Friday, January 29, 2010


In the closing years of the fifteenth century the city of Florence was home to an unlikely artists' partnership. Fra Bartolomeo was, as his name suggests, a simple-living and pious Dominican monk, gentle and retiring by nature. His studio partner, on the other hand, relished his reputation as a wild and woolly party animal, as partial to the bottle - and to the Florentine ladies - as he was to the tavern which he kept that allowed him to indulge his appetite for both. His name was Mariotto Albertinelli.

The studio co-operation of this apparently mismatched pair lasted until 1498 (The Annunciation, painted by both artists in 1497, above), when the good friar retreated to a monastery to continue working in devoted seclusion, leaving his pleasure-loving partner to complete several of his unfinished studio works. Five years after this, the congregation of Saints Martino and Elizabetta approached Albertinelli with a commission. He was asked to produce a large-scale work on the theme of the Visitation (below). Scripturally, this was the occasion related in Luke's Gospel when Elizabeth, the future mother of John the Baptist, is visited by her younger cousin Mary, the mother-to-be of Jesus. The figures of the two women in Albertinelli's composition would be life-size.

Now, although his surviving works are competent enough, Albertinelli does not appear to have been a particularly inspired painter. But with his commission for the Visitation, the artist seems to have lifted himself beyond both all that he previously had produced and his own stormy temperament to create a work of deep and sublime tranquility. I'm also inclined to think that only Italian genius - and perhaps only Florentine genius at that - could have produced this particular combination of luminous colors. But why do Albertinelli's colors produce an effect of such intense harmony?

When a standard color wheel is superimposed upon the scene (above), we can see that the orange of Elizabeth's robe and her olive green dress is complementary to (that is: opposite to on the wheel) the rich blue of Mary's robe and the warm red of her dress. In color theory, secondary green is complementary to primary red, and secondary orange is complementary to primary blue. In Albertinelli's composition, these colors circle around each other in a kind of dance in the costumes of the two women. Where the colors appear in the artist's composition is as critical as the colors themselves.

The elder of the two cousins leans forward to kiss her visitor in greeting (the detail, above). This simple gesture of affection, which is the whole focus of the painting, is dramatised by the background architecture. Hardly intended as a realistic building, Albertinelli deploys his background as if it were a stage set, the single arch with its Renaissance columns echoing the altarpiece curve of the painting's shape. The artist creates a perfect symmetry: the top of the painting itself and the columned arch share the same center (below), which circle also contains the action of the two women as they lean towards each other in greeting.

Well, all of the above having been said, any amount of color theory and compositional analysis is in the end not enough to explain, not only why the painting as a whole is such an unquestioned masterpiece, nor even why it is so dramatically better than this artist's other works. How is it possible that an artist notorious for his erratic and fiery temper, his drinking, and his dedicated pursuit of the pleasures of the flesh, nevertheless produced a work of such intense sublimity? Perhaps something of the spirit of his former pious friend and studio partner remained with him. Or perhaps he had his own visitation of the spirit, inexpressible in words, but able to be glimpsed through his one supreme masterwork.

Artist: Mariotto Albertinelli
Work: The Visitation, 1503
Medium: Oils
Location: Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The World's Greatest Paintings, Vol. 1, ed. T. Leman Hare. Odhams Press, Ltd. 1936

Scans from the Web Gallery of Art (see my sidebar links). Superimposed color wheel element by Don Jusko at colorwheel dot com. Analysis graphics by Hawkwood.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

In the Land of Giants

It was the land of the Patagons. Their name appears on old maps of the region (below), and in travellers' accounts which - literally - enlarged upon the prosaic truth by giving these natives gigantic stature. And so the land which we now call Patagonia became to the sixteenth century the Land of Giants. Which, in a way, it is; although the giants are in the landscape, for the giant snow-clad peaks of the Andes mountain chain end on its southernmost shore.

My thoughts drew me to this remote region when I noticed that my *prehistory blog had attracted a visitor from Ushuaia, a settlement overlooking the Beagle Channel at the southernmost tip of Tierra del Fuego in Argentinian Patagonia (the map, below). I enjoy it when my blogs draw what for European me are far-flung visitors, so to have one from what is regarded as the southernmost city in the world was kind of cool.

Although my own travels in South America took me no farther south than Peru's coastal desert, the region of Patagonia is one of those names in geography that reek of travellers' tales and stunning landscapes. So when in 1979 in my local library I came across a book by the then-unknown author Bruce Chatwin whose very title promised to take me there in spirit, I borrowed it and took it home. This was the hardcover edition of In Patagonia, and I devoured it from cover to cover. The book - and Chatwin's own quest - begins with a childhood memory of his grandmother showing him a piece of preserved leathery skin which she duly explained was from a 'brontosaurus'. As Chatwin later learned, it was in fact a fragment of the preserved skin of a Megatherium (the reconstruction by Zdenek Burian, below) - an extinct elephant-sized ground sloth - from a cave in Patagonia. Haunted in later years by this memory, Chatwin sets off to find the location of the creature's former habitat.

Whether or not Chatwin finds it, and what he encounters along the way, makes for exhilarating reading, and the book was still fresh in my thoughts when I was contacted by the art director of Pan Books. He was excited about a new title that Pan planned to publish under their Picador imprint, and wanted me to produce the cover art for them. Well, you can guess the rest. My brief was to use one strongly dominant and rather unreal color for a Patagonian landscape. The view which I chose was of the spectacular *peaks in the Cerro Torre Los Glaciares National Park, and I chose a dominant green tint to suggest the effect of moonlight (below). Most of my cover art took a working week to produce, but my painting for In Patagonia was completed in just two days flat, and went like a breeze.

Unusually for Picador, the art director opted for a 'wrapround'-style format (below) for the illustration, framed by a wide margin. Generally, the shelf-life of a paperback cover is some one or two years before it is reissued with a different cover. But the cover art for In Patagonia went on to establish a personal record for me, the Picador edition going through a total of eighteen reprints with the same cover over a ten-year period, before Penguin Books took over the publishing rights and used their own photographic cover. But as things turned out, that was not quite the end of my professional involvement with the land of Patagonia.

Twelve years after this, the award-winning wildlife documentary film company Partridge Films approached me to produce painted geophysical maps and the title design (below) for their film about the wildlife of the region, Patagonia: A Land Unknown. Sitting in the Partridge Films studio hunched over their editing machine, I had my first shocking look at the sequence of film in which killer whales deliberately beach themselves to seize young seals - a sequence that later also appeared in David Attenborough's own wildlife series.

I had hopes of producing cover art for more of Bruce Chatwin's titles which Picador subsequently published. But by this time a different face was seated at the art director's desk, and it never happened. These things have so much to do with timing, and with the individual personalities involved - and with the luck which makes these disparate factors coincide.

Artist: Hawkwood
Work: In Patagonia, 1979
Medium: Acrylics
Location: Collection of the artist

In Patagonia, by Bruce Chatwin. Picador edition, Pan Books Ltd. 1979
Prehistoric Animals, by J. Augusta and Z. Burian. Paul Hamlyn Ltd. 1960

*Chasing the Raptor
*These peaks were also featured to spectacular effect in Werner Herzog's 1991 film Scream of Stone.

The author Austin Whittall has his own excellent and comprehensive blog about the mysterious and mythical wildlife of Patagonia, both extinct and legendary, at: Patagonian Monsters

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Through the Seventh Gate

Although astronomy can explain such phenomena as eclipses, the alignments of moons and planets still hold something mysterious: these phenomena retain the aura of mystic events. In the 11th-century, in the country that was then the land of Persia, there lived an astronomer by the name of Omar ben Ibrahim al-Khayyami, who, when he was not occupied with astronomical calculations, for his pleasure wrote a series of verses which offer universal reflections on life, on death, and on implacable fate.

Seven centuries passed. Half a world away in Victorian England, a rather indifferent writer named Edward Fitzgerald decided to compose a translated version of the ancient Persian verses. Something mysterious happened. From the alignment of minds that were the Persian astronomer and the Victorian writer emerged an extraordinary poet who resembled neither, and who - at least in English-speaking minds - eclipsed both. In the West we know those verses as the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, and it is Fitzgerald's translation (which is more of an interpretation) which from its first appearance in 1851 established itself as the definitive and familiar English version.

In Fitzgerald's version, Omar comes across as a cheerfully practical fellow, as fond of his wine as he is of a bit of philosophy, full of good humor in the face of an unforgiving and unrelenting fate. Perhaps inevitably, Fitzgerald's Omar Khayyám attracted the production of several lavishly illustrated editions, including one by the American artist *Elihu Vedder. In 1913 a sumptuous version illustrated by the Irish artist René Bull was published. First editions of the Fitzgerald/Bull version are now rare, but in 1973 I came across one (which, I admit, is now worth several hundred times above the modest amount that I originally paid for it) in an antiquarian dealer's in London's Kings Road.

Most of Bull's illustrations burst with decorative color, but when he came to tackle the verses dealing with human death and fate, rather than continuing in the same style, he seems to have racked things up a notch to transcend his decorative approach. Here, his images resonate with an authoritive power, his color palette is limited to muted tones (the first two, above, and below), and his pen drawings (above) become both dramatic and vivid.

Basically, Omar's simple advice as interpreted by Fitzgerald is that a simple acceptance of circumstances is very different from a passive submission to blind fate. So (says Omar) take things as they come, and live in the moment as you find it, without regret. For all moments, once past, will never return. Or, as Fitzgerald has Omar say in perhaps his most famous verse:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Below, in sequence, are the four numbered verses which accompany the first four illustrations in this post. And if any reader would like to obtain a copy of the Fitzgerald/Bull edition, it is currently available as a modestly-priced contemporary reprint.


Up from Earth's Centre through the *Seventh Gate
I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate,
And many Knots unravel'd by the Road;
But not the Knot of Human Death and Fate.


There was a Door to which I found no Key:
There was a Veil past which I could not see:
Some little Talk awhile of ME and THEE
There seemed---and then no more of THEE and ME.


Then to the rolling Heav'n itself I cried,
Asking, "What Lamp had Destiny to guide
"Her little Children stumbling in the Dark?"
And---"A blind Understanding!" Heav'n replied.


With Earth's first Clay They did the Last Man's knead,
And then of the Last Harvest sow'd the Seed:
Yea, the first Morning of Creation wrote
What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read.

Artist: René Bull
Work: Illustrations for The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, 1913
Medium: Watercolor and pen and ink
Location: Whereabouts of the originals are untraced. Most are presumably in private collections.

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Rendered into English Verse by Edward Fitzgerald, Illustrated in Colour and in Line by René Bull. Hodder and Stoughton, 1913 (first edition)
The Enigma of Edward Fitzgerald, appearing in Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952, by Jorge Luis Borges. Translated by Ruth L.C. Simms. University of Texas Press, 1964

*See my November 2009 post, The Lair of the Sea Serpent, for more of Vedder's work
*In the ancient world, Saturn was regarded as the seventh planet