminded that artistic networks were more fertile, active, and indeed frequent, than we might now imagine.

The National Gallery’s entry on the painting can be found here.

 

 

Photo credit: Wikicommons.