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I promised a beautiful painting of Jesus for Easter and here is one of my favorite altarpieces from the Met. This wonderful painting is “The Crucifixion with Saints and a Donor.” It was largely painted by Joos Van Cleve (with some assistance from an unknown collaborator) and was finished around 1520. The painting is very lovely to look at! Joos Van Cleve endowed each of the saints with radiant fashionable beauty and energy. From left to right, we see John the Baptist with his lamb and coarse robe; Saint Catherine with her sinister wheel (yet looking splendid in silk brocade and perfect makeup); Mary is leftmost on the main panel in royal blue; Saint Paul holds the cross and touches the head of the donor (whose money made all of this possible); and Saint John wears vermilion garb and has a book in a pouch as he gesticulates about theology. On the right panel are two Italian saints, Anthony of Padua and Nicholas of Tolentino. Probably this altarpiece was an Italian commission or maybe the Flemish donor had business or family connections in Italy.
But van Cleve’s delightful saints are only half of the picture. In the background, the unknown collaborator has painted a magnificently picturesqe landscape of cold blue and lush green. Fabulous medieval towns come to life amidst prosperous farmlands. Rivers snake past forboding fortresses and great ports. The distant mountains become more fantastical and more blue till they almost seem like surreal abstraction in the distance. You should blow up the picture and let your spirit wander through this landscape (I think WordPress has discontinued that feature in a bid to frustrate users, however you can go the Met’s website and zoom into the painting and step directly back into 16th century northern Europe).
Somewhat lost in this pageant of visual wonders is, you know, Jesus. The painting’s lines don’t even really point to him. He suffers on his cross in emaciated, gray-faced anguish, forgotten by the richly robed saints and the wealthy burghers of the low country. Only the Virgin seems particularly anxious. Yet, though Van Cleve has de-emphasized the savior within the composition, he has painted Christ with rare grace and feeling. The viewer can get lost in the landscape (or looking at Catherine’s lovely face) but then, as we are craning our neck to see around the cross, the presence of a nailed foot reminds us this is a scene of horror and divinity. I have spent a long time looking at this painting and I found the the juxtaposition of wealth, industry, fashion, and riches, with the overlooked figure of Jesus naked and suffering to be quite striking. It is a reminder to re-examine the story of Jesus again against the context of more familiar surroundings. I am certainly no Christian (not anymore) but it seems like there might even be a lesson here for America’s ever-so-pious evangelicals. With all of the excitement of wealth and political power and 24 hour Fox news and mean supreme court justices and billionaire golfers and super models and what not, I wonder if there is anyone they are maybe forgetting…
Springtime On The Farm (Walt Curlee, 2010, oil on artboard]
It’s February 2nd—Groundhog Day—one of the many feeble pseudo-holidays with which the bleak & wintry month of February is filled. Ferrebeekeeper already wrote a comprehensive and somewhat touching post about the eponymous North American marmots which give this day its special name and character. So what do I write about now (other than that Bill Murray movie)? Today as I look around the internet, seeking a new nuance on the topic, I notice that there are a surprising number of articles lambasting groundhogs for being so frequently wrong about how much longer winter will last. This strikes me as abominably wrongheaded—since the Groundhog Day scrying tradition (such as it is) is really about humans looking for shadows rather than actual marmot insight into the wildly fluctuating early Anthropocene weather. Therefore I am posting this fine work of groundhog artwork by contemporary artist Walt Curlee. The pretty painting has many virtues, but chief among them is that it skips over February entirely. The groundhog, the farmer, and the barely visible dairy cows in the background are all enjoying a lovely clement spring day. There are winsome spring flowers and delicious-looking morel mushrooms (which the groundhog seems to have his eye on). The viewer can practically smell the actinomycetes of the freshly tilled earth. Best of all, the farm is located on beautiful rolling foothills which are sloping upwards towards the Appalachian Mountains. It reminds me of the family farm in southeast Ohio.
I spend a lot of time grumbling about the ugliness of contemporary art, but this charming folk painting is a reminder that there are plenty of fine artists out there working away at what they find beautiful irrespective of what the shallow fashions in Chelsea and Bushwick dictate. Thanks, Walt Curlee. I look forward to seeing more of your farm paintings. I suppose we should also thank the groundhogs for putting up with a day of grabby mayors and inane commentary. Most of all, we should keep our eye on the future. Whatever happens, winter will not last forever. [oh, and you can buy a print of Walt’s painting here, or just check out his other works, if you like].
Once again I have been thinking about the Namib Desert–the world’s oldest desert–which calls to me for reasons I cannot fully explain. I wrote about some of the Namib’s strange animals and plants…but one thing I did not mention was its ergs. This is because I did not know what an erg is, but today I looked it up and the concept is simultaneously horrifying and beautiful. An erg is a sea of wind-blown sand. This geographic feature is not unique to the Namib Desert—or indeed to planet Earth—but they do tend to be found only in vast & mighty deserts. Such a landscape is characterized by vast dunes—mountain-like sand hills composed of immense numbers of individual sand grains.
Geographers have seemingly fixed certain parameters on how large a sandbed must be to count as an erg—but I will let you look these up on your own—I think the word “sea” covers the scope of ergs. We are not talking about a child’s sandbox here.
The word erg derives from an Arabic word “arq” which means dune landscape. The Rub al Kali Desert “the empty quarter” of Saudi Arabia is a vast erg—the world’s largest. There are a multitude of ergs throughout the Sahara (as seen on the map below) and they can also be found in central Asia, the middle of Australia, and the Atacama Desert (which I also really need to write about). Ergs are less common in North America than in Asia and Africa, but there a few notable examples mostly in the Sonoran Desert, but also including the unimaginatively named “Great Sand Dunes” in Colorado.
The geology of ergs is quite fascinating as the dominant agent of erosion and change is wind rather than water. When wind activity shapes the surface of the Earth (or another planet), geologists describe the varying sorts of erosion, deposition, and weathering as “Aeolian processes” in homage to the ancient Greek god of the winds who crops up in the Odyssey and the Aeneid. Ergs do not just feature great dunes but also strange sand sculpted rocks and dry river beds.
As noted, ergs are not a phenomena exclusive to Earth, but can be found on other planetary bodies too (if they have silica and atmospheres). Ergs have been discovered on Mars where vast erg fields ring the polar caps. The Martian winds blow the ergs into bizarre patterns and shapes (usually I would say “otherworldly”, but that seems too pedestrian a word here). Venus also has ergs (discovered by the Magellan probe) and Cassini’s radar spotted huge parallel ergs on Saturn’s great moon Titan. Indeed ergs may be the dominant surface feature of Titan.
I have never been to an erg. There are none in Brooklyn (yet). However I would like to see one…although I admit to a certain amount of trepidation. They do not seem like places for life, and indeed they are among the most lifeless places on all of Earth. Ergs are beautiful but also terrible and dangerous. At least they should stay free of suburban sprawl for long enough for me to visit one (and it will probably be a very long time indeed before we cover the ergs of Titan with strip malls).
Joos Van Cleve was active in Antwerp from 1511 to 1540. His winsome figures have a delicacy and elegance which is somewhat in contrast to the earthier figures of Flemish painting. He was also a pioneer in putting large decorative landscapes behind his figures (although, to my eyes his landscapes are much inferior to landscapes by the greatest artists of the previous generation—like Bosch and Patinir). In a way Van Cleve’s great innovation was combining the elegance and color of French art, the ecumenical breadth of Flemish painting, and the verisimilitude of Italian painting. This magnificent picture of the Virgin and Child with Angels rewards close scrutiny. You should blow up the image (for this is a huge file) and enjoy the appealing little details such as the deer woven into the rug, the tart summer cherries which a footman is offering to Mary, and the same footman’s studded jerkin!
Of course Van Cleve was not the peerless master that some of his more well-known contemporaries were and he sometimes overreached. Looking at the less-than-perfect curly-haired angel in the acid-color jerkin gives me hope for my own career as a painter (whereas sometimes the works of Raphael and Perugino leave me in despair about ever picking up a brush).
Vittore Carpaccio was born around 1465 in either Venice or in Capodistria (a port in Istria which had been taken over by the Republic of Venice in the 14th century). His father was a glovemaker who was most likely from Albania. Carpaccio is one of the masters of early Venetian art, but he is not as famous as his contemporaries Bellini and Giorgione. This is because of Carpaccio’s style inclined toward the conservative and Gothic rather than towards the humanistic Renaissance style which was coming into vogue, but it is also because he did not have the same caliber of successful students as his two peers (who taught Titian).
Here is Carpaccio’s 1507 work Saint George and the Dragon which is painted in tempera on a panel and is housed in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. The Scuolo was a confraternity—a sort of early version of a corporation—which commissioned the work in the first years of the sixteenth century and it has been there ever since.
When I was a child I always wanted to go to the Medieval section of the museum to look at knights–and I was always disappointed by all the self tormenting Saints and Jesuses (which took me a while to properly appreciate). Here, however, is a painting I would have loved! The splendidly armed and armored knight is depicted at the exact moment he drives a beaked lance through the monster’s head! This incendiary action is framed by a meticulously detailed world of dizzying beauty and horror. The dragon is surrounded by the dreadful remains of his many victims. You should blow up the digital photo of the painting to get a good view of all the snakes, skulls, toads, and seashells scattered on the round around the dragon’s lair (not to mention the naked half-eaten maiden whose remains are being scavenged by a lizard). In the near background a Libyan princess in exotic Eastern headwear clasps her hands in horror. Although her vivid attire is meant to represent the exotic East, she seems like a fragment of Carpaccio’s imagination. Likewise, the fantasy city in the background is meant to be Silene of Libya, yet the trade ships of the Middle Ages and all of the Romanesque and Gothic castles, keeps, and villas in the background put one firmly in mind of the Adriatic.
All the major lines of the painting (the dragon’s head, the lance, the ocean, and the horse’s back legs) point straight at the glittering red and black knight who dominates the composition. Resplendent on his destrier, clad in sable armor, with his blond curly hair cascading behind him he is perfectly at home in his world of religion and ultraviolence. The knight is the perfect representation of the troubled world of early sixteenth century Venice (increasingly at odds with the Ottoman Empire). It was a time and place which called for violent men of action.
It is Rembrandt’s birthday again—happy birthday to the great artist! Last year we looked at an enigmatic painting by the great Dutch master which could have represented several different mythological/historical scenes. This year instead of celebrating with one of his astonishing paintings of people, we turn instead to an intaglio print which Rembrandt made by combining etching, drypoint, and direct hand manipulation of the printer’s ink. Uncharacteristically, humankind is not the direct subject of the print (although if you enlarge the image, you will discover both a fisherman plying his luck at the river and a yokel loitering in the fields). Three monumental trees loom over the flat Dutch landscape—but their symbolism, if any, is not overt. A bustling city sprawls in the background, but it too is not the focal point on the composition. The real subject is the darkling sky which roils with strange clouds, abstruse turbulence, and glorious patches of sunlight. The world changes with astonishing speed: the mutable clouds are the most direct manifestation of the ever shifting nature of reality, yet the country dwellers, cows, city, and even the long-lived trees all seem to partake of the same impermanence.
Another year is passing and, as in years past, we pause to recall some of the important people who passed away this year. Numerous World War II heroes died as the greatest generation fades into a glorious Technicolor sunset. We will not see their like again. All sorts of celebrities, criminals, titans, sports stars, and pioneers also passed on as the great parade of human life continues. Here are some of the scientists, space pioneers, artists, writers, and leaders who deserve a last shout out before 2014 begins with its possibilities, anxieties, and hopes.
Noted animator Frederick Back died on December 24, 2013. He was known for his profoundly moving short animations.
Dr. Janet Rowley demonstrated that chromosomal translocation was the underlying cause for leukemia (and other cancers). By establishing the genetic underpinnings of many cancers, she vastly furthered cancer research and treatment. ABC news reported “She is a recipient of the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.” She was still publishing papers and researching at the University of Chicago (where she graduated from high school, college, and Medical School and spent most of her professional life) right up until her death on December 17, 2013.
Peter O’Toole one of the foremost thespians of our era died on December 14, 2013. The quality of his movies varied wildly, but the quality of his acting was always the very highest. I remember watching him on a late night chat show and being impressed by his vivacity and intelligence. He finished the segment by reminding the audience that this isn’t a dress rehearsal (a sentiment which bears repeating).
Harry Rosenthal an AP reporter who “covered America’s golden age of space exploration” died on Dec. 12, 2013. I hope a new reporter appears on the scene to cover a newer and more glorious era of space exploration (but a lot needs to go right for that to happen).
Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, died on December 5, 2013. Too often, brutal civil wars have swept across African nations after independence. It did not happen in South Africa thanks to largely to Nelson Mandela who reached out to his former oppressors in order to build a unified society.
Fred F. Scherer a painter and sculptor responsible for crafting some of the amazing wildlife dioramas for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, died Nov. 25, 2013.
Doris Lessing, Nobel Prize laureate and author of harrowing science fiction dystopias (some of which were based on her childhood in colonial Africa) died on November 17, 2013.
Legendary rock-and-roll musician Lou Reed died on October 27, 2013.
Legendary Irish punk/rock/traditional musician Philip Chevron died on October 8, 2013.
Harold Melvin Agnew, an American physicist and nuclear pioneer died on September 29, 2013. He was best known for working on the first nuclear reactor (Chicago pile 1) taking part on the Hiroshima bombing mission as scientific observer, and (eventually) acting as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Roger Ebert died on April 4, 2013. Ebert was a screen writer, an essayist, and above all a movie critic. I did not always agree with his reviews, but I usually liked reading them more than I enjoyed watching the films.
Meng Haoran was born in Xiangyang in 689 or 691 BCE. He passed the all-important civil service test at the age of 39, but his brief political career was an abject failure. He spent the rest of his life socializing with his friends and writing poetry about the winsome landscapes of his native Hubei. Today, he is fondly remembered as one of the luminaries of Tang dynasty poetry and his works went on to have a big impact on subsequent poets and landscape painters in China and in Japan.
In his poems, Meng Haoran usually concentrates on the people who inhabit the mountains and rivers rather than describing the landscape itself. His poems are filled with longing for the summits of the mountains—the haunt of unseen sages—however the poet never quite seems to ascend the peaks but rather ends up writing about rice wine and poetry. Below is a characteristic poem addressed to his friend Zhang which veers from the soaring heights of aspiration to the day-to-day beauty of life and finally ends with the comforts of friendship:
To Zhang, Climbing Orchid Mountain on an Autumn Day
The northern mountain is hidden in white cloud,
A happy place for hermits to retire.
So we can meet, I try to climb the heights,
My heart is fading like a goose in flight.
My sorrow’s prompted by the creeping dusk,
But then clear autumn spurs on my desires.
At length we see the villagers return,
They walk the sand and rest at the river crossing.
The trees against the sky are like shepherd’s purse,
An islet by the shore just like the moon.
I hope you have some wine to celebrate,
We’ll spend the autumn festival drunk together.
Paolo Porpora (1617–1673) was a Neapolitan painter during the Late Baroque. He was apparently influenced by Dutch still life paintings and his works share the precision, control, and aesthetic elements of paintings by Rachel Ruysch or Balthasar van der Ast. Yet Porpora did not paint still life paintings. His works are miniature nature tableaus which have the dark drama of Baroque art written small in the lives of small animals. In Still Life with a Snake, Frogs and a Tortoise, the various reptiles and amphibians square off in a little landscape of fungi and flowers. The small world has the menace and violence of a Webster play as the cold blooded creatures stare beadily at each other attempting to work out who will eat whom.