Today (22 November) is the feast of St. Cecilia. Saint Cecilia (200 – 222 AD) was a Roman virgin martyr, who became the patroness of music and musicians. Legend has it that Cecilia was a gifted musician from childhood and composed hymns of such beauty that angels came down from heaven to listen to her. She vowed to preserve her virginity to an Angel of God. However, she was married against her will to a pagan nobleman named Valerian (Valerius), and then told her husband to respect her vow. Valerian told her that he would only do so if he saw the Angel himself. Cecilia promised to him that he could if the Church baptised him. He was baptised, and then saw the Angel talking to Cecilia. She, her husband and her husband’s brother were all subsequently martyred for their experiences. Saint Cecilia’s final resting place is in Santa Cecilia Church in Trastevere in Rome, and the first celebration of the Day of St. Cecilia took place in Évreux, Normandy in 1570.Continue reading “St. Cecilia: The Saint Patron of Music”
Tetsuya Ishida (1973 – 2005) was a Japanese artist known for his surreal paintings of the modern life in Japan. Tetsuya Ishida’s art speaks powerfully about the negative aspects of Japanese society, including over-work, social pressures and the erosion of individuality. His paintings are trying to show the human cost of capitalism and economic prosperity, society’s indifference, people’s isolation, alienation, uncertainty, anxiety and hopelessness, as well as the negative effects of consumerism in our industrialised societies overall.
Much of Tetsuya Ishida’s art should be understood in its context. In the 1990s, Japan experienced the economic crisis, recession and stagnation, with many people being laid off, and the “Lost Generation” was created. These were the people who missed their chance in the job market through no fault of their own. Normally, Japanese graduates have only one year’ opening to apply for jobs in companies, and many young people lost their opportunities when, in their graduation year, Japanese companies did not offer graduate positions (because of the need to cut costs). Of course, in the coming years, when Japan’s economy had improved, companies preferred most recent graduates to these “left-over” young people who then struggled to find employment, with some surviving by doing menial work. Some of these people also became what became known as hikikomori (“shut-in” adults living in their family home and not participating in any social life), facing much stigma. Tetsuya Ishida was, in fact, one of those “Lost Generation” people who experienced the 1990s’ hardship and discrimination first-hand.
Sir David Wilkie (18 November 1785 – 1 June 1841) was a Scottish artist of genre paintings, who also painted historical events and portraits, and was sometimes known as the “people’s painter”, presumably for some of his paintings that depict the lower-class or the middle class fallen on hard times. He was the godfather of author Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White). Wilkie’s paintings are characterised by liveliness, detail, and different or multiple perspectives shown by a number of characters in one painting. Below are four of his paintings, though his best-known one is probably The Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch .
The Blind Fiddler 
In this painting, where Wilkie pays close attention to details, a blind fiddler and his family (a wife, presumably, a lace-maker, an older boy and a baby) come to a country family home to provide entertainment. There is a lot going on in this painting, with each character having a different reaction to the music. The two small children of the family, presumably small trader’s family, seem to be interested in the music, while the baby is being entertained by the older man, probably his father. The small trader family’s son imitates the fiddler by playing on the bellows. Wilkie undoubtedly wanted to contrast the small trader with the poor fiddler, hence our attention is drawn to the colour red of the fiddler’s hat and the houseowner’s waistcoat.Continue reading “The “Multiple Perspectives” Art of David Wilkie”
“Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.” Truman Capote
This August I went to Venice and Venetian Riviera for my holidays, and below I am sharing some of the cultural highlights from my trip.
I. Piazza San Marco
I started my excursion with the Piazza San Marco, probably the world’s most famous town square, bordered by the Doge’s Palace and Basilica San Marco. The tall bell tower is the Campanile, constructed in 1912, since the original collapsed in 1902. The famous Café Florian (which some say is the most expensive café in the world) can also be found on this square, once being a host to a diverse literary clientele, including Stendhal, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Thomas Moore, Charles Dickens and Henry James.Continue reading “A Trip to Venice I: Cultural Highlights”
I. A Dance to the Music of Time [c. 1638-40] by Nicolas Poussin
This colourful painting shows four differently-dressed figures who dance to “the Music of Time”, with Time represented by an old man with wings playing a lyre. The figures’ hands are inter-locked and they are supposed to be in a perpetual motion, symbolising the cycle of life. They dance near a pillar topped by a double-faced Janus, the god of beginnings, transitions and endings. One of his heads is facing the future, while the other is facing the past. On the right, a putto holds an hourglass, while on the left, a putto is carelessly blowing bubbles, further alluding to the transience of human life. The painting scene takes place in the morning since Aurora, the goddess of dawn, leads the way for Apollo’s chariot through the sky. In turn, Apollo holds in his hands the Zodiac ring, and the Horae, the goddess of the seasons, conclude the procession.Continue reading “Allegories in Art I: The Passage of Time”
Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka (1853 – 1919) was a Hungarian painter working in the expressionist style and being part of the twentieth century’s avant-garde movement. A pharmacist by profession, he had a vision that he would become a renowned painter when he was already close to thirty and after that vowed to stop at nothing “to fulfil his destiny”. However, Kosztka was not popular with his contemporaries and achieved most of his recognition only after his death, with his paintings now forming part of Hungary’s national treasure. Below are three of his distinctive paintings, with each having at least one curious aspect.
I. Old Fisherman 
This seemingly straightforward at first glance painting shows an old fisherman with a cane with a coastline in the background. To the left of the man, one can see the serene sea and what looks like the signs of a village, while to the right, the sea is more volatile and a number of factories are seen, emitting pollution in the air. However, this is a painting with “a twist”. Art critics were quickly to spot that if you take a mirror and place it on the left-hand side of the painting (mirroring the fisherman’s face), it will show the benevolent man in a prayer, standing for goodness (God), but if you take a mirror and place it on the right-hand side (mirroring the fisherman’s face), it will show Devil himself (as the illustrations below demonstrate). Csontvary Kosztka seems to have wanted to underline the humanity’s dual nature – it harbours the seeds of both good and evil.Continue reading “The Art of Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka”
The mystery of dreams and dreaming has been fascinating artists since ancient times. Many famous artists (from Hieronymus Bosch, Francisco de Goya and William Blake to Gustav Klimt, René Magritte and Salvador Dalí) had tried to give life and form on canvas to the wondrous and bewildering nature of dreams. Whether taking folklore, mythology or biblical scenes as their main themes, artists’ greatest challenge was to enable the easy differentiation in the painting between the waking and the dreaming lives of their subjects. Below is just a snippet of this fascinating art tradition.
I. The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of/Dreams  by John Anster Fitzgerald
John Anster Fitzgerald (1819 – 1906) was a British painter of the Victoria era known for producing detailed, colourful artwork depicting various mythological figures: fairies, ghouls, demons, and also effects of drug-consumption. Dreams is just one of his paintings that depicts a young girl sleeping and seeing dreams. Those dreams “materialise” around her in this piece, showing various mischievous spirits playing musical instruments at the foot of the girl’s bed, while the more benevolent ones dance in the painting’s background, encircling the girl’s most pleasant dream of forming a couple with a (real or imagined) man she loves. The girl’s chic dress is probably also a part of her dream, and the red drapery around the girl’s bed work almost as stage curtains further emphasising the effect of an ongoing performance.Continue reading “Dreaming in Art: 5 Fantastical Paintings”
“The painter should paint not only what he has in front of him, but also what he sees inside himself”(Caspar David Friedrich).
Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840) was a German Romantic painter, specialising mostly in landscape paintings. In time, his art had become hugely influential, making its mark on the art of others (Arnold Böcklin, Ivan Shishkin) and even on cinematography (Andrey Tarkovsky). Friedrich’s work has been described in many different terms: allegorical, melancholic, sublime, nature-focused, mystical and religious. What is clear, however, is the artist’s desire to convey to the viewer that unfathomable link between the external and the internal worlds that we all experience, and he would use landscape (“moodscape”), symbolism and other devices to convey his impenetrable “philosophy”. He was particularly interested in capturing the “stillness” of a moment/place and tying it to the deeper feelings of longing and wonder at nature, and life and its transience. Below I present five Friedrich’s paintings with some commentary.
I. Chalk Cliffs on Rügen [c. 1818]
In this painting, the artist probably depicted himself, his wife Christiane Caroline Bommer and his brother Christian as this painting was completed just after Friedrich’s honeymoon to the island of Rügen, Germany. The serenity of the Stubbenkammer sea and cliffs contrasts with the activity of the three people in the foreground who find themselves dangerously close to the cliff’s edge. As seen in other paintings by Friedrich, we can discern a fine symbolism and symmetry in this painting. The overhanging trees work as though a window-frame, presenting to us a lady wearing a red dress, which contrasts with the white cliffs and offsets the dark green and blue dresses of her companions. If the man to the right is completely immobile, standing arms crossed and reclining on what appears to be a dead tree, then the lady is leisurely pointing towards something in the abyss below and is in the sitting position, and the man in the middle (probably the artist himself) is on his hands and knees on the ground, looking in equal wonder at some scene unfolding below. Though the three people find themselves at a short distance from each other, the overall impression is still that of group unity and the three being comfortable around each other, perhaps feeling a little independent at that moment captured by the artist. Knowing that the painting was completed just after the artist’s honeymoon, it may be safe to assume that he wanted to symbolise the happy unity of two recently joined people: the red dress of the woman may stand for love and bright beginnings, Friedrich, her husband, stands for humility and hard-work as he put his hat on the ground, prepared to be humble and work hard to make his union work, and the motionless man on the right (maybe Friedrich’s brother or moody Friedrich in his youth) is the quiet, melancholic understanding itself. Another common interpretation is that the colours of the dresses of the three characters in the painting (blue, greed and red) stand for the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love respectively. Chalk Cliffs on Rügen is in the permanent collection of the Winterthur Museum of Art in Winterthur, Switzerland.Continue reading “Delicate Symbolism & Transience: Paintings of Caspar David Friedrich”
Carl Spitzweg (1808 – 1885) was a German painter of the Biedermeier period (1815 – 1848) who presented his subjects from curiously comical perspectives. Largely self-taught, Spitzweg captured the Biedermeier trend of a new middle-class enjoying their new artistic or intellectual leisurely pursuits at or close to their comfortable homes and in the background of the country’s growing urbanisation, industrialisation and relative political stability. His paintings of incredible detail, colour and humour are considered the most significant to appear in that period.
I. The Poor Poet 
Carl Spitzweg loved to satirise men who pursue artistic professions. This painting, which can be viewed as both deeply sympathetic and humorous, presents the fact that “poetry does not pay“, showing a “poor poet” who is so engrossed in his world of verse and imagination (probably calculating iambic or trochaic meters on his fingers) that he is seemingly both oblivious and indifferent to his pitiful surroundings. He has neither a proper bed nor table, his umbrella serves him as a cover from the rain water that is most certainly leaking through the roof, and his papers have just recently been burned to produce warmth. And yet, hefty tomes of literature are by his side, a quill is in his mouth and his mind is on the verse. I particularly love the contrast between the soft, abnormally large, white pillow that perhaps stands for the poet’s untouchable realm of dreams and lofty aspirations in which he is only too comfortable, and his dingy and dirty surroundings (in which he should be uncomfortable). Spitzweg painted three versions of this painting, two of which are almost identical. One of these “identical” works was irrevocably stolen in 1989, while another can still be seen at Neue Pinakothek in Munich, Germany.Continue reading “The Comical Art of Carl Spitzweg”
I miss writing art-related posts and have decided to talk again about surrealist paintings of Spanish/Mexican artist Remedios Varo (1908 – 1963) (see my 2019 post where I already talked about her paintings Hacia la Torre, El Juglar and Papilla Estelar).
Revelation or The Clock-Maker 
In this painting, the Clock-Maker is hard at work in his studio surrounded by grandfather-clocks all showing the same time when Revelation (a whirling disk) literally floats through his window, catching him unawares. Here, Remedios Varo wanted to capture the moment of inspiration/divine revelation or “illumination” literarily presenting itself to a man, changing his understanding of how time works. Janet Kaplan in her book Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys explains that this is the moment when the Clock-Maker, who represents our “ordinary”, Newtonian time, realises with a shock that time is, in fact, relative, as Albert Einstein stated. This means it is not absolute or universal as was previously thought, but depends entirely on each entity or person’s position in the universe and in relation to everything else. This Revelation causes Clock-Maker’s tools and mechanical parts of his clocks to fall on the floor. Time can no longer be “trapped” or “fixed” within a clock and the Clock-Maker’s art and work will never be the same.Continue reading “Paintings of Remedios Varo II”
People have always been obsessed with the question of fate: what does the future hold? Is it possible to reverse the course of one’s destiny? In ancient and medieval times, mortality was particularly high and people felt they had little control over their lives, coupled with the fact that they also usually had little opportunity to move up the societal ladder and were “stuck” in their roles from birth until death. Moreover, those born rich had all the chances to lose everything, and violent death, war, famine, incurable illness and infant death were all just around the corner for all. In this unpredictable environment, appeasing the gods and goddesses of destiny and chance must have been an important task, especially for farmers, soldiers and sailors. After all, these deities were capable of ensuring the survival against all odds and the enduring of the worst and, anyways, a miracle can happen at any moment. It is also partly for that reason that premonitions, dreams and fortune-telling rituals have all been part of various cultures around the world, and Fortuna or Lady Luck in Europe has often been portrayed as ever-changing and fickle, as capable of giving much suddenly as taking it all away in a split second. So, how was Fate presented in art?Continue reading “Fortune & Fate in Art”
Giovanni Boldini was a well-known Italian artist born in Ferrara, Italy in 1842. He lived most of his life in Paris, France, where he mostly painted commissioned portraits of “celebrities” and socialites. Once friend of Edgar Degas and John Singer Sargent, he began his career as one of the artists in a group Macchiaioli, that challenged traditional styles in painting, but soon developed his own style that could be very loosely described as being somewhere between the Impressionists and Realists. Boldini was known for using rapid, loose, flowing, sweeping or swirling brushstrokes, as well as rich colours, that gave his paintings a peculiar quality. For this technique, he was named the “Master of Swish”. Below are six of his paintings that exemplify his style.
I. Les Parisiennes ; II. La Pianista 
Jacek Yerka (1952-) is a Polish artist whose surrealist art combines fantastical vision with a “meticulous Flemish technique”. Salvador Dali, Remedios Varo and Giuseppe Arcimboldo are undoubtedly influences, and below I present eight works that explore (i) imaginary worlds, (ii) dream-worlds and (iii) interiors.
I. Imaginary Worlds (4): (1) Don’t Slam the Door ; (2) The Winter Wave ; (3) Brontosaurus Civitas  & (4) Wegener’s Theory .
These four absurdist, fantastical, gravity-defying landscape paintings fire imagination. The second painting’s starting point might have been Hokusai‘s The Great Wave  and the fourth painting takes Alfred Wegener’s the then original theory further that continental landmasses are “drifting”, “interacting” with each other in the process.
Woven tapestries date as far back as the times of ancient Egypt, and the most famous series of medieval tapestries is probably The Lady and the Unicorn [c. 1460]. This mysterious series of tapestries has each piece representing one of the five senses (taste, hearing, sight, smell and touch), as well as the elusive sixth sense or concept titled only as À mon seul désir. These tapestries’ precise meaning remains unclear, and the same theme can also be seen in the series of paintings by Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens‘ titled The Five Senses [1617-18]. While some medieval tapestries focus on scenes from the lives of nobility, including royal hunting and tournaments, others centre on everyday life, religious themes and landscapes. Below are four tapestries from the Middle Ages which are as beautiful as they are enigmatic.
The Unicorn Rests in a Garden/The Unicorn in Captivity (the Unicorn Tapestries) [1495 – 1505]
Woven from a French design in either Belgium or the Netherlands, the so-called “Unicorn Tapestries” are a series of tapestries that are often considered to be the most beautiful and enigmatic of all arts that survived to us from the Middle Ages. The tapestry on the right shows a unicorn in captivity, and is probably a part of this series of six other woven artworks that all show the entrapment of a mythical animal – the magical unicorn.
As part of other “Unicorn” tapestries, The Unicorn in Captivity represents the culmination of an arduous work – the sighting, the taming and the capture of the animal that ancient sources say could only be tamed by a virgin. Thus, the tapestries show the hunting for and the trapping of this magnificent animal by various huntsmen. However, the precise symbolic meaning of the tapestries still eludes historians and critics who point out this or that mysterious detail in the tapestries, discuss the various sequences in which the tapestries could be presented and their mysterious origin, and, generally, debate their multiple interpretations. Interpretations that rely on pagan and Christian symbolism, as well as on alchemy (“unseen forces finally seen and conquered”) were all proposed. Moreover, those who believe that The Unicorn in Captivity is a standalone tapestry say that the artwork may simply symbolise “the desire finally tamed”, one’s beloved finally “captured in the nets of his or her lover’s charm”, an allegory of “love being triumphant” and “a subject of affection conquered”. Those who favour the latter interpretation point out that the unicorn seems to be at peace and even content in its confinement (the fence is not high and the animal may escape since it is not securely chained to the tree). Also, the presence of “ripe pomegranates” on the tree pictured may symbolise both marriage and fertility. The tapestry can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, NY, US.Continue reading “The Beauty & Mystery of Medieval Tapestries”
John Everett Millais [1829–1896] was a British painter and a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He fused realism and romanticism in his paintings, and is known for his striking portraits and dramatic scenes in paintings. Some of his well-known paintings include Ophelia  and The Princes in the Tower , and he also painted such historic and fictional personages as Joan of Arc, Cinderella and Isabella (from John Keats’s poem).
I. Apple Blossoms/Spring 
This painting seems to celebrate the coming of spring, youth and merriment, showing eight girls relaxing on the green lawn under the apple blossoms. The girls are all dressed in different-coloured dresses taking their refreshments. However, the painting also has one disturbing connotation. In the right-hand corner, there is a scythe, a tool which has notoriously been associated with death. The girl in the yellow dress lying on the grass also makes the painting a little eerie as her gaze is directed straight on to the viewer, challenging them to return the stare as she carelessly plays with a a grass stem in her mouth. The scythe, which is probably intentionally situated near the girl dressed in black, seems to hint at the idea that even the most joyful and healthy beings must come to an end and every representation of beauty must, by nature, hide a more sinister meaning.Continue reading “John Everett Millais: 3 Paintings”
Ivan Aivazovsky [1817 – 1900] was a Russian painter and one of the greatest masters of marine art who is predominately known for his masterpieces that depict seascapes: coastlines and seas. As a child growing up in Feodosia (Crimea), Aivazovsky fell in love with the sea (the Black Sea) and this passion for water and all things marine never left him. Below is just a tiny fraction of his paintings, where I focus on the themes of “sea chapels” and shipwrecks, and Aivazovsky is also known for depicting Armenian themes and battles. Some of my other favourite Aivazovsky’s paintings include his depictions of the Bay of Naples and Constantinople.
I. Clock-wise from the upper left-hand corner: Sea View with Chapel , Misty Morning in Italy  and Chapel by the Coast on a Moonlit Night 
These paintings of chapels by the sea create an impression of an idyllic scenery, a harmonic fusion of the man’s spirituality/religion and nature’s wonder. It is no wonder Aivazovsky’s paintings are often compared to beautiful poetry. Chapels by the sea were not uncommon. Sailors have always been a religious and superstitious class of people, and for a good reason. Sea is one of the most unpredictable environments one may find themselves in, and, in past times, sea-travel was fraught with various difficulties, culminating in disasters and death with frequency which is staggering by today’s standards. Thus, the protection of sailors and safe journeying on sea were issues of paramount importance. Chapels near the sea must have served a welcoming sight, symbolising the man’s “illusionary” control over the uncontrollable, and they often contain statues of saints, which only leave chapels on special days and festivals. Both Charles Dickens (in American Notes ) and Herman Melville (in Moby-Dick ) were fascinated by “sea chapels”, and patron saints of sailors and marine travel include St Brendan, a celebrated traveller, whose worship promises safe passage, St. Christopher, the legendary patron saint of travel, and St Erasmus, an ex-Bishop, who suffered much for his faith. In past times, such chapels also worked similar to lighthouses, signalling the way to the bay.
Arnold Böcklin (1827 – 1901) was a Swiss painter working in the genre of symbolism. He was known for painting motifs from mythology, and his works often depicted otherworldly beings, mysterious places and dark allegories. In this post, I will talk about three of Böcklin’s works of art.
I. Isle of the Dead (Third Version) 
This is Böcklin’s best-known painting in which he depicted “the Isle of the Dead”, a mysterious island with dense vegetation inside (cypress trees) surrounded by the white “fortress” of white rock. A lone boat approaches the island head on with the mysterious veiled white figure standing in it. In the boat, one can also see another white object, probably a coffin. The dark waters and gloomy skies build a sombre atmosphere, and the funeral motifs are also emphasised by the cypress trees since these too have been traditionally associated with cemeteries and mourning.Continue reading “Arnold Böcklin: 3 Symbolic Paintings”
This is a painting that Dutch-Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted in 1568 and left to his wife before his death. This is not merely a countryside scenery. There is something unsettling in this painting and some have suggested that it hides a secret meaning. In this painting, two men are seemingly enjoying the view to the river valley, but there is something disturbing that comes into their view – a group of dancers on the left happily passing their time in front of the gallows, which stand as an ominous reminder that one day human life comes to an end. Our attention is immediately drawn to the gallows because Bruegel depicted what seems to be an “impossible object” in art. The gallows’ posts are positioned in such a way that cannot occur in real life, with the right side receding into the distance. This alone gives the gallows in the painting a special significance. At the same time, the merry people to the side of the gallows, as well as the person who is squatting on the foreground, seem to be mocking the very symbol of death and “justice”. The contrast between their merriness, and the solitary and sombre gallows could not have been more pronounced, giving a peculiar unnaturalness to the scene. Over the years, there have been a number of interpretations put out forward regarding the magpie that sits on the gallows (as well as the one near the base of the gallows), and one of the most popular ones is that the magpie represents baseless and spiteful gossip that often leads to the gallows. This painting is currently held by the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, Germany.
Hieronymus Bosch [c. 1450 – 1516] was a Dutch painter known for his unique artistic style and enigmatic, intellectually complex paintings on religious subjects. He is also known as the innovative painter of the fantastic who, paradoxically, never went beyond the religious canon. Below, I would like to present three of his lesser-known works, one of which – Extracting the Stone of Folly – is considered to be the only one the painter produced which centred on a purely secular matter.
I. Extracting the Stone of Folly [c. 1505]
In this curious painting, a man tied to a chair in open countryside is ready to undergo a risky procedure – the removal of a stone of folly or madness from his brain. In medieval times, people believed that a stone lodged in someone’s brain was responsible for either their lack of intellectual prowess, their “madness” or their erratic behaviour. Professor Jos Koldeweij interprets this painting as a quack doctor (on the left) making an incision in the man’s scalp to extract the stone, while the man’s wife (on the far right) and her lover, the priest (in the middle) supervise the procedure. The interesting aspect of the painting is not only the macabre procedure, but also the division of power between the four people in the painting. Despite appearances, it is the wife of the man to be “dissected” who is in control. The book on her head may signal her possessing knowledge or power beyond that of those around her. The doctor is a quack or a fraudster because he has a funnel on his head and a jug hanging from his belt – he is after the money and is not interested in curing his patient. The priest in black, in turn, is supposed to calm the patient and provide a divine assent to the procedure. However, he also seems to possess ulterior motives for being there (having the jug in the hand may also signal deception). Moreover, being a lover of the man’s wife, he is unlikely to interfere to save the man from his fate. Meanwhile, the husband seated represents the party tricked into complete submission, as also evidenced by his overall helplessness to control the situation. The fact that the “surgeon” manages to extract not a stone, but a waterlily from the patient’s head only emphasises the ludicrousness of the procedure. The painting is currently in the Prado Museum in Madrid. Continue reading “Hieronymus Bosch: 3 Lesser-Known Artworks”
Thomas Cole [1801-1848] was an English-born American painter who painted Romantic landscapes and history art. Largely self-taught, he is also known as the founder of the Hudson River School. Below are five of his paintings that have historic significance and symbolic meaning.
I. The Architect’s Dream Continue reading “Thomas Cole: The Architect’s Dream, The Titan’s Goblet & The Course of Empire”
Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967) was an American realist painter, depicting both landscapes and social situations. Some of his most well-known paintings are Nighthawks  and Automat . His paintings are often said to portray people’s social isolation and loneliness, and even his landscape paintings feel desolate. Hopper’s paintings also inspired numerous filmmakers, for example, Alfred Hitchcock drew inspiration from Hopper’s House by the Railroad  to make his film Psycho  and Ridley Scott purposively wanted his film Blade Runner  to have the atmosphere of Hopper’s Nighthawks. Below I discuss four other works by this interesting painter.
I. New York Movie 
“And the angel said to them “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” [Luke 2: 8 – 14].
I thought I would return to religious art (see also my previous post 5 “The Last Supper” Paintings). I am choosing to focus on three artworks that depict the annunciation to the shepherds because this is a somewhat overlooked episode from the Bible and most prefer to focus on the nativity scene itself or on the adoration of the Magi when depicting Biblical episodes. The episode concerns the appearance of the angel who tells the shepherds the location of the Christ Child.
I. Annunciation to the Shepherds by Taddeo Gaddi
Maybe this artwork is my favourite because I remember I visited many times the Basilica of Santa Croce when I lived in Florence and this fresco is from there – located in the Baroncelli Chapel. It dates to around 1328 and is said to be one of the first night-time depictions of this kind. Taddeo Gaddi approached differently the presentation of the angel here, especially by the standards of that time, and the spiritual light surrounding the angel and the casting of this light on the rocky surface and on the shepherds are striking. In this fresco, the shepherds are slowly arousing themselves from their deep sleep, their cattle is still asleep and one of their dogs is already awake, looking distrustfully, but also obediently at the source of the light. There are both quietness to this depiction (especially in comparison to the paintings below) and a sense of conviction: the messanger has come and what he has to say is true. Continue reading “Annunciation to the Shepherds: 3 Artworks”
Frida Kahlo [1907 – 1954] was a Mexican surrealist painter whose artworks, mainly self-portraits, often emphasised the Mexican national heritage and dealt with the issues of gender, race and class. She was also known for producing intense self-portraits which showed her inner state of being and responses to various events in her life. The following three self-portraits of Frida are meant to demonstrate the heartbreak she experienced.
“Alchemy is not merely an art or science to teach metallic transmutation, so much as a true and solid science that teaches how to know the centre of all things, which in the divine language is called the Spirit of Life” (Stanislas Klossowski de Rola). However, before alchemy became the modern practice of “consciousness” transmutation, it was an occult art through which people tried to know the secrets of nature and, in the process, discover the “philosopher’s stone” that would grant them immortality or turn ordinary metals into gold. It was a very complicated and obscure process that involved many uneasy steps and sometimes years of work. The six paintings below completed by six different artists can be divided into two camps – (i) those that portray alchemy as a practice of charlatans or the ignorant that leads to poverty, and (ii) those that portray alchemy as a serious and noble intellectual pursuit that laid the foundations of modern chemistry.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798 – 1861) was a Japanese painter in the late Edo period specialising in Ukiyo-e woodblock painting (he was a contemporary of Hokusai). Kuniyoshi was known for his very detailed, “full-of-action” woodblock paintings (triptychs), showing the scenes from the Japanese life, mythology (the supernatural, including monsters), as well as the actions of the samurai. Some of his paintings are very graphic and rather violent. Below are three paintings of Kuniyoshi that depict ghosts.
I. Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre
The background story to this macabre print has is that there was once the war-lord Taira no Masakado (living in the 10th century) who was killed after he started a rebellion against the court at Kyoto. The daughter of Taira, Princess Takiyasha (who was also a witch), was devastated that her father was killed and the rebellion proved unsuccessful. Thus, she (positioned to the left in this print) magically summoned the ghosts of the dead rebellious soldiers of her father by reading through the magical scroll. The ghosts she summoned then took the form of one giant skeleton (Gashadokuro). On the foreground of the print, one can see the remaining plotter, as well as the leading warrior Oya no Taro Mitsukuni, trying to subdue the ghostly rebellion once again. Continue reading “Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints of Ghosts”
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was a Japanese painter during the Edo period best known for the work he created after the age of sixty. His most famous woodblock prints completed in the prevalent style of Ukiyo-e (“Picture[s] of the Floating World”) are a series of paintings Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (among which is The Great Wave). In 1831, Hokusai began a series of prints titled A Hundred Horror Stories (Hyaku-monogatari). Traditionally, Hyaku-monogatari denotes a game whereby people gather to listen to and tell ghost stories. Below, are three of the five surviving paintings in that series, presenting some of the well-known ghosts from the Japanese folklore.
I. A Woman Ghost Appeared From a Well (The Mansion of the Plates)
This is the depiction of the aftermath of the death of Okiku, a story that first appeared as a play Bancho Sarayashiki . There are a number of versions to this story, and in one of them, there was a beautiful servant girl Okiku who worked for Aoyama Tessan, a samurai. The samurai wanted Okiku as his lover and tricked her into believing that one of the ten invaluable Delft plates have been lost in the household. Normally, this would result in the servant’s death, but Aoyama stated that he would not hurt Okiku if she agrees to become his lover. When Okiku refused, he killed her by throwing her down the well. The Okiku ghost depicted by Hokusai comes from the well with the purpose of tormenting her murderer, sometimes screaming after counting to nine, or trying to find the final tenth plate. Hokusai painted Okiku as was customary at that time in painting ghosts: pale faces without lower limbs. Continue reading “Katsushika Hokusai: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints of Ghosts”
In past centuries, many artists have depicted the Last Supper scene found in the Gospels. This is a scene where Jesus shares a meal with his Apostles before his crucifixion, making his prophetic announcement. It is very easy to see why it is one of many favourite Biblical scenes to depict. There is a special dynamism to this scene since the Apostles can be presented having their own personalities, and their interaction with each other, their reaction to Jesus’s words, as well as a sense of foreboding, can give a painting a special aura/interest. The interesting thing for many when looking at these paintings is how Judas “The Traitor” is depicted in this scene, and most artists paid special attention to ensure that he stands out from the scene. Below are five “The Last Supper” paintings which I personally find particularly interesting (they are not necessarily the most famous ones).
Francisco de Goya (1746 – 1828) was a Spanish painter working in the style of Romanticism. He is probably best known for his paintings Saturn Devouring His Son and The Third of May 1808. Some of his other paintings have an eerie and even disturbing element to them. The somewhat satirical paintings below portray one central figure that catches the eye and unsettles. Witches’ Sabbath is held in the Museo Lazaro Galdiano in Madrid; The Straw Manikin is held in the Prado Museum in Madrid; and Time and the Old Women resides in the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, France.
I. Witches’ Sabbath 
This painting, which is part of Goya’s “Black Paintings”, shows a coven of witches. In the centre sits the Devil represented by a he-goat, with women around him being either in awe or scared of him, some offering him their children. The he-goat is motionless, his expression is neutral, eyes wide open, betraying nothing, while women around him fuss, causing a commotion. The goat’s human-like sitting posture hint at him being endowed with human qualities. It is possible that de Goya tried to satirise through this painting the prevalence of superstition and the belief in witches in rural parts of Spain (Francisco de Goya wanted to denounce any mass worshiping based on ignorance). This is so especially since the witches in his painting appear to be deformed and seem to be completely blinded by their belief in the entity before them (even though the he-goat appears almost like a dummy), offering their most precious “possessions” to the Devil – their children. Also, if a witches’ sabbath is usually held on a full moon at night, the painting purposefully depicts neither the full moon nor the darkness of a night (but a new moon, with the meeting taking place at dusk). Continue reading “Francisco de Goya”
Remedios Varo (1908 – 1963) was a Spanish/Mexican surrealist artist best known for her enigmatic, mystical and “alchemical” paintings, that “[blended] surrealist techniques and images, Freudian and Jungian psychology, science, magic, and the occult” [Vosburg N. (2005) Strange Yet “Familiar”: Cats and Birds in Remedios Varo’s Artistic Universe. In: Figuring Animals, 2016]. Below, I present and briefly discuss her three paintings.
I. Hacia la Torre (Towards the Tower) (1960)
Towards the Tower depicts a number of identical girls dressed in identical clothing that are whisked away by a man and a woman on bicycles. They are moving away from houses that resemble a beehive. Given Varo’s catholic upbringing, the wide interpretation of the painting is that the woman leading the girls on the bicycle is a nun and the girls are pupils in a convent. The girls share similar features as the artist wanted to underline the rigid conformity of the place. The beehive-shaped houses also underline the idea that the girls work towards one common goal (like bees) and their individuality is supressed or ignored. The “magic” numbers are also present here – we see twelve houses (for example, there are also twelve months), and seven girls (there are also seven days in a week). This is the first painting in the series of three paintings that depict the same women who first flee the houses (the convent) to get to the Tower, and then escape. The third painting (The Escape) shows a girl on a journey with her love. Continue reading “Paintings of Remedios Varo I”
I was lucky enough to live for three months in Florence (or Firenze), Italy a couple of years previously and every time it is middle of April I keep thinking about this beautiful, wonderful city, my favourite in the whole world. The city is really the cradle of the Renaissance, and it has practically remained unchanged from the Middle Ages, ensuring that each visit is one of a kind cultural and historical experience. Dante Alighieri (poet), Leonardo da Vinci (painter), Niccolò Machiavelli (philosopher), Galileo Galilei (physicist), Giovanni Boccaccio (writer), Filippo Brunelleschi (architect) and Donatello (sculptor) were all born in Florence or in its environs, among many other famous people. It is also a city of beautiful Catholic churches: Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce and San Lorenzo, to name just a few, and the sites of natural beauty around the city (such as Fiesole hills) are also worth visiting and appreciating. Everybody knows about the landmark sites of the city – The Duomo, Piazza della Signoria, Palazzo Vecchio, The Uffizi, Ponte Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti, and, in this post, I would like to share some of my favourite, slightly off-the-beaten-path locations in Florence. All photos on this post are mine (though, at that time, I had a very terrible camera). Continue reading “Florence, Tuscany”
My readers probably already know that I love allegorical and symbolic paintings, and, thus, I could not resist to share and discuss a series of other ones – The Five Senses [1617-18] by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens. The inspiration behind them was probably a series of tapestries known as The Lady and the Unicorn [circa 1500], each depicting one of the five senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch (as well as the mysterious “sixth sense”). Brueghel and Rubens’s The Five Senses now have their home in the Prado Museum in Madrid.
Since this painting is supposed to represent sight, it is all about art, and, in particular, paintings, which are appreciated through sight. In this painting, Venus, a Roman goddess, and Cupid, a little boy, are in a cabinet (room) of curiosities. Cupid is showing Venus one of the Christian paintings – The Healing of the Blind Man, which is about the miraculous sight recovery of a man. Among other objects in this room are antique busts and scientific instruments, such as a telescope, which can also only be used through having vision. Continue reading “Allegorical Art: The Five Senses”
René Magritte [1898 – 1967] was a Belgian surrealist artist known for his thought-provoking and enigmatic paintings. Many of his paintings play with the concepts of reality, identity and truth, and some of the most recognised painting are The Lovers , Not to Be Reproduced , Golconda , The Son of Man  and The Man with the Bowler Hat . In this post, I would like to draw attention to and discuss the three others: Memory, The Survivor and The Masterpiece or The Mysteries of the Horizon.
I. Memory 
Unlike other paintings on this list, Memory is an allegorical painting, a painting with a hidden meaning. It is a striking painting for many reasons and one of those is the contrast of the white and the red – a beautiful white bust here is tainted with blood. That “injury” on the bust may represent this woman’s traumatic and painful memory which she now has to bear. The irony here is that this blood is what makes this bust “come alive” – it gives this woman’s head the qualities of a real person, probably, a person in pain. Memory forms such an integral part of who we are, and what is our reality and daily life that, without it, we are lost. The possible “bleeding” out of “memory” in this image may hint at this person slowly being converted into a statue, which she has become – since we are looking at a bust. One trivia for film lovers here is that this painting probably served as an inspiration for one of the murder scenes in Anthony Minghella’s film The Talented Mr Ripley (1999).
Continue reading “René Magritte”
Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) was a Swiss painter known for his realistic and later symbolic paintings. He is also said to have “shaped the image and identity of Switzerland” through his artistic creations. Hodler invented the style of painting – “parallelism” to describe his own way of arranging and presenting his figures in painting. That style focuses on symmetry, harmony and rhythm.
I. The Tired of Life  by Ferdinand Hodler. This painting shows five old men sitting on the bench facing the viewer, without looking or communicating with each other. The striking feature is their symmetrical positions and their expressionless, tired faces. They are different men, but dressed in similar clothing and adopting similar sitting positions, which may hint at them being united in their destiny and outlook on life past. All this produces an arresting impression, and the near-naked man in the middle emphasised this symmetry and collective hopelessness even more. There is something too honest and isolated in these men’s gazes, probably letting the viewer know that each person’s end is pretty much solitary, definite and final. Continue reading “Ferdinand Hodler: Symbolism”
It seems that every allegorical painting opens some door to deeper truth. The Calumny of Appelles was painted by Sandro Botticelli in 1494 from the description of a lost painting by Apelles, a Greek painter, who lived in the 4th century BC. Now, the painting resides in the Uffizi in Florence, and does not stop to amaze gallery visitors with its beauty and metaphorical insight. In the centre of this painting is an innocent man on the floor who is being dragged to King Midas on the throne who has to decide on his fate. Calumny (Slander), in blue and white, is dragging the man by his hair, while Perfidy (Deceit) and Fraud are behind her, arranging her hair. A man dressed in black, holding Calumny’s hand, is Rancour (Envy) who is stretching his hand to the King. The old woman in black is Remorse, who glances at the naked Truth, a young woman who points to the sky. The lady is naked because, like the man on the floor, she has nothing to hide, and she urges the others to consider higher values in life. By pointing at heaven, she also gives a sign to others that a fair judgement is reserved for all after their deaths. However, King Midas, who has to pass a judgement on the innocent man, has his eyes downcast, not seeing the picture fully and clearly in front of him. He is guided by Ignorance and Suspicion, the two ladies on each side of him, who whisper in his donkey ears their suggestions on the course of action to take.
These are the portraits painted by Guiseppe Arcimboldo, who was born in Milan in 1527. During his lifetime, he became famous for creating a number of bizarre, thought-provoking paintings showing people composed of fruit, vegetables (plus other inanimate objects), as well plants and animals. The left painting is titled “Water”, showing a person composed of marine animals, while the right painting is called “Fire”, being another life force, showing a person composed of fire paraphernalia. They form part of the collection of four paintings titled “The Four Elements”, commissioned by Maximilian II, and were supposed to represent “chaos brought into harmony”. Continue reading “The Art of Giuseppe Arcimboldo”