Tuesday, 19 September 2017

'Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael - About 1500' at the National Gallery

I was in the National gallery today so popped along to Room 20 to see the new mini-exhibition in one room, 'Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael - About 1500'. It's an opportunity for the National Gallery to show off it's collection of the triumvirate of masters of the High Renaissance and their works from around 1500 when they were all working. All the works on display are in the National Gallery's collection (other that the 'Taddei Tondo' which is on loan from the Royal Academy round the corner) so I've seen them all before (many times) but it's great to see them together.

Between both doors to Room 20 is Raphael's large 'Ansidei Madonna' with John the Baptist and Nicholas of Bari. I've never quite understood why the Virgin has to climb those steps to get to the throne - they look a bit steep to me, especially in a long frock. Nicholas is reading a bible while Mary seems to be reading to the Child. St John is gazing up at the cross he's holding and pointing to the Child in a rather obvious gesture showing the destiny of the baby in Mary's lap. It has Raphael's trademarked high-gloss finish without a brush-stroke in sight.

Also on show by Raphael are the 'Madonna of the Pinks' and 'Saint Catherine of Alexandria'.

The exhibition then moves on to Michelangelo and two paintings that shown in the recent exhibition about Michelangelo and Sebastiano, also a High Renaissance painter. Both 'The Entombment' and 'The Manchester Madonna' are on show and here's the Madonna. Both paintings are unfinished but I prefer the Madonna because of the two angels to the left where one has his arm round the other and hand resting on his shoulder - this always makes me think of David Bowie and Mick Ronson on 'Top of the Pops' in 1972 playing 'Starman'. I can't help it.

As ever, it's the detail you need to see and, in this painting, we see the Child reaching out for his mother's book without a care in the world while the babe St John, already clad in animal skins, looks off into the middle distance. He doesn't seem to be looking at anything in particular, perhaps he's just experiencing a passing moment of sadness since he sees his cousin's destiny.

Opposite the two Michelangelo paintings are two by Leonardo, 'The Virgin of the Rocks' and 'The Burlington House Cartoon'. There's a version of the 'Virgin of the Rocks' in the Louvre since Leonardo painted two very similar versions because he wasn't satisfied with the first version. I've never worked out why the Virgin is in a cave but that's Leonardo's business, not mine, and he was a lot cleverer than me (and had a bushier beard).

The light source comes from the left of the painting and uses Leonardo's pyramidal structure. There are strange plants flowering in the foreground and a distant sea peaking between the rocks of the cavern. What a strange landscape in which to place the holy family.

The final artwork on show is the 'Taddei Tondo' on the wall between the Michelangelo and Leonardo paintings, and opposite the Raphael altarpiece. The Tondo is on loan from the Royal Academy and is, I think, the only Michelangelo sculpture in this country. It's rather lovely.

The jury's out on whether the piece is actually finished or not, given how rough some of the parts are, but the baby Jesus seems to be complete and, let's face it, he's the main character in any Christian painting or other artwork. My eyes kept going to the hand of the baby John the Baptist who is holding a goldfinch out towards his cousin, a symbol of suffering. The Child is flinching away from it while acknowledging his destiny. It's the skill of Michelangelo that's wonderful here since he defines the trapped bird with just a few chisel strokes but beak and feathers are clearly there if you look closely. It's a wonderfully simple piece of carving.

It's lovely to see the works of these three masters together, with both Michelangelo and Raphael learning from Leonardo. If I was in charge of the National Gallery I think I'd show them off too. They're all in one room for a change so pop along and enjoy them while you can.

I have seen the tombs of all three masters. Michelangelo's huge tomb in Santa Croce in Florence that I suspect he'd hate, Raphael's modest plaque in the Pantheon in Rome and Leonardo who was buried in a chapel at Chateau d'Amboise in the Loire Valley in France. I've only seen the chateau from a  distance but I'd like to visit one day.  

Monday, 18 September 2017

Fra Angelico 9/12

It's the 18th of the month again, so, to celebrate Fra Angelico's feast day I'm posting pictures of Fra Angelico's paintings that I've seen. For September I've chosen the 'Virgin & Child' in the Sabauda Gallery collection in Turin that I saw the exhibition of the Fra's work at the Musee Jacquemart-Andre in Paris in 2011. This painting was the poster for the exhibition and also the cover of the catalogue.

It's a gorgeous painting and is very calm and still, almost a meditation piece. It draws you in when you're standing in front of it. Mary gazes down at her son who looks out towards the viewer.

This painting is a bit different to many of the Fra's other Virgin and Child paintings in that it has classical columns in the background rather than the often-used cloth of gold background - the cloth is still there, but this time as curtains. Also, there are no angels looking after the holy pair, just a mother and her baby. The baby clearly isn't just any baby, but looks to the future with the cross of the resurrection in his halo - he can't escape his destiny. If you look closely you can see the words 'Ave Maria' written in Mary's halo.

This painting always reminds me of that trip to Paris on a chilly November day, walking along Boulevard Haussmann to see the large queue outside to get into the exhibition. I'd already booked timed entry tickets so spent the waiting time in the cafe. 

Jean Fouquet at the Gemaldegalerie, Berlin

There's a lovely small exhibition at the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin that's just opened that features Jean Bouquet's famous diptych of the Virgin Mary and Donor, often referred to as the Melun Diptych although the two wings are in different museums. The Gemaldegalerie has reunited them for this exhibition, alongside other Fouquet portraits as well as those that influenced his work.

I was in the Gemaldegalerie on Wednesday last week when the exhibition was being photographed and, again, on Friday when it opened. It's in a small room near the entrance to the gallery with a big 'no photography' sign at the door and, like a good lad, I obeyed the sign.

This is really a portrait exhibition since one of the panels is all about the donor, Etienne Chevalier and his patron saint St Stephen, and the other is Agnes Sorel, mistress to Charles VII of France, as the Virgin Mary. The pale white of Mary's skin is really odd compared to the red and blue angels that surround her, especially with one breast exposed, but this was a very peculiar commission designed to curry favour with the king.

As a portraits exhibition it was lovely to see Van Eyck's 'Portrait of a Man' also shown. I'm very familiar with this man who is the husband in 'The Arnolfini Portrait' in the National Gallery in London. He's unmistakeable and I'm delighted to have seen him at last, after seeing the reproduction in books.

There are other small portraits and drawings to illuminate the main portraits, such as those by Robert Campina and another by Fouquet of an old man in need of a good shave. I don't know who this man is but I like him. He's obviously sharing a funny story in the local pub and anticipates being bought another drink at the end of it and I probably would.

There's also a page of drawings by Benozzo Gozzoli, a pupil of Fra Angelico, on display and another page attributed to his 'school'. This page is supposedly influential in the pose of St Stephen in the diptych. It might be and I love the link to Fra Angelico but it might also be someone going a bit too far in making links between artists and paintings.

It's a lovely exhibition that is well worth seeing if you're in the area. It's small but you've got the rest of the Gemaldegalerie to explore as well.

'Portraits by Cezanne' at Musee D'Orsay, Paris

On my recent trip to Paris I saw the 'Portraits by Cezanne' exhibition at Musee D'Orsay which opens at the National Portrait Gallery in London in October. That gives me another opportunity to see this excellent exhibition.

The exhibition starts off, as you'd expect, with early portraits as Cezanne found his own style. There were a few portraits of his uncle differentiated by wearing different hats, something he seems to do with his own later self-portraits, wearing hats of various shapes and colours. The consistent thing is the bushy beard, both for his uncle and himself. He's not the poster-boy for the exhibition however, that's reserved for 'Boy in the Red Waistcoat' which works really well with the splash of vivid red to liven up the colour palette.

To illustrate Cezanne's 'hats maketh the man' approach, I particularly liked his 'Self-portrait with a White Hat' with Cezanne looking straight out at the viewer wearing a white hat of sorts - or is it a bandanna tied around his head? Hair and beard are well kept and under control unlike in the self-portrait I'm more familiar with in the National Gallery in London. That painting is on loan to this exhibition and it was nice to see it again. I think I prefer the self-portrait with the white hat though, showing the artist in his prime, gazing out at the viewer in three-quarter pose, a man assured of himself and in control of his art.

As well as painting his own portrait, Cezanne painted his wife endlessly. There are half a dozen portraits of Madame Cezanne in the exhibition, the poor, long-suffering wife. I could well imagine her saying, 'ok, just another few minutes but I really need to make the dinner...' as Cezanne started yet another portrait.

Another portrait I particularly liked was 'Gustave Geffroy' from around 1896, with the good Monsieur Geffroy sitting in front of his book-case with books scattered on his desk. I suspect he's copying favourite passages into his notebook to keep them with him. The first thing I noticed were the orange-spines books in the book-case and wondered if Penguin paid Cezanne a royalty for inventing its trademark colour. That took me into the painting and could examine it with different eyes.

If you don't know the sitter or his/her history, then you need something to grab your attention to pull you into the painting, and those books did it for me. I assume the catalogue explains who he was and his relationship with Cezanne but, since the catalogue was in French then I have no idea. I look forward to reading about Gustave in the National Portrait Gallery catalogue.

Another portrait I loved was the one of Maggie Smith or, rather, 'Woman in Blue' to give the painting it's true title. As soon as I saw this one I thought of Maggie and still do. I can just see her sitting at a table waiting to be served a glass of sherry and sighing because of the wait. The slight downward glance and the angle of the hat, the plain blue jacket and dress against the colourful tablecloth all serve to give the painting a slight air of sadness, but I assume a momentary sadness. I'm sure she'll perk uo when the sherry is delivered.

It's a very simple portrait that cries out for a story to be draped around it and I hope the National Portrait Gallery version of the catalogue will do that. I want to know who she is and what was going on in her life at the time of the portrait.

One of the final portraits is another self-portrait by Monsieur Cezanne, this time as an old man whose beard has turned grey and he's gone all trendy by shaving it into a goatee beard. A large floppy beret tops off the portrait. The robust, beefy man of the earlier self-portraits has shrunk a bit with age but he's still using hats to cover his baldness. I looked at this portrait and thought old man and then wondered why he bothered to shave the sides of his beard? Was he still vain at that age? was it the fashion at the time? I don't know, but after all the earlier fully bearded portraits it did rather stand out for me.

I didn't realise that Cezanne was such a portraitist until this exhibition - I usually associate him in my head as a landscape artist because that's the genre I've mainly seen in his paintings. This exhibition shines a new light on him. That's always a good thing.

The exhibition opens at the National Portrait Gallery in London on 26 October and I'd certainly recommend it. I'll be going again to say 'bonjour' to Monsieur Cezanne.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Fra Angelico in the Gemaldegalerie, Berlin

The Gemaldegalerie (the paintings gallery) in Berlin includes a great 'Last Judgement' triptych by Fra Angelico. The Gemaldegalerie is part of the Kulturforum complex of museums and galleries just off Potsdamer Strasse (beyond Potsdamer Platz) behind the Philharmonic concert hall and that might explain why it wasn't terribly busy when we went. It's not on the beaten track and you need to know that it's there to find it. Luckily, I wanted to see the Fra Angelico painting so I knew where it was.

The 'Last Judgement' is a triptych of panels hung with three predella panels of the life of St Francis. I don't think there's any link between them other than they're all by Fra Angelico (who was a Dominican rather than a Franciscan).

I suspect linking the the two works is more about saving wall space than artistic merit since the 'Last Judgement' seems to focus on Dominican colours. The downside of hanging them together is that it means the 'Last Judgement' is hung higher than it would be normally and I'd rather it was lower to make sure I could see all of it properly. On the other hand, seeing all these panels together is pretty great! Mind you, it also pointed out that the 'Last Judgement' could do with a clean to free the colours compared to the predella scenes. More of that later.

The central panel shows Christ in Heaven surrounded by seraphim making his judgement, with apostles and angels on either side of him. Below, we see humanity being divided into those who merit heaven and those destined for hell.

The wings of the central panel show heaven and hell, with angels leading the blessed to heaven and demons punishing those destined for hell. If you look closely you can see that the Fra names the circles of hell, or possibly the sins of the sinners, in each of the small scenes set in hell. The devil sits in the centre eating humanity in a hell of our own creating - he's already eaten quite a few of us from his size. These scenes show different circles and punishments of hell, presumably based on Dante. I prefer the angels' stately dance towards heaven.

Something I really like about the central panel is the way that the angels cuddle and hug humanity and then direct them towards heaven. I'm a fan of the angel that dives down from heaven to save a mortal. All of the arms round each other is a  really nice touch and not one I've seen in paintings by other artists (but I might simply have missed it). That is something we should aim for - angels are welcoming the good into heaven and that's something we should aim for.  Isn't that how you'd want to be welcomed into heaven, with a cuddle?

This section of the painting really made me wish this triptych had been cleaned - just look at all those reds, pinks and blues, and imagine how vivid they'd be if they were cleaned. It would shine with colours and with the gold leaf in the background. One day it'll be this painting's turn to be cleaned and I'll be back on the plane to Berlin to see it.

Of course, as well as the path to heaven this painting includes the path to hell. The main panel shows people being divided into those who should go to heaven and those whose destination is hell and one of the panels shows hell.

We see a bloated satan and his devils inflicting pain on the damned. If you look closely you can see the names in Latin of the circles of hell or the names of the sin above each group of sinners. That's Fra Angelico's writing, that is. I suspect the circles of hell are named after Dante but I don't about that for sure. I'd rather be dancing with the angels with the angels that be naked and roasting in hell. The message works for me.

I mention that the panels would benefit from cleaning and the reason I say so is that a similar panel painting is in Rome and it has been cleaned and it looks so much more vibrant. I saw it earlier this year and here it is in all it's glory. Just imagine the glorious colours of the Berlin 'Last Judgement' if it was cleaned to this standard.

I'm not too sure what the predella panels are trying to show but we see Saints Francis and Dominic together, the death of St Francis and then St Francis speaking to his followers. This suggest there might be other predella scenes to fill in the gaps in the life of St Francis but it's interesting that a Dominican friar painted a life of their great rival of the Franciscans. I suspect there's a story behind this that I'm not aware of.

If you're lucky enough to be in the area then please make sure you visit the Gemaldegalerie since it has a great collection of paintings and is hung excellently.  Not just to see the Fra (although that is mandatory) but to see so many other great paintings, many of which you'll be familiar with but have never seen the original. 

Fra Angelico in The Louvre, Paris

The Louvre has an impressive collection of paintings by Fra Angelico, including a major altarpiece and a large fresco. It's easy to find them since they're opposite the entrance to the Italian room or corridor which starts off with the early Italian paintings at one end and gradually goes through the centuries as you wander along. There are seven works on display so make sure you see them all.

The first you come to is a large fresco of 'The Crucifixion' removed from Florence by easing the plaster off the wall and attaching it to a new backing to hold it together. This was done in the mid-1800s and sold by an art-dealer at the time. It's about ten feet tall and so the characters are virtually life-sized and shows the crucified Christ with Mary and St John the Evangelist, with St Dominic kneeing at the bottom of the cross. Stylistically, it's similar to some of the smaller crucifixion scenes at San Marco in Florence.

The fresco is on the wall in the ante-room before you enter the main Italian room and, if my visit was anything to go by, is largely missed by visitors who walk straight into the room without really looking at the paintings in the ante-room.

I particularly liked the characterisation of St John, looking up at his Lord and wringing his hands as the mortal man dies on the cross before he rises three days later. Look at the anguish in his eyes as he looks up. The fingers don't look quite right as his hands are clasped tightly and I've seen better representations by the Fra of this anguish but it's still an arresting vision. I suspect both St John's and Mary's robes would be brighter if the fresco was cleaned with modern techniques but I also suspect that could be dangerous given the history of the fresco now that it's no longer properly attached to a wall.

Walking past 'The Crucifixion' you're faced with the large 'The Coronation of The Virgin' which is directly opposite the entrance door to the Italian room. It shows Mary being crowned Queen of Heaven by Jesus, surrounded by angels, saints and other dignitaries. It makes the viewer almost a spectator at the event since the viewer would be kneeling and looking up as well. It's bright and colourful and very noticeable. The court of heaven of angels and apostles is separated from the mundane world by the figures kneeling and looking up at the heavenly pair.

There are seven predella scenes beneath the coronation scene that focus on the Dominican order, starting with St Dominic as a pillar of the church, literally holding it up with his own body. The central scene is the resurrection to remind the viewer how Jesus became the one to crown the Virgin.

I really liked the small scene with angels apparently serving the Dominican friars at a table - I don't know which tale this is meant to represent but I'll find out.

A detail I really liked was the figure of the bishop at the bottom-centre with his green robe with small scenes of the life of the Christ embroidered into the cloak at the back to make sure that even when facing the altar, the congregation still sees the life of Christ on his back. As ever, it's the detail that's fascinating and this shows the Fra's early training as a miniaturist. The embroidered scenes are very detailed and you'd have to be quite close to see them properly. It's almost a 'show off' moment for the Fra since the bishop is placed virtually central on the panel - it's almost saying 'look what I can do', 'look at the detail I could paint if you commissioned me and paid me for it to the friary'. It's really impressive.

I've seen clerical robes like this with embroidered scenes on the back displayed in the museum at Santa Maria Novella in Florence, although none were green.

The third work by Fra Angelico hangs on the wall beside the 'Coronation' and is a small predella scene of 'The Martyrdom of Saints Cosmo and Damian'. They were doctors and brothers and the patron saints of the Medicis who had funded the building of the Fra's friary of San Marco in Florence. They even had their own cell in the convent that was decorated with two scenes by Fra Angelico. It looks like it's part of the same predella about the saints that are housed in Munich and Dublic (neither of which I've yet seen but they are on my list to visit when I can).

The remaining four works by Fra Angelico are all fragments that are housed in a glass case against the wall to the left of the 'Coronation' as you stand with your back to it. Unfortunately, the case faces a window so it's not that easy to see them properly without dodging round to avoid the reflections. They comprise a predella panel showing the beheading of St John the Baptist, a small round figure of Christ and two angels facing each other.

The predella panel shows three scenes in one painting: the beheading of St John, a servant carrying his head into the banqueting room and Salome dancing to entrance the king into giving her her wish for his head. It's very cleverly done but I don't know which altarpiece this was part of the predella for.

The small figure of Christ is similar to the Fra's painting of the 'Blessed Redeemer' in the Royal Collection and currently on loan to the National Gallery in London. Christ is shown from the waist up offering a blessing. It's probably from the pinnacle of an altarpiece but I don't know which one.

My favourites were the two angels that quite possibly have been looking at each other from other sides of an altarpiece for 500 years and now look at each other in a glass case. They're not the same angel simply reversed, they are different if you look closely. The most obvious difference to me was in the positioning of the fingers of the hands crossing their chests - they're slightly different in each painting. Also look at the hair, which is different in each angel. It reminds me of something mentioned on one of my courses last year that Christ is often shown with hair that is blond/reddish to mark his difference from mere mortals in a place where the main hair-colour is dark. These angels are following suit. They are lovely and I'm only sorry I couldn't take a better photo of them.

I wouldn't be surprised if the Louvre didn't have more Fra Angelico treasures, other fragments not on display or drawings attributed to the Fra and his workshop, but these seven works are on public display to enjoy and admire. All photos were taken by me so don't let that influence you. They are all gorgeous and well worth spending some time to see if you're in the Louvre. 

Monday, 28 August 2017

'La Bayadere' by the Mariinsky Ballet at the Royal Opera House

A couple of weeks ago we went to see the Mariinsky Ballet in their summer season at the Royal Opera House. Last summer it was the turn of the Bolshoi Ballet so it was a good chance to see another big Russian company. The Mariinsky used be called the Kirov Ballet and, before that, the Imperial Russian Ballet, so it has a lot of history. I'd never seen 'La Bayadere' before so this was an opportunity to see it danced.

'La Bayadere' has a paper-thin plot but that doesn't really matter when it's an opportunity to see some great dance sequences and, once it got started, there were plenty of those. I think of the first act as lots of arm waving and stately movements but not much dancing as we get the basics of the story. Act two had more dancing and act three was lushness itself with some non-stop glorious dancing.

It's the tale of the love of a temple dancer (the bayadere of the title) and a hunter in the forests of India and they swear their undying love over a sacred fire outside a temple. Unfortunately the head Brahmin also has feelings for the dancer so, when the the local Rajah wants the hunter to marry his daughter, the Brahmin spills the beans in the hopes he'll call off the marriage. The Rajah doesn't, but, rather, swears that the dancer will die. The dancer unknowingly dances the wedding feast of the hunter and the Rajah's daughter and is given a bowl of fruit with a poisonous snake inside that bites the dancer. The Brahmin has the antidote but the dancer chooses death. Our rather feeble hero then has a pipe of opium and dreams his way into the underworld to be reunited with his dancer. Some productions take the story further but that's the version the Mariinsky danced.

I expected exotic sets and costumes, exuberant dancing with lots of show-off bits (because that's how the Russians dance) and that's what we got, with a cast of thousands. It was the spectacle of the 'Dance of the Golden Idol' that really brought the ballet to life with the idol leaping unbelievably high into the air and staying there, defying gravity, while he posed and preened, quicksilver fast around the stage.

Then later we had the 'Kingdom of the Shades' with dancer after dancer appearing on stage working their way down a slight hill to reach the stage and create formations of beauty, all 32 of them (yes, I counted). It was a gorgeous, elegant sequence that went on and on, with the dancers wearing diaphanous sleeves to make them seem almost like shimmering swans (a heavy motif for ballet). I loved it as more and more dancers appeared and wended their way onto the stage to take up formation and dance beautifully, virtually perfectly synchronised in their movements. It was truly lovely.

Ten out of ten for the Mariinsky? No, not really. I thought they were better than the Bolshoi last year but still a bit technical and clinical - where was the humanity of our hero and heroine? Where was the love, the little tender moments between them? I really enjoyed it once it got going but I've been spoiled by the Royal Ballet. Isn't it lucky I live in London?