Sunday, November 1, 2015

Roman Portraiture

Some, with slight exaggeration, claim that we live in the century of the selfie (though who can assume that the selfie will last the century?) This selfie, of three world leaders, made the news a short while ago (do you remember who the female is?) 

Maybe not such a polite thing for our trusted leaders to be doing, considering that they were attending a memorial service, but hey, if you had attended the Nelson Mandela memorial service, wouldn't you have taken a selfie too? (I seem to have gotten into a bad habit of ending each sentence with a question, so I'm going to stop that now.)

So, what is this obsession that we have with our own faces? (Oh, there I go again!) We can certainly trace it back to the Renaissance, with the birth of the modern portrait, when even the artists like Michelangelo and Botticelli start slipping their own faces into their paintings. By the time we reach Rembrandt the self-portrait has come well and truly into its own.

But the history of the selfie goes back much longer than this, to a tradition in the Roman Republic, when a citizen could celebrate their position in society by means of sculpted portraiture. The old patricians of Rome, when burying their dead, had the habit of organizing a funerary parade in which they would carry the wax busts of their ancestors. It was a way of proving and displaying their long, proud lineage. So the portrait was of great importance and every upper class Roman family would keep a collection of marble likenesses of their male ancestors in a cupboard at home, much like we keep family photo albums. (Sorry for another question, but do people still keep family albums or is that unspeakably previous century?)

The funny thing about portraits from the ancient Roman Republic, is that they didn't attempt to beautify their subjects. They didn't even try to hide their age, as we do in our culture that worships youth. On the contrary, Roman Republican portraiture magnified the aging process if anything. Images of the great and powerful would be displayed on pedestals in public places, examples for all to emulate. Take this Head of a Roman Patrician from around 75 BCE for instance.

The subject is certainly no spring chicken. So, would he have been pleased to see himself being depicted like this, wrinkles and all. The fact is, he would have been delighted. For the truth of the matter is, hyper-realistic portraits, like this one, embodied the ideal of the hard working, serious upper-class citizen. This man might have been privileged and well off, but, his portrait tells us, he has worked his socks off for the good of his family and, equally important, for the welfare of the state. No partying or super yacht cruises for him. Instead, he would have us believe, he has dedicated his life to the high-minded fulfilling of his civic duty. In other words, the portrait reflects two characteristics that were greatly valued by the Romans of this time - seriousness or gravitas and virtue. He wears his wrinkles proudly and each one bespeaks his gravitas and virtue. A bit like the serfs of the corporate world today who complain of how hard they work and who wear their stress as a banner of pride.

Inge Lyse Hanson of John Cabot University in Rome has argued (in a lecture that I attended in July 2015) that these Roman Republic portraits must be seen as being in opposition to the Greek values of the Hellenistic world where, for instance, Alexander the Great was portrayed as a youth. Greek sculpture depicted leaders as being young, smooth-skinned, turned to the side with their gaze to the distance; Roman patrician sculpture, on the other hand, showed their leaders to be old, wrinkled, looking straight ahead and staring at the viewer. Furthermore, she insists that these busts were earned, that each statue represents an award set up in a public space by the grateful citizenry.

Art historians refer to this style as Verism. Which might, verily, give you the impression that these portraits reflect reality. But that is not the case. This is art, after all, not reality. These are idealized images, representations of ideas Today we photoshop or airbrush out our blemishes and wrinkles, but in those days they added them in. The times have changed. But they already changed soon after the collapse of the Roman republic and the rise of the Roman Empire.

Take a look at this image, from the Vatican Museum, for instance, from the 1st century CE. The blemishes and wrinkles are gone.

Or even better, look at this portrait of Emperor Augustus, from Primaporta, now in the Vatican Museum. Every town in the empire had its official portraits of the emperor, but unlike the veristic portraits of the Republic, the image was one of idealized youth. Augustus would rule for decades to come, but in his portraits he never grew older. He had, literally, invented a new never changing time to go with his new office of Emperor, a time in which he never ages in any portraits, just like the queen of England never ages in any British postage stamps.

Instead, his carefully cultivated public image remained that of the Greek ideal, clearly based on the famous classical statue, Doryphoros by Polykeitos:

At Augustus' feet we find a small cupid, riding a dolphin. The presence of cupid indicates that Augustus is a God, hence his perfect looks and eternal youth.

One obvious difference between Augustus of Primaporta and Doryphoros is (you've probably noticed) Doryphoros is nude, while Augustus is wearing body armour. In fact there are portraits of Augustus that are semi-nude or entirely nude, after all, when you have the perfect, idealized, youthful body, why not show it off?  It is just that in this particular incarnation the Emperor is portrayed as the warrior who has defeated his enemies Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, thereby ensuring the safety and security of all the citizens. In fact his cuirlass or breastplate depict a diplomatic victory that he achieved over the Parthians.

 So, in short, portraits always project an image. Sometimes, as in these Roman portraits, the image that is being projected could be labeled as propaganda. What of our own leaders today? They certainly don't have themselves depicted in the nude, nor do they openly confess to being divine.But would they dare to partake in the sort of role play that the ancient Romans did, dressing up as warriors and so on? Surely we are far too sophisticated to be taken in by democratic leaders who don battle gear. Like this one for instance, who dresses as a warrior and, like Augustus, stretches his arm out towards his troops, a contemporary Primaporta image.

Or let us not forget the following warrior leader, who, though having never set foot on a battlefield, still sported a military codpiece. What are these guys trying to prove?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Men Blessed by Daughters

American blues singer Greg Brown has a song that has the refrain "I'm a man that’s rich in daughters." A friend gave me a copy when my third daughter was born. I was reminded of this recently when I was in Berlin for the weekend.

Although I was at a conference all day long, it turned out that  the Saturday night was The Long Night of the Museums, so I headed down to Museum Island. The atmosphere was relaxed, with Berliners of all ages dancing on the banks of the Spree while hundreds sat in deckchairs drinking wine and beer as the Berlin Chamber Orchestra played a free concert outside the Museum of Ancient Art.  I enjoyed the ambiance, but I was on a quest, and so I joined the line for the Egyptian Collection in the Neues Museum.

Having ascended the stairs to the second floor, I stopped to examine the old columns of the museum that still bear the scars of World War Two bombings. English architect DavidChipperfield recently renovated the building, (it had been so damaged by Allied bombing that it remained closed until 2009) but preserved the damaged old columns, now integrated into the new facility. It seemed somehow appropriate that these vestiges of the Nazi period are now embedded within a museum of ancient history

Classical columns still bear smoke damage.
Column damaged by Allied bombing

The collection from the Amarna period of Egyptian history includes a number of stunning masterpieces. Most people crowd into the dark room that hosts the famous bust of Nefertiti. She sits in a glass case alone in the centre of the room. People stand in a circle and gaze reverentially at her beauty.A hushed silence reigns, broken only by the harsh outbursts of a guard "No photos!". This is art that is put on a pedestal, metaphorically as well as literally. I have an uneasy feeling that I've joined with a number of strangers in some fetishistic activity, a confirmation that the museum has replaced the church in contemporary European life. The object of our adulation might be three and a half thousand years old, but she looks like she belongs in a fashion magazine, or at least could be strolling the streets of Berlin. Being a bust though, obviously that would be difficult. But dare I say it, and I don't mean this as an insult to anyone, living or dead, but it strikes me that Nefertiti might be the best looking person in Berlin.

However,  on this night I wasn't interested in Nefertiti alone. I was looking for her and her husband, a man like me, blessed with daughters. And there, in a little alcove, almost hidden away, I found what I was looking for, a relief depicting the Pharaoh Akhenaton and his wife Nefertiti with three of their five daughters. It is a scene of such unbelievable poignancy, that on this night, alone in Berlin, far from my three daughters and their mother, I feel a connection with this portrayal of simple domesticity.

Egyptian art has a certain timeless quality, not least because its stiff portraits followed a formula that remained the same for thousands of years. But this small stele, probably made as a household shrine, with is curvilineal forms, is anything but stiff and doesn't strike me as being formal at all. This is a glimpse of an intimate scene of familial love drenched in the rays of the sun god. 

The pharaoh, Akhenaton, sits on the left, raising his youngest daughter to his lips, as he gazes downward in an expression of fatherly love. See how his left hand protects her head while his right hand, with its long slender fingers, tenderly supports her thigh.

His wife, Nefertiti sits on the right, with a second daughter leaning against her shoulder. The child's right hand might be pointing at the sun, but I like to believe that it is brushing her mother's cheek, while her left arm drapes casually over her mother's shoulder.  The third, older, daughter sits on her mother's lap, pointing towards her dad with her right hand, while her left hand rests in her mother's hand and her face is turned upwards towards her mother. "Look mum", she might be saying, "daddy is kissing the baby". 

This might be one of the greatest works of art ever made, but is a scene that, on this beautiful late summer evening, I find it easy to relate to. I think it speaks to all men blessed with daughters. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Caravaggio in Dublin, Triumph of the Soulless

Having once been in Malta and failing to see that island's sole Caravaggio painting, I was determined not to make the same mistake when recently visiting the island of Ireland. The Taking of Christ can be found in Dublin's delightful National Gallery of Ireland - delightful because of  the courtesy of the museum staff, the fine collection of art, the lack of crowds and the fact that it is free of charge. So, perfectly reasonable to drop in, in pursuit of a glimpse of a single work.

The Taking of Christ is the latest Caravaggio to be discovered. Half the art history world (admittedly, a small, select world) had been wondering for years where could Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ be? For a half-dozen or so passionate academics (not an oxymoron by the way)) the hunt for the missing Caravaggio was the equivalent of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. And it was eventually found in, of all places, Dirty Old Dublin Town. It had been hanging for years in the dining hall of the Jesuit order in Dublin without the Men in Black quite knowing that they had a treasure from the master himself. They believed that the painting that greeted them every morning while they eat their simple porridge was a copy of Caravaggio's missing masterpiece. In the early 1990s it was discovered that what they had thought was a copy, was actually the real thing!  Now it hangs proudly, all cleaned up, spic and span, in the National Gallery.

Let's skip the fact that Caravaggio, between wild nights of debauchery, regular fighting and murder was an incomparable master of his craft, possessing a knowledge of light and shadow that puts him almost on a par with Rembrandt. All that is a given. But there are a couple of quirky things about this work that I must say I love. Firstly, there is the centre of the piece. It is the chap's armed shoulder. In a painting that depicts the arrest of Jesus Christ, Caravaggio dares to make the exact centre of the picture the luminous orb that is the soldier's metal shoulder. He has literally given us the cold shoulder. What a dare-devil. And incredible that it works. We are drawn towards the reflective surface, half expecting to see our own image staring back at us.And where does the mysterious light that illuminates the long metal arm come from? Certainly not from the rain-swollen Dublin sky.

Then there is the face of the guards. We only catch a glimpse of of the first one. But it could be your Dad. For some strange reason his nose is eerily 21st century.  And the chap to his right looks like he could be standing on the terraces cheering for St. Patrick's Athletic. His beard is red-tinged, making him very at home in Dublin. He is just a bearded, working-class lad, doing his job. 

I also love how Caravaggio has inserted himself into the painting. He is in the top right, holding the lantern. Yes, holding the lantern that throws a bit more light upon the scene, but not to help out the soldiers in their filthy work, those obedient, brutal footmen of the establishment. No, he is holding up the lantern in order to lighten up the scene, so we can enjoy it. That's right. The artist is someone who holds up the light so that we can see. As Matisse wrote, happiness comes from "illuminating the fog that surrounds us." Look at his eager face;  he doesn't want to miss a second of the scene that he is illuminating, the scene that he is painting.

One more thing that I love about this picture, and maybe it is purely personal, but it so very obviously reminds me of Star Wars, or any mythic-science-fiction-fantasy in which freedom is threatened by the mindless robots that serve the conformity of the machine. For that is what the armor does to the guards arresting Jesus. There is a third guard hidden behind Caravaggio; we can only see his helmet and one staring eye. The faceless eye of surveillance. That's what armor does to all us, doesn't it? Maybe in the weekend we cheer our children's football team, or sink a few pints with the lads. Maybe we're good fathers, loving husbands. But let us clamber into our shiny, squeaky uniforms and we become exactly what is needed in order for the soulless to triumph. Such are the ideas that seeing this Caravaggio puts into my head. I dare you: see Caravaggio and tremble.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Zurich's Kunsthaus Could be the Receiver of Stolen Jewish Art.

Manet, La Sultana (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Sometime ago I wrote about the new extension planned for Zurich's Kunsthaus, designed by the British architect David Chipperfield. The extension will house the impressive Bürhle collection, part of which was last exhibited a few years ago at the Kunsthaus. The collection will, when opened to the public in 2020, torpedo Zurich's Kunsthaus into the top tier for public collections of French Impressionism. In fact, Zurich will be second only to Paris.  But tomorrow a book will be published from which the fallout is sure to complicate matters.

During the past few decades most major art museums have been forced to audit their collections, or at least give an impression they are doing so, in order to ascertain whether they hold any art that was wrongfully taken from Jewish owners during the era of Nazi rule in Europe. This can be in the form of art that was simply robbed by the Nazis, or art that was bought by an innovative collector at knock-down prices because the unfortunate Jewish owners, fleeing from the Nazis, were being forced to sell.

A couple of years ago the world was intrigued by the Cornelius Gurlitt story, when over 1,000 formerly Jewish owned works of art were discovered in an apartment in Munich. Gurlitt has since died and, for some strange reason, he bequeathed his collection to an art museum in Bern. This was a nice windfall for the museum, but brought rather a lot of unwanted attention - was Switzerland simply going to accept a gift, even when the gift is stained with Jewish blood?

Cezanne, Paysage (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The new book that will appear in bookstores tomorrow, Schwarzbuch Bührle [Blackbook Bührle] makes the argument that the Kunsthaus might be the receiver of stolen goods via the controversial Bürhle collection. The fact that the industrialist Bürhle supplied Nazi Germany with weapons is already somewhat embarrassing, but now the Kunsthaus will have to deal with this added complication. The grave accusations will certainly lead to further public discussion as co-editor and one of the authors of the book is Guido Magnaguagno, who happens to have once been Vice-Director of the Kunsthaus. The opinions of this esteemed art historian and museum leader will be taken seriously. Indeed the pending appearance of his book has already made front page news in Switzerland this weekend.

In the new book Magnaguagno lists 12 works that are particularly suspicious because of the so called gaps in provenance, works from Cezanne, Courbet, Manet, Utrillo, Monet, Van Gogh, Modigliani, Kalf, Braque and Corot. No doubt we will hear a lot more about this before the new extension opens in 2020.
Monet, Poppy-fields at Vetheuil (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Sunday, August 9, 2015

On Late Rembrandt at the National Gallery and the Rijksmuseum

In the spring I spent a few days in Amsterdam and happily went along to the newly renovated Rijksmuseum. This was my first visit to the museum in many years. Although it had been closed for a few years for renovation, a part of its collection had still been available to the public at Schipol International Airport. This was an excellent example of Dutch innovative thinking - what other international airport offered for contemplation the works of masters like Vermeer and Hals to passengers in transit?

I was impressed by the renovation, especially the new entrance hall, which reminded me of a scaled down version of the entrance to the Louvre in Paris and even the British Museum in London.  But the main point of my visit was the exhibition "Late Rembrandt", which had already been shown in London's National Gallery in 2014-1015. Now, however, the artist's late works were all coming home. to the city in which he had lived and worked.

The Jewish Bride
Surprisingly, this was the first exhibition ever dedicated exclusively to Rembrandt's late works. I particularly enjoyed seeing two of my favourite paintings. "The Jewish Bride" and Bathsheba with King David's Letter.

The so called The Jewish Bride is properly known as Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca.  Vincent van Gogh told a friend that he would gladly give ten years of his life just to be able to sit in front of this painting for two weeks. Let's be grateful that he didn't, for a van Gogh dead ten years younger would have cheated the world out of a great number of  his masterpieces.  But we can all understand his sentiment. The moving embrace and the loving yet sad expressions on the faces make this one of the world's most intimate paintings.

The tender embrace

But seeing it in the flesh, so to speak, what struck me most was the complexity of the texture of the painter. It is no wonder that Rembrandt was considered a revolutionary.  The jewelry sparkles and seems to reflect the light on the room. The paint is caked onto the canvas. And I use the term caked deliberately -  I was tempted to lick it! Rembrandt layered the paint on thickly using his palette knife, or probably multiple knives.  Look at this sleeve for instance. You can almost reach out and tug it.

A close up of his sleeve - you feel like you could tug it
Close up of her dress, layered on with a knife
The other painting of Rembrandt that I love is Bathsheba with King David's Letter. It rivals The Jewish Bride for its tenderness. The force of this painting is extraordinary in the way that it makes the invisible visible.

It is the inner emotional turmoil of the mind that is the subject of the work - should Bathsheba agree to the king's demands outlined in his letter that she holds in her hand, or should she remain faithful to her husband. Recently X-radiography has revealed that originally Rembrandt had painted her with a shocked expression on her uplifted head. But in a stroke of genius he changed this. Instead, the picture is almost entirely motionless, she is profiled against a dark background, her white body illuminated by light. Our eyes travel upward, from the servant at her feet, to the letter in her hand, along her nude body and arrive at her face, exquisitely rendered, lost in contemplation. It is, I would venture, one of the most beautiful faces in western art.

One of the most beautiful faces in western art

Late Rembrandt brought together many exceptional works by one of the most exceptional artists. That said, not everyone was impressed. This young lady for instance. While she might share the beauty of Bathsheba's face, her expression does not reflect an inner moral dilemma, just plain irritation. She is clearly thinking, when is my dad going to be done and we can get out of here.

Friday, June 26, 2015

One Hundred Days by Lukas Barfuss

Lukas Barfüss, One Hundred Days (Granta Books, 2013)

I’m sure you’ll agree, translators are the nicest people in the world, (teachers excepted of course). Just think about it, some poor, asocial sucker, with the loneliest job in the world, has spent the past year or so locked up in a room writing a book.  Along comes the translator and, in return for a pittance, sits for the best part of half a year or so locked up in a room and miraculously turns the foreign words into something you can understand, thereby allowing you to break out of the narrow-minded parochialism that comes with being an English speaker and actually hear what other people (the majority) are saying in other languages. So three cheers for Tess Lewis (whoever she is), for translating the novel One Hundred Days by the young Swiss author Lukas Barfüss.

In this contemporary version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, steamy sex and genocidal murder make for a potent mix, told in deceptively simple, taut prose. The protagonist is a naïve chap by the name of David Hohl. He has always been moved to fight against injustice. Had he gone to Zurich International School he would have won the ZIS Cares Award. So he gets a job in economic development and his first post is in the sleepy African backwater of Rwanda. But, the surface is deceptive and Rwanda is about to explode into the 1994 well planned genocide of Tutsis. In the one hundred days of the title the Hutus slaughter nearly 800,000 people. Because he is obsessed with a beautiful, but racist Hutu woman, David Hohl refuses to be evacuated, and instead stays and witnesses the slaughter. No wonder his name is Hohl (which means hollow).

Barfüss reveals the hypocrisy that lies at the root of Swiss development work. His book is a meditation on how a strong sense of virtue can gently lead to passive participation in the most horrifying cruelty. Most of all, his book works as a metaphoric warning against being sucked into any organisation that comes to see efficiency as an end in itself - surely a lesson for us all. Peaceful, well organised Rwanda was sometimes called the Switzerland of Africa. Barfüss sees that you can reverse this, seeing Switzerland as the Rwanda of Europe. He reminds us that Switzerland is a well-oiled machine that runs smoothly, where order, routine, discipline and respect for institutions holds sway, but adds: “These characteristics are not impediments to mass murder, but necessary conditions. Evil loves nothing more than the proper implementation of a plan, and in that domain, you have to admit, we are world champions.”

This book has garnered Barfüss a number of literary prizes, as well as nominations for the biggest book prizes in Germany and Switzerland. He is, of course, almost unheard of in the insular, provincial English speaking world.