Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Deception of Mirrors

A mirror's most familiar deception is to reverse whatever appears before its surface. But art creates its own realities, and mirrors, when they feature in an artist's canvas, tend to obey the rules of these other realities rather than those of the everyday world. The deceptively ordinary-seeming black-framed mirror which hangs on the far wall of Johan Vermeer's 'A Lady standing at the Virginals with a Gentleman' (below) appears faithfully to reflect the lady in question. But does it?

A careful look at this detail (below) reveals a subtle difference. The woman standing in the room with her back to us is looking down towards her right hand where it apparently touches the instrument's keyboard. But her reflection shows her rather glancing towards her companion to her right. The mirror's rebellious reflection does not, after all, faithfully obey its counterpart in the room before it. Why should this be? Infrared analysis of the painting reveals that the artist originally had the woman looking more to the right, as the mirror records. But for whatever reason, Vermeer slightly altered the angle of her head to the position as we see it, while leaving her reflected image unaltered. The mirror therefore records her original stance - as well as a tantalising glimpse of the leg of the artist's own easel beyond the table, and so establishing Vermeer's ghostly presence in his own canvas.

A century further on in time. Jan Ekels the Younger presents us with another Dutch interior, and another mirror. In 'A Young Writer Trimming His Quill' (below), the artist shows us a scene which appears to owe much to Vermeer's influence in its atmospheric lightfall from the window and it's interior calm. On the wall hang a gaming board with its companion bag of pieces, and another black-framed mirror. Unlike Vermeer's mirror, this mirror does indeed appear accurately to reflect its subject, and it is thanks to this device that we are shown the young writer's features.

But this second mirror reveals a deceit perhaps more disturbing than Vermeer's mirror. For the angle of the mirror - and cold logic - tells us that the artist's own reflection must have been visible behind the writer. And yet the space is blank, reflecting only a similar wall to the one on which it hangs. The artist has chosen to make his presence a mysterious invisibility (detail below).

We can reasonably deduce that Ekels simply decided that to include his own image in the scene would have been too intrusive to his painting's solitary calm. That the mirror allows us to see his subject's face is purpose enough for its inclusion. But this aesthetic decision meant being disobedient to the mirror's rule. Ekels' mirror is, it turns out, no more faithful to reality than Vermeer's.

But such is the force of mirrors that on a more unsettling level we might feel that more has been erased by Ekel's denying mirror. Everyday experience insists that, as we stare into Ekels' mirror we fail to see, not only the artist, but ourselves.

Artist: Johan Vermeer
Work: A Lady Standing at the Virginals with a Gentleman, 1660
Medium: Oils on canvas
Location: The Queen's Collection, Buckingham Palace, London

Artist: Jan Ekels the Younger
Work: A Young Writer Trimming His Quill, 1784
Medium: Oils on canvas
Location: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

'Een Eeuw Apart: Het Rijksmuseum en de Nederlandse Schilderkunst in de 19de Eeuw'
by Wiepke Loos, et al. Rijksmuseum-Stichting, Amsterdam, 1993.
'Vermeer and the Art of Painting'
by Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr. Yale University Press, 1995.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

All Things Must Pass

Eighteenth century German artist Johann Jakob Haid is perhaps not among the more iconic names in art, but during his lifetime he secured a reputation for himself as a portrait and botanical artist, portraying both his fellow artists and noted scientists of the day, and producing other commissioned portraits (below), as well as illustrating a number of botanical books. But the work from his hand which seems the most to have endured is ironically a still life whose subject is transience.

Haid’s mezzotint Alles ist Eitel ('All is Vanity', below) belongs to the durable tradition in art known as Vanitas (‘Vanity’), in which the chosen items in a still life arrangement serve to portray the ephemeral nature of existence. Human vanity is folly, says this tradition, for all things must pass.

The artist's image offers us a still life of perishables: the candle’s flame will be extinguished, the fragile soap bubbles will burst, the blooms will wilt and fade – even the ruin on the vase’s decoration hints at the passing of empires. The hourglass suggests the rush of time, and the human skull – the key element in any vanitas picture – reminds us of our own mortality. The still life which fills the lower half of Haid's frame is in stark and dramatic contrast to the dark and empty upper half of the image, whose impenetrable shadows hint at the unknown which waits beyond life itself.

In contrast to the confidently-painted skull in the vanitas still life by Pieter Claes of a century before Haid (above), an uncertainty in the anatomical details of the skull suggests that the artist might have used a medical illustration for his reference, rather than having the actual object in front of him to study. But with the flowers, Haid clearly is on familiar ground, and the knowledge gained from his botanical illustrations manifests itself in the details of every petal, and in the veins of every leaf.

Intriguingly, the highlights on the soap bubbles are in the form of both a star and a cross (detail above). In including these distinct details, did Haid wish to hint at some further meaning? It is difficult to know. And what of the writing materials and the two books? The artist seems to suggest that even an imagined path to immortality through creating works which endure beyond our own lifetimes is also folly, for the books remain shut, and the scroll is left unwritten.

So is all vanity? The flowers which Haid portrayed in such meticulous detail so far have survived two and a half centuries beyond their real-life counterparts, and the soap bubbles with their mysterious details drift on through the air.

Artist: Johann Jakob Haid
Work: Alles ist Eitel, c. 1750
Medium: Mezzotint
Location: New York Public Library

Friday, July 17, 2009

Two Faces of Mystery

Time has not been kind to Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece The Last Supper (below). The work was originally painted in tempera on the wall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie refectory in Milan, but within twenty years of its completion in 1498 the surface of the paint had begun to flake away. Continued deterioration of the painting prompted various ill-advised restorations during the subsequent centuries, until its major contemporary restoration undertaken between 1978 to 1999.

Recent attention has been given to the disciple seated to the right of Jesus. The portrait is of.. who, exactly? Tradition tells us that it is the disciple John, but the restoration (below) reveals a face that, when seen divorced from its context, could readily be described as female. Some sources assign the identity to Mary Magdalene, the woman with the alabaster jar. Is this a shocking heresy? Not necessarily. After all, even if this face is female, Leonardo was painting an image that reflected his own idiosyncratic personal beliefs. So what we are looking at is the artist’s version of events; the truth as he saw it. Exactly why Leonardo should have chosen to portray Mary as a disciple sitting at Jesus' right hand (surely a place not without its significance) is another issue altogether, and addressing it is not my purpose here. What fascinates is the serenity which this face radiates.

For if ever there was a face in art that is touched by the spirit, then surely it is this face. When viewed together with the vigorously masculine figures of the other disciples in the painting, which variously recoil in shock, gesture animatedly to each other, and reveal very human reactions to the news of the betrayal that will come from one of their own, this most feminine face uniquely remains aloof, resigned, above and beyond the turbulence of the emotions which storm around it. It is a face whose silent poise already knows how events will unfold, so has no need for shocked reaction. Leonardo’s genius has created a face whose profound serenity reflects the true mystery of the spirit.

But this is about two faces of mystery. To visit the second face we need to do some travelling; an extra forty nine million miles further out from the sun than our own Earth, in fact. On the dusty plains of the planet Mars a vast face seems to be regarding us (below). This is not the more famous and supposed artificially constructed ‘face’ in the Martian Cydonia region, but a face of pure and near-perfect pareidolia - a construction of chance. Hills, cliffs and gullies conspire together to mold from the Martian landscape a human face so compelling that, even though we know that it is contrived by chance, our brains go on insisting to us that we truly are gazing at a ‘real’ face. Try looking at it through half-closed eyes: it becomes even more real. We might even find this face with its crown of Martian cliffs rather disturbing, although it’s features are hardly hideous, or even ugly. Why should this be so?

Perhaps the unnerving quality which this Martian face seems to possess is exactly because it is so real, and yet is the result of chance. The more radically convincing an example of pareidolia is, the more it seems to have a life-force of its own: a something which has invaded our reality, and is trying to make its presence known to us. After all, if a face this real appeared in wet sand in our driveway – or even on a slice of toasted cheese – we’d be auctioning it on eBay.

Here are two faces. One is sublime, the mysterious product of an artist’s genius. The other is a counterfeit, created naturally, yet unnatural: a deception which is dependent upon interaction with the human mind for its existence, as perhaps are many such mysteries.

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Work: The Last Supper, 1498 (completed)
Medium: Tempera
Location: Santa Maria delle Grazie refectory, Milan

'Leonardo' , by Bruno Santi. Constable. 1978
'The Templar Revelation' , by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince. Bantam Press. 1997

Mars Global Surveyor orbiter image from NASA

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Knight of Dark Renown

In what is now Italy, but what in the 14th and 15th centuries was a fragmented network of rival and restless city-states, enterprising soldiers of fortune found themselves in a sellers' market. These mercenary leaders of men, the condotierri ('contractors'), hired out their military services either to Milan or to Florence or to other city-states, and were not shy about changing their allegiance from one city-state to the other, and even back again, as the expediencies of the moment dictated. Then, as now, whatever the language used by these mercenary captains, and whatever their countries of origin, what talked the most eloquently was money.

Two such condotierri were the Italian Bartolomeo Colleoni and the Englishman Sir John Hawkwood, commander of the notorious White Company. Although a century divided these two men from each other in time, they led similar and somewhat parallel careers, swapping sides a number of times with ready alacrity. But apparently there was a difference in temperament between the two.

Where Colleoni seems to have been moderate and even-tempered, Hawkwood was ruthless and morally ambivalent. Where a trail of sound strategy and successful campaigns might lead you to Bartolomeo Colleoni, a trail of sound strategy, successful campaigns and civilian corpses would as likely lead you to Sir John (there is no clear historical record of Hawkwood formally receiving the order of knighthood, and the 'Sir' could have been a self-assumed title designed to increase his prestige and bankability).

Art has left us two likenesses of these captains of expediency. Bartolomeo Colleoni was foresighted and practical enough to bequeath a sum towards the erection of an equestrian statue in honor of himself (below). The work was sculpted by Andrea del Verrocchio, cast in bronze, and erected in the square in front of the Church of Saint John and Saint Paul in Venice. But the realization of Hawkwood's monument, as with his dubious altruism, was more problematical. Some four decades after his death, and another four decades before Colleoni's death prompted the creation of his own bronze likeness, the grateful Republic of Florence, overlooking the fact that Hawkwood had on more than one occasion in the past actually fought against the Republic, decided to honor John Hawkwood with his own equestrian statue.

But it was decided that the commission should be, not an actual bronze statue, but a painting of a statue (above). What could have prompted such a curious compromise? Perhap it was the artistic limitations of the time, for another few decades would pass before such artists as Verrocchio and Donatello would successfully revive the creation of such grand sculptural works; the first of such statues since Roman times. Perhaps it was the compromising forces of financial expediency, for the production of such bronze works would have been as epic in their cost as they were in their scale. Whatever the reasons, this painted, two-dimensional statue would be commissioned from the artist Paolo Uccello, and executed in fresco on the wall of Florence Cathedral.

A comparison of these two works of art is both revealing and puzzling. For it is Verrocchio's bronze of Colleoni that positively bristles with vigor and agressive energy. As portrayed by Verrocchio, Colleoni's hatchet features glare down at us from his steed with haughty and imperious disdain. In contrast, Uccello's Hawkwood, who in life appears to have been the embodiment of the way in which Verrocchio portrayed Colleoni, seems to sit astride his mount with all the amiable contentment of a public official riding in a parade.

How could this be? Even given that this fresco is the earliest work that we can attribute to the artist, this is, after all, the work of Paolo Uccello. Uccello, whose ground-breaking use of perspective gives such you-are-there flair and writhing action to his monumental 'Battle of San Romano', which he was to paint a few years later, and which was to catch the attention of no less a personage than Lorenzo de Medici.

Opinions differ as to whether the reasons were to do with the seething politics of the age, or whether there were any grounds for objection based upon the artistic conventions of the time. Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that upon completion of the work Uccello was asked to entirely repaint both horse and rider. Ultraviolet analysis, together with an existing sketch, reveal that Uccello's original Hawkwood was altogether more Hawkwoodish. This first, invisible Hawkwood is in full armour, with baton commandingly raised and charger ready for the fray.

A pity indeed that Hawkwood's monument was not realised in the form of a Colleoni-style bronze statue, rather than as a mere painted version of one. Bronze denies the ready amendments possible with a layer of paint. And Uccello's knight of dark renown would more likely have expressed exactly those ruthlessly commanding Hawkwood qualities of character had it not been compromised by alteration.

Artist: Paolo Uccello
Work: Monument to Sir John Hawkwood, 1436
Medium: Fresco
Location: Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence

'John Hawkwood: An English Mercenary in Fourteenth Century Italy'
by William Caferro. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
'A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century'
by Barbara W. Tuchman. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1978.