Happy Birthday Andy!

Andy Warhol would have been 88 today. He most certainly would’ve loved the number, its shape, the repetition of the symbol of infinity, and, as 8 is the Chinese lucky number: “Maybe they’ll buy my paintings!”

There was nothing natural about Andy, everything was a construction, everything was make-believe. He took the mendacious social codes of the 50’s and transformed them into a queer (as in strange and gay) self-serving artsy pose. With one single goal in mind: make the most money at the least expense. What’s more American than that : )

You become an artist because you decide to. Being a wonderful draftsman and having an eye for color certainly helps, but the true success of an artist of Andy’ s generation lies in the “idea”, the thread that leads the art and makes it pertinent.

Andy is prominent among a list of ‘Creative Directors’ who have a feel for what is trending and use shock as an attention grabber. A masterful communicator and polymorphous teaser, he would’ve loved Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.
A beautiful example of this constructed persona is revealed in a filmed interview where he responds vaguely to the somewhat dismayed journalist:  “I am what you say I am”. What a performance! Andy, a true Leo, with an ego larger than the Grand Canyon, pretending to be a mere thoughtless and selfless sponge is quite hilarious.
His true genius lied in transforming his desires, greed, avarice, superstitions, fears and sexual frustrations into art. Art that has been reproduced, copied, imitated ad-nauseam, and, is simply inescapable.

While growing up extremely poor in Pennsylvania, the Movies were Andy’s preferred past time and first opportunity in studying how ordinary people could become “other”. Undoubtedly stirred by Scarlett O’Hara’s cry: “I’ll never be hungry again!”, this awkward looking, determined, fay creature set himself on a path to transformation and success.

Andy’s paintings are based on two simple principles. Multiples: (reproduce the same image many times) and use the least expensive technique. The use of multiples comes from his religious upbringing. Andy intrinsically understood the powerful effect of repetition. Roused at an early age by Orthodox Churches glistening with thousands gilded Icons; countless reproductions of the same image scintillating above a myriad of flickering candles.
Andy’s technique was rooted in first year Art school simplicity. Take a copyright free photograph, blow it up, silkscreen it and, with the new water-based, inexpensive easy flowing acrylic paint, print them onto canvas as many times as you want. Use relatable, secular Icons such as Elvis, Marilyn, Liz, Jackie! And make them big. America is big, bold and colorful.
Bear in mind Andy’s conversation with Henry Geldzahler in the early 60’s as he was complaining about Roy Lichtenstein’s success and how to best him. Henry replied: “Andy, just paint what you love and crave for: money, boys, movie stars and Coca-Cola”
So there you have it: it takes talent, determination, the will to adapt, and being able to channel one’s paradoxical character into a single aim. Andrew Warhola, son of poor, uneducated immigrants from Miko, Slovakia became a symbol of America’s power of transformation and opportunity.

Thank you paradoxical America, Thank you Andy. Love you.

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Pristine Sistine (a visit to the Sistine Chapel)

 

In 1988, while I was studying in Florence for my Master in Art History, the most extraordinary privilege was visiting the Sistine Chapel in Rome as it was being restored. Climbing up the scaffolding and discovering Michelangelo’s ceiling about fifty centimetres from my eyes was an experience I will never forget.

After many disastrous attempts, restauration techniques were elaborated to free the fragile *frescoes from four centuries of grime. These techniques had been tested in 1966 in Florence after a horrific flood damaged great quantities of  architecture, art and books. More importantly, in 1980, an unlikely yet shrewd sponsor was found: Nippon Television Network Corporation. 4.2 million dollars were forked out across twenty years; in return, the sponsor got exclusive rights to all images, photographs, videos and publications to last at least the time it took to restore the murals.

*Fresco (plural frescos or frescoes) is a technique of mural painting executed upon freshly-laid, or wet lime plaster. Water is used as the vehicle for the pigment to merge with the plaster, and with the setting of the plaster, the painting becomes an integral part of the wall1280px-Sistine_Chapel_Daniel_beforandafterOne of our Professors at University, Gianluigi Colalucci was head restorer for the Sistine chapel project. Close examination by his team revealed that apart from smoky deposits, seepage deposits and structural cracks; the thin “pictorial skin” of Michelangelo’s frescoes was in excellent condition. Most of the paint was well adhered and required little retouching. The plaster, or intonaco, on which the paintings were executed, was found, for the most part, to be secure.

Renaissance Masters had extraordinary knowledge of the materials they used and how they would evolve over time. Egg tempera for example, when properly laid on an suitable surface, is one of the most resistant materials ever. Likewise, frescoes, albeit extremely simple in concept, depend, for their stability and longevity, on materials that do not fight each other. A wall, made with stone or brick, mortar and river sand, later covered with wet lime plaster, is a porous surface. Adding colour from pigments and water on it is an idoneous gesture. As in any place of worship, the Sistine Chapel frescoes suffered from black greasy residue emanating from wax candles burning night and day for centuries. Greasy wax tends to darken and clog. Over time, as the ceiling and walls were becoming dark and lifeless, 17th and 18th century restorers “cleaned” the frescoes using wine, and “revived” the colours using glue resin. Thus completely clogging a surface that needs to breathe. Slowly, the varnish dried, cracked and peeled, taking with it the thin layer of paint.

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Originally commissioned by Pope Julius II, it took Michelangelo approximately four years to complete the Sistine chapel (1508 -1512). When not interrupted by other pressing Patrons, Michelangelo, high up on wood scaffoldings, would paint night and day. Helped by a coterie of young assistants, he would frenetically execute his personal vision of the Book of Genesis: basically lots of strangely muscular naked men gallivanting with strangely muscular naked women who look like men. As Michelangelo would only wear leather trousers, (not so out of the ordinary in those days) and  really, really did not like bathing often, (also not so out of the ordinary in those days, unless you live in France these days). Thus, after long periods of work, sweat and intense amorous distractions, he had to bathe in extremely hot water, so as to peel off the leather that clung to his skin.

20.7 metres (68 ft) high, 40.9 metres (134 ft) long by 13.4 metres (44 ft) wide, may not sound huge by today’s standards. But, as anyone who paints knows, proportion is one of its more daunting aspects. It is hard enough getting it right on paper or canvas; getting it right on a 40 by 13 meter wall, 20 meters up on a rickety scaffolding is insane. No elevators, no getting up or down easily, and certainly no getting down for a quick peek to check if Adam and Eve look okay. Fresco in Italian, means fresh, it entails, as written earlier, applying the colours rapidly, on a fresh coat of wet lime plaster, before the surface dries. It’s a humid, cold and exhausting job.

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So here I am, more than four hundred years later, heart pounding, going up a state-of-the-art aluminum scaffolding with motorised rubber wheels. I am greeted by a studious group of men and women wearing white Doctor’s blouses and plastic goggles. Around them, small buckets contain a water-based solution. With  the help of a Sea sponge, they tap on the paint surface who comes alive in rich color. The water-based solution is meant to ever-so-gently dissolve the layer of black grease from candles and varnish. With Q-tips, the fresco restorers softly swipe the humid surface and gently rub out the dirt. Others, helped by the tiniest point of a scalpel, grate reticent hard grime. As I look up and take a moment to register what I am experiencing, I discover traces embedded in the wall of Michelangelo’s original disegno. He would quickly mark the layout of his idea on the fresh plaster with the wooden top end of a brush. Keep in mind that when he started Adam’s head, he had no way of doing the rest of the body in immediate sequence. Getting the proportions right was purely based on his own sense of it, his own inner music. I can actually see where his vigour has taken liberties with the original contours. His light, yet rapid and precise brushstrokes are clearly apparent. The rediscovered colour palette, from soft pastel hues to exuberant acid tones enchant my soul as I gaze open mouthed. It is as if it had been painted just days before my visit.

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To be in awe finally finds its true meaning here. Overwhelmed by the brilliance of execution and moved to tears by the life changing, but, alas, fleeting moment of intimacy with pure genius.

 

Saper vedere: Knowing how to see

One of the most exciting aspects about art is the pleasure we get from learning about what we are looking at. “Allegory of Passion” painted by Agnolo Bronzino  (circa 1545) contains a cornucopia of symbolic characters whose meaning is no longer familiar to us. Understanding who they are and what they mean, enriches our brain, heart and soul, adding a little spark of fun to the banality of our daily lives.

Let’s set the scene: In 1525, a German genius, Albrecht Dürer, describes in a book the perfect human proportions: a head fits seven and a half times in a body. The Italians, as always”over the top”, prefer an idealised version of proportion: a human head fits twelve times in a body. Abandoning any possibility of verisimilitude and liberating form and movement, they invent Mannerism. Think of Michelangelo‘s (Renaissance’s temperamental Leather Queen) ever twirling sculptures, the fabulous elongations of Parmigianino, or Pontorno‘s impossible contortions.

But, let’s add a little gravitas to our discourse and quote from those who took the time to enlighten us: “…The Antique male nude is like a Greek temple, the flat frame of the chest being carried on the column of the legs; whereas the Renaissance nude is related to the architectural system that produced the central-domed church; so that instead of the sculptural interest depending on a simple, frontal plane, a number of axes radiate from one center.”

 Sir Kenneth Clark – “The Nude, A study in Ideal form” – Princeton University Press, 1953 

Aha ! “a number of axes radiate from one center.” Let’s keep that in mind as we look at this particularly busy and convoluted flesh-a-thon: “An Allegory of Passion” also known less romantically as “An Allegory with Venus and Cupid”.  In it we see this really white chick who’s nipple is being squeezed by this weird looking kid with a funny looking butt. She is surrounded by these scary looking guys who don’t look all too happy. Ok, but if you were to take a pencil and place it at the nipple squeeze, then, clockwise start drawing bigger and bigger coils, you would see that the position of every arm, leg, face and eyes radiate from that central action. To understand who these characters are and what they are doing, we need help from a fundamental luminary of art history: Erwin Panofsky.

“Iconographically the picture does show the pleasures of love ‘on the one hand’ and its dangers and tortures ‘on the other’, in such a way, however, that the pleasures are revealed as futile and fallacious advantages, whereas the dangers and tortures are shown to be great and real evils…

In the main group, Cupid is shown in bracing Venus who holds an arrow and an apple. The apple is tendered to the eager boy and the arrow concealed, perhaps implying the idea ‘sweet but dangerous’…. This impression is sharpened by the fact that Cupid is shown as a quasi-sexless being, although the myrtle plant appearing behind him is the classical symbol of love, and the two doves at his feet signify ‘amorous caresses’.  …The picture shows an image of ‘Luxury’… This is corroborated by the fact that Cupid kneels on a pillow,  a common symbol of idleness and lechery…

On the left of this exquisitely lascivious group appears the head of an elderly woman madly tearing her hair. She is the symbol of ‘Jealousy’…. On the right is a Putto throwing roses who on his left foot wears an anklet adorned with two little bells, to him the terms ‘Pleasure’ and ‘Jest’ may be applied. However his promised pleasures are signalled as futile and treacherous by the ominous presence of two masks, one of a young woman, the other of an elderly and malevolent man. Masks that symbolise worldliness, insincerity and falsehood…

Emerging from behind the playful Putto is a girl in a green dress; ‘Deceit’. The dress cannot fully conceal a scaled, fish-like body, panther’s claws and the tail of a dragon. The entire group is unveiled by ‘Time’ and ‘Truth’. Time characterized by his wings and hourglass, and the female figure on the left who helps to draw the curtain from the whole spectacle is none other than ‘Truth’ ‘ Veritas filia Temporis’ “

Erwin Panofsky – “Studies in Iconology” – Oxford University Press, 1939

I told you, riveting stuff  : )

 

All images ©The National Gallery, London

In Praise of: St. Francis in the desert

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Dawn, vulnerability, submission, Faith: if ever an image was “on message” this would be the one. A serene contemplation of the ultimate act of love: the gift of Francis’s life to God symbolised by the bruises in the palm of his hands and feet mirroring the suffering of Christ on the cross (the stigmata).

A brilliant cinematic “mise en scène”: Dawn, a soft blue light spreads its misty hue. The moment of the day where our soul is filled with hopeful anticipation of what is to come. Our mind is not totally focused on the “self” yet, we are more in tune with what we “feel”rather than”think”.

“Make me an instrument of your Peace.” Aloft, repeating his monotonous toil, a shepherd takes his herd to pasture, the day begins. As a donkey, a bird and a rabbit look on, Francis lifts up his head to the sky, opens his arms in submission and starts to pray.

Unlike many later religious paintings, Giovanni Bellini does not seek dramatic effect and heavy handed Pathos to tell his story. Rather Zen, this painting is a bit like the magnificent sculptures of smiling heads of Buddha, eyes closed, gently glowing with the knowledge that they have found resolute inner Peace.

This absolutely necessary painting while evoking the celestial brilliance of a Cantata by Bach, reminds us that love, be it Holy or terrestrial, begins with, is built upon and remains, an act of faith.

 

Giovanni Bellini (Venice, circa 1430-1516) Frick Collection, New York