31 December 2009

Darkness and Light: Transforming Winter into Spring




Masks were often used in European folk celebrations to symbolically chase the darkness of Winter and usher in the light of Spring. In ancient Rome the word persona meant mask and related to the ancestral funeral masks that were a part of a family's shrine. These masks would represent ancestors during the transitions of birth, marriage and death. Later masks became a feature of elaborate carnival festivals in Italy and other Roman Catholic countries. Florentine Lorenzo Lippi's (1606 - 1664) painting Woman with a Mask depicts a young woman holding a tragedy mask in one hand and Persephone's pomegranate in the other. Throughout the world masks have been utilized for ritual, performance and amusement. In Japan the stylized Noh mask that appears in classical musical drama evolved from prehistoric myths. The mask allows the wearer to be transformed into an animal, god, demon or the opposite sex. Japanese masks have influenced Western theater, composers and poets. The Mask Grows to Us, a photograph by American Clarence John Laughlin (1905-1985) shows a surrealistic vision of how we become the persona we present to the world.

29 December 2009

Past and Future: The Many Faces of the God Janus



The month of January is named for the Roman God Janus, the deity of exits and entrances, endings and beginnings. He was known as the custodian of the universe. His unique duality of having one face looking backward and the other gazing forward allowed him to see both the past and the future. The face behind was usually one of an old man as in the early Roman term whereas the face before was that of a young man or woman. Janus was associated with the sun whereas his wife Jana was a Roman moon goddess. The pagan god continued to be depicted in Christian art as in The Breviary of Renaud de Bar, an illuminated manuscript. Created in France in 1303 and 1303 the book contains calendar pages including one for January with a roundel of a feasting Janus. The influence of the god's duplicity can be seen in images from alchemy. A double headed figure is illustrated in The Rosary of Philosophers. Rather than referring to Catholic prayer beads the 16th century German woodcuts describe a garden of wisdom. The hermaphrodite combines two opposites; the king and the queen, the sun and the moon. Just as Janus marries the past with the future.

25 December 2009

Stone Soup and Roses: The Spirit of Generosity


Stone Soup is a fable about a European village where weary travelers seek hospitality only to be told there is no food. The strangers respond by making "stone soup". Intrigued, the greedy villagers want to join their visitors. They are enticed into adding cabbage to the pot and whatever else they have hidden away. The Portuguese have a soup they call sopa de pedra or stone soup that is made of cabbage and whatever else that can be found. There is another Portuguese tradition that revolves around soup. At the annual Festa do Espirito Santo in the Azores Islands and Azorean communities around the world sopas is served. A rustic meal made of cabbage, beef, spices, and served over bread with mint sprigs. The festival honors St. Isabel of Portugal (1271-1336) who dedicated her life to the poor and ill and is featured in the painting by Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 –1664). The queen was married to the Portuguese King Diniz. He did not agree with her generous nature. During one winter Isabel hid loaves of bread from the palace in her robes. When her husband who had forbiddenher to give food to the poor confronted her the loaves were transformed into roses. The queen is still revered through out Portugal and especially in the Azores. Every year Isabel is celebrated at festas where elaborate parades are staged with young girls crowned as queens and a free community banquet is served in large halls. To honor her charitable spirit everyone is fed sopas including weary travelers and the poor.

22 December 2009

Peacocks and Turkeys: The Evolution of the Holiday Feast

Before we feasted on turkey during the holidays the rich supped on peacock. The revelry may have looked like the January banquet depicted in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. The 15th century book of hours was begun by the Limbourg Brothers and completed by the "Master of Shadows" along with Jean Colombe. Or imagine if the peacock was the host of a fete as in The Peacock at Home by English poet Catherine Ann Turner Dorset. Her 19th century children's poem describes the proud peacock who is not to be out done by The Butterfly's Ball. Inviting his fellow birds to his home they dined on wasps à la sauce piquant and flies en compôte along with worms and frogs en fritur. Our humble turkey was once as exotic as the peacock when it first appeared in Europe. In 18th century England farmers walked their flocks to market protecting their feet with little booties before they ended as supper on wealthy patrons' tables.



20 December 2009

Fallen Angels: Paradise Lost and Found


There can be no divine angels without fallen angels. The most famous messenger to fall from heaven was Lucifer, his name meaning Morning Star. Perhaps the first to fall was the mortal Icarus of Greek mythology. Wearing wings of feathers and wax he flew too close to the sun; his appendages melted and he fell into the sea to his death. Both Lucifer and Icarus are popular motifs in the visual arts. Paul Gustave Doré (1832-1883) illustrated Satan in John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost. The aging, bedridden Henri Matisse (1869-1954) chose Icarus as one of the images for his circus themed book Jazz. Some angels elect to fall to earth. In Wim Winders' film Wings of Desire (1987), the angel Damiel gives up his wings and his mortality when he falls in love with a trapeze artist.

17 December 2009

Black and Gold: The Art of Pyrotechnics



Fireworks have traditionally ushered in the New Year. They are believed to have been invented during the Sung dynasty ( 960-1279 ) when they were used to chase away evil spirits and welcome good fortune. Chinese firework masters created beautiful displays of sound and light. Pyrotechnics were probably brought to Europe by Marco Polo and the Crusaders. During the Renaissance Italians developed the art of fireworks in Florence while Germans in Nuremburg concentrated on the science. They were so popular during the reign of Elisabeth I of England that she created a position for "Fire Master of England". By the 17the century firework displays had become a part of the European entertainment at public gardens. In the 1870's James McNeil Whistler painted the fireworks in the night skies over Cremorne Gardens in London. His Nocturne in Black and Gold- The Falling Rocket was unusual for the time in that it concentrated on atmosphere over detail. What is now regarded as a masterpiece was described at the time by art critic John Ruskin as "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face".

14 December 2009

Hello and Good-bye: Auld Lang Syne


Robert Burns (1759-1796) is known as the Bard of Scotland and a pioneer of the Romantic Movement. The tenant farmer was one of the last poets to write in the Scots dialect that was disappearing as English became more common in Scotland. His reinterpretation of an old folk song, Auld Lang Syne or "long, long ago" is sung on New Year's Eve around the world. It is about more than the passage of time; it is also about the passing of a way of life. An independent sovereign state before it was incorporated into Great Britain in 1707, the Scotland of Burn's time was a rural economy being altered by industrialization. The poet, influenced by the great bards or markars such as Allan Ramsay (1686-1758) reworked older Scottish themes. Today Auld Lang Syne is sung in Scotland during Hogmanay, a traditional New Year's celebration. During this time the custom of the first-foot is practiced, the first person to cross your threshold on New Year's Day is a bringer of good fortune.
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10 December 2009

Snow and Ice: Snow Queens and Ice Castles



The Snow Queen of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen lived in a palace formed of snow and wind near the North Pole. She was the queen of snowflakes or "snow bees", traveling through the world wearing a clock of white bringing winter. Her throne sat on a lake of cracked ice that she called "The Mirror of Understanding". The Aurora Borealis lit her hundred glittering rooms. She is depicted in art, dance, film, and literature. Perhaps the queen would have enjoyed the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjarvi, Sweden. The ephemeral structure lasts from December through April and is constructed of snow and ice blocks. Ice Palaces go back to18th century Russia when Empress Anna ordered an ice castle built in St. Petersburg. The dazzling building was outfitted with furniture made of ice and decorated with ice sculptures.

04 December 2009

Winged Messengers: Angels in Art






Before Emperor Constantine (272-337) angels, the heavenly messengers were shown in art without wings. There was an effort in Christian art to separate them from classical images such as Hermes, the messenger of the Greek gods who wore a winged cap and winged sandals. The first example of an angel in human form with wings was found in Istanbul dating from the 4th century. Later small winged putti were added to Christian art and became popular as a design motif. Wealthy patrons enjoyed their reference to antiquity. The wings became symbolic of the elevated nature of angels over human beings. Angels of light were couriers of truth to mankind whereas angels of darkness brought falsehoods. Angels, Archangels, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Dominations, Throne, Cherubim and Seraphim are the nine orders given to angels; even heaven has a hierarchy.

02 December 2009

Wise Men and Gifts: The Journey of the Magi



The three wise men that journeyed from the East following a star were originally depicted as Persian priests in Byzantium art. They evolved in Western art to symbolize the three ages of man and later to represent distinct ethnic royalty. Caspar the King of Tarsus, Balthasar the King of Ethiopia and Melchior, King of Arabia exemplified a diversity of age and race. Each brought a rare gift for the Christ child: gold for royalty, frankincense for the soul and myrrh to heal the body. The early Church used this magical image to teach and entertain an illiterate public. The myth of the magi lives on in Spain and Portugal where the three wise men bring gifts to children who leave carrots and hay out to lure them and their horses.

29 November 2009

The Lure of the Exotic: Orientalism in Europe





The Occidental world's fascination with Orientalism began in the 16th century with Turquerie, the imitation of Turkish art and culture. Europe's Age of Discovery had provided access to the commodities and products from the Ottoman Empire and their art, textiles, costumes, interiors and architecture all became popular in the West. In the 18th and 19th centuries the European tastes expanded to the Arabian Peninsula, Northern Africa and Western Asia. French artists such as Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Jean-Léon Gérôme depicted sensual visions of fantasy odalisques in seraglios and European women in "oriental" costume. Moorish style continued into the 20th century with the design and decorative arts of Italian Carlo Bugatti. Using geometric and organic shapes executed in vellum, white and yellow metals, light and ebony woods, he created unique furniture fit for any harem.

26 November 2009

The Age of Discovery: Manueline Architecture and Decorative Arts






Beginning in the 15th century, Portugal the small seafaring nation at the edge of Europe looked outward to the ocean for its growth and expansion. From Prince Henry the Navigator sending small caravels out to explore the unknown African coast to Manuel I's explorations of Brazil and the Far East in the 16th century, Portugal became a world power. Rich from the foreign trade of spices and slaves, Manueline architecture was a reflection of this wealth. The late Gothic style incorporated maritime elements in carved stone such as armillary spheres, twisted rope, anchors, seashells and pearls. It also balanced symbols of Christianity, the Cross of the Order of Christ with Islamic style filigree. Although lasting a brief period of time (1490 to 1521), Manueline architecture went on to influence Portuguese art and decorative arts including blue and white export porcelain brought back from Macau. Beauty and wealth can be ephemeral. The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, resulting tsunami and fires destroyed most of the elegant city including palaces, churches, libraries, and the Opera House killing 10,000 to 100,000 people. As a result the country was crippled; the remaining examples of Manueline architecture recall Portugal's past glory.

23 November 2009

Scottish Visionary: Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) was a Glasgow born architect, designer and painter. He and his artist wife Margaret MacDonald were a part of "The Four" that defined the Glasgow Style, a distinctive blend of Scottish, Japanese, English Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau visual styles. An accomplished architect, Mackintosh felt that architecture should encompass interior design. For his client, Glasgow businesswoman Catherine Cranston Cochrane he created both the exterior facade and interior architecture of her Willow Tearooms. Mackintosh along with his wife designed all of the interior appointments including furniture, light fixtures, cutlery, menus and the waitresses' uniforms. The willow tree was used as the design motif with MacDonald’s flowing style complementing her husband’s more angular work. Towards the end of his life, Mackintosh turned to designing textiles and painting watercolors of botanical studies and landscapes. During his lifetime Mackintosh influenced the Viennese Secessionists and today he is remembered as one of the most important architects and designers of the early 20th century.



20 November 2009

Death and Eroticism: Symbolism in Art





Moving away from Naturalism and Realism and in reaction to the Industrial Revolution, the Symbolist painters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century dealt with the darker Romantic subjects of mystery, eroticism and death. The movement, which began in France and spread through Europe, looked to literature and poetry for material including the works of American Edgar Allan Poe. Images from dreams, mythology and the bible were also incorporated into their art. Among these esoteric artists were the French Gustave Moreau, Austrian Gustav Klimt, Belgian James Ensor and Edvard Munch from Norway. Their work and that of other Symbolist artists went on to influence the later movements of Expressionism and Surrealism. They had much in common with the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic Movement.

19 November 2009

In Black and White Stone: Calçada Portuguesa



Comprised of small black basalt and white limestone cobbles Calçada Portuguesa, or Portuguese pavement can be found throughout Portugal’s plazas and walkways. The mosaics often reflect their maritime history with stylized ships, waves and sea creatures. Originating in the Middle East and brought to ancient Greece and Rome, the craft was exported beyond Portugal’s mainland. In the Azorean archipelago, the volcanic islands were rich with basalt but limestone had to be imported. This resulted in a black field with white pattern whereas on the mainland it was reversed. Examples of Calçada Portuguesa can also be found in the former colonies such as Brazil and Macau. The future of the art and existing mosaics is uncertain as very few calceteiros or craftsmen are left and materials are scarce.

17 November 2009

Victorian Avant Garde: Pre-Raphaelites and Their Influence



The Pre-Raphaelites developed in the mid 19th century as a reaction to the sentimental art of the time and the soulless nature of the Industrial Revolution. The original founders met at the Royal Academy and included the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painter and illustrator John Everett Millais, and painter William Holman Hunt. They were championed by art critic John Ruskin for their use of realism depicting serious scenes from poetry, literature and religion. Later followers included architect, artist, furniture and textile designer William Morris and the artist and designer Edward Burne-Jones who both shared Rossetti's fascination for medieval themes. Hunt and Millais were more concerned with realism. Pre-Raphaelite influence continued through the nineteenth century and can be seen in the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic Movements in Britain as well as the work of many European artists such as Austrian Symbolist painter Gustav Klimt.

15 November 2009

Beautiful Decadence: The Illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley


Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (1872-1898) the English artist, illustrator and writer may be most remembered for his erotic work. Influenced by the sexually explicit Japanese woodblock prints known as Shuga he illustrated the classical play Lysistrata. Through Beardsley's friendship with the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones he met Oscar Wilde who commissioned him to illustrate his scandalous play Salome.

More restrained images included his Pre-Raphaelite inspired drawings of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur and cosmopolitan illustrations for The Yellow Book and The Savoy. Suffering from tuberculosis Beardsley converted to Roman Catholicism the year before he died and begged his publisher Leonard Smithers to destroy what he now considered obscene work. Fortunately Smithers ignored him and the artist died at the age of twenty-six leaving behind the legacy of his creative genius.