Titian’s Pieta: The master of light … plunges into darkness

Σάββατο, 12 Νοεμβρίου, 2011

Tiziano: Pieta, detail

I borrowed half of the title of today’s post from an article by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian.

As Jones says,

«Titian painted the Pietà when Venice was struck by plague. It was made as an ex voto offering, a prayer for the survival of himself and his beloved son, Orazio. In the bottom right-hand, propped under the stone lion, is a tablet on which Titian and Orazio are depicted praying to the Virgin for delivery from the plague. His plea went unanswered. Titian is recorded as having died «of fever» on August 27, 1576. Orazio also died during the plague.»

Titian: Transfiguration

Compare the dark oppressing colours of the Pieta to the exhuberant light of the Transfiguration of Christ in San Salvador in Venice,

Titian: Assumption of the Virgin

or the Assumption of the Virgin, in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice.

Titian: Pieta (detail)

The world of the light has been transformed into the underworld of the Dead.

Titian: Pieta (detail, Nikodemus)

The kneeling Nikodemus is a self-portrait of the painter himself. The brushwork is visible only in some parts of the huge canvas. In many others, the careful observer can see smudges of paint, rather than brush strokes.

Titian: Pieta (detail, tablet)

The tablet in the right-bottom under the lion shows the painter and his son Orazio pleading to the Virgin for salvation.

Titian: Pieta, detail

But there has been no salvation. And the painting itself is anticipating this. It is full of fear, and silent resignation to the inevitability of Death. A Death that is anticipated as the entry in a dark, damp, frozen chamber, without any natural light. The painter of light, the admirer of women, the master of color, locks himself in the vision of his own death in the most horrific way imaginable.

The Pieta is allegedly Titian’s last painting. He did not even manage to finish it. According to the incription at the bottom of the picture, it was finished by Palma the Younger, one of his apprentices.

The Greek painter Stelios Faitakis has painted a mural for the Danish Pavilion in the 54th Venice Biennale.

It is not just a mural. It is a mural with the style and colors of Byzantium. In addition, it is beautiful. You can seat for a long time in the garden outside the Danish pavilion, enjoying the mural.

I had seen photos of it in the newspapers prior to my visit, but could never anticipate the impact the mural had on me.

Another Greek, Katerina Gregos, has been put in charge of the Danish kiosk after a lengthy and transparent selection process. Faitakis was one of the artists selected by Gregos. The mural builds on the tradition of Diego Rivera, but like any good piece of art, it goes beyond it. It tells many stories and it does so in pictures.

The mural comprises six panels. In the remainder I will present each panel, starting from the left to the right.

Panel 1:A photographer in the December 2008 events in Athens, Greece

Panel 2: President Mao in a garden of flowers with human faces

Panel 3: The crowd and the winged smart phones

Panel 4: Wilhelm Reich and the burning of the books

Panel 5: Gas Chamber and Oven

Panel 6: The violin – playing Saint

Above the door: Nikola Tesla

Epilogue: The themes on Faitakis’s mural are political, in the sense that they deal with the community, the society, the individual, and power. I do not get a sense of an all encompassing harmony in his synthesis. Most likely there is none. Likewise, there is no universal «message». Which distinguishes the work from Rivera’s where there was a loud and clear message about the good workers, the bad capitalists, and so on. Faitakis’ world is far more complex. And this is why he can survive his playing with fire. Well done Mr Faitakis!!!! Thank you!!!


Right across from the Danish kiosk is the one representing the United States. There, an art duo from Puerto Rico, Allora & Calzadilla, have placed a tank from the Korean War upside down and on top of it there is an exercise machine, a belt on which an athlete with the USA shirt is running. The noise is horrible, and the sight is nothing to write home about. As for the inside of the USA pavilion, I better not say anything.

JMW Turner: Santa Maria della Salute

Today I want to honor the centuries’ old ties between Byzantium and Venice, by kneeling in front of the «Mesopanditissa» Madonna, a 12th or 13th century Byzantine icon that was brought to Venice in 1669, after Candia (Herakleion) fell to the Ottoman Turks. The picture is kept in the main altar of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute (Holy Mary of the Health). Lets start with the historical background.

Santa Maria della Salute is one of the jewels of Venice. Baldassare Longhena was 32 years old when he won a competition in 1631 to design a shrine honoring the Virgin Mary for saving Venice from a plague that in the space of two years (1629-30) killed 47,000 residents, or one-third the population of the city. Outside, this ornate white Istrian stone octagon is topped by a colossal cupola with snail-like ornamental buttresses and a baroque facade; inside are a polychrome marble floor and six chapels.

The Byzantine icon above the main altar has been venerated as the Madonna della Salute (Madonna of Health) since 1670, when Francesco Morosini brought it here from Crete. The icon and other holy relics, were brought to Venice by Morosini when Crete fell to the Ottoman Turks.

It was the jewel of the Church of Saint Titus in the center of Candia, today’s Irakleion. Morosini also brought to Venice the remains of Saint Titus. They were kept in Saint Mark’s Basilica until 1966, when they were returned to Crete.

Above it is a sculpture showing Venice on her knees to the Madonna as she drives the wretched plague from the city.

I must confess that the baroque sculptures surrounding the Madonna did not impress me, but they are not in nay way obstructing the view of the magnificent icon.

The Madonna is serene, understanding, can absorb the pain of the whole world. The Holy Child is contemplative.

The icon is at home in the magnificent Church. It stands next to Titian, Giordano, Tintoretto, like they are the most natural companion.

This is the glory of Byzantium, glory that remains alive and strong in Venice. More on the subject will follow.

Takashi Murakami: Mr Superflat in Palazzo Grassi, Venice

Πέμπτη, 27 Οκτωβρίου, 2011

Palazzo Grassi, Venice

Some time ago I wrote about Makoto Aida’s Harakiri Schoolgirls. The great modern Japanese masters appeared in front of me again, in the face of Takashi Murakami. During a recent trip toVenice, I visited Palazzo Grassi’s exhibition «The World belongs to you» where I saw Takashi Murakami’s  masterpiece 727-272 (The Emergence of God at the Reversal of Fate). Takashi Murakami is indeed one of the modern Japanese Masters.

Takashi Murakami

«Blurring the traditional lines between art, commerce, pop, and subcultural concerns, the range of Murakami’s creative pursuits are seemingly boundless. In addition to producing some of the most iconic paintings and sculptures of the past two decades, his “business-art” activities span from designing a full gamut of consumer merchandise (either for his own Kaikai Kiki label or for fashion houses such as Louis Vuitton and Comme des Garçons) to running a gallery that promotes young Japanese artists to hosting a weekly radio talk show in Tokyo—to name just a few of the many preoccupations that keep him working on a legendarily nonstop clock.» (Source: Interview Magazine)

Takashi Murakami and Francois Pinault

Quoting from the Exhibition’s web site:

«(The work, especially commissioned for the space it occupies today in the Palazzo) draws on traditional sources ranging from Buddhist images, Zen painting, and 18th c. Edo-period compositional techniques that inspired Murakami to coin the phrase “superflat” to characterize the tendency throughout Japanese art history to eliminate threedimensional depth by arranging subjects non-hierarchically on a solid background. Murakami modernizes these traditions by combining them with contemporary Japanese popular culture, in the form of anime and manga (comic books), for instance in the central figure, Mr. Dob, Murakami’s own alter-ego depicted with a typically manga-style face. Mr. Dob’s figure contrasts with that of the legendary Chinese emperor Shennong, the deity of agriculture and medicine, who lived around 2700 BCE. This work illustrates how Murakami deftly links the traditional with the contemporary, Western with Japanese, high art and mass culture»

Front panel - Mr Dob

«The starting-point for this pictorial narrative is the central figure of “Mr Dob”; a sort of alter ego of Murakami himself, this character is depicted with a typically manga-style face, a sly smile and three eyes that seem to look far into the distance. The narrative starts on the right, with the flow of color, comparable to that one finds in Warhol’s Oxidation paintings, bringing us to the second figure of the work. This is an old wise man inspired by the legendary Chinese emperor Shennong, who lived around 2700 BC.»

Front panel - Emperor Shennong

«Considered the deity of Agriculture, his name actually means “heavenly peasant” – Shennong would invent the plough and teach his people how to cultivate wheat and cereal crops. He is also celebrated as a deity of Medicine: according to legend, he would test hundreds of herbs to evaluate their curative properties; if of beneficial properties, the herb was said to light up his stomach – which was transparent – if harmful, it would blacken it. This is the role in which Murakami depicts Shennong, with a blade of grass in his mouth.»

Front panel

The work from the spectator’s view comprises three panels, forming an open rectangle. The front panel has Mr Dong and the Emperor.

Murakami must not be taken lightly because people call him «pop», or because he likes «manga», or because he has the tendency to be also in the fashion business.

Front Panel - Upper Left side - detail

As you can see in this detail of the front panel, he knows his painting and he creates some staggering compositions within compositions.

Left and Central Panels

The left panel has among other things, a stunning swirl, and some ideograms.

Left panel detail - swirl

The swirl, making direct reference to a tempest, appears often in Japanese art.

A painting by Shoga Shohauku

As to the ideograms, I have no clue about what they are, but I will find out.

Left panel detail - ideograms

Moving to the right panel, we are faced with a hollow mountain of skulls on top of which is a manga tiger.

Right and Central Panel

It should be clear by now that we are not talking about a single painting here, but a mix of paintings all coming together in the three panels.

Right Panel detail - skulls

In addition to the multiplicity of themes of this «collage», one must also notice the changing texture of the paint and the colors, and the ruptures, or discontinuities that mark the shift from one to another.

Bruce Wallace of the Los Angeles Times, notes:

«Murakami’s art speaks to the sensibilities of the generation born in the 1960s, those who grew up with the reverberations of World War II’s disaster pulsing through the culture. They were raised on a media diet of anime and manga, with their anti-technology, antiwar story lines and themes. And they came of age in an era when Japan could throw up little more than Marxist jargon in resistance to the deluge of imported American culture.»

Right Panel detail - Tiger

«Surface is everything to Murakami—it’s all there is. I don’t know if you’re allowed to say this, but like a lot of contemporary Japanese artists Murakami is a craftmaster-whiz of flawless visual effects. He draws on traditional Japanese themes like flatness, pattern, and ornamentation. His kaleidoscopic paintings of Hokusai-like waves, his Lichtensteinian splashes, and DOB, his big-headed Mickey Mouse–like creature, are so immaculate you will think a machine made them.» (Jerry Saltz, Village Voice, 1999)

Bacchus Sculptures – Three examples of Greek Art

Τετάρτη, 14 Σεπτεμβρίου, 2011

Great Art is a mix of two basic components. The first is the accumulation of the past. The second is the break away from the past. In an earlier post, I presented Michelangelo’s Bacchus in Florence’s Bargello. Today I would like to view some earlier sculptures depicting Dionysus or Bacchus, the God of Wine. This will serve to highlight the first component of Great Art, the tradition that Michelangelo inherited, and will make it easier to appreciate his creation.

Dionysus, Bronze, Greece 460 BC. Musee du Louvre, Paris

I start with a Greek statuette of Dionysus as a young man, of the 5th century BC. I quote from the Louvre site:

«Created c.460 BCE, this statuette bears witness to the aesthetic innovations introduced by the generation of sculptors who worked in the Severe style, after the Archaic period and before the Classical period. The contours are more flowing and the distribution of weight is new. The tilted pelvis and the accompanying movement of the muscles add life to the figure, although the line of the shoulders remains horizontal: the contrapposto arrangement of the figure developed by Polyclitus of Argos toward the mid-fifth century BCE had not yet been adopted at this point. The youth is captured in a walking position, with his weight on his left leg and the right leg bent, the heel of the right foot probably raised from the ground in the manner of works by Polyclitus of a few years later. The weight of the body is thus shifted on to one leg alone. The treatment of the skillfully proportioned musculature also anticipates the athletic figures of Polyclitus. The hair, caught up in a short style, reflects the style common at the time. The grave facial expression, finally, contrasts with the open smiles of the Archaic kouroi.»

Praxiteles: Hermes and the infant Dionysus, 4th century BC

I continue with Praxiteles’ infant Dionysus held by Hermes, one of the most beautiful sculptures of Ancient Greece, now in the Archaelogical Museum of Olympia in Greece. I quote from the Museum of Art and Archaeology of the University of Missouri:

«When Zeus, king of the gods, revealed himself to his mortal lover Semele, she was at once incinerated by his divine radiance. Zeus, however, was able to rescue their unborn child by sewing him within his own thigh. Following the birth of the child, Zeus ordered Hermes, his messenger, to hide the newborn from his jealous wife Hera, who sought to destroy any remnants of the affair, including the newborn. Hermes swiftly took the baby to remote mountains for hiding, where nymphs raised the child. Under their care, the infant Dionysos grew to maturity and became the god of wine, revelry, and theater. Hermes and the Infant Dionysos depicts the messenger before he delivered the infant to the mountain nymphs.

German excavators discovered the statue in 1877 in the Temple of Hera at Olympia. Pausanias, a second century A.D. historian, describes his tour of this temple in which he saw such a statue said to be by Praxiteles.

Praxiteles achieved a naturalism and intimacy not seen before in sculpture. His style moved away from the hard, scientific vision of the earlier Classical Period. Unbalanced poses, sensuous forms, playful subjects, and use of emotion contrast with the previous period’s idealized and stoic works. The innovations evident in Hermes and the Infant Dionysos define the Late Classical Period and signify changes fully realized in the Hellenistic Period.»

Borghese Vase, detail, Musee du Louvre, Paris

To conclude this short detour, I would like to view the Borghese Vase, now in the Louvre. The Vase was made in Athens in the 1st century BC, of Pentelikon marble. Quoting from the Louvre site: «These large vases, much appreciated by the Romans as decoration for their gardens, were mass-produced in workshops in Athens and then exported to Italy in large quantities. Athenian marble workers specialized in making these pieces. The rapid Hellenisation of the Roman ruling class that resulted from the conquests stimulated the development of backward-looking styles. Since pillaging by Roman generals was not sufficient to meet the growing demand for Greek works, artists drew on the repertoires of ealier periods of Greek art. The relief decoration represents a Bacchic procession. Satyrs and maenads dance to music, accompanying Dionysus and Ariadne, who preside over the revels. The models for the decoration are drawn from Hellenistic art of the mid-second century BC.»

I recently visited again the Bargello Museum in Florence, and was mesmerized by the Michelangelo sculptures on display.

I therefore decided to write one post for each, in the chronological order they were created. The first one is Bacchus as it was finished in 1497. Bacchus and St Peter’s Pieta are the only sculptures that can be attributed with certainty to Michelangelo’s Roman period.

Michelangelo: Bacchus, Museo del Bargello, Firenze

Bacchus is depicted with rolling eyes, his staggering body almost teetering off the rocky outcrop on which he stands. Sitting behind him is a faun, who eats the bunch of grapes slipping out of Bacchus’s left hand. With its swollen breast and abdomen, the Bacchus figure suggested to Giorgio Vasari «both the slenderness of a young man and the fleshiness and roundness of a woman», and its androgynous quality has often been noted (although the testicles are swollen as well). The inspiration for the work appears to be the description in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History of a lost bronze sculpture by Praxiteles, depicting «Bacchus, Drunkenness and a satyr» (Source 1: Wikipedia)

Michelangelo: Bacchus, detail, Museo del Bargello, Firenze

Bacchus is more imaginative, experimental and inventive than either the Pieta or David, the two great sculptures with
which Michelangelo followed it. While the level of the carving and the resolution of compositional problems
in the Pieta is extraordinary by any criterion, the arrangement and attitude of the figures were not new; examples of the Virgin holding her dead son in her lap were known in Florentine painting at least a decade before Michelangelo began work on the group, and his apprenticeship as a painter in Ghirlandaio’s shop in the late 1480s would have made him
fully aware of them. David is astounding for his size, and for the skill with which Michelangelo overcame the difficulties of scale and of a shallow block, but the figure type is well known, and can be traced back through Donatello and Nicola Pisano to antique art. (Source 2: Ralph Lieberman, Regarding Michelagelo’s Bacchus)

Michelangelo: Bacchus, detail, Museo del Bargello, Firenze

In Michelangelo’s treatment, on the other hand, we understand from the figure’s reeling pose that he is experiencing the effects of his wine, and the stunning conjunction of character and behavior weds form to content at a level unknown in earlier Renaissance sculpture. Michelangelo’s profound exploration of the nature and personality of his subject led
him to create a figure difficult to accept by someone anticipating a more traditional representation, and Cardinal Riario was not prepared for a Bacchus who behaves in a drunken, indecorous way and who, «in brief…, is not the image of a god.» (Source 2)

Michelangelo: Bacchus, Museo del Bargello, Firenze

The group is prophetic in that in Bacchus, and even more in the satyr who attends him, are to be discerned the origins of the figura serpentinata, to become familiar two generations later, but here the poses Michelangelo gave his figures do not make them exercises in elegant artifice; Bacchus himself is in some ways an example of almost brutal realism. (Source 2)

Michelangelo: Bacchus, detail, Museo del Bargello, Firenze

We see the young Michelangelo having fun, portraying the God of Wine in a drunken state. The God is tipsy turvy, but why not?

Michelangelo: Bacchus, detail, Museo del Bargello, Firenze

But Dionysus is not the only one having fun. The young Satyr glued to him is devouring a bunch of grapes, his facial expression being the one of utter pleasure.

Michelangelo: Bacchus, detail, Museo del Bargello, Firenze

In addition to the depiction of fun, we have a very sensual depiction of the human body.

Dionysus is depicted as a sensual, hedonistic creature, seeking pleasure in more than one ways.

Michelangelo has taken the Greek Classical style’s line perfection, added the expressibility and character of the Hellenistic period, and crowner everything with his own passion for life, founded on the belief that life is beautiful. After all, this is the work of a 21 year old genius.

Cy Twombly, one of my favourite modern artists, has died on Tuesday, 5th July 2011 in Rome, Italy, losing a long battle to cancer.

His work «The Rose» was the object of a previous article. In another article on this blog I presented his sculpture «Thermopylae» in relation to C. Cavafy’s poem. Today I want to travel with Twombly in the Sea.

I have somehow visualized Death, more precisely the departure from this life, to embarking, to getting on a boat and sailing in the sea. This is no crossing of Acheron, the river of Hades. This is becoming one with the Sea, taking his boat out to the sea, and then sinking with it.

In order to do this, I will use his «Poems to the Sea», a series of 24 works done in 1959, a photograph of the Sea that the artist took, and his monumental work «Lepanto».

Twombly in 1958, the year after he moved to Italy from the US. Photograph: David Lees/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Poems to the Sea

‘As Twombly told the critic David Sylvester, «the Mediterranean is always just white, white, white»: in the 24 drawings called Poems to the Sea the colour blue barely appears, and yet the cursory lines and spots create a sea of the mind’s eye – hours of contemplation transformed into a few cryptic marks. With their textured, creamy backgrounds, the paintings inspired by Procida are also extremely evocative: parched cliff-tops in the Bay of Naples; crumbling plaster; the heat – it’s all there if you look for it, though without that act of the imagination the charm quickly fades.’ (source: Christopher Masters, the Guardian).

Poems to the Sea, 1959, Collection Dia Art foundation, New York

‘What order of poems, punctuated with numerals and question marks, are these? The sea is reduced to horizon line and word, scribblings and veils of paint against the stark white of paper. A persistent compulsion is invoked in the viewer, the desire to read what is there, but not fully manifest in the artist’s scrawled script. Two words in these drawings emerge into legibility, “time”and “Sappho”, as if washed up on the beach alongside sudden, subtle gem-flashes of colour – blue, orange-yellow, pink – gleaming all the more because of their discretion. In these pages, meaning is endlessly frustrated and pursued. It settles only in the distance, figured perhaps by the horizon lines that move across the top of each of the drawings – in fact, simply grey or blue lines made with a straight edge, but suggesting seascapes at the vanishing point. The flat planes of sea and page have been collapsed. Writing comes in waves, rolling funnels of cursive script, crossed out, erased, enfoamed in satiny greyish-white paint. The signs are given as nascent forms, as gestural indications of “the hand’s becoming”, as Roland Barthes so aptly phrased it.’ (source: Claire Daigle on Cy Twombly, Tate Gallery, London).

Cy Twombly: Miramare 2005


‘Cy Twombly photographs the subjects that he encounters in his studio in Gaeta, in Bassano, Rome or in Lexington, on the beach at Miramare or in botanical gardens, using an instant camera. By means of a special pigmenting process that involves dryprint, these one-offs are enlarged and printed in limited editions. Not only the special saturation of color, but also the fact that the shots are strikingly out of focus account for their unmistakable nature and extraordinary appeal. The consistent lack of focus is reminiscent of the photographs of the late 19th-century Pictorialists. Hubertus Von Amelunxen, however, discerns photo-historical references to the early days of photography, namely to early calotypes, first paper photographs permeated in “light and emulsion”. Indeed, with their aesthetic effect, Twombly’s photographic images exhibit a sense of both astonishment and entrancement with the (new) technology. The unusual and the new is of a quite singular beauty.

Using his particular technique, Cy Twombly manages to concentrate on the textures of surfaces which, removed from the flow of time, generate visual orders of an over-arching world of perception. Hubertus Von Amelunxen calls them “musical, rhythmical positions in an ineffable syntax” – as the focus is not on representation but on the unmistakable nature of things or the clarity of motifs. Finding the invisible in the visible, retaining the purportedly excluded in the image and at the same time sensing the intangible dimensions of time and space, that is what constitutes the great appeal of Twombly’s photographs. The eye is always very close to things, the direct view suggests an almost intimate proximity – of tender tulip blooms, of everyday objects such as glasses and bottles, of the artist’s slippers, his brushes and painting utensils, and not least his paintings themselves.’

(Source: La Lettre de la Photographie)

Cy Twombly: Lepanto


The work consists of 12 large canvases that looks back to one of the most important naval battles of early modern history. Lepanto was shown in September 2008 in the Museo del Prado prior to its permanent installation in the Brandhorst Museum in Munich in October of the same year. I saw the work in Brandhorst in 2010 and was deeply moved by it.

‘When Cy Twombly was offered a gallery dedicated to his work at the 2001 Venice Biennale, he chose to create a new work especially for the space, a work that he describes as one painting in twelve parts. For his concept of the project, Twombly turned to the genre of history painting. Before the advent of Modernism in the late 19th century, history painting, which encompassed images from mythology, the bible, and the lives of the saints, as well as scenes from ancient to contemporary history, was considered the highest achievement of the painter´s art. Responding to the exhibition´s locale adjoining the Arsenale shipyard, Twombly chose of his subject the famous 1571 naval battle of Lepanto.

Cy Twombly in front one of the "Lepanto" panels in the Venice Biennale of 2001

Venice, then an immensely powerful city-state, instigated the formation of an alliance against the Ottoman Empire, which had been attacking its colonies in the eastern Mediterranean and defiling their churches. Brokered by Pope Pius V, the western European alliance consisted of Venice, the Papal States, and Spain, three major Catholic powers of the post-Reformation period. The battle of Lepanto has always been viewed as a turning point in the history of Europe. The Ottoman Empire had heretofore seemed invincible and its fleet was far larger than the alliance´s armada. With more manageable Venetian-designed ships and superior deployment of artillery, the alliance vanquished and burned the Ottoman fleet. Lepanto was the last major sea battle that involved ramming and hand-to-hand fighting on deck. It was the first triumph of Christian Europe over the seemingly all-powerful Islamic Ottoman Empire. It also marked the end of the Mediterranean as the locus of shipping and trade; henceforth, the Atlantic routes to the riches of the American colonies dominated naval activity.

Twombly arranged Lepanto in a way that is at once symphonic and cinematic with four images of flames and falling leaves presaging, interrupting, and concluding his highly abstract narrative of the battle. The maritime scenes, with their stick-figure images of fighting galleys, become increasingly dense with the final triad drenched in the colors of his rich, limited palette. The lushness of the reds and yellows counterpoints their depiction of flames and blood.’

(Source: The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, USA)

As the ship disappears in the horizon, where sky and sea merge, I quote from Roland Barthes (The Wisdom of Art by Roland Barthes 3):

‘If we wished to locate this ethic, we would have to seek very far, outside painting, outside the West, outside history, at the very limit of meaning, and say, with the Tao Te King:

He produces without appropriating anything,
He acts without expecting anything,
His work accomplished, he does not get attached to it,
And since he is not attached to it,
His work will remain.’

Farewell Cy Twombly