August 2010

Baroque Scrolls and Titian Fire Disaster

When I visited Europe several summers ago, there were a couple of things that inspired me to pick up a sketch pad. And I’m not really an artist, so when I’m motivated to draw (and put aside the impulse to self-criticize), I’ve gotta be pretty darn inspired. Santa Maria della Salute (Venice, 1631-1687, shown right) was one of the things that inspired me to draw for a bit. Really, it was the huge baroque scrolls along the drum of the dome that I sketched (click on the image to see the scrolls in better detail).  They are awesome, and I couldn’t help but think about the large volute scrolls that flank the top of some Greek vases (like this one).

Anyhow, tonight I read here that there was a fire in seminary building near Santa Maria della Salute. (When I read about the initial fire, I immediately gasped and thought, “Are the baroque scrolls alright?” But it seems like the fire was concentrated at the nearby seminary.  Perhaps firefighters doused the roof of Santa Maria della Salute to prevent the fire from spreading. Nonetheless, my scrolls were spared! Yay!) However, water did seep in through the roof of Santa Maria della Salute, which has permanently damaged Titian’s David and Goliath (1542-44, shown right). David and Goliath was hung on the ceiling of the church, and seemed to have received the brunt of the damage. There are eight other Titian paintings located in the church, but an initial examination suggests that no damage has been done.

That’s good news, but it’s sad to hear about the ruined work.  I actually gave an empathetic moan when I read a quote by Vittorio Sgarbi (head of Venice’s museum agency) on The History Blog, which has a great post about this unfortunate disaster. Sgarbi rushed to the museum scene after seeing the fire from a nearby restaurant. He then relayed to the press that he saw “water dripping from the painting for over an hour.”

Aw. Poor man. That definitely won’t be the highlight of his career.

Luckily for us, it sounds like this painting will be able to be restored.  I don’t know if the painting can ever be “good as new” (or, er, good as it was before this deluge), but at least this painting isn’t lost forever.


Painter + Sculptor Collaboration (and a Little about Luisa Roldán)

I thought I’d keep on the theme of polychrome sculpture this week, given my earlier post on painted classical sculpture.  Recently I’ve wondered whether classical artists would sculpt and paint their works, or if the work was divided between specialized painters and sculptors. Consequently, I began to think of polychrome baroque sculpture in Spain, Portugal, and Brazil; such sculpture is often painted (by a specialized painter) after the physical piece is created by a sculptor. (As a graduate student, my research on Brazilian art included the Passion sculptures at Bom Jesus dos Matozinhos (Congonhas do Campo), which were sculpted by Aleijadinho but later painted by Manoel da Costa Ataíde).

One striking example of painter and sculptor collaboration is St. Gines de la Jara (c. 1692, shown above). This work was sculpted by Spanish Baroque sculptor Luisa Roldán and then painted by Tomás de los Arcos (Roldán’s brother-in-law).  Arcos did an amazing job creating lifelike appearance of veins on St. Gines de la Jara’s hands, using a technique called “encarnacion.” The technique involves applying thin layers of glue and gesso.  Arcos then painted layers of beige and blue oil paint to suggest veins. (You can see a great detail of the veins and hand here. Also, you can learn more about this sculpture here, since it is the centerpiece of an ongoing Getty exhibition about Luisa Roldán.)

Does anyone know more information about the Spanish/Portuguese tradition of having painters and sculptors collaborate?  Off the top of my head, I would guess that this practice may have come out of the medieval tradition of wooden sculpture, but I couldn’t say for sure.  So much medieval sculpture was created by anonymous artists; it’s probably difficult (or perhaps impossible) to know if medieval painters and sculptors collaborated on three-dimensional work.  Perhaps medieval artists were trained to both paint and sculpt, and there was no need for collaboration?

On a side note, I’m glad that my friend Shelley recently introduced me to Luisa Roldán (who is affectionately nicknamed “La Roldana,” on the right is her presumed portrait by Antonio Rotondo, 1862).  I’d never even heard of La Roldana until a few weeks ago, but I immediately feel in love with her because 1) she’s a Baroque sculptor, 2) she’s Spanish (and Spanish sculpture often reminds me of the wooden baroque sculpture from Portugal and Brazil) and 3) she’s a woman.

Like many other female artists from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, Roldán’s father (Pedro Roldán) was also an artist. Roldán was an extremely successful artist (a great feat in the male-dominated profession) and worked as the court sculptor for Charles II.  (In fact, St. Gines de la Jara was probably a royal commission.)  Roldán was quite famous and successful during her lifetime, but seems to be relatively obscure today. Sigh – I wish she was discussed more in art history textbooks.


What if Sculptures Were Painted?

This week I have been reading Colin Cunningham’s essay “The Parthenon Marbles” (a preview of which is available here). Cunningham spends much of this essay examining how the bringing of the Parthenon marbles (by Lord Elgin) to the British Museum has affected the Western canon of art. (When using the word “canon” I am referring to the artistic standard and aesthetic value that has been determined by Western culture over centuries.)  The bringing of original Greek statues to England was huge, especially in the 19th century, since many artists had only known Greek art through Roman copies.  After the marbles were brought to the British Museum in 1816, thousands of artists began to study these works for their aesthetic properties.

I was most intrigued by Cunningham’s discussion of how classical sculpture continues to be left unpainted.  We know that Greek and Roman sculpture used to be painted, and many sculptures have left behind traces of paint (including sculptures on the Parthenon). Modern techniques have enabled exhibitions (such as this one and this one) to show reconstructions of how these sculptures appeared originally, such as this example of Augustus of Primaporta (right, original dated ca. 20 BC).

However when ancient sculptures were discovered, most of the paint had usually come off.  Obviously, people decided to leave the works unpainted.  On one hand, no one wanted to risk damaging the original works of art.  Plus, at the time no one knew how the paint originally appeared.  In time, though, the idea of unpainted sculpture began to be propagated by art historians as correct/beautiful/preferred, particularly Winckelmann (1717-1768), who declared that “color ought to have a minor part in the consideration of beauty.”1

So, what do you think of painted sculpture?  Does it weird you out? Cunningham points out, “If the idea of coloured sculpture seems strange to you, that shows the influence the western canon has had on all of us.”2 Personally, I like looking at painted reconstructions of ancient sculpture, because it reminds me how much the Western canon and my own artistic preferences have been constructed.  I’m sure that ancient Greeks and Romans would think it bizarre that later cultures left their sculptures white and unadorned.  And the funny thing is, we’ve continued to create unadored, unpainted sculptures for centuries, all in the name of classicism!

What if classical sculpture had still been painted when it was discovered?  That could have changed the face of the Western art – quite literally, in fact, if you think about painted faces!  Consider if Michelangelo’s David had been painted. You can get an idea of what it might have looked like from this sculpture created after Michelangelo’s David (left, by a German artist, displayed in Cologne as part of the Museum Ludwig collection).  Or what if Bernini’s sculptures had been painted?  Or neoclassical sculptures, like Canova’s Cupid and Psyche?

Art and art history could have been totally different than how they have turned out.  How do you feel about that?

1 John Hooper, “The Ancients: Now Available in Color,” in The Guardian, 22 November 2004.  Available online here.

2 Colin Cunninghman, “The Parthenon Marbles,” in Academies, Museums and Canons of Art, Gill Perry and Colin Cunningham, eds. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 70.


Lygia Clark: (Non)Interaction within the Museum

I was first introduced to the artist Lygia Clark by chance.  I was doing research in Brazil several summers ago, but arrived in Rio de Janeiro to find out that the Ministry of Culture was on strike.  All cultural institutions in the city were closed – including the National Library, where I had intended to do most of my research.  Argh!  Long story short: I discovered that the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro was open (they must receive private funding and not be associated with the Ministry of Culture), I subsequently discovered Lygia Clark in the Tropicália exhibition, and luckily I was able to complete my research a few days later.

I think that Clark is a really interesting artist.  Much of her early work revolved around participation of the viewer.  In order to truly experience her art, Clark wanted people to touch, manipulate, and sometimes wear (!) her sculptures.  In one piece, Diálogo: Óculos (“Dialogue: Glasses”, 1968, shown left), two people were supposed to wear a set of goggles.  The goggles constrained the individuals to maintain eye contact, and thus forced a type of dialogue to ensue between the two people.  It is the experience created by the goggles that is the work of art, and not the actual object itself.

Unfortunately, museum display and security don’t allow Clark’s work to be interactive (or even to function, really).  With art museums as a “no touch” zone, most of Clark’s interactive work is stuck on pedestals and behind glass cases.  (Although, to be fair, in 2008-09 the SFMOA had an exhibition called “The Art of Participation” which allowed visitors to interact with works of art, including Lygia Clark’s Diálogo: Óculos.)

But the mentality behind the “The Art of Participation” show isn’t found everywhere.  Consider the particular irony of this clip from the Walker Art Museum, in which the curator explains and demonstrates how the sculpture is supposed to be experienced, but then shows the Bicho (“Bug,” 1960) sculpture placed behind a glass case:

Obviously, I understand why works of art need to be placed behind protective glass.  I understand the element of preservation too, since constant handling of any sculpture will cause wear and tear on the piece.  And, to be fair, the SFMOA blog has some great reasoning about institutional limitations in regards to participation, which was posted in conjunction with “The Art of Participation” show. (This blog post also includes a link to this video of people turning Lygia Clark’s Rede de elástico (“Elastic Net”) into a jump rope within the gallery, which is kinda fun but obviously dangerous in the gallery space.)

Still, institutional limitations aside, I wish that there were more shows like “The Act of Participation” in the museum world. Then Lydia Clark’s art would actually be able to function, instead just being a neat thing to talk about.


Michelangelo and Damage

This morning I came across an interesting post at Ponte Commedia, which mentions some of the mishaps and damage that have occurred to Michelangelo’s David.1  One particular event stood out to me in this post: the 1991 attack of the David by a disturbed artist, who broke off part of a toe with a hammer.  This post instantly reminded me of another post from When Art History Goes Bad, which discusses the damage that has happened to Michelangelo’s Pieta (including when Laszlo Toth infamously attacked the statue with a sledgehammer in 1972).  If you’re interested, you can see some footage of the attack and damage below:

I don’t know of any other sculptor whose work has caused mentally disturbed people to attack it.  (But if you know of similar attacks on other sculptures, please comment! I’d be interested to learn about them.)  Does Michelangelo’s work get the brunt of such attacks, since these sculptures are some of the most well-known pieces of art in the Western world?  I think so.  It’s sad to think that Michelangelo’s fame and artistic beauty have had such an adverse side effect.

1 You can read an amusing BBC article about some damage and restoration work on the David here.


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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.