Tag Archives: Portraits

First Impressions: Giovanni Giacometti (1868-1933), Autoportrait, 1899

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In my latest ‘First Impressions’ post, I paid a visit to the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva.  The First Impressions pieces are intended to be a faithful record of my thoughts on being confronted with an artwork.  They are written in situ in front of the piece, and without further research.  The longer you sit with an artwork the more you get out of them, and these pieces are in a sense exercises in ‘slow looking’, as well as close looking.  I would highly encourage you to pick a painting that appeals to you, and sit with it for an hour or so, and discover what you see.  Comment below if you do this too!

Situated in one of the smaller rooms on the second floor of the museum, this painting immediately caught my eye.  It has such an audacious composition.  He stares out at you in a way few paintings achieve, it is a truly piercing gaze.  He has chosen to situated himself within a bright winter landscape, the kind with fast moving clouds and a little warmth from the sun balancing the cold gusts of wing.  The composition is essentially that of a bust, almost superimposed over a landscape painting.  This gives the work a great sense of immediacy, and intimacy.  One can’t help but feel that the interaction which brought us so close to him, and with him bearing such an expression, would be a somewhat socially awkward one, but it gives the work an almost photographic sense of modernity.  This is a type more familiar to us from photojournalism than from paintings of late Nineteenth century Switzerland.

It’s hard not to compare self-portraits of red-heads with that other, most famous of ginger artists, and it is possible that Giacometti was familiar with the work of Van Gogh.  He certainly does seem to be familiar with new approaches to colour and brushwork that were being explored in Paris at the time.  Geneva was becoming more artistically significant during this period, with a burgeoning art scene, due in part to its close links with Paris.  For the majority of the painting, Giacometti’s choices of colour are fairly naturalistic.  It is in his brushwork that he is more daring, with dense networks of directional brushstrokes giving and undisciplined but effective impression of the craggy, jagged, and snow-covered mountains.  Whereas earlier artists would tend towards hiding their brushwork, smoothing brushstrokes away to focus on careful variations creating depth and volume (such as in the earlier works of leading Swiss artist Hodler), Giacometti chooses varied and visible brushstrokes, which are more evocative of being in 20180617_115942the landscape.  Nothing about the painting is idealised; this is a rough, challenging landscape which tests those who have to live within it. He uses a fairly typical post-Impressionist method in outlining the top of the mountain in long, continuous, and dark brushstrokes.  This adds to the feeling that one is being situated within the landscape; it mimics the silhouette effect achieved by the bright sun.  It is in its way a carefully studied landscape, with the scars of avalanches and snowdrifts creeping their way down through the pines.

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While it is in some ways thus a highly ‘naturalistic’ work, creating an evocative impression of an experience of place, it would be unfortunate to miss the ways in which the artist has asserted himself within the landscape.  Obviously, he has done this quite blatantly in his choice of pose and composition, but we also see this in his choice of colours.  Various shades of green and pink dominate the lower half of the painting, seen in the trees and houses, for instance, and most prominently in the artist’s own face.  Here we see the modernity of his brushwork united with a modern approach to colour.  The use of contrasting green and pink, in very fine brushstrokes, works to bring a vividness to the face, befitting such a frank and confrontational pose.

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I’m not generally one for trying to read too much into the expressions of painted individuals.  This is an area which is too much about reception, and where it is perhaps best to consider the death of artist and the birth of reader(/viewer).  However it is tempting to consider Giacometti’s look as one of almost revelation, it speaks of a sudden awareness of one’s place in the world, not in relation to any social standing, but rather a more Romantic awareness of place within the wider world.  Nothing in a painting is incidental, and from his face we are clearly drawn to the funeral procession behind him, moving inexorably towards the church nested down the valley amongst the trees.  Whether we read this as a reflection of his personal realisation is largely a matter of taste.  The inclusion can be seen to fit with the effect of the painting capturing the essence of life (and therefore death) in the landscape it depicts.  Despite compositionally being placed in front/on top of the landscape, he has positioned himself as part of it.  His dense felt hat comes low over his ears, keeping out Alpine gusts, and his thick woollen coat is buttoned all the way up.  Though he turns to face us, his shoulders are at an angle, and he steps out into the landscape.  The two black figures, stragglers from the funeral, create a sense of movement across the canvas; perhaps he will join them?  The painting fills one with a sense of bearing witness, and becoming part of a way of life, lived from start to finish, in tough conditions.  Thus, Giacometti has not just offered us an image of a place, or an idea of a place, but rather a complete, involved, and honest experience of what it is to exist in that place.  His questioning gaze invites us in, and we are led to contemplate this existence alongside him.  Thus a painting which could come across as egotistical, putting himself, the individual, front and centre in the most literal of senses, gains a degree of universality; rather than being a focus in its own right, the individual (artist/us) becomes part of a greater, human story.

You can read some of my thoughts on the genre of self-portraiture here.

 

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The Wilton Diptych, c.1395-9

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One of the great treasures of London’s National Gallery is the Wilton Diptych.  The piece, made up of two oak panels hinged together, bearing images on both sides, represents the presentation of Richard II of England to the Virgin and Child.  This form, the diptych, was designed to be close, so as to allow portability.  The diptych would thus be carried with Richard on his travels, providing a movable focus for his prayer and personal devotion.  Though it is debatable whether the work was created by English or French artists, it stands as a stunning example of the International Gothic style, characterised by the depiction of the figures and drapery, as well as the treatment of the backgrounds.

The diptych is an undeniably beautiful piece, and couldn’t fail to catch the eye, but it becomes even more intriguing when viewed in the context of the life of its patron.  Shakespeare’s presentation of Richard II has unsurprisingly become the one that has shaped modern characterisations of him.  Though it is not without its inaccuracies, it does a good job of capturing Richard’s firm belief in the royal prerogative, and the literally divine right of kings.  The Wilton Diptych ties into this idea, depicting Richard being presented to the Virgin and Child by two earlier English kings who were recognised as saints, alongside his own patron saint, John the Baptist.  The left most saint is Edmund the Martyr, king of East Anglia from about 855 until his martyrdom in 869.  Having been defeated by the Viking, Edmund refused to renounce his Christian faith, for which he was executed by the still-pagan Vikings.  His story bears some unsettling similarities to Richard’s own eventual fate.  The middle saint is Edward the Confessor, king of the English from 1042 until his death in 1066.  His epithet summarises the view of him as pious and unworldly.  Opinion is divided as to whether he did much to earn this reputation during his lifetime, but a cult did develop around him after his death, resulting in his canonisation (probably for political reasons) by Pope Alexander III in 1161.  As king-saint, Edward the Confessor served as a model to which Richard II aspired.  Richard made his own coat of arms by impaling the arms of the kings of England with the mythical arms of Edward the Confessor (heraldry as such did not exist in that period).  These arms can be seen on the back of the Wilton Diptych.  So the diptych itself offers strong evidence for Richard’s personal identification with Edward the Confessor.

The diptych also points towards Richard’s general conviction in his divine right to rule.  Alongside his coat of arms, the back of the diptych also depicts a white hart wearing a golden collar and chain, Richard’s personal badge.  In its position on the back, it serves to denote Richard’s ownership of the diptych.  On the inside however it serves a more pointed purpose.  Richard wears a literal badge depicting it, as do all the assembled angels.  This is a very simple way of showing that Richard enjoys divine favour.  He is being presented to them by a selection of worthy and appropriate saints, but the Virgin, Child, and the Holy Court already know about and favour him.

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The reversed Diptych – what one would see when the Diptych was closed

While it is by no means uncommon for a patron to be presented to the Virgin and Child in this way, such blatant side-taking is perhaps a little more unusual.  But this was a particularly key period in Richard’s reign.  Created at some point in the last four years of his reign, the Wilton Diptych dates from a period when Richard became increasingly autocratic, acting on personal dislikes, and seemingly taking revenge on aristocrats who had rebelled against him in earlier years of instability. He sought and increased control over the aristocracy, and cultivated a culture of close personal rule, which has by some been called a tyranny.  Breakdowns in relations with the French after the rise of Louis, Duke or Orleans, left the way open for the return of the exiled Henry Bolingbroke, who brought a considerable force to bear against Richard, supposedly with the sole aim of regaining his patrimony, but clearly becoming a rallying point for those dissatisfied with Richard’s autocratic rule.  He eventually gained a surrender from Richard, who was later imprisoned, where he died in dubious circumstances, the most popular theory being that he starved to death in early 1400.

It is hard not to view the Wilton Diptych in the context of what we know about the rest of Richard’s life.  From one perspective, it reinforces the idea of a pious king wrongfully deposed.  However it can equally be related to a king convinced of his own divine right to rule and desirous of a majestic and lavish court dedicated to serving him.  It was in Richard’s reign that the word ‘majesty’ began to be used as a royal epithet, with ‘highness’ being replaced with ‘royal majesty’ or ‘high majesty’ (terms which are still used when referring to the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II).  The diptych is equally lavish, making wide use of the most expensive pigments, gold and lapis lazuli, to create a vivid image.  But the expense of these materials is matched by the skill of the artists to create an even more impressive piece.  The figures are elongated in their proportions, suiting the latest continental trends, and carefully detailed naturalistic elements such as the flowers are used to create an appealing image.  The floral elements five the impression of the heavenly setting in which the Virgin and Child stand, as well as recalling the aesthetic of the most popular and impressive art form of the time, the tapestry.

The diptych gives some insight into the thoughts of a man increasingly obsessed with his own power, and yet perhaps feeling the need to reassure himself of its divine origin.  As he knelt before his diptych on his increasingly desperate travels, it must have served as some comfort to see the most Holy Virgin and Child literally welcoming him with open arms, and showing that, whatever his aristocrats might think, they most certainly were on side his.  Even it is was only in an image of his own making.

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

 

All images sourced from Wikicommons.