Following on from my Cubism Research, and in preparation for assignment 5 annotations I have decided to research Georges Braque’s Clarinet and Bottle of Rum on a Mantelpiece 1911. The obvious choice of Cubist painting to annotate would be a Picasso which is precisely why I choose one by Braque. Picasso is the household name of Cubism but it seems from my research that they participated fairly evenly in the collaboration, even at times so closely as to be indistinguishable. This was the period known as ‘Analytical Cubism’. Additionally, I could go and see this one in person which always helps me!
I tried to keep in mind Terry Smith’s four ways of looking as per assignment 3 feedback. I went to the Tate Modern to see it (apolgies for the wonky picture, there was a rope around an adjacent exhibit so I couldnt start square on to get the photo).
Again, I’ve tried again to apply the techniques I learned in reading about the OU study diamond to this painting review. The grid format wasn’t that great for the blog so I’ve split into more of a questions and answers format.
Effects & techniques:
What initially catches your eye? Where do you go next? And after that? The section in the middle triangle with the bottle, the clarinet & scrolls of paper (?), then the writing Valse, then the glass.
Where do you end up? Do your eyes stray away from the work altogether? Your eyes rove around the painting from plane to plane trying to make sense of what you’re looking at from one recognisable bit to the next to try and piece together what is there.
Is there anything that you didn’t notice at first but saw later in your reading? I looked at it all but I still don’t understand many elements.
Did your eyes keep coming back to a particular part of the art work? The little round bit under the clarinet because I know it should be recognise it but I’m still not sure what it is.
Is there anything that you didn’t look at or thought wasn’t important? no.
Has a wide or narrow palette of colours been used? A very narrow colour palate typical of Analytical Cubism has been used to concentrate the viewer on the forms.
Have contrasting colours been placed next to each other? Not really
Are there more warm colours than cool colours or vice versa? slightly warm colours
Would you describe the colours as being bright or dull? Are there more bright colours than dull colours (or vice versa)? The colours are muted and earthy to concentrate on the forms
In what way is dark and light colour used? dark and light colour is used to separate the planes
I. How wide is the range of colour values featuring in the art work? Very wide from light to black
II. Are contrasting colour values present in the art work? Use of contrasting colour values pick out the various planes of the work. The light is not coming from any clear direction.
III. Are contrasting colour values used to model three-dimensional forms? Contrasting colour values are in places used to model three-dimensional forms, for example the clarinet mouthpiece and holes, which in this part of the painting is lit from above.
IV. In what way are the colour values distributed throughout the art work? In contrast to tradition paintins where the distribution of the colour values helps pull your eye around the composition, light here is used almost randomly to separate the various planes and sections.
Does the medium impose any limitations on the way the artist works, or allow any particular effects? The oil paint has been applied in various ways across the surface of the painting. Thinly in places, for example at the edges where you can see the the texture of the canvas. The black lines and white space opaque smooth:
and some parts are rather more thickly applied it little dabbing brushstrokes for texture:
Is the medium used unconventionally or is the medium itself unconventional and, if so, does this contribute to the expressive effect of the art work? It doesn’t seem very conventional, but nothing about Cubism is!
Does the medium used suggest a particular mood? the planes sort of shimmer above the canvas. its an odd effect.
Does the medium used prompt the spectator to read the work in a particular way? yes, the different paint textures mean you associate different sections with different elements
Representation of depth
The scene feels 3 dimentional because of the many overlapping layers, but they dont overlap in a traditional sense. Its a bit confusing what object is what.
(b) diminishing scale
As far as I can tell there is no diminishing scale.
(c) atmospheric perspective
The space behind is a limited space of the mantelpiece so even if this was painted traditionally this would not have atmospheric perspective.
(d) vertical placement
Yes, you can read the canvas from the bottom up to the bottle at the top.
(e) linear perspective
One of the tenants of Cubism is the abolishment of single point perspective to explore forms ‘plastically’
Looking at this a bit longer I’ve changed my mind here, there is linear perspective on one or two of the view points which are not immediately obvious.
there is a slight modelling on some aspects for example the curl of something in detail 1 picture above.
I found it hard to see just by looking and making a sketch helped me here:
The different view points overlay so its a bit confusing so here I’ve tried to break down what i see i my head as separate views. I started with the bottle, on which the scheme seems to rest on. it has serveral view on it. the most obvious being the frontal view, where you can also see the glass and the nail. I’ve left the clarinet out of this picture because i dont think it was placed behind the bottle on the mantelpiece.
Here is one view that i think sets out the main pieces in their places on the mantelpiece. I see the clarinet, the rum, a glass, a scroll of paper (probably sheet music given the words written on it) it looks to me like he has pages under the objects which jut out and overlap the edge of the mantelpiece.
Its possible that this view in blue below is the same scene from the other end of the mantelpiece.
this is my suspected bits of mantelpiece views, from all different directions including underneith to see the corbel.
here i thought these were scrolls of music sheet
Use of lines:
Directional lines (horizontal, vertical, and diagonal): There are plenty of diagonal lines radiating out and upwards from the bottom like a fan and a slight overall pyramidal feeling to the composition. The main elements are in an internal triangle section. Internally to that there are bisecting vertical planes and pieces (eg the Clarinet is horizontal and the bottle is vertical) and various little triangles made of overlapping planes of various textures and detail
Contour lines – can also be used to outline forms; such contour lines can be described in terms of their thickness and sharpness. There are thick contour lines all around the painting but many are for the contours of the plane not actual for an object as such.
Meaning – initial thoughts from the observed ‘evidence’/ Context & Meaning:
I’ve blocked these two together because without understanding the concepts Cubism it’s really hard to read the painting and understand any of its ‘evidence’ or even what you’re looking at.
In Harrison & Woods Art in theory 1900-2000 anthology there were quite a few articles which helped me understand this painting (and Cubism in general).
mostly I put my research straight into the annotations, the other painting review here and the main research notes page here.
Berger, J. (2001) Selected Essays. New York: Vintage
Clark, K. (1960) Looking at Pictures. Holt Rinehart and Winston, New York
Cooper, D. (1972) Braque: The Great Years. The Art Institute of Chicago
Harrison, C. & Wood, P. (2003). Art in theory 1900-2000: an anthology of changing ideas. (New ed). Blackwell Publishers.
Honour, H & Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art. (7th Ed), London, Laurence King Publishing
I really enjoyed the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museam on friday. In recent research I learnt that many Western artists (especially Van Gogh) were influenced by Japanese art so I thought I’d go a long to see what the fuss was about. I didn’t realise that the Japanese were equally influenced the other way too from pigments used to different perspective.
For conservation reasons there was a rotation of about half the artworks halfway through the exhibition run because some works can only be displayed for a limited period of time due to their light sensitivity.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) is widely regarded as one of Japan’s most famous and influential artists, this was a 30 year retrospective. He started off as a wood block print cutter but mostly he made print ready drawings and other people cut and printed them for him, he had close working relationships with his publishers.
His most famous picture is the Great Wave, reproduced on pretty much everything by now. The original Great wave was printed 8000 times, using four seasoned cherry wood blocks carved on both sides.
Some notes I made as I went around:
He used many different names throughout his career, sometimes passing them on to pupils.
Red stamp is painters seal, different for each new name.
His daughter helped him in old age complete his work. He thought he be a true artist at 100 but only live to 90. She tried to pass off her work as his because it brought in more household income.
He designed hair comb and illustrated books with woodblock prints.
36 views of mt fuji
He didn’t cut the wood himself except in his teens
Loved his ghost stories. His sketchbooks of ducks and frogs and insects. The last room his dragon
Experiment with European paper & perspective and shading & Imported Prussian blue pigment.
SPOILER ALERT: this post contains pictures of the work so if you want to save your first impressions then dont read any further!
A giant green and yellow sculpture appeared outside my station (18). Then I saw Lava blobs (16) outside the walkie talkie building. I wondered to myself if I was hallucinating from reading too much WHA on the train, but no, it’s Sculpture in the city time again! Here is the map of all 18 locations around the square mile where the sculptures have been placed. Initially I thought I wouldn’t get to all of them but it was addictive, and like Pokemon I just had to see them all. I tried the smartify app on a couple, dont waste your time, it doesnt seem to work (on android anyway).
1. ‘Ajar’ | Gavin Turk | 2011
As a reference to the painting ‘La Victoire’ by Rene Magritte, ‘Ajar’ is a surreal gateway: a spiritual journey through the imagination, an interactive sculpture that children will enjoy as much as adults. It is a key to the imagination: unlocking ideas of the infinite as mused on by Aldous Huxley quoting Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
It simultaneously references both Duchamp’s work ’11 Rue Larrey’, a corner door that is always open and shut and a Bugs Bunny sketch, where a door in a frame freely stands on a cliff in a landscape. ‘Ajar’ is placed without walls and is permanently half open encouraging the choice to go around, or go through. (City Of London, 2017)
As I walked up to this one I got a lovely sense of wonder that you sometimes get with Surrealist work. That’s what I like about the sculpture in the city website – no pictures, so you still get that first impression of the work in person. Without even reading the blurb on the plaque I knew this must reference Magritte but I love that he also mentioned bugs bunny in the list of inspirations. It’s interesting that Duchamp did one similar, since this is not a readymade, just made to look like one from bronze, tradition sculptural material. Having said that, Duchamp’s one wasn’t a real ready-made either if he had a carpenter specially make it to specifications rather than nabbing a mass produced door. Subverting the subversive.
2. ‘The Black Horse’ | Mark Wallinger | 2015
The sculpture was made with the help of advanced technology, scanning a racehorse, part owned by the artist, named Rivera Red.
The horse is a subject with deep emotional and historical meaning. As the artist notes, ‘people still have an atavistic love of horses.’ Though bent to our will the thoroughbred represents unfathomable instincts.
The thoroughbred could perhaps stand as an exemplar of this country’s identity and our relationship with the natural world. It was first developed at the beginning of the 18th century in England, when native mares were crossbred with imported Arabian stallions. Every racehorse in the world is descended from these animals. (City Of London, 2017)
This was one of the handful of the sculptures which had a homeless person taken up residence nearby. In this case, I thought the big issuer seller and his dog were an interesting subversion of the context of the work. Owning/keeping a thoroughbred is the province of the very rich, situated in the centre of the financial district, side by side is a man who is penniless keeping a dog for protection while he lives on the streets. It reminded me a little of the recent saga of the Bull in New York and the subversion of that work by Fearless Girl, then the resubversion of that by Pissing Pug.
3. ‘Work No. 2814’ | Martin Creed | 2017
Merging art and life, Martin Creed uses ordinary materials and everyday situations to create multimedia works that have confounded and delighted viewers and critics for nearly 30 years.
In Work No. 2814 a tree ‘blossoms’ with plastic bags caught amongst the branches. This accentuates what some might see as a common ‘everyday’ occurrence, until it becomes something more absurd, yet humorous and strangely beautiful at the same time.
Creed approaches art making with humour, anxiety, and experimentation, and with the sensibility of a musician and composer, underpinning everything he does with his open ambiguity about what art is. (City Of London, 2017)
To be honest, I dont think one person noticed this while I was standing watching, until I raised my phone to take a picture. I think if he wanted to make it more absured than the everyday he would need lots more bags here!
4. ‘Never has there been such urgency, or The eloquent and the Gaga’ | Ryan Gander | 2014
An air-dropped aid parcel suspended from a tree by it’s parachute.
The parcel contains items relating to the subject of the ‘disparity between research based practices and production based practices; the polarity between the conceptual significance of the object as carrier; and the gulf between learning to speak with great articulation and eloquence and the incoherency of stuttering and stammering a chain of unrelated words at great volume’.
The contents of the aid parcel are listed on an etched, metal plaque placed nearby. (City Of London, 2017)
This one is just damn strange. The metal plate lists all the contents and says things like “An A1 sized offset print of an image of the fictional artist Aston Ernest standing on Sizewell beach, Suffolk, UK, dressed in a fisherman’s yellow waterproof Oilskin, whilst engaged in his performative artwork entitled Speak Easy, 1989, in which the artist attempts to hook the horizon, where the sea meets the sky, with a wooden walking stick, whilst shouting the poem ‘Speak Easy’ at the sea.” and “Two flesh coloured European size 38 ladies thongs and two pairs of ladies flesh coloured mesh briefs, also European sized 38, purchased by an assistant of the artist from the retailer Topshop.”
I had to go back to the one after walking past it on two occassions and not seeing it, mainly because Paul McCarthy’s sculpture (below) is just past the tree that this in so that is the first thing that catches your eye in this clearing.
5. ‘Apple Tree Boy Apple Tree Girl’ | Paul McCarthy | 2010
Paul McCarthy’s ‘Apple Tree Boy Apple Tree Girl’ (2010) belongs to the artist’s Hummel series, executed on a monumental scale. The kitsch mid-century German figurines depict rosy-cheeked children in idyllic repose. In McCarthy’s world, this Aryan naïveté becomes a target for parody, and ultimately, defilement and disfigurement. The figures deformed innocence suggests the conditioning of children, from Hitler youths to contemporary, TV-addled teen consumers. The miniature Adam and Eve find themselves reborn as 18 foot Überkinder; they remain only a suggestion of their former selves, sweetly deformed to the point of abstraction. The implicit naïveté of the Hummel motif is materially deconstructed, portraying a sophisticated fall from grace for these darling figures, in simultaneously literal and metaphorical terms. (City Of London, 2017)
This one was creepy. The texture was very interesting though.
6. Black Shed Expanded’ | Nathaniel Rackowe | 2014/2016
Nathaniel Rackowe’s large-scale urban shed structure is installed, seemingly mid-explosion, upside-down, its contours wrenched apart, exposing its illuminated interior. The wooden shed, painted with black bitumen, emanates an eerie acid-yellow glow from the white strip-lighting inside it reflecting off the painted walls of its interior. The structure appears to be exploding, split apart by the force of the light within. Rackowe says, ‘I thought it interesting to take the humble shed and elevate it so it can rise up and challenge architecture, deconstructing it to the point where you are forced to re-read it.’ Referring to garden sheds throughout the suburbs of London, the work has an equally universal impact in its depiction of such a familiar, domestic structure. (City Of London, 2017)
I loved this! It taps into the cultish standing recently of the humble shed. I wonder if he is a follower of shed porn or fifty sheds of grey of twitter?
7. ‘4 Colours at 3 Metres High Situated Work’ | Daniel Buren | 2011
4 Colours at 3 metres high situated work is a variation on the theme of the pergola or ‘attrape soleil’, which Daniel Buren has explored in several public works, which play with outdoor light, the movement of the sun, architecture and coloured shadows. All of Buren’s interventions are created ‘in situ’, appropriating and colouring the spaces in which they are presented. They are critical tools addressing questions of how we look and perceive, and the way space can be used, appropriated, and revealed in its social and physical nature. In his work life finds its way into art, while autonomous art is able to reconnect with life. (City Of London, 2017)
I think I visited this one at the wrong time of the day. I saw a picture on the internet where the colours were reflected onto the pavement, so presumably they move around the structure with the sun. Probably mid-day would be best. When I went after work the sun was so low it was behind all the buildings but I could still go into it and look up through the colours which was fun.
8. ‘Reminiscence’ | Fernando Casasempere | 2017
Fernando Casasempere (born 1958) is a sculptor working with ceramics, the traditional material of pottery, and his work explores ideas relating to landscape and the environment. Conceptually his use of earth/clay and his concern with nature and ecological issues connects him to artists associated with the Land or Earth Art movement, but Casasempere works out of a very different cultural tradition, being profoundly inspired by the Pre-Columbian art and architecture of Latin America. Reminiscence (2017) evokes not only geology but the remains of a once-grand ruined structure or even a construction site. Placed in the heart of the City of London it is a powerful statement about the relationship between nature and culture. (City Of London, 2017)
The texture of this was lovely but it didnt look like porcelain. One of the few of them I was compelled to touch.
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In this series of work, my role has been to observe and photo-document, studying the outlines created by city lights. Walking the city photographing and recording, the non-stop nature of the city is documented through endless small events and incidents. Long-exposure photographs capture objects and people as black marks obstructing the lights of the city. I later “translate” these images into three-dimensional neon installations, with the city sounds correlated to match the sequence of the neon as it turns on and off. (City Of London, 2017)
This one was quite easy to spot on the wall nearby the information plaque. It was interesting to watch the neons flashing and imagine what bits of city each was correspoding to. I took a small video of this one.
10. 12. & 13. ‘Support for a Cloud’ | Mhairi Vari | 2017
Support for a Cloud plays across ideas of macro and micro – referencing concepts rooted in the natural sciences from cosmological formation to that of the insect cocoon. The artwork which is hung in three different locations is intended to inhabit the urban environment with its alien, nest-like structures that play on synthetic/organic forms. The visibly complex surface of these cocoon-like structures is generated by loops of agglomerated tape. The surface is alluring, even seductive and gently catches both daylight and artificial light, which animate the work further. These works are like small pieces of architecture inhabiting the manmade environment like nests or protective cocoons. (City Of London, 2017)
I went to the plaque at #10, looked around. Nothing obvious. Then looked up. I still wasnt sure. It’s so cleverly integrated with the archicture it looks ‘natural’ but also alien, kind of like a creepy cocoon. It reminded me of the Alien films, where’s Signory Weaver when you need her? I had to go back to see 12 and 13 since apparently I walked right past them without spotting them. It’s also grown on me with repeated viewing.
11. ‘Dreamy Bathroom’ | Gary Webb | 2014
Gary Webb’s whimsical, texturised tower of joyful abstraction is composed of a number of individually crafted components. The use of bronze, which lends Dreamy Bathroom a sense of sculptural gravitas, is pitched against the colourful, aesthetic playfulness of the shapes. The reflective, brightly coloured surfaces allude to, or parody, the kitsch appropriations of Pop Art, whilst the forms themselves are a nod to the post-industrial rigours of Modernism. Webb’s practice focuses on the formal interplay between contrasting shapes, lines, materials, fabrication techniques and points of art-historical reference. Rendered in a combination of industrial, organic and classical materials, Webb combines traditional craft methodologies with modern technologies, in order to create work that evades categorization, and tends towards the inscrutable. (City Of London, 2017)
14. ‘Falling into virtual reality’ | Recycle Group | 2016
Recycle Group reflects on what our time will leave behind for future generations, what artefacts archaeologists will find after we are gone, and whether these artefacts will find their place in the cultural layer. As their name suggests, the duo is concerned about the rising level of material waste as a byproduct of widespread consumerism, creating work through the use of recycled materials. Their works also “recycles ideas”, drawing upon classical Western traditions such as narrative relief carving and Christian iconography to compare contemporary times with other histories – social media with religion, corporate leaders with kings, and online existence with mausoleums. The artists’ latest installation created for Sculpture in the City features a scene of a person falling into the virtual world executed in traditional saint-like image in mesh bas-relief. The mobile gadgets act as an emphasis that technology has on the modern world and questions yet again the idea of virtual archeology. The work draws inspiration by the futurist novel, Simulacron 3 (1964). (City Of London, 2017)
View the introduction video of Falling into virtual reality here:
15. ‘Temple’ | Damien Hirst | 2008
‘Temple’ is a 21-foot painted bronze sculpture that weighs over three tonnes. Made in 2008, it presents a male torso whose partial exposure reveals the underlying musculature and organs. The artwork illustrates Hirst’s long-standing interest in anatomical models, which were initially featured alongside pharmaceutical packaging and specimen jars in his early ‘Medicine Cabinet’ series. ‘Temple’ succeeds other monumental anatomical models made by Hirst, including ‘Hymn’ (1999-2005), which was inspired by a model belonging to Hirst’s son, Connor. The artist explains: “I loved it that it was [like] a toy […] similar to a medical thing, but much happier, friendlier, more colourful and bright.” Damien Hirst cited in Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, ‘On the Way to Work’ (Faber and Faber, 2001), 147. (City Of London, 2017)
I wouldn’t have guessed this was bronze, it looks like a giant version of one of those plastic models you see where the pieces come out like a organ puzzle. It’s much more impressive than 16-17, I wondered if they put it in this out of the way space because people would travel further to see work by a familiar name?
16. ‘Untitled x3’ | Bosco Sodi | 2012-15
Sodi’s rocks are, for all intents and purposes, excerpts from the natural world transformed through a highly physical process. Extracting dried volcanic magma from the Ceboruco volcano in Mexico, and selecting each rock for its formal qualities, he glazes the brittle surface before firing the sculpture at extremely high temperatures for three days. Each stone, having been subjected to variable elements, such as atmospheric pressure, humidity and temperature, reacts in unique, sometimes destructive ways. By altering the surface texture and the context in which these rocks exist – in this case the streets of London – he reflects on our perception of value and antiquity. The artist creates an incongruity between the setting and the course, and the exterior and core, of each piece. (City Of London, 2017)
A.K.A. Lava blobs. That’s what he should have called it if he was stuck for a title. Initially I saw these after seeing the plastic-fantastic looking one at #18 (below) and assumed it was from the same artist. I walked passed them both times in a bit of a hurry and must admit to being a bit disparaging about the look of them. When I took the time to read the blub (far enough to the side not to be immediately obvious if you go sailing past) I was amazed to see that they are actually real lava, glazed over.
17. ‘Envelope of Pulsation (For Leo)’ | Peter Randall-Page RA | 2017
Peter Randall-Page (RA) was born in the UK in 1954 and studied sculpture at Bath Academy of Art from 1973-77. During the past 30 years he has gained an international reputation through his sculpture, drawings and prints. Shown for the first time in its Fenwick Street location for Sculpture in the City, Randall-Page’s most recent sculpture, Envelope of Pulsation (For Leo) 2017, is carved from a rare block of granite from Blackenstone quarry on Dartmoor. This new sculpture is the latest in a series of works exploring the way in which subtle modulations of the stone’s surface can evoke a sense of internal structure in the imagination of the viewer. ‘Envelope of Pulsation’ is a tantric aphorism describing form. The dedication is for Peter’s late friend, Leo, who owned the quarry.(City Of London, 2017)
Another one where the homeless man is getting more attention that the work, well he was there first! Its also another one which is easy to overlook, when coming from the other direction you see the giant and green and yellow of the one below pulling you eyes first. The texture of the one can really only be appreciated from certain angles, its one you have to work to be interested in.
18. ‘Synapsid’ | Karen Tang | 2014
‘Synapsid’ (2014) is a large, vividly coloured sculpture which seems to morph between abstract, alien and animal forms. With its radioactive hues and blobby segments, ‘Synapsid’ evokes sci-fi invasion scenarios where monsters rampage through the built environment. The sculpture takes its title from the scientific name for proto-mammals which evolved to have skulls distinct from those of reptiles; the structure of ‘Synapsid’ hints at a cranial enclosure and eye-sockets. Viewers are drawn into Synapsid’s apertures and interior spaces, which are designed to be immersive, interactive and playful. (City Of London, 2017)
I have to say, I still dont like this one. I thought it would grow on me, and perhaps it has a little, but its still meh.
I can’t recall when I’ve enjoyed an exhibition more than the recent David Hockney retrospective at the Tate Britain. It spanned a period of 60 years of creating, as he approached his 80th birthday he’s amazingly still learning new technology and has replaced his sketchbook now entirely with an ipad!
This exhibition shows how the roots of each new direction lay in the work that came before (Tate Britain, 2017a)
I tried to make some notes on my way around the exhibition, which I’ve supplemented with the supplied room guide (picture above). I actually bought the catalogue too.
Room One: PLAY WITHIN A PLAY
I felt that this was the introduction room for those who don’t know Hockneys work. Probably so you don’t launch straight into room 2, which is probably the less interesting one in the show (at least I thought so). After this intro room the show progresses mostly chronologically. It also allows the show to come full circle as some works in the last room of the exhibition relate to those in this room. Showing, through the exhibition Hockneys subtle use of repeating themes. This room sets the scene for the rest, setting the viewer thinking about how Hockney questions the conventions of picture making and illusion of 3D space on a 2D surface. It’s quite clever curation.
Play Within a Play 1963
Inspired by the image of his friend John Kasmin, pressing himself against the glass door of the gallery, this large painting plays with illusion, reality of 3D space with theatrical panache. Kasmin is painted on the canvas standing with his back against a tapestry backdrop/curtain in a tiny space, with a chair next to him. A plexi-glass sheet is a few inches in front of the canvas with his pressed hands and body imprinted on that so what appears real is an illusion and what appears to be an illusion is actually there. Clearly inspired by Domenichino’s Apollo killing the Cyclops, 1616-18 from the National Gallery (below). Hockney has a vast understanding and appreciation of art history (I’m still reading his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters) so it’s unsurprising that he would take an old Fresco as his starting point here. Similarly with 4 Blue Stools, 2014 (also in the room), Hockney is playing with illusion of space and reality. Here he’s using stitched together digital photos to create a scene which on first glance looks real but is actually impossible.
Kerby (After Hogarth) Useful Knowledge 1975
The title refers to John Kirby’s 1754 pamphlet on linear perspective, cleverly illustrated by William Hogarth with his engraving Satire on False Perspective. The inscription of which reads
Whoever makes a DESIGN without the Knowledge of PERSPECTIVE will be liable to such Absurdities as are shewn in this Frontispiece (Hogarth).
Throughout the exhibition it becomes obvious that Hockney is obsessed with issues pertaining to the convention of one-point perspective, so it’s no wonder he remade this parody of false perspective. This is another example where the scene, which on first glance looks real, is actually impossible. I’m not sure of the significance of the stand-in of Michelangelo’s David, presumably some sort of artistic in-joke.
Model with Unfinished Self-Portrait 1977
I didn’t realise at the time but just rereading the title here and the blurb from the exhibition room guide, the figure of Hockney in this one is actually a picture within a picture. It’s the unfinished “Self-Portrait with a blue guitar”, 1977. And the curtain in both paintings looks to be the curtain attached to yet another, unseen painting on an easel behind the sleeping figure of Hockneys boyfriend.
Rubber Ring Floating in a Swimming Pool 1971
I think of all the paintings in the first room this was my favourite. A witty take on abstract art, which is blasted once you read the title and cannot unsee the realistic representation.
Room two: DEMONSTRATIONS OF VERSATILITY
Early work. This room, of all the rooms, I found the least interesting, because it’s the least Hockney-esk. This room showed works from his early years at art school, where he was showing off his art prowess and trying on different styles. As he noted, ‘I deliberately set out to prove I could do four entirely different sorts of picture like Picasso.’
Although I did like The Cha Cha That Was Danced in The Early Hours of 24th March, 1961 and some of the ones with Graffiti in them.
Initially, Hockney experimented with abstraction, making a small group of free-flowing paintings in which symbols of personal desire began to emerge. As his interest in different pictorial conventions and concepts of space developed, he employed graffiti, cryptic codes, phallic shapes and freehand writing to suggest themes of sex and love. Here, child-like scrawled bodies, identified by numbers corresponding to letters of the alphabet, are situated in areas of spatial ambiguity, offering recognisable representation while drawing attention to formal qualities such as texture and brushwork. (Tate Britain, 2017b)
Room three: PAINTINGS WITH PEOPLE IN
Largely based on his first exhibition, Paintings with People In, at the Kasmin Gallery in London in 1963. A few from his series Domestic Scenes, celebrating longer term gay relationships with portraits of the domesticity between couples. The paintings from this point start to be more observational.
Illusion and artifice remained a strong feature of his work of this period, typified by paintings including a curtain. The curtain frames the passage of light, identifying the stage of Hockney’s painting as a theatre of representation. (Tate Britain, 2017b)
The hypnotist 1963. I love the ‘rays’ from the hypnotist’s fingers zapping towards the other figure and the way the figures are so near the edges of the frame with the massive space between them.
Room four: SUNBATHER
From 1964, Hockney lived in his ‘promised land’ of Los Angeles. The images in this room reflect his sunny outlook where he found inspiration in the outside spaces, geometric office blocks, patterns in swimming pools and gardens. These are possible what he’s best well known for.
I love the simplicity in A lawn being sprinkled 1967. I enjoyed being able to see in person how crisp those lines are of the jets of water, and how the lawn texture is built up (you cannot really glean this from a picture) and how the lawn and sprinklers seems to come out at you whilst the grey building behind recedes. I could almost hear the sound of sprinklers when I stood before this painting.
A bigger splash 1967
Unlike Britain, swimming pools aren’t seen as a luxury in California and they feature heavily in Hockney’s work around this time. So much has been written about this painting it’s hard to know where to start. I love that he said the part that took the longest to paint was the splash when in reality the splash is the most transient part of the painting. Todo: further reading links: here, here and audio here.
Hockney’s laboriously painted splash might be seen as a dig at the macho spontaneity associated with abstract expressionism (Tate Britain, 2017b)
He was obsessed with how to depict transparency, of glass and especially of constantly moving water. I didn’t realise that the patterns in the water are from the painted pattern on the bottom of patterned until I saw some photographs of it (later in the exhibition). I thought they were stylistic references to sun glitter but they convey the feeling of the motion of the pool either way. Futurist tendancies Mr Hockney?
Man in the shower in Beverly Hills. 1964
Hockney has said: ‘For an artist the interest in showers is obvious: the whole body is always in view and in movement, usually gracefully, as the bather is caressing his own body. There is also a three hundred year old tradition of the bather as a subject in painting.’ (Tate, 2017c)
Savings and loan building 1967: Abstract art was dominant at this time and in typical witty Hockney fashion he satirises this by representing observed, realistic looking office building as a modernist grid style.
Room five: TOWARDS NATURALISM
Towards the end of the 1960s, naturalistic representations of the human figure became a key element in Hockney’s work. Drawn to the psychological and emotional implications of two figures within enclosed settings, Hockney worked directly from a circle of friends and acquaintances in a series of double portraits that capture their intimate and often complex relationships. Near life-sized, these carefully staged compositions combine informal poses and settings with the grandeur and formality of traditional portraiture. Almost all these works are painted in acrylic, which dries quickly and cannot be scraped off the canvas, thus demanding a greater degree of planning and meticulous application. This process, with its greater capacity for scrutiny and observation, meant that Hockney could work from photographic studies to sketch out overall compositions but he chose to paint his figures from life. (Tate,2017b)
I loved this room. Here I show them in chronological order, except the first, which I remember seeing first in this gallery, fresh from the sunny swimming pools to serious contemplation on art history, was this intentional curation to emphasis the varied nature of Hockneys interests?
Looking at Pictures on a Screen 1977
Henry Geldzahler studying reproductions of historic paintings in Hockney’s studio. I thought this must be the start of the ‘great wall’ of images that Hockney gathered together for his thesis and book Secret Knowledge? Interesting to see the seat, for viewing the picture he is gazing at. I wondered why not have them all on one wall so you can sit in one place and look to see which one you want? I wondered how much of this was staged.
I love his series of double portraits. As I discovered when researching the Arnofini Portrait, a double portrait is a complex thing. With one person in a portrait, the artists wants to capture the likeness/personality of the sitter, his or her relationship to their surroundings, and to their relationship to the viewer. For a double portrait he has to think about all that for two sitters, plus the relationship between them.
Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy 1970–71
Fashion designer Ossie Clark and textile designer Celia Birtwell with their cat in their Notting Hill home shortly after their wedding (where Hockney was best man).
This is much larger than I imagined. Hockney really must have laid the acrylic paint on thickly here because can hardly see the texture of the canvas at all, the surface is completely smooth. He’s made things hard for himself here by situating them against the light. Usually in his double portrait paintings, one of them is looking at the other (to create a “cyclical movement of looking” (Tate, 2017d), see the two others below), here both figures stare out at the viewer, as with the Arnolfini portrait (AP), the viewer feels like a third person in the room, as though you’ve just walked in they both turn to look at you. Perhaps they couldn’t agree on who should look at whom, it is a power play? Percy, the cat looking out of the window from Ossie’s lap, takes the place of the little dog from the AP, but whereas the dog represented fidelity, the cat has “symbolic resonances of the libertine and somebody who disregards rules and does as they please” (Tate, 2017d). This is sort of reflected in Ossie’s relaxed seated pose too. Oh Dear. Celia’s pose looks more guarded, and her expression almost rueful. His expression seems very serious. His bare feet are buried in the rug, and as with the AP, Celias long dress covers hers entirely. Traditionally lillies were symbol of the Annunciation and feminine purity, they sit in the foreground close to her. Hockney has reversed one of the conventions of wedding portraiture by having the man seated while the woman stands, and the two figures are separated by the large open window, perhaps Hockney subconciously picked up signed that their marriage wouldnt last right from the beginning? If Hockney was drawing some parallel between the two paintings he may have also got a kick out of the fact that this was their bedroom but doesn’t look like it, and the AP is not their bedroom but everyone thinks it is (because of the bed)!
Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy 1968
English novelist and playwright Christopher Isherwood (right) and his partner, artist Don Bachardy, in their Californian home.
Interestingly, in this portrait, the background is strangely similar but this time the blinds are firmly closed. Both figures are seated and the light streams in from the right. One looks to the other, who looks at the viewer, creating that aforementioned cyclical relationship. There is a bowl of fruit between them on the table and a stack of books on either side, one more book on the left that the right presumably to break up the symmetry? The power somehow feels more balanced in their relationship as represented than either of the one above or the one below.
Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott 1969
The figure in the centre is Henry Geldzahler, friend of Hockney and his partner, painter Christopher Scott, looks on. This one is interesting, when continuing to think about the power distribution in the relationship. Here, we as the viewer are at eye level with the seated figure who is looking at us. His partner is looking at him, and standing off to the side with his coat on. Geldzahler was the Curator of Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum, New York at the time so he almost looks like he could be conducting an interview here, sitting right in the middle of the sofa is a massive power play, especially when you can make or break the career of everyone in the room. This window has no blinds at all, combined with the view of skyscapers one could assume they are in an expensive high rise appartment. The window, the glass table and Geldzahler’s glasses allow Hockney to play again with three different interpretations on the transparnecy of glass. Although the window is behind them, the light is coming from an unknown source from the left, and since the lamp is not on, this is most likely daylight from another great window.
American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman) 1968
American art collectors Fred and Marcia Weisman outside their modernist Los Angeles house with sculptures by British artists Henry Moore and William Turnbull in the garden. I love how he’s choosen the paint them out here as though they are works or art along with their statues.
Some of Hockneys work reminds me of the work of artist Jason Brooks (famous for Hed Kandi Illustrations). I wouldnt be suprised if Brooks if heavily influenced by Hockney. They live in the same sun drenched, stylish, happy flat world.
Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) 1972
Painted at the time of their break-up, Hockney’s then boyfriend, artist Peter Schlesinger, looks down at the figure of John St Clair, one of Hockney’s assistants, swimming underwater. (Tate, 2017b)
I found it interesting that the blurb in the booklet stressed that they’d just split up. It makes you assume from the picture that something was going on romantically between the two figures in the painting and perhaps this is the reason for the break up (I have no idea if this is true or not though). Why would you paint someone like this if you were broken up with them? Was this painting, getting them together like this the cause of the breakup? The blurb poses more questions than the painting alone would have done. Interestingly in this painting, neither people in the painting is looking at the viewer, we’re all looking at the man in the pool, and the other man looking at the man in the pool, interesting when the view out across the mountains is spectacular and no one is looking at that.
My Parents 1977
The artist’s parents, Kenneth and Laura Hockney.
In this work, painted a year before his father’s death, Hockney’s style has shifted towards a closer study of human behaviour. His mother poses, attentive and graceful, while his father, who fidgeted during sittings, was painted reading Aaron Scharf’s book Art and Photography. A book on Chardin draws a parallel with intimate domestic scenes of the past, as do the volumes of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past visible on the shelf. Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ (now in the National Gallery; see below) is reflected in the mirror, forming a triptych with the two figures. Gallery label, August 2004 (Tate, 2017e)
I found it really interesting that he abandoned painting a self-portrait in the mirror in a 1975 version of this but I cannot work out if that means anything or if I’m reading too much into it? Placing himself in the middle connects the two figures of his mother and father in a familial relationship. Placing The Baptism of Christ in the middle, as it was in the middle of the altarpiece, makes the two painted portraits of his parents essentially panels either side (as there were panels either side it on the altarpiece painted by another painter). Is this another art history play with reality vs painted surface conundrum? Also, this one struck me suddenly again, how many square paintings he has in this exhibition, in this one its obvious because he’s left the top of the painting unadorned, perhaps as space for God the Father (the third member of the Trinity) which may have originally have been represented in a roundel above The Baptism of Christ.
Contre-jour in the French style – against the day dans le style-francais 1974
The last one on the way out of this room caught my eye. this fantastic 70’s wallpaper with the beautiful formal garden beyond. This was directly inspired by a window in the Lourve.
“The first time I went,” he wrote, “I saw this window with the blind pulled down and the formal garden beyond. And I thought, oh it’s marvellous! marvellous! This is a picture in itself … So I took some photographs of it, made a drawing, and started painting.” (David Hockney. My Early Years, op. cit., p285) Consciously drawing on a traditionally French style, the pointillist technique of the neo-Impressionists, helped him to loosen his brushwork again, and from the start the painting went well. The result beautifully depicts the light passing through the translucent blind and its reflection in the parquet floor. (Sykes, C S, 2012)
Room six: CLOSE LOOKING
I spent ages in here, the behind the scenes room full of sketches, prep drawings and pen & inks. I love the outline ink on paper portraits and seeing the difference using a camera lucidia had on his drawing. And his study of water, phonex arizona 1976 crayon on paper. Too much looking and not enough note taking for this room thou! The blurb from the exhibition booklet states the following:
From the beginning Hockney’s ability at drawing has provided the bedrock for his art. The earliest work here, a self-portrait, was made when he was a teenager. For Hockney, drawing is primarily a way of looking more intently. Many of the drawings in this room – in pen and ink and in coloured crayon – are from the late 1960s and 1970s. At this time, Hockney developed a way of working that enabled him to capture the essence of a scene with the most economical of means: a few lines express the character of a sitter; one or two items conjure the feeling of a place or a moment in time. Because Hockney tends to make drawings when away from the studio, many reflect his travels and include friends and boyfriends in exotic places, the loneliness of hotel rooms or the pleasures of a lazy lunch. In the 1990s, Hockney proposed that many artists since the Renaissance had used optics as aids to depiction. He made a series of drawings using a camera lucida, a device which transfers the observed object to enable the artist to draw it with optical accuracy. (Tate Britain, 2017b)
Room seven: A BIGGER PHOTOGRAPHY
This room was dedicated to Hockneys ‘photography’. I remember being especially inspired by this when I was at high school. It’s really much harder than it looks to make a decent looking picture using this technique, especially with a film camera. I can see why he used polaroids to start with which he got used to the technique. A continuation of Hockneys issues with single-point perspective and a revisit to many familiar themes. Taking a cubist approach and trying to communicate the experience of the world as it actually is in 3 dimensions.
He described conventional photography as akin to ‘looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed Cyclops – for a split second.’ In contrast, he sought to create a photography that could accommodate different viewpoints as well as time and movement. (Tate Britain, 2017b)
Billy +Audrey wilder, Los Angeles, April 1982
Don+Christopher, Los Angeles, 6th March 1982
Gregory swimming, Los Angeles, March 31st 1982
Capturing the motion of a swimmer around the pool.
Grand canyon with foot, arizona, Oct 1982
He got tired of the annoying white borders so swicthed to 35mm photographs. This was an extrodinary collage of 35mm borderless images with the artists foot right on the edge of the cliff. Vertigo inducing. This one doesnt really incorporate motion unlike the next…
Walking in the Zen Garden at the ryoanji Temple, kyoto, Feb 1983
Another foot one, which shows a tranquil walk around a Japanese Zen garden.
The scrabble game, Jan 1983
I love this slice of family life one, reminds me of playing scrabble (very badly, and taking pictures) at my husbands family.
Pearblossom hwy 11-18th April 1986 #1
This is the famous one that everyone knows. Its huge!
Room eight: EXPERIENCES OF SPACE
I wasnt so keen on the this room. Too ‘jazzy’ and abstract. I dont think abstract was really his speciality (with the exception maybe of The eleventh v.n. Painting 1992). The discordant colours made my eyes sore. Perhaps I’ll appreciate it a bit more once I’ve studied part 5 of the coursework. These did catch my eye (in a good way) though:
Breakfast at malibu, Sunday, 1989 & Breakfast at malibu, Wednesday, 1989
I love everything about them, the setting. the different tea sets, the view, the handling of the sea, the table surfaces, the title that specifies the day but not the month. everything.
Pacific coast highway and santa Monica, 1990
This looks abstract at first glance but is actually very realistic view of winding roads and a high up view of Santa Monica (very small buildings on a giant curve of the bay). It has lots of texture. I’ve never been there but if I ever get the chance to go and see this view in person I’ll be delighted.
Through the 1980s and 1990s Hockney’s paintings focused on the experience of looking. The freedom and variety of markmaking within his paintings of this period – descriptive and decorative, denoting space, material and experience – reflect the layers of memory and invention within them. The post-cubist space that he created during this period was applied to landscapes and interior scenes of his new home in the Hollywood Hills. Landscape became the subject for paintings that were about moving through the terrain, the winding roads of Nichols Canyon and Outpost Drive being routes from his hilltop home to his studio. In these works flatness collides with illusion of spatial depth. But above all, these are paintings through which the eye dances, drawn by a sensuousness of line and colour where edges of viewpoints fold into and across each other. Hockney’s painting describes the complexities of space and there was an interchange at this period between his designs for operas and his painting. One tool he exploited was reverse perspective, which in his stage designs was intended to make the audience feel directly involved in the production by exploiting fluctuations of deep and shallow space. (Tate Britain, 2017b)
Room nine: EXPERIENCES OF PLACE
This room concentrates on Hockneys time in the late 1990s when he was producing landscapes (East Yorkshire where his mum lived, Grand Canyon, his house in Hollywood). I especially liked his images from Yorkshire, the English countryside is bright colours of summer and hairpin turns in the roads vividly reminds me of my frequent trips down to Dorset where you get glimpses of bright yellow rape seed, greenary and various other amazing field patterns whilst trying to fight off the spectacular carsickness.
He used multiple viewpoints to create a sense of his movement through the landscape, in particular up and down Garrowby Hill which rises from the Plain of York to the higher Wolds. (Tate Britain, 2017b)
The road across the wolds 1997
15 canvas study of the Grand canyon 1998
His multi canvas work is so big it lends some of the vastness of the view by being so vast itself. There is apparently a 60 canvas version! (see here)
Hockney also determined to paint the vast spaces of the American landscape. When he saw the Grand Canyon described as ‘the despair of the painter’ he could not resist the challenge, capturing the view with multiple perspectives. In depicting such places Hockney created an illusion of depth by the use of a foreground plain on which were arrayed objects, whether bails of wheat or small desert bushes. These derived directly from the abstract forms in his ‘very new paintings’ of a few years earlier (in the previous room) which themselves had been influenced by his stage work. (Tate Britain, 2017b)
Room ten: THE WOLDS
This was what my friend described as the room full of worm paintings (because of blossom on some has a giant maggoty feeling to it). She’d seen them at the Royal academy show a few years back (unfortunately I didn’t make that one) and they are amazing. Huge studies of the English landscape across multiple canvases, May blossom on the Roman Road 2009 in particular clearly has a Van Goghishness about the sky.
Hawthorn blossom near Rudston 2008
May blossom on the Roman Road 2009, oil on eight canvas
Woldgate woods, 6&9 November 2006. 6 canvas
Six part study for bigger trees, 2007
In 2006 Hockney returned to his native Yorkshire to paint the changing light, space and landscape of the Wolds. Works such as The Road to Thwing 2006 and A Closer Winter Tunnel, February – March 2006 show that Hockney was painting outside on larger canvases, sometimes moving between several before assembling them to create the effect of a single image. His move to a warehouse studio in Bridlington enabled him to create ever more complex and expansive pictures and begin exploring computer-generated images to aid their production. Hockney shares with earlier artists including the Romantics an engagement with the landscape based on memory and observation, but his focus is different. ‘Artists thought the optical projection of nature was verisimilitude, which is what they were aiming for,’ he said, ‘But in the 21st century, I know that is not verisimilitude. Once you know that, when you go out to paint, you’ve got something else to do. I do not think the world looks like photographs. I think it looks a lot more glorious than that’ (Tate Britain, 2017b)
Room eleven: THE FOUR SEASONS
Following on from the big trees and woods pictures in the previous room, this video room gives a slightly motion-sickness-inducing look at a similar scene across 4 seasons. I didn’t even know Hockney did video installations but here they are. Like his photography, it isn’t just from one point perspective. It’s like cubist video would be. On each wall is a giant bank of screens showing one season creating an immersive environment.
In 2010 Hockney began making multi-screen video works by fixing a number of cameras (one or each screen in the final work) to the outside of a vehicle which was then driven along the road at Woldgate, near Bridlington, Yorkshire. The result was like a cubist film, showing different aspects of the same scene as perceived by a moving observer. As well as an exploration of the way a subject is seen over time, this work was a celebration of the miracle of the seasons. The experience of spring in 2002, after more than twenty years in seasonless California, had been one of the stimuli for Hockney settling in Yorkshire for about a decade. (Tate Britain, 2017b)
Room twelve: YORKSHIRE AND HOLLYWOOD
I didnt write any notes for this room. Here is the blurb from the booklet:
Hockney’s move from Yorkshire back to the Hollywood Hills in 2013 was marked by two different views of the landscape. His last work in Yorkshire was a sequence of 25 charcoal drawings celebrating the arrival of spring at five locations along the singletrack road running between Bridlington and Kilham that had provided him with much of the subject matter for his painting of the previous years. The first works he made on his return to California were two charcoal drawings of his poolside garden at morning and evening.
The last four years have seen an intense diversification of Hockney’s practice and the media he has used in his constant search for ways to represent the world of three and four dimensions, emotion and feeling, on a two-dimensional surface. Through arrangements in his studio of furniture and people – family, close friends and assistants – he finds new ways to represent the experience of looking. His art springs from a personal environment, yet, for Hockney, the most important place is the studio, where his consistent questioning and hard looking is manifested in pictures that encompass and transform how we see and respond to the world around us. (Tate Britain, 2017b)
Room thirteen: iPADS
Ipads! And the card players, 2015,photographic drawing printed on paper and mounted on dibond
One of my favourite rooms, I spent ages in here watching the timelapse videos of how the images on the ipads gets built up. Despite the difference in technology his style still completely shines through. He’s totally given up using a normal sketchbook and draws on his ipad so he can email straight to his friends. This is amazing use of technology but given his age its extraordinary. I found it very inspiring.
Hockney has always welcomed the challenge of picturing transparency. The sheen of glass, passage of light, splash of water, all predominate within his paintings, drawings and photography since the mid-1960s. Something else that has characterised his work from the outset when, as a student, he started printmaking, is his constant desire to master new media. In 2009 glass and technology came together in his discovery of the iPhone, and the following year the iPad, as a new drawing instrument. On the iPhone he drew on the small back-lit glass screen with the side of his thumb, changing to a stylus with the larger screen of the iPad, to offer a different variety of line and a new luminosity of colour. (Tate Britain, 2017b)
Mynotes : George Shaw interesting, paintings like photos, I meant of photographic subjects. For example the school of love, with an old mattress in the woods. Funny too, eg the old master
found this website of the images in the show: https://www.artsy.net/show/the-national-gallery-london-george-shaw-my-back-to-nature
From the website :
George Shaw: My Back to Nature
Date and time
11 May – 30 October 2016
George Shaw unveils the culmination of his two-year studio residency at the National Gallery
Our current Associate Artist, George Shaw, has been busy creating new work in response to the collection since autumn 2014.
A former Turner Prize-nominee, Shaw is renowned for his highly detailed approach and suburban subject matter, and for his idiosyncratic medium – Humbrol enamel paint, typically used to colour model trains and aeroplanes.
Alluding to the theme of woodland in the collection, ‘My Back to Nature’ resonates with Shaw’s own experience of walking in the forest near his home town as a teenager, with the feeling that “something out of the ordinary could happen at any time there, away from the supervision of adults”.
Exhibition supported by:
The Elizabeth Cayzer Charitable Trust
Laura and Barry Townsley
Richard and Debbi Burston Maryam and Edward Eisler
Mr & Mrs Charles Booth-Clibborn
The Associate Artist Scheme is supported by the Rootstein Hopkins Foundation
The Sunley Room exhibition programme is supported by the Bernard Sunley Charitable Foundation
For the second annotation I choose a narrative painting from Rubens, Samson and Delilah. I thought I’d jot down some initial thoughts & research on it since I can never fit it all into the one annotation page and my memory can’t hold it all.
So in line with the review of the Arnolfini Portrait, I’ve tried to apply the techniques I learned in reading about the OU study diamond to this painting review too. Again, the grid format wasn’t that great for the blog so I’ve split into more of a questions and answers format.
Effects & techniques:
What initially catches your eye? Where do you go next? And after that? To the group of four figures of Delilah, Samson, and the old woman and man
Where do you end up? Do your eyes stray away from the work altogether? The men at the door
Is there anything that you didn’t notice at first but saw later in your reading? The items on the shelves behind
Did your eyes keep coming back to a particular part of the art work? The massive form of Samson
Is there anything that you didn’t look at or thought wasn’t important? Not really
Has a wide or narrow palette of colours been used? A narrow colour palate with lots of warm colours in it makes it feel sensuous. The only cool colours are on the interlopers
Have contrasting colours been placed next to each other? Not really, this brings a warm harmony to the painting.
Are there more warm colours than cool colours or vice versa? Many more warm colours makes the place seem inviting sensuous.
Would you describe the colours as being bright or dull? Are there more bright colours than dull colours (or vice versa)? There are both, the background is a dullish wooden brown but the colours of the satin materials are bright. This brings the foreground as the main focus of the painting.
In what way is dark and light colour used?
I. How wide is the range of colour values featuring in the art work? There is a wide range of colour values.
II. Are contrasting colour values present in the art work? Use of contrasting colour values pick out areas of interest and are heavily used to dramatic effect to pick out the details and two focus areas al la Caravaggio.
III. Are contrasting colour values used to model three-dimensional forms? Contrasting colour values are also used to model three-dimensional forms of the folds of the dress, lush fabrics and the man’s massive muscled body.
IV. In what way are the colour values distributed throughout the art work? The distribution of the colour values helps pull your eye around the composition, from the four figures in the foreground where the largest patch of light is, to the smaller patch on the right hand side where the men are hovering in the doorway. Your eye flows from the ‘front’ to the ‘back’ even through it’s a flat painted surface the illusion is made using lighting and definition
Does the medium impose any limitations on the way the artist works, or allow any particular effects? The oil paint has been carefully blended to make the soft, seamless shadows to model the various textures, you really feel the soft skin stretched over the muscle on the man’s back , against the more directly applied highlights for the satin.
Is the medium used unconventionally or is the medium itself unconventional and, if so, does this contribute to the expressive effect of the art work? This seems a pretty conventional use.
Does the medium used suggest a particular mood? the medium adds to the sensuality of the mood and the impressive scale also.
Does the medium used prompt the spectator to read the work in a particular way? not really
Representation of depth
Technique: Samson & Delilah
Effect: Samson and Delilah
there is a clear front and back to the room, the front two figures overlap with the old woman and man cutting the hair. Also the edgy of Samsons body is overlapping the opening door
(b) diminishing scale
the men at the door are much smaller than the main four figures, clearly in the background
(c) atmospheric perspective
the brightest part of the room is also the front of the scene, Samson, Delilah and the bed area
(d) vertical placement
Samson’s arm is foreshortened such that his hand is the same size as his foot which is further back. His arm leads up and back to his face and the face of the man behind him. Above that there is a statue in a niche on the wall in the background behind them
(e) linear perspective
the opening door displays the linear perspective
the modelling of the various textures in the room, especially all the folds in her dress, the patterned blanket and the muscles on Samson’s back make the illusion realistic
Use of lines:
Directional lines (horizontal, vertical, and diagonal): There is a strong diagonal line of Samson’s back across the middle of the picture. There is a grounding horizontal line of the bed at the bottom of the picture and repeating little horizontals in the background, the shelves, the man’s cutting arm, the door frame. there are verticals too, the arm &, Samson’s face, the man’s face and then the statue already mentioned, also the shelves, niche, the doorway and figures of the waiting men all provide vertical interest
Contour lines – can also be used to outline forms; such contour lines can be described in terms of their thickness and sharpness. there are contour lines around the moulding in the furniture and the modelling of the cloth which are quite thick but seen as shadows and add to the illusion.
Meaning – initial thoughts from the observed ‘evidence’
Clearly something amiss is going on, if you didn’t know the story you can sense that the man is asleep after being seduced and people are sneakily cutting his hair. Armed men in the background seem to be glaring at each other to keep quiet and not wake the man. He is big and muscly but still, should they be worried? Clearly he’s been tricked by the woman (she still has her breasts out) but she looks a bit sorry. The old woman looks on in tension, biting her lip, that the man will wake up. You feel sorry for the deeply asleep man.
Context & Meaning:
This is based on a bible story (Old Testament, Judges 16: 17-20) where a Jewish hero, Samson, fell in love with Delilah. He was very strong and couldn’t be defeated by the Philistines so they bribed her to find out the secret to his great strength and help to capture him. She asked him many times and each time he gave her a false answer but eventually he gave up and told her that his strength was there because his hair had never been cut. So while he was sleeping they cut his hair, his strength left him and they captured, blinded, imprisoned and humiliated him. Then when his hair grew back his strength returned and he pulled a temple down on everyone, including himself and all the Philistines rulers.
This picture depicts the moment when they are about to cut his hair, they don’t actually know that’ll work this time and if it doesn’t and he wakes up they are all in trouble. Delilah places a soothing hand on his back to calm him so he doesn’t wake and kill them all. The Philistines wait just outside the door, trying to be quite. It’s quite a tense painting. It’s also sensuous, with all the fabric in the setting. Clearly they’ve just been intimate so it can be seen as a moral tale of sin only leads to trouble. He is very vulnerable in this moment, and trusting of Delilah, so can also been taken as ‘love hurts’ because she’s so thoroughly betrayed his trust.
“In a niche behind is a statue of the goddess of love, Venus, with Cupid – a reference to the cause of Samson’s fate.” (National Gallery, 2016a)
Delilah is not a prostitute (apart from the bribe) in the story but according to the Art historian Jacqui Ansell (in the little audio clip on the gallery page) the phrase ‘in Delilah’s lap’ meant to visit a prostitute in the 17th century when this was painted.
According to the blurb on the National Gallery page, this painting was commissioned by Nicolaas Rockox, alderman of Antwerp (and personal friend of Rubens), for his town house in 1609-10. Apparently it was designed to hang above a giant fireplace, so all the warm colours would look all the more sumptuous in that setting. The painting is hung at the same height in the gallery because it is a best height from which to appreciate the perspective.
“It shows the influence of the antique, as well as Michelangelo and Caravaggio. There is a preparatory drawing (private collection, Amsterdam) and a modello (Cincinnati Museum of Art).” (National Gallery, 2016a)
A modello is a small preparatory oil sketch on a wood panel, they could be used as a draft to get the clients approval and as a guide to composition for the finished work. Rubens often then handed over much of the preparation and painting of the main version to his assistants and pupils, carrying out only the final finishing touches.
This painting, like the Arnolfini Portrait, is on Oak as was the early Netherlandish tradition. This is made up of 6 horizontal planks glued together, probably by a professional panel maker. However, since then it’s been planed down to 3mm and stuck onto blockboard as an old method of preservation so there are no original markings on the back or edges. The panel was prepared with a white chalk ground with a binding of animal glue, another Netherlandish tradition. He also uses a limited number of pigments. Interestingly, although there is no green in the picture, some of the brownish paint on the old woman’s dress are no longer recognisable but have a high concentration of copper, which may have been green and browned with age so we may not be seeing it as it was originally painted.
Visit in person:
The painting was so large, I almost couldn’t fit it all into the photograph but I wanted to remember how vivid the colours were and the online reproduction (see above) doesn’t really convey that.
The painting is hung quite high but it seems to look much better according to the perspective than when you see it online, which is line with what I read about it being desinged to be seen at this height.
In preparation for assignment 3 annotations I have decided to research Jan van Eyck’s famous double portrait pictured below.
I’ve tried to apply the techniques I learned in reading about the OU study diamond to this painting review. The grid format wasn’t that great for the blog so I’ve split into more of a questions and answers format.
Effects & techniques:
What initially catches your eye? Where do you go next? And after that? The mirror is like a bullseye in the middle of the painting, then the woman’s face, then the man’s then the shoes beside him
Where do you end up? Do your eyes stray away from the work altogether? I ended up at the little dog
Is there anything that you didn’t notice at first but saw later in your reading? The oranges on the table and her shoes in the background
Did your eyes keep coming back to a particular part of the art work? The mirror
Is there anything that you didn’t look at or thought wasn’t important? The furniture behind them, and I didn’t notice the one candle until later when I zoomed into that area
Has a wide or narrow palette of colours been used? A narrow colour palate makes it feel simple, orderly & uncluttered but the simple colour scheme does seem artificial because its balanced by the more natural beiges and dark colours.
Have contrasting colours been placed next to each other? Contrasting colours of red and green of her dress and the furnishings make her appear prominent in the picture, his dark clothes make him seem to recede in comparison.
Are there more warm colours than cool colours or vice versa? The slightly warm palate makes the place seem inviting and homely, she is in green with a quite peaceful if not exactly happy expression, the red and green contrast add tension to her.
Would you describe the colours as being bright or dull? Are there more bright colours than dull colours (or vice versa)? The woman is painted in bright colours and the man in dark, this also draws your eye to her first.
In what way is dark and light colour used?
I. How wide is the range of colour values featuring in the art work? There is a wide range of colour values, this sets no particular effect
II. Are contrasting colour values present in the art work? Use of contrasting colour values pick out areas of interest, the man’s clothes & hat are dark against the pale skin of his hand and face making his portrait stand out. The woman’s features stand out less because there is less of a contrast with her light headdress there. The mirror & chandelier have highlights picking them out as points of interest and the women’s white fur trim stands out too.
III. Are contrasting colour values used to model three-dimensional forms? Contrasting colour values are also used to model three-dimensional forms of the folds of the giant dress and lush fabrics on the furniture.
IV. In what way are the colour values distributed throughout the art work? The distribution of the colour values helps pull your eye around the composition, from mirror to headdress/face of the women, the lines lead you to the man’s face and hand then down his clothes to the bright area where his clogs are, back past the dog to the woman’s dress and up again.
Does the medium impose any limitations on the way the artist works, or allow any particular effects? The oil paint has been carefully blended to make the soft, seamless shadows to model the scene with such accuracy. He has used translucent glazes applied in layers to generate the rich colours of the different fabrics and showing the other different surfaces and textures such as the beads, the wood and the peoples skin.
Is the medium used unconventionally or is the medium itself unconventional and, if so, does this contribute to the expressive effect of the art work? This seems a pretty conventional use but maybe not at the time it was painted?
Does the medium used suggest a particular mood? the realism generated by the thinly layered paint makes the painting appear more factual – like a photograph
Does the medium used prompt the spectator to read the work in a particular way? not really
Representation of depth
Technique: Arnolfini Portrait
Effect: Arnolfini Portrait
the room feels 3 dimensional because we glimpse the furniture behind them
(b) diminishing scale
Her shoes in the background are much smaller than those in the foreground
(c) atmospheric perspective
The distorted perspective in the mirror has two hazy figures in it
(d) vertical placement
the little dog and shoes at the bottom appears closest to us
(e) linear perspective
the top of the bed and the window blinds on the other side frame the couple with linear perspective at the top, lower down the windowsill and the bed also frame the couple
the modelling of the various textures in the room, especially all the folds in her dress make the illusion realistic
Use of lines:
Directional lines (horizontal, vertical, and diagonal): Diagonal lines of perspective of the bed and window conflict with the V shape that their arms make. The man and woman are standing vertical in the composition either side of the mirror on the back wall. The man’s vertical hand stops your eye on its travel to the right and the woman’s vertical fur sleeve lining stops your eye on its travel left so you don’t end up going out of the picture. The hanging bit on the front of the bed is also effective at stopping your eye before you reach the edge at the left and the vertical sections of the window stop you on the right. The man’s tabard is also a strong vertical within his clothes The highlights on the chandelier make it virtually point at the mirror beneath it. The rug between them, and the lines of the floorboards are vertical lines which leads from the couple back into the room. The few horizontal lines are mainly at the back of the room and the line of the floorboard and check where the oranges are sitting but they are not really dominant.
Contour lines – can also be used to outline forms; such contour lines can be described in terms of their thickness and sharpness. The contour lines are mainly soft and realistic.
Meaning – initial thoughts from the observed ‘evidence’
It’s a bit superficial because I’ve already read so much about the painting before trying this exercise, but if I had not and I only had my answers above to go on I might make the following conclusions as to the meaning of the painting.
The man and woman are standing side by side and all the observed evidence points to her being more prominent in the picture than he is. There are lush furnishings and fur trimmings to their clothes so they seem comfortably well off, although it seems weird to be welcoming people into their bedroom, maybe a bedsit, so probably lower middle class? The mirror with a couple of people in it is obviously important so his gesture could be seen as a greeting to guests as the couple welcome people into their home. You don’t see who the guest are so maybe that’s not important. She looks pregnant. Perhaps this is a painting about a couple who will be imminently welcoming a new life into their home soon, although neither of them look that happy about it? i.e celebrate the baby picture.
Context & Meaning:
So I already know that this likely not what the meaning of the picture is from my reading in Girl in a Green Gown: The history and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait. by Carola Hicks (notes from that are in this post) but I thought it was important to jot down what I think I would have thought before reading it (I can’t really remember because I’ve been reading it on and off since I finished Assignment 2). I’ve summaries my notes from various reading below (after the visit).
Visit in person:
I went back to the National Gallery to take a closer look. It’s really astounding to see in person. The level of detail is amazing, her shoes, the little dogs fur, it’s all painted so precisely. The light shines on it a little so I took some close up pictures with my phone of the higher up details. I was earwigging to one of the many tour groups that stopped past it while I was there, the tour leader thought she was pregnant which was interesting. He also said the little dogs hair had been painted with a one hair brush, which I could totally see being true given the detail. Also, he said that recently scholars now think that the one candle is the key to unravelling the whole meaning to the painting and that it could be a memorial to the wife, painted after her death. I suppose this would explain all the odd things about her, her out of fashion dress and classical, generalised features, if he was not painting her from life (as with the man). I haven’t yet got that far into all my books on the subject so the candle and its meaning I’ve yet to read about.
Clearly two people in the mirror, also the tiny religious paintings all around the mirror.
The detail on the dog has to be seen in person to be believed, no reproduction can do it justice.
Also, the detail on the clogs and floorboards is more pronouced in person than in reproductions.
Researched content & meaning:
The history of the painting’s owners is well documented from 80 or so years after it was painted, there seems to be a bit of a sketchy period at the beginning which causes a lot of the following confusion and much of the mystery surrounding the painting, the identity of its characters and its meanings.
Jan van Eyck
Jan van Eyck was born in southern Netherlands, worked in the Hague. At 30, Jan van Eyck became court painter to Philip ‘the Good’, Duke of Burgundy, 1425. He was trusted with diplomatic ‘secret’ missions abroad and got to travel widely a see many things to add to his inspiration. Van Eyck was totally at the Dukes disposal and paid handsomely for it but allowed to take other commissions too. He painted many religious paintings too, including the Ghent Altarpiece. The first seven years (from 1425) he lived in Lille (except for foreign extended visits and to Ghent for the altarpiece) then in 1432, he moved back to Bruges where the duke spent much of his time. Bruges, ‘Venice of the West’ was the heart of international trade, as noted by Tafur who documented his travels in 1438. He mentions luxury goods such as oranges & lemons from Castile, wine from Greece, spices from Alexandria, furs from the black sea, silk and armour and all sorts of luxury imports. At times the harbour could serve over 700 ships per day. Local products included expertly woven woollens, linins & tapestries. Foreign traders were not allowed to sell these local, only for export, strictly enforced by guilds. Tafur noted that the local people were ‘exceedingly fastidious in their apparel, very extravagant in their food and much given to all kinds of luxury’. (Hicks, 2012). The town was not very tolerant of poor people though, and some were starving. Prostitution was rife. There were ‘mixed-sex’ baths, van Eyck had a side-line in painting ‘saucy bathing scenes’ (the originals have not survived though), presumably from the bath houses near where he lived in the red light district. The Canterbury tales by Chaucer alludes to Bruges ‘ambiguous reputation’, the Shipman’s tale and Pardoners tale specifically. It was probably a source of pride for the Duke that his court painter was being chased for work by prominent Italian families. He made a number of works for the Italian community, Anseln Adorno (Genoese family), bought two showing scenes of St Francis, another Genoese merchant, from Giustiniani family commissions a tryptic of the Virgin & child, Genoese Lomellini family also commissioned a tryptic that was eventually bought by King Alfonso of Naples, Lorenzo de Medici acquired St Jerome. Cardinal Ottoviano of Florence bought a titillating bathing scene (originally commissioned by Federico da Montefettro, Duke of Urbino (according to Vasari). “Having a van Eyck was a major status symbol by the 1430s”. (Hicks, 2012)
The paintings history:
Scholarly debate still rages but the first owner is assumed to be the man who commissioned the portrait of him and his wife, Arnofini. This is because of the Hernoul-le-fin /Arnoult fin references in the early inventories. No one can decide on which Arnofini though. The Arnolfini family were originally from Lucca, Italy and in 1439, the Medici bank opened a branch in Bruge, many Italian merchant families moved in for trading. The first recorded owner was Don Diego de Guevara, a Spaniard working in Flanders. (aristocratic family with distant royal connections. Courtier, Ambassador, spy). He’d bought the portrait at some point in the first decade of the 16th C and had his family arms & motto (‘hors du conte’) inscribed on the shutters (which protected it at that time). There seems to be uncertainly whether he added the shutters of if they were originally there. He gave both his van Eyck portraits to Marguerite of Austria, ruler of the Netherlands by 1516. According to an inventory of her art collection the Arnolfini portrait was ‘a large picture which is called Hernoul-le-fin with his wife within a room, which was given to Madame by don Diego, whose arms are on the cover of the picture. Made by the painter Johannes.’ (Hicks, 2012). A note in the margin added that ‘it was necessary to put on a lock to shut it; which Madame ordered to be made.’ In another inventory, 1523, the Arnolfini portrait was described as ‘a very fine picture [fort exquis, very rare praise indeed] with two shutters attached where there is painted a man & a woman standing, with their hands touching; made by the hand of Johannes, the arms & Motto of don Diego the person named on the two shatters Arnoult fin” (Hicks, 2012). Her niece Marie of Hungary inherited the role of Regent of the Netherlands and the Arnolfini Portrait in 1530. In 1558 her nephew, Philip II inherited it and took it to his home in Alcazar. Where it popped up in another record in 1599 (after his death). Tt had an Ovid verse attached to it (on the gilded frame) from The Art of Love (Ars Amatoria), “See that you promise: what harm is there in promises? In promises, anyone can be rich”. Both Phillip and Marie appreciated Ovid (Titian commissions) so perhaps they had it added or was it there originally but not mentioned before this? The next recorded sighting was a century later, still in Alcazar on 1700 inventory of late Carlos II. This documented that the wooden shutters had been painted imitation marble. It survived a fire in 1734 and was next seen in the new Palacio Real by Philip V, grandson of Louis XIV. This might be where the original frame and the shutters were removed. In 1794 another inventory mentioned that it was keep in the retrete, lavatory! Joseph Bonaparte (brother of Napoleon, made king of Spain) used the 1794 inventory and the painting ended up in the new national art gallery in the Prado. He took it with him back to France when he left though. It was looted from his baggage by the British Army at the Battle of Vitoria in 1813 by a British army officer, Lieutenant-Colonel James Hay. The Prince Regent had it on approval for a while but didn’t buy it so Hay sold it to the National Gallery in 1842.
What the scholars think?
Erwin Panofsky, 1934, argued that many things point to the painting a sort of visual marriage certificate e.g. a legal record of the couple’s marriage, with signature and witnesses. He also thought that many of the items in the painting have dual purpose as household item and an additional symbolic meaning. Art historians since Panofsky have used his arguments as a starting point to either refute or agree with his points. For example, in 1986, Jan Baptist Bedaux published an article which agrees with Panofsky points that this is a marriage contract portrait but he didn’t think that the items have symbolic meanings, he argued that if the everyday items were expected to be there by the contemporary viewers then how would they tell the difference between symbol and reality? Craig Harbison’s take on it is somewhere between the two. He thought that viewer could understand that items could have multiple associations so van Eyck uses those as devices to tell a story. This seems more reasonable to me than the two extremes, as in advertising today we use visual puns and multiple meanings to be witty etc, we know that Chaucer did in his writing, why not van Eyck. Harbison’s view is that scholars need to take into consideration both the secular and the religious aspects. Edwin Hall wrote a book about the painting representing a betrothal ceremony rather than a marriage.
Margaret D. Carroll posits that the painting represents the scene of a married couple (Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami) where Giovanni is granting of legal authority to his wife to act on his behalf while he’s away (like a power of attorney). This still explains all the contractual elements, the inscription style text, the witnesses, the burnt out candle but it the gets around the niggly little issues present in previous arguments about marriage, such as there being no priest there, or that they are in a house not a church or consecrated ground. Also, bridal custom in those days was to have their hair down but hers is up. A betrothal scene would require members of her family there. She claimed it would serve practical purpose of a visual record of that PoA, not binding in a legal sense but permanently on display. Additionally, the portrait of them in all their finery is like an advert for his wares, and his reputation, i.e., he’ll be a good credit risk. It also demonstrated his piety in an age when merchants walked a difficult path of accumulating wealth whilst avoiding damnation. It’s quite an interesting take on it.
What I found particularly interesting was the information where she details a documented incident from the court 1470 where a woman sues Arnolfini for breach of written promises he made in 1458. She claimed that he raped her when she came over to request his help, her husband had been banished and she wanted Arnolfini to use his influence at the court. In an attempt to keep her quite he made her his mistress and drew up a contract promising her two houses among other expensive gifts but she claimed he took back the gifts and refused to make good on his promises. This made me think about that Ovid verse about promises on the frame of the portrait. In light of this information, perhaps that verse was added after this event? He didn’t refute the claims, he argued that the contract was void because according to law she couldn’t enter into that agreement (or any other contractual agreement) without the consent of her husband!
In 1998 Lorne Campbell identified Giovanni di Nicolao as the probable commissioner for this painting (from the five or so prominent Arnolfini’s in Bruges), since Giovanni di Nicolao would have been in Bruges for some time and would have had ample opportunity to meet Jan van Eyck. A more recent interpretation comes from Margaret Koster in 2003, who thinks this is a memorial portrait for Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini’s deceased wife, Costanza Trenta, who was dead by 1433. Apparently he never remarried. She points out the aspects in the painting which allude to death are all on the woman’s side of the picture, the snuffed out candle, the death scenes in the Passion roundels on the mirror, even the colours of their clothes, blue was a symbol of faithfulness and green was a symbol of love and the man is wearing the dark clothes of mourning (according to Koster this was before black was chic in the Burgundian court). Herman Th. Colenbrander, in his paper “In Promises Anyone Can Be Rich!” Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Double Portrait: A “Morgengave” suggested the painting might show an old German custom of a husband promising a gift to his bride on the morning after their wedding night, a Morgengave. He has also suggested that the painting may have been a present from the artist to his friend.
Details, Context and Possible meanings:
The clothes: They wear products of Bruges (and associated luxury imports), fur, silk, wool, linen, leather, gold. “Discreet ostentation”, celebrating the merchant class in all its ‘permitted finery’. All very expensive at the time. Much of the cloth and other items would have been traded by merchants like the Arnofini’s, much of this could have been an advert for his stock and trade. Their shoes would have been status symbols much as Jimmy Choos are today. He is very fashionable, he wears dark colours (as per the fashion at court sported by Duke Philip) & cutting edge linings of brown marten fur and a stylish imported straw hat. In contrast, her bulky green dress is quite old fashioned, “could have been warn at any time in the previous generation” & the fur lining for her is made from squirrel which was cheaper and more common and her linen headdress is provincial. Or was it too early to be in fashion and he is in mourning for his lost love? No conclusion can be drawn here then.
Her hair: is up in the style of a married woman, this and the lack of priest/church/consecrated ground rules out the wedding ceremony idea in my mind.
References to the Virgin/Bible or to lavish Wealth? there are many, suggesting hidden meanings for things, however they are used in the religious paintings to place the Virgin in a familiar setting to make her more accessible, so are they really associated with the Virgin for the contemporary audience who’d see these items in everyday life of the very very rich? Maybe it’s just us who see them as associated? I find it hard to draw any conclusions other than perhaps they could allude to both the secular and the religious, especially since reading Margaret D. Carroll’s take on the way merchants were perceived where they would have to demonstrate their piety and good faith, how better than to be associated with the Virgin? Most of the items cited are both a sign of the upwardly mobile, socially aspiring, wealthy merchant (the oranges scattered on the side, the arrangement of furniture, the expensive textiles, the giant chandelier, the rug on the floor, many of which Arnolfini would have traded in so an advert for wares) but also undoubtedly feature in Madonna paintings. For example, in his secular work, Woman at her Toilette, the room echoes that of the Arnolfinis down to the orange on the sill, the shutters on the window and furniture. There no shutters in any of the Madonna paintings. However, in Rogier van der Weyden’s Annunciation (c 1434, Louvre) there is a similar brass chandelier, this painting also has a red covered bed and oranges on the chimneypiece). “The choices of furniture and furnishings in this room are all very flattering to the Arnolfini’s rank and social aspirations and appropriate for either reception chamber or birthing chamber” (Hicks, 2012). According to the rules that Alienor de Poitiers’ manual of conduct les Aonneurs de la Cour.
References to Marriage/Childbirth
She may or may not be pregnant but van Eyck has given other women who are not pregnant the same stance. eg. naked Eve & Cumaean Sibyl in Ghent Altarpiece, and St Catherine in the Dresden triptych. The belt below the bust on her dress creates high-waisted effect giving the impression of a protruding stomach. The beads and chest are conventional bridal gifts of the time so they represents the stability of marriage. On the very top of the chair back is the carved figure of a haloed woman, her hands clasped in prayer, apparently emerging from the body of a scaly winged dragon whose paws clutch the wooden frame. This could be St Margaret of Antioch, a mayor saint and patron said of childbirth. Or it could be Martha, patron saint of housewives. Martha was symbolised in art by the bush she allegedly grasped while defeating her dragon, perhaps it’s significant that the armed figure is immediately adjacent to the brush in the painting? In secular terms de Poitiers specified there must be a carpet next to the bed in the reception room or birthing chamber. “Only rich people had rugs, and in court circles displayed them beside beds” (Hicks, 2012). Margaret D. Carroll seemed to allude to the possibility that maybe all the child birthing references were actually about money? Making investments bear fruit, not in a sinful interest way but in a respectable capital investments way. “All in all, the painting presents Arnolfini as the ideal type of a contemporary merchant, in many ways similar to the exemplar described by Bernardion: pious, wealthy, and ethical, whose investments bear fruit, and whose gestures of convent and good faith convey an enduring commitment to his wife and his contractual obligations. So, at least, the painting would have us believe.” (Carroll, 1993). So, not solid conclusions here either!
The inscription & the mirror: has been purported to be signification of artist as witness, a notary in the contractual agreement (whatever it might be). It’s also clearly authorship, be he usually signed his works on the frame so it’s clearly more than that, some significance to the paintings meaning. It is clearly in the “diamond of interest” section of the painting, along with the mirror, which was another status symbol, more rare than glass windows, ordinary people could never see their reflection but the elite could. Some say that this means that the two people in the mirror might be the artist and his assistant. This seems likely to me but it’s quite circumstantial. The text in the painting “Jan van Eyck was here” is often seen as evidence of testimony of his presence and authorship of the panel. Imply artist functioning as notary. “All viewers, after all, would have been struck by the incongruity of the appearance on this object of such a sort of text. Diplomatic handwriting on wood – not parchment – signals apparent disorder in the discourse of records, it would alert the viewer to the potential of words doing or meaning something other than that which is expected of them in a legal context” (Seidel, 1995) The inscription Johannes van Eyck fuit hic could mean Jan van Eyck has been here or Jan van Eyck was this man, followed by the date, Seidel seems convinced that the use of past tense in the inscription means that the two little figures cannot be the artist & his assistant but I don’t think that can be ruled out. Or it could be framing the picture maker’s role as storyteller, narrator of fiction. Modern viewers wouldn’t make these associations because of our familiarity and trust in realistic images (eg photographs) and our ignorance of diverse story telling practices. A favoured device of both Ovid and Chaucer (along with many others) was the introduction of a narrator to set the frame for their texts. “Jan’s self-inscription, like the authorial voices in their writing gives an air of truth to his tale, even as it alerts viewers to the fictional nature of the production. Use of past tense is used, like in Chaucer, for telling of a story as if truth” (Seidel, 1995) This is the theory I like the best, especially if the Ovid inscription was on the original frame made by Jan (see below).
References to Death: the Chandelier had six spaces for candles but only two shown and only one lit (on the man’s side) and the other (on the woman’s side) just a stub that has gone out leaving a little trail of smoke. Some think the candles signify the drafting of a dowry agreement (binding when it burns out), or other contractual arrangement (which would be more in keeping with the woman’s hair being up), while others say that the snuffed out candle signifies a death. Overhead lighting was one of the greatest luxuries in the middle ages but this would have been too ornate for a domestic setting and seems too large for the space available in the room. Again, no solid conclusions, only that it clearly means *something*.
The Dog: Certainly no conclusions at all can be made from the presence of the little dog looking out at us, he seems to stand for everything depending on what theory you’re trying to argue. He is a breed called the Brussels griffon, another distinctly local product, descendant of a long line of Flanders terries bred to catch rats. Dogs feature in the art of the day on tomb effigies, faithful unto death, also noblemen were painted with their hounds and wives with their lapdogs. It could have been the lapdog of choice in the Duke’s household as the his sister was pictured with one in the Bedford book of hours, so another point for socially aspiring. “van Eyck was also using the dog as a device to connect the modern and the biblical world, making the past and the present and brining holy characters to life by associating them with familiar objects and images.” (Hicks, 2012). I’ve also seen it mentioned as symbolising faithfulness in marriage, or perhaps the dog is a symbol of good faith between the two contracting parties? Or is he alerting the couple to the two people entering the room?
The identity of the characters: The national gallery just lists the painting as The Arnolfini Portrait because the identity of the sitters has only increased as more documents emerge. First mention of the Arnolfini name was in the 1516 inventory, was revived by Crowe and Cavalcaselle in the 1857 claims that the paining was aligned with the Italian merchant of Bruges, Giovanni Arnolfini and bride Giovanna Cenami. This wasn’t challenged unto late 20th New research has suggest that the marriage didn’t take place until 1447, 6 years after van Eycks death. Opps. Could it be a cousin, Giovani di Nicolao Arnolfini and bride Costanza Trenta (married in 1426). Costanza had died a year before the painting was made. Does it show Nicolao with second wife or was it a memorial to Costanza (maybe dies in childbirth)? This is possible, Pliny claimed that mirrors reflected the shadows of the dead. More recently Pierre-Michel Bertrand argues that the women is the heavily pregnant painters wife Margaret van Eyck (although she doesn’t look like her portrait in the facial features). Schabacker has argued that perhaps Arnolfini wasn’t the subject, in fact he could have been one of the original sellers? I don’t think we can draw any firm conclusions here either!
The frame & shutters:
Three 16th c inventories reference the painting, the closing wings and the Hernoult-le-fin eg Arnoult Fin association. Scolarcs cannot seem to agree if there were shutters on the orginal piece or if they were added later. Van Eyck’s little Dresden Triptych is behind closed doors, perhaps the Arnolfini Portrait had the doors on originally and it was only meant to be seen on special occasions, like the Ghent Altarpiece? “Wings closed, the operation of seeing, with its implication of viewer participation as engenderer and as witness, is deferred”. (Seidel, 1995). The fire in 1734 may have been the reason for removing the frame and the shutters. The shutters mentioned were painted with imitation stone and metal which is the sort of thing Jan would do too eg the fake marble in his portrait of Jan de Leauw (according to the book that is, the ones I found online didn’t have any stone in them apart from https://www.wikiart.org/en/jan-van-eyck/portrait-of-a-young-man-1432 ) and the wings on the Dresden Triptych were quite plain. A later inventory records that an Ovid verse which tells of how the couple deceive each other. Incidentally, Giovanni had a recorded subsequent infidelity, could this be related? The Ovid verse could have been on the original frame as it’s just the sort of thing that van Eyck would have done to provide a literary context for this painting on the frame. E.g. like Chaucer he could be the ‘narrator’ or a story, hence the inscription on the painting so the painting could be a work of fiction. Or perhaps it was added later by an owner of the painting? Ovid was known widely in 15th C court circles so it’s possible.
My current favourite theory is my own (well I haven’t seen it written anywhere) and hinges on this, what if the painting was commissioned by the Duke himself as a little in-joke in court circles at Arnolfinis expense? We know the Duke had a habit of spending money on his “jokes” (contraptions which would squirt water on people etc). We know that at least some of the Arnolfini’s had dealings with the Duke (lent him money). It would explain all the elements, the man faithfully contracting something to the married women (might not be his own wife even, perhaps he did his little trick of rape and promise more than once?), the vague identity of the woman but the authentic looking portrait of the man, the dog looking out at the viewer, in on the joke. All the references to social climbing and over ostentation. The inscription (artist as storyteller). The realism drawing you in, (complete with the mirror with ‘witnesses’) and then the Ovid verse as the satirising punchline. It would even explain the shutters, enclosing the joke, until the Duke was ready to reveal it. This might even explain the departure of the painting from its underdrawing. The chandelier, patterns, sandals, oranges, beads, chair by the bed and the dog were absent from the underdrawing. The dog also doesn’t feature in the mirror so was probably added at a very late stage. The most modifications were made to the figures. The man’s facial features were moved down and resized, and his shoulders also lowered. The hat was made more impressive and the hem of tabard lowered. The feet were also changed to give a more elegant stance. The palm of the man’s hand was twisted further from the viewer and his other was made to fold more around the woman’s hand. Modification of the man’s hand changes the gesture away from the viewer and towards the woman, a shift in focus and more than an aesthetic decision. Could something at court have happened to put Arnolfini in disfavour, prompting perhaps a picture already underway to be subverted into a satire? I don’t know but this story appears to my sense of justice because Arnolfini sounded like a slimy creep to me 😉
Carroll, M. (1993) ‘”In the Name of God and Profit”: Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait’ In: Representations, University of California Press No. 44, pp. 96-132 [online] At: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2928641
(Accessed on 7 October 16)
Hicks, C. (2012) Girl in a Green Gown: The history and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait. Vintage