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Oak-wood (Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin, 1887, oil on canvas)

Oak-wood (Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin, 1887, oil on canvas)

Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin (Ива́н Ива́нович Ши́шкин) was born in Yelabuga, in central Russia near the Volga in 1832.  His father was a free-thinking merchant who encouraged exploration of the world and supported young Ivan in his artistic studies.  Ivan became part of “the itinerants” a group of artists who chose to ignore the rigid rules of European art and doggedly pursue their own interests and subjects.  For Ivan this was the magnificent forests of Russia which he painted in all of their splendor with stupendously adroit realism.  He surely ranks as one of the greatest forest painters of all time.  Each of his canvases presents a living forest as its own world. Every tree is as distinct as a person and they are joined as a thriving whole within a larger ecosystem of plants, fungi, and living things.

Stream by a Forest Slope (Ivan I. Shishkin, 1880, oil on canvas)

Stream by a Forest Slope (Ivan I. Shishkin, 1880, oil on canvas)

Here are three of Ivan’s astonishing paintings.  The viewer can feel how each forest has a completely different character and mood.  The open meadows around the great oaks in the first painting are as different as possible from the brown stream running out of the firs…which is again as different as can be from the dark pine wood filled with woodears and mosses.

Wind-Fallen Trees (Ivan I. Shiskin, 1888, oil on canvas)

Wind-Fallen Trees (Ivan I. Shiskin, 1888, oil on canvas)

Yet, though they are different, each of his forests is a beautiful and sacred place—a transcendent slice of nature.  Ivan’s work is not as famous as it should be because he chose to take it directly to the Russian people rather than selling it to aristocrats or Europeans (an attitude which was part of the itinerant philosophy).  However his travels through rural Russia kept his mission pure and kept him close to his true love—the Russian woods.  Thanks to his life beyond the limelight we can now travel these erstwhile greenwoods by means of art and learn to see the breathtaking majesty of the forest.

Venus and Anchises (William Blake Richmond, 1889/1890, oil on canvas)

Venus and Anchises (William Blake Richmond, 1889/1890, oil on canvas)

In classical mythology Anchises was a prince of Dardania who found lasting fame as the mortal lover of the goddess Aphrodite. One day when he was hunting in the forest, she appeared to him disguised as a Phrygian princess. They made love for two weeks straight (!) whereupon she vanished–much to the distress of the besotted prince. Nine months later she reappeared to him in her full glory as the goddess of love…with a baby, Aeneas, who was fated to survive the fall of Troy and found Rome. Here is a splendid, splendid painting of their meeting which was made by William Blake Richmond in 1889/1890 at the zenith of nineteenth century painterly craft.

In the painting, Venus is not working very hard to conceal her godhood (although, uncharacteristically, she is garbed). Flocks of doves spring up at her feet. Sparrows fly everywhere like confetti and the dead winter woods burst into crocuses as she passes. Glowing hawthorn flowers frame her beauty like a halo of stars and a pair of adult lions bound through the woods in front of her to herald her coming. Yet these peripheral details are clearly lost on the gobsmacked Anchises whose focus is squarely on the goddess. His horn hunting bow has dropped to his side (although the top limb juts out in a not-at-all symbolic manner).

This lovely painting is remarkable for the way it merges seemingly incompatible contrasts. The larger-than-life mythical characters somehow fit in with the hyper realism of the forest in early spring. Likewise the glowing white and gold of Venus’ glowing raiment is starkly juxtaposed with the dark earth tones of the mortal world—yet somehow they go together. Her lambent robes seem to form a swirling nebula. Richmond lavished such effort on the details of this picture. Look at each perfect crocus or the endearing little Phrygian hat. You should blow the painting up and look at it full size—it is an appropriate Valentine’s Day treat.

He Jiaying is a contemporary Chinese painter.  Born in Tianjin in 1957, he is famous for his masterful figures painted with classical Chinese brush painting.  He Jiaying’s favorite subjects tend to be beautiful women lost in contemplation beneath trees or bamboo.  The models in his paintings are either attired in fluid dresses or, more often, in nothing at all. So deft is his style that he miraculously combines European-style hyper realistic portraiture with ancient Chinese style brushwork (which is famed for being free and spontaneous).  Because his paintings are masterpieces in two opposite styles, He Jiaying is widely known  both in China and abroad.

 

Painting by He Jiaying

Painting by He Jiaying

Here a wistful beauty walks pensively beneath autumn birch trees.  Despite the adroit brushstrokes, the woman’s figure possesses perfect verisimilitude–and the trunks of the trees are likewise simultaneously simple yet perfectly lifelike.  Despite the realism, the composition is anything but Western: the off-center figure, the abstract leaf-litter, and the empty background are all hallmarks of classical Chinese painting.

Okapi (Walton Ford, watercolor on paper)

Okapi (Walton Ford, watercolor on paper)

Walton Ford is a contemporary artist who paints realistic large-scale watercolor paintings of mammals and birds.  The creatures are often placed in anthropomorphic contexts (where they dress or act like people). Because the paintings are so large, the artist tends to annotate them in beautiful copperpoint longhand (although it is a bit hard to see in this example).  In this painting, a shy okapi, the wraith of the African jungle is trying to purloin a piece of honeycomb from a dangerous gun trap.  The okapi’s face is filled with purpose but the ominous fire on the horizon and the hunting paraphernalia in the foreground hints at a dark outcome.

Detail

Detail

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.

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