Friday, 30 March 2012

Geertgen tot Sint Jans (c. 1460/65 - latest 1495)

This beautiful painting of St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness, lost in thought and forlorn, is by Geertgen tot Sint Jans, and dates c. 1485-1490.

Very little is known about the artist. He was probably born in the Dutch town of Leyden betweem 1460 and 1465, and died in Haarlem before 1495, possible aged 28. In the few paintings that survive he displays a mastery both in figures and in landscape.

Other works by Geertgen include:
The Lamentation of Christ 
Nativity at Night
Adoration of the Magi

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Pietro Perugino (c. 1448-1523)

Lo Sposalizio by Raphael
Lo Sposalizio by Perugino

Born Pietro de Cristoforo Vannucci, Perugino was influenced by Piero della Francesca, from whom he learned how to balance surface with space and how to construct large-scale compositions. But his fame today has become eclipsed by his famous pupil Raphael, to whom he taught much about the art of composition. One has only to compare Perugino's Sposalizio della Vergine with Raphael's work of the same name to see the older man's influence.

In 1931 the National Gallery of Ireland purchased at auction at Christie's in London one of Perugino's most beautiful works - Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c. 1495). One of the first visitors to see the painting was Samuel Beckett, who wrote his impressions of the painting in a letter of 20 December 1931 to his friend Thomas McGreevy, one time director of the National Gallery of Ireland:

A clean-shaven, potent Christ, and a passion of tears for the waste. The most mystical constituent is the ointment pot that was probably added by Raffaela. Rottenly hung in rotten light behind this thick shop window, so that a total view of it is impossible, and full of grotesque amendments. But a lovely cheery Christ full of sperm, and the woman touching his thighs and mourning his secrets. [Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson p140]

Pietro Perugino self-portrait 

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Leonardo da Vinci and the Mona Lisa

The Louvre in Paris is once again the world's most popular art museum with 8,800,000 visitors in 2011. [Source: Art Newspaper] In 2007, the museum staff went on strike, citing as the reason the stress of looking after the Mona Lisa and other popular paintings. "The stress is clearly linked to the number of visitors," a Louvre attended told the AFP news agency at the time. "There can be 65,000 visitors on one day. It's unbearable...."

Leonardo's masterpiece is like a magnet attracting visitors from all corners of the world. It has become an icon, part of western mythology. But if you think that you know all about the lady with the enigmatic smile, then think again, for according to Dr Vito Franco of Palermo University, La Giaconda had high cholesterol, evident, claims the doctor, from a build-up of fatty acids discernible under the skin.

He also suggested the presence of lipoma, a benign fatty-tissue tumour, in her right eye. "The people depicted in art reveal their physicality, tell us of their vulnerable humanity, regardless of the artist's awareness of it", he told the Italian newspaper La Stampa. [Source: BBC News 6 January 2010]

These claims add to those made in 2007 by French inventor Pascal Cotte, who said that his 240-megalpixel scan of the painting revealed traces of facial hair obliterated by restoration efforts. Also her face was originally wider, and Leonardo also altered the position of two fingers on her left hand. Monsieur Cotte used infra red while scanning he work, and says his scan revealed that it once had bright blues and whites, and not just the heavy greens, yellows and browns it has today. [Source: Live Science]

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Giorgione - La Tempestà

The works of Giorgio Barbarelli, Giorgio da Castelfranco, known to the world as Giorgione, were often mysterious in their subject matter, but none will have provoked such controversy and discussion as his painting La Tempestà, described in around 1530 as a "Landscape on canvas with storm, gypsy woman and soldier".

Interpretation of the work was complicated further when X-rays revealed that the artist had originally intended a second nude in place of the soldier. Also the title suggests that it is the storm which is the subject and not the characters.

One suggestion is that the work represents the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, depicting Mary with the infant, and Joseph standing nearby. But where is the faithful donkey? Others interpretors see it as a scene from classical mythology or as an allegorical impression of paradise.

The painting is one of Georgione's last works dating from c. 1510 and is on display in Venice's Gallerie dell'Accademia. 

Friday, 23 March 2012

The 'Lost Years' of William Shakespeare

Clopton Bridge, Stratford upon Avon by Robert Bell Wheeler

The period between the baptism of Shakespeare's twins on 2 February 1585 and the oblique reference to him in 1592 in Robert Greene's notorious pamphlet Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, bought with a million of Repentance, are popularly known as the 'Lost Years', since there is no documentary record of him during these years.
[There is, in fact, one reference in 1587. Shakespeare's father, John Shakespeare, began a litigation against one John Lambert, in which he tried to regain possession of property mortgaged to Edmund Lambert, John Lambert's father. He argued that John Lambert had promised an extra £20 on condition that the Shakespeares and 'their eldest son William' handed over the estate outright.]

The Groatsworth of Wit is a thinly veiled autobiography 'Describing the folly of youth, the falsehood of make-shift flatterers, the misery of the negligent, and the mischief of deceiving Courtesans'. It's hero is called Roberto, a disinherited scholar (Greene was a Cambridge M.A.) who goes off to seek his destiny, and meets with a player on the look out for new talent for his theatre company. Impressed by the player's apparent prosperity, Roberto joins forces with him, makes and loses a fortune, while unmasking 'all the rabble of that unclean generation of vipers'. Greene then abandons any pretence of fiction and launches into a tirade addressed to his 'fellow scholars about this city', (identified as Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe and George Peele) telling them:

'Base-minded men all three of you ..... there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.'

Apart from the weak pun on his name, this is clearly a reference to Shakespeare, confirmed by the allusion to a line in 3 Henry VI - 'O tiger's heart wrapp'd in a woman's hide!' Clearly Greene was rattled by the fact that a grammar school boy from a provincial town should have established himself as a Johannes Factotum (Jack of all trades - actor and writer). 
Whilst most scholars and commentators agree that Shake-scene is Shakespeare, there are some dissenting voices, such as A.D.Wraight, who, in his book In Search of Christopher Marlowe, argues that 'Shake-scene is referred to by Greene not as a play on the name Shakespeare, but as synonymous with a great actor's rant - to 'shake a stage' with passion'. [In Search of Christopher Marlowe, page 197]. Wraight is a champion of Marlowe, though he does not go so far as to claim that he wrote Shakespeare's plays, or at least not all of them.

Robert Greene depicted on the title page of Greene in Concept, a pamphlet  published in 1598

So in 1592 Shakespeare appeared to be established in London both as a player and as a playwright. But when did he arrive in the capital, and by what means did he get there?   And indeed, what was he doing prior to 1585? Perhaps the most reliable account is that of John Aubrey (1626-1697), who conducted many careful inquiries into Shakespeare's life. He spoke with the children of people who would have known Shakespeare personally, including  William Beeston, the son of Chrisopher Beeston, an actor in Shakespeare's acting company from c.1596 until 1602, and therefore in a position to know our poet well. William Beeston himself was a theatrical manager, and it is from him that Aubrey claimed he learned that Shakespeare knew Latin 'pretty well' for he had been a 'schoolmaster in the country'. Aubrey also states that  Shakespeare was the son of a butcher, and that he would kill a calf in high style while making a speech. In this he is certainly mistaken, as it is well documented that Shakespeare's father was a glove maker, though it does correspond with the testimony of John Dowdall, a lawyer by profession, who went to Stratford in 1693. He visited the poet's monument and grave, and spoke with the church clerk, a man 'above eighty years old', who told him that 

'this Shakespeare was formerly in this town bound apprentice to a butcher, but that he run from his master to London, and there was received into the playhouse as a servitor, and by this means had an opportunity to be what he afterwards proved.' [Letter of John Dowdall dated 10 April 1693]

Other reports abound that Shakespeare was variously a soldier in the Low Countries, a runaway scrivener, apprenticed to a 'country attorney', and even that he circumnavigated the globe with Francis Drake [The Real Shakespeare by William Bliss, 1947]. He'd been a poacher of Sir Thomas Lucy's deer in the park of Charlecote, a tourist in Italy, a barber-surgeon, a physician, a heavy drinker, and a holder of patrons' horses outside London playhouses, this latter account from The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland, published in 1753, by 'Mr Cibber'. And, of course, there are those who believe that the man from Stratford did not write the plays at all, theories which are humorously 'despunked' in Shagspurt.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Amsterdam: Bicycle Capital of the World

Amsterdam has a people population of 785,910 [trueknowledge dot com]  and a bicycle population of around 465,000: a ratio of one bicycle for every 1.69 persons.

Running on pedal power instead of CO2 producing toxic fuel, Amsterdammers wend their ways along the colour-coded  bike paths, and if they run low of fuel simply stop to eat a banana, then with calories replenished continue on their way.

Cycling in the city crosses socio-economic as well as gender and age backgrounds."80% of all Dutch cycle at least once a week".[amsterdamize dot com] Bike rental companies abound allowing tourists to go native. And with 400 kilometres of bike routes there's no nook or cranny of the city which cannot be explored.

H.G. Wells said: "Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race". In our oil-driven, car-crazy, cult-consumer economy, these relics of the Nineteenth Century happily break the rules. And nowhere is the counter-culture more alive than in Amsterdam: the Bicycle Capital of the World.

Friday, 16 March 2012

George Bernard Shaw, the Left's new Fashion Guru

George Bernard Shaw

Mr George Bernard Shaw proved as enigmatic as ever when asked about his new role as fashion correspondent. "A fashion is nothing but an induced epidemic", he quipped, as he made his way in panama hat, ankle-length overcoat, summer pants and carrying a  parasol/umbrella, to his latest fashion assignment.

Mr Shaw, who is famed for his dramatic works on the most pressing social issues of the day, and for his socialist views on the class system, was asked about how he saw his new job. He thought for a moment and then shrugged his shoulders and said: "A day's work is a day's work, neither more nor less". He then hopped aboard a passing omnibus and went merrily on his way.

We wish him the best of luck in his latest enterprise.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Shakespeare's fat knight- Sir John Falstaff

Falstaff Reviewing Recruits by Francis Hayman - a scene from 2 Henry IV

"I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men". [Sir John Falstaff, 2 Henry IV]

Was the fat knight the Shakespeare's supreme creation? For sure he was a hit with the playgoers at the time, and we can imagine their disappointment when he failed to appear is Henry V, despite being trailed to do so by the Epilogue in the second part of Henry IV:
"One word more, I beseech you. If you be not too much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make you merry with fair Katharine of France; where, for all I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat...."

What was the reason for this change of mind by Shakespeare? Certainly the actor that some believe was the first to interpret the role, Will Kemp, is known to have left the company around this time, in order to dance his way from London to Norwich. Was this the reason? Or did Shakespeare want to concentrate on the new king without the distraction of his larger than life knight? Whatever the reason, Falstaff does not appear, though does have an off-stage presence and does indeed 'die of a sweat'. As Hostess Quickly puts it in one of her charming quicklyisms: "He's in Arthur's bosom".

Falstaff was also popular with Queen Elizabeth, or at least such was the claim of one John Dennis, critic, playwright and unsuccessful adaptor of Shakespeare. In 1702 he recorded a tradition that The Merry Wives of Windsor, which features Sir John, was personally commissioned by the Queen. The story was enhanced in 1709 by Nicholas Rowe, the most successful playwright of his age and the first editor of Shakespeare, who added that Queen Elizabeth particularly wanted to see Falstaff in love. Whether or not this piece of hearsay has any truth to it we can, for certain, never know, though it does allude to the ceremonies of the Order of the Garter, to which Shakespeare's patron Lord Hundson, the Lord Chamberlain, was admitted at Windsor in 1597. The ceremonies were followed by a Garter Feast on St. George's Day, 23 April (Shakespeare's thirty-third birthday), which the Queen attended, so it is story in which there could indeed be a kernel of truth.

The fat knight first appeared in 1 Henry IV when he called Sir John Oldcastle. The historical Oldcastle (c. 1378-1417) was known as Lord Cobham and was executed for treason and heresy, though he was venerated as a Protestant martyr during Shakespeare's lifetime. The descendants of Oldcastle, the Cobhams, objected to seeing their ancestor portrayed on stage as a drunk, a liar, a braggard, a thief, a debaucher, a swindler, etc., etc., and the ever-obliging and diplomatic Shakespeare changed the name to Falstaff, a name based on that of the cowardly Sir John Fastolf of 1 Henry VI. 

With his merry humour, his grandiloquence, and his insistence on living life according to his own vision of it, the fat knight continues to delight audiences, and the more disgraceful he appears on stage, the more it seems we like him.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Dante Gabriel Rossetti & The Death of Lady Macbeth

The Death of Lady Macbeth by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (c. 1875)

'She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word'     [Macbeth 5.5.16]

Pen and ink and sepia wash drawing on paper of the death of Lady Macbeth from Macbeth, Shakespeare's intense study in the psychology of evil, as imagined by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood art movement. Macbeth's lady is depicted trying to rub the stains of Duncan's murder from her hands as she struggles with her repressed humanity.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

John Everett Millais of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

Ophelia by John Everett Millais

John Everett Millais (1829-1896) was one of the founders, along with William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and four friends, of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. 

The Brotherhood sought to revitalize British art with noble ideas and fidelity with nature, and Hunt and Rossetti prepared a list of 'Immortals forming our creed', wherein the 'first class' comprised Jesus and Shakespeare.

Many paintings from the Brotherhood explore tragic Shakespearean women. Rossetti painted The Death of Lady Macbeth (c1876), and the yearning Mariana (1868-1870) from Measure for Measure. Millais painted his Ophelia (1852) from Hamlet, depicting a scene which is only described in the play. And in 1849 he produced a scene from The Tempest entitled Ferdinand Lured by Ariel.

A statue of John Everett Millais is in place in front of the Tate Britain art gallery in London.

Ferdinand Lured by Ariel by John Everett Millais

Monday, 5 March 2012

Pioneers of Photography #2 - Henry Peach Robinson

The Lady of Shalott (1861)

In 1895 the journal The Photogram wrote of Henry Peach Robinson:
'Mr Robinson stands, as he has done for years, as probably the best known man in photography, and the one whose words and example have done more than those of any other man to create and encourage photographic workers'.

H.P. Robinson was born in 1830 and during his lifetime was one of the most successful commercial photographers in Great Britain. He encouraged photographers to create a 'pictorial effect' in their pictures, making use of the darkroom to combine negatives, as well as costuming and posing his subjects. In his own work he would carefully stage elaborate tableaux in picturesque settings, using relatives to  serve as models. An example of this technique is his picture titled The Lady of Shalott, which was made from three negatives. The image also bears an affinity with the Pre-Raphaelites, of which Robinson was a keen follower.

Sadly, the long hours spent in his darkroom, with the consequent exposure to harmful chemicals, had a detrimental effect of his health, to such an extent that he was forced to give up his studio at the comparatively young age of 34, and to devote his time to the theoretical side of photography. He thereafter wrote and published a number of reference books in which he continued to promote photography as an art form. He died in 1901.

Fading Away (1858)

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Pioneers of Photography #1 - Peter Henry Emerson

Rowing Home the Schoof-Stuff (1886)
'Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience' [Peter Henry Emerson]

Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936) was an early British photographer, raised in Cuba and the USA, then moving to England in 1869, where he spent the rest of his life. He continued his education in London and at university in Cambridge where he graduated with a degree in medicine and pursued a career as a surgeon. But in 1886 he abandoned medicine to become a full time photographer and writer.

His initial approach was to use photography as a tool to record precisely what the eye saw without enhancement or embellishment.[1] This put him at odds with the photography establishment, where the fashion was for combination printing, the technique of combining multiple photos to produce a single image. These opposing views were clearly unreconcilable, leaving each camp to go their separate ways.

Emerson's way was the rural English countryside. He took his camera to the rivers and broads of East Anglia, and in 1886 published his first collection of 40 platinum prints entitled Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads. More books followed as he created a fascinating portfolio of enchanting images of a world soon to be consumed into Mammon's bottomless abyss.

[1] He later changed his view and declared that photography was an art form and he would often take pictures out of focus. But a year later he again changed his view, now believing that photography was too mechanical ever to be considered an art.

In the Barley Harvest (1890)

Lone Lagoon (1895)