Explore Brooke Walker-Knoblich's paintings on her website

Sunday, November 14, 2010

2nd Saturday Artwalk

Midtown never ceases to amaze me. Tonight's artwalk was filled with characters and incredible artists of all sorts. I started at the Maiya Gallery and found an interesting solo show by Craig Smith. The main gallery was filled with roughly textured paintings of letters and color. It reminded me of playing with words as a child, beautifully shading the letters with my thick wax crayons. One little thing I found particularly interesting about these pieces was their construction. Upon close examination of several oil paintings, I found screw heads jutting out of the surface, right there in the midst of thick strokes.  The imperfectness of it, I guess, is what struck me.

My next stop was the Union Hall Gallery, which I'd never been to! It's a lovely little gallery on the 2nd floor of a classic Victorian. Mary Kercher (a beautiful painter from my Muse Monday art group) was exhibiting in a group show exploring the human figure. Her work always stuns me. Her self portrait meets you eye to eye as you walk in the front door.

             "Between Depth & Surface"                                     "Human Reign"

I love how free her work is. The colors seem to rupture from their transitions, sweeping the eye along harsh lines broken by strokes resembling fog. Her self portrait rivets you in the directness of its gaze. "Human Reign," she told me "was created after doing yoga." She just sits down to paint and lets it flow from her hand. The brush takes her where it wants to go.

The group show was "Human Expressed" so obviously there were a couple other figurative artists exhibiting work.

                                                 "Zero Attention Span"

Matthew Bird's drawings are more like wall sculptures, with their three dimensional elements stretching and bending beyond the frame. Up close, it's all just a dancing, swirling, delicate line of pencil. Lovely. And a young artist to boot! He's my age :)

Moving on to the Art Complex, now known as the 2110 Gallery after its beautiful renovation into a open gallery space, I stumbled upon an artist that made me giggle and prance and even tempt me to climb a cactus to make a vulture wiggle. Well not a real cactus. Or bird. It was a ten foot tall sculpture made of looped rebar studded with screws for thorns and atop sat a mama vulture, also made of twisted metal and springs, her head and legs drooping and bowing with the slightest breeze to feed her anxiously awaiting baby. The imagination and humor and well crafted use of recycled metal parts was refreshing. I'm hitting myself that I didn't think to take a photo, even one of the giant tortoise with round saw blades for shell plates would have been such a treasure to post. But I must admit that Stephen Cook's company name just says it all: Bubba's Garden Art.

There are so many artists in the art complex, it'd be impossible to mention them all. Most of them are working artists, photographers, painters, sculpors, etc. paying rent (mostly) for the foot traffic of this one night a month. There was one artist upstairs that made me linger over her symbolic drawings. Doracy's art works with archetypes. She told me her art speaks to her, tells her what should be done or even which direction it should hang (which of course changes depending on the available wall space). Her black canvases are scraped with whatever she can find: pens, nails, steel wool... interlacing gorgeous white marks with sweeps of form making gesture. All abstract of course. But I see an eye and what looks like a goat, and a manta ray poisoning someone with it's long tail? Very much like an intensely detailed Rorscach test. And no wonder. Doracy spent her life in psychology. We got to talking and it turns out she lived at the Cite Universitaire, the exact same housing complex I lived in back in 2003 in Paris! Such a small world connection. Next month, she's returning to France to work an art internship for a year. When she told me, I could feel the angst of my own wanderlust grabbing at my legs. What's stopping me from going too?

But as I began the 12 block trek home all I could do was grin wildly into the wind. There was no way the chill could withstand my stride as I sorted through the last 3 hours of the artwalk. I was high on all the creations I'd seen, the quarky artists I'd talked to, just feeling apart of this artistic community. Maybe that's why I'm still here: there's too many great things happening in Midtown to leave... just yet.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Midtown Hum

The first blog post after returning from Italy has admittedly been a little daunting. The cultural adjustment alone has been a lot to digest, not to mention the new insights the Florence Academy instilled in my artistic endeavors. But returning to Midtown was a truly inspiring experience.

The memory of driving over the wetlands on that first evening back 5 weeks ago, with the egrets exploring the boggy grasses and the downtown Sacramento cityscape finally breaking the valley's horizon, has stuck with me. The swelling of familiarity and comfort began to seep in, fully embracing me only as the City of Trees dappled the windshield. But it wasn't until I heard the quivering voice of my neighbor's harmonica through the dusky glow, that I finally felt home.

Midtown is a force to reckon with. Beyond the vibrancy of diversity (yes Sacramento is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in all of California!) there's an edgy, artistic energy here that's impossible to explain without sounding like a proponent of New Age philosophies. But it is palpable and condensing. You need only go as far as 1 block in any direction to discover it's expression... stencil "street art" stamps the cement underfoot, solo trumpets moan through the trees, African drums pulse through the parks, inked bodies congregate around dive bars, once barren sidewalk medians become luscious gardens of flowers and vegetables, and free newspapers inform us of a new painting class, the latest beat poetry or ballet performance. I could go on and on about the tiniest of things that makes this city speak so intensely to those who are open enough to listen.

 If the energy of Midtown were audible it'd be a hum, buzzing even the dark rubble of the freeway underpasses. It does in fact scream through the strings and voices of myriad local bands determined to perform every night of the week. And it scratches and scrapes across white paper as wild pencils try to capture a living model's movement. It clicks through the spokes of the classic cruiser bikes and thunders as thousands flood J Street for the monthly artwalk.

Obviously, Midtown resonates with me. I have finally found a tribe I am honored to be a part of: a proliferation of painters, photographers, and musicians all speaking their own language. It's a language of authentic authority, something that can only come with discovering and understanding one's own vision, voice, and heart.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Our Response to Art and Life.

Art is a reflection of a life. To be an artist does not simply mean that you paint or sculpt, or write or are engaged in a creative, expressive process. It's so much more than that. It's a whole way of perceiving the world and yourself as an active creator within it. Art not only deeply roots our aesthetics and sensitivities to nuance, but actually shows us how a life is purposefully chosen to be lived.

It is no surprise to me that most artists struggle to make financial ends meet. The artist's purpose (the drive to search for truth no matter how hard or painful it may be; to discover meaning and beauty even in the smallest of things; to engage in connections that confirm and inspire the deepest within us) typically appears irrelevant in a culture that supports flighty entertainment and business prowess. And how a culture responds to and supports its artists is one of the most significant reflections of its own mental, emotional and spiritual health.

When art is written off as too intellectual it exposes the absence of innate curiosity to discover something new and grapple with the challenge of not understanding.  When artists have the reputation of being too sensitive it expounds the fact that emotions are not seen as something of dire importance. And when we are not open enough for art to evoke a deep response within us, we have lost an essential part of what it means to be human.


Monday, July 26, 2010

From Start to Finish: The Painting Process at FAA

At the Florence Academy of Art, there is a strict, traditional process to create an oil painting. Beginning with charcoal on paper, the basic proportions of the model are determined and clear transitions between highlight and shadow are delineated. This preparatory drawing is then transposed (using tracing paper) onto a canvas that has been thinly painted with a mix of oil and distilled turpentine. The tint layer, or primatura, serves to unite the "tone" of the painting and can either be warm or cool. Our teacher, Stephen Bauman prefers to use raw umber for this layer, which is on the cool side, sometimes almost greenish depending on the brand of oil paint you are using. I personally prefer a much warmer color for my undertones, especially for a nude figure in a live setting, so I might have chosen a burnt umber instead, which adds a red-ish tone to the dark brown. 

At this stage the painting is only viewed in terms of value, how the shadows and light relate to each other devoid of color, and the painting is "blocked" in with a first layer of oil paint. Then a general flesh color is created to be used for the highlights. The shadows still remain one color, but half tones (transitions) should begin to be perceived with more accuracy and sensitivity. Always "drawing" (re-seeing, re-measuring etc.) while applying these first couple layers is of the utmost importance so that all the quirks can be worked out before serious attention to detail and color begins.

I noticed several major issues with my drawing at this point of the process... her left leg was too long and I had to bring the knee in a couple centimeters. Her lower rib cage had also collapsed (perhaps I had completed that part of the drawing when the model began to tire and was slouching?) so I had to create more space between her breast and belly.

By the beginning of the final, 4th week of the course, we now began to use color. And I finally learned how to achieve luminous shadows! You never mix white into a shadow color because it makes it chalky or dusty looking. If the shadow needs to be brighter/lighter for the form to properly fall in place, pure red or ochre (sparingly) should be mixed into your umber. Where the delicate transitions occur between shadow and light, the color is usually dull, often appearing to be grayish or leached. A liminal  color for a liminal space. Another trick to take note of: the darkest part of a highlight will ALWAYS be lighter than the lightest part of a shadow. Keeping the brushes used for lights and shadows separate is a fundamental!

Completed Painting of Sylvia. 85x50cm

Many people have asked me if I learned a lot from the class. The resounding answer for me was yes, but not in the assumed answer to the question. Yes I learned some incredible new technical skills that I will apply in my own process of working... namely how to create luminous shadows and the proper use of hard vs soft line to create depth. The closer the figure appears, the stronger the colors and form should be, the more detailed. But as it recedes, the outlines should begin to blur with the background. Almost like a shallow focus. Otherwise the figure appears to be cut out and pasted instead of belonging to its environment. 

But, I also learned more about what I would personally, as an artist, choose to do differently. In regards to subject matter, most of the works I've seen from the teachers and alumni of the Florence Academy of Art, are incredibly academic, often depicting traditional biblical scenes or obviously done in the studio for studying purposes. While beautiful and accomplished, I personally don't feel any connection to the model/subject. They're oftentimes removed, and the intimacy between artist and subject is lost. I understand the "academy" atelier tradition's very purpose is to uphold the techniques of the renaissance masters, but as a contemporary artist I rebuke at the idea of adhering to stories that have no personal or historical relevance to the here and now. 

The idea of subject matter has been very inspiring to me and I ache to return to my studio to paint the people, cultures, and places that capture our moment in history and our connections to each other.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Chianti Kismet

Our Friday night was supposed to be a short evening at the Mercato festival... a 50 minute train ride southwest to Certaldo, some music, maybe some acrobatics, then catch the last train back home. We should have known that nothing would go as expected when the German changed plans en route.

When Ann and I arrived in Certaldo, we were informed that "the group" (several local Italians and Ann's German friend Olivia) were not going to the festival til Saturday night.  Feeling a bit guilty that we had taken the train out, Olivia coerced her friend into driving into town to pick us up and take us to a house party they were all attending in the country. Having about an hour or so to kill, Ann and I wandered the spontaneous market that had formed in the piazza in Certaldo's lower city, buying sundresses and skirts from local seamstresses and scoffing at the kitschy tourist jewelry, lace boxes and laquered trinkets. On our way back to the meeting point with Olivia, I stumbled upon a sketch artist on the street. Her work utterly captivated me... by far the best artist I've seen peddling 5 euros portraits.

Her dancing, graceful lines were perfectly contrasted by heavy, bold marks. I passed by slowly, only to stop 100 meters away, turn around, and head directly for the model's chair. Posing live for a drawing is such an incredible experience. The interaction that occurs between artist and subject is so visceral, expressing the whole environment... with it's time constraints and people walking by; an evolution of acute focus and blurry distraction, all interwoven with the bustle of a city street.

Soon we were tearing 'round narrow country roads with an Italian behind the wheel. Ann and I giggled nervously, mostly, I think, to reassure each other as we grasped at the car seats. The jolting accordion singing from the radio kept perfect time with our bodies hurtling through space around the hairpin turns. I was so grateful it was deliciously cool as we wound through the bottom of a valley, the first truly dark night sky I've seen in Italy, salted from hill to horizon. I ached to see the countryside, straining my eyes to peer into the darkness of imagined vineyards and olive plantations.

The party was fun, classically American in celebration of parents gone for the weekend. Sweet shisha smoke greeted us in the candlelit garden, wine and sangria passed from hand to hand, a chaos of electronica (and even the limbo!) echoed off the terra cotta pavers. That night we slept three girls in a full bed, timing our turns with the heat waves in the small room.

The next afternoon we were treated to a home cooked Italian meal by our host's grandmother. 1st "light" course was the largest bowl of spaghetti I've ever eaten... and I've gorged on some serious pasta... in a spicy tomato sauce with freshly grated parmisiano, all drizzled with olive oil pressed from their orchards. When the 2nd course arrived our eyes bulged. Plates heaped high with deep fried zuccinis, potatoes, and an Italian delicacy battered and fried pumpkin flowers spread their way across the table. It was all so unbelievably delicious, painfully so.  And then the watermelon came out and the homemade limoncello to aid in our digestion. They finally took us for our word that we were stuffed when ice cream was mentioned and we all groaned in unison, furiously shaking our heads.

Olivia had promised her friend that she would help him trim his olive trees that afternoon so we were soon en route to the orchard.

        Ann in a field across from                         the olive orchard

Ann and I had every intention of helping the workers but when we arrived a group of guys were just leaving to go swimming in a nearby lake and they invited us to come along. Hmmm work through the heat of the day in an orchard in sundresses and high heels (of course we hadn't brought a change of clothes!) hacking limbs off trees or go bask in cool, fresh water. Tough choice.

And we finally got the views we could only have guessed at the night before...

I'd like to say that I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the drive, but in all honesty I barely looked out the window. Maybe it was my propensity for motion sickness in a car moving at NORMAL speeds on STRAIGHT roads. Or maybe it was the stench of 3 shirtless, Italian men wafting through the cabin of the cramped hatchback. All I know is it took all my focus to simply grip the headrest bars and anticipate the curves of the road approaching us at unbelievable speeds.

The rest of the afternoon was like a dream. We wandered from the lake to a swimming pool with an incredible view, watched the sunset over the vineyards and had another delicious homemade pasta dinner. Sitting outside the old stone house, swatting at zanzari (one of the few Italian words I've picked up) I relished in the obscurity the lack of understanding created for me. I could just be, an observer listening to the lilting music a foreign language becomes when not a word is comprehended.

We were rudely awakened from our reverie when we learned that there were no late trains back to Florence. Perhaps if we batted our eyes and mooned over a local he'd drive us the 30 minutes it takes by car? Next train departed at 6:30am...

So off we went to Certaldo's Mercato Festival with three car loads packed with carousing friends anxious to party. Apparently Saturday night is the most popular, the apex of the entire festival. Which unfortunately for us meant it cost 18 euros to get in. When we didn't arrive until midnight and the last act ended at 1:30am, there was no way any of us were going to pay the full price ticket. Finding an overgrown cobble stoned path, we hiked up to the old city ramparts in hopes of finding a secret entrance. Nope! All ways in were tightly guarded. And though I would have liked to make my mountain guide, rock climbing brother proud by scaling an ancient wall in a sundress, we resulted to asking people leaving the festival if they would give us their ticket stubs for re-entry.  But the gaurds were also giving every person who left a stamp to get back in.

Luckily there was an artist in the group with a sharpee! 

And then the madness of hundreds of people packed into tiny streets spontaneously ruptured with the firework smoke. Flame jugglers, actors, acrobats, stilt walkers, marching bands, fiddlers, belly dancers, lovers and drunks created a throbbing entity all of its own. It is impossible to describe the chaos of such magnetic beauty. The portrait possibilities alone made me clench my camera with a death grip, trying to steady my hand amidst the jostling of Italian rhythm.

By 2:30am we were stumbling back down the hill, Ann and I still hoping one of the guys in our group would give us a ride. I always give men the benefit of the doubt, but I seem to be proved wrong time and time again. They did indeed just leave us there... two young women in dresses, at 3am on an empty street, fuming as they drove past us waving out the window and joyfully yelling "ciao!" 

I never thought I'd hear myself say that an experience like that, which potentially could have been dangerous or completely miserable, turned into a moment of pure gold. Within 5 minutes of their departure, as we were sitting on a rock wall determining what to do next, two lovely Italian women walked down the road. Michela spoke perfect English (is an English teacher in fact) and immediately swept us up into her magnetic smile and sparkle. She joined us on the wall for the next 3 hours, rolling smokes, cuddling us with a sleeping bag and helping us imitate the bullfrogs in the nearby riverbed.

I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard.

When the sun finally arrived we bid goodbye, promising to visit Michela in Modena within the next two weeks, and walked through the freshly washed streets of Certaldo back to the station.

As we were waiting for the first train to arrive, all we could do was munch cookies that the ever-prepared Ann had stashed in her purse, scratch at the contacts shriveling inside our eyes, smile, and wonder at life's incredible gifts. And of course sleep the whole way back to Florence.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Importance of Drawing

When I began my painting class at the Florence Academy of Art I was fairly frustrated when we didn't even pick up a paint brush til the 2nd week of a 4 week course. The first 5 days were spent just drawing. Apparently, in the academic tradition, drawing is of the utmost importance for it allows the artist to study a subject simply through line, gesture and tone. It also frees the artist to explore compositions and make mistakes... it is only a drawing, afterall, something traditionally used in preparation for a REAL work of art. And this makes sense both psychologically and economically, when the very materials (oil pigments etc.) were rare and expensive.

But I never understood how important drawing was til I visited the Uffizi Gallery. Many art historians claim that preparatory drawings created a fundamental shift in both the style and artistic thinking of artists in the 15th Century (the beginning of the Italian Renaissance). Drawing may have begun simply as a means of capturing artistic thought processes but it soon became the ideal way to express more naturalistic perspectives and forms. Even in painting.

Botticelli's tempura painting "The Birth of Venus" perfectly illustrates this philosophy. Obviously this is not the entire composition of the famous painting, but I have enlarged it in order to see the artist's technique. Notice the strong outline around each figure, clearly delineating the curves of the arms and legs, perfectly expressing the toes, and separating the figures' whole bodies from their environs. Each element of the painting is purely contained.

Botticelli, himself, said that the most important part of a painting is the drawing... all the rest is just filling in the lines with color.

That statement deeply resonated with my own process of painting. For years I have been using a digital projector to transpose an image onto my canvas. After quickly sketching the outlines of shadow and form, I have the exact composition and proportions I desire. Then it really is just coloring inside the lines. However, modern technology definitely has it's limitations. Trying to paint a live figure once again has made me realize how untrained my eye had become in seeing proportion correctly. Drawing from life is truly an indispensable practice for every artist.  Time to fill up that sketchbook!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

"Discovering" Ramiro Sanchez

If I could choose where to live in Florence the decision wouldn't be hard. The Oltrarno district, south of the Arno River, instantly felt like home the first day I wondered out of the city center. Yes it is somewhat lacking the grandiose tourist sights... not to say that the Piazza Santa Spirito isn't the perfect place to have a lunch or that the Modern museum in the Pizzi Palace isn't one of the more important museums in Florence. It's just that in Oltrarno, it's as real as Italy gets. Women hang out the windows to pinch their wet clothes onto the line, old men ride rickety bicycles, their arms loaded with bags of fresh produce. Laughter can be heard from the depths of woodworking and leather shops, and even a solo, perfectly round tomato forgotten in the gutter becomes a sign that people are LIVING here.

As I was looking for Gusta Pizza I stumbled upon a gallery (inevitably closed for lunch) and was incredibly moved by the paintings and drawings I saw displayed in the window. When I jotted down Ramiro Sanchez's name I figured I was simply educating myself on an artist from the past, even though his work was beautifully fresh, because most of the art you see on display in the city are old masterpieces by artists long since dead. So I was completely shocked when I looked him up online and discovered not only is he a contemporary artist but he actually teaches at the Florence Academy of Art!!!

You can peruse his website and see his magnificent handling of paint in portraits, figures, and landscapes alike. I'm only going to discuss a couple images that really inspired me.

Ramiro's painting "Wicked" took my breath away. How can shadows, by their very nature meaning the absence of light, be so luminous? And his handling of the flesh is so exquisite with the perfectly clear  lines mixed with foggy passages of color. 

But besides just the technique of paint application, I think what makes this painting particularly powerful is the play between static and active distributions in both the figure and composition. The way her back is curved suggests a restful, well supported position. Yet her cocked foot and the gap under her arm display an awakened activity within the figure. In turn, her weight is simultaneously supported by both an active and static entity...the fabric in the foreground looks like a hammock (which as we know shifts and moves constantly) and the couch in the background is of a solid wood foundation (always stationary). The dichotomies are disturbingly beautiful making me feel, simultaneously, at peace and on edge.

I really love this portrait. How the dreamy, almost sad quality of her expression seems to be represented equally in the background makes the painting a whole emotional piece. The technique of mixing a solid form with a washy background also creates a beautiful juxtaposition and the muted palette is at once delicately feminine and weighty in its substance. It's an incredibly haunting image and I am so thrilled to have found this artist. Tomorrow I will inquire at the Academy if he is available this summer for a class or perhaps just a conversation...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy

I've taken to wandering the city. Finding NEW piazzas has become difficult but I always seems to discover some small, unknown alleyway. And they're always the most beautiful spaces imaginable. Escaping the hustle of traffic and reveling in the subtle tones of shadow within shadow, I feel so at peace in these narrow forgotten streets.

Though the piazzas are, of course, wonderful places. Particularly to glean little gems of knowledge! Wandering through the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, I happened to hear an Italian tour guide suggesting to her group of American bicyclists, that one of the oldest known pharmacies was just around the corner. Without a moments hesitation, I changed course, following the direction of her furiously shaking hand. After only a couple minutes walk I stumbled into one of the most beautiful buildings I been in in Florence.

The Santa Maria Novela Pharmacy, also known as the Officina Profumo-Framaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is one of the oldest pharmacies in the world. It was originally founded by friars in 1221 and was the source of medications, balms and pomades for all the monks infirmaries. News of their quality products became famous and the pharmacy eventually opened to the public. By the 18th century their fame had spread to Russia, the Indies and even China.

The pharmacy is still in operation and focuses exclusively on herbalist art, basing all its preparations on traditional herbs and oils of natural origin. The vast majority of the medicinal herbs are grown locally on the hills around Florence.

The Historic Sales room is replete with painted, vaulted ceilings,
and is where the company's customers were welcomed.

      In 1848, as the Pharmacy's fame grew, the Sales room was restructured 
to entertain and accommodate all their new the customers.

The Perfume Room's walls are lined with the portraits and urns of the 
friars & Stephani family running the Pharmacy for the last 4 generations.

The Herbologist room or old Apothocary shop has a view out into the herb garden and hundreds of multicolored decanteurs and bottled elixers beautifully displayed in walnut cabinets. 

Delicate frescoes cover all four walls and ceiling of the Old Library. There is an extensive collection of antique texts (some 800 year old recipes!) now housed in the Sacristy and the Old Laboratory has many machines and mortars, precious glassware and metal utensils that were used in the distillation and production process. What an unbelievable wealth of knowledge.

I left the museum simply beaming. So unexpected! And an incredible reminder of what treasures can be found if only you keep your eyes and ears open and act spontaneously.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Henry Miller in Livorno

Today we escaped the Florentine heat. Traveling with two Germans through the public transportation system was cause for some minor irritations on their part (why is the que so long and only two windows open? This train is 15 minutes late?! Eh Italians...) but we soon settled into my first air conditioned compartment since arriving in Italy. What a relief! The 1.45h trip to Livorno was a teasing look at the countryside: beautiful open fields, Cyprus and shimmering silver leafed trees conceiling ochre buildings flew by at a rumbling pace. After a short bus ride from the station we were soon burying our toes in the pebble studded sand, already collecting multicolored unicorn shells. Be weary of picking them up IN the water though. Little protruding toes from a live crab still inhabiting his home are quite startling.

I had brought my watercolors with me with every intention of creating little postcard sized paintings of the Mediterranean. I could probably blame my lack of artistic inspiration on the harsh light sucking away color in it's dramatizing of contrast between reflection and watery depths. But really it was because I had picked up "Henry Miller on Writing." Not exactly your typical "light" beach read. Yet his articulate bluntness and character of critical thought grabbed my gut with a death grip. Instead of painting I feasted on his words til the sun began to set and we had to catch the train back to Florence. And even then, as now, his words remained with me. I wanted to laugh and weep and run around screaming, simultaneously. So my art inspiration for the day will be to share a passage from "Why Don't You Try to Write?" that particularly spoke to me.

"Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heart-ache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there." p. 25 from "Henry Miller on Writing."

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Art in Context at the Bargello Museum

Today was an incredible reminder of what is often lost when we experience art. Namely, how deeply affected, in both the creating and viewing, each piece is by it's cultural context.

This morning our class visited the Bargello Museum with our "guide" Joan Reifnsyder. It is an incredible museum, often overlooked by many tourists.

Built in the late 1200's, it is one of the oldest public buildings in Florence and eventually became a meeting place for the city council (a guild of merchants). The merchants' power was, however, severely limited by their lack of a military for they were not nobility afterall. For protection, they would hire a knight from outside of Florence.  Bargello actually means Captain of Justice and the influence of these "captains" can be seen in their coats of arms lining the interior wall of of the courtyard. By 1574 the building served as a jail and many of the rooms still show evidence of where the cells used to divide the space.

By the mid 1800's, the Bargello became the first national museum as Italy united and Florence was the Capital for a short 5 year stint. At that time it was completely restored, vaults painted etc. and the building appears now as it was completed then. It is primarily a sculpture museum, housing important works by Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Michelangelo (all of whom are considered Renaissance artists). I name these artists, specifically, because their sculptures are so much better understood within their cultural context.

I, for one, am not a fan of gilded allegorical works.  If I had been in the Bargello by myself I would have flown by these two "Sacrifice of Isaac"s without a second thought. But they both play an important role in Florentine architecture and provide interesting insights into newly emerging Renaissance tastes.

                  by Lorenzo Ghiberti                                      by Filippo Brunelleschi

In 1401 there was a competition to commission an artist to design the doors on the northern entrance to the Florence Baptistry. Several artists competed, all adhering to the same parameters of design (Isaac and Jacob, an angel, a symbolic lamb, a donkey and two shepherds) but only the 1st and 2nd place pieces were saved... the rest were melted down for the bronze to be used in the actual making of the doors... a classic example of how art was actually created in the Renaissance: by commission only. Artists didn't create a piece of art and then try to sell it, like now. Every artist knew exactly where the money was coming from before they started any work of art.

Ghiberti's design won the competition. But why was it chosen over over Brunelleschi's? It all comes down to composition and the depiction of emotion. Ghiberti's design is classically Greek, with the contraposto (weight on one leg with lowered opposite shoulder) pose of Isaac and the beautiful angular structure of the figures, where the eye is led from the symbolic lamb in the upper left, down through Abraham's upraised arm and then perfectly supported at the bottom by the donkey and shepherds. The figures are calm and contained within their borders. Brunelleschi's in much more violent.  Abraham is already plunging the knife into Isaac's throat (so much so that the Angel has to actually physically restrain his hand) and the look of torture and anguish on both Isaac and Abraham's face is palpable. The bottom figures seem to be bursting from their borders rather than maintaining a supportive calm. This is the direction the Renaissance will eventually head (Caravaggio  immediately comes to my mind) but Florentine tastes are not there yet. They are looking to the ancient Greeks for their aesthetics and so Ghiberti wins because his design is perfectly aligned with such fashions.

When Ghiberti won the competition it began an incredible series of events... later, by default from his success on the northern entrance, he created the famous golden doors of the eastern entrance, coined the "Gates of Paradise" by Michelangelo. AND, Brunelleschi having lost the commission, left Florence to study Architecture in Rome, only to return and build the Duomo's magnificent dome! A perfect reminder that rejection in one place can provide the perfect opportunity for excellence elsewhere.

David sculptures can be seen throughout all of Florence. The story of a young boy defeating a man giant through wit alone was a favorite symbol for the budding republic. These two sculptures were both done by Donatello in the early to mid 1400's.

It is hard to believe that these two depictions of David are by the same artist. The one on the left, cast in bronze, is Donatello's most famous work and was the first freestanding statue (meant to be viewed by walking completely around it) created since antiquity. Notice how young David is depicted here, like a prepubescent boy of perfect proportion, with effeminate features, soft skin and an ethereal expression. In contrast, the one on the right, carved in marble, appears strangely elongated (especially in the neck), with a stronger "male" presence and stance.

The bronze has a history of controversy. Some claim the alluring girlishness of the figure pertains to homosexual practices during the Renaissance, others, that Donatello was simply interpreting the Bible's description of the young lad to an exaggerated dramatic effect... stressing the mind over might allegory. So we know that Donatello had obvious and intentional control of his proportions and emotional impact. So why does his marble depiction of the same character appear so distorted? As I have said before, all Renaissance art was produced on commission, so we must understand the purpose of this sculpture, primarily where it was meant to seen from, in order to understand why the artist choose to create it in such a manner. This David was meant to be fitted into a niche upon the facade of a church where it would be viewed by the public. Limited by the narrowness of the street, the viewpoint would be one of a dramatic upward angle, so in order for the proportions to appear correct, they must be elongated else it would seem as though David had no neck at all. A perfect example of how taking art out of its intended context can completely distort our viewing of it.

Just as the David and Goliath story is a potent symbol for Florentine's social philosophy, so too is Michelangelo's portrait of Brutus an important allegory for political prowess. We all know the story of Brutus aiding in the assassination of Julius Cesar. So how is this important to contemporary Florence?

When the bust was commissioned in 1540, Lorenzo di Medici (not the famous Lorenzo the Magnificent) had recently assassinated his cousin Allessandro di Medici, a direct descendant of the Medici family line who had gained much personal power when he had the Pope declare him Duke. Many attribute the commission of the bust as directly linked to this modern day assassination. Even Michelangelo's rough handling of the hair seems to perfectly depict the texture of Allessandro's mulatto race. The commission would have been a reminder to Florentines of the importance of disposing of powerful despots when that power is self proclaimed and not represented by the republic.

Without this knowledge of the contemporary political climate, I would have walked right by this sculpture, writing it off as yet another simple aesthtic honoring of antiquity. I will never look at art so sparingly again, neglecting to inquire into its purpose, and thereby relying solely upon an aesthetic experience. There's so much more to learn about these pieces. What good is perfect technique if the idea behind it is never understood?