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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.

The Landscape of Hubei

The Landscape of Hubei

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:

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To Zhang, Climbing Orchid Mountain on an Autumn Day
Meng Haoran

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 (Still Life with a Snake, Frogs and a Tortoise)

Paolo Porpora (Still Life with a Snake, Frogs and a Tortoise)

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.

Candlelight Cottage (Thomas Kinkade)

Thomas Kinkade “Painter of Light” died Friday (April 6, 2012) in Los Gatos, California at the age of 54.  Kinkade was one of the world’s most successful artists with a business empire said to generate over 100 million dollars a year (at least back in the boom days before the recession).  In order to produce his vast cannon of work, he painted swiftly with a somewhat cartoony impressionist shorthand style, and then reproduced his work through a wide range of technologies.  Copies of his paintings were available in every price grade: if one was unable to buy original artworks, there were (and are) an endless choice of hand-signed lithographs, high-tech canvas prints, posters, printed materials (calendars, cards, books, etc.), as well as plates, sculptures, clocks, and on and on.  All of this was available through multiple sales channels including the internet, catalogs, galleries, and a line of brick-and-mortar stores.  Kinkade was a uniquely American artist who took William Turner’s famous sobriquet “Painter of Light” and literally trademarked it as his own.

Art by Thomas Kinkade

Although he frequently suffered the scorn of art critics, Kinkade was upbeat about his work, which he regarded as a means to create a pleasant emotional experience for the widest possible audience.  The subjects of his paintings include idealized cottages, gardens, small towns, and churches–all of which are bathed in a fluorescent haze.  The tiny cottages glow with nostalgic perfection and the June gardens are forever soaked in the hues of sunset.  Joan Didion, an essayist who explores the interplay between aesthetics and morality in contemporary American society did not seem to regard Kinkade very highly, yet she wrote the most evocative description of his art:

A Kinkade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel. Every window was lit, to lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire.

Thomas Kinkade did not usually paint people in his works.  The majority of his canvases display obvious hints of life, but the inhabitants themselves are missing.  Religious iconography however is much in evidence and Kinkade frequently talked about his oeuvres in context of his Christianity.

Stepping beyond Kinkade’s obvious and remarkable business genius, his work does seem to directly touch the nostalgic, religious, avaricious wellspring of American sentiment.  It is not for Ferrebeekeeper to judge the quality of his art [ good, we would have to fend off a libel suit from his estate–ed.];  instead, as is traditional on this blog, we judge his work solely on the gothic elements therein—and these are plentiful!  Underneath the colorful candy-floss veneer there is a gothic heart.  The little bungalows and miniature mansions sitting in the deserted suburbs share architectural kinship with the glowering ruins painted by Caper David Friedrich.  The treacle gardens and empty town squares betray a similarity with churchyards and standing stones of German romanticism.  Didion is fundamentally right with her Hansel and Gretel metaphor—there is a fairy tale lurking in Kincaid’s work (and under his highly successful life).  What happens to Hansel and Gretel in our world of melting mortgages, outsourced jobs, and ecological havoc is far from clear, but it is worth pausing a moment to remember Thomas Kinkade, the warlock who stole Turner’s epithet and ruined Monet’s style in order to spin a river of gold from candy houses.

Here is a print created in 1516 AD by the gothic master Albrecht Dürer.  It portrays the familiar theme of Prosperine (Persephone) abducted by Pluto (Hades) the god of the underworld—an event which underpins classical mythology about the changing of the seasons.  The print itself is about the capricious suddenness of change—a subject familiar to any inhabitant of late-medieval/early-modern Germany.

Abduction of Proserpine on a Unicorn (Albrect Dürer, 1516, etching from iron plate)

Dürer was probably the greatest and most prolific of the late gothic artists from Northern Europe.  Over the course of his life (1471 – 1528) he produced countless drawings, etchings, engravings, woodcuts, and paintings.  Although his paintings are phenomenal, Dürer’s greatest contribution to art may have been as a printmaker. Invented in the 1440’s, the printing press was still comparatively new technology during Dürer’s life. However, as is evident in this iron etching, Dürer had already pushed the limits of what printing could do.  He was Europe’s first great mass-artist.

In this scene, Pluto has cruelly grabbed the naked maiden goddess.  Her distress and misery outweigh her nudity and beauty.  Her face is distorted into a horrified mask. Each element of the print combines to create a powerful narrative about the ominous and unstable nature of existence. The floating/dissolving jagdschloss in the background hints at life’s instability. The sinister presence of Pluto dominates the composition.  Although his body is hidden by Proserpine, the predatory mass of arms, hair, legs, and scowl is all too present.

Even in a wholly fantastic scene such as this, the realistic details are overwhelming.  Pluto’s wild hair becomes a part of the bracken and gorse of the savage woods where the abduction is taking place.  The unicorn is neither a horse nor a goat (nor a gentle purveyor of rainbows) but a one-of-a-kind hellbeast which has just galloped up from the Stygian depths.

The only hopeful element of the composition is the sky–where a beautiful mass of clouds which are piled up like clots of cream or a fallen robe hints at a future less dark and violent.

This past weekend was Open House New York.  For a weekend the whole city was an elementary school field trip as cultural, architectural, and industrial institutions throughout the burroughs opened their doors to the public for a sneak peek behind the scenes.  There were a lot of tempting choices, but, in keeping with ferrebeekeeper’s long obsession with all things gothic, some friends and I visited Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery to look inside the catacombs and palatial mausoleums of nineteenth century elite. Green-Wood cemetery consists of 478 acres of lovingly tended forests and gardens where more than 600,000 individuals are buried. The cemetery is sprawled over the terminal moraine left by the Wisconsin ice sheet when it retreated back to Canada about 18,000 years ago.  As the thousand foot tall wall of ice melted it dropped its burden of pebbles, boulders, and topsoil into rolling hills which now form the bulk of Long Island.  The tallest hill on Brooklyn is Battle Hill in Green-Wood where one can stand in the middle of a field of obelisks and look down at the harbor, the Narrows, and lower Manhattan.

 

The Main Gate of Green-Wood Cemetery

A Monk Parakeet at Greenwood

The main gates of Greenwood are a gothic revival masterpiece created by Richard M. Upjohn in 1861 (the cemetery itself dates back to 1838).  Back in the 1960s a shipment of monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) being flown from Argentina to Idlewild somehow escaped and the renegade birds set up nesting sites first in the cemetery gate.  Later, as the colony expanded, the birds also occupied the coEdison transformer station next to the cemetery.  So, as you walk into the park, you are greeted by raucous screeches and streaks of chartreuse among the trees.  And what trees!  Since the cemetery is old and is protected by a spiked fence, armed guards, and fierce dogs (along with who knows what sort of malevolent chthonic agencies), the trees have grown to maturity unmolested and the grounds feature numerous huge field oaks, mighty beeches, giant metasequoias and every other ornamental or native specimen which grows in these parts.

It is difficult to convey the scope of the cemetery. Visitors wander through different landscapes going up and down hills, into dark forests, across garden glades, and beside lakes—and everywhere there are tombs of every sort.  There are thin limestone headstones where the text is fading, tall granite plinths with statues, squat obsidian cubes, Egyptian pyramids, and elegant urns.  Sometimes you also pass huge haunting circles of graves which evoke feelings of barrows and ancient standing stones. During the open house my friends and I visited the spooky Greek revival mausoleums of a heartless railroad baron and of a rich tobacconist who turned to spiritualism after the mysterious death of one of his (demi-mondaine?) female employees. We also visited the underground catacombs where workers installed a creepy underground network of burial chambers in the excavation left over from a pebble mine.

Inside the catacombs (lit by bore holes drilled from above)

The princely grave of the stingy Whitney

The largest mausoleum inhumes the remains of Stephen Whitney, one of the richest and most parsimonious merchants of the nineteenth century who eschewed philanthropy. As one might imagine he was not well loved and when he died, the famous social commentator George Templeton Strong remarked that “his last act was characteristic and fitting.  He locked up his checkbook and died.” Although Whitney’s grave was magnificent and the cemetery’s great mourning chapel (pictured below) was even more so, to me the most interesting mausoleums and graves were the smaller gothic ones which I have pictured throughout this post.  We’re getting closer to Halloween (and to peak foliage)—why not take a constitutional through a nearby cemetery and contemplate the ephemeral nature of things amidst a beautiful vista?

The Chapel at Green-Wood Cemetery

The Crucifixion (Rogier Van der Weyden, ca. 1445, oil on panel)

Probably the most common theme of Gothic painting was the crucifixion of Christ, an event which was central to the universe-view of nearly all Europeans of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. To observe Good Friday, here is a triptych of the Crucifixion painted by one of my favorite Flemish painters, Rogier Van der Weyden (1399 or 1400 – 1464).  The painting was probably completed around 1445 and can today be found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Very little is known concerning Van der Weyden’s life and training.  We know that he was an international success and rose to the position (created expressly for him) of official painter of Brussels–then the location of the renowned court of the Dukes of Burgundy. But aside from that, only tidbits are known about a man who was probably the most influential and gifted Northern European painter of the 15th century.

Detail of Right Panel

Van der Weyden painted from models, and this crucifixion demonstrates a very compelling realism.  The grief and incredulity of the mourners is conveyed in their vivid expressions and poses.  The magnificent color and beauty of their garb underlines the importance of the spectacle.  Behind the figures is a huge empty landscape which runs continuously through all three panels.  The left wing shows a medieval castle, but the other two panels present a strange idealized Jerusalem.

Mary Magdalene is the lone figure of the left panel and St. Veronica is similarly isolated on the right panel. In the middle, John the Apostle tries to comfort a distraught Mary who is grabbing the foot of the cross as her son dies.  To the right of the cross are the wealthy donors who paid Van der Weyden for painting the picture. To quote Bruce Johnson’s Van der Weyden webpage, “The donors, a married couple, have approached the Cross; they are shown on the same scale as the saints, though they are not to be seen as really part of the Crucifixion scene – they are present only in thought, in their prayer and meditation, and are thus on a different plane of reality from the other figures.”

Detail of Mary Magdalen

The greatest glory of the painting is its nuanced palette.  The magnificent vermilion and ultramarine robes leap out of the muted green landscapes. Van der Weyden was renowned for using many different colors.  Art historians have averred that even the white tones in his greatest compositions are all subtly different.  Color also lends an otherworldly numinous quality to the dark angels hovering unseen on indigo wings as the execution takes place.

Joachim Patinir  (c. 1480 – October 5, 1524) is one of my favorite painters, partly because the Met has an exquisite triptych by him, but mostly for his amazing ability to paint the entire sweep of life within his landscapes—a form the Germans called Weltlandschaft (“world landscape”).

Landscape with Charon Crossing the River Styx by Joachim Patinir

In this painting, Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx, currently held by the Prado, the ferryman Charon rows a departed soul down the River Styx.   On the left side of the painting is paradise, a land of fountains, forests, and rivers emptying out into rich wetlands.  On the right lies the infernal city of the damned.  The tiny wavering spirit must choose–but see how his eyes dart towards Hell and away from the beckoning angel…

This painting is divided by color from front to back.  The foreground is the brown of earth.  Lilies, irises, and other flowers sprout directly out of the soil and work their way into the umber rocks.  The middle of the painting is green and filled up with birds, angels, and forest creatures.   The far horizon is pale blue dotted with tiny churches and universities.

The painting is also divided by color from left to right.  Paradise is pastoral: a country landscape of green, blue, and white. The angels are interspersed with deer and geese.  Hell is portrayed in black and orange and red.  But Patinir’s hell is a different affair from Bosch’s hell, which had been painted a generation before.  Three headed Cerberus seems quiet and oddly plaintive.  The lands in front of the gate are filled with fruit trees, lilies and parrots.  It is true that the gatehouse is decked in hanged corpses, but so would be the entrance to any town in Patinir’s native Wallonia. In fact aside from the occasional ogre or impaled human, the horrors of Dis are almost too indistinct to make out.  It could almost be a foundry or just a smoky medieval town rather than the abode of the damned.

Of course there is a moralizing message in Patinir’s work.  The indecisive spirit must choose between right and wrong.  But the choice is not the stark choice offered by Bosch or van Eyck.  The painter is not proselytizing relentlessly, rather the mood is elegiac.  Heaven is the wilderness: countryside, animals, trees, and solitude.  Hell looks like a city with all the hurly-burly of society.  If we stripped the painting of its Medieval Flemish context it could almost be an environmentalist artwork–or at least a defense of country pleasures against the press of urban living.

Patinir's hometown: Dinant in Wallonia

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