October 28, 2012

Aristide Maillol: L'air (Air) 1939; Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo,Netherlands

Although the phenomenon muse is as old as art itself, there have been few muses as exceptional as Dina Vierny (1919-2009). Dina, who came from a Jewish-Moldovan family, still studied at the lycée in Paris when she was recommended as a model to the sculptor Aristide Maillol in 1934. Maillol (1861-1944) was known for his monumental sculptures, depicting voluptuous women of a very specific type and it was exactly this type that the then fifteen-year old Dina embodied.
The 73-year old Maillol wrote a letter to Dina, telling her (humbly): ‘I am told that you resemble a Maillol and a Renoir. I would be satisfied with a Renoir’. She would be his muse for the last ten years of his life, inspiring the old sculptor to unexpected masterpieces. Their relation was strictly professional and would always stay platonic. When she began to study chemistry and physics, Maillol invented postures in which she could keep on reading her books. Dina Vierny would grow into a key figure in the French art world, befriending important artists like Matisse, Bonnard and artists from the Surrealistic movement.
During WWII, Vierny risked her life by guiding refugees over the Pyrenees from occupied France to Spain. As soon as he discovered these activities, Maillol – who was a native resident of Banyuls, a small fishing village near the Spanish border – decided to help her by showing all the goat paths and smuggler routes needed to cross the mountains unnoticed. Soon his workshop in the hills of Banyuls became the starting point of the route. Dina Vierny got arrested twice, by the French police and by the Gestapo. Maillol saved her both times, the second time through the intercession of his friend Arno Breker, who – ironically - was a Nazi and known as ‘Hitler's favorite sculptor.’
After the war, Dina Vierny carried out two important projects in Paris with the intent to immortalize Maillol’s name: she gave twenty masterpieces of Maillol to the French state for exhibition in the Tuileries; later, she founded a Maillol museum in Paris. She died there in 1999, above the exposition rooms, aged 89.
(text: Maarten Levendig)

October 10, 2012

Limbourg Brothers: ‘October’, in: Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (15th century); Musée Condé, Chantilly

OCTOBER IN PARIS
In the early 1400s, Paris straddled the Seine banks on either side of the Ile de la Cité. Country life started already inside the city walls. Fields stretch all the way to the Left Bank, lined with willows. In the foregroun
d, a peasant in a blue tunic sows seeds, his gesture repeated centuries later by Millet and van Gogh. A full bag waits where he just left his footprints. Birds fight over grain scattered in the neatly ploughed furrows, avoiding the scarecrow archer and the network of threads protecting an already seeded parcel. Another peasant in red uses reins and whip to guide a horse, covered with a white blanket and pulling a harrow weighted down by a stone, in the opposite direction.
Heavy walls, twin towers and the central dungeon of the royal residence of the Louvre dominate the horizon. One small door opens onto the embankment, where friends chat leisurely, people walk their dogs, and washerwomen beat laundry on the steps of a stairway, feet in the water.
We see this miniature view on daily life from the Parisian residence and through the aristocratic eyes of Jean, Duc de Berry, the French king’s brother. It illustrates the calendarium - a monthly list of saints' days – in Jean’s Very Rich Book of Hours, a private devotional collection of prayers to be recited at regular hours. Scenes from the labours of the month, for October tilling and sowing, illuminate each precious calendar page. The solar chariot pulled by winged horses (a nice contrast with October’s heavy workhorse) and the zodiac signs, all in costly gold and lapis lazuli, surmount each month’s earthly chores.
Work on this prestigious, 416 page high point of manuscript illumination was commissioned to the famous Limbourg Brothers from the Netherlands, but came to a tragic halt when the plague struck both painters and Duke in 1416. Other artists finished some already partly prepared illuminations, probably including this precise but lively observation of autumn activity.
(text: Jos Hanou)

— met Antonio Canova: Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker (1802); Apsley House, London.

NAPOLEON IN THE NUDE
This colossal sculpture might not be everybody’s taste, but the story behind it is most intriguing. How did a statue of a naked French emperor made by an Italian sculptor end up in the staircase of a British general?
In 1802, Napoleon decided he wanted to have a full-length sculpture made by Antonio Canova (1757-1822) and sent him a highly flattering invitation. Both men were
extremely celebrated at that time; the first was at the height of his power, the latter was generally considered to be the most talented sculptor of the Western world.
But Canova was not very enthusiastic about this honorable commission. He regarded the French, who had occupied his hometown Venice with great violence, as barbarians and resented Napoleon for looting Italian art treasures and dragging them to Paris. It was only through the mediation of several dignitaries, including Pope Pius VII, that Canova eventually felt forced to oblige.
He proposed to depict Napoleon as a heroic nude: Mars the Peacemaker. Napoleon initially refused - he insisted to be portrayed in his regimental uniform - but he must also have felt flattered to be depicted as a pacifying war god and ultimately he trusted on the insight of the artist.
The huge statue arrived in Paris no earlier than 1811. When Napoleon first saw it, he was so shocked that he immediately ordered it to be hidden from the public. Napoleon’s comment that the statue was ‘trop athlétique’ suggests that his physical appearance may have played a role. While the concept of depicting the Little General as a giant of nearly three and half meters was already fairly grotesque in 1802, he had become quite corpulent since then.
After Napoleon’s defeat in The Battle of Waterloo (1815), by an alliance of armies under the command of the Duke of Wellington, the moment had come for the restitution of Napoleon’s looted art and the hidden Mars-statue resurfaced. It was presented as a gift to the Duke. ‘The Victor of Waterloo’ proudly showed his new acquisition in the stairwell of his London residence, Apsley House.
This prominent place for the statue of his arch enemy is often interpreted as a form of schadenfreude, but the opposite is true. Wellington had a tremendous respect for him. When asked whom he considered the greatest general of the age, he answered: 'In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon'.
(text: Maarten Levendig)

October 6, 2012

Limbourg Brothers: ‘October’, in: Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (15th century); Musée Condé, Chantilly, France



OCTOBER IN PARIS
In the early 1400s, Paris straddled the Seine banks on either side of the Ile de la Cité. Country life started already inside the city walls. Fields stretch all the way to the Left Bank, lined with willows. In the foreground, a peasant in a blue tunic sows seeds, his gesture repeated centuries later by Millet and van Gogh. A full bag waits where he just left his footprints. Birds fight over grain scattered in the neatly ploughed furrows, avoiding the scarecrow archer and the network of threads protecting an already seeded parcel. Another peasant in red uses reins and whip to guide a horse, covered with a white blanket and pulling a harrow weighted down by a stone, in the opposite direction.
Heavy walls, twin towers and the central dungeon of the royal residence of the Louvre dominate the horizon. One small door opens onto the embankment, where friends chat leisurely, people walk their dogs, and washerwomen beat laundry on the steps of a stairway, feet in the water.
We see this miniature view on daily life from the Parisian residence and through the aristocratic eyes of Jean, Duc de Berry, the French king’s brother. It illustrates the calendarium - a monthly list of saints' days – in Jean’s Very Rich Book of Hours, a private devotional collection of prayers to be recited at regular hours. Scenes from the labours of the month, for October tilling and sowing, illuminate each precious calendar page. The solar chariot pulled by winged horses (a nice contrast with October’s heavy workhorse) and the zodiac signs, all in costly gold and lapis lazuli, surmount each month’s earthly chores.
Work on this prestigious, 416 page high point of manuscript illumination was commissioned to the famous Limbourg Brothers from the Netherlands, but came to a tragic halt when the plague struck both painters and Duke in 1416. Other artists finished some already partly prepared illuminations, probably including this precise but lively observation of autumn activity.
(text: Jos Hanou)