February 16, 2013

Raphael: Transfiguration (1520); Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City

In December of 1516, Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (the future pope Clement VII) commissioned Rafaello Sanzio da Urbino, better known as Raphael, to paint this religious scene. The panel, which is over 4 meters tall, was to serve as an altar piece for Narbonne’s Cathedral, where Giulio had just become Arch Bishop. In the end, Giulio decided that he preferred to have the painting closer to home and he had it installed in the Roman church San Pietro in Montorio instead. These days, we can admire it at the Vatican Museum.
It isn’t hard to understand why Giulio found this piece so hard to part with. With its exquisite colors, complex postures and expressive light effects, it is a feast for the eyes. Raphael succeeded in creating a spectacularly lively representation of a rather abstract episode from the Bible: the Transfiguration. It takes place on top of Mount Tabor where the apostles Peter, John and James witness the metamorphosis of their Christ. For a brief moment, Jesus’ true, divine nature is revealed to them, ‘His face shining as the sun, and his garments became white as the light.’ The Old Testament prophets Moses and Elijah appear at his side.
Raphael combined the Transfiguration theme with another biblical story, where Jesus’ disciples try - in vain - to cure a possessed (epileptic) boy. The frantic, wide-eyed boy is shown in the front, surrounded by his family. This drama adds a human dimension to the scene. To the left, the apostles are desperately trying to determine how to help the young man. One of them points up, indicating that the only one capable of curing him is Jesus.
The pointing arm is a visual aid as well, used to guide our focus and to connect the upper and lower part of the image. With his composition, Raphael wants us to realize that Christ belongs just as much to heaven as to earth. The pyramid shape in the lower half of the painting leads our eyes to the circle of light in the top half, where we’ll find the true subject of interest.
(text: Maarten Levendig)

February 10, 2013

Félicien Rops: Pornocrates (1878); Musée Félicien Rops, Namur

When the Belgian artist Félicien Rops worked on this image in 1878, he was in a state of fever, brought on by the stifling heat and intoxicating perfumes of cyclamen and opopanax in his room, which he considered to be very beneficial to the end result.
The image, called Pornocrates or The Lady with the Pig, challenges us to decide who is leading who. After all, the woman has the pig on a leash; at the same time, she is blindfolded, so perhaps it is the pig that is actually controlling where she goes. What does the pig represent? Is it man, bestial and ignorant, or does its golden tail represent the lure of worldly goods? And what does its title tell us?
Looking at this picture, it is not hard to imagine that Rops belongs to a movement called Decadence. Rops' works are often sexually explicit and in the eyes of many, perverted. Religion is ridiculed. He was fascinated by the dark side of life: death, satanism and sin. Most of all, he was intrigued by the contemporary woman: assertive, seductive, ruthless and devouring, a Femme Fatale. Just like men were possessed by women, women were possessed by Satan.
To Rops, his art showed scenes which typified the 19th century. Living in Paris, he saw the excesses of modern city life and their consequences. A degenerate society, driven by sexual urges, with fancy clothes concealing the dangers within. Several in his circle of friends, like Baudelaire, Flaubert and Manet, died of syphilis. It was a world where the fine arts would suffer, as we can deduce from the frieze below the lady with the pig.
While it is often assumed that Rops harbored feelings of hate against women, the perversities of the city and its women energized him. Towards the end of his life, he expressed his greatest fear: ‘I am afraid of being old and of no longer being able to inspire love in a woman, which is a true death for a man of my nature and with my needs for madness of mind and body.’
(text: Pauline Dorhout)

February 4, 2013

Conrad Felixmüller: Death of the Poet Walter Rheiner (1925); Robert Gore Rifkind Collection and Foundation, Beverly Hills.

Having cultivated a drug habit in order to avoid conscription at the beginning of the First World War, the expressionist poet Walter Rheiner – whose novella Kokain, illustrated by Conrad Felixmüller, had been well received in 1918 – took a fatal overdose in his cheap rented apartment in Berlin in June 1925.
War was over (for the time being) and expressionism looked increasingly outdated. A new generation of painters, photographers and architects – who had survived or avoided the murder in the trenches – turned away from utopian ideals. Instead, artists such as Otto Dix, Georg Grosz and Christian Schad revelled in capturing life – away from the mainstream – realistically and honestly.
The Dresden born painter Conrad Felixmüller became part of this new movement, which was dubbed Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) a few weeks after Rheiner’s death. But to paint an obituary to his poet friend, the 28 year-old revisited the idiom of the expressionist Brücke artists of his home town. Felixmüller depicts the metropolis Berlin as a labyrinth of angular planes, showing Cubist influences. The foreboding confusion of edifices and thrusting trains is contrasted with the warm lights in the windows and the curiously homely net curtains and pots of geraniums framing the dying writer, who holds the fatal syringe delicately between his fingers. The spots of luminous or garish colour add to the dreamlike quality of the scene. Is the poet falling or is he flying? Is it pain or bliss expressed in his face?
(text: Christoph & Charlotte Kreutzmüller)

February 3, 2013

Exekias : Black-figured amphora (540-530 BC); British Museum, London

Did Brad Pitt study just the Troy movie script or Homer’s complete Iliad when he played Greek warrior hero Achilles? Homer’s 8th century BC epic only covered 51 days of the legendary ten-year siege, sandwiched between a quarrel of Agamemnon and Achilles and Hector’s funeral. If Brad read it, he will have found little similarity with the movie. But neither the script nor the Iliad provides insight into all Troy spin-offs in Greek and Roman mythology.
One of these tells the tale of Amazon queen Penthesileia, who brought her women warriors to help defend King Priamos and his Trojans. Homer only hints at ‘that day when the Amazon women came, men's equals.’ Roman writer Virgil describes Penthesileia’s heroism more vividly in his epic Aeneid: ‘Furious Penthesileia leads the crescent-shielded ranks of Amazons, blazing amid her thousands; a golden belt she binds below her naked breast, and, as a warrior queen, dares battle, a maid clashing with men.’ But her success in battle rouses Achilles’ anger. A Greek writer describes the tragedy that follows: ‘He thrust with sudden spear, and pierced Penthesileia. Straightway fell she down into the earth, the arms of death, in grace and comeliness, for naught of shame dishonoured her fair form. Face down she lay on the long spear, outgasping her last breath. There, fallen in dust and blood she lay, pink, like the breaking of dawn, revealing beneath pencilled brows a face lovely in death so that Achilles might be pierced with the sharp arrow of repentant love.’
The tragic scene was popular in Greek art. Exekias painted this 6th-century BC black-figured amphora, showing Achilles looming above Penthesileia as she sinks to the ground. His helmet protects his face, while hers is pushed back to expose her features. Harmlessly, her spear passes across Achilles’ chest, while his pierces her throat and blood spurts out. According to myth, at this very moment the eyes of the two warriors met and they fell, too late, in love.
(text: Jos Hanou)