Monday, 29 March 2010

The underdog triumfant

On rare occasions an art piece surpasses itself and the idea of what it represents becomes inseparable with the craft. This is then the making of a masterpiece, and one of the non-desputable masterpieces of the world is Michaelangelo´s David.

I have heard that there are seven core themes that are the root of every story ever told by mankind. Surely the story of David, who defeats Goliath against all odds is one version of the underdog winning against a much stronger opponent. And the theme can really be tracked from the biblical David to Star Wars, Lord of the Ring, Harry Potter, Rainmaker and Erin Brockovich and pretty much any fairytale where heros, ranging from courageous but poor to good-for-nothing but transformed by magic or love, kill the dragon and get the princess. Mix the underdog theme with the one of the love triangle, and you have the recipe to pretty much any romance/ romantic comedy, where the less fortunate gets the girl/boy, in spite of not being as popular, good looking or rich.

The underdog that has been mocked, heckled and ridiculed but that triumfs in the end gives hope to all of those who have ever felt illtreated by fate. We need to aspire to something and we need to have faith that we can overcome our worries. And the story of David gives us just that. This is part of the fascination with "the" David. The fact that it was chiseled over 500 years ago by the 26 year old Michaelangelo, who was hailed as divine during his life time helps. Michaelangelo´s passion and temper for his work were legendary and possibly here the idea of the tortured artist started. So the legend of Michaelangelo contributes to the legend of David. But David himself, standing 5.17 cm proud, pensive, but not afraid, has also become the symbol of the free Florence, resisting the pressure of the enemies, so much stronger than she. The Florentines positioned him so that he faces Rome, their biggest threat. Even if it is a replica that has taken the original´s place, I still believe that David inspires both locals and the masses of tourists that come by.

An interesting book of from the Renaissance period, purely fictive, but nice read nevertheless, is Sarah Dunant´s Birth of Venus, about a artistic noble woman, growing up in Savonarola´s and Michaelangelo´s Florence.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Paintings that stopped the clock

Johannes Vermeer and how Scarlett Johansson increased the numbers of gallery visitors

Today Vermeer belongs to most treasured artists and is a household name, thanks to the 2003 filmatisation of "Girl with a Pearl Earring", a novel by Tracy Chavalier about one of Vermeer´s most famous paintings. On internet, Johannes Vermeer pops among the top 15 most famous artists, yet, 100 years ago, nobody knew who he was.

When a Dutch delegation gave "A Music Lesson" to the English court in the end of the 18th century, the name of the artist was changed from Vermeer to Pieter de Hooch or Nicolaes Maas, I can´t remember which one of them, as that artist was so much more valued. 200 years later, not only were the curates extremely keen to asign the painting to Vermeer, the painting is also the pride of the royal collection at Windsor Palace- because it is a Vermeer.

Even though Johannes Vermeer enjoyed some acknowledgement as artist during his life, when he died in 1675, he quickly fell out of radar of art conneseurs. If it hadn´t been for two art historians who in the beginning of the 20th century made it their mission to catalogue and in their way market his work, chances are very few people would know his paintings. After 1930s, Vermeer became very highly priced and today his paintings belong to the highlights of the few galleries that are fortunate enough to own his work. There are many reasons for this. He was in his forties when he died, so he did not enjoy to long productivity of Rembrandt or Monet. Vermeer also was extremely precise in his painting, and is said to have painted only about three paintings a year. All and all, today we know of 34-36 paintings that for sure are made by him. But, I have forgotten to mention the most important reason for Vermeer´s fame. His paintings are wonderously wonderful.

One of the reasons is the colours. Learning from the studies of among others Leonardo da Vinci, Vermeer carefully planned the the colour composition in order to create the best effect. He also used real pigments, that he grounded himself and he was a pioneer in using the expensive lapis lazuli in his day and age- to my understanding, it had been reserved for Virgin Mary by artists such as Michaelangelo. This is why his paintings are so vivid and why the blues are nearly explosive.

Needless to say, I noticed Vermeer before the books. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has several Vermeers, and the one that caught my eye was the one of the sleeping maid. Ironically, I did not see the maid, but I noticed the carpet. I am a toucher, I can´t order clothes on line as I need to feel the fabrice, and it is always a challenge to pass statues. Normally, I can handle paintings, but my fingers itched to touch this carpet. And once you start looking, you can´t stop. In Johannes Vermeer´s paintings, there is such a quality of harmony, balance and tranquility, that you feel as if you were suspended in time. You are drawn into an unknown world, that seems as real as the carpet seemed to me. It is no wonder that there are at least three books of fiction written about Vermeer´s paintings. I wonder that there isn´t more of them.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Josef Capek - and I am sorry!

Cemeteries, Josef Capek and big mouths

I have established that I love art, and books and a lot of other things. I also like cemeteries. Not all, but give me an old cemetery, with history, and I can spend hours there. One of my favourite cemeteries is Slavin in Prague. It is here where Dvorak, Smetana, Mucha and many other famous Czechs are buried, and I think it is the ultimate tribute for a personality to be one of the few ones to be buried there. I love just spending time there, walking around and thinking about the lives of those whose graves I am visiting.

And yet, one of my most shameful memories comes from here. When I was 17 or so, I walked around with two friends of mine and came upon a grave which read "Here, Josef Capek would be buried". Of course, to the unknowing, this offers a lot of questions, and I asked them, probably slightly annoyed, as I did not understand. And I had the biggest set-down in my life, as an old lady passing by told me, that Josef Capek died in a concentration camp and did I not know that. The thing is, I am Czech and I speak Czech, but I am not grown up in Czech Republic, so even if I knew Josef Capek, I really did not know this. Many years, later, it is still one of the top shame incidents in my life and I still feel guilty, for not knowing and being loud and ignorant about it.

Josef and his brother Karel were the Czech intellectual elite before the WWII. Karel was the author, Josef painter. Together they wrote plays, that range between deep and profound to funny. In one of them, RUR, they "discovered" the word robot in one of their plays. (robota is labour in Czech) What signifies both brothers, is the apparant simplicity of their work, the clarity of their vision and their deep humanity. Karel´s play The Mother, about a mother who looses three sons in the war and in the end urges her forth one to go to war as well as she sees that what they are fighting has got to be defeated, is one of the strongest I have ever seen. His White Disease, that depicts the growth of a fanatic society foreboded the war before politicians were speaking about "Pease for our time". Josef did not fight with words, but with art. Karel was lucky, and died before the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Josef was one of the first people to be arrested by Gestapo. He spent six years in different concentration camps. He died, it is presumed, in Bergen-Belsen days before or after liberation. His body was never identified. I hope that he knew that the war was coming to an end. I think that would have made all the difference to him.

This Christmas, there was a big exhibition of his work at the Prague Castle. Josef´s art went through many transformations, but it is so clear that he stayed true to him self, and this makes the strength and fibre in his art. Unfortunately, I am not able to find the painting that caught my eye the most on the internet, but it was a very simple painting of a little girl with a red cup. I stood in front of her a long time, and many many people passed us. And every single one smiled when they looked at the girl. Such was the power of Josef´s art.

Art making history- but no story

John Singer Sargent is one of the most famous American artists of fine de siecle and one of the most famous portraitists ever. And this portrait, of Gertrude Vernon, or Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, was his big break. I "met" Lady Agnew in the National Gallery of Scotland of Edinburgh, where she resides, and I have never forgotten her.
Of course, it is a beautiful portrait, where the colours and shapes .. work. And I do love the way I can sense the softness of the fabrics, and the luxuriosness of silk. But, what makes this an outstanding portrait for me is the personality that shows. There is pride and confidence, but I also see humour and this definitely is not a boring person, there is a lot of character. I would wage that there is a story behind this painting and that the woman in it could not have lived an ordinary life. But, from the depth of www, her claim to fame, in life and a century later - is this portrait. And come to think of it- that is not bad in terms of legacy.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Love at first sight

First time I visited Tate, before it became Tate Britain, I fell in love. Typically for me, it was singularly one-sided, but unlike many other romances, it lasts. What more, my admiration grows at every encounter. Which brings me to the catch, because, of course, there is one. It is very hard for a painting to love me back.

There are many many grand and great paintings at the Tate. But the one that caught my heart was a small study of clouds, by John Constable. I love the idea of a framed piece of heaven. And how, even though it appears simple at first glance, there is so much going on and as much "action" as in other paintings where you expect it more.

If I was feeling philosophical, I would tell you that this is what I find fascinating about life. If you look deeper, and try to learn more, everything grows more interesting, and more often than not, there is so much more to things than what meets the eye. But, I am not feeling philosophical, so what I will say is that this is one of my favourite paintings of all time, and every time I am in London, I have to visit it. Because it makes me happy.