Sunday, May 25, 2014

Bernini alla Villa Borghese

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Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Rape of Prosperina, 1621-22
Two hours is all we get to before the bells ring and the guards usher us out of the collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese and family. And two hours is not long enough. Infact, it was frustratingly short. With important Caravaggios, Titians, a Raphael, Piero della Francescas, a Correggio, and the list goes on, two hours was just a beginning. And so, I spent my two hours with the three of the four Bernini sculptures that he made on commission from the Cardinal.

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Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Rape of Prosperina, 1621-22
I don’t know a lot about Renaissance/early Baroque sculpture, but I do know that David, 1623-24, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25, and The Rape of Prosperina, 1621-22, are masterpieces. The first of the three that I saw, The Rape of Prosperina by Pluto was devastating. I approached it from the left, and as Pluto’s triumph is screamed from his laughing mouth, my body went cold. As Prosperina pushes him away with one hand, the other in the air, a tear running down her face, I felt her terror. His celebration of the enormity of his conquest made me want to kill him. The clutch of his hand on her thigh, pressed into her flesh, must be the most exquisite moment in the history of marble sculpture. It is so sensuous, so erotic, so lifelike. And then as I walked around the sculpture, from the right, I saw Prosperina pushing him away, his laughter becoming a grimace, and I was relieved to see that she was the throes of escaping his grasp. And then I moved still further, to be confronted by the angry barking of the three-headed dog, and the two human figures were caught in the struggle with the fabric of Prosperina’s dress. Bernini thus creates a series of narrative scenes in the single marble group.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Rape of Prosperina, 1621-22
 However, it wasn’t the complex narrative as much as the intense emotions caught in the press of Pluto’s hand on Prosperina’s thigh or the creasing of the skin on his face by her hand, the absolute energy and motion of stone figures, that carries the power of the group. Apparently critics in the nineteenth century were harshly critical of his lack of personality, her bad outline, but I don’t care about these details. What moved me, what I took away and hope to see again one day, was the delicate tear falling down Prosperina’s face.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25
Having completed The Rape of Prosperina at age 23, the Cardinal then commissioned Bernini to sculpt the story of Apollo and Daphne. Perhaps the most beautiful thing I saw in my four days in Rome was the billowing fabric caught in the wind and the rush of Daphne’s escape as she turns into a tree. The fabric, her hair becoming leaves, magically articulates their speed, the passion she needs to escape, the urgency of her motion, the desperation of his pursuit. And the wind filled fabric becomes even more sensuous, more beautiful when we remember that the process of marble sculpting: the young Bernini found these figures hidden in his block of marble. This was his discovery, figures that have the energy to break free of the marble in which they are trapped. Bernini is the hero because he was the conduit, the facilitator of their escape – he found them in the stone and set them free.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, David, 1623-24
Over one hundred years after Michelangelo’s David, 1504, Bernini gives him a face filled with expression, determination, and once again, a body in the throes of energetic movement. Like the other commissions, David broke new ground because he was in motion, fully energized in the middle of combat. What is so unusual is that David is immersed in his task to slay the giant, but there is no giant in the sculpture.  It is movement that makes these figures so magical. They are three dimensional, moving not only through space and narrative situations, but also through a spectrum of emotions and possibilities. Moreover, their motion not only becomes possible, but also heighted by the presence of a spectator in motion, around the groupings. This incitation to a moving spectator would likewise set new standards and expectations for sculpture in the Baroque period to follow.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Il Vaticano - di Nuova

Raphael, Stanza della Segnatura, 1509
This morning I went back to the Vatican. Until last year I had tried to see the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel for 24 years, and now, the visit has become an annual event. At least, I hope this is the case.  It’s so overwhelming, the paintings so profound and so plentiful, that I find it difficult to describe the experience of walking through the apartments and into the Sistine Chapel. If I can go back once a year, by the end of my life, I might be able to articulate how intoxicating it is to be in the presence of the greatest works of High Renaissance Italian art.
The Liberation of St. Peter, in the Stanza D'Eliodoro - Raphael
Raphael, Stanza dell'Eliodor, 1512-14
This year I went with students and among other colleagues, Tom Henry, who as the Raphael scholar has clearly spent many hours in the Vatican over the years, even going into those papal apartments still in use today. Because of course, Raphael frescoed the walls that house the pope today, including his bedroom. What I loved about listening to Tom as we wandered through this colourful, magical world was his passion for the texturesof life that surrounded Raphael as he worked. It wasn’t just the paintings, but the historical context of their creation that were brought alive, as we wandered through the most hallowed of halls. In this world painting meant something so different to how we know it today, at least, these paintings did. Tom talked of how Raphael was given free reign by Pope Julius II in the Vatican Stanza - Segnatura in 1508-1511, Heliodorus in 1511-1514, Fire in the Borgo in 1514-1517, and Constantine in 1517-1524.The first task for Raphael was to clean the slate: he destroyed all existing frescoes. Raphael was redecorating the apartments, so to speak.
Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-12
At the same time that Raphael was working in the Segnatura, Michelangelo was down the corridor, on his scaffold, painting the chapel ceiling. Apparently, when the impatient Pope wanted to see the ceiling even though it was only half completed, aware of the radicality of his creation, Michelangelo anticipated reprimand and punishment so he stole away from Rome and all his obligations on a horse in the middle of the night, seeking comfort and refuge, at home in Florence. It reminded me of the struggle over who would own Raphael’s Transfiguration (1516-20), the heavenly wooden panels down the hall in the Pinacoteca. Commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici for the cathedral of Narbonne, the altarpiece never left Rome. That is, until Napoleon set the troops out to claim what was rightfully his, no doubt in the middle of the night. And predictably when he died, the Pope wanted it back again — and didn’t much care for the intricacies of ownership law.

Raphael, The Transfiguration, 1516-20
Another difference is the different status of painting in the Renaissance. Tapestry as a medium was more treasured. They cost more to make, and so Raphael was first and foremost a master because he made tapestries. Paintings were more transitory – afterall, as frescoes they were no more than interior decorations in the rich man’s apartments. Five hundred years ago, painting didn’t carry with it the weight of a price that made it impossible to transport, or the call for encasement in bulletproof, alarmed boxes, constraining it to a lifetime on a pedestal from which it would never escape. Art was an everyday object – if it had to be moved, a messenger, probably a young boy would pick it up and put it under his arm, running it across town. And knowing the Italians as I do, I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t stop for a drink on the way, leaning the painting up against the bar while he drank.

In the Renaissance, art and artists played such a different role in the cultural life of a city and nation. All the sneaking around in the middle of the night, greedy popes and emperors making no excuses for their methods of “appropriation,” all of it seems a long way from the endless paperwork and documentation involved in the exchange of paintings today, paintings that nevertheless pale in comparison to the masterpieces of the 15th and 16th centuries. And similarly, while Michelangelo feared for his safety, painters today think they should be applauded for their most minimal creativity. Though the Renaissance was a time when art was all about those who paid the money to have it made, and had little to do with the artist as entrepreneur, unlike Michelangelo, Raphael was the greatest entrepreneur. Raphael destroyed ceilings, he disobeyed orders, he was the Damien Hirst of the 16th century. And so, even though he didn’t much care for legalities, the cultural capital of his art and the reverence for the artist was perhaps as great, if in a different way, as it is today.

Raphael, School of Athens, 1509
Raphael and Michelangelo may have hated each other, in their fierce competition to be the shining light of the papal dynasty, but whatever their ruses and manipulations, their strategies to get noticed, they had talent. As I stood once again under the most famous ceiling in the world, awestruck at the movement, energy, the sheer technique that enabled this enormous commission to be painted up close, over a period of 6 years, mesmerized by the creative ability that produced this extraordinary work of art, by a man who claimed he was a sculptor, I tried to conceive of how exciting and simultaneously disturbing it must have been on its very first unveiling.
Raphael,School of Athens, 1509
Said to be the brooding Michelangelo with his boots
Both Michelangelo and Raphael completely upstaged every other painter in their midst. Until this point ceilings were stars on a blue background, the walls of a library depicted a standing group portrait of a few learned men. And along came these two geniuses. Not only did they shatter all convention of the ceiling and the library wall respectively, but they completely redefined painting in their time and ever after. Raphael loved women, the good life, excess and attention. Michelangelo was inward-looking, brooding and reclusive, with bad bodily hygiene. And yet the two of them were geniuses that changed everything, forever, when it comes to representation. They belong together.

Raphael, The Transfiguration, 1516-20
As we walked away from the Narbonne altarpiece, The Transfiguration, I felt my heart pull. With some sadness, I felt the separation. I turned around and asked Tom: “did you feel that”? “That” being the sense of loss, the leaving behind a feeling of plenitude, the knowledge and experience of perfection as we turned away from this most beautiful of art works, a beauty that can only be captured by believing that something holy was living inside it. And Tom responded: “mmm, when will I see it again?” It was no different from farewelling a lover. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Monumenta 2014. Ilya et Emilia Kabakov @ Grand Palais

«La Coupole», structure lumineuse et sonore conçue par Emilia et Ilya Kabakov.
Emilia  & Ilya Kabakov, "La Coupole," 2014
Entering the grand palais for Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s L’Étrange Cité, we are greeted by a dome meant to evoke the theory expounded by Russian musician Alexander Scriabin. Scriabin created a colour organ using the synesthetic system, based on correspondences between sounds and colours. The multi-coloured dome is also meant to evoke Wagner’s total work of art. The dome becomes the source of light for the dome of the grand palais; the two speak to each other. The Kabakov dome is magnificent, the changing kaleidoscopic colours actualize those that we see through the glass and steel roof of the nave.
The Ceiling
After the entrance though, I have to say, I was disappointed. I was disappointed because the best of the previous installations of the Monumenta series in the Grand Palais have engaged the building in such exciting ways. L’Étrange Cité does not. After the dome, the city is a series of exhibitions in fabricated spaces. Granted, they are sometimes inventive exhibitions, but walking through the smaller rooms, I couldn’t help thinking, this doesn’t need to be in the Grand Palais, it could be anywhere. It was not until I moved towards the end of the Kabakov city, in the chapels, one dark and one white that I began to get an overall sense of where I was and where I was going, the installation as a whole. It was not until the end that I really began to understand how I was being asked to respond, what I was being asked to learn. Even then, I can’t be sure that I learnt the lessons

Emilia & Ilya Kabakov, L'´Etrange Cité, 2014
The individual spaces and cities within cities appeared to me as ways of seeing the world. Maquettes, drawings, paintings, designs, architectural blue prints, poetry, all come together in each space to articulate another perspective. Of those I understood, the museum is still on my mind.
A much more artistic image of the Cité stolen from Trafic magazine
The museum  was a museum without art. Nevertheless, I sat there with the other visitors, looking at, contemplating empty walls with spot lights shining on empty spaces where the paintings would have been. Other people did the same, or read the exhibition leaflet. Still others took the opportunity to rest, mostly in silence, listening to the music. I imagined, like me, it was the end of a long day for many people and here in the museum without art – at 10pm –  they were tired. The organ music played Bach, making the viewer, or audience, feel safe and secure in its repetition, its ecclesiastical tones, rhythms, temperature. The music, like the makeshift museum without art was German, Western, Grandiose. Even though it was clearly an imitation, I was reminded of how museums deceive me into thinking I am looking at something when often I am not. The museum is the frame for art that has no frame.

The ease of comprehension, or at least, my access to the museum, was helped by the fact that it could be understood within the interpretative framework of Western art. In other spaces, everything was written in Russian. Everything was abstract and conceptual and spiritual and intellectual. The spaces exhibited models and drawings that I was asked to look at, as if I was in a museum, but I was often unsure of what I was looking at. In these spaces, I recognized the practice of exhibition, but not what was exhibited.

I did recognize the diagonal. The diagonal was everywhere, referring to what we know to be the creations of 20th century Russia and the Soviet Union. For Kabakov and us in the West, the diagonal is the shortcut for Leninism, the memory of a destroyed Utopia. Tatlin, Malevich, Rochenko, El Lissitsky and Lenin on his slanted podium that is more like a crane arm, reaching out into the world, but never arriving. This is a utopia that never arrived, and if it did, it is now long gone. It is an artificial world, of the imagination only. Like the Soviet Union, Kabakov give us a world filled with hopes and dreams that came too heavily disguised to be realized. One display claims that the slanted cylinders are also used for conserving cosmic energy, in the scientific sense. The diagonal is the influence and purveyor of all things in this strange city.

Ilya Kabakov, The Dark Chapel, 2014

Towards the end of the path through L’Étrange Cité, the two chapels are curious. I liked these, again probably because I could read the paintings inside, because they are paintings, and they are in a style of Soviet Realism. The equation between church and painting, both products of a destroyed utopia, is easily digestible. The paintings are also frescoes, frescoes that have nevertheless been destroyed, erased, distressed.  Even though we move through the chapels as if through an exhibition, we don’t really study the paintings. The images are not precious in this spiritual or religious world of art history: images are documentary, they give information, deteriorate, are defaced, there to be disrespected, like the church in the Soviet Union. The Images are in the style of the history of art, but they are propaganda in the USSR and they cover walls and windows. When in this church, I realize that the Soviet Union is everywhere here, in L’Étrange Cité. The city looks backwards to the political nightmare of the USSR, and it simultaneously looks forwards to the dream of America. For Kabakov, the West was an illusory life for an artist, the dream of elsewhere.

The last room I entered, though it wasn’t the last room in the exhibition was that of the gates going nowhere. Interestingly, the paintings in this space were beautiful. They were the only objects of beauty after the dome. They were also the most easily grasped, because as an historian of Western art I could read their codes. And the gates were grey, which explains everything.