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March 2009

Juxtaposition of Images

Mieke Bal’s book Looking In: The Art Of Viewing has forever changed the way that I look at exhibitions in art museums and galleries. In her chapter “On Grouping,” Bal discusses how the juxtaposition of different images on a museum wall can create meanings and connotations which never would have existed otherwise. She discusses a grouping of three paintings in a Berlin museum: Amor Vincit Omnia (Caravaggio), Doubting Thomas (Caravaggio, shown above) and also Heavenly Amor Defeats Earthly Love (Baglione). Specifically, she argues that the placement of Doubting Thomas between these two images of nudes creates a new dynamic within the first painting. For Bal, she feels like “Jesus’ barely visible leg at the lower left becomes slightly coquettish” when placed alongside Caravaggio’s nude Amor (whose sprawled legs cover a good portion of its canvas).1 If you’re interested, you can read parts of Bal’s argument and see a grouping of the three images online.

Since reading this article a few years ago, I am constantly looking for new meanings and connotations which come about because of the juxtaposition of images in a museum. A few years ago I helped hang an exhibition which featured work by the artist Sean Diediker. Due to the size of the paintings and the space of the museum, it ended up that a large painting of a female nude was placed to the left of a painting of Joseph Smith (the Mormon prophet) receiving a vision. Joseph Smith was kneeling down in semi-profile, looking at a vision that was placed to the left of the picture frame. If the picture frames between the nude and Smith were invisible, then the boy prophet would have been looking right at the nude woman. All of the sudden, the look of surprise and awe on Joseph Smith’s face began to look a little more embarrassed, as if he wasn’t supposed to be staring at a nude female!

As Bal points out in her book, every viewer brings their own personal experiences (“cultural baggage”) and past to a work of art. Therefore, we all have our own personal reaction to what kind of dialogue and connotations are created by a work of art. The writer of this article reacted to a past installation at the Whitney Museum (shown below), saying that “the juxtaposition of Urs Fischer’s Intelligence of Flowers (holes in the wall) and Untitled (hanging shapes) with Rudolf Stingel’s black & white photorealistic self-portrait creates an impression of crushing despondency in the face of a wrecked world.”

I agree that such a reaction to this exhibition of art is possible. Personally though, having just seen a recent episodes of LOST that involve swinging pendulums and abandoned Dharma Initiative stations, I can’t help but think of anything else when I look at these hanging shapes, circles, and gaping holes.

Have you ever found interesting connotations or dialogue that was created by the juxtaposition of artwork? What kind of personal “cultural baggage” has affected your reaction to a work of art?

1 Mieke Bal, Looking In: The Art Of Viewing (New York: Routledge, 2000), 184.

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Rethinking the Family of Charles IV

Like most people who study art, I was taught that Goya’s portrait, Family of Charles IV (1800-1801), is a caricature of the royal family. Most introductory art history textbooks discuss the ugly features of the family members and their awkward poses. In short, the painting was supposed to reveal the stupidity of the royal family. I further interpreted this picture to show the family in an unflattering light – who in the royal family would approve of having a young woman (on the left) painted with her face turned towards the wall?

In fact, I was going to write a post on this unflattering portrait until I began to do some more research this morning.

Recently (within the past decade), there have been new arguments regarding Goya’s portrait of Charles IV and his family. Edward J. Olszewski argued in 1999 that the Goya adds a sense of animation to this portrait because the sitters lack a common focal point. However, he also admits that there is a lack of unity that resulted because Goya sketched the members of the group individually, not collectively.1 He argues that the family members approved of the sketches that were taken for the portrait. Suggestions that a family member looks “foolish” or awkward are because the elderly Dona Maria Josefa was suffering from the effects of lupis (she died shortly after the portrait was completed) and Dona Maria Luisa Josefina (on the far right, holding a baby) suffered from a spinal defect.2 In addition, Olszewski finds the brilliant colors and pigments in the painting to be very favorable; they were quite modern for the period.

I also learned from Olszewski’s article that the woman on the left side of the canvas (with her face turned towards the wall) is the future bride of the prince regent, as yet unchosen. Of course she would be depicted with her face towards the wall, since the family wasn’t sure whose face to portray! Maria Antonia could have been painted in the portrait after she and Ferdinand married in 1802, but Goya was never asked to change the painting.

As for the infamous critic’s statement that the painting looks like a “grocer and his family who have just won the big lottery prize,” Alisa Luxenberg wrote in 2002 that this statement has been misquoted.3 Several historians have picked up on this quote and scattered it throughout art historical texts. She and Olszewski both point out that a similar quote was stated by Renoir in 1907. Renoir mentioned that the portrait looked “like a butcher’s family in their Sunday best.” However, the point of this comment was not to pinpoint the painting as caricature. Instead, this statement was an indication of Renoir’s belief that “an artist’s ‘true’ personality – meaning class to Renoir, who seemed acutely sensitive to his own working-class roots – manifests itself in art. In the recounting of this discussion, Renoir supposedly explained that Goya’s plebian background emerged in his rendering of artistocrats as shopkeepers.”4

These articles have made me rethink the Family of Charles IV portrait. I still don’t find many of the family members to be terribly attractive, but this doesn’t mean necessarily that the portrait is a caricature. Instead, perhaps this portrait is a paradigm for its age; with the ongoing Enlightenment in the 18th century, perhaps the stress on scientific, visual evidence affected the production of idealized portraiture? Maybe the members of the family wanted to be portrayed as how they really looked, whether attractive or unattractive.

If you want to read more, I would particularly recommend Olszewski’s article. It’s quite fascinating.

1 Edward J. Olszewski, “Exorcising Goya’s ‘The Family of Charles IV’,” Arbitus et Historiae 20, no. 40 (1999): 176-177.

2 Ibid., 178.

3 Alisa Luxenberg, “Further Light on the Critical Reception of Goya’s ‘Family of Charles IV’ as Caricature,” Arbitus et Historiae 23, no. 46 (2002): 179-180.

4 Ibid, 179. See also Olszewski, 182-183.

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Redon’s Flowers and Cezanne

Although Odilon Redon is best known for his fanciful, pre-Surrealist works like The Cyclops, I am particularly drawn to his still-lifes of flowers in vases. I’m actually quite surprised by this, because I am rarely attracted to still-life paintings. Last fall, when I went to visit the “Monet to Picasso” exhibition at the UMFA, this was my favorite painting in the show:

Vase of Flowers, c. 1905 (Cleveland Museum of Art)

One reason I like this painting so much is because of the background. The layers of different colors create these subtle changes in the background that are really beautiful, giving the painting a kind of ethereal quality.

In a letter to Emile Bernard, Cezanne mentioned that he “liked Redon’s talent enormously.”1 This statement has given some reason for art historians to compare and contrast Cezanne and Redon. In an essay, Rachel Frank argues that “the differences are…striking” between between Redon and Cezanne.2. Although I can agree with Frank to a degree, I see some similarities between Redon and Cezanne, primarily that both artists often apply paint in large patches of color. I especially like the “patches” on the vase (i.e. the blues, browns, whites, and blacks) of the following still-life:

Wild Flowers, gouache, c. 1912 (Musée d’ Orsay)

Not long before Wild Flowers was painted, however, Redon remarked to a journalist that Cezanne’s influence in the art world was fading.3 Although I don’t doubt that Redon was sincere in his disillusionment with Cezanne, I still can’t help but find some similarity between the two artists’ styles. For me, I think that artists use the “patches” of color create different aesthetics. Cezanne’s patches of color are more geometric (notice the rigidity of the squares and rectangles of pigment in the lower right corner of this painting). This geometricity emphasizes the formalistic qualities of the objects portrayed. In contrast, I think that Redon’s “patches” draw more attention to the contrasts, harmonies, and subtilities of color; for me, this fanciful effect creates a more emotional response to Redon’s paintings. I think that the different effects created by the paintings ties into the reason why Redon was disappointed with Cezanne – Redon was more interested in emotion and Symbolism, whereas Cezanne was more interested in formalism. To me, it is no wonder that Redon mentioned in this same interview that he was disappointed with the “theoretical, analytical nature of Cubism” (a formalistic style with which Cezanne is often associated as a precursor).4

Nonetheless, I think that these artists mutually influenced each other during their careers. It seems difficult for artists to not be influenced (whether it be deliberate or unintentional) by their contemporaries. What do you think? Do you see similarities or differences between Redon and Cezanne’s styles?

If you like paintings of Redon’s flowers in vases, you can see more of them here.

1 Elizabeth Basye Gilmore Holt, From the Classicists to the Impressionists: Art and Architecture in the 19th Century, 2nd edition (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1986), 526. Excerpt can be read online here.

2 Rachel Frank, “Cezanne and Redon,” The Hudson Review 4, no. 2 (Summer, 1951): 269

3 Dario Gamboni, Potential Images: Ambiguity and Indeterminacy in Modern Art, (London: Reaktion Books, 2002), 132. Citation can be read online here.

4 Ibid.

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Intro to Survey Posts & Paleolithic Art

About two weeks ago, I had a friend mention to me that she loves reading my posts but she knows nothing about art. “Where do I start?” she asked. I couldn’t really pinpoint a good place to start on my blog; I write about works of art or articles that interest me, but I don’t include a lot of introductory or survey information. I’ve been looking for some websites that I could recommend to art neophytes, but I haven’t found anything yet that impresses me. So, I have decided to occasionally write some introductory posts. I will try to write in chronological order so that one can get a scope of historical progression by looking at posts under the “introductory/survey” label. I also plan on making an art history timeline that can be viewed/downloaded from this site. Hopefully these posts will be helpful and less-intimidating to newcomers to art history. I hope that the comments for these posts can not only include dialogue and feedback (any art historians are welcome to chime in!), but also be a question and answer forum. I think it will also be good for me, because I can continually review and refine my lecture notes. However, I should also mention that these posts will not be any substitute for an art history survey or art appreciation course. I plan on only writing about works of art and historical information that I find especially interesting!

Some of the earliest examples of art date about 30,000 BC. The Paleolithic (“paleo” = old, “lithic” = stone) people were the first to create representations of humans and animals. One of my favorite Paleolithic sculptures is the “Venus of Willendorf” (ca. 28,000 – 25,000 BC). This little statuette is only about four inches tall, and her navel is actually a natural indentation of the rock (it was not carved). The purpose and meaning of this statue is not clear (we obviously don’t have a lot of information about paleolithic people), but many think that the exaggerated anatomical features suggest that this statuette is a fertility figurine. There is particular emphasis on the breasts, belly, and pubic area. This preoccupation with fertility makes sense, since the survival of prehistoric peoples would have depended on the fertility and child-bearing capabilities of women. Furthermore, it seems that this statue was not supposed to represent a specific individual, since there are no facial features included.

The thing I love about this statue are the itty-bitty, tiny arms that rest on top of the Venus’ breasts. They are so dainty and petite in comparison to the rest of the body!

There are many cave paintings which date from the Paleolithic period. Some of the most popular cave paintings of bison are found in Lascaux, France (ca. 15,000 – 13,000 BC). Some of these bull paintings are quite large – the largest bull is over eleven feet long! These caves were discovered in the 1940 by some teenagers who were outside playing with a dog. For a while, the caves were open to the public, but the amount of visitors (and body heat) raised the temperature within the cave and fungus began to grow inside. In 1963 the cave was closed in order to preserve the paintings. Today, an exact replica of the caves is open to the public, located very near the original site.

Just as with the “Venus of Willendorf”, we don’t know the exact reasons why these paintings were created. Some think that bulls held some type of religious significance for ancient peoples. It could be that these paintings are located deep inside a cave because they are connected with some type of religious ritual. Horned animals also were associated with fertility in the ancient world, and these paintings be associated with a fertility ritual. You can read more about the caves official website about the caves is found here.

My favorite prehistoric cave drawings, however, are found at Pech-Merle, France (ca. 22,000 BC). These drawings depict a spotted horse, and it is possible that the spots (which are both inside and outside the horses’ outlines) were created by the artist throwing painted rocks at the cave wall. The thing I love most about this cave, however, are the human hand prints. These hand prints are depicted with “negative” space, meaning that the artist placed his hand against the wall and probably blew pigment around it with a hollow reed or bone. The pigment created a “positive” space, and the original “negative” space of the cave wall depicts the hand. Even though animals are the main theme of these paintings instead of humans, I love the inclusion of the artist’s (or artists’) hands.

If you are interested in reading more about Paleolithic art, there is a New Yorker article which discusses cave paintings and gives some information about Chauvet cave. Although the date of the Chauvet paintings is debated, this cave possibly houses the oldest cave paintings known today.

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Portrait of Shakespeare

Today’s New York Times has an article about a recently “unveiled” portrait of Shakespeare, thought to date from about 1610. Scholar Stanley Wells believes that this is the only portrait of Shakespeare that was created during the playwright’s lifetime. Other existing portraits (an engraving and a portrait bust) of Shakespeare were posthumous; it is thought that this recently announced painting was the model for the posthumous engraving.

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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.