Monday, 28 March 2011

On Expensive Paintings as Metaphors of Themselves

Funny how very expensive paintings become metaphors of themselves. The 45-million-dollar Duccio bought by the Met in 2005 shows the incarnate deity supported with infinite care by his reverentially gazing mother, in prophecy of the object’s later veneration by acquisitive museum trustees. Similarly, Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks, picked up by the National Gallery in 2004 for a mere 35 million pounds, predicts its own historical afterlife as object of enraptured awe: the Madonna both supports and frames the child, holding it and owning it. Actaeon unveils the nude Diana at her bath, like a museum director pulling a curtain cord at a press conference, in a Titian bought by the National Gallery for roughly the GDP of Belgium in 2008. In all of these works, the looked-upon object of attention is, like a work of art, something between divine and physical, capable of redeeming (Christ) or cursing (Diana) the life of the observer. It’s all in the viewer’s use of what he or she beholds. Look how, in Duccio’s painting, Christ returns the touch, or how Diana’s body, the whole shebang, is stretched out for Actaeon’s grateful view. These paintings dramatize rapture at the sight of a beautiful thing.

Read the whole post here.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

"Leo Steinberg, Art Historian, Dies at 90"

Masaccio, Virgin and Child, 1420s

"At the risk of belaboring what is obvious, I must address myself to the many who still habitually mistake pictorial symbols in Renaissance art for descriptive naturalism. To take one example: At the sight of an infant Christ touching the Virgin's chin, they will admire the charm of a gesture so childlike, playful, affectionate. They are not wrong, but I think they are satisfied with too little. For the seeming artlessness of what I shall call the chin-chuck disguises a ritual form of impressive antiquity. It is first encountered in New Kingdom Egypt as a token of affection or erotic persuasion. In Archaic Greek painting the gesture is given to wooers, and it occurs more than once in the Iliad to denote supplication. In Late Antique art, the caress of the chin is allegorized to express the union of Cupid and Psyche, the god of Love espousing the human soul. And the gesture proliferates in medieval art into representations both of profane lovers and of the Madonna and Child. Thus no Christian artist, medieval or Renaissance, would have taken this long-fixed convention for anything but a sign of erotic communion, either carnal or spiritual. By assigning it to the Christ Child, the artist was designating Mary's son as the Heavenly Bridegroom who, having chosen her for his mother, was choosing her for his eternal consort in heaven".

[Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion]

Read Steinberg's obituary here.

Monday, 7 March 2011

On Marcus Coates' 'The Trip'

All travel is retrospective. We don’t travel for the experience – most traveling time is spent waiting, after all – but in order to have something to remember. The easy editing abilities of digital photography have transformed utterly the modern idea of travel. It’s all peaks, no troughs: the past perfect. Journeys only really exist once they’ve finished, and every story starts at the end.

The Trip is a 35-minute film by the artist Marcus Coates that consists of two long, still shots of the same thing: the interior of a room in a hospice in north west London. You see a flat-screen TV, a wall-lamp, and a window giving onto a quiet suburban road. In one of the shots, the day’s color drains, barely perceptibly, from the sky. In the other, the morning’s light is still, steady, the sky windless. Unseen between the two shots, each one lasting the duration of a dialogue heard on the soundtrack, is the event of the title: a trip to the Amazonian rainforest, which is discussed in voiceover in both parts of the film. The disparity — both comic and poignant — of what’s seen and heard is part of the point. The trip, undertaken by the artist, is plotted in the first section and recounted in the second. Nothing of the trip itself is shown: it happens in the two men’s dialogue and in the mind of the viewer. The trip was proposed by one of the men, a terminally ill man named Alex H., and was carried out and described by the artist.

Read the whole article here.