Friday, November 23, 2012

Fall Fishing: The Mighty Sunfish

A little video treat, an otter swimming in the last of the Fall colors while I was fishing.

I have caught 897 fish since August 1st, a rate of about 200 fish per month, some bass but mostly sunfish, all on wet flies in one lake in North Georgia, fishing from the bank into shallow water -- shoals.

I have been using a 9-foot medium action fly rod, 7 weight floating fly line (it sinks anyway) Scientific Angler Lefty Kreh in willow color, a 12-foot tapering leader and tippet in clear or invisible green, and various nymphs in sizes 12, 14 and 16.  The flies have been wired olive caddis, something called a lightning bug or a flashback in blue tint or green or copper wire (I got all three at various places), a yellow stonefly that is really hairy with loose thread, zug bugs, and ants.

The main fish I've been catching is the sunfish, longear, redbreast, yellow, pumpkinseed, warmouth, shellcracker, you name it.  They have been biting all the way through Thanksgiving Day, fighting as hard as any fish, and they seem to be getting bigger.
The biggest ones and the hardest fighting have been yellow.
In August they were mostly bluegill, but as Autumn has progressed the orange bellied bluegill have gone and the pink-bellied speckled shellcrackers, longears and redbreasts have dominated.  They are nice big fish and hard fighters!

Every now and then a nice spotted bass will strike the same fly that the sunfish have been biting.

Approaching fronts seem to turn them on before and afterward.  Sunsets have been best.

Fishermen have done well going after these with crickets, but a fly rod can cast 40 feet to 60 feet out and get some fish that aren't going to come in close enough for crickets.  For a guy on foot, limited to a few acres of bank, a fly rod has been essential.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Son, You've Got A Condition...

Harry Dean Stanton in Marvel's Avengers, great line, "Son, you've got a condition."

It could be camptodactyly that is twisting my fingers.  It could be arthritis.  It could be both.  I first noticed the radical change in my right ring finger about five years ago.  To accompany this, I had a deviated septum (the worst one the surgeon had ever seen, a 90 minute surgery became a 3-4 hour surgery) and I have troubles with the eustachian tubes in my ears and I have a horseshoe kidney.  My brother has scoliosis of the spine that twisted his back bones.  All of those things seem to accompany camptodactyly.

Then, yesterday I noticed that the outer bones of my right middle finger are warping.  That may have begun a year or two ago, I noticed some turning over back then, but I can really see it lately.

The top knuckle is going over to the right (it sort of reminds me of a mouth sliding over on Mister Potato Head) and the center knuckle is going left and the bone is definitely twisting.  It's quite strange to see your own hand morph out of normal shape.

I can already do the Bela Lugosi double-jointed Dracula finger bit.

They call this "Christian finger" or European finger, although it may be Indo-European because there is a high incidence of it in India and in Iran.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Rich Man Behaving Badly in Hell

If you have ever searched the Bible for descriptions of Heaven then you have probably run across the parable told by Jesus in the gospel of Luke, chapter 16.  In a way it is one of the few eyewitness accounts of Heaven because theologically speaking Jesus came from Heaven to dwell among us.  That adds both an intriguing curiosity and a certain sense of veracity and so we read the parable in verbatim parsing out its descriptions of Heaven and Hell.

The rich man completely ignored the poor, feeble, dying poor man Lazarus who lay at his feet, literally on his steps.  The rich man did not give him any attention, did not spare even the crumbs from his table, the only compassion such as it was came from the dogs who licked the poor man's wounds.  This Is Vital To The Story, You Must Get This: The rich man completely disregarded the poor man, he never even said, "Let's be practical and fix this guy up and maybe we can put him to work."  No, the rich man ate his meals and ignored the poor man.

Jesus went on to tell us their fates, (Luke 16:22 and 23) "So it was that the beggar died and was carried by the angels to the bosom of Abraham.  The rich man also died and was buried."

Now, I want you to get the contrast of this:  The poor man died and was carried to The Most Enviable Place, right to the bosom of Abraham, a spot many priests and pharisees desired, a wish fulfillment of Heaven to the max, but the rich man was just buried.  Buried.  Not lauded.  No legacy.  No shrine.  Dead.  Sent to corruption.  Ashes to ashes.  Buried.  A boxed lunch for worms.

The rich man was tormented in Hades, and seeing the poor man from afar, he called out, "Hey!  Father Abraham!  Have mercy on me!  Send that poor guy over here.  Put him to work.  He's obviously an underemployed servant and he could do something and come cool my tongue."  Of course that is not a precise translation.  No, it's not even an accurate paraphrase, but It Is What You Should Realize About This Jerk's Attitude.  The rich man who had never paid the poor man any mind sees him from far off and thinks that he, the rich man, is still in control and can give orders.  The rich man does not cry out to God for mercy -- that is significant -- he calls out to Abraham, and like Satan he tries to tempt Abraham with some practical altruism.  "I'm really thirsty, I'm being punished enough, just get that lazy beggar to do this one little decent thing and just dip the tip of his finger in the water and cool my tongue."  He calls for compassion but he completely lacks it, he utterly lacks empathy, he lacks pathos, he doesn't think, "Aw, look, there's that poor beggar and now he is getting some decent treatment.  Isn't that nice?  I'm glad that somebody made out well."  No, the rat still thinks that he is superior.  Superiority in Hell.

By the way, he doesn't really complain about being in Hell, he seems to know that he belongs there.  C.S. Lewis put characters like that into some of his books, people who find Hell to be where they belong.  Milton made Satan decide to possess Pandemonium.  Better to reign in hell, he said.  In my house I say, "Better to be a doorstop in The House of The Lord than to find yourself outside it."  But some people expect Hell.  They think of God as someone who sends people to Hell and that is where they expect to go and they claim that they won't be surprised when they get there.

The rich man said, "Send him over here" -- to Hell -- "with some water," but failing that he asked for something else.  Get That:  failing that he tried to give other orders.

Look, the man said, I have five brothers, send him to warn them.  Oh, he was a real problem solver, he still thinks that he can straighten things out, do good, he will send the poor man on an altruistic mission and save his kin.  Nix that.

Abraham explains a crucial detail, "You, rich man, had plenty of good things in your life, you already got all the rewards that you are going to get.  Besides that, a great gulf is fixed between us, a gulf that no man can cross."

Then the dead guy in Hell proves that his problem solving skills are better than Abraham's, he says, "But if someone will go to them from the dead they will listen and repent."

And the last line of this is the most supremely ironic:  "Even if someone rose from the dead they will not believe it."

Saturday, October 13, 2012

We Are Not As Far As We Think We Are

Stonehenge was constructed on the Salisbury plain in 3000 B.C.  That is not as far back as we think of "prehistoric" as being.  Within a few years of that date on the timeline the Chinese were casting bronze bells and continuing sophisticated glazing of ceramic ware, the Indus River Valley was dotted with cities, city states ruled from Uruk up the Mesopotamian world, and the warring civilizations of Lower Egypt were within a few centuries of becoming the first unified kingdom in history.  The neolithic tribes of Briton knew that Earth was round, understood the polar circumnavigation of the stars, had mapped the skies and seasons, and wondered if the blue stones themselves of the southwest coast might have healing powers, instead of those powers belonging to the air and sea and spirits.  If you think about it, they may have been within grasp of radiation therapy.

Every semester I offer my students a chance to construct a working Stonehenge but so far I have had no takers, no one believes that they can meet the challenge.

Paleolithic people were less sophisticated than that.  They made 4 inch figures like the Venus of Willendorf and believed that they could appropriate the powers of the spirits and possess them to aid and protect themselves.  They thought that objects could aid with fertility and guard against death in childbirth.  That was 9000 years B.C., at least 11,000 years ago.

But, in 2012 women will still climb onto the effigy of Victor Noir and brag about it online.  There are web sites that offer fertility tours, and the French government had to remove the protective fences that ensured the sanctity and permanence of the cemetery because women protested over their rights.  Rights?  And what are those, exactly?  It is believed that lying on the bronze statue will bring love, happiness and fertility.  Victor Noir was a journalist and anti-Bonapartist in the 19th Century, a case of the messenger being shot.  As part of the outcry over his murder, which was defended much the same as a "stand your ground" defense, a cast was made from his fallen body and it captured in detail the postmortem effects on the young man's corpse.  Flowers, kisses and even sleeping on the statue have been the result.

In England, where they probably wish that they had something like this in Mayfair, they are nonetheless civilized enough to realize that they can turn away from certain superstitions and did something in 1996 -- they returned The Stone of Destiny to Scotland.

What exactly is The Stone of Destiny?  It is the stuff of legend.  The stories vary but the sum of it is this:  three sacred objects are said to have come to ancient Britain during Roman occupation, the stone on which Jacob rested his head brought to England by Jeremiah as a slave from Egypt, the crown of thorns carried to Wearyall Hill by Joseph of Arimathea, and the Holy Grail with Christ's blood.  The Irish claimed the stone and said that the Scottish stole it, the Scots claimed the stone and said that it was carried to Skye and that no rightful king could rule without it, and the British took it from the Scots during the rebellion.  It rested under the coronation throne in Westminster Abbey until it was relinquished in 1996, it was there because no ruler of Great Britain could rightfully rule the United Kingdom unless that ruler was crowned atop The Stone.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Early Christian Art: The sarcophagus of Junius Bassus

Before I start explaining the artwork I should give a little context to the form itself which is a sarcophagus.  This was the preferred type of funeral box among Romans and before them among their Etruscan ancestors.  The word "sarcophagus" actually means "eater of flesh" and was a stone box chosen because of the stone's mineral ability to hasten decay, much like the spreading of lye and lime would do.  So, a sarcophagus has similarities to an ossuary but it also has similarities to permanent monuments, which is ironic considering the less than permanent approach to the encased remains.  That said, the image below is the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus.

Junius Bassus died around the year A.D. 359.  The sarcophagus may have been prepared by the family before his death.  It was known to have been placed in Old St. Peter's basilica sometime between the years 400 and 600 and was rediscovered and subsequently venerated after 1509.  Stylistically it looks somewhat awkward after reviewing centuries of classical Greek and Hellene Roman art, but is actually one of the finest and most sophisticated examples of Early Christian art.

Perhaps a little more contextual history is in order.  Christianity was an outlawed religion in its first three centuries -- more so than to merely say that it was not a lawful and recognized religion, it was the subject of intense persecution.  The previous three emperors had crucified Christians by the hundreds perhaps thousands, enslaved and imprisoned others, martyrdom and torture were common, and it was so politically vilified that a politician such as Junius Bassus probably kept his conversion secret until his death.  Christianity only became legal and somewhat safer in A.D. 312 when Constantine signed The Edict of Milan declaring Christianity to be his religion and a lawful Roman religion.

That would have occurred around the time that Junius Bassus was born into a political family of high aspirations.  Such people were often recognized in Rome with sculpture busts, many lining the Appian Way and the Roman Forum, and he would have expected a public memorial after death placed on view somewhere such as an atrium or in the senate.  That is why his sarcophagus is so elaborately sculpted and that is why it is remarkable.

What Junius Bassus chose to do was to write large his beliefs for public viewing at a time when such things did not exist.  A.D. 359 was only 30 years after the first Nicean Council and the beginnings of codifying Christian beliefs, and centuries before churches and cathedrals would become covered with such carvings and imagery.  The artist may or may not have been a Christian but was certainly a Roman and acquainted only with Greek and Roman symbols and means of telling a story.

Yet the sculptor and Junius Bassus chose to tell us some of the foundational beliefs and Bible stories in a remarkably articulate way.  Adam and Eve in the Garden and their Fall to Original Sin, Jesus entering Jerusalem for the Passion Week of His crucifixion, Daniel in the Lions' Den, Christ transfigured glorified and enthroned, Abraham and the sacrifice of his son Isaac, and other Bible stories and doctrines that Junius Bassus chose to declare to the public in stone, at a time when many of those doctrines had not yet been rendered in universities and seminaries.  Yet he knew and understood them, and the sculptor conveyed them so clearly that we can easily parse through them nearly two millennia later.

One of the most striking images is that of Christ Enthroned.  How was a Roman artist to depict that subject?  It is not the same as showing Apollo, or substituting Sol Invictus, the image of Apollo in his chariot as a secret symbol appropriated for Christ.  The artist had to convey the concepts of "son of God", the son in power, the transfiguration and glory as described in the gospels, and the sense that the two prophets flanking Jesus worship Him and respect His authority.  And the only way a Roman sculptor could visualize God was as Zeus, father to the Roman deities.

You can see Zeus thus depicted on the breastplate of Caesar Augustus in the Primaporta statue (yes, that is the same Augustus mentioned in Luke's gospel account of Jesus's birth, the one who declared that all the world should be taxed):

Zeus is shown as a bearded old man holding the canopy of Heaven over his head.  Thus we know that he is master of the universe.

The sculptor for Junius Bassus used that same symbolism, and put Jesus's feet on His head as much as to say, "the son is now superior" or that He is empowered.  To get across "son", a younger man, the sculptor made Jesus beardless and adolescent.  On either side of Him are Moses and Elijah, dutifully listening as if receiving orders from their emperor, and Jesus sits on the same kind of bench that Roman Caesars used as thrones.

One has to remember that all the detailing -- all of the detailing preceded such decoration in churches.  The columns, dentils, etc., were features of Roman temples, triumphal arches, and monuments of governmental power at the time that these sculptures were carved.

One also has to remember that this was done for a largely literate public, one prone to discourse and debate, at a time when Greco-Roman culture flourished and dominated the known world.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Monster's Nesting Block

I had always thought of Henry Jekyll as a good person whose flaws caused him to err and whose inner demons came to light.  Isn't that the way the motion pictures portray him, more or less?  You sort of feel sorry for him, but not as sympathetically sorry as you feel for Frankenstein's monster.  You never feel all that sorry for Jekyll because he is such an arrogant self-righteous vain twit.

But it was my son Nathan who, at a remarkably young age, maybe even just 12 or so, made me realize that the monster was in the mirror all along.  Hyde wasn't something hidden inside Jekyll or merely a part of Jekyll, the monster was Jekyll himself.  In his own self-righteousness and superiority and elite self-confidence Jekyll, judging and looking down on others, convinced of his own moral worth was the monster.  The monster nested in him, yes, because he himself was always the monster.

I can't precisely recall what conversation brought this out, but I think that we were talking about the 1931 Fredric March / Rouben Mamoulian film, one of my all-time favorites.  At some point the Hays Office had removed the scene where Jekyll sitting in a park sees a cat attack and kill a bird and Jekyll's rage over it transforms him into Hyde without taking the formula, his final and ultimate transformation.  Restored versions of the film have the scene.  It reveals Jekyll's hidden hypocrisy that he would be outraged at the death of a bird yet guilty of his own atrocities against his fellow creatures.

But, Nathan pointed out that this is not the scene in the book.  In Robert Louis Stevenson's book Jekyll is sitting in the park, yes, but he is judging the people that he sees pass by as shallower and vainer and morally inferior to himself and it is in the midst of his judgmentalism that he transforms fully and finally into Hyde.  The point being that he does not become the devil incarnate, in his self-righteousness he was always the devil incarnate.

To quote, "There comes an end to all things; the most capacious measure is filled at last; and this brief condescension to my evil finally destroyed the balance of my soul. And yet I was not alarmed; the fall seemed natural, like a return to the old days before I had made my discovery. It was a fine, clear January day, wet under foot where the frost had melted, but cloudless overhead; and the Regents Park was full of winter chirrupings and sweet with Spring odours. I sat in the sun on a bench; the animal within me licking the chops of memory; the spiritual side a little drowsed, promising subsequent penitence, but not yet moved to begin. After all, I reflected, I was like my neighbours; and then I smiled, comparing myself with other men, comparing my active goodwill with the lazy cruelty of their neglect. And at the very moment of that vainglorious thought, a qualm came over me, a horrid nausea and the most deadly shuddering. These passed away, and left me faint; and then as in its turn the faintness subsided, I began to be aware of a change in the temper of my thoughts, a greater boldness, a contempt of danger, a solution of the bonds of obligation. I looked down; my clothes hung formlessly on my shrunken limbs; the hand that lay on my knee was corded and hairy. I was once more Edward Hyde. A moment before I had been safe of all men's respect, wealthy, beloved - the cloth laying for me in the dining-room at home; and now I was the common quarry of mankind, hunted, houseless, a known murderer, thrall to the gallows."

The Hollywood version interprets Jekyll one of two ways, either he is a nice man with a monster nesting in him or he is a monster with a good man inside him trying to get out.  As Hyde eerily shouts in the film, "Free!  Free at last!"  But in Stevenson's book Jekyll was a monster all along, Hyde is part and parcel of the man himself, and in Jekyll's own self-absorbed vanity he pities himself and fails to see that he judges others not from moral superiority but from a shadow of degradation.

The monster is not within the nesting block nor is the good man, the creature is one flawed and arrogant whole, self-righteously condemning others for petty flaws and vanity while he himself is a murderer unable to see the man in the mirror and condemn his own flaws. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

You Are Supposed to hate Modern Art

You are supposed to hate Modern Art, it is one of the internal proofs that Modernism is Modern and that an art style has in effect succeeded.  As critics such as Clement Greenberg said and artists such as Jackson Pollock said, for any artwork to be considered Modern it had to be hated at first.

This began with Manet's Luncheon on the Grass, Le Dejeuner Sur L'herbe, which was art about art.  No one could have nude picnics in the park.  The nude is not a snapshot of 1870's urban liberty, she is a commentary on the required classical subjects of the Paris Academy.  The Academies defined what could be considered as "good art" or "fine art" or even worthy art.  Manet was not really a Modern, he did not revolutionize art and break free from the Academy and neoclassicism but his work shows the trend toward "art for art's sake", the impulse to break free from the confining rules of The Academy and to find a "pure" art, as music was able to find some freedom in "pure" music.

Rules were replaced by theories.  Overall composition and a grid took the place of continuous contour and trompe l'oiel.  Color became more important than form.  Color came to define form.  Process became more important than subject and subjects did not have to be the "eternal" or "sublime" subjects of the classical world.  But, such changes moved away from the established judges, the masters of the Academy, and moved away from established definitions of "good art" and "fine art".

Subsequently, decades of "bad art" were born.  The Fauvists, such as Matisse, were ridiculed in the newspapers and threatened with lawsuits and jail for painting like "wild pigs", hence their name of Fauvists.  James Abbott McNeill Whistler entered into lengthy lawsuits against John Ruskin, master of the British National Academy, because Ruskin accused Whistler of flinging paint in the public's face.  More than a century of finger-pointing followed with many scholars regularly bemoaning "the death of culture" and "the destruction of western civilization".

But, the definition of Western Civilization is rooted in the Greeks and therefore anchored to classicism and was thus the baileywick of the Academies.  A diverse population that seeks any change in culture would have to break away from the domination of the Greeks.  What had flourished once as a Renaissance had become centuries of servile repetition.  One need look no further than a toga-clad George Washington and a marble nude of Pocahontas to see this.

Therefore Modernism was defined by revolution and theory and radical change.  It consequently ushered in "bad art" because anything that was good and causing real change had to be hated at first.  This inherently means a bit of self-righteous idealism and it wasn't long before Modernism became the kind of dogmatic authoritarian institution it sought to bring down.  The culmination of that was either The New York School after World War II or not much later as theory broke down into minimalism and hard-edge abstraction.  There is only just so much reduction that reductionism can do.  Perhaps Conceptual Art where there wasn't even art at all only an idea ended Modernism.

When PBS ran a series about The New York School this was the mantra that every artist and critic repeated, everyone hated it.  There was never any style that people hated more than Abstract Expressionism, and all of those people said that with a smile.

So, for Modern Art to be Modern Art you have to hate it, otherwise the Trojan Horse of the Greeks comes back and freedom fails.  Or so would say a true Modernist.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Isenheim Altarpiece

The artist who painted this has come to be known as Matthias Grunewald.  There have been several theories about his identity, that he may have used an alias of Nithart or Gothart, or that he may have had a fugitive alter ego by those names.  His life story, sparsely recorded, includes periods as a Court Painter for archbishops and periods of abject poverty and homelessness, perhaps tending for an abandoned child.  His life story as Grunewald and the impoverished Nithart or Gothart intermingle until one or both are lost, merged.  In short, no one can seem to agree on who he was.  At the time of his death he owned a small library of Protestant writing, works by Martin Luther and portions of Calvin's "Institutes".  So, he is generally believed to have been a Calvinist himself.  Mentioned briefly by contemporary Protestant authors of his time, the 16th Century, it seems safe to assume that he was Protestant.

If a single work could represent the Reformation in art, this might be it.

The image above is the central panel which is revealed when the outer altarpiece doors are opened.  The paintings were created to protect gilded wood carvings.  Ironically, the "protective panels" have become more famous than the art they were meant to protect.  In the history of art, The Isenheim Altarpiece has an iconic stature.

Like other works made in Northern Europe during the time, it treats the Bible as both historical and symbolic.  The background is black because Grunewald treated the gospel narrative as literal fact.  Matthew 27:45, "Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land."  The figures on the left keep to this literal theme of the crucifixion events by depicting three of the people who stayed with Jesus at the cross, His mother Mary, John the disciple, and Mary Magdalen.  But on the right side there is a person who was definitely not at the cross, John the Baptist, who had died before those events.  Why is he there?  And why is a bleeding lamb at his feet?

The right hand side is the interpretive or symbolic side, with John the Baptist reiterating with pointing finger his baptismal statement, "Behold the Lamb of God" and to reinforce that symbolism there is a lamb bleeding into a communion cup.

The symbolism does not stop there.  Jesus's body is unusually twisted and covered by sores as well as wounds.  The historical interpretation of this is that Grunewald painted it for an abbey church that cared for the sick and wounded, that he probably saw wounds inflicted during The Peasants' Revolt (which was an economic and tax revolt, by the way, not so much a religious riot although it is often confused with The Protestant Reformation, a nonviolent movement).  Why cover Jesus with sores?

Two interpretations have arisen, one being that Grunewald wanted the sick to be comforted by relating to Jesus and the promise that "He bore our infirmities" as it says in Hebrews 4:15, but is also the meat of Isaiah's prophecy in chapter 53, that Christ carried our sicknesses, and sorrows, "and by His wounds are we healed" meaning that He took our sins upon Himself.  The more Reformed interpretation, then, would be that Jesus is covered in sores as He was covered in sins for our sake, a visual to get across the meaning.  After all, how do you show "sin" in a painting?  In some kind of grotesque Dorian Gray fashion?  And THAT is exactly how generations have viewed this painting, as a kind of grotesquery meant to rub the unsavory "illness" of sin into the flesh of Jesus before our very eyes.

Apparently, according to World War II era lore, the Nazis and Hitler himself thought the painting was a grotesque depiction and wanted it destroyed.  Hindemuth's symphony "Mathis der Maler" (Matthias the painter) has become indelibly associated with this, because Hindemuth was criticized by the Nazis, the debut of the symphony was delayed several years (and threatened with obliteration), and Hindemuth was accused of openly attacking Nazi ideology.  Whether the painting was ever a target of the Nazis has never been established but given the reaction to Hindemuth's symphony and Hindemuth's choice of subject to incite the Nazis' ire it seems safe to believe that indeed it is true that Hitler or a member of his inner circle, perhaps all criticized Grunewald's painting.

It speaks to the iconic power of the work.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Medievalism versus Renaissance

The painting above is by Fra Fillippo Lippi, an Italian Renaissance painting done in the late 1400's.  It makes a good reference for explaining the differences between The Italian Renaissance and the mindset of Medieval art.  For further reading I highly recommend Robert Browning's dramatic monologue (long poem), "Fra Lippo Lippi", which very artfully explains this whole thing, as opposed to the artless and pedantic way in which I am about to explain it here.

First of all, we need to understand and remember that both of the terms "Middle Ages" and "Renaissance" originated from the late Renaissance writer and teacher Giorgio Vasari.  He intended "Renaissance" to be the breathtaking and complementary term that it has become, and he intended "Middle Ages" to be the pejorative and dismissive term that it has become.  In this way Vasari was a resounding success at coining terms.  "Renaissance" means rebirth, and Vasari defined the period from the mid-1300's through 1500's as a rebirth of everything Greek, which consequently dismissed everything between A.D. 300 and 1350 as merely "in the middle" between the Greco-Roman (Hellene) age and its rebirth, as if nothing else mattered.

The criticism seems to work because several things fell to disuse or abuse in "the middle ages":  observation of nature, natural proportions, compositional rules, perspective, and anything else that would seem to relate to the scientific study and conscience of humanity and nature.  This can be summed up in the words "sacred and profane".  To the medieval mind there were things which were sacred -- meaning that you could take them to the altar in church, like sacraments -- and everything else was profane, meaning that it belonged outside the church.  "Profane" more or less described all of nature, human interaction and the human condition.  Since people are sinful and thus "profane" then they can't be trusted to pose for sacred figures such as saints and thus portraiture, a vain contemplation of the Romans, fell to disuse.  Human proportions were lost in the Byzantine iconography that dominated European and Asian art.  Given our scientific proclivity to study what we see and meditate on it without fear of contamination from the natural world it prejudices us to think that people of the Middle Ages were stupid.

Au Contraire, they were as learned and intelligent as any age, and quite scientific.  Just look at the Great Cathedrals, or Gothic cathedrals, they are marvels of science, math and engineering.  It's just that the sculptures of people look like boneless drinking straws because artists relied on copying images inside and outside churches instead of looking at the people who were scurrying around the profane world with them.  This led to ages of distancing images of people away from normal natural observation and distorting them via endless copying.

The Renaissance artists brought back what could be called Humanism.  This simply meant that human models were acceptable as human models.  In turn it mean that a human being could be used as a model for Mary, since she was also human, and even as the Christ child since He, too, was human.  It is strange that in an age where creeds defined Jesus as "very human of very human" it became unacceptable within the church to use humans as models for humans.  To the Greeks, Humanism meant an embrace of and fascination with human achievement and a curiosity about the limits and scope of human achievement.  Ironically, it was the building of the cathedrals and the establishment of seminaries, universities, and libraries that brought Humanism back within the church, and by 1400 in both the North and in Italy and Spain in the South of Europe it was comfortably acceptable.

Along with Humanism came a return of natural observation and an acceptance of what the Greeks had discovered and recorded about nature.  This meant a return or rediscovery of the following things:
-  Linear subjective perspective
-  Rules of human physical proportions
-  The Golden Section
-  Compositional rules and formats
-  Contrapposto poses in sculpture and painting
-  Portraiture and the use of human models
-  Study of drapery
-  Neo-Platonism or the use of Platonic ideal forms to substitute as "sacred"
-  Nudity in art as a means of Neo-Platonic symbolism; in other words, as the Greeks had used
    nudity to represent truth, ideals and purity, the Renaissance artists used nudity to represent

The Renaissance represents the birth of an age of cognazanti, people in the know who enjoy being in the know, and that was largely due to a shared knowledge and excitement over Greek forms and usage of them, and the ability to see and grasp what was going on via the presentation of Greek forms.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Rembrandt and Reformation

Rembrandt.  That's what everyone calls him.  That is how he signed his paintings, as simply, personally, Rembrandt.  No one ever says "Van Rijn".  Want to label yourself as a dork?  Just call him Van Rijn.

Students have sometimes asked, Was there a Reformation style?  Not by name or period but The Protestant Reformation was certainly embodied in the works of several artists from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.  Perhaps it is most easily seen in the paintings of Rembrandt.  He was himself Dutch Reformed, from a family of Dutch Reformed.

The values of Dutch Reformed were in daily Bible reading and memorization.  This was happily met in Rembrandt's time by the invention of the printing press and the availability of Bibles for the masses.  The demand for images from the Bible stories increased in Rembrandt's day, something that he found personally lucrative as well as creatively fulfilling.

The Hundred Guilder Print, "Christ Preaching" (the famous print alluded to by that astronomical price may be the similar "Christ Healing the Sick") an etching by Rembrandt fetched as much as 100 guilders in the 1640's.  To put that into context and -- please forgive the pun -- perspective, a family of five could live on 10 to 25 guilders a year, a house and garden in the Hague could be purchased for 300 guilders in 1630, so a hundred guilders was a princely sum.

Since his youth Rembrandt had been an entrepreneur as well as artist, not on a scale to rival Royal Court Painter Rubens but still substantially lucrative.  He painted himself in costumes that he hoped would sell paintings from his shop.  He painted his wife Saskia as historical and literary characters that he hoped would bring patrons.  But throughout his paintings is an intimate interpretation of light and shadow that is at once theatrical and philosophical, yea, even spiritual.  You can get the key to his symbolism of light and dark from many of his paintings, such as "The Blinding of Samson".

In the Bible's Old Testament, Samson was a judge of Israel, granted a gift of superhuman strength from God as long as Samson kept his vow and kept his hair long.  But from the beginning Samson erred, breaking the very laws over which he was to judge, he ate honey from a dead carcass and dallied with Philistine women who worshiped idols and were the daughters of the enemies that he was to fight.  His corruption culminated in his shacking up with Delilah, and it was Delilah at night in bed who wrested the secret of his strength from him and consequently cut his hair, thus ending his vow with God and losing his strength.  Rembrandt's painting shows Samson at the moment that his eyes are being gouged out, blinding him -- but get this:  Samson is being dragged into the dark, away from God and Israel, but his hair, the sign of his vow, is being held to the light because light symbolizes God.  The yin-yang use of light and dark in the painting shows us Rembrandt's code:  Light is synonymous with God and truth, darkness is evil and the ignorant dark world.

It is almost a direct logic as from the opening of the gospel of John, "The light shined in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend it... the true light which gives light to everyone in the world..."

Monday, August 13, 2012

Rubens and The Counter-Reformation

Why is Peter Paul Rubens sometimes referred to in association with The Counter-Reformation?  After all, most of the time we refer to Rubens as a Baroque artist and the cultural shifts we associate with that period are The Protestant Reformation, the change in wealth and social status, and the rise of neoclassicism as evidenced by the influence and power of the Academy.  We might tie into The Enlightenment while we are at it.  But the Counter-Reformation is a cultural wave that is more difficult to grasp.

In 1610 when Rubens painted the three tryptichs for Antwerp, Protestantism and the printing press had shifted the dependency of Christian believers away from the altars of cathedrals and more toward their homes and families.  Private interpretations of scripture and a shift away from oral tradition and dogma meant a loss of stability for the Roman Catholic church throughout Europe.  The church turned to the arts to draw attention back to what it had to offer.  One thing was centuries of oral tradition.  The three tryptichs by Rubens actually proclaim to some extent the wealth of the oral traditions and the visual heritage of the church.

The argument between Protestants and Catholics is ironically highlighted by this, because the foundation of the Protestant Reformation is sola scriptura, the Bible's authority alone, something Protestants would say was God-sent and unchanging, and the Counter-Reformation argument is founded on church authority, something that many perceived as ever-changing and a bit questionable, seated as it is amid sinful men.

Look at Rubens' painting.  Anything strike you as odd?  The one thing that I would point to is that leafy green tree.  Why is it there?  The answer is not documented with the painting but I think we can find it in another contemporary source, John Donne's poetry.

In "A Hymn to God in My Sickness" written in 1613, Donne says,
"We know that Christ's cross and Adam's tree were in one place..."

Huh?  The Reformed Protestant studying scripture would ask, "Where did you get that?," because the concept does not occur anywhere in scripture.  I think I could give you a fairly cogent argument for why it wouldn't, but it would take awhile.  The Counter-Reformer would say, "It seems logical and it is in our traditions."

That is why it is the background of Rubens' painting, he practically painted the art as a signboard for returning to the Catholic church.  "We," meaning the church, "know that Christ's cross and Adam's tree were in one place," because we have all the oral traditions and the saints to tell us these things, so come back.

It is the extra-Biblical or apocryphal elements that make Rubens a Counter-Reformation artist.

By the way, painting declarations of the majesty of the powers and authorities of Europe was Rubens' specialty, whether for The Apotheosis of James I in England or The Embarkation of Maria de Medici he was Royal Court Painter to no less than four kingdoms in his lifetime.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Resurrection of the Dead

Lord Leighton's painting based on the phrase in the Navy's funeral at sea, "...looking forward to The Resurrection of the body when the sea shall give up her dead," in the Tate Museum in London.

There is ample evidence in Elizabethan literature that the topic of The Resurrection fascinated the 17th Century English playwrights and poets:

From John Donne's sonnets:
"At the round Earth's imagined corners, blow your trumpets, angels,
and Arise, arise from death, you numberless infinities of souls
And to your scattered bodies go..."

From Donne's "The Relic":
"...and think that there a loving couple lies
who thought that this device might be some way
to make their souls on that last busy day
meet at this grave and make a little stay..."

And The Last Busy Day from Shakespeare's Henry V, Act 4, Scene 1, Williams speaks at line 1980:
"But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at
such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left."

It has been the general understanding of Christians that the resurrection of the dead is the final future happening at the end of all days.  It was in The Apostle's Creed, "I believe in the resurrection of the body," and was in the Didache, also known as "The Teachings of the Apostles", which may have been recorded earlier than the creed.

In recent years, preterists, historists, and contextualists have tried to place the prophecy of the resurrection as an after-the-fact statement about a second century event, denying the possibility of future prophecy.  Here's the problem with that:  the Old Testament is rife with the promise of the resurrection, so if it's all about an A.D. 2nd Century event then the prophecies written before 600 B.C. blow the theory of "no future looking prophecy".

The oldest book of the Bible may be The Book of Job, and in it Job says, (Job 19:25-27) "For I know that my redeemer lives and He shall stand at last on the earth: and after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another for me.  How my heart yearns within me!"

The Book of Daniel ends with a promise to Daniel while he was a very old man in Susa (present day Iran), chapter 12: "But you go your way until the end; for you shall rest, and will arise to your inheritance at the end of days."

There is a lot of argument these days between science and Christianity, most of it centering on Creation and whether or not Science can ever be fully reconciled to Christian faith.  But, how can any scientist ever embrace the doctrine of The Resurrection as science?  Even the apostle Paul said, (Romans 8:20 and 8:21) that the creation has been put into bondage to futility and decay.  Aren't those saying, "the tendency to disorder" and the decay that is the cycle of the Laws of Thermodynamics?

The Christian believes in promises.  The first promise is that God Himself will save.  The Resurrection is the inheritance day of that promise, the rendering of The Will, so to speak.

All of the New Testament books and New Testament writers point to The Resurrection of the dead as a key belief and expectation.

As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, it is a central understanding and belief that Christ was raised from the dead.  As Paul wrote in Chapter 15 of his first letter to Corinth, if Jesus did not rise from the dead then our faith is futile and we are false witnesses because all have claimed that He was raised from the dead, and if the dead are not going to rise then He didn't and we won't.

So, we look forward to that last busy day, looking to the resurrection of the body, when the sea shall give up her dead.

Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Memory"

Salvador Dali was one of the younger artists to join in with Dada, and a latecomer.  Influenced by the psychoanalytic writings and theories of Sigmund Freud and reveling in the revolutionary vogue of psychobabble, the dadaists were already moving away from the randomness of Dada and venturing into the deliberation of Surrealism.

That is probably the first thing any student of Surrealism needs to understand, that it was like a conference, a congress, a synod, with its own parliamentary rules about how the game was to be played and the style was supposed to go.  The clearest evidence of that is how Dali himself, the late joiner was ousted by The Surrealist Congress before 1940 and the advent of World War II.

And why was Dali, the poster boy for Surrealism in all the fashionable magazines, ousted by his fellows?  Because he validated the meaning of symbols in his religious paintings like "The Temptation of St. Anthony".  His validations of symbolic science also got him into trouble with his former friends.

So, what is "The Persistence of Memory" all about?  It is about the unconscious mind's inability to make sense of memories and it's insistence on reorganizing tropes.  This has been theoretically stated many ways:  the right brain never sleeps but not being the analytical side of the brain it occupies its nights trying creatively to draw order from the jumble of input that it takes in during the day; the unconscious mind (Id) reveals fears and anxieties and suppressed emotions through dreams; part of the brain is more spatial and visual and learns that way and therefore represents what it learns in new arrangements of visuals.  Back then, it was the new vogue of personality to interpret dreams because Freud had introduced dream interpretation as a method of psycho analysis.  Since it involved visuals and tropes and symbols and a quest for meaning and meant a new untapped gateway into the rich creative mine of the unconscious it was ripe for artists and was their baileywick.

In order to tap into the unconscious, the Surrealist artists cut to the chase, they didn't wait on slow laborious analysis of verbally recounted dreams, they ran into the dark mine via games such as "The Exquisite Corpse" and Automatic Writing.  These required nearly trance-like states and detachment from awareness and reality.  They produced strange shapes, "creatures" of the Id, with vague associations to reality, human bodies with birds' heads (Max Ernst's paintings) and things that looked like amoebas associating with roosters (Joan Miro's art).  For an example of automatic writing, look at John Hurt's performance in the 4th Indiana Jones movie, where part of the subplot is the exploitation of psychic science in the post-war Fifties.

Personally, I think it was a nice change from seeing innocent characters go through shock treatments and lobotomies.

Dali's painting began as shapes from the unconscious.  By the time he painted it he had seen plenty of the results from the Surrealist party games and free association sessions.

Pretty meaningless, isn't it?  But, if you add the kind of meaning one gets from dreams -- Think of how often you have awoken from a dream and said, "That must mean something!"  Dali added some of the most compelling tropes of our daily lives.  Clocks -- "I'm late, I'm late!"  The landscape of "home".  A human face, especially the eyes and eyelashes -- and even a known and recognized linguistic trope as a clue, the crawling ants.  Thus a meaningless painting with limp and unrealized shapes tugs at us perpetually demanding interpretation.

Of course, this is the Surrealist's game, to show us what fools we are for believing anything, as in Magritte's clever but a bit annoyingly derogatory "The Treason of Imagery".

In 1937 and 1938 the Surrealists fled Paris (and Germany) and Vienna because the Nazis labeled them degenerates and put them on wanted lists with guaranteed deportation to concentration camps.  They fled to New York, the same city where Sigmund Freud was seeking treatment for cancer.  While there, Dali met Freud.  Who knows if that meeting related to a change in his approach to meaning, but in 1938 Salvador Dali entered a Hollywood painting contest with "The Temptation of St. Anthony", a painting that uses and validates Christian religious symbols and meaning.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Arnolfini Wedding

The painting above is The Arnolfini Wedding or Giovanni Arnolfini and his bride, an oil portrait made in approximately 1434 by Jan Van Eyck.  It belongs in the period of Art History known as The Northern European Renaissance and more specifically Netherlandish Renaissance oil painting.

You could get into a very formal critique of the techniques of oil painting, and it is certainly evidence of the hyperbolic or elliptical cycle of the development of oil painting in Europe throughout the Renaissance.  Formally, it shows that northern painters had developed the techniques and chemistry of oil painting to a very refined level by the early 1400's, nearly a century before the Italians, so it seems obvious that Netherlandish knowledge made its way to Italy, but it also demonstrates through the strong use of linear perspective that excitement and awareness of Greek techniques such as natural observation, proper human physical proportions, and linear perspective to define space as well as compositional rules such as symmetry and the Golden Rectangle had made an impact in the north, undoubtedly circulated there from France and Italy and possibly via university students from Spain.

What the Arnolfini wedding represents in terms of technical achievement and formal qualities is superceded, though, by it's extraordinary demonstration of the cultural values and differences between the north and south.  There is no comparable example from either 15th Century Italy or Spain that demonstrates the same demand for Biblical and theological detail, and in France one would have to look at the Medieval cathedrals to find similar details.

Consider this: portraits were scarce until the 15th century; marriage did not require much in the way of ceremony, no one kept "wedding albums" or mementos; only wealthy and royal subjects could afford large portraits; miniature portraits were not a fashion until the age of colonization in the 17th Century; and photography was not invented until 1828 and not practical for widespread use and cultural influence until the 1860's, more than 400 years later.  The evident mix of humanism inherent in a portrait of a business man and his wife and the express discourse of Biblical and theological symbolism and knowledge is not only enough to cause us to pause and ponder, it was obviously meant for that purpose, to cause us to pause and ponder and to get its effusive message.

The Protestant Reformation did not start until nearly a century later in 1517 and Gutenberg's invention of the printing press was still a decade away, but the culture from which both of those revolutionary events sprang was the same culture as the Arnolfinis and the van Eycks inhabited, one where devotion to the scriptures of The Bible and daily study were as much a part of life as regular meals.  Seminaries, creeds and confessions sprang up in northern Europe north of France.  It is to that world and that audience that Giovanni Arnolfini took the willful and extravagant step of having a symbol-rich portrait painted in the entirely unnecessary pretext of announcing and recording his wedding.

This was Not common, it was remarkable.  Any person who has studied their pedigree and ancestry and researched their genealogy will tell you how grateful they are for the ancestors who recorded their weddings in churches (which were also the courthouses of their day).  It wasn't a requirement.  Most weddings were as simple as the single gesture depicted centrally in the painting:  two people held hand and pledged their devotion.  That was it.  Think of the scene in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet".  If family was involved then you might want witnesses, if you were at all religious, especially if you had been baptized then you might involve clergy, if you were God fearing then you might want a priest, if there was property involved or any family interference then you would "post the bans".  But, you did not have to.

What Arnolfini and van Eyck have done is Not record a wedding, they have recorded the Meaning of Wedding and their statement of what they believed a wedding to be in terms of scripture and theology.  The symbols tell us that, and those symbols represent a syllabary and grammar of symbolism shared universally through northern painting for centuries and distinct from anything seen in the south until Spanish painters such as Velazquez reference it two centuries later.

The candle in the lamp in a room lit by daylight represents God.  So, they are telling us that God is witness to their wedding and present over them.  Then we see that their shoes are off, his in the foreground, hers devotedly set near the prayer bench in the background, symbolizing that they stand on holy ground.  Thus we get their interpretation of marriage as something holy, nearly sacramental (true sacraments occur in churches, usually at altars, instrumented by priests or pastors).

Above a mirror in back Jan van Eyck has elaborately signed the wall, "Johannes van Eyck fuit hic", Latin for "Jan van Eyck made this" or probably more apropos, "Jan van Eyck was here".  Even among signatures on paintings this is remarkable, notable.  Few painters signed their works.  Many late 14th Century and early 15th Century northern painters are known merely as "the master of" such as "the Master of Flamelle" because the Medieval practice of humility via anonymity was still the norm.  To elaborately write on the wall indicates a desire to demonstrate that a public witness, in this case van Eyck himself was there.  There was also a priest present.  We can tell this because van Eyck took another elaborate step and that was to paint his reflection, dressed in blue, alongside the priest dressed in red in miniature reflections in the mirror.

Flanking the mirror are symbols familiar in the 15th Century as they are today as male and female.  And between them, in the mirror, is Christ.  As with several other symbols in the painting, the male and female symbols remind us of the first commandment or commission of the Bible book of Genesis that God made them male and female and told them to go forth and multiply.  And to tell us that they believed that God sanctified this union they took the really elaborate step of painting The Passion Week, the last days of Jesus followed by His resurrection from the dead in miniature around that mirror.

When I project this painting in class I always project it life-size, actual size, so that I can use the eraser of a pencil or the end of a pen and demonstrate that the little rondelles are so small that they are the size of beads that could be covered by something as small as the end of a pencil.  In other words, they are little oil painting that would fit on the end of a pen.

And in those Rondelles are scenes of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane after The Last Supper, betrayed by Judas, arrested by the Roman soldiers, taken and beaten, given the cross to carry, crucified between two thieves, he died, His dead body was taken down and mourned, he was placed in the tomb, He rose again from the dead, He ascended in the presence of witnesses.

All depicted in the type of space that a jeweler would envy.

So, it is not merely a remarkable double portrait in the techniques that revolutionized European oil painting, it is a declaration of the values and beliefs of Arnolfini and his culture on the threshold of the Protestant Reformation, and a lasting declaration of their interpretation of marriage as a union before God and in His great scheme and mystery.