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Formal Elements and Personality

Standard of Ur, Battle (War) side view, 2550-2400 BCE. Image courtesy Smarthistory

It’s the beginning of the school quarter, and I’m interested in knowing what formal elements have an impact on my students. I’m really influenced by the composition of a work of art, and I know that this has to do with my own personality. I’m an organized and neat person, and so I think a lot about the way that things are arranged and ordered (both literally and metaphorically) in my life. As a result, I notice the arrangement of shapes and forms a lot, and I like to consider whether that arrangement is appealing or unappealing to me. I am drawn to the organized composition of the Standard of Ur (The History of Art: A Global View, p. 74), for example, due to how the trapezoidal-shaped object is visually balanced, since it has decoration on both sides of the object: one side has scenes relating to peace and the other has scenes relating to battle. Furthermore, the balance of the object is even more apparent because each side has the same layout with three registers (horizontal bands). These bands are also organized and neat, since each register is about the same size in its length and height. I like how the spacing of the registers is equal on both sides of the object; that visual consistency is appealing to me in its organization.

Some of the repeating figures are evenly spaced from each other, too, such as the soldiers in the central register of the scenes dedicated to battle. Another example of fairly even spacing is seen in the seated people on the top register of the peace scene. All of these compositional features suggest organization and neatness to me, and I personally am drawn to them for that reason.

Standard of Ur, Battle side (top), Peace side (bottom), 2550-2400 BCE

What formal elements are you drawn to? Does it relate to your personality or are you drawn to the formal elements for another reason?

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“Our Daily Bread” and Brazil

Anna Bella Geiger, “Our Daily Bread (O Pão Nosso de Cada Dia),” 1978. Six postcards and screenprint on paper bag mounted on card. Tate Modern

I recently returned from helping to co-lead a study abroad program in London. Our group visited the Tate Modern and I became familiar with Anna Bella Geiger’s work, Our Daily Bread (O Pão Nosso de Cada Dia). The postcards on display in the museum document a performance in which Geiger ate bread to highlight the poverty in Brazil, as well as South America. The holes in the bread depict the outline of Brazil and South America, in addition to the outlines on the empty bread basket.

I’m struck by the title, which references the Lord’s Prayer from the Bible (“Give us this day our daily bread”). It evokes the strong Catholic presence in Brazil, which has roots in the colonial period and the evangelization efforts of missionaries. Geiger has explained how she was influenced by the Jesuit’s “systems” in teaching Native people about Catholicism, and I think that the visual example paired with Christian text ties into the system that she is referencing.

As discussed in this video, Geiger’s work often uses the imagery of cartography with untraditional artistic mediums to suggest a disconnect between belonging and not belonging to something. I think there is a disconnect suggested between how Christianity and its “daily bread” prayer are often seen as a part of Brazilian identity, but poverty and hunger is also very much a part of Brazilian identity too.

Ironically, bread-made-from-wheat was not always associated with Brazil. Ana Carolina de Carvalho Viotti has written about how manioc was nicknamed “bread of Brazil” in the colonial period. And the maps of the colonial period include imagery of brazilwood or sugarcane as the key exports that impacted the country’s identity. It was much later when wheat production began in Brazil, not until in 1919. Production has increased over the past hundred years and right now Brazil is on target to have a record wheat crop this year. It seems like the meanings of Our Daily Bread is changing in some ways, with this rise of wheat and its potential economic impact, although poverty in the country is still a major concern. Ironically, the record wheat crop in Brazil has been pitched as a way to end the wheat shortages in the world as a result of the invasion of Ukraine, so perhaps Geiger’s image of the country of Brazil now expresses solution to help combat hunger elsewhere in the world.

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Van Eyck Brothers as “Just Judges”

Earlier this week I discovered a new(ish) Smarthistory video about Karel Van Mander, an early 17th-century biographer of painters who is sometimes referred to as the “Northern Vasari.” The video spends some time featuring a print which depicts the painter Jan Van Eyck. This portrait appeared in Van Mander’s publication Het Schilderboeck.

Karel van Mander, Het Schilder-Boeck (Haarlem: Paschier van Wesbusch, 1604), first edition in two volumes with added illustrations, 21 x 16.7 x 5.8 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Image courtesy of Steven Zucker and Smarthistory via Fickr.

The video reports at 3:33 that this portrait is based off of Van Eyck’s painting Man with the Red Turban, but I don’t think that I agree. Karel Van Mander’s own account of Jan Van Eyck clearly describes a self-portrait of the artist that is nestled among the Just Judges panel of the Ghent altarpiece. It would make sense that the portrait in Van Mander’s publication would match Van Mander’s own description. Also, it is clear when comparing these two portraits that they are similar in composition, not just due to the angle of the heads but also the angles of the turban folds and the inclusion of rosary beads.

Jef Van der Veken’s modern copy after Jan Van Eyck’s “Just Judges” panel, from the Ghent altarpiece, original from 1432.

Van Mander’s description of the self-portrait is nestled among descriptions of panels of the Ghent altarpiece. Van Mander explains that the two Van Eyck brothers who worked on this altarpiece, Hubert and Jan, are both depicted in the Just Judges panel (the panel on the lower left of the open altarpiece). The description by Van Mander, translated into English, is as follows:

On the other panels are figures on horseback…the two painters, Hubert and Jan. Hubert sits on the right-hand side of his brother in accordance with his seniority; he looks, compared to his brother, quite old. On his head he wears a strange hat with a raised, turned-back brim at the front of precious fur. Jan wears a very ingenious hat, something like a turban which hangs down from behind; and over a black tabard he wears a red rosary with a medal.1

If we follow Van Mander’s description, then Hubert is likely the figure in profile view, who is at the right of Jan Van Eyck. I don’t think Hubert was pinpointed to be the figure immediately next to Jan. A photograph of the original, now-lost Just Judges panel shows that figure was partially covered up with the “precious fur” that Van Mander described. The modern copyist, Jef Van der Veken, ended up reducing the size of the fur brim, as can be seen in this comparison:

Photograph of Van Eyck’s original Just Judges panel vs Van der Veken’s copy of the Just Judges panel. Image via Catchlight blog

If Van Mander is correct, this panel is extra special because it contained depictions of not only the two Van Eyck brothers, but possibly other notable people too (Van Mander mentions a “Count of Flanders” and other speculations abound as to the identity of the figures). Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that this was the panel that was stolen in 1934 and never recovered. If you are interested in reading more about this stolen panel, I recommend Noah Charney’s book Stealing the Mystic Lamb (which I have discussed in a previous post).

1 Karel Van Mander, Het Schilderboeck, Haarlem, 1406. English translation Eric Fernie’s Art History and its Methods (London: Phaidon Press, 1995), p. 51.

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Ansel Adams, Structure, and Music

Ansel Adams. The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. 1942. Image via Wikipedia, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Earlier last week, I taught my students about Ansel Adams’s photography. In preparation for our class discussion, I watched this documentary on Ansel Adams from the Master Photographers series (1980). I learned while watching that Adams had trained to become a concert pianist but ultimately decided to become a photographer.

It was interesting to hear him discuss photography in comparison to music. In explaining the range of light and dark contrasts in his photographs, he made an interesting comparison to the piano and its division into octaves:

“It’s like the piano, you have 88 keys, you can go from the lowest to the highest, or you usually work within a few octaves. Oh there were some magnificent things, but they were just an octave or two” (10:35-10:49).

If Adams likes the structure provided by the piano as a tool for making music, then it makes sense to me that he would like the structure provided by the technology of photography and the camera as a device. This interest in structure also extends to how he perceives his photographic shots as a type of framework that is akin to a musical score. In this same interview, he said, “I’m guilty of creating a cliché which I use very often, because in actuality the negatives are like the composer’s score. All of the information is there. And then the print is the performance, see. So you interpret the score at the varying aesthetic emotional levels, but never far enough away to violate the essential concept” (13:23-13:48).

Even Adams’s own musical tastes tend toward those which have structure. In a 1984 interview with Milton Esterow, Adams agreed with how Esterow’s observation of how Adams has a preference for composers with a large structure, such as Beethoven, Bach, Chopin and Scriabin. Adams continued and said, “Yes, there’s some evidence of precision and structure, nothing amorphous. I don’t react to Debussy.”

Learning about Adams and his relationship to music has made me think of his black-and-white photographs in a new way. I’m reminded of the black and white colors that are used for piano keys, or the the black and white used for a printed musical score. The shiny gloss his photographs makes me think if the shine of grand piano or the elegant “concert black” attire at a classical performance. Even this 1958 short film of Adams playing the piano is in black and white, which complements his work so well. So now, even though Adams’s best-known photographs are those which depict the great outdoors, I like thinking about how his photographs can also remind me of something metaphysical and intangible, like music, or the indoor spaces of a symphonic hall.

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Artists and Candle Hats

This school year I’ve been volunteering at my child’s elementary school, making videos for the Meet the Masters curriculum and helping out with art projects in a few classrooms. So far we have done the Van Gogh unit as a school, and I’ve also created some videos for the Hokusai project coming up in January. It’s been fun to do, although I have been finding some errors and misleading information in both the Van Gogh and Hokusai units. Someone needs to hire an art historian to fact-check the Meet the Masters curriculum!

The Van Gogh unit inaccurately states that Van Gogh wore a hat with candles, in order to paint at night. This is a myth that dates back to 1922, when it first appeared in by a book by the art critic Gustave Coquiot. In fact, Van Gogh actually explained in one letter that he completed a painting at night by using a gas lamp.

However, I know of one 19th-century artist who did paint at night with candles in a hat: Francisco Goya. The candle holders in the hat can even be seen in this image (and perhaps even better in this cleaned detail image of the painting):

Francisco Goya, "Self-Portrait in the Workshop," 1790-95. Oil on canvas, 42 x 28 cm. Museo de la Real Academia de San Fernando, Madrid. Image via Web Gallery of Art

Francisco Goya, “Self-Portrait in the Workshop,” 1790-95. Oil on canvas, 42 x 28 cm. Museo de la Real Academia de San Fernando, Madrid. Image via Web Gallery of Art

Goya’s son, as well as his biographer Laurent Matheron both explain that Goya would use this hat. Goya’s son Javier wrote, “He painted only in one session, sometimes of ten hours, but never in the late afternoon. The last touches for the better effect of a picture he gave at night, by artificial light.”Matheron also commented on this practice in 1858: ‘He was so jealous of the effect that – like our Girodet who painted at night, his head crowned with candles – he gave the last touches to his canvases by candlelight.”2

Goya’s candle hat has inspired contemporary artist Von Sumner, as well as this poem “Candle Hat” by Billy Collins, which is inspired by the self-portrait by Goya shown above:

In most self-portraits it is the face that dominates:
Cezanne is a pair of eyes swimming in brushstrokes,
Van Gogh stares out of a halo of swirling darkness,
Rembrant looks relieved as if he were taking a breather
from painting The Blinding of Sampson.

But in this one Goya stands well back from the mirror
and is seen posed in the clutter of his studio
addressing a canvas tilted back on a tall easel.

He appears to be smiling out at us as if he knew
we would be amused by the extraordinary hat on his head
which is fitted around the brim with candle holders,
a device that allowed him to work into the night.

You can only wonder what it would be like
to be wearing such a chandelier on your head
as if you were a walking dining room or concert hall.

But once you see this hat there is no need to read
any biography of Goya or to memorize his dates.

To understand Goya you only have to imagine him
lighting the candles one by one, then placing
the hat on his head, ready for a night of work.

Imagine him surprising his wife with his new invention,
the laughing like a birthday cake when she saw the glow.

Imagine him flickering through the rooms of his house
with all the shadows flying across the walls.

Imagine a lost traveler knocking on his door
one dark night in the hill country of Spain.
“Come in, ” he would say, “I was just painting myself,”
as he stood in the doorway holding up the wand of a brush,
illuminated in the blaze of his famous candle hat.

I keep thinking of this glowing hat at this time of year, due to Santa Lucia traditions that lead up to Christmastime and the long nights that we are experiencing. We all need more light right now! Do you know of any other artists who painted with anything like a candle hat?

1 Javier Goya wrote, “Los últimos toques para el mejor efecto de un cuadro los daba de noche, con luz artificial,” (see Pedro Beroqui, “Una biografia de Goya escrita por su hijo,” Achivo Español de Arte III (1927), p. 100).

2 Laurent Matheron wrote, ‘”tait tellement jaloux de l’effet, que, – semblable a’ notre Girodet, qui, la nuit, peignait la tête couronnée de chandelles, – il donnait au flambeau les dernières touches à ses toil.” Quoted by Enriqueta Harris, “Goya in Madrid” in The Burlington Magazine 125, no. 965 (August 1983): 512.

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