Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt

First of all, I've been a little neglectful of this blog over the last week! I just started a new job and I've been quite busy. I have a hard time writing when I don't have the time to be inspired, but I suppose that's something I'll just have to work on!

Speaking of "uninspired," I must confess that this William Holman Hunt's "The Awakening Conscience" is probably my least favourite Pre-Raphaelite painting. By far. I've always found it incredibly ugly, since the first time I saw it. That being said, I must confess that it's a very visually arresting work.

The technicolor color scheme is jarring to the senses, like many of Hunt's pieces. The subject itself seems rather tawdry, even today! I also can't help but think that the image of the fallen woman seems hoplessly Victorian. Apparently, the work was inspired by a "fallen woman" that Hunt had attempted to guide toward the straight and narrow (unsuccessfully).

While doing a little reading about the painting in Tim Barringer's The Pre-Raphaelites, I came across a copy of the song that is on the young woman's piano. You can see the title, "Oft in the Stilly Night" on the music. I thought the words were rather interesting, and seem to add an extra element to the painting that made me appreciate it a little bit more.

Oft, in the stilly night,
Ere Slumber's chain has bound me,
Fond Memory brings the light
Of other days around me;
The smiles, the tears,
Of boyhood's years,
The words of love then spoken;
The eyes that shone,
Now dimm'd and gone,
The cheerful hearts now broken!
Thus, in the stilly night,
Ere Slumber's chain hath bound me,
Sad Memory brings the light
Of other days around me.

Do any of you like this painting? I'd be really interested to hear what others have to say about it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Original Members of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood

Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice Holman Hunt Pre Raphaelite
Last week I wrote a post about the Pre-Raphaelite that led to some questions about the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. I thought today I would write a little bit about the founding members of the PRB, and the major players among them.

Although there were seven original members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the founding members of the Brotherhood were really Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. These three have had the most lasting influence from among the original seven, and there work is the best known. After the idea for the PRB had been developed by Rossetti, Hunt and Millais, Rossetti invited his brother William, a clerk at the Inland Revenue Office, into the group as well. Interestingly, at the time the the Brotherhood was founded, William was neither a painter nor a serious writer. Nevertheless, he was the founding member's brother, and I suppose you can't blame Rossetti for wanting to include his family members!(Christina Rossetti was also an important part of the group, though she was excluded from the Brotherhood by reason of her sex).

Thomas Woolner, the fifth member of the PRB, was a sculptor who was introduced to the Brotherhood by D.G. Rossetti. In his biography of Rossetti, Evelyn Waugh is anxious to point out that Thomas Woolner married a Waugh (Alice Waugh). So too, did William Holman Hunt--twice. He first married Fanny Waugh, and when she died in childbirth, he married her sister, Edith. This was illegal in Britain at the time and he had to travel abroad in order to marry her!(Waugh, 35). No wonder Waugh was so interested in the Pre-Raphaelites!

James Collinson, a convert to Roman Catholicism had torrid on again/off-again relationships with both Christina Rossetti and the Catholic Church--both of which often seemed to hold far more interest to him than his painting--was the next to join. Frederick George Stephens was the seventh and final member of the original group. Stephens was a student of William Holman Hunt and his membership in the Brotherhood may have been due as much to Rossetti's superstition (a desire for a perfect seven-member group) as to any supposed artistic contribution from Stephens.

Source consulted: Evelyn Waugh. Rossetti, His Life and Works. London: The Folcraft Press, 1969.

Image: William Holman Hunt, Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice

Friday, September 19, 2008

Rossetti as Collector

Long before the advent of Antiques Roadshow, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a fanatic for anything antique, and together with a small group of friends, he pursued his hobby. Rossetti's collection of fine china "was one of the first of its kind in England."

It was Rossetti's utmost delight to drive round in a cab, loading it with china and brass and carved oak picked out from the litter of second-hand furniture shops and pawnbrokers (Waugh, 118).

I guess Saturday afternoon antiquing is nothing new! What I found especially amusing though is that Rossetti loved to get together
When one of this elect little circle had made a particular "find," invitations were sent out and a dinner-party would be given. Then the new pot would be uncovered and its owner would be triumphant until the next discovery (Waugh 119).

It was at one of these little get togethers that Rossetti managed to humiliate himself in a most amusing way. I really enjoyed this story because most of the time, the amusing anecdotes are about William Morris, who was the butt of a great many jokes. Nevertheless, on this occasion it was Rossetti who managed to embarrass himself.

Rossetti's infamous agent, Charles Augustus Howell, was a bit of a Victorian celebrity. Today he is probably most famous for ordering that Rossetti's wife, Elizabeth Siddal, be exhumed so that Rossetti's poetry could be recovered. But in his own time, Howell was at the centre of numerous scandals, the most infamous of which was his collaboration in Felice Orsini's plot to assassinate Napoleon III. In addition to these adventurous exploits, Howell was also a voracious collector of blue china.

One day, Howell invited Rossetti and some friends over to see a spectacular piece of Nankin blue china that he'd picked up at a London shop. Rossetti was green with envy, and decided to have his revenge on Howell by stealing the plate and cleverly replacing it with an old piece of delft blue that was the same size and shape.

Rossetti held a dinner party of his own the next day. He brought out a box containing his prize and peeled away the layers of carefully wrapped paper to reveal...

A chipped delft blue plate.

Apparently, Howell had been aware of Rossetti's plot the entire time, and had switched his own plate for the broken delft. I don't think Rossetti was used to being on the losing end of a practical joke!

In addition to his penchant for china, Rossetti collected oak furniture and musical instruments “solely for their design and as properties for his pictures; he never showed any interest in music.” Rossetti also had a passion for all things Japanese, and really led the way for the oriental craze of the later 19th century.

Source consulted: Evelyn Waugh. Rossetti and his Circle. London: The Folcroft Press, 1969

Thursday, September 18, 2008

What Makes a Pre-Raphaelite?

rose John William Waterhouse
The term Pre-Raphaelite is thrown around pretty loosely on this website. I liberally refer to Edward Burne-Jones and John William Waterhouse as Pre-Raphaelite artists, although I know perfectly well that they were not "officially" members of the brotherhood. For example, while many (including myself) would recognize Edward Burne Jones as a Pre-Raphaelite, his only connection to the movement was through Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and he was never a member of the original Brotherhood (neither, of course, was William Morris)(Barringer, 14).

This got me to thinking. What makes art Pre-Raphaelite? Why do I tend to associate some artists with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and not others? In my own mind, Pre-Raphaelite art is closely connected to its 19th century British context, and so I tend to look for those qualities in any bit of fashion or art that I label "Pre-Raphaelite." I also think a certain dedication to accurate representation of life (realism) is another important defining characteristic of Pre-Raphalitism, though close examination of the art of the original Pre-Raphaelites' reveals that they wasn't always as keen on portraying "reality" as they were in finding beauty (this is particularly true of Rossetti, of course).

Pre-Raphaelites also had a very particular idea of beauty and nature that I think is common to most of the works I would consider "Pre-Raphaelite." I suppose most people would call this romanticism. The Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic values nature (or rather, an idealised form of nature), and generally opposes industrialisation and modernisation as encroachment onto nature's turf. This is particularly evident in William Morris' work and writing, but it can also be found in Rossetti's idealisation of untamed feminine beauty and Ruskin's fondness for the unspoilt landscapes of England and Scotland.

Finally, I would have to say historicism is probably the defining characteristic of Pre-Raphaelite art, and it connects closely to all the other attributes I've mentioned. It was certainly important to the original PRB--they even went so far as to name their movement "Pre-Raphaelite" in honour of a supposedly superior distant artistic past! And while it may seem quaint to modern viewers to see the obviously anachronistic characters that fill Pre-Raphaelite art, the Pre-Raphaelites felt that they were celebrating a mythical, mystical golden age.

What is Pre-Raphaelitism to you? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Source consulted: Tim Barringer. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Everyman Art Library, 1998.
Image: "The Soul of the Rose" John William Waterhouse, 1908. "And the soul of the rose went into my blood"(from Tennyson's 'Maud').

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Millais' Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru

"Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru" is another of Millais' early masterpieces. He was just 16 when it was completed! The painting features Atahualpa, the last sovereign leader of the Inca empire, being seized by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro. It's the only painting by Millais that I know of that is set in Latin America. Unlike his self portrait, it shows more of the fine detail that would become a hallmark of his later work.

The exhibition catalogue at the Tate arguest notes that pyramidal organization of the figures, baroque lighting and "groups of huddled women and children derive from religious pictures of the Renaissance and later neoclassical and Romantic history paintings"(Tate). I like the inclusion of the pineapple and plantain in the foreground of the painting--I wonder if Millais had ever tasted them, or if his mother had just found a picture of them in the British Museum?

One of the things that struck me most about this painting was the large role that Millais' family played in helping him prepare for it. His mother, Mrs. Millais spent hours in the British Museum Reading-Room researching the historical details for the picture (the textiles are actually fairly accurate, which surprised me). She also handmade all of the clothing for the models! Mrs. Millais would also entertain her son by reading to him while he painted, and her husband offered his assistance by posing in a variety of wigs for his son's paintings.

The Millais family loved helping their young son John with his paintings, although their constant involvement got on Millais' nerves at times. It bothered him that they called him "Johnny" when he was older, and they had a bad habit of using his studio as a living room. Waugh tells a great story in his biography of Rossetti about Millais' struggle for independence:

Rebellion was in the air in 1848, and one afternoon in early spring Mrs. Millais found the studio door locked against her. Inside, Holman-Hunt was lecturing Millais on the decadence of English painting.
Later in the evening the family became reconciled. Hunt and Millais went into the parlour to visit "the old people." Mrs. Millais sat crocheting in the armchair. Her needle clicked intently and the boys' entrance was allowed to pass unnoticed. Millais advanced into the room, swaggering ever so little; Hunt hung back rather ill at ease.
"Now, we've come to have a nice time with you, mama and papa," he said jauntily.
His mother hardly looked up from her work.
"We do not wish to tax your precious time. We have our own occupations to divert us and engage our attention!"
But Millais was not easily snubbed, as many people learned later.
"Hoity-toity, what's all this?" he cried affectionately, pressing a guitar into his father's hand. "Put down your worsted, amam, I'm going to play back-gammon with you directly."(Waugh, 31-32)

All was forgiven after the game of back-gammon, but it seems that Millais' parents tried to give their young son a little more artistic space afterwards. Millais' studio was left in peace, though his parents were still actively involved in helping him with his work.

Evelyn Waugh. Rossetti: His Life and Works. London: The Folcroft Press, 1969.
Image courtesy Tate Gallery

Monday, September 15, 2008

Millais Self-Portrait

John Everett Millais painted this self-portrait when he was just 18 years old. He had already been a member of the Royal Academy of Art Schools for 7 years, having been admitted at the age of 11 (he remains the youngest person ever admitted to the Schools).

Millais' self-portrait was painted just two years before he helped found the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but the style of the painting seems light years away from the fine detail evident in Lorenzo and Isabella. I have to admit that if I didn't know who had painted this portrait, I would have had a hard time guessing who it was! Perhaps Millais was experimenting with new techniques when he created this portrait, because the brushwork seems much for "sloshy" than in his later work--or even than in his earlier work.

Tomorrow: a story from Millais' youth, and a closer look at one of his earliest masterpieces, Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru.

image courtesy of Tate Gallery

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Tennyson and the Allure of the Medieval

Lord Alfred Tennyson composed some of the most famous lines in English poetry. Although he succeeded Wordsworth as Poet Laureate, his work has never gained the respect lavished on his predecessor, but his lonstanding popularity is unquestionable. I remember professors in University laughed at the idea of studying Tennyson. He was viewed as something of a literary joke, akin to Thomas Kinkade in the art world.

Tennyson's poetry had the ability of giving life to old narratives, particularly when it came to Arthurian literature. The Pre Raphaelites, who were drawn to this subject matter, often relied more heavily on Tennyson's interpretation of Medieval texts than they did on the original source material. This is particularly evident in "Mariana," "The Lady of Shallot," "Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere" and "Morte D'Arthur"--all of which were painted by Pre-Raphaelite artists.

Since I didn't post a copy of Tennyson's lovely poem, Mariana, the other day, I thought this would be an appropriate time to do so!


WITH blackest moss the flower-plots
Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds look'd sad and strange: 5
Unlifted was the clinking latch;
Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange.
She only said, 'My life is dreary,
He cometh not,' she said; 10
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!'

Her tears fell with the dews at even;
Her tears fell ere the dews were dried;
She could not look on the sweet heaven, 15
Either at morn or eventide.
After the flitting of the bats,
When thickest dark did trance the sky,
She drew her casement-curtain by,
And glanced athwart the glooming flats. 20
She only said, 'The night is dreary,
He cometh not,' she said;
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!'

Upon the middle of the night, 25
Waking she heard the night-fowl crow:
The cock sung out an hour ere light:
From the dark fen the oxen's low
Came to her: without hope of change,
In sleep she seem'd to walk forlorn, 30
Till cold winds woke the gray-eyed morn
About the lonely moated grange.
She only said, 'The day is dreary,
He cometh not,' she said;
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary, 35
I would that I were dead!'

About a stone-cast from the wall
A sluice with blacken'd waters slept,
And o'er it many, round and small,
The cluster'd marish-mosses crept. 40
Hard by a poplar shook alway,
All silver-green with gnarl├Ęd bark:
For leagues no other tree did mark
The level waste, the rounding gray.
She only said, 'My life is dreary, 45
He cometh not,' she said;
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!'

And ever when the moon was low,
And the shrill winds were up and away, 50
In the white curtain, to and fro,
She saw the gusty shadow sway.
But when the moon was very low,
And wild winds bound within their cell,
The shadow of the poplar fell 55
Upon her bed, across her brow.
She only said, 'The night is dreary,
He cometh not,' she said;
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!' 60

All day within the dreamy house,
The doors upon their hinges creak'd;
The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse
Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek'd,
Or from the crevice peer'd about. 65
Old faces glimmer'd thro' the doors,
Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices call'd her from without.
She only said, 'My life is dreary,
He cometh not,' she said; 70
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,'
I would that I were dead!'

The sparrow's chirrup on the roof,
The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof 75
The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower. 80
Then, said she, 'I am very dreary,
He will not come,' she said;
She wept, 'I am aweary, aweary,
O God, that I were dead!'

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Call for Your Input

Now, for some bloggy housekeeping.

You might have noticed that I changed my blog's template! I felt like the left side of my blog was beginning to look a bit cluttered, so I moved the content to the left hand side and made the margins a bit narrower so that the text was easier to read. What do you think? Is the blog easier to read now? Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Mariana, by Valentine Cameron Prinsep

Mariana Valentine Cameron Prinsep Pictures, Images and Photos
Valentine Cameron Prinsep's 1888 painting of Mariana borrows much from Millais' version. Both paintings feature Mariana gazing out the window of her "moated grange." Prinseps' version is decidedly cheerier, and unlike Millais' autumnal painting featuring a backdrop of dying leaves, Prinseps' is set in spring, with tulips in abundance. The painting was originally exhibited in 1888 as part of a collection of twenty-one paintings entitled "Shakespeare's Heroines."

Valentine Cameron Prinsep is a lesser-known painter of the Pre-Raphaelite school, but his connections are fairly impressive! He was born in Calcutta, India in 1838, into a rather well-known family. His aunt was the pre-eminent photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, grandmother of Virginia Woolf (do you ever get the feeling that every person you read about is somehow related?). Valentine was good friends with Millais, Rossetti, and Burne-Jones, and his artwork definitely shows his friends' influence. During his life he wrote several books and plays, but he is best remembered for his artwork.

Source consulted: Shakespeare Online (The English Department at Emory University is responsible for this great resource--I highly recommend it!).

Thursday, September 11, 2008

John Everett Millais' Mariana

Millais Pictures, Images and Photos
For myself, one of the most enduring appeals of Pre-Raphaelite art is its strong relationship to romantic literature. Millais' 1851 work, Mariana, is a great example of this. The painting is based on a poem of the same title by Tennyson that in turn was inspired by Shakespeare's play, Measure for Measure. In Measure for Measure, the character Mariana is abandoned by her fiance, Angelo, when her dowry is lost in a shipwreck.

Millais' illustration of Mariana at the window reminds me of other stories, such as that of Penelope. Like Penelope, Mariana is engaged in needlework. Autumn leaves have blown in through the window and are scattered about the room--on the floor as well as on her needlework project, which the gallery description at the Tate suggests represents "the burden of her yearning as time passes." She is staring at a stained-glass image of the annunciation, which according to Tim Barringer was seen "as a quasi-sexual event" for both Millais and Rossetti in their paintings (42-43). There definitely is an undercurrent of frustration and longing in the painting.

Millais originally exhibited the painting along with several lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, Mariana:

She only said, 'My life is dreary,
He cometh not,' she said;
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!'

Tomorrow: another Pre-Raphaelite vision of Mariana.

image courtesy Tate Gallery
Source consulted: Tim Barringer. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Everyman Art Library, 1998

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Rossetti's Venus Verticordia

Venus Verticordia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti Pictures, Images and Photos
Dante Gabriel Rossetti composed his Venus Verticordia between 1863 and 1868. At least four versions of the painting exist, done in various mediums (oil, watercolour, etc.), but this 82 x 69 cm oil on canvas is the most famous.

In his biography of Rossetti, Evelyn Waugh writes that the girl who modeled for the painting was "a young cook whom Rossetti picked up in the streets"(136). This is sort of true, but Rossetti used one of his favourite models, Alexa Wilding, for the final edition of the painting that you see here, having decided that the cook was a little too rough around the edges for this particular painting.

Most of Rossetti's friends disliked Venus Verticordia, and his patrons refused to buy it because Venus was partially nude. According to Waugh's biography, Mr. Valpy, one of Rossetti's buyers, had previously refused to buy a painting of a figure in a sleeveless gown, so you can imagine how they reacted to the bare-breasted Venus.

In his biography of the artist, Waugh complains that Rossetti was bad at painting nudes and that Venus' hair looks like an "ill fitting and inexpensive wig." Well, Waugh WOULD say that, but I like this painting anyway. It's true that Venus is not particularly lifelike, but the painting is still an arresting image that fits very well with the pagan/Christian syncretism that pervades Rossetti's work. This femme fatale clearly has her roots in both the pagan and Christian traditions. You will notice that the "Venus" in this painting evokes the biblical Eve. For example, it's hard to mistake that she's holding an apple, something he draws particular attention to in the first line of the poem he wrote for the painting--"She hath the apple in her hand for thee." It's also fairly obvious that Rossetti's Venus is toying with the viewer's vision through her rather suggestive grasp on the arrow--a pagan symbol of seduction (think Cupid).

What I love most about this painting is the flowers. They are gorgeous and very life-like. Waugh writes that Rossetti "spent enormous sums of money" on honeysuckles and roses. Eventually "he was obliged to institute a rigid curtailment of his household expenses to pay his florists' bills"(Waugh, 136). I think it was money well-spent. The honeysuckles are particularly life-like, don't you think? I also love the butterflies (or are they cabbage moths? I'm not completely sure) surrounding Venus' head. What an interesting touch.

As had become his custom, Rossetti composed a sonnet in iambic penatmeter to accompany the painting, which he had inscribed on the frame:

She hath the apple in her hand for thee,
Yet almost in her heart would hold it back;
She muses, with her eyes upon the track
Of that which in thy spirit they can see.
Haply, 'Behold, he is at peace,' saith she;
'Alas! the apple for his lips, - the dart
That follows its brief sweetness to his heart, -
The wandering of his feet perpetually.'

A little space her glance is still and coy;
But if she gets the fruit that works her spell,
Those eyes shall flame as for her Phrygian boy.
Then shall her bird's strained throat woe foretell,
And as far seas moan as a single shell,
And her grove glow with love-lit fires of Troy.

The BBC has an excellent interactive feature for exploring this painting on their website. Check it out!
Source consulted: Evelyn Waugh. Rossetti: His Life and Works. London: The Folcraft Press, 1969.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Astarte Syriaca

Rossetti Astarte Syriaca Pictures, Images and Photos
Painted between 1875 and 1877, Astarte Syriaca was originally entitled "Venus Astarte," in honour of the Syrian Love Goddess. Rossetti composed the painting on an immense six-foot (1.83 m) canvas, so that it was long enough for a full-length portrait. This is probably the most "revealing" portrait of Jane Morris, and its composition was partially based on Botticelli's The Birth of Venus.

The painting drew criticism when it was displayed, due to its erotic content. Victorian audiences were shocked by its overt sensuality. Venus' hands are positioned to draw attention to her fertility (use your imagination!), and are identical to the hand position of Botticelli's Venus. Furthermore, as Rossetti's poem (below) indicates, her girdle also highlights her voluptuousness("her twofold girdle clasps the infinite boon of bliss whereof the heaven and earth commune"). The girdle also functions in much the same way as the hair of Venus in Botticelli's version, but is a bit more subtle.

If you compare the way Jane looks in Rossetti's portrait (strong and sensual) to a photograph taken of her during roughly the same period, you can easily see that Rossetti has chosen to alter her appearance significantly. In fact, in a letter written a few years after Astarte Syriaca was finished, Jane complained to Rossetti that he probably didn't want to see her because she'd "grown too thin." Even at the time this painting was composed, you can see that she was hardly the robust figure that Rossetti painted. Nevertheless, isn't that what artistic license is for?

Rossetti wrote the following sonnet to accompany the painting:

Mystery, lo! betwixt the sun and moon
Astarte of the Syrians: Venus Queen
Ere Aphrodite was. In silver sheen
Her twofold girdle clasps the infinite boon
Of bliss whereof the heaven and earth commune:
And from her neck's inclining flower-stem lean
Love-freighted lips and absolute eyes that wean
The pulse of hearts to the sphere's dominant tune.

Torch-bearing, her sweet ministers compel
All thrones of light beyond the sky and sea
The witnesses of Beauty's face to be:
That face, of Love's all-penetrative spell
Amulet, talisman, and oracle,-
Betwixt the sun and moon a mystery.

Source Consulted: Tim Barringer. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: The Everyman Art Library, 1998.

Monday, September 8, 2008

An award!

I received this beautiful award from two blogs at the same time! I extend my heartfelt appreciation and thanks to Melanie, at Jelly Bean Angel and to Willow, of Life at Willow Manor! I encourage everyone to visit their beautiful blogs!

I'm terribly bad with awards--I appreciate them, but it is always challenging to come up with blogs to pass them on to (I love all of your blogs!), plus I hate burdening people with passing the award on, etc. Anyway, since I've been bad about this lately, I thought I'd participate this time! I will be following Willow's example, rather than Melanie's, since 7 blogs just seems like too many at the moment!

I will be passing on this charming award to:
Sheramy, of Van Gogh's Chair
Grace, at The Beautiful Necessity
Skye, from The Princess Portal--a lovely blog for girls that I might be writing if I'd started blogging about ten years ago!
Finally, I'd also like to recognize a new blogging friend, Stephen, author of A World Away--a blog that takes a closer look at illustrated books and the stories behind them.

Thanks again, and I hope everyone has a great week!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Celebrated Chinese Dancer, Liu Yan, Paralysed in Rehearsals for the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games

Like many of you, I was completely blown away by the beauty of the opening ceremonies of the U.S. Olympics. Even though I'd had deep reservations about the Olympics being held in China, I backpedaled when it came to actually boycotting the games, and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing them.

Sadly, there have been a number of sad stories to come out of the games, and this one, about Liu Yan--one of China's leading classical dancers who was paralysed during rehearsals for the opening ceremony--really got to me. Liu Yan, a graduate of the Beijing Dance Academy and winner of the Lotus Cup, was seriously injured after falling from a faulty platform during rehearsals. She was rushed to hospital, where she underwent a series of emergeny operations, but when she woke up, she had no feeling from the waist down.

Zhang Yimou, the artistic director of the ceremonies, expressed sorrow about her injuries:

“I feel sorry for Liu Yan, my heart is full of regrets,” he said in an interview. “I’m deeply sorry. Liu Yan is a heroine. She sacrificed a lot for the Olympics, for me, for the opening ceremony.”
“I regret many things, many details of this performance, many things I could have done better,” he said. “For example, there are performers who were injured. I blame myself for that. It might well have been avoided if I had given more detailed instructions.”

The Beijing Olympics committe initially tried to keep Liu Yan's injury a secret, but news broke about her accident and they agreed to hold a news conference on the subject.

Liu Yan's Doctors believe she will never walk again. Performing in the Olympics was a dream for this girl, and now she simply hopes she'll be able to stand once again her own two feet.

Here's a video of her dancing before the accident:

What a tragic loss for Chinese dance.

Friday, September 5, 2008

New York Times Article on Degas' Ballet Students

The Arts section of the New York Times is always a great read. A few days ago they had an article entitled "Degas' Ballet Students Teach the Lesson of Their Art", that takes a closer look at the actual ballet technique of the students in Degas' paintings. At the Met, Degas' work takes fills up two rooms (one room of paintings, one of sculpture) and his work is found in four additional rooms as well. Five of the six rooms include works developed around the theme of ballet.

Showing the world of ballet with new kinds of truthfulness, they helped to make his fame during his lifetime. They have never lost their renown, and some grow only more complex with analysis. The relatively simple statuettes, about which Degas liked to speak as if they were not serious, repay multiple viewings. He shows ballet as a world of both idealism and facts. "

"it remains astonishing how few of his dancers are actually dancing. The rest are stretching, adjusting ribbons and costumes, waiting in the wings, resting, gossiping or watching what performing there is."

And when the dancers are actually engaged in ballet, they often exhibit questionable technique. Or, perhaps, technique that was acceptable in Degas' day, but is frowned upon in modern times.

I love the way the author closes the article. The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead reference won me over--I just love that movie:

"In these paintings Degas takes a “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” view of ballet, seeing it askew, from a distance, at an angle from which it was never intended to be viewed. He probably changed the specifics of any ballet room he visited to fit his idea. The result, paradoxically, is that he gives us a vision we believe wholeheartedly, a truth in which he addresses many layers of being."

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Ruskin and Sandro Botticelli

John Ruskin was actually one of the first people associated with the Pre-Raphaelites to have rediscovered Botticelli, but the reason it isn't written about much is that Ruskin's initial reaction to Botticelli was tepid at best. After hearing about Botticelli from some friends in the aesthetic movement, Ruskin had his assistant Fairfax Murray purchase Botticelli's Virgin and Child for a mere 300 pounds in 1877 (can you even imagine having an original Botticelli for a mere 600 dollars? Even in 1870s dollars, that was a tremendous bargain), but when the painting arrived, Ruskin wrote Murray that the Bottecelli was "so ugly that I've dared not show it to a human soul. Your buying such an ugly thing has shaken my very trust in you"(145).

Ruskin was so disgusted with Murray's purchase that he left the painting out of his writings entirely. Nevertheless, Ruskin renewed his interested in Botticelli later in life, when his friend Edward Burne-Jones became a fan. In 1872 Ruskin travelled to Rome to examine Bottecelli's frescoes at the Sistine Chapel up close, and returned two years later to study them again. As time went by, he slowly began to see Botticelli as an important figure representing the continuity between the Greek and Christian traditions. I wonder if he ever warmed up to the Bottecelli he had in his own private collection? (The painting is now held by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).

Robert Hewison. Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites. London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 2000.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Botticelli and the Pre-Raphaelites

Unlike his contemporary, Raphael, who was known for his more accurate way of painting the human body, Botticelli's work takes considerable artistic license. If you look closely, you'll immediately notice that the length of the Venus' neck has been dramatically exaggerated. Moreover, her left arm (your right) looks like it's practically falling off! This is perhaps one of the major reasons that Botticelli's work was nearly forgotten after his death.

It's hard to imagine that there was ever a time when this painting was practically unknown. But it was nearly forgotten in the wake of Botticelli's death and Raphael's popularity (along with Leonardo and Michelangelo). As time went on, art critics ignored Botticelli's work, which was regarded as inferior and unrealistic. He was "rediscovered" in the 19th century by--surprise, surprise--the Pre-Raphaelites.

Botticelli's anatomically imaginative work made him the enemy of the art establishment, who thought he was merely careless. But these same perceived shortcomings endeared Botticelli to the Pre-Raphaelites in general, and Sir Edward Coley Burne Jones in particular (Levey, 299), who was impressed by the way Botticelli masterfully blended the pagan and Christian traditions within his artwork. Burne-Jones spoke often about his love for Botticelli, and his enthusiasm seems to have been contagious. William Michael Rossetti purchased one of Botticelli's drawings in 1867 (which later turned out to be a fake, but, oh well. At least he had been turned on to the artist). By the beginning of the 20th century, Botticelli's popularity had risen to such meteoric levels that "between 1900 and 1920, more books were published on Botticelli were printed than any other great painter"(291). This was due in a large part due to the enthusiasm of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Tomorrow: Ruskin and Botticelli

Source Consulted: Michael Levey. "Botticelli and Nineteenth-Century England." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 23, No. 3/4 (Jul. - Dec., 1960), pp. 291-306.

(This is a GREAT article that I recommend to anyone who can get their hands on it! It's available through JSTOR, for those of you who have subscriptions).

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Botticelli's The Birth of Venus

Botticelli's Birth of Venus
First of all, I would like to thank Stephen, from A World Away, for suggesting that I do a post or two on Botticelli! Sandro Botticelli's paintings are some of the most iconic and evocative works in Western art, and I'm actually quite surprised that this is the first time I've written about them! For the next few days, I will be focusing on the work of Botticelli and its relationship to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. I'll begin today by examining Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. It's one of those images that is so much a part of the Western psyche that it now truly deserves to be considered iconic, although this was not always the case, as we shall see.

There are actually a number of myths that explain Venus' origin, but Botticelli chose one of the earliest (and also the most violent and bloody) as the inspiration for his painting. According to Greek mythology, after Uranus was castrated by his son, Cronus, his severed genitals fell into the water and somehow fertilized it. Venus/Aphrodite later emerges from the water, having been conceived via the ocean's fertile waves. This rather far-flung story inspired Botticelli to create his most famous work, The Birth of Venus.

The painting itself was composed around 1482 for a member of the Medici family--Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici--and was hung at Lorenzo's Villa di Castello. Interestingly, the painting was done in tempera on canvas, rather than wood (at the time Botticelli painted the Venus, it was common for artists to compose important works on wood, as it was considered more durable). Part of the reason that the painting might have been done on canvas was that it featured a decidedly pagan theme.

The work features a stylised, distinctively European Venus emerging from the water on a seashell (shells themselves were an erotic symbol for the Romans, probably because shellfish had long been viewed as aphrodisiacs. Casanova, another famous Italian, reportedly used to eat 50 of them every morning for breakfast). The shell is being blown towards the shore by the Zephyrs (a zephyr is a gentle wind, associated with spring). In the right foreground is the goddess Horae, the goddess of the seasons, who is preparing to cover Venus in a flowered cape. In this painting, Botticelli presents an image of Venus that is at once the embodiment of femininity and sensuality, who affects modesty at the same time. This paradox was what would later fascinate the Pre-Raphaelites, who were interested in creating a synthesis between the pagan and christian traditions.

Thursday I will be looking at the surprising connections between Botticelli and the Pre-Raphaelites.

Image courtesy wikimedia.
Source Consulted: Michael Levey. "Botticelli and Nineteenth-Century England." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 23, No. 3/4 (Jul. - Dec., 1960), pp. 291-306.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Our First Year

Today is our first anniversary. What a wonderful year it's been! I'm looking forward to many more!

3rd Art History Carnival

Welcome to the September 1, 2008 edition of art history carnival.

art history

Van Gogh's Chair is one of those blogs I simply love to read, because I always learn something there! The blog's author, Sheramy is an art historian who specializes in Van Gogh. This week she wrote a great post on one of Van Gogh's most famous paintings, The Sunflower.

Art Blog by Blog is another of my favourite sites. In one of his latest posts, Unfinished Business, Bob examines the art of Jacques Louis David, who is probably best known for his 1793 painting The Death of Marat. In the painting, "David elevates the objectionable Marat to the status of sainthood, generating the necessary propagandistic energy to fuel calls for revenge against the group with which Corday sympathized." Be sure to stop by Bob's blog, to read more!

I believe anyone who owns a truly beautiful book would not hesitate to categorize books as fine art. And if you aren't convinced, I would suggest a visit to Stephen's blog, A World Away: The Illustrated Book. Stephen has written an informative post on the history of small printing presses that is sure to win you over to the joys of beautifull books!.

Unfortunately, not all those who dream of creating beautiful work are able to see their dreams come to life. Sam Pospil examines the significance of frustrated artistic ambition in "Hitler Fails Art Exam".

Here's a post that's a little on the wild side. Tattoostosee, a website devoted to tatoos, has written an interesting article on the art history of tatoos. Tatoos are not my thing, but I learned quite a bit from reading about it!

We've received another interesting submission from Admirable India showcasing some of India's historic architecture. This time, it's a post about a watch tower that was built between 1520and 1569 and was supposed to illustrate the anticipated limits of the city of Bangalore. Apparently, due to the material the tower was constructed from, it's now attracting geogrphers as well as historians!


The Stickley Museum is currently featuring an online exhibit of some of its beautiful handcrafted furniture. Visit The Collection: The Living Room to see full tour!

Sarah reports that Jim Henson's work is currently on display at the Smithsonian. This would be an excellent exhibit to take the kids to!

That concludes this edition. Please submit your blog article to the next edition of
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