Braque’s “Homage to J. S. Bach”

Braque, "Homage to J S Bach," winter 1911-12. Oil on canvas, 21 1/4 x 28 3/4" (54 x 73 cm). Accessed 26 February 2021 at https://www.moma.org/collection/works/116275

Braque, “Homage to J S Bach,” winter 1911-12. Oil on canvas, 21 1/4 x 28 3/4″ (54 x 73 cm). Link to MoMa image

 

Last week one of my students selected to write about Georges Braque’s “Homage to J. S. Bach” for their weekly assignment. I think that this painting is clever in several different ways, including how the signature of Braque seems to also be a witty reference to the similarity between the artist’s last name and the last name of the famous Baroque composer.

Braque includes musical instrument or references to music ins several of his paintings, and he himself was a gifted musician who played the violin, flute and accordion. So it is unsurprising that he would create an homage to one of the greatest Western composers, who happened to be a personal favorite of Braque. And I think that Bach’s polyphonic musical compositions, which present dominant musical motifs at through different layers of instruments and voices, parallels that way that Cubist paintings present the same objects through a variety of fragmented perspectives. The various inventions of Bach also parallel how Braque sought to create variations of similar subjects throughout his career. The Philips Collection blog has a post, “From Bach to Braque,” which takes the analysis even further by pointing out that weaving together of voices in a Bach fugue gives a sense of structure, line, and architecture in Braque’s painting.

According to the MoMA website, Braque “thought musical instruments added a tactile dimension to the visual image: ‘The distinctive feature of the musical instrument as an object, he said, ‘is that it comes alive to the touch.'” Perhaps, as a painter, he felt a disconnect with his paintings because he didn’t physically touch them in the creation process, since he used a paint brush. In that way, music could bridge the gap of physicality. And I think that the musical subject matter adds an extra layer of experience that goes beyond the spatial explorations of Cubism, by adding visualization of the aural experience of listening to music.

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“The Arnolfini Portrait” and “La Belle Iseult”

Over the weekend, I listened to author and curator Suzanne Fagence Cooper present a Zoom lecture titled “At Home with Jane and William Morris,” drawing information from a book scheduled to come out next year. I was especially interested in the passing comment that Cooper made about William Morris’s painting La Belle Iseult (1858, shown below). This is the only completed oil painting by William Morris that exists; today his work in the arts is more closely associated with designs of tapestries and wallpaper prints. However, early in his career (when he fell under the beguiling spell of Dante Gabriel Rossetti), Morris tried his hand at painting. The model for this painting is Jane Burden, who would marry William Morris the following year in 1859.

William Morris, "La Belle Iseult," 1858.  Photo © Tate. Available through Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

William Morris, “La Belle Iseult,” 1858. Oil paint on canvas, 71.8 x 50.2 cm. Photo © Tate. Available through Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

Suzanne Fagence Cooper mentioned how this painting is has some similarities with Jan Van Eyck’s painting The Arnolfini Portrait (1432), with the positioning of Iseult’s body matching the turned pose and voluminous drapery folds of the Arnolfini wife, in addition to the inclusion of oranges on the right side. In comparing the two paintings side by side, the folded up bed curtains on the right side also have similarity in composition. Both paintings also include carpets, dogs, mirrors, and slippers.

Jan Van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait, 1432. Oil on oak, 82.2 x 60 cm. Photo © Tate. Available through Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

Jan Van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait, 1432. Oil on oak, 82.2 x 60 cm. Photo © Tate. Available through Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

The Arnolfini Portrait was purchased by the National Gallery (London) in 1842The influence of the Arnolfini Portrait on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (and William Morris, but extension) was highlighted in a 2018 exhibition Reflections : Van Eyck & the Pre-Raphaelites.   In fact, La Belle Iseult was included as part of the show and was promoted online an attraction.

I haven’t been able to find a photograph of this painting that includes an image of the original frame by Morris, but this article mentions that the phrase “As I can” is included, as a nod to the phrase that Van Eyck would use in when signing many of his paintings. (If anyone has or knows where there is a photograph of this frame online, please share!) It seems to me that La Belle Iseult also includes a humble acknowledgement of William Morris’s shortcomings as a painter, not only in contrast to his peers Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (as others have noted), but specifically Jan Van Eyck: the back of the painting includes the inscription “I cannot paint you; but I love you.” It seems to me that this inscription also is intended to complement and echo the “as I can” sentiment on phrase on the frame.

While William Morris may have sensed his limitations as a figural painter, Suzanne Fagence Cooper pointed out how La Belle Iseult indicates Morris’s strengths in pattern design. The carpets, tapestry, drapery pattern all are meticulously painted and are the greatest strengths of this painting. In fact, I think that these patterns are part of the greatest tribute to Jan Van Eyck, since he paid attention to minute details and was very interested in reproducing the likeness of fabrics and textures.

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Guest Post: “Some Notes on Parrot Symbolism in Poetry and Religious Art”

Editor’s Note: Nicholas Bielby contacted me after coming across  my post “Parrots in Art.” Below is his essay on parrots in poetry and religious art, which adds new ideas to consider in tandem with  the things that I have written previously. Enjoy! -M

“Some Notes on Parrot Symbolism in Poetry and Religious Art”

Nicholas Bielby

Detail of some of the parrots at in the chancel at the Studley Royal chapel of St. Mary, 1871-78. Image is a detail of a Creative Commons Image via Wikipedia

Detail of some of the carved parrots, nestled in the gold foliage, from the chancel at the Studley Royal chapel of St. Mary, 1871-78. Image is a detail of a Creative Commons Image via Wikipedia

When I took a guided tour of William Burges’s gothic revival church in the grounds of Studley Royal, I was struck by the way the chancel was decorated with highly coloured relief carvings of parrots. I asked the guide, David Thornton, about their significance and he did not know. But we decided to explore the matter further and keep in touch. What follows is the result of our joint explorations.

Macrobius records that, after the battle of Actium, where Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra, a parrot greeted the victor, “Ave Caesar” – “Hail, Caesar!” Ever since the first parrot was brought back from India by Alexander the Great, parrots were thought to be miraculous because they spoke with a human voice. And what they generally said was “Ave”, the Latin greeting. Because of their miraculous ability to talk, gorgeous plumage and rarity, parrots were highly valued and used as gifts between kings and emperors. The parrot’s greeting to Octavian, later Augustus Caesar, was subsequently, in the Christian era, taken to be a pre-figuring of the angelic greeting, “Ave Maria.” The parrot was thus associated with the Virgin Mary.

It is not clear whether this association is the only route by which the parrot came to symbolise the Virgin Mary. But Boehrer, in his book “Parrot Culture,” (2004), cites a Middle English Dictionary as defining “papejai” as (i) a parrot and (ii) a lady, the Virgin Mary. He suggests that the rarity, value and decorative qualities of the parrot help make it represent ladies generally: “and the Virgin, most precious and delicate lady of all, stands in for all the others.”

Perhaps the most explicit evidence comes from the poet John Lydgate (C15th) in his Balade in Commendation of Our Lady, where he hails the Virgin Mary as a “popynjay plumed in clennesse.” The term “popynjay” (popinjay) comes from the Old French “papingay” meaning parrot, which itself derives from Arabic. Of course, in English from Shakespeare’s time at least the term “popinjay” is used to describe someone foppishly over-dressed and vain. But clearly, for Lydgate, the connotations of rarity and high value are what he has in mind. The term “clennesse” refers to moral and sexual purity. And the term ‘popinjay’ is the term for parrots in traditional heraldry. They would not be used on coats of arms to denote foppish vanity! They had, partly from the Middle East, connotations of wisdom and courage, and possibly more religious connotations.

Around 1400, the term “papiayes” is used in Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight in the heraldic description of the cloak that the ladies of the court embroider for Gawain when setting out on his quest. It is significant that Gawain should be afforded the protection of the Virgin Mary, as symbolised by the parrots, since one of the major challenges for Gawain on his quest is to retain his sexual purity while still maintaining his reputation for courtesy.

It is worth noting that Boeher mentions two medieval church vestments embroidered with popinjays – we may presume with religious, Marian significance. After all, since the medieval mind found symbols and correspondences in everything, the use of parrots was certainly not merely for decorative effect but for spiritual meaning!

The parrot often appears alongside the Virgin Mary in art. Richard Verdi’s “The Parrot in Art” traces the parrot from Dürer to the modern day, but there are even earlier instances. Clearly, not all these parrots symbolise the Virgin, but Crivelli (c1481), Dürer, Baldung, Mantegna, Schongauer, Van Eyck and the Ms painting by the Egerton Master all feature a parrot with the Virgin.

Parrot from Zaragoza version of the “Defensorium” by Fransiscus de Retz

Parrot from Zaragoza version of the “Defensorium inviolatae virginatatis beatae mariae” by Franciscus de Retz (1343-1427)

In an image from the Zaragoza version of the “Defensorium” by Franciscus de Retz (1343-1427), a ferocious-looking parrot has a scroll issuing from its beak saying, “Ave.” It immediately follows an image of the Annunciation. The text beneath the parrot illustration seems to refer to a medieval folk-belief mentioned in the “Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art,” (2004), that conception takes place through the ear. And here it would seem to link with the parrot’s miraculous ability to speak. I have tried to transliterate the text correctly but the use of medieval Spanish diacritical marks and abbreviations have made this difficult. For example, I think it reasonable to expand ‘vgo pura’ to ‘virgo pura.’ I feel fairly confident about transcribing this much of the text:

“Ptisacus [presumably ‘psitacus’] a natura. si ave dicere valet. quare virgo pura. per ave non generaret…”

The apparent full stops would appear to indicate line divisions into something like goliardic rhymed verse, thus,

Psitacus a natura
Si Ave dicere valet
Quare virgo pura
Per ave generaret

This can be understood in the light of the folk-belief mentioned above that impregnation can take place through the ear – and consequently as a result of being greeted. It may mean something like, “If a parrot, by nature, has the power to speak a greeting, why should not, through a greeting, a pure virgin become pregnant?” What this demonstrates is not so much that the parrot symbolises the Virgin Mary but it does show her close association with the parrot in the medieval mind.

Later on, parrots feature in religious paintings, even if not immediately associated with the Virgin. Rubens includes a parrot in a painting of the Holy Family. Both Dürer and Rubens include a parrot in pictures of Adam and Eve at the Fall, when eating the apple. Here, I think, the symbolism is different. Skelton (early C16th) refers to the parrot, in Speke, Parrot, as “a byrde of Paradyse”. Maybe Dürer’s parrot, totally unaware of what is going on, simply signifies paradise, unaware of the danger it is in. In Rubens’ picture, the parrot is looking anxiously towards the serpent, aware of the danger. It would be far-fetched to see these parrots as long-term symbols of hope, the promise of the New Adam coming through Mary.

In general, by the time we get to the C16th and C17th, “popinjay” has come only to have its current derogatory meaning. It religious connotations seem to have been lost. For Dutch artists, parrots simply represent affluence, conspicuous consumption and trade connections with exotic places; and as time goes on, sometimes as symbols of vanity. Perhaps the Reformation, prevalent in the Low Countries, caused the Marian symbolism to be lost.

In the C19th, William Burges, follower of Pugin, was a great medievalist and collector of Dürer. Significantly, his church at Studley Royal, decorated in the chancel with a frieze of brightly coloured parrots, is dedicated to the Virgin. It is a fair guess that he had rediscovered the medieval Marian symbolism of the parrot. The same symbolic use of parrots can be found elsewhere in his work, for example in the chapel at Mount Stuart on Bute and in Cardiff Castle.

Nicholas Bielby is a retired faculty member of the School of Education at Leeds University. He is a poet and editor of  www.graftpoetry.co.uk

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Dutch Dollhouses and Miniatures

Jacob Ortman, "Doll's House of Petronella Oortman," c. 1710. Oil on parchment on canvas. 87cm × 69cm. Rijksmuseum

Jacob Appel, “Doll’s House of Petronella Oortman,” c. 1710. Oil on parchment on canvas. 87 cm × 69 cm. Rijksmuseum

When I watched The Minaturist TV series a few years ago, it didn’t even occur to me to wonder whether the 17th-century doll house was grounded in historical fact. I think that the darker aesthetic and bizarre aspects of the show made me think less about any historical foundation. However, I learned this evening that it there was a small group of adult Dutch women in the 17th and 18th centuries which have miniature houses – these dollhouses and miniatures were usually given in connection with weddings. They weren’t meant to be for children to play with, but were meant for adult collectors to enjoy. You can see some details of one such house that was on display at the MFA in this video.

Curatorial research fellow Courtney Harris explained in another MFA video, “The Dutch Golden Age in Miniature” how these miniature environments were ways for women to enact control over an environment on a small scale. Women were also able to interact with craftsmen to purchase miniature objects and held autonomy over what was placed on display. Women could also control the viewing of the miniature houses by keeping them covered with curtains until an appropriate time to reveal the miniature spaces to guests. One dollhouse, owned by Petronella de la Court, was an exact replica of her own house!

Doll's house owned by Petronella de la Court, c. 1670-1690. Centraal Museum, Utrecht. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Doll’s house owned by Petronella de la Court, c. 1670-1690. Centraal Museum, Utrecht. Image courtesy Wikipedia

The Rijksmuseum has an interesting painting in their collection which depicts the dollhouse owned by another collector, Petronella Oortman, a woman who “spent vast sums of money on creating and decorating her house” (see image at top of post). The museum also has the actual dollhouse in its collection as well. I am drawn to this painting, though, because it is a miniaturization of the miniature house. The actual house is 255 cm high and 190 cm wide (approx. 8.3′ x 6.2′), whereas the painting is 87 cm and 69 cm wide (approx. 2.9′ x 2.25′). I wonder why this miniature house caught the attention of a male painter, unless this painting was a commission? By painting the miniature objects on an even smaller scale than the actual house, is Jacob Appel attempting to outdo the technical achievements of the craftsmen who made the small objects for the house? Or is Appel’s creation of this painted house intended to rival the Petronella Oortman’s miniature creation?

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John Currin’s “Thanksgiving” and Stretched Figures

Forget Norman Rockwell’s “Thanksgiving” as the iconic image for your 2020 holiday season. This uniquely terrible year needs a different painting and aesthetic, and I think John Currin’s “Thanksgiving” (2003) better fits the bill.

John Currin, "Thanksgiving," 2013. Oil on canvas, approx. 68" x 53". Tate

John Currin, “Thanksgiving,” 2013. Oil on canvas, approx. 68″ x 53″. Tate

As is typical in Currin’s art, this painting is a composite of several earlier artistic forms. For example, the elongated and intertwined figures recall Mannerist paintings, while the still life in the foreground suggests the vanitas images of the Dutch Baroque. And in a year in which so much has been upended and confusing, this bizarre pastiche of styles seems appropriate. Even the contradiction of a feast that is being undertaken by emaciated figures seems unsurprising this year. Robert Rosenblum noted that Currin’s art looks “both commonplace and fantastic” which reminds me of how this year has been terribly commonplace (for the millions of people who have stayed at home) and also fantastic in how its dystopian impact on the world seems to come from the realm of science fiction.

I’ve also thought about how this painting can serve as a reminder of those who have lost loved ones due to the virus, with the figures dressed in somber clothing, the limited color palette, and the wilted leaves in the vase. Even the pallid color of the uncooked turkey suggests death.

In the Mannerist period, the elongated and distorted figures were “mannered” in a way that suggested elegance and beauty. I’ve been thinking about how these “stretched” figures can be taken beyond the realm of aesthetics, and can be seen as metaphors for how so many people have been financially and emotionally stretched this year. And in the context of Thanksgiving, I’ve also been thinking about how many people are stretched between gratitude and grief this year. I’m reminded of a quote that Francis Weller said in an interview:

“The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.”

So as I look at Currin’s painting, I see a mixture of a lot of things. I think about how I myself can be stretched, but this can lead me to having more compassion and growth. And I hope that one of the lasting effects of 2020 will be a greater rise in compassion and empathy.

When I learned that Currin was inspired to finish “Thanksgiving’ after his wife became pregnant, I thought of it in an entirely new way. His wife Rachel served as the model and John Currin views this painting as an allegory of her pregnancy, since it took nine months to finish. So while this image may seem bizarre, it can also suggest hopeful anticipation for the future, and I hope that positive expression can carry us forward to better times.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.