Archive for René Magritte

The Beautiful Vagabonds: Birds in Art

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

The very idea of a bird is a symbol and a suggestion to the poet. A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and intense his life. . . . The beautiful vagabonds, endowed with every grace, masters of all climes, and knowing no bounds — how many human aspirations are realised in their free, holiday-lives — and how many suggestions to the poet in their flight and song! — John Burroughs (1837-1921)

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, center panel, detail,
c. 1503-04
Oil on wood
The Prado, Madrid

In his mysterious and enigmatic allegorical triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) painted enormous fruits and giant birds cavorting with tiny people of all races in a sumptuous garden. This painting presents a complex labyrinth of seemingly contradictory ideas and motifs. The triptych has been interpreted as a critique of the Catholic Church, a panorama of the Creation or a reflection on the humanist writings of Thomas More. Whatever his intent, Bosch’s giant birds are wonderful examples of the way that painters throughout history have used birds—as symbols of nature and the soul, as go-betweens, harbingers and messengers—and as intriguing examples of the wonders of nature.

Here are some of my favorites.

Roman garden painting, detail, first century A.D.
Casa del Bracciale d’Oro, Pompeii

Roman garden painting, detail, first century A.D.
Casa del Bracciale d’Oro, Pompeii

Gardens were often depicted in tomb and wall paintings in the ancient world. There is evidence that many types of gardens flourished—domestic gardens for both relaxation and as sources of food, gardens with sacred and religious meaning, cemetery gardens, opulent orchards and parks. Where there are gardens, there are birds.

Hans Holbein, A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, c. 1526-1528
Oil on oak
National Gallery of Art, London

German painter Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543) was a very versatile artist who did portraits, religious paintings, frescoes and woodcuts, as well as designing jewelry and metalwork. Holbein first traveled to England in 1528 with an introduction to Thomas More from the Renaissance Humanist scholar Erasmus, whose portrait Holbein had painted in  1523. Holbein moved to England permanently in 1532, as court painter to Henry VIII, and there he perfected his art as a portraitist. This wonderfully detailed painting is a study in contrasts, the serious pose of the sitter playing against the lively squirrel and starling (which may have represented the lady’s family coat of arms.) A luminous and rich blue background sets this enigmatic and fascinating portrait off like a jewel.

Georg Flegel, Fruit and Dead Birds, n.d.
Oil on canvas
Private collection, Germany

German still-life painter George Flegel (1566-1638) specialized in paintings of tables set for meals with food, wine and flowers. I find this particular painting of Flegel’s very unusual and idiosyncratic. The elements of the composition are very deliberately laid out on the table and amidst the dead birds, feathers and fruits—all rather scientifically painted in a presentational manner—is perched a little goldfinch, very much alive.

Melchior d’Hondecoeter, The Floating Feather, c. 1680
Oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636-1695) was a Dutch Baroque painter who specialized in painting animals, particularly birds. What is interesting to me about d’Hondecoeter is that he didn’t paint birds merely as trophies of the hunt or table, but as creatures with moods as well as relationships, feelings and inner lives.

Jan van Kessel, Concert of Birds, c. 1660-1670
Oil on copper
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Flemish painter Jan Van Kessel (1626-1679), the grandson of the great floral painter Jan Breughel the Elder, did beautifully detailed intimate paintings on copper. He was an avid student of the scientific naturalism of his day and excelled at painting insects. I am particularly interested in his panoramic scenes of birds—with their attention to detail and rich coloration, they have a cabinet of curiosities ambiance. Van Kessel also did some very beautiful still lifes, like this one, which includes a lively little bird that is depicted with wonderful movement and energy.

Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch, 1654
Oil on panel
Royal Picture Gallery, Mauritshuis, The Hague

This delightful painting by Dutch painter Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) is very much a portrait—you feel he has captured the essence of a particular bird. Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt, was very interested in exploring spatial effects and trompe l’oeil. This little goldfinch looks like he could fly off his perch at any moment—if he was not held captive by the little chain attached to his leg. Fabritius very much created his own style. Eschewing the dark backgrounds and dramatically lit subjects popular at the time, he applied paint thickly, using a light-colored textured background and subtle lighting on his subjects.

Indian miniature, Akbar period, 1600-1605
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Royal figures with their falcons are a fairly common theme in Indian miniatures. In this beautifully naturalistic portrait, the bird is imbued with a definite personality and temperament. Only a member of a royal family would have worn such a magnificent robe. The silk brocade, which depicts animals, birds and plants in a lush landscape, was probably woven in Iran.

Mark Catesby, The White Crown Pigeon, The Coco Plum
Natural History, Volume 1, Plate 25
Hand-colored Etching, London, 1727-1731

Mark Catesby (1682-1749) was an English naturalist who spent 10 years in the American colonies observing the natural history of the New World and collecting specimens. The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, which he wrote and illustrated, is a magnificent achievement. Catesby’s etchings were innovative—whenever possible, he drew from life, and he often portrays his subjects in flight or in motion, with bits of plants and landscape that suggest their native habitat. His fascination and love of the natural world is evident in each illustration, especially the ones from the original edition, which he personally hand-colored.

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Captive Robin, c. 1864
Oil on canvas
Private collection

At first glance, the work of  Victorian fairy painter John Anster Fitzgerald (1819-1906) is very deceptive—the intense, saturated colors and the beauty of the images initially distract from the often macabre, nightmarish or sadistic subtexts. There’s plenty of evidence that Fitzgerald’s imagery owed more than a little to opium and laudanum use, not an uncommon vice in Victorian England. Robins have a complicated role in fairy-lore which is often ambiguous—they are variously allies and enemies. Fitzgerald painted a number of paintings about robins. As was often the case with fairy paintings, The Captive Robin is mounted in a large hand-made gilded twig frame that is quite extraordinary.

Paul Klee, Twittering Machine, 1922
Oil transfer drawing on paper with watercolor and ink on board with gouache and ink borders
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) brings us into the modern era, which reveals a new kind of menace. His Twittering Machine seems to be about the uneasy alliance between nature and the mechanical, with the distinct possibility that mayhem will ensue. Klee’s nervous, edgy line, contrasted with the soothing blue and violet background, adds another layer of meaning to this unsettling fusion of bird and machine.

René Magritte, The Natural Graces, c. 1961
Oil  on canvas
Private collection

Belgian Surrealist painter René Magritte (1898-1967) transformed and juxtaposed every day things—the changed context jolts us into seeing things we thought were familiar in a new light. Magritte described painting as:

…the art of putting colors side by side in such a way that their real aspect is effaced, so that familiar objects—the sky, people, trees, mountains, furniture, the stars, solid structures, graffiti—become united in a single poetically disciplined image. The poetry of this image dispenses with any symbolic significance, old or new.

Remedios Varo, Troubadour, 1959
Oil on masonite
Private collection

Remedios Varo (1908-1963) was a Spanish-born Surrealist painter who adopted Mexico as her home. Varo’s imagery was drawn from nature, and she had an intense and abiding interest in science. As a child she often visited the Prado with her father, and it there that she discovered Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, whose mixture of wit and menace she found inspiring. Birds play a large role in Varo’s personal iconography and appear often in various stages of transformation in her work.

Walton Ford, Eothen, 2001
Watercolor, gouache, pencil and ink on paper
Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York

American watercolorist and printmaker Walton Ford (1960-) creates beautifully rendered large-scale images of nature gone amok. At first we are seduced by the beauty of the image, then we realize that the work is haunted by a sense of impending doom—something sinister and violent is taking place. Ford’s work operates on several levels at once, seeming to celebrate the romantic beauty of the work of naturalist John James Audubon while it satirizes colonialism and consumerism, mourns the extinction of species and dispassionately chronicles the destructive forces inherent in nature.

Darwin’s finches from the Galapagos Islands

No other creatures in nature represent as complex and intriguing a variety of qualities as birds. Artists have pictured them in many guises—as harbingers of doom, symbols of resurrection and as intermediaries between man and the Divine. They represent dreams, magical powers, clairvoyance and the mysteries of the unconscious. With their enormous variety and often spectacular beauty they embody the infinite and fearful powers of nature. As Charles Darwin wrote:

We behold the face of nature bright with gladness. We do not see, or we forget, that the birds singing around us live on insects or seeds, constantly destroying life.


The (Mostly) Peaceable Kingdom: Animals in Art

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, Illustration, Painting, Printmaking, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 2, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Franz Marc, Gelbe Kuh (Yellow Cow), 1911
Oil on canvas
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

The other day, while cleaning out a drawer, I came across a post card of this exuberant painting by the German painter Franz Marc (1880-1916.) In 1911, Franz Marc, along with August Macke and Wassily Kandinsky, founded Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). They were a diverse group stylistically, but they held common beliefs in the spiritual nature of art, the link between visual art and music and the symbolic use of color to depict emotion. Marc’s paintings of animals, mostly horses, had fluidity, grace and deep emotion. Sadly, while waiting for the paperwork on his artists’ military exemption to come through, Marc was killed by a shell splinter to the head in the Battle of Verdun.

Franz Marc, Blaues Pferd I (Blue Horse I), 1911
Oil on canvas
Stadtische Galerie em Lenbochhaus, Munich

Revisiting Franz Marc’s animals brought to mind other images of animals in art that have caught my attention over the years. They are quite varied in style and tone, but I believe they all say something interesting or profound about the way we see and relate to animals.

Karl Joseph Brodtmann, Lion, c. 1842
Lithograph from Nâturhistorische Bilder Galerie aus dem Theirreiche

The Swiss artist Karl Joseph Brodtmann (1787-1862) was an expert 19th-century lithographer whose natural history studies capture a wealth of detail. His animal portraits are dignified and convey a sense of respect and wonder for his subjects.

René Magritte, Le Mal du Pays (Homesickness), 1940
Oil on canvas, Private Collection

Belgian painter René Magritte (1898-1967) painted Le Mal du Pays at an unsettled time in his life—the Germans had invaded his home town, and he was having marital problems. Magritte was thirteen years old when his mother committed suicide by drowning herself in the river, so we can probably safely assume that the angel in black on the bridge, contemplating the void, is Magritte. The meaning of the lion is perhaps more ambiguous, but in his elegant, calm yet alert pose, he seems to be serving as guardian for his human counterpart.

detail from The Unicorn at the Fountain,
second tapestry of the series, The Hunt of the Unicorn,  Flemish, c.
1500
The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lions are very popular subjects in a variety of media. Above, a lion and lioness lounge among the flowers, in a detail from the medieval Flemish tapestry, The Hunt of the Unicorn.

Wenceslaus Hollar, Lion and Tulip, c. 1662

A personal favorite, from Bohemian artist/engraver Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677). Hollar was most famous for his etchings of London before and after the Great Fire of 1666, but produced an astonishing quantity and variety of work—portraiture, studies of costumes and contemporary dress, architecture, allegory, landscape, maps and natural history studies of animals and shells.

Nilgai (Blue Bull) Mughal, c. 1620
Ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

detail, Shah Jahan Hunting Deer with Trained Cheetahs, Rajasthan, c. 1710
Ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tiger Approaching a Waterhole, Kotah, c. 1790
Watercolor and opaque watercolor

detail, Two Princes Shooting Deer; Dogs Hunting Down Boar, Kotah, c. 1660
Opaque watercolor, gold

Indian miniatures are full of wonderful depictions of animals, both peaceful and fierce. Many Indian miniatures have scenes of the hunt, giving the artist an opportunity to paint graceful herds of leaping deer and ferocious tigers, leopards or cheetahs.

Marc Chagall, To My Betrothed, 1911
Gouache
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Marc Chagall, Fantastic Horse Cart, 1949
Gouache and paste;
Blanden Memorial Art Gallery, Fort Dodge, Iowa

Marc Chagall, Monkey Acting as Judge Over the Dispute Between
Wolf and Fox
, 1925-27
Gouache, Perls Gallery, New York

Marc Chagall (1887-1985) incorporated animals into his work in fantastical ways—a man with a head of a bull or a gravity-defying horse and cart are easily integrated into more realistic elements. In his dreamy work, there’s a fluid coexistence between animals and humans—often their characteristics are interchangeable.
Monkey Acting as Judge Over the Dispute Between Wolf and Fox
is one of 100 gouaches that Chagall did to illustrate the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine (1621-95). The image doesn’t literally illustrate the story, but Chagall does give us a sense of the essence and spirit of their characters.

Chauvet Cave, Lion panel

Chauvet Cave, Black bison superimposed on clawmarks and engravings

The lyric quality of Chagall’s animals brought to mind the cave paintings from Chauvet. These caves, undisturbed for thousands of years, were discovered  in December, 1994. These paintings of lions, bison, aurochs, mammoths, hyenas, cave bears and rhinoceroses are over 30,000 years old, twice as old as the art in the caves at Lascaux. They are beautifully rendered with a tremendous sense of motion and accurate perspective.

William de Morgan, Design for a tile
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Closer to home we have some more domesticated animals. In the example above, William de Morgan (1839-1917) was creating a decorative motif, but he also captured something very endearing and lyrical in these rabbits.

Richard Whitford, A Prize Shropshire Ewe, 1878

Queen Victoria (1819-1901) owned several of Richard Whitford’s (1821-1890) paintings, thus earning him the epithet, “Animal Painter to the Queen.” Whitford mostly painted farm animals, particularly sheep. At the time, breeders of pedigree farm animals would often commission paintings of their prize-winning stock to display alongside their medals and citations. I always thought this sheep had tremendous dignity and presence and I love the way he is integrated into the surrounding landscape.

Mark Tansey, The Innocent Eye Test, 1981
Oil on canvas
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mark Tansey’s (b. 1949-) The Innocent Eye Test seems like the perfect painting to close out this brief review of animals in painting. Tansey, who is known for his monochromatic palette, is interested in exploring  opposites and contradictions, “how different realities interact with each other.” His paintings are imagined narratives that deal with the fact that in the 19th century, photography replaced the traditional function of painting, which was to represent reality. His work, Tansey says, “is based on the idea that the painted picture knows itself to be metaphorical, rhetorical, transformative, fictional.” The Innocent Eye Test is a humorous take on history painting that works on many levels. The assembled “experts,” Tansey’s send-up of art critics, stand by, observing the cow’s reaction to a large-sized painting of two cows in a field. Note the man with the mop on the left. The painting that the cow is gazing at is based on an actual painting, The Young Bull, 1647, by Dutch painter Paulus Potter (1625-54).

Wider Connections:

Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky

Franz Marc, 1880-1916 by Susanna Partsch

Rene Magritte, 1898-1967: Thoughts Rendered Visible by Marcel Paquet

The Unicorn Tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Adolfo Salvatore Cavallo

The Man Who Drew London: Wenceslaus Hollar in Reality and Imagination by Gillian Tindall.

Gods, Kings, and Tigers: The Art of Kotah, Edited by Stuart Cary Welch

Indian Court Painting, 16th-19th Century by Steven Kossak

Marc Chagall: Painting as Poetry by Ingo F. Walther

Return to Chauvet Cave: Excavating the Birthplace of Art by Jean Clottes

The Designs of William de Morgan by Martin Greenwood

William de Morgan Tiles by Jon Catleugh

The Picture in Question: Mark Tansey and the Ends of Representation by Mark C. Taylor

Hidden Identity: Musings on the Backside (Part IV)

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , on March 3, 2009 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts on portraits featuring sitters’ backsides. Others in the series may be found here.

By LIZ HAGER

Réné Magritte, La reproduction interdite, 1937,
Oil on canvas, 81.3 x 65 cm
©Museum Boymans-van Beuningen).

In his Surrealist Manifesto published in 1924, poet and critic André Breton, making extensive use of theories adapted from Sigmund Freud, proposed that the conscious and unconscious artistic impulses be reunited under the artistic banner he termed “surrealism”:

I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.

Breton advocated banishing reason from the realm of artistic creation, arguing that a reliance on “automatism” (unconscious, spontaneous behavior) would call forth more authentic images from the dream and supernatural states.

For his masterful La reproduction interdite (Not to be reproduced) Réné Magritte has created a representation of his subject—Edward James, a rich English aristocrat, Surrealist poet, and patron of both Dali and Magritte—that is both rigorously realistic and emotionally detached. A master at posing familiar objects in absurd contexts, Magritte made extensive use of mirror and glass in his work, playing with their ability to hide or mask through reflection. In this painting Magritte presents us with the view of his subject seen from behind. The reflection in the mirror beyond, however, violates the laws of nature, for it reflects that very same backside view back to us.  We gaze over the man’s shoulder expecting to see his face (i.e. his specific identity) and are met instead with the view from our own eyes. The subject’s identity is hidden from us. In the world Magritte has created here we can only ever return to ourselves (i.e. our own reality).

magritte-arnheimRéné Magritte, The Domain of Arnheim, 1938,
Oil on canvas

To confuse us further, Magritte has placed Edgar Allan Poe’s book The Narrative of Arthur Golden Pym next to James on the mantel, juxtaposing its “correct” reflection with the alternative reality of the figure’s reflection. Magritte has created a painting with dual realities, alternate fictions, if you like.  The book itself provides a small clue as to Magritte’s intentions.

Magritte was an unabashed admirer of Poe. In particular, he was inspired by the writer’s preoccupation with the mingling of the real and artificial. The Narrative of Arthur Golden PymPoe’s only novel, purports to be a non-fictional tale of the fantastic sea journey of Arthur Pym from Nantucket to the land of Symzonia (somewhere in the South Pacific?). Along the way, the narrative proves to be distorted and unreliable, deceitful even. The various twists of the novel’s plot embody numerous thematic elements, but masquerade, illusion, and even trickery figure prominently in the action. Ultimately, the tale reveals itself as a figment of the protagonist’s imagination—a fiction cloaking a fiction.

Claudia Kay Silverman (American Studies, UVA)  further observes—

The journey enacted in Symzonia, the journey to the interior of the earth, can be construed as a journey of anti-discovery. It is a journey to discover an emptiness. As does all Utopian fiction, the journey of Symzonia contains a tension. A Utopia is both a “good place” and “no place;” the journey to the interior of the earth is the ultimate journey and the impossible journey. It finds, in those imaginatively inclined, a correlative in a journey into the mind itself, whose outcome will be the unveiling of the deepest secret of humanity.

The grip that the notion of a hollow earth might have had on Poe has to do with a fear that the human mind, rather than containing ultimate knowledge, is, at its very core, empty.

This series of paintings was based on a Poe story of the same name. This story underscores Poe’s fascination with idea that the ideal creation was one in which man-made and the natural co-mingle. Arnheim translates loosely from the German as eagle’s nest.

Réné Magritte, The Domain of Arnheim, 1962
Oil on canvas

The themes of search and deceit, which weave in and out of Pym’s tale, must have appealed greatly to Magritte’s well-developed epigrammatic sensibility. La reproduction interdite is a witty commentary on our search for identity. Human beings, to paraphrase Magritte, always want to see what lies behind what they can actually see. We seek to uncover an essential or unconcealed “reality” or “truth,” which in turn will define who we are. Alas, the painter is in charge of this world; he makes that clear by doing exactly what the title forbids, i.e. copying.

La reproduction interdite proffers a world in which we can only view the reality that we already see. The painting seems to be saying that an individual’s own vision is the reality that matters.  As Jung once pointed out, “it all depends on how we look at things, and not how they are in themselves.”

Hidden Identity—Parts I, II, III

Wider Connections

André Breton—Manifestoes of Surrealism
The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe
Robert Hughes—“The Poker-Faced Enchanter“(Time Magazine)
Magritte Museum; Magritte in public collections
Magritte—Edward James in Front of On the Threshhold of Liberty (photograph)
Tate—Portraiture & Identity
Contemporary Backs—Phyllis Palmer
Fabricator of Useless Articles’—Back Portraits 1990s

Hidden Identity: Musings on the Backside (Part II)

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2009 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts on portraits featuring sitters’ backsides. Others in the series may be found here.

By LIZ HAGER

It is easier to perceive error than to find truth, for the former lies on the surface and is easily seen, while the latter lies in the depth, where few are willing to search for it.

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, ca. 1818,
Oil on canvas, 94.8 x 74.8 cm
(Courtesy Kunsthalle, Hamburg)

The figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s landscape does not greet us or proudly point the way to the majestic landscape behind him.  Nor is he the variety of puny figure found in some landscapes, who are present mostly to demonstrate the monumental scale of the natural world. The “wanderer” deliberately turns his backside to us, assuming the stance of contemplation. His specific identity is not important.  He’s largely there as a symbolic reminder that this untamed landscape is the vehicle by which we humans experience heightened emotion.

The French sculptor David d’Angers reputedly observed of Friedrich: “Here is a man who has discovered the tragedy of landscape.” Thus he perfectly summed up the Romantic’s notion of the natural world. Working at the height of German Romanticism, Friedrich’s paintings referenced nature, not only as the antithesis to human civilization, but as the conduit to experience our deeper selves.

Partially as a reaction to the growing industrialization in Europe, the Romantic movement wound itself around the idea that strong emotion—including shock, horror, fear, awe—and sensitivity was a necessary and desired part of the aesthetic experience. The Romantics believed in the transformative power of the untrammeled landscape. The solitude of remote locales became the optimal environment in which to experience the true physical and spiritual isolation, necessary in itself to emotional depth and a deep understanding of the self. At the time, a mountain pinnacle such as the one depicted in Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog would have been ideal, for it was as far away from human civilization as any European could reasonably get.

While not concerned the figure’s identity, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog nonetheless delves into the notion of identity, at least in the way the Romantics might have pondered it. The figure is not a random person plucked from obscurity;  it happens to be Friedrich himself. The painter himself stands on the rocky outcropping lost, we presume by the stance, in melancholic thought induced by the wild and shrouded landscape.  He is emblematic of the journey toward self-discovery, which is, after all, is at the root of identity.

Wider Connections

Isaiah Berlin—The Roots of Romanticism
Romanticism & the visual arts (a short primer)
Caspar David Friedrich—other landscapes
ColourLovers—Color and the Romantic painters
Goethe’s  Faust

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