Art talk!

October 11, 2011

This was going to be a post on Chinese art, but then I realized that A) It made more sense to postpone that until my class therof has covered more interesting art, and B) nobody actually looks at Native American art and that sucks because there’s lots of cool native american art out there.

Upper Missouri Tribe, War Shirt. 1830-1840. Art Institute of Chicago.

Unfortunately, I can’t say much about this work because my main reference work on Native art is back at home and the AIC doesn’t seem to know the specific tribe. But I do know that at least some shirts like this were from designs given by spirits in dreams which were atropaic and which could only be used by the owner. And at any rate it’s quite interesting how the artist arranged the garment, placing the more subdued quillwork design on the chest and the more colorful beadwork on the sleeves where it can take over visually.
Anyhow, I’ll probably do a post on Meso-or-South American art soon-ish so keep an eye out for that.

Yeats on Byzantium

September 30, 2011

As certain gold-work has been on my mind these days. There is some commentary that may be worth a read at the end.

Sailing to Byzantium

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
–Those dying generations — at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,(1)
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.


The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night-walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the starlit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

Now for some comments on the poems: Karl Parker makes the interesting comment in his comparative study that these poems are a sort of progression, the later poem being in fact a rewrite of the first one. That said, I’d like to concentrate on the motifs here that recur in other poems of Yeats. The starting point will be the pivotal motif of the golden bird. Now in the first poem the materiality of the bird is insisted on(“Such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make/of hammered gold and gold enameling”) and in the second poem the immateriality(“more miracle than bird or handiwork”). Moreover, the second bird attempts perfection beyond what anything mortal is capable of. But there is still the subtle distinction between the “perched” in the first poem and the “planted” in the second poem, and the “perched” establishes the first bird as partaking of the impossible balance that is central to Yeat’s poems on art like “My table” or even poems on actual events like “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death”(where the airman’s flight is “in balance with this life, this death). It’s a sort of very fragile sensation of what exactly artistic brilliance is. And it’s also un-achievable by mortals. The first poem places the perfection of byzantium in mosaicked saints(a nifty little link, incidentally, between the glow of “God’s holy fire’ and the glow of the gold mosaics) that must be summoned down off walls; they are both figuratively and literally distant. This motif is carried even further in the second poem by the disdaining dome, the inhuman mummy, the “flames no faggot[n.b. in this case faggot is an archaic term for a bundle of sticks] feeds nor steel has lit). The mortal airman of “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death” is still distanced from earthly concerns and of course is about to join the ranks of the immortal. One also sees in the first poem, incidentally, a sort of claim that the poetry Yeats seeks is impossible in his time and place, and it would be a fine subject for a study to determine what exactly for Yeats constituted possible poetry.

Two poems on craftsmanship

September 10, 2011

Since the theme is on my mind these days.

First, My Table by Yeats.
Two heavy trestles, and a board
Where Sato’s gift, a changeless sword,
By pen and paper lies,
That it may moralise
My days out of their aimlessness.
A bit of an embroidered dress
Covers its wooden sheath.
Chaucer had not drawn breath
When it was forged. In Sato’s house,
Curved like new moon, moon-luminous,
It lay five hundred years.
Yet if no change appears
No moon; only an aching heart
Conceives a changeless work of art.
Our learned men have urged
That when and where ’twas forged
A marvellous accomplishment,
In painting or in pottery, went
From father unto son
And through the centuries ran
And seemed unchanging like the sword.
Soul’s beauty being most adored,
Men and their business took
Me soul’s unchanging look;
For the most rich inheritor,
Knowing that none could pass Heaven’s door
That loved inferior art,
Had such an aching heart
That he, although a country’s talk
For silken clothes and stately walk,
Had waking wits; it seemed
Juno’s peacock screamed.

And now an ode to bad work. N.B.:The lines are suppose to jump something like –_ but the formatting won’t work for some reason.
Junk, by Richard Wilbur

Huru Welandes
worc ne geswiceσ?
monna ænigum
σara σe Mimming can
heardne gehealdan.


An axe angles
from my neighbor’s ashcan;
It is hell’s handiwork,
the wood not hickory,
The flow of the grain
not faithfully followed.
The shivered shaft
rises from a shellheap
Of plastic playthings,
paper plates,
And the sheer shards
of shattered tumblers
That were not annealed
for the time needful.
At the same curbside,
a cast-off cabinet
Of wavily warped
unseasoned wood
Waits to be trundled
in the trash-man’s truck.
Haul them off! Hide them!
The heart winces
For junk and gimcrack,
for jerrybuilt things
And the men who make them
for a little money,
Bartering pride
like the bought boxer
Who pulls his punches,
or the paid-off jockey
Who in the home stretch
holds in his horse.
Yet the things themselves
in thoughtless honor
Have kept composure,
like captives who would not
Talk under torture.
Tossed from a tailgate
Where the dump displays
its random dolmens,
Its black barrows
and blazing valleys,
They shall waste in the weather
toward what they were.
The sun shall glory
in the glitter of glass-chips,
Foreseeing the salvage
of the prisoned sand,
And the blistering paint
peel off in patches,
That the good grain
be discovered again.
Then burnt, bulldozed,
they shall all be buried
To the depth of diamonds,
in the making dark
Where halt Hephaestus
keeps his hammer
And Wayland’s work
is worn away.

Juan Gris at the BMA

August 19, 2011

So I’d like to talk about two underappreciated cubists-Gorges Braque and Juan Gris. Both of whom, I think, did more interesting things with cubism than Picasso did. I’ll start with this post on a Juan Gris in the BMA.

Juan Gris, The Painter's Window. BMA, Baltimore.

The first striking thing about this work is the title. Given a window, we’re set up to expect a view from the window, maybe a landscape like David’s View of The Luxembourg Gardens. Instead, what we’re given is a still life containing objects that are very typical of Cubist still lives-guitars, a pipe, apples. Now because there’s no visible artwork in the painting but there is a palette, it seems that what is being depicted is the painter’s “window on the world”. Now what’s paticularly notable here are the only rounded shapes-the pears. They seem to resemble the fruit in a Cezanne still life. This unravels the narrative of the painting-how Cezanne’s discoveries demanded that Gris adopt this new cubist lens on the world and how a still-life can be a “window on the world”-or at least how one painter viewed it. It’s also striking that at least Gris was attempting to take Cubism beyond a “parlor trick” and attempt to use it to convey a narrative about artistic ideas.

ID today

August 1, 2011

So to clarify something: Please email answer suggestions. On that note, here’s something for the Dutch fanboys out there.

July 29, 2011

So the last one was a Cezanne. Truth be told, I’m a bit suprised nobody got it. Oh well, onto fresh material-I was inspired by Tyler Green’s links to post this guy.

Some comments on the iconography of the Strozzi Altarpiece

July 26, 2011

While digging up  a painting for my last post on Trecento painting, I noticed some interesting peculiarities in the iconography of  Orcagna’s Strozzi Altarpiece. Since these peculiarities are apparently well-noted by scholars, it seems germane to offer a few notes.

In the interest of clearing up certain immediate questions, the flanking figures are indentifable as SS. (from left to right) Michael, Catherine, Mary, John the Baptist, Lawrence, and Paul. These do not really demand much comment, as they were probably picked based on connections to the patron(excepting John The Baptist and Mary, who we will get to). Catherine, Lawrence, and Paul in paticular tend to recur quite a bit in 14th century work. The two most striking elements of the iconography are the Mary-Jesus-John group(called a Deesis; the most famous one is a mosaic in Hagia Sophia) and the handing of the keys and the book to Thomas Aquinas and Peter, respectively. The Deesis group is somewhat noteworht because it’s a fairly archaic motif that tends to be more Byzantine than Western. Most scholars would consider this motif symptomatic of the conservative trend in mid-14th Century painting*, but even here it’s a little startling that this was chosen.

The other notable element of the Iconography is Jesus handing a book to Thomas Aquinas and keys to Peter. Now the key is the main attribute of Peter in Italian Gothic art(and I think Byzantine art), on the logic that he holds the keys to heaven and hell, and to place him and Thomas Aquinas on the same level and in the same relation to Jesus implies that the work of Thomas Aquinas is as necessary and important as the work of Peter (who the papacy claimed their legitmacy from). Given that the the church(S. Maria Novella) and the patron were both Dominicans and that Thomas Aquinas was one of the more famous Dominicans, it is only reasonable that a work for this location would toot the Dominican’s horn quite strongly.

On a side note, since nobody’s picking up on the current identification challenge I’m extending it a day.

*Millard Meiss had a rather famous theory that Florentine painting later in the 14th due to the disaster of the Black Death. Other scholars have argued against this by pointing out that the shift had started even before the Black Death; it’s worth noting in Meiss’s defense that all sorts of things had been going wrong before then(the Great Famine of 1315-17, the Bardi and Peruzzi banks collapsing, etc). In general, the 14th century was rather cruddy.

New ID!

July 25, 2011

Sorry to keep you in the lurch; the last one was Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love. And now for another modern-this time, with two paintings for you delectation!

Back to italy!

July 23, 2011

Here’s a painting by the guy whose most famous work apparently riffs on Giorgione. It has been suggested that this was painted for a wedding-chest.

And now for something a tad newer.

July 22, 2011

First off, congrats to Alberti’s Window for identifying Wenesday’s challenge as a Watteau. This one’s Les Plasirs Du Bal from Dulwich Picture Gallery. Congrats also to analemma2345 for identifying today’s challenge as the leaf depicting The Court of Gumayars originally from the famed Houghton Shahnama(or Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp), one of the most famous manuscripts of Ferdowsi’s poem and probably the most famous manuscript painted in the Savafid dynasty.
Here’s today’s identification: