Sunday, 29 March 2015

Tobias and the angel - a tailpiece

This 16th century German stained glass panel shows Tobias and Sarah on their wedding night.

According to the story in the Apocrypha (see February blog),  Tobias has used the heart and liver from the giant fish to make a potent smoke.   This drove away the demon that had devoured Sarah's previous seven husbands, and in the morning:  "So the maidservant opened the door, and went in, and found them both sleeping, and came forth and told them that he was alive.  And Raguel blessed God."

This picture of wedded bliss shows a very upmarket bedroom, with splendid damask coverlet, and, of course, Tobias' faithful dog.

Tobias and Sara on their wedding night.  German, c. 1520
© Victoria & Albert Museum

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Frank Auerbach at Leeds

At the end of Queen Victoria's reign  Maple &Co. was known as  "The Largest Furnishing Establishment in the World".  It was a byword for quality, and its store occupied an entire block on the corner of Euston and Tottenham Court Road, until it was destroyed in the Blitz of 1941.  Auerbach captures it at a point when the site is being cleared for the new Maples store,  part of the postwar
rebuilding of London. 

Maples Demolition site, 1960 
Leeds City Art Gallery   © Frank Auerbach

When I saw this painting, nearly five foot square, in Leeds City Art Gallery I was bowled over.  Here is a historic view of a famous London store being created, as if it were painted with the very mud from its construction.  Ever since I have loved the energy of Auerbach's work,  and the sense of the thickly applied paint as a living representation of the subject.

You need to stand a really long way back from this artist's paintings - sometimes even at the exit to the room where one hangs -- before it takes shape and resolves itself.  I was once nearly disappointed in this way, but luckily turned back as I left the gallery for a final look, and the abstract mass of  brush strokes fell wonderfully into into place.  

Leeds City Art Gallery is always worth a visit, with many stars in its collections, but I have a soft spot for this unassuming little Victorian painting, tucked away in a corner.  

A Snow Storm     William Ed. Stott 1859-1918

You can recognise the Yorkshire winter weather, where the snow clouds suddenly let fall great drifts of snowflakes, ankle deep in moments, and perhaps the ponies epitomise Yorkshire grit in hard conditions?  The painting was the gift of the Ladies' Council of Education in 1892, and I like to imagine the discussion which resulted in its selection - there is nothing in it which could offend or startle the visitors;  a very safe committee choice.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Van Heemskerck, portrait painter of Haarlem

If you are visiting Amsterdam or Madrid, look out for these portraits of two Dutch ladies of the 1500s by the leading portrait painter of Haarlem, Maarten van Heemskerck.

Portrait of an unknown lady, (previously thought to be Anna Codde),  1529
© Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

I have owned a postcard of this lady quietly spinning,  ever since I first saw it in the Rijksmuseum on a visit to Amsterdam.  For many years her tranquil contemplation has cheered me each time I look at it, and her plain dress and spinning wheel do not distract the viewer from her face.

What a contrast this rather similar portrait  in Madrid presents:  it could at a glance be almost be the same sitter some years later, but so very different, with none of the naturalness of my favourite.  The dress is richer, with striking white sleeves, and the spinning wheel is a real showstopper designed to impress visitors, but this lady has none that sense of innocence, which is so appealing.

Portait of a lady, with spindle and distaff  c.1529-31
©Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Van Heemskerck worked in Rome from 1532-1536, and you can see an Italianate landscape in the background to his portrait of this mother and daughter.  Here too, he captures that sense of the mother's inner contemplation,  and her little daughter 's attention distracted from the rosary she is holding.

Machteld van Meerdervort with her daughter c. 1545
© Musee de Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg

His time in Rome produced a series of drawings of the classical ruins, and he shows this in his confident self portrait with the Colosseum behind.   His name and date appear on the small label, and to the right is the artist seated, drawing the ruins.

Self portrait with the Colosseum, Rome 1553
© Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

He was known for his engraved designs of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, as they might have looked new,  and he added his very contemporary view of the ruined Colosseum as the eighth. 

Thursday, 12 March 2015

John Bellany in Glasgow

John Bellany's distinctive and moving paintings for me are inextricably linked with seeing them at Glasgow's Modern Art Museum (GOMA) .  I had worked my way up to the top floor, excited by the energy of all these Scottish artists, where I discovered his paintings hanging in a quiet gallery space under the eaves.  I could enjoy and absorb what they said undisturbed and also turn for respite from their emotional impact to look out of the small windows to the street.  Ever since, I have associated Bellany's paintings with that close-up view of blackened corinthian capitals, lichened window sills, and chicken wire to keep off the pigeons from George Square below.

Scottish Mother and Child  2005
© the artist's estate

This painting below brings his reaction to the Indian Ocean tsunami back to his themes of the Port Seton fishermen.
(and see studio for Dr. Janet McKenzie's illuminating article on John Bellany's work.)

Premonition  2005
© the artist's estate 

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

St Margaret of Antioch

St Margaret of Antioch,  Francisco de Zurbaran, c. 1630-4
© National Gallery, London
According to legend, St Margaret lived as a shepherdess.  One day she was swallowed by Satan in the form of a dragon, but he was so stung by her crucifix that he regurgitated her unharmed.

Looking for a seat in the National Gallery one day, I think I was attracted by St. Margaret's striking shepherdess costume -- the sweeping curves of her straw hat and the vivid colours of her 'alforjas'       or saddle-bag.  At first her look of disdain reminded me of a very prissy head-prefect, definitely an irritating person to live with.  Gradually, absorbed in Zurbaran's portrayal, I understood why tyrants felt compelled to execute so many christian saints, who were so uncompromising in their faith.  Then I noticed the dragon's head, a repulsive, shapeless horror, and realised it represented the essence of pure evil which all those martyred saints condemned and despised.  A decorative 'picture-book' painting at first glance (and the artist also used the same model as the Madonna),  but Zurbaran has given it great depth of meaning once you look more closely.