Nina MacLaughlin: When I was writing Hammer Head, I wanted to read something completely different from what I was writing so I chose Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It ended up affecting everything I wrote.
“Nativity,” about 1482-1485, Sandro Botticelli. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Photo: courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
By Kathleen C. Stone (reprinted from artsfuse.org)
If you go to the Brancacci Chapel in Florence and look to the right, you will see St. Peter being crucified. A crowd of men watches but one, with long hair and a cheeky expression, turns to face the viewer. That’s the artist Sandro Botticelli when he was beginning to make a name for himself in the workshop of Fra Filippo Lippi. Further to the right is a scene that takes place in front of the Emperor Nero; another young man looks directly at us. That’s Filippino Lippi, son of Fra Filippo, a student of Botticelli and painter of both frescoes.
By the time Lippi painted Botticelli into the crucifixion scene, in approximately 1485, Botticelli was in his forties and in the midst of producing his most acclaimed works: The Birth of Venus, Primavera, Minerva and the Centaur and wall paintings in the Sistine Chapel. He, like many other Florentines was a student of antiquity and worked to create a harmony — often through the means of allegory — between Greek and Roman myths and the teachings of the Catholic Church. For a time, the Church tolerated such a humanistic outlook. That peaceful co-existence was shattered, however, when Lorenzo de’ Medici, a champion of humanism, approached the end of his life and Girolamo Savonarola, the Dominican friar, began preaching against the excesses of Medici rule and secular wealth. Botticelli became enbroiled in the controversies that roiled Florence and his art became a barometer of the city’s intellectual and religious life.
Botticelli and the Search for the Divine is the largest exhibition of Botticelli paintings ever mounted in North America. Bigger may not always be better, but this is a gorgeous show. The painter’s colors alone make it worthwhile — cinnabar reds, malachite greens, lapis lazuli blues. The ethereal gold edging of veils and haloes remind us that Botticelli first trained as a goldsmith. In his delicate hand, paint takes on a shiny transparency, a gold gossamer.
Seeded with twenty-one paintings on loan from Italy as well as local masterpieces from the MFA, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the Harvard Museums, the show focuses on the context in which Botticelli painted. It opens with a Virgin and Child (1466-69) by Fra Filippo Lippi that is striking for its warmth and tenderness. The Virgin holds her baby with two hands, one cupped behind his head, and presses his face to hers, his chubby cheek merging against her slender bone structure. It’s an expression of maternal love, as secular as it is religious. At about the same time Botticelli painted his Madonna of the Loggia (1467), and that picture shows that he paid attention to his teacher; Botticelli’s mother and child are bound together in a similar tender pose.
Botticelli went on to become master of his own workshop where he raised the level of his expertise and began a deeper exploration of the meaning behind his work. Madonna of the Book (1478-80) is an exquisite example of the finesse with which he could paint, but it also trains a more intense gaze on the religious nature of his subject. Jesus in his mother’s lap points to a passage of holy text and looks up at her, anxious to engage her attention. Tiny golden nails and a ring of thorns around his wrist foretell his future crucifixion. The Madonna, draped in a gorgeous deep blue robe, looks down and avoids his gaze. She seems more passive than her infant son, a sign, perhaps, that Botticelli was more interested in the divine than the secular experience of motherhood.
Botticelli created his most famous works, full of classical subjects and allusions, in the 1480s. Minerva and the Centaur originally hung next to his Primavera in a Medici palace; his Birth of Venus was also a Medici commission. In each, a beautiful young woman appears in the guise of a Roman goddess, either to extoll a humanistic value or embody the idea of divine love. In Minerva, the only one of the three paintings in the Boston show, there is a coolness of tone. Minerva has placed her hand on the centaur’s head, but the two figures have withdrawn into themselves; it’s hard to feel there’s any connection between them. If she has triumphed over the chaos and lust that the centaur represents, as text on the wall suggests, she has done so without any apparent struggle, anger, or aggression.
St. Augustine in His Study, a large fresco originally created for the Church of the Ognissanti in Florence, gives us philosopher and Christian theologian Augustine in his study, surrounded by implements of both religious and secular life — a bishop’s mitre, a geometry text, an astrolabe for measuring the altitude of celestial bodies — symbols of the conflict between faith and the intellect. Augustine is a massive figure here, shown clutching the robe over his heart as he composes texts to integrate the Neoplatonism of his youth with the strains of Catholic thought that were prevalent when he converted in the year 386. Botticelli would have been conversant with Augustine’s influential Church writings: the desire to integrate humanism with theology — and quell the struggle between the two — that would play out in spectacular fashion in Botticelli’s time.
By the 1490s, Florence was becoming unglued. Savonarola had prophesized the city’s destruction, and when Charles VIII of France invaded it must have seemed as though the friar’s predictions were coming true. The Medici family, who had ruled for a nearly century, went into exile and the streets were patrolled by squads of Savonarola’s adherents, who browbeat wealthy citizens into forsaking their material possessions. In 1497, when the bonfire of vanities burned, Florentines heaped books, cosmetics, mirrors, and other luxuries onto the flames. A year later, Savonarola himself was arrested, tortured, excommunicated, and burned.
How did Botticelli react? An adherent of Savonarola, he is believed to have burned some of his own paintings, perhaps nudes. It should not be surprising that the upheaval seems to have scarred his world view. His post-Savonarola paintings are darker in color and tone, their landscape settings increasingly barren. Mystic Crucifixion (c. 1500) shows Mary Magdalene shrouded in a scarlet robe, clutching the foot of the cross with an angel standing over her, about to slay the heraldic lion. The city, shining in sunlight, is in the far distance; more immediately, a swirling, jagged rock formation hovers over the figures, as though it is about to swallow them up. Here, Botticelli is animated by a fervor notably absent from his earlier paintings.
He continued working with the subject of Madonna and Child, and two late paintings show changes in his approach to that well explored theme. In one, the Virgin is handing the baby Jesus to his cousin John for a kiss. She is tall, and has to bend herself in half; the posture makes the picture look surprisingly edgy. Plus, there is a brown tint to her blue and red robes and the folds lie flat. Compared to his earlier work, particularly Madonna of the Book, or even Minerva and the Centaur, it’s a darker, less luminous picture.
At this point in his career, the young man from the Brancacci Chapel is older and battle scarred. He used to be “a man of pleasant humor, often playing tricks on his disciples and his friends,” writes Giorgio Vasari, the art biographer. Now Botticelli has survived to reflect on the cataclysmic convulsions of his era.
Afternoon in Edinburgh
Your eyes pull me across the room, past the milling tourists, to where you wait, mouse-velvet collar turned against the stubble, brown beret atop your wild hair. You gaze at me across three hundred years.
Once, you painted burghers, their black robes shimmering like water, ruffs starched by obedient maids. They paid you well for their memorials, and it was they who tittered when they heard what was to be sold: the Mantegna, the Giorgione and the Raphael, objects of your lust. Inside the house, their wives ran fingers over fabrics that would no longer drape your rooms as they dreamed of their own parlours. Even with everything gone, there still was not enough for you had sinned gravely, loving Saskia beneath your class while living above it.
My sins are different than yours but sins nonetheless, so long as it is wrong to hide under guile, turn away toward ease and refuse to feel the weight of our lives.
Though you once preened like a cock, you never pretended the weight was not there. Even as a youth you felt it. Still in your twenties you squinted and saw Judas in the temple imploring the priests to take back their silver. They refused, of course, and turned their backs, and we know what came next – the hanging, the lynching, the digging in the potter’s field – but in the studio you lingered on this moment and felt its crushing weight. Now, you challenge me to be so brave.
You will live twelve years more and paint yourself again, with sallow skin and wiry hair. Defeat will hover but arrogance will save you. A delicate balance, it is, to teeter between what you know and what will save you.
If I could, I would reach under the crumpled velvet to embrace and comfort you, but there is no refuge for us, hubristic comrades, fellow penitents.
Reprinted from The Ekphrastic Review
I’m continuing to post gems from our Booklab authors. This from last Thursday’s get together:
Inspiration for fiction is always complicated. For Virginia Pye, the novels of J.G. Ballard (Empire of the Sun) and Somerset Maugham (The Painted Veil) and the trove of papers left by her grandfather propelled her to examine her own family’s history in pre-World War II China and create a world for her imagined characters.
Heard last night at Booklab: As your skill as a writer increases, so does the desire to be more adventuresome. And your standards for judging the work get higher, too. So the challenge is always there.
Last night, another Booklab coup, with Jonathan Wilson, author of Kick and Run and A Palestine Affair. Next, coming April 19, is Rachel Cohen, author of A Chance Meeting and Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade.
Reprinted from the Arts Fuse
Visiting Masterpieces: Pairing Picasso, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, through June 26.
By Kathleen C. Stone
Picasso was among the most prolific of artists. Most weeks, he created multiple canvases, and at his death left behind enough to supply museums the world over, including those in Paris, Barcelona, and elsewhere devoted exclusively to his oeuvre. How refreshing, then, that the Museum of Fine Arts is showing just eleven works, carefully grouped, as a study of how the artist approached and reapproached a subject. With work from the Beyeler Foundation in Switzerland, private collections, and the MFA, we have been given a chance to walk about a delightful island in the wide sea of Picasso works.
The paintings’ subjects are, for the most part, women in Picasso’s life, starting with his lover Marie-Therese whom he met during his first marriage. The liaison was already five years old when he produced the three portraits on view. In “Sleeping Nude,” a charcoal sketch from 1932, he defines her face and body in sinuous lines that, even now, feel fresh, as though the artist had just lifted his hand from the canvas. Her oval head, softly feminine in form, and spherical breasts make no secret of the artist’s obsession. Even the 1934 oil “Head of a Woman,” with its greater abstraction and harder edges, reveals how Picasso perceived her; when a flower stands in for an eye, it’s a tribute to her beauty.
Picasso was frankly subjective in his portraiture. “One paints and one draws to learn to see people, to see oneself,” he said, and his self-perceptions are on full display. So, too, are technical prowess and innovation.
Two portraits of Dora, whom he met in 1936, reveal both a distinctive female persona and an artistic evolution. In a gouache and ink drawing, Dora is bathed in light colors and covered with fine spidery lines, a technique Picasso used in many works, even in ink drawings late in his career. The picture reminds us that, as much as Picasso delved into shape and color, he never abandoned line as a primary expressive device. Here, Dora’s mouth is simply the linear outline of four triangles, two pointing up and two down, enough to show us a decided set to her mouth. Linear quality predominates again in a painting of Fernande Olivier, and in a sculpted head, where an infinite set of receding triangles defines the head.
In “Woman in Green,” Dora sits in a dark green formal dress, with puff sleeves and a rickrack collar. We feel her presence in the body’s mass and her angular face, and we suspect she is demanding something of us, and of the artist, too. The picture dates from 1944, a year after Picasso met the much younger Francoise Gilot, and it betrays Picasso’s foreboding that Dora might be less malleable than he would like.
Two portraits of Francoise, made within days of one another, make a fascinating contrast. In both, Picasso has distorted the face, placing two eyes on one side of the nose, but in the aquatint she stands at a window, and the suggestion that something lies beyond the picture frame permeates our understanding of the scene. The oil portrait, on the other hand, is confined within the single frame, but Picasso uses bold color to make her face and hair pulsate against the flat surface.
As a boy, Picasso studied classical art, sketching ancient statues and archetypal figures. As much as he later pursued innovation, his interest in historical references never waned, and he took inspiration from artists as diverse as Cranach the Elder, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Ingres, Delacroix and Manet. In the 1960s, when he undertook to depict the horrors of war, he again turned to history.
For his two canvases “Rape of the Sabine Women”, he drew on the Romulus and Remus story of the founding of Rome and looked back across three centuries of art to study how Poussin, David, and Delacroix had depicted war. Then he used the language of twentieth century painting, much of which was his own innovation, for his work. “Guernica,” painted nearly thirty years earlier, made a strong anti-war statement, but the two Sabine paintings are in their ways no less eloquent.
Study the black and white painting and you can’t help but feel the women’s violation. A female body writhes at the bottom of the canvas, contorted beyond any logical possibilities. Her head arches back, reaching her own pendulous breasts, while a horse above lifts a hoof to stomp her into the dirt. She may be Hersilia, wife of Romulus and daughter of the Sabine leader, or she may stand in for all victims of war but, whoever she is, the impossible position of her body makes a powerful dramatic statement. That, and the paint quality. Picasso produced the work over a period of just two days, and he dashed the paint on roughly, as though he was finger painting. The texture communicates the unsettled violence of the scene.
The companion piece took a little longer to complete – twenty-two days – and derives its drama not only from the contortions of its figures but also from color. The eye is immediately drawn, again, to the bottom of the canvas, this time by the bright red cloak wrapped around the woman. Next to her stands a girl, mouth open in horror. The sexual nature of the violence is pronounced – the woman’s nipples are engorged, and so are the male genitalia above her. All the figures have rounded forms, exaggerated as though this was some sort of grotesque cartoon.
While I was looking at the two Sabine paintings, a young couple from China approached and asked if I could explain the work. They had no knowledge of art, they told me, and were confused by what they saw. What do you see, I pressed. I don’t know, the woman said, but it makes me sad and afraid. Enough said.
Reprinted from ArtsFuse.org.
This show will explode your ideas of where Native Americans fit in the world of fashion. Maybe you didn’t realize fashion had a Native presence, but it very much does, and this exhibition celebrates Native American artists who have found their balance between tradition and cutting edge.
At the show’s opening, the museum hosted a roundtable discussion with three artists, Jamie Okuma (Shoshone), Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo), and Pat Pruitt (Laguna Pueblo), and they helped orient my non-Native thinking about their work. First, they are artists who choose to work in bead, fabric, and metal, and they produce clothing, footwear, and jewelry that can be useful as well as beautiful. Native peoples have been creating functional items for millennia, sourcing materials locally or through their extensive trade networks, then decorating them with geometric and nature-based designs. Today’s artists continue in that tradition, but kick it up several notches, with globally sourced materials and innovative designs.
The first Native American to achieve success with consumer fashion was Lloyd Kiva New, who designed dresses and leather goods in the 1950s. For his fabrics, he borrowed colors from western riverbeds, cliffs, and scrub plants; he printed the cloths with stylized figures and animals drawn from his Cherokee heritage.
Roughly his contemporary, Frankie Welch designed clothing in Alexandria, Virginia, where she rubbed elbows with high level government officials. Her scarf with Cherokee language syllabics was used as an official presidential gift in 1966, and First Lady Betty Ford wore Welch’s red and gold embroidered evening dress.
Following this auspicious beginning, the excitement about Native Fashion tapered off. Two dresses on loan from Phoenix’s Heard Museum reflect the stasis of the 1970s and ’80s: a wool blanket dress and another embroidered in turquoise and coral are carefully executed but they seem like artifacts, interesting but hardly exciting.
The buzz returned in the early years of this century. For his black-fringed dress, Derek Jagodzinsky printed Cree language syllabics on a white band around the midriff. On its own, the dress would be reminiscent of the straight shift worn by flapper girls in the roaring twenties, but the midriff band and long fringe transform it into a wholly different creation. Another piece, also black and white, comes from Virgil Ortiz’s collaboration with Donna Karan—a strapless, gently flared dress with a bold design abstracted from plant and animal figures. It’s Cochiti Pueblo meets New York.
In recent years, the work has become even more experimental, edgy, even political. Two stand-out dresses are from Bethany Yellowtail (Apsaalooké/Crow and Northern Cheyenne). She layers fine black lace over a beige strapless sheath and stitches a row of white elk teeth down each sleeve. Leather applique on the black lace positions a large bell-shaped flower over the breasts. Her long-ago relatives may have worn clothes adorned with elk teeth, but this is an entirely modern take. And its attitude is nimbly accentuated by a sunglass accessory—an example of ‘Rez Bans’ designed by Kevin Pourier (Oglala Lakota)—which is made out of buffalo horn, malachite, mother-of-pearl, coral, lapis lazuli, and sandstone.
The other Yellowtail dress is a simple, short-sleeved shift, using photoprint fabric: black birds in flight over ivory colored satin. The photo comes from Matika Wilbur (Swinomish and Tulalip) who is photographing contemporary Native Americans for her Project 562 (that’s the number of tribes recognized by the federal government). Here, again, the accessory is far more than an afterthought. The cuff bracelet by Caroline Blechert (Inuit) makes use of beads, porcupine quills, caribou hide, and antler to create a colorful, abstract design of lines and triangles.
The use of indigenous materials (feathers, furs, beads, leather) and design elements (birds, plants, geometric shapes) are ingredients that link most of the work in the show. But these connections are elastic; each artist makes use of them in his or her own way. Some work combines traditional materials with others that are not (silk, Mylar). Other pieces manipulate natural materials in new ways. Lisa Telford, for instance, stitched pieces of red cedar bark into a dress. Her Haida forbearers, who lived among cedar forests, may never have used tree bark for a dress, but if they did, it certainly would not be this short, form fitting, and one-shouldered. Sho Sho Esquiro (Kaska Dene/Cree) created a deeply slit dress using seal, beaver, carp, beads, silk, rayon, and rooster feathers. It is modern and gorgeous, with feathers as the main event.
The show provides little explanation of either the materials used or fabrication techniques. There is nothing comparable, for instance, to the mini-documentaries Boston’s Gardner Museum used to show on how indigenous artisans in Mexico produced clothing for designer Carla Fernandez. There was even footage on shearing sheep and dying wool. But these Native American artists are on a different path. They may draw on ancient ways, but their overriding interest is in creating something new.
Some artists deploy traditional design in entirely new places—a skateboard deck, for instance. Rico Lanaat Worl (Tlingit and Athabascan) makes use of formline design to decorate wooden decks. The black lines of his ravens and eagles are bold yet restrained; they hold something back, as if there was space needed to let the intricate images breathe. Louie Gong (Nooksack and Squamish) enhances Chuck Taylor sneakers with the formline design of a wolf, giving them a look that is both indigenous and urban. Jared Yazzie (Dine (Navajo)) coined the phrase “Native Americans discovered Columbus” on his T-shirt.
The museum decided to skip the customary commentary about design elements. For instance, there is no background information on what formline design is, and about its innovative appearance here on skateboards and sneakers. Another informational avenue might have been a discussion of the technical possibilities for a contemporary bead artist. Without some sort of contextual background, viewers are left to make in relative isolation their own intuitive conclusions about what they see. But make no mistake: even without museum commentary, this is an important show—visually, socially, and politically.
Jamie Okuma famously created beaded boots. They are Christian Louboutin boots—the red soles are the giveaway—and they are groundbreaking. They also, along with sneakers, skateboards, and some of the clothing in the show, inevitably lead to the challenging question of cross-cultural fertilization.
The artists at the roundtable shared thoughts about the specter of assimilation. Most Native artists learn about technique and the spiritual significance of traditional design by working on ceremonial garments and objects for the tribe. When it comes to their own art, they draw on all that makes them who they are, including tribal traditions, and that motivates them when it comes to deciding what to use in their artistic and commercial enterprises. “Whatever we’re doing as artists is to be seen, and sold.” Okuma said. On the other hand, some of their creations must remain out-of-sight from the public. “Ceremonial life remains private to the pueblo,” insists Pruitt.
One audience member raised the tricky issue of cultural appropriation this way: “What advice can I give fashion students who are inspired by Native art?” When answering, Okuma pointed out the Isaac Mizrahi dress on display in the gallery: “It’s beautifully done, in a respectful manner. But before using a design, an artist should write to the tribe for guidance. Get permission. Your work must bear the integrity of who you are and where the elements came from.”
Michaels offered this as summary: “We are artists, and we are still here, after all the genocides, dislocations, and pillaging. We are proud of who we are, and want to be part of the larger world, while also celebrating our own culture.” The splendid Native Fashion Now shows that this vital and complex conversation about cultural inspiration, mingling, borrowing, and appropriation is well underway.