Monday, March 23, 2015

Botticelli to Braque: Scotland's Secret Treasure

Who knew that a small country like Scotland had such an important art collection? In order to let the art world in on their secret, The National Galleries of Art in Edinburgh, which comprises three museums that cover different periods in art, sent out a special exhibit of 55 masterpieces called "Botticelli to Braque," which is running at the de Young Museum from now through May 31, 2015.

The collection includes work from almost every art movement from the early Renaissance to the early twentieth century, which makes it instructive for the novice, but many of the works are somewhat atypical for the artist, which gives them special interest for experienced viewers.

The Botticelli of the exhibition's title is a fairly typical madonna and child for the early Renaissance; the madonna adoring the Christ child asleep on the ground has a particular symbolism, but instead of the usual dusty old manger, Botticelli gives us a gorgeously realized garden. It is also noteworthy that this artist was much more likely to depict subjects from Greek mythology than from Christian stories. While you may not be able to relate to this myth, it expresses the basic value that mothers tend to adore their infant children, and perhaps to see them as a gift from God.

Sandro Botticelli, 1444-1510
The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child, c. 1485

The show's example by Braque is much less imposing, and much less appealing, but it is an excellent example of a style that was important in the early twentieth century called Cubism. Cubism was basically an analytical approach to painting; cubes were a result of artists like Braque and Picasso deconstructing painting and deconstructing content. They looked hard at traditional painting techniques, and then said, "How can we make something new? How can we make art that reflects the crazy world of the twentieth century?" They looked at traditional content and said, "How can we shake it up so that people get a fresh viewpoint?" The longer I look at the painting below—and it requires a lot of study— the more it seems like a look inside a mind before a coherent image is formed. Digging around in this murky landscape, you can pick out a candlestick, bits of a newspaper, a drink glass, and lines suggesting furniture and buildings. It's like what you might think of as you fall asleep after a night at the tavern.

Georges Braque, 1882-1963
The Candlestick, 1911

The analytical approach—testing various viewpoints and materials—evolved through several stages, and various artists came up with different results. Braque was developing cubism in conversation with Pablo Picasso. The painting by Picasso is decidedly small-time, but it is a good example of deconstruction. Experimentation in technique may be seen in the corked bottle, which is rendered with 3-dimensional shadows and grit in the paint, while the gas lamp on the wall is barely outlined. Deconstruction in shapes is used in presenting different planes of a guitar. I think the odd shape drawn on a light background refers to the gas jet used for heating or cooking.

Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973
Guitar, Gas-Jet and Bottle, 1913
This cubist painting by Léger is much more fully realized. He made a deliberate effort to render all shapes as tubes; his style is sometimes humorously referred to as tubism. This painting is a pretty far cry from the work of Braque. Léger applied the idea of deconstruction to the female body, as well as to the traditional still life.

Fernand Léger, 1881-1955
Woman and Still Life, 1921

One of the biggest surprises in the show was a work by Vermeer. This artist is best known for Dutch interiors with light streaming through a window on a single modest woman, playing an instrument or performing a task. Religious parables were rare in his small body of work. I like this work for its warmth and intimacy. Jesus knew the sisters Mary and Martha well; he stayed in their home, and it was their brother, Lazarus, that he raised from the dead. He is not putting on a show here; even his halo is a modest aura. He's just sitting with them in their kitchen. Not surprisingly, the sisters have different personalities, and sometimes squabble. The woman holding the bread is the nervous hostess, worried about feeding the guests who will be coming to hear him speak. Mary, on the other hand, is just enthralled with his presence, not bothering with the tasks at hand. Jesus resolves the dispute by favoring the adoring Mary. This part is open to interpretation, but I think Mary saw that she had a rare opportunity and it would be smart to take advantage of it. Playing the role of hostess was distracting Martha from the experience.

Johannes Vermeer, 1632-1675
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, c. 1655

In the painting below, El Greco dramatized an allegory of unknown meaning, presenting it as a scene on stage. An attractive young person holds our attention merely by lighting a candle, perhaps with a burning stick from a fire. A more mature man, an outsider with a prominent cape and hat, is spell-bound, and some sort of monkey is taking a very intelligent interest in the proceedings. Something exciting is about to happen, some sort of ritual is in progress.

El Greco, 1541-1614
An Allegory (Fábula), c. 1590
One of my favorite paintings was an unusual work by Edgar Degas. The bulk of Degas' work depicts dancers or racehorses from a detached standpoint, in which he manipulates design, color, shapes, and other aesthetic concerns. Much less often he produced insightful portraits, and Diego Martelli is brilliant. You can see Diego is Degas' friend; he has kicked off his slippers and let down his guard; he is lost in thought while Degas paints his portrait. He is sitting on a small, uncomfortable stool, calling attention to the cramped environment. This image makes it difficult to separate the dark blue table covering from a vaguely depicted blue sofa. The table is littered with books and papers indicating a scholarly life, and, in fact, Martelli was an art critic. I think the slightly raised perspective suggests the critic's attitude toward art.

Edgar Degas, 1834-1917
Diego Martelli, 1879

One section of the show was devoted to Scottish art. Several of these works were monumental, full-length portraits of Scottish aristocracy that were staid and formal; they didn't hold my interest. What got me was a work by Henry Raeburn from 1795. Raeburn was best known for solemn portraits of august persons seated in traditional poses, but he struck a more whimsical note with this image of a minister ice-skating; though the Reverend is nonchalant, his graceful pose is difficult on ice-skates. I like the simple silhouette against a murky background.

Henry Raeburn, 1756-1823
Reverend Robert Walker Skating, c. 1795

A Scottish portrait artist from earlier in the 1700s was Allan Ramsay. He was more of a society painter and many of his portraits depict women wearing lavish outfits. The model for the portrait below was the painter's wife, but the portrait isn't really about her personality or their relationship. It is intended as a show-off piece, a self-advertisement, showing his uncanny ability to depict complex lace, sumptuous satin, porcelain complexion, and a perfect hand (hands are the hard part of a portrait), and throw in a lovely bouquet as well. I figure he used his wife as a model because no one else was willing to sit that long.

Allan Ramsay, 1713-1784
Margaret Lindsay, Mrs. Allan Ramsay, c. 1758
A similar work was painted during the same period by Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Again we have porcelain complexion, a perfect hand, and lovely flowers; the subject is just a model. However, Greuze was a sentimentalist, and emotion generally trumps all in his work. And isn't it lovely when a young person gets all sad over the loss of a pet, perhaps forming a little resting place for it in the backyard?

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1725-1805
Girl with a Dead Bird, 1765
Returning to fashionable portraits, I was delighted to find a famous work by American John Singer Sargent. Sargent produced portraits of society women in Europe as well as the United States. In his portrait of Lady Agnew, a member of the Scottish aristocracy, character dominates fashion and even trumps Sargent's bravura brushstroke. This woman engages you directly, unflinchingly; she knows what she is doing. Her posture is all training: while she appears to be at her ease, she is obviously holding in her abs; and one hand slyly clutches the edge of her armchair to help her remain erect. She is allowing herself to be admired, but she is not letting down her guard.

John Singer Sargent, 1856-1925
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892

One of the most touching portraits in the show was by Anthony van Dyck.  Although it depicts the daughters of Charles the I of England, it is informal, intimate, and even tender; the painter seems to have loved those children, and they seem to love each other. It's unusual to find an intimate work by van Dyck; he is generally associated with life-size, full-length portraits, usually of aristocratic women.

Anthony van Dyck, 1599-1641
Princesses Elizabeth and Anne, Daughters of Charles I, 1637

Sometimes a portrait is not a portrait but a character study. Instead of trying to capture a likeness of a specific person, the artist creates a "fictional" character who embodies certain traits or particular moods. Called "tronies," these were in vogue during the 1600s, especially in Holland. This one by Frans Hals depicts the sort of person who get into drunken rants, an outspoken person "whose jawbone attacks everyone." He is shown brandishing the jawbone of a cow as a weapon. This pose also alludes to a biblical story in which Samson used the jawbone of an ass to slay a thousand Philistines. The painting is associated with a particular individual, but he was mainly the model for a character study.

Frans Hals, 1582-1666
Portrait of Pieter Verdonck, c. 1627

Rembrandt had a similar intent with the painting below. Though it depicts a lovely woman in bed, she is not concerned with her image or her sex appeal; she is worried about something. "What is that noise? Where is my companion? What's going on out there?"  In the 1600s, the Dutch slept in beds that were like cabinets with heavy drapery, to help keep out winter's damp and chill. Here the bed frame and drapery also suggest a proscenium and curtain, like a stage. We're looking at an inner world of private fears. There is also a possible biblical allusion. The character Sarah had seven husbands who were killed by the devil; this woman could be watching anxiously while her eighth bridegroom tries to chase the devil away.

Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669
A Woman in Bed, 1647
An example of a twentieth century tronie is this portrait by Jawlensky. The artist might not have even needed a model for it; he merely used a simplified face as a framework; personality and emotion are conveyed in the vivid hues and the contrasting brights and darks. What sort of personality? The left eye emerging from a dark shadow tends to suggest depths of pain, the bright yellows and greens convey anguish and jealousy, the red looks like the flush of anger, and the coarse daubing brushstroke expresses inner turmoil. I see a jilted lover.

Alexei von Jawlensky, 1864-1941
Head of a Woman, c. 1911

Landscapes were not treated as important until the 1800s. In the 1700s, painters relied heavily on portraits to pay the bills. Thomas Gainsborough is best known for ridiculously pompous full-length portraits of the fashionable set, but his landscapes are lovely and unpretentious.

Thomas Gainsborough, 1727-1788
River Landscape with a View of a Distant Village, c. 1750
Corot did some interesting character studies, but he was one of the earliest artists to yield to his fascination with nature and to treat landscape as an important subject. This work from the 1820's anticipates the freshness of nature and the preoccupation with light effects of the Impressionists, and you can see why they were inspired by his example.

Camille Corot, 1796-1875
Ville-d’Avray: Entrance to the Wood, c. 1825

This painting by Monet developed those qualities into a typical Impressionist landscape. Monet's work is so plentiful that I sometimes get blasé, but the reflections in the river make this scene irresistible. Monet loved this line of poplars so much that he fought to save them when they were threatened by development; his love is evident in this bright and gentle scene; this is his idea of heaven.

Claude Monet, 1840-1926
Poplars on the Epte, 1891

But the twentieth century demanded something bolder in landscape. Anticipating the attitude of the Cubists, Cezanne wanted to break up the planes in a scene, to dramatize the structure, to analyze the colors into their constituent hues, and to transform nature into decorative abstraction. He wasn't worried about details; he even let blank areas of the canvas stand for light filtering through the trees. He wanted to say, "What gets me about these trees is their dramatic structure." It gets me, too.

Paul Cézanne, 1839-1906
The Big Trees, c. 1904

What appealed to André Derain about the landscape was the interplay of colors. As though fixating on the patches of color in Cézanne's style, he caused patches of bold color to dominate this scene of the coast of France. He is saying, "The best thing about the south of France is the way the hot light brings out the intense colors. Your spirit feels joyous and free."

André Derain, 1880-1954
Collioure, 1905

Art changed a lot during the four centuries represented by this collection from Edinburgh. People tend to prefer certain eras or styles over others. It might seem that art degenerated or fell apart in the twentieth century. But art, like science or technology, is experimental; all creative people are constantly wondering "what if I did it this way instead?" And art reflects its' time. Painting developed during periods when societies were more unified and events followed a simpler narrative line. In the twentieth century societies became increasingly fragmented and contentious, while science and technology exploded. Who could be a Botticelli or even a Monet in this chaotic time?

With 55 paintings the National Galleries of Edinburgh provides the story of art in a convenient capsule-size that you can consume in a hour or two—an hour of education, wonder, and enjoyment. If you've been watching for a good reason to get yourself back up to the de Young, this is it.