Botticelli Reimagined

Primavera – Did you enjoy it?

To accompany my Painting of the Month I thought I might change the header image. Botticelli Reimagined is a 2012 imitation of The Birth of Venus by Japanese artist Tomoko Nagao which gave its name to an exhibition at the V&A in 2016. The exhibition was in three parts; a collection of Botticelli paintings, a series of nineteenth century paintings inspired by the Renaissance Master, and numerous twentieth century pastiche copies in many media from tapestry to David Bowie album covers.

I was taken by the Tomoko Nagao version for its banality; its comment on the sky being full  of planes and the sea full of junk.

For the purist the original Birth of Venus painted by Botticelli around 1485, below, is also in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence with The Primavera.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c1485, Uffizi Gallery.

Sandro Botticelli – Primavera

Sandro Botticelli was at one stage one of the most sought after and accomplished artists of the Florentine Renaissance. Then, after centuries of almost total obscurity his stock rose again in the mid nineteenth century to reach the fame his works enjoy today. Whereas his early public works were the numerous Madonnas and Virgins his modern popularity comes from the poetic, so called mythological works of which Primavera or Allegory of Spring, hung in the Uffizi Gallery, is one of the most well known. I have chosen this as my Painting of the Month and the theme of Poetry and Art.

Sandro Botticelli, Primavera, 1482, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Primavera is a wonderfully executed painting with eight main characters in a scene containing some five hundred different plants, including almost two hundred flowers. The exact interpretation of the scene has been lost in time, if it was ever completely clear, so is now open to many interpretations. The main description has Venus, Goddess of love, centre stage in an orange grove, with her blindfolded son Amor firing his arrows. In front of Venus a story unfolds traditionally read from right to left. Zephyrus, the gentle wind, is in fact invading the garden pursuing the nymph, Chlorus, who is transforming into Flora, the Goddess of Spring. Further on we see Venus’s companions, The Three Graces, dancing for her. But look at the central one, who is the target for Amor’s arrow of love, and notice her eyes are fixed on Mercury to the left. And what is Mercury doing in the scene, looking out the picture frame completely?

According to Barbara Deimling in her 2014 work, Sandro Botticelli, we have to know more about the patronage to understand Mercury’s role. The painting was commissioned by the Medici’s for Lorenzo di Francesco and hung in his bed chamber. The answer to the Mercury question may lie in the painting that hung to the left, Pallas and the Centaur. Pallas Athene, Goddess of Wisdom, dressed in Medici adorned garments is seen in the act of arresting the centaur in an enclosed space, that he has invaded, just in the act of firing his arrow (itself an allegorical action). Mercury, The winged messenger maybe carrying a message from Venus to Athene.

Sandro Botticelli, Athene and the Centaur, 1482, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Zephyrus and The centaur are both in the act of hunting innocent nymphs so reading both paintings together the viewer maybe witnessing the victory of chastity over lust, or good over evil. Indeed the victory has been orchestrated by the Medici family as signified by Athene’s dress symbols. These scenes do not appear in any single text together but it is believed that Botticelli’s ideas originate in De Reum Natura, by the Italian poet Lucretius. But wait…just when you thought you understand it Botticelli launches another surprise. Is he attributing the victory to the Medici’s or covertly to Christian belief? Look for an array of Christian symbols in the straight erect trees above the Graces, the random bending trees framing Zephyrus. Do these echo the tradional order and chaos of the last judgement. Probably the most striking symbol is the halo above the Venus – is she really the Virgin Mary. The interchangeability of The Venus and Mary was a common idea in medieval thinking.

Primavera could keep you busy for years understanding the plot, testing the theories, dismissing ideas, but really the painting can be simply enjoyed for its imagery and beauty. No wonder it is such a huge draw in The Uffizi. Enjoy.

Chance Order Change (2016)

The Barber Institute in Birmingham is probably one of the finest small collections of Western Art to be found anywhere in the world. When Lady Hattie Barber set out the acquisitions policy through the trust deed in 1933 the seeds were sown for a brilliant representation of the progression from early Italian painting through to the post impressionists of Paris. However the stipulation that no object created after 1899 should be acquired; reversed by the trustees in 1967, created the dearth of twentieth century art we see now. With the exception of two or three lonely examples; Howard Hodgkin’s, Artificial Flowers (1975), on loan, and Leger’s Composition with fruit (1938) abstract art is largely missing.

Howard Hodgkin, Artificial Flowers (1975)

Chance, Order and Change, the exhibition, therefore came as a complete surprise to me in 2016 attracting my attention; a look into the world of abstraction, and, in particular, constructivism. This post is taken from a Frieze competition entry I wrote that year. On display were twelve works from a private collection, and therefore, normally excluded from public scrutiny. The show ran from 11th February to 8th May 2016.

Josef Albers was the star of the show; one of the giants of geometric abstraction. There were two examples of his ‘Homage to the Square’ series; Red Tetrachord (1962) and a smaller study, Affectionate (1954). These paintings of four diminishing squares, set symmetrically horizontally but descending vertically towards a points, moving around on the retina in quite a hallucinatory way. The colours of Red Tetrachord diminish through red / yellow through earth, pure red to red / blue. This is not a painting to quickly walk past, but one to ponder, enjoy and even enter it trance like. The squares and the colours become more excited, the longer they are viewed and the colours move freely around the spectrum in patterns on the eye.

Josef Albers Homage to the Square Red Tetrachord (1962)

The square dominated the show; eight of the twelve exhibits being based on the equal quadrilateral and the remainder rectangles offering a substitute. Pure curves are almost absent, although there are occasional curvilinear works such as those by Bridget Riley; Orphean Elegy 7 (1979) and her Study for Studio International cover (1971). Riley’s’ is possibly the most familiar exhibits and the only ones which offer the most colourful palette. The curves are more subtly observed in Kenneth Martins Chance, Order, Change (1983) and Victor Passmores Line and Space No 21. Here the straight line still dominates as either groups of lines, the number determined by the throw of a dice, in Martin’s ‘Chance’, or as an array of short flecks in Passmore. But spending time with these sweeping shapes starts rewardin the viewer as strong curves, natural curves, hints of eroticism, appear behind the geometry.

Kenneth Martin Chance, Order Change (1983)

At Chance Order Change half of the exhibits were either black or white, and of the remainder four were monochrome or had only red or blue to offer. The show finished with Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting(1957), a canvas of monochrome black; the ‘end of painting’ as he described it – no line, no colour, no form, no object. But wait; shapes start to appear, more landscapes, more images; representation. What the ambiguity of these minimalistic abstracts prove is that painting did not die but, with time and patience, they become so full of vitality, images and figures. By reducing art to the most complete abstraction and asking so much more of the viewer, the reward is representative imagery that can transgress beyond any of the aspirations of the creation.

Bridget Riley, Orphean Elergy No. 7 (1979)

My entry did not win the Frieze prize but the exhibition was worth the effort though!

Worcester Cathedral Tombs

Worcester was our choice for a day out this week for some mid January therapy, and I thought, for a change, it was time I wrote about stone again. Memory was an important concept in the Middle Ages for church decoration and Worcester Cathedral is full of commemorative art. The architecture of the Cathedral is stunning, but we concentrated our visit on two particular memorials which commemorate interesting figures of Plantagenet blood.

King John’s tomb (mid 13th century) in the choir at Worcester Cathedral

King John’s tomb dominates the choir. The stone base conceals the tomb and is decorated with Plantagenet heraldry (the original three lions anticipated by Geoffrey De Plantagenet) and is topped with a life size effigy of John in purbeck marble. The effigy from the mid thirteenth century was one of the earliest to reflect the actual likeness rather than the more normal baronial type of representation. By his side is an unsheathed sword and on his shoulders are his two saints, the patron saints of Worcester; Wulfstan and Oswald. At his feet is a richly carved lion representing regal power.

Tomb of Arthur, Prince of Wales, elder brother of Henry VIII (16th century) in Worcester Cathedral

Just a view yards away on the north side of the high altar is the tomb and chantry chapel of Prince Arthur, elder brother of Henry VIII, the first born of the new Tudor dynasty. The tomb holding the fifteen year old heir is highly decorated stone with the heraldry of the English Sovereign with lions and fleur de lys, still revealing aspirations in French territory. The chantry chapel with it’s altar were adorned with numerous statues before a later iconoclasm (Edward VI) caused much damage. The richness of the decoration, however, clearly befits such an important heir and the fan vaulted roof is exquisite. Decorating the north exterior wall of the chapel is an array of significant emblems ranging from the white and red roses of the warring cousins, the combined Tudor rose, the portcullis emblem, adopted by parliament, the Yorkist fetterlock and the pomegranate representing Catherine of Aragon, Arthur’s wife.

North front of Prince Arthur’s chantry chapel at Worcester Cathedral showing emblems of the Yorkist, Lancastrian, Tudor and Aragon dynasties.

“What might have been?” There are many times throughout English history when that question may have been asked and these two tombs in Worcester Cathedral show how unlikely events can swing the history of a nation. It is enthralling to sit in spaces like the great gothic choir of Worcester Cathedral and ponder on these events. 

View towards choir and altar looking east, Worcester Cathedral

King John was the youngest of five sons of the first Plantagenet, Henry II. But for the rebellious nature of his elder brothers, all meeting premature deaths, he would have probably led a quiet life in some backwater in Ireland or France. Instead his own treacherous nature led to his taking the crown of England and nearly losing it disastrously, very nearly losing England as well. The subsequent reigns of Henry III, crowned at the age of nine at Gloucester, and Edward I probably led to the nation becoming more English than at any time since the legendary King Arthur.

And Prince Arthur? Following the final demise of the Plantagenets at Bosworth, the new dynasty depended on the legitimacy of the royal blood through Elizabeth of York, to support the usurper, Henry Tudor. Arthur was the first born, whose task was to finally bring a close years (maybe centuries) of Plantagenet wars and a herald a new glorious age. He died unexpectedly at fifteen, his younger brother ,Henry, married the widowed Catherine and the rest, as they say, is history…

Monet and St-Lazare

To accompany my Painting of the Month (Turner – Rain, Steam, Speed, 1844) I have a new header series of paintings by Claude Monet from the third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877. They represent views of St Lazare Railway Station in Paris and were the most talked about at the exhibition. The view on the middle right is La Gare St-Lazare, 1877, which is in the National Gallery in London.

Don’t forget to Follow😀

Rain, Steam, Speed – JMW Turner

JMW Turner, Rain, Steam, Speed, The Great Western Railway, 1844, The National Gallery, London

The Great Western Railway in the 1840s must have been both exciting and a subject of huge trepidation. Steam power had been established for some years by the time Turner painted this view in 1844, which is my ‘Painting of the Month’ for January. The public railway was quite new though, especially in southern England, maybe 10-15 years at most. What people must have thought of the prospect of thundering down from London to Bath at 40 miles per hour who knows. Nearly two hundred years on the railway is so much part of our life and landscape it becomes headline news when fares go up.

Maybe the acceptance of the early railways has similarities with the internet. The technology is well established and understood but the power and consequences of the internet fill traditionalists with fear and trepidation while the forward looking acknowledge the opportunities and benefits to be realised.

What did the great English painter, Turner make of it? He certainly anticipated the Impressionists in finding comfort in painting scenes of modernity and nothing represented the modern better than the railway. Turner’s image is universally recognised as Maidenhead railway bridge with the old “Bath Road” stone bridge on the left. The view is towards Taplow and London but it is difficult to see quite where Turner’s perspective was looking down on the train.

The train will be hauled by one of the early steam engines to appear on the railways coughing out fire, steam and smoke and of course noise. The bridge, completed in 1839, is one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s masterpieces, still the largest brick arch in the world. The centres of the arches are so wide that the brickwork is virtually horizontal making it such a fantastic feat of architecture / engineering.

Turners painting style is instantly recognisable in the painting and picking up detail is difficult but look out for the hare running alongside the train. What is the hare telling us. Is it simply running away from the noise? Is it Turner telling us how fast the train is travelling? To reach the speed of a racing hare in 1844 was indeed quite an achievement. Is it more subtle – maybe the traditionalists saying modernity is all very well but nature still produces faster transport. Maybe a short sited view, to be proved untrue only a few years later, akin to not appreciating the power of digital technology.

I never fail to be inspired by Turner’s atmospheric paintings and seeing this great representation of burgeoning modernity in the National Gallery is always a treat. Do see the original and not the numerous copies in station waiting rooms the length and breadth of the West Country.

Rain, Steam, Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844, William Mallord William Turner, The National Gallery, London.

Seasons Greetings from White Box Art

To compliment The Adoration of the Magi I have chosen another Christmas image popular with artists through the centuries. The Annunciation to the Shepherds recalls the angels appearing to the shepherds above Bethlehem to announce the birth of Jesus. (Luke 2: 8-14).

I have chosen a modern version, the lithograph from the Penrith Portfolio in the Tate Gallery by John Piper (1903-1992) from 1973. I think it represents the simplicity and highly charged emotion of Piper’s work. His contribution as a painter, stained glass designer and printer to twentieth century British Art is immeasurable, especially as a war artist recording bomb damage to churches including Coventry Cathedral.

Adoration of the Magi – Fabriano

Gentile da Fabriano, The Adoration of the Magi, 1423, The Uffizi Gallery, Florenc

(Don’t worry if you have already read this – I have reviewed format)

In the Christian calendar this is the season of Advent, the Nativity and the Epiphany. In our modern times it is easy to forget just how important the Christian calendar was to all walks of life in medieval Europe. I have chosen The Adoration of the Magi as this month’s painting as one of the most commonly painted scenes in medieval churches from the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries. My version, and one of my favourite paintings is Gentile da Fabriano’s altarpiece from around 1423. Originally commissioned for the rich Strozzi family of Florentine bankers in the Santa Trinita Church, it now resides in the Uffizi Gallery.

The altarpiece consists of the main panel which shows several different views of the journey taken by the Maji culminating in their worshipping the Christ Child in Bethlehem. The procession looks like the wealthy and famous of fifteenth century Florence adorned in their rich renaissance clothes. Look closely and you will see the patron, Palla Strozzi, in the red hat in the foreground, and his father as the falcon trainer behind the Kings.

Look also for the beautifully painted exotic animals that Gentile adds in the procession. The style can be considered the high point of the International Gothic seen all over Europe just prior to the Italian Renaissance. The frame, like many early altarpieces, should also be considered a work of art in its own right. It is constructed of poplar wood and gold leaf with three cusps contains tondos, or round images of worship and three pradellas (small historic views) at the bottom depicting scenes selected by the patrons. In this case the Nativity, the Flight to Egypt, and the Presentation at the Temple.

The Flight into Egypt, detail from pradella from The Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423.

One of the masterpieces of early Italian art before the realism of Brunelleschian perspective would render the gothic quite primitive looking. Still one of my favourites and you can see a wonderful tapestry copy in Hawling Church in Gloucestershire.

The Adoration of the Magi

I have updated my Painting of the Month to add a bit of Christmas spirit to the blog. My December / January painting for you to enjoy is the fifteenth century Italian altarpiece by Gentile da Fabriano; The Adoration of the Magi, which is in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Select the “Painting of the Month” tab and enjoy.