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October 2008

Albers Squared

Last night after I turned out the light, J and I lay in bed and talked about art while we stared at the the ceiling. J recently came up with the fabulous idea to publish a book on the Homage to the Square series, and he asked me if I wanted to help. J’s going to do the design and I’m going to edit/write (although I’m sure J will have a lot of input for the essays too). At first, we thought that we would make a compilation of essays that have already been written on the series, but a preliminary search showed that there isn’t much written specifically on Homage to the Square. It looks like more people are interested in Albers’s life and work in the Bauhaus school. J and I wonder if this means that a) there aren’t enough interesting things to say about these squared exercises in color juxtapositions or b) the task of compiling and discussing these works is extremely daunting, given that Albers purportedly made a “seemingly endless number” of these squares over twenty-five years.1 We hope that people would have an interest in learning more about this series, and we’re willing to take the risk that the work might be daunting. It’s probably impossible to gather all of the series in one publication, but I would hope we could find a good collection.

So, last night we stared at the ceiling and brainstormed some ideas of fun things to discuss in the book – perhaps the symbolism of the square or what the significance the square shape might have in regards to the Modernist movement. I’m also interested in examining how Albers’s observations in harmonious color arrangements tie into different color theories.

If there aren’t enough already-written essays to compile for a publication, we also brainstormed different people who we would “allow” to contribute to our book (Ha! As if we are at a point where we could pick and choose scholars, and do them a favor by accepting their submission). That being said, we’re definitely willing to look at any submissions or ideas that people have regarding the Homage to the Square series. Any thoughts?

Now we just need to find funding and a publisher for our great idea. Hmm.

1 H. H. Arnason, History of Modern Art, 1st ed., (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 2004), 349.

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Soapy Serra

If you like Richard Serra’s work, then you might think this is interesting.

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Iconography and "Hidden Meanings"

Iconography is a branch of art history that deals with the study of images and the relationship of images and text. The practice of iconography involves interpreting, describing, and identifying images. In Western art, ancient mythological texts and the Bible are two sources often used to identify the symbolic or cultural signification of an image.

Personally, I think that iconography is a fun practice that helps one to find “hidden meanings” in a painting. The decoding of hidden meanings through iconography (and iconology, which is essentially the study of symbols in art) was one of the first things that attracted me to art history.

Today in the London Times an interesting article was published that discusses some of the hidden meanings in paintings from the National Gallery. The explanations for different items in paintings are concise and fun to read – although I can’t help but add that items in paintings can contain several iconographic (or iconological) references. Like in many disciplines, everything in art history cannot be interpreted in a concrete fashion!

If you’re curious to look at the five paintings discussed in the article, here are some reproductions:

Bronzino, Allegory with Venus and Cupid, c. 1540

Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus, 1601
Anonymous, The Wilton Diptych, 1395-1399

Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434

William Hogarth, Marriage à la Mode series, plate II (“The Tête à Tête”), c. 1743
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Friedrich and Geognosy

Ever since I was a teenager, I have been fascinated by the mountains and rocks. In college I toyed with the idea of becoming a geologist, but changed my mind after realizing how much math and chemistry was involved. Luckily, though, art history dabbles in so many other disciplines that I can read about geology and art at the same time.

Today I read an article by Timothy Mitchell which argues that Caspar David Friedrich was influenced by “historical geology” in his painting of Der Watzmann (1825, shown here). As a German Romantic painter, Friedrich was usually interested in depicting forests and rocky seashores. This painting of Der Watzmann, therefore, is a departure from the majority of Friedrich’s oeuvre. Mitchell argues that this interest in the Alps was influenced by the new study of geognosy (“knowledge of the earth”) that was developed by Abraham Werner, an instructor at a mining school in Freiburg. Werner’s geognosy focused on tangible evidence and facts. One of Werner’s protégés wrote, “What the geognost cannot reach with his hammer lies outside his province.”1 (Isn’t this stress on facts and evidence such a product of the ongoing Enlightenment?)

The Germans viewed the romantic landscape tradition as a type of nationalistic celebration. Mitchell convincingly argues that since discipline of geognosy was considered by the Germans to be both “of our time” and “thoroughly German in origin,” Friedrich would have been especially intrigued by the subject.2

Interestingly, Friedrich’s depiction of Der Watzmann is full of errors. Different perspectives of the mountain were combined together in the final painting. Although Mitchell suggests that Friedrich did not aim to create the mountain exactly as it appears (Mitchell instead ties this romanticized depiction as relating to the then-popular practice of worshiping God through nature), I also wonder if the different perspectives in this painting could partially have occurred because Friedrich never saw Der Watzmann in person – he was one of the few landscapists of the time who never traveled to the Alps. One would think that Friedrich would have been aware of the different mountain perspectives when examining other paintings of the peaks, but it cannot be certain. But, on the other hand, it was not unlike Romantic painters to, you know, romanticize their subject matter (!). That being said, I still am somewhat skeptical of Mitchell’s reasoning for the multiple perspectives.

I do, however, agree with Mitchell that the artistic stress on mountain peaks and rock formations in the foreground appear to be influenced by the geognostic theories regarding mountain formation. For example, one Werner’s theories is that the present state of the earth is due to a flood, which is best evidenced by the existence of massive boulders in the mountains. It appears that Friedrich added these boulders in the foreground of his painting as an allusion to this geognostic theory.3

There are more complexities to Mitchell’s argument which are also very interesting. If you care to read more, you can find this article on JSTOR.

1 Timothy Mitchell, “Caspar David Friedrich’s Der Watzmann: German Romantic Landscape Painting and Historical Geology,” The Art Bulletin 66, co. 3 (September, 1984): 454.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 461.

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The Alexandrian Influence on Rome and Petra

It is generally accepted by scholars that the ancient Romans and the Nabataeans were independently influenced by Alexandrian architectural style. Some of these similar influences can be observed in Roman wall paintings and Nabataean architecture. On the left is a Second Style painting from the Cubiculum M. of the Villa of Public Fannius Synistor, originally located in Boscoreale (near Pompeii) and on the right is an image of the facade of Al-Khazneh, a famous monument in Petra, Jordan. One of the Alexandrian influences on both examples is the broken pediment (architectural feature designed as an incomplete triangle).

Both of these examples also include a circular (tholos) structure. These circular structures were common in ancient architecture (as seen in Delphi, Greece), but the tholoi in Petra are unique: they are narrowly proportioned and decorated with Corinthian columns. The most distinct feature of these tholoi is a tent-like roof that is decorated with another Corinthian capital and an urn. The only other tholoi with this same combination of Nabataean features are found in Second Style Roman paintings from Pompeii. It appears that Alexandria is the architectural source for this type of tholos, particularly because both the Nabataeans and Romans employ other elements of Alexandrian architecture (such as the aforementioned broken pediment).1

It is unlikely that Petra and Pompeii had any direct contact or artistic influence on each other. Instead, both ancient societies were independently influenced by the Alexandrian style. Isn’t that fascinating? Along these same lines, I recently found an interesting article that examines how Roman Third Style wall paintings include depictions of wind towers – triangular structures used on the roofs of Egyptian and Mesopotamian structures as a type of ventilation system.2 Neat-o.

1 For more information, see Judith McKenzie and Peter Roger Stuart Moorey, The Architecture of Alexandria and Egypt (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2007), 96-103.

2 Elfriede R. Knauer, “Wind Towers in Roman Wall Paintings?” Metropolitan Museum Journal 25 (1990): 5-20.
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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.